Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Shairp, John Campbell
SHAIRP, JOHN CAMPBELL (1819–1885), professor of poetry at Oxford, was born at Houstoun, West Lothian, on 30 July 1819. His father, Major Norman Shairp, served in India, and his mother was Elizabeth Binning Campbell, daughter of John Campbell of Kildalloig, Argyllshire. Through his great-grandmother, Anne Scott of Harden, Shairp was a lineal descendant of ‘the flower of Yarrow’ [see under Scott, Walter, (1550?–1629?)]. He thus claimed kinship both with Celt and borderer (Principal Shairp and his Friends, p. 323). After preliminary training by a tutor, he was educated at Edinburgh academy, and at the end of his schooldays made his first acquaintance with Wordsworth's poetry. From 1836 to 1839 he was at Glasgow University, where he stood first in logic and moral philosophy. As an active member of the Peel Club, which discussed public questions, and as member of a literary coterie that included his senior Norman Macleod, Henry Douglas (afterwards bishop of Bombay), whose sister he married, and others, he rapidly became a good speaker and a skilled critic and expositor of poetry. In his holidays he began adventurous rambles in the highlands and on the borders, which he continued late in life.
In 1840 Shairp passed as Snell exhibitioner from Glasgow to Balliol College, Oxford, somewhat vaguely designing to take orders. With Arthur Hugh Clough [q. v.], John Duke Coleridge (afterwards Lord Coleridge), and others, he formed at Balliol lasting friendships, chronicling his impressions in his graceful ‘Balliol Scholars’ (‘Glen Desseray and other Poems’). He was much impressed by Newman, for whom he retained a lasting respect. In 1842 he won the Newdigate prize for a poem on Charles XII; it gained the favourable notice of Charles John (Bernadotte), king of Sweden. Failing to secure an Oriel fellowship, Shairp became in 1846 an assistant-master at Rugby under Tait. He proved a good teacher, and, according to a colleague, his literary enthusiasm and high moral tone made him ‘a missionary to the masters.’ In 1847, when on a holiday tour in Scotland, he found Clough with a reading party in Inverness-shire, and it is believed that Philip in ‘The Bothy of Tober-na-Vuolich’ (then in progress) embodies characteristics of Shairp (Principal Shairp and his Friends, p. 110). In 1852 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the moral philosophy chair at Edinburgh. In 1856 he retired from Rugby to conduct for a time Professor Lushington's Greek classes at Glasgow, and in 1857 he was appointed assistant to Dr. Pyper, the Latin professor at St. Andrews. He succeeded Pyper on his death in 1861, and delivered a striking inaugural address on Latin literature. As a professor he was earnest and stimulating, never overlooking the importance of sound scholarship, but grappling also with the thought of his author, and expounding comparative literature. He advocated a higher standard for entrants to the universities, and warmly encouraged a residential college hall at St. Andrews, which, however, had only a brief existence. In 1868 Shairp succeeded James David Forbes as principal of the United College, St. Andrews, occupying the Latin chair at the same time till 1872. He was a vigorous head, and interested himself in university extension, specially favouring a union of interests between St. Andrews and Dundee. In 1872 he built near Aberfeldy, Perthshire, a villa which he named Cuil-Aluinn (bonnie nook).
In June 1877 Shairp succeeded Sir Francis Hastings Charles Doyle as professor of poetry at Oxford, delivering his first lecture (‘On the Province of Poetry’) in the following Michaelmas term. Although he was somewhat out of sympathy with the prevalent taste of the university, he made an impression by his manifest sincerity. He was reappointed, according to usage, in 1882. In 1884 the degree of LL.D. was conferred on him at the tercentenary celebration of Edinburgh University. Owing to failing health at the end of this year, he spent several months in the north of Italy. He died, while on a visit to Ormsary, Argyllshire, on 18 Sept. 1885. He was buried in the Houstoun vault, within the church of his native parish. Memorial windows in the chapel of St. Salvator's College, St. Andrews, and the Balliol library, Oxford, chronicle his connection with the two universities. A characteristic portrait, by Robert Herdman, R.S.A., hangs in the hall of the United College, St. Andrews.
On 23 June 1853 Shairp married Eliza Douglas, daughter of Henry Alexander Douglas, and granddaughter of Sir William Douglas, bart., of Kilhead, Dumfriesshire. The death of their first son in the spring of 1855 prompted some graceful and pathetic verses. Shairp was survived by his wife and one son, Mr. Campbell Shairp, advocate, who became sheriff-substitute of Argyllshire.
From his youth Shairp was a writer, but he did not publish early. In 1856 he issued a vigorous pamphlet on ‘The Wants of Scottish Universities and some of the Remedies.’ After settling at St. Andrews, he contributed frequently to periodicals. In 1864 he published ‘Kilmahoe: a Highland Pastoral, and other Poems,’ in which he revealed his love of nature and of Scottish scenes and interests, and displayed a strong and original, if somewhat irregular, lyrical gift. Among the miscellaneous pieces in the volume, the tender and haunting ‘Bush aboon Traquair’ easily won and retained popularity. ‘Studies in Poetry and Philosophy’ appeared in 1868 (4th edit. 1886). It comprises essays on Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keble, displaying the author's critical and expository powers at their best, and a suggestive article on ‘The Moral Motive power.’ ‘Culture and Religion,’ which was published in 1870 and speedily went into several editions, skilfully elaborates the thesis that man's spiritual nature must be postulated in any adequate philosophy of life. In 1873 Shairp collaborated, with Professor Tait, in the ‘Life and Letters of J. D. Forbes;’ and in 1874 he edited, with knowledge and enthusiasm, Dorothy Wordsworth's ‘Journal.’ In 1877 he published ‘Poetic Interpretation of Nature,’ a careful delineation of a congenial theme. In 1879 appeared his monograph on Burns in the series ‘English Men of Letters.’ Outspoken and uncompromising in its treatment of the man, the work is sane and convincing in its criticism of the poet. The Oxford lectures, dealing with poetry and various poets, from Burns to Cardinal Newman, were published in 1881 as ‘Aspects of Poetry.’ Professor Veitch collected in a volume in 1887 a number of articles by Shairp, under the title ‘Sketches in History and Poetry.’ In 1888 Mr. Francis Turner Palgrave edited ‘Glen Desseray, and other Poems,’ a collection which includes, besides the Jacobite title-piece, various effective lyrics, such as ‘The Mountain Walk’ and ‘The Wilderness,’ and the memorial poem ‘Balliol Scholars.’ Shairp's sketches of departed friends are invariably charged with fine feeling. He paid tributes, in biographies or prefatory introductions, to (among others) Norman Macleod, Clough, Professor Ferrier, Dean Stanley, and Erskine of Linlathen.
[Professor Knight's Principal Shairp and his Friends; Dean Boyle's Preface to Studies in Poetry and Philosophy, ed. 1886, and his article in the Guardian, 30 Sept. 1885; Merrie England, November 1885; Macleod's Memorials of John Mackintosh; Memoir of Norman Macleod; personal knowledge.]