Monday, October 10, 2011

William Wilkie

The author of “Epigoniad”, Scottish author Reverend William Wilkie, died on October 10th, 1772.  Styled after the Iliad, this nine book poem received praise from David Hume when published in 1757, and is one of the works found in Sir Walter Scott’s library.

At his funeral, Wilkie was eulogized by his former student, fellow poet Robert Fergusson.  James Hogg’s “Weekly Instructor” (vol. 104, Saturday, February 20, 147) contains an article on Fergusson’s life, in which both Walter Scott and William Wilkie are included.  Scott is mentioned quickly as a comparison point for Fergusson, in that they shared the common experience of ill-health during childhood. ‘…Though, indeed, Robert was forced to be absent from school often for months at a time, he never allowed himself to lose ground, and it usually only required, on the part of the energetic boy, the assiduous application of two days to attain the position in his class which by such unavoidable absence he had innocently forfeited. Robert, during the intervals which the infirmity of his health compelled him to spend at home, was not idle. Like Sir Walter Scott, under similar circumstances, he was fond of reading, and that book which, like Collins, he came to value above all others, at the close of his career, is said to have been his principal favourite during his earliest years…’

Wilkie is discussed more fully in the “Weekly Instructor” article, highlighting his importance as a teacher to Fergusson, and thus shedding some light on Wilkie himself.  ‘We have already referred to Dr Wilkie, author of the 'Epigoniad.' Though somewhat eccentrical, and decidedly parsimonious in his habits, that individual was not less distinguished for the extent and variety of his classical attainments than for the possession of considerable poetic genius and an intuitive penetration into the lurking motives and hidden intricacies of the human heart rarely equalled. He was appointed in 1769 to the chair of natural philosophy in St Andrews University, and was consequently one of its professors while Fergusson was there engaged in the prosecution of his studies. Fergusson, of course, during his last year's attendance at St Andrews, became one of Wilkie's regular pupils, but previous to this that worthy man seems to have been well acquainted with the character of our hero. We regret to say that, though Fergusson, while at college, acquired considerable celebrity for the respectability of his scholarship and the facility and ease with which he accomplished his tasks, it was not long ere his buoyancy of spirit and humorous and satirical propensities procured for him notice of a different kind….
fortunately for Fergusson, Wilkie, who was both a humourist and a poet himself, instead of taking offence at the petulance and daring waywardness which he too frequently evinced, appeared by his manner to give it such a decided tolerance as in some instances to amount to positive encouragement. It has even been said that Wilkie carried his partiality for his giddy pupil to the apparently insane length of appointing him to occupy his place in the professorial rostrum, for the purpose of reading his lectures to the class when sickness or any other necessary cause rendered his own absence unavoidable. This rumour, however, is unquestionably devoid altogether of truth. The circumstance which gave rise to it may however be noticed, as exhibiting the disposition displayed by the author of the 'Epigoniad' to render every assistance in his power to his young favourite. Fergusson still retained his bursary, and, by consequence, the emoluments resulting from it; but his father had recently died, and his mother, instead of being able to aid him, as at one time, by occasional pecuniary remittances, required rather a similar assistance herself. It was, therefore, a matter of some importance to Fergusson, when his third session came to its close, that Wilkie took him into his own house and employed him during the summer in the transcription of his academical lectures….’

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