Thomas Blacklock

The blind Scottish poet Thomas Blacklock (1721—1791) is connected to Duck by a mutual patron, Joseph Spence,71 who presented him as another of his ‘natural geniuses’. Blacklock (Figure 4.2) was born in Annan, Dumfriesshire, to English parents. His father, John, was a Cumberland bricklayer and Ann, his mother the daughter of a Cumbrian cattle dealer.72 As a baby he contracted smallpox and lost his eyesight, which prevented him from bricklaying, but his aptitude for literature and poetry was noticed. His father and friends read to him from ‘the works of Allan Ramsay, Prior’s Poems, and the Tatlers, Spectators, and Guardians’.73 He heard the best English poets, ‘among whom, Milton, and Spenser, Pope and Addison, were his chief favourites ... Poetry he always heard not only with uncommon pleasure, but with a sort of congenial enthusiasm’; he began to imitate them.74

In 1740 his father was crushed to death while inspecting a faulty malt kiln. But Blacklock was assigned the assistance of Richard Hewitt, a boy from the village, who was educated alongside his charge. Blacklock moved to Edinburgh under the patronage of a physician, Dr. John Stevenson. Despite the disruptive 1745 Jacobite rebellion, Blacklock passed through grammar school and entered Edinburgh University, where he studied ‘philosophy and then divinity, and continued his interest in languages including French, Greek, Latin, and Italian’.75

Thomas Blacklock (1721-1791), reproduced by courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland,© National Galleries of Scotland

FIGURE 4.2 Thomas Blacklock (1721-1791), reproduced by courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland,© National Galleries of Scotland.

Blacklock came to Latin and Greek late and by ear alone, becoming able to read a Latin author comfortably only at 20.76 According to Spence, Blacklock came to look upon Stevenson ‘as his Maecenas’; the first poem in his collection, addressed to Stevenson, imitates Horace’s Ode 1.1.77

Thou, whose goodness unconfin’d

Extends its wish to human kind;

By whose indulgence I aspire

To strike the sweet Horatian lyre:

There are who on th’ Olympic plain

Delight the chariot’s speed to rein;

Involv’d in glorious dust, to roll;

To turn with glowing wheel the goal ...

While Blacklock maintains his fluently rhyming tetrametric couplets, he reveals sensitivity to the Latin by flexibly leaning into and away from the original, at once knowing, skilful and deliberate. ‘To turn with glowing wheel the goal’ is a neat negotiation with Horace’s ‘metaque fervidis / evitata rotis’ (‘shunning [i.e. driving past, avoiding collision with] the turning post with glowing wheels’).78 In his ‘Pastoral Song’ (1746), inspired by Allan Ramsay’s stage comedy The Gentle Shepherd (1724), Blacklock uses the trope of the lover’s response to gazing upon their beloved popularised by Sappho 31 and Catullus 51.79 ‘Sandy the Gay’, the ‘blooming swain’, fixes his eyes on Girzy, a bonnie maid with ‘breasts like hills of snaw’ in a loose robe, and is physically affected:

He fix’d his look, he sigh’d, he quak’d, His colour went and came;

Dark grew his een, his ears resound, His breast was all on flame.80

The polysensory description, inherited from antiquity, gave Blacklock, who had never gazed upon a lover, a range of sensations poetically articulated. Poor Sandy becomes infatuated with his landlady, for they are Girzy’s flocks he tends. He resorts to suicide, bidding his ‘harmless, sportive flocks’ and ‘faithful dog’ adieu. The ballad’s Scots diction, later to be purged completely,81 is fused with classical allusiveness, revealing the literariness of Blacklock’s experiential universe.

Catullus was not translated into English in book-length form until John Nott of Bristol’s pioneering bilingual edition was printed by the radical bookseller Joseph Johnson in 1795.82 In Blacklock’s day, some Catullan poems circulated both in Latin and English imitation via periodicals and anthologies, and his fifth poem (‘Vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus’) was popular. Blacklock’s imitation is another smooth, clever and relatively plain rendition in iambic tetrameters:

Tho’ sour loquacious age reprove, Let us, my Lesbia, live for love:

For, when the short-liv’d suns decline,

They but retire more bright to shine:

But we, when fleeting life is o’er,

And light and love can bless no more;

Are ravish’d from each dear delight,

To sleep one long eternal night ... ,83

Blacklock may do nothing remarkable here, but it is remarkable that a bricklayer’s blind son was translating Catullus in 1756.

Blacklock became an established figure on the Edinburgh literary scene, famously the first to acknowledge the genius of Burns. As Shuttleton argues, Blacklock straddles two traditions in Scottish literature often kept separate, the Scottish Enlightenment and the Scottish Vernacular Revival.84 He was a member of David Hume’s intellectual circle and Hume for a time acted as a patron. Yet, as a talented songwriter, Blacklock once considered a career as a street performer. Blacklock’s experience of patronage was troubled. He coveted a lectureship in Edinburgh, but on his patrons’ advice grudgingly trained as a Presbyterian minister, a career move that ended in disaster and a return to Edinburgh’s literary scene when his Kirkcudbright congregation objected to his blindness.

By investigating Blacklock’s irreverent, vernacular manuscript poems, Shuttleton has shown how his oeuvre was shaped and Anglicised by his patrons and supporters.85 Yet Blacklock’s social rise could not have happened without patronage. There were no other educational routes, no help with special needs, nor opportunities for upward mobility. Philanthropic patronage has been accused of corrupting and destroying the talent it aimed to nurture. But beneath the polite and sentimental surface of patronised poets we may frequently discover ‘a more socially discontented and politically aware poet’.86 Classical poetry is central to the 18th-century poet/patron dynamic, since the ‘neoclassical’ mode is both the zenith of dominant literary culture, and one capable of expressing subtle shades of dissent.

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