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Authors: William Souder

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BOOK: Under a Wild Sky
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Respected Sir,

Far distant, in an inn's third storey rear'd,

The sheet beneath a glimmering taper spread,

Along the shadowy walls no sound is heard,

Save Time's slow, constant, momentary tread.

Here lone I sit; and will you, sir, excuse

My midnight theme, while (feebly as she can)

Inspiring silence bids the serious Muse

Survey the transient bliss pursued by Man.

Deluded Man, for him Spring paints the fields:

For him, warm Summer rears the rip'ning grain;

He grasps the bounty that rich Autumn yields,

And counts those trifles as essential gain.

For him, yes, sure, for him those mercies flow!

Yet, why so passing, why so fleet their stay?

To teach blind mortals what they first should know,

That all is transient as the fleeting day.

When Wilson was broke, he slept in the open or in barns and wrote to no one. The travel proved agreeable.
Wilson was an eager sightseer, visiting historic locations, archeological curiosities, old golf courses. He made frequent detours on private pilgrimages to the homes of well-known writers. Wilson was also always on the lookout for graveyards, where he stopped to add to his collection of epitaphs copied from headstones.

Wilson's idol, Robert Burns, who lived only a short distance from the Tower of Auchinbathie, found his subjects all around him. Burns wrote about farms and churches and country life. Poetry seemed to abide, waiting to be born, in the gray airs over Scotland. And nothing was outside the realm of literature, no subject was too mundane for a poet's consideration. Burns wrote an ode to a field mouse he'd accidentally run over with a plough, and told the tale of a hardworking farmer's Saturday night.
His poems were frequently crowded with descriptions of the natural world:

The Wintry West extends his blast,

And hail and rain does blaw;

Or, the stormy North sends driving forth,

The blinding sleet and snaw:

While, tumbling brown, the Burn comes down,

And roars frae bank to brae;

And bird and beast, in covert, rest,

And pass the heartless day.

Many heartless days were in Alexander Wilson's future, but the power to describe them as Burns did would mainly elude him. Like Burns, Wilson was attuned to his surroundings.
Unlike Burns, his vocabulary and his imagery were mostly uninspired borrowings. The cleverness and sensitivity friends detected in Wilson himself rarely materialized in his writing. He wrote a poem about his hunting spaniel. When he abruptly ended a flirtation with a girl working for his family and she poisoned the dog out of spite, he wrote a poem about that, too. Wilson wrote poems about his life on the road that inspected every particular of his experience. A lost pack. A rainy night.
The way a drop of water would form at the end of his nose on a cold winter day, “dangling, limpid as the brain it leaves.” Wilson's eyes were open to the world around him, but what he saw came across as trivial and dull in his poetry.

Wilson began to chafe under a growing burden of unrealized ambitions. He barely scraped by on the money he made weaving and peddling.
He fell in love with a woman named Martha McLean. Martha was beautiful, literate—and just out of Wilson's reach. Her family was proper, and they viewed Wilson, who was poor and aimless and worryingly artistic, as unsuitable. But the two met often, and talked of poetry as they walked in the evenings beside the Cart.
In Wilson's mind at least, an erotic attraction formed between them. He wrote poems about Martha's ravishing beauty, describing in panting verse improbable late-night assignations on the moonlit moors.

But Wilson's fascination with Martha stalled. In addition to the social chasm between them, Wilson's attentions were often elsewhere. And so
was he.
Encouraged to publish his poetry—not everyone thought him without talent—he found a printer who agreed to bring out a book if Wilson would sell subscriptions to it in advance. He succeeded in selling a few hundred copies on a peddling tour, but it was far less than he had hoped.
Wilson had to beg forgiveness from the cloth supplier whose goods he had neglected on the trip, and only a last-minute subscription and promise of help from a local nobleman allowed publication of his book to go forward. Perversely, Wilson grew morose just as things seemed to be looking up for him.

Admittedly, Wilson's situation was largely unchanged.
But he complained that he had become the caricature of a struggling poet, afflicted by poverty, dressed in tattered clothing, and living alone in his garret with only “lank hunger and poetical misery” for company. A wiser man, Wilson felt, would give up the literary life and earn an honest laborer's living. As his anxieties over Martha and money mounted, Wilson lost weight, becoming shockingly emaciated.
He fell ill, probably with pneumonia, and was bedridden at the tower in grave condition for months. His family was convinced he would die. But he didn't.

Wilson recovered and went back to work weaving. He also resumed writing, and, for the first time, politics figured in his verse. The ideas of God-granted liberty and individual rights, recently articulated and won during the revolution in the American colonies, were spreading across Europe.
Weavers in Scotland were beginning to question their treatment by the owners of looming operations, and Wilson joined the attack, anonymously publishing a series of satirical poems describing certain recognizable Paisley mill owners as cheats.
One of these poems resulted in a civil suit against Wilson, who defended himself by arguing that the poem was not about the plaintiff. Nothing ever came of the case. In the meantime, Wilson kept up a proper appearance.
He placed second in a speech contest in Edinburgh—his was in verse—and then landed a job as an assistant editor on a fledgling literary magazine. Word spread that his book had been recommended to Robert Burns himself, and that the great poet had actually sent for a copy.

Wilson then did something inexplicably weird. One day in May 1792, he went to Glasgow, apparently to visit a printer. While he was away, a mill owner named William Sharp turned up at the sheriff's office in Paisley waving two documents. One was the manuscript of a long, inflammatory poem titled “The Shark.” It was about a boozy mill owner who
exploited his workers. Sharp believed he was the subject of the poem—a complaint the sheriff found reasonable, given that the second document was an extortion letter.

The letter informed Sharp that a copy of “The Shark” was with a printer and would be published at once unless Sharp returned a payment of five guineas within three hours, whereupon the poem would be destroyed. The note was signed “A.B.” Nobody had any idea who A.B. was, but Sharp accused Alexander Wilson of being the author of the poem. Wilson was arrested later that day. He spent the next two years in and out of jail, regularly changing his story.

Wilson confounded everyone by admitting that he had written the letter. But he refused to identify the author of the poem, or to say whether he was part of a conspiracy. Eventually, he admitted to writing the poem as well. But he insisted, just as he had in the earlier case, that any similarity to an actual person in “The Shark” was purely coincidental. This was a crude defense—the blackmail attempt made it clear that the poem was aimed at Sharp—and Wilson was fined £60 ($270), about a year's salary, which he of course did not have. More ominously, a review of the offending poem was launched under the provisions of a new law prohibiting the publication of revolutionary materials. Wilson was threatened with a charge of treason.

Over the course of many months, Wilson was interrogated, fined, jailed, released on bond, and jailed again when he failed to appear in court. A judge awarded £50 ($225) in damages to Sharp. Wilson, unable to pay the damages or the fines, skipped more hearings. This led to contempt charges and still more fines. At one point Wilson was made to burn copies of “The Shark” in public, and endured the humiliation of having his bail paid anonymously by Martha McLean, who could no longer openly have anything to do with Wilson. The Paisley jail became a second home. It was a squalid, oppressive existence. The food provided to the inmates was so bad that prisoners often avoided starvation only if they could afford to buy meals from a commissary on the premises. Wilson borrowed from friends to stay alive and to get out when he could.
Ironically, it was at this time that Wilson published his one truly popular poem—a first-rate comedy about an argument between a husband and wife titled “Watty and Meg.” It sold unexpectedly well. But not well enough. Wilson was soon broke again and back among the “wretches.”
Jail, he said, was a daily horror show. He felt entombed by “the rumbling
of bolts, the hoarse exclamations of the jailor, the sighs and sallow countenances of the prisoners, and the general gloom of the place.”
During one of his releases, in the spring of 1794, Wilson decided to go to America. Taking care not to tip off the authorities, Wilson hastily scraped together the fare. On May 23, he sailed for Philadelphia aboard the
, accompanied by his sixteen-year-old nephew, William Duncan.
“I must get out of my mind,” Wilson said to a friend just before leaving.

Crossing the Atlantic was then a common but still hair-raising experience. In addition to the risks of bad weather or other misfortune, the ships were usually overcrowded and disease-ridden. Wilson waited until he and Duncan had safely arrived in Philadelphia before writing to his family about the trip.

They'd gone first to Belfast, Ireland, and had a look at the
that almost decided them against going. Surveying the throng of passengers, 350 in all, Wilson doubted half would survive the voyage in the dank, cramped spaces below decks, where the berths were no wider than a coffin. The good news, as they chose to see it, was that passage on deck was all that remained available. After they determined themselves to be among the fitter specimens in the crowd, Wilson and Duncan gamely got aboard, never to see Scotland again. They were seasick for a few days but soon felt better in fair weather and gentle seas. Once away from land, one of the passengers, a physician, revealed that he recently had been tried as a seditionist and condemned to death in Ireland. Rum was found and everyone drank to the doctor's health and the cause of liberty the world over. In three weeks of pleasant sailing “only” three passengers died, an old woman and two children.

In the middle of the voyage, the
passed for two days through a maze of “ice islands.” Wilson was astounded at the size and number of the icebergs. Some were more than twice as high as the ship's tallest mast. At one time he counted thirty-four of them surrounding the vessel. A steady breeze pushed the ship onward until they got through. But soon after they were hit by a terrific storm—the most violent Wilson had ever seen. A day later, one of the sailors fell overboard. He swam strongly after the ship and came agonizingly close. But despite every effort, the man could not be rescued.

After fifty days at sea, the
entered the calm waters of the Delaware
River and proceeded to the town of Newcastle, where Wilson and Duncan disembarked and set out on foot for Wilmington. They were “happy as mortals could be” as they walked through a flat, densely wooded country overflowing with unrecognizable vegetation and the calls of many remarkable birds. In Wilmington they asked about work for weavers, but none were needed and they decided to continue on to Philadelphia, another thirty miles upriver. They stopped at farmhouses along the way and were disappointed at finding the residents less welcoming than they had been led to expect. On reaching Philadelphia, they were impressed by the city's sprawl, which extended some three miles along the western riverbank. But Wilson was distressed to find no more than twenty looms running in a city of nearly fifty thousand inhabitants, where everything was very expensive and there was no demand for journeyman weavers.

BOOK: Under a Wild Sky
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