1847 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Wilson

William Howitt, "John Wilson" Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets (1847) 2:432-39.



The progress of my work warns me to be brief where I would fain be most voluminous. To John Wilson, of the Isle of Palms, the City of the Plague, and of volumes of other beautiful poetry, it would be a delightful task to devote a volume. The biography of Professor Wilson, whenever given to the world, if written as it should be, would be one of the most curious and intensely interesting books in the world. The poet and the periodical writer, Christopher North at the Noctes and in his shooting jacket, and John Wilson, the free, open-hearted, yet eccentric man, could, combined, furnish forth, with glimpses of his cotemporaries and social doings, a most fascinating work. As it is we must take but a glimpse, and a hasty glimpse, at his residences.

John Wilson was born at Paisley. His father was a wealthy manufacturer, and the house which he inhabited, and where the professor first saw the light, is perhaps the best and largest house in the town, standing in High-street. It is a large white house, standing somewhat back, with a little shrubbery before it. Wilson was educated at Oxford, and in the London Magazine of 1820 we find an account of his indulging himself in a pedestrian journey from the university to Edinburgh, in all manner of country life. Now joining a strolling company of players; now camping with a gang of gipsies; then acting the beggar; and ever and anon falling in with a village wake, and entering into all the contests of flinging at will-pegs, jumping in sacks, leaping and racing. On these occasions he would astonish the natives with his wonderful talk over their beer, or equally amaze the village damsels by his grace and activity in the dance. Any one who has seen John Wilson may imagine with what gusto and success he would go through all these parts, while hoarding up knowledge of the people's life, that would tell in future.

It is also said, that, quite as a youth, he made an excursion of this kind, nobody knowing whither he had vanished, till a Paisley man happening to enter an inn at Conway, to his amazement saw him acting as a waiter there. Information was immediately sent to his father, it is said, who hastened into Wales, and surprised John by his presence, requesting him to return forthwith home. But here the boniface interfered, declaring that he could not part on any terms with his waiter, for such a waiter he had never had in his house in his life. So active, so expert, so full of wit and good humour, that every one of his guests was charmed with him. In short, he was the making of the house, and go he should not. It was only when mine host was convinced who and what the youth was, and that it was only a lark, that he gave way and consented to his loss.

His life in Edinburgh, his contest for the chair of Moral Philosophy there, which he has so long and honourably occupied, his splendid writings in Blackwood, and his association with all the distinguished men of that literary corps and of the Scottish metropolis, are too familiar matters to dwell upon. The haunts of Wilson in town are the gathering places of genius and conviviality. In the country they are the mountains, the moors, and the streams. His tall and athletic form, and active and ardent character, mark him out for a deep enjoyment of all the loveliness of nature, and the sports of the wild. He has been a great wrestler, a great angler, a great shooter, and a great walker. In life or in the pages of Blackwood, the angle and the gun have been his companions, amid the most splendid and solitary scenery of the kingdom. At one time he has been traversing the piny mountains, and the lonely lochs of the Highlands, at another strolling through the defiles of Patterdale, or scaling the heights of Skiddaw. Once taking refuge in a farmhouse in the highlands of Scotland, I was told that Professor Wilson and his wife had done the same thing just before, on their way towards the western coast on foot, with a view to visit Staffa and Iona.

With a happy family around him, John Wilson seemed for years to breathe nothing but the spirit of happiness and the full enjoyment of life. Labouring away at his lectures and his magazine articles, and partaking the society of Edinburgh during the college terms, he was ever ready to fly off on their close to his beloved hills and streams. In Edinburgh his house has long been in Gloucester-place of the new town. In the country his favourite abode at Elleray, near Windermere, in Westmoreland.

Many anecdotes of his manly humour, kindliness, and exploits of physical vigour, are related of him in this neighbourhood: amongst others, that he was once ballotted for the local militia there, and declined finding a substitute, but chose to serve. Here, then, might be seen the poet and philosopher passing his drill, and manoeuvring rank and file. He would attend for his ration, and his tommy, and sticking them on the point of his bayonet, march down the town where the regiment lay, and present them to the first old woman he met. For these vagaries he was called up before the officers to be reprimanded; but the affair was sure to change very speedily from a grave to a merry one, and to end by the officers inviting him to partake of their mess. How long he continued to indulge his whim does not appear.

Hogg gives somewhere a very amusing account of a week that he spent with him at Elleray, where he says they had curious doings among the gentlemen and the poets of the lakes. According to his account, they used to ramble far and wide amongst the lakes and mountains, fishing, and climbing, and talking, and would give each other a challenge to write a poem on some given subject, in the evening, after dinner. Hogg's relation of these poetical contests is most laughable. They seated themselves in separate rooms; but according to a custom very common, and perhaps universal amongst poets, of chanting their verses aloud as they form them, Hogg could always hear how the matter was progressing with his antagonist. If the verse did not flow well, there was a dead silence; if it began to flow and expand, there was heard a pleasant murmur, as of a mountain stream. As the inspiration grew, and the work sped, the sound rose and swelled, like the breeze in the sonorous forest of northern pines; and when there was a passage of supposed preeminence of beauty and strength struck out, then it rose into a grand and triumphal tide of song, like the wind pealing through the mountain passes, or the ocean pouring in riotous joy on the shore. When it reached so grand a climax, Hogg says he used to exclaim, — "There, it's all over with me; I'm done for!" and with that he gave up the contest for the day, knowing that the case was hopeless.

This humming habit of poets is a singular characteristic. A certain one of my acquaintance, riding one day on the highway, and seeing no one near, broke out into a loud and continuous chant, when a fellow put his head suddenly over the hedge, and shouted out — "What is all that about!" At which the startled bard was first struck into a sudden silence, and then into as sudden a burst of laughter at the oddity of the circumstance. Wordsworth, amongst the woods, and rocks, and solitary crags of Cumberland, may be heard murmuring to himself a music of his own; so that a stranger, seeing the grave and ancient man strolling along, often with a little bundle of sticks under his arm, that he has unconsciously gathered, and humming out some dimly intelligible stanzas in a breeze-like and eolian harp-like wildness of cadence, might take him for a very innocent old man, not over-burdened with business or other matters. Amongst the great luxuriant laurels that flourish round his house, you may trace his retired perambulations by his top-like humming, and say, — "Over its own sweet voice the stock-dove broods."

Southey's garden, and that of his only neighbour, were merely divided by a hedge. In the garden of the neighbour was sitting once with the neighbour a visitor from a distance, when a deep and mysterious booming, somewhat near, startled the stranger, and caused him to listen. Recollecting that they were near the lakes, the sound, which at first seemed most novel and unaccountable, appeared to receive a solution; and the visitor exclaimed, — "What! have you bitterns here?" "Bitterns!" replied the host; "oh no; it is only Southey, humming his verses in the garden walk on the other side of the hedge!"

The cottage of Wilson at Elleray is a simple, but elegant little villa, standing on high ground overlooking Windermere, but at the distance of some miles. As you approach Ambleside from Kendal, you pass, as you begin to descend the hill towards Lowood, a gate leading into a gentleman's grounds. The gateway is, on either side, hung with masses of the Ayrshire rose. There is a poetical look about the place; and that place is the country retreat of John Wilson. A carriage road, winding almost in a perfect circle, soon introduces you to a fine lawn, surrounded by plantations, and before you, on a swelling knoll, you discern the cottage. It is hung with ivy and Ayrshire and commands a splendid view over the lake, and all the mountains round. At the back a plantation of larches ascends the hill, screening it from the north. At the foot of these plantations, and sheltered in their friendly bosom, lie the gardens, with bees, and pleasant nooks for reading or talk. Walks extend all through these woodlands, and one of them conducts you through the larch copse, up the hill, and from its summit beyond the house, gives you a most magnificent panoramic view of the whole country, with its mountains, and lakes, and plains, and the very ocean. In one direction, you have Morecomb bay and Ulverstone sands, with the crags of Cartmell; in another, Coniston and other fells; then Eskdale fells, Dunmail raise; Bow fell, far beyond, and Langdale pikes. In another, you catch the summit of Skiddaw, and the lofty ridges in the neighbourhood of Patterdale, with Shap fell. Below you is all the breadth and the scenery of Windermere.

Such a view is a perpetual enjoyment. The constant changes of cloud and sun, cast over it a constant change of aspect. Now all is shining out airy, and clear, and brilliant; and now dark and solemn lie the shadows, black often as night, and wild from passing tempests, in the mysterious hollows of the hills. When you descend to the house, the scene around is made all the more soft and attractive to the senses by the change from such immense range of vision, and stern character of many of the objects presented. Here all is beauty and repose. The knoll on which the house stands, is particularly round, and is well laid out in lawn and flower-beds. The house itself is simple, and consists principally of one long room, which, by folding doors, can be formed into two, with a hall between them. Behind this lie the kitchen and offices. At the end, next to the Windermere, is a large bay window, overlooking the upper part of the lake, towards Langdale and Coniston fell. The window is provided with seats, for the full enjoyment of this splendid view. A pleasantly swelling slope descends to the meadows which lie between its feet, and the house of the late Bishop Watson. The front door is in a bay window, lined with stands of plants, and having in direct view Ray castle on the far side of the lake.

Such is the poet's cottage at Elleray, in itself unostentatious, but surrounded by the magnificence of nature in the distance, and by its quiet sweetness at hand. Years ago, when Mrs. Wilson was living, and the children were young and about them, we can conceive no happier spot of earth. No man was more formed to enjoy all that life had to offer, both at home and abroad, in such scenery; his wife was a most charming woman, and his children full of spirit and promise. The affectionate tenderness which diffused itself through the whole of Wilson's being, and the depth of that happiness which he enjoyed here, are manifested in such poems as the Children's Dance, and the Angler's Tent. When his tent was pitched in a Sabbath valley far off, he thus referred to the homes of both himself and his companion, the poet of Rydal:—

Yet think not in this wild and fairy spot,
This mingled happiness of earth and heaven,
Which to our hearts this Sabbath-day was given,
Think not that far-off friends were quite forgot.
Helm-crag arose before our half-closed eyes,
With colours brighter than the brightening dove;
Beneath that guardian mount a cottage lies,
Encircled by a halo breathed from love!
And sweet that dwelling rests upon the brow,
Beneath that sycamore, of Orest hill,
As if it smiled on Windermere below,
Her green recesses and her islands still!
Thus gently blended many a human thought
With those that peace and solitude supplied,
Till in our hearts the musing kindness wrought
With gradual influence like a flowing tide,
And for the lovely sound of human voice we sighed.

But the great charm and ornament of that house has vanished; the young steps have wandered forth, and found other homes; and it must now be a somewhat solitary spot to him who formerly found collected into it all that made life beautiful. Nay, steam, as little as time, has respected the sanctity of the poet's home, but has drawn up its roaring iron steeds opposite to its gate, and has menaced to rush through it, and lay waste its charmed solitude. In plain words, I saw the stakes of a projected railway running in an ominous line across the very lawn, and before the very windows of Elleray.