« PreviousContinue »
[The chief authorities for a biography of Campbell are the Life and Letters of Thomas Campbell, edited by William Beattie, M.D., Lond., 1819, and the Literary Reminiscences and Memoirs of Thomas Campbell, by Cyrus Redding, Lond., 1859 ; on these have been founded the memoirs in the Aldine ed. of his Poems, and the Clarendon Press ed. of Gertrude of Wyoming, etc.]
Thomas Campbell was of the race of Campbells of Kir. nan, who as late as the time of the poet's grandfather lived on the family estate in the vale of Glassary on the southern frontier of the West Highlands. At the time of the poet's birth, the house of Kirnan had fallen into ruin, and its lands passed into the possession of strangers. Alexander Campbell, son of its last owner, was a merchant in Glasgow, a man of honour and education. The youngest of his eleven children was the poet, born on the 27th of July, 1777. The boy Campbell was an affectionate, sensitive, delicate child, with an early liking for Scotch ballad poetry and song which he owed to his mother. The gift of numbers came early to him ; lines of his are preserved that were written at the age of ten. He early showed, likewise, a keen enthusiasm for Greek and Latin, which he was fond of rendering into English verse. In 1771 he entered Glasgow University, there to win prizes and scholarships as well as an enviable reputation for his genial nature and poetic ability. The poets he read most in those early years were Pope, Gray, and Goldsmith. Their influence and the influence of his admired classics gave to his mind that bent towards correct taste'which, while it secured him an immediate popularity with his age, cut him off from the new movement that was to shatter the idol he worshipped.
His father fell into financial difficulties. Campbell spent his last college vacation as tutor at Mull, in the house of Mrs. Campbell of Sunipol. On graduation in 1795 he became tutor in the family of General Napier of Downie, on the Sound of Jura. At Sunipol he had been within reach of Iona and Staffa and the wild scenes of the Hebrides ; at Downie there was a milder but still beautiful scenery : memories of these places were to pass later into his poems of Gertrude of Wyoming and the Pilgrim of Glencoe.
In 1797 he was back in Glasgow, with nothing to do. Not the Church, he was resolved, nor tutoring. Not law he concluded, after a few months in an Edinburgh lawoffice, nor medicine, after a slighter experience in Glasgow. He would have gone to America' probably, as a solution to the difficulty of bread-and-butter, but some hack-work for an Edinburgh publisher, and his own literary tastes kept him hanging on. His main present capital was Hope, and with some drafts on that and some classical translations, he went again to Edinburgh. Dr. Anderson, one of the literary chiefs of the city, gave the young poet encouragement, advice, admonition.
Under his severe judgment he rewrote, revised, cut away, extended, polished, till some four hundred lines—the number was soon doubled- took shape in the Pleasures of Hope, which was published in 1799.
Burns had been three years dead. Scott was not for six years to begin his wonderful series of romantic epics. The times were propitious for a new poet, and Campbell, who had the good fortune to charm the taste of all orthodox readers, was the literary hero of the hour. Not yet twenty-two, handsome, genial, he was carried everywhere in society, and edition after edition of his poem went off in a blaze of glory. The Edinburgh Review praised it, the Quarterly praised it, and in short the whole reading public that a year before neglected or decried the Lyrical Ballads were filled with inexpressible delight at the splendid phrases and polished eloquence of the Pleasures of Hope. Fourteen years later Mme. de Staël could write to its author that his poem had never left her, and that parts of it she could read twenty times without weakening their impression.
To-day the Pleasures of Hope has ceased to please. Its abstract and formal elements, its didactic tendencies, its stilted heroics do not take hold on our sympathies, while the historical allusions that appealed with living force to contemporaries have to us become faint and unimpressive. Lines of it have attained a just 'immortality of quotation,' such as those referring to the enchantment of distance, angel-visits, and the passage on -unhappy Poland.
Departed spirits of the mighty dead !
The patriot TELL-the BRUCE OF BANNOCKBURN. Historically the poem is memorable as the last sunset glow of the correct and elegant versification that was the glory of the school of Pope.
The literary influence of Germany was, as we have seen, at this time in the first blush of its greatness in England, Campbell longed to make the customary literary pilgrimage, to see its famous authors and to gather the liter. ary material that he felt sure of finding abundantly on the Continent. He set off in 1801 hoping to visit Hamburg, Göttingen, and Weimar where dwelt the deities of Parnassus, Goethe and Schiller. He saw Klopstock in Hamburg, but had no sooner reached Ratisbon in Bavaria than the French invested and captured the city. There was a glimpse of war for him when the Klenau's Austrian cavalry met Grenier French horse without the city walls. But Ratisbon was too near the scene of hostilities, and the poet returned in October to Altona (on the Elbe, near Hamburg). There he found Irish refugees of 1798, whom he commemorates in the Exile of Erin. There too the daily talk was of the imminent war of England and the Northern Neutral League. Campbell's patriotism beat high at the prospect, and its inspiration bore him on to complete a song he had already in part composed, Ye Mariners of England. These lyrics, the Beech Tree's Petition and the Ode to Winter are the only permanent fruits of his Continental trip. He wrote much else, however, and vainly agonized over a Queen of the North, an epic of Edinburgh.
On the appearance of an English fleet in the Baltic, Campbell went home. Lord Minto gave him quarters as a sort of private secretary, and in the patron's home the poet wrote two of his best poems, Hohenlinden and Lochiel. In 1803 he married, and after a short sojourn in Pimlico, settled at Sydenham Common, near London, where he dwelt for seventeen following years. In the early years of his married life he composed Lord Ullin's Daughter, The Soldier's Dream, The Battle of the Baltic, and the