Alexander Wilson

Charles Rogers, in Modern Scottish Minstrel (1855-57) 1:172-78.

The author of the celebrated American Ornithology is entitled to an honourable commemoration as one of the minstrels of his native land. Alexander Wilson was born at Paisley on the 6th of July 1766. His father had for some time carried on a small trade as a distiller, but the son was destined by his parents for the clerical profession, in the National Church — a scheme which was frustrated by the death of his mother in his tenth year leaving a large family of children to the sole care of his father. He had, however, considerably profited by the instruction already received at school; and having derived from his mother a taste for music and a relish for books, he invoked the muse in solitude, and improved his mind by miscellaneous reading. His father contracted a second marriage when Alexander had reached his thirteenth year; and it became necessary that he should prepare himself for entering upon some handicraft employment. He became an apprentice to his brother-in-law, William Duncan, a weaver in his native town; and on completing his indenture, he wrought as a journeyman, during the three following years, in the towns of Paisley, Lochwinnoch, and Queensferry. But the occupation of weaving, which had from the first been unsuitable to his tastes, growing altogether irksome, he determined to relinquish it for a vocation which, if in some respects scarcely more desirable, afforded him ample means of gratifying his natural desire of becoming familiar with the topography of his native country. He provided himself with a pack, as a pedlar, and in this capacity, in company with his brother-in-law, continued for three years to lead a wandering life. His devotedness to verse-making had continued unabated from boyhood; he had written verses at the loom, and had become an enthusiastic votary of the muse during his peregrinations with his pack. He was now in his twenty-third year; and with the buoyancy of ardent youth, he thought of offering to the public a volume of his poems by subscription. In this attempt he was not successful; nor would any bookseller listen to proposals of publishing the lucubrations of an obscure pedlar. In 1790, he at length contrived to print his poems at Paisley, on his own account, in the hope of being able to dispose of them along with his other wares. But this attempt was not more successful than his original scheme, so that he was compelled to return to his father's house at Lochwinnoch, and resume the obnoxious shuttle. His aspirations for poetical distinction were not, however, subdued; he heard of the institution of the Forum, a debating society established in Edinburgh by some literary aspirants, and learning, in 1791, that an early subject of discussion was the comparative merits of Ramsay and Fergusson as Scottish poets, he prepared to take a share in the competition. By doubling his hours of labour at the loom, he procured the means of defraying his travelling expenses; and, arriving in time for the debate in the Forum, he repeated a poem which he had prepared, entitled the Laurel Disputed, in which he gave the preference to Fergusson. He remained several weeks in Edinburgh, and printed his poem. To Dr Anderson's Bee he contributed several poems, and a prose essay, entitled The Solitary Philosopher. Finding no encouragement to settle in the metropolis, he once more returned to his father's house in the west. He now formed the acquaintance of Robert Burns, who testified his esteem for him both as a man and a poet. In 1792, he published anonymously his popular ballad of Watty and Meg, which he had the satisfaction to find regarded as worthy of the Ayrshire Bard.

The star of the poet was now promising to be in the ascendant, but an untoward event ensued. In the ardent enthusiasm of his temperament, he was induced to espouse in verse the cause of the Paisley hand-loom operatives in a dispute with their employers, and to satirise in strong invective a person of irreproachable reputation. For this offence he was prosecuted before the sheriff, who sentenced him to be imprisoned for a few days, and publicly to burn his own poem in the front of the jail. This satire is entitled The Shark; or, Long Mills detected. Like many other independents, he mistook anarchy in France for the dawn of liberty in Europe; and his sentiments becoming known, he was so vigilantly watched by the authorities, that he found it was no longer expedient for him to reside in Scotland. He resolved to emigrate to America; and, contriving by four months' extra labour, and living on a shilling weekly, to earn his passage-money, he sailed from Portpatrick to Belfast, and from thence to Newcastle, in the State of Delaware, where he arrived on the 14th July 1794. During the voyage he had slept on deck, and when he landed, his finances consisted only of a few shillings; yet, with a cheerful heart, he walked to Philadelphia, a distance of thirty-three miles, with only his fowling-piece on his shoulder. He shot a red-headed woodpecker by the way, — an omen of his future pursuits, for hitherto he had devoted no attention to the study of ornithology.

He was first employed by a copperplate-printer in Philadelphia, but quitted this occupation for the loom, at which he worked about a year in Philadelphia, and at Shepherdstown, in Virginia. In 1795, he traversed a large portion of the State of New Jersey as a pedlar, keeping a journal, — a practice which he had followed during his wandering life in Scotland. He now adopted the profession of a schoolmaster, and was successively employed in this vocation at Frankford, in Pennsylvania, at Milestown, and at Bloomfield, in New Jersey. In preparing himself for the instruction of others, he essentially extended his own acquaintance with classical learning, and mathematical science; and by occasional employment as a land-surveyor, he somewhat improved his finances. In 1801, he accepted the appointment of teacher in a seminary in Kingsessing, on the river Schuylkill, about four miles from Philadelphia, situation which, though attended with limited emolument, proved the first step in his path to eminence. He was within a short distance of the residence of William Bartram, the great American naturalist, with whom he became intimately acquainted; he also formed the friendship of Alexander Lawson, an emigrant engraver, who initiated him in the art of etching, colouring, and engraving. Discovering an aptitude in the accurate delineation of birds, he was led to the study of ornithology; with which he became so much interested, that he projected a work descriptive, with drawings, of all the birds of the Middle States, and even of the Union. About this period he became a contributor to the Literary Magazine, conducted by Mr Broekden Brown, and to Denny's Portfolio.

Along with a nephew and another friend, Wilson made a pedestrian tour to the Falls of Niagara, in October 1804, and on his return published in the Portfolio a poetical narrative of his journey, entitled The Foresters, — a production surpassing his previous efforts, and containing some sublime apostrophes. But his energies were now chiefly devoted to the accomplishment of the grand design he had contemplated. Disappointed in obtaining the co-operation of his friend Mr Lawson, who was alarmed at the extent of his projected adventure, and likewise frustrated in obtaining pecuniary assistance from the President Jefferson, on which he had some reason to calculate, he persevered in his attempts himself, drawing, etching, and colouring the requisite illustrations. In 1806, he was employed as assistant-editor of a new edition of Rees' Cyclopedia, by Mr Samuel Bradford, bookseller in Philadelphia, who rewarded his services with a liberal salary, and undertook, at his own risk, the publication of his Ornithology. The first volume of the work appeared in September 1808, and immediately after its publication the author personally visited, in the course of two different expeditions, the Eastern and Southern States, in quest of subscribers. These journeys were attended with a success scarcely adequate to the privations which were experienced in their prosecution; but the Ornithology otherwise obtained a wide circulation, and, excelling in point of illustration every production that had yet appeared in America, gained for the author universal commendation. In January 1810, his second volume appeared, and in a month after he proceeded to Pittsburg, and from thence, in a small skiff, made a solitary voyage down the Ohio, a distance of nearly six hundred miles. During this lonely and venturous journey he experienced relaxation in the composition of a poem, which afterwards appeared under the title of The Pilgrim. In 1813, after encountering numerous hardships and perils, which an enthusiast only could have endured, he completed the publication of the seventh volume of his great work. But the sedulous attention requisite in the preparation of the plates of the eighth volume, and the effect of a severe cold, caught in rashly throwing himself into a river to swim in pursuit of a rare bird, brought on him a fatal dysentery, which carried him off, on the 23d of August 1813, in his forty-eighth year. He was interred in the cemetery of the Swedish church, Southwark, Philadelphia, where a plain marble monument has been erected to his memory. A ninth volume was added to the Ornithology by Mr George Ord, an intimate friend of the deceased naturalist; and three supplementary volumes have been published, in folio, by Charles Lucien Bonaparte, uncle of the present Emperor of the French.

Amidst his extraordinary deserts as a naturalist, the merits of Alexander Wilson as a poet have been somewhat overlooked. His poetry, it may be remarked, though unambitious of ornament, is bold and vigorous in style, and, when devoted to satire, is keen and vehement. The ballad of Watty and Meg, though exception may be taken to the moral, is an admirable picture of human nature, and one of the most graphic narratives of the "taming of a shrew" in the language. Allan Cunningham writes: "It has been excelled by none in lively, graphic fidelity of touch: whatever was present to his eye and manifest to his ear, he could paint with a life and a humour which Burns seems alone to excel." In private life, Wilson was a model of benevolence and of the social virtues; he was devoid of selfishness, active in beneficence, and incapable of resentment. Before his departure for America, he waited on every one whom he conceived he had offended by his juvenile escapades, and begged their forgiveness; and he did not hesitate to reprove Burns for the levity too apparent in some of his poems. To his aged father, who survived till the year 1816, he sent remittances of money as often as he could afford; and at much inconvenience and pecuniary sacrifice, he established the family of his brother-in-law on a farm in the States. He was sober even to abstinence; and was guided in all his transactions by correct Christian principles. In person, he was remarkably handsome; his countenance was intelligent, and his eye sparkling. He never attained riches, but few Scotsmen have left more splendid memorials of their indomitable perseverance.