John Campbell Shairp

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Portrait of Shairp by Robert Inerarity Herdman (1886)

John Campbell Shairp (30 July 1819 – 18 September 1885) was a Scottish critic and man of letters.

He was born at Houstoun House, Linlithgowshire, the third son of Major Norman Shairp of Houstoun, and was educated at Edinburgh Academy and the University of Glasgow.

He gained a Shell exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford in 1840. In 1842 he won the Newdigate prize for a poem on Charles XII of Sweden, and took his degree in 1844. During these years the "Oxford Movement" was at its height. Shairp was stirred by Newman's sermons, and he had a great admiration for the poetry of John Keble, on whose character and work he wrote an enthusiastic essay; but he remained faithful to his Presbyterian upbringing. After leaving Oxford he took a mastership at Rugby School under Archibald Campbell Tait.

In 1857 he became assistant to the professor of humanity in the University of St Andrews, and in 1861 he was appointed to that chair. In 1864 he published Kilmahoe, a Highland Pastoral, and in 1868 he republished some articles under the name of Studies in Poetry and Philosophy. In 1868 he was presented to the principalship of the United College, St Andrews, and lectured from time to time on literary and ethical subjects. A course of the lectures was published in 1870 as Culture and Religion. In 1873 Principal Shairp helped to edit the life of his predecessor JD Forbes, and in 1874 he edited Dorothy Wordsworth's Recollections of a Tour in Scotland.

In 1877 he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in succession to Sir F. H. Doyle. Of his lectures from this chair the best were published in 1881 as Aspects of Poetry. In 1877 he had published The Poetic Interpretation of Nature, in which he enters fully into the "old quarrel," as Plato called it, between science and poetry, and traces with great clearness the ideas of nature in all the chief Hebrew, classical and English poets. In 1879 he contributed a life of Robert Burns to the "English Men of Letters" series.

He was re-elected to the chair of poetry in 1882, and discharged his duties there and at St Andrews till the end of 1884. He died at Ormsary, Argyllshire. In 1888 appeared Glen Desseray, and other Poems, edited by Francis Turner Palgrave.

See WA Knight's Principal Shairp and his Friends (1888).

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