1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Hyslop

Charles Rogers, in Modern Scottish Minstrel (1855-57) 3:254-56.



JAMES HISLOP, a short-lived poet of considerable promise, was born of humble parents in the parish of Kirkconnel, Dumfriesshire, in July 1798. Under the care of his grandfather, a country weaver, and a man of piety and worth, he taught himself to read. When little more than a child, he became a cow-herd on the farm of Dalblair, in the neighbourhood of his birth-place. About the age of thirteen, he obtained a year's schooling, which was nearly the whole amount of his regular education. He had already read many books on the hillside. In his fourteenth year, he became a shepherd and tended his first flock at Boghead, parish of Auchinleck, Ayrshire, in the immediate vicinity of Airsmoss, the scene of the skirmish, in 1680, between a body of the soldiers of Charles II. and a small party of Covenanters, when their minister, the famous Richard Cameron, was slain. The traditions which still floated among the peasantry around the tombstone of this indomitable pastor of the persecuted Presbyterians, essentially fostered in his mind the love of poetry; and he afterwards turned them to account in his poem of The Cameronian's Dream. Some years having passed at this place, he removed to Corsebank, on the stream Crawick, and afterwards to Carcoe, in the neighbourhood of Sanquhar. Instead of a course of indiscriminate reading, he now followed a system of regular study; and ere his twentieth year, was not only a respectable classical scholar, but tolerably conversant with some of the modern languages and the exact sciences. He opened an evening school for the instruction of his humble pastoral associates; and about the close of 1819, was induced to remove to Greenock, there to make the attempt of earning a livelihood by teaching. In October of the same year, he began to contribute verses to the Edinburgh Magazine, which excited no inconsiderable attention, and especially called forth the kindly criticisms of the amiable editor, the Rev. Mr. Morehead. Visiting Edinburgh, he was introduced by this gentleman to Mr Jeffrey and the Rev. Mr. Alison, who had both been interested by his poetry.

The Greenock school adventure was unfortunate, and the poet returned to the pastoral scenes of Carcoe. At this period he composed The Cameronian's Dream, which appeared in the Edinburgh Magazine for February 1821, and attracted much attention. He now commenced teaching in Edinburgh; but soon obtained, through the recommendation of Mr. Jeffrey, the appointment of schoolmaster in the Doris frigate, about to sail for South America. At sea, he continued to apply himself to mental improvement; and on his return from a three years' cruise along the coasts of the Western world, he published, in the pages of the Edinburgh Magazine, a series of papers, under the title of Letters from South America, describing the scenes which he had surveyed. In 1825 he proceeded to London, and there formed the acquaintance of Allan Cunningham Joanna Baillie, and J. G. Lockhart. For some time, he reported to one of the London newspapers; but this employment proving uncongenial, was speedily abandoned. The fidelity with which he had reported a sermon of the famous Edward Irving, gained him the personal acquaintance of that extraordinary individual, who presented him with some tokens of his regard. In 1826, he was appointed teacher of an extensive free school in the neighbourhood of London — an office which, at the end of a year, he exchanged for that of schoolmaster on board the Tweed man-of-war, ordered to the Mediterranean and the Cape of Good Hope. While the vessel was cruising off the Cape de Verd islands, Hislop, along with the midshipmen, made a visit of pleasure to the island of St Jago. Sleeping a night on shore, they were all seized with fever, which, in the case of six of the party, including poor Hislop, proved fatal. After lingering for twelve days, he died on the 4th December 1827, in his twenty-ninth year.

Of a clear head, a warm heart, and exemplary steadiness of character, Hislop was much beloved; and a wide circle of hopeful friends deeply lamented his premature decease. By Allan Cunningham, his genius has been described as "elegant rather than vigorous, sweet and graceful rather than lofty, although he was occasionally lofty, too." As the author of The Cameronian's Dream, he is entitled to a place among the bards of his country.