1902 Encyclopedia > W E Ayrtoun

William Edmonstoune Ayrtoun
Scottish poet, humorist and writer
(1813-65)




WILLIAM EDMONSTOUNE AYTOUN, a Scottish poet, humourist, and miscellaneous writer, was born at Edin-burgh, 21st June 1813. He was the only son of Roger Aytoun, a writer to the Signet, and the family was of the same stock as Sir Robert Ayton noticed above. From his mother, a woman of marked originality of character and considerable culture, he derived his distinctive qualities, his early tastes in literature, and his political sympathies, his love for ballad poetry, and his admiration for the Stuarts. At the age of eleven he was sent to the Edin-burgh Academy, whence he passed in due time to the University, studied the classics under Professors Pillans and Dunbar, and attended the course of Professor John Wilson on Moral Philosophy. In 1833 he spent a few morfths in London for the purpose of studying the law; but in September of that year he went to study German at Aschaffenburg, where he remained till April 1834. He then resumed his legal pursuits in his father's chambers, was admitted a writer to the Signet in 1835, and five years later was called to the Scottish bar. But, by his own confession, though he " followed the law, he never could overtake it." He disliked his profession, and allowed his literary tastes to predominate. His first publication—a volume entitled Poland, Homer, and other Poems, in which he gave expression to his eager interest in the state of Poland—appeared in 1832. While in Germany he made a translation in blank verse of the first part of Faust; but, forestalled by other translations, it was never published. In 1836 he made hi3 earliest contributions to Blackwood's Magazine, in translations from Uhland; and from 1839 till his death he remained on the staff of Black-wood. About 1841 he became acquainted with Mr Theodore Martin, and in association with him wrote a series of light humorous papers on the tastes and follies of the day, in which were interspersed the verses which afterwards became popular as the Bon Gualtier Ballads. The work on which his reputation as a poet chiefly rests is the Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers. The first of these appeared in Blackwood's Magazine in April 1843, and the whole were published in a collected edition in 1848. They became very popular, and have passed through nineteen editions, the last of which has spirited and beautiful illustrations by Sir J. Noel Paton and W. H. Paton. Meanwhile, he obtained, in 1845, the chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at Edinburgh University, which he filled honourably and successfully till 1864. He devoted himself conscientiously to the duties of the office, and his pupils increased in number from 30 to 150. In 1849 he married the youngest daughter of Professor John Wilson (Christopher North), whose death, in 1859, was the great calamity of his life. His services in support of the Tory party, especially during the Anti-Corn-Law struggle, received official recognition in his appointment (1852) as sheriff of Orkney and Zetland. In 1854 appeared Firmilian, a Spasmodic Tragedy, in which he attacked and parodied the writings of Bailey, Sydney Dobell, and Alexander Smith ; and two years later he published his Bothwell, a Poem. Among his other literary works are a Collection of the Ballads of Scotland, a translation of the Poems and Ballads of Goethe, executed in co-operation with his friend Theodore Martin, a small volume on the Life and Times of Richard I., written for the Family Library, and a novel entitled Norman Sinclair, many of the details in which are taken from incidents in his own experience. In 1860 Aytoun was elected honorary president of the Associated Societies of Edinburgh Uni- versity. The death of his mother took place in November 1861, and his own health was failing. In December 1863 he married Miss Kinnear, and health and happiness for a time revived ; but his malady recurred, and he died at Blackhills, near Elgin, 4th August 1865. His remains were interred at Edinburgh. A memoir of Aytoun by Theodore Martin, with an appendix containing some of his prose essays, was published in 1867. (w. L. E. C.)







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