Page images

who lately died in the West Indies, was a young man of great activity in his profession, and possessed of much mercantile knowledge. His only surviving child is his daughter Violet, the wife of Mr. Robert Wilson, shipmaster, Greenock; a lady to whose intelligence and candour I am indebted for the greater part of the materials of this Memoir.

The short intervals of vacation which Mr. Wilson enjoyed, were generally occupied in visiting his literary friends in the country. 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 was animated and jocular; and his conversation had a peculiar zest from its originality. He possessed an inexhaustible fund of anecdotes and stories characteristic of life and manners; these he introduced as they originated spontaneously from the subject of conversation, and related with a high degree of humour and comic effect. The Scottish nation is generally reckoned deficient in comic humour by their southern neighbours; but this is a part of national character, concerning which a stranger is seldom qualified to form a correct judgment. The quality of humour can scarcely be defined; but it evidently depends so much on the nice discrimination of minute and local peculiarities of manners, and the individual forms of expression adapted to these, that its most exquisite efforts must be lost on those who are not familiar with the various shades of dialect. In the sixteenth century, while Scotland had yet a capital, and while its language had not yet dwindled into a vulgar dialect, the Scottish poets excelled particularly in humour. Has this quality, therefore, vanished with the dignity of our popular dialect, or has its source been exhausted by our predecessors? What Scotsman, familiar with the popu

lar language and manners of his country, will for a moment admit the supposition; will not immediately perceive that it is contradicted by numerous instances in his own experience? In the last century, the poets Ramsay, Ross, Ferguson, and Burns, all excelled in this versatile and almost indescribable quality. In novelwriting, Smollett possessed it in an eminent degree. But it is true, that in polite companies a Scotsman is prohibited, by the imputation of vulgarity, from using the common language of the country, in which he expresses himself with most ease and vivacity, and, clothed in. which, his earliest and most distinct impressions always arise to his own mind. He uses a species of translation, which checks the versatility of fancy, and restrains the genuine and spontaneous flow of his conceptions. Mr. Wilson's humour, as well as his dialect, was native Scottish; and hence it might sometimes be little relished by an Englishman, when it afforded the most exquisite pleasure to his Scottish friends. He was a Scotsman of that genuine old class, which seems now to be nearly extinct; who blended with their characteristic 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 veil of apparent rusticity by which it is concealed. "He was," says Professor Richardson of Glasgow, "a worthy character, of unaffected plainness, but not vulgarity of manners.”

Mr. Wilson must be regarded as a man of self-instructed genius. He did not receive a regular education, but he became an excellent classical scholar, in spite of the impediments of fortune, and the disadvantages of situation. He was familiarly acquainted with the Greek, Latin, and French authors; he read German and Italian with facility, and was not unacquainted with Hebrew. The death of almost all his intimate friends has destroy

ed the sources from which a particular account of his studies and literary habits might have been derived; while the only survivor of his nine children was precluded, by her sex and youth, from acquiring a correct notion of her father's literary pursuits in the more austere departments of learning or science. The poetical writers of antiquity, especially the Grecian, attracted his chief admiration. Of Dryden's Virgil he was quite enamoured; and he was accustomed to read select passages of it to his favourite pupils. Perhaps the influence of this partiality may be perceived in his versification. At one period he appears to have been greatly addicted to metaphysical speculations; for in an elegiac fragment, composed on the death of a valued friend, he enumerates some of the topics of their common studies, and relates that, in the recesses of the green hills of Braid, they had often

Sought, whence the spring of every human care;

If self engross, or social passions share;
If free self-motion actuate the will,
Or ruling force of good determine still;

If only pleasure is by virtue sought,

Or moral beauty fires the enraptured thought."

The American war, which commenced soon after Mr. Wilson's settlement in Greenock, met with great disapprobation in the trading towns of the west of Scotland; and he seems to have imbibed the prevailing sentiment; for the letter to his son George, which I have already quoted, enclosed the following poetical sketch, which has the appearance of being a rapid extemporaneous effusion:

"When Epicurus' rules great Athens charmed,

Fair Virtue's flame no more her bosom warmed,

Immersed in softness, pleasure still she craves,
And makes her ally-islanders her slaves;

Till heaven's red bolt from an avenging hand,
Launched by Lysander, scathed the oppressive land:
So we, renowned to the most distant climes,
For rapine, tyranny, and glaring crimes;
Who boast of freedom, yet enthrall the free,
Are never selfish, yet engross the sea;
Void of religion, though afraid of shame,
Whose barren faith is but an empty name;
By God forsaken, whom each lordling braves,
Are mocked and baffled by our outcast slaves."

The circumstances which gave rise to his principal works, and the eras of their composition, are unknown. The fragments found among his remaining 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 Habakkuk, Hab. iii., and a Poetical Version of the Apologue of the Prodigal Son, the versification of which is executed in a correct and accurate manner. The reputation of his poetical versions of Scripture, induced a member of the committee appointed by the General Assembly in 1775, for preparing a collection of Scriptural Paraphrases for the psalmody of the Scottish church, to request his assistance “to metre some piece of Scripture, in the plainest and most simple manner, observing as much as possible the language, but particularly the sentiments of the portion," in order that he might "contribute to public worship for many succeeding ages." To this proposal Mr. Wilson seems not to have acceded, being probably deterred by his engagement with the magistrates of Greenock. The collection of Paraphrases, though very unequal in merit, has been completed with some credit

to the committee. The most poetical versions are the composition of the late Mr. Logan of Leith; but in his poems, where psalmody is not the immediate object, some of them appear in a more perfect form. A satirical poem, entitled 'A Panegyric on the Town of Paisley,' was likewise attributed to the pen of Wilson; but it is uncertain if he ever fully acknowledged it.

The destruction of his manuscripts, and his total dere liction of poetry, are much to be regretted, as his mind seems to have been of that improving kind, which, gradually retracing its own steps with multiplied and reiterated efforts, corrects, polishes, and refines; adds where the texture of the composition is abrupt, compresses where it is redundant, removes what offends taste, and thus evolves a beauty in its due form and proportion. His Earl Douglas,' as we have mentioned, was only an evolution of his Dramatic Essay; his 'Clyde' was only an expansion of his descriptive poem, the Nethan. (1) The Dramatic Essay is evidently the work of an author unpractised in composition. The measure of the verse is languid and prosaic, the style flat and unpoetical, and

(1) All Wilson's publications seem to have escaped the notice of the Reviewers, except the Dramatic Essay, 1760, which was noticed in the following terms by the Monthly Reviewer, vol. xxiii. p. 526, who commends the author's modesty for terming his production an Essay rather than a Drama." The author of this poetical essay has kept very close to the history, having added little of the circumstances of the story, beside a number of moral sentiments, judiciously interspersed, and generally well expressed; the piece being, indeed, unequally written; some parts of it presuming more in favour of the author's genius than other parts of it are able to support. The verse is not poetry; and the ear of the English reader will frequently be offended with the sounds of certain Scotticisms, which should never presume to make their appearance on this side of the Tweed."

Hume of Godscroft, in a copy of verses on the event which is the subject of this drama, and which are preserved in his history, vol. ii. p. 289, had declared the subject worthy of the tragic muse:

"Vestra Sophocleo cædes est digna cothurno,

Vestra Thyesteâ cœna cruenta magis
Vos scelere atque dolis, vos proditione necati,
Insontes, puerique et patriæ proceres."

« PreviousContinue »