Walker, William Sidney (DNB00)

WALKER, WILLIAM SIDNEY (1795–1846), Shakespearean critic, born at Pembroke, South Wales, on 4 Dec. 1795, was eldest child of John Walker, a naval officer, who died at Twickenham in 1811 from the effects of wounds received in action. The boy was named after his godfather, Admiral Sir (William) Sidney Smith, under whom his father had served. His mother's maiden name was Falconer. William Sidney, who was always called by his second christian name, was a precocious child of weak physique. After spending some years successively at a school at Doncaster, kept by his mother's brother, and with a private tutor at Forest Hill, he entered Eton in 1811. He had already developed a remarkable literary aptitude. At ten he translated many of Anacreon's odes into English verse. At eleven he planned an epic in heroic verse on the career of Gustavus Vasa, and in 1813, when he was seventeen, he managed to publish by subscription the first four books in a volume entitled ‘Gustavus Vasa, and other Poems.’ The immature work does no more than testify to the author's literary ambitions. At Eton he learnt the whole of Homer's two poems by heart, and wrote Greek verse with unusual correctness and facility. There, too, he began lifelong friendships with Winthrop Mackworth Praed [q. v.] and John Moultrie [q. v.], and, after leaving school, made some interesting contributions to the ‘Etonian,’ which Praed edited. Walker, who was through life of diminutive stature, of uncouth appearance and manner, and abnormally absent-minded, suffered much persecution at school from thoughtless companions. After winning many distinctions at Eton, he was entered as a sizar at Trinity College, Cambridge, on 16 Feb. 1814, but did not proceed to the university till the following year. There he fully maintained the promise of his schooldays. He read enormously in ancient and modern literature. In 1815 he published ‘The Heroes of Waterloo: an Ode,’ as well as translations of ‘Poems from the Danish, selected by Andreas Andersen Feldborg.’ In 1816 appeared another ode by Walker, ‘The Appeal of Poland.’ He won the Craven scholarship in 1817, and the Porson prize for Greek verse in 1818, and he was admitted scholar of Trinity on 3 April of the latter year. Although his ignorance of mathematics rendered his passing the examination for the degree of B.A. in 1819 a matter of extreme difficulty, he was elected on the score of his classical attainments to a fellowship at his college in 1820. His manners and bearing did not lose at the university their boyish awkwardness, but he maintained close relations with Praed and Moultrie, the friends of his boyhood, and formed a helpful intimacy with Derwent Coleridge [q. v.] In 1824 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Greek professorship in the university. He made no other effort to engage in educational work. While a fellow of Trinity he lived in seclusion in his college rooms, reading desultorily and occasionally writing for periodicals. He contributed philological essays to the ‘Classical Journal,’ and both verse and prose to Knight's ‘Quarterly Magazine.’ In 1823 he prepared for publication Milton's newly discovered treatise ‘De Ecclesia Christiana,’ a volume of which Charles Richard Sumner [q. v.], then librarian at Windsor, was the ostensible editor. In 1828 he edited for Charles Knight a useful ‘Corpus Poetarum Latinorum’ (other editions 1848 and 1854).

As an undergraduate Walker had been perplexed by religious doubts, and had applied for guidance to William Wilberforce [q. v.] During 1818–19 Wilberforce wrote him letters in which he endeavoured to confirm his beliefs. The influence of Charles Simeon pacified him for a time, but he deemed himself disqualified by his sceptical views regarding eternal punishment from taking holy orders. As a consequence he lay under the necessity of resigning his fellowship in 1829. The loss of his fellowship deprived him of all means of subsistence, and, owing to his unbusinesslike habits and childish credulity, he was involved in debt to the amount of 300l. His old friend Praed came to his assistance in 1830, and, after paying his debts, settled on him an income for life of 52l. a year. To that sum Trinity College added 20l. On this income of 72l. Walker managed to support himself till his death. He moved to London in 1831, lodging at first in Bloomsbury, and then in the neighbourhood of St. James's Street. He lived entirely alone, and a painful hallucination that he was possessed by a ‘demon’ gradually clouded his reason. He neglected his dress and person, and social intercourse with him grew impossible. To the last he was capable of occasional literary work, which bore few traces of his disease, and he at times described to old friends with rational calmness the distressing symptoms of his mental decay. He died of the stone at his lodging, a single room on the top floor of 41 St. James's Place, on 15 Oct. 1846. He was buried in Kensal Green cemetery. On the tomb were engraved some lines from his friend Moultrie's poem, called ‘The Dream of Life,’ in which the writer lamented the ‘shapeless wreck’ to which Walker's fine intellect was reduced in his later years. Moultrie published in 1852 a collection of his letters and poems, which show literary facility and versatility, under the title of ‘The Poetical Remains of William Sidney Walker, formerly Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, with a Memoir of the Author.’

Walker left voluminous manuscripts, including many discursive essays in criticism and numerous notes on the text and versification of Shakespeare. The papers were examined by William Nanson Lettsom, one of Walker's school and college friends. After endeavouring, without much success, to introduce some sort of order into Walker's multifarious Shakespearean collections, Lettsom published in 1854 ‘Shakespeare's Versification, and its Apparent Irregularities explained by Examples from Early and Late English Writers.’ This volume was printed at the expense of Mr. Crawshay (of the ironmaster's family), who made Walker's acquaintance just before he left Cambridge; it reached a second edition in 1857, and a third in 1859. There followed in 1860, in three volumes, which Lettsom also edited, ‘A Critical Examination of the Text of Shakespeare, with Remarks on his Language and that of his Contemporaries, together with Notes on his Plays and Poems.’ Walker's two Shakespearean works mainly deal with minute points of Shakespearean prosody and syntax, but they embody the results of very vast and close reading in Elizabethan literature. The wealth of illustrative quotation has rendered them an invaluable quarry for succeeding Shakespearean commentators and students of Elizabethan literature. Their defects are the want of logical arrangement of the heterogeneous material and the absence of an index.

[Moultrie's Memoir, 1852; information kindly supplied by Dr. Aldis Wright.]

S. L.