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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Thomas Campbell (1777–1844)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE LIFE of Thomas Campbell, though in large measure fortunate, was uneventful. It was not marked with such brilliant successes as followed the career of Scott; nor was fame purchased at the price of so much suffering and error as were paid for their laurels by Byron, Shelley, and Burns; but his star shone with a clear and steady ray, from the youthful hours that saw his first triumph until near life’s close. The world’s gifts—the poet’s fame, and the public honors and rewards that witnessed to it—were given with a generous hand; and until the death of a cherished wife and the loss of his two children—sons, loved with a love beyond the common love of fathers—broke the charm, Campbell might almost have been taken as a type of the happy man of letters.  1
  Thomas Campbell was born in Glasgow, July 27th, 1777. His family connection was large and respectable, and the branch to which he belonged had been settled for many years in Argyleshire, where they were called the Campbells of Kirnan, from an estate on which the poet’s grandfather resided and where he died. His third son, Alexander, the father of the poet, was at one time the head of a firm in Glasgow, doing a profitable business with Falmouth in Virginia; but in common with almost all merchants engaged in the American trade, he was ruined by the War of the Revolution. At the age of sixty-five he found himself a poor man, involved in a costly suit in chancery, which was finally decided against him, and with a wife and nine children dependent upon him. All that he had to live on, at the time his son Thomas was born, was the little that remained to him of his small property when the debts were paid, and some small yearly sums from two provident societies of which he was a member. The poet was fortunate in his parents: both of them were people of high character, warmly devoted to their children, whose education was their chief care,—their idea of education including the training of the heart and the manners as well as the mind.  2
  When eight years old Thomas was sent to the grammar school at Glasgow, where he began the study of Latin and Greek. “I was so early devoted to poetry,” he writes, “that at ten years old, when our master, David Allison, interpreted to us the first Eclogue of Virgil, I was literally thrilled with its beauty. In my thirteenth year I went to the University of Glasgow, and put on the red gown. The joy of the occasion made me unable to eat my breakfast. Whether it was presentiment or the mere castle-building of my vanity, I had even then a day-dream that I should one day be Lord Rector of the university.”  3
  As a boy, Campbell gained a considerable familiarity with the Latin and Greek poets usually read in college, and was always more inclined to pride himself on his knowledge of Greek poetry than on his own reputation in the art. His college life was passed in times of great political excitement. Revolution was in the air, and all youthful spirits were aflame with enthusiasm for the cause of liberty and with generous sympathy for oppressed people, particularly the Poles and the Greeks. Campbell was caught by the sacred fire which later was to touch the lips of Byron and Shelley; and in his earliest published poem his interest in Poland, which never died out from his heart, found its first expression. This poem, ‘The Pleasures of Hope,’ a work whose title was thenceforth to be inseparably associated with its author’s name, was published in 1799, when Campbell was exactly twenty-one years and nine months old. It at once placed him high in public favor, though it met with the usual difficulty experienced by a first poem by an unknown writer, in finding a publisher. The copyright was finally bought by Mundell for sixty pounds, to be paid partly in money and partly in books. Three years after the publication, a London publisher valued it as worth an annuity of two hundred pounds for life; and Mundell, disregarding his legal rights, behaved with so much liberality that from the sale of the first seven editions Campbell received no less than nine hundred pounds. Besides this material testimony to its success, scores of anecdotes show the favor with which it was received by the poets and writers of the time. The greatest and noblest of them all, Walter Scott, was most generous in his welcome. He gave a dinner in Campbell’s honor, and introduced him to his friends with a bumper to the author of ‘The Pleasures of Hope.’  4
  It seemed the natural thing for a young man so successfully launched in the literary coteries of Edinburgh and Glasgow to pursue his advantage in the larger literary world of London. But Campbell judged himself with humorous severity. “At present,” he writes in a letter, “I am a raw Scotch lad, and in a company of wits and geniuses would make but a dull figure with my northern brogue and my ‘braw Scotch boos.’” The eyes of many of the young men of the time were turned toward Germany, where Goethe and Schiller, Lessing and Wieland, were creating the golden age of their country’s literature; and Campbell, full of youthful hope and enthusiasm, and with a little money in his pocket, determined to visit the Continent before settling down to work in London. In 1800 he set out for Ratisbon, which he reached three days before the French entered it with their army. His stay there was crowded with picturesque and tragic incidents, described in his letters to friends at home—“in prose,” as his biographer justly says, “which even his best poetry hardly surpasses.” From the roof of the Scotch Benedictine Convent of St. James, where Campbell was often hospitably entertained while in Ratisbon, he saw the battle of Hohenlinden, on which he wrote the poem once familiar to every schoolboy. Wearied with the bloody sights of war, he left Ratisbon and the next year returned to England. While living at Altona he wrote no less than fourteen of his minor poems, but few of these escaped the severity of his final judgment when he came to collect his verses for publication. Among these few the best were ‘The Exile of Erin’ and the noble ode ‘Ye Mariners of England,’ the poem by which alone, perhaps, his name deserves to live; though ‘The Battle of the Baltic’ in its original form ‘The Battle of Copenhagen’—unfortunately not the one best known—is well worthy of a place beside it.  5
  On his return from the Continent, Campbell found himself received in the warmest manner, not only in the literary world but in circles reckoned socially higher. His poetry hit the taste of all the classes that go to make up the general reading public; his harp had many strings, and it rang true to all the notes of patriotism, humanity, love, and feeling. “His happiest moments at this period,” says his biographer, “seem to have been passed with Mrs. Siddons, the Kembles, and his friend Telford, the distinguished engineer, for whom he afterward named his eldest son.” Lord Minto, on his return from Vienna, became much interested in Campbell and insisted on his taking up his quarters for the season in his town-house in Hanover Square. When the season was over Lord Minto went back to Scotland, taking the poet with him as traveling companion. At Castle Minto, Campbell found among other visitors Walter Scott, and it was while there that ‘Lochiel’s Warning’ was composed and ‘Hohenlinden’ revised, and both poems prepared for the press.  6
  In 1803 Campbell married his cousin, Matilda Sinclair. The marriage was a happy one; Washington Irving speaks of the lady’s personal beauty, and says that her mental qualities were equally matched with it. “She was, in fact,” he adds, “a more suitable wife for a poet than poets’ wives are apt to be; and for once a son of song had married a reality and not a poetical fiction.”  7
  For seventeen years he supported himself and his family by what was for the most part task-work, not always well paid, and made more onerous by the poor state of his health. In 1801 Campbell’s father died, an old man of ninety-one, and with him ceased the small benevolent-society pensions that, with what Thomas and the eldest son living in America could contribute, had hitherto kept the parents in decent comfort. But soon after Thomas’s marriage and the birth of his first child, the American brother failed, so that the pious duty of supporting the aged mother now came upon the poet alone. He accepted the addition to his burden as manfully as was to be expected of so generous a nature, but there is no doubt that he was in great poverty for a few years. Although often despondent, and with good reason, his natural cheerfulness and his good sense always came to the rescue, and in his lowest estate he retained the respect and the affection of his many friends.  8
  In 1805 Campbell received a pension of £200, which netted him, when fees and expenses were deducted, £168 a year. Half of this sum he reserved for himself and the remainder he divided between his mother and his two sisters. In 1809 he published ‘Gertrude of Wyoming,’ which had been completed the year before. It was hailed with delight in Edinburgh and with no less favor in London, and came to a second edition in the spring of 1810. But like most of Campbell’s more pretentious poetry, it has failed to keep its place in the world’s favor. The scene of the poem is laid in an impossible Pennsylvania where the bison and the beaver, the crocodile, the condor, and the flamingo, live in happy neighborhood in groves of magnolia and olive; while the red Indian launches his pirogue upon the Michigan to hunt the bison, while blissful shepherd swains trip with maidens to the timbrel, and blue-eyed Germans change their swords to pruning-hooks, Andalusians dance the saraband, poor Caledonians drown their homesick cares in transatlantic whisky, and Englishmen plant fair Freedom’s tree! The story is as unreal as the landscape, and it is told in a style more labored and artificial by far than that of Pope, to whom indeed the younger poet was often injudiciously compared. Yet it is to be noted that Campbell’s prose style was as direct and unaffected as could be wished, while in his two best lyrical poems, ‘Ye Mariners of England,’ and the first cast of ‘The Battle of the Baltic,’ he shows a vividness of conception and a power of striking out expression at white heat in which no one of his contemporaries excelled him.  9
  Campbell was deservedly a great favorite in society, and the story of his life at this time is largely the record of his meeting with distinguished people. The Princess of Wales freely welcomed him to her court; he had corresponded with Madame de Staël, and when she came to England he visited her often and at her request read her his lectures on poetry; he saw much of Mrs. Siddons, and when in Paris in 1814, visited the Louvre in her company to see the statues and pictures of which Napoleon had plundered Italy.  10
  In 1826 Campbell was made Lord Rector of Glasgow University, and in 1828 he was re-elected unanimously. During this second term his wife died, and in 1829 the unprecedented honor of an election for a third term was bestowed upon him, although he had to dispute it with no less a rival than Sir Walter Scott. “When he went to Glasgow to be inaugurated as Lord Rector,” says his biographer, “on reaching the college green he found the boys pelting each other with snowballs. He rushed into the mêlée and flung about his snowballs right and left with great dexterity, much to the delight of the boys but to the great scandal of the professors. He was proud of the piece of plate given him by the Glasgow lads, but of the honor conferred by his college title he was less sensible. He hated the sound of Doctor Campbell, and said to an acquaintance that no friend of his would ever call him so.”  11
  The establishment through his direct agency of the University of London was Campbell’s most important public work. Later his life was almost wholly engrossed for a time by his interest in the cause of Poland—a cause indeed that from his youth had lain near his heart. But as he grew older and his health declined he became more and more restless, and finally in 1843 took up his residence at Boulogne. His parents, his brothers and sisters, his wife, his two children, so tenderly loved, were all gone. But he still corresponded with his friends, and to the last his talk was cheerful and pleasant. In June, 1844, he died, and in July he was buried in Westminster Abbey in Poets’ Corner. About his grave stood Milman, the Duke of Argyle,—the head of his clan,—Sir Robert Peel, Brougham, Lockhart, Macaulay, D’Israeli, Horace Smith, Croly and Thackeray, with many others, and when the words “Dust to dust” were pronounced, Colonel Szyrma, a distinguished Pole, scattered over the coffin a handful of earth from the grave of Kosciuszko at Kraców.  12
 
 
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