The Cowper of Scotland, as he has been called, though he possessed neither the humour nor powers of satire of the English poet, was born in Glasgow, April 22, 1765. His father was a writer in the city, and destined his son for the same profession, while the choice of the young man himself was the Church. But though both of these schemes were in turn carried out, the effective issue of Grahame's life was decided for him by circumstances in quite another direction. At school he received a wanton blow on the back of the head which rendered him delicate throughout life, subjected him to frequent attacks of headache and stupor, and in the end caused his death. By this acquired delicacy a stimulus was given to the reflective side of his character, and at his father's summer cottage on the bosky banks of the Cart he gathered impressions of nature still and fair which were to flower and ripen later into poetry.
Meanwhile he passed through the Grammar School and University of Glasgow, and, yielding to his father's wish, entered the law office of his cousin, Lawrence Hill, in Edinburgh. In 1791 he became a Writer to the Signet, but, his health suffering at the desk, he passed, two years afterwards, into the Faculty of Advocates. Three years later he married.
It was during the following period that his poetry was given to the world. Already, while attending the University, he had issued a small book of verse. Part of this he now revised, and published anonymously as The Rural Calendar in the Kelso Mail in 1797; and four years later he produced Mary Stuart, an Historical Drama. These contained passages of high promise, but attracted little notice. Accordingly, in 1804, when he had another poem ready for publication, he determined to keep the authorship secret. Not even his own household knew of it, and he took the extreme precaution of meeting the printer at obscure coffee-houses to correct the proofs. The poem was The Sabbath, and when the book was ready he took a copy home, and left it on a table. Returning a little later he found his wife absorbed in reading the new work. He said nothing, but paced the floor anxiously, waiting for her verdict, and his feelings can be understood when at last she burst out with, "Ah, James, if you could only write like this!"
The book was severely handled by the Edinburgh Review, and afterwards by Lord Byron, but its fame was already secure, and a second edition appeared in 1805. To this Grahame added Sabbath Walks, and had the satisfaction to see three editions disposed of within twelve months. At Kirkhall, a sequestered spot on the banks of the Esk, where he spent two summers, he next wrote The Birds of Scotland. This work, describing in minute, loving detail the haunts and habits of these feathered creatures, appeared in 1806. And in 1809 he published his British Georgics. Regarding this last work the criticism of Lord Jeffrey was probably just. "No practical farmer," he wrote, "will ever submit to be schooled in blank verse, while the lovers of poetry must be very generally disgusted by the tediousness of those discourses on practical husbandry which break in, every now and then, so ungracefully, on the loftier strains of the poet."
Grahame wrote no more. In the year in which the British Georgics appeared, he determined at last, his father having been long dead, to follow his early bent. Proceeding to London, he entered the English Episcopal Church, was ordained by the Bishop of Norwich, and in succession held the curacies of Shefton Mayne in Gloucestershire, of St. Margaret's, Durham, and of Sedgefield. In each place he proved an eloquent and successful preacher. His health, however, rapidly declined; he returned north for change; and at Whitehill, Glasgow, his brother's residence, expired, September 14, 1811. His death was the first subject to stir the poetic genius of his friend John Wilson, the future "Christopher North," who honoured his memory with a tribute no poet could despise. A detailed account of his life is furnished in Chambers's Illustrious Scotsmen (vol. II. p. 489), and a collected edition of his works, with a memoir by the Rev. George Gilfillan was published at Edinburgh in 1856.
The Sabbath remains Grahame's finest work. It is characteristic, perhaps, of the spirit quickening the muse of Scotland that the same subject should afford the finest poetical performance of a more recent writer, Robert Louis Stevenson.