Elphinston, James

, a miscellaneous writer and schoolmaster, was born at Edinburgh, Dec. 6, 1721, and was the son of the Rev. William Elphinston. He was educated at the high school of Edinburgh, and afterwards at | the university, where, or soon after he left it, and when only in his seventeenth year, he was appointed tutor to lord Blantyre, a circumstance which seems to indicate that his erudition was extraordinary, or his place nominal. When of age he accompanied Carte, the historian, on a tour through Holland and Brabant, and to Paris, where he acquired such a knowledge of the French language as to be able to speak and write it with the greatest facility. On leaving France he returned to Scotland, and became private tutor to the son of James Moray, esq. of Abercairny, in Perthshire, and an inmate in the family. How long he remained here is uncertain, but in 1750 he was at Edinburgh, and superintended an edition of Dr. Johnson’s “Ramblers,” by the author’s permission, with a translation of the mottos, which was completed in 8 vols. 12 mo, beautifully printed, but imperfect, as being without the alterations and additions introduced in the subsequent editions by Dr. Johnson. In 1751 he married, and leaving Scotland, fixed his abode near London, first at Brompton, and afterwards at Kensington, where for many years he kept a school in a large and elegant house opposite to the royal gardens, and had considerable reputation; his scholars always retaining a very grateful sense of his skill as a teacher, and his kindness as a friend.

In 1753 he made a poetical version of the younger Racine’s poem of “Religion,” which we are told was approved by Young. About the same time he composed an English grammar for the use of his school, which he afterwards enlarged and published in 2 vols. 12mo. This is by far the most useful of his works, and perhaps the only one likely to live. The late Mr. John Walker, a very competent judge, always spoke highly of this work. In the year 1763, Mr. Elphinston published a poem called “Education” but his taste was ill-adapted to poetry, of which unfortunately he never could be persuaded and this erroneous estimate of his talents led him to translate Martial, for which he issued proposals about 1778, and was at least fortunate in the number of his subscribers. Previous to this he had, for what reason we are not told, given up his school, and in 1778 removed altogether from Kensington, where, in the same year, his wife died. He then visited Scotland, and while in that city there was a design started of establishing a professorship of modern languages in the university of Edinburgh, with a view that Mr, | Elphinston should fill the chair; but although this never took place, he gave a course of lectures on the English language, both at Edinburgh and Glasgow.

After his return to London, he published his translation of Martial in 1782, in 4to, which exhibited most wonderful proofs of a total want of judgment, both in the translation and notes .*


Elphinston’s Martial is just come to hand. It is trsly an unique. The specimens formerly published did very well to laugh at; but a whole quarto of nonsense and gibberish is too much, It is strange that a man not wholly illiterate, should have lived so long in England, without learning the language,” Letter from Dr. Beattie to sir William Forbes, in the Life of Beattie. These remarks may be extended to more of Elphinston’s publications than we have enumerated.

In the latter he gives some specimens of his new mode of spelling, which he explained more at large in 1786, in a work entitled “Propriety ascertained in her picture,” 2 vols. 4to. In this he endeavoured to establish a system of spelling according to pronunciation, and although he stood entirely alone in his opinion of its Value, he persisted in his endeavours, and followed it up by “English Orthography epitomized,” and “Propriety’s Pocket Dictionary.” In 1794, he published in 6 vols. 12mo, a selection of his letters to his friends, with their answers, entirely spelt in his new way; the appearance of which was so unnatural, and the reading so difficult and tiresome, that by this, as well as his other works on the same subject, he must have been a considerable loser. As an author, indeed, Mr. Elphinston was peculiarly unfortunate, having scarcely published any thing in which he did not afford the critics many opportunities to exemplify his total want of taste and judgment. He died at Hammersmith at a very advanced age, Oct. 8, 1809. His personal character is thus given by his biographer: “After all, it is as a man and a Christian that he excelled; as a son, a brother, a husband, and a father to many, though, he never had children of his own, as a friend, an enlightened patriot, and a loyal subject. His `manners were simple, his rectitude undeviating.' In religion he embraced the state establishment to its full extent. His piety, though exemplary, was devoid of show; the sincerity of it was self-evident but, though unobtrusive, it became impatient on the least attempt at profaneness and an oath he could not endure. On such occasions he never failed boldly to correct the vice whencesoever it proceeded.” 1

Nichols’s Bowyer. —Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Forbes’s Life of Beattie.