1896 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Wilson

George Eyre-Todd, in Scottish Poetry of the Eighteenth Century (1896) 2:184.



More famous though he certainly is in other fields, the great American ornithologist is also a claimant for a place of honour among the poets of his native country. Born at Paisley, the son of a small distiller, and himself a weaver by trade, Wilson appears, from the first, to have had more taste for nature than for sedentary labour. For a time he became a pedlar, and along with his chapman's wares he hawked copies of the first volume of his poetry, published in 1789. In 1792 appeared anonymously his most famous piece, Watty and Meg, a narrative poem which, for its humour and realistic truth, has with justice been likened to a picture by Teniers or Ostade.

Shortly after this publication Wilson became involved in the disputes of the weaving trade in Paisley, and for some poetic satires, held to be libellous, which he wrote upon certain "sweating" masters of the craft, he suffered a short imprisonment in Paisley jail, and was compelled to burn the production with his own hands at the town's cross. Dispirited by this experience he determined to emigrate; and by dint of severe toil and stint — living on so little as a shilling a week, he saved enough in four months to carry him to the United States. Throughout the voyage he slept on deck, and on arrival had to borrow a small sum to reach Philadelphia. Afterwards, however, as weaver, pedlar, copperplate printer, and schoolmaster, he procured a better subsistence, and was finally engaged as sub-editor of Rees' Cyclopaedia. While a schoolmaster he had become intimately acquainted with Bartram, the American naturalist, and, developing at the same time a singular aptitude in the preservation and drawing of birds, he undertook long pedestrian rambles to increase his collections. During one excursion he descended the Ohio in a skiff, alone, for over 600 miles. After completing eight volumes of his great American Ornithology, worn out by his extraordinary efforts, he was attacked by dysentery and died. His work, however, with additions by later hands, especially those of Charles Lucien Bonaparte, remains the standard on its subject; the plates, which, owing to the primitive condition of art in the United States at the time, he engraved and coloured with his own hands, would themselves furnish an enduring monument to his name.

Collected editions of Wilson's poems were published at Paisley in 1816 and at Belfast in 1845, but the most complete is that by the Rev. A. B. Grosart, published at Paisley in 1876.

Watty and Meg, from the popularity of its subject-the reform of a scolding wife by a threat of leaving her-has generally been placed first among Wilson's compositions. Notwithstanding its high merits, however, of vividness and realism, it is handicapped heavily by the four-lined trochaic measure in which it is written, and it does not appear unjust to say that it contains nothing which might not have been as well expressed in prose. The best qualities of Wilson's genius — the graphic touches by which whole scenes of the peasant life in Scotland are brought vividly before the eye, and a happiness of epithet which gives the freshness of individuality to his work are to be found, with a higher quality of art, in his slightly longer piece, The Laurel Disputed.