Dr John Leyden: A forgotten man of influence

The son of farm workers, he became a fine poet, an extraordinary linguist, and inspired his great friend, Sir Walter Scott, to become a literary great. So, why have the remarkable feats of Dr John Leyden gone unrecognised over the years, asks Stuart Kelly

THE 200th anniversary of the death of Dr John Leyden was a quiet affair: the venerable Hawick Archaeological Society hosted a small event, where Lord Minto, the descendant of Leyden’s friend and patron, laid a wreath on the monument dedicated to his memory on the village green of the picturesque village of Denholm in the Scottish Borders. The monument itself, appropriately enough, looks like a miniature version of the Scott Monument on Princes Street. Leyden is very much in the shadow of his great peer and friend Walter Scott; although it is arguable that without Leyden’s friendship, Scott would have been content to be a minor antiquarian and local sheriff rather then the first worldwide bestseller. Leyden’s life, and early death at the age of 35 in Java in August 1811, reads like something out of a Scott romance. His own life, in some ways, has overshadowed his literary achievements as much as his relationship to the most famous author of the period.

The phrase “lad o’ pairts” might have been coined for John Leyden. Born in Denholm in 1775, his parents were agricultural workers at Henlawshiel; his father starting as a shepherd and rising to be a factor. Leyden’s grandmother taught him to read, and it was immediately evident that he was something of a prodigy. Before the age of eight he had memorised most of the Bible and read John Barbour’s The Bruce and Blind Harry’s The Wallace, as well as The Arabian Nights, and the works of Homer and Milton. When he was sent to school, he was aggrieved that his father had bought him an ass to make the three-mile journey, until the owner offered to throw in an old book as well. It was an epiphanic moment. The book in question was a Calepini Dictionarium Octolingue – a dictionary of eight languages. By 1790, when he set off for Edinburgh University, he was already fluent in Latin, Greek, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Dutch and Hebrew. Leyden had an almost preternatural gift for languages: by the time of his death it was thought that he knew more than 40 languages and dialects, including Persian, Urdu and Malay.

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Like many young men from humble backgrounds, Leyden was intended for the Church. He seems to have attended almost every class bar his theological studies – mathematics, logic, moral philosophy, rhetoric, natural history and classics. Although he passed his divinity examinations, he struggled to find a church living. When he first attended university, his biographer (the Rev James Morton) says that “his rustic appearance, and strong Teviotdale accent excited a laugh among some of the other students”; and this prejudice against his Scots language no doubt prevented him from becoming a minister. But he was already envisioning a different life. In 1795 his first poem appeared – an elegy on the death of his sister – in the pages of the Edinburgh Literary Magazine, and Leyden’s friendship with the editor, Dr Robert Anderson, led to him undertaking various editorial jobs. He produced an edition of the 16th-century Complaynt Of Scotland, and through that came into the orbit of Walter Scott. Scott was then engaged in finding the materials for The Minstrelsy Of The Scottish Border.

Leyden became one of Scott’s most trusted assistants, and went about his task with the doggedness that typified him. He undertook a 50-mile round trip when he learned that an old man near Haddington knew a few stanzas of one of the ballads in which he was interested (and returned to Scott’s house whistling the tune in order to keep it in his memory, despite a furious storm raging); he wrote essays on the use of the supernatural and toured the Highlands researching the authenticity of the “Ossian” poems. But by far the most significant contribution to the Minstrelsy was his own poetry. Leyden effectively came up with the idea of writing “modern imitations” of ballads. Scott followed suit, and his career as a creative writer began.

Leyden’s influence is often overlooked, particularly because we often rely on Scott’s son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart, for glimpses of him; and Lockhart had a tendency to play down the efforts of anyone except Scott. It is from Lockhart that we get the most famous anecdote about Leyden, which casts him as a rustic freak of nature rather than a polymathic genius. Scott and Leyden both knew an antiquarian called Joseph Ritson, widely regarded as one of the rudest and most belligerent men in Britain. Almost everyone fell out with Ritson; the equanimous Scott being a notable exception. Ritson was an eccentric – he invented his own spelling system – an image increased by his (then) wholly bizarre commitment to vegetarianism. Waiting for Scott in his house, Lockhart tells us, Leyden became so infuriated with Ritson that he snatched a raw slice of steak out of the frying pan and chomped into the bleeding flesh. Ritson, horrified, fled the house. But even the assiduous Lockhart cannot wholly conceal Leyden’s profound impact. It was Leyden who, when told the printers planned a single volume, exploded “Dash it, does Mr Scott mean another thin thing like Goetz of Berlichingen? I have more than that in my head myself: we shall turn out three or four such volumes at least”.

Leyden was ambitious, and by 1802 he was desperate for new challenges. He therefore decided to travel, having been fascinated by his fellow Borderer Mungo Park’s voyages to Africa. He decided on India, and realised that the quickest way to secure passage and employment with the East India Company was to retrain as a doctor – a feat he achieved in six months. Due to sail on the ship Hindostan, he was plagued by stomach cramps in London. This proved exceptionally lucky, as the Hindostan was wrecked on Margate Sands with significant loss of life.

When he did reach India, he quickly stopped being a doctor of medicine. He was, by turns, a naturalist in Mysore province, professor of Hindustani at Calcutta University, and a judge of the Twenty-Four Pergunnahs district, which he left to become commissioner of the Court of Requests. Leyden’s gift with languages became invaluable: he took the astonishing initiative of allowing the new subjects of the British Empire to plead their cases in their own languages. With Lord Minto – Minto being the next village along the road from Denholm – he went to explore Java. His death would be unconvincing in a novel. He had heard there was a library of very rare books, and lost no time in getting there, without having the locked rooms aired first. He died of what was called “Batavian Fever” in August 1811, and was buried there.

Before he had left for India, Leyden wrote his greatest poem, a four-part meditation called Scenes Of Infancy. In some ways this evocation of childhood and how childhood shapes adulthood is parallel with Wordsworth’s The Prelude; but there are significant differences as well. The early reviews, though respectful, were not glowing.

The Monthly Review chastised him for “want of a regular process of thought”. That is exactly why the poem is so inspiring (and why Scottish publishers, to make amends for ignoring the bicentenary of his death, should reissue the work). Leyden’s multi-faceted mind goes everywhere – from local scenes to historical facts to bizarre legends (the cockatrice-like creature called The Bad Yellow is astonishingly weird) to philosophy to family elegy. It is not too audacious a comparison to claim that in Leyden we see the first inklings of the kind of writing that would culminate in WG Sebald, Iain Sinclair and Will Self.

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Most of all, Leyden is politically forthright in a manner that no other Romantic poet is: at one point, musing on the slave trade, he writes “Untainted yet, thy stream, fair Teviot runs/With unatoned blood of Gambia’s sons”. He was one of the first writers to express outrage at Scots who had been cleared from their land clearing the land of others. That alone should ensure his place in the national canon.

Why did Leyden become forgotten? In all his extensive translations, imitations, original works and groundbreaking versions of traditional Malay stories, he rarely, almost never, writes in Scots. Had he done so – as Scott did, as Hogg did – he might be seen as their equal, not their oddball sidekick. Asked if he regretted learning any language, he replied “English – it ruined my guid Scots tongue”.

Picture courtesy of www.denholmvillage.co.uk