1876 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Gibson Lockhart

James Grant Wilson, in Poetry of Scotland (1876) 2:141-43.



JOHN GIBSON LOCKHART, a poet of fine genius and a distinguished miscellaneous writer, was born in the manse of Cambusnethan, near Glasgow, June 12, 1794. From both his parents he inherited an honourable descent. His father, the Rev. Dr. John Lockhart, who for nearly fifty years was minister of Blackfriar's Church, Glasgow, was well known for his remarkable wit and extreme absence of mind — two qualities which are seldom found united in the same character. Of this pious and amiable divine John Gibson Lockhart was the second son, and the eldest by a second marriage, his mother having been a daughter of the Rev. Dr. Gibson, one of the ministers of Edinburgh. At an early age he prosecuted his studies at the University of Glasgow, and with such success that he received one of the richest tokens of approval in a Snell exhibition to Baliol College, Oxford. Here he could prosecute with increased facilities those classical studies to which he was most addicted. At his graduation, in his eighteenth year, he was numbered in the first class — an honour rarely attained by the most accomplished Oxonians.

His studies at Baliol, which were directed to the law, were followed by a continental tour, and on his return to Scotland he was called to the bar in 1816. It was, however, soon evident that Lockhart was not likely to win fame or fortune by the profession of an advocate — he could not make a speech. Had his success depended upon writing, or on pictorial pleading, he would have been the most persuasive of silent orators, for during the trial of a cause his pen was occupied, not in taking notes, but in sketching caricatures of the proceedings, the drollery of which would have overcome both judge and jury. As it was he proved a briefless barrister, and decided to abandon law for literature. He made a happy allusion to this strange professional infirmity at a dinner which was given by his friends in Edinburgh on his departure to assume the charge of the Quarterly Review. He attempted to address them, and broke down as usual, but covered his retreat with, "Gentlemen, you know that if I could speak we would not have been here."

In 1817 Blackwood's Magazine was established, and Lockhart became, with John Wilson, the principal contributor. It was now that the whole torrent of thought, which the bar may have kept in check, burst forth in full profusion. Eloquence, and wit, and learning distinguished his articles, and imparted a character to the work which it long after retained; but unfortunately with these attractive qualities there was often mingled a causticality of satire and fierceness of censure that engendered much bad feeling and hatred. In 1819 Lockhart's first separate publication appeared, entitled Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk — a work in which an imaginary Dr. Morris gives a series of eloquent, vigorous, and truthful sketches of the more distinguished literary Scotchmen of the period. Of this volume Sir Walter Scott thus wrote to its author: "What an acquisition it would have been to our general information to have had such a work written, I do not say fifty, but even five-and-twenty years ago; and how much of grave and gay might then have been preserved, as it were, in amber which have now mouldered away! When I think that, at an age not much younger than yours, I knew Black, Fergusson, Robertson, Erskine, Adam Smith, John Home, etc., and at least saw Burns, I can appreciate better than any one the value of a work which, like this, would have handed them down to posterity in their living colours."

In 1820 Lockhart married Sophia, Sir Walter Scott's eldest daughter. The marriage took place at Edinburgh, and the "Great Unknown," who was the worshipper as well as recorder of good old Scottish fashions, caused the wedding to be held in the evening, and "gave a jolly supper afterwards to all the friends and connections of the young couple." Lockhart and his wife took up their abode at the little cottage of Chiefswood, about two miles from Abbotsford, which became their usual summer residence; and thither Sir Walter, when inundated by sight-seers and hero-worshipers, was occasionally glad to escape, that he might breathe in a tranquil atmosphere, and write a chapter of the novel that was in hand, to despatch to the Edinburgh publisher.

Continuing to furnish varied and sparkling contributions to Blackwood, Lockhart now began to exhibit powers of prolific authorship. In the course of a few years he produced Valerius, one of the most classical tales descriptive of Rome and the manners of its people which the English language has as yet embodied. After this came Adam Blair, a tale which, in spite of its impossible termination, so opposed to all Scottish canon law, abounds with the deepest feeling as well as descriptive power. The next was Reginald Dalton, a three-volume novel, in which he largely brought forward his reminiscences of student life at Oxford, and the town-and-gown affrays with which it was enlivened. The last of this series of novels was Matthew Wald, which fully sustained the high character of its predecessors. In 1823 he came forth in a new character by his translations from the Spanish ballads; and such was the classical taste, melody of versification, and rich command of language which these translations evinced. that the regret was general that he had not been more exclusively a poet, instead of a prose writer. Tickner, in his History of Spanish Literature, characterizes the collection as "the admirably spirited translations of Mr. Lockhart.... A work of genius beyond any of the sort known to me in any language;" and the historian Prescott alludes to the poems as "Mr. Lockhart's picturesque version of the Moorish ballads."

Lockhart's next publications were in the department of biography, in which he gave an earnest of his fitness to be the literary executor and biographer of his illustrious father-in-law; these were the Life of Robert Burns and the Life of Napoleon Bonaparte. At this period he resided in Edinburgh, spending some of the summer months at the cottage of Chiefswood. The varied attainments of Lockhart, and the distinction he had won in so many departments of authorship, obtained for him at the close of 1825 the editorship of the Quarterly Review, the great champion of Toryism, a position for which he was admirably fitted, and which he held for more than a quarter of a century. On the death of Sir Walter in 1832 he became his literary executor, and in 1838 published the memoirs of his father-in-law, which is one of the most interesting biographies in the language, and will probably remain the best-known and most enduring of Lockhart's productions. During the latter years of his life his health was greatly impaired; but for this his intellectual exertions, as well as family calamities and bereavements, will sufficiently account. In the last volume of Scott's memoirs Lockhart thus mournfully writes: — "Death has laid a heavy hand upon that circle — as happy a circle, I believe, as ever met. Bright eyes now closed in dust, gay voices for ever silenced seem to haunt me as I write.... She whom I may now sadly record as, next to Sir Walter himself, the chief ornament and delight at all those simple meetings — she to whose love I owed my place in them — Scott's eldest daughter, the one of all his children who in countenance, mind, and manners most resembled himself, and who indeed was as like in all things as a gentle, innocent woman can ever be to a great man, deeply tried and skilled in the struggles and perplexities of active life — she too is no more."

In the summer of 1853 Lockhart resigned his editorship, and spent the following winter in Italy; but the maladies under which he laboured, like Scott's, although assuaged for a time, came back with renewed violence on his return home. Arranging his affairs in London he left it never to return, and went to reside with his elder brother, Mr. Lockhart, M.P., at Milton of Lockhart, near Lanark. Here his strength rapidly failed, and he was removed to Abbotsford, that his dying pillow might be smoothed by his only surviving child, Mr. Hope Scott. Here he breathed his last November 25, 1854, in his sixty-first year. His remains were interred in Dryborough Abbey, near those of his illustrious father-in-law.