Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Picken, Ebenezer

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PICKEN, EBENEZER (1769–1816), minor poet, son of a silk weaver, was born in Paisley in 1769. Receiving his elementary education in Paisley, he went in 1785 to Glasgow University, studying there for five years. Preferring literature and good-fellowship to the prospects of a united secession minister—the office which his father desired him to fill—Picken produced poetry while a student. Alexander Wilson, poet and naturalist, warmly hailed his gift in a poetical epistle (Wilson, Poems, 1790). On 14 April 1791 Picken and Wilson competed for the prize offered by the debating society in the Edinburgh Pantheon for the best essay on the theme, ‘Whether have the exertions of Allan Ramsay or Robert Fergusson done more honour to Scottish poetry?’ In blank verse Picken eulogised Ramsay, Wilson upholding Fergusson. Neither won the prize, but they published their poems in a pamphlet, ‘The Laurel disputed; or the Merits of Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson contrasted,’ each contributing an additional poem to the brochure.

In 1791 Picken opened a school at Falkirk, and married the daughter of the minister of the burgher church there, named Belfrage. Towards the end of the year he was appointed teacher of an endowed school at Carron, Stirlingshire, where he remained about five years, struggling with poverty, but assuring his creditors of his integrity and his pride in his ‘two lovely daughters’ (Letter quoted in R. Brown's Memoirs of E. and A. Picken). About 1796 he settled in Edinburgh and tried business, first as a manager, and afterwards on his own account. Unsuccessful, he relapsed into teaching, and was known, about 1813, to Robert and William Chambers, his neighbours in Bristo Street, as well-meaning, but ‘sadly handicapped’ (Memoir of Robert Chambers, p. 72). Struggling to eke out a living, he continued to publish poems (Miscellaneous Poems, ii. 163); but his health gradually failed, and he died at Edinburgh of consumption in 1816, leaving a widow, three sons, and two daughters.

Picken's first publication was ‘Poems and Epistles, mostly in the Scottish Dialect, with a Glossary,’ 1788. In 1813 appeared in two volumes his ‘Miscellaneous Poems, Songs, &c., partly in the Scottish Dialect, with a copious Glossary.’ In 1815 Picken assisted Dr. Andrew Duncan with ‘Elogiorum Sepulchralium Edinensium Delectus,’ being monumental inscriptions selected from Edinburgh burial-grounds. His ‘Pocket Dictionary of the Scottish Dialect’ appeared anonymously in 1818. Jamieson, in his ‘Scottish Dictionary,’ frequently illustrates his definitions from Picken's works, and Picken's own glossaries and ‘Pocket Dictionary’ are very valuable. Several of his bright and humorous songs were popular, and may still be heard in the provinces; his descriptive pieces are meritorious, and his satire is relevant and pungent.

Picken's daughter, Joanna Belfrage Picken (1798–1859), tried, with the assistance of her sister Catherine, to establish a boarding-school in Musselburgh, East Lothian. Failure, it is said, was to some extent due to Joanna's satires on local celebrities. With other members of her family she went to Canada in 1842, settling as a teacher of music in Montreal, where she died on 24 March 1859. She wrote verses for the ‘Glasgow Courier’ and ‘Free Press,’ and for the ‘Literary Garland’ and the ‘Transcript.’

Andrew Belfrage Picken (1802–1849), second son of Ebenezer Picken, was born in Edinburgh on 5 Nov. 1802, and some time before 1827 became private secretary to Sir Gregor M'Gregor [q. v.], of Poyais in Central America. After suffering much in connection with m'Gregor's enterprise, Picken returned as supercargo in a vessel sailing between Honduras and Great Britain. Settling in Edinburgh, he endured great poverty, but wrote occasionally for the ‘Caledonian Mercury,’ and played subordinate parts in the theatre. At Edinburgh, in 1828, he published ‘The Bedouins and other Poems.’ The work displays considerable fancy and energy of expression. In 1830 he went to Montreal, where he became artist and teacher of drawing. He died there on 1 July 1849.

[Brown's Paisley Poets, and his Memoirs of Ebenezer Picken, Poet, and Andrew Picken, Novelist, with portraits; Irving's Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen.]

T. B.