National Poetry Day 2016
6th October 2016
Sir Richard Blackmore (1654–1729): A good physician and a mediocre poet
Richard Blackmore was born in Wiltshire and educated at Oxford and on the continent, graduating in medicine at Padua in 1684, before he spent a period of time as a schoolmaster. He was admitted as a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1687, despite a fraught relationship caused by absenteeism and his opposition to their scheme for setting up a free dispensary for the poor. Blackmore was, however, mostly a respected physician and he published several medical texts, notably on plague, small-pox and disorders of the spleen. He was appointed physician-in-ordinary to King William, and retained this position to Queen Anne.
In addition to his work as a physician, Blackmore wrote on religion and also published several poems. He had grand intentions when he published Prince Arthur: an Heroick Poem in Ten Books, an epic poem modelled on Virgil's Aeneid, relating the legendary Arthur’s defence of the Britons against the Saxons. Concluding his preface he states, with a degree of false modesty: “What Homer and Virgil have perform’d with Honour and universal Applause, I have attempted: What they have been able, I have been willing to do. If I have not succeeded, my disappointment will be the less, in that Poetry has been so far from being my Business and Profession…”.
Of poets and poetry, Blackmore was not afraid to air his opinions; he was disgusted with the immorality he perceived in contemporary society and poetry. He elaborates at length in his preface:
“’Tis true indeed, that one End of Poetry is to give Men Pleasure and Delight; but this is but a Subordinate, Subaltern End, which is it Self a Means to be greater, and ultimate one before mention’d… They [poets] are Men of little Genius, of mean and poor Design, that imploy their Wit for no higher Purpose, than to please the Imagination of vain and wanton People…Some of these Poets, to excuse their Guilt, alledge for themselves, that the Degeneracy of the Age makes their leud way of Writing necessary; they pretend the Auditors will not be pleas’d, unless they are thus entertain’d from the Stage; and to please they say is the chief business of the Poet.”
To the contemporary poets and others he criticised overtly, his pomposity and mediocre talent as a poet led to his being publicly derided and satirised. However, whilst not universally appreciated as a poem, King William – for whom the Arthur poems were a tribute - was appreciative and knighted Blackmore in 1697. Blackmore was sufficiently motivated to publish several other poems, including his tribute to Queen Anne ‘An advice to the poets: a poem occasioned by the wonderful success of her majesty's arms, under the conduct of the duke of Marlborough in Flanders’ (1706). A man of mixed virtues, his poetry may not be fine, but his contributions to medicine were not insignificant.
Ellie Jones, Cathedral Archivist
1) Richard Blackmore. ‘A Treatise upon the small-pox; …and account of the nature and several kinds of disease, with the proper methods of cure etc.’ (London, 1723) [EML/BLA]
2) Richard Blackmore. ‘Prince Arthur: an Heroick Poem in Ten Books’ (London, 1695) [LE/BLA/X]