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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Alexander Wilson (1766–1813)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Spencer Trotter (1860–1931)
 
LOVE of nature is a deep-planted human instinct that finds expression in the literature of every people. It is the same vital interest that runs alike through the lines of the poet’s verse and the glowing prose narrative of the naturalist. The poet and the naturalist are often united in the same individual; and it takes only some circumstance of environment to throw the balance in favor of one or the other of these faculties.  1
  Alexander Wilson, the Paisley Weaver, was a poet, who through force of circumstances became the “Father of American Ornithology.” He was only “one of the minor stars in the heaven of Scotland’s Makers.” Not to be named with Ramsay, or Burns, or Nicoll, he yet holds a place with Tannahill and Nicholson, William Tennant, and other of the lesser poets.  2
  Wilson was born of honest though lowly parents, on the 6th of July, 1766, in the town of Paisley, Scotland. During his childhood his father thought to fit him for a learned profession; and accordingly he was placed with a Mr. Barlas, a student of divinity, whose influence undoubtedly developed in the lad a love for things literary. His mother’s death, his father’s second marriage and increasing family, prevented the furtherance of his studies; and by his own request he was, at the age of thirteen, bound as a weaver apprentice to William Duncan of Paisley. Later we find him a journeyman weaver, but all the while brooding over his inability to lead a life of study. He indulged his fancy in frequent rambles through the woodlands, and along the banks of the Calder, in the delights of which his poetic nature found a solace. Many poems and fugitive verses written about this time are full of the rustic scenes and the life of the simple folk among whom he dwelt. For a time he worked at the loom again with a Mr. Brodie, a man of some attainment in learning, whose friendly influence confirmed Wilson’s love for study. During these years he wandered over the country, gun in hand, and acquired that habit of accurate observation which went far toward his future career as the Pioneer Ornithologist of America.  3
  Discouraged with his failure to succeed at home, the poet-weaver embarked for the New World, and arrived at New Castle, Delaware, in July 1794. The vicissitudes of the new life threw Wilson into various occupations,—peddler, copper-plate printer, and schoolmaster. It was while teaching at Kingsessing, near Philadelphia, that he formed the lifelong friendship with William Bartram the botanist, whose beautiful garden home stood near by on the western bank of the Schuylkill. The love of birds, which had always been a source of delight to Wilson, was fostered by this friendship; and the naturalist side of his nature was awakened.  4
  Through the advice and encouragement of his friend Lawson the engraver, he learned to draw, though past his fortieth year; and the making of an American Ornithology became the passion of his life. The shadow of melancholy that so persistently followed him was largely dispelled by his enthusiasm in the pursuit of this new study. Across the mountains; navigating the Ohio in a small boat; wandering alone through the wilderness of forest and swamp; sleeping under the stars or in the rude cabin of the settler,—the first American ornithologist sought, studied, and drew the birds of the Western World. Some of his letters descriptive of the wild frontier read like a romance. Many a hitherto unknown bird was described and portrayed through his indefatigable zeal. Before the completion of his last volume Wilson fell ill, as a result of exposure in the pursuit of some rare bird, and died at Philadelphia, August 23d, 1813. His remains lie in the church-yard of Gloria Dei,—Old Swede’s Church,—Philadelphia. His work is his monument.  5
  Wilson’s life and writings will always appeal to the general reader. Even to the ornithologist, the personality of the man and the vitality of his work are the chief charms. The poem on the ‘Fish-Hawk’ is full of the strong, fresh breeze and local color of the beaches, and that on ‘The Bluebird’—“Wilson’s Bluebird”—breathes of the free, open air of the country-side.  6
 
 
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