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John Stuart Blackie
Chapter VI. End of Wanderjahare 1831 - 1832

JOHN BLACKIE and a young German called Thilemas started on September 2, knapsacks on back, dressed in white Italian summer suits, which could be washed when occasion offered, and without a care in the world other than heavy hearts at leaving Rome. Some of this heaviness can be traced to a romantic sentiment which had grown upon our hero for a certain clever and amiable Clotilda, to whom he had given lessons in English during the spring and summer, and whom he celebrated in abounding verse as the pattern of female dignity and charm. He had presented his verses on the subject to his family, however, and not to the lady herself, so that but for the sorrow that he must leave his gentle friend with little hope of seeing her again, he was free from fetters.

The two pedestrians made their way by Perugia and Chiusi to Florence, taking nine days to walk the two hundred and fifty miles, at the rate of from twenty-five to thirty miles a-day. They stopped at the wayside inns for food and rest, and made the towns their stages for the night. The peasants whom they met could not understand the portent of two persons who scoured the country on foot, and sometimes they were refused admittance on the ground that only brigands and escaped malefactors pursued such courses. But they had much enjoyment of the tramp, and turned aside to view the antiquities which bordered their route. On September 11 they reached Florence, and made a halt of ten days to visit its galleries and buildings. The Tuscan country pleased them much, and they picked up what information they could about its well-cultivated valleys.

John Blackie wrote to his father from Florence in a tone of the most pronounced Radicalism, handling both the land question and the Irish question with vigour. He described the condition of the peasant farmers of Tuscany, who, paying a rent of three pauls an acre, were stimulated to industry by the certainty of becoming rich; and he contrasted their advantages with the. state of heavily rented farmers in Scotland, who have not merely to find the rent in the soil, but to do so in a climate so uncertain and often so destructive of their outlay.

From Florence they walked by Bologna to Venice, with which John Blackie renewed his acquaintance. Their whole march from Rome had not cost them more than two shillings a- day, which he records with some pride; but in Venice they met a Bosnian in charge of a return coach to Munich, who, being willing to pocket some trifle by securing passengers for the journey, offered to take them the whole way, with bed and board at the stages, for twelve forms each. As the journey lasted six days, they gladly accepted his terms, and travelled through the Tyrol and by Innsprlick to their destination in comfort.

The two friends parted company at Munich, as Mr Thilemas lived there; but after a few days spent in visiting the pictures and antiquities, John Blackie made the acquaintance of a German student bound for the University of Bonn, and willing to make the way with him on foot through Augsburg, Wurtzburg, and Frankfort.

Mr Bunsen had advised him to remain the coming winter at Bonn, if he could get permission from his father to study there, and had furnished him with an introduction to Professor Brandes. But on his arrival he found a letter from Mr Blackie sharply reprimanding him for his dilatory return, and desiring to know on what earliest possible day he would be in London. This letter acted as a reminder that his years of liberty were coming to a close, and that his father would have a right to expect from him a return of evident profit for all the outlay and indulgence which had made them possible. The thought dejected him greatly, and for a time he lost sight of all that he had gained, and dwelt somewhat hopelessly upon the fear that, in spite of every advantage, he had acquired nothing of practical value. This self-distrust makes itself evident in his reply to the letter. He promised to leave Bonn in ten days, explained that what he had lost in time he had gained in pocket by making his journeys on foot, relinquished all new demands on his father's indulgence, attempted to summarise his gains from the two years and a half of absence, but admitted that his very gains might have led him to conclusions which would not only frustrate his father's hopes for him, but would possibly paralyse his own power to deal in any practical way with the circumstances which form the very conditions of independence. Answering a stern comment on his scepticism, he concluded :-

My scepticism is not final. I have cleared the ground, perhaps, from flowers as well as weeds; it is no matter,— the flowers will grow so much the better afterwards.

His stay at Bonn was thus restricted to a mere visit; but he had the advantage of making the acquaintance of Professor Brandes, an acquaintance which ripened in after-years to friendship.

Mr Blackie took what was then the long journey from Aberdeen to London to meet his son, who arrived in London about the beginning of November, still clad in his white summer clothes. To have him properly clad would be the excellent banker's first care, as it was essential to the due carrying out of the paternal purpose in London. Eager as he was to see his son once more, he would hardly have undertaken the troublesome journey merely to forestall their meeting by a week. He came to introduce him to such of the London notabilities as he knew, and to secure their interest in his further success. These in- eluded Joseph Hume; Lord Brougham, who was a cousin of Dr Forsyth, the minister of Beihelvie; John Gibson Lockhart, connected by marriage with the Blackie family; Willian Jerdan, a Kelso man and lifelong friend of Mr Blackie's, and at this time editor of the 'Literary Gazette'; and last, but greatest, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

With Lord Brougham they breakfasted, dined with Lockhart and Jerdan, and spent an hour with Coleridge. The great poet and thinker was then old and infirm, his body was bent and his face sad. He told the young enthusiast for German philosophy that he had thrown all such speculation overboard, and found perfect satisfaction for every inquiry in the first chapter of the Gospel of St John.

A week of metropolitan bustle was enough for Mr Blackie, and they turned their faces homeward at its end. It was a memorable homecoming after two years and a half of absence. Mrs Blackie, Aunt Manie, and his sisters were much excited. As the travellers drove up, Helen, twelve years old and timid, for whom the brother had grown to be of mythical proportions, hid herself behind the window-curtains. Even the stolid James was moved by expectancy. His welcome home was all that he could desire; his words and looks and gestures were devoured by admiring eyes; the long hair—badge of his Germanism—was noted without censure; and his bubbling effervescence of fun and laughter evoked happy smiles at the full fireside.

He stayed at home for six months, during which time his father and he had many conversations about his future. With the admirable good sense which distinguished him, Mr Blackie accepted without demur his son's attitude towards the Church, and magnanimity as well as good sense dictated his acceptance; for all the advantages at home and abroad which he had gladly afforded him from the first indication of his theological impulse, were intended to fit him for a distinguished career in the Scottish Church.

And now his son returned on his hands, endowed with new and varied acquirements, it is true, but also with new and varied aims, and the studies which he had pursued to deepen his theological insight and to strengthen his grasp of theological doctrine had only served to bewilder the one and to paralyse the other. The finer polish, too, which was meant to adorn the doctrine of Scottish Calvinism had diverted his unsettled mind into secular directions; and here was this youngster of twenty-two aspiring to lofty academical posts because he must needs be enamoured of the learned and industrious lives and influence of veteran Gottingen professors.

But Mr Blackie made a shrewd reckoning of his son's gains and gifts. True, he was a youngster, and what he had learned in Scotland he had promptly unlearned in Germany: but here he was, as expert in the use of German and Italian as were the native scholars of either land; a fluent Latinist; a student of Greek, successful in the verbal understanding of the language, and eager for further mastery of its difficulties—with fresh theories, too, to propound upon its accentuation and vocalisation; an archeologist, or at least with the accredited makings of an archeologist about him; well read in the literature of the languages which he had acquired, and with his appreciation of German literature so roused by its masterpieces that one of his liveliest aims was to make them known in Scotland by translation and commentary. Perhaps an overdose of Germanism disturbed the equipoise of these attainments; but Mr Blackie, critical and exacting as he was, could not but admit that his son had made full and varied use of his opportunities, and that when, with maturing, his gifts became practicable, he might occupy for their exercise a larger sphere than the cramped confines of a Moderate pulpit. To find him, too, a pronounced Radical, as the term went in those days, eager for reform in Church and State, in School and University, panting to set all things to rights, from an accent in Greek to a point in the dire dogma of perdition, was as sunshine to the father, in whose Liberal politics John had taken little or no interest before he went abroad. He had returned a politician, hot for reform bills and the emancipation of nations. That, too, was a gain. So was his industry, which never flagged. His honesty was bred iii the bone, and akin to his father's.

But all these excellences would neither create nor empty a chair of Humanity or Greek because he had set his heart upon it. Years and his youth must pass before the Areopagus which presides over academical honours could regard him as chastened to the type which it admired, and it was impossible for him to stay at home and attend the ' psychological moment." Some profession must be adopted which would keep a fine edge on his wits, would permit him to maintain and increase his acquirements, and would in time open the way to independence by its own merits, should the door of scholastic preferment remain barred. Mr Blackie considered the matter carefully, and ended by proposing to his son that for three years, dating from the spring of 1832, he should study law in Edinburgh with a view to the Scottish Bar, and should receive during that time an allowance of 100 a-year. As there were many children to be provided for, and as Mr Blackie's income lay within the limits of comfort rather than of luxury, the arrangement was most generous, and John, though little inclined towards the law, was too grateful for his release from the Church to object to it. It was but reasonable that his father should solve a problem which he himself had darkened with a multitude of heterogeneous purposes.

So, this matter settled, he fell to serious study, not of Erskine and Bell, but of German and Greek. In the former he tackled Goethe's 'Faust,' in the latter he made himself conversant with the plays of Euripides. We know already that one of the purposes stimulated by his immersion in German influences was to make the German masterpieces better known in Scotland. At that time little influence had penetrated from the literary revival in Germany to either Edinburgh or Aberdeen. The former had its own nucleus of culture, our great romanticist Walter Scott at the core, and minds were vivid enough and amply furnished with exercise. The stir and movement at home neutralised the inrush from without, and the names of Goethe, Schiller, Fichte, and Lessing were little more than names to Scottish ears. Thomas Carlyle had begun to drive them home into the minds of his countrymen, but to John Stuart Blackie belongs some share of the credit which Carlyle received in fee for putting into home circulation the coinage of that lettered dynasty of Germany. But while he stayed at home, this work was at its elementary stage.

His choice of Euripides for reading in Greek was founded on the simplicity and luminousness of that dramatist's style in comparison with that of his greater predecessor's, whom John Blackie preferred when he grew familiar with both. But at this time he liked to master the story as he read, without the incessant stumbling over obscure passages which wearies the attention, and so he climbed less painfully the ascent which led to further toil. This gradual method he advocated in after-life, both on the ground of personal experience, and because mature Grecians amongst the Germans lent their authority to its support. Many years later he wrote :-

In the learning of languages fluency ought to he acquired first, then accuracy; the whole must be comprehended and felt with a living power before the details are minutely criticised. We read and love Shakespeare before we concern ourselves with his various readings; and I cannot see why it should be otherwise with books written in Greek or Latin.

As it is the method of nature that the child shall pick up a store of words, and shall excellently arrange them by ear and intuition, before he can construe and analyse his own arrangement, the gradual method of acquiring any language, ancient or modern, is obviously the right one; but pedagogues were then too remote from nature to refresh themselves with her pure wisdom.

Two friends belong particularly to this time, and both were of special assistance to him in his study of Greek, while one of them rendered him a service of far more vital value. Both gentlemen lived at Banchory : one was Dr Adams of Banchory House, and the other was the Rev. William Anderson, then Established Church minister of the place. The first was a man so devoted to Greek that he held all modern literature in mean esteem, and accused even Shakespeare of plagiarising from classics which the great dramatist could not have read. He could repeat long odes of Pindar without a pause, and put a solemnity into these recitations which savoured of the pulpit. Indeed Greek was his religion, for in so far as he had imbibed modern culture at all, it was culture of the school of Voltaire. There is no doubt that he was the finest Greek scholar in Scotland, although his life of retirement, and his hostility to creeds and churches, withheld from public recognition and usefulness both his attainments and his influence. John Blackie's ardour pleased him, and he had long felt the same contempt for the Greek of Scottish Universities which the younger man had brought red-hot from the Continent, so that the two fell into a sympathetic intimacy, which served to cherish the vigorous saplings of scholastic ambition and educational reform planted by Gottingen and watered at Rome.

It is clear, however, that the Voltairianism which Dr Adams professed was beneficial in rousing to a militant attitude that dormant faith in the spiritual life which had latterly lain low in John Blackie's mind. It had been smothered by the conclusions of critical research, those premature conclusions of an incomplete research; but these had only succeeded in extinguishing dogmas of men, which ranked then, as they rank still, in divers creeds devised by divers Churches, on the same level as the Word which was from the beginning.

In confirming his hold of the latter, the minister of Banchory proved of timely value. Mr Anderson, who belonged rather to the Evangelical than to the Moderate party of the Church of Scotland, was both a scholar and a man of wide culture at a time when general culture was rare in Scotland. He took an interest in philology, and welcomed at first approach the light which Sansent threw upon that study, and his talk was full of matters hitherto outside John Blackie's ken. Eager to learn, the latter was attracted into an intimacy with the minister, whose " fine harmony of intellectual and moral gifts" gave him a wholesome ascendancy, and he proved able to convince his young friend of many a crude conclusion, as well as to recognise his power and promise. It was this quiet candour, at once sympathetic and critical, which gave him influence over the fervid mind accustomed to snubs from the Moderates and Evangelicals. Upon these parties plunged in the blinding fray John Blackie was apt to retort with derisive laughter, for their polemics testified to neither wisdom nor charity. But Mr Anderson took no part in the controversy, and kept his even way, doing his proper work at Banchory, an Evangelical in heart and life, and when the great split of 1843 filled the air with its rancours, leaving the Church for a chair in the College at Agram.

Only one incident, initiating a new departure for John Blackie, occurred during his six months' stay at home. This was the visit of Lord Brougham to Belhelvie and Aberdeen in the spring of 1832. The Blackies met him on several occasions, and at a banquet given by the Aberdonians in his honour, John Blackie was put forward to make one of the after-dinner speeches. The subject allotted to him was the part which Lord Brougham was taking in spreading intelligence among the people. It was his first public speech, but no further record of its matter remains. Of its manner he wrote in the " Notes " :-

I recollect only that it was fervid and hasty and violent. The words came rushing through my throat like a number of disorderly persons pushing through the narrow entrance to the pit on a benefit night at the theatre. I was fluent, however, and did not stick. One sentence begat another in a rough, hasty sort of way. No doubt the violent hurry which I displayed was partly from fervour of temperament, but partly also from the embarrassment which I felt at opening my mouth before a large audience of persons much my superior in years and experience.

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