CAMPBELL, THOMAS (1777–1844), Scottish poet, eighth son of Alexander Campbell, was born at Glasgow on the 27th of July 1777. His father, who was a cadet of the family of Campbell of Kirnan, Argyllshire, belonged to a Glasgow firm trading in Virginia, and lost his money in consequence of the American war. Campbell was educated at the grammar school and university of his native town. He won prizes for classics and for verse-writing, and the vacations he spent as a tutor in the western Highlands. His poem “Glenara” and the ballad of “Lord Ullin’s Daughter” owe their origin to a visit to Mull. In May 1797 he went to Edinburgh to attend lectures on law. He supported himself by private teaching and by writing, towards which he was helped by Dr Robert Anderson, the editor of the British Poets. Among his contemporaries in Edinburgh were Sir Walter Scott, Henry Brougham, Francis Jeffrey, Dr Thomas Brown, John Leyden and James Grahame. To these early days in Edinburgh may be referred “The Wounded Hussar,” “The Dirge of Wallace” and the “Epistle to Three Ladies.” In 1799, six months after the publication of the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, The Pleasures of Hope was published. It is a rhetorical and didactic poem in the taste of his time, and owed much to the fact that it dealt with topics near to men’s hearts, with the French Revolution, the partition of Poland and with negro slavery. Its success was instantaneous, but Campbell was deficient in energy and perseverance and did not follow it up. He went abroad in June 1800 without any very definite aim, visited Klopstock at Hamburg, and made his way to Regensburg, which was taken by the French three days after his arrival. He found refuge in a Scottish monastery. Some of his best lyrics, “Hohenlinden,” “Ye Mariners of England” and “The Soldier’s Dream,” belong to his German tour. He spent the winter in Altona, where he met an Irish exile, Anthony McCann, whose history suggested “The Exile of Erin.” He had at that time the intention of writing an epic on Edinburgh to be entitled “The Queen of the North.” On the outbreak of war between Denmark and England he hurried home, the “Battle of the Baltic” being drafted soon after. At Edinburgh he was introduced to the first Lord Minto, who took him in the next year to London as occasional secretary. In June 1803 appeared a new edition of the Pleasures of Hope, which some lyrics were added.
In 1803 Campbell married his second cousin, Matilda Sinclair, and settled in London. He was well received in Whig society, especially at Holland House. His prospects, however, were slight when in 1805 he received a government pension of £200. In that year the Campbells removed to Sydenham. Campbell was at this time regularly employed on the Star newspaper, for which he translated the foreign news. In 1809 he published a narrative poem in the Spenserian stanza, “Gertrude of Wyoming,” with which were printed some of his best lyrics. He was slow and fastidious in composition, and the poem suffered from over-elaboration. Francis Jeffrey wrote to the author: “Your timidity or fastidiousness, or some other knavish quality, will not let you give your conceptions glowing, and bold, and powerful, as they present themselves; but you must chasten, and refine, and soften them, forsooth, till half their nature and grandeur is chiselled away from them. Believe me, the world will never know how truly you are a great and original poet till you venture to cast before it some of the rough pearls of your fancy.” In 1812 he delivered a series of lectures on poetry in London at the Royal Institution; and he was urged by Sir Walter Scott to become a candidate for the chair of literature at Edinburgh University. In 1814 he went to Paris, making there the acquaintance of the elder Schlegel, of Baron Cuvier and others. His pecuniary anxieties were relieved in 1815 by a legacy of £4000. He continued to occupy himself with his Specimens of the British Poets, the design of which had been projected years before. The work was published in 1819. It contains on the whole an admirable selection with short lives of the poets, and prefixed to it an essay on poetry containing much valuable criticism. In 1820 he accepted the editorship of the New Monthly Magazine, and in the same year made another tour in Germany. Four years later appeared his “Theodric”, a not very successful poem of domestic life. He took an active share in the foundation of the university of London, visiting Berlin to inquire into the German system of education, and making recommendations which were adopted by Lord Brougham. He was elected lord rector of Glasgow University three times (1826–1829). In the last election he had Sir Walter Scott for a rival. Campbell retired from the editorship of the New Monthly Magazine in 1830, and a year later made an unsuccessful venture with the Metropolitan Magazine. He had championed the cause of the Poles in The Pleasures of Hope, and the news of the capture of Warsaw by the Russians in 1831 affected him as if it had been the deepest of personal calamities. “Poland preys on my heart night and day,” he wrote in one of his letters, and his sympathy found a practical expression in the foundation in London of the Association of the Friends of Poland. In 1834 he travelled to Paris and Algiers, where he wrote his Letters from the South (printed 1837).
The small production of Campbell may be partly explained by his domestic calamities. His wife died in 1828. Of his two sons, one died in infancy and the other became insane. His own health suffered, and he gradually withdrew from public life. He died at Boulogne on the 15th of June 1844, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
- The original authorship of this poem was by many people assigned to G. Nugent Reynolds. Campbell’s claim is established in Literary Remains of the United, Irishmen, by R. R. Madden (1887).