Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Anderson, Robert (1750-1830)

ANDERSON, ROBERT, M.D. (1750–1830), editor and biographer of the British poets, was born on 7 July 1750 at Carnwath in Lanarkshire. On the death of his father, a small feuar, or copyholder, in 1760, his family was left in straitened circumstances; but Robert, having received his early education at the parish schools of Carnwath and Libberton, and at the grammar school of Lanark, was sent to the university of Edinburgh to qualify himself for the ministry of the church of Scotland. Soon forsaking theology for medicine, he became surgeon to a dispensary at Bamborough Castle, but, after taking his degree of M.D., he married, and finding himself able to relinquish the practice of his profession, he settled finally at Edinburgh, and devoted himself to literary pursuits. He had already edited a volume of poems, written by himself and James Graeme, a youthful friend who died at an early age in 1782. Anderson also contributed a sketch of his friend's life to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine.’

Some years afterwards, an Edinburgh publishing firm projected the issue of a selection from the edition of the English poets for which Johnson had written his ‘Lives.’ Anderson recommended a much more comprehensive enterprise than the publication of mere extracts from a collection into which no poets anterior to the Caroline age had been admitted, and from which Scottish poets were, as a rule, excluded. His plan was accepted, and thus originated what his publishers styled ‘A Complete Edition of the Poets of Great Britain’ (1792–5), furnished with biographical and critical notices written by the editor. The work consisted originally of thirteen volumes, to which a fourteenth was added in 1807. Chaucer, Surrey, Wyatt, and Sackville are the earliest poets included, and it was with great difficulty that Anderson could induce his publisher to admit any pre-Shakespearian author. His labours as editor procured him the esteem of Bishop Percy, with whom he afterwards regularly corresponded; and Southey (Quarterly Review, July 1814) thanked ‘good old Dr. Anderson’ for what he had succeeded in effecting towards the republication of our older poets, and complimented him on making many of the Elizabethan poets generally accessible for the first time. In 1798 the first edition of the collection, one of 2,000 copies, was nearly sold off, and the issue of a second was contemplated (Percy Correspondence in Nichols's Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century, vii. 74).

Some of the biographical and critical notices which appeared in the collection were expanded by Anderson and afterwards published separately. That of Johnson, which was published in 1795, with a third edition in 1815, has no special value. Dr. Anderson also published a separate edition of Blair's ‘Poetical Works’ with a life (1794), and an edition of ‘The Works of John Moore, M.D.’ (father of Sir John Moore), with ‘memoirs of his life and writings’ (1818). To a separate edition of the ‘Miscellaneous Works of Smollett’ (1796, 3rd edition 1806), he likewise prefixed an enlarged memoir, which was subsequently published by itself as the ‘Life of Smollett.’ At the suggestion and with the aid of Bishop Percy, Anderson prepared for publication, before the bishop's death in 1811, a new edition of Grainger's poems (Percy Correspondence in Nichols's Illustrations, vol. vii. passim), but it did not appear until 1836, some years after Anderson's death.

Dr. Anderson was for a time the editor of the ‘Edinburgh Magazine,’ a position which enabled him to encourage young men of talent and promise. He was among the first to recognise the genius of Thomas Campbell, for whose ‘Pleasures of Hope’ he procured a publisher, and who gratefully dedicated to Anderson the volume of verse in which that poem first appeared. Anderson was a most amiable, kindly, and hospitable man, and his house was for many years one of the literary centres of Edinburgh. He died there on 20 Feb. 1830.

[Dr. Anderson's Works; Memoir (by his son-in-law, David Irving) in 7th and 8th editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica, and notice in New Monthly Magazine (then edited by Thomas Campbell) for June 1830 (mostly reproduced in Annual Biography and Obituary for 1831, p. 475); Beattie's Life and Letters of Campbell (1849), i. 194, &c.]

F. E.