1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Gibson Lockhart

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 43 (January 1855) 91-94.



Nov. 23. At Abbotsford, in his 60th year, John Gibson Lockhart, esq. D.C.L., Auditor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Mr. Lockhart was the second surviving son of a Scotch clergyman, of gentle descent and old family, in the county of Lanark. He was born, 1794, in the manse of Cambusnethen, whence his father was transferred, 1796, to Glasgow, where John Lockhart was reared and educated. The inheritance of genius (as in many other instances) would appear to have come from his mother, who had some of the blood of the Erskines in her veins. His appetite for reading, even as a boy, was great. Though somewhat idle as regards school study, he yet distinguished himself both at school and college, outstripping his more studious competitors, and finally obtaining, by the unanimous award of the Professors, the Snell Exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford, where he was entered, 1809, at the early age of 15. Dr. Jenkyns, the present Dean of Wells, was his tutor. At Easter in 1813 he took honours as a first-class man in literis humanioribus. He graduated .B.C.L. 1817, and was created D.C.L. in 1834. After a sojourn in Germany sufficiently long to enable him to acquire its language and a taste for its literature, he was called to the Scottish bar in 1816; but, though endowed with perseverance and acuteness sufficient to constitute a first-rate lawyer, he wanted the gift of eloquence to enable him to shine as an advocate. His wit, his learning, and extensive reading found, however, a ready outlet through his pen.

In May 1818, he first met Sir Walter Scott, who was pleased with his conversation, and shortly after recommended him to the Ballantynes, as likely to afford useful aid in their literary undertakings. They employed him to write the historical part of the "Edinburgh Annual Register," which Scott had previously compiled, but for which other more profitable avocations left him no leisure. Soon after this he received a message from Scott to come to Abbotsford, along with John Wilson, to meet Lord Melville of the Admiralty, son of the famous Henry Dundas, who had more political power than any Scotchman since the days of Lord Bute, and to whom the young Tories of the north transferred the humble reverence and keen expectation with which they had looked to the father as the dispenser of patronage and places.

From the interview with Lord Melville no immediate result ensued in Lockhart's case, but it is well known that political influence had the main share in the election of Wilson to the chair of Moral philosophy in the University of Edinburgh. The appointment turned out far better than had been anticipated; but at the time it was felt to be too strong an exertion of political influence, to thrust into the chair of Dugald Stewart a young poet, who had not turned his attention to ethical studies, and whose literary attainments were chiefly known from his light contributions to Blackwood's Magazine. Lockhart was at this time a most intimate friend of Wilson, and his ablest coadjutor in Blackwood, which, though only started in 1817, had already become a considerable "power," both in literature and politics. Those who wish to learn more about the public and the private history of the Scottish notables, Whig and Tory, of that time, may read "Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk," published (anonymously) by Lockhart in 1819, and if any contemporary citizen of Edinburgh can be found to explain the many personal hints and allusions, so much the more satisfactory will be the perusal.

In 1820, the same year that Wilson commenced his professional duties, Lockhart was married to Sophia, the eldest daughter of Walter Scott, "the one of all his children who in countenance, mind, and manners most resembled himself, and who, indeed, was as like him 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." For a few years after their marriage Mr. and Mrs. Lockhart lived, under the shelter of the wing of the Great Unknown, at Chiefswood, a cottage within easy reach of Abbotsford. All who know the story of Scott as told in his Life by his son-in-law, will remember with pleasure what Lockhart has related, of his home at Chiefswood, in which the laird of Abbottford took so deep an interest.

Among Lockhart's earliest contributions to Blackwood's Magazine were his Spanish Ballads, which were afterwards collected, and have almost become classical among the lovers of ballad poetry. In 1820 he published without his name, his first novel, "Valerius, a Roman story;" which is one of the best fictions founded upon classical manners. This was followed by "Reginald Dalton," in which there are some bright pictures of university life: and by "Adam Blair," which was no less remarkable, as a domestic story of intense passion. Early in 1825 appeared his "Life of Burns," in Constable's newly commenced Miscellany of cheap and popular literature. He also wrote a Life of Napoleon for the same collection.

In 1826 Mr. Lockhart removed to London, having succeeded Mr. Gifford as editor of the Quarterly Review. The prosperity of the work under his guidance is a sufficient attestation to the intellectual vigour and activity which he brought into play. Apart from the influence derived from its political articles, Lockhart took care to maintain the excellence of the Review in all departments of literature, and some of the ablest efforts of modern English scholarship are found in the papers on classical subjects in the volumes of the Quarterly during the twenty-eight years that it continued under Lockhart's editorship. In 1853 his failing health compelled him to resign his task.

On the death of Sir Walter Scott, Lockhart was at once designated his biographer. His strength lay in biography; his best papers in the Quarterly Review were full and rapid condensations of wide-spun volumes on the lives and works of authors or statesmen. But, while his relation and singular qualifications gave him unrivalled advantages for this work, they involved him in no less serious and peculiar difficulties. The history must tell not only the brilliant joyous dawn and zenith of the poet's fame, but also the dark sad decline and close. It was not only that Lockhart, as the husband of his daughter — as living in humble and happy Chiefswood with his charming wife (in some respects so like her father), and his promising children, under the shade of aspiring Abbotsford, enjoyed the closest intimacy with Scott, saw him in all his moods, with veneration which could not blind his intuitive keen observation of human character, read his heart of hearts; in some respects there was the most perfect congeniality between the two. In outward manner no men indeed could be more different. Scott, frank, easy, accessible, the least awful great man ever known, with his arms and his heart open to every one who had any pretension, to many who had no pretension, to be admitted within them, as much at case with the King as with Adam Purdie. Lockhart, slow at first, retiring, almost repelling, till the thaw of kindly or friendly feelings had warmed and kindled his heart; then, and not till then, the pleasantest of companions. But in tastes, in political principles, in conviviality, in active life, in the enjoyment of Scottish scenery and Scottish sports, in the love of letters for the sake of letters, with a sovereign contempt and aversion for the pedantry of authorship, warm attachments, even the love of brute beasts — in admiration of the past, in the enjoyment of the present, in bright aspirations for the future — there was the closest sympathy, the happiest fellowship. So nothing can be more delightful than the life in Edinburgh, the life n the Border, the life in London; but stern truth, honour, faith with the public, commanded the disclosure of the gloomier evening of this glorious day, the evening of disappointment, embarrassment, noble powers generously overtaxed, breaking down in a death-struggle with the resolute determination to be just, honourable, free.

Lockhart's was a singularly practical understanding; he had remarkable talents for business, and read men with a sharper and more just appreciation than generous Scott. No one could discern more clearly the baselessness of his father-in-law's magnificent schemes, by which his own unrivalled successes were to be the ordinary rewards of the book-trade. With a strange chivalrous notion, Scott was to be at once the noblest and most munificent patron of letters, to force good books on an unprepared and reluctant public, and, at the same time, to achieve such riches as had never crossed the imagination of the most fortunate bibliopole. All this error Lockhart had long seen through; and, we are persuaded, that if Scott had thrown his affairs into Lockhart's hands, we will not say that they might have been retrieved, but the blow would have been mitigated; something less might have been necessary than the vital, the fatal wrestling with unconquerable circumstances. But in the Life how was this to be told? Too much was known, too much was surmised, for suppression or disguise. Lockhart resolved boldly, fairly, to reveal the whole; for Scott's fame we think he judged wisely, even though the book may have been in some degree weighed down. If there were those who suffered by the exposure, we cannot but think they deserved to suffer. All that was sordid and grasping in trading speculation seemed to fall off from the majestic image of Scott; he rose like a hero in the old Greek tragedy, doing battle to the last with destiny, nobler in his sad and tragic end than at the height of his glory. All this must have been in the keen and far-sighted view of Lockhart; and must redound to his praise as a wise, as well as faithful and masterly biographer.

In 1843 Mr. Lockhart was appointed by Sir Robert Peel to the office of Auditor of the Duchy of Cornwall, to which a salary of 600 per annum is annexed; and he is understood to have inherited family property on the death of a relative some years ago. His life, therefore, in point of fortune, was clear of those anxieties and vicissitudes which have warped the efforts and embittered the spirits of other men of letters. It was darkened, however, by a singular course of family bereavements. The whole family history of Scott and Lockhart affords a striking instance of the "vanity of human wishes." Scott's chief ambition was to be a country laird, and the founder of the family of the Scotts of Abbotsford. His inward thought was, that his house should continue for ever, and the land be called after his own name. Of Scott's four children, the elder son died childless in India, and the other, unmarried, in Persia. The younger daughter died not long after her father, and Mrs. Lockhart four years later. Her elder boy, the Hugh Little-John for whom Scott had written his Tales of a Grandfather, had died some years before. Lockhart had then a son, who is since dead, and his only daughter has adopted views (in the Roman communion) widely alien from the early associations of Abbotsford. She was married in 1847 to James Robert Hope, esq. barrister-at-law, a younger son of the late General the Hon. Sir Alexander Hope, and has issue an only daughter, Mary-Morrice, born in 1852.

With broken health and spirits Mr. Lockhart betook himself to Rome, by medical advice, with slight hope on his own part of benefit. Having little taste for foreign travel, he returned home in the spring of the present year. He made a partial rally on his arrival in Scotland, but a very severe attack of diarrhoea in the month of October shattered his already enfeebled frame; he was removed from Milton Lockhart, the house of his eldest brother, M.P. for Lanark, under the care of his old friend, Dr. Ferguson, to Abbotsford, where he breathed his last, on the 25th of November.

Much as he had suffered both in mind and body, and precarious as had been his state, there had been no decline of that which constituted Lockhart — the acuteness, the vigour, the marvellous memory, the flashing wit, swift to sever truth from falsehood — the stores of knowledge, ever ready and bright, never displayed. Although his reputation has been confined to literature, and although, by early amassed knowledge and long-sharpened thought, he had reared himself into a pillar of literary strength, yet the leading qualities of his mind would have fitted him for any part where far-sighted sagacity, iron self-control, and rapid instinctive judgment mark the born leader of others. Nor did he care for literary triumphs, or trials of strength, but rather avoided them with shrinking reserve. Far from seeking, he could never even be induced to take the place which his reputation and his talents assigned him; he entered society rather to unbend his powers than to exert them. Playful raillery, inimitable in ease and brilliancy, with old friend, simple child, or with the gentlest or humblest present, was the relaxation he most cared to indulge in; and if that were denied him, and especially if expected to stand forward and shine, he would shut himself up altogether.

"Reserve, indeed — too often misunderstood in its origin, ascribed to coldness and pride when its only source was the rarest modesty and hatred of exhibition — with shyness both personal and national, was his strong external characteristic. Those whose acquaintance he was expressly invited to make would find no access allowed them to his mind, and go disappointed away, knowing only that they had seen one of the most interesting, most mysterious, but most chilling of men; for their very deference had made him retire further from them. Most happy was Lockhart when he could literally take the lowest place, and there complacently listen to the strife of conversers, till some dilemma in the chain of recollection or argument arose, and then the ready memory drew forth the missing link, and the keen sagacity fitted it home to its place, and what all wanted and no one else could supply was murmured out in choice, precise, but most unstudied words. And there were occasions also when the expression of the listener was not so complacent — when the point at issue was not one of memory or of fact, but of the subtler shades of right and wrong; and then the scorn on the lip and the cloud on the brow were but the prelude to same strong, wiry sentence, withering in its sarcasm and unanswerable in its sense, which scattered all sophistry to the winds before it.

"Far remote was he from the usual conditions of genius; its simplicity, its foibles, and its follies. Lockhart had fought the whole battle of life, both within and without, and borne more than its share of sorrow. So acute, satirical, and unsparing was his intellect that, had Lockhart been endowed with that alone, he would have been the most brilliant, but the most dangerous of men; but so upright and true were his moral qualities also, that, had he been a dunce in attainments or a fool in wit, he must still have been recognised as an extraordinary man. We will not call it unfortunate, for it was the necessary consequence of the very conditions of his life and nature that, while his intellect was known to all, his heart could be known comparatively to few. All knew how unsparing he was to morbid and sickly sentiment, but few could tell how tender he was to genuine feeling. All could see how he despised every species of vanity, pretension, and cant; but few had the opportunity of witnessing his unfailing homage to the humblest or even stupidest worth. Many will believe what caustic he was to a false grief; few could credit what balm to a real one. His indomitable reserve never prevented his intellect from having fair play, but it greatly impeded the justice due to his nobler part.

"It was characteristic of Lockhart's peculiar individuality that, wherever he was at all known, whether by man or woman, by poet, man of business, or man of the world, he touched the hidden chord of romance in all. No man less affected the poetical, the mysterious, or the sentimental; no man less affected anything; yet, as he stole stiffly away from the knot which, if he had not enlivened, he had hushed, there was not one who did not confess that a being had passed before them who stirred all the pulses of the imagination, and realized what is generally only ideal in the portrait of a man. To this impression there is no doubt that his personal appearance greatly contributed, though too entirely the exponent of his mind to be considered as a separate cause. Endowed with the very highest order of manly beauty, both of feature and expression, he retained the brilliancy of youth and a stately strength of person comparatively unimpaired in ripened life; and then, though sorrow and sickness suddenly brought on a premature old age, which none could witness unmoved, yet the beauty of the head and of the bearing so far gained in melancholy loftiness of expression what they lost in animation, that the last phase, whether to the eye of painter or of anxious friend, seemed always the finest." — Times, attributed to Lord Robertson.