Lives of
Scottish Poets
edited by

Center for Applied Technologies
in the Humanities

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Literary Chronicle
New Monthly Magazine
Monthly Review
Notes and Queries
Gibson and Laing
Halkett and Laing
Scottish Notes & Queries

Part I. (Volume I.)
James the First
Thomas the Rhymer
John Barbour
Andrew Wyntoun
Gavin Douglas
Allan Ramsay
William Meston
John Home
James Beattie
Robert Burns

Part II. (Volume I.)
James the Fifth
William Dunbar
Sir James Inglis
Henry the Minstrel
Sir David Lyndsay
Alexander Barclay
Alexander Montgomerie
William Alexander
William Drummond
James Thomson
John Oswald

Part III. (Volume II.)
James the Sixth
Sir Richard Maitland
Arthur Johnston
Hamilton of Bangour
Hamilton of Gilbertfield
Samuel Colvil
Alexander Ross
John Armstrong
John Ogilvie
James Macpherson
Charles Salmon

Part IV. (Volume II.)
Alexander Hume
John Bellenden
Mark Alexander Boyd
Ninian Paterson
William Wilkie
Robert Fergusson
William Julius Mickle
Alexander Geddes
James Grahame

Part V. (Volume III.)
Robert Henryson
Alexander Scott
Walter Kennedy
John Ogilby
Alexander Pennecuik
Alexander Cunningham
David Mallet
William Falconer
Francis Garden
Robert Blair
James Moor
James Graeme
Caleb Whitefoord
James Grainger
Hector Macneill
John Wilson

Part VI. (Volume III.)
Robert Kerr
Richard Lord Maitland
Thomas Hamilton
Charles Hamilton
Michael Bruce
Thomas Blacklock
John Logan
Andrew Macdonald
James Mercer

Appendix. (Volume III.)
James I
Allan Ramsay
John Home
Robert Burns
William Drummond
Robert Fergusson
Alexander Scott
John Wilson



Among the literary idlers who, about the years 1788 and 1789, occasionally illuminated the columns of the London newspapers with their poetical effusions, the name of Sylvester Otway holds a conspicuous place. He evinced merit enough to be admired by Burns; * and of one whom so great a poet esteemed as of a kindred spirit, it cannot be uninteresting to know some particulars.


Sylvester Otway was the assumed name of a Mr. Oswald, [note] who had been an officer in the army, but was then living loosely about town. Report has said, with little appearance of truth, that he was cashiered for cowardice. With the regiment in which he was an officer, he served some time in India; and there he left it, but certainly not from any cause injurious to his honor. In some lines, called his Farewell to Bombay, a couplet occurs, which intimates something directly the reverse.
Cruel destiny demands me,
Honour drags me from thine arms.
And the writer has been told by a gentleman who knew Oswald well, that he once saw him saluted in London as an old acquaintance, by a Highland colo-

* See Life of Burns.
nel of distinguished gallantry, with a degree of hearty warmth which forbids the suspicion of any thing disgraceful attaching to his character. It was at the theatre they met, and the two friends were so rejoiced at recognizing each other, that they leapt across several intervening boxes to shake hands.


Mr. Oswald was a native of Edinburgh, and either his father or mother kept a coffee-house, well known of old as a place for public business, by the name of John's Coffee House. He served an apprenticeship to be a jeweller, and followed that occupation for some years, till, by the death of a relation, he succeeded to a considerable legacy, which he employed in purchasing a commission in a Highland regiment, which went shortly after to the East Indies. To the price of this commission he would, of course, be entitled when he quitted the army, and it was probably on the reversion of this fund that he subsisted after his return from India.


Soon after his appearance in London, Mr. Oswald took an active part in the proceedings of that party of Reformers, who, in those days, arrogated to themselves the title of “Friends of the people;” and in a pamphlet which he wrote, entitled “Remarks on the Constitution of Great Britain,” endeavoured to assist their cause, by shewing, that we had, in fact, no constitution at all, but were a prey to a venal and corrupt oligarchy, who despised our rights, and did with our resources what they pleased. The work shewed some ability in writing, but was full of crude notions, absurd principles, and dangerous speculation.


Mr. Oswald went farther than most of his sect in his ideas of the wrong which had crept into the sys-
tem of society. He thought not only that an audacious few of his own species had usurped dominion over their fellows, but that the human race were as that audacious few, in respect to all the rest of the animal tribe. The right to subdue the horse to our use stood in this philosopher's opinion on no better ground, than the right of the great proprietor to have his land cultivated for him by the labour of others, for so he was pleased to call paying rent for land; and to kill a sheep, that we may make a savoury dish of its flesh, was in his mind only a type of that savage voraciousness which leads tyrant man to sacrifice, in various ways, his own species to his inordinate appetites. Hence the phrase swinish, as applied to the multitude, he used to reprobate as shockingly inappropriate. The aristocrats, he would say, are as the swine, and the people are but as the litter of helpless young, whom the swine, at times, gobbleth up. Nor did Mr. Oswald omit the consistency of illustrating, by his own practice, his regard to the singular principles which he taught. No Pythagorean ever more rigidly abstained from animal food; he lived on fruits* and the juice of fruits alone; and, when dining in company, eat the potatoes and left the chop behind.


In the devotions which Mr. Oswald, under the poetic title of Silvester Otway, occasionally paid to the muses, he mingled nothing of politics or strange philosophy. His effusions were all of love; a circumstance the more remarkable, that he was at this period

* A genuine radical reformer. A. S.
a married man, and the father of three children, one a daughter, and the others two fine grownup lads. It is probable that these pieces may have been written in his earlier years, and were now only reproduced.


On the breaking out of the revolution in France, Mr. Oswald's principles naturally led him to view that struggle with more than ordinary interest. He was not content with waiting the result at a distance, but hastened over to Paris, to witness, and, if occasion offered, to assist in the work of French regeneration, and, doubtless, not without some view of personally benefiting by the field which this remarkable revolution presented to military adventurers from all countries. In order to recommend himself to the notice of the French republicans, he published, on his arrival in Paris, a second edition (it is believed in French) of his “Remarks on the Constitution of Great Britain.” It served at once as his passport to admission into the Jacobin Club. He met there with some other English adventurers who had already acquired considerable influence in the counsels of this pandemonium; but Oswald soon rose above all his countrymen in importance, and was acknowledged as the first of Anglo-Jacobins. He entered with unrivalled enthusiasm into all their schemes of desperation, quieting the natural aversion of his disposition to violence and bloodshed, by a reflection which he thought philosophical, that where the liberty of a whole people is to be consolidated, the sacrifice of some thousands of individuals is not to be regretted, since the cause of humanity must be benefited in the end. It was the common opinion of the English, then resident in Paris, that after Mr. Oswald had acquired consideration in
the Jacobin Club, there was not a transaction of any note emanating from that body in which he had not a leading part. He was particularly blamed by them for the decree which sent to the prisons such of his countrymen as were not of the number of the affiliated, but had been imprudent enough to remain in France after the declaration of war against Britain. That the decree may have had his approbation is extremely probable; but that he ought to be more severely reprobated for this, than any other part of his conduct, may be doubted, when it is admitted at the same time that with other Englishmen of the Jacobin Club he warned his countrymen of the measure, and impressed on many of them the danger they incurred by remaining in the country. In this at least there was no want of national or friendly feeling.


The influence which Mr. Oswald had acquired in the Jacobin Club, gave him a corresponding influence with the government of the day, over which that club, as every body knows, exercised for some time a most pernicious controul. The first of Anglo-Jacobins was not to be requited by any inferior appointment; they at once nominated him to the command of a regiment of infantry. The corps is said, however, not to have been of the best description, being composed of the refuse of Paris and the departments.


Mr. Oswald had, previously to this appointment, been joined by his two sons; but true to the principle of equality, which he professed, he only made them drummers in the regiment of which he was colonel.


The bad character of the men whom Colonel Oswald commanded, obliged him to have recourse to a system of severity in disciplining them, which, while it made
them good soldiers, there is every reason to believe made him in every one a personal enemy. In the outset of his command he committed a sort of national blunder, which added nothing to his popularity. Knowing what feats his own countrymen had performed at the point of the bayonet; convinced from experience and observation that there was in a charge of cold steel something more appalling than in a hundred volleys of musketry—he conceived the notion that a regiment trained to depend entirely on the charge would be one of powerful efficiency, and certain to acquire great distinction. He proposed therefore to lay aside the musket in his regiment, and to substitute a pike of superior construction. The directory approved his suggestion, and the experiment was made. The men, however, could not be persuaded to view the innovation its the same light as their English colonel. They were Frenchmen, and decided upon it with French feeling. For light warfare—the brisk fire—quick retreat—and as quick return—the French soldiery have no superiors; but in that cool intrepidity which can make and sustain a charge, they have never been able to compete with the soldiers of many other countries—the Scots, the Muscovites, the Swedes, and even the Hollanders. Colonel Oswald saw, when too late to repair a bad impression, that he had mistaken the national character; he was obliged to throw away his pikes, because his men absolutely refused to be trained to the use of them.


When the war in La Vendée broke out, Colonel Oswald's corps was one of those selected to proceed against the rebels, a distinction which it no doubt
owed to having a foreign commander, who might be supposed to have fewer scruples than a native in acting against natives. In the first encounter, however, which they had with the Vendeans, Oswald's men are generally understood to have taken advantage of the confusion of the fight to rid themselves of this advantage; they are said to have not only despatched the father, but his two sons, youths of a most interesting character, and another English gentleman, whom Oswald had selected as worthy to share his fortunes. It is at all events certain that the four Englishmen fell in the fight; and whether in consequence of their own forward bravery or of the treachery of their French comrades, will probably ever remain a mystery.


Mr. Oswald was about the common stature, but of a very commanding appearance. I have heard that, when in Paris, he affected the Roman costume; wore his collar open, and his hair à la Brutus.


In his poetry, notwithstanding the praise of Burns, I have not been able to discover any singular merit. I have been successful in tracing out a considerable number of his occasional pieces, but they can scarcely be said to have rewarded the search. There is a constant aim in them at something fine, which is in general attended with but indifferent success. His ideas have little novelty; the same images, and even the same expressions, are of frequent recurrence; and on the whole, Oswald must rather be considered as a pleasant versifier than as a genuine poet. The following are two of the best specimens of his talents which I have met with; the last, which is a version from the French, is possessed of very considerable elegance.

Oh, ye groves! where so oft with Louisa I've stray'd,
Then lovely thy grottos and grateful thy shade:—
Alas! with Louisa no longer I stray,
But lonely I wander, and woeful my lay.
For my love I lament, in the dust lowly laid,
And thy grots are ungrateful and sad is thy shade.
Thy Sirens late warbling their love-labour'd lay,
Now sit sadly mute on the woe-wither'd spray,
Save the Nightingale wailing her widow'd estate,
And the Dove, lonely mourner! bemoaning her mate:
O! ruthless the sportsman that aim'd the fell blow;
Oh fate, cruel fate! thus to lay my love low!
But where, oh ye groves! are the myrtles so gay,
Where blest with my love, oft I pass'd the brief day?
Sad the scene I survey, and no myrtle I see,
But each shade, each dear shade, seems a cypress to me:
For my love I lament, in the dust lowly laid,
And thy songsters are sad, and funereal thy shade.

Gentle Sleep had shut her eye-lids
With his poppy-waving wand,
But her heart still wakeful wanders,
Led by Love's supreme command.
See! on her cheek the rose expanding,
More and more vermillion grows;
While her hand some bold invader
Feebly seemeth to oppose.
Restless on her couch she tosses,
Playful heave her breasts divine,
And now more tranquil grown, she softly
On her pillow sinks supine:
From her lips a gentle murmur,
Scarcely heard, appears t' exhale;
Such the breath of balmy zephyr
Passing thro' the flowery vale.
Happy fair! whose golden slumbers,
Fancy steeps in such delight,
But more blest the swain whose image
Dreams so tender can excite.