1850 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Scott Walker

John Evans, "James Scott Walker" Lancashire Authors and Orators (1850) 289-93.



Mr. Walker is a son of the Rev. William Walker, minister of the established Church of Scotland. He was born at his father's mansion, in the village of St. Cyrus, five miles north of Montrose, on the 25th December, 1793. His father was a highly popular preacher and a man of considerable educational attainments, but he had, at the early age of six years, the misfortune of losing both him and his tender mother. He was now disposed, with a trifling patrimony, scarcely sufficient to meet the expenses of his education among some relatives, who treated him in a kindly and parental manner. To complete his studies, it was intended he should remove to the college of Edinburgh, but the peregrinations of his uncle, (who was ordered to the seat of war in Spain,) overruled the arrangement, and he was thrown for all further acquirements in literature upon his own resources. At an early age Mr. Walker entertained a strong predilection for a seafaring life, and studied theoretic navigation. About this period he was preparing himself to follow his eldest brother to India, when his cousin (Mr. Hercules Scott, of Glasgow) an extensive merchant and shipowner, made proposals that he should proceed to his establishment in the island of Trinidad; the novelty of which offer to our young adventurer was a sufficient inducement for its acceptance. He proceeded to Trinidad, and subsequently to Curazoa, continuing in this employment for some years. His friend's house dissolving, he next entered the employ of a British merchant at La Guayra, on the Spanish Main, and resided in that port and in the neighbouring city of Caracas for some years. During his residence, he acquired a considerable intimacy with the French and Spanish languages. He visited nearly every island of our West India possessions, and many others. He was present at the great Earthquake of Caracas in 1812, and narrowly escaped. His account of this calamity appeared in the British Magazine, some years ago, and was admitted to be faithful. Fifteen thousand persons were instantly destroyed by this visitation, and he was in the middle of the havoc. Mr. Walker has written a somewhat powerful dramatic poem upon this theme. In the year 1816 he published at Dumfries the "South American," (with Historical notes) and other poems. This work, chiefly in the Spenserian stanza, was noticed with much favour by many of the periodicals of the day, including the Edinburgh Review. A friendly letter from Sir Walter Scott, about this period, gave him an additional zest for literary pursuits. About 1817 he repaired to Liverpool, and was engaged by a highly respectable and extensive mercantile house, with whom he remained in terms of marked friendship for four years, when the firm was dissolved. He had, from time to time, contributed small pieces to the periodical press, and soon after the event stated, he hazarded his fortunes in the arena of letters, by becoming editor of a Chester newspaper. Subsequently, (his family being in Liverpool) he accepted an offer from the late Messrs. Egerton Smith & Co., proprietors of the Liverpool Mercury and Kaleidescope, with whom he remained (in terms of the utmost friendship) as assistant editor, for upwards of seven years; contributing during that period many papers in prose, political and literary, and numerous poems, sketches &c. He left this employ with feelings of regret, his motive being merely to better his condition in life. Our own notions of Egerton Smith have always held him in the highest esteem. He was a man who, apart from his political views, possessed traits of character which were an ornament to his race. Mr. Smith was always one of Mr. Walker's warmest friends, and continued so till death. He was assisted by the subject of our sketch in establishing, from a very small beginning, "The Liverpool Mechanics' and Apprentices' Library," (still extant) the first of the kind in the kingdom. From a library of about 40 tattered volumes, it sprang up, in a few years, to a respectable institution, with an accumulation of 4000 books, — all donations, and all suitable for the instruction and innocent diversion of the poor youths of the town. Mr. Walker acted as librarian, and was a very active friend in its progress. This institution gave origin to the Mechanics' Institution, and that to the Collegiate Institution of Liverpool, as well as several kindred establishments in other parts of the kingdom. In furtherance of these principles of popular education, with little or no cost, Mr. Walker gave gratuitous lectures in Liverpool, Preston, Blackburn, Wigan, and other towns. He afterwards published his views on the subject in a pamphlet inscribed to Lord Brougham, which his lordship handsomely acknowledged, and on a subsequent visit to Liverpool he paid Mr. Walker a visit at the Library under his charge. On leaving the Mercury Office, he commenced a literary and scientific publication, entitled "The Lancashire Literary Museum." Before this, however, he wrote for the other local papers, especially the Liverpool Albion, for the respected and highly-talented proprietor of which (the late Mr. Bean), he wrote a series of "Sketches of Liverpool and its Neighbourhood." The Literary Museum, however, now absorbed his whole attention, the greater portion of the contents of which, consisting of original tales, poetry, essays, &c., was the product of his own pen. The work obtained an extensive circulation, and several of the tales were dramatised, and successfully presented on the stage. The appearance, however, of the Penny Magazine, and other cheap periodicals of the metropolis, induced our editor to sell his copyright for a small sum, after he had carried on the work for twelve months. After again being engaged for a period on the Liverpool newspapers, Mr. Walker joined the Preston Chronicle in 1831, and resided in Preston for seven years. He had been honoured, while in Liverpool, with the friendship of that admirable scholar, poet, historian, and philanthropist, the late William Roscoe, who was his immediate neighbour for some years before his death in Lodge Lane, and who successively presented him with many of his works. Mr. Walker was also privileged with the correspondence of Sir Walter Scott, all in the manuscript of the distinguished novelist, and relating to literary subjects. One of these letters, written about a year before his death, contained a request that Mr. Walker should suggest a suitable tombstone or tablet to be placed over or near the grave of "Jeannie Deans," the noble heroine of the "Heart of Midlothian." The real name of Jeannie Deans, as most of our readers are doubtless aware, was Helen Walker, who belonged to one or other of the numerous families of that surname, near Dumfries, many of them collateral in kindred, and of whom the father of the subject before us was one, — born in the parish of Irongray, in Gallowayshire, near Dumfries. Exclusive of the writings noticed, Mr. Walker is the author of a Tragedy, which was presented with considerable success at the theatres of Preston, Belfast, &c. He also published a "History of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway," with plans and views, in which he was assisted by the late George Stephenson. The first edition was issued on the opening day, and commanded an extensive circulation. The second edition embraced a biographical notice of William Huskinson; and the work reached five reprints, with additions. During his residence in Preston, Mr. Walker published a very pleasing collection of fiction and poetry, entitled "Tales of my Father," which was extremely well received. After leaving the Preston Chronicle, he conducted a new paper, the Preston Observer, which obtained a good circulation, but upon a change in the proprietorship, he returned with his family to Liverpool. He soon obtained employment on the newspapers, and during the last eleven years has been more especially attached to the Liverpool Standard, devoting himself in a great measure to the nautical and descriptive department.

We have entered at such length into Mr Walker's biography that we find our remarks on his productions must be limited to a few cursory observations. He is evidently possessed of great facilities as a writer, and possesses considerable powers of invention in fiction and imagination in poetry. His South American is too well known to demand much comment. In many passages it is stamped with the indelible impress of poetic genius. Its earnestness of feeling and powerful descriptions, evidence all the elements of genuine poetry. Of his miscellaneous writings, we know but little, saving that they were highly popular at the time of their appearance. His pleasant Tales of my Father we have perused with much interest and satisfaction. They are clever and interesting fragments, indicating an extensive acquaintance with nautical life, and no inconsiderable insight into human character. Their plots, likewise, are ingenious and well-sustained, and the characters introduced, although sometimes too highly coloured, are depicted with much energy and animation. There is, moreover, a smartness of dialogue, and an occasional poetry of sentiment infused in them that adds to their character to some extent. "The Privateer" and the "Fisherman's Daughter" are both characterised by good powers of invention, and are well calculated to interest the reader. The descriptive part of the "Maiden of Aber" is very graphic, although the story itself, or its plot, is somewhat hacknied. "Timothy Wilkins" is a clever and laughable performance, and forms an excellent specimen of the author's versatile resources.