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Significant Scots
Dr Arthur Johnstone

JOHNSTON, (DR) ARTHUR, a poet and physician, was born in the year 1587, at Caskieben, the seat of his family, a few miles from Aberdeen. He was the fifth son of George Johnston of that ilk and of Caskieben, the chief of the family of Johnston, by Christian Forbes, daughter of William, seventh baron Forbes. He appears to have been named after his uncle the honourable William Forbes of Logie, who was killed at Paris in the year 1574.[Johnston’s History of the Family of Johnston, 36.] This poet, whose chief characteristic was the elegance with which he expressed his own simple feelings as a poet, in the language appropriate to the customs and feelings of a past nation, has left in his Epigrammata an address to his native spot; and, although Caskieben is a piece of very ordinary Scottish scenery, it is surprising how much he has made of it, by the mere force of his own early associations. With the minuteness of an enthusiast, he does not omit the circumstance, that the hill of Benochie, a conical elevation about eight miles distant, casts its shadow over Caskieben at the periods of the equinox. As we shall be able, by giving this epigram, to unite a specimen of the happiest original efforts of the author’s genius, with circumstances personally connected with his history, we beg leave to extract it:--


Here, traveller, a vale behold
As fair as Tempe, famed of old,.
Beneath the northern skyl
Here Urie, with her silver waves,
Her banks, in verdure smiling, laves,
And winding wimples by.

Here, towering high, Bennachie spreads
Around on all his evening shades,
When twilight grey comes on:
With sparkling gems the river glows;
As precious stones the mountain shows
As in the East are known.

Here nature spreads a bosom sweet,
And native dyes beneath the feet
Bedeck the joyous ground:
Sport in the liquid air the birds,
And fishes in the stream; the herds
In meadows wanton round.

Here ample barn-yards still are stored
With relics of last autumn’s hoard
And firstlings of this year;
There waving fields of yellow corn,
And ruddy apples, that adorn
The bending boughs, appear.

Beside the stream, a castle proud
Rises amid the passing cloud,
And rules a wide domain,
(Unequal to its, lord’s desert:)
A village near, with lowlier art,
Is built upon the plain.

Here was I born; o’er all the land
Around, the Johnstons bear command,
Of high and ancient line:
Mantua acquired a noted name
As Virgil’s birthplace; I my fame
Inherit shall from mine.

In a similar spirit he has left an epigram on the small burgh of Inverury, in the neighbourhood of Caskieben, in which he does not omit the circumstance, that the fuel of the inhabitants (vulgo, the peats) comes from the land in which he was born. A similar epigram to another neighbouring burgh, the royal burgh of Kintore, now holding the rank of a very small village, informs us that at the grammar school of that place he commenced the classical studies, which afterwards acquired for him so much eminence:

"Hic ego sum memini muserum factus alumnus,
Et tiro didici verba Latina loqui."

After leaving this humble seat of learning, he is said to have studied at Marischal college in Aberdeen; a circumstance extremely probable, but which seems to have no other direct foundation than the conjecture of Benson, from the vicinity of his paternal estate to that institution, and his having been afterwards elected rector of the university, an honour generally bestowed on illustrious alumni. [Benson’s Life, prefixed to Johnston’s Psalms, vi.]

Johnston, intending to study medicine, a science which it would have been in vain at that period to have attempted in Scotland, proceeded to Rome, and afterwards to Padua, where he seems to have acquired some celebrity for the beauty of his earlier Latin poems, and took the degree of doctor in medicine. He afterwards travelled through Germany, Holland, and Denmark, and finally fixed his abode in France. If he remained for a considerable period at Padua, he must have early finished his curriculum of study at Aberdeen, as he is said by Sir Thomas Urquhart, to have been laureated a poet in Paris at the age of twenty-three.

He remained for twenty years in France, a period during which he was twice married, to ladies whose names are unknown, but who bore him thirteen children, to transmit his name to posterity. On his return to Britain about the year 1632, probably at the recommendation of Laud, who was his friend, and had commenced the career of court influence, Johnston was appointed physician to Charles I., a circumstance which must have preceded or immediately followed his arrival, as he styles himself in the first edition of his Parerga and Epigrammata, published at Aberdeen in 1632, "Medicus Regius." The Parerga consists, as its name may designate, of a variety of small pieces of poetry, which cannot be conveniently classed under a more distinct name. A few are satirical, but the lyrical (if they may be said to come correctly under that designation) form the most interesting portion. Johnston seldom indulges in the metaphoric brilliancy which characterised the native writers in the language which he chose to use; but he has a considerable portion of their elegance, while much of the poetry is founded on association and domestic feeling, of which he has some exquisitely beautiful traits, which would have been extremely pleasing had he used his vernacular tongue. He is said to have wished to imitate Virgil; but those who have elevated Buchanan to the title of "the Scottish Virgil," have designated Johnston the "Scottish Ovid;" a characteristic which may apply to the versification of his Psalms, but is far from giving a correct idea of the spirit of his original pieces. It may not be displeasing to the reader who is unacquainted with the works of this neglected author, to give an extract from one of the Parerga, addressed to his early friend and school companion Wedderburn,—a piece strikingly depictive of the author’s affectionate feelings, and probably detailing the effects of excessive study and anxiety.

Benson mentions, that Johnston was a litigant in the court of session in Edinburgh, at the period of his return to Britain; and probably the issue of his suit may account for a rather unceremonious attack in the Parerga, on advocates and agents, unblushingly addressed "Ad duos rabulas forenses, Advocatum et Procuratorem," of whom, without any respect for the college of Justice, the author says,

"Magna minorqne ferae, quarum paris altera lites;
Altera dispensas, utraque digna mori," &c.

On approaching the period when Johnston published his translation of the Psalms of David, we cannot help being struck with the circumstances under which he appears to have formed the design. Dr Eaglesham had, in the year 1620, published a criticism of considerable length, for the purpose of proving that the public voice had erred in the merit it allowed to Buchanan’s version of the Psalms, and modestly displaying a translation of the 104th psalm, of his own workmanship, between which and the psalms of Buchanan he challenged a comparison. Dr William Barclay penned a critical answer to this challenge, and Johnston made a fierce stroke at the offender, in a satirical article in the Parerga, which he calls "Consilium Collegii Medici Parisiensis de Mania Hypermori Medicastri," commencing

"Quae Buchananaeis medicaster crimina musis
Objicit, et quo se jactat inane melos;
Vidimus: et quotquot tractamus Paeonis artes,
Hic vates, uno diximus ore, furit," &c.

Johnston, however, did not consider himself incapacitated to perform a work in which another had failed, and he probably, at that period, formed the resolution of writing a version of the psalms, which he afterwards produced, under the auspices, and with the advice of his friend Laud, which he published at London and Aberdeen, in 1637. No man ever committed a more imprudent act for his own fame; as he was doomed by the nature of his task, not only to equal, but to excel, one of the greatest poets in the world. His fame was not increased by the proceedings of his eccentric countryman Lauder, who many years afterwards endeavoured with a curious pertinacity to raise the fame of Johnston’s version far above that of Buchanan. Mr auditor Benson, a man better known for his benevolence than his acuteness, was made the trumpet of Johnston’s fame. This gentleman published three editions of Johnston’s psalms; one of which, printed in 1741, and dedicated to prince George, afterwards George III., is ornamented with a very fine portrait of the poet by Vertue after Jamesone, and is amply illustrated with notes. The zealous editor received as his reward from the literary world, a couplet in the Dunciad, in which, in allusion to his having procured the erection of the monument to the memory of Milton in Westminster abbey, it is said

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

Benson has received much ridicule for the direction of his labours; but if the life of Johnston prefixed to the edition of the psalms is from his pen, it does credit to his erudition. Many controversial pamphlets were the consequence of this attempt,—Mr Love answering Lauder, while Benson had to stand a more steady attack from the critical pen of Ruddiman. It would tire our readers here to trace a controversy which we may have occasion to treat in another place. The zeal of these individuals has not furthered the fame of Johnston: and, indeed, the height to which they attempted to raise his merit, has naturally rendered the world blind to its real extent. It cannot be said that the version of Buchanan is so eminently superior as to exclude all comparison; and, indeed, we believe the schools in Holland give Johnston the preference, with almost as much decision, as we grant it to Buchanan. The merit of the two, is, indeed, of a different sort, and we can fortunately allow that each is excellent, without bringing them to a too minute comparison. Johnston has been universally allowed to have been the more accurate translator, and few exceptions can be found to the purity of his language, while he certainly has not displayed either the richness, or the majesty of Buchanan. Johnston is considered as having been unfortunate in his method: while Buchanan has luxuriated in an amazing variety of measure, he has adhered to the elegiac couplet of hexameter and pentameter, excepting in the 119th psalm, in which he has indulged in all the varieties of lyrical arrangement which the Latin language admits: an inapt choice, as Hebrew scholars pronounce that psalm to be the most prosaic of the sacred poems. [An esteemed correspondent supplies us with the following note:—"It may be enough to prove the elegance and accuracy of Arthur Johnston’s Latinity, to say, that his version of the 104th psalm has frequently been compared with that of Buchanan, and that scholars are not unanimous in adjudging it to be inferior. As an original poet, he does not aspire to the same high companionship, though his compositions are pleasing, and not without spirit. One curious particular concerning these two authors has been remarked by Dr Johnson, from which, it would appear, that modern literature owed to the more distinguished of them a device very convenient for those whose powers of description were limited. When a rhymer protested his mistress resembled Venus, he, in fact, acknowledged his own incapacity to celebrate her charms, and gave instead a sort of catchword, by means of which, referring back to the ancients, a general idea of female perfections might be obtained. This conventional language was introduced by Buchanan; ‘who,’ says the critic just named, ‘was the first who complimented a lady, by ascribing to her the different perfections of the heathen goddesses; but Johnston,’ he adds, ‘improved upon this, by making his mistress at the same time, free from their defects.]

A writer in the Scots Magazine for the year 1741, has noticed one excellence in the psalms of Dr Johnston, distinct from those which have been so amply heaped on him by Lauder; and as we agree with the author in his opinion of the quality, we shall quote his words: "There is one perfection in the doctor’s version, which is not sufficiently illustrated; and that is, the admirable talent he has of expressing things which are peculiar to the sacred writings, and never to be met with in classic authors, in the most pure and elegant Latin. This the reader will perceive if he looks into the 83rd and 108th psalms: and still more so upon perusing the Te Deum and the apostles’ creed. ‘To thee all angels cry aloud, the heavens and all the powers therein; To thee cherubim and seraphim continually do cry, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth."

"Grex sacer auratis qui pervolat aethera pennies
Imperio nutuque tuo; supremaque mundi
Templa, tua caelata manu; calique potestas
Omnis; et igne micans acies; at lucidus ordo,
Agminis aligeri princeps, tibi, maxime rerum," &c.

How poetically are the angels described by

Grex sacer auratis qui pervolat aethera pennis.

And in like manner the cherubim and seraphim, who are mentioned with the powers of heaven, [Scot Mag. Iii. 255.]

"Caelique potestas," &c.

A late writer, considerably versed in classical and biblical criticism—Mr Tennant—whose opinion coincides to a certain extent with that which we have just quoted, finds, that even after the luxuriant fervidness of Buchanan, there is much to admire in the calm tastefulness and religious feeling of Johnston, and that the work of the latter is not only a more faithful translation, but given in a manner better suited (in his opinion,) to the strains of the holy minstrel, than that followed by the fiery genius of Buchanan, when restricted to translation. "He is not," remarks this author, "tempted like Buchanan, by his luxuriance of phraseology, and by the necessity of filling up, by some means or other, metrical stanzas of prescribed and inexorable length, to expatiate from the psalmist’s simplicity, and weaken, by circumlocution, what he must needs beat out and expand. His diction is, therefore, more firm and nervous, and, though not absolutely Hebraean, makes a nearer approach to the unadorned energy of Jewry. Accordingly, all the sublime passages are read with more touching effect in his, than in Buchanan’s translation: he has many beautiful and even powerful lines, such as can scarce be matched by his more popular competitor; the style of Johnston possessing somewhat of Ovidian ease, accompanied with strength and simplicity, while the tragic pomp and worldly parade of Seneca and Prudentius are more affected by Buchanan."

Let us conclude this subject with remarking the peculiar circumstance, that while Scotland has produced two Latin versions of the psalms, rivals in excellence, the talent of the whole nation has been unable to produce any English version which can be considered as their equal in point of versification.
In 1641, Johnston died at Oxford, where he had gone on a visit to a daughter married to a divine of the church of England. Besides the works already mentioned, he wrote Musae Aulicae, addressed to his eminent contemporaries, translated Solomon’s Song, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, and edited the Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum, in which he introduced not a few of his own productions. His works were published at Middleburg, in 1642, by his friend Scott of Scotstarvet. The present representatives of his family are, Sir William Johnston of Hilton, in Aberdeenshire, and Mr Johnston of Viewfield in the same county.

The brother of the poet was a man of some local celebrity; he was Dr William Johnston, professor of mathematics in the Marishcal college of Aberdeen. "He was," says Wodrow, "ane learned and experienced physitian. He wrote on the mathematics. His skill in the Latin was truly Ciceronian." [Catalogues of Scottish Writers, published by Mr Maidment, Edinburgh, 1833, p. 114.]

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