Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Leyden, John

LEYDEN, JOHN, M.D. (1775–1811), physician and poet, son of John Leyden and Isabella Scott, was born on 8 Sept. 1775 at Denholm, in the parish of Cavers, Roxburghshire. He received some elementary schooling at Kirktown, and from 1790 to 1797 he was a student at Edinburgh University, greatly distinguishing himself as a scholar and reading very widely (Life of Scott, i. 324). In the vacations he studied natural science and the Scandinavian and modern languages, besides Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian. His professional pursuits included both philosophy and theology, and he gave some attention to medicine. He practised public speaking at the University Literary Society. Among his associates were Brougham, Sydney Smith, Jeffrey, Horner, and Thomas Brown. From 1796 to 1798 he was tutor to the sons of Mr. Campbell, Fairfield, Edinburgh, accompanying them in 1797–8 to St. Andrews, where he was licensed as a preacher. His pulpit appearances were not successful (Constable and his Correspondents, i. 194).

Leyden as a student had made the acquaintance of Anderson, editor of the ‘British Poets,’ through whom he contributed to the ‘Edinburgh Literary Magazine.’ He was one of the first to welcome the ‘Pleasures of Hope’ (Beattie, Life of Campbell, iii. 253), although subsequently he and Campbell had a ridiculous quarrel with some amusing consequences (Life of Scott, vi. 326). In 1799 he came to know Richard Heber, then studying Scottish literature in Edinburgh. About the same time Leyden published ‘A Historical and Philosophical Sketch of the Discoveries and Settlements of the Europeans in Northern and Western Africa at the close of the Eighteenth Century,’ which was enlarged to two volumes by Hugh Murray, 1817. To Lewis's ‘Tales of Wonder,’ 1801, he contributed ‘The Elf King,’ a ballad, and on the combined recommendation of Heber and Anderson he edited for Constable the ‘Complaynt of Scotland,’ with an elaborate preliminary dissertation and an excellent glossary. Although not free from error the work gave a wholesome stimulus to the study of early Scottish literature (see Dr. Murray's edition of the Complaynt, Early English Text Society). Heber introduced him (1801) to Scott, whom he materially helped with the earlier volumes of the ‘Border Minstrelsy’ (1802), contributing five poems to vol. i. and material for the learned disquisition on fairies to vol. ii. (ib. i. 326). About the same time he made the acquaintance of Ritson, but their mutual sympathy was limited. While accompanying two Germans in 1800 to the Scottish highlands and the Hebrides, he investigated the Ossianic question, and recovered from Beattie at Aberdeen the anonymous poem ‘Albania,’ which he published along with Wilson's ‘Clyde’ in his ‘Scottish Descriptive Poems,’ 1802. The poem lacks symmetry, but has descriptive and patriotic passages of great power and beauty. For six months in 1802 he edited the third series of the ‘Scots Magazine,’ contributing himself both prose and verse. In several of his miscellaneous lyrics Leyden shows his best poetic quality.

Meanwhile, in default of a church appointment, Leyden was thinking of emulating Mungo Park's example as an African discoverer, when the Right Hon. William Dundas secured for him the post of assistant-surgeon at Madras. His previous medical studies enabled him in six months to take at St. Andrews a nominal M.D. degree. For some months he zealously studied oriental languages, prepared for publication his ‘Scenes of Infancy,’ and passed a pleasant time in London with Heber and George Ellis. He reached Madras on 19 Aug. 1803.

At first Leyden had charge of the Madras general hospital. In January 1804, as surgeon and naturalist, he accompanied the commissioners over the Mysore provinces taken from Tippoo Sultaun, and prepared a report on the geology, the diseases, the crops, and the languages of the districts traversed. The great strain produced a fever in November, and he stayed at Seringapatam, where he was befriended by Sir John Malcolm. When convalescent he studied Sanscrit, and translated from Persian and Hindustani. From May to September 1805 he travelled for his health through Malabar on to Cochin and Quilon, whence he sailed for Penang. While being chased on the voyage by a French privateer, Leyden characteristically composed a vigorous ode to his Malay krees, or dagger. In Penang he wrote a ‘Dissertation on the Languages and Literature of the Indo-Chinese Nations,’ afterwards printed in ‘Asiatic Researches,’ vol. x.

Returning to India in 1806, Leyden settled at Calcutta. His elaborate essay submitted to the government in 1807 on the Indo-Persian, Indo-Chinese, and Dekkan languages led to his election as a member of the Asiatic Society and as professor of Hindustani in the Calcutta college. But he soon accepted Lord Minto's offer of the post of judge of the twenty-four pargunnahs of Calcutta, and at the beginning of 1809 was appointed commissioner of the court of requests in Calcutta. While holding that office he undertook grammars of the Malay and Pracrit tongues, besides many translations.

Towards the end of 1810 Lord Minto appointed Leyden assay-master of the mint at Calcutta, and in 1811 he accompanied Lord Minto to Java, ‘to assist,’ as he wrote to his father on the voyage, ‘in settling the country when conquered, and as interpreter for the Malay language’ (White, Supplement to Sir Walter Scott's Memoir, p. 103). When the expedition halted for some days at Malacca, Leyden journeyed inland, scrutinising ‘original Malays’ and visiting sulphurous hot wells. Java was reached on 4 Aug., and as there was no opposition at Batavia a leisurely possession was effected. Leyden's literary zeal took him into an unventilated native library; fever supervened, and he died at Cornelis, after three days' illness, 28 Aug. 1811.

Before the Literary Society of Bombay William Erskine read a eulogium, in which he claimed for Leyden that in eight years he had done almost as much for Asia as the combined scholarship of centuries had done for Europe—he had ‘nearly effected a classification of its various languages and their kindred dialects’ (ib. p. 111). Sir John Malcolm, besides a high estimate delivered at a visitation of the college at Fort William, sent to the ‘Bombay Courier’ a poetical tribute to his friend's memory (Leyden, Poetical Remains, p. xci). Scott, in addition to frequent references, embalmed his ‘bright and brief career’ in the ‘Lord of the Isles,’ iv. xi. Lord Cockburn, after referring to his unconscious egotism and his uncouth aspect and uncompromising demeanour—characteristics also noted by Scott and Lockhart—declares there was ‘no walk in life, depending on ability, where Leyden could not have shone’ (Memorials of his Time, p. 179). The Ettrick Shepherd bewailed the loss of the poet's ‘glowing measure,’ and Lockhart fully recognised his extraordinary abilities and attainments as a scholar (Life of Scott, i. 324, &c.) Constable, for whom he edited the ‘Complaynt of Scotland,’ had a high appreciation of him (Constable and his Correspondents, i. 190). A monument to his memory was erected by public subscription at Denholm in 1861, and there also in 1875 the centenary of his birth was celebrated under the presidency of Lord Neaves.

Sir Walter Scott contributed his ‘Memoir of Leyden’ to the ‘Edinburgh Annual Register’ of 1811; the Rev. James Morton edited Leyden's ‘Poetical Remains,’ with memoir, in 1819; ‘Poems and Ballads of John Leyden,’ with Scott's ‘Memoir’ supplemented by Robert White, appeared in 1858; and a centenary volume of the ‘Scenes of Infancy,’ with biography by the Rev. W. W. Tulloch, was published in 1875. Dr. Tulloch quotes from ‘Reports and Proceedings of the British and Foreign Bible Society,’ 1811–12, showing that Leyden had translated one or more of the gospels into Pushtu, Maldivian, Balloch, Macassar, and Bugis. Of his translations into English his ‘Malay Annals,’ with introduction by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, appeared in 1821, and his ‘Commentaries of Baber,’ completed by William Erskine, in 1826. Such an amount of work almost justifies Leyden's remark that he was able to excel Sir William Jones in his own particular sphere. There is a legend (Scotsman, 26 April 1890) that he wrote ‘An Account of his Contemporaries, not to be published while any of them were alive;’ and he contributed to the ‘Scots Magazine’ of February 1802 an amusing notice of the ‘Edinburgh Booksellers,’ reprinted in ‘Literary Gems,’ 1826.

[Memoirs mentioned in text; Constable and his Correspondents, vol. i.; Lockhart's Life of Scott, vols. i. ii. iii. vi.; Gent. Mag. 1812, pt. i. pp. 409, 420, 486.]

T. B.