Hugh Blair Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Hugh Blair 1718–1800

Scottish preacher, professor, rhetorician, and literary critic.

Hugh Blair is known primarily for his book Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), which originated as a series of lectures on composition and rhetoric that he delivered at the University of Edinburgh for almost a quarter-century. Lectures was translated into many languages, becoming an internationally acknowledged text used to educate generations of students. Blair also took center stage in the literary controversy of the day, garnering dubious honors for his essay A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, the son of Fingal (1763), in which he staunchly, but erroneously, defended the authenticity of the poems translated by James Macpherson. Blair was one of the leading members of the Moderate clergy and was considered to be the most popular preacher of eighteenth-century Scotland. His sermons were valued for their warmth, eloquence, and sound morality; several volumes of his Sermons (1777-1801) were published worldwide. The overwhelming success of Lectures and Sermons ensured that Blair's views on matters of literature, morality, and taste held sway well into the nineteenth century.

Biographical Information

Born on April 7, 1718 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Blair was the only child of John Blair and Martha Ogston. At the age of eight, Blair attended the High School of Edinburgh, undertaking a rigorous five-year course of study that included grammar, Latin, and classical rhetoric. In the autumn of 1730, he entered the University of Edinburgh, where he eventually earned a Master of Arts degree. In 1741, the Presbytery of Edinburgh licensed Blair to preach, and he was soon called to serve in a number of prominent churches. Blair married his cousin and childhood companion, Katherine Bannatine in 1748. He kept company with the leading literary men of Edinburgh, becoming friends with David Hume, Adam Smith, Alexander Carlyle, and Henry Home, Lord Kames. Intent on advancing cultural interests, they formed various literary organizations such as the Select Society, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the spirited Poker Club. At the age of forty, Blair became the Minister of the High Church of St. Giles in Edinburgh, the most distinguished pulpit in eighteenth-century Scotland. In 1759 Blair began his public lectures

on composition and rhetoric in Edinburgh, and soon established his reputation as a teacher. King George III, impressed by Blair's achievements, appointed him the first Regius Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at the University of Edinburgh in 1762. Blair delivered his lectures to eager students for the next twenty-one years. Shortly after Blair's retirement in 1783, incomplete and often inaccurate copies of students' notes of the lectures began to circulate, so he determined to publish them as Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in order that they might be preserved in their entirety. Despite Blair's advancing years, he continued to assist aspiring writers who came to him for advice or judgment of their work, including poet Robert Burns. Blair died after a short illness on December 27, 1800. He is buried near Greyfriars Church.

Major Works

Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres is comprised of forty-seven lectures that cover such topics as taste, language, style, eloquence, critical analysis, and the rules of composition. Blair distilled the teachings of such writers as Aristotle, Longinus, Cicero, and Quintilian and merged them with his own thoughts, maintaining that while the lectures were not "wholly original," neither were they merely a compilation of others' work. At a time when interest in literature and the teaching of writing and speaking were piqued, Blair's lectures offered the most comprehensive view of the subject. Blair also embarked on a number of literary projects, editing an eight-volume edition of the Works of Shakespear (1753), the first to be issued in Scotland, as well as the volume Sermons on Several Important Subjects (1753), a collection of the late Frederick Carmichael's sermons. In 1763, Blair found himself embroiled in the authorship controversy that surrounded James Macpherson's translations of the poems of Ossian, a third-century Scottish poet. Blair had previously edited Macpherson's Fragments of Ancient Poetry, and had provided him with financial support to further his search for Gaelic poetry. Convinced of the Ossian poems' authenticity, Blair defended their beauty and antiquity in A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, the son of Fingal (1763), going so far as to compare them to the works of Homer. The debate raged on, however, and Blair further attempted to sway the naysayers by expanding his original text and adding an appendix which contained the results of an inquiry he had conducted and vouchers of Ossianic authenticity. His new Dissertation (1765) was published with the second edition of Ossian. The poems were later found to have been the work of Macpherson. In 1762, Blair supervised the forty-four volume edition of The British Poets, an anthology that contained works by twenty-one representative poets, including Milton, Swift, and Addison, among others. By 1777, Blair had published his first volume of Sermons. Three more volumes soon followed. At the age of 82, Blair recomposed many of his sermons for a fifth volume of Sermons, which was printed posthumously in 1801 as part of a five-volume set.

Critical Reception

Translated into French, German, Italian, Dutch, and Spanish, Blair's Lectures became an internationally known textbook on rhetorical theory and literature. Indeed, more than one hundred and thirty editions were published after 1783. In spite of the book's popularity, many critics have faulted Blair's lack of originality and failure to develop his own rhetorical theory. While George Saintsbury praised Blair's survey of Belle Lettres as "ingenious and correct," he assailed Blair's general view of literature, claiming that "the eighteenth-century blinkers are drawn as close as possible," and accused him of "positive historical ignorance." Harold F. Harding, however, has defended Blair's elementary approach, pointing out that his task was a limited one—to help students become proficient in the art of writing—and that he "knew he was speaking to college students, most of whom were lads of fifteen or a little older." Moreover, in response to insinuations that Blair plagiarized the lectures of Adam Smith, which Blair had attended in 1748, Harding has argued that although striking similarities between Blair's notes and Smith's lectures exist, the differences in content and style are significant enough to negate such charges.

Despite the heated debate over the authenticity of the Ossian poems, Blair's Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian was held in high esteem at the time it was published; in fact, it made him famous throughout Europe. But G. H. Cowling echoed the sentiments of most critics when he stated that Blair had defended the poems "with more patriotism than judgement and with more enthusiasm than taste…." Saintsbury further condemned Blair's Dissertation as "absolutely uncritical," faulting him for failing to examine any evidence regarding the authenticity of the Ossian poems. Nevertheless, the essay is still included as a preface to most editions of Macpherson's Poems of Ossian.

Blair's five volumes of Sermons, advocating tolerance, politeness, and the gospel of sensibility, were counted among the century's best sellers not only in Scotland, but in England and America as well. Numerous editions were published and many nineteenth-century anthologies reprinted individual sermons. Critic John Dwyer has attributed Blair's popularity as a Scottish moralist to "the fact that [his] pulpit discourse hit the mood and fashion of the times." His sentimental sermons, however, fell out of favor with the advent of the Victorian era's religious fervor.