Minto, William (DNB00)

MINTO, WILLIAM (1845–1893), critic, born 10 Oct. 1845, near Alford, Aberdeenshire, was son of James Minto, by his wife Barbara Copland. Gaining a bursary, he entered Aberdeen University in 1861. Here he steadily outdistanced competitors, until on graduating M.A. in 1865 he carried off the leading money prizes and took honours in three departments classics, mathematics, and philosophy—a feat unprecedented and still unique. In 1866 he went to Merton College, Oxford, but left next year without taking a degree. Returning to Aberdeen he became assistant to the professor of logic and English literature, Dr. Alexander Bain. It was while thus engaged that he turned his mind towards the study of English literature, and planned his ‘Manual of English Prose Literature, Biographical and Critical,’ which he published in 1872.

In 1873 he moved to London and engaged in literary work, contributing to the now extinct ‘Examiner,’ of which paper he was editor for four years, 1874–8. Subsequently he was on the leader-writing staff of the ‘Daily News’ and ‘Pall Mall Gazette.’ In 1874 he published his ‘Characteristics of English Poets from Chaucer to Shirley,’ and in 1879 a monograph on Defoe for the ‘English Men of Letters’ series. Besides contributing to the leading reviews he wrote for the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’ a number of important articles on literary subjects.

On 8 Jan. 1880 he married Cornelia, daughter of the Rev. Lewis Griffiths, rector of Swindon, Gloucestershire. In the same year, on the retirement of Professor Bain, he was elected to the chair of logic and English in Aberdeen University. During his professoriate he wrote three novels—‘The Crack of Doom,’ 1886, ‘The Mediation of Ralph Hardelot,’ 1888, and ‘Was she good or bad?’ 1889. He edited Scott's ‘Lay,’ Oxford, 1886, and ‘Lady of the Lake,’ 1891, Scott's poetical works, 1887, and ‘Autobiographical Notes of the Life of William Bell Scott,’ 1892 (cf. correspondence in Academy, 1892).

His health began to decline in 1891, and although a voyage to Greece served temporarily to brace his system, he succumbed to a complication of ailments on 1 March 1893, just when the separation of logic from English in his dual chair appeared to open up fresh opportunities of pursuing his favourite subject. After his death appeared ‘University Extension Manual on Logic’ and ‘Plain Principles of Prose Composition,’ both in 1893, and a third volume, ‘English Literature under the Georges’ (1894).

Minto was a versatile writer. He advocated advanced liberal opinions in politics, and during Lord Beaconsfield's Afghan war reviewed the government policy from day to day in the ‘Daily News’ with conspicuous ability. He claimed that he gave currency to the word ‘jingoism.’ His novels, though clever and ingenious, do not retain permanent interest. As an editor he discovered and encouraged many young authors, since famous, and as a professor he exercised a stimulating influence on his students through the contagion of his enthusiasm.

But his chief work was done in criticism. Laying an admirable foundation of scholarship in the wide reading involved in preparing his first two volumes, the one an exhaustive and systematic survey of English literature, and the other a minutely analytic and detailed comparison of styles and characteristics, he judged for himself with penetration, originality, and sanity. He therefore often struck out a novel line, as when he argued that Burns was not merely a genius, but a disciplined student of literature, and that the poet owed his recognition not to the public but to the critics of his time. Coming with an open mind to controverted subjects, he often offered a new hypothesis. He identified Chapman with the ‘rival poet’ of Shakespeare's sonnets, and added a new sonnet to the recognised number—‘Phæton to his friend Florio,’ prefixed to Florio's ‘Second Fruits’ (1591).

[Personal knowledge.]

A. M.