William Edmondstoune Aytoun was born in Edinburgh in 1813 into a family of literary tastes. His mother, in particular, had a great enthusiasm for and knowledge of historical ballads, which was to impact upon Aytoun’s own interests, and aid them in turn when he was preparing his Ballads of Scotland collection for publication.
Having tentatively followed his father into law, Aytoun was appointed Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at Edinburgh University in 1845. It was in this post that he excelled, and details of his lectures have led to him being declared ‘the first modern professor of English literature’. Prior to this appointment, his early works as a poet were the subject of inclusion in the renowned Blackwood’s Magazine, and he would go on to become an important contributor to the magazine in a number of guises. Indeed, his literary criticism exhibited much of the keen sense of parody that was the defining feature of his acclaimed dramatic verse, ‘Firmilian’.
Working in a less comic mode, Aytoun produced the Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers, which remains one of his best known works. An engagement of the historical ballad tradition in a style reminiscent of Sir Walter Scott, these poems belie a contemporary interest in Jacobitism, situated within a Romanticised historical background and context.