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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 verscs contain more knowledge of electricity than had then been acquired either by boys or men. А very
few of these verses will, however, convince the reader, that Wilkie is not to be ranked among les enfans celebres.
What penetrating mind can rightly form
Yet l'll begin, to show I want not will, &c.
Before he completed his education, his father died, leaving him no other inherit. ance than 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 sɔuls, 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, “ 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, allowableenough 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 Epigoniad, 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 illDess, 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 rea. der 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 independ. 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 proa 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 con. temporaries 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 he gives 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, friendsbip, or sincerity, will be best enabled to determine whether he is serious.