1876 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Wilkie

Robert Carruthers, in Chambers's Cyclopaedia of English Literature, 3rd ed. (1876; 1879) 4:78-79.



In 1757 was published in Edinburgh The Epigoniad, a Poem in nine Books, founded on part of the fourth Iliad of Homer relative to the sacking of Thebes. It was very popular in Scotland, but had few readers in England. The Critical Review had an article upon the poem, which drew forth a long reply from David Hume, in which he speaks of its six thousand lines as "abounding in sublime beauties," and written so thoroughly in the spirit of Homer as "would almost lead us to imagine that the Scottish bard had found a lost manuscript of that father of poetry, and had read a faithful translation of it into English." When Hume wrote his, the warm-hearted friend predominated over the philosophical critic; as it also must have done when he pronounced the following description of the person and mission of Jealousy to be "painted in the most splendid colours that poetry affords." It is, however, vigorous and ingenious, and as good a specimen as could be offered of Wilkie's powers:

DESCRIPTION OF JEALOUSY.
First to her feet the winged shoes she binds,
Which tread the air and mount the rapid winds:
Aloft they bear her through the ethereal plain,
Above the solid earth and liquid main:
Her arrows next she takes of pointed steel,
For sight too small, but terrible to feel:
Roused by their smart the savage lion roars,
And mad to combat rush the tusky boars.
Of wounds secure; for where their venom lights,
What feels their power all other torment slights.
A figured zone, mysteriously designed,
Around her waist her yellow hair confined;
There dark Suspicion lurked, of sable hue;
There hasty Rage his deadly dagger drew;
Pale Envy inly pined; and by her side
Stood Frenzy, raging with his chains untied:
Affronted Pride with thirst of vengeance burned,
And Love's excess to deepest hatred turned.
All these the artist's curious hand expressed,
The work divine his matchless skill confessed.
The virgin last around her shoulders flung
The bow; and by her side the quiver hung;
Then springing up, her airy course she bends,
For Thebes, and lightly o'er the tents descends.
The son of Tydeus, 'midst his bands, she found
In arms complete, reposing on the ground:
And, as he slept, the hero thus addressed,
Her form to fancy's waking eye confessed.

The author of the Epigoniad, WILLIAM WILKIE, D.D. (1721-1772), was a native of Echlin, parish of Dalmeny, Linlithgowshire, and sometime minister of Ratho. In 1759 he was elected Professor of Natural Philosophy in the university of St. Andrews. He is described as a very absent, eccentric person, who wore as many clothes as tradition assigns to the gravedigger in Hamlet on the stage, and who used to lie in bed with two dozen pair of blankets above him! David Hume gives a humorous description of the circumstances under which Wilkie carried on his Homeric studies. The Scottish farmers near Edinburgh are very much infested, he says, with wood-pigeons. "And Wilkie's father planted him often as a scarecrow (an office for which he is well qualified) in the midst of his fields of wheat. He carried out his Homer with him, together with a table, and pen and ink, and a great rusty gun. He composed and wrote two or three lines, till a flock of pigeons settled in the field, then rose up, ran towards them, and fired at them; returned again to his former station, and added a rhyme or two more, till he met with a fresh interruption."