« ZurückWeiter »
to which it has been ont of our power to make any addition. His poetical attempts are on the whole pretty tolerable, though not such as will ever render his name anywise popular, or the events of his life a matter of curiosity and regard to the literary anecdote-monger
The brilliant era- the golden age of Renfrewshire song, now opens upon us in the persons of Wilson and Tannahill. Both have contributed not a little to our stock of native lyric poetry; and while our language lasts, and music hath any charm, their names will be remembered with enthusiasm, and transmitted to ages more reinote with the accumulated applauses of time.
Alexander Wilson was born at Paisley on the 6th of July 1766; he landed in America on the 14th of July 1794 ; and died at Philadelphia, on the 23d of August 1819, while on the very eve of completing one of the most splendid undertakings that hath ever been projected, perhaps, by a single, solitary, friendless, poor; and almost destitute individual. The severe fatigues, both mental and corporeal which he underwent-- the many disappointments which he was doomed to suffer--the unceasing labour and unwearied attention he had to bestow in forwarding this great work, were all instrumental in impairing and sapping his constitution, and in depressing, though they could never subdue, bis energetic, inflexible, and persevering mind. Nothing could deter him from going on to place the apex on that pyramid, whose basis had been so deeply, broadly, and solidly executed by himself; but fate arrested his adveniurous hand, and blasted the lofty thought--he, like the Egyptian Monarch perished upon, and was sepulchered in, the im mense and glorious fabric himself had reared.
Of this celebrated character, almost every incident connected with his history, has long ere now been laid before the public with scrupulous minuteness. To the last volume of the Orni. thology of America is prefixed, a sketch of his life, by his friend Mr. Ord, and the edition of his poems published at Paisley in 1816, is likewise prefaced with a well written, though diffuse life of the author, interspersed with critical strictures on some of the pieces there inserted. It would be uncandid not to state, that we have also seen some interesting details respecting him in a periodical work, to which we have had occasion to refer, while speaking of Ebenezer Picken, written as we understand, by one who was on the closest terms of intimacy with him before his departure for America, and which, so far as we know to the contrary, are perfectly consonant to truth. · The education which Wilson received, though not profound, was far from being totally imperfect, or scanty. Though not what is termed either liberal or classical, it was, nevertheless, such as enabled him to widen its foundations, and improve its superstructure as leisure served, and occasion required. Moreover, few towns in Scotland can boast of its inferior classes being such a reading population as could his native place; and notwithstanding, they generally evaporate their fine thoughts, and literary acquisitions at the corner of some retired street, or drown them in the rattling of shuttles within the precincts of each particular erudite shop, still, the information thus cir. culated, and the studious and literary habits thus introduced, are not without benefit to the inquisitive and intelligent minded youths who submit to listen, and suck in the nurture which ever and anon is yielded, while the elder Gossips do discourse on the high matters of church and state, of science and literature. On an observant mind, no useful hint, however obscurely given, and no thought, if good, though ever so rudely and imperfectly expressed, are altogether lost With such a one, no opportunity of improvement, be it trifling or otherwise, is let slip, without being turned to some account either now or after vards. Wilson appears to have been a man of this stamp; his powers of observation were naturally strong, and practice gave them acuteness; his whole intellect was vigorous and active, and occasions were not at all wanting, sufficient to call forth its strength and to assign it a sphere of action, which, though confined, was yet wide enough to afford scope at times for livelier sallies, and bolder conceptions. · Unhappily for our bard and naturalist, his lot in life was none of the must comfortable or fortunate. Poverty haunted his threshold, and his own desultory, rambling, and unsettled habits were not such, as could prevent the frequent intrusion of that most unwelcome of all guests. He was restless and discontented, shifting from one pursuit to another, which was
as soon abandoned for a third, and that again in its turn, became as tasteless and unprofitable as any, and consequently as soon discarded. At one time we find him a weaver, at another time a pedlar, a third time qualifying himself to be a schoolmaster, and then again resuming the shuttle. Political sentiments likewise had their share in adding to his unhappiness. Enthusiastic in his love of liberty, at a time when all were somewhat fanatic on the same subject, the fervour of the poet's imagination distorted and magnified the visible shape of na-tional events beyond their true and just proportions; giving them a hue they did not possess, and conjuring from the womb of futurity, phantoms of utter nonentity, clothed, however, in the most uncouth and frightful habiliments, with which fancy and excited feeling can invest their ideal offspring. These waking visions are the sources of many bitternesses and much uneasi iess to those in whom they are engendered, and by whom they are fostered, maugre their ultimate pernicious effects. So were they no doubt to Wilson. But we cannot think it was owing entirely to them, that he first formed the resolution of quitting his country for ever, and seeking an asylum in a foreign land. The real patriot, if he imagines the freedom of the constitution under which he was born, and which he has been taught from his infancy to idolize, is at stake, will not shrink from the coming storm, but abide its fury, and fall greatly amidst the wreck of the falling state, But there was a deeper wound festering in his heart which could not be healed, and which residence near the place where it was inflicted, only tended to inflame worse. When a juvenile piece of satire, dictated it may be said, from no malicious motive, was extorted from his possession, and burned at the public market place of bis own town), enough is known of a poet's feelings, to keep us from wondering, if home then should not appear comforta less, a country cruel, and this mark of degradation, and open contumely, mortifying and insupportable, harsh and severe to the last degree.
Previous a considerable tiinc to embarking for America, he had published diverse miscellaneous poems of unequal merit to be sure, but all inheriting some marks of a mind removed from the whimpering and whiffling manufacturers of rhymes, who at that time flooded the printing offices in all parts of Scotland. On these poems and some more, which he afterwards composed on the other side of the Atlantic, do his claims for poetical distinction rest. And securely may they so rest, since in them are found not only those beautiful descriptive passages, which sometimes garnish the pages of the Ornithology, but likewise those pieces in which we conceive he mostly excels, namely, Watty and Meg-Eppie and the Deil-Rab and Ringan- The Laurel disputed, &c. all written in our vernacular tongue. These must ever be considered the corner stones of his merit as a maker: for his other pieces written in English, without any admixture of Scotish idiomatic phrases and language, are frequently cumbrous, taudry, and tautological in their style, burying as it were in emptiness of sound or glisteringness of verbiage, the thought to be expressed. It is true that he published ere his taste was sufficiently matured, or his genius fully unfolded, an error which be often regretted, but could not remedy. For ilie faults which the sharp eyed critic may discover in these poems of juvenility, liinited observation, false embellishment, or depraved taste, no excuse is proffered, because every ingenious reader will be readily inclined to make every allowance the nature of the case may require. In the matter of song-writing, his townsman Tannahill has an evident superiority, but in other respects, is confessedly his inferior. Had he written nothing but Watty and Meg, he would have been honourably remem bered. Without exception it is the very best thing of its kind ever written, delineated as it is, with so much graphic cifect, and coloured with so much fidelity. · None but a Scotsman can truly relish it, or fully appreciate the talent it displays. He will place it in company with "At Peblis to the play," <. Christis Kirk on the Grene,” and “ Burns' Jolly Beggars," and he may then challenge any nation on earth to cull so choice a garland of dainty and humorous devices from its native poetry. The tender passion Wilson seems never to have felt, in any of its pleasing or distracting degrees of intensity. He sings of love, because it was a fashionable thing with other poets to do so, and he sung therefore of its effects with coldness, indifference, and aukward. ness. Had he been madly in love, he would have been a powerful and overwhelming poet. That passion opens the sluices of the whole affections of the heart, and as it is favoured or counteracted in its growth and progress, so do they glide on in
a tranquil and continuous stream of gentleness and joy, or roll down in the fury and turbulence of the storin. In the one case, becoming the source of all that is beautiful and pleasing; in the other, of all that is terrific and sublime.
Some have regretted our poet's departure from Scotland, and judging of what he might have latterly performed here, by what he actually accomplished in America, lamented, that he should thus be one of his country's lost stars in the hemisphere of letters. That he would have done something more than what he did, had he only remained, is to be sure likely enough; but that he would have performed as much, or gained so great a reputation as he did elsewhere, is an opinion by no means of equal probability. The salvation of his name, its glory and very being, was his voyage to the new world. And though the animosity and adverse circumstances that drove him hence, every friend to injured and unprotected genius will join in exe. crating, at same time every lover of science and natural history, will have cause to rejoice at the happy fruits which resulted from otherwise so grieving an event. At home his adventurous and ambitious spirit had no scope to give vent to, or means left it of satisfying its boundless longings. It sickened in the little circle that narrowed its movements, and, like a chilling spell, froze its aspirations. The depth, shade, and illimitable extent of the American forest, with its fair tenantry of winged inmates, were wanting for its width of range, and the unfoldment of and formation of its peculiar biases, and the invigoration of its grasping might. While he remained with us, he knew not what he was, or wherefore he was born; when he first set his foot in America, moneyless and unknown, he awakened to an adequate sense of his own powers and resources, and intellectus al dignity. He had one of those souls which but rise to the full measure of the stature assigned them by nature, owing to the multiform and harassing circumstances that gather round in an endless and perplexed maze, as if to confound and anni. hilate. His was one that smiled at difficulties, gloried in the midst of insuperable obstacles, and triumphed over every barrier that opposed its march or thwarted its desires. When we look to his brilliant, though short career, and think on what he suffered, and what he finally overcame, to compass his stupendous work, he could neither have been accused of egotism nor