Thomas Campbell, a wonderful Scottish poet, died on the 15th of June, 1844.
Thomas Campbell was one of Britain’s most popular poets. Although he was active during the height of the so called ‘Romantic Period’, he preferred the classical poetry of the 18th Century. Nevertheless, like many another writer and thinker of his day, he enthused over the themes of liberty, equality and brotherhood from the American and French Revolutions. His major work, ‘The Pleasures of Hope’, embodies the kind of humanitarian idealism he shared with the great Romantics. Campbell was also a biographer, travel writer and magazine editor, and a vociferous champion of the struggle for Polish independence.
Thomas Campbell was born in Glasgow, on the 27th of July, in 1777, the youngest of eleven children. He received his early education at Glasgow High (Grammar?) School, but had to pay his own way in order to attend Glasgow University. Thomas attended five six-month sessions there, between the autumn of 1791 and May 1796. He supported himself by private teaching and writing, and also spent the holidays as a paid tutor in the western Highlands.
Whilst at Glasgow University, Campbell attained considerable distinction for writing verses and so his vocation was determined. His aptitude was plain to see, but his addiction to literary composition and poetry was so strong that it was unlikely that he was going to end up following any ‘pedestrian’ profession. However, in May, 1797, he went to Edinburgh to attend lectures on law and whilst there, he also found work as a compiler of books. Amongst his contemporaries in Edinburgh was Sir Walter Scott, with whom he later became both a friend and a friendly rival. Campbell was also a contemporary of Wordsworth and Coleridge, with whom his literary legacy certainly stands comparison.
In 1799, ‘The Pleasures of Hope’ was published. It is described as “a rhetorical and didactic poem in the taste of his time”, and its instant popularity owed much to the fact that it dealt with such topics as the French Revolution, the partition of Poland and Negro slavery. It remained an immensely popular piece throughout the 19th Century and is still a good read. Campbell appears to have been a little careless as he blithely disposed of the copyright, however, the publishers generously gave him a donation for each new edition of two thousand copies. In 1803, they also permitted him to publish a quarto subscription copy.
In June, 1800, Campbell rather aimlessly headed off to the Continent. He paid a visit to Hamburg and made his way to Regensburg, which was taken by the French three days after his arrival, whereupon he found refuge in a Scottish Monastery. Some of his best poems, ‘Hohenlinden’, ‘Ye Mariners of England’ and ‘The Soldier's Dream’, belong to that German tour. However, his means were soon exhausted and he was reduced to extreme poverty before eventually being able to return to Edinburgh.
Campbell’s ‘Hohenlinden’, perhaps one of the grandest battle pieces ever written, was described thus by a contemporary critic; “In a few verses, flowing like a choral melody, the poet brings before us the silent midnight scene of engagement, wrapped in the snows of winter, the sudden arming for the battle, the press and shout of charging squadrons, the flashing of artillery, and the final scene of death.” Now, that’s a poem you’ve just got to read. Here’s a wee extract…
By torch and trumpet fast arrayed,
Each horseman drew his battle-blade,
And furious every charger neighed
To join the dreadful revelry.
The combat deepens. On, ye brave,
Who rush to glory, or the grave!
Wave, Munich, all thy banners wave,
And charge with all thy chivalry!
In 1803, Campbell went to live in London, where, for a time, he stayed with the celebrated Scottish engineer, Thomas Telford, who later willed him a legacy of £4000. Campbell also received a government pension, which was given as a tribute for the noble nationalistic strains of ‘Ye Mariners of England’ and the ‘Battle of the Baltic’. Seems like poetry and literature wasn’t such a bad occupational choice in the days before mass production of books. Campbell wasn’t very organised and agonised over each piece of work, however, his poems were popular and every now and again a new one appeared.
In 1819, he published his critical study, ‘Specimens of the British Poets’, which contains a selection of short biographies, and which he spent over fifteen years in writing. The following year, he became editor of the ‘New Monthly Magazine’ in which many of his minor poems appeared. One of these, ‘The Last Man’, is arguably one of his greatest conceptions.
Campbell’s sympathy for the Poles, earlier exhibited in ‘The Pleasures of Hope’, found a practical expression in his foundation of the Literary Association of the Friends of Poland. He also played a major role in the founding of the University of London and was elected Lord Rector of Glasgow University in 1826, 1827 and 1828. The third time, after he lost the vote to Sir Walter Scott, he won a second poll held because Scott declined to accept the post. Interestingly, he served that third term despite the University authorities considering his third election to have been ‘illegal’.
Thomas Campbell died in Boulogne, France, on the 15th of June, in 1844, and he was buried in Poets’ Corner, in Westminster Abbey.