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date: 28 February 2021

Maxwell, James [pseud. Poet in Paisley]free

  • J. C. Hadden
  • , revised by Gerard Carruthers

Maxwell, James [pseud. Poet in Paisley] (1720–1800), poet and essayist, was born at Auchenback, parish of Mearns, Renfrewshire, on 9 May 1720. At the age of twenty he went to England as a packman, became a weaver, and was at various times clerk, usher, schoolmaster, and stonebreaker. In 1787 he became the recipient of a charity in the gift of the town council of Paisley, which he enjoyed until his death (Motherwell, 1828, citing council records of 11 Oct 1787). Maxwell was one of the most prolific rhymers of his day, usually designating himself Poet in Paisley, and on some of his title-pages adding to his name the letters ‘SDP’, meant to signify 'student of divine poetry'. He represents the terminus of the virile strain of poetry of Calvinist pietism in eighteenth-century Scotland. His work, however, rarely rises above doggerel. A bibliography of Maxwell's works, comprising fifty-two separate publications, is given in Brown's Paisley Poets (1.17–22). The main interest in Maxwell today follows from his vocal antagonism to Robert Burns and Thomas Paine. His essay 'On the Ayrshire ploughman poet, or poetaster, R. B.' was published in his Animadversions on some Poets and Poetasters of the Present Age (1788). Of some interest also, for its observation of economic history, is his poem 'The great canal, or, The Forth and Clyde Navigation' (1788). His chief works are: Divine Miscellanies (1756), Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1759), and A New Version of the Whole Book of Psalms in Metre (1773), in which he exemplifies his objection to the employment of the organ in church by paraphrasing all of the references to instrumental music in worship so as to suit his own views. In 1795, on his seventy-fifth birthday, Maxwell published an autobiographical poem entitled A Brief Narrative, or, Some Remarks on the Life of James Maxwell, Poet, in Paisley. From this the reader learns that Maxwell had married, and had had at least one son, though no more is known of his family. He died nearly five years later, in March or April 1800.


  • W. Motherwell, ‘James Maxwell’, Paisley Magazine (1828), 680
  • R. Brown, Paisley poets: with brief memoirs of them and selections from their poetry, 2 vols. (1889–90)
  • Paisley Advertiser (2 Dec 1848) [thanks from Maxwell to fellow-poets for financial help]
  • G. R. Roy, ‘“The mair they talk, I'm kend the better”: poems about Robert Burns’, Love and liberty, ed. K. Simpson (1997)
  • T. Leonard, ed., Radical Renfrew (1990)
  • W. Motherwell, ed., The harp of Renfrew, 2 vols. (1872)
  • J. Holland, Psalmists of Great Britain (1843)