Page images

1816, the year when the father died. Wilson was so unfortunate as to lose his mother at the early age of ten, and was left, one of a large family, without that tender and judicious care, which a mother alone can give. Young as he was at the time, they had probably detected something intellectual in his tastes and habits; it was their intention to educate him for the ministry; a purpose, which implied a high opinion of his power; since the Scottish peasantry, who look upon every thing connected with religion with unbounded reverence, seldom, in their wildest imaginations, form a higher wish for their children, than that of seeing them lead the devotions of a Christian assembly, and bear the message of salvation to men.

His father, not long after the death of his wife, formed another connexion; and it has been repeatedly stated, that the unkindness of his stepmother compelled Wilson at that early age. to seek another home. But his Scotch biographer, who is perhaps most likely to know the truth, tells us, that his new mother sustained that most difficult and delicate of all human relations, to the perfect satisfaction of all parties; and that, when Wilson did leave his father's house, it was only as an apprentice to reside with his master. Wilson was a man of strong feelings; and had he been thus ill-treated, would probably have

expressed himself with some asperity in regard to it, when speaking of his early days; but he is said to have mentioned her with respect and gratitude, though not with the affection he felt for his own mother, who was a woman of a superior order, and who probably did something in his infancy to elevate his mind.

As to his father, if he was illiterate as he has been represented, he was not without a taste for intellectual improvement; for we find Wilson, in one of his latest years, declaring with energy, that for all he had done, and all he had been in the world, he was indebted to the kindness of his father, whose judicious attention directed his mind, at he time when it was most open to receive such impressions, to the excellence of learning, and the elevating effect of a familiarity with the grand and beautiful of nature; these tastes, thus early formed, had made him a wanderer in the world, but they had been the sources of his best enjoyment, and had enabled him to sustain to the last the character in which he gloried, that of a respectable and honest man. Such a testimony to a father, proceeding from one whose words were always severely true, proves conclusively, that, whatever his advantages may have been, he was more than an ordinary man, and probably much of his character was inherited by his son.

To this early period of his life, then, may be traced that admiration of all that is high, which distinguished his later years. The young mind is exceedingly apt to throw its own brightness upon the scenes and prospects before it; and as the rose-colored tints disappear on the least acquaintance with the world, as the reality seems so poor and cold, compared with the imagination, the young mind, not having learned that discrimination which saves high thoughts and feelings from sinking in the dusty path of life, often retreats to the ideal world which poetical inspiration reveals to its view. A mind of inferior power will be wholly enervated by this intellectual seclusion; its effect will resemble that of sensual indulgence; but, a mind that has energy and principle, will be the better for this occasional retirement; the effects are as different, as those of the devotion of the closet and of the cloister; the former sending out a man to active life, better fitted and disposed to discharge its duties, the other encouraging a languid, life-long worship, useless to man and unacceptable to God.

Wilson fortunately had the sort of character which is improved, because it is softened and exalted, by poetical musing; of energy he had enough and to spare; but gentleness and purity might possibly have been wanting, had he not thus early been conducted to the sources of high

and tender feeling, which poetry sometimes opens in the wilderness, that would else be very dry. Scotland, even before the days of Scott, was a romantic and inspiring region. Her hills and valleys, desolate though they seemed to the eye, were always animated with powerful associations of self-devotion, of glory, and of love; in such a country, and with such a spirit as Wilson's, it is not surprising that he became a poet; and that, finding little sympathy in those about him, and thus being constantly driven back upon his own resources, he kept the fire burning to the last in the very centre of his soul.

The first employment in which he engaged, was not certainly of a very poetical character. In the thirteenth year of his age, he was bound apprentice to William Duncan, his brother-in-law, to learn the business of a weaver. He continued an apprentice three years, during which time he was faithful to his employer, but never became reconciled to the confinement which the

employment required. In all his leisure moments, he was trying his skill in the composition of verses, in which, however, he never succeeded. In what the Antiquary called the mechanical part of the poet's profession, the clashing of rhymes, he always failed; and this is a little singular, when it is remembered, that his descriptions of birds abound with touches and passages of great poetical beauty.

In that day, the world had not reached the discovery, that poetical inspiration could be breathed in more dialects than one. We smile at the simplicity of him, who had been speaking prose all his life without knowing it; but it is equally true, that many have written poetry all their lives, without suspecting it themselves, or receiving credit for it from others, because their inspirations were not breathed with measured cadence and in regular form. Perhaps it is well, that Wilson never was acquainted with the fact, that there is poetry without verse, as well as verse without poetry; since, had he succeeded better in that which he set his heart upon, he might never have discovered that great field of poetical action, in the new world, which his adventurous foot was the first to tread.

Wilson's term of apprenticeship expired at the end of three years; but, not having chosen any other business, and probably disliking the loom less, when he was no longer chained to it by the authority of another, he continued to work as a journeyman weaver, at intervals for four years, residing sometimes with his father, and the remainder of the time with his brother-in-law. His application was not so close at this time, as to prevent his rambling in the neighborhood, and making attempts at descriptive poetry. One of his poems, written at this time, is called "Groans

« PreviousContinue »