1813 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Wilson

Charles Caldwell, Obituary in Port Folio [Philadelphia] S3 2 (September 1813) 345-53.



In the progress of human events, which, however broken in its course, and varied in its aspect, serves still as a memorial of the mortality of man, it has become our melancholy duty to announce to the readers of the Port Folio, the death of Alexander Wilson, author of "American Ornithology," and other miscellaneous publications, in prose and verse. Under the pressure of a dispensation so unexpected and weighty, we claim, and feel a confidence, that we shall not fail to receive, the sincere condolence of a large portion of the American people — nor will the Atlantic itself set bounds to the sympathy which the visitation will awaken. The old world will liberally mingle her tears with the new, over the grave of a philosopher, who belonged to them both — whose views were as unlimited as the empire of nature, and his benevolence as extensive as the family of man.

We are perfectly aware of the slender degree of credit which is usually attached to posthumous eulogy — nor are we less sensible of the improper and even pernicious purposes to which that meed, which ought to be the exclusive inheritance of distinction and worth, is too often prostituted. On the present occasion, however, we have no apprehension of being charged with dealing in hyperbolical praise. It is our fortune to be concerned with the character of an individual, of whom, his cotemporaries have a thousand times declared, and posterity will repeat the sentiment with growing admiration, that his merit challenges our highest encomium.

Whether the much lamented subject of the present notice, was or was not entitled to the epithet great (a term, which as applied to the human character, is oftentimes used with but little meaning) is a point, the settlement of which does not appertain to our present undertaking. We contend, however, without hesitation, or the slightest dread of an inability to establish the fact, that he was one of those extraordinary and distinguished individuals, whom nature rarely calls into existence — that he was in a high degree calculated to excite the admiration, and contribute to the improvement of his fellow men-and that he has left behind him a chasm in society, which few persons living are able to fill. He was endowed with an unusual assemblage of those rare and exalted attributes, which render their possessor equally useful, eminent, and beloved. Nor will it, by a liberal public, be regarded as among the weakest of his claims to posthumous renown, that he was literally "Faber suae fortunae;" — that, without the slightest aid from fortune, friends, or powerful connexions, he raised himself to eminence in a strange land, by a degree of industry, which seldom knew repose, acting on the magnificent resources of his mind.

Although attached to the country of his adoption, by every sentiment that can be implanted in a feeling heart, and every consideration that can influence, in any way, a virtuous mind, Mr. Wilson was not a native of the United States. He was born in Paisley, in Scotland, a very large country town, remote but a few miles from the city of Glasgow. In the grammar school of his native place, he received his first and only knowledge of classical learning. He was designed, by his father, for the clerical profession. But, although a firm believer in the leading doctrines of the Christian religion, and sincerely devoted to the duties and offices appertaining to the sacred principles he professed, he could never bring his mind to an acquiescence in narrow sectarian policy. Regarding the great Author of the universe, as alike unbounded in all his attributes, he adored him as the common God and Father of every member of the Christian family. So peculiarly catholic were his views on this subject, that he even considered the fields, forests, and tops of mountains, where Nature bursts on the soul in all her magnificence, as the most proper situations for paying due adoration to her mighty King. Natural, in common with revealed religion, had a strong and permanent hold on his mind. In the structure, form, and corresponding habits of the various tribes of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, no less than in the stupendous economy of the universe, he saw, and acknowledged the wisdom, power, and beneficence of the Deity; and hence his piety always kept pace with his advancement in knowledge. Carefully blending the Christian with the philosopher, he became better as well as wiser by the study of Nature.

At an early period in the life of Mr. Wilson, domestic misfortunes in his father's family checked the regularity of his literary pursuits, which he had commenced under more promising auspices, and prosecuted with distinguished reputation and success. But although chilled and retarded for a time in the progress of its evolution, the germ of his genius was not blasted by the shades of adversity. Abounding in native vigour, and peculiarly sensible to every fostering breeze, and every gleam of sunshine that occurred, its expansion was such as to hold forth, even to common observers, a promise of ultimate and abundant fruitfulness.

Misfortunes continuing to thicken around him, and to obscure by deeper shades his literary prospects, it was thought expedient by his friends that young Wilson should be instructed in the knowledge of a trade. But the project, being alike inconsistent with his views and repugnant to his feelings, proved entirely abortive. He was not formed for the narrow sphere of a mechanical occupation. His soul was modelled on a more magnificent scale, and panted after loftier enjoyments. Nature and not art commanded his admiration; science and not wealth formed the object of his ambition. Every pittance of leisure allowed him during his apprenticeship, was faithfully devoted to the cultivation of his intellect. Even when engaged in the practice of his destined occupation, still was his mind wandering in quest of some wider sphere, and more congenial employment. Not all the bustle of busy occupation, nor all the clank of surrounding machinery, could drive from his mind the recollection of the pleasures he was wont to enjoy in the contemplation of nature — in dwelling on the features of the verdant lawn, the hermit stream, the towering precipice, or the mountain cataract: for, these, and such other objects of beauty and sublimity as forcibly address themselves to the imagination, or touch the heart, awakened in his bosom the zeal of the enthusiast, and the raptures of the poet.

Notwithstanding the numerous disadvantages and discouragements which cramped the energies of his soul, and hung on his spirits with such an oppressive weight, Mr. Wilson had not reached his nineteenth year when he became respectably known, and had his society sought after in some of the literary circles of Scotland. He had here the pleasure of mingling occasionally with kindred minds, and of exciting among them a chastened admiration and rational delight, by sustaining his part, which he seldom failed to do with distinguished eclat, in the various intellectual exercises of their meetings.

Still, however, he was dissatisfied with his lot; for he felt within himself a secret consciousness, which nothing could extinguish, that nature had intended him for higher destinies than he was likely to attain in his native country. He accordingly, in the year 1794, embarked for the United States, which became, as he had anticipated, the principal theatre of his usefulness and renown.

Yet, even here, fortune and fame, as if determined to test to the utmost the fortitude of their votary, were not prompt in bestowing their favours. They became propitious only after a series, on his part, of the most arduous labours and exemplary perseverance in the pursuit of science.

For the first twelve or fifteen years of his residence in the United States, Mr. Wilson struggled through life, with various success, in the humble capacity of a country school-master. A stranger, unfriended, and destitute of wealth, nothing as yet occurred to elevate him to that rank in society to which his talents and attainments so eminently entitled him. During this tedious period of probation, such were the poignancy of his feelings and the gloominess of his reflections, from disappointed expectations and "hope deferred," that he was driven occasionally to the very verge of despair. At one time, in particular, the most serious apprehensions were entertained by his acquaintance for the sanity of his intellect. But music, poetry, and the study of, nature, in which he was accustomed to indulge during his hours of solitude, served as a balm to his wounded spirit, and contributed to restore the balance of his mind.

Although every department of nature had attractions and charms for the mind of Mr. Wilson, his highest pleasure arose from his acquaintance with the feathered tribes. His intercourse with these was marked by an intimacy which no other individual, perhaps, has ever enjoyed. Their features, forms, habits, and manners, were almost as familiar to him as those of man. He seemed to have a peculiar aptitude for cultivating an acquaintance with these children of the forest. It would scarcely be a deviation from the letter of truth to say, that he could converse with many of them in their own language. With such precision of manner and sound could he imitate their notes, as to be able to repair to their haunts in the groves and forests, and collect them around him on the bushes and trees. Often has he amused and gratified his friends by an exhibition of this singular power of imitation.

During his residence in the country, it was, at length, the good fortune of Mr. Wilson to contract an acquaintance, which soon became an intimacy, and afterwards friendship, with the late William Bartram, one of the most distinguished practical botanists of the age. Among his numerous acts of attention and favour, Mr. Bartram put into his hand Edwards's System of Ornithology, a work which he knew to be peculiarly adapted to the taste of his friend.

This event, so trivial in itself, was all important in its effects on the views and subsequent pursuits of Mr. Wilson. It constituted a new era in his literary life. Although the work afforded him a rich and welcome fund of 'information and pleasure, he was, notwithstanding, able to detect in it numerous inaccuracies, imperfections and errors. He immediately discovered that it was not a faithful transcript of nature — a full and correct delineation of the feathered race in the United States. This consideration first suggested to him the idea of attempting himself a complete system of American Ornithology. To carry into effect, however, this magnificent conception, he needed an accomplishment which he had not yet acquired — the art of drawing and colouring from nature.

About this time Mr. Lawson, who is distinguished alike for his excellence as an artist and his benevolence as a man, had attempted to instruct Mr. Wilson in the principles of drawing; an employment which would furnish him, as he conceived, with a never-failing source of amusement, and serve as an effectual antidote to the paroxysms of despondency to which he had been subject. But the attempt had hitherto proved unsuccessful. Unwilling, at his period of life, to begin with the rudiments of the art, and feeling no particular interest in copying figures, Mr. Wilson's first efforts were altogether unpromising, and he was about to abandon the business in despair. Under these circumstances Mr. Bartram advised him to attempt the outlines of birds, which he knew to be among the favourite objects of his attention. In this his success was flattering beyond the most sanguine expectation, and almost beyond credibility, itself. His first efforts produced very accurate and excellent sketches; so that in a short time he was able to draw a bird in nearly as high a style of perfection as his friend and instructor. The art of colouring being soon afterwards acquired, Mr. Wilson felt that a very weighty obstacle in relation to his proposed system of ornithology was now removed. Various other obstacles, however, still remained, sufficient to have deterred, even singly, common minds from so arduous an undertaking. But his zeal, perseverance, and ability, surmounted them all.

About this time Mr. Wilson was introduced, by a common friend, to Mr. Samuel F. Bradford, who was in want of a person of steady habits and literary attainments to aid him in his extensive book-selling establishment. These two gentlemen, till now entirely strangers to each other, were mutually pleased at their first interview. An arrangement between them was immediately concluded, and, without further negotiation, Mr. Wilson was engaged by Mr. Bradford at a liberal salary. It was not long after their intercourse had thus commenced, in a manner so frank and honourable to them both, when Mr. Wilson disclosed his views in relation to a system of American Ornithology. Mr. Bradford was delighted with the idea of cooperating in the production of so splendid a work; and believing his friend to be incapable of undertaking what he was unable to execute, agreed to become the publisher, and, in the way of means, to give every aid and facility which the enterprise might require.

Things thus arranged, in a manner that far surpassed his most flattering expectations, and left not a wish on the subject ungratified, Mr. Wilson felt the glow of a new existence. What he had hitherto scarcely dared to figure to himself, even in the extravagance of an enthusiast's hope, was now about to be realized as if by enchantment. Fame, at least, if not fortune, was placed within his reach, and never was mortal more eager to embrace it. Not a moment was lost that the most vigilant industry could turn to account. The united energies of his body and his soul were devoted to the duties of his new occupation. For a time almost every earthly concern was forgotten, except what appertained to his favourite undertaking. To procure the best possible materials for the work, exertions were pushed with an ardour and intrepidity, and continued with a perseverance surpassing belief. From the St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, every section of the country was carefully explored, and that by the footsteps of a solitary individual. Neither toils, nor dangers, nor privations were regarded, provided the great work could be accomplished. In quest of birds the boundless forest was traversed alone; the threatening precipice was climbed to its summit; the angry river, covered with drifting masses of ice, and swollen with the waters of an hundred hills, was navigated in a small and perishable bark; the deadly brake, strewed with poisonous plants and bristling with serpents, was trodden without hesitation or fear; the tangled and pestiferous marsh, which the human foot had seldom pressed, was dauntlessly penetrated to its inmost recesses; and even the friths and arms of the sea were compelled to give up their numerous water-fowl, that had retreated to them as an asylum from the persecution of man. Every thing short of miracles was performed, that ample justice might be done to the subject, and the public expectation be completely fulfilled. The fruit of these labours, which might well admit of the epithet Herculean, was soon discoverable in the splendid, rich, and accurate pages of the "American Ornithology." The merits and general character of this great national work, it is not our intention to examine. It is sufficient to remark, that it has already passed the ordeal of criticism, and received not merely the approbation but the admiration and applause, of the best judges in Europe and America. No one will pronounce it a faultless publication; yet as few will withhold from it the just praise of being by far the most full, perfect, and superb delineation and history of the birds of the United States, of which the world s at this time in possession. It bears no marks of a closet performance — none of the puny features and sickly aspect which necessarily characterize every work composed of borrowed and doubtful materials. It has all the healthy freshness, strength of feature, and constitutional hardihood of originality and truth. Without pretending to a spirit of prophecy we venture to predict, that it will continue for ages a work of high and unshaken authority, and transmit to posterity the name of its author with unfading lustre. We are happy in being able to state, that Mr. Wilson had so far collected his materials and matured his arrangements for the completion of this work, that, on that score, the public will sustain no material disappointment in the event of his death. The remaining volumes may be looked for by subscribers at the usual periods, and, we trust, without any abatement in those various excellencies by which the preceding ones have hitherto excited universal approbation.

Although beyond comparison the most weighty and important, the American Ornithology is not the only work for which the public is indebted to the pen of Mr. Wilson. He became an author, in verse, before he had reached his twentieth year, and continued throughout his whole life to pay occasionally his court to the Muses. He was likewise the author of various letters and essays in prose, which have enriched the pages of several of the periodical publications of our country. The collection of a sufficient number of these minor productions, to form a volume, is now in contemplation by his surviving friends. Should the project be carried into effect, a biographical memoir of the author will accompany them. For the advantage of literature, taste, and sound morals in the United States, as well as in justice to the posthumous reputation of a most deserving individual, whose early prospects were clouded by adversity and crossed by disappointments, we flatter ourselves that the liberal intention will be speedily realized.

Such is a brief and hasty outline of the life and character of Mr. Wilson, drawn by a feeble hand, and under the influence of a spirit broken and humbled by a sense of his loss. We shall only add, that he died on the morning of the 23d ultimo, in the entire possession of all his faculties. Endowed with great constitutional intrepidity, perfectly resigned to the will of Heaven, and still further sustained by lively hopes and brightening prospects of a happy immortality, he awaited his dissolution with exemplary calmness. To him, in his last moments, might have been aptly applied the words of a distinguished and pious personage in relation to himself, "See in what peace a Christian can die."