1807 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Wilkie

Robert Southey, in Specimens of the Later English Poets (1807) 3:24-25.



Whatever nationality could do for a Poem, has been done for this writer's Epigoniad. Hume recommended it in the Critical Review, as one of the ornaments of our language, Smollett enumerated it among the glories of George the Second's reign, and he is called the Scottish Homer. — All would not do, the fable is well invented, but it is dull, the verses respectable but dull, the author learned but dull, and dullness is the poetical sin, for which there is no redemption. Wilkie wrote this poem as the most probable means of introducing himself to the notice of the Great. He composed an epick poem upon the speculation of getting preferment. In person he was slovenly, dirty, and even nauseous, he abhorred nothing so much as clean sheets. One evening at Hatton, being asked by Lady Lauderdale to stay all night, he expressed an attachment to his own bed, but said, if her Ladyship would give him a pair of foul sheets, he would stay.

But there were more honourable traits in Wilkie's character; his talents made him the best farmer in his neighborhood, his honesty the worst dealer in the market; he was parsimonious, and parsimony must be ascribed to him as a virtue, for he had been obliged to borrow ten pounds for his father's burial, and had been refused the loan by his uncle; he provided for his sisters, and was known to be charitable when he had amassed money. Wallace said, "nobody could venture to cope with him in conversation; both his manners and thoughts were masculine in a degree peculiar to himself." It is extraordinary that no trace of this manliness or originality is to be found in his writings, but it is still more extraordinary that a man should have been able to write verses at all, who could not read them without violating all metre and pronunciation. His fables are even worse than his Epick; that which we have selected is the best, as well as the shortest. His Dream will show his own opinion of his epick merits. At the time of his death he was Professor of Natural Philosophy at St. Andrews, the only preferment he ever obtained, except that of the living of Rath's, which he resigned for it.