Desktop version

Home arrow Language & Literature

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Uncouth Caledonian Hellenists

Further north, in Scotland, where at least until the late 19th century the education system was kinder to low-class children (especially boys) than it was in England (see further Chapter 11), there was a curious phenomenon of notable Hellenists from lowly origins who retained a preference for a lifestyle too coarse to allow them to qualify as gentlemen. William Wilkie, the ‘Scottish Homer’ fluent in ancient Greek, composed a nine-book epic about Thebes while personally ploughing his few fields in order to plant potatoes. The son of a farmer who had fallen on hard times, Wilkie’s aptitude for classical languages was spotted at Dalmeny Parish School. While he was at Edinburgh University he baffled leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith and David Hume, and a friend named Henry Mackenzie recalled him as ‘superior in genius to any man of his time, but rough and unpolished in his manners, and still less accommodating to the decorum of society in the ordinary habits of his life’.43

Wilkie was forced to leave university when his father died, leaving him with nothing but an unexpired lease of a farm in Midlothian, some livestock, and three dependent sisters. He was an outstanding agriculturalist who made advances in the cultivation of the potato. A biographer recalls that while he worked at his crops

with the most laudable industry and perseverance, labouring much and frequently with his own hands, he did not neglect those studies which his classical education had placed within his reach. It was here and while labouring with scythe and sickle, ploughing and harrowing, that he conceived, and at intervals of leisure in part wrote, his poem of the Epigoniad.44

The epic, in rhyming couplets, is heavily influenced by Pope, steeped in firsthand knowledge of Homeric Greek and virtually unreadable. But in his eccentric Preface, Wilkie takes pains to stress that readers of any class can enjoy poetry set in ancient times:

Neither is this knowledge of antient manners confined to the learned; the vulgar themselves, from the books of Moses, and other accounts of the first periods of the Jewish state, are sufficiently instructed in the customs of the earliest times, to be able to relish any work where they are justly represented. With what favour, for instance, has Mr Pope’s translation of the Iliad been received by persons of all conditions.4

Although he became less indigent, being appointed to a Chair in Natural Philosophy at St. Andrews, Wilkie was inveterately mean with money. He said, to the end of his days, ‘I have shaken hands with poverty up to the very elbow, and I wish never to see her face again’. He identified physically with the labouring class. His biographer reports that he slept in large piles of dirty blankets, and had an

abhorrence of clean sheets ... On one occasion, being pressed by Lady Lauderdale to stay all night at Hatton, he agreed, though with reluctance, and only on condition that her ladyship would indulge him in the luxury of a pair of foul sheets.

He cannot have smelled pleasant, either: 'He used tobacco to an immoderate excess, and was extremely slovenly in his dress’. Little wonder that Charles Townsend said that he had ‘never met with a man who approached so near to the two extremes of a god and a brute as Dr Wilkie’.46

While Wilkie was composing his epic, the Professor of Greek at Glasgow, James Moor, was also horrifying polite society by his appalling manners. Born in Glasgow, Moor was the son of a Mathematics teacher. He matriculated in 1725, became a protégé of the Professor of Moral Philosophy, Francis Hutcheson, and graduated MA in 1732. He taught as a school teacher and a private tutor to the children of Scottish aristocrats, before becoming the University’s librarian in 1742. He was appointed to the Chair of Greek four years later. An accomplished scholar, he collaborated with the University’s printers, the Foulis brothers (themselves risen by hard work from a working-class childhood as the sons of a maltman) on their celebrated editions of Latin and especially Greek Classics.47 But he was boorish in the extreme, living with his working-class wife in quarters regarded as unsavoury by colleagues. He spent much of his time in taverns and, when drunk, would engage in unseemly brawls; his Faculty had to discipline him for attacking a student with a candlestick. Moor died as he had often lived, insolvent.48

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics