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Significant Scots
William Knox


KNOX, WILLIAM.—"It may not be impertinent to notice that Knox, a young poet of considerable talent, died here a week or two since. His father was a respectable yeoman, and he himself, succeeding to good firms under the Duke of Buccleuch, became too soon his own master, and plunged into dissipation and ruin. His talent then showed itself in a fine strain of pensive poetry, called, I think, ‘The Lonely Hearth,’ far superior to that of Michael Bruce, whose consumption, by the way, has been the life of his verses. . . . .For my part, I am a bad promoter of subscriptions; but I wished to do what I could for this lad, whose talent I really admired; and I am not addicted to admire heaven-born poets, or poetry that is reckoned very good, considering. I had him (Knox) at Abbotsford, about ten years ago, but found him unfit for that sort of society. I tried to help him, but there were temptations he could never resist. He scrambled on writing for the booksellers and magazines, and living like the Otways, and Savages, and Chattertons of former days, though I do not know that he was in extreme want. His connection with me terminated in begging a subscription, or a guinea, now and then. His last works were spiritual hymns, and which he wrote very well. In his own line of society he was said to exhibit infinite humour; but all his works are grave and pensive—a style, perhaps, like Master Stephen’s melancholy, affected for the nonce."

In this extract from Sir Walter Scott’s Diary, an outline of the life, moral character, and literary productions of an erring and unfortunate son of genius is briefly sketched; but with the great novelist’s wonted perspicuity, sharp intuitive sagacity, and immeasurable good-nature, that never could see a fault where there was a tolerable per contra to recommend.

William Knox was born upon the estate of Firth, in the parish of Lilliesleaf, Roxburgh, on the 17th August, 1789, and was the son of an extensive and pastoral farmer in the shires of Roxburgh and Selkirk. As his parents were in comfortable circumstances, he received a liberal education, first at the parish school of Lilliesleaf, and afterwards at the grammar-school of Musselburgh. After having become a tolerable classical scholar, and acquired a taste for reading, especially in poetry and romance, he was sent, at little more than the age of sixteen, to a lawyer’s office, not, however, for the purpose of studying the law as a future profession, but acquiring the general knowledge and practical habits of business. This was necessary, as he was the eldest son of a family of six children, and would naturally succeed to his father’s extensive farming; but as a school of morals and virtuous habits, a lawyer’s office, at the beginning of the present century, could scarcely be reckoned the happiest of selections. After a few months’ training at law, in which he made little progress, he was called home to assist his father; and in 1812 he commenced farming on his own account, by taking a lease of the farm of Wrae, in the neighbourhood of Langholm. But steady though he appears to have been at this period, so that he soon acquired the reputation of a diligent and skilful farmer, he was so unsuccessful that he lost all interest in agriculture, threw up the lease of Wrae in 1817, and commenced that precarious literary life which he continued to the close. Indeed, while he was ploughing and sowing, his thoughts were otherwise occupied; for even at the schoolboy age, he had been infected, as half of the human race generally are at that ardent season, with the love of poetry; but instead of permitting himself, like others, to be disenchanted by the solid realities and prosaic cares of life, he cherished the passion until he become irrecoverably a poet. Unhappy is such a choice when it can lead no higher than half-way up Parnassus! His boyish efforts were exhibited chiefly in songs and satires written in the Scottish dialect; and although, when his mind was more matured, he had the good sense to destroy them, it was only for the purpose of producing better in their season. In this way his first publication, "The Lonely Hearth and other Poems," was nearly ready for the press before he had quitted his farm.

It would be too much to follow each step of Knox’s progress after he had committed himself to the uncertainties and mutations of authorship. His life was henceforth occupied not only in writing works which issued from the press, but others which were not so fortunate. It was not merely to poetry that he confined himself, in which case his stock, as a source of daily subsistence, would soon have failed; he also wrote largely in prose, and was happy when he could find a publisher. Such a course, sufficiently pecarious in itself, was rendered tenfold worse by those intemperate practices that had already commenced, and which such a kind of life tends not to cure, but to aggravate. Still, amidst all his aberrations, his acknowledged talents as a genuine poet, combined with his amiable temperament and conversational powers, procured him many friends among the most distinguished literary characters of the day. We have already seen the estimate that Sir Walter Scott had formed of him: to this it may be added, that Sir Walter repeatedly supplied the necessities of the unfortunate poet, by sending him ten pounds at a time. Professor Wilson also thought highly of the poetical genius of Knox, and was ever ready to befriend him. Nor must Southey, a still more fastidious critic than either Scott or Wilson, be omitted. Writing to William Knox, who had sent him a copy of one of his poetical works, he thus expresses himself: "Your little volume has been safely delivered to me by your friend, Mr. G. Macdonald, and I thank you for it. It has given me great pleasure. To paraphrase sacred poetry is the most difficult of all tasks, and it appears to me that you have been more successful in the attempt than any of your predecessors. You may probably have heard that the Bishop of Calcutta (before he was appointed to that see) was engaged in forming a collection of hymns and sacred pieces, with the hope of having them introduced into our English churches. Some of yours are so well adapted to that object that I will send out a copy of your book to him."

The principal works of Knox besides the "Lonely Hearth," which we have already mentioned, were a Christmas tale, entitled "Mariomne, or the Widower’s Daughter," "A Visit to Dublin," "Songs of Israel," and the "Harp of Zion." Much of his authorship, however, was scattered over the periodicals of the day, and especially the "Literary Gazette." As a prose writer, his works are of little account, and have utterly disappeared; but the same cannot be said of his poetry, which possesses a richness and originality that places it on higher intellectual scale, and insures it a more lasting popularity. It is pleasing also to record, that it is not only undefaced by a single line which a dying author would wish to blot, but elevated throughout into the highest tone of pure devotional feeling and religious instruction. In these cases, Sir Walter Scott seems to think that poor Knox was assuming a part—that he was speaking "according to the trick," and nothing more. We would fain charitably believe, however, that the pensiveness of the erring bard was something else than affectation, and his religious feeling than hypocrisy. Had he not cause to write sadly when he yielded to his better feelings, and sat down to give vent to them in the language which he had learned in happier and purer days? Or was he singular under that

"video meliora proboque,
Deteriora sequor—"

which meets so many an unfortunate genius midway, like a sign-post between time and eternity, where he can do nothing more than direct others upon their heavenward journey. In the following stanzas, by which his "Songs of Zion" are prefaced, we can both recognize and understand his sincerity, notwithstanding all those unhappy inconsistencies with which it was contradicted:--

Harp of Zion! pure and holy!
Pride of Judah’s eastern land!
May a child of guilt and folly
Strike thee with a feeble hand?
May I to my bosom take thee,
Trembling from the prophet’s touch.,
And, with throbbing heart awake thee
To the songs I love so much?

I have loved thy thrilling numbers
Since the dawn of childhood’s day,
When a mother sooth’d my slumbers
With the cadence of thy lay—
Since a little blooming sister
Clung with transport round my knee,
And my glowing spirit blessed her
With a blessing caught from thee.

Mother—sister—both are sleeping
Where no heaving hearts respire,
While the eve of age is creeping
Round the widowed spouse and sire.
lie and his, amid their sorrow,
Find enjoyment in thy strain—
Harp of Zion! let me borrow
Comfort from thy chords again.

It is only necessary to add, that this life of literary adventure to which William Knox committed himself, and in which he unwisely squandered his resources of health and strength, was a brief one, for he died at Edinburgh, on the 12th of November, 1825, in his thirty-sixth year. The cause of his death was a stroke of paralysis, which he survived only three or four days.


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