1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Wilson

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 90.



JOHN WILSON was born at Paisley, in 1789. After going through a preparatory course of study at the University of Glasgow, he was entered a fellow-commoner at Magdalen College, Oxford; and very soon obtained some portion of that fame of which he was destined to participate so largely. Much of his paternal property was lost by the failure of a mercantile concern in which it had been embarked; but enough remained to purchase the elegancies of life: he bought the beautiful estate of Elleray, on the lake of Winandermere — fit dwelling for a Poet — and continues to inhabit it, when his professional duties permit his absence from Edinburgh. In 1812, he published the Isle of Palms; and the City of the Plague, in 1816. In 1820, he became, under circumstances highly honourable to him, a successful candidate for the Chair of Moral Philosophy, in the University of the Scottish metropolis. He has since published but little poetry: his prose tales — "the Trials of Margaret Lindsay," "the Foresters," and "Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life" — have, however, amply compensated the world for his desertion of the Muses; and his contributions to Blackwood's Magazine, which are too strongly marked to leave any doubt of their authorship, have established for him a high and enduring reputation. The conduct of this Periodical is so universally understood to be in the hands of the Professor, that we may consider ourselves justified in describing him as its Editor. He has long upheld its supremacy: the best supported Magazines of England have failed in competing with it; because there is no living writer whose talents are so versatile, and consequently so fitted to deal with the varied topics upon which his judgment or his fancy must be employed. His learning is both profound and excursive; his criticism searching and sound; his descriptions of scenery exquisitely true; his paintings of human character and passion admirable; his wit and humour delightful, when it does not degenerate into "fun;" and no writer of modern times has written so many deliciously eloquent passages which produce, if we may so express ourselves, gushes of admiration. The mind of Wilson is a remarkable blending of the kindly and the bitter: — his praise is always full and hearty; his censure almost unendurable: he appears to have no controul over his likings or dislikings; — at times, pursues with almost superhuman wrath, and then, again, becomes so generous and eloquent, that he absolutely makes an author's character, and establishes his position by a few sentences of approval. From all his criticisms there may be gathered some evidence of a sound heart; of a nature like the Highland breezes — keen, but healthy; often most invigorating when most severe — but which may be safely encountered only by those whose stamina is unquestionable. The personal appearance of Professor Wilson is very remarkable: his frame is, like his mind, powerful and robust. His complexion is florid, and his features are finely marked; the mouth is exquisitely chiselled, the expression of his countenance is gentle to a degree; but there is "a lurking devil" in his keen grey eye, that gives a very intelligible hint to the observer. His forehead is broad and high. To us, among all the great men we have ever beheld — and they have not been few — there is not one who so thoroughly extorts a mingled sensation of love and fear.

The poetry of Professor Wilson has not attained the popularity to which it is entitled; probably because when he first published, he had to compete with a formidable rival in his own illustrious countryman, and the fame which, in England, nearly at the same period, was about to absorb that of all other Bards. His poems are, however, full of beauty; they have all the freshness of the heather, — a true relish for nature breaks out in them all: there is no puerile or sickly sentimentalism; — they are the earnest breathings of a happy and buoyant spirit; a giving out, as it were, of the breath that has been inhaled among the mountains. They manifest, moreover, the finest sympathies with humanity; nothing harsh or repining seems to have entered the Poet's thoughts; they may be read as compositions of the highest merit, — as bearing the severest test of critical asperity; but also as graceful and beautiful transcripts of nature, when her grace and beauty is felt and appreciated by all. There is no evidence of "fine phrenzy" in his glances "from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; but there is ample proof of the depth of his worship, and the fulness of his affection for all the objects which "Nature's God" has made graceful and fruitful. It is worthy of comment, that, as far as we know, Wilson has never penned a line of satire, in poetry, — seeming as if his thoughts could take in nothing but what wits good, and holy; and tranquillizing, when his associates were the Muses.