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Significant Scots
William Lauder


LAUDER, WILLIAM, a man renowned in literary history, for having turned superior talents, and very high classical acquirements, to an attempt to defraud Milton of his fame. Of the period of his birth, which has escaped the patient investigation of Chalmers, we are totally ignorant. The earlier part of his life was passed in great obscurity, although it has been ascertained from his own remarks—in after life we believe—that he was connected, and not very distantly, with the respectable family of Lauder of Fountainhall. He received all his education in Edinburgh, and passed through the university with considerable credit. After leaving college, he seems to have immediately resorted to teaching, as a means of gaining a livelihood; his early career in this profession was for some time interrupted by an accident, which must have materially affected his future course of life. While standing near a party engaged in the game of golf, on Bruntsfield Links, near Edinburgh, a ball struck him on the knee; the wound, which cannot have been very serious, festered from careless treatment, and he was compelled to submit to the amputation of his leg. [Chalmer’s Ruddiman, 146.] In 1734, he was employed by professor Watt, then in bad health, to teach for him the class of Humanity, or Latin; and on the death of that gentleman he naturally exerted himself to procure an appointment as successor; but though he had talents to teach, he had not sufficient influence to be appointed a professor. We are, however, informed that on this occasion the professors gratuitously honoured him with "a testimonial from the heads of the university, certifying that he was a fit person to teach Humanity in any school or college whatever." [Nichols’s Anecdotes, ii. 136.]After this disappointment, his ambition sunk to an application for the subordinate situation of keeper to the university library, but this also was denied him. He appears indeed to have been a person whose disposition and character produced a general dislike, which was only to a small extent balanced by his talent and high scholarship. "He was," says Chalmers, with characteristic magniloquence, "a person about five feet seven inches high, who had a sallow complexion, large rolling fiery eyes, a stentorian voice, and a sanguine temper;" and Ruddiman has left, in a pamphlet connected with the subject of our memoir, a manuscript note, observing, "I was so sensible of the weakness and folly of that man, that I shunned his company, as far as decently I could." Ruddiman’s opinion, however, if early entertained, did not prevent him from forming an intimate literary connexion with its subject.

In 1738, Lauder printed a proposal to publish by subscription "A Collection of Sacred Poems," "with the assistance of professor Robert Stewart, professor John Ker, (professor of Greek in Aberdeen, and afterwards of Latin in Edinburgh), and Mr Thomas Ruddiman." The promised work was published by Ruddiman in 1739, and forms the two well known volumes called "Poetarum Scotorum Musae Sacrae" What assistance Stewart and Ker may have given to this work appears not to be known; Ruddiman provided several notes, and three poems. This work was creditable both to the scholar and typographer. It contains a beautiful edition of the translation of the Psalms and the Song of Solomon, by Arthur Johnston, and similar sacred poems of merit, by Ker, Adamson, and Hog: it contains likewise a reprint of Eglisham’s somewhat ludicrous attempt to excel Buchanan’s best translated Psalm, the 104th,with the sarcastic "judicium" of Barclay on the respective merits of the competitors, and several minor sacred poems by Scottish authors are dispersed through the collection. The classical merit of these elegant poems, has, we believe, never been disputed by those who showed the greatest indignation at the machinations of their editor; nor is their merit less, as furnishing us with much biographical and critical information on the Latin literature of Scotland, among which may be mentioned a well written life of Arthur Johnston, and the hyperbolical praises, which proved so detrimental to the fame of that poet. To support the fame of the author he had delighted to honour, Lauder afterwards engaged in the literary controversy, about the comparative merits of Buchanan and Johnston, known by the name "Bellum Grammaticale." [For further information on this matter, vide the Memoir of Arthur Johnston in this collection. The reader may remark that we have there praised the classical acquirements of auditor Benson if he was the author of the Life of Johnston prefixed to the edition of his Psalms. The circumstance that the life in the Musae Sacrae is exactly the same, leads to the conclusion that it is by Lauder.]

In 1740, the general assembly recommended the Psalms of Johnston, as an useful exercise in the lower classes of the grammar schools; but Lauder never realized from his publication the permanent annual income which he appears to have expected, "because," says Chalmers, "he had allowed expectation to outrun probability." In 1742, Lauder was recommended by Mr Patrick Cuming, professor of church history in the university of Edinburgh, and the celebrated Colin Maclaurin, as a person fitted to hold the rectorship of the grammar school of Dundee, which had been offered to his coadjutor Ruddiman in 1710; he was again, however, doomed to suffer disappointment, and in bitterness of spirit, and despair of reaching in his native place the status to which his talents entitled him, he appears to have fled to London, where he adopted the course which finally led to the ruin of his literary reputation. His first attempts on the fame of Milton were contained in letters addressed to the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1747, which that publication, certainly without due caution regarding charges so suspicious, unreservedly admitted for publication. The literary world indeed received the attacks on the honesty of the great poet with singular complacency, and the periodicals contained praises of the acuteness and industry of Lauder, some of which he afterwards ostentatiously published. The first person who attempted a discovery of the true merit of the attack, was the Reverend Mr Richardson, author of Zoilomastix, who, on the 8th of January, 1749, wrote a letter to the editor of the Gentleman’s Magazine, in which he maintained the falsity of Lauder’s quotations from some books not very well known even to the learned world; particularly insisting that the passage "non me judice," which Lauder had "extracted" from Grotius, was not to be found in that author, and that passages said to be from Masenius and Staphorstius, belonged to a partial translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost by Hog, who had written twenty years subsequently to the death of Milton. [Gent. Mag., xx. 535.]Although the editor of the Gentleman’s Magazine arrogated to himself the praise of candour for admitting the strictures of Lauder, yet this communication was not published until the forgeries had been detected in another quarter, on the ground of unwillingness to give currency to so grave and unexpected a charge, without full examination.

In 1750, Lauder having brought his design to maturity, published his "Essay on Milton’s use and imitation of the moderns, in his Paradise Lost," to which he prefixed as a motto the very appropriate line from the author he traduced, "Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme." The reader is aware, that this book consists of a tissue of passages from obscure authors, from which it is maintained that Milton surreptitiously filched the materials of Paradise Lost. In the list are two of the critic’s own countrymen, Andrew Ramsay and Alexander Ross, both respectable Latin versifiers and good scholars, but neither likely to have been suspected of giving much aid to Milton; in the introduction of the former of these, the critic may have gratified a little family pride,—he was father-in-law to lord Fountainhall, and consequently a connexion or relation of the author. Had the author confined his book to the tracing of such passages of Milton, as accident has paralleled in far inferior poems, he might have produced a curious though not very edifying book: and, indeed, he has given us a sufficient number of such genuine passages, to make us wonder at his industry, and admire the ingenuity with which he has adapted them to the words of Milton; but when he produces masses of matter, the literal translations of which exactly coincide with the poem unequalled in the eyes of all mankind, we express that astonishment at the audacity of the author, which we would have felt regarding the conduct of Milton, had the attempt remained undetected. As he spreads a deeper train of forgery and fraud round the memory of his victim, the author’s indignation and passion increase, and from the simple accusation of copying a few ideas and sentences from others, passion and prejudice rouse him to accuse Milton of the most black and despicable designs, in such terms as these: "I cannot omit observing here, that Milton’s contrivance of teaching his daughters to read, but to read only, several learned languages, plainly points the same way, as Mr Phillips’ secreting and suppressing the books to which his uncle was most obliged. Milton well knew the loquacious and incontinent spirit of the sex, and the danger, on that account, of entrusting them with so important a secret as his unbounded plagiarism: he, therefore, wisely confined them to the knowledge of the words and pronunciation only, but kept the sense and meaning to himself." It is generally believed that a character for probity is so dear to every man, that nothing but the temptation of gain, mingled generally with a prospect of concealment, will prompt a man to dishonesty. Here, however, was a man whose object could not be gain, courting that which depends more than any other acquisition upon probity of mind--real or assumed fame; and doing so by a bold act of dishonesty, which could not escape discovery, and which, in proportion as he had traduced others, would be revisited upon himself. "As I am sensible," he solemnly says at the conclusion, "this will be deemed most outrageous usage of the divine, the immortal Milton, the prince of English poets, and the incomparable author of Paradise Lost, I take this opportunity to declare, in the most solemn manner, that a strict regard to TRUTH alone, and to do justice to those authors whom Milton has so liberally gleaned, without making the least distant acknowledgment to whom he stood indebted: I declare, I say, that these motives, and these only, have induced me to make this attack upon the reputation and memory of a person, hitherto universally applauded and admired for his uncommon poetical genius: and not any difference of country, or of sentiments in political or religious matters, as some weak and ignorant minds may imagine, or some malicious persons may be disposed to suggest." The violence of party spirit to which Lauder here alludes, has been alleged as a partial excuse, or rather motive, for his audacious act: but it may be more charitably, if not more naturally presumed, that the accidental discovery of a few of the parallel passages we have alluded to above, had prompted him to form a theory of universal plagiarism on the part of Milton, which a more than ordinary perverseness in favour of the creation of his own mind prompted him rather to support by falsehood, than resign; while, as he afterwards partially admitted, spleen and disappointment may have sufficiently blackened his heart, to make him scruple at no means of gaining celebrity, and triumphing over the world that had oppressed him. Add to this the angry feelings which may have been roused, and the real injury done to his interest, by a ludicrous contrast of his favourite author Johnston, with Milton, in that passage of the Dunciad which is levelled at the literary predilections of Benson:

"On two unequal crutches propp’d he came;
Milton’s on this, on that one Johnston’s name."

There is no crime so severely punished by the world as injustice, which is always repaid by a repetition of itself: hence the learned world which applauded the courage and ingenuity of Lauder, on the appearance of a full and explicit detection of his crimes, by his countryman Dr Douglas, [Milton vindicated from the charge of plagiarism brought against him by Lauder; and Lauder himself convicted of several forgeries and gross imposition on the public, in a letter addressed to the right hon. the earl of Bath, 1751, (by Dr Douglas, afterwards bishop of Salisbury.)]were seized with a confirmed hatred against the person who had duped them, and would not admit to his degraded name, the talents and information he undoubtedly possessed and displayed. Lauder subscribed a confession, addressed to Dr Douglas, explaining his whole conduct to have been caused by the neglect with which the world had looked on his previous labours. This confession is said to have been dictated by Dr Johnson, who was one of those on whom Lauder had imposed, or rather of those who chose to submit to be imposed on, which we may safely trace, in his case, to the grudge he never ceased to bear towards the republican poet. The connexion of Johnson with Lauder’s work is, indeed, somewhat mysterious. In a manuscript note on the margin of archdeacon Blackburne’s remarks on the life of Milton, Johnson has said, "In the business of Lauder I was deceived, partly by thinking the man too frantic to be fraudulent."’ But others have alleged, that he did more than believe the statements of Lauder, and even gave assistance to the work. Dr Lort had a volume of tracts on the controversy, in which he wrote, "Dr Samuel Johnson has been heard to confess, that he encouraged Lauder to this attack upon Milton, and revised his pamphlet, to which he wrote a preface and postscript." On the same subject Dr Douglas remarks, "It is to be hoped, nay, it is expected, that the elegant and nervous writer, whose judicious sentiments, and inimitable style, point out the author of Lauder’s preface and postscript, will no longer allow one to plume himself with his feathers, who appeareth so little to deserve assistance: an assistance which, I am persuaded, would never have been communicated, had there been the least suspicion of those facts which I have been the instrument of conveying to the world in these sheets." [Nichol’s Anecdotes, II. 551.] Boswell repels the insinuation that Johnson assisted in the preparation of the body of the work, assuring us that Douglas did not wish to create such a suspicion; while he acknowledges the preface and postscript to have been the work of his hands." On a first perusal of the book, we were indeed struck with the sonorous eloquence and majesty of the commencement and termination, when compared to the bareness of the other portions of the work, and a slight hint is quite sufficient to convince us of the authorship. The postscript contains matter much at variance with the other contents of the book, and had it been the work of Lauder, it might have gone far to redeem, at least the soundness of his heart, from the opprobrium which has been heaped upon him. It called for the admirers of Milton’s works, to join in a subscription to the grand-daughter of Milton, who then lived in an obscure corner of London, in age, indigence, and sickness.

Notwithstanding his penitence, a desire to traduce the fame of Milton seems to have haunted this unhappy man like an evil spirit. In 1754, he published "The grand Impostor detected, or Milton detected of Forgery against king Charles the First." An answer, to this pamphlet appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1754, supposed to be from the hand of Johnson. After this period, Lauder quitted England, and for some time taught a school in Barbadoes. "His behaviour there," says Nichols, "was mean and despicable; and he passed the remainder of his life in universal contempt. He died some time about the year 1771, as my late friend Isaac Reed was informed by the gentleman who read the funeral service over him." Chalmers mentions that there was published, in 1754, (probably just after his retreat from London,) a pamphlet entitled, "Furius: or a modest attempt towards a History of the Life and surprising exploits of the famous W. L., critic and thief-catcher," a somewhat inappropriate name for the traducer of Milton.


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