1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Wilkie

Anonymous, "Character of William Wilkie, D.D." Annual Register (1808) 3-13.



Though Dr. Wilkie was exceedingly admired by all who knew him, and were capable of estimating his learning and genius as a philosopher, a poet, and a man of wit; his character is, perhaps, less generally known than that of any other man of our times, equally entitled to fame. It must be owned, that there is somewhat of a whimsical appearance in a philosopher's writing a poem, at this time of day, about the sons of the Grecian heroes who fought in the first war against Thebes. In this age of philosophical precision, so destructive of all faith in fable or machinery; there is scarcely any kind of poetry that is tolerable, except the satirical and descriptive, this last including the dramatic. The epic poem, languishing under the piercing rays of science, has died a natural death. The last efforts in this way, at all respectable, are, the Leonidas of Glover, the Henriade of Voltaire, and Wilkie's Epigoniad. Still, however, the admirable genius of Wilkie might have been better employed; notwithstanding all that he says in his preface to the Epigoniad, universally allowed to be a piece of masterly criticism. There are few, it is presumed, who can work up their imagination, or be so wrought upon by others, as to feel any interest in the characters or fortunes of the Epigoni. But there is no one who does not admire the variegated harmony of Wilkie's versification, formed, it would appear, on the model of Milton's Paradise Lost, and of Thomson's Seasons; the splendour of his descriptions, and the wonderful powers and apparent facility with which he enters into the genius of the times of which he writes, and the very soul of Homer. He was, as will be readily imagined, a most excellent Greek scholar. With the writers of Greece; poets, historians, and philosophers, he was familiarly acquainted, and could not only describe, but even imitate, the distinguishing turn or manner of each. His Fables possess both aptness and a beautiful simplicity. As to his Dream, he might be praised for the felicity with which he has imitated Spenser, if an imitation of Spenser had not been, as observed by Mr. Hume, in his History of England, so easy a matter. [Author's note: "Several writers of late have amused themselves in copying the style of Spenser, and no imitation has been so indifferent as not to bear a great resemblance to the original. His manner is so peculiar, that is almost impossible not to transfer some portion of it into the copy." — Hist. of England, chap. xliv. Appendix.]

Dr. Wilkie was once urged by a friend, (who thought that the rare admixture of a genius for poetry and philosophy, in him united, qualified him in a singular manner for such an undertaking,) to write a didactic poem. This, however, he declined, saying, that he did not know of any one who had succeeded in that species of composition. His friend mentioned, as an instance of success, Lucretius: — "Lucretius," said Dr. Wilkie, "reminds me of a cobler I once knew, who would now and then take up his fiddle and play himself a tune, but soon throw it aside, and fell a-hammering again on his last."

There were circumstances in Dr. Wilkie's life which had a tendency to nourish, if not originally to implant in his mind, a turn and faculty for poetry. He was not born or bred in a crowded city, nor confined to one occupation or pursuit, nor to one set or circle in society; but in a village, or rather hamlet; bred at a parochial school in the country; and after an university education, and while he was occasionally employed as a preacher of the Gospel, engaged in the business of a farmer: and all this in a finely variegated, pleasant, and picturesque part of the country. One who is born, and bred, and lives chiefly in the country, possesses many important advantages over the native and constant inhabitant of a town or city. He acquires, without any effort or study, a great deal of knowledge in natural history, and of the manners and ways of men in a state more similar to those of simple and heroic times. Wilkie throughout the whole of his life was placed in situations that gave him opportunities of mingling study, with actual observation on the course of nature, both physical and moral. He was not cramped by the monotony of one employment, or of one class of men. His occupations and acquaintance were finely and fortunately diversified. By this variety his mind was enriched and expanded, as well as invigorated.

The advantages arising from the establishment of parochial schools in Scotland are many and various. And among these, it is none of the least, that in many places a boy may receive a Latin, or what in England is called a classical education, by going to the parish-school in the morning, and returning after school-hours to his father's house. Thus parental affection, and filial respect, unavoidably weakened by the separation required by boarding-schools, or grammar-schools in towns, are nourished and strengthened; modesty is preserved; health is promoted; the face of nature, the vicissitudes of the seasons, the growth and decay of vegetables, grasses, herbs, plants, and trees, and the habits and economy of animals, reptiles, insects, fishes, birds, and beasts, ever present to the view of a youth of sensibility, and genius, solicit his mind to mount up from such various and interesting effects, to causes, and to the grand first Cause — from nature to the God of nature: an eternal and all-ruliug Mind. His soul is roused, harmonized, and disposed to contemplation, and a pursuit of knowledge. — Such a youth was William Wilkie; and such the circumstances in which he received the rudiments of his education, and his mind was formed.

Having learned the Latin tongue at the parish-school of Dalmeny in West Lothian, in which parish he was, born in 1721; he was, at the age of fourteen, sent to the university of Edinburgh: where, in the usual space of three years, he went through the accustomed course of philosophy; and, in the year thereafter, entered his name in the hall, as a student in divinity. During the recess, or vacation of the philosophy college, which took up from five to six months in the year, and the still longer vacation of the divinity college, he lived, of course, in the family of his father, who was a respectable farmer, and was much employed in superintending agricultural concerns; which at length devolved on him wholly on the death of his father: which happened nearly at the time when Wilkie, having attended for the usual time the divinity-hall, was ordained by the presbytery of Linlithgow a preacher of the Gospel. Preachers of the Gospel, otherwise called probationers, are not attached to any particular kirk or congregation, nor yet do they administer the sacraments. They are employed, occasionally, in preaching, catechising, visiting and exhorting families, and frequently retained by ministers of parishes as their assistants.

Mr. Wilkie had remained for ten years in this situation; in which it was that he composed the Epigoniad, carefully attending at the same time to the business of the farm, on which his mother and sisters, as well as himself, depended for support; when it was his good fortune to be called to perform divine service one Sunday, the kirk being vacant through the death of the minister, at Ratho. In this parish lies Hatton, the seat of the late earl of Lauderdale, who, with his family, was in the habit of attending the church regularly. This noble and truly respectable family, had waited a long time in the gallery appropriated to their use in the church, of which they were the patrons, and still there was no appearance of any clergyman. The earl at last said to the countess, "My dear, I think we had better go home." But the beadle, who had learned what his lordship was thinking of, came up to him, and said, "O my lord, I see the minister coming. There he is! your lordship may see him from the window." Here it is necessary to observe, that Wilkie was a very great sloven in his dress. His wig sat always awry. His coat was any thing, at that time, but fashionable. He wore large coarse stockings instead of boots. He had a stick in his hand instead of a whip. He rode on an old cart-horse, with a long draggling tail, and his appearance was altogether grotesque and ludicrous. — "It is not possible," said lord Laudedale, "that that cheeld can be a minister!" "O yes!" the beadle replied, "it is Mr. Wilkie." After psalms and a prayer, the preacher read a portion of the New Testament; and, according to the custom of the church of Scotland, explained it by a comment and paraphrase. Lord Lauderdale was equally surprised and delighted with the extent of his knowledge applied not ostentatiously, (for Wilkie was simplicity itself,) but in the most apt and natural manner, the originality of his sentiments and observations, and the copious flow of his varied eloquence. It was fortunate for Mr. Wilkie that he had among his bearers a man of such sound taste and judgment, as lord Lauderdale, and as much disposed to reward, as he was capable of appreciating merit. After the service of the day was over, the earl, as is usual with families of distinction in Scotland, invited Mr. Wilkie to dine with him, and to stay all night at Ration. If he was delighted with both his lecture and sermon, he was still more charmed with his conversation. He presented him to the kirk of Ratho, of which he was ordained minister in 1753, where he remained till 1759, when he was chosen professor of philosophy in the university of St. Andrews. He took a moderate farm in the parish, and was accounted by all the farmers around, of which there was a monthly club, in which Wilkie was a member, the most judicious and successful cultivator in the country. His attention was particularly drawn to the advantages to be derived from the culture of potatoes, of which he raised immense quantities. The common people in the neighbouring parishes, who have a great detestation of ministers becoming farmers, called him the "Potatoe minister."

He was a frequent visitor at Hatton, but never so frequent as lord Lauderdale, and all the family wished him to be — —. No man could possibly be freer from all whimsies, or the affectation of singularity, than Wilkie. Yet it will generally be considered as a strange conceit, that he should prefer the use of soiled, to that of clean linen. When lady Lauderdale would kindly press him to stay all night, he would, after some hesitation, say, "Yes, my lady, if you will give me foul sheets to my bed."

The earl of Lauderdale, who, with the most excellent qualities of both head and heart, united a degree of humour, would sometimes amuse himself with a little gentle teazing of Wilkie. One day, after dinner, the earl led on the conversation to the subject of the most proper pursuits in life; the best or most worthy objects of ambition; of which a capital one, in his lordship's judgment, was the establishment of a family in independent and affluent circumstances. And, he observed, that the great reward held out in the Old Testament, to the people of God, was, that "they should see their children's children, and that their seed should inherit the earth." As to authorship, or the making of books, he had observed, he said, that it was generally light-headed, or hair-brained people that gave themselves up to writing. Men of sound sense, and a right way of thinking, he said, sought after something more substantially good than the reputation of authorship.

In order to enter into the humour of the observations made to Wilkie, about the reward held out in the Old Testament, to the people of God, it is necessary to know, that he was not only a bachelor, but that though a poet, passionately fond of music, and no bad performer on the violin, he was never known to betray the smallest symptom of being in love. Mr. Wilkie did not make any reply to what had been said of the blessing of seeing one's children's children, and the assurance of his seed's being multiplied and inheriting the earth, but fixed on the allegation, that it was only hair-brained people that became writers of books. "Ca' [call] ye lord Bacon a lightheaded, or hair-brained man, my lord?" He then went on expatiating on the glorious and successful pursuits of that great ornament and benefactor of human nature; and contrasted his literary and philosophical labours with the pursuits of vulgar ambition, in a strain of irony worthy of Socrates. [Author's note: These, and many other anecdotes of Wilkie, the writer of this article heard from lord Lauderdale himself.]

Though Wilkie was never known to be in love, he liked to converse with sensible and accomplished women; and was very far from being backward or niggardly in his praises of female beauty, and other attractions. He was very happy when any of the ladies who visited his sisters, who lived with him in his house till his death, expressed any satisfaction with his performances on the violin; and would very readily give a tune on the fiddle, in exchange for a song.

The Baconian, or in other words, the just and legitimate mode of philosophizing on all subjects, was not perhaps first introduced into the university of St. Andrews in 1759, but it was then that it was first seriously attended to. The principles of that philosophy had never been so well understood in that seminary, and so well explained and inculcated as they were by Dr. Wilkie, who so worthily filled the chair of natural philosophy. At the same time, Dr. Watson, afterwards principal, through whose means chiefly Wilkie was introduced into the university, in his course of logic, applied with great ability as well as zeal, the just laws of investigation to the operations of the human mind, and the nature of the evidence of truth or knowledge.

A very shining part of Dr. Wilkie's character, as above hinted, was his talent for conversation. To this, all who were acquainted with him looked back, and of these, they who survived him still look back with admiration. Of this they all talked, or still talk, in terms of the highest praise.

It is well known, that there are men who, on the strength of their being authors, conceive that every one is gaping to hear what will fall from them in conversation; in which, therefore, they labour to make a figure. They study a topic beforehand, come primed and loaded with as much as they can carry of what has been said by others, to their club or dinner, force the subject of their lesson into conversation, and disgorge all they know on the company. It is thus easy, by taking the lead in conversation, to appear very learned, very clever, and very eloquent. The true, the agreeable, and most accomplished companion, is he who does not lead but follow the course of conversation. Dr. Wilkie had no need to study a discourse beforehand, in order to make a brilliant figure in the most learned, ingenious, and refined society nor would such a stratagem have occurred to a mind like his, if he had needed it. He was as well pleased to listen to others as to speak his own sentiments. He had even a curiosity to know, the sentiments of those with whom he conversed — even the way of thinking of the very lowest classes — on all subjects. His own conversation was a series of the most original thought, and most ingenious reasoning, clothed in the most nervous and poetical language. Every object was painted to the life, and placed before you in the most striking attitude; and all this was accompanied with great wit. Very seldom, it is presumed, has there been found so much wit, poetry, and philosophy, blended together in any individual. He was not only, both a natural and moral philosopher of the first class, but a man of wit, a poet of great powers, singularly eloquent, and a lover of all the arts. His eloquence, however, was different from what professors of rhetoric and most critics would applaud. No studied rotundity of periods; no pomp of words. At the same time that it was very poetical, and full of the noblest images, it was perfectly simple and perspicuous.

Dr. Wilkie was particularly happy in transferring into his literary or philosophical conversation, the terms and phrases of common life, and of the arts, particularly of agriculture. The habit of conversing with his parishioners and neighbours, while he lived in the country, had enabled him to adapt his conversation to their comprehension; at the same time that it had furnished him with many strong and figurative, though, perhaps, not always elegant expressions. He lived, during the earlier part of his life, alternately with the literary men about the university of Edinburgh, and the farmers in his own neighbourhood. There was, therefore, a versatility, as it were, in his eloquence, which would have enabled him to shine amidst a company of peasants, of poets, or philosophers.

His observations on human nature were profound; and he excelled in unfolding the motives of action, and in exposing the ridicule and absurdity of vice or folly. Another subject on which his conversation was always very entertaining and instructive, was criticism. He was furnished with the most frequent subjects of his remarks, from having read both the Latin and Greek classics, as already observed, repeatedly, with the utmost attention. But the favourite subject of his literary conversation was, the philosophy of lord Bacon. The great and sublime ideas of that philosophy were wonderfully congenial with his mind; and he had penetrated deeply into those branches of metaphysics which serve as the basis of mathematics and natural philosophy. The maxims laid down by lord Bacon, in the Novum Organum, and the scale or appreciation of experiments, which form the second part of that work, he used to illustrate with great powers of eloquence and ingeniousness. It was here, more than anywhere, that he was thought to rise above the level of even his own conversation. A very favourite author with Dr. Wilkie, was Cervantes. Accustomed to take the most extensive view of every object, he saw in Don Quixote the most perfect picture of enthusiasm of every denomination. "It was a book, (he said,) written with a learned insight into enthusiasm of every kind." — "Here, too, he seems to have had an eye to his great guide in philosophy, who, among the subjects of investigation which he recommends, for illustrating the connexion between mind and matter, (i.e. the laws which regulate this connexion) enumerates the history of the power and influence of the imagination; and that also of the several species of enthusiasm.

On the philosophical productions of lord Bacon, he was wont to dwell with peculiar pleasure. And he would often repeat with rapture the following, which has been so fully verified: "That when physics shall be grounded on experiment, their effects will as far excel the pretended powers of magic, as the actions of Caesar or Alexander surpassed the fabulous achievements of Arthur, of Britain, or Amadis, of Gaul."

In the particular doctrines of natural philosophy, he was most delighted with that of gravitation. And he used to say, "That human reason had seldom been so well employed as when it inquired into the effects, and seldom so ill as when it inquired into the cause, of gravitation. No part of pure mathematics gave him so much pleasure as the doctrine of fluxions. Having never applied very seriously to the deeper parts of mathematics, till his appointment to the natural philosophy chair at St. Andrews, he never acquired great facility in the fluxionary calculus. But there was never any man who understood the principles of that calculus more thoroughly. — He used to say, that the advantage of fluxions consists in giving at once the result of an infinite series of approximations. He was the first, and probably the only poet, that has been initiated in the mysteries of this difficult science.

As a teacher of natural philosophy, Dr. Wilkie has rarely been excelled. He carried along with him into his school, the same clearness, simplicity, and force of expression, which accompanied him on all other occasions. His course was very happily arranged, and contained many uncommon views of nature, and many new and excellent demonstrations. He was, withal, very close or strict in his reasoning; and, on that accounts by those who came to his lectures, without a sufficient preparation of geometry, and a sufficient command of their attention, was sometimes supposed to be obscure.

From that absence of mind, from which men who think deeply are rarely exempted, Dr. Wilkie would now and then lose the thread of his demonstration altogether. On such occasions he would immediately stop short; being wholly superior to the artifice of amusing his students for an instant, with words, which, if they did not understand, their modesty might lead them to blame themselves, rather than their master. He would not hesitate, after a short pause, to say, "I have been bewildered — I have been speaking nonsense;" — and, having thus recollected himself, would proceed with a new demonstration. Indeed, Dr. Wilkie possessed that entire simplicity of character, so rarely to be found, by means of which a man puts himself altogether out of the question, and fixes his eye only on what is true, or what is right.

It may readily be supposed that a man who possessed such literary accomplishments, and at the same time such talents for conversation, as Dr. Wilkie, would form a very distinguished member of a literary society or club. So he did. When he was a young man, a student at Edinburgh, and afterwards a preacher in the vicinity, the Scottish metropolis had begun to be distinguished by ardour and enterprise in every walk of literature and science. And a literary society was formed, which not only discussed questions among themselves, but maintained a correspondence with several eminent literati and philosophers in different places. In that society there was not one whose arguments or course of reasoning, in the dispute or debate, made generally so deep an impression, and carried so much conviction to the minds of all present, as Wilkie's. In this was exhibited a striking proof and example of the connection between eloquence and a candid and sincere disposition. The unrivalled success of Wilkie in debate arose not more from his fine genius and extensive learning, than the sincerity and simplicity of his moral character. It was to this chiefly that he himself attributed his success in literary disputation. When he was complimented on this he would say, "When men of equal powers take opposite sides of a question, the balance is naturally cast in favour of him who takes the right one. I find that men of bright parts are very apt to take the weak or wrong side of a question, that they may display their reasoning powers. I always deliver my sincere sentiments, which I can unfold and maintain more easily than I should any others."

Among the members of that club, and the particular friends of Wilkie, were the late sir Gilbert Elliot, father of the present lord Minto, lord Elibank, Principal Robertson, Dr. Adam Smith, Mr. J. Hume, professor Ferguson, Mr. Alexander Wedderburn, afterwards lord Loughborough, and others, who attained to great distinction in both the law and literature. Though many of these had been more fortunate than he In the pursuit of literary fame, he never spoke of any of them with the smallest degree of chagrin or envy. On the contrary, he was fond of telling anecdotes of them in a good-natured and friendly way, and describing the peculiarities of their genius, turns, and habits. Indeed the most perfect candour, and the most sincere love of truth and justice, formed the basis of his character.

Dr. Wilkie was an excellent farmer, but paid very little attention to theories of agriculture. He read few books on that subject. One maxim of his deserves to be recorded; "I never draw any conclusion. (said he,) in matters of husbandry, but from direct experiment; and I never reason from analogy." The example he set of an excellent method of husbandry, was of great use in that part of the country, where he spent the last years of his life. The people in the neighbourhood of St. Andrews were astonished to find a professor who could talk to them in their own language, and teach them how to raise excellent crops of turnips and potatoes.

He was, as above observed, a great sloven in his dress, and regardless of all gentility and elegance of every kind. He was frequently to be seen hastening through the streets of St. Andrews, with a shabby great-coat, his wig, as usual, awry, and his hoes on his shoulder, to work in his fields. He was parsimonious, and fond of money: yet he was in the habit of sending very considerable sums to housekeepers in St. Andrews, whom he knew to be struggling hard under poverty, not only to escape being burthensome, but to maintain a decent appearance in society. This, as was conjectured before, but not fully known till alter his death, he did in the most secret manner, exacting as a condition, profound secrecy from the parties relieved by his bounty.

The following anecdote, however trivial in appearance, is well calculated to give an idea of Dr. Wilkie's genius, habits, and manner in society. In musing on any subject, when a ludicrous idea occurred to him, which often happened, he would, without saying a word, burst into a fit of laughter, and then give an account of the subject that had moved it. Among the professors of St. Andrews, cotemporary with Dr. Wilkie, was Mr. Morton, professor of humanity, and afterwards of Greek, who was in many, nay, most respects, the very opposite of Dr. Wilkie. He was not a man of genius, nor yet of very great learning: though well enough qualified to teach languages, and give lectures in philology, and remarkably careful and diligent in the discharge of his professional duty. Having acted as private tutor, and travelling governor to several young gentlemen and noblemen, he was completely fashioned to the world; and to dress and all the exterior decencies of life, most punctiliously attentive. Having no children, and being of a liberal and gentleman-like turn of mind, he was withal wholly indifferent about money beyond what was necessary. One day Dr. Wilkie, when it was his turn to be hepdomader, and preside at the college-table, after a silence for a few minutes, without a word by way of preamble, gave way to a hearty fit of laughter. "I have been thinking, (said he,) that Mr. Morton would not have one hair of his wig out of its proper place for a guinea!" This single stroke was highly descriptive, not only of him who was the subject of it, but of him who made it.

Dr. Wilkie was not insensible of the defects of his own character. "The difficulties, (he would often say,) in which I, with my sisters on my hand, was early involved, strongly impressed on my mind the value of independence; and I fear that I am still too much attached to the means of securing it." The candour of this acknowledgment, is, perhaps, the best apology that can be made for the failing that gave rise to it. And, it may even be added, that there was greater merit in charities, which he did secretly, and with no sparing hand, when in conferring them, he had to make an effort against his habitual love of money. It may be farther observed, that virtue has a surer foundation when it is founded on a principle of the understanding enforcing a conviction of duty, than when it rests merely on some effusion of kind affection, which the school of lord SHAFTESBURY analyses into something analogous to sensation or sense. In truth this school, by moving duty from the basis of the understanding and the will of God, to the fluctuating tide of sentiment and affection, has opened a door to great laxity of both sentiment and conduct, on this subject. The licentious Sterne, and his admirers, see no great turpitude in vice or immorality, provided that a transgression has in it a tincture of amiableness.

Dr. Wilkie was a firm believer in the existence of one supreme and all-ruling Mind; conceiving this to be the easiest, most natural, and most complete solution of the phaenomena of the universal world. For the Christian religion, the sublime purity of its moral doctrines, the unparalleled moral excellence and perfection of Jesus Christ, and the disinterested and glorious zeal of the apostles, he entertained the most respect and veneration: but he confessed to his most intimate friends, that he had, at times, doubts as to the truth of its great and consolatory doctrine: resurrection from the grave, and immortal life in a future, more perfect, and far happier state of existence. The intrusion of these doubts he deeply lamented and deplored. "Oh (he would say,) if I could believe firmly and steadily these doctrines, how insignificant should I consider every pursuit, besides that of a life pure, holy, and acceptable to God!" Yet he never suffered his doubts to produce any relaxation in the observance of all the Christian ordinance. The same custom of family worship, which he had kept up, of course, when he was a minister of the church of Scotland, he continued after he was a professor in a university. Some young noblemen and gentlemen, who boarded in his house, were attended by their tutors, who were preachers of the Gospel. With these gentlemen Dr. Wilkie took his turn in family-prayer every evening. In all his exercises of devotion, even in the graces he said before and after meals, there was great variety and originality. For example, one of his graces, at the college-table, began thus: — "O Lord, thou art the author of ALL OUR WANTS and thou suppliest them all from the inexhaustible stores of thy paternal goodness." Dr. Wilkie had, almost all his life, been subject to agues. To keep up a perspiration he lay in bed under loads of blankets on blankets, heavier and heavier. And, when he went out to his class, or elsewhere, he had waistcoat on waistcoat, and over his coat and greatcoat, his gown; which gave him a strange appearance. By this means his frame was gradually relaxed and shaken; an effect to which he contributed, by the immoderate use of tobacco, which was never out of his mouth. He confessed that he was too much addicted to the use of this narcotic. But, said he, with his usual simplicity and candour, "If I had not taken to tobacco, I believe I should have been a great drunkard." He died at St. Andrews in October 1772. Cotemporary with Dr. Wilkie, at St. Andrews, where several other professors of great eminence: Mr. David Gregory, professor of mathematics; Dr. Simpson, professor of medicine; Mr. Wilson, professor of Greek; and Dr. Watson, above mentioned; and above all these in talents, and celebrity, the reverend principal of the philosophy college, the reverend Mr. Tulideph. The condition and character of the university of St. Andrews, at the period of Dr. Wilkie's death, and for many years thereafter, down to the death of the chancellor, the earl of Kinnoull, excite deep regret when compared with the state into which it is now fallen.