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Blacklock, Dr Thomas (1721-91)

A minor poet whose enthusiasm for Burns's work played an important part in Burns's career. Blacklock was born at Annan, Dumfriesshire, the son of a bricklayer, and lost his sight as a result of smallpox during his first year. Largely self educated he studied divinity at Edinburgh, and was ordained minister of Kirkcudbright in 1762. But his parishioners complained that his blindness made him incapable of carrying out his parish duties, and in 1765 he retired to Edinburgh on a small annuity. This he augmented by writing, tutoring and running a small boarding establishment for scholars and students. A man of broad culture and keen intellectual power, Blacklock was befriended by both Dr Johnson and Benjamin Franklin. Throughout his life he took a generous interest in the work of young writers.

John Home, the author of Douglas ('Whaur's your Wullie Shakespear noo?), called Blacklock 'a small, weakly, under thing — a chilly bloodless animal, that shivers at every breeze. But if nature has cheated him in one respect, by assigning to his share, forceless sinews, and a ragged form, she has made him ample compensation on the other, by giving him a mind endued with the exquisite feelings.... He is the most flagrant enthusiast I ever saw'. Dr Johnson, however, received Blacklock in 1773 with a 'most humane complacency' and 'looked on him with reverence', while David Hume found him 'a very elegant genius, of a modest backward temper, accompanied with that delicate pride which so naturally attends virtue in distress'.

Blacklock entered Burns's life unexpectedly and dramatically. In the autumn of 1786, though the success of the Kilmarnock volume was assured, Burns was in a state of emotional turmoil, partly as a result of the threatened legal action by Jean Armour's parents, and possibly also because of amatory complications with the unfortunate Mary Campbell. He thought, or at any rate wrote and talked a great deal, about emigrating to Jamaica, and even got the length of making preliminary negotiations for a passage. It is clear from his correspondence, however, that flight to Jamaica was never regarded by him as anything other than a last resort.

A letter from Dr Blacklock dated 4th September 1786, delivered through the Rev George Lawrie of Loudon, from whom Blacklock had received a copy of the Kilmarnock Edition played a major part in making Burns change his mind over the Jamaican business, and instead, go to Edinburgh, from whence Blacklock's letter of encouragement had come.

In the autobiographical letter to Dr Moore, Burns said: 'I had taken the last farewell of my friends; my chest was on the road to Greenock; I had composed my last song I should ever measure in Caledonia... when a letter from Dr Blacklock to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes by rousing my poetic ambition. The Doctor belonged to a set of Critics for whose applause I had not even dared to hope. His idea that I would meet with every encouragement for a second edition fired me so much that away I posted to Edinburgh without a single acquaintance in town.'

Blacklock had found in Burns's serious poems 'a pathos and a delicacy' and 'a vein of wit and humour in those of a more festive turn which cannot be too much admired nor too warmly approved'. He thought he would 'never open the book without feeling my astonishment renewed and increased'. Blacklock mentioned that he had been told the first edition was already exhausted. 'It were therefore much to be wished', he went on, 'for the sake of the young man that a second edition, more numerous than the former, could immediately be printed.' He prophesied 'a more universal circulation than anything of the kind which has been published within my memory'.

Once in Edinburgh, however, Burns delayed calling on Blacklock for two weeks. Blacklock wrote to Lawrie to say he had heard 'Mr Burns is, and has been some time, in Edinburgh. This news I am sorry to have had at secondhand; they would have come much more welcome from the bard's own mouth.' Lawrie then wrote to Burns again, and on 5th February 1787 Burns was able to report to Lawrie that he had been to call on Blacklock, and found him to have 'a clear head and an excellent heart'.

Thereafter a sincere friendship sprang up between the young major poet and the old minor one. Blacklock gave a breakfast in honour of Burns and the two men kept in touch, exchanging rhyming epistles in 1789, Blacklock's light jingle includes these lines:

"Most anxiously I wish to know
With thee of late how matters go;
How keeps thy much-loved Jean her health?
What promises thy farm of wealth?"

Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Burns's 'To Dr Blacklock' is not one of his most interesting rhyming epistles.

On 1st September 1790, Blacklock asked Burns, in another rhymed epistle, to contribute to Dr Anderson's magazine, The Bee, but Burns was busy with other matters and nothing came of the request. Blacklock, however contributed ten songs to the Scots Musical Museum, at least four of them — 'My love has forsaken me', 'Ye river so limpid and clear', 'Forbear gentle youth, to pursue one in vain' and 'When dear Evanthe, we were young' — matched to airs of his own composition. Writing to Johnson from Ellisland on 28th July 1788 (dated by Ferguson) however, Burns remarked 'I have still a good number of Dr Blacklock's Songs among my hands, but they take sad hacking and hewing.'

Blacklock's first book of poems appeared in 1746, and other books in 1754 and 1756. Though he produced verse for about 40 years, he remained quite uninfluenced by the venacular work of Burns. His other works included an Essay towards Universal Etymology, and some theological papers. In his closing years he became deaf as well as blind, and suffered long periods of dejection, which he strove to conceal from his wife. James Beattie composed the Latin epitaph for his tombstone in St Cuthbert's Chapel of Ease.

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