1883 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Gibson Lockhart

William Bates, after William Maginn; Maclise Gallery (1883; 1898) 7-13.



As we have just had Campbell, the poet, inhaling solace through the somewhat plebeian conduit of a "Brosely," so do we now find Lockhart, the critic, making use of that later and more elegant device by which mediate fumigation is rendered needless, and the convoluted leaf, — as Ebenezer Cullchickweed happily has it, — is made to serve as its own pipe. Each plan has its own advantages and its advocates, and is good in its way; the whole thing is a matter of taste, — or pocket, — and if Maginn, in his "desultory and autoschediastic, off-hand, and extemporaneous article," declined the controversy for fear of the "acrimony" that might arise, it seems well that a like discretion should be exercised here.

Lockhart was born in the manse or parsonage house of Cambusnethan, on the 14th of July, 1794. After a preliminary education at the High School, he became, at the age of twelve, a matriculated member of the College and University of Glasgow. Three years later he was entered a commoner at Balliol College, Oxford; where, going up into the school in the Easter term of 1813, he came out in the first class in literis humanioribus, although "with unparalleled audacity he devoted part of his time to caricaturing the examining masters." On this occasion, it is interesting to record, the name which stood next to his own in the alphabetical arrangement of the first class, was also destined to become celebrated. This was that of Henry Hart Milman, later on Dean of St. Paul's, the well-known poet and dramatist, and his life-long friend.

When Lockhart quitted Oxford, — fellowships were not then, even in Balliol, open to competition, — he turned his attention to the study of Scottish law. But, having long been a proficient in the German language, he was extremely desirous, before taking up his necessary residence in Edinburgh, of visiting Germany, and making the personal acquaintance of Goethe, and others of that band of poets and scholars who, in a single generation, had raised their language from barbarism, and gained for the literature of their country the high rank which it holds among the nations of Europe. The means for accomplishing this object were afforded to the young aspirant by Blackwood. That sagacious publisher, to whom Lockhart's first literary essay — if I mistake not, an article on "Heraldry," in the Edinburgh Encyclopedia, — was not unknown, accepted without hesitation a proposal from him to translate into English, the Lectures of Frederich Schlegel on the Study of History, and generously handed to him the price of the copyright before a line was written. The visit to Germany then took place, and Lockhart saw and conversed with Goethe at Weimar.

In 1816, he was called to the Scottish bar, — or rather, became an advocate; but briefs were few and far between. Then came the establishment, in April, 18I7, of Blackwood's Magazine, for which no one, with the exception, perhaps, of Professor Wilson, wrote more frequently, or on a greater variety of subjects. In 1818, he made the acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott; visited Abbotsford; and on April 29, 1820, married the great novelist's eldest daughter, Sophia, 'more Scotico,' in the evening, and in the drawing-room at Abbotsford.

Besides his contributions to Blackwood, Lockhart at this period got through a large amount of literary work. Scott had declined the responsibility of furnishing the historical portion of the Edinburgh Annual Register; and his son-in-law accepted the engagement. Then came Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk (1819, 3 vols., 8vo) a satirical work, possibly suggested by the Scotch chapters in the Humphrey Clinker of Smollett, in which, after the fashion of the Citizen of the World of Goldsmith, the Lettres Persanes of Montesquieu, and the more recent Espriella's Letters of Southey, a foreigner is supposed to record the impressions made upon him by what he saw and heard during a brief sojourn in a land which was new to him. The supposed writer was one Dr. Morris, a Welsh physician; and some folks in these epistles of the imaginary traveller saw nothing but a cento of libels. Lockhart, himself, admits that "nobody but a very young and thoughtless person would have dreamed of putting forth such a book," but Sir Walter judged more leniently of it, and spoke of the "Doctor's" character for "force of expression, both serious and comic, and acuteness of observation," and regretted that there was not such a book fifty, or even twenty-five years ago. As a record of characters and events the work is indeed highly valuable; and it is much to be wished that some septuagenarian contemporary yet surviving would furnish us with an explanation of the personal hints and allusions. Reading the Letters after an interval of sixty years, it is difficult to see why the good people of Edinburgh should have been so exasperated by the book and its author; or why the Whig magnates, — Jeffrey at Craigcrook and his legal and literary guests, — should have felt so galled by the innocent quizzing of the pseudo-Morris. But so it was; and Lord Cockburn, himself, some thirty years later, felt it necessary to assure his readers seriously that no such gymnastic exercitations had ever taken place, as the leaping-match in the garden, described and criticized by the Welshman with such awful verisimilitude! If the reader has a copy, he will find "second edition" upon the title-page, but it may save inquiry to state that the "first" has no existence but in the suggestion of the author. It may be worth while also to say that the portrait of "Peter Morris, M.D.," prefixed to the first volume, is mentioned by Jackson and Chatto, in their admirable History of Wood Engraving (2nd, and best ed. p. 633), as being one of the earliest published specimens of the invention of Mr. Lizars, of Edinburgh, for "metallic relief engraving." A review of Peter's Letters will be found in Blackwood's Magazine, vol. iv. pp. 612, 745; and vol. vi. p. 288.

Only a word on his novels, — Valerius, a Roman Story, coldly and sternly classical as a romance of Apuleius or Barclay, Adam Blair, with its burning passion and guilt, which startled the kirk like a bombshell; Reginald Dalton, light, easy and superficial, in which the author sought to depict, with a difference, — as Tom Brown has done for us in later days, — undergraduate life at Oxford, as it was during the earlier period of his own academical career; and lastly, not the least remarkable, Matthew Wald, forcibly portraying a character, which, though redeemed by some better impulses, gradually sinks downward, by reason of its innate selfishness, to degradation and madness. These stories are, one and all, powerfully written; they exhibit force of narrative, passages of surpassing beauty and pathos, and elegance of style; but they have failed to gain for their writer an exalted or permanent place among the great masters of fiction.

In the literary career of Lockhart, no circumstance is of greater moment than his connection with the Quarterly Review. On the retirement of William Gifford in 1826, it was proposed to Lockhart that he should fill the vacant post. He accepted, and at once removed to London. He proved an admirable editor; maintaining the pleasantest relations between himself and his contributors. As he himself says of Jeffrey, "he was excellent in beautifying the productions of his 'journeymen;'" and as Gifford, his predecessor, had curtailed Southey, so did he feel himself at liberty to permit Croker to interpolate Lord Mahon's article on the French Revolution. His conduct of the Quarterly extended over the long period of twenty-eight years; and his conscientious and most punctual labours on its behalf necessarily absorbed a large portion of his time and talents. But his seemed to be one of those minds which obtain, — or fancy they obtain, — their needful relaxation in change of labour; and he found time for many articles in Blackwood, to assist Wilson. He wrote for Constable's Miscellany, in 1828, the most charming life of Burns which we yet possess; he assumed the superintendence of Murray's Family Library, for which he wrote the opening volume, a Life of Napoleon; and later on, came the Life of Sir Walter Scott, the last and greatest of his separate works, one of the best biographies in our language, the last volume of which made its appearance in 1838.

The constitution of Lockhart had never been robust, and as early as 1850, his health began to break.

Over-worked, over-hurried
Over-Croker'd, over-Murray'd,

—as he himself has it, — in the spring of 1853, he felt compelled to resign the management of the Quarterly; and acted on the advice of his friends to try the effect of a winter in Italy. In the summer of the following year he returned; but he had within the seeds of dissolution. In the succeeding autumn he was seized with paralysis, and died at Abbotsford, in his sixtieth year, in the month of December, 1854, in a small room adjoining that In which Sir Walter himself had breathed his last. He was buried in Dryburgh Abbey, where a monument, erected at the cost of some among the most intimate of his surviving friends, marks his resting-place, at the feet of his illustrious father-in-law.

An article in the Review which he conducted so long and so well does ample justice alike to his literary abilities and his moral character. In regard to the former, the writer says: "His contributions to this journal were upwards of one hundred in number, and devoted to a great variety of subjects, such as only a versatile and powerful mind could have treated with success. He could write on Greek literature, — on the origin of the Latin language — on novels — on any subject from poetry to dry-rot; but his biographical articles bear the palm. Many of them contain the liveliest and truest sketches that exist of the characters to which they are devoted," etc. As to the latter, the same hand writes: "We shall not trust ourselves elaborately to paint the moral and intellectual character of one over whom the heart yearns with the deepest and most affectionate regret. The world neither knew Lockhart's real worth, nor appreciated him to the full measure of what it did know. His failings, if so we must call them, lay entirely within view; his noble and generous qualities were visible only to such as took the trouble to pierce the crust of reserve with which, on common occasions, he was apt to surround himself. There never lived a man more high-minded and truthful; — more willing to make sacrifices for the benefit of others; — more faithful to old ties of friendship and affection; — more ready to help even strangers in their hour of need. Those who knew him best loved him best, — a sure proof that he was deserving of their love."

Who wrote the admirable article on Lockhart in The Times, — subsequently prefixed to the illustrated edition of the Spanish Ballads, 1856, 4to? It was attributed at the time to his friend, Lord Robertson; but Sir G. C. Lewis, who, one would think, had good grounds for his statement, ascribes it, in a letter to Sir Edmund Head, to Mr. Elwin (the present editor of the Quarterly, Lady Eastlake, and Milman. In this, which Sir George says was "an 'eloge,' rather than a biography, or an impartial character," the following passage occurs:—

"It was characteristic of Lockhart's peculiar individuality, that, where-ever he was at all known, whether by man or woman, by poet, man of business, or man of the world, he touched the hidden chord of romance in all No man less affected the poetical, the mysterious, or the sentimental; no man less affected anything; yet as he stole stiffly away from the knot, which, if he had not enlivened, he had hushed, there was not one who did not confess that a being had passed before them who had stirred all the pulses of the imagination, and realized what is generally only ideal in the portrait of a man. To this impression there is no doubt that his personal appearance greatly contributed, though too entirely the exponent of his mind to be considered as a separate cause. Endowed with the very highest order of manly beauty, both of feature and expression, he retained the brilliancy of youth, and a stately strength of person, comparatively unimpaired in ripened life; and then, though sorrow and sickness suddenly brought on a premature old age, which none could witness unmoved, yet the beauty of the head and of the bearing so far gained in melancholy loftiness of expression what they lost in animation, that the last phase, whether to the eye of painter or of anxious friend, seemed always the finest."

When dining at Lansdowne House in 1837, Lady Chatterton enjoyed a very pleasant conversation with Fonblanque (editor of The Examiner), and Lockhart. Fonblanque made some cynical remark, and Lady Chatterton notes:—

"At that moment it struck me that he resembled nothing so much as Retsch's engraving of Mephistopheles in Faust. This is never the case with Lockhart, whose splendid dark eyes have always a kindly expression."

Maginn, who had every cause to hold him in gratitude and respect, alludes to his "sempiternal cigar," which seems, indeed, to have been a part of the man. Jamie Hogg gives us a capital picture of him as "a mischievous Oxford puppy, for whom I was terrified; dancing after the young ladies, and drawing caricatures of every one who came in contact with him." Lockhart, indeed, made capital fun out of the simple Shepherd, whom for years he contrived to keep in a state of perfect mystification as to the authorship of the "tremendous articles" in Blackwood. Says the latter: "Being sure I could draw nothing out of either Wilson or Sym, I always repaired to Lockhart to ask him, awaiting his reply with fixed eyes and a beating heart. Then, with his cigar in his mouth, his one leg flung carelessly over the other, and without the symptom of a smile on his face, or one twinkle of mischief in his dark grey eye, he would father the articles on his brother, Captain Lockhart, or Peter Robertson, or Sheriff Cay, or James Wilson, or that queer, fat body, Dr. Scott; and sometimes on James, or John Ballantyne, and Sam. Anderson, and poor Baxter. Then away I flew, with the wonderful news to my other associates; and if any remained incredulous, I swore the facts down through them; so that before I left Edinburgh, I was accredited the greatest liar in it, except one."

If the article in The Times, to which I have alluded, be too laudatory, as Sir George C. Lewis thinks, that in The Daily News should be read as a corrective. Possibly, if the two were taken together, like bread and cheese, as Gray tells us he read poetry and prose, a truthful portraiture might be obtained.

On the whole, the career of Lockhart, though ultimately embittered by those calamities which are inseparable from human destiny, was a reasonably prosperous and happy one. Possessed of some private means, he had never known the res angusta domi, which is almost proverbially the lot of those, who, as he did, forsake the liberal-handed Themis for that occupation which as Sir Walter Scott said, might serve as a stick, but should never be relied on as a crutch. Literature was to Lockhart not unremunerative, and his editorship produced him a regular and liberal income. He also, as a reward for his long and efficient cooperation with the Conservative party, in very trying times, enjoyed the office of auditor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the emoluments of which amounted to some 400 per annum, and to which he had been appointed in 1843 by his personal friend, Lord Granville Somerset, the Chancellor of the Duchy.

In the interests of bibliography I must note a comparatively unknown and privately printed volume: — Ballads: Songs of the Edinburgh Yeomanry Squadron from 1820 to 1823. Edinburgh, small 8vo, 1825.

These pieces were written by J. G. Lockhart and P. F. Tytler, as is known to literary amateurs in the northern capital; but a few copies only being printed for the amusement of private friends, it is not to be wondered at that the slender volume has escaped the biographers of the respective authors.

Again I read:—

"In the year 1844, Mr. Gibson Lockhart was commanded to write An account of the Royal Chapel in the Savoy. His short pamphlet was printed at the cost of Her most Gracious Majesty the Queen, and was destined only for private circulation."

More than a passing word should be said of Lockhart as a poet. His sympathy for the chivalrous character of the Spanish nation, and its patriotic resistance to the encroaching power of the first Napoleon, led him early to the study of its language and literature, of which he never ceased to be a passionate admirer. His spirited translations from the ancient Spanish minstrelsy, preserved in the different Cancioneros and Romanceros of the sixteenth century, were among his earliest contributions to Blackwood. These were first published in substantive form, in 1823, 4to; and have since passed through many editions. Many fine scattered pieces of Lockhart occur to the mind, — such as Captain Paton's Lament, Napoleon, and others; and I cannot refrain from citing as a specimen the following exquisitely pathetic fragment, for the publication of which in The Scotsman newspaper (1863) the public is indebted to his old and esteemed friend the Honourable Mrs. Norton:—

When youthful hope has fled,
Of loving take thy leave;
Be constant to the dead—
The dead cannot deceive.

Sweet modest flowers of the spring,
How fleet your balmy day!
And man's brief year can bring
No secondary May—

No earthly burst again
Of gladness out of gloom
Fond hope and vision vain,
Ungrateful to the tomb.

But 'tis an old belief
That on some solemn shore,
Beyond the sphere of grief,
Dear friends shall meet once more—

Beyond the sphere of time,
And sin and fate's control,
Serene in endless prime
Of body and of soul.

That creed I fain would keep,
That hope I'll not forgo;
Eternal be the sleep,
Unless to waken so.

The original sketch of the portrait before us, which a writer in The Hour newspaper (Nov. 12, 1873) considers, from personal remembrance, "the very best in the whole series," is in the hands of Mr. John Murray, of Albermarle Street.