1854 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Wilson

Harriet Martineau, Obituary in The Daily News (1854); Martineau, Biographical Sketches (1869) 21-27.



On Monday morning died Professor Wilson, the "Christopher North" whom probably none of his readers ever thought of as dead or dying, or losing any of the intense vitality which distinguishes the ideal "Christopher North" from all other men. The "Christopher North" and John Wilson are separated now, and forever. The one will live very long, if not always, and without losing an atom of his vigor; but the other, after long sinking, after grievous depression, and gradual extinction by paralysis, is gone; and none of the many who loved and worshipped him could wish that he had lived another day in the condition of his latter years.

Yet he was not very old. He was born at Paisley, in 1788, his father being a wealthy manufacturer there. He entered Glasgow University at the age of thirteen, and in four years more went to Magdalen College, Oxford, where his extraordinary quality was recognized at once. He was the leader in all sports, from his great bodily strength, as well as his enthusiasm for pleasure of that kind; and he gained the Newdegate prize for an English poem of sixty lines. On leaving College he bought the Elleray estate, on Windermere, which will ever be haunted by his memory; for there is not a point of interest about it or the neighborhood which he has not immortalized. So early as the beginning of 1812, we find Scott writing to Joanna Baillie of the extraordinary young man, John Wilson, who had written an elegy upon "poor Grahame," and was then engaged in a poem called the Isle of Palms, — " something," added Scott, curiously enough, "in the style of Southey." "He seems an excellent, warm-hearted, and enthusiastic young man; something too much, perhaps, of the latter quality, places him among the list of originals." A short time after this, and in consequence of loss of property, he studied Law, and was called to the Scotch bar. So early as that date, before any of the Waverley novels appeared, the grateful young poet, who deeply felt Scott's kindness in encouraging his muse, gave him the title of the Great Magician, by which he was soon to he recognized by all the world. This was in some stanzas, called the Magic Mirror, which appeared in the Edinburgh Annual Register. When John Kemble took leave of the stage at Edinburgh, and was entertained at a very remarkable dinner, where all the company believed they were taking leave of dramatic pleasure forever, Jeffrey was in the chair, and John Wilson shared the vice-presidentship with Scott. Scott's kindness to his young friend was earnest and vigilant. We find him inviting Wilson and Lockhart from Elleray to Abbotsford, the next year, fixing the precise day when he wished them to arrive; and the reason turned out to be, that Lord Melville was to be there; and it was possible that something good might turn up in the Parliament House for the young men in consequence of the interview.

For Wilson this sort of aid was soon unnecessary. He became Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh in 1820, and had already done more than any one man toward raising the character of periodical literature by his marvellous contributions to Blackwood's Magazine, and the stimulus his genius imparted to a whole generation of writers of that class. We all know his selection from those papers — the three volumes of Recreations of Christopher North. There is nothing in our literature exactly like them; and we may venture to say there never will be. They are not only the most effective transcription of the moods of thought and feeling of a deeply thinking and feeling mind — a complete arresting and presentment of those moods as they pass — but an absolute realizing of the influence of Nature in a book. The scents and breezes of the moorland are carried fairly into even the sick-chamber by that book; and through it the writer practised the benevolence of the ancient rich man, and was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. Mr. Hallam, the calmest of critics, has declared Wilson's eloquence to be as the rushing of mighty waters; and it was no less the bracing of the mountain winds. His fame will rest on his prose writings, and not on his two chief poems, the Isle of Palms, and the City of the Plague; and of his prose writings, his Recreations will, we imagine, outlive his three novels, Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life, the Trials of Margaret Lyndsay, and The Foresters. If the marvel of his eloquence is not lessened, it is at least accounted for to those who have seen him, — or even his portrait. Such a presence is rarely seen; and more than one person has said that he reminded them of the first man, Adam; so full was that large frame of vitality, force, and sentience. His tread seemed almost to shake the streets, his eye almost saw through stone walls; and as for his voice, there was no heart that could stand before it. He swept away all hearts, whithersoever he would. No less striking was it to see him in a mood of repose, as when he steered the old packet-boat that used to pass between Bowness and Ambleside, before the steamers were put upon the Lake. Sitting motionless, with his hand upon the rudder, in the presence of journeymen and market-women, with his eye apparently looking beyond everything into nothing, and his mouth closed under his beard, as if he meant never to speak again, he was quite as impressive and immortal an image as he could have been to the students of his class or the comrades of his jovial hours. The tendencies of such a temperament are obvious enough; and his faults arose from the indulgence of those tendencies. A few words from a friendly letter of Scott's, written when Wilson was a candidate for his professorship, will sufficiently indicate the nature of his weaknesses, and may stand for all the censure we are disposed to offer. "You must, of course," writes Scott to Mr. Lockhart, "recommend to Wilson great temper in his canvass; for wrath will do no good. After all, he must leave off sack, purge, and live cleanly as a gentleman ought to do, otherwise people will compare his present ambition to that of Sir Terry O'Fag when he wished to become a judge. 'Our pleasant vices are made the whips to scourge us,' as Lear says; for otherwise what could possibly stand in the way of his nomination? I trust it will take place, and give him the consistence and steadiness which are all he wants to make him the first man of the age." He did get his election; and it was not very long after that he and Campbell, the poet, were seen one morning leaving a tavern in Edinburgh, haggard and red-eyed, hoarse and exhausted — not only the feeble Campbell, but the mighty Wilson — they having sat tete-a-tete for twenty-four hours, discussing poetry and wine to the top of their bent: a remarkable spectacle in connection with the Moral Philosophy Chair in any University. But, if the constituents of such an office crave a John Wilson to fill it, they must take him with all his liabilities about him.

His moods were as various as those of the Mother Nature he adored. In 1815, when all the rest of the world was in the dark about the Scotch novels, he was in excessive delight at receiving from William Laidlaw the evidence that Colonel Mannering was Scott himself; and deep in proportion was his grief when he saw that genial mind going out. The trembling of his mighty voice when he paid his tribute to Scott's genius at the public meeting after his death moved every heart present. He could enter into the spirit of Lake scenery deeply with Wordsworth when floating on Windermere at sunset; and he could, as we see by Moore's Diary, imitate Wordsworth's monologues to admiration under the lamp at a jovial Edinburgh supper-table. He could collect as strange a set of oddities about him there as ever Johnson or Fielding did in their City lodgings; and he could wander alone for a week along the trout streams, and by the mountain tarns of Westmoreland. He could proudly lead the regatta from Mr. Bolton's, at Storr's, as "Admiral of the Lake," with Canning, Scott, Wordsworth, Southey, and others, and shed an intellectual sunshine as radiant as that which glittered upon Windermere; and he could forbid the felling of any trees at Elleray, and shroud himself in its damp gloom, when its mistress was gone, leaving a bequest of melancholy which he never surmounted. The "grace and gentle goodness" of his wife were bound about his heartstrings; and the thought of her was known and felt to underlie all his moods from the time of her death. She loved Elleray, and the trees about it; and he allowed not a twig of them to be touched till the place grew too mossy and mournful; and then he parted with it. He was much beloved in that neighborhood, where he met with kindness whatever was genuine, while he repulsed and shamed all flatteries and affectations. Every old boatman and young angler, every hoary shepherd and primitive dame among the hills of the District, knew him and enjoyed his presence. He was a steady and genial friend to poor Hartley Coleridge for a long course of years. He made others happy by being so intensely happy himself; when his brighter moods were on him. He felt, and enjoyed too, intensely, and paid the penalty in the deep melancholy of the close of his life. He could not chasten the exuberance of his love of Nature and of genial human intercourse; and he was cut off from both, long before his death. The sad spectacle was witnessed with respectful sorrow; for all who had ever known him felt deeply in debt to him. He underwent an attack of pressure on the brain some years before his death; and an access of paralysis closed the scene.

It is curious that, whereas it is universally agreed that it is by his prose that he won his immortality, he argued with Moore that the inferiority of prose to poetry was proved by the fact that there is no such thing as a school of prose, while literary history consists of a succession of schools of poetry. It may be that his prose is something new in the world. At this moment, under the emotion of parting from him, we are disposed to think it is. Nowhere can we look for such a combination of music, emotion, speculation, comment, wit, and imagination, as in some of his Noctes Ambrosianae, and in hundreds of the pages of Christopher's Recreations. In them we rejoice to think the subdued spirit is revived that we have seen fail, and the dumb voice reawakened for the delight of many a future generation.