« PreviousContinue »
IR RICHARD BLACKMORE is one of those men whose writ.
ings have attracted much notice, but of whose life and manners very little has been communicated, and whose lot it has been to be much oftener mentioned by enemies than by friends.
He was the son of Robert Blackmore of Corsham in Wiltshire, styled hy Wood Gentleman, and supposed to have been an attorney: having been for some time educated in a country-school, he was sent at thirteen to Westminster; and in 1668 was entered at Edmund-Hall in Oxford, where he took the degree of M. A. June 3, 1676, and resided thirteen years ; a much longer time than it is usual to spend at the university; and which he seems to have passed with very little attention to the business of the place ; for, in his poems, the ancient names of nations or places, which he often introduces, are pronounced by chance. He afterwards travelled: at Padua he was made doctor of physick; and, after having wandered about a year and a half on the Continent, returned home.
In some part of his life, it is not known rhen, his indigence compelled him to teach a school, an humiliation with which, though it certainly lasted but a little while, his enemies did not forget to reproach him, when he became conspicuous enough to excite malevolence; and let it be remembered for his honour, that to have been once a school-master is the only reproach which all the perspicuity of malice, animated by wit, has ever fixed upon his private life.
When he first engaged in the study of physic, he enquired, as he says, of Dr. Sydenham what authors he should read, and was directed by Sydenbam, to Don Quixote: “ which,” said he,“ is a very good book; I read it still." The perverseness of mankind makes it often mischievous in men of eminence to give way to merriment, the idle and the illiterate will long shelter themselves under this foolish apophthegm.
Whether he rested satisfied with this direction, or sought for better, he commenced physician, and obtained high eminence and extensive practice. He became fellow of the College of Physicians, April 12, 1687, being one
of the thirty which; by the new charter of king James, were added to the former Fellows. His residence was in Cheapside *, and his friends were chicfly in the city. In the early part of Blackmore's time; a citizen was a term of reproach; and his place of abode was another topick to which his adversaries had recourse in the penury of scandal.
Blackmore, therefore, was made a poet not by necessity but inclination, and wrote not for a livelihood but for fame, or, if he may tell his own motives, for a nobler purpose, to engage poetry in the cause of Virtue.
I believe it is peculiar to him, that his first public work was an heroick poem. He was not known as a maker of verses, till he published in 1695) Prince Arthur, in ten books, written, as he relates, “ by suck catches and “ starts, and in such occasional uncertain hours as his profession afforded, " and for the greatest part in coffee-houses, or in passing up and down the “streets." For the latter part of this apology he was accused of writing “ to the rumbling of his chariot-wheels." Ile had read, he says, “ but “ little poetry throughout his whole life; and for fifteen years before had
not written an hundred verses, except one copy of Latin verses in praise « of a friend's book."
He thinks, and with some reason, that from such a performance perfection cannot be expected; but he finds another reason for the severity of his censurers, which he expresses in language such as Cheapside easily furnished. “ I am not free of the Poets Company, having never kissed the governor's « bands; mine is therefore not so much as a permission poem, but a down“ right interloper.' Those gentlemen who carry on their poetical trade in a “ joint stock, would certainly do what they could to sink and ruin an unli“ censed adventurer, notwithstanding I disturbed none of their factories, nor
imported any goods they had ever dealt in.” He had lived in the city till he had learned its note.
That Prince Arthur found many readers, is certain ; for in two years it bad three editions ; a very uncommon instance of favourable reception, at 2 time when literary curiosity was yet confined to particular classes of the nation. Such success naturally raised animosity; and Dennis attacked it by a formal criticism, more tedious and disgusting than the work which he condemns. To this censure may be opposed the approbation of Locke and the admiration of Molineux, which are found in their printed Leriers. Molineux is particularly delighted with the song of Mopas, which is therefore sabjoined to this narrative.
1: is remarked by Pope, that what “ raises the hero often sinks the man." Of Black more it may be said, that as the poet sinks, the man rises; the animadversicns cf Dennis, insolent and contemptuous as they were, raised
in him no implacable resentment: he and his critick were afterwårds friends; and in one of his latter works he praises Dennis as “ equal to Boilcau in
poetry, and superior to him in critical abilities.” He seems to have been more delighted with praise than pained by censure, and, instead of slackening, quickened his career. Having in two years produced ten books of Prince Arthur, in two years more (1697) he sent into the world King Arthur in twelve. The provocation was now doubled, and theresentment of wits and criticks may be supposed to have encreased in proportion. He found, however, advantages more than equivalent to all their outrages; he was this year made one of the physicians in ordinary to king William, and advanced by him to the honour of knighthood, with a present of a gold chain and medal.
The'malignity of the wits attributed his knighthood to bis new poem; but king William was not very studious of poetry, and Blackmore perhaps had other merit: for he says, in his Dedication to Alfred, that he had a
greater part in the succession of the house of Hanover than ever he had li boasted."
What Blackmore could contribute to the Succession, or what he imagined liimself to have contributed, cannot now be known. That he had been of considerable use, I doubt not but he believed, for I hold him to have been very honest; but he might easily make a false estimate of his own importance:"those whom their virtue restrains from deceiving others, are often disposed by their vanity to deceive themselves. Whether he promoted the Succession or not, he at least approved it, and adhered invariably to his principles and party through his whole life.
His ardour of poetry still continued; and not long after (1700) he publishéd a Paraphrase on the Book of Job, and other parts of the scripture. This performance Dryden, who pursued him with great malignity, lived long enough to ridicule in a Prologue.
The wits easily confederated against him, as Dryden, whose favour they almost all courted, was his professed adversary. He had besides given them reason for resentment, as, in his Preface to Prince Arthur, he had said of the Dramatick Writers almost all that was alledged afterwards by Collier; but Blackmore's censure was cold and general, Collier's was personal and ardent; Blackmore taught his reader to dislike, what Collier incited him to abhor.
In his Preface to King Arthur he endeavoured to gain at least one friend, and propitiated Congreve by higher praise of his Mourning Bride than it has obtained from any other critick.
The same year he published a Satire on Wit; a proclamation of defiance which united the poets almost all against him, and which brought upon him lampoons and ridicule from every side. Thiş he doubtless foresaw, and evio Vol. i.
dently despised; nor should his dignity of mind be without its praise, had he not paid the homage to greatness, which he denied to genius, and degraded himself by conferring that authority over the national taste, which he takes from the poets, upon men of high rank and wide influence, but of less wit, and not greater virtue.
Here is again discovered the inhabitant of Cheapside, whose head cannot keep his poetry unmingled with trade. To hinder that intellectual bankruptcy which he affects to fear, he will erect a Bank for Wit.
In this poem he justly censured Dryden's impurities, but praised his powers; though in a subsequent edition he retained the satire and omitted the praise. What was his reason I know not; Dryden was then no longer in
: "His head still teemed with heroic poetry, and (1705) he published Eliza in ten books. I am afraid that the world was now weary of contending abou: Blackmore's heroes; for I do not remember that by any author, serions or comical I have found Eliza either praised or blamed. She “ dropped," as it seems, “ dead born from the press." It is never mentioned, and was never seen by me till I borrowed it for the present occasion. Jacob says, “it " is corrected, and revised for another impression ;" but the labour of revision was thrown away.
From this time he turned some of his thoughts to the celebration of living characters; and wrote a poem on the Kit-cat club, and Advie to the Poets how to celebrate the Duke of Marlborough; but on occasion of another year of success, thinking himself qualified to give more instruction, he again wrote a poem
of Advice to a leaver of Tapestry. Steele was then publishing the Taller; and looking round him for something at which he might laugh, unluckly lighted on Sir Richard's work, and treated it with such contempt, that as Fenton observes, he put an end to the species of writers that gave Advice to Painters.
Not long after (1712) he published Creation, a philosophical Poem, which has been, by my recommendation, inserted in the late collection. Whoever judges of this by any other of Blackmore's performances, will do it injury. The praise given it by Addison (Spec. 339) is too well known to be transci ibed ; but some notice is due to the testimony of Densis, who calls it al
philosophical Poem, which has equalled that of Lucretius in the beauty of “its versification, and infinitely surpassed it in the solidity and strength of " its reasoning.
Why an author surpasses himself, it is natural to erquire. I have heard from Mr. Draper an eminent bookseller, an account received by him from A inbrose Philips, " That Black more, as he proceeded in this poem, laid cobais manuscript from time to time before a cltib of wits with whom he
« associated ;
" associated; and that every man contributed, as he could, either improve
ment or correction ; so that,” said Philips, " there are perhaps no where " in the book thirty lines together, that now stand as they were originally « written.”
The relation of Philips, I suppose, was true ; but when all reasonable. all credible allowance is made for this friendly revision, the author will still retain an ample dividend of praise ; for to him must always be assigned the plan of the work, the distribution of its parts, the choice of topicks, the train of argument, and, what is yet more, the general predominance of philosophical judgement and poetical spirit. Correction seldom effects more than the suppression of faults: a happy line, or a single elegance, may perhaps be added; but of a large work the general character niust always remain; the original constitution can be very little helped by local remedies ; inherent and radical dullness will never be much invigorated by intrinsick animation. This poem,
if he had written nothing else, would have transmitted him to posterity among the first favourites of the English Muse : but to make verses was his transcending pleasure, and as he was not deterred by censure, he was not satiated with praise.
He deviated, however, sometimes into other tracks of literature, and condescended to entertain his readers with plain prose. When the Spectator stopped, he considered the polite world as destitute of entertainment; and in concert with Mr. Hughes, who wrote every third paper, published three times a week the Lay Monastery, founded on the supposition that some literary men, whose characters are described, had retired to a house in the country to enjoy philosophical leisure, and resolved to instruct the public, by communicating their disquisitions and amusements. Whether any real persons were concealed under fictitious names, is not known. The hero of the club is
one Mr. Johnson ; such a constellation of excellence, that his character shall not be suppressed, though there is no great genius in the design, nor skill in the delineation. “ The first I shall name is Mr. Johnson, a gentleman that owes to nature excellent faculties and an elevated genius, and to industry and application
many acquired accomplishments. His taste is distinguishing, just, and " delicate ; his judgement clear, and his reason strong, accompanied with an
imagination full of spirit, of great compass, and stored with refined ideas. " He is a critick of the first rank : and, what is his peculiar ornament, he is “delivered froin the ostentation, malevolence, and supercilious temper, that
so often blemish men of that character. His remarks result from the nature " and reason of things, and are formed by a judgement free, and unbiassed
by the authority of those who have lazily followed cach other in the same " beaten track of thinking, and are arrived only at the reputation of acute