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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Walker, Josiah (1761 — 1831)

Josiah was the youngest son of the Reverend Thomas Walker, minister of Dundonald, Ayrshire, by his third wife, Anne Shaw. He graduated at Edinburgh University, and was for seven years a private tutor in Edinburgh. In 1787, he became tutor to the fifth Duke of Athole's nine-year-old son, the Marquis of Tulibardine, accompanying the boy to Eton, where the Marquis died in 1796.

A friend in Edinburgh wrote to Walker about: '... the sensation then created in that city by a bard of my native country, and promised to bring me his volume on a subsequent visit. By his praise of its contents my expectations were very moderately excited, as in my own mind I instantly classed the poetical ploughman with the poetical milkmaids and thrashers of England, of whose productions I was no violent admirer... thus prepared, the poems were put into my hands and before finishing a page I experienced emotions of surprise and delight of which I had never been so conscious before. The language that I had begun to despise, as fit for nothing but colloquial vulgarity, seemed to be transfigured by the sorcery of genius into the genuine language of poetry. It expressed every idea with a brevity and force, and bent itself to every subject with a pliancy in which case the most of languages too often fail. Every line awakened a train of associations; every phrase struck a not which led the mind to perform the accompaniment. On every page the stamp of genius was impressed.'

Walker was introduced to Burns in Edinburgh by Dr Blacklock, and met the poet again at Athole House, in 1787, the latter visit producing the only two extant letters from the poet to the tutor. In one o them, Burns politely rejects a piece of Walker's criticism.

Walker visited Burns at Dumfries for a couple of days in November 1795, just before the poet entered the six-months decline which ended in his death from heart disease.

In 1881, Walker wrote a critical memoir of Burns as prefix to and edition of his poems. It is not without some penetrating observations, but the general tone employed by the author is one of condescension. Walker's tale of taking Burns to the Globe Inn at Dumfries, and of the poet firing off epigrams and laying down the law in between intervals of calling for more drink, could be explained either by the state of Burns's health then, or merely by Walker. Ferguson goes so far to say: '... one may surmise that Burns's abrupt and decisive manner was due to irritation at being patronised by an ass.'

In 1796, on the death of his pupil, Walker became Collector of Customs at Perth, and later edited the Perth Courier. In 185, he became Professor of Humanity at Glasgow University. He died in Glasgow.

Walker's recollection of Burns is as follows:

'I was not much struck with his first appearance, as I had previously heard it described. His person, though strong and well knit, and much superior to what might be expected in a ploughman, was still rather coarse in its outline. His stature, from want of setting up, appeared to be only of the middle size, but was rather above it. His motions were firm and decided, and though without any pretensions to grace, were at the same time so free from clownish constraint, as to shew that he had not always been confined to the society of his profession. His countenance was not of that elegant cast which is most frequent among the upper ranks, but it was manly and intelligent, and marked by a thoughtful gravity which shaded at times into sternness. In his large dark eye the most striking index of his genius resided. It was full of mind, and would have been singularly expressive, under the management of one who could employ it with more art, for the purpose of expression.

'He was plainly, but properly dressed, in a style midway between the holiday costume of a farmer and that of the company with which he now associated. His black hair, without powder, at a time when it was very generally worn, was tied behind, and spread upon his forehead. Upon the whole, from his person, physiognomy, and dress, had I met him near a seaport, and been required to guess his condition, I should have probably conjectured him to be the master of a merchant vessel of the most respectable class.

'In no part of his manner was there the slightest degree of affectation; nor could a strange have suspected, from anything in his behaviour or conversation, that he had been for some months the favourite of all the fashionable circles of a metropolis.

'In conversation he was powerful. His conceptions and expression were of corresponding vigour, and on all subjects were as remote as possible from commonplaces. Though somewhat authoritative, it was in a way which gave little offence, and was readily imputed to his inexperience in those modes of smoothing dissent and softening assertion which are important characteristics of polished manners. After breakfast I requested him to communicate some of his unpublished pieces... I paid particular attention to his recitation which was plain, slow, articulate, and forcible, but without any eloquence or art. He did not always lay the emphasis with propriety, nor did he humour the sentiment by the variations of his voice. He was standing, during the time, with his face towards the window, to which, and not to his auditors, he directed his eye; thus depriving himself of any additional effect which the language of his composition might have borrowed from the language of his countenance. In this he resembled the generality of singers in ordinary company, who, to shun any charge of affectation, withdraw all meaning from their features, and lose the advantage by which vocal performers on the stage augment the impression and give energy to the sentiment of the song.

'The day after my first introduction to Burns, I supped in company with him at Dr Blair's. The other guests were very few, and as each had been invited chiefly to have an opportunity of meeting with the poet, the doctor endeavoured to draw him out, and to make him the central figure of the group.

'Though he therefor furnished the greatest proportion of the conversation, he did no more than what he saw evidently was expected. Men of genius have often been taxed with a proneness to commit blunders in company, from that ignorance or negligence of the laws of conversation which must be imputed to the absorption of their thoughts in a favourite subject, or to the want of that daily practice in attending to the petty modes of behaviour which is incompatible with a studious life. From singularities of this sort Burns was unusually free; yet on the present occasion he made a more awkward slip than any that are reported of the poets or mathematicians most noted for absence. Being asked from which of the public places he had receive the greatest gratification, he named the High Church, but gave the preference as a preacher to the colleague of our worthy entertainer, whose celebrity rested on his pulpit eloquence, in a tone so pointed and decisive, as to throw the whole company into the most foolish embarrassment. The doctor, indeed, with becoming self-command, endeavoured to relieve the rest by cordially seconding the encomium so injudiciously introduced; but this did not prevent the conversation from labouring under that compulsory effort which was unavoidable, while the thoughts of all were full of the only subject on which it was improper to speak. Of this blunder he shewed the return of good sense by making no attempt to repair it. His secret mortification was indeed so great, that he never mentioned the circumstance until many years after, when he told me that his silence had proceeded from the pain which he felt in recalling the memory.

'About the end of October, I called for him at the house of a friend, whose daughter, not more than twelve, was a considerable proficient in music. I found him seated by the harpsichord of this young lady, listening with the keenest interest to his own verses, which she sung and accompanied, and adjusting them to the music by repeated trials of the effect. In this occupation he was so totally absorbed, that it was difficult to draw his attention from it for a moment; and it is to the enthusiasm which the nature of his undertaking inspired, that the excellence of its execution must be ascribed.'

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