William Julius Mickle was born at Langholm, in Dunfriesshire. His father, who was a clergyman of the Scottish church, had lived for some time in London, and had preached in the dissenting meeting-house of the celebrated Dr. Watts. He returned to Scotland on being presented to the living of Langholm, the duties of which he fulfilled for many years; and, in consideration of his long services, was permitted to retain the stipend after he had removed to Edinburgh, for the better education of his children. His brother-in-law was a brewer in Edinburgh, on whose death the old clergyman unfortunately embarked his property, in order to continue his business, under the name of his eldest son. William, who was a younger son, was taken from the high-school of Edinburgh, and placed as a clerk in the concern; and, on coming of age, took the whole responsibility of it upon himself. When it is mentioned, that Mickle had, from his boyish years, been an enthusiastic reader of Spenser, and that, before he was twenty, he had composed two tragedies and half an epic poem, which were in due time consigned to the flames, it may be easily conceived that his habits of mind were not peculiarly fitted for close and minute attention to a trade which required incessant superintendence. He was, besides, unfortunate, in becoming security for an insolvent acquaintance. In the year 1763 he became a bankrupt; and being apprehensive of the severity of one of his creditors, he repaired to London, feeling the misery of his own circumstances aggravated by those of his relations whom he had left behind him.
Before leaving Scotland, he had corresponded with Lord Lyttelton, to whom he had submitted some of his poems in MS., and one, entitled Providence, which he had printed in 1762. Lord Lyttelton patronised his Muse rather than his fortune. He undertook (to use his lordship's own phrase) to be his "schoolmaster in poetry;" but his fastidious blottings could be of no service to any man who had a particle of genius: and the only personal benefit which he attempted to render him was to write to his brother, the governor of Jamaica, in Mickle's behalf, when our poet had thoughts of going out to that island. Mickle, however, always spoke with becoming liberality of this connection. He was pleased with the suavity of Lord Lyttelton's manners, and knew that his means of patronage were very slender. In the meantime, he lived nearly two years in London, upon remittances from his friends in Scotland, and by writing for the daily papers.
After having fluctuated between several schemes for subsistence, he at length accepted of the situation of corrector to the Clarendon press, at Oxford. Whilst he retained that office, he published a poem, which he at first named The Concubine; but on finding that the title alarmed delicate ears, and suggested a false idea of its spirit and contents, he changed it to Syr Martyn. At Oxford he also engaged in polemical divinity, and published some severe animadversions on Dr. Harwood's recent translation of the New Testament. He also showed his fidelity to the cause of religion in a tract, entitled Voltaire in the Shades; or Dialogues on the Deistical Controversy.
His greatest poetical undertaking was the translation of the Luciad, which he began in 1770, and finished in five years. For the sake of leisure and retirement, he gave up his situation at the Clarendon press, and resided at the house of a Mr. Tomkins, a farmer at Forest Hill, near Oxford. The English Luciad was dedicated, by permission to the Duke of Buccleuch; but his Grace returned not the slightest notice or kindness to his ingenious countryman. Whatever might be the duke's reasons, good or bad, for this neglect, he was a man fully capable of acting on his own judgment; and there was no necessity for making any other person responsible for his conduct. But Mickle, or his friends, suspected that Adam Smith and David Hume had maliciously stood between him and the Buccleuch patronage. This was a mere suspicion, which our author and his friends ought either to have proved or suppressed. Mickle was indeed the declared antagonist of Hume; he had written against him, and could not hear his name mentioned with temper; but there is not the slightest evidence that the hatred was mutual. That Adam Smith should have done him a mean injury, no one will believe probable, who is acquainted with the traditional private character of that philosopher. But Mickle was also the antagonist of Smith's doctrines on political economy, as may be seen in his Dissertation on the Charter of the East India Company. The author of the Wealth of Nations, forsooth, was jealous of his opinions on monopolies! Even this paltry supposition is contradicted by dates, for Mickle's tract upon the subject of Monopolies was published several years after the preface to the Luciad. Upon the whole, the suspicion of his philosophical enemies having poisoned the ear of the Duke of Buccleuch seems to have proceeded from the same irritable vanity, which made him threaten to celebrate Garrick as the hero of a second Dunciad when he refused to accept of his tragedy, The Siege of Marseilles.
Though the Luciad had a tolerable sale, his circumstances still made his friends solicitous that he should obtain some settled provision. Dr. Lowth offered to provide for him in the church. He refused the offer with honourable delicacy, lest his former writings in favour of religion should be attributed to the prospect of reward. At length the friendship of his kinsman, Commodore Johnstone, relieved him from unsettled prospects. Being appointed to the command of a squadron destined for the coast of Portugal, he took out the translator of Camoens as his private secretary. Mickle was received with distinguished honours at Lisbon. The Duke of Braganza, in admitting him a member of the Royal Academy of Lisbon, presented him with his own picture.
He returned to England in 1780, with a considerable acquisition of prize-money, and was appointed an agent for the distribution of the prize profits of the cruise. His fortune now enabled him to discharge the debts of his early and mercantile life. He married the daughter of Mr. Tomkins, with whom he had resided while translating the Lusiad; and, with every prospect of spending the remainder of his life in affluence and tranquility, purchased a house, and settled at Wheatley, near Oxford. So far his circumstances have almost the agreeable air of a concluding novel; but the failure of a banker with whom he was connected as prize agent, and a chancery law suit in which he was involved, greatly diminished his finances, and disturbed the peace of his latter years. He died at Forest Hill, after a short illness.
His reputation principally rests upon the translation of the Lusiad, which no Englishman had attempted before him, except Sir Richard Fanshawe. Sir Richard's version is quaint, flat, and harsh; and he has interwoven many ridiculously conceited expressions which are foreign both to the spirit and style of the original; but in general it is closer than the modern translation to the literal meaning of Camoens. Altogether, Fanshawe's representations of the Portuguese poem may be compared to the wrong side of the tapestry. Mickle, on the other hand, is free, flowery, and periphrastical; he is incomparably more spirited than Fanshawe; but still he departs from the majestic simplicity of Camoen's diction as widely as Pope has done from that of Homer. The sonorous and simple language of the Lusitanian epic is like the sound of a trumpet; and Mickle's imitation like the shakes and flourishes of the flute.
Although he was not responsible for the faults of the original, he has taken abundance of pains to defend them in his notes and preface. In this has not been successful. The long lecture on geography and Portuguese history, which Gama delivers to the King of Melinda, is a wearisome interruption to the narrative; and the use of Pagan mythology is a radical and unanswerable defect. Mickle informs us as an apology for the latter circumstance, that all this Pagan machinery was allegorical also; an assertion which would require to be proved, before it can be admitted. Camoens himself has said something about his concealment of a moral meaning under his Pagan deities; but if he has any such morality, it is so well hidden that it is impossible to discover it. The Venus of the Lusiad, we are told, is Divine Love; and how is this Divine Love employed! For no other end than to give the poet an opportunity of displaying a scene of sensual gratification, an island is purposely raised up in the ocean; Venus conducts De Gama and his followers to this blessed spot, where a bevy of the nymphs of Venus are very good-naturedly prepared to treat them to their favours; not as a trial, but as a reward for their virtues! Voltaire was certainly justified in pronouncing this episode a piece of gratuitous indecency. In the same allegorical spirit no doubt, Bacchus, who opposes the Portuguese discoverers in the councils of Heaven, disguises himself as a Popish priest and celebrates the rites of the catholic religion. The imagination is somewhat puzzled to discover why Bacchus should be an enemy to the natives of a country, the soil of which is so productive of his beverage; and a friend to the Mahometans who forbid the use of it: although there is something amusing in the idea of the jolly god officiating as a Romish clergyman.
Mickle's story of Syr Martyn is the most pleasing of his original pieces. The object of the narrative is to exhibit the degrading effects of concubinage, in the history of an amiable man, who is reduced to despondency and sottishness, under the dominion of a beldam and a slattern. The defect of the moral is, that the same evils might have happened to Syr Martyn in a state of matrimony. The simplicity of the tale is also, unhappily, overlaid by a weight of allegory and of obsolete phraseology, which it has not importance to sustain. Such a style, applied to the history of a man and his housekeeper, is like building a diminutive dwelling in all the pomp of Gothic architecture.