The Maclise Portrait-Gallery/John Wilson


We most of us know the story of the circumforaneous tradesman who stole his besoms ready-made; and some of us may perchance have honoured his custom in its casual observance. This has its advantages. That was not a bad epigram indited by old Townsend,—sometime vicar of Kingston-on-Sea, a celibate, misogynist, and old crony of Wordsworth
The Editor of Blackwood's Magazine.png


and Southey—when some burglars had made a nocturnal raid on his parsonage: —

"They came and prigg'd my linen, my stockings and my store,
 But they couldn't prig my sermons for they were prigg'd before!"

—according to which, if I avail myself of a senna, where I find it, ready to my hand, I shall be at least allowed to retain my plunder in tranquillity.

"What can be said of Professor Wilson worthy of his various merits? Nothing. Were we to reprint Lockhart's graphic account of him in Peter's Letters, it would not tell half his fame. A poet, who, having had the calamity of obtaining Oxford prizes, and incurred the misfortune of having been praised by the Edinburgh Review, for some juvenile indiscretions in the way of rhyme, wrote the City of the Plague, which even the envious Lord Byron placed among the great works of the age, and which all real critics put higher than his poetical Lordship's best productions in the way of tragedy, a moral professor who dings down the fame of Dugald Stewart, a paltry triumph, we own, if truly considered, over a small person, but a trial of no trivial moment, if the voice of Edinburgh be counted of any avail, an orator who, sober or convivial, morning or evening, can pour forth gushes of eloquence the most stirring, and fun the most rejoicing, a novelist who has chosen a somewhat peculiar department, but who, in his Lights and Shadows, etc., gives forth continually fine touches of original thought, and bursts of real pathos, a sixteen stoner who has tried it without the gloves with the game chicken, and got none the worse, a cocker, a racer, a six-bottler, a twenty-four tumblerer, an out and outer, a true, upright, knocking-down, poetical, prosaic, moral, professorial, hard-drinking, fierce-eating, good-looking, honourable, straightforward Tory. Let us not forget that he has leapt twenty-seven feet in a standing leap, on plain ground! Byron never ceased boasting of the petty feat of swimming three or four miles with the tide, as something wondrous. What is it to Wilson's leaping? A gipsy, a magazine, a wit, a six-foot club man, an unflinching ultra in the worst of times!—In what is he not great?"

It is very hard to have to say something about a man of whose genius a great master has proclaimed that nothing worthy can be said. But half a century has passed over this dictum, and given me at least a few facts to place upon record.

John Wilson was born May 19, 1785, at Paisley; a town noted not only for the production of shawls, but as the birth-place of Tannahill, Alexander Wilson, and more than one other Scottish poet; and where Motherwell, if not born, passed his boyhood and youth. He received his earlier education at the University of Glasgow, under such men as Richardson, Jardine, Miller and Young; and proceeded thence to Oxford, where he graduated B.A., 1807; M.A., 1808; gaining the Newdigate prize for poetry in the teeth of three thousand competitors, and the reputation of being the best boxer, the highest leaper, the most ardent cocker, and the fastest runner among his fellow students. He was, moreover, a Radical and Democrat of so advanced a type, that he thought it wrong to employ a servant to black his boots, and was wont to perform that necessary operation himself.

Of an inheritance of £40,000, derived from his father, a wealthy manufacturer,—his mother was lineally descended, on the female side from the great Marquis of Montrose,—a great part was lost by the faikire of a mercantile concern in which it had been embarked. Soon after quitting the university, he purchased the beautiful estate of Elleray, on the noble lake of Windermere, which led to his intimacy with Wordsworth, Southey, Ouillinan, Coleridge and De Quincey. Here he contributed some fine letters to Coleridge's Friend, under the signature of "Mathetes"; and hence, quite as much as from the character of his poems, his general association with the "Lake School." In 1812, appeared The Isle of Palms; and in 1816, The City of the Plague. These poems, together with those by which they were accompanied, or which subsequently appeared in the magazines of the day, gave the author a high place among modern bards. The characteristics of his poetry are exuberance of fancy; tenderness and pathos; sympathy with the beauties of nature, and the charms of rural and contemplative life; and touching pictures of religious confidence and innocent love. These qualities constitute the charm of Wilson's lesser poems, which will continue to please; but in the more sustained flights of his muse become, in spite of the classical purity of their diction, almost monotonous in their even, sustained and uncontrasted progression. Their early critic was Jeffrey, who welcomed the new aspirant, and strove to withdraw him from the "pond-poets" over the border. Of Wilson's novels,—The Foresters, Margaret Lindsay,[1] The Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life,—it can only be said that they possess excellencies and defects very similar to those of his poetry. In 1814, he came to reside in Edinburgh, and was called to the bar, but never practised. In 1817, was started Blackwood's Magazine, with its indiscriminate Toryism,—its unjust and unreasoning abuse of what it was pleased to term the "Cockney School," with Leigh Hunt and Hazlitt at its head,—and its glorification of everything north of the Tweed, and whatever chanced to be written in what was grandiloquently termed the British " Doric." Wilson, Lockhart and Maginn were on the staff, and Blackwood s had already become known, — as was said,—as the Blackguard's; when the two latter gravitating to London,—Lockhart in 1826, to edit the Quarterly, and Maginn, in 1830, to establish Fraser's,—Wilson was left to alter the character of the magazine, and give it the high literary and critical standing which it so long maintained.

Still, it must be admitted that John Wilson, in criticism as in other walks of literature, too often made a reckless use of his vast powers, and allowed judgment to be swayed by politics or nationality. Time has reversed many of his verdicts; and there is much truth, as well as beauty, in the dictum of a modern writer[2]:—"Christopher North, Cock of the walk, whose crowings have now long given place to much sweet singing that they often tried to drown; and who, for all his Jove-like head, cloud-capped in Scotch sentiment and humour, was but a bantam Thunderer after all. … There they lie, broken weeds in the furrows traced by time's ploughshare for the harvest which they would fain have choked." One review, and one only, did Wilson write for the "blue and yellow." This was an article on ihe fourth canto of Childe Harold. He possessed many of the qualities which go to form a great critic; and was, indeed, pre-eminently great, when the catholicity of his sympathies was not impaired by political or national prejudice. Here, too, he was truly original in style; at once subtle in analysis, precise in discrimination, genial in tone, and rich in imaginative illustration. In the union of these characteristics, I do not know that he had a precursor, or that he has since been surpassed.

In 1820, -by the death of Thomas Brown, who, himself, had succeeded Dugald Stewart, the Chair of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh became vacant, and Wilson,—to whom a fixed income had become necessary,—was urged by his friends, and especially by Sir Walter Scott, to become a candidate. His opponent was Sir William Hamilton,—unfortunately his early friend,— a gentleman, a scholar, a logician and metaphysician of the highest rank. The contest was of the keenest, but its bitterness was confined to the partisans of the candidates. Wilson was as yet an untried, and comparatively unknown man; but his Conservatism,—time had worked its wonders for him, and he had long shed his radical skin,—gained him the day, and he was elected to the vacant chair mainly by political influence. This was not as it should have been; and there can be no question that Sir William Hamilton was the fitter man. The experiment, however, turned out better than could have been anticipated. Wilson had, perhaps, as was said to cram for his lectures; but they were prepared with great care, and delighted his auditory by their fire, originality and eloquence, and the happy combination of literature, philosophy and poetry which they exhibited.

Not to speak here of the immortal "Noctes Ambrosianæ" would indeed be an unpardonable omission. How capital is the motto, in the humorously amplified rendering into English of the old Greek lines, which stands at the head of each number in Blackwood:—

"This is a distich by wise old Phocylides,
An ancient who wrote crabbed Greek in no silly days;
Meaning : — ''Tis right for good wine-bibbing people
Not to let the jiig pass roimd the board like a cripple,
But gaily to chat while discussing their tipple.
An excellent rule of the hearty old cock 'tis,
And a very fit motto to put to our Noctes."

Who is there who would not have given his very ears to be present at the ever memorable noctes cænæque of our northern Athens, and listen to the converse of these deipnosophists of modern times; when North and Hogg, and the rest of the Northern Lights were in their glory; and when, as has been well said, the brilliant wit, the merry song, and, from time to time, the grave and interesting discussion, gave to the sanded parlour of a common alehouse, the air of the Palaestra at Tusculum, or the Amaltheum of Cumæ. Here we have Wilson at his best, giving us the reflex of his many-sided intellect, alternating poetry with politics, wit with wisdom, pathos with bathos, fun with philosophy,' literary gossip with metaphysical discussion, gastronomy with asthetics,—and this by means of the most skilful and artistic ordonnance of heterogeneous and apparently unmanageable qualities and characters. Perhaps the domain of literature hardly contains so remarkable an instance of the union of brilliant and diverse powers combining to form a marvellous and harmonious whole. The character of the " Shepherd" is a glorious conception; and it is as he is made to speak, and look, and do, in the Ambrosian symposia, that James Hogg will go down to posterity. O'Doherty had laid down the principle that a journalist should never deny a thing that he had not written, nor acknowledge one that he had. Hogg found that his literary associates acted on this axiom, and determined that he would sign his name to every thing he published, that, as he says, he might be answerable to the world only for his own offences. But, says he, "as soon as the rascals perceived this, they signed my name as fast as I did. They then contrived the incomparable ' Noctes Ambrosianas,' for the sole purpose of putting into the mouth of the Shepherd all the sentiments which they durst not avowedly say themselves, and those too often applying to my best friends."

Wilson's portrait for the "Gallery" was not taken ad vivum, but from the statue at Edinburgh, by Macdonald. Sic sedebat. The pugilistic encounter, and the cocks dimicantes gratis, of which we catch a glimpse without, remind us of the predilections of his ardent youth;[3] but the poet-philosopher is in his latter days, and his gaze is not upon the shows of the outer world, as he sits, rapt in sublime and solitary meditation,—as it were, "waiting and wondering on vaster shores than lie by the seas of time."[4] It is a fine conception, though it, perhaps, hardly recalls the Christopher North of our thoughts; and we would fain have the intellectual as well as the physical Titan in his earlier years,—"a cross between the man, the eagle and the lion," as George Gilfillan described him; or in the guise in which rumour spoke of him to Hogg, as "a man from the mountains in Wales, or the West of England, with hair like eagles' feathers, and nails like birds' claws."

Wilson never entirely recovered from the shock produced by the death of his wife, a beautiful and most amiable woman, in 1837; and his writings, subsequent to this bereavement, betray more of effort with less of power than his earlier productions. An attack of paralysis compelled him to abandon his chair in 1853, when a pension of £200 was conferred upon him by Lord John Russell. This he did not enjoy long, dying at Edinburgh, in the following year, in the 69th year of his age.

The eldest daughter of Wilson married her cousin, J. Ferrier, nephew of the authoress of the novels, Marriage, The Inheritance (Ferrier, etc., so highly praised by Sir Walter Scott. The second was the wife of the late John Thomson' Gordon, Sheriff of Midlothian, and died in March, 1874. In 1862, impelled rather by filial devotion than a recognition of the Horatian precept—

"———versate diu quid ferre recusent,
Quid valeant humeri——————"

she produced a Memoir of her gifted father. It is to be regretted that the task did not fall into abler hands. Few men who have written so much have left behind them such scanty materials for biography as Professor Wilson, and the daughter had not the faculty,—nor was it to be expected from her,—of evolving the father from her inner consciousness. Still the book, in spite of its deficiency of literary merit, may be read with interest; and the very nature of the subject has carried it through several editions. It is reviewed in the Quarterly, vol. cxiii. Besides this may be consulted Lockhart's "graphic account" of him in Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk, vol. iii. p. 256; a long chapter in one of Gilfillan's Galleries; two most excellent papers on his poetry in Hogg's Instructor, contributed, if I mistake not, by the Rev. P. Landreth, of Cupar Fifanorum. There is also a scarce volume entitled Heartbreak: the Trials of Literary Life j or Recollections of Christopher North (1859, 8vo).

There is a good story told of "Christopher" and one other of his daughters, on the occasion of her being sought to wife by William Edmonstoune Aytoun, author of Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers, the mock-heroical tragedy of Firmilian (that well-directed attack on the "spasmodic school" of poetry), the Bon Gualtier Ballads (in conjunction with Theodore Martin), and successor to Wilson himself in the editorship of Blackwood's Magazine. "You must speak to papa," naturally said the young lady, when the amorous swain proposed. Aytoun acquiesced; but too diffident to attack the sire himself, the young lady undertook the task. Christopher was agreeable; but, said he, "if your suitor is so shamefaced, I had better write my reply, and pin it to your back." He did so, and the young lady returned to the drawing-room, where the expectant lover read the answer to his request,—"With the author's compliments!"

  1. This beautiful story has been translated into French by Mme. La Comtesse M——, 4 vols. 12mo; and is preceded by a "Notice" by M. de Barante, characterized by a subtle and genial appreciation worthy of the author of the Histoire des Dues de Bourgogne.
  2. D. G. Rossetti.
  3. 'Athenæum, No. 1827, p. 555.
  4. Thomas Aird.