1811 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Wilson

James Brown, in "Some Account of Alexander Wilson" Universal Magazine NS 16 (August 1811) 96-97.



Alexander Wilson, author of Watty and Meg, was born at Paisley, in the year 1766. His father, intending him for the medical profession, gave him as good an education as his trade of a weaver would allow. He, however, entered into a second marriage, which put an end to this scheme, unfortunately for young Wilson, who at the age of thirteen was put to the loom. After an apprenticeship of five years, he became his own master; but his eager passion for reading poetry and novels, absorbed most of his time, and left him in a state of constant penury. In the year 1786 he gave up his occupation, and travelled the country as a pedlar. In 1790 he settled again in Paisley, and published a volume of poems and a journal of his excursions, which meeting with poor success, involved him further in pecuniary difficulties. He again returned to the loom; but his favourite literary pursuits still engrossed his attention, and the society of the young and thoughtless of his own age consumed his time and exhausted his means of support.

Soon after the publication of his poems he became the dupe of a worthless fellow, who had been vainly endeavouring to sell them, and who persuaded him to write a satire, with a view to relieve himself from his embarrassments. The poem being on a popular subject, sold rapidly; but his friend's advice led him beyond the safe bounds of satire, and he incurred a prosecution, by which he suffered severely. The remembrance of this misfortune dwelt upon his mind, and rendered him dissatisfied with his country.

Another cause of Wilson's dejection was the rising fame of Burns, and the indifference of the public to his own productions. He may be said to have envied the Ayrshire bard, and to this envy may be attributed his best production, "Watty and Meg," which he wrote at Edinburgh in 1793. He sent it to Nielson, printer, at Paisley, who had suffered by the publication of his former poems. As it was, by the advice of his friends, published anonymously, it was generally ascribed to Burns, and went rapidly through seven or eight editions. Wilson, however, shared no part of the profits, willing to compensate for the former losses his publisher had sustained.

Tired of a country in which the efforts of his genius had been rendered abortive by juvenile indiscretions, and apprehensive that these might operate as a bar to his future advancement, he resolved in the year 1794 or 1795 to embark for America, which his warm fancy and independent spirit had taught him to regard as the land of liberty. To procure money for his passage he laboured with incessant industry, and having accumulated a sufficient sum, he took his departure. He settled in the state of Pennsylvania, where he remained four or five years as a teacher, and was afterwards employed for about the same length of time as a land surveyor. He then became connected with Mr. Samuel Bradford, bookseller and stationer, of Philadelphia, in the capacity of editor. He is now engaged in an extensive work entitled "American Ornithology." In pursuit of subjects for this performance he has actually traversed a great part of the United States, and has been enabled to pursue his favourite diversion of shooting. He kills the birds, draws their figures, and describes them.