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Significant Scots
John Leyden

LEYDEN JOHN, a man of singularly varied genius and accomplishment, was born on the 8th of September, 1775, at Denholm, a village on the banks of the Teviot, in the parish of Cavers and county of Roxburgh. His parents were John Leyden and Isabella Scott, who had three sons and two daughters younger than himself. His ancestors in both lines had been farmers on the estate of Cavers for several generations; but his father, though skilful in rural affairs, declined to engage on his own account in the same occupation, thinking even the fortunate pursuit of gain a poor compensation for the anxiety that attends it. About a year after the birth of their first child, he removed to Henlawshiel on the farm of Nether Tofts, which was then occupied by Andrew Blythe, his wife’s uncle, whom he first served as shepherd, and subsequently as overseer, his master having had the misfortune to lose his sight. The cottage in which the family resided was of an humble construction; its internal accommodations were equally simple; but it was situated at the foot of the majestic hill of Ruberslaw, and there, among the "dun heathy slopes and valleys green," did Leyden imbibe that enthusiasm and manliness of character which afterwards displayed themselves so strongly in his domestic affections, in his love of country, and in his unwearied pursuit of knowledge.

With the inmates of his father’s house dwelt intelligence, cheerful content, and piety; and, in this scene of the domestic virtues, Leyden was taught to read by his grandmother, under whom he soon acquired a familiar acquaintance with the events recorded in the sacred volume, the historical passages in the Old Testament having first attracted his attention. There is no circumstance from which we should so readily entertain good hopes of the future conduct of a boy, as that of his having been imbued with his earliest letters by so venerable an instructress; for it argues not only an attentive care to make him spell and pronounce words correctly, but an anxious discharge of the parental duties on the part of the family from whom he is sprung, which cannot fail to produce the best effects on the heart of the young pupil--an effect how different from that which other fathers are doomed to witness, who, as soon as their children’s age admits of their removal, despatch them to distant schools to be brought up as well as taught by strangers, and think they have done all that can reasonably be expected from them when they disburse the sums necessary for the maintenance of their offspring! It was considered the highest praise of a Roman matron of rank that "she staid at home and span," domum mansit, lanam fecit; but by far more honourable is the epitaph which might with truth be engraved on the tombstones of many Scottish women of the humblest rank—"she taught her grandchildren to read." The moral worth which such a system of affectionate training keeps alive in the land cannot be too highly estimated; and, as if to prove its advantage, such men as Leyden now and then emerge from useful obscurity, and make the beauty of their home-bred virtues conspicuous to all the world.

Leyden’s taste for reading, once kindled, spread like the moorburn on his native heaths, first over the books in his father’s possession, and then to the shelves of the neighbours. Some popular works on Scottish history supplied the inspiring recital of the deeds of Wallace and Bruce, which, beyond their immediate benefit, have continued as examples through succeeding ages to cherish sentiments of independence in every generous bosom. Among the other productions with which he was greatly delighted, have been enumerated the poems of Sir David Lindsay, Paradise Lost, Chapman’s translation of Homer, and the Arabian Nights Entertainments. An odd volume of the last-named work he obtained, when he was about eleven years old, by a resolute perseverance of solicitation quite commensurate with the ardour of his subsequent literary career. He had received from a companion some account of its contents, and been told that the treasure belonged to a blacksmith’s apprentice who resided at some miles’ distance from his father’s house. The very next morning, Leyden waded through the snow in the hope of being allowed to peruse a part of the volume in the owner’s presence—for he had no title to expect a loan of it in any other way; and that he might have leisure to do so, he set out betimes. On reaching the smithy, learning that the lad had gone from home to do some work, he proceeded to the place, and, having preferred his request, met with a refusal. But he was not to be so dismissed, and continuing beside the lad the whole day, he either succeeded in gaining his good graces, or prevailed by the mere force of pertinacity, so that he got the book as a present, and returned home by sunset, "exhausted by hunger and fatigue," says Sir Walter Scott, "but in triumphant possession of a treasure for which he would have subjected himself to yet greater privations."

At nine years of age Leyden had been sent to the parish school of Kirktown, where, to writing and arithmetic, he added a little knowledge of Latin grammar. He continued here three years, with the interval of two very long vacations, in consequence of the death of one teacher and the removal of another. At these times he assumed the plaid, and looked after his father’s flock when his assistance was needed. His parents now clearly perceived that the bent of their son’s mind was for learning, and he was accordingly placed under the charge of Mr Duncan, a Cameronian minister at Denholm, who instructed a few pupils,—he could not usually draw together more than five or six,—in Greek and Latin. "Of the eagerness of his desire for knowledge," says the Rev. James Morton, "it may not be improper to relate an anecdote which took place at this time: Denholm being about three miles from his home, which was rather too long a walk, his father was going to buy him an ass to convey him to and from school. Leyden, however, was unwilling, from the common prejudice against this animal, to encounter the ridicule of his schoolfellows by appearing so ignobly mounted, and would at first have declined the offered accommodation. But no sooner was he informed that the owner of the ass happened to have in his possession a large book in some learned language, which he offered to give into the bargain, than his reluctance entirely vanished, and he never rested until he had obtained this literary treasure, which was found to be the Calepini Dictionarium Octolingue."

After he had enjoyed the advantage of Mr Duncan’s instructions for two years, it was judged that he was qualified for college; and in November, 1790, his father accompanied him half-way to Edinburgh, with a horse which they rode alternately; he performed the rest of the journey on foot. His views being directed to the church, he began the usual course of study by attending the Greek and Latin classes; in the preparations for which he was assiduous, allotting a stated portion of time daily to the tasks of each professor, and employing the remaining hours in desultory reading, from which, having the command of the college library, he was not deterred, like some young men, by any difficulty of determining which books it would be most proper and advantageous for him to read first. His public appearances threatened at the outset to draw down upon him some degree of ridicule; but professor Dalzell used to describe with some humour, the astonishment and amusement excited in his class when John Leyden first stood up to recite his Greek exercise. The rustic yet undaunted manner, the humble dress, the high harsh tone of his voice, joined to the broad provincial accent of Teviotdale, discomposed on this first occasion the gravity of the professor, and totally routed that of the students. But it was soon perceived that these uncouth attributes were joined to qualities which commanded respect and admiration. The rapid progress of the young rustic attracted the approbation and countenance of the professor, who was ever prompt to distinguish and encouragemerit; and to those among the students who did not admit literary proficiency as a shelter for the ridicule due since the days of Juvenal to the scholar’s worn coat and unfashionable demeanour, Leyden was in no respect averse from showing strong reasons adapted to their comprehension, and affecting their personal safety, for keeping their mirth within decent bounds.[The ensuing part of the present article is borrowed with very slight alterations from a memoir of Dr Leyden, in the Edinburgh Annual Register for 1811—evidently, from its "careless inimitable graces," the composition of Sir Walter Scott.]

The Greek language was long his favourite study, and, considering his opportunities, he became much more intimately acquainted with its best authors than is usual in Scotland, even among those who make some pretensions to literature. The Latin he understood thoroughly; and it is perhaps the best proof of his classical attainments, that at a later period, to use his own expression, "he passed muster pretty well when introduced to Dr Parr."

Leyden was now at the fountain-head of knowledge, and availed himself of former privations by quaffing it in large draughts. He not only attended all the lectures usually connected with the study of theology, but several others, particularly some of the medical classes,—a circumstance which afterwards proved important to his outset in life, although at the time it could only be ascribed to his restless and impatient pursuit after science of every description. Admission to these lectures was easy from the liberality of the professors, who throw their classes gratuitously open to young men educated for the church, a privilege of which Leyden availed himself to the utmost extent. There were indeed few branches of study in which he did not make some progress. Besides the learned languages, he acquired French, Spanish, Italian, and German, was familiar with the ancient Icelandic, and studied Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian.

But though he soon became particularly distinguished by his talents as a linguist, few departments of science altogether escaped his notice. He investigated moral philosophy with the ardour common to all youths of talent who studied ethics under the auspices of professor Dugald Stewart, with whose personal notice he was honoured. He became a respectable mathematician, and was at least superficially acquainted with natural philosophy, natural history, chemistry, botany, and mineralogy. These various sciences he acquired in different degrees, and at different times, during his residence at college. They were the fruit of no very regular plan of study: whatever subject interested his mind at the time attracted his principal attention till time and industry had overcome the difficulties which it presented, and was then exchanged for another pursuit. It seemed frequently to be Leyden’s object to learn just so much of a particular science as should enable him to resume it at any future period; and to those who objected to the miscellaneous, or occasionally the superficial nature of his studies, he used to answer with his favourite interjection, "Dash it, man, never mind; if you have the scaffolding ready, you can run up the masonry when you please." But this mode of study, however successful with John Leyden, cannot be safely recommended to a student of less retentive memory and robust application. With him, however, at least while he remained in Britain, it seemed a matter of little consequence for what length of time he resigned any particular branch of study; for when either some motive or mere caprice induced him to resume it, he could with little difficulty re-unite all the broken associations, and begin where he left off months or years before, without having lost an inch of ground during the interval.

The vacations which our student spent at home were employed in arranging, methodizing, and enlarging the information which he had acquired during his winter’s attendance at college. His father’s cottage affording him little opportunity for quiet and seclusion, he was obliged to look out for accommodations abroad, and some of his places of retreat were sufficiently extraordinary. In a wild recess, in the dean or glen which gives name to the village of Denholm, he contrived a sort of furnace for the purpose of such chemical experiments as it was adequate to performing. But his chief place of retirement was the small parish church, a gloomy and ancient building, generally believed in the neighbourhood to be haunted. To this chosen place of study, usually locked during week-days, Leyden made entrance by means of a window, read there for many hours in the day, and deposited his books and specimens in a retired pew. It was a well chosen spot of seclusion, for the kirk, (excepting during divine service) is rather a place of terror to the Scottish rustic, and that of Cavers was rendered more so by many a tale of ghosts and witchcraft, of which it was the supposed scene; and to which Leyden, partly to indulge his humour, and partly to secure his retirement, contrived to make some modern additions. The nature of his abstruse studies, some specimens of natural history, as toads and adders, left exposed in their spirit vials, and one or two practical jests played off upon the more curious of the peasantry, rendered his gloomy haunt not only venerated by the wise, but feared by the simple, of the parish, who began to account this abstracted student, like the gifted person de scribed by Wordsworth, as possessing

—Waking empire wide as dreams,
An ample sovereignty of eye and ear;
Rich are his walks with supernatural cheer;
The region of his inner spirit teems
With vital sounds, and monitory gleams
Of high astonishment and pleasing fear.

This was a distinction which, as we have already hinted, he was indeed not unwilling to affect, and to which, so far as the visions existing in the high fancy of the poet can supply those ascribed to the actual ghost-seer, he had indeed no slight pretensions.

Books as well as retirement were necessary to the progress of Leyden’s studies, and not always attainable. But his research collected from every quarter such as were accessible by loan, and he subjected himself to the utmost privations to purchase those that were not otherwise to be procured. The reputation also of his prosperous career of learning obtained him occasional access to the library of Mr Douglas of Cavers; an excellent old collection, in which he met, for the first time, many of those works of the middle ages which he studied with so much research and success. A Froissart in particular, translated by lord Berners, captivated his attention with all those tales "to savage virtue dear," which coincided with his taste for chivalry, and with the models on which it had been formed; and tales of the Black Prince, of the valiant Chandos, and of Geoffrey Tete-Noir, now rivalled the legends of Johnnie Armstrang, Walter the Devil, and the Black Douglas.

In the country, Leyden’s society was naturally considerably restricted, but while at college it began to extend itself among such of his fellow students as were distinguished for proficiency in learning. Among these we may number the celebrated author of the Pleasures of Hope; the Rev. Alexander Murray united with Leyden in the kindred pursuit of oriental learning, and whose lamp, like that of his friend, was extinguished at the moment when it was placed in the most conspicuous elevation; William Erskine, author of a poetical epistle from St Kilda, with whom Leyden renewed his friendship in India; the ingenious Dr Thomas Brown, distinguished for his early proficiency in the science of moral philosophy, of which he was afterwards professor in the Edinburgh college; the Rev. Robert Lundie, minister of Kelso, and several other young men of talent, who at that time pursued their studies in the university of Edinburgh.

In the year 1796, the recommendation of professor Dalzell procured Leyden the situation of private tutor to the sons of Mr Campbell of Fairfield, a situation which he retained for two or three years. During the winter of 1798, he attended the two young gentlemen to their studies at the college of St Andrews. Here he had the advantage of the acquaintance of professor Hunter, an admirable classical scholar, and to whose kind instructions he professed much obligation. The secluded situation also of St Andrews, the monastic life of the students, the fragments of antiquity with which that once metropolitan town is surrounded, and the libraries of its colleges, gave him additional opportunity and impulse to pursue his favourite plans of study.

About the time he resided at St Andrews, the renown of Mungo Park, and Leyden’s enthusiastic attachment to all researches connected with oriental learning, turned his thoughts towards the history of Africa, in which he found much to enchant an imagination which loved to dwell upon the grand, the marvellous, the romantic, and even the horrible, and which was rather fired than appalled by the picture of personal danger and severe privation. Africa indeed had peculiar charms for Leyden. He delighted to read of hosts, whose arrows intercepted the sunbeams; of kings and soldiers, who judged of the numberless number of their soldiers by marching them over the trunk of a cedar, and only deemed their strength sufficient to take the field when such myriads had passed as to reduce the solid timber to impalpable dust: the royal halls also of Dahomey, built of sculls and cross-bones, and moistened with the daily blood of new victims of tyranny, all, in short, that presented strange, wild, and romantic views of human nature, and which furnished new and unheard-of facts in the history of man, had great fascination for his ardent imagination. And about this time he used to come into company, quite full of these extraordinary stories, garnished faithfully with the unpronounceable names of the despots and tribes of Africa, which any one at a distance would have taken for the exorcism of a conjurer. The fruit of his researches he gave to the public in a small volume, entitled, "An Historical and Philosophical Sketch of the Discoveries and Settlements of the Europeans in Northern and Western Africa at the close of the 18th century," crown 8vo, 1799. It is written on the plan of Raynal’s celebrated work, and, as it contains a clear and lively abridgment of the information afforded by travellers whose works are of rare occurrence, it was favourably received by the public.

On Leyden’s return to Edinburgh from St Andrews, he resided with his pupils in the family of Mr Campbell, where he was treated with that respect and kindness which every careful father will pay to him whose lessons he expects his children to receive with attention and advantage. His hours, excepting those of tuition, were at his own uncontrolled disposal, and such of his friends as chose to visit him at Mr Campbell’s, were sure of a hospitable reception. This class began now to extend itself among persons of an older standing than his contemporaries, and embraced several who had been placed by fortune, or had risen by exertions, to that fixed station in society, to which his college intimates were as yet only looking forwards. His acquaintance with Mr Richard Heber was the chief means of connecting him with several families of the former description, and it originated in the following circumstances.

John Leyden’s feelings were naturally poetical, and he was early led to express them in the language of poetry. Before he visited St Andrews, and while residing there, he had composed both fragments and complete pieces of poetry in almost every style and stanza which our language affords, from an unfinished tragedy on the fate of the Darien settlement, to songs, ballads, and comic tales. Many of these essays afterwards found their way to the press through the medium of the Edinburgh Magazine, at that time under the management or the patronage of Dr Robert Anderson, editor of the British poets, with whom Leyden was on terms of intimacy. In this periodical miscellany appeared from time to time poetical translations from the Greek Anthology, from the Norse, from the Hebrew, from the Arabic, from the Syriac, from the Persian, and so forth, with many original pieces, indicating more genius than taste, and an extent of learning of most unusual dimensions. These were subscribed J. L. About this time also Mr Archibald Constable was opening business chiefly as a retailer of curious and ancient books, a department in which he possessed extensive knowledge; Mr Richard Heber, the extent of whose invaluable library is generally known, was, in the winter of 1799-1800, residing in Edinburgh, and a frequenter of course of Mr Constable’s shop. In these researches he formed an acquaintance with Leyden, who examined as an amateur, the shelves which Mr Heber ransacked as a purchaser, and the latter discovered with pleasure the unknown author of the poems which have been already alluded to. The acquaintance soon ripened into friendship, and was cemented by mutual advantage. Mr Heber had found an associate as ardent as himself in the pursuit of classical knowledge, and who would willingly sit up night after night to collate editions, and to note various readings; and Leyden, besides the advantage and instruction which he derived from Mr Heber’s society, enjoyed that of being introduced, by his powerful recommendation, to the literary gentlemen of Edinburgh, with whom he lived in intimacy. Among these may be reckoned the late lord Woodhouselee, Mr Henry Mackenzie, the distinguished author of the Man of Feeling, and the Reverend Mr Sidney Smith, then residing in Edinburgh, from all of whom Leyden received flattering attention, and many important testimonies of the interest which they took in his success. By the same introduction he became intimate in the family of Mr Walter Scott, where a congenial taste for ballad, romance, and border antiquities, as well as a sincere admiration of Leyden’s high talents, extensive knowledge, and excellent heart, secured him a welcome reception. And by degrees his society extended itself still more widely, and comprehended almost every one who was distinguished for taste or talents in Edinburgh.

The manners of Leyden, when he first entered into company, were very peculiar; nor indeed were they at any time much modified during his continuing in Europe; and here, perhaps, as properly as elsewhere, we may endeavour to give some idea of his personal appearance and habits in society. In his complexion the clear red upon the cheek indicated a hectic propensity, but with his brown hair, lively dark eyes, and well-proportioned features, gave an acute and interesting turn of expression to his whole countenance. He was of middle stature, of a frame rather thin than strong, but muscular and active, and well fitted for all those athletic exertions in which he delighted to be accounted a master. For he was no less anxious to be esteemed a man eminent for learning and literary talent, than to be held a fearless player at single-stick, a formidable boxer, and a distinguished adept at leaping, running, walking, climbing, and all exercises which depend on animal spirits and muscular exertion. Feats of this nature he used to detail with such liveliness as sometimes led his audience to charge him with exaggeration; but, unlike the athletic in AEsop’s apologue, he was always ready to attempt the repetition of his great leap at Rhodes, were it at the peril of breaking his neck on the spot. And certainly in many cases his spirit and energy carried him through enterprises which his friends considered as most rashly undertaken. An instance occurred on board of ship in India, where two gentlemen, by way of quizzing Leyden’s pretensions to agility, offered him a bet of twenty gold mohrs that he could not go aloft. Our bard instantly betook himself to the shrouds, and, at all the risk incident to a landsman who first attempts such an ascent, successfully scaled the main-top. There it was intended to subject him to an unusual practical sea joke, by seizing him up, i. e. tying him, till he should redeem himself by paying a fine. But the spirit of Leyden dictated desperate resistance, and, finding he was likely to be overpowered, he flung himself from the top, and, seizing a rope, precipitated himself on deck by letting it slide rapidly through his grasp. In this operation he lost the skin of both hands, but of course won his wager. But when he observed his friends look grave at the expensive turn which their jest had taken, he tore and flung into the sea the order for the money which they had given him, and contented himself with the triumph which his spirit and agility had gained. And this little anecdote may illustrate his character in more respects than one.

In society, John Leyden’s first appearance had something that revolted the fastidious and alarmed the delicate. He was a bold and uncompromising disputant, and neither subdued his tone, nor mollified the form of his argument, out of deference to the rank, age, or even sex of those with whom he was maintaining it. His voice, which was naturally loud and harsh, was on such occasions exaggerated into what he himself used to call his saw-tones, which were not very pleasant to the ear of strangers. His manner was animated, his movements abrupt, and the gestures with which he enforced his arguments rather forcible than elegant; so that, altogether, his first appearance was somewhat appalling to persons of low animal spirits, or shy and reserved habits, as well as to all who expected much reverence in society on account of the adventitious circumstances of rank or station. Besides, his spirits were generally at top-flood, and entirely occupied with what had last arrested his attention, and thus his own feats, or his own studies, were his topic more frequently than is consistent with the order of good society, in which every person has a right to expect his share of conversation. He was indeed too much bent on attaining personal distinction in society to choose nicely the mode of acquiring it. For example, in the course of a large evening party, crowded with fashionable people, to many of whom Leyden was an absolute stranger, silence being imposed for the purpose of a song, one of his friends with great astonishment, and some horror, heard Leyden, who could not sing a note, scream forth a verse or two of some border ditty, with all the dissonance of an Indian war-whoop. In their way home, he ventured to remonstrate with his friend on this extraordinary exhibition, to which his defence was, "Dash it, man, they would have thought I was afraid to sing before them." In short, his egotism, his bold assumption in society, his affectation of neglecting many of its forms as trifles beneath his notice—circumstances which often excited against his first appearance and undue and disproportionate prejudice—were entirely founded upon the resolution to support his independence in society, and to assert that character formed between the lettered scholar, and the wild rude borderer, the counter part as it were of Anacharsis, the philosophic Scythian, which, from his infancy, he was ambitious of maintaining. His humble origin was with him rather a subject of honest pride than of false shame, and he was internally not unwilling that his deportment should to a certain degree partake of the simplicity of the ranks from which he had raised himself by his talents, to bear a share in the first society.

Having thus marked strongly the defects of his manner, and the prejudice which they sometimes excited, we crave credit from the public, while we record the real virtues and merits by which they were atoned a thousand fold. Leyden’s apparent harshness of address covered a fund of real affection to his friends, and kindness to all with whom he mingled, unwearied in their service, and watchful to oblige them. To gratify the slightest wish of a friend, he would engage at once in the most toilsome and difficult researches, and when perhaps that friend had forgotten that he even intimated such a wish, Leyden came to pour down before him the fullest information on the subject which had excited his attention. And his temper was in reality, and notwithstanding an affectation of roughness, as gentle as it was generous. No one felt more deeply for the distress of those he loved. No one exhibited more disinterested pleasure in their success. In dispute, he never lost temper, and if he despised the outworks of ceremony, he never trespassed upon the essentials of good breeding, and was himself the first to feel hurt and distressed if he conceived that he had, by any rash or hasty expression, injured the feelings of the most inconsiderable member of the company. In all the rough play of his argument too, he was strictly good-humoured, and was the first to laugh if, as must happen occasionally to those who talk much, and upon every subject, some disputant of less extensive but more accurate information, contrived to arrest him in his very pitch of pride, by a home fact or incontrovertible argument. And, when his high and independent spirit, his firm and steady principles of religion and virtue, his constant good humour, the extent and variety of his erudition, and the liveliness of his conversation, were considered, they must have been fastidious indeed who were not reconciled to the foibles or peculiarities of his tone and manner.

Many of those whose genius has raised them to distinction, have fallen into the fatal error of regarding their wit and talents as an excuse for the unlimited indulgence of their passions, and their biographers have too frequently to record the acts of extravagance, and habits of immorality, which disgraced and shortened their lives. From such crimes and follies John Leyden stood free and stainless. He was deeply impressed with the truths of Christianity, of which he was at all times a ready and ardent asserter, and his faith was attested by the purity of morals which is its best earthly evidence. To the pleasures of the table he was totally indifferent, never exceeded the bounds of temperance in wine, though frequently in society where there was temptation to do so, and seemed hardly to enjoy any refreshment excepting tea, of which he sometimes drank very large quantities. [A lady whose house he frequented, mentioned to a friend of the editor that she had filled him out eighteen cups in one evening.] When he was travelling or studying, his temperance became severe abstinence, and he often passed an entire day without any other food than a morsel of bread. To sleep he was equally indifferent, and when, during the latter part of his residence in Edinburgh, he frequently spent the day in company, he used, upon retiring home, to pursue his studies till a late hour in the morning, and satisfy himself with a very brief portion of repose. It was the opinion of his friends, that his strict temperance alone could have enabled him to follow so hard a course of reading as he enjoined himself. His pecuniary resources were necessarily much limited; but he knew that independence, and the title of maintaining a free and uncontrolled demeanour in society can only be attained by avoiding pecuniary embarrassments, and he managed his funds with such severe economy, that he seemed always at ease upon his very narrow income. We have only another trait to add to his character as a member of society. With all his bluntness and peculiarity, and under disadvantages of birth and fortune, Leyden’s reception among females of rank and elegance was favourable in a distinguished degree. Whether it is that the tact of the fair sex is finer than ours, or that they more readily pardon peculiarity in favour of originality, or that an uncommon address and manner is in itself a recommendation to their favour, or that they are not so readily offended as the male sex by a display of superior learning; in short, whatever were the cause, it is certain that Leyden was a favourite among those whose favour all are ambitious to attain. Among the ladies of distinction who honoured him with their regard, it is sufficient to notice the late duchess of Gordon and lady Charlotte Campbell (now Bury), who were then leaders of the fashionable society of Edinburgh. It is time to return to trace the brief events of his life.

In 1800, Leyden was ordained a preacher of the gospel, and entered upon the functions then conferred upon him, by preaching in several of the churches in Edinburgh and the neighbourhood. His style of pulpit oratory was marked with the same merits and faults which distinguish his poetry. His style was more striking than eloquent, and his voice and gesture more violent than elegant; but his discourses were marked with strong traits of original genius, and although he pleaded an internal feeling of disappointment at being unequal to attain his own ideas of excellence as a preacher, it was impossible to listen to him without being convinced of his uncommon extent of learning, knowledge of ethics, and sincere zeal for the interest of religion.

The autumn of the same year was employed in a tour to the Highlands and Hebrides, in which Leyden accompanied two young foreigners who had studied at Edinburgh the preceding winter. In this tour he visited all the remarkable places of that interesting part of his native country, and, diverging from the common and more commodious route, visited what are called the rough bounds of the Highlands, and investigated the decaying traditions of Celtic manners and story which are yet preserved in the wild districts of Moidart and Knoidart. The journal which he made on this occasion was a curious monument of his zeal and industry in these researches, and contained much valuable information on the subject of Highland manners and tradition, which is now probably lost to the public. It is remarkable, that after long and painful research in quest of original passages of the poems of Ossian, he adopted an opinion more favourable to their authenticity than has lately prevailed in the literary world. But the confessed infidelity of Macpherson must always excite the strongest suspicion on this subject. Leyden composed, with his usual facility, several detached poems upon Highland traditions, all of which have probably perished, excepting a ballad, founded upon the romantic legend respecting MacPhail of Colonsay and the Mermaid of Correvrecken, inscribed to lady Charlotte Campbell, and published in the third volume of the Border Minstrelsy, which appeared at the distance of about a twelvemonth after the first two volumes. The opening of this ballad exhibits a power of harmonious numbers which has seldom been excelled in English poetry. Nor were these legendary effusions the only fruit of his journey; for, in his passage through Aberdeen, Leyden so far gained the friendship of the venerable professor Beattie, that he obtained his permission to make a transcript from the only existing copy of the interesting poem entitled Albania. This work, which is a panegyric on Scotland in nervous blank verse, written by an anonymous author in the beginning of the eighteenth century, Leyden afterwards republished along with Wilson’s "Clyde," under the title of "Scottish Descriptive Poems," 12 mo, 1802.

In 1801, when Mr Lewis published his Tales of Wonder, Leyden was a contributer to that collection, and furnished the ballad called the Elf-king; and in the following year, he employed himself earnestly in the congenial task of procuring materials for the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, the first publication of Walter Scott. In this labour, he was equally interested by friendship for the editor, and by his own patriotic zeal for the honour of the Scottish borders, and both may be judged of from the following circumstance. An interesting fragment had been obtained of an ancient historical ballad, but the remainder, to the great disturbance of the editor and his coadjutor, was not to be recovered. Two days afterwards, while Mr Scott was sitting with some company after dinner, a sound was heard at a distance like that of the whistling of a tempest through the torn rigging of the vessel which scuds before it. The sounds increased as they approached more near, and Leyden (to the great astonishment of such of the guests as did not know him,) burst into the room, chanting the desiderated ballad with the most enthusiastic gesture, and all the energy of the saw-tones of his voice already commemorated. It turned out, that he had walked between forty and fifty miles and back again, for the sole purpose of visiting an old person who possessed this precious remnant of antiquity. His antiquarian researches and poetic talents were also liberally exerted for the support of this undertaking. To the former, the reader owes in a great measure the Dissertation on Fairy Superstition, which, although arranged and digested by Mr Scott, abounds with instances of such curious reading as Leyden alone had read, and was originally compiled by him; and to the latter the spirited ballads entitled Lord Soulis and the Cout of Keeldar.

Leyden’s next publication was "The Complaynt of Scotland, a new edition of an ancient and singularly rare tract bearing that title, written by an uncertain author, about the year 1548." This curious work was published by Mr Constable in the year 1801. As the tract was itself of a diffuse and comprehensive nature, touching upon many unconnected topics, both of public policy and private life, as well as treating of the learning, the poetry, the music, and the arts of that early period, it gave Leyden an opportunity of pouring forth such a profusion of antiquarian knowledge in the preliminary dissertation, notes, and glossary, as one would have thought could hardly have been accumulated during so short a life, dedicated too to so many and varied studies. The intimate acquaintance which he has displayed with Scottish antiquities of every kind, from manuscript histories and rare chronicles, down to the tradition of the peasant, and the rhymes even of the nursery, evince an extent of research, power of arrangement, and facility of recollection, which has never been equalled in this department.

Meanwhile other pursuits were not abandoned in the study of Scottish antiquities. The Edinburgh Magazine was united in 1802 with the old Scots Magazine, and was now put under the management of Leyden by Mr Constable the publisher. To this publication, during the period of his management, which was about five or six months, he contributed several occasional pieces of prose and poetry, in all of which he was successful, excepting in those where humour was required, which, notwithstanding his unvaried hilarity of temper, Leyden did not possess. He was also, during this year, engaged with his "Scenes of Infancy," a poem which was afterwards published on the eve of his leaving Britain; and in which he has interwoven his own early feelings and recollections with the description and traditional history of his native vale of Teviot.

The friends of Leyden began now to be anxious for his present settlement in life. He had been for two years in orders, and there was every reason to hope that he might soon obtain a church, through the numerous friends and powerful interest which he now possessed. More than one nobleman of high rank expressed a wish to serve him, should any church in their gift become vacant; and, from the recommendation of other friends to those possessed of political interest, he was almost assured of being provided for, by a crown presentation, on some early opportunity. But his eager desire of travelling, and of extending the bounds of literary and geographical knowledge, had become, as he expressed himself to an intimate friend, "his thought by day and his dream by night, and the discoveries of Mungo Park haunted his very slumbers." When the risk was objected to him, he used to answer in a phrase of Ossian, "Dark Cuchullin will be renowned or dead;" and it became hopeless to think that this eager and aspiring spirit could be confined within the narrow sphere, and limited to the humble, though useful duties of a country clergyman. It was therefore now the wish of his friends to turn this irresistible thirst for discovery, into some channel which might at once gratify the predominant desire of his heart, and be attended with some prospect of securing his fortune. It was full time to take such steps; for in 1802 Leyden had actually commenced overtures to the African Society, for undertaking a journey of discovery through the interior of that continent—an enterprise which sad examples have shown to be little better than an act of absolute suicide. To divert his mind from this desperate project, a representation was made to the Right Hon. William Dundas, who had then a seat at the Board of Control, stating the talents and disposition of Leyden, and it was suggested that such a person might be usefully employed in investigating the language and learning of the Indian tribes. Mr Dundas entered with the most liberal alacrity into these views; but it happened, unfortunately as it might seem, that the sole appointment then at his disposal was that of surgeon’s assistant, which could only be held by a person who had taken a surgical degree, and could sustain an examination before the medical board at the India house. It was upon this occasion that Leyden showed, in their utmost extent, his wonderful powers of application and comprehension. He at once intimated his readiness to accept the appointment under the conditions annexed to it, and availing himself of the superficial information he had formerly acquired by a casual attendance upon one or two of the medical classes, he gave his whole mind to the study of medicine and surgery, with the purpose of qualifying himself for his degree in the short space of five or six months. The labour which he underwent on this occasion was incredible; but with the powerful assistance of a gentleman of the highest eminence in his profession, (Mr John Bell of Edinburgh,) he succeeded in acquiring such a knowledge of this complicated and most difficult art, as enabled him to obtain his diploma as surgeon with credit, even in the city of Edinburgh, so long famed for its medical school, and for the wholesome rigour adopted in the distribution of degrees. Leyden was, however, incautious in boasting of his success after so short a course of study, and found himself obliged, in consequence of his imprudence, to relinquish his intention of taking out the degree of M. D. at Edinburgh, and to have recourse to another Scottish university for that step in his profession. Meanwhile the sudden exchange of his profession gave great amusement to some of his friends, especially when a lady having fainted in a crowded assembly, Dr Leyden advanced to her assistance, and went through the usual routine of treatment with all the gravity which beseemed his new faculty. In truth, the immediate object of his studies was always, in season and out of season, predominant in Leyden’s mind, and just about this time he went to the evening party of a lady of the highest rank with the remnants of a human hand in his pocket, which he had been dissecting in the morning, and on some question being stirred about the muscular action, he was with difficulty withheld from producing this grisly evidence in support of the argument which he maintained. The character of Leyden cannot be understood without mentioning those circumstances that are allied to oddity; but it is not so easy to body forth those qualities of energy, application, and intelligence, by which he dignified his extravagancies, and vindicated his assumption of merit, far less to paint his manly, generous, and friendly disposition.

In December 1802, Leyden was summoned to join the Christmas fleet of Indiamen, in consequence of his appointment as assistant-surgeon on the Madras establishment. It was sufficiently understood that his medical character was only assumed to bring him within the compass of Mr Dundas’s patronage, and that his talents should be employed in India with reference to his literary researches. He was, however, pro forma, nominated to the Madras hospital. While awaiting this call, he bent his whole energies to the study of the oriental languages, and amused his hours of leisure by adding to the Scenes of Infancy, many of those passages addressed to his friends, and bearing particular reference to his own situation on the eve of departure from Scotland, which, flowing warm from the heart, constitute the principal charm of that impressive poem. Mr James Ballantyne, an early and intimate friend of Leyden, had just then established in Edinburgh his press, which afterwards became so distinguished. To the critical skill of a valued and learned friend, and to the friendly as well as professional care of Ballantyne, Leyden committed this last memorial of his love to his native land. The last sheets reached him before he left Britain, no more to return.

About the middle of December, John Leyden left Edinburgh, but not exactly at the time he had proposed. He had taken a solemn farewell of his friends, and gone to Roxburghshire to bid adieu to his parents, whom he regarded with the most tender filial affection, and from thence he intended to have taken his departure for London without returning to Edinburgh. Some accident changed his purpose, and his unexpected arrival in Edinburgh was picturesque and somewhat startling. A party of his friends had met in the evening to talk over his merits, and to drink, in Scottish phrase, his Bonallie. While about the witching hour they were crowning a solemn bumper to his health, a figure burst into the room, muffled in a seaman’s cloak and travelling cap, covered with snow, and distinguishable only by the sharpness and ardour of the tone with which he exclaimed, "Dash it, boys, here I am again!" The start with which this unexpected apparition was received, was subject of great mirth at the time, and the circumstance was subsequently recalled by most of the party with that mixture of pleasure and melancholy which attaches to the particulars of a last meeting with a beloved and valuable friend.

In London, the kindness of Mr Heber, his own reputation, and the recommendation of his Edinburgh friends, procured Leyden much kindness and attention among persons of rank and literary distinction. His chief protector and friend, however, was Mr George Ellis, the well-known editor of the Specimens of Ancient English Poetry. To this gentleman he owed an obligation of the highest possible value, in a permission which he kindly granted him to change, on account of illness, from one vessel to another, the former being afterwards unfortunately cast away in going down the river, when many of the passengers were drowned.

After this providential exchange of destination, the delay of the vessel to which he was transferred, permitted his residence in London until the beginning of April, 1803, an interval which he spent in availing himself of the opportunities which he now enjoyed, of mixing in the most distinguished society in the metropolis, where the novelty and good humour of his character made ample amends for the native bluntness of his manners. In the beginning of April, he sailed from Portsmouth, in the Hugh Inglis, where he had the advantage of being on board the same vessel with Mr Robert Smith, the brother of his steady friend, the Rev. Mr Sidney Smith. And thus set forth on his voyage perhaps the first British traveller that ever sought India, moved neither by the love of wealth nor of power, and who, despising alike the luxuries commanded by the one, and the pomp attached to the other, was guided solely by the wish of extending our knowledge of oriental literature, and distinguishing himself as its most successful cultivator. This pursuit he urged through health and through sickness, unshaken by all the difficulties arising from imperfect communication with the natives, from their prejudices and those of their European masters, and from frequent change of residence; unmoved either by the charms of pleasure, of wealth, or of that seducing indolence to which many men of literature have yielded after overcoming all other impediments. To this pursuit he finally fell a sacrifice, as devoted a martyr in the cause of science, as ever died in that of religion. We are unable to trace his Indian researches and travels with accuracy similar to that with which we have followed those which preceded his departure from Europe, but we are enabled to state the following outlines of his fortune in the East.

After a mutiny in the vessel, which was subdued by the exertions of the officers and passengers, and in which Leyden distinguished himself by his coolness and intrepidity, the Hugh Inglis arrived at Madras, and he was transferred to the duties of his new profession. His nomination as surgeon to the commissioners appointed to survey the ceded districts, seemed to promise ample opportunities for the cultivation of oriental learning. But his health gave way under the fatigues of the climate; and he has pathetically recorded, in his "Address to an Indian Gold Coin," the inroads which were made on his spirits and constitution. He was obliged to leave the presidency of Madras, suffering an accumulation of diseases, and reached with difficulty Prince of Wales Island. During the passage the vessel was chased by a French privateer, which was the occasion of Leyden’s composing, in his best style of border enthusiasm, an "Ode to a Malay cris," or dagger, the only weapon which his reduced strength now admitted of his wielding. The following letter to Mr Ballantyne, dated from Prince of Wales Island, 24th October, 1805, gives a lively and interesting account of his occupations during the first two years of his residence in India.

"Puloo Penang, October 24th, 1805.

"My dear Ballantyne,—Finding an extra Indiaman, the Revenge, which has put into this harbour in distress, bound to Europe, I take another opportunity of attempting to revive, or rather commence, an intercourse with my European friends, for since my arrival in India I have never received a single scrap from one of them,—Proh Deum! Mr Constable excepted and my friend Erskine writes me from Bombay, that none of you have received the least intelligence of my motions since I left Europe. This is to me utterly astonishing and incomprehensible, considering the multitude of letters and parcels that I have despatched from Mysore, especially during my confinement for the liver disease at Seriagapatam, where I had for some months the honour of inhabiting the palace of Tippoo’s prime minister. I descended into Malabar in the beginning of May, in order to proceed to Bombay, and perhaps eventually up the Persian gulf as far as Bassorah, in order to try the effect of a sea voyage. I was, however, too late, and the rains had set in, and the last vessels sailed two or three days before my arrival. As I am always a very lucky fellow, as well as an unlucky one, which all the world knows, it so fell out that the only vessel which sailed after my arrival was wrecked, while some secret presentiment, or rather "sweet little cherub, that sits up aloft," prevented my embarking on board of her. I journeyed leisurely down to Calicut from Cananore, intending to pay my respects to the Cutwall, and the Admiral, so famous in the Lusiad of Camoens; but only think of my disappointment when I found that the times are altered, and the tables turned with respect to both these sublime characters. The Cutwall is only a species of boroughbailiff, while the Admiral, God help him, is only the chief of the fishermen. From Calicut I proceeded to Paulgaut-cherry, which signifies, in the Tamal language, "the town of the forest of palms," which is exactly the meaning of Tadmor, the name of a city founded by Solomon, not for the queen of Sheba, but, as it happened, for the equally famous queen Zenobia. Thus having demonstrated that Solomon understood the Tamal language, we may proceed to construct a syllogism in the following manner: "Solomon understood the Tamal language, and he was wise,—I understand the Tamal language, therefore I am as wise as Solomon!" I fear you logical lads of Europe will be very little disposed to admit the legitimacy of the conclusion; but, however the matter may stand in Europe, I can assure you it’s no bad reasoning for India. At Paulgaut-cherry I had a most terrible attack of the liver, and should very probably have passed away, or, as the Indians say, changed my climate—an elegant periphrasis for dying, however—had I not obstinately resolved on living to have the pleasure of being revenged on all of you for your obstinate silence and ‘perseverance therein to the end.’ Hearing about the middle of August, that a Bombay cruiser had touched at Aleppo, between Quilod and Cochin, I made a desperate push through the jungles of the Cochin Rajah’s country, in order to reach her, and arrived about three hours after she had set sail. Any body else would have died of chagrin, if they had not hanged themselves outright. I did neither one nor the other, but ‘tuned my pipes and played a spring to John o’ Badenyon;’ after which I set myself coolly down and translated the famous Jewish tablets of brass, preserved in the synagogue of Cochin ever since the days of Methusalem. Probably you may think this no more difficult a task than decyphering the brazen tablet on any door of Princes or Queen street. But here I beg your pardon; for, so far from any body, Jew, Pagan, or Christian, having ever been able to do this before, I assure you the most learned men of the world have never been able to decide in what language or in what alphabet they were written. As the character has for a long time been supposed to be antediluvian, it has for a long time been as much despaired of as the Egyptian hieroglyphics. So much was the diwan or grand vizier, if you like it, of Travancore astonished at the circumstance, that he gave me to understand that I had only to pass through the Sacred Cow in order to merit adoption into the holy order of bramins. I was forced, however, to decline the honour of the sacred cow, for unluckily Phalaris’ bull and Moses’ calf presented themselves to my imagination, and it occurred to me that perhaps the Ram-rajah’s cow might be a beast of the breed. Being on the eve of a new attack of the liver, I was forced to leave Travancore with great precipitation, in the first vessel that presented itself, a Mapilla brig, bound to Puloo Penang, the newly erected presidency on the Straits of Malacca, where I have just arrived, after a perverse pestilent voyage, in which I have been terribly ill of revulsions of bile and liver, without any of the conveniences which are almost necessary to an European in these parts, and particularly to an invalid. We have had a very rough passage, the cabin very often all afloat, while I have been several times completely drenched. In addition to this we have been pursued by a Frenchman, and kept in a constant state of alarm and agitation; and now, to mend the matter, I am writing you at a kind of naval tavern, while all around me is ringing with the vociferation of tarpaulins, the hoarse bawling of sea oaths, and the rattling of the dice-box. However, I flatter myself I have received considerable benefit from the voyage, tedious and disgusting and vexatious as it has been. * * *

"You know when I left Scotland, I had determined at all events to become a furious orientalist, "nemini secundus," but I was not aware of the difficulty. I found the expense of native teachers would prove almost insurmountable to a mere assistant surgeon, whose pay is seldom equal to his absolutely necessary expenses; and, besides, that it was necessary to form a library of MSS. at a most terrible expense, in every language to which I should apply, if I intended to proceed beyond a mere smattering. After much consideration, I determined on this plan at all events, and was fortunate enough in a few months to secure an appointment, which furnished me with the means of doing so, though the tasks and exertions it imposed on me were a good deal more arduous than the common duties of a surgeon even in a Mahratta campaign, I was appointed medical assistant to the Mysore survey, and at the same time directed to carry on inquiries concerning the natural history of the country, and the manners and languages, &c., of the natives of Mysore. This, you would imagine, was the very situation I wished for, and so it would, had I previously had time to acquire the country languages. But I had them now to acquire after severe marches and counter-marches in the heat of the sun, night-marches and day-marches, and amid the disgusting details of a field hospital, the duties of which were considerably arduous. However, I wrought incessantly and steadily, and without being discouraged by any kind of difficulty, till my health absolutely gave way, and when I could keep the field no longer, I wrought on my couch, as I generally do still, though I am much better than I have been. As I had the assistance of no intelligent Europeans, I was obliged long to grope my way; but I have now acquired a pretty correct idea of India in all its departments, which increases in geometrical progression as I advance in the languages. The languages that have attracted my attention since my arrival have been Arabic, Persic, Hindostanee, Mahratta, Tamal, Telinga, Canara, Sanscrit, Malayalam, Malay, and Armenian. You will be ready to ask where I picked up these hard names, but I assure you it is infinitely more difficult to pick up the languages themselves; several of which include dialects as different from each other as French or Italian from Spanish or Portuguese; and in all these, I flatter myself, I have made considerable progress. What would you say, were I to add the Maldivian and Mapella languages to these? Besides, I have decyphered the inscriptions of Mavalipoorani, which were written in an ancient Canara character that had hitherto defied all attempts at understanding it, and also several Lada Lippi inscriptions, which is an ancient Tamal dialect and character, in addition to the Jewish tablets of Cochin, which were in the ancient Malayalam, generally termed Malabar. I enter into these details merely to show you that I have not been idle, and that my time has neither been dissipated, nor devoid of plan, though that plan is not sufficiently unfolded. To what I have told you of, you are to add constant and necessary exposure to the sun, damps and dews from the jungles, and putrid exhalations of marshes, before I had been properly accustomed to the climate, constant rambling in the haunts of tigers, leopards, bears, and serpents of 30 or 40 feet long, that make nothing of swallowing a buffalo, by way of demonstrating their appetite, in a morning, together with smaller and more dangerous snakes, whose haunts are dangerous, and bite deadly; and you have a faint idea of a situation, in which, with health, I lived as happy as the day was long. It was occasionally diversified with rapid jaunts of a hundred miles or so, as fast as horses or bearers could carry me, by night or day, swimming through rivers, afloat in an old brass kettle, at midnight! O! I could tell you adventures to outrival the witch of Endor, or any witch that ever swam in egg-shell or sieve; but you would undoubtedly imagine I wanted to impose on you were I to relate what I have seen and passed through. No! I certainly shall never repent of having come to India. It has awakened energies in me that I scarcely imagined I possessed, though I could gnaw my living nails with pure vexation to think how much I have been thwarted by indisposition. If, however, I get over it, I shall think the better of my constitution as long as I live. It is not every constitution that can resist the combined attack of liver, spleen, bloody flux, and jungle fever, which is very much akin to the plague of Egypt, and yellow fever of America. It is true I have been five times given up by the most skilful physicians in these parts; but in spite of that, I am firmly convinced that "my doom is not to die this day." You are to commend me kindly to your good motherly mother, and tell her I wish I saw her oftener, and then to your brother Alexander, and request him sometimes, on a Saturday night, precisely at eight o’clock, for my sake, to play "Gingling Johnny" on his flageolet. If I had you both in my tent, you should drink yourself drunk with wine of Shiraz, which is our eastern Falernian, in honour of Hafiz, our Persian Anacreon. As for me, I often drink your health in water, (ohon a ree!) having long abandoned both wine and animal food, not from choice, but dire necessity.—Adieu, dear Ballantyne, and believe me, in the Malay isle, to be ever yours sincerely, JOHN LEYDEN."

Leyden soon became reconciled to Puloo Penang (or Prince of Wales Island), where he found many valuable friends and enjoyed the regard of the late Philip Dundas, Esq., then governor of the island. He resided in that island for some time, and visited Achi, with some other places on the coasts of Sumatra, and the Malayan peninsula. Here he amassed the curious information concerning the language, literature, and descent of the Indi-Chinese tribes, which afterwards enabled him to lay before the Asiatic Society at Calcutta a most valuable dissertation on so obscure a subject. Yet that his heart was sad, and his spirits depressed, is evident from the following lines, written for new-year’s day, 1806, and which appeared in the Government Gazette of Prince of Wales Island.

Malaya’s woods and mountains ring
With voices strange and sad to hear
And dark unbodied spirits sing
The dirge of the departed year.

Lo! now, methinks, in tones sublime,
As viewless o’er our heads they bend,
They whisper, "Thus we steal your time,
Weak mortals, till your days shall end."

Then wake the dance, and wake the song,
Resound the festive mirth and glee
Alas! the days have pass’d along,
The days we never more shall see.

But let me brush the nightly dews,
Beside the shell-depainted shore,
And mid the sea-weed sit to muse
On days that shall return no more.

Olivia, ah! forgive the bard,
If sprightly strains alone are dear;
His notes are sad, for he has heard
The footsteps of the parting year.

‘Mid friends of youth beloved in vain,
Oft have I hailed the jocund day;
If pleasure brought a thought of pain,
I charmed it with a passing lay.

Friends of my youth for ever dear,
Where are you from this bosom fled?
A lonely man I linger here,
Like one that has been long time dead.

Foredoomed to seek an early tomb,
For whom the pallid grave-flowers blow,
I hasten on my destined doom,
And sternly mock at joy or woe!

In 1806, he took leave of Penang, regretted by many friends, whom his eccentricities amused, his talents enlightened, and his virtues conciliated. His reception at Calcutta, and the effect which he produced upon society there, are so admirably illustrated by his ingenious and well-known countryman, Sir John Malcolm, that it would be impossible to present a more living picture of his manners and mind, and the reader will pardon some repetition for the sake of observing how the same individual was regarded in two distant hemispheres.


"It is not easy to convey an idea of the method which Dr Leyden used in his studies, or to describe the unconquerable ardour with which these were pursued.—During his early residence in India, I had a particular opportunity of observing both. When he read a lesson in Persian, a person near him, whom he had taught, wrote down each word on a long slip of paper, which was afterwards divided into as many pieces as there were words, and pasted in alphabetical order, under different heads of verbs, nouns, &c., into a blank book that formed a vocabulary of each day’s lesson. All this he had in a few hours instructed a very ignorant native to do; and this man he used, in his broad accent, to call ‘one of his mechanical aids.’ He was so ill at Mysore, soon after his arrival from England, that Mr Anderson, the surgeon who attended him, despaired of his life; but though all his friends endeavoured at this period to prevail upon him to relax in his application to study, it was in vain. He used, when unable to sit upright, to prop himself up with pillows, and continue his translations. One day that I was sitting by his bedside, the surgeon came in.—‘I am glad you are here,’ said Mr Anderson, addressing himself to me, ‘you will be able to persuade Leyden to attend to my advice. I have told him before, and now I repeat, that he will die if he does not leave off his studies and remain quiet.’ ‘Very well, doctor,’ exclaimed Leyden, ‘you have done your duty, but you must now hear me: I cannot be idle, and whether I die or live, the wheel must go round till the last;’ and he actually continued, under the depression of a fever and a liver complaint, to study more than ten hours each day.

"The temper of Dr Leyden was mild and generous, and he could bear with perfect good humour, raillery on his foibles. When he arrived at Calcutta in 1805, I was most solicitous regarding his reception in the society of the Indian capital. ‘I entreat you, my dear friend,’ I said to him the day he landed, ‘to be careful of the impression you make on your entering this community; for God’s sake learn a little English, and be silent upon literary subjects, except among literary men.’ ‘Learn English!’ he exclaimed, ‘no, never; it was trying to learn that language that spoilt my Scotch; and as to being silent, I will promise to hold my tongue, if you will make fools hold theirs.’

"His memory was most tenacious, and he sometimes loaded it with lumber. When he was at Mysore, an argument occurred upon a point of English history; it was agreed to refer it to Leyden, and to the astonishment of all parties, he repeated verbatim the whole of an act of parliament in the reign of James relative to Ireland, which decided the point in dispute.—On being asked how he came to charge his memory with such extraordinary matter, he said that several years before, when he was writing on the changes that had taken place in the English language, this act was one of the documents to which he had referred as a specimen of the style of that age, and that he had retained every word in his memory.

"His love of the place of his nativity was a passion in which he had always a pride, and which in India he cherished with the fondest enthusiasm. I once went to see him when he was very ill, and had been confined to his bed for many days; there were several gentlemen in the room; he inquired if I had any news; I told him I had a letter from Eskdale; and what are they about in the borders? he asked. A curious circumstance, I replied, is stated in my letter; and I read him a passage which described the conduct of our volunteers on a fire being kindled by mistake at one of the beacons. This letter mentioned that the moment the blaze, which was the signal of invasion, was seen, the mountaineers hastened to their rendezvous, and those of Liddesdale swam the Liddle river to reach it.—They were assembled (though several of their houses were at a distance of six and seven miles,) in two hours, and at break of day the party marched into the town of Hawick (at a distance of twenty miles from the place of assembly,) to the border tune of ‘Wha daur meddle wi’ me?’ Leyden’s countenance became animated as I proceeded with this detail, and at its close he sprung from his sick-bed, and, with much strange melody, and still stranger gesticulations, sung aloud, ‘Wha daur meddle wi’ me? wha daur meddle wi’ me?’—Several of those who witnessed this scene looked at him as one that was raving in the delirium of a fever.

"These anecdotes will display more fully than any description I can give, the lesser shades of the character of this extraordinary man. An external manner, certainly not agreeable, and a disposition to egotism, were his only defects. How trivial do these appear, at a moment when we are lamenting the loss of such a rare combination of virtues, learning, and genius, as were concentrated in the late Dr Leyden!


We have little to add to General Malcolm’s luminous and characteristic sketch. The efficient and active patronage of Lord Minto, himself a man of letters, a poet, and a native of Teviotdale, was of the most essential importance to Leyden, and no less honourable to the governor-general. Leyden’s first appointment as a professor in the Bengal college might appear the sort of promotion best suited to his studies, but was soon exchanged for that of a judge of the twenty-four Purgunnahs of Calcutta. In this capacity he had a charge of police which "jumped with his humour well;" for the task of pursuing and dispersing the bands of robbers who infest Bengal had something of active and military duty. He also exercised a judicial capacity among the natives, to the discharge of which he was admirably fitted, by his knowledge of their language, manners, and customs. To this office a very considerable yearly income was annexed. This was neither expended in superfluities, nor even in those ordinary expenses which the fashion of the East has pronounced indispensable, for Dr Leyden kept no establishment, gave no entertainments, and was, with the receipt of this revenue, the very same simple, frugal, and temperate student, which he had been at Edinburgh. But, exclusive of a portion remitted home for the most honourable and pious purpose, his income was devoted to the pursuit which engaged his whole soul; to the increase, namely, of his acquaintance with eastern literature in all its branches. The expense of native teachers, of every country and dialect, and that of procuring from every quarter oriental manuscripts, engrossed his whole emoluments, as the task of studying under the tuition of the interpreters, and decyphering the contents of the volumes, occupied every moment of his spare time. "I may die in the attempt," he writes to a friend, "but if I die without surpassing Sir William Jones a hundred fold in oriental learning, let never a tear for me profane the eye of a borderer." The term was soon approaching when these regrets were to be bitterly called forth, both from his Scottish friends, and from all who viewed with interest the career of his ardent and enthusiastic genius, which, despising every selfish consideration, was only eager to secure the fruits of knowledge, and held for sufficient reward the fame of having gathered them.

Dr Leyden accompanied the governor-general upon the expedition to Java (August 1811) for the purpose of investigating the manners, language, and literature of the tribes which inhabit that island, and partly also because it was thought his extensive knowledge of the eastern dialects and customs might be useful in settling the government of the country, or in communicating with the independent princes in the neighbourhood of the Dutch settlements. His spirit of romantic adventure led him literally to rush upon death; for, with another volunteer who attended the expedition, he threw himself into the surf, in order to be the first Briton of the expedition who should set foot upon Java. When the success of the well-concerted movements of the invaders had given them possession of the town of Batavia, Leyden displayed the same ill-omened precipitation in his haste to examine a library in which many Indian manuscripts of value were said to be deposited. A library, in a Dutch settlement, was not, as might have been expected, in the best order, the apartment had not been regularly ventilated, and, either from this circumstance, or already affected by the fatal sickness peculiar to Batavia, Leyden, when he left the place, had a fit of shivering and declared the atmosphere was enough to give any mortal a fever. The presage was too just; he took his bed, and died in three days (August 28), on the eve of the battle which gave Java to the British empire.

Thus died John Leyden, in the moment, perhaps, most calculated to gratify the feelings which were dear to his heart; upon the very day of military glory and when every avenue of new and interesting discovery was opened to his penetrating research. In the emphatic words of Scripture, "the bowl was broken at the fountain." His literary remains were intrusted by his last will to the charge of Mr Heber, and Dr Hare of Calcutta, his executors. They are understood to contain two volumes of poetry, with many essays on oriental and general literature. His remains, honoured with every respect by lord Minto, now repose in a distant land, far from the green-sod graves of his ancestors at Hazeldean, to which, with a natural anticipation of such an event, he bids an affecting farewell in the solemn passage which concludes the Scenes of Infancy.

The silver moon, at midnight cold and still,
Looks, sad and silent, o’er yon western hill;
While large and pale the ghostly structures grow,
Reared on the confines of the world below.
Is that dull sound the hum of Teviot’s stream?
Is that blue light the moon’s or tomb-fire’s gleam,
By which a mouldering pile is faintly seen,
The old deserted church of Hazeldean,
Where slept my fathers in their natal clay,
Till Teviot’s waters roll’d their bones away?
Their feeble voices from the stream they raise,
"Rash youth! unmindful of thy early days,
Why didst thou quit the peasant’s simple lot?
Why didst thou leave the peasant’s turf-built cot,
The ancient graves, where all thy fathers lie,
And Teviot’s stream, that long has murmured by?
And we—when Death so long has closed our eyes
How wilt thou bid us from the dust arise,
And bear our mouldering bones across the main,
From vales, that knew our lives devoid of stain?
Rash youth! beware, thy home-bred virtues save,
And sweetly sleep in thy paternal grave!"

Such is the language of nature, moved by the kindly associations of country and of kindred affections. But the best epitaph is the story of a life engaged in the practice of virtue and the pursuit of honourable knowledge; the best monument, the regret of the worthy and of the wise; and the rest may be summed up in the sentiment of Sannazario.

To this eloquent and highly picturesque memoir, upon which we have drawn so largely, it is only to be added; that the Poetical Remains of Dr Leyden were published in one volume 8vo, in 1819, with a memoir by the Rev. James Morton; and that another posthumous work, entitled Memoirs of the Emperor Baber, and commemorating for the first time an Indian hero little inferior to Caesar or Napoleon, but, heretofore, totally unknown in Europe, in which he had had the co-operation of his friend, Mr William Erskine, appeared at Edinburgh in 1826.

Life of Dr. John Leyden
Poet and Linguist by John Reith, M.A., B.D.

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