1840 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Wright

Anonymous, in Contemporaries of Robert Burns (1840) 342-45.



The humble individual, a short sketch of whose life and writings we are about to give, was born in the year 1805, at a place called Auchincloigh, in the neighbourhood of Galston. His parents, being in indigent circumstances, were unable to give him more than the mere rudiments of education. The Poet, we believe, was only a few months at school; and when he left it could read very indifferently. Like the Ettrick Shepherd, Wright was principally indebted to his own perseverance and unaided efforts for all the education he ever received. In his youth, he was a stirring and "wayward boy," fonder of wandering unconstrained along the picturesque banks of the Cessnock or the Burnawn — both of which streams are frequently alluded to in his poems — than of following after any settled occupation. He was first employed as a coal-driver, and afterwards apprenticed to a weaver, named George Brown, in the village of Galston, to which place his parents had removed when the Poet was about three years of age. His master, a pious and benevolent man, was much interested in his welfare, and generously encouraged that desire for mental improvement which began to manifest itself in the mind of young Wright. It was at this period that he commenced to court the Muse; and the dawnings of that poetical genius, which afterwards shone out so powerfully, first assumed tangibility in the shape of an interlude. As this effusion was never committed to writing — a very difficult task with the author for some time — we are unable to speak with accuracy of its merits. His next attempt was a drama; and he chose as a subject the life of the great impostor Mahomet. As might be expected, he found the task too vast and comprehensive to be embodied within the prescribed limits of a drama; and he therefore relinquished it before it was half finished.

When he commenced "The Retrospect," he never for a moment contemplated the idea of swelling it out to the size which it latterly assumed; but, animated by the praise bestowed upon a few stanzas which he had shown to some of his intimate acquaintances, he was induced to continue. In his preface, he states, "that before thinking of a hero, the whole of the first and a considerable part of the second canto was composed." The truth of this no one will doubt who carefully peruses this able poem. The Retrospect is consequently nothing more nor less than a glowing detail of the youthful thoughts, feelings, and aspirations of the author. The hero, if indeed he is deserving of such an appellation, does not make his appearance till near the end, and, even then, plays a very unimportant and subordinate part. In a word, his exit is as sudden as his first appearance is unexpected. The real hero is the author himself; and he need not be ashamed to avow it, as he has contrived to frame a genuine model both for imitation and instruction.

The poem having accumulated so rapidly in his hands, he began at length to entertain serious thoughts of having it published; and in a short time, by dint of the exertions of himself and his friends, a respectable number of subscribers were obtained — more than sufficient, we believe, to cover the expenses of printing, &c. Wright, however, before he launched forth as an author, determined to have the patronage of some man of genius. Intent on this object, he set out for Edinburgh, without money, and without any recommendation save the manuscript of his poems. It is said, though we cannot vouch for the truth of the statement, that, before reaching the capital, he was more than once under the necessity of satisfying his hunger in the turnip-fields on the roadside as he passed along. Arrived in Edinburgh, on his very doubtful embassy, he was at a loss what to do — how to procure lodging, or even the wherewithal to sustain existence. In this unpleasant dilemma, he recollected that he had an acquaintance attending the classes at the University. He immediately, set out in quest of him, and fortunately was not long in discovering where he resided. This lucky circumstance at once restored the drooping spirits of our hero; and in the course of a few days, through the good offices of his friend, Wright found his way into the presence of Professor Wilson — a gentleman well known as the liberal patron of genius. The Professor, no doubt struck with the unassuming demeanour of the Poet, received him in the most cordial manner.

The result of this interview was highly satisfactory to the feelings of Wright. His productions not only elicited the warm commendations of the learned critic, but also a promise that he would exert himself in his future welfare. Wright may be said at this time to have reached the acme of his ambition, and returned to his native village flushed with the hopes of future success. We believe we are not wrong when we state, that it was immediately after his arrival in Galston that the poem entitled The Street-Remarkers was written, containing some biting satire on the envious and uncourteous manner in which he was welcomed by some of his pretended friends.

In the course of a short period, the first edition of his poems was published, (dedicated, as a matter of courtesy, to Professor Wilson,) from which the Poet realized a very considerable sum. A second edition was almost immediately afterwards undertaken, including several new pieces; and this impression, we believe, he also succeeded in disposing of. But the strength of mind which had borne him up throughout the adversity of his early years, seems to have been incapable of resisting the tide of fame and good fortune which so suddenly set in upon him. Literally carried away by its power, and unable to guide the helm of his little bark, in place of profiting by the smiles of the world, he very soon became one of its shipwrecked castaways.

It is of little importance to follow the Poet through the subsequent scenes of his life. He got married, and settled in Pollockshaws, where he again was compelled to have recourse to the loom for a livelihood. Seized with a transient fit of industry, and still regarding the Muse as a rich mine upon which he could draw at will, poor Wright appears to have made one desperate effort to regain the position he had lost. Working night and day at the loom, he was not less intent on weaving his thoughts together on a subject which he flattered himself would be the crowning effort of his genius. We forget the topic; but it was one for which a public prize had been offered. Our informant paid a visit to Wright at this period, and he describes his appearance to have been eccentric in the extreme. The writing materials lay convenient to his loom, and the moment a couplet struck him, they were of course recorded; and ever and anon he quaffed from a flowing can — not "o' reaming pappy," or the produce of the grape — like a Burns or a Byron, but of the best Epsom Salts, diluted with a due quantum of water! John informed his astonished visitor that he found the application of the salts a most effective stimulant to his genius, though it had wellnigh reduced his system to a skeleton. This fit of industry and physic did not long continue. His erratic temperament soon spurned the hymeneal chain; he left his home, and may be said to have become a houseless wanderer. When rallied on the subject, he excuses himself by saying that he has merely made "a BYRONIAN separation."

Gifted with talents of no ordinary description — possessed of a mind that could appreciate whatever was sublime or beautiful in nature — Wright might one day or other have raised himself to considerable eminence among our national poets, and have been an ornament and an honour to his native land. But, alas! a change has come over the spirit of his dream, and he has ignobly fallen from the pinnacle on which genius and fortune both combined to place him.

The Retrospect, his best production, is stocked with many choice gems, which cannot fail to convey a very favourable impression of the author's capabilities.