1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Wilson

Allan Cunningham, in Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern (1825) 1:247-48.



Alexander Wilson is well known as the author of one of our most popular rustic poems, Watty and Meg. In his homely and vigorous style, his scorn of all ornament, his directness of purpose, and his rough energy, he stands opposed to Macniell; and he is likewise opposed to him in matter as well as in manner, for his song is of mirth augmented by liquor, of public-house pastime and tumultuous joy, of the fury of female passion and domestic infelicity. He scorns douce morality and regular decorum, and loves to hear the pint-stoups clatter amid "Laughing, sangs, and lasses' skirls." He has been excelled by none in lively graphic fidelity of touch: whatever was present to his eye, and manifest to his ear, he could paint with a life and a humour which Burns seems alone to rival; but in all the higher qualities of the poet he was decidedly inferior — he had none of those sudden bursts, as of lightning from a cloud, which kindle us up and exalt and lift us above the earth. What he beheld he could describe, but what he found low he could not raise; he could run on the ground, but he could not ascend: while manners and men sat for their pictures, he could paint; but he was unable to speculate upon human character and action, and his skill lay in augmenting mirth rather than in moving to pity or to tears.

His genius merited a happier fate than to be exiled among the deserts of North America. He undertook a work of great labour — the American Ornithology; and with his gun, and his pencil, and his pen, he traversed forests, skirted mountains, crossed rivers, and at last perished from anxiety of mind and fatigue of body, from unrewarded industry and ungratified hope.