Aytoun was the only son of a prosperous Edinburgh family. The fierce Jacobitism and love of ballads of his mother, Joan Keir Aytoun, had a lasting influence upon Aytoun's own political and literary preferences. His father, Roger Aytoun, was a leading writer to the Signet; this was a superior order of solicitors peculiar to Scotland, among whose privileges was that of appearing before the Court of Sessions, the supreme civil court of the kingdom. Roger Aytoun planned William's education carefully, preparing him with a private tutor for three years before sending him to the newly opened Edinburgh Academy in 1824 and to Edinburgh University in 1828. The university curriculum was basically classical, but Aytoun followed his own interests, reading widely in British literature and history, and becoming a member of the Speculative Society. His chief concern, however, was already the writing of poetry.
Aytoun finished Poland, Homer, and Other Poems in 1830, but the six poems were not published until 1832. Although "Poland" expresses sympathy for the Poles' struggle to regain their independence from Russia, the other poems reflect Aytoun's increasing conservatism. In them, he contrasts the virtue and nobility of the "bright ages" with the vice and sordidness of the present. This contrast became a recurrent theme in Aytoun's poetry.
After he had completed his university studies, Aytoun complied reluctantly with his father's wishes and entered the legal profession. He became a writer to the Signet in 1835 and was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1840. But his first love was literature. He had spent seven months in Germany in 1833-1834 studying the language and German literature. His first contributions to Blackwood's, in 1836, were translations of German ballads. In the early 1840s he had three prose works published--two pamphlets on topical religious controversies and a biography of Richard I. More importantly, from 1841 to 1844, Aytoun and Theodore Martin wrote for Tait's and Fraser's a series of parodies that were to develop into a remarkably popular book.
The Book of Ballads , written with Theodore Martin, was published in 1845 under the pseudonym Bon Gaultier. It included, in the phrase of George Kitchin, "a mannequin's parade of Victorian modes": parodies of national ballads, of the Eastern tale, of the philosophical poem, of the reflective poem, of the "poetical puff," of the epigram, of thieves' literature, of young ladies' literature, and of the leading stylists of the day. Superior to his coauthor Martin as a parodist, Aytoun took special delight in deflating the romantic sensibility of much contemporary poetry. Today, Bon Gaultier's humor seems rather broad, but it is difficult to overrate the historical importance of the book. Saintsbury characterized it as "that admirable book of light verse, the equal of anything earlier and certainly not surpassed since." The Book of Ballads ran through thirteen editions from 1845 to 1877 in England alone; the number of pirated editions in America was at least as large. Blackwood sold over 32,000 copies from 1857 to 1909. The number of ballads increased from thirty-nine in the first edition to fifty-six in the sixteenth. Because of its enormous scope, it served as a textbook for later parodists, showing what subjects could be legitimately exposed to laughter. Its success also encouraged Aytoun to write Firmilian.
In 1844, in the most important act of his business career, Aytoun formally joined the staff of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. He found in the conservative Blackwood's the ideal organ for his deepest feelings and beliefs. In politics, society, and literature, he looked back to the past with an admiration approaching reverence. He disliked the new and unusual; he identified the status quo with order. Aytoun soon became Blackwood's most prolific writer and, after the death of "Christopher North" (John Wilson) in 1854, was acknowledged to be its best. His writings were in many forms, including prose, poetry, and translation, and on many subjects, including politics, literature, railways, magic, boxing, art, and wines. For his efforts in the debate over free trade, the Derby administration rewarded him with the honorary position of sheriff and lord admiral of Orkney and Zetland. In 1845 Aytoun became professor of rhetoric and belles lettres at the University of Edinburgh, a position he raised to new importance. But Aytoun's annus mirabilis was 1849. On 11 April, he married Jane Emily Wilson, the youngest daughter of "Christopher North." It became a marriage of great contentment. Also in 1849, Edinburgh University conferred the honorary degree of M.A. upon Aytoun (four years later, Oxford was to make him a D.C.L.). Finally, 1849 was the publication date of the book that became Aytoun's most famous work among his contemporaries and a Victorian best-seller.
Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers and Other Poems reached its fifteenth British edition in fifteen years and its thirty-second in thirty-two years. Blackwood sold over 60,000 copies during the Victorian period alone, and, with foreign editions, the final total approaches the 100,000 mark. Although the book attained considerable popularity in America, Australia, and Germany, its greatest vogue was in Scotland, where selections were included in school reading books and recited by students. Its appeal is obvious. At their best, such ballads offer blood and fire in a "cut-and-thrust" style; they have a nervous energy that appeals immediately to the heart. They lie on that thin line between admirable rhetoric and genuine poetry, neither too low nor too high for the mass of educated readers.
Aytoun's last decade was less successful and less happy. In Bothwell (1856), this Jacobite tried to vindicate Queen Mary and to show that Bothwell was the unfortunate dupe of Scottish nobles and the English queen. Challenging comparison with the Spasmodics, the monologue tells a clearly defined story, the material of which was drawn from history. Unfortunately, its chief virtue--"no spasm"--is negative, and its ballad measure becomes monotonous in a lengthy poem.
In June 1858, Aytoun's two-volume edition of The Ballads of Scotland was published. He aimed to present in their original forms all 139 Scottish ballads of "real intrinsic merit" that had been composed before the union of the kingdoms. Both contemporary and twentieth-century critics have praised the collection. In December 1858 Aytoun's and Martin's Poems and Ballads of Goethe was published (the year of publication is given as 1859 on the title page); this was a revision and expansion of their earlier translations for Blackwood's. It is an uneven collection.
His wife died on 15 April 1859, four days after their tenth wedding anniversary. Aytoun was left a childless, lonely man. He told Martin, "The great calamity of life has fallen upon me." Aggravating Aytoun's sorrow was his disappointment over public affairs, particularly the resignation of the Conservative ministry. He tried to lighten his gloom by writing the novel Norman Sinclair (1861). Thinly disguised as fiction, it is an objective review of his life, an attempt to distance and find pattern in the past. Valuable as autobiography and perhaps as therapy, it has little merit as literature.
Aytoun never recovered his genial spirits. A chronic stomach ailment made eating and sleeping difficult. The sedentary professor who had lived almost exclusively in Edinburgh was forced to seek relief in the health resorts of France, Switzerland, and Germany. His literary output was curtailed: he produced only occasional articles for Blackwood's and a Nuptial Ode on the Marriage of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales (1863). In his loneliness, Aytoun married for a second time on Christmas Eve, 1863. Although his mother and two sisters all lived to be over ninety, Aytoun died on 4 August 1865 at the age of fifty-two.
A minor talent and largely forgotten today, Aytoun made one lasting contribution to literature. Firmilian was so successful an attack on the Spasmodic School of Poetry that it seemingly undermined its own reason for existence; but the kind of excessive romanticism exemplified by that early Victorian school is a recurrent literary phenomenon.
News of battle!-news of battle!
Hark! 'tis ringing down the street:
COME hither, Evan Cameron!
Come, stand beside my knee:
I hear the river roaring down
Towards the wintry sea.
Take away that star and garter-
Hide them from my aching sight:
Neither king nor prince shall tempt me