1854 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Wilson

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 41 (June 1854) 657-59.



April 3. At Edinburgh, in his 69th year, John Wilson, esq. late Professor of Moral Philosophy in the university of that city.

Professor Wilson was the son of a successful manufacturer in Paisley, where he was born on the 19th May 1785. At an early age he was sent to a school at Glenorchy in the Highlands, kept by Dr. Joseph M'Intyre, an eminent clergyman of the church of Scotland; and there he evidently acquired his passionate taste for the wild scenery and the active sports of the mountains. At the age of thirteen he removed to the university of Glasgow, and five years later he was entered of Magdalene college, Oxford. When at Oxford his character retained and deepened all its peculiar traits. He took several college honours; and was the first boxer, leaper, and runner among the students. In 1806 he gained the Newdigate prize in English verse, the subject being in "Recommendation of the Study of Grecian and Roman Architecture." He graduated B.A. 1807, M.A. 1810.

When he left Oxford he betook himself to the Lake country, where his father had purchased the estate of Elleray, situated on the shores of Windermere. Here he speedily became intimate with Wordsworth, Southey, Coleridge, and De Quincey, the last of whom describes him as then a tall, fresh, fine-looking youth, dressed like a sailor, and full of frankness, eccentricity, and fire. He was at that time vacillating between various schemes of life, all more or less singular. He was now projecting a journey to the interior of Africa, and now determining to be for life a writer of poetry. He contributed some fine letters to Coleridge's Friend, under the signature of Mathetes. From that gifted man, however, he afterwards became estranged. About this period we find him thus described in a letter from Sir Walter Scott to Miss Baillie:—

"The author of the elegy upon poor Grahame is John Wilson, a young man of very considerable poetical powers. He is now engaged in a poem called The Isle of Palms, something in the style of Southey. He is an eccentric genius, and has fixed himself on the banks of Windermere, but occasionally resides in Edinburgh, where he now is. Perhaps you have seen him. His father was a wealthy Paisley manufacturer; his mother a sister of Robert Sym. 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."

"The Isle of Palms, and other Poems," were published in 1812, 8vo. and Wilson subsequently produced "The City of the Plague," a poem as much distinguished for its delicacy of feeling as its extreme beauty of expression.

In 1815 their author was called to the Scottish bar, but he never had practice as an advocate.

On the publication of the Fourth Canto of Childe Harold, Wilson wrote his first and only paper in the Edinburgh Review — an eloquent critique upon that production.

In 1817 Blackwood's Magazine was started, and shortly after Wilson was added to its staff, and began that series of contributions — grave and gay, satiric and serious, mad and wise, nonsensical and profound, fierce and congenial, which were destined to irradiate or torment its pages for fully a quarter of a century.

In 1820, on the death of Dr. Thomas Brown, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the university of Edinburgh, Wilson was urged by his friends, especially by Sir Walter Scott, to stand as a candidate for the vacant chair. His opponent was Sir William Hamilton, who had devoted immense talent and research to the study of moral and mental science: but Wilson, though hitherto but little known, was elected in the face of much violent opposition, principally by political influence, for party spirit was then running very high in Edinburgh. Wilson on this occasion evinced a proper sense of the importance of his new responsibilities. He commenced to prepare his lectures with great care; and his success in the chair was such as to abash his adversaries and delight his friends. Those who attended his lectures will never forget the eloquence and genius with which he enlivened the didactic discourses of the class, and the happy combination of literature with philosophy which characterised his lectures.

He published no more volumes of poetry, but in the course of the next few years he produced three novels, — Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life, The Trials of Margaret Lindsay, and The Forresters, which were all powerfully written and fascinating hooks. These works contributed to raise his character, not only as a writer, but as a man.

In 1826, on the removal of Mr. Lockhart to London, Wilson became the principal, though not the ostensible, editor of Blackwood's Magazine; and his life for tan years from that date became identified with that publication. After that period, from enfeebled health, and a spirit broken by the loss of his wife, his powers were much impaired. He recovered however for a time, but his "Dies Boreales" were considered to be far inferior in spirit to the "Noctes Ambrosianae" of the former period.

In 1842 he made a selection from his contributions to Blackwood, under the title of "Recreations of Christopher North," in three volumes.

In 1853 he saw the necessity of resigning his chair, owing to the increasing weakness of his frame. A pension of 200 was granted to him by Lord John Russell. About a year ago his mind began to waver and decay, from repeated attacks of paralysis. From his cottage in Lasswade he was removed to Edinburgh; and, after various fluctuations, his spirit was at length released from that body which had become "a body of death."

"Wilson was not a one-sided man. He did not produce great results by working steadily on any one set of ideas. His intellect was not to be compared to a field, but to a district of fields — with hill and dale and sun and shade and moor and rock and water — a good wholesome district, with its water fresh and its air pure, though it maybe that it contained not one acre thoroughly free from weeds, or deserving to be famous for high farming and heavy crops.

"There are very many poems better than The Isle of Palms. But we may yet read in it, and in the City of the Plague, not a little of the grace and tenderness, the exquisite feeling, the rich power of enjoyment belonging to the youth of a mind like Wilson's, which afterwards took a form so much higher, fuller, and more complete in his prose writing in Blackwood's Magazine. Reading those Recreations of Christopher North, it is hard to say whether it is in his rough strength or chastened delicacy that we most feel how true a man is speaking to us, nor less difficult to discern whether his sympathies are keenest when they deal with nature or with man. Very charming too, in quiet pathos and subdued humour, are the few novels and tales of Scottish life which he has left behind him. And let us hope that, besides the writings thus enumerated, due materials exist for a published selection from his Lectures delivered in the Moral Philosophy chair at Edinburgh. They may not be scholastic, but they will be something better, for to him the study of man was no occult science." — Examiner.

John Wilson was a stout, tall, athletic man, with broad shoulders and chest, and prodigiously muscular limbs. His face was magnificent; his hair, which he wore long and flowing, fell round his massive features like a lion's mane, to which, indeed, it was often compared, being much of the same hue. His lips were always working, while his grey flashing eyes had a weird sort of look which was highly characteristic. In his dress he was singularly slovenly. With all his apparent eccentricity, he had sound judgment and a genial kindly heart; and in his warm love, especially in his latter years, of all that was generous and good and sacred, and his sincere affection for Dr. Chalmers and others of his colleagues most eminent for piety and active philanthropy, he gave proof of a religious principle far deeper than any mere sentimental feeling or philosophical persuasion.

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 Westmerland. 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 on 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 manner in which he saw, wooed, and won his wife was quite in keeping with his romantic and original character. Seeing, among a party visiting the lakes, a lady whose appearance struck him, he found out at what inn they were going to stay; and, inducing the landlord to allow him to act as waiter, he contrived to have an opportunity of seeing more of the object of his admiration, and then of declaring his passion. The result was in every way more fortunate than so irregular an introduction might have produced. 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 neighbourhood, where he met with kindness whatever was genuine, while he repulsed and shamed all flatteries and affectations. Every old boatman and young angler, hoary old 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 out off from both, long before his death.