Page images

'Clyde,' were printed for the author by R. Urie, at Glasgow, in 1764, and inscribed to Margaret Duchess of Douglas. The same year, his reputation as a classical scholar introduced him to a more lucrative situation, as well as to a more liberal species of instruction, than teaching the children of peasants their letters and Shorter Catechism; and he was invited to Rutherglen, to superintend the education of the sons of some gentlemen who wished their children to enjoy a better education than that borough afforded.

In Rutherglen Mr. Wilson continued to apply himself ardently to the study of the classical models of composition, and prepared for the press that improved edition of his 'Clyde,' which is here presented to the public. He had even circulated proposals for the publication of this poem, when he was invited to superintend the grammar school of Greenock in 1767.

I have now to relate a singular transaction, which I can scarcely believe would have taken place in any district of Scotland, but the West, so late as the year 1767. Greenock at this period was a thriving seaport, rapidly emerging into notice. In the beginning of last century, it consisted of a single row of thatched houses, stretching along a bay without any harbour. In 1707, a harbour began to be constructed; but the town increased so slowly, that in 1755 its population amounted only to about 3,800 souls. About the latter period, however, it began to increase rapidly, and continued to flourish till the commencement of the American war. Still, however, its inhabitants were more remarkable for opulence and commercial spirit, than for their attention to literature and science. During the struggle between Prelacy and Presbytery in Scotland, Greenock, like most of the towns and districts of the west of Scotland, had imbibed the most intolerant spirit of presbyterianism; a spirit which

at no period had been favourable to the exertions of poetical fancy, and which spent the last efforts of its virulence on the Douglas of Home. Induced by this religious spirit, and by a cool mercantile attention to prudence, the magistrates and minister of Greenock, before they admitted Mr. Wilson to the superintendence of the grammar school, stipulated that he should abandon "the profane and unprofitable art of poem-making." Mr. Wilson had a beloved wife and a 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. To avoid the temptation of violating this promise, which he esteemed sacred, he took an early opportunity of committing to the flames the greater part of his unfinished manuscripts. After this, he never ventured to touch his forbidden lyre, though he often regarded it with that mournful solemnity, which the harshness of dependence, and the memory of its departed sounds, could not fail to inspire. 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.

He seems during life to have considered this as the crisis of his fate, which condemned him to obscurity; and sometimes alluded to it with acrimony. In a letter to his son George, attending the university of Glasgow, dated January 21, 1779, he says, "I once thought to live by the breath of fame; but how miserably was I disappointed, when, instead of having my performance applauded in crowded theatres, and being caressed by the great for what will not a poetaster, in the intoxicating delirium of possession, dream!-I was condemned tc bawl myself to hoarseness among wayward brats, to cul

tivate sand, and wash Ethiopians, for all the dreary days of an obscure life, the contempt of shopkeepers and brutish skippers." (1)

The feelings of a mind glowing with poetical enthusiasm on such an occasion, are so beautifully expressed by a poet who unites with singular felicity picturesque imagery and pathetic sentiment, that I cannot resist the desire of transcribing the passage:

"Bereave me not of Fancy's shadowy dreams,

Which won my heart, or when the gay career
Of life begun, or when at times a tear
Sat sad on Memory's cheek-though loftier themes
Await the awakened mind, to the high prize

Of wisdom hardly earned with toil and pain,
Aspiring patient, yet on life's wide plain
Left fatherless, where many a wanderer sighs
Hourly, and oft our road is lone and long,

"Twere not a crime, should we a while delay
Amid the sunny field; and happier they,
Who, as they journey, woo the charm of song,
To cheer their way, till they forget to weep,

And the tired sense is hushed and sinks to sleep." (2)

When I first became acquainted with this transaction, my curiosity was excited concerning the names of the principal agents. I wished to know to what species of fame they aspired; and to learn whether they had caused their names to be inscribed on any species of monu

(1) [In the same year (1779) "an honest Frenchman made his appearance in this town (Greenock) for the purpose of teaching dancing. He petitioned the Magistrates and Town Council to get the loft at the Royal Close after teaching hours, but was refused, lest the dancing might injure the cellars." "This loft at the Royal Close, now occupied partly as a counting-house, was then the Grammar-school where Wilson taught. It had been previous to 1761, when the Mid-parish church was completed, a regular place of worship for the inhabitants of that neighbourhood. The church-bell was hung upon triangles in the close adjacent."-Weir's Hist. of Greenock.-The Magistrates feared more the saltations of a few chil dren than the gravity of their more numerous parents.]

(2) Bowles' Poems, vol. ii. p. 66.


ment or public work. But, on reflection, it seemed better to leave them in that oblivion which they seem to have so sedulously courted.


In justice to the present inhabitants of Greenock, it

proper to state, that since the period to which I allude, an important change has occurred in their manners and taste. The present magistrates are distinguished by their public spirit and attention to literature; and to one of them, a favourite pupil of Mr. Wilson, the editor of this edition of 'Clyde,' is indebted for some of the materials employed in the Biographical Sketch of the Author.

From the period of Mr. Wilson's appointment as master of the grammar-school of Greenock, he devoted himself solely to the duties of his function; and the evening of his life was calmly passed in the social intercourse of his friends, who were numerous and respectable, and in the enjoyment of domestic tranquillity. The classical department of the school was under his immediate direction, and the mathematical was conducted by a Mr. Nichols. As a public teacher, his character was highly respectable. He always preferred lenient to coercive measures; and from the gentleness of his disposition, and his assiduity in teaching, his memory is still cherished by his pupils with fondness and veneration. In school, he had more the appearance of a father instructing his children, than of a master presiding among his scholars; and for the last years during which he taught, the increasing infirmities of age induced him to trust solely to the affection of his pupils, for maintaining order and subordination. Nor did he find his confidence misplaced; for at no time did they obey him more implicitly, or apply more assiduously to their studies. Two years before his death, which happened on June 2, 1789, the increasing debility of his constitution induced him

to retire from the duties of is office on the united salaries of schoolmaster and session-clerk; but the respectful attention of his pupils was continued to the close of his life.


In his domestic character, Mr. Wilson was gentle and affectionate. He cultivated the minds of his children with assiduous care, and early instilled into them the precepts of sublime morality, and those feelings of devotion with which he himself was deeply impressed. was accustomed to lose no opportunity for their instruction. Astronomy was one of his favourite pursuits; and as some of them, while young, slept on a little bed in the same chamber with their parents, in a clear and quiet night he frequently renewed the conversations which he had previously held, concerning the course and motions of the stars that passed the uncurtained window of his apartment. On Sunday evenings he was wont to make his daughter read the English Scriptures aloud to the family, while he amused himself with comparing the original with the translation. In domestic worship, it was customary for him to read an extemporaneous version of the Septuagint, or New Testament, instead of using the English translation. In religion, he adhered to the tenets of the moderate party in the Church of Scotland. His eldest son James, 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 Champlain ; 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. John,

« PreviousContinue »