1859 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Wilson

William Anderson, in Scottish Nation (1859-66) 3:652-55.



JOHN WILSON, a distinguished poet and critic, the son of a prosperous manufacturer in Paisley, was born 19th May 1785. His mother, whose maiden name was Sym, was of a wealthy Glasgow family. After receiving the early part of his education at the manse of the Mearns, Renfrewshire, under the tuition of the Rev. Dr. George M'Latchie, at the age of 13 he commenced his studies at the university of Glasgow, where he remained four years. In 1804 he entered Magdalen college, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner and continued there also four years. While at Oxford, he won the Newdegate prize of fifty guineas for an English poem of fifty lines.

Remarkable in his youth for that fine physical development on which, even till a short time before his death, years produced but little effect, among his college friends he at once acquired a pre-eminence in all the athletic exercises and out-of-door amusements engaged in by the young Oxonians, and manifold were the reports which in after years were rife of the eccentricities and romantic incidents which marked this period of his life. To use the language of the author of A Memorial and Estimate of him, by one of his students, published in Edinburgh in 1854: "The number of his friends and associates 'was immense,' ranging, curiously enough, through every degree of the social scale, from 'groom, cobbler, stable-boy, barber's apprentice, with every kind of blackguardism and ruffian,' up to the ordinary under-graduate the fashionable gentleman-commoner, the very dean, proctor, and fellow, nor even stopping short of 'unlimited favour with the learned president of Magdalen College, editor of parts of Plato and of some theology.' He could have been no common young man so far as personal interest and the power of ingratiating go, who thus stood. Still his favourite companions were 'people who had talents for thumping and being thumped.' In some one of the recesses, between university term-times, must have taken place, if at all, the reported extravagance of his joining himself to a party of strolling players, enjoying the disguise with its accompaniments of hardship or joviality, and taking the leading parts, both in tragedy and comedy, at country fairs throughout England, no doubt under grotesque vicissitudes of popular acceptation; now called before the threepenny curtain to address an audience of half-drunken rustics; now hissed off the stage in the full height of the 'Cambyses vein.' He was said to have become temporary waiter at an inn for the sake of some fair stranger there resident, and to have been so great a favourite with all and sundry, as the humorous and eccentric young 'John,' that the establishment would scarce part with him. These histories are really traceable to very slight occasion in fact. A still odder tale used to be circulated of him, apparently dependent on impulses of a more serious kind; how having been smitten with the outlandish charms of a beautiful young jet-eyed gipsy daughter of the king of that mysterious tribe, he followed the gang in secret, and preferring his suit, succeeded in it, — was allowed to assume the gipsy garb — to marry the dark maiden, or at least settle for some time in their encampment, a sort of adopted heir to the Egyptian princedom, till discovered and reclaimed to civilized life by his friends. Frequent is his own allusion, at all events, to some decisive encounter with one of their champions in the ring where victory declared itself for him."

On the death of his father he succeeded to a fortune estimated as high as 30,000, and having purchased the estate of Elleray, beautifully situated on the lake of Windermere, Westmoreland, on quitting Oxford he went to reside there. This was in 1808, and for some years he remained in a district, the picturesque beauty of which furnished materials for ministering to his naturally high poetic temperament, and enjoying the society of Wordsworth, Southey, De Quincey (a fellow-student at Oxford), and the other distinguished men of letters who then resided near the lakes. Here he showed himself particularly partial to all sorts of athletic exercises and wild field-sports, and out-of-door activity of unusual kinds, and is described by an American writer, who was introduced to him at Wordsworth's house, as a young man "in a sailor's dress, about twenty-one, tall and lightly built, of florid complexion, and hair of a hue unsuited to that colour," and as one who seemed "to have an intense enjoyment of life, to feel happy and pleased with himself as with others, being young, rich, healthy, and full of intellectual activity." The following is a description of one of the extraordinary recreations in which he was fond of indulging. "About this time," continues the same American writer, "a young man, name not given, had taken up his abode in the vale of Grasmere, anxious for an introduction to Mr. Wilson, and strolled out early one fine summer morning — three o'clock — to that rocky and moorish common (called the White Moss), which over-hangs the vale of Rydal, dividing it from Grasmere. Looking southward in the direction of Rydal, he suddenly became aware of a huge beast advancing at a long trot, with the heavy and thundering tread of a hippopotamus, along the public road. The creature soon arrived within half-a-mile of him, in the grey light of morning, — a bull, apparently flying from unseen danger in the rear. As yet, all was mystery; till suddenly three horsemen emerged round a turn in the road, hurrying after it in full speed, in evident pursuit. The bull made heavily for the moor, which he reached, then paused, panting, blowing out smoke, and looking back. The animal was not safe, however; the horsemen, scarcely relaxing their speed, charged up hill, gained the rear of the bull, and drove him at full gallop, over the worst part of this impracticable ground, to that below; while the stranger perceived, by the increasing light, that the three were armed with immense spears, fourteen feet long. By these, the fugitive beast was soon dislodged, scouring down to the plain, his hunters at his tail, towards the marsh and into it, till, after plunging together for a quarter of an hour, all suddenly regained terra firma, the bull making again for the rocks. Till then, there had been the silence of phantasmagoria, amidst which it was doubtful whether the spectacle were a pageant of aerial spectres, ghostly huntsmen, imaginary lances, and unreal bull; but, just at that crisis a voice shouted aloud, 'Turn the villain — turn that villain, or he will take to Cumberland.' It was the voice of 'Elleray,' for whom the young stranger succeeded in performing the required service, the 'villain' being turned to flee southwards; the hunters, lance in rest, rushed after him, all bowing their thanks as they fled past except of course the frantic object of chase. The singular cavalcade swiftly took the high road, doubled the cape, and disappeared, leaving the quiet valley to its original silence."

At Elleray he wrote the first poem which made his name known beyond college circles, an Elegy on the Death of James Grahame, the amiable author of The Sabbath. It was followed in 1812 by The Isle of Palms, which at once gave him a high place amongst the literati of the day.

In 1815, Mr. Wilson, at that time residing with his widowed mother in Castle Street, Edinburgh, passed advocate at the Scottish bar, but does not appear ever to have practised. In 1816 he published The City of the Plague, a poem which, like all his poetical pieces, is remarkable for delicacy of feeling and beauty of expression, though a more elaborate production than any of his former compositions. The following year he commenced that connection with Blackwood's Magazine, then newly started, which for years after identified him with all the brilliant fancy and exquisite taste and humour with which its pages were adorned. From the seventh number that periodical continued "to draw more memorable support from him than ever journal did from the pen of any individual." He was the principal if not the only writer of the celebrated Noctes Ambrosianae, in which he took the designation of Christopher North.

In 1820 he was appointed to the chair of moral philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, then vacant by the death of Dr. Thomas Brown, and it is remarkable that, even thus early, Sir Walter Scott had recognised his talents which only wanted proper direction to make him "the first man of the age." The fervid energy of his character and the impassioned eloquence with which his lectures were characterised added new lustre to the university, while he endeared himself to his students by being the never-failing friend of every youth who sought his aid, and the counsel which he was ever ready to impart attested not less the kindness of his heart than the sagacity of his judgment. His expenditure at Elleray is understood to have been always profuse. He had replaced the original cottage by a new mansion, and his establishment there included some characteristic prodigalities, such as keeping a yacht and boat on Windermere, where in his capacity of admiral of the lake, he led the aquatic honours to Sir Walter Scott and Canning on their reception in Westmoreland in 1825. He had married, in 1810, an English lady, with whom, it is said, he got a fortune of 10 000; and a rising family of two sons and three daughters, with some serious reverses which he is understood to have sustained, induced him to come forward as a candidate for the moral philosophy chair. He was strongly opposed in the town council, but his friends succeeded in carrying his election.

The first of his prose compositions appeared in 1822, under the name of Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life; a Selection from the Papers of the late Arthur Austen, in one volume, containing twenty-four short tales, illustrative of Scottish rural and pastoral life. Three of these, The Elder's Funeral, The Snow-storm, and The Forgers, had previously been published in Blackwood's Magazine. His next prose work, entitled The Trials of Margaret Lindsay, appeared in one volume in 1823, and in 1824 he published another story, called The Foresters, inferior to the others, and not so well known. A selection from his contributions to Blackwood's Magazine was published by himself in 1842, in 3 vols. 8vo, bearing the title of Recreations of Christopher North, but these conveyed but an inadequate idea of his vast and diversified genius.

In 1849, when the Philosophical Institution was formed in Edinburgh, Professor Wilson was elected its first president, and delivered an opening address. In 1851 an honorary pension of 300 a year was conferred on him by the government, and the following spring he gave in his resignation to the college patrons, without any claim to a retiring allowance. His health did not seem then in a precarious state, but shortly afterwards it began to give way. Partial loss of power in the lower limbs was succeeded by nervous weakness, and after having had three shocks of paralysis, he died at Edinburgh on the morning of the 3d April 1854, and was buried in the Dean cemetery of that city. His portrait is subjoined.

One of his daughters married William Edmonstone Ayton, Esq., professor of rhetoric and belles lettres in the university of Edinburgh, and author of Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers, and other poems; and another John Thomson Gordon, Esq., sheriff of Mid Lothian. One of his sisters was the mother of Professor Ferrier of St. Andrews, who married his cousin, a daughter of Professor Wilson. Another sister was the wife of Sir John Macneill, formerly British envoy to the court of Persia, and brother of the Right Hon. Duncan Macneill lord-justice-general of Scotland.

Professor Wilson's fame rests on the great contributions he has made to the literature of Scotland as a poet, a critic, and a philosopher, and particularly on his writings in Blackwood's Magazine. After his death, his works edited by his son-in-law, Professor Ferrier were published by Messrs. Blackwood, in the following order. 1. The Noctes Ambrosianae. 2. Essays. Critical and Imaginative, contributed to Blackwood's Magazine. 3. The Recreations of Christopher North. 4. Poems, a new and complete edition. 5. Tales. In 1862, a memoir of Professor Wilson, under the title of "Christopher North," compiled from family papers and other sources, by his daughter, Mrs. Gordon, with portrait and graphic illustrations, was published at Edinburgh, in 2 vols. crown 8vo.