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Thomas Blacklock


Thomas BlacklockBLACKLOCK, THOMAS, an ingenious blind poet, was born, November 10th, 1721, at Annan; his parents were natives of Cumberland, his father a bricklayer, and his mother the daughter of Mr Richard Rae, an extensive cattle dealer. Before he was six months old, he lost his sight in the small-pox; and was thus rendered incapable of learning a mechanical trade, while the poor circumstances to which a series of misfortunes had reduced his father, placed equally beyond his reach an education for any of those professions where the exercise of the mental faculties is principally required. His affectionate parent seems to have been aware, however, that the happiness of his son, shut out from so many of the enjoyments afforded by the external world, must mainly depend upon his intellectual resources; and in order to form these, he devoted part of his leisure hours to such instruction as his poor blind boy was susceptible of—he read to him, at first the books adapted to the understanding of a child, and afterwards those fitted for a maturer capacity, such as Milton, Spenser, Prior, Pope, and Addison. His companions also, who pitied his want of sight, and loved him for his gentle disposition, lent their assistance in this task of kindness; and by their help he acquired some little knowledge of Latin. Thomson and Allan Ramsay were his favourite authors; and it was as early as his twelfth year that he evinced still more decidedly his love of the poetical art by the composition of an ode, addressed "To a little Girl whom I had offended,"—a production not remarkable solely on account of the future celebrity of its author, but because it displays at once his mildness of temper and lively fancy. The argument that shrewishness spoils a young lady’s looks, and ought therefore to be avoided, coming as it does from a little fellow of twelve to a girl about his own age, is adroitly managed:

"Should but thy fair companions view
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."

Thus early did Blacklock show, that in the course of reading chosen for him, his father had not mistaken the bent of his inclination. But though, as we have mentioned, some of his comrades delighted to forward his favourite studies, and, by their assiduous attentions, to make him forget the deprivation under which he laboured, there were others who took pleasure in rendering him bitterly conscious of his misfortune, and exulted in the success of such practical jokes, as it was easy to make him the subject of. It is but too obvious that his own experience at this period, when exposed to the insults of unfeeling boys, suggested the reflection introduced in the article "Blind," afterwards written by him for the Encyclopaeodia Britannica: "Parents of middle or of higher rank," he there remarks, "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." The very means taken to alleviate Blacklock’s misfortune in some sort increased its force; for as his mind expanded, it taught him to feel with greater keenness his own dependent condition: familiar with some of the noblest flights of genius, and himself become a poet, he would probably have exchanged all his intellectual stores for the ability of earning his bread by handicraft labour. Lamenting his blindness, he thus closes an enumeration of the miseries it entailed upon 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."

Alternately depressed by a sense of his own helplessness, and comforted by that piety with which he seems to have been from first to last most deeply imbued, Blacklock lived at home till his nineteenth year. A fresh misfortune then overtook him in the loss of his father, who was crushed to death by the fall of a malt-kiln, with eighty bushels of grain upon it, belonging to his son-in-law. Blacklock’s affection for his parents must have exceeded that of other children; for that anxious solicitude about his safety and comfort which other boys begin to forget, when the business of the world removes them from its immediate influence, had been to him extended over those years when to the helplessness of a child he added the sense and feelings of a man. To his keenly susceptible mind this stroke must therefore have been peculiarly afflicting. And it was attended not only with regret on account of remembered benefits, but also by the anticipation of future evils. A means of livelihood was indeed suggested by Blacklock’s love of music: as he played well on the violin and flute, and even composed pieces with taste, it was proposed that he should follow this art as a profession. "But the unhappy situation in which he was then placed," says the authority upon which this statement is given, [An article in the Gentleman’s Magazine, which, after being read over to Dr Blacklock, slightly altered, and two notes added at his request, was reprinted in the Scots Magazine for 1754. The authority may therefore be considered to be that of Dr Blacklock himself. From internal evidence it appears very certain, that this article was a contribution to Mr Urban from his frequent correspondent Dr Johnson.] "made him dread consequences to which he could never reconcile his mind. The very thought that his time and talents should be prostrated to the forwarding of loose mirth and riot inspired him with an honest indignation." Unable to bring down his mind to this occupation,—the only one which seemed within his reach,—deprived of the stay on which he had hitherto leaned, blind and feeble, no wonder that the fate of a houseless beggar sometimes presented itself as what might possibly happen to himself. Burns occasionally indulged in similar forebodings; but when he depicts his unhappy fortune, and doggedly exclaims,

"The last o’t, the warst o’t,
Is only but to beg!"

we must be excused for iron-heartedly recollecting that he was an able-bodied man, who, as his brother Gilbert records, never met with his match in mowing— the hardest of all rustic labour. A man so gifted, yet so complaining, meets with little sympathy, as he is entitled to none: but with poor Blacklock the dread of dying a houseless wanderer was more than a mere rhetorical flourish or the indulgence of a groundless querulousness. While we read the lines in which he unfolds his fears, we perceive that anguish wrung his heart in writing them, and we know that his situation justified his apprehensions.

Dejecting prospect! soon the hapless hour
May come perhaps this moment it impends—
Which drives me forth, to penury and cold,
Naked, and beat by all the storms of heaven,
Friendless and guideless to explore my way;
Till on cold earth this poor unsheltered head
Reclining, vainly from the ruthless blast
Respite I beg, and in the shock expire."

Although gloomy anticipations like these sometimes intruded, Blacklock did not permit them to overwhelm him, but calming his fears, and resting with a pious confidence in the awards of a protecting Providence, he continued to live with his mother for a year after his father’s death.

Some of his poems had by this time got abroad and made him known beyond his own immediate circle of friends. We shall not pretend to deny that the circumstance of his blindness had some effect, in addition to the intrinsic merits of these productions, in making them be sought after and dispersed among literary persons. On account of their being the verses of a blind poet, they were no doubt read by many who were little able to appreciate their real excellencies, and who, having gratified their curiosity, did not concern themselves about the condition of the author: but still by this means the fame of Blacklock’s genius was extended; and at last it reached a gentleman, who to curiosity added benevolence of heart. This was Dr John Stevenson, a physician in Edinburgh, who, while on a professional visit in Dumfries, saw some of our author’s pieces, and resolved to afford the young man’s talents the opportunity of expanding in avocations and amid society more congenial to one so much restricted to pleasures of an intellectual kind. Accordingly Blacklock was, in 1741, induced to remove to the metropolis, where he attended a grammar-school for some time, and afterwards entered as a student in the college, Dr Stevenson supplying him with the means necessary for the prosecution of his studies. To the friend who thus so efficaciously patronized him, he afterwards inscribed an imitation of the ode to Macenas, which occupies the first place in his poems, as it does in those of Horace; and that he never forgot the benefits bestowed upon himself is manifested by the ready zeal which his future life at all times displayed for the encouragement of unnoticed genius.

Blacklock’s studies were interrupted by the expedition of the Highlanders, in 1745; and during the distractions consequent upon that memorable campaign he resided in Dumfries with Mr M’Murdo, his brother-in-law. On the re-establishment of peace, he returned to college, and studied six years more. In this period he acquired a good knowledge of all those branches of education where he was not hindered by the want of sight; and became better skilled than was common in the French language, from being on habits of intimacy with the family of provost Alexander, whose wife was a Parisian. It may well inspire wonder that latterly there was no science with which Blacklock had not made himself acquainted—no learned language which he did not master—and no modern tongue, of any acknowledged use to a man of general literature, with which he was not more or less familiar.

Amid the severer studies of classical learning, philosophy, and theology, his attachment to poetry was not forgotten. In 1746, a volume of his verses in 8vo. was published at Glasgow. A second edition followed at Edinburgh, in 1754; and two years afterwards, a quarto edition, with an account of his life by Mr Spence, professor of poetry at Oxford, came out by subscription in London. In the selection of pieces for the press, Blacklock was by his friends considered to be over fastidious; and by persisting to exclude what he himself thought unworthy of a place, he greatly limited the size of his books. By the London edition a considerable sum was realized for the author’s advantage. Besides these editions of his poems, another in 4to. was published in 1793, with a life elegantly written by Henry Mackenzie. They have also been reprinted in the collections of Anderson and Chalmers. Of all these the edition of Dr Anderson, though not the latest, is the most complete.

Hume the historian was among the friends who early interested themselves in the fortunes of Blacklock, and was of considerable service in promoting the subscription to the London edition of his poems; but all intercourse between them was subsequently broken off. When at a later period Beattie submitted to our author’s judgment his "Essay on the Immutability of Moral Sentiment," and acquainted him with the more extensive plan of the "Essay on Truth," stating that, in the prosecution of that design, he should think it his duty to treat Mr Hume with freedom, he alluded to that eminent philosopher as "a friend of yours." This drew from Blacklock a long account of the intercourse between himself and Hume, from its commencement to its close. The interruption of their good understanding took place, as Sir William Forbes, who saw the letter among Beattie’s papers, informs us, "through no fault on the part of Dr Blacklock ; but the letter itself has never been published,—which is to be regretted, because it might afford some farther insight than we possess into a character round which Hume has drawn the screen of an impenetrable autobiography. It is also desirable that the real circumstances of the connexion should be known, as it has been the means, in the hands of Hardy, author of the Memoirs of Lord Charlemont, of throwing a most disagreeable reflection upon the memory of Blacklock. This writer affirms that Hume conferred upon him the salary which he derived from an office in the university—meaning, probably, the Advocates’ Library; while, from the numerous impossibilities and obvious errors of the statement, it may be pretty confidently assumed, that the whole is destitute of truth.

The course of study followed by Blacklock at college was that usually gone through for the purpose of entering upon the ministry; but it was not till after the abandonment of a project, (which he began to entertain in 1757, and from which he was dissuaded by Mr Hume, after making considerable preparations towards it,) for delivering lectures on oratory, that he finally adopted the resolution of becoming a clergyman. Having applied himself for some time exclusively to the necessary studies, he was licensed as a preacher by the presbytery of Dumfries, in 1759. He soon acquired considerable reputation as a pulpit orator, and took great delight in composing sermons, a considerable number of which he left behind him: these it was at one time the intention of his friends to publish; but for some reason or other this has never been done.

The Rev. Mr Jameson, Blacklock’s intimate companion, to whom allusion is more than once made in his poems, has given the following account of his habits about this time:  "His manner of life was so uniform, that the history of it during one day, or one week, is the history of it during the seven years that our intercourse lasted. Reading, music, walking, conversing, and disputing on various topics, in theology, ethics, &c., employed almost every hour of our time. It was pleasant to hear him engaged in a dispute; for no man could keep his temper better than he always did on such occasions. I have known him frequently very warmly engaged for hours together, but never could observe one angry word to fall from him. Whatever his antagonist might say, he always kept his temper. He was, however, extremely sensible to what he thought ill usage, and equally so whether it regarded himself or his friends. But his resentment was always confined to a few satirical verses, which were generally burnt soon after. The late Mr Spence (the editor of the 4to. edition of his poems) frequently urged him to write a tragedy, and assured him that he possessed interest enough with Mr Garrick to get it acted. Various subjects were proposed to him, several of which he approved, yet he never could be prevailed on to begin any thing of that kind. It may seem remarkable, but as far as I know, it was invariably the case, that he never could think or write on any subject proposed to him by another. I have frequently admired with what readiness and rapidity he could make verses. I have known him dictate from thirty to forty verses, and by no means bad ones, as fast as I could write them; but the moment he was at a loss for a rhyme or a verse to his liking, he stopt altogether, and could very seldom be induced to finish what he had begun with so much ardour."

"All those who ever acted as his amanuenses," says Mackenzie, "agree in this rapidity and ardour of composition which Mr Jameson ascribes to him. He never could dictate till he stood up; and as his blindness made walking about without assistance inconvenient or dangerous to him, he fell insensibly into a vibratory sort of motion of his body, which increased as he warmed with his subject, and was pleased with the conceptions of his mind. This motion at last became habitual to him; and though he could sometimes restrain it when on ceremony, or in any public appearance, such as preaching, he felt a certain uneasiness from the effort, and always returned to it when he could indulge it without impropriety. This is the appearance which he describes in the ludicrous picture he has drawn of himself:

—"As some vessel tossed by wind and tide
Bounds o’er the waves, and rocks from side to side,
In just vibration thus I always move."

Much of the singularity in the gestures of poor Blacklock must have proceeded from his inability to observe the carriage of others, and to regulate his own in conformity with theirs: a tree will accommodate its growth to the restraints imposed upon it, but where a single branch escapes from the artificial training, flinging itself abroad in all the wild vigour of nature, its tufted luxuriance appears more striking from the contiguity of a well-clipt and orderly neighbourhood. Such was Blacklock’s manner: he could not know with how little outward discomposure the world has taught men to accompany the expression of their emotions; and with him ardent feeling produced an unrestrained effect upon the countenance and gestures. The author of Douglas, in one of his letters, has given a curious picture of his singular appearance when under strong excitement: "I went to a companion’s," says Home, "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."

This letter, besides the description of Blacklock’s exterior and carriage, opens to us one source of his acutest sufferings: we have already adverted to the unthinking insults to which his blindness exposed him while a boy, and it appears but too certain that many who had arrived, at manhood in respect of their outward frame, did not treat him with greater tenderness in his maturer years. They did not, perhaps, decoy him to the edge of a ditch that they might have the satisfaction of seeing him flounder into it, or offer prickles to his grasp that they might be diverted by the contortions of countenance which the unexpected wounds occasioned; but they went to see the blind poet, and induced him to recite his verses, from the same kind of motive that takes people to witness the exhibition of a learned pig. Blacklock’s position in regard to such visitors was peculiarly painful: he was in a great measure dependant upon his talents for support; and to have indignantly refused to display them, would have been to raise up obstacles to his own success. His feelings were at the same time the most nicely wrought, and even the triumphs of genius did not afford him perfect gratification; for he knew that his hearers were not carried away by his enthusiasm, but listened with a cold and critical attention, noting every peculiarity of tone, look, and gesture. He has himself told us how exquisitely painful was the consciousness of being the object of such unfeeling curiosity:

—"the supercilious eye
Oft, from the noise and glare of prosperous life,
On my obscurity diverts its gaze,
Exulting; and with wanton pride elate
Felicitates its own superior lot:
Inhuman triumph!"

A letter of Blacklock, written from Dumfries about the time when he received his licence as a preacher, admits us to a very near view of his remarkable sensibility of temperament. It does not appear what were the circumstances alluded to in this letter; but probably the connexion mentioned as having just been formed, was a declaration of mutual attachment and promise of marriage between our poet and his future wife, which he calls ill-fated, on account of his gloomy prospects, and his regret for having involved one whom he loved in his own unhappy fortunes. This letter is as follows:

"DEAR SIR,—I received your last inclosed to Mr —; and so far as my situation was capable of being consoled, I was happy in the tenderness and sympathy which you express for me. Beneath those exalted pleasures which we are taught to expect in an eternal state; beneath the enjoyment of God himself; I know no happiness which deserves the attention of a wise man, but such as we derive from conscious virtue, benevolence, or friendship. These alone are at present the cordial drops with which heaven has thought proper to mix my cup of bitterness. Since every object of my former pursuit eludes my embrace, or grows insipid by enjoyment, it is time to anticipate such pleasures as are subject to neither of these misfortunes, and to cultivate a relish for them. Fate and nature tell me that I must quickly make my exit from this present scene; they never could send this information to a heart less intimidated by it. I approach the verge of my present existence, not with the reluctance of inexperienced youth, not with the horrors of guilt and superstition, but with the cheerfulness of a wearied traveller, in prospect of the chamber destined for his repose. From this account it will be easy to judge how much I would prize, or how eagerly pursue any civil or ecclesiastical employment were it in my power; but far from being so, it is beyond my remotest hopes;—all access to every resource whence these advantages are derived is denied to me. I have neither power nor influence in life, and am consequently incapable of interesting any who have it. There are evils which may be suffered without mortification; yet, let me confess it, there are others which I cannot think of without being melted to infantine weakness. In my former I told you that I had projected one last resource, and made one last effort for happiness: had I then foreseen the weakness of my constitution, and the unhappiness of my circumstances, sooner would I have run any hazard which this or any future scene can present, than have ventured to form such an ill-fated connexion. It is true that those who are interested in me, persuaded either by my looks, or the present degree of strength which I seem to possess, flatter themselves, or are willing to flatter me, that any present indisposition will not prove decisive; such is the opinion of the lady formerly mentioned. I have endeavoured to impress her with contrary sentiments, that the friendship between us might be dissolved without tearing: but I had reason to lament my success; for in proportion to her sense of my danger, which, after my return from Edinburgh, was pretty high, her whole manner, not to me only, but to all her other friends, appeared expressive of dejection and misery. I had not resolution to continue my former plan, but used every possible argument to persuade her of my returning health; and though conscious of acting a wrong part in this, I have not sufficient strength of mind to act a right one. This is my present situation of mind: I know it is what I ought not to have discovered to one of your humanity, nor can I pretend any other apology, but that I apply to the last and most natural resource of wretchedness, the sympathy of a friend. It is all I ask; it is all I hope; and it is what I am sure to obtain. Pray, tell me whether your brother prosecutes the same business with you, or whether friends in the country may not have it in their power to serve him? The precaution in my former concerning the balance of accounts between us was not taken from any fear of its appealing against my relations, but that you might recover it with greater ease from myself during mine own life. Once more I must ask pardon for the length and subject of this letter; but if you continue to favour me as a correspondent, my future answers shall be less tedious and more cheerful. As you are now more disengaged from secular business, the demands of your friends to hear from you will proportionably increase; and as you have now long taught me to think myself of that number, I can no more resign the claim which it gives than the tenderness which it inspires,—a tenderness which shall ever be felt in the highest degree, by your most sincere friend, and humble servant,

"Dumfries, 15th April, 1759. THOMAS BLACKLOCK."

In 1762, the Earl of Selkirk procured from the Crown a presentation to the parish of Kirkcudbright in favour of Mr Blacklock; who, having thus the prospect of a competent income, married Mrs Sarah Johnston, daughter of Mr Joseph Johnston, surgeon in Dumfries. But though not disappointed in the happiness he expected to derive from this union, the gleam of fortune which seems to have induced him to form it, forsook him immediately after the step was taken. He was ordained a few days after his marriage; but the people of the parish refused, on account of his blindness, to acknowledge him as their pastor, and a lawsuit was commenced, which, after two years, was compromised by Blacklock retiring upon a moderate annuity. From the first moment of opposition, it had been his wish to make this arrangement, not from any conviction of incompetency to the duties of a parish minister, but because he saw it was needless to contend against a prejudice so strongly maintained. "Civil and ecclesiastical employments," he says, "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." His own experience, it is evident, suggested this observation. Blindness is certainly not in itself a sufficient reason for debarring those afflicted, with it from the ministerial office; it does not incapacitate a man for the acquirement of the requisite knowledge, nor exclude from his bosom the glow of holy zeal. On the contrary, worldly cares and ambition are not so apto intrude. "The attention of the soul, confined to those avenues of perception which she can command, is neither dissipated nor confounded by the immense multiplicity, or the rapid succession of surrounding objects. Hence her contemplations are more uniformly fixed upon herself, and the revolution of her own internal frame," [Encyclopedia Britannica, article Blind, 10.] and hence a greater fitness in her for the growth of devotion. The want of sight would, indeed, put inconveniences in the way of a clergyman’s intercourse with his parishioners, but they are small; and it is not easy to conceive any thing more affecting and impressive than for those in the full enjoyment of their faculties to hear lessons of submission to the divine will, and of gratitude for the blessings of providence, from the mouth of one upon whom the hand of God has been laid. Such were not, however, the opinions of those with whom Blacklock had to deal; and he acquiesced. This effort could not but be painful; the sense of exclusion from all the business of life had long oppressed him, and the moment that patronage was extended towards him, and opened the prospect of public usefulness, he was assailed by a persecution, which rejected him as incompetent to the duties for which other men are fit, and drove him back to his former state of dependence and seclusion. It is probably to the period when he experienced so determined an opposition from the people of Kirkcudbright, that we are to refer the composition of his Paraclesis; for he informs us in the preface that his motive for writing that work was "to alleviate the pressure of repeated disappointments, to soothe his anguish for the loss of departed friends, to elude the rage of implacable and unprovoked enemies,—in a word, to support his own mind, which, for a number of years, besides its literary difficulties and its natural disadvantages, had maintained an incessant conflict with fortune." At no other period but that above referred to, are we aware that Blacklock was the object of any thing like an angry feeling.

On the day of Mr Blacklock’s ordination was afforded, in his person, an instance of sleep-walking, perhaps the most remarkable and complicated on record. As such the reader may be pleased to see an account of it as it is preserved in Dr Cleghorn’s thesis De Somno, which was published in Blacklock’s own lifetime (in 1783). The facts were authenticated by Mrs Blacklock, Mr Gilbert Gordon, [Author of the Short Account of the Life and Writings of Blacklock, prefixed in the second edition of his poems, 1754.] and a numerous party of friends who dined with him at the inn of Kirkcudbright on the occasion in question. "Harassed by the censures of the populace," says Dr Cleghorn, "whereby not only his reputation, but his very subsistence was endangered, and fatigued with mental exertion, Blacklock fell asleep after dinner. Some hours afterwards he was called by a friend, answered his salutation, rose and went into the dining-room, where his friends were met. He joined with two of them in a concert, singing tastefully as usual, and without missing a word. He ate an egg to supper, and drank some wine, and other liquors. His friends, however, observed him to be a little absent. By and bye he began to speak to himself; but in so low a tone, and so confusedly, as to be unintelligible. At last, being pretty forcibly roused, he awoke with a sudden start, unconscious of all that had happened." We have no example of a person in sleep performing so many of the functions of one awake, and in so exact a manner, as Blacklock is here stated to have done. He spoke, walked, sung, took wine, and must have observed with accuracy many of the little courtesies of social life; for his friends did not suspect that he was asleep till he began to talk to himself. The time, however, was convenient for so unusual an exhibition; and perhaps many other somnambulists would join in the occupations or amusements of those around them, if the world were astir when they make their rounds. Circumstances, however, are quite different in ordinary cases; the person gets up when all others are at rest, and performs one or two acts, to which his half-awakened fancy impels him, without being involved, as it were, in any current of events extraneous to himself, which, by the habit of association, might have led him on to other mechanical exertions of the mental or bodily faculties; thus the original excitement, receiving no casual addition, soon expends itself, and allows him to relapse into slumber. Blacklock, on the contrary, when partially roused, found the business of life in progress, and was drawn on from one act to another in the usual course, no excitement occurring strong enough wholly to burst the bonds of sleep. "This intermediate state between sleeping and waking, when part of the faculties are alert and active, and the other part entirely dormant, may be approached from either confine; and whether from sleeping we become half awake, or from waking fall half asleep, the effects are strikingly similar. Many instances of what is called absence, or reverie, disclose phenomena equally surprising with those of somnambulism; and a comparison between them would probably afford the best means of explaining both. A contemporary of Blacklock, the author of the "Wealth of Nations," was in the habit, when awake, of doing things as unaccountable as the blind poet is above stated to have done when asleep.

In 1764, after the connexion between him and the parish of Kirkcudbrigbt was dissolved in the manner we have mentioned, Blacklock removed 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, looking towards St Cuthbert’s Chapel of Ease burying ground.] superintending the studies of those who chose to have such assistance. "In this occupation," says 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. The writer of this account has frequently been witness of the family scene at Dr Blacklock’s; has seen the good man amidst the circle of his young friends, eager to do him all the little offices of kindness which he seemed so much to merit and to feel. In this society he appeared entirely to forget the privation of sight, and the melancholy which, at other times, it might produce. He entered with the cheerful playfulness of a young man into all the sprightly narrative, the sportful fancy, the humorous jest, that rose around him. 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. Several of those inmates of Dr Blacklock’s house retained, in future life, all the warmth of that impression which his friendship at this early period had made upon them; and in various quarters of the world he had friends and correspondents from whom no length of time, or distance of place, had ever estranged him."

In these hours of social relaxation, Blacklock found one of the greatest pleasures of his existence. Music also afforded him a lively gratification; for he sung with taste, and performed tolerably well on several instruments, particularly on the flute. He had learned to play on the flageolet in consequence of a dream in which he supposed himself to listen to the most enchanting melody, produced by a shepherd on a hillside from that instrument; and he always carried one in his pocket, on which he was by no means averse from being asked to perform,—"a natural feeling," says Mackenzie, "for a blind man, who thus adds a scene to the drama of his society." We have already alluded to his skill in composition, which was begun early at least, if it was not very assiduously cultivated. There is a specimen of his abilities in this way in the Edinburgh Magazine and Review for 1774, under the title of "Absence, a Pastoral, set to music, by Dr Blacklock."

Blacklock’s friendship with Beattie commenced about a year after his return from Kirkcudbright to Edinburgh. The first letter from the opponent of Hume, dated in 1765, expresses satisfaction that the present of a copy of our author’s poems had at last afforded the opportunity of establishing an acquaintance. The correspondence was for some time kept up with great regularity by Beattie, who, when the composition of the "Minstrel" had not advanced beyond a few stanzas, explained his plan to the blind bard. The progress of a work of still greater importance was confided to Blacklock. The "Essay on the Immutability of Moral Sentiment" having been perused and approved by him, the more extensive plan and object of the "Essay on Truth" was also disclosed; and that he was pleased with the design, and encouraged the author to proceed, may be understood from what afterwards took place: on the publication of the work, it was thought necessary, by Beattie’s friends, that an analysis of it, giving a brief and popular view of the manner in which the subject was treated, should be inserted in the newspapers; and "this task," Sir William Forbes says, "Dr Blacklock undertook, and executed [Edinburgh Evening Courant, 2d June, 1770.] with much ability." On Blacklock’s part this literary intercourse was cultivated by allowing Beattie the perusal of a translation of the "Cenie" of D’Happoncourt de Grafigny, which he had made under the title of "Seraphina." This play was not intended to be either printed or brought on the stage; but the translator appears to have been under some apprehensions, in consequence of the proceedings in regard to "Douglas," that, if his having engaged in such a work should come to be known, it might draw upon him the censure of the church courts, or at least, of the more rigid ecclesiastics. We find Dr Beattie exhorting him not to be afraid of meeting with Mr Home’s treatment; for that "to translate a dramatic poem could never be made to be on a footing with composing one and bringing it on the stage." This is but indifferent logic, we are afraid, and marvellously resembles that of certain schoolboys, who, ambitious of rendering their discourse more emphatic by the admixture of oaths, yet dreading to swear the common English kind, think themselves secure in adopting a few out of the learned languages, or in spelling if they do not pronounce them. Whether Blacklock was satisfied with his friend’s reasoning, or if he took a different view of the case, and considered that, though there might be some risk, there was no harm in the dramatic form of composition, does not appear; but he ventured beyond translation, and actually wrote a tragedy, of which, however, the subject and merits are alike unknown, as it had been put into the hands of Mr Andrew Crosbie, advocate, and could never be recovered. It is probable that the suggestion of Dr Beattie procured for our author from the college of Aberdeen the degree of D. D. in 1767. After time publication of the "Essay on Truth" and of the "Minstrel" had introduced him to a literary acquaintance much more extensive than he previously enjoyed, we do not find that Beattie cultivated Blacklock’s correspondence with the same assiduity as before; but he never ceased to love and respect him, which is manifested by the epitaph which the afflictions of his own later years did not prevent him from writing for his friend.

Finding that his increasing years and infirmities required repose, Dr Blacklock discontinued the keeping of boarders in 1787. But though his bodily vigour began to fail, he experienced no diminution of that benevolence which had ever characterised him. His own genius having been greatly indebted to patronage, he was ever ready to acknowledge it in others, and especially to cultivate and bring it into reputation where he found it struggling with obscurity. Nor were his efforts for this purpose confined to occasional acts of liberality—they were laborious and long-continued. He had taken a boy from a village near Carlisle to lead him, and perceiving in the youth a willingness to learn, taught him Latin, Greek, and French, and having thus fitted him for a station superior to that in which he was born, procured for him the situation of secretary to Lord Milton, who was chief active manager of state affairs in Scotland for many years. This young man was Richard Hewitt, known to the admirer of Scottish song as the author of "Roslin Castle." Hewitt testified his gratitude to his instructor by a copy of complimentary verses, in every line of which may be traced the chief excellence of compositions of that description – sincerity; but he did not long enjoy his change of fortune, having died in 1764 from the fatigue of the office to which he had been elevated.

But we find a still more eminent example of Blacklock’s solicitude to promote the interests of the sons of genius, in his being the first man among the literary circles of Edinburgh who appreciated the poetry of Burns, (perhaps, indeed, because he had the earliest opportunity of becoming acquainted with it, and kindled in the author the ambition of a prize beyond that of provincial fame. The Rev. Mr Lawrie of Newmills had transmitted to Blacklock a copy of the Kilmarnock edition of Burns’ poems. It is not easy for a modern reader to understand with what wonder and delight Blacklock must have perused them. In our time, the pleasure felt from his most perfect pieces is damped by the recollection of their author’s melancholy fate. What reflecting mind can turn from the perusal of the "Mountain Daisy" with any other feeling than one of sorrow that Burns was not a better and a happier man? But while his career was yet to run, with what enviable anticipations must such a perusal have inspired a generous heart! Here was poetry the purest and most genuine: he who produced it was of no note; but to what a high place in his country’s esteem might he not rise! The world was then all before him, and he capable of attaining whatever fame the most ardent imagination could desire. With calmness, yet with energy, the enthusiastic Blacklock indicated his own admiration and the certainty of the poet’s future fame:—" many instances," he wrote to Mr Lawrie, "have I seen of nature’s force and beneficence exerted under numerous and formidable disadvantages; but none equal to that with which you have been kind enough to present me. 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.—It were much to be wished, for the sake of the young man, that a second edition, more numerous than the former, could immediately be printed; as it appears certain that its intrinsic merit, and the exertion of the author’s friends, might give it a more universal circulation than any thing of the kind which has been published within my memory."—"I had taken the last farewell of my few friends," says Burns; "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."—"Blacklock received him," says Dr Currie, "with all the ardour of affectionate admiration; he eagerly introduced him to the respectable circle of his friends; he consulted his interest; he emblazoned his fame; he lavished upon him all the kindness of a generous and feeling heart, into which nothing selfish or envious ever found admittance."—"In Dr Blacklock," Burns himself writes to Mr Lawrie, "In Dr Blacklock, whom I see very often, I have found what I would have expected in our friend,—a clear head and an excellent heart." It is not our business, in this place, to trace Burns’s career farther. Dr Blacklock’s duty towards him was performed, when he had bestowed upon him every mark of private regard, and consigned him to the care of more influential patrons. After Burns retired to the country, some letters passed between them, which, on Dr Blacklock’s part, show how very poorly a remarkably sensible man could write when he had little to say, and thought to compensate for the meagreness of his subject by elevating it into rhyme.

Besides the miscellaneous poems by which Dr Blacklock is best known as an author, he published several other works. In 1756 he gave to the world an "Essay towards Universal Etymology ;" in 1760, " The Right Improvement of Time, a Sermon;" in the ensuing year another sermon, entitled "Faith, Hope, and Charity compared." In 1767 appeared his " Paraclesis; or Consolations deduced from Natural and Revealed Religion," in two dissertations, the first supposed to be Cicero’s, translated by Dr Blacklock,—the other written by himself. This work, to use the author’s own touching words, "was begun and pursued by its author, to divert wakeful and melancholy hours, which the recollection of past misfortunes, and the sense of present inconveniences, would otherwise have severely embittered." He endeavours, but without success, to prove the authenticity of the dissertation ascribed to Cicero, which he has translated with fidelity and elegance: the object of the original discourse is to prove the superiority of the consolations afforded by revealed religion. In 1768, he printed "Two Discourses on the Spirit and Evidences of Christianity," translated from the French of Mr James Armand. To this work he prefixed a long dedication to the Moderator of the General Assembly. In 1773 appeared his "Panegyric on Great Britain," which shows him to have possessed considerable talents for satire had he chosen to pursue that species of writing. His last production was in 1774, "The Graham, an Heroic Ballad, in Four Cantos;" intended to promote a good understanding between the natives of England and Scotland. He contributed to the Encyclopedia Britannica, in 1783, the article Blind—a little treatise of peculiar interest, which we have had occasion to quote in the present account of its author. He is also said to have written the Essay on Poetry, and others on various subjects in the same work. Dr Blacklock left behind him in manuscript some volumes of sermons, and a Treatise on Morals.

In his latter years our author was occasionally afflicted with deafness—in his case a double calamity, as at the periods when it visited him, he was in a manner shut out from all communication with the external world. In this forlorn condition—old, blind, and sometimes deaf—it was more difficult for him than formerly to bear up against the depression of spirits to which he had always been more or less subject; but his gentleness of temper never forsook him, and though he could not altogether avoid complaint, he was not loath to discover and state some alleviating circumstance along with it. 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, where there is a tombstone erected, with the following inscription by Dr Beattie:— "Viro Reverendo Thomae Blacklock, D. D. [The classical reader will easily detect a fault here – Divinitatis Doctor! Which, it may be remarked, was also committed on one occasion by Dr Adam.] 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."

It has been said of Dr Blacklock that "he never lost a friend, nor made a foe;" and perhaps no literary man ever passed through life so perfectly free from envious feeling, and so entirely respected and beloved. His conversation was lively and entertaining; his wit was acknowledged, but it had no tinge of malice; his temper was gentle, his feelings warm—intense; his whole character was one to which may be applied the epithet amiable, without any qualification. We do not deny him the merit of this; but he was placed in circumstances favourable for the development of such a character; his blindness, together with his genius, prepossessed all in his favour, and procured him many warm friends; while he was never in hazard of creating enemies, because, being incapacitated for any of the more active pursuits of life, his interests did not come into collision with those of any other aspirant in a similar path. He was thus enabled to "live pleasant," as far as his intercourse with the world was concerned. In his own mind, he did not at all times enjoy the cheerfulness which his excellent temper and his piety might seem to promise; he laboured under a depression of spirits, which grew upon him, as the buoyancy of youth and the energy of manhood declined. When we consider how much more we are liable to superstitious fears and alarms of every kind during the night than in the day, it does not appear surprising, that those condemned to ceaseless darkness should find it impossible to subdue their sense of loneliness and destitution. No variety of visible objects, no beauty of colour or grace of motion, ever diverts the mind of the blind man from brooding over its own phantasmata; the ear may be said to be the only inlet by which he can receive cheering ideas, and hence, when companionless, he becomes liable to the intrusion of doubts and dreads in an endless train. The bodily inactivity to which the want of sight compels him and his exclusion from business, unhappily promote the same morbid sensibility; and though society may afford him many gleams of delight, the long hours of solitude bring back the prevailing gloom. From this disease of the mind, Dr Blacklock’s varied stores of acquired knowledge, the native sweetness of his temper, and the tender cares of an affectionate wife, could not preserve him. It might be the cause of uneasiness to himself, however, but never influenced his behaviour to others; it made him melancholy, but not morose. Even they who look upon it as being, in ordinary instances, a fantastic and blameable weakness, must pity the present sufferer, in whom so many causes concurred to render it irresistible.

To Dr Blacklock as a poet, the rank of first-rate excellence has not been assigned, and is not claimed; but his works possess solid merits, which will always repay a perusal. The thoughts are, for the most part, vigorous, seldom less than just; and they are conveyed with a certain intensity of expression, which shows them, even when not uncommon in themselves, to be the offspring of a superior genius. As the productions of a blind man, they present a study of the very highest interest, and have frequently been viewed as a problem in the science of mind. The author himself seems to have been not unwilling to invest them with a certain character of mystery: "It is possible," he says, "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."

"Mr Spence observes," says the writer in the Gentleman’s Magazine, [We have already stated our belief that this writer was Dr Johnson. Besides the evidence which the passages quoted in the text afford, there is much of the spirit of Johnson in the summary of Blacklock’s personal character: "This gentleman has one excellence which outvalues all genius, and all learning – he is truly and eminently a good man. He possesses great abilities with modesty, and wants almost every thing else with content." The probability is farther heightened by the kindness which Johnson manifested to Blacklock when he visited Scotland. On being introduced at Mr Boswell’s, the English moralist "received him with a most humane complacency – ‘Dear Dr Blacklock, I am glad to see you!’" Boswell’s Tour to the Hebrides. We are also told by Mr Boswell, that Dr Johnson, on his return from the Western Islands, breakfasted once at Dr Blacklock’s house. We esteem the verbal criticism in the article we have just spoken of, as equally characteristic of the illustrious lexicographer: "Some passages," it is remarked, "appear to have something wrong in them at the first view, but upon a more accurate inspection, are found to be right, or at least only to be wrong as they reflect the faults of others. In these verses, ‘What cave profound, what star sublime, Shall hide me from thy boundless view,’ there seems to be an improper connextion of ideas; but the impropriety is in a great degree of our own making, We have joined ideas which Mr Blacklock, without any absurdity, has here separated. We have associated the idea of darkness with that of profundity; and a star being, as a luminous body, rather adapted to discover than to hide, we think the cave and the star, with their epithets, improperly opposed in this passage; but Mr Blacklock’s idea included only distance: and as neither height nor depth, in the language of St Paul, can separate good men from the love of God; neither, says Mr Blacklock, can height or depth conceal any being from his sight. And that he did not here suppose concealment the effect of obscurity, appears plainly from the epithet boundless, which he has given to that view which he supposes to comprehend all height and depth, or, in other words, universal space. It must, however, be granted, that as height and depth are relative to a middle point, there is no proportion between the depth of a cave and the height of a star. ‘So fools their flocks to sanguine wolves resign, So trust the cunning fox to prune the vine.’ But into this mistake he was perhaps led by the impropriety of the common fable of the fox and grapes, which we frequently quote, without reflecting that an inordinate love of grapes is falsely attributed to that animal: when the fox could not reach the grapes, he said they were sour. Blacklock explained this latter passage by saying, "that he alluded to that well-known passage of the Scripture: ‘Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines; for our vines have tender grapes.’ Cant. ii. 15."] "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. Mr Spence also remarks, that Mr 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 Mr 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."

The acuteness of these remarks leaves us to regret that the author eluded the discussion of the most difficult part of the subject, and fixed upon that concerning which there is no dispute: Blacklock himself acknowledged what is here said about distinguishing colours by the touch, to be true as far as he was concerned, that being a nicety of perception which, though reported to be possessed by others, he in vain endeavoured to attain. "We have known a person," he says, 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."

But even supposing Dr Blacklock to have possessed the power of distinguishing colours by the touch, and that by handling the coat which he wore he could have told whether it was blue or black, the stock of ideas that he might thereby have obtained, would have contributed little to fit him for describing external nature. He could have formed no conception of a landscape from the representation of it on canvass; which, at the most, could only convey the idea of a plain surface covered with a variety of spots, some of which were smoother and more pleasant to the touch than others. The pomp of groves and garniture of fields would never have been disclosed to his yearning fancy by so slow and unperfect a process. Nor could his notions of scenery be much improved by whatever other conventional method he endeavoured to form them. Granting that he framed his idea of the sun upon the model of that of glory, it was still but an abstract idea, and could bring him no nearer to a distinct apprehension of the splendour with which light covers the face of the earth; nor could his idea of the obscuration of glory enable him to understand the real nature of the appearances he describes when he says—

"Clouds peep on clouds, and as they rise,
Condense to solid gloom the skies."

All these suppositions fail to afford a solution of the difficulty concerning the nature of his ideas of visible objects. In order to arrive at the proper explanation, let us inquire whence he derived them: that the sky is blue and the fields green, he could only learn from the descriptions of others. What he learned from others he might combine variously, and by long familiarity with the use of words, he might do so correctly, but it was from memory alone that he drew his materials. Imagination could not heighten his pictures by stores of any kind but those supplied by his recollection of books. We wonder, indeed, at the accurate arrangement of the different parts in his delineations, and that he should ever have been led to peruse what he could not by any possibility understand— how, for instance, he should have studied with ardour and delight such a work as the "Seasons," the appreciation of whose beauties one would suppose to depend almost entirely on an acquaintance with the visible forms of creation. But when we consider how deeply he must have regretted the want of the most delightful of our senses, it will appear most natural, that he should strive by every means to repair the deficiency, and to be admitted to some share of the pleasure which he had heard that sight conveys. From his constant endeavours to arrive at some knowledge of the nature of visible objects, he obtained a full command of the language proper to them; and the correct application of what he thus learned, is all that can be claimed for the descriptive parts of his poetry. These never present any picture absolutely original, however pleasing it may be, and however much it may enhance the effect of the sentiment it is introduced to assist.

Besides the earlier notices of Mr Gilbert Gordon, of Spence, and, we may add, of Johnson, Blacklock’s life has been written by Mackenzie with great elegance, by Chalmers, and by Dr Anderson. The last biographer mentions that "some memoirs of his life, written by himself, are now (1795) in the possession of Dr Beattie." It is not improbable that this statement refers merely to the "long letter" from Blacklock to Beattie, already alluded to. If other documents of this kind were in the hands of the latter in 1795, as he had not thought proper to communicate them to any of Dr Blacklock’s biographers, the probability is, that he would have retained them till his death, and that they would have appeared among his papers. Sir William Forbes, however, makes no mention of any such discovery; although, besides frequent allusions to him in the course of the life of Dr Beattie, he has, in the appendix to that work, given a brief sketch of that of Dr Blacklock. If such memoirs are, nevertheless, in existence, and could be recovered, they would form a most interesting addition to our stock of autobiography.


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