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Scottish Poets in America
William Wilson

A truer, nobler, trustier heart,
More loving or more loyal, never beat
Within a human breast.

“Having summered and wintered it for many long years with your dear father, I ought to know something of the base and bent of his genius, though, as he hated all shams and pretensions, a very slight acquaintance with him showed that independence and personal manhood, ‘as wha daur meddle wi’ me,’ were two of his strong features; while humor, deep feeling and tenderness were prominent in all he said or wrote. *I loved him as a man, a poet and a brother, and I had many proofs that my feelings were reciprocated.” So wrote Hew Ainslie of William Wilson in a letter addressed to General James Grant Wilson, the esteemed editor of “The Poets and Poetry of Scotland” and of the “Cyclopaedia of American Biography.” William Wilson was born at Crieff on the twenty-fifth of December, 1801. Ha was educated with great care, and early began to take an interest in poetical matters; indeed, many of his own verses, written before he had reached his tenth year, prove that even at this tender age he was possessed of superior poetical talents. He is said to have inherited these gifts from his mother, a patriotic Scottish lady who ever delighted in singing the old Jacobite songs and ballads, which she did with much sweetness and pathos. At the age of twenty-two Mr. Wilson removed to Dundee, where he edited for some time the Literary Olio, and to which he contributed largely, both in poetry and prose. He afterwards went to Edinburgh and entered into business on his own account as a commission agent. While there he is credited with having contributed no less than thirty-two valuable poems in less than three years to the Edinburgh Literary Jotirnaly a well-known publication then under the editorship of Henry Glassford Bell, late Sheriff of Lanarkshire.

Through his connection with this periodical he was brought into contact with nearly all of the prominent literary men of the time, and among others with Robert Chambers, then a young man just beginning his wonderful literary career, with whom he formed a warm friendship which was only terminated by death. He was also a great favorite with Mrs. Grant, of Laggan, who claimed the privilege of naming his eldest son, by his second marriage with a member of an old Border family, after her husband, the Rev. James Grant. This lady the young poet first saw while on a visit to his friend the “Ettrick Shepard,” who delighted in his spirited singing of old Scottish songs and ballads.

In 1833 Mr. Wilson emigrated to America and took up his residence in Poughkeepsie, N. Y. Here he established a book-selling and publishing business, which he conducted with great success for nearly thirty years. For a portion of this period he had for a partner a brother of Bishops Alonzo and Horatio Potter, and for a few years before his death, his son, General Wilson. But during all these years he continued to pour forth his heart in song, and many of his finest pieces were composed at brief intervals amid the cares and anxieties of this busy portion of his life. Many of these compositions were given to the world anonymously, and in this manner did not at once attain the popularity which they afterward achieved. They are now classed with the more illustrious of Scottish poems, however, and Mr. Wilson has long since been accorded a prominent place among the bards of his country. He was indeed a true Scottish poet, simplicity, tenderness, pathos or humor being characteristic of all his writings. Apart from his poems, however, his lyrical compositions have made him a universal favorite with his countrymen everywhere. Few Scotsmen, even in America, for instance, are unacquainted with his


Dear aunty, what think ye o’ auld Johnny Graham?
The carle sae pawkie and slee!
He wants a bit wifie to tend his bein hame,
And the bodie has ettled at me.

Wi’ bonnet sae vaunty, an’ owerlay sae clean,
An’ ribbon that waved boon his bree,
He cam’ doun the cleugh at the gloamin’ yestreen,
An’ rappit, an soon speert for me.

I bade him come ben whare my minnie sae thrang
Was birlin’ her wheel eidentlie,
An’, foul fa’ the carle, he was na’ that lang
Ere he tauld out his errand to me.

“Hech, Tibby, lass! a’ yon braid acres o’ land,
Wi’ ripe craps that wave bonnilie,
An’, mcikle mair gear shall be at yer command,
Gin ye will look kindly on me.

“Yon herd o’ fat owsen that rout i’ the glen,
Sax naigies that nibble the lea ;
The kye i’ the sheugh, and the sheep i’ the pen,
I’se gie a’, dear Tibby, to thee.

“An’, lassie, I’ve goupins o’ gowd in a stockin’,
An’ pearlin’s wad dazzle yer e’e ;
A mettl’d, but canny young yaud for the yokin’
When ye wad gae jauntin’ wi’ me.

“I’!l hap ye and fend ye, and busk ye and tend ye,
And mak’ ye the licht o’ my e’e ;
I’ll comfort and cheer ye, and daut ye and dear ye,
As couthy as couthy can be.

I’ve lo’ed ye, dear lassie, since first, a bit bairn,
Ye ran up the knowe to meet me ;
An’ deckit my bonnet wi’ blue-bells an’ fern,
Wi’ meikle glad laughin’ an’ glee.

“An’ noo woman grown, an’ mensefu’ an’ fair,
An’ gracefu’ as gracefu’ can be—
Will ye tak’ an auld carle wha ne’er had a care
For woman, dear Tibby, but thee?”

Sae, aunty, ye see I’m a’ in a swither,
What answer the bodie to gie—
But aften I wish he wad tak’ my auld mither,
And let puir young Tibby abee.

Another of Mr. Wilson’s lyrical compositions which has won for itself a well-merited popularity is the one entitled “Jean Linn.” This was not only a favorite with the author but was also admired and highly spoken of by Dr. Robert Chambers, N. P. Willis, Hew Ainslie and other prominent authorities.


Oh, haud na’ yer noddle sae hie ma doo!
|Oh, haud na’ yer noddle sae hie!
The days that hae been may be yet again seen,
Sae look na’ sae lightly on me, ma doo !
Sae look na’ sae lightly on me !

Oh, geek na’ at hame hodden gray, Jean Linn,
|Oh, geek na’ at hame hodden gray !
Yer gutcher and mine wad thocht themsels fine
In cleidin’ sae bein, bonnie May, bonnie May—
In cleidin’ sae bein bonnie May.

Ye mind when we won in whinglee, Jean Linn,
Ye mind when we won in whinglen,
Your daddy, douce carle, was cotter to mine
An’ our herd was yer bonnie sel’, then Jean Linn,
An’ our herd was yer bonnie sel’, then.

Oh, then ye were a’ thing to me, Jean Linn !
Oh, then ye were a’ thing to me !
An’ the moments scour’d by like birds through the sky,
When tentin’ the owsen wi’ thee, Jean Linn,
When tentin’ the owsen wi’ thee.

I twined ye a bower by the burn, Jean Linn,
I twined ye a bower by the burn,
But dreamt na’ that hour, as we sat in that bower,
That fortune wad tak’ sic a turn, Jean Linn,
That fortune wad tak’ sic a turn.

Ye busk noo in satins fu’ braw, Jean Linn,
Ye busk noo in satins fu’ braw!
Yer daddy’s a laird, mine’s i’ the kirkyard,
An’ I’m yer puir ploughman, Jock Law, Jean Linn.
An’ I’m yer puir ploughman Jock Law.

While Mr. Wilson wrote largely in his mother tongue, he has also given us many valuable gems of English poetry. Of these his “Richard Coeur De Lion” is the best. This is the piece which Mr. William Cullen Bryant claimed to be “more spirited than any of the ballads of Aytoun.”


Brightly, brightly the moonbeam shines,
On the castle turret-wall;
Darkly, darkly, the spirit pines
Deep, deep in its dungeon’s thrall.
He hears the screech-owl whoop reply
To the warden’s drowsy strain,
And thinks of home, and heaves a sigh,
For his own bleak hills again.

Sweetly, sweetly the spring flowers spread,
When first he was fettered there ;
Slowly, slowly the sere leaves fade,
Yet breathes he that dungeon’s air.
All lowly lies his banner bright,
That formost in battle streamed,
And dim the sword that in the fight
Like midnight meteor gleamed.

But place his foot upon the plain,
That banner o’er his head,
His good lance in his hand again,
With Paynim slaughter red,
The craven hearts that round him now,
With coward triumph stand,
Would quail before that dauntless brow,
And the death-flash of that hand.

Among Mr. Wilson's other short pieces his “Sweet Lammas Moon,” “A Welcome to Christopher North,” “Jeanie Graham,” “Sabbath Morning in the Woods,” and “Britania” are worthy of special notice. The following extract in connection with our author is taken from the “Autobiography and Memoirs of Robert and William Chambers:”— “Among the persons to whom my brother applied for materials for the work (‘Popular Rhymes of Scotland’) was William Wilson, a young man of about his own age who had similar poetical and archse-logical tastes, and for a time edited a literary periodical in Dundee. Between the two there sprung up an extraordinary friendship which was not weakened by Wilson some years later emigrating to America. The letters which passed between them bring into view a number of particulars concerning my brother’s literary aims and efforts. Writing in January, 1824, to Wilson, whom he always addresses as ‘Dear Willie,’ he refers gratifyingly to the ‘ Traditions,’ and the manner which the book had brought him into notice. ‘This little work is taking astonishingly, and I am getting a great deal of credit by it. It has also been the means of introducing me to many of the most respectable leading men of the town, and has attracted to me the attention of not a few of the most eminent literary characters. What would you think, for instance, of the venerable author of the ‘ Man of Feeling ’ calling on me in his carriage to contribute his remarks in MS. on my work! The value of the above two great advantages is incalculable to a young tradesman and author like me. It saves me twenty years of mere laborious plodding by the common walk, and gives me at twenty-two all the respectability which I could have expected at forty.’” Mr. Wilson died at Poughkeepsie on the twenty-fifth of August, i860. The last of his work were the following verses, written in a feeble and faltering hand a few days before his death:


Waning life and weary,
Fainting heart and limb,
Darkening road and dreary,
Flashing eyes grow dim ;
All betokening nightfall near,
Day is done and rest is dear.
Slowly stealing shadows
Westward lengthening still
O’er the dark brown meadows,
O’er the sunlit hill.

Gleams of golden glory
From the opening sky,
Gild those temples hoary—
Kiss that closing eye :
Now drops the curtain on all wrong—
Throes of sorrow, grief and song.
But saw ye not the dying
Ere life passed away,
Faintly smiled while eying
Yonder setting day :

And, his pale hand signing
Man’s redemption sign—
Cried, with forehead shining,
Father, I am thine !
And so to rest he quietly hath passed,
And sleeps in Christ, the Comforter, at last.

A few years after Mr. Wilson’s death a portion of his poems were published in a small volume, with a memoir by Mr. Benson J. Lossing. A second and enlarged edition appeared in 1875, and this has since been followed by a third edition. Many of his poems made their first appearance in Blackwood’s Magazine or Chambers’ Journal, and selections from his writings appeared in Whistle Binkie, The Modern Scottish Minstrel, Blackie’s Book of Scottish Song, The Cabinet, and in Longfellow’s “Poems and Places.” In concluding the brief memoir attached to his father’s poems in “The Poets and Poetry of Scotland,” General Wilson says:—“The idea of this work originated with William Wilson, but urgent demands upon his time, together with failing health, interfered with its execution. The task devolved upon his son, who has as an act of filial duty, no less than a labor of love, endeavored to complete his father’s unfulfilled literary project.” Granting that the completion of this work was “an act of filial duty and a labor of love,” it is still due to General Wilson to say that he has given us one of the best and most valuable books on the subject of Scottish poets and poetry which has so far been published.

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