Friday, September 5, 2008

Home and Hume

He died 200 years ago, did John Home. He is a largely forgotten poet and playwright from the 18th century, but one who, having initially struggled to get his plays performed as much as aspiring writers do today, eventually succeeded in winning over the great theatre impresario, David Garrick. Home was not a committed diarist, as far as we know, but he did keep a journal for a few days, while accompanying, another famous 18th century David - David Hume - during the last journey of his life, and the text can be found online.

Wikipedia provides a good short biography of John Home. Born at Leith, near Edinburgh, in 1722, he studied divinity at the University of Edinburgh, and became licensed by the presbytery of Edinburgh in 1745. The same year, he joined as a volunteer against Bonnie Prince Charlie, and was taken prisoner, later escaping from Doune castle in Perthshire. Subsequently, in 1747, he became a minister in the parish of Athelstaneford.

That same year, Home completed his first play play - Agis: a tragedy - and took it to London, to show David Garrick, the most famous actor/writer/manager of his age. He rejected the work. Five years later, Home went back to London taking another play - Douglas - and this too was rejected by Garrick. Nevertheless, with support from friends, Home managed to get Douglas produced in Edinburgh, in 1756 - to great acclaim. (See the James Boswell website for more about this performance.)

A few months later, and following the Edinburgh success, Home returned to London with Douglas where it was shown at Covent Garden. David Hume, a leading Scottish philosopher and historian of the time, said that Home possessed ‘the true theatric genius of Shakespeare and Otway, refined from the unhappy barbarism of the one and licentiousness of the other’.

Unfortunately, the church did not approve of Douglas, and Home decided to leave the ministry. Instead, he wrote other plays, such as The Siege of Aquileia (Garrick playing a leading role), The Fatal Discovery, Alonzo, and Alfred. He also worked as private secretary to John Stuart (3rd Earl of Bute), then secretary of state, and was later tutor to the Prince of Wales. He also took up soldiering in his 50s (1778), joining a regiment formed by the Duke of Buccleugh, but had to retire after an injury. He died two hundred years ago, on 5 September 1808.

A three volume collection of his writing - The Works of John Home Esq - with substantial biographical information, was put together by Henry Mackenzie in 1822, and published by Archibald Constable. The full text is available online at Googlebooks. Included in the book, is the text of a short diary written by Home during a journey he took with his friend David Hume, in 1776. The same text is also available in Early Responses to Hume’s Life and Reputation, edited by James Fieser and published by Continuum International Publishing Group in 1999.

Hume was already suffering from a terminal illness when he left Edinburgh in April 1776 for London with his servant Colin, hoping that the journey would improve his health. At Morpeth, in the north of England, he ran into Adam Smith and Home, who had been travelling to Edinburgh to visit him. Smith carried on to Edinburgh, but Home turned round, and accompanied Hume on his trip to London and then to Bath.

Unlike Home, Hume is well-remembered today. He is considered an important figure in Western philosophy, and in the history of the Scottish Enlightenment, for being the first great philosopher of the modern era to carve out a thoroughly naturalistic philosophy, i.e. one focusing more on human reason, and rejecting the idea that human minds are but miniature versions of the divine mind. He also spent 15 years writing a definitive (at the time) history of Great Britain in six volumes, which was a best seller in its day. He died in August 1776, just a couple of months after the journey recorded by Home. Here are a couple of extracts from Home’s diary of that journey.

24 April 1776
‘[Hume] still maintains, that the national debt must be the ruin of Britain; and laments that the two most civilised nations, the English and French, should be on the decline; and the barbarians, the Goths and Vandals of Germany and Russia, should be rising in power and renown . . .’

28 April 1776
‘Mr Hume told me, that he had bought a piece of ground; and when I seemed surprised that I had never heard of it, he said it was in the New Church-yard, on the Calton Hill, for a burying-place; that he meant to have a small monument erected, not to exceed in expence one hundred pounds; that the inscription should be ‘DAVID HUME’. I desired him to change the discourse. He did so; but seemed surprised at my uneasiness which he said was very nonsensical. I think he is gaining ground; but he laughs at me, and says it is impossible; that the year (76), sooner or later, he takes his departure. He is willing to go Bath, to travel during the summer through England, and return to Scotland to die at home; but that Sir John Pringle, and the whole faculty, would find it very difficult to boat him, (formerly an unusual phrase in Scotland for going abroad, that is, out of the island, for health) This day we travelled by his desire three stages, and arrived with great east at Grantham.’

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