Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wills, James
WILLS, JAMES (1790–1868), poet and man of letters, born on 1 Jan. 1790, was the younger son of Thomas Wills of Willsgrove, co. Roscommon, a country gentleman belonging to a family of Cornish extraction long settled in Ireland, who had married as his second wife a daughter of Captain James Browne of Moyne, co. Roscommon. He received his education at Dr. Miller's school at Blackrock, co. Dublin, and from private tutors. He entered at Trinity College, Dublin, on 1 Nov. 1809, taking a high place at entrance. During his university career he formed one of a brilliant circle of undergraduates, which included Charles Wolfe [q. v.], John Sydney Taylor [q. v.], John Anster [q. v.], and Samuel O'Sullivan [see under O'Sullivan, Mortimer]. He inherited as joint-heir with his brother a very considerable estate, which came into his family through his mother; and in early manhood was in very easy circumstances. But shortly after leaving the university the improvidence of the elder brother, who managed to squander the property of both, left the younger with very slender resources, and Wills was obliged to abandon the notion he had formed of embracing the profession of the bar, though he had taken the first steps towards getting called, and had entered at the Middle Temple in 1821.
Returning to Ireland, Wills spent several years at Bray, in the neighbourhood of Dublin, engaged in desultory literary pursuits, and wrote many of his subsequently published poems at this period. Here also he met Charles Robert Maturin [q. v.], and wrote his well-known poem, ‘The Universe,’ which was published by, and long attributed to, Maturin, and the authorship of which was long a subject of literary controversy (cf. Notes and Queries, 5th ser. iii. 20, 172, 240, 280, 340; Dublin Univ. Mag. October 1875; Irish Quarterly Review, March 1852). For this poem, which is now proved to have been entirely the composition of Wills, Maturin received 500l. from Colburn.
In 1822 Wills married Katherine, daughter of the Rev. W. Gorman, niece of Chief-justice Charles Kendal Bushe [q. v.], and grandniece of Sir John Doyle [q. v.] He took orders on his marriage in the expectation of receiving a presentation to a crown living through the chief justice, a hope which was defeated through a change of government. From the date of his marriage until 1838 he resided in Dublin.
In 1831 he published ‘The Disembodied, and other Poems,’ in Dublin, and became a constant contributor to ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ the ‘Dublin University Magazine,’ the ‘Dublin Penny Journal,’ and other periodicals. To the ‘Dublin University Magazine,’ his connection with which originated in a review of George O'Brien's criticism of Petrie's ‘Round Towers’ [see O'Brien, Henry], he was one of the earliest contributors; and later in his career he was associated with Cæsar Otway [q. v.] in founding the ‘Irish Quarterly Review.’ In 1835 he published the ‘Philosophy of Unbelief,’ a work which was afterwards republished, and which acquired considerable popularity in America. Wills combined with a strong literary instinct a remarkable aptitude for metaphysical analysis. Of several essays read by him before the Royal Irish Academy, one on the ‘Spontaneous Association of Ideas’ was said by Archbishop Richard Whately [q. v.] to overturn Dugald Stewart's theory on the same subject. In 1835 Wills was nominated to the sinecure curacy of Suirville, co. Kilkenny, of which parish he was appointed vicar in 1846. In 1849 he was further advanced to the living of Kilmacow in the same county, and ultimately, in 1860, to that of Attanagh in co. Kilkenny. In 1845 Wills published ‘Dramatic Sketches and other Poems,’ which were followed in 1848 by ‘Moral and Religious Epistles.’ But his most important literary venture was the valuable biographical work known as ‘Lives of Illustrious and Distinguished Irishmen,’ of which the first volumes were published in 1839 and 1840. This work, which was completed in 1847 and for which its author received 1,000l., aims at giving a history of Ireland in a series of biographies ranging from the earliest to the most modern times, and is divided into six periods, to each of which Wills prefixed a valuable historical introduction. It was reissued subsequently under the title of ‘The Irish Nation,’ the concluding volumes of the revised edition appearing after the author's death, under the editorship of his son, Mr. Freeman Wills. The work has been accorded by a very competent authority, John Thomas (afterwards Lord-chancellor) Ball, in the ‘Dublin University Magazine,’ the praise of ‘great research, patient investigation, and sound judgment, free alike from sectarian and political prejudices,’ and as ‘the most elaborate and the most complete record of the history and biography of Ireland as yet (1847) given to the Irish public.’ The book is, however, very deficient in point of style and arrangement, and, like all works of reference on so large a scale by a single hand, is in parts perfunctory.
Wills was appointed Donellan lecturer in the university of Dublin for 1855–6, and delivered a course of sermons, published in 1860 under the title of ‘Lectures on the Antecedent Probability of the Christian Religion.’ He also edited Chief-justice Bushe's posthumously published ‘Summary View of the Evidences of Christianity.’ In 1868, shortly before his death, he published ‘The Idolatress, and other Poems,’ which, like the ‘Dramatic Sketches’ of an earlier date, was a collection of scattered contributions to various periodicals. His verse is not without merit; the shorter pieces breathe a strong spirit of Irish patriotism of the best kind; and a famous Irish nationalist is said to have embraced the old clergyman on learning that he was the author of ‘The Minstrel's Walk.’ He died at Attanagh in November 1868.
Wills was an unusually brilliant conversationist, and some of his more ambitious poems show much of the dramatic power which descended to his son, William Gorman Wills [q. v.][Webb's Compendium; Dublin University Magazine; W. G. Wills, Dramatist and Painter, by Freeman Wills; Irish Quarterly Review, March 1852; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit.; Todd's Graduates of Dublin University; Burke's Landed Gentry; Brooke's Recollections of the Irish Church, 2nd ser.]