Lives of
Scottish Poets
edited by

Center for Applied Technologies
in the Humanities

*    *    *    *    *

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



John Wilson, [note] the author of “Clyde,” a poem, was born in the parish of Lesmahago, in Lanarkshire, on the 30th June, 1720. He was the son of an industrious, but humble individual, who, to gain an honest livelihood, was obliged to divide his labours between the anvil and the plough; a practice not uncommon in Scotland, before the present system of husbandry put almost entirely an end to the class of small farmers. Being of a feeble and delicate constitution, his parents were desirous of giving him an education which might enable him to earn his bread by some occupation for which bodily vigour is not required; and with this view, they sent him to the grammar school of the neighbouring town of Lanark, a seminary at that time of considerable celebrity. But, when only in his fourteenth year, his father died, and the poverty in which his mother was left, obliged her to take her son from school. Wilson, however, had made such rapid progress in learning, during the short time he was under a master, that he was, even at this early age, able to begin instructing others; and from this period, till he arrived at manhood, maintained himself by the emoluments derived from private tuition. In the year 1746, he was appointed parochial schoolmaster to his native parish, and in this situation he continued for many years.


Mr. Wilson's first appearance as an author was by the publication of a “Dramatic Essay,” which he afterwards expanded into the “Earl Douglas,” a tragedy. It was dedicated to Archibald Duke of Douglas, [note] and procured him an interview with that nobleman, which was attended with the following whimsical incident. His grace desired Mr. Wilson to sit down with him and drink a glass of wine. After the second glass, the duke rose abruptly, rushed into a closet, and returning with a brace of pistols, paced the room with a wild and disordered air. Observing that Mr. Wilson kept his seat, without betraying any symptoms of fear, his grace laid the pistols down upon the table, and, assuming a pleasant countenance, drank Mr. Wilson's health, and informed him, that this singular conduct had been assumed to try the firmness of his mind; and to discover whether he had imbibed an opinion, then generally entertained in the country, that his grace was deranged. At parting, his grace, in the warmest manner offered Mr. Wilson his interest in any view in which he could promote his views. The duke's death, however, shortly after, disappointed whatever hopes Mr. W. might have been led to entertain from his powerful patronage.


In 1764, Wilson published, at Glasgow, his “Earl Douglas” and “Clyde,” inscribed to Margaret Duchess of Douglas.


In the course of the same year he removed to Rutherglen, on an invitation from some gentlemen who had heard a favorable account of his classical attainments, and who wished their sons to enjoy a better education than that borough afforded.


A vacancy occurring, in 1767, in the mastership of
the grammar-school of Greenock, the situation was offered to Mr. Wilson, but accompanied with a condition which opens to us a very curious piece of literary history. Greenock was at this period a thriving sea port, rapidly emerging into notice. Its inhabitants had however always been more remarkable for opulence and commercial spirit, than for their attention to literature and science. During the struggle between prelacy and Presbytery in Scotland, they had, like most of the people of the west of Scotland, imbibed a most intolerant spirit of presbyterianism—a spirit which had been at no period favorable to the exertions of poetical fancy,* and which spent one of the last efforts of its virulence on the Douglas
[note] of Home. With this prejudice yet unabated, the magistrates and minister of Greenock thought fit, before they would admit Mr. Wilson to the superintendence of the grammar-school, to stipulate that he should abandon “the profane and unprofitable art of poem-making.” The first impulse of an ardent mind must have been to reject with disdain so humiliating a proposition; but Mr. Wilson had a wife and numerous family; the situation, for which he was a candidate, promised them a comfortable subsistence, and the illusions of fancy vanished before the mild light of affection. He was in a situation not dissimilar to that of the bard of “Bara's Tale,” who, to save his Mora (false Mora!) from death, made a fire of his harp.

Dark grows the night! and cold and sharp
Beat wind and hail, and drenching rain;

* See Life of Hume of Logie. Part iv.
Nought else remains.—“I'll burn my Harp!”
He cries, and breaks his Harp in twain.

To avoid the temptation of violating his promise which he esteemed sacred, Mr. Wilson took an early opportunity of committing to the flames the greater part of his unfinished manuscripts. After this, he never ventured to replace the forbidden lyre, though the memory of its departed sounds often filled him with sadness. Sometimes, indeed, when the conversation of former friends restored the vivacity of these recollections, he would carelessly pour out some extemporaneous rhymes, but the fit passed away, and its fleeting nature palliated the momentary transgression.


Wilson appears to have, through life, considered this event as that crisis of his fate which condemned him to obscurity; and, sometimes, alluded to it with a repenting sorrow. In a letter to his son George, dated January 21, 1779, he says, “I once thought to live by the breath of fame; but how miserably was I disappointed. * * * * I was condemned to bawl myself to hoarseness among wayward brats, to cultivate sand, and wash Ethiopians, for all the days of an obscure life, the contempt of shopkeepers and brutish skippers.”


He still, however, devoted himself exclusively to the duties of his function, and, consoled by the attentions of an affectionate domestic circle, as well as of many valued friends, passed the remainder of his days in a state of not unhappy tranquillity.


Mr. Wilson died on the 2d of June, 1789, in the sixty-ninth year of his age.


His personal character appears to have been, in the highest degree, virtuous and engaging. Excluded, by a hard fate, from courting public notice in the path to which his genius was adapted, he shone with the ardour of a compressed flame, in private life. No man had a higher relish for social intercourse, and few persons were qualified for supporting a more conspicuous part in it. His disposition was gay and good humoured; his manner animated and jocular; and his observations had a cast of originality, which gave them a peculiar zest. He possessed an inexhaustible fund of anecdotes and stories, characteristic of life and manners. These he would introduce as they were naturally suggested by the course of conversation, and relate with a high degree of humour and comic effect. Wilson was a Scotsman of that genuine old class which seems now to be nearly extinct; who blended with plainness of speech and manners, the taste of the scholar, and the information of the man of the world; a combination rendered only more interesting by the air of rusticity under which it is concealed.


The poetical fragments found among his papers, seem chiefly to have been rapid effusions on temporary subjects, or juvenile paraphrases of passages of scripture, with which he had been struck. Among the latter may be enumerated Translations of Buchanan's 104th Psalm, of the Song of Moses, Exodus XV., the Song of Habbakuk, Habbakuk III., and a Poetical Version of the Apologue of the Prodigal Son.


The destruction of his manuscripts, and his forced
abandonment of poetry, are much to be regretted, as his mind seems to have been of that improving kind which, by repeatedly retracing its steps, corrects, polishes, and refines. His
“Earl Douglas,” as has been mentioned, was only an expansion of his “Dramatic Essay;” and the “Clyde” was but an enlargement of a descriptive sketch, which he had originally written of the rivulet Nethan.


The “Earl Douglas” is rather a heavy composition, surcharged with moral reflection, and abounding too much in the descriptive for a genuine drama.


The poem of “Clyde,” which appears to have been the author's favorite, was his best production. He had prepared for the press an improved edition of it, and had even circulated proposals for its publication, at the time when he came under the Gothic obligation of renouncing the poetic art. The MS., however, was spared from the conflagration to which his other papers were doomed; and from this, the late Dr. Leyden published that edition of “the Clyde,” which forms part of the volume of “Scottish Descriptive Poems,” published by Dr. L. previous to his departure for India. Dr. L. prefixed to it a Biographical Sketch of Mr. Wilson, from which the present memoir has been principally drawn.*

* This memoir, though published by Dr. Leyden as from his own pen, was not, it is believed, his production, but furnished by some of Mr. Wilson's friends. In the hurry of his departure for India, he was probably glad to adopt what he may not have had time to revise. It is in a style of juvenile wri-

The “Clyde” is stated by Dr. L. to be the first Scotish loco-descriptive poem of any merit, and still (1803) the “only national one of the species.” The accuracy of the first assertion is doubtful; the second is most certainly erroneous. Macneill's Links o' Forth,” a poem of unquestioned merit, was not published in the shape in which we now have it till 1799; but the author, in his collection of his works, says, that “at an early period of life, he had written and incautiously published a poetical performance on the same subject;” and Wilson, in the opening of the second part of his poem, makes an obvious allusion to having seen something of the kind.

Boast not, great Forth, thy broad majestic tide
Beyond the graceful modesty of Clyde;
Though fam'd Mæander, in the poet's dream,
Ne'er led through fairer fields his wandering stream,
Bright wind thy masy Links on Stirling plain,
Which, oft departing, still return again;
And wheeling round and round in sportive mood,
The nether stream turns back to meet the upper flood.

However the fact may be as to Wilson's own knowledge of the “Links o' Forth,” it ought at least to have been known to his editor in the year 1803; but had it been so, he could surely not have continued

ting, not to he imputed to Dr. L. at that period; and on the other hand, presents the promise of a skill in describing and unfolding character, to which Dr. L. never approached.
A. S.
to regard “
the Clyde,” as “the only national poem of the species.*”


In “the Clyde,” the author describes the course that noble stream, the various scenes which it presents; and diversifies his narrative by historical allusions, suggested by the particular scenes which he describes. The episodes are often interesting, and arise naturally; and although, in one or two instances, they are extended to considerable length, they cannot be said to “attract our attention too much from the principal subject,” in a poem, which consists of a succession of subjects varying little in importance.


One of the author's briefest references, is to the fate of the unfortunate Mary, Queen of Scots; [note] but it is perhaps among his happiest passages.

By Crookstone Castle waves the still green yew,
The first that met the royal Mary's view,
When, bright in charms, the youthful princess led
The graceful
Darnley to her throne and bed:
Emboss'd in silver, now its branches green
Transcend the myrtle of the Paphian green.
But dark Langside, from Crookstone view'd afar,
Still seems to range in pomp the rebel war;
Here, when the moon rides dimly through the sky,
The peasant sees broad dancing standards fly,
And one bright female form, with sword and crown,
Still grieves to view her banners beaten down.

When describing Glasgow and its university, the

* The preceding note may suggest an explanation of this point. Leyden was too versant in literature to have himself fallen into such an error. A. S.
author makes the following interesting allusion to his own want of academic education:

Ye sacred Muses! who my soul inspire
With true devotion, and with fame's desire;
From earliest youth, though stern and adverse fate
Has chain'd me distant from your sacred seat;
Yet on that seat may every power divine
Propitious smile, and bid your glory shine
O'er all the earth, and, as from Athens, rise
Till your immortal splendors fill the skies.

His descriptions of rural scenes and occupations are faithfully drawn, and often diversified by striking and picturesque touches. He never appears as a servile imitator, though several of his topics had been anticipated by Somerville [note] and Thomson; as fox-hunting, stag-hunting, haymaking, reaping, and bird-singing.


The description of stag-hunting will afford a favorable specimen of his powers.

Not so the stately stag, of harmless force;
In motion grateful, rapid in his course.
Nature in vain his lofty head adorns
With formidable groves of pointed horns.
Soon as the hound's fierce clamour strikes his ear,
He throws his arms behind, and owns his fear;
Sweeps o'er the imprinted grass, the wind outflies;—
Hounds, horses, hunters, horns, still sound along the skies;
Fierce at a storm they pour along the plain;
Their lively chief, still foremost of the train,
With unremitting ardour leads the chace;—
He, trembling, safety seeks in every place;
Drives through the thicket, scales the lofty steep;
Bounds o'er the hills, or darts through valleys deep;
Plunges amid the river's cooling tides,
While strong and quick he heaves his panting sides.
He from afar his lov'd companions sees,
Whom the loud hoop that hurtles on the breeze
Into a crowded phalanx firm had cast;
Their armed heads all outward round them plac'd:
Some desperate band, surrounded, thus appears,
Hedg'd with pretended bayonets and spears:
To these he flies, and begs to be allow'd
To share the danger with the kindred crowd;
But must, by general voice excluded, know
How loath'd the sad society of woe.
The cruel hounds pour round on every hand;
Desperate, he turns to make a feeble stand:
Big tears on tears roll down his harmless face;
He falls, and sues in vain, alas! for grace:
Pitied and prized, he dies. The ponderous prey
The jolly troop in triumph bear away.

The versification is generally correct, and flows with ease, though the asperity of the proper names sometimes approximates it to harshness, and even in a few instances to the burlesque; as when we are told, that the

———Campbells, sprung of old O'Dubin's [note] race,
Old as their hills, still rule their native place.
No ancient chief could like O'Dubin wield
The weighty war, or range the embattled field.

Towards the conclusion of the poem, we have a personification of the Clyde, congratulating all her tributary streams, on the unpopular peace of 1763. It presents so amusing a contrast to the sentiments
of old Father Thames, with respect to the character of a late noble lord, of unenvied notoriety, as irresistibly to tempt quotation. Dryden's
[note] dedication of his Juvenal, where he tells the Earl of Dorset, [note] that the English nation could almost as well subsist without God's Providence, as without—his lordship's verses! is nothing to this burst of sincerity.

To whom the parent flood—“My children dear,
The festive sounds of peace salute mine ear.
Henceforth our peaceful ports, from insult free,
Anchor'd secure, their loaded fleets shall see;
And, to my honour, happy world shall know,
They to a son of mine their safety owe.
Great Bute!
[note] who, warm with patriot zeal, arose
To still wild war, and give the world repose;
And having done the good his heart desir'd,
Scorning reward, to shades obscure retir'd.
For all he valued was already given,
Approven of his soul, his prince, and heaven!
He calmly smil'd. Eclips'd ambition rav'd,
To see a world, by worth superior sav'd!!!”

Mr. Wilson had a brother, by occupation a blacksmith, who, as well as himself, possessed a poetical turn, and published some Elegies. He had also two sons, both of whom gave great promise of poetical talents. “ James, the eldest,” says Dr. Leyden's memoir, was “a young man of more than ordinary abilities, displayed a fine taste for both poetry and drawing, and, like his father, possessed an uncommon share of humour. He went to sea; and, after distinguishing himself in several naval engagements, was
killed, October 11, 1776, in an action on Lake Champlaine, in which his conduct received such approbation from his commanding officer, that a small pension was granted by Government to his father. George, who died at the age of 21 years, was distinguished for his taste and classical erudition, as well as his poetical talents.”

E. W.