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Significant Scots
John Home


John Home HOME, JOHN, an eminent dramatic poet, was born at Leith on the 22d of September, (O.S.) 1722. He was the son of Mr Alexander Home, town-clerk of Leith, whose father was the son of Mr Home of Flass, in Berwickshire, a lineal descendant of Sir John Home of Cowdenknowes, from whom the present earl of Home is descended. John Home, who during his whole life retained a proud recollection of his honourable ancestry, was educated, first at the grammar school of his native town, and then at the university of Edinburgh. In both of these seminaries, he prosecuted his studies with remarkable diligence and success. While he attended the university, his talents, his progress in literature, and his peculiarly agreeable manners, soon excited the attention, and procured in no small degree the favour, both of the professors and of his fellow students. He here formed an acquaintance which lasted through life, with many of those eminent men, who elevated the literary character of Scotland so highly during the eighteenth century. After qualifying himself by the ordinary course of studies, to undertake the duties of a clergyman in the Scottish church, he was licensed to preach on the 4th of April, 1745.

The natural character of Home was ardent and aspiring. Under the meek garb of a Scottish licentiate, he bore a heart which throbbed eagerly at the idea of military fame, and the whole cast of his mind was romantic and chivalrous. It might have been expected that, in the celebrated quarrel which divided the national mind in 1745, such a person would have been unable to resist the temptation of joining prince Charles. It happened, however, that the chivalry of Home was of a whiggish cast, and that his heart burned for civil freedom as well as for military glory. He therefore became a volunteer in a royal corps which was raised at Edinburgh to repel the attack of the Chevalier. This corps, when the danger approached in all its reality, melted almost into thin ari: yet Home was one of a very small number who protested against the pusillanimous behaviour of the rest. Having reluctantly laid down his arms, he employed himself next day in taking observations of the strength of the Highland forces, which he appears to have communicated to Sir John Cope: while thus engaged, he was near enough to the prince to measure his stature against his own. In the early part of the succeeding year, he reappeared in arms as a volunteer, and was present at the disgraceful affair of Falkirk, where he was taken prisoner. Being conveyed to Doune castle, then under the keeping of a nephew of Rob Roy, he was confined for some days, along with several companions in misfortune; but the whole party at length escaped, by cutting their blankets into shreds, and letting themselves down upon the ground. He now took up his residence at Leith, and for some time prosecuted his professional studies, mixed, however, with a kind of reading to which his inclination led, that of the historians and classics of Greece and Rome.

"His temper," says his friendly biographer Mackenzie, "was of that warm susceptible kind, which is caught by the heroic and the tender, and which is more fitted to delight in the world of sentiment than to succeed in the bustle of ordinary life. His own favourite model of a character, and that on which his own was formed, was the ideal being Young Norval in his own play of Douglas, one endowed with chivalrous valour and romantic generosity, eager for glory beyond any other object, and, in the contemplation of future fame, entirely regardless of the present objects of interest and ambition. The same glowing complexion of mind, which gave birth to this creature of fancy, coloured the sentiments and descriptions of his ordinary discourse; he had a very retentive memory, and was fond of recalling the incidents of past times, and of dramatizing his stories by introducing the names and characters of the persons concerned in them. The same turn of mind threw a certain degree of elevation into his language, and heightened the narrative in which that language was employed; he spoke of himself with a frankness which a man of that disposition is apt to indulge, but with which he sometimes forgot that his audience was not always inclined to sympathize, and thence he was accused of more vanity than in truth belonged to his character. The same warm colouring was employed in the delineation of his friends, to whom he assigned a rank which others would not always allow. So far did he carry this propensity, that, as Dr Robertson used jokingly to say, he invested them with a sort of supernatural privilege above the ordinary humiliating circumstances of mortality. ‘He never,’ said the Doctor, ‘could allow that a friend was sick till he heard of his death.’ To the same source were to be traced the warm eulogies which he was accustomed to bestow upon them. ‘He delighted in bestowing as well as in receiving flattery,’ said another of his intimates; ‘but with him it had all the openness and warmth of truth. He flattered all of us, from whom his flattery could gain no favour, fully as much, or, indeed, more willingly, than he did those men of the first consequence and rank, with whom the circumstances of his future life associated him; and he received any praise from us with the same genuine feelings of friendship and attachment.’ There was no false coinage in this currency which he used in his friendly intercourse; whether given or received, it had with him the stamp of perfect candour and sincerity."

Such was the enthusiastic young man who was destined for the strange glory of producing, in Scotland, a tragedy upon a Scottish story. In 1746, he was presented by Sir David Kinloch of Gilmerton, to the church and parish of Athelstaneford in East Lothian, then vacant by the death of the Rev. Robert Blair, the author of the Grave. Previous to this period, his passionate fondness for Plutarch, had led him to commence a tragedy upon one of his heroes—Agis--which he finished soon after he was settled in Athelstaneford. In 1749, he went to London, and offered his work to Garrick, for representation at Drury Lane, of which that great actor had recently become manager. But the English Roscius did not think it well adapted to the stage, and declined bringing it on, much to the mortification of the author, who, with the feeling natural to such a situation, wrote the following verses on the tomb of Shakspeare, in Westminster Abbey:

Image of Shakspeare! to this place I come,
To ease my bursting bosom at thy tomb;
For neither Greek nor Roman poet fired
My fancy first—thee chiefly I admired;
And, day and night revolving still thy page,
I hoped, like thee, to shake the British stage;
But cold neglect is now my only need,
And heavy falls it on so proud a head.
If powers above now listen to my lyre,
Charm them to grant, indulgent, my desire;
Let petrifaction stop this falling tear,
And fix my form for ever marble here.

After this unsuccessful journey to London, he turned his mind to the composition of the tragedy of Douglas, which was founded upon the beautiful old ballad of Gil Morris. Having finished this in the intervals of his professional labours, he set out upon another expedition to the metropolis, February, 1755, with the favourable hopes of a circle of most intelligent friends, to whom he had intrusted it for perusal. It was, however, as ill received as Agis: Mr Garrick returned it with the declaration that it was totally unfit for the stage. With this opinion, which many excellent English critics still maintain, neither the poet nor his friends were at all satisfied. Those friends, looking upon it with the eyes of Scotsmen, beheld in it something quite superior to the ordinary run of English tragedies; and accordingly they recommended that it should be presented upon the Edinburgh stage, which was then conducted by a gentleman named Digges, whom Mr Mackenzie describes as possessed of great powers, (though with many defects,) and of great popularity in Scotland. The recommendation was carried into effect; and all Edinburgh was presently in a state of wild excitement, from the circumstance of a play being in preparation by a minister of the established church. [If we are to believe an authority good in theatrical matters—the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle newspaper, while under the management of Mr Edward Hislop,—Dr Carlyle, and others of his brethren, not only attended the rehearsals of Douglas, but themselves performed in the first of them: "It may not be generally known," says the authority just referred to "that the first rehearsal took place in the lodgings in the Canongate occupied by Mrs Sarah Warde, one of Digges’s company; and that it was rehearsed by, and in presence of, the most distinguished literary characters Scotland ever could boast of. The following was the cast of the piece on the occasion:—

Dramatis Personae.

Lord Randolph, . . Dr Robertson, principal, Edinburgh.
Glenalvon, . . . David Hume, historian.
Old Norval, . . . Dr Carlyle, minister of Musselburgh.
Douglas, . . . John Home, the author.
Lady Randolph, . . Dr Ferguson, professor.
Anna (the Maid), . Dr Blair, minister, High Church.

The audience that day, besides Mr Digges and Mrs Warde, were the right honourable Patrick lord Elibank, lord Milton, lord Kames, lord Monboddo, (the two last were then only lawyers,) the Rev. John Steele and William Home, ministers. The company, all but Mrs Warde, dined afterwards at the Griskin Club, in the Abbey. The above is a signal proof of the strong passion for the drama which then obtained among the literati of this capital since then, unfortunately, much abated. The rehearsal must have been conducted with very great secrecy; for what would the kirk, which took such deep offence at the composition of the piece by one of its ministers, have said to the fact of no fewer than four of these being engaged in rehearsing it, and two others attending the exhibition? The circumstance of the gentle Anna having been personated by ‘Dr Blair, minister of the High Church,’ is a very droll one."—Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle, January 21, 1829.

This statement may not be accurate—it is only a quotation from a newspaper; but assuming that it has some truth in it, we hesitate not to say that it is far from being either "droll" or creditable to the eminent persons to whom it refers: "Sir," said Dr Johnson, upon one occasion, "this merriment of parsons is very offensive."

As to Dr Robertson’s share in these transactions, it is only fair to quote what is said by his biographer. Mr Stewart’s words are as follows: "The extraordinary merits of Mr Home’s performance, which is now become to Scotsmen a subject of national pride, were not sufficient to atone for so bold a departure from the austerity expected in a presbyterian divine; and the offence was not a little exasperated by the conduct of some of Mr Home’s brethren who, partly from curiosity, and partly from a friendly wish to share in the censure bestowed on the author, were led to witness the first representation of the piece on the Edinburgh stage. In the whole course of the ecclesiastical proceedings connected with these incidents, Dr Robertson distinguished himself by the ablest and most animated exertions in defence of his friends; and contributed greatly, by his persuasive eloquence, to the mildness of that sentence in which the prosecution at last terminated. His arguments, on this occasion, had, it may be presumed, the greater weight, that he had never himself entered within the walls of a playhouse; a remarkable proof, among numberless others which the history of his life affords, of that scrupulous circumspection in his private conduct, which, while it added so much to his usefulness as a clergyman, was essential to his influence as the leader of a party; and which so often enabled him to recommend successfully to others the same candid and indulgent spirit that was congenial to his own mind."—Account of the Life and Writings of Dr Robertson, by Dugald Stewart, Esq., p. 12.

In this passage Mr Stewart discountenances, in general terms, the belief that the Principal gave the tragedy of Douglas any active patronage, by attending the representations or otherwise; but the statement that Dr Robertson "had never himself entered within the walls of a playhouse," cannot be considered as an absolute contradiction of his having been present at the rehearsal "in the lodgings in the Canongate occupied by Mrs Sarah Warde."]

The actors at the Edinburgh theatre happened to be, in general, men of some ability in their profession, and the play was thus cast: Digges, Young Norval; Hayman, Old Norval; Love, Glenalvon, Mrs Warde, Lady Randolph. But the name Barnet was at this time used for Randolph, and Norval was called Norman. The first representation, which took place December 14, 1756, was honoured by the presence of a large audience, comprising many friends of the author, clerical as well as otherwise. It was received with enthusiastic applause, and, in the conclusion, drew forth many tears, which were, perhaps, a more unequivocal testimony to its merits. The town was in an uproar of exultation, that a Scotsman should write a tragedy of the first rate, and that its merits were first submitted to them.

But the most remarkable circumstance attending its representation was the clerical contest which it excited, and the proceedings of the church of Scotland regarding it. Owing to certain circumstances,—among which was reckoned the publication of lord Kames’s " Essays on Natural and Revealed Religion," which were suspected of a tendency to infidelity, besides the issue of a work in England, entitled "England’s Alarm," in which Scotland was accused of cherishing great corruptions in religion,—there obtained in the church a more zealous disposition than usual to lop off heresies, and chastise peccant brethren. Hence the prosecution raised against Mr Home, which at any rate must have taken place, was characterized by an appearance of rancour which has often since been the subject of ridicule.

The presbytery of Edinburgh commenced the proceedings by publishing a solemn admonition; in which they expressed deep regret at the growing irreligion of the times, and warned all persons within their bounds, especially the young, against the danger of frequenting stage-plays. This document only provoked the mirth of the public; it was replied to by a perfect torrent of jeux d’esprit. The church, however, though unable to inflict any punishment upon the people at large for their admiration of the play, had the author and all his clerical abettors completely in their power. Mr Home only escaped degradation by abdicating his pulpit, which he did in June, 1757. His friends who had been present at the representation, were censured or punished according to the degree of their supposed misconduct. Mr White, the minister of Libberton, was suspended for a month, a mitigated sentence in consideration of his apology, which was—that he had attended the representation only once, when he endeavoured to conceal himself in a corner, to avoid giving offence.

The misfortune of the Scottish church, on this occasion, consisted only in a little want of discrimination. They certainly did not err in characterizing the stage as immoral; for the stage, both then and since, and in almost all periods of its existence, has condescended to represent scenes, and give currency to language, which, in the general society of the period, could not be tolerated. But though the stage seems thus to claim a privilege of lagging behind the moral standard of every age, and in general calculates itself for the gratification of only a secondary order of tastes, there was surely something to be said in favour of a man who, having devoted his leisure to the cultivation of an elegant branch of the belles lettres, had produced a work not calculated to encourage the immoral system complained of, but to correct it by introducing a purer taste, or which could at least not be played, without for that night preventing the representation of something more fatal to good manners. There were many, no doubt, who were rather rejoiced than saddened, at finding a stream of purer feeling disposed to turn itself into the Augean stable of the theatre; because they calculated that since men cannot be withheld from that place of amusement, the next best course is to make the entertainment as innocent as possible.

Mr Home had been introduced some years before, by Sir David Kinloch, the patron of his parish, to lord justice clerk Milton, who then acted as Sous Ministre for Scotland, under Archibald duke of Argyle. Being introduced by lord Milton to the duke, his grace said that, being now too old to be of any material service in improving his prospects, he would commit him to his nephew, the earl of Bute, who was succeeding to that nameless situation of trust and patronage which had been so long held by himself. Accordingly, on Mr Home’s going to London in 1757, he was kindly received by lord Bute, who, having that influence with Garrick which had been found wanting in the merit of the play itself, soon caused it to be brought out at Drury Lane. Notwithstanding Garrick’s unchanged opinion of its merit, it met with distinguished success.

Lord Bute, besides procuring Mr Home this highest gratification which he was capable of receiving, provided for his personal wants by obtaining for him the sinecure situation of conservator of Scots privileges at Campvere. Thus secure as to the means of subsistence, the poet reposed with tranquillity upon his prospects of dramatic fame. His tragedy of Agis, which had been written before Douglas, but rejected, was brought forward, and met with success, Garrick and Mrs Cibber playing the principal characters. The Siege of Aquileia was represented in 1750, but, owing to a want of interest in the action, did not secure the favour of the audience. In 1760, he printed his three tragedies in one volume, and dedicated them to the prince of Wales, whose society he had enjoyed through the favour of the earl of Bute, preceptor to the prince. When this royal personage became king, he signified his favour for Mr Home by granting him a pension of 300 a-year from his privy purse--which, in addition to an equal sum from his office of conservator, rendered him what in Scotland might be considered affluent. About this period, he spent the greater part of his time in London, but occasionally came to Scotland, to attend his duties as an elder in the General Assembly, being appointed to that trust by the ecclesiastical establishment at Campvere, which then enjoyed a representation in the great clerical council of the nation. In 1767, he forsook almost entirely the company of the earl of Bute and his other distinguished friends at London, and planted himself down in a villa, which he built near his former residence in East Lothian, and where he continued to reside for the next twelve years. To increase the felicity of a settled home, he married a lady of his own name in 1770, by whom he never had any children.

Three tragedies, the Fatal Discovery, Alonzo, and Alfred, successively appeared in 1769, 1773, and 1778; but, though received at first with considerable applause, they took no permanent hold of the stage; and thus seemed to confirm the opinion which many English critics had avowed in regard to the success of Douglas—that it was owing to no peculiar powers of dramatic composition in the author, but simply to the national character of the piece, with a slight aid from its exhibition of two very popular passions, maternal and filial tenderness. ["As we sat over our tea," says Boswell on this subject, "Mr Home’s tragedy of Douglas was mentioned. I put Dr Johnson in mind that once, in a Coffee-house at Oxford, he called to old Mr Sheridan, ‘How came you, sir, to give Home a gold medal * for writing that foolish play?’ and defied Mr Sheridan to show ten good lines in it. He did not insist that they should be together; but that there were not ten good lines in the whole play. He now persisted in this. I endeavoured to defend that pathetic and beautiful tragedy, and repeated the following passage:

Sincerity,
Thou first of virtues, let no mortal leave
Thy onward path, altho’ the earth should gape,
And from the gulph of hell destruction cry,
To take dissimulation’s winding way.

Johnson. ‘That will not do, sir. Nothing is good but what is consistent with truth or probability, which this is not. Juvenal indeed gives us a noble picture of inflexible virtue:

Esto bonus miles, tutor bonus, arbiter idem
Integer: ambiguae si quando citabere testis
Incertaeque rei, Phalaris licet imperet, ut sis
Falsus, et admoto dictet perjuria tauro,
Summum crede nefas, animam praeferre pudori,
Et, propter vitam, vitae perdere causas.

He repeated the lines with great force and dignity; then added, ‘And after this comes Johnny Home, with his earth gaping and his destruction crying !—Pooh !’"—Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides.

It must be acknowledged Boswell was not fortunate in the specimen he produced, and that the passage quoted by Johnson from Juvenal is infinitely superior. The circumstances attending the representation of Douglas were not such as to dispose an English critic to allow its merit. In the first place, the national taste was in some degree committed in the judgment passed upon the play by the favourite actor and manager; and it was not only galling to himself, but to all who relied upon his taste, that he should have been mistaken. In the next place, the Scots did not use their triumph with discretion; they talked of the merits of Douglas in a strain quite preposterous, and of which no unfair specimen is to be found in the anecdote of a Caledonian who, being present in the pit of Drury Lane one night of its performance, is said to have exclaimed, in the insolence of his exultation "Whar’s your Wully Shakspeare nou?" Such ridiculous pretensions are now forgotten; but they were advanced at the time, and, from their extreme arrogance and absurdity, could not fail to exasperate a mind so ready to repel insult as Johnson’s, and so keenly alive as his was to the honour of the national literature of England. The natural consequence followed: he decried Douglas perhaps as much as it was overvalued by its admirers; and his acquaintance with far superior compositions, must have enabled him, as in the instance above quoted, to pour derision upon it with an effect which the more judicious part of its admirers could not contend with, the more especially as the noise of undiscriminating applause with which it was hailed, had induced them to assume higher ground than their sober judgment would have led them to fix upon. And indeed it may be a question whether the same cause that contributed to the first popularity of Douglas does not still continue to operate, preserving to our only tragedy a higher rank than it really is entitled to occupy: it is rare that the parents of an only child do not love and admire him for virtues which all the world else fails to discover that he is possessed of.

*"The elder Sheridan, then manager of the theatre at Dublin, sent Mr Home a gold medal in testimony of his admiration of Douglas; and his wife, a woman not less respectable for her virtues than for genius and accomplishments, drew the idea of her admired novel of Sydnea Biddulph, as her introduction bears, from the genuine moral effect of that excellent tragedy."—Mackenzie’s Life of Home, p. 47.] The reception of the last mentioned play was so cool, that he ceased from that time to write for the stage.

Mr Home, as already mentioned, lived in terms of the greatest intimacy with all the literary men of his time: he seems, however, to have cherished no friendship with so much ardour as that which he entertained for his philosophical namesake David Hume. During the course of a lengthened period of friendly intercourse with this individual, only two trifling differences had ever risen between them. One referred to the orthography of their name, which the dramatic poet spelt after the old and constant fashion of his family, while the philosopher had early in life assumed the spelling indicated by the pronunciation. David Hume, at one time, jocularly proposed that they should determine this controversy by casting lots; but the poet answered, "Nay, that is a most extraordinary proposal, indeed, Mr Philosopher, for, if you lose, you take your own name, whereas, if I lose, I take another man’s name."

The other controversy referred merely to their taste in wine. Mr John Home had the old Scottish prepossession in favour of claret, and utterly detested port. When the former drink was expelled from the market by high duties, he wrote the following epigram, as it has been called, though we confess we are at a loss to observe anything in it but a narrative of supposed facts:--

Firm and erect the Caledonian stood,
Old was his mutton, and his claret good;
‘Let him drink port,’ an English statesman cried—
He drank the poison, and his spirit died."

David Hume, who to his latest breath continued the same playful being he had ever been, made the following allusion to the two controversies, in a codicil to his will, dated only eighteen days before his death. "I leave to my friend Mr John Home of Kilduff, ten dozen of my old claret at his choice; and one other bottle of that other liquor called port. I also leave him six dozen of port, provided that he attests, under his hand, signed John Hume, that he has himself alone finished that bottle at two sittings. By this concession he will at once terminate the only two differences that ever arose between us concerning temporal matters."

When this eccentric philosopher was recommended for his health to pay a visit to Bath, his faithful friend Home accompanied him, and was of great service, by his lively conversation and kind attentions, in supporting him against the attacks of a virulent disease. The journey took place in April, 1776, and Mr Mackenzie has preserved a curious diary by Mr Home, detailing the principal matters which passed between him and his fellow traveller in conversation. Many of the anecdotes told by the philosopher are exceedingly valuable as snatches of what is styled secret history.

Mr Home spent the latter moiety of his long life in a state little removed from indolence. He removed to Edinburgh in 1779, and thenceforward lived in the enjoyment of that high literary society which the character of his mind fitted him to enjoy, and in which his income fortunately permitted him to indulge. Careless of money in the highest degree, he delighted in entertaining large companies of friends, and often had his house filled to a degree which would now be considered intolerable, with permanent guests.

The only production of his later years was a History of the Rebellion of 1745; a transaction of which he was entitled to say, pars fui. He had projected something of the kind soon after the event, but did not proceed with it till after he had given up dramatic writing. If there was any literary man of the day from whom, rather than from any other a good work upon this subject might have been confidently expected, it was Mr Home who had not only taken a strong personal interest in the affair, but possessed that generous and chivalrous colour of mind which was most apt to do it justice in narration. Unfortunately, before setting about this work, he had met with an accident by a fall from his horse, in consequence of which his intellect was permanently affected. As a pensioner of king George III., he was also prevented from giving that full expression to his sentiments which was so necessary in the historian of such an event. This work, therefore, when it appeared in 1802, was found to be a miserable sketchy outline of the transaction, rather than a complete narrative—here and there, indeed, as copious as was to be wished, and also showing occasional glimpses of the poetical genius of the author, but in general "stale, flat, and unprofitable." The imperfections of the work have been partly accounted for, without contradiction, by the circumstance of its having been submitted to the inspection of the reigning family, with the understanding that they were at liberty to erase such passages as they did not wish to be made public.

Mr Home died on the 5th of September, 1808, when he was just on the point of completing his eighty-sixth year. As a man, he was gentle and amiable, a very warm friend, and incapable of an ungenerous feeling. As a poet, he deserves the credit of having written with more fervid feeling, and less of stiffness and artificiality, than the other poets of his time; his genius in this respect approaching to that of his friend Collins. The present age, however, has, by its growing indifference to even his sole successful play, pronounced that his reputation on account of that exertion, was in a great measure the result of temporary and local circumstances, and that, being ill based, it cannot last.


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