ALEXANDER WILSON.* WE have strong doubts as to the wisdom,
taste, and even patriotism of at least one-hall of this work. Mr. Grosart has shown himself a literary "stoney-ground husbandman" of more than ordinary insight, force, and industry ; and he has performed the work he has assigned to himself, of editing the purely literary remains of Wilson, the pioneer of American ornithology, in a manner which can leave little to be desired by the more enthu- siastic of his new hero's admirers,—although it may be remarked in passing that Mr. Grosart should avoid the straining of emphasis involved in the lavish use of capital letters, italics, and marks of quotation. He has, indeed, done his work not wisely, but too well and too elaborately, for if there is a Scotch writer whose works need squeezing, it is Alexander Wilson. In his preface Mr. Grosart says that, "with the exception of Allan Ramsay, Ferguson, and Burns, none of our Scottish vernacular poets has been so continuously kept in print as Alexander Wilson ;" but he
has the good-sense to attribute this vitality of interest mainly to the "ever-widening and deepening fame of the Ornithology."
We can see no good reason for republishing Wilson's poems, -though many for not doing so, or for, at the most, giving a judi- cious and small selection from them, by way of appendix to one or other of the superb editions of the Ornithology which have recently been published. The popularity at the time they appeared
of some of Wilson's Scotch poems—those written in English are, except for occasional faithful descriptions of nature, beneath notice —is intelligible. They were written in the broadest vernacular, they depicted the lowest Scotch life exactly as it is or was ; their humour, coarse-grained, and scarcely articulate, smacked of the soil. But the dialect in which he wrote is now a thing of the past, and there is probably not one Scotchman of the present day in a thousand that could without a glossary tell the meaning of such phrases as
" camsheugh bool," or " chanler chafts." Take away the verna- cular, and little remains in Wilson's poetry but Dutch painting of
dirt,—and not even of what a still greater Wilson, the "glorious John," calls "clean dirt." One cannot rise from these descrip- tions—which do not bear quotation, and have not enough of literary merit to deserve republication—of low Scotch filth, riot, vulgarity, and drunkenness, without wishing that Mr. Grosart bad applied to them some moral chloride of lime, some literary insect-powder. Wilson has been named in the same breath with Burns, but Burns always wrote Scotch like a gentleman ; Wilson writes it—shall we say ?—like a "Paisley body," who is, or used to be considered, the type of Scotch vulgarity. Wilson's first important poem, "Marty and Meg," a tale of a village scold, was, when first published, ascribed to Burns. Burns is reported to have thought much of it, and it is not without the merit of being written with force and simplicity, yet can we fancy Burns putting on paper such bald Billingsgate as this ?—
" Nasty gude-for-naething being, 0 ye snuffy, drucken sow, Bringin' wife and weans to ruin,
Drinkin' here wi' sic a crew !
Rise! ye drucken beast o' Bethel, Drink's your nicht and day's desire ; Rise ! this precious hour, or faith, I'll Fling your whiskey i' the fire."
Burns was after his fashion Jacobin in politics and heterodox in religion, and his tilts at the " unco' guid " in both are unsurpassed, if not unsurpassable, in the literature of sarcasm. Wilson, too, was an advanced politician, poked libellous fun at the Scotch Presbyterian clergy, and got into prison on account of his per- sonalities and partisanship ; but he does not rise to the height of Burns, either in argument or in style, in such lines as,—
" British boys are in a fiz,
Their heads like bees are humming, And for their rights and liberties, They're mad upon reforming The Court this day."
Finally—for it is advisable always to compare any Scotch poet who thrusts himself, or is thrust, as in this case, upon us, with the highest Scotch standard—Wilson seems to have been absolutely devoid of those passions which, by his own confession, led Burns
The Poems and Literary Prose of Alexander Wilson. Edited, with Memorial- Introduction, Essay, Notes, Illustrations, and Glossary, by the Rev. Alexander B. Grosse. Paisley : Alexander Gardner. 1876.
astray, but the lurid light of which is practically, at least, from Heaven. Love of woman finds almost no place in his poetry ; although there is no evidence that he ever tippled or led an im- moral life, he seems to view the other sex through the spectacles of a well-alcoholised and hen-pecked husband, or of a coarse
Scotch peasant with the creed of a Wycherley. Occasionally, indeed, he sports with Amaryllis in the shade—on stilts—and gives her an inventory of her charms ; but even then he ends in worse
than bathos,—the sarcastic fancy of the back-parlour of the public- house. Thus, after a description of "young, beauteous Jennie," whose
"Cheeks outvy'd the rose's bloom ; Her lips, the cherry; breath, perfume,"
we are told that a wasp stings her, in consequence of which
"She trembled, wept, but wept in vain ; High rose her lip,—extreme the pain, Till o'er her chin, with venom stung, A monstrous sight it glisering hung."
One gladly turns from Wilson, the poet, whose poetry— at all events, the amount worth preserving, including, above all, the "Disconsolate Wren "—could be compressed by Mr. Grosart into half-a-dozen pages, to Wilson, the ornithologist, the man transfigured by his mission. The name of Alexander Wilson, the ornithologist, suggests that of Hugh Miller. Both were sturdy
Scotsmen ; both lived the best part of their lives in an atmosphere of enthusiasm ; both appear to have been morally invigorated thereby. On the whole, perhaps, Wilson's enthusiasm was purer than Miller's. Mr. Spencer has described the author of the "Testimony of the Rocks" as a theologian study- ing geology, rather than as a geologist proper. But Wil- son appears in Mr. Grosart's pages, as in Sir William Jardine's, as the lover of birds for their own sake, and not for the purpose of establishing any hypothesis of his own ; as braving all dangers, submitting patiently to all hardships, to obtain them, and literally falling a martyr to his pur- suit of beauty, if not of truth. The story of Wilson's life has been told before,--how he was born at Paisley in humble circumstances, was set to cattle-keeping and weaving, tried his luck as a pedlar and a poet, and failing in both capacities, and becoming from principle and poverty a Republican, went to America, where, after a weary life of schoolmastering, he obtained a very modest competence as one of the editors of an encyclopedia, and
was enabled to perform his great work, until he died prematurely at the age of forty-seven. But Mr. Grosart has been able to give us not a few fresh letters and other documents bearing upon Wilson's life, and whether we read the cynicism of his pedlar's journal or the letters overflowing with good-nature and fun which he wrote while he was engaged in bird-hunting, or such exquisite
essays as that on the Bald Eagle, we cannot fail to wonder that a man who wrote such poetry in the beginning of his career could also write such prose at the end of it. Wilson may not be a
Scotch poet of the calibre of Burns, he may not be in any sense a savant, but it is something to have aroused the rivalry of
Audubon, to have earned the encomiums of Jules Michelet, and to be placed in the same scientific list with White and Miller.