Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Nichol, John (1833-1894)

NICHOL, JOHN (1833–1894), professor of English literature and author, born on 8 Sept. 1883 at Montrose, where his father was then rector of the academy, was only son of the astronomer, John Pringle Nichol [q. v.], by his first wife. From 1836 onwards Glasgow was his home,and from 1842 to 1848 he went to school at the Western Academy, without, according to his own account, deriving much advantage from it. His imaginative powers were, however, early stimulated by foreign travel, and by excursions nearer home, especially in Arran. In 1848 he entered the university of Glasgow. His seven years of stndent life at Glasgow were marked by eager work and ardent enthusiasms devoted in part to the revival of the 'liberal cause' in the university. His fellow students, Dr. John Service [q. v.~|, Dr. Henry Crosskey, and Dr. Edward Caird, now master of Balliol, remained his closest friends through every subsequent stage of his career. Before he left Glasgow Nichol printed for private circulation a volume of poems of remarkable promise, entitled 'Leaves' (Edinburgh, 1852).

In 1865, at the late age of twenty-two, Nichol entered Balliol College, Oxford. There in the following year he gained one of the Glasgow Snell exhibitions. He graduated in 1800 with first-class honours in the final classical school. At first Oxford pleased him, but disenchantment and bitterness followed, although he conceived a lasting admiration for Benjamin Jowett [q. v. Suppl.], then tutor of his college, and formed many enduring friendships, with (among other undergraduates of Balliol) George Rankine Luke (afterwards senior student and tutor of Christ Church, whose premature death by drowning in the Isis in 1862 was mourned by Nichol in a passionate sonnet) ; Thomas Hill Green [q. v.], Albert Venn (now Professor) Dicey, and Mr. Algernon Charles Swinburne. With these and a few kindred 'spirits of flame' from other colleges Nichol formed in 1856-7 the Old Mortality Society, for the purpose of seriously discussing literary and other topics. It is said that members of the society showed a 'marked tendency towards professorial positions ; 'but few literary and philosophical societies of the kind have better vindicated their transitory fame (Professor Dicey, ap. Knight, p. 147).

Nichol's studies at Oxford took a philosophical rather than a linguistic direction; and owing probably to the defects of his early training he never became a very accurate scholar. A few months after he had gained his first class he lost his father ; but, in accordance with the paternal wish, he became on 12 Nov. 1859 a member of Gray's Inn. He seems never to have been actually called to the bar. After graduating B.A. (he declined to proceed to M.A. till 1874, after the abolition of university tests), he resided at Oxford, successfully engaging in the work of a 'philosophical coach for greats.' This he carried on at intervals, latterly chiefly by vacation parties, till 1873. But already in 1859 he was intent upon securing a Scottish professorial chair. While a candidate for the professorship of logic and English literature at St. Andrews in 1859, he privately printed a volume of 'Fragments of Criticism' (Edinburgh, 1860), consisting of condensed Oxford lectures on ancient philosophy and of English literary criticisms, partly reprinted from the 'Westminster Review' and from university periodicals, especially the audacious 'Undergraduate Papers.' The volume included noticeable estimates of Carlyle, whose influence Nichol in these days reflected with striking force, Tennyson, Browning, in the tardy popularisation of whose work Nichol was pre-eminently instrumental, and his intimate friend, Sydney Thompson Dobell [q. v.], to whose 'Poems' (1875) and 'Thoughts on Art, Philosophy, and Religion' (1876) he afterwards wrote introductions, accompanied, in the former instance, by a memoir. Nichol's candidature at St. Andrews was unsuccessful, but at a later date (1873) that university conferred on him the honorary degree of LL.D.

In April 1862, a year after his marriage, Nichol was appointed by the crown to the newly established chair of English language and literature in the university of Glasgow. This post he filled till his resignation of it in 1889. In the interval, from various motives chiefly from an ineradicable restlessness of disposition he was an unsuccessful candidate for several other educational posts ; but his success as a professor at Glasgow was from first to last extraordinary. He was a brilliant example of a genuinely Scottish type of academical teacher, who had assimilated the enlightened spirit of Oxford. It was his habit to write out his lectures with extreme care, and to subject them to incessant revision. Several of his pupils subsequently attained literary distinction ; but more important was the general influence, incalculable alike in breadth and depth, exercised by him during a quarter of a century upon the progress of culture among the general body of his students.

Two of the earlier of Nichol's occasional courses on English literature (in 1868 and 1869) were, at Jowett's request, redelivered at Oxford. From 1866 he was one of the most distinguished pioneers of the movement afterwards known as university extension, and he lectured with conspicuous success in many English and Scottish towns. Indeed, as a popular lecturer on literature he had in his day few, if any, rivals. His activity was not, however, exhausted by his labours of this sort at home and abroad. He was associated with his friend, Professor Knight of St. Andrews, in the foundation in 1867 of the New Speculative Society, which held its first meeting at his house in Glasgow, and was afterwards divided into three branches, at Glasgow, Edinburgh, and St. Andrews respectively. He was also keenly interested in politics. In his youth his foreign politics had been coloured by his father's intimacy with Kossuth and Mazzini, both of whom he afterwards came to know personally. As an Oxford undergraduate he had warmly sympathised with the north in the great American civil war. In course of time his political sentiments took a pronouncedly conservative hue; but in matters ecclesiastical he always remained a consistent liberal. He was warmly interested in educational politics, and addresses delivered by him on national education (Glasgow, 1869), and on university reform (Glasgow, 1888), attested the vigour of his public utterances.

In the autumn of 1865 Nichol paid a visit to the United States, where he made the personal acquaintance of Emerson and Longfellow. In later years he was a frequent visitor to the continent, while other long vacations were devoted to literary work in Scottish country retreats. On resigning his chair at Glasgow in 1889, he spent much time abroad; but in the autumn of 1890 he settled definitively in London, ultimately in Kensington. In November 1891 he revisited Glasgow, on the occasion of the presentation of his portrait by Mr. Orchardson, R.A., and delivered a characteristic address to the subscribers, mostly members of the university. In London, while his pen remained active, he occasionally lectured in public. The death of his wife in January 1894 broke the mainspring of his powers, and he died on 11 Oct. of the same year. He was cremated four days afterwards at Woking, his ashes being taken to St. George's cemetery, Edinburgh, where she had been laid to rest.

From 1853 onwards Nichol and his sister Agnes (afterwards the wife of Professor William Jack) had found a second mother in his father's second wife, Elizabeth Pease, at whose house in Edinburgh (Huntley Lodge) he was in his later years a frequent visitor. On 10 April 1861 he married Jane Stewart, eldest daughter of Henry Glassford Bell [q. v.], afterwards sheriff of Lanarkshire. The union, of which were born a son and two daughters, was one of perfect happiness.

From first to last Nichol's chief ambition was a literary eminence which he never realised, and, owing to a constitutional nervousness rather than to vanity, he nursed the delusion that his literary claims were belittled by a critical clique. But if as a poet he missed fame, he vindicated his right to a high place among writers of spirited, sincere, and thoughtful verse. His historical drama, 'Hannibal' (Glasgow, 1873), remained his most notable original effort in poetry. 'The Death of Themistocles and other Poems' (Glasgow, 1881) added a fine dramatic fragment of a cognate kind, with which was printed a selection of lyrics full of fire and intensity. If, as Jowett said, Nichol'sprose style 'bristled too much,' it was often tipped with fire. As a critic he was distinguished by independence of judgment founded on philosophic thought, and by perfect fearlessness of sympathy. His chief critical works were his 'Byron' in the 'English Men of Letters' series (1880), which went some way towards converting Mr. Swinburne from his unduly deprecatory opinion of that poet; his 'Robert Burns : a Summary of his Career and Genius' (Edinburgh, 1882), which was designed as an introduction to Paterson's library edition, and proved one of the most finished in form as well as concentrated in treatment of all Nichol's prose productions; his 'Francis Bacon' (2 vols., Life and Philosophy, in 'Blackwood's Philosophical Classics for English Readers,' 1888-9); and 'Carlyle,' the fruit of a life's intellectual and moral sympathy ('English Men of Letters' series, 1892). Besides an admirable historical review of 'American Literature' for the 'Encyclopædia Britannica,' 1882 (reprinted in a revised and enlarged edition, 1885), Nichol contributed to T. H. Ward's 'English Poets' (from 1880), and to many reviews and journals. He endeavoured to meet some of the requirements of his teaching of literature by his 'Tables of European Literature' (Glasgow, 1876, and later editions, that of 1888 including 'America') and 'Tables of Ancient Literature' (Glasgow, 1877), as well as by his 'Primer of English Composition' (1879), and his 'Questions and Answers' on the same (1890).

[Of Nichol's earlier years (1833-51) he in 1861 wrote for the eye of his wife a series of picturesque reminiscences under the title of Leaves from my Life. These are printed in the full Memoir of John Nichol, by Professor Knight, Glasgow, 1896. See also obituary notices by E. C. (Edward Caird) in Glasgow Herald; by J. S. C. (J. S. Cotton) in Academy, and T. W. (Theodore Watts-Dunton) in Athenæum; and A. M. Stoddart, Elizabeth Pease Nichol (1899). This article is also based on private information and personal knowledge.]

A. W. W.