Thomas Blacklock

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"I went to a companion’s, and sent for the blind poet, who is really a strange creature to look at—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 most exquisite feelings—the most ardent, kindled-up affections; a soul, to use a poet’s phrase, that’s tremblingly alive all over: in short, he is the most flagrant enthusiast I ever saw; when he repeats verses, he is not able to keep his seat, but springs to his feet, and shows his rage by the most animated motions. He has promised to let me have copies of his best poems, which I will transmit to you whenever he is as good as his word." (From a letter written by John Home)


How ill that frown becomes thy brow,
With fear and grief in every eye,
Each would to each, astonished, cry,
Heavens! where is all her sweetness flown!—
How strange a figure now she’s grown!
Run, Nancy, let us run, lest we
Grow pettish awkward things as she.
(from "To a little Girl whom I had offended", written at about 12 years of age.)

Thomas Blacklock (1721-1791), Scottish poet, the son of a bricklayer, was born at Annan, in Dumfriesshire, on November 10th, 1721. He lost his sight as a result of smallpox when not quite six months old. His career is interesting as that of one who achieved what he did in spite of blindness, and he is notable as an early supporter of Robert Burns.

Early Life

Blacklock began to write poetry from about the age of 12. He lived at home until he was 19, when his father died in an accident at work: crushed to death by the fall of a malt-kiln. Soon after, in 1740, his poems began to be distributed among his acquaintances and friends, who arranged for him to be educated first at the grammar-school in Edinburgh, and then at the University of Edinburgh, where he studied divinity. His first volume of Poems was published in 1746. In 1754 he became deputy librarian for the Faculty of Advocates, by the kindness of David Hume. He later became estranged from Hume, and defended James Beattie's attack on that philosopher.

Blacklock decided to become a clergyman; he was licensed as a preacher by the presbytery of Dumfries in 1759, and soon gained a reputation as an orator. In 1762, he was ordained minister of the church of Kirkcudbright, and married Sarah Johnston, the daughter of a local surgeon. However, the people of the parish refused to accept him as their pastor, because of his blindness. A lawsuit followed, which, after two years, was resolved by Blacklock retiring with a modest annuity. "Civil and ecclesiastical employments," he declared, "have something either in their own nature, or in the invincible prejudices of mankind, which renders them almost entirely inaccessible to those who have lost the use of sight. No liberal and cultivated mind can entertain the least hesitation in concluding that there is nothing, either in the nature of things, or even in the positive institutions of genuine religion, repugnant to the idea of a blind clergyman. But the novelty of the phenomenon, while it astonishes vulgar and contracted understandings, inflames their zeal to rage and madness."

Blindness

As a blind child, Blacklock experienced the casual cruelty of other children. In the article "Blind" that he wrote for the first edition of Encyclopaeodia Britannica, he declared that "Parents of middle or of higher rank, who are so unfortunate as to have blind children, ought by all possible means to keep them out of vulgar company. The herd of mankind have a wanton malignity which eternally impels them to impose upon the blind, and to enjoy the painful situations in which these impositions place them. This is a stricture upon the humanity of our species, which nothing but the love of truth and the dictates of benevolence could have extorted from us. But we have known some," he adds, evidently referring to himself, "who have suffered so much from this diabolical mirth in their own persons, that it is natural for us, by all the means in our power, to prevent others from becoming its victims."

Lamenting his blindness, he enumerates the miseries it caused him:
Nor end my sorrows here: The sacred fane
Of knowledge, scarce accessible to me,
With heart-consuming anguish I behold:
Knowledge for which my soul insatiate burns
With ardent thirst. Nor can these useless hands,
Untutor’d in each life-sustaining art,
Nourish this wretched being, and supply
Frail nature’s wants, that short cessation know."


Blacklock and Burns

"I had taken the last farewell of my few friends, my chest was on the road to Greenock; I had composed the last song I should ever measure in Scotland —The Gloomy night is gathering fast — when a letter from Dr Blacklock to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes, by opening new prospects to my poetic ambition. The Doctor belonged to a set of critics for whose applause I had not dared to hope. His opinion that I would meet with encouragement in Edinburgh for a second edition, fired me so much, that away I posted for that city, without a single acquaintance, or a single letter of introduction." Robert Burns

Blacklock had been given a copy of the Kilmarnock edition of Robert Burns’ poems, and of them he wrote "There is a pathos and delicacy in his serious poems, a vein of wit and humour in those of a more festive turn, which cannot be too much admired nor too warmly approved. I think I shall never open the book without feeling my astonishment renewed and increased." Blacklock became one of the first friends of Burns in Edinburgh; he introduced him to his wide circle of friends, and was one of the first to recognize his genius. "In Dr Blacklock," wrote Burns, "whom I see very often, I have found what I would have expected in our friend,—a clear head and an excellent heart." It was said of Blacklock that "he never lost a friend, nor made a foe".

Blacklock was never regarded as a poet of the first rank, but his poems, as the productions of a blind man, were viewed as a problem in the science of mind. "It is possible," said Blacklock, "for the blind, by a retentive memory, to tell you, that the sky is an azure; that the sun, moon, and stars, are bright; that the rose is red, the lily white or yellow, and the tulip variegated. By continually hearing these substantives and adjectives joined, he may be mechanically taught to join them in the same manner; but as he never had any sensation of colour, however accurately he may speak of coloured objects, his language must be like that of a parrot,—without meaning, or without ideas. Homer, Milton, and Ossian, had been long acquainted with the visible world before they were surrounded with clouds and ever-during darkness. They might, therefore, still retain the warm and pleasing impressions of what they had seen. Their descriptions might be animated with all the rapture and enthusiasm which originally fired their bosoms when the grand or delightful objects which they delineated were immediately beheld. Nay, that enthusiasm might still be heightened by a bitter sense of their loss, and by that regret which a situation so dismal might naturally inspire. But how shall we account for the same energy, the same transport of description, exhibited by those on whose minds visible objects were either never impressed, or have been entirely obliterated? Yet, however unaccountable this fact may appear, it is no less certain than extraordinary. But delicacy, and other particular circumstances, forbid us to enter into this disquisition with that minuteness and precision which it requires."

Blacklock on Blindness

"Mr Spence observes," said a writer in the Gentleman’s Magazine, [1] "that Blacklock’s notion of day may comprehend the ideas of warmth, variety of sounds, society, and cheerfulness; and his notion of night, the contrary ideas of chillness, silence, solitude, melancholy, and, occasionally, even of horror: that he substitutes the idea of glory for that of the sun; and of glory in a less degree for those of the moon and stars: that his idea of the beams of the sun may be composed of this idea of glory, and that of rapidity: that something of solidity, too, may perhaps be admitted both into his idea of light and darkness; but that what his idea of glory is, cannot be determined. Spence also remarks, that Blacklock may attribute paleness to grief, brightness to the eyes, cheerfulness to green, and a glow to gems and roses, without any determinate ideas; as boys at school, when, in their distress for a word to lengthen out a verse, they find purpureus olor, or purpureum mare, may afterwards use the epithet purpureus with propriety, though they know not what it means, and have never seen either a swan or the sea, or heard that the swan is of a light, and the sea of a dark colour. But he supposes, too, that Blacklock may have been able to distinguish colours by his touch, and to have made a new vocabulary to himself, by substituting tangible for visible differences, and giving them the same names; so that green, with him, may seem something pleasing or soft to the touch, and red, something displeasing or rough. In defence of this supposition, it has been said, with some plausibility, that the same disposition of parts in the surfaces of bodies, which makes them reflect different rays of light, may make them feel as differently to the exquisite touch of a blind man. But there is so much difference in the tangible qualities of things of the same colour, so much roughness and smoothness, harshness and softness, arising from other causes, that it is more difficult to conceive how that minute degree arising from colour should be distinguished, than how a blind man should talk sensibly on the subject without having made such distinction. We cannot conceive how a piece of red velvet, woollen cloth, camblet, silk, and painted canvass, should have something in common, which can be distinguished by the touch, through the greatest difference in all qualities which the touch can discover; or in what mode green buckram should be more soft and pleasing to the touch than red velvet. If the softness peculiar to green be distinguished in the buckram, and the harshness peculiar to red in the velvet, it must be by some quality with which the rest of mankind are as little acquainted as the blind with colour. It may perhaps be said, that a blind man is supposed to distinguish colours by his touch, only when all things are equal. But if this be admitted, it would as much violate the order of his ideas to call velvet red, as to call softness harsh, or, indeed, to call green red; velvet being somewhat soft and pleasing to the touch, and somewhat soft and pleasing to the touch being his idea of green."

Blacklock acknowledged this to be true. "We have known a person," he said, in his article on Blindness, "who lost the use of his sight at an early period of infancy, who, in the vivacity or delicacy of his sensations, was not, perhaps, inferior to any one, and who had often heard of others in his own situation capable of distinguishing colours by touch with the utmost exactness and promptitude. Stimulated, therefore, partly by curiosity, to acquire a new train of ideas, if that acquisition were possible, but still more by incredulity with respect to the facts related, he tried repeated experiments by touching the surfaces of different bodies, and examining whether any such diversities could be found in them as might enable him to distinguish colours; but no such diversity could he ever ascertain. Sometimes, indeed, he imagined that objects which had no colour, or, in other words, such as were black, were somewhat different and peculiar in their surfaces; but this experiment did not always, nor universally hold."

Later Life

In 1764, Blacklock moved to Edinburgh, where he received boarders into his house; he occupied the two upper flats of a house at the west end of West Nicolson Street, close to the present site of The Blind Poet, a public house named in his memory.

According to his biographer, Henry Mackenzie, "no teacher was perhaps ever more agreeable to his pupils, nor master of a family to its inmates, than Dr Blacklock. The gentleness of his manners, the benignity of his disposition, and that warm interest in the happiness of others which led him so constantly to promote it, were qualities that could not fail to procure him the love and regard of the young people committed to his charge; while the society which esteem and respect for his character and his genius often assembled at his house, afforded them an advantage rarely to be found in establishments of a similar kind.... It was a sight highly gratifying to philanthropy to see how much a mind endowed with knowledge, kindled by genius, and above all, lighted up with innocence and piety, like Blacklock’s, could overcome the weight of its own calamity, and enjoy the content, the happiness, the gaiety of others."

In 1767 he received the degree of doctor in divinity from Marischal College, Aberdeen.

In later years Blacklock was sometimes afflicted with deafness — shutting him off from all communication with the outside world. He died from fever after a week’s illness, on the 7th July, 1791, and was buried in the ground of St Cuthbert’s Chapel of Ease. There, a tombstone was erected, with an inscription by Beattie:

"Viro Reverendo Thomae Blacklock, D. D.
Probo, Pio, Benevolo, Omnigent Doctrina Erudito, Poetae sublimi;
ab incunabului usque oculis capto, at hilari, faceto, amicisque semper carissimo;
qui natus xxi Novemb.
MDCCXX. obiit VII Julii, MDCCXCI:
Hoc Monumentum Vidua ejus Sara Johnston, moerens P."

Blacklock's book of poems has been digitized and is freely available from Google books [2] [3]

References

  1. The writer may have been Samuel Johnson. According to Boswell, Dr Johnson, on his return from the Western Islands, breakfasted once at Blacklock’s house.
  2. Featured Book from the Jacobus tenBroek Library: "Poems" by Thomas Blacklock, Edinburgh 1793 [1]
  3. "Poems by the late Reverend Dr. Thomas Blacklock; together with ‘An Essay on the Education of the Blind.' To which is prefixed a new account of the life and writing of the author." Google Books [2]
  • Thomas Blacklock Significant Scots
  • Heller R (1979) Educating the blind in the age of enlightenment. Growing points of a social service. Medical History 23: 392-403.