Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilkie, William

WILKIE, WILLIAM (1721–1772), ‘the Scottish Homer,’ son of James Wilkie, a farmer, was born at Echlin, parish of Dalmeny, Midlothian, on 5 Oct. 1721. He was educated at Dalmeny parish school and Edinburgh University, having among his college contemporaries John Home, David Hume, William Robertson, and Adam Smith. His father dying during his curriculum, he succeeded to the unexpired lease of a farm at Fishers' Tryste, near Edinburgh. This he carried on in the interests of his three sisters and himself, prosecuting at the same time his studies for the ministry of the church of Scotland. Licensed as a preacher by the presbytery of Linlithgow on 29 May 1745, he combined, while waiting for a charge, the pursuits of literature and scientific agriculture. On 17 May 1753 he was appointed, under the patronage of the Earl of Lauderdale, assistant to John Guthrie, parish minister of Ratho, Midlothian, on whose death in 1756 he became sole incumbent. His learning and his abstracted moods—his occasionally omitting, for instance, to put off his hat before entering the pulpit—somewhat marred the success of his pastorate. In 1759 he was appointed professor of natural philosophy at St. Andrews, where he did sound work, devoting his leisure to successful experiments in moorland farming. Robert Fergusson, one of his students, eulogises him in a memorial eclogue (Fergusson, Poems, p. 29, ed. Grosart). In 1766 the university of St. Andrews conferred on Wilkie the honorary degree of D.D. Subject to ague, he weakened his constitution by excessive clothing and absurd sleeping arrangements. He died on 10 Oct. 1772.

Regarded by his college friends as the ablest of the distinguished students of his day (Mackenzie, Life of John Home), Wilkie continued to impress later contemporaries by his originality, remarkable attainments, and conversational power, and to shock them by his eccentricity and slovenly habits (cf. Lockhart, Life of Scott, v. 25, ed. 1837). Meeting him at Alexander Carlyle's in 1759, Charles Townshend (1725–1767) [q. v.] considered that no man of his acquaintance ‘approached so near the two extremes of a god and a brute’ (Autobiography of Dr. Alexander Carlyle, chap. x. p. 394). Credited with parsimony, Wilkie was nevertheless charitable without ostentation. He had, he said, learned economy through his having ‘shaken hands with poverty up to the very elbow.’ At his death he left property worth 3,000l.

In 1757 Wilkie published ‘The Epigoniad,’ in nine books, based on the fourth book of the ‘Iliad,’ and written in heroic couplets in the manner of Pope's ‘Homer.’ To a second edition in 1759 he appended an ingenious apologetic ‘Dream in the manner of Spenser.’ On the appearance of this edition Hume warmly eulogised ‘The Epigoniad’ in a letter to the ‘Critical Review,’ complaining that the journal had unduly depreciated the poem when first published. Wilkie has no genuine right to be called ‘the Scottish Homer,’ but as a mere achievement in verse his ‘epic’ is creditable; it has a fair measure of fluency, its imagery is apt and strong, and it is brightened by occasional felicities of phrase, descriptive epithet, and antithetical delineation. In 1768 Wilkie published a small volume of sixteen ‘Fables,’ in iambic tetrameter reminiscent of Gay, with an added pithy and pointed ‘Dialogue between the Author and a Friend’ in dexterous heroics. The sixteenth fable, ‘The Hare and the Partan’ [i.e. crab], is a notable exercise in the vernacular of Midlothian.

[Chalmers's English Poets; Anderson's British Poets; Lives of the Scottish Poets, by the Society of Ancient Scots, pt. iv.; Hew Scott's Fasti Eccl. Scot. i. 140; Chambers's Biogr. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen; Grosart's edition of Fergusson's Poems, and his Robert Fergusson in Famous Scots Series, 1898.]

T. B.