1876 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Hyslop

James Grant Wilson, in Poetry of Scotland (1876) 2:181-82.



JAMES HYSLOP was born of humble parents in the parish of Kirkconnel, near the burgh of Sanquahar, Dumfrieshire, July 13, 1798. Under the care of a pious grandfather he was taught to read, and while yet a child was sent in summer to herd cows on the neighbouring farm of Dalblair, occasionally attending school during the winter months. He was next employed as a shepherd in the vicinity of Airsmoss, in Ayrshire, the scene of a skirmish in July, 1680, between a party of soldiers and a small band of Covenantors, when their pastor Richard Cameron was slain. The traditions floating among the peasantry concerning this conflict arrested the attention of the young shepherd, and he afterwards turned them to good account in his well-known poem. When a lad he had received only a little education, but so eager was his thirst to acquire more, that before he reached his twentieth year he had become an excellent scholar, mostly by his own exertions. After teaching for a time an evening school in his native district, he in 1819 removed to Greenock and opened a day-school, which proved unsuccessful, and he again returned to pastoral pursuits. In February, 1821, The Cameronian's Dream appeared in the Edinburgh Magazine, and attracted the attention of Lord Jeffrey, by whom Hyslop was induced to open a school in Edinburgh. Through the influence of his literary friends he was soon after appointed schoolmaster on board the frigate Doris. During her cruise he contributed to the pages of the Edinburgh Magazine a series of Letters from South America, describing the scenes he had visited in that country; also sending an occasional poem. The Letters were well written, but the masterly pen of Captain Hall had gone over the same ground before him, which left the poet or any person but little to glean for a long time.

In 1825 Hyslop visited London, carrying with him letters from Lord Jeffrey and the Rev. Archibald Alison to Joanna Baillie and her sister, John Gibson Lockhart, and Allan Cunningham, by all of whom he was kindly received, and through whose assistance he was appointed head-master of an academy near London, after having been for a time a reporter on the Times newspaper. At the end of a year Hyslop, on account of ill health, exchanged the academy for an appointment as schoolmaster on board the Tweed man-of-war, bound for India, and commanded by Lord John Spence. Among several poems composed during this voyage that entitled The Scottish Sacramental Sabbath, in the style of the Cottar's Saturday Night, is perhaps the best. It is said to have been suggested by the commemoration of the ordinance in Sanquhar churchyard, and is valuable as a faithful picture of one of the customs of his native land. While the Tweed was cruising off the Cape de Verd Islands, Hyslop and a number of the officers landed on the island of St. Iago. They slept on shore in the open air, and were in consequence seized with a malignant fever, to which most of them fell victims, and poor Hyslop among the rest. After lingering for twelve days the young poet died, Dec. 4, 1827, in his twenty-ninth year, adding another to the beadroll of Scottish poets who passed from the world before they had seen thirty summers.

John MacColl of Sunny Beach, Strone, writes to the Editor (Aug. 11, 1875): "Hyslop spent an evening with me in Glasgow, I think in 1825, shortly before setting out on his last voyage, and I may say it was one of the happiest I ever spent;" and Allan Cunningham describes Hyslop's poetic gifts as "elegant rather than lofty, although he was occasionally lofty too." In MacDiarmid's Sketches from Nature there is an interesting memoir of this "inheritor of unfulfilled renown," several of whose hitherto unpublished poems we have pleasure in presenting to our readers.