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OF WILLIAM WILKIE,
BY MR. CHALMERS.
WILLIAM WILKIE was born in the parish of Dalmeny, in the county of West Lothian, on the 5th of October, 1721. His father, although a small farmer, and poor and unfortunate, endeavoured to give him a liberal education, which he appears to have improved by diligence. In the ninth volume of Sir John Sinclair's Statistical Account of Scotland, are some verses said to have been written by him in his tenth year. Dr. Gleig, who has inserted a very candid life of Wilkie in the Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica, doubts the probability of this report, as the verses contain more knowledge of electricity than had then been acquired either by boys or men. A very few of these verses will, however, conrince the reader, that Wilkie is not to be ranked among les enfans celebres.
What penetrating mind can rightly form
At the age of thirteen, he was sent to the university of Edinburgh, where he was soon distinguished for originality of thought, and rapid progress in learning. Among his associates here, we have the names of Robertson, Home (the dramatic. poet), Hume, Ferguson, and Adam Smith. With these he continued in habits of friendship and correspondence for many years; but I know not whether it will be accounted a proof of his judgment, that he considered Adam Smith as excelling Hume and Robertson in the powers of invention.
Before he completed his education, his father died, leaving him no other inherit. ance thaa his small farm, and the care of three sisters. Necessity thus turned his
attention to the study of agriculture, which he cultivated with so much success, although upon a confined scale, that he acquired a solid reputation as a practical farmer, and was enabled to provide for himself and his sisters. He still, however, prosecuted his studies, and at the accustomed period was admitted a preacher in the church of Scotland.
For some years this made no alteration in his mode of life. Being admitted a preacher not implying, as in England, the cure of souls, he had only to exercise his ministerial office occasionally for the clergymen in his neighbourhood, and could *employ the principal part of his time on his farm and his studies. He appears to have been early ambitious of the character of a poet, and having read Homer, as Don Quixote read romances, he determined to sally forth as his rival, or continuator; and this enthusiasm produced the Epigoniad, published in 1753. On this poem he is said to have employed fourteen years, which ill agrees with what his biographers tell us of his propensity to poetry, and the original vigour of his mind, for it appeared with all the imperfections of a rough sketch. It is more probable that he wrote by snatches as he found time and inclination, and had perhaps long finished the work before he ventured to publish it. Its reception by the English public was not very flattering, but in his own country the Epigoniad succeeded so well, that a second edition was called for in 1759, to which he added a dream in the manner of Spenser.
A few years before this, he was ordained minister of Ratho, in consequence of a presentation from the late earl of Lauderdale, who knew his worth, and admired his genius. By an assiduous attention to the public and private duties of his sacred function, we are told, he became popular and useful. Yet it is difficult to conceive how a clergyman could preserve the reverence due to his character or office, 6 who generally preached with his hat on his head, and often forgot to pronounce the blessing after public service: and who has been seen to dispense the sacrament without consecrating the elements.” Such indecent negligence cannot surely be excused on the plea of absence of mind, allowable enough in the common intercourse of life, but which in the present case implies a careless abstraction of mind from that which ought to have occupied it entirely.
In 1759, he was chosen professor of natural philosophy in the university of St. Andrews, a proof that he had acquired a character for higher attainments than are discoverable in the Epigoniad. When he removed to St. Andrews, his whole for. tune did not exceed two hundred pounds, with which he purchased a few acres of land in the neighbourhood of the city, and cultivated them with his usual judgment, still continuing to maintain his sisters, whom he brought from Ratho to reside with him. As a teacher, he is said to have displayed great knowledge of science, with an easy and familiar mode of demonstration which fixed the regard as well as the attention of his scholars'. In 1766, the university conferred upon him the degree of Doctor in Divinity.
In 1768, he published his Fables, which had less success than even his Epigo. niad, although they are rather happy imitations of the manner of Gay, and the
Travels in Scotland, by the Rev. James Hall, vol. i. p. 131, et seq.-C.
thoughts, if not always original, are yet sprightly and just. After a lingering ill. Dess, he died Oct. 10, 1772.
The character of Dr. Wilkie appears to have been distinguished for those sin. gularities which are sometimes found in men of genius, either from early indulgence or affectation. His biographers have multiplied instances of his disgusting manners, which it would have been more prudent to bury in oblivion, as the reader of such tales is too apt to imagine that what was only occasional must have been uniform.
He is said to have died worth £3000, accumulated by penurious living; but those who knew him more intimately have vindicated his character in this respect. Much of his life was spent in poverty, and a strong sense of the value of independe ence induced him to become saving, as soon as he could spare any thing from his. immediate wants and the necessity of his sisters, for whom he appears to have pro. vided with all the affectionate concern of a parent. By avoiding the expenses of hospitality, in a hospitable country, he incurred the suspicion of avarice ; but he was known to be liberal to the poor, and ought not to be blamed if he preferred the silent dictates of his heart to the ostentatious fashion of society.
His learning, according to every account, was extensive, and much of it acquired at a very early age. His conversation was enriched by original sentiments, deliver. ed in a bold, and sometimes coarse manner: and there were few good judges who did not leave his company impressed with a high opinion of his talents. He must have been indeed an extraordinary man, who could preserve the respect of his contemporaries and of his scholars, notwithstanding such indelicate and disgusting habits, as we read of in the life of no other man. Some men have been slovenly from negligence, but Wilkie, where he had a choice, is said to have given a decided preference to what was dirty.
When the Epigoniad made its appearance, it was attacked by the Monthly and Critical Reviewers with apparent severity ; but the extracts and specimens by which they confirmed their opinions, satisfied the public that they had examined the poem with impartiality, and decided with justice. It would, therefore, have probably sunk into oblivion, had not the sale in Scotland exhausted the first edition, and encouraged the author to publish a second, in which he made a few alterations, chiefly in the versification. Yet as the principal objections remained in full force, this would have contributed little to extend our author's fame; and the new edition was but slowly called for, when an extraordinary appeal from the general opinion was preferred by the celebrated Mr. Hume, who wrote a very long encomium on the Epigoniad, addressed to the editor of the Critical Review, and published in the seventh volume of that journal. As I have nothing to oppose to the neglect with which Wilkie's poems have been treated, I hope I shall be pardoned for inserting Mr. Hume's very elaborate criticism, whatever effect it may produce. The analysis begives of the fable may at least assist the readers of the Epigoniad. As to the very high praise he bestows, those who knew Mr. Hume's taste, friendship, or sincerity, will be best enabled to determine whether he is serious.
“ TO THE AUTHORS OF THE CRITICAL REVIEW. Gentlemen,
“ April, 1759. " The great advantages which result from literary journals have recommended the use of them all over Europe ; but as nothing is free from abuse, it must be cone fessed that some inconveniences have also attended these undertakings. The works of the Icarned multiply in such a surprising manner, that a journalist, in order to give an account to the public of all new performances, is obliged to peruse a small library every month, and as it is impossible for him to bestow equal attention on every picce which he criticises, he may readily be surprised into mistakes, and give to a book such a character as, on a more careful perusal, he would willingly retract. Even performances of the greatest merit are not secure against this injury; and, perhaps, are sometimes the most exposed to it. An author of genius scorns the vulgar arts of catching applause: he pays no court to the great: gives no adulation to those celebrated for learning: takes no care to provide himself of partisans, or proneurs, as the French call them: and by that means his work steals unoba served into the world: and it is some time before the public, and even men of pe. netration, are sensible of its merit. We take up the book with prepossession, pe. ruse it carelessly, are feebly affected by its beauties, and lay it down with neglect, perhaps with disapprobation.
6. The public has done so much justice to the gentlemen engaged in the Critical Review, as to acknowledge that no literary journal was ever carried on in this country with equal spirit and impartiality: yet, I must confess that an article pube lished in your Review of 1757, gave me great surprise, and not a little uneasiness. It regarded a book called the Epigoniad, a poem of the epic kind, which was at that time published with great applause at Edinburgh, and of which a few copies had been sent up to London. The author of that article had surely been lying un. der strong prepossessions, when he spoke so negligeatly of a work which abounds in such sublime beauties, and could endeavour to discredit a poem, consisting of near six thousand lines, on account of a few mistakes in expression and prosody, proceeding entirely from the author's being a Scotchman, who had never been out of his own country. As there is a new edition published of this poem, wherein all or most of these trivial mistakes are corrected, I flatter myself that you will gladly lay hold of this opportunity of retracting your oversight, and doing justice to a performance, which may, perhaps, be regarded as one of the ornaments of our language. I appeal from your sentence, as an old woman did from a sentence pronounced by Philip of Macedon :-1 appeal from Philip, ill.connselled and in a hurry, to Philip, well-advised, and judging with deliberation. The authority which you possess with the public makes your censure fall with weight: and I question not but you will be the more ready, on that account, to redress any injury into which either negligence, prejudice, or mistake, may have betrayed yon. As I profess myself to be an admirer of this performance, it will afford me pleasure to give you a short analysis of it, and to collect a few specimens of these great beau. ties in which it abounds.
“ The author, who appears throughout his whole work to be a great admirer and imitator of Homer, drew the subject of this poem from the fourth Iliad, where