1876 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Wilson

James Grant Wilson, in Scottish Poetry (1876) 2:72-74.



JOHN WILSON, the distinguished poet, novelist, and miscellaneous writer, was born at Paisley, May 18, 1875. His father was a prosperous gauze manufacturer in that town, and his mother, Margaret Sym, belonged to a wealthy Glasgow family. The boy's elementary education was received first at a school in Paisley, and afterwards at the manse of Mearns, a parish in Renfrewshire. In this rural situation the youth conned his lessons within doors; but the chief training for his future sphere consisted in many a long ramble among the beautiful scenery with which he was surrounded, and the frolics or conversation of the peasantry, among whom he soon became a general favourite. At the age of thirteen he was sent to the University of Glasgow, where he studied Greek and logic during three sessions under Professors Young and Jardine, and to the training especially of the latter he was indebted for those mental impulses which he afterwards prosecuted so successfully. In June, 1903, he entered Magdalen College, Oxford, as a gentleman-commoner; and there his diligence was attested by the knowledge of the best classical writers of antiquity which he afterwards displayed, and his native genius by the production of an English poem of fifty lines, which gained for him the Newdigate prize. In other kinds of college exercises — as boxing, leaping, running rowing, and other athletic sports — he was also greatly distinguished. Having at the age of twenty-one succeeded to a considerable fortune by the death of his father, he purchased the beautiful estate of Elleray, in Cumberland, where he went to reside on leaving Oxford in 1807. Here he was at liberty to enjoy all the varied delights of poetic meditation, of congenial society, and of those endless out-door recreations which constituted no small part of his life. Five years after purchasing the Windemere property he married Miss Jane Penny, the daughter of a wealthy Liverpool merchant.

Wilson on leaving college resolved to become a member of the Scottish bar, and after the usual studies he was enrolled an advocate in 1815. It must not, however, be supposed that he was either the most anxious or industrious of barristers. In the same year the unfaithful stewardship of a maternal uncle obliged him to remove from Elleray to Edinburgh. He had before this begun his literary and poetic career by the publication of an elegy on the death of the Rev. James Grahame, author of The Sabbath, with which Joanna Baillie was so much pleased that she wrote to Sir Walter Scott for the name of the author. He also composed some beautiful stanzas entitled The Magic Mirror which appeared in the Annual Register for 1812. During the same year he produced The Isle of Palms, and other Poems, which at once stamped their author as one of the poets of the Lake School; but much as The Isle of Palms was admired in its day it has failed to endure the test of time. In 1816 he produced The City of the Plague, a dramatic poem which even the envious Lord Byron placed among the great works of the age. But it too has failed to secure that enduring popularity accorded to the poems of his great contemporaries. Wilson's next publications were prose tales and sketches, entitled Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life, The Foresters, and The Trials of Margaret Lindsay. On the establishment of Blackwood's Magazine in 1817 a new sphere of literary life, and one for which his future career proved he was as well fitted as any author then living, was opened to him. The magazine was started as the champion of Tory principles, in opposition to the Edinburgh Review, and so marked was the influence he exercised as its fortunes for upwards of a quarter of a century that he was universally regarded as its editor, although Mr. Blackwood the publisher performed the duties of that office himself. "Christopher North" was, however, the living soul and support of the magazine, so that in spite of all denials he continued to be proclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic the editor of Maga.

In 1820 he offered himself as a candidate for the chair of moral philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, made vacant by the death of Dr. Thomas Brown, and notwithstanding an amount of opposition unprecedented in such an election, Wilson, to the general surprise of all classes, was elected. His competitor was no less a person than Sir William Hamilton, who, it appears, was the student's choice. The professor's first lecture is thus described by an eye-witness:—"There was a furious bitterness of feeling against him (Wilson) among the classes of which probably most of his pupils would consist, and although I had no prospect of being among them I went to his first lecture, prepared to join in a cabal which I understood was formed to put him down. The lecture room was crowded to the ceiling. Such a collection of hard-browed scowling Scotchmen, muttering over their knob-sticks, I never saw. The professor entered with a bold step amid profound silence. Everyone expected some deprecatory or propitiatory introduction of himself and his subject, upon which the mass was to decide against him, reason or no reason; but he began in a voice of thunder right into the matter of his lecture, kept up unflinchingly and unhesitatingly, without a pause, a flow of rhetoric such as Dugald Stewart or Thomas Brown, his predecessors, never delivered in the same place. Not a word, not a murmur escaped his captivated, I ought to say, his conquered audience, and at the end they gave him a right-down unanimous burst of applause. Those who came to scoff remained to praise." Wilson occupied this important chair for thirty years. In 1851 he received a pension from the government of 300 per annum, and in the same year he resigned his professorship without making the usual claim of a retiring allowance. Till within a short period preceding his death he resided during the summer months at Elleray, where he dispensed a princely hospitality, and his splendid regattas on Lake Windemere won for him the title of "Admiral of the Lake." He died at his residence in Gloucester Place, Edinburgh, April 3, 1854. His remains were interred in the Dean Cemetery, and the funeral, which was a public one, was attended by thousands, who thus testified their respect for one of the noblest Scotchmen of the nineteenth century. In February, 1865, a noble statue of Wilson, executed in bronze by John Steell of Edinburgh, was erected in that city on the same day that a marble statue of Allan Ramsay, by the same distinguished artist, was inaugurated.

In 1825 Wilson's entire poetical works were published in two volumes, followed in 1842 by three volumes of prose contributions to Blackwood's Magazine, under the title of Recreations of Christopher North. After his death a complete edition of his works, under the editorial supervision of his son-in-law Professor Ferrier, was published; and in 1862 appeared an interesting memoir of his life by his daughter, the late Mrs. Gordon.

The poetical productions of John Wilson, by which he commenced his career as an aspirant for the honours of authorship, notwithstanding their many beauties, will not preserve his name; his fame rests more securely through a long series of years in the pages of Blackwood's Magazine. "By nature," says an eminent writer, "Wilson was Scotland's brightest sun save Burns; and he, Scott, and Burns must rank everlastingly together as the first three of her men of genius." "His poems," writes Mrs. S. C. Hall, "are full of beauty: they have all the freshness of the healthier: a true relish for nature breaks out in all of them: they are the earnest breathings of a happy and buoyant spirit: a giving out, as it were, of the breath that had been inhaled among the mountains."