Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Blacklock, Thomas

BLACKLOCK, THOMAS (1721–1791), poet, was born at Annan, Dumfriesshire, in 1721. His parents were natives of Cumberland, poor but well educated. His father was a bricklayer. When six months old he lost his sight by an attack of smallpox. His misfortune and his gentle disposition won much sympathy. His friends read poetry to him, especially Spenser, Milton, Prior, Addison, Pope, and A. Ramsay. He acquired a little Latin, and at the age of twelve attempted to write poetry himself. His father was killed by an accident when the son was nineteen. Meanwhile his manuscripts were handed about and gained some attention. Dr. Stevenson, an eminent physician at Edinburgh, brought him to that city in 1741, and supported him entirely at the grammar school for four years. Upon the rebellion of 1745 he retired to Dumfries, and lived with a Mr. McMurdo, who had married his sister; he afterwards returned to Edinburgh to study at the university. In 1746 he hard published an octavo volume of poems. A second edition of these was published in the winter of 1753-4. Blacklock had meanwhile become known to David Hume, who exerted himself to serve the young man by circulating his poems and recommending their author for tutorships or similar employments. In December 1754 Hume, who had been appointed librarian in 1752 by the Faculty of Advocates at a salary of 40l., had a dispute as to the management of the library. He was unwilling to give up his right to use the books, and therefore showed his indignation by giving to Blacklock a ‘bond of annuity’ for the salary, whilst retaining the office, Hume resigned the office two years afterwards (Burton Hume, i. 393, ii. 18). Meanwhile he had written a long and interesting account of Blacklock to Joseph Spence, the friend of Pope (printed in Burton, i. 388, and Spence’s Anecdotes, 448). Blacklock, we learn from this, had been patronised by Stevenson and Provost Alexander; he had learnt Latin and Greek, and would have been made professor of Greek at Aberdeen but for a timidity which disqualified him for managing boys. He had made 100 guineas by the last edition of his poems; he had a bursary of 6l. a year; and Hume with some friends had allowed him 12 guineas a year for five years. Thirty pounds a year, added Hume, would make this ‘man of fine genius’ easy and happy. Spence had already seen B1ack1ock’s poems, Hume having sent some copies to Dodsley for distribution among men of taste, and had undertaken to bring out an edition by subscription. An ‘Account of the Life, Character, and Poems of Mr. Blacklock, Student of Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, written by Spence, appeared in 1754, and was prefixed to an edition of the poems in 1756. All reference to Hume is avoided in the account; and Spence insisted upon the omission of a complimentary mention of Hume in an ode on ‘Refinements in Metaphysical Philosophy.' Blacklock resisted, but Hume, accidentally hearing of the controversy, authorised Spence to make the omission (Burton, i. 436). ‘That foolish fellow, Spence,' said Johnson to Boswell (5 Aug. 1763), ‘has laboured to explain philosophically’ how Blacklock achieved an impossibility, viz. to describe visible objects without sight. The explanation, indeed, is easy, for Black1ock's poems are mere echoes of the poetical language of his time, and show little more than a facility for stringing together rhymes. He would, we are told, dictate thirty or forty verses as fast as they could be written down. Whilst doing so he acquired a trick of nervous vibration of his body which became habitual.

By Hume's advice Blacklock abandoned a project of lecturing on oratory, and studied divinity. He was licensed as a preacher in 1759. In 1762 he married Miss Sam Johnston, daughter of a surgeon in Dumfries, and about the same time was presented by the crown, on the application of Lord Selkirk, to the ministry of Kirkcudbright. The parishioners obiected to him on account of his blindness, and Blacklock, whose nervous timidity was much tried by the controversy, retired after two years' legal dispute, receiving a small annuity from the parish. He returned to Edinburgh in 1764, and took pupils to board in his house. Amongst them was Joseph, eldest son of Hume's elder brother, John Hume of Ninewells (Burton, ii. 399). For some unexplained reason Blacklock became alienated from Hume, who at this time was still trying to help him. In 1770 he published in the ‘Edinburgh Courant’ a brief analysis of Beattie’s ‘Essay on Truth,’ directed against Hume’s principles (Forbes's Beattie, i. 173, 218). He continued to take pupils till growing infirmity caused his retirement in 1787.

In 1767 the university and Marischal College of Aberdeen conferred upon him the degree of D.D. at the suggestion of Beattie, who had exchanged complimentary verses with him, and who became his friend and correspondent. He wrote a letter (4 Sept. 1786) to Burns upon the first appearance of the poems. Burns says that this letter induced him to give up this intended emigration and to go to Edinburgh, where Blacklock received him kindly and introduced him to many friends. Some complimentary poems afterwards passed between the two. He died 7 July 1791, after a week’s illness. He seems to have been very amiable, playful, and kindly to the young, rough subject to nervous depression. A curious story is told by Anderson (British Poets, vol. xi.) of his joining a party in a state of somnambulism. He was fond of music and carried a flageolet in his pocket, the use of which he said had been suggested to him in a dream. A ‘Pastoral Song,' set to music by him, appeared in 1774.

Besides the above works he published:

  1. Paraclesis, or Consolations deduced from Natural and Revealed Religion; two dissertations, the first (erroneously) supposed to have been composed by Cicero, now rendered into English, the last originally written by Dr. Blacklock,' 1767.
  2. Translation from the French of Armand of two discourses on the Spirit and Evidences of Christianity, with a dedication from his own pen, 1768.
  3. ‘The Graham, an heroic ballad in four cantos,’ 1774. This poem, intended to promote harmony between Scotch and English, was thought unworthy of a place in his works.

He wrote an article on blindness for the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’, and perhaps one on poetry. A conversation with Johnson is given in the ‘Tour to the Hebrides,’ and a letter of Blacklock’s to Boswell in regard to it is given in an appendix to later editions. He also wrote, in 1756, an ‘Essay towards Universal Etymology,’ in verse; and in 1773 a satire called ‘A Panegyric upon Great Britain.’ An edition of his poems was published in 1793, with a life by Henry Mackenzie, the ‘man of feeling.' He left a translation (never published) of the Abbé Haüy's work on the education of the blind.

[Lives by Spence (1756) and Anderson; Forbes's Life of Beattie; Burton's Life of Hume; Kerr's Memoirs of W. Smellie (1811), ii. 14–30.]

L. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.28
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
128 ii 25 f.e. Blacklock, Thomas: omit to Burns
24 f.e. for the poems read Burns's poems to George Lawrie, who sent it to Gavin Hamilton, who sent it to the poet.