Blackie, John Stuart (DNB01)
BLACKIE, JOHN STUART (1809–1895), Scottish professor and man of letters, eldest son of Alexander Blackie (d. 1856) by his first wife, Helen Stodart (d. 1819), was born in Charlotte Street, Glasgow, on 28 July 1809. His father soon removed to Aberdeen, as manager of the Commercial Bank. Blackie had his early education at the burgh grammar school and Marischal College (1821-4). In 1824 he was placed in a lawyer's office, but as his mind turned towards the ministry, after six months he went up to Edinburgh for two more years in arts (1825-6). He gained the notice of 'Christopher North,' but was prevented by 'a morbid religiosity' from doing himself justice. He then took the three years' theological course at Aberdeen. The divinity professors, William Laurence Brown [q. v.] and Duncan Mearns [q. v.], seem to have influenced him less than Patrick Forbes, professor of humanity and chemistry at King's College, who turned him from systems of divinity to the Greek testament. It was on the advice of Forbes, whose sons were going to Göttingen, that Blackie was sent with them in April 1829. At Göttingen he came under the influence of Heeren, Ottfried Müller, and Saalfeld. The following session (after a walking tour) he spent in Berlin, hearing the lectures of Schleiermacher and Neander, Boeckh and Raumer. From Berlin he travelled to Italy, having an introduction from Neander to Bunsen, then in Rome. Bunsen met one of his theological difficulties by telling him that 'the duration of other people's damnation was not his business.' After a few months he was able to compose an archaeological essay in good Italian ('Intorno un Sarcofago,' Rome, 1831, 8vo). From a Greek student at Rome he learned to speak modern Greek, and grasped the idea that Greek is 'not a dead but a living language.' On his return homeward his father met him in London in November 1831, and introduced him to Brougham, Lockhart, and Coleridge. Six months at home convinced his father that Blackie was not destined for a career in the church. His ambition was to fill a professor's chair. In the spring of 1832 his father offered him 100l. a year for three years to study for the Scottish bar. On 1 July 1834 he was admitted a member of the faculty of advocates, but during the next five years he held only two briefs. He managed to support himself by writing for 'Blackwood' and the 'Foreign Quarterly,' having made himself known by a translation of 'Faust' (1834), which won the commendation of Carlyle.
On 1 May 1839 the government created a chair of humanity (Latin) at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and appointed Blackie as the first regius professor. The appointment was due to the influence of Alexander Bannerman, M.P. for Aberdeen, and was denounced as a 'whig job.' Before Blackie could be installed, it was necessary for him to subscribe the Westminster Confession in presence of the Aberdeen presbytery. This he did on 2 July, but at the same time made, and afterwards published, a declaration that he had signed the document 'not as my private confession of faith,' but 'in reference to university offices and duties merely.' The certificate was granted, but a later meeting of presbytery (12 Aug.) attempted to withdraw it, cited Blackie to a special meeting (3 Sept.), found that he had not signed in conformity with the act, and warned the senatus against admitting him. Blackie raised an action against the senatus, which was changed into an action against the presbytery (at the instance of that body). For two years the matter was before the courts ; in July 1841 Lord Cunninghame gave decision that the function of the presbytery 'in the matter of witnessing a subscription' was 'ministerial only.' Appeal was refused, but both parties had to pay their own costs. On 1 Nov. Blackie was installed in his chair. His opening address was unconventional and florid; but he made it clear that his purpose was (as he afterwards expressed it) 'through Latin to awaken wide human sympathies, and to enlarge the field of vision.'
The eleven years during which he held the Aberdeen chair were years on his part of strenuous but only moderately successful effort to arouse the spirit of Scottish university reform. It must be admitted that Blackie's idiosyncrasies sometimes furnished an excuse for not taking him seriously. His scheme for matriculation examinations was opposed by James Pillans [q. v.], an educational reformer of different temperament. At Aberdeen he instituted (16 March 1850) the 'Hellenic Society,' a meeting of private friends for 'the advancement of Greek literature in Scotland;' and in the same year he published his verse translation of yEschvlus, begun in 1838. The death (1851) of George Dunbar [q.v.] vacated the Greek chair in the Edinburgh University. The appointment was then in the gift of the Edinburgh town council. After a tough contest Blackie was elected (2 March 1852) by the casting vote of the lord provost, Duncan McLaren [q.v.] He thus attained his long-cherished desire 'to exchange Latin for Greek, copper for gold.' His Latin scholarship was, however, excellent ; in some respects stronger than his Greek. Before entering upon his duties he published a lively tract on the 'pronunciation of Greek.' His own practice in his class was always to use the accents, and (with some modification) the modern Greek sounds of the letters; his famous proof that accent might be kept distinct from quantity was the word 'cab-driver.' He did not, however, insist on any uniformity of usage among his students, few of whom followed his lead.
His inaugural lecture was on 'Classical Literature in its relation to the Nineteenth Century' (1852, 8vo). He made his first visit to Greece in 1853, reaching Athens on 4 May, and returning to Edinburgh in July. He wished to gain local colour for his translation of the 'Iliad,' already drafted, but not published till 1866, and preceded by his 'Lays and Legends of Ancient Greece,' 1857. The opening lecture of his second session was on 'The Living Language of the Greeks' (1853, 8vo). He succeeded (May 1855) in establishing an entrance examination for the junior Greek class. While Blackie promoted in his class a good deal of enthusiasm of various sorts, and always exerted a sterling moral influence, he was rarely successful in creating an appetite for Greek scholarship. If it existed, he did his best to foster it, and was very kind to struggling students. But his class-work was unmethodical, his lectures galloped away from their theme, and his supervision was negligent. Many odd stories of his encounters with his students were told. One of the best known (to the effect that a notice about not meeting 'his classes' had been improved by removing the 'c,' whereupon Blackie further amended it by deleting the '1') is vouched for by 'an eye-witness' (Kennedy, p. 151) as having occurred in 1879 ; but it was no new story in 1859, and had previously done duty as told of William Edmonstoune Aytoun [q. v.] Perhaps his best service to the Edinburgh University was his long and energetic labour in connection with the founding and endowment of the Celtic chair, instituted in 1882, shortly after he had become an emeritus professor.
During the whole of his Edinburgh career he had been growing in public favour, till his genial eccentricities were relished as the living expression of a robust and versatile nature. His boundless good-humour made amends for his brusque manner and for his somewhat random thrusts, frankly delivered with great gusto in his cawing, cackling voice. With a rich fund of Scottish pre-judices he combined a very outspoken superiority to local and sectarian narrowness. He became the most prominent feature of the patriotic and literary life of Edinburgh, and as a breezy lecturer made his personality felt in all parts of Scotland. Always fond of moving about, his public appearances became still more frequent after his retirement from his chair. He kept up his love of foreign travel; his last visit to Greece was in 1891. Till May 1894, when he was attacked with asthma, his health and strength were marvellous. His last public appearance was at the opening of the college session in October 1894. He died at 9 Douglas Crescent, Edinburgh, on 2 March 1895, and, after a public funeral service in St. Giles's Cathedral, was buried in the Dean cemetery on 6 March. He left 2,500l. to the Edinburgh University for a Greek scholarship, limited to its theological students. His portrait was painted (1893) by Sir George Reid. His clear-cut features, shrewd grey eyes, and long white hair (for some time during the fifties he had worn a curious grey wig) were made familiar in countless photographs, engravings, and caricatures, which reproduced his jaunty air, the plaid thrown about his shoulders, his huge walking staff, and his soft hat with broad band. He never wore spectacles. He married, on 19 April 1842, Eliza, third daughter of James Wyld of Gilston, Fifeshire, but had no issue. His half-brother, George S. Blackie, professor of botany in the xmiversity of Tennessee, died in 1881, aged 47.
It is difficult to classify Blackie's writings, in which prose and verse were often inter-mingled. Nothing he has written has kept so permanent a place as his hymn, 'Angels holy, high and lowly,' written by the banks of the Tweed on his wedding tour (1842) and first published in 'Lays and Legends' (1857).
His chief publications were : 1. 'Faust . . . translated into English Verse,' 1834, 8vo; 1880, 8vo. 2. 'On Subscription to Articles of Faith,' Edinburgh, 1843, 8vo. 3. 'University Reform,' Edinburgh, 1848, 8vo. 4. 'The Water Cure in Scotland,' Aberdeen, 1849, 8vo. 5. 'The Lyrical Dramas of Æschylus . . . translated into English Verse,' 1850, 2 vols. 8vo. 6. 'On the Studying and Teaching of Languages,' Edinburgh, 1852, 8vo (English and Latin). 7. ' On the Advancement of Learning in Scotland,' Edinburgh, 1855, 8vo. 8. 'Lays and Legends of Ancient Greece, with other Poems,' Edinburgh, 1857, 8vo. 9. 'On Beauty,' Edinburgh, 1858, 8vo. 10. 'Lyrical Poems,' Edinburgh, 1860, 8vo. 11. 'The Gaelic Language,' Edinburgh, 1864, 8vo. 12. 'Homer and the Iliad,' Edinburgh, 1866, 4 vols. 8vo. 13. 'Musa Burschicosa . . . Songs for Students,' Edinburgh, 1869, 8vo. 14. 'War Songs of the Germans,' Edinburgh, 1870, 8vo. 15. 'Four Phases of Morals : Socrates, Aristotle, Christianity, Utilitarianism,' Edinburgh, 1871, 8vo. 16. 'Greek and English Dialogues . . . for Schools,' 1871, 8vo. 17. 'Lays of the Highlands and Islands,' 1871, 8vo. 18. 'On Self Culture,' Edinburgh, 1874, 8vo. 19. 'Hora? Hellenicæ,' 1874, 8vo. 20. 'Songs of Religion and Life,' 1876, 8vo. 21. 'The Language and Literature of the . . . Highlands,' Edinburgh, 1876, 8vo. 22. 'The Natural History of Atheism,' 1877, 8vo. 23. 'The Wise Men of Greece . . . Dramatic Dialogues,' 1877, 8vo. 24. 'The Egyptian Dynasties,' 1879, 8vo. 25. 'Gaelic Societies . . . and Land Law Reform,' Edinburgh, 1880, 8vo. 26. 'Lay Sermons,' 1881, 8vo. 27. 'Altavona . . . from my Life in the Highlands,' Edinburgh, 1882, 8vo. 28. 'The Wisdom of Goethe,' Edinburgh, 1883, 8vo. 29. 'The . . . Highlanders and the Land Laws,' 1885, 8vo. 30. ' What does History teach?' 1886, 8vo. 31. 'Gleanings of Song from a Happy Life,' 1886, 8vo. 32. 'Life of Robert Burns,' 1887, 8vo. 33. 'Scottish Song,' Edinburgh, 1889, 8vo. 34. 'Essays,' Edinburgh, 1890, 8vo. 35. 'A Song of Heroes,' 1890, 8vo. 36. 'Greek Primer,' 1891, 8vo. 37. 'Christianity and the Ideal of Humanity,' Edinburgh, 1893, 8vo.
In 1867-8 he published some pamphlets on forms of government, and a debate on democracy with Ernest Charles Jones [q. v.] He contributed to the volumes of 'Edinburgh Essays' (1856-7) and prefaced a good many books on subjects in which he was interested. Selections of his verse were edited in 1855 (with memoir) by Charles Rogers (1825-1890) [q.v.], and in 1896 (with an appreciation) by Archibald Stodart-Walker, who also edited selections from Blackie's 'Day-Book,' 1901.
[Memoir by Rogers, 1855; Stoddart's John Stuart Blackie, 1895; Kennedy's Professor Blackie, 1895; personal recollection.]