1859 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Wilkie

William Anderson, in Scottish Nation (1859-66) 3:638-39.



WILLIAM, WILKIE, D.D., author of an epic poem, now only known by name, entitled The Epigoniad, the son of a respectable farmer, was born at Echlin, in the parish of Dalmeny, Linlithgowshire, October 5, 1721. He received his elementary education at the parish school, and at the age of fourteen was sent to the university of Edinburgh. During his attendance at college his father died, and left him, with the charge of his mother and three sisters, the stock and expired lease of a small farm, at Fisher's Tryst, a few miles west from Edinburgh, the management of which he was in consequence obliged to undertake. He continued, however, to prosecute his studies in divinity till he was licensed to preach the gospel. In May 1753 he was appointed assistant minister of the parish of Ratho; and became so great a favourite with the earl of Lauderdale, the patron of the parish, that, on the death of the incumbent, three years afterwards, his lordship conferred on him the living.

While yet a mere youth, he is said to have evinced strong indications of poetical talent. In the Statistical Account of the parish of Dalmeny, there is a copy of some indifferent verses On a Storm, alleged to have been written by him when in his tenth year; but with more probability the period of their composition may be referred to sixteenth or seventeenth year. In 1757 he published at Edinburgh his celebrated epic, entitled The Epigoniad, a Poem in Nine Books, the fruit of many years' study and application. This learned poem, which is founded on a subject in the fourth Iliad of Homer, relative to the sacking of Thebes, met with much temporary success in Scotland, but in England it had few readers, and was very severely handled by the critical and monthly reviewers. Nevertheless, the first impression being soon exhausted, a second edition, corrected and improved, was published in 1759, to which was added A Dream, in the Manner of Spenser. In spite of this lively and elegant apology for his Epigoniad, for such it really was, and of a letter by Hume in its favour, addressed to the editors of the Critical Review, appended to its tail, as it were, as boys affix bits of paper to a kite to make it mount, the work was too cumbrous, and had too much of a gravitating tendency ever to keep itself before the public, and is now consigned to undisturbed silence and neglect.

In 1759 Mr. Wilkie was elected professor of natural philosophy in the university of St. Andrews, and, on removing thither, he took his sisters to reside with him. With about 200, which at this period was all he possessed, he purchased a few acres of almost waste land in the neighbourhood, and resumed his farming occupations, by which, and his frugal habits, he was enabled to leave, at his death, property to the amount of 3,000. In 1766 the university of St. Andrews conferred upon him the degree of D.D. In 1768 he published a series of sixteen Moral Fables, in Verse, dedicated to his early patron the earl of Lauderdale; but, though these pieces possessed much propriety of sentiment and ease of expression, they did not add to his reputation as a poet. Dr. Wilkie died at St. Andrews, after a lingering illness, October 10, 1772, in the 51st year of his age. Several amusing stories are told of his eccentricities. He suffered so much from ague, that, to keep up a perspiration, he used to lie in bed with no less than two dozen pairs of blankets upon him; and, to avoid all chance of the cold damp, he never slept in clean sheets, either at home or in a friend's house! His street dress usually consisted of several flannel jackets, waistcoats, and topcoat, and over all a greatcoat and gown, which gave him a very grotesque appearance. Although of parsimonious habits, he had a benevolent disposition, and in his later years was in the habit of giving away 20 annually in charity. He was at times so very absent, that he would even forget when in the pulpit to take off his hat; once he forgot to pronounce the blessing after public service, and at another time he dispensed the Sacrament, without consecrating the elements! Added to these peculiarities, he indulged in the use of tobacco to an immoderate excess.