Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

CAMPBELL, THOMAS (1777–1844)

CAMPBELL, THOMAS (1777–1844), Scottish poet, eighth son of Alexander Campbell, was born at Glasgow on the 27th of July 1777. His father, who was a cadet of the family of Campbell of Kirnan, Argyllshire, belonged to a Glasgow firm trading in Virginia, and lost his money in consequence of the American war. Campbell was educated at the grammar school and university of his native town. He won prizes for classics and for verse-writing, and the vacations he spent as a tutor in the western Highlands. His poem Glenara and the ballad of Lord Ullin’s Daughter owe their origin to a visit to Mull. In May 1797 he went to Edinburgh to attend lectures on law. He supported himself by private teaching and by writing, towards which he was helped by Dr Robert Anderson, the editor of the British Poets. Among his contemporaries in Edinburgh were Sir Walter Scott, Henry Brougham, Francis Jeffrey, Dr Thomas Brown, John Leyden and James Grahame. To these early days in Edinburgh may be referred The Wounded Hussar, The Dirge of Wallace and the Epistle to Three Ladies. In 1799, six months after the publication of the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, The Pleasures of Hope was published. It is a rhetorical and didactic poem in the taste of his time, and owed much to the fact that it dealt with topics near to men’s hearts, with the French Revolution, the partition of Poland and with negro slavery. Its success was instantaneous, but Campbell was deficient in energy and perseverance and did not follow it up. He went abroad in June 1800 without any very definite aim, visited Klopstock at Hamburg, and made his way to Regensburg, which was taken by the French three days after his arrival. He found refuge in a Scottish monastery. Some of his best lyrics, Hohenlinden, Ye Mariners of England and The Soldier’s Dream, belong to his German tour. He spent the winter in Altona, where he met an Irish exile, Anthony McCann, whose history suggested The Exile of Erin.[1] He had at that time the intention of writing an epic on Edinburgh to be entitled The Queen of the North. On the outbreak of war between Denmark and England he hurried home, the Battle of the Baltic being drafted soon after. At Edinburgh he was introduced to the first Lord Minto, who took him in the next year to London as occasional secretary. In June 1803 appeared a new edition of the Pleasures of Hope, which some lyrics were added.

In 1803 Campbell married his second cousin, Matilda Sinclair, and settled in London. He was well received in Whig society, especially at Holland House. His prospects, however, were slight when in 1805 he received a government pension of £200. In that year the Campbells removed to Sydenham. Campbell was at this time regularly employed on the Star newspaper, for which he translated the foreign news. In 1809 he published a narrative poem in the Spenserian stanza, Gertrude of Wyoming, with which were printed some of his best lyrics. He was slow and fastidious in composition, and the poem suffered from over-elaboration. Francis Jeffrey wrote to the author: Your timidity or fastidiousness, or some other knavish quality, will not let you give your conceptions glowing, and bold, and powerful, as they present themselves; but you must chasten, and refine, and soften them, forsooth, till half their nature and grandeur is chiselled away from them. Believe me, the world will never know how truly you are a great and original poet till you venture to cast before it some of the rough pearls of your fancy. In 1812 he delivered a series of lectures on poetry in London at the Royal Institution; and he was urged by Sir Walter Scott to become a candidate for the chair of literature at Edinburgh University. In 1814 he went to Paris, making there the acquaintance of the elder Schlegel, of Baron Cuvier and others. His pecuniary anxieties were relieved in 1815 by a legacy of £4000. He continued to occupy himself with his Specimens of the British Poets, the design of which had been projected years before. The work was published in 1819. It contains on the whole an admirable selection with short lives of the poets, and prefixed to it an essay on poetry containing much valuable criticism. In 1820 he accepted the editorship of the New Monthly Magazine, and in the same year made another tour in Germany. Four years later appeared his Theodric, a not very successful poem of domestic life. He took an active share in the foundation of the university of London, visiting Berlin to inquire into the German system of education, and making recommendations which were adopted by Lord Brougham. He was elected lord rector of Glasgow University three times (1826–1829). In the last election he had Sir Walter Scott for a rival. Campbell retired from the editorship of the New Monthly Magazine in 1830, and a year later made an unsuccessful venture with the Metropolitan Magazine. He had championed the cause of the Poles in The Pleasures of Hope, and the news of the capture of Warsaw by the Russians in 1831 affected him as if it had been the deepest of personal calamities. Poland preys on my heart night and day, he wrote in one of his letters, and his sympathy found a practical expression in the foundation in London of the Association of the Friends of Poland. In 1834 he travelled to Paris and Algiers, where he wrote his Letters from the South (printed 1837).

The small production of Campbell may be partly explained by his domestic calamities. His wife died in 1828. Of his two sons, one died in infancy and the other became insane. His own health suffered, and he gradually withdrew from public life. He died at Boulogne on the 15th of June 1844, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Campbell’s other works include a Life of Mrs Siddons (1842), and a narrative poem, The Pilgrim of Glencoe (1842). See The Life and Letters of Thomas Campbell (3 vols., 1849), edited by William Beattie, M.D.; Literary Reminiscences and Memoirs of Thomas Campbell (1860), by Cyrus Redding; The Poetical Works of Thomas Campbell (1875), in the Aldine Edition of the British Poets, edited by the Rev. W. Alfred Hill, with a sketch of the poet’s life by William Allingham; and the Oxford Edition of the Complete Works of Thomas Campbell (1908), edited by J. Logie Robertson. See also Thomas Campbell in the Famous Scots Series, by J. C. Hadden, and a selection by Lewis Campbell (1904) for the Golden Treasury Series.

1. The original authorship of this poem was by many people assigned to G. Nugent Reynolds. Campbell’s claim is established in Literary Remains of the United, Irishmen, by R. R. Madden (1887).

[contributor not given]

& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

CAMPBELL, Thomas (1777–1844) by Amy Wilcockson

The entry for Thomas Campbell in the 1910-1911 edition of Encyclopædia Britannica summarizes his literary career and life in a cursory fashion that mirrors opinion of Campbell at the time it was written. By the early twentieth century, Campbell was increasingly considered a figure of literary-historical interest rather than a significant canonical writer. This is evidenced in the entry, which is short in length and detail compared to that of a number of fellow Romantic-period poets, including William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Thomas Campbell
Thomas Campbell, by Henry Room (1802-1850), portrait done 1841. Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland Original image

The Britannica entry omits much about Campbell’s popularity and influence during the Romantic period. His debut poem, The Pleasures of Hope (1799), was an immediate bestseller. In the seven years after its publication, it went through nine separate editions; William St Clair estimates that this work, alongside his second poem, Gertrude of Wyoming (1809), sold at least 45,000 copies during Campbell’s lifetime—an astronomical amount, considering that only 20,000 copies of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s poems combined were sold during the same period. Campbell also influenced a diverse range of authors, with Percy Shelley, John Clare, Alfred Tennyson, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, amongst many others, crediting him as having an impact on their own poetical works. His work with the long narrative poem was innovative, and he utilised the form effectively in Gertrude of Wyoming three years before Lord Byron began publishing Childe Harold in 1812. Campbell was, of course, a favourite of Byron’s, figuring highly on his pyramid of poetical talents. Admiration for Campbell during his lifetime is confirmed by his having been interred in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey upon his death in 1844, the only major Romantic author to be actually buried there.

The idea the Britannica entry espouses of Campbell only producing a small number of works, and that he himself was fastidious or without aim is largely inaccurate. The author focuses on Campbell primarily in the Romantic mould as a poet, and only touches briefly on his other achievements. Other works he wrote, including the biographies The Life of Mrs Siddons (1834) and Life of Petrarch (1841), alongside the longer poem The Pilgrim of Glencoe (1842), are mentioned in a summary endnote, or not at all. More space is given to a work he did not complete, like his proposed epic The Queen of the North, than to successful works he did publish. Theodric (1824) is described as a not very successful poem of domestic life. Certainly the poem was not as successful as his earlier works—it was compared unfavourably to them—but it was still widely read and discussed.

The diversity of Campbell’s career as a literary professional is not covered in full: over half of the entry is dedicated to the first ten years of his employment, which actually spanned forty-five years. His role as a periodical editor is only referenced briefly. Campbell edited the New Monthly Magazine and later The Metropolitan in the 1820s and early 1830s; he recognised that magazines were the location where key discussions of literature and culture were taking place. Campbell’s role as a respected celebrity editor meant that the New Monthly Magazine became one of the foremost magazines of the age and attracted a range of eminent contributors, including Charles Lamb, Ann Radcliffe, Joanna Baillie, and William Hazlitt.

In his later years, Campbell was also a successful biographer, travel writer, scholar, lecturer, and letter writer, alongside his other writing commitments. He was a contemporary tastemaker, renowned as a major voice commenting on both poetry and wider culture. Unlike other Romantic figures, Campbell willingly experimented with new opportunities and forms of writing which were prominent at the time, in, for example, his New Monthly editorship, authorship of biographies, and in undertaking frequent editorial work, which in this entry and other later works are reduced to footnotes in his biography.

The encyclopaedia entry does rightly recognise Campbell’s role in shaping the first university in London, as it was his idea for such a scheme (published in The Times newspaper, 9 February 1825) that led to the university’s foundation. His key role providing aid to Polish exiles is also discussed in the entry, which includes a quote from one of his letters: Poland preys on my heart night and day. Unlike, for example, in the Britannica entries for Wordsworth and Coleridge, there are no quotations from Campbell’s poetry, only a brief extract from his correspondence. A critical quotation from Campbell’s friend, Francis Jeffrey, is given more space than Campbell’s own voice.

This Encyclopædia Britannica entry represents the final major critical engagement with Campbell in the early twentieth century. At this point, the last significant editions of Campbell’s poetry had already been published in 1904 and 1907. The other works referenced in the footnote to the entry demonstrate the sparse critical attention Campbell received in the twentieth century; J. C. Hadden’s volume for the Famous Scots Series in 1899 was the last book-length critical commentary on Campbell until the mid-1970s. In the years since, slowly at first, and now gathering pace, Campbell has entered a period of critical reassessment. Scholars such as Tim Fulford, Sarah Zimmerman, and Nikki Hessell are interested in aspects of Campbell’s works which are not just limited to his poetry, including his popular lecturing career and his understanding of diplomacy. Campbell’s life is also being reassessed through my own ongoing work into his extensive correspondence with the who’s-who of the age. His poems and career offer much to discussions of what was sold and widely read during the Romantic period. Future work on Campbell promises to provide new insights into Romantic-era sociability, periodical culture, Scottish Romanticism, and London metropolitanism, and will hopefully continue work to restore Campbell to his rightful place as a key literary figure of the nineteenth century.

to Top