Hugh Blair Essay - Critical Essays

Blair, Hugh


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.

Principal Works

A Poem Sacred to the Memory of the Reverend Mr. James Smith, Principal of the University of Edinburgh, and one of the Ministers of the City (poem) 1736

Dissertatio Philosophica Inauguralis, De Fundamentis & Obligatione Legis Naturae: … (essay) 1739

The Wrath of Man Praising God (sermon) 1746

The Resurrection [with George Bannatine under the joint pseudonym William Douglas, M.D.] (poem) 1747

The Importance of Religious Knowledge to the Happiness of Mankind (sermon) 1750

The Works of Shakespear 8 vols. [editor] (drama) 1753

Sermons on Several Important Subjects [editor] (sermon) 1753

Observations on a Pamphlet, entitled An Analysis of the Moral and Religious Sentiments contained in the Writings of Sopho, [ie. Lord Kames], and David Hume, Esq; &c. (essay) 1755

Objections against the Essays on Morality and Natural Religion Examined (essay) 1756

Fragments of Ancient Poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland and translated from the Galic or Erse Language [editor] (poetry) 1760

*A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, the son of Fingal (criticism) 1763

The British Poets [editor] (poetry) 1773

Sermons Vol. I-IV (sermons) 1777-94

Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres 2 vols. (lectures) 1783

The Compassion and Beneficence of the Deity (sermon) 1796

Sermons 5 vols. (sermons) 1801

*A revised version of A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, the son of Fingal, in which Blair expanded the text and added an appendix, was published with the second edition of Macpherson's Ossian in 1765.


Anonymous (essay date 1800)

SOURCE: "Dr. Hugh Blair," in Public Characters, or Contemporary Biography, Bonsal and Niles, 1803, pp. 237-49.

[In the following excerpt, originally written in 1800, the author describes the development of Blair's career as a preacher and a scholar, noting that he was "regarded as one of the rising literary ornaments of his country."]

He [Dr. Hugh Blair] was completely and regularly educated at the University of Edinburgh, where he took his degree of M. A. and entered into orders in the year 1742. The medical sciences, even before that period, had begun to be taught in that illustrious school with eminent ability and success. Pure and mixed mathematics were then...

(The entire section is 2733 words.)

George Saintsbury (essay date 1900-04)

SOURCE: "Blair," in A History of Criticism and Literary Taste in Europe: From the Earliest Texts to the Present Day, William Blackwood & Sons Ltd., 1949, pp. 462-5.

[In the following excerpt, originally written between 1900 and 1904, Saintsbury praises Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, but finds his view of literature to be narrow.]

Hugh Blair, … in 1759, started … the teaching of modern literature in his own country. He had the advantage, as far as securing a popular audience goes, of lecturing in English, and he was undoubtedly a man of talent. The Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres,1 which were delivered with...

(The entire section is 1007 words.)

G. H. Cowling (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "The English Teaching of Dr. Hugh Blair," in Anglica: Untersuchungen zur englischen Philologie, Mayer & Muller, 1925, pp. 281-94.

[In the excerpt below, Cowling lauds Blair's method of literary criticism and his approach to teaching English composition.]

Dr. Hugh Blair (1718-1800), a graduate of Edinburgh and minister of St. Giles' Church, was the arbiter of taste in polite literature in the northern capital, and the friend of Robertson, Hume and Adam Smith. The most celebrated preacher of his day, he published several volumes of sermons, praised most highly in that age for their sound morality and their 'continuous warmth', and valued even more perhaps for...

(The entire section is 4706 words.)

E. C. Knowlton (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: "Wordsworth and Hugh Blair," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. VI, No. 3, July, 1927, pp. 277-81.

[In the essay below, Knowlton asserts that Wordsworth followed Blair's suggestions for revitalizing pastoral poetry as set forth in the latter's Lecture XXXIX of Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.]

In earlier papers I have set forth suggestions concerning Wordsworth's relations to the type of literature which has been denominated "pastoral."1 The term has narrow as well as broad meanings. It may be used to include any literature connected primarily with country life. It may refer to the sort of treatment which shepherds and other herdsmen received...

(The entire section is 2199 words.)

R. W. Chapman (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: "Blair on Ossian," in The Review of English Studies, Vol. VII, No. 25, January, 1931, pp. 80-3.

[In the following essay, Chapman examines correspondence written by Blair and London bookseller Thomas Becket, which discusses the terms of payment and final corrections for the publication of A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, Son of Fingal.]

The correspondence printed below, which came lately into my possession, does not seem to have been published. It perhaps deserves record for its Ossianic interest and as pleasing evidence of the manners of the age.

Macpherson's first Ossianic publication, Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected...

(The entire section is 1192 words.)

Morley J. Mays (essay date 1942)

SOURCE: "Johnson and Blair on Addison's Prose Style," in Studies in Philology, Vol. 39, No. 4, October, 1942, pp. 638-49.

[In the following excerpt, Mays summarizes Blair's criticism of Joseph Addison, illustrating Blair's methods of literary analysis and principles of style.]

Of the critics in [Joseph] Addison's own century who pronounced on his style none was more approving or more exhaustive in his treatment of it than Dr. Hugh Blair. Blair was the minister of the most distinguished pulpit of eighteenth century Scotland, that of St. Giles' Cathedral, or, as it was commonly known, the High Church, in Edinburgh, and arbiter elegantiarum of Scottish letters in...

(The entire section is 2164 words.)

Robert Morell Schmitz (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "Chapter Two," in Hugh Blair, King's Crown Press, 1948, pp. 17-38.

[In the excerpt below, Schmitz describes Blair's role as the editor of Frederick Carmichael 's Sermons and of the first complete edition of the Works of Shakespeare published in Scotland.]

Vita Sine Litteris Mors

One should not assume for a moment that a clergyman of the "Moderate" persuasion would confine himself to church matters. The "Moderates" were devotees of the many-sided life, and were anxious to display their intellectual wares. "Moderate" clergymen essayed poetry, history, philosophy, mathematics. The Scottish literary revival of the eighteenth century...

(The entire section is 1436 words.)

Harold F. Harding (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Introduction to Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, by Hugh Blair, edited by Harold F. Harding, Southern Illinois University Press, 1965, pp. vii-lx.

[In the essay below, Harding outlines the main ideas in Blair's lectures and appraises the man and his work from a twentieth-century perspective.]

For well over a century beginning about 1760 Hugh Blair markedly influenced writers and speakers, teachers and students in Great Britain and in America. He was well known as a university lecturer on rhetoric and belles lettres, as a preacher to a fashionable Edinburgh congregation, as an editor and literary taste maker, and indeed as the shaper of the style of...

(The entire section is 8251 words.)

Herman Cohen, Edward P. J. Corbett, S. Michael Halloran, Charles W. Kneupper, Eric Skopec, Barbara Warnick (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "The Most Significant Passage in Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres" Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Summer, 1987, pp. 281-304.

[In the collection of essays below, originally presented at the 1986 Speech Communication Association convention, six experts on Blair discuss what they feel is the most significant passage in his book Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.]

Herman Cohen, The Pennsylvania State University

The passage which I have chosen as the most significant in the works of Hugh Blair is one which might seem very obvious. It occurs at the beginning of Lecture X. It reads as follows:


(The entire section is 9130 words.)

John Dwyer (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Clio and Ethics: Practical Morality in Enlightened Scotland," The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 45-72.

[In the following excerpt, Dwyer discusses Blair's sermons in light of his influential role as a Moderate preacher and champion of sensibility.]

Recent work on eighteenth-century Scottish culture demonstrates the significance of practical moral concerns within a relatively backward economy experiencing the tensions associated with modernization. In his magisterial Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment, Richard Sher argues that the Moderate clergy of the Church of Scotland helped to...

(The entire section is 2587 words.)

Thomas Frank (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Hugh Blair's Theory of the Origin and the Basic Functions of Language," Papers from the 5th International Conference on English Historical Linguistics, Cambridge, 6-9 April 1987, edited by Sylvia Adamson, Vivien Law, Nigel Vincent and Susan Wright, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1990, pp. 165-87.

[In the following essay, Frank examines Blair's ideas on the nature, history, structure, and development of language.]

In the history of English studies, the figure of Hugh Blair, the Scottish divine and prominent member of the Edinburgh literati of the second half of the 18th century is of particular interest. When he was appointed Regius Professor of Rhetoric...

(The entire section is 6196 words.)

H. Lewis Ulman (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Words as Things: Icons of Progress in Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres" in Things, Thoughts, Words, and Actions: The Problem of Language in Late Eighteenth-Century British Rhetorical Theory, Southern Illinois University Press, 1994, pp. 117-45

[In the following essay, Ulman analyzes Blair's rhetorical theory, paying particular attention to his presentation of language and his view of words as "things," such as "objects of art and icons of aesthetic, intellectual, and cultural progress."]

Whether we consider Poetry in particular, and Discourse in general, as Imitative or Descriptive; it is evident, that their whole...

(The entire section is 12591 words.)

Further Reading


Hill, John. An Account of the Life ami Writings of Hugh Blair, D. D. Philadelphia: James Humphreys, 1808, 229 p.

Discusses Blair "as a Critic, as a Preacher, and as a Man" and compares him to other distinguished preachers in Great Britain and France.

Schmitz, Robert Morell. Hugh Blair. Morningside Heights, N.Y.: King's Crown Press, 1948, 162 p.

Standard biography that includes an account of Blair's role in the authorship controversy that surrounded James Macpherson's translations of the poems of Ossian. Contains a comprehensive bibliography...

(The entire section is 242 words.)