Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Aytoun, William Edmonstoune

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AYTOUN, WILLIAM EDMONSTOUNE (1813–1865), poet, born in Edinburgh on 21 June 1813, was the son of Roger Aytoun, writer to the signet, and of Joan Keir. Through both father and mother he belonged to old Scottish families, his progenitors on the father's side being the Aytouns of Inchdairnie in Fifeshire, and the Edmonstounes, formerly of Edmonstoune and Ednam, and afterwards of Corehouse in Lanarkshire, and on the mother's side the Keirs of Kinmonth and West Rhynd in Perthshire. Among his ancestors he counted Sir Robert Ayton [q. v.], who followed James VI to England, and was attached to the court till his death in 1638, when he was buried in Westminster Abbey, having been a friend of all the leading men of letters in London, including Ben Jonson and Hobbes of Malmesbury, and himself taken rank among them as a poet. In that character he is chiefly known as the reputed author of two songs, which Burns worked into more modern shape, one of them being ‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot,’ the song, of all others, dear to Scotchmen [see Ayton or Aytoun, Sir Robert]. Both Aytoun's parents were of literary tastes; and by his mother he was early imbued with a passion for ballad poetry and an imaginative sympathy for the royal race of Stuart. She had seen much of Sir Walter Scott in his boyhood and youth, and supplied his biographer Lockhart with many of the details for his life of Scott. Her knowledge of ballad lore was great, and was very serviceable in enabling her son to fill up gaps, and to correct false readings when preparing his edition of the ‘Ballads of Scotland’ in 1858. Aytoun was educated at the Edinburgh academy and university, and wrote verses fluently and well while still a student. At the age of seventeen he published a small volume called ‘Poland, Homer, and other Poems,’ in which the qualities of his later style were already apparent. He thought of going to the English bar, but after a winter in London, attending the courts of law, he abandoned this intention. Aytoun disliked the idea of following his father's profession, but after a residence of some months at Aschaffenburg, where he devoted himself with enthusiasm to the study of German literature, he returned to Edinburgh. Having no fortune, he put aside the thought of devoting himself to literary pursuits, resumed his place in his father's office, and was admitted as a writer of the signet in 1835. The discipline of his legal practice was of great use in giving him a power of mastering the details of political and other questions which was of distinct service to him at a later period. In 1840 he was called to the Scottish bar, which had more attraction for him than the irksome monotony of a solicitor's practice, and made a fair position for himself there during the years in which he remained in active practice. His heart, however, was in literary pursuits, and he had already begun to feel his way in them by translations from Uhland, Homer, and others, as well as in original poems, which appeared in ‘Blackwood's Magazine’ during the years from 1836 to 1840. Between that period and 1844 he worked together with [Sir] Theodore Martin in the production of what are known as the ‘Bon Gaultier Ballads,’ which acquired such great popularity that thirteen large editions of them were called for between 1855 and 1877. They were also associated at this time in writing many prose magazine articles of a humorous character, as well as a series of translations of Goethe's ballads and minor poems, which, after appearing in ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ were some years afterwards (1858) collected and published in a volume. It was during this period that Aytoun began to write the series of ballads known as ‘Lays of the Cavaliers,’ which first drew attention to him as an original poet, and which have taken so firm a hold of the public that no less than twenty-nine editions of them have appeared, eleven of them since Aytoun's death in 1865. In 1844 he became one of the staff of ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ to which he continued till his death to contribute political and other articles on a great variety of subjects with unflagging industry and a remarkable fertility and variety of resource. Among these were several tales, in which Aytoun's humour and shrewd practical sense were conspicuous. Of these perhaps the most amusing were ‘My First Spec in the Biggleswades,’ and ‘How we got up the Glenmutchkin Railway, and how we got out of it;’ and they had a most salutary effect in exposing the rascality and folly of the railway mania of 1845. People laughed, but they profited—for a time—by the lessons there read to them. In 1845 Aytoun was appointed professor of rhetoric and belles lettres in the university of Edinburgh. Here he was in his element; and he made his lectures so attractive that he raised the number of students from 30 in 1846 to upwards of 1,850 in 1864. His professorial duties did not interfere with his position at the bar, and in 1852, when the tory party came into power, they requited his services as a political writer by appointing him sheriff of Orkney. In the following year Oxford conferred on him the honorary degree of D.C.L. The duties of Aytoun's sheriffship did not engross much of his time. These, and his work as professor, both most conscientiously discharged, left him leisure for literary work. In 1854 he produced the dramatic poem ‘Firmilian,’ perhaps the most brilliant of his works, which was written in ridicule of the extravagant themes and style of Bailey, Dobell, and Alexander Smith. It was, however, so full of imagination and fine rhythmical swing, that its object was mistaken, and what was meant for caricature was accepted as serious poetry. In 1856 Aytoun published ‘Bothwell,’ a poetical monologue, dealing with the relations between the hero and Mary Queen of Scots. It contained many fine passages, and three editions of it were published. In 1858 he published a collection, in two volumes, of the ‘Ballads of Scotland,’ carefully collated and annotated, of which four editions, the last in 1860, have been published. In 1861 his novel of ‘Norman Sinclair’ was published; it had already appeared in ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ and is interesting for its pictures of society in Scotland, as Aytoun saw it in his youth, and for many passages which are, in fact, autobiographical. About this time Aytoun's health began to fail, and his spirits had sustained a shock, from which he never wholly recovered, in the death (15 April 1859) of his wife, the youngest daughter of Professor Wilson (Christopher North), whom he had married in April 1849, and to whom he was devotedly attached. He sought relief in hard work, but life had thenceforth lost much of its zest for him. Being childless, its loneliness became intolerable, and in December 1863 he married again. But by this time his constitution was seriously shaken, and on 4 Aug. 1865 he died at Blackhills, near Elgin, whither he had gone to spend the summer in the hope of recruiting his health. Aytoun's life had been, upon the whole, a happy one. He was of a genial, kindly disposition, full of playfulness, and of original and cultured humour, warmly esteemed by his friends, and constant in his attachments to them. Nature and education fitted him for a man of letters, and he took delight in the very varied literary labours by which his free and facile pen enriched the pages of ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ and added a few books to literature of permanent interest.

His published works are:—1. ‘Poland, Homer, and other Poems,’ Edinburgh, 1832. 2. ‘The Life and Times of Richard the First,’ London, 1840. 3. ‘Lays of the Cavaliers,’ Edinburgh, 1848, 29th edition 1883. 4. ‘Bon Gaultier's Ballads’ (jointly with Theodore Martin), London, 1855, 13th edition 1877. 5. ‘Bothwell,’ London, 1856. 6. ‘Firmilian,’ 1854. 7. ‘Poems and Ballads of Goethe’ (jointly with Theodore Martin), London, 1858. 8. ‘Ballads of Scotland,’ 2 vols. London, 1858, 4th edition 1870. 9. ‘Nuptial Ode to the Princess Alexandra,’ London, 1863. 10. ‘Norman Sinclair,’ 3 vols. London, 1861.

[W. E. Aytoun's Life, by Theodore Martin, 1867.]

T. M.