1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Wilson

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:486-87.



ALEXANDER WILSON, a distinguished naturalist, was also a good Scottish poet. He was a native of Paisley, and born July 6, 1766. He was brought up to the trade of a weaver, but afterwards preferred that of a pedlar, selling muslin and other wares. In 1789 he added to his other commodities a prospectus of a volume of poems, trusting, as he said,

If the pedlar should fail to be favoured with sale,
Then I hope you'll encourage the post.

He did not succeed in either character; and after publishing his poems he returned to the loom. In 1792 he issued anonymously his best poem, Watty and Meg, which was at first attributed to Burns. A foolish personal satire, and a not very wise admiration of the principles of equality disseminated at the time of the French Revolution, drove Wilson to America in the year 1794. There he was once more a weaver and a pedlar, and afterwards a schoolmaster. A love of ornithology gained upon him, and he wandered over America, collecting specimens of birds. In 1808 appeared his first volume of the American Ornithology, and he continued collecting and publishing, traversing swamps and forests in quest of rare birds, and undergoing the greatest privations and fatigues, till he had committed an eighth volume to the press. He sank under his severe labours on the 23d of August 1813, and was interred with public honours at Philadelphia. In the Ornithology of Wilson we see the fancy and descriptive powers of the poet. The following extract is part of his account of the bald eagle, and is extremely vivid and striking:—

"The celebrated cataract of Niagara is a noted place of resort for the bald eagle, as well on account of the fish procured there, as for the numerous carcases of squirrels, deer, bears, and various other animals, that, in their attempts to cross the river above the falls, have been dragged into the current, and precipitated down that tremendous gulf, where, among the rocks that bound the rapids below, they furnish a rich repast for the vulture, the raven, and the bald eagle, the subject of the present account. He has been long known to naturalists, being common to both continents, and occasionally met with from a very high northern latitude to the borders of the torrid zone, but chiefly in the vicinity of the sea, and along the shores and cliffs of our lakes and large rivers. Formed by nature for braving the severest cold, feeding equally on the produce of the sea and of the land, possessing powers of flight capable of outstripping even this tempests themselves, unawed by anything but man, and, from the ethereal heights to which he soars, looking abroad at one glance on an immeasurable expanse of forests, fields, lakes, and ocean deep below him, he appears indifferent to the little localities of change of seasons, as in a few minutes he can pass from summer to winter, from this lower to the higher regions of the atmosphere, the abode of eternal cold, and from thence descend at will to the torrid or the arctic regions of the earth. He is, therefore, found at all seasons in the countries he inhabits; but prefers such places as have been mentioned above, from the great partiality he has for fish.

"In procuring these, he displays, in a very singular manner, the genius and energy of his character, which is fierce, contemplative, daring, and tyrannical; attributes not exerted but on particular occasions, but when put forth, overpowering all opposition. Elevated on the high dead limb of some gigantic tree that commands a wide view of the neighbouring shore and ocean, he seems calmly to contemplate the motions of the various feathered tribes that pursue their busy avocations below; the snow-white gulls slowly winnowing the air; the busy tringae coursing along the sands; trains of docks streaming over the surface; silent and watchful cranes intent and wading; clamorous crows; and all the winged multitudes that subsist by the bounty of this vast liquid magazine of nature. High over all these hovers one whose action instantly arrests his whole attention. By his wide curvature of wing, and sudden suspension in air, he knows him to be the fish-hawk, settling over some devoted victim of the deep. His eye kindles at the sight, and balancing himself with half-opened wings on the branch, he watches the result. Down, rapid as an arrow from heaven, descends the distant object of his attention, the roar of its wings reaching the ear as it disappears in the deep, making the surges foam around. At this moment the eager looks of the eagle are all ardour; and, levelling his neck for flight, he sees the fish-hawk once more emerge, struggling with his prey, and mounting in the air with screams of exultation. These are the signal for our hero, who, launching into the air, instantly gives chase, and soon gains on the fish-hawk; each exerts his utmost to mount above the other, displaying in these rencontres the most elegant and sublime aerial evolutions. The unencumbered eagle rapidly advances, and is just on the point of reaching his opponent, when, with a sudden scream, probably of despair and honest execration, the latter drops his fish: the eagle, poising himself for a moment, as if to take a more certain aim, descends like a whirlwind, snatches it in his grasp ere it reaches the water, and bears his ill-gotten booty silently away to the woods."

By way of preface, "to invoke the clemency of the reader," Wilson relates the following exquisite trait of simplicity and nature:—

"In one of my late visits to a friend in the country, I found their youngest son, a fine boy of eight or nine years of age, who usually resides in town for his education, just returning from a ramble through the neighbouring woods and fields, where he had collected a large and very handsome bunch of wild flowers, of a great many different colours; and, presenting them to his mother, said, 'Look, my dear mamma, what beautiful flowers I have found growing on our place! Why, all the woods are full of them! red, orange, and blue, and 'most every colour. Oh! I can gather you a whole parcel of them, much handsomer than these, all growing in our own woods! Shall I, mamma? Shall I go and bring you more?' The good woman received the bunch of flowers with a smile of affectionate complacency; and, after admiring for some time the beautiful simplicity of nature, gave her willing consent, and the little fellow went off on the wings of ecstacy to execute his delightful commission.

"The similarity of this little boy's enthusiasm to my own struck me, and the reader will need no explanations of mine to make the application. Should my country receive with the same gracious indulgence the specimens which I here humbly present her; should she express a desire for me to go and bring her more, the highest wishes of my ambition will be gratified; for, in the language of my little friend, our whole woods are full of them, and I can collect hundreds more, much handsomer than these."

The ambition of the poet-naturalist was amply gratified.