1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Wilkie

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 32:72-73.



WILLIAM WILKIE, a Scotch poet of some fame in his day, was born in the parish of Dalmeny, in the county of West Lothian, Oct. 5, 1721. His father, although a small farmer and poor and unfortunate, endeavoured to give him a liberal education, which he appears to have improved by diligence. At the age of thirteen, he was sent to the university of Edinburgh, where he made a rapid progress in learning, but before he completed his academical course, his father died, leaving him no other inheritance than his small farm, and the care of three sisters. Necessity thus turned his attention to the study of agriculture, which he cultivated with so much success, although upon a confined scale, that he acquired a solid reputation as a practical farmer, and was enabled to provide far himself and his sisters. He still, however, prosecuted his studies, and at the accustomed period was admitted a preacher in the church of Scotland.

For some years this made no alteration in his mode of life; and as a clergyman he only occasionally assisted in some neighbouring churches, while he devoted his principal time to his farm and his studies. He appears to have been early ambitious of the character of a poet, and having read Homer, as Don Quixote read romances, he determined to sally forth as his rival, or continuator, and this enthusiasm produced The Epigoniad, published in 1753. On this poem he is said to have employed fourteen years, which ill agrees with what his biographers tell us of his propensity to poetry, and the original vigour of his mind; for after so much labour it appeared with all the imperfections of a rough sketch. Its reception by the English public was not very flattering, but in his own country The Epigoniad succeeded so well, that a second edition was called for in 1759, to which he added a dream in the manner of Spenser. Yet, as this edition was slowly called for, an extraordinary appeal from the general opinion was made by the celebrated Hume, who wrote a very long encomium on the Epigoniad, addressed to the editor of the Critical Review. This has been inserted in the late edition of the English Poets, and those who knew Mr. Hume's taste, friendship, or sincerity, will be best able to determine whether he is serious.

A few years before the publication of the first edition, Wilkie was ordained minister of Ratho, and in 1759 was chosen professor of natural philosophy in the university of St. Andrew's. In 1766 the university conferred upon him the degree of doctor in divinity. In 1768, he published his Fables, which had less success than even his Epigoniad, although they are rather happy imitations of the manner of Gay, and the thoughts, if not always original, are yet sprightly and just. After a lingering illness, he died Oct. 10,1772. The private character of Dr. Wilkie appears to have been distinguished for those singularities, which are sometimes found in men of genius, either from early unrestrained indulgence, or from affectation. His biographers have multiplied instances of his slovenly and disgusting manners, exceeding what we have almost ever heard of; yet we are told be preserved the respect of his contemporaries and scholars. His learning, according to every account, was extensive, and much of it acquired at a very early age.