Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilson, John (1720-1789)

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1050118Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 62 — Wilson, John (1720-1789)1900Thomas Wilson Bayne

WILSON, JOHN (1720–1789), author of ‘The Clyde,’ son of William Wilson, farmer and blacksmith, was born in the parish of Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, on 30 June 1720. He was educated at Lanark grammar school till the age of fourteen, when the death of his father and the straitened circumstances of his family constrained him to teach for a living. In 1746 he was appointed parish schoolmaster of Lesmahagow, whence he was invited in 1764 to superintend the education of certain families in Rutherglen, near Glasgow. In 1767 he was appointed master of the Greenock grammar school, a stipulation of his engagement being that he was to forsake ‘the profane and unprofitable art of poem-making.’ Referring to this in 1803 as a survival of the puritanical covenanting spirit, Scott writes, ‘Such an incident is now as unlikely to happen in Greenock as in London’ (Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, ii. 176 n.) Wilson, burning his manuscripts, faithfully observed the conditions of his appointment, though conscious of passing ‘an obscure life, the contempt of shopkeepers and brutish skippers’ (Letter to his son, 21 Jan. 1779). He was a diligent and popular teacher, retaining office till two years before his death, which took place at Greenock on 2 June 1789.

Wilson married, on 14 June 1751, Agnes Browne, by whom he had nine children. James, the eldest son, becoming a sailor, was killed in 1776 in an engagement on Lake Champlain, his heroism on the occasion prompting government to bestow a small pension on his father. A daughter Violet, wife of Robert Wilson, a Greenock shipmaster, supplied matter for Leyden's memoir, 1803.

In 1760 Wilson printed ‘A Dramatic Sketch,’ which he afterwards elaborated into ‘Earl Douglas,’ and issued along with ‘The Clyde’ in 1764. From an imperfectly amended and enlarged copy Leyden published the final version of ‘The Clyde’ in ‘Scotish Descriptive Sketches,’ 1803. The dramatic poem is important mainly as an exercise, exhibiting in its two forms the author's skill and copiousness of expression and his growing sense of style. ‘The Clyde’ is distinctly meritorious. Its heroic couplets are dexterously managed, its historical allusions are relevant and suggestive, and its descriptive passages reveal independent outlook and genuine appreciation of natural beauty. It is, in Leyden's words, ‘the first Scottish loco-descriptive poem of any merit.’

[Biographical sketch of Wilson prefixed to Scotish Descriptive Poems, ed. John Leyden, 1803; Lives of Scottish Poets by the Society of Ancient Scots; Grant Wilson's Poets and Poetry of Scotland.]

T. B.