Thomas Campbell was born in Glasgow, July 27, 1777. He was of good family, his father being the youngest son of a Highland laird, Campbell of Kirnan, who could trace his descent from Gilespie le Camile, first Norman lord of Lochawe. As was (and is) usual with the younger sons of Scottish families of rank, Campbell’s father was destined for a commercial career. He commenced it in Virginia, where he entered into partnership with a kinsman, and returning with him to Scotland, carried on the business in Glasgow, till the wars between Great Britain and her American Colonies for a time seriously injured British commerce. After incurring severe losses he at length gave up business altogether, and retired into private life with diminished means and a large family.
Thomas, the poet, was the youngest of eleven children, and was born after his father had retired. At eight years of age he was sent to the Grammar School of Glasgow, and became the pupil of David Alison, who soon detected the infant genius of his pupil. The boy worked hard for his years, but his health was delicate, and, like Walter Scott, he had to be sent away for the benefit of country air. Amidst the fields and green lanes he regained health and strength, and returning to his studies made rapid progress, especially in Greek. At twelve years old, he gained prizes for his translations from the Greek poets.
In 1793 Campbell commenced the study of the law in the office of his relative Mr. Alexander Campbell, a Writer to the Signet, of Glasgow; but he soon abandoned it, and again devoted himself to more congenial pursuits. About this time his Lines on Marie Antoinette appeared in the poet’s corner of a Glasgow paper; he had already won a prize for his poem On Descriptionfrom the University.
In 1795 the failure of a Chancery suit still further reduced his father’s income, and Campbell, eager to reduce the family expenses, sought and obtained a tutorship in the family of a Mrs. Campbell of Sunipol, in the Hebrides, for the summer months. The romantic beauty of his new home strongly impressed the youthful poet, and it was whilst wandering on the wild lonely shores of Mull, that the subject of his celebrated poem the Pleasures of Hope was suggested to him by his friend Mr. Hamilton Paul. A rock on the isle, on which he often sat and mused, obtained and still keeps the name of the “Poet’s Seat.”
In the autumn Campbell returned to his studies at the University, and finally closed his academic career by winning two prizes—one for the Choephorcæ of Aristophanes, and the other for the Chorus in the Medea of Euripides.
After quitting the University, he again became a tutor—this time in the family of General Napier, who was greatly interested in the gifted young man beneath his roof. It was during this residence in Argyleshire that he wrote Love and Madness, and some other poems.
In 1798 the poet proceeded to Edinburgh, determined to try his fortune in the Scottish metropolis. He had an introduction to Dr. Robert Anderson, who, struck with his ability, recommended him to Mr. Mundell, the publisher. Mr. Mundell at once gave him literary work, his first task being to compile an abridgment of Bryan Edward’s West Indies. He also obtained pupils, and thus managed to secure a comfortable livelihood. But by degrees the love of poetry grew too strong for this routine of industry, and he gradually devoted himself to the composition of the Pleasures of Hope. Campbell’s life at this time must have been a very happy one. He was enraptured with his task, and he had many and kind friends in Edinburgh—amongst them was Francis (afterwards Lord) Jeffrey. To his aunt Mrs. Campbell, and to his beautiful cousin Margaret, who resided in Edinburgh, he used to read his verses, and was cheered and encouraged by their applause.
When the poem was finished, Dr. Anderson took it to Mr. Mundell, who, after some consideration, offered the poet £60 for it, an offer which was accepted.
The poem appeared, and Campbell at once became famous. Everywhere it was read and admired, and it secured to the Author a permanent reputation at the age of twenty-one. The Pleasures of
Hope went through four editions in a year. In the second edition several new and remarkably fine passages were introduced.
In 1800 Campbell left Scotland in order to visit Germany. He landed at Hamburg; and proceeded, after a short residence there, to Ratisbon, which he reached only three days before the French took it, and was, consequently, obliged to seek a refuge with the monks of the Benedictine College; from the walls of which he beheld a cavalry charge made by the German horse on the French under Grenier. The scenes of war through which it was now his fate to pass, no doubt suggested his fine lyric of Hohenlinden, though he was not a spectator of the fight (Dr. Beattie tells us)—it occurred after he had left the scene of war.
The times were now so troubled that Campbell hastened homeward, the moment he could obtain his passports. At Hamburg, where he remained for a while, he wrote the Exile of Erin. From Hamburg he proceeded to Altona, and thence to England. During his absence he had sent several small poems to the Morning Chronicle, and on his return he was received and welcomed cordially by its editor, Mr. Perry, who introduced him to the best literary society in London. But from the natural enjoyment of his popularity he was called by the tidings of his father’s death, and he hurried at once to Edinburgh. Here he found that an absurd charge of treason had been made against him, which, however, his own prompt and manly demand of an investigation of his conduct at once quashed. Moreover, his trunk, which had been seized on its way homewards, was examined, and amongst his papers was found the glorious national lyric, Ye Mariners of England, which he had written at Altona. The patriotic feeling displayed in it at once assured the Sheriff of Edinburgh of the poet’s innocence of the crime with which he was charged, and the affair ended in the young poet’s character being entirely cleared.
From the period of his father’s death it became Campbell’s duty to provide in a great measure for his widowed mother and his sister, and he worked bravely and patiently for them at literary task-work.
In 1801 he visited London at Lord Minto’s invitation, and passed a season of great gaiety in the midst of the literary celebrities of England. On his return to Edinburgh he published Lochiel, and Hohenlinden, and brought out the seventh edition of the Pleasures of Hope.
In 1802 Campbell married his cousin, Miss Matilda Sinclair, and went shortly afterwards to reside at Sydenham, then a lovely and rather aristocratic place,—where his memory was long cherished, and his dwelling is even now pointed out to strangers.
Here he supported by his literary labour his mother, his wife, and children; and was occupied and happy. He contributed to the Philosophical Magazine, the Star paper, and planned his Specimens of the British Poets.
In 1805 Campbell received a pension of £200 from the Crown, which must have greatly relieved the anxieties of a husband and father dependent on so precarious a profession as literature. But he retained only half for himself; the remainder he divided between his mother and sister; an act of generosity which afterwards, we are told, led to his receiving a handsome legacy of nearly £5,000 from a Highland cousin.
In 1809 Gertrude of Wyoming, Lord Ullin’s Daughter, and The Battle of the Baltic were published. Several prose works also appeared from Campbell’s pen; in 1807, the Annals of Great Britain from the Accession of George III. to the Peace of Amiens, was published anonymously in Edinburgh. He wrote also a Life of Petrarch in 1841, and edited numerous works. In 1818, the long-planned Specimens of the British Poets was produced in London. After this publication, Campbell delivered lectures at the Surrey Institution on English Poetry, and the public pronounced him to be as elegant a critic as he was a fine poet. In a pecuniary sense, everything he did prospered.
In 1824 Theodric was published, which, however, obtained small favour with the public. In fact a new style of poetry had superseded that of the day when the Pleasures of Hope won golden opinions; Scott had since charmed the ear with his Lay and his Lady of the Lake, and had been in turn supplanted by the fiery muse of Byron, and—though not then fully appreciated—the matchless melody and classic charm of Shelley. After the productions of these great poets, the calm and unimpassioned Theodric fell flat on the public ear; in fact there is no comparison between it and the Pleasures of Hope.
As a lyric poet, Campbell, however, continued unrivalled, and would have held his own place in our literature if he had never written more than the Mariners of England and Hohenlinden. Nor did the Pleasures of Hope lose its hold on public favour; it has
retained it to this day, except in a certain clique of critics. There are passages in it which will ever have a strong hold on our sympathies; and which will be remembered when the half intelligible utterances of our more modern times shall only excite wonder and amusement.
In 1827 one of Campbell’s early day-dreams, that of being Lord Rector of his own University, was gratified. He was chosen, though no less a rival than Sir Walter Scott was in the field, and he filled the position so well, and so much to the benefit of the University, that he was re-elected the two following years.
In 1820 Colbourne offered him the editorship of the New Monthly Magazine, which he accepted and retained till 1830, at a salary of £500 per annum. His sub-editor—a very efficient one—was Mr. Cyrus Redding.
In 1831 Campbell brought out the Metropolitan Magazine, editing it himself.
Meantime much domestic affliction had fallen on him. He had lost a child, and his dear wife died in 1828, a loss which greatly affected him. But he made himself other strong interests besides domestic and literary ones. The Poles and the Greeks had enlisted his most ardent sympathies, and had the best aid of his pen. Moreover, he travelled in France and Germany, and in 1834 as far as Algiers, from whence he wrote the Letters from the South, published in the Metropolitan Magazine.
In 1838 he was presented to the Queen by the chief of his clan, the Duke of Argyle, at the first levee held by the fair young Sovereign after her accession to the throne. He had loyally offered her a present of his works; the Queen accepted them, and graciously sent him in return her picture. Campbell had been always a Liberal, but, like Leigh Hunt, he was won by the gentle lady who held the sceptre to sincere loyalty to the Crown.
Campbell moved to No. 8, Victoria Square, Pimlico, in 1840, and adopted, as the sharer of his solitary home, his niece, Mary Campbell, whose gentle ministrations soothed his declining years, and brightened the last hours of his life.
In 1842 The Pilgrim of Glencoe was published, but it was not well received, and the aged poet began to perceive that it was time to lay by his pen; that he spoke to a generation he could not charm. Nevertheless his age was honoured and prosperous. His works produced nearly £700 a year, and his means exceeded altogether
£1000 per annum. But he fancied he should prefer a cheaper residence than London, and in compliance with the aged poet’s fancy, his niece accompanied him to Boulogne, where they settled, at 5, Rue Petit St. Jean.
Here he remained in a varying state of health till 1844, when he became seriously ill, and the physician, Dr. Allatt, gave no hopes of his recovery. His faithful and beloved friend, Dr. Beattie—by whom a charming memoir of the poet has been since published—came to him, and did his best to soothe the last moments of the dying poet.
His death-bed was truly Christian. Some of his last words were “Come, let us sing praises to Christ,” “Let us pray for one another.”
On the 15th of June 1844, his spirit passed calmly, without a struggle, to a better world.
The body of the poet was brought to England, and on the 3rd of July buried in Westminster Abbey, near the centre of the Poet’s Corner. His funeral was attended by numerous friends and admirers, amongst whom were his chief, the Duke of Argyle, and Sir Robert Peel, then premier.
Thus closed the life of one of the most popular poets of the beginning of our century. Prosperous in its public phase—very sad and sorely tried in its domestic one. He had refined taste and pleasing manners; and no reproach rests upon his private or public character. In his youth he was singularly beautiful in person. Leigh Hunt tells us (in his autobiography) that Campbell’s face and person were rather on a small scale, “his features regular, his eye lively and penetrating, and when he spoke, dimples played about his mouth, which, nevertheless, had something restrained and close in it. Some gentle Puritan seemed to have crossed the breed, and to have left a stamp on his face, such as we often see in the female Scotch face rather than the male.”
No poet, except Shakespeare, has been so frequently quoted as Campbell. Many of his lines have become proverbs:—“Coming events cast their shadows before,” “’Tis distance lends enchantment to the view,” &c., &c., are as familiar to us as household words. “His verses” says a writer in Chambers’s Papers for the People, “cannot be mistaken for those of any other English poet—his odes do not resemble those of Dryden, Collins, or Gray—they stand alone.... Scott said, ‘he could imitate all the modern poets but Tom Campbell,’ he could not imitate him because his peculiarity was more in the
matter than the manner.” High praise this! Byron said that he believed Campbell wrote so little poetry because he was afraid of comparison with his early and famous poem: we have not the volume to quote the exact words. We are rather inclined to think that the true reason why he gave us no more poems than we possess at present was, not only that his taste was exceedingly refined and fastidious—he would not admit many charming minor poems into his collected works—but that, like Goldsmith, his time was much occupied by task-work for the publishers; and as he would not suffer hastily written lines to appear, or any which he had not carefully polished, the quantity he produced was necessarily small. We are told in Notes and Queries that he took some pains (returning to the house where he had written it for the purpose) to substitute a single word which he believed would be an improvement on another in his Stanzas to Florine! Consequently, his poems must have occupied time and thought beyond what we may imagine from their length, and his leisure could not have been great. It would have been better, perhaps, if more voluminous poets had imitated his reticence, and given us quality rather than quantity.
Campbell was a pleasant companion, and when he pleased could (we have Byron’s authority for it) talk delightfully; but he was occasionally absent and silent. His poetry is much admired by foreigners. Madame de Staël was enraptured with the Pleasures of Hope, and Goethe was a warm admirer of the Poet.
His domestic character was excellent, and his family sorrows—of which this is no place to speak—were borne by him with patient courage.
His Life, admirably given us by his friend Dr. Beattie, is well worth reading as a record of Genius, aided by patient perseverance, struggling with difficulties, and vanquishing them; and to it, for fuller and far more interesting details, we refer the readers of this brief Prefatory Memoir.
To this collection of his poems we have added his Lines on Marie Antoinette, the Dirge of Wallace, and one or two other poems, published in the New Monthly Magazine.
Life and Letters of Campbell, by Dr. Beattie.