1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Wilson

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:434.



PROFESSOR WILSON, the distinguished occupant of the chair of moral philosophy in the university of Edinburgh, earned his first laurels by his poetry. He was born in the year 1788, in the town of Paisley, where his father had carried on business, and attained to opulence as a manufacturer. At the age of thirteen, the poet was entered of Glasgow university, whence in due time he was transferred to Magdalene college, Oxford. Here he carried off the Newdigate prize from a vast number of competitors for the best English poem of fifty lines. Mr. Wilson was distinguished in these youthful years by his fine athletic frame, and a face at once handsome and expressive of genius. A noted capacity for knowledge and remarkable literary powers were at the same time united to a singular taste for gymnastic exercises and rural sports. After four years' residence at Oxford, the poet purchased a small but beautiful estate, named Elleray, on the banks of the lake Windermere, where he went to reside. He married — built a house and a yacht — enjoyed himself among the magnificent scenery of the lakes — wrote poetry — and cultivated the society of Wordsworth. These must have been happy days. With youth, robust health, fortune, and an exhaustless imagination, Wilson must, in such a spot, have been blest even up to the dreams of a poet. Some reverses however came, and, after entering himself of the Scottish bar, he sought and obtained his moral philosophy chair. He connected himself also with Blackwood's Magazine, and in this miscellany poured forth the riches of his fancy, learning, and taste — displaying also the peculiarities of his sanguine and impetuous temperament. The most valuable of these contributions have been collected and published (1842) in three volumes, under the title of The Recreations of Christopher North. The criticisms on poetry understood to be from the pen of Wilson, are often highly eloquent, and conceived in a truly kindred spirit. A series of papers on Spenser and Homer are equally remarkable for their discrimination and imaginative luxuriance. In reference to these "golden spoils" of criticism Mr. Hallam has characterised the professor as "a living writer of the most ardent and enthusiastic genius, whose eloquence is as the rush of mighty waters." The poetical works of Wilson have been collected in two volumes. They consist of the Isle of Palms (1812), the City of the Plague (1816), and several smaller pieces. The broad humour and satire of some of his prose papers form a contrast to the delicacy and tenderness of his acknowledged writings — particularly his poetry. He has an outer and an inner man — one shrewd, bitter, observant, and full of untamed energy; the other calm, graceful, and meditative — "all conscience and tender heart." He deals generally in extremes, and the prevailing defect of his poetry is its uniform sweetness and feminine softness of character. "Almost the only passions," says Jeffrey, "with which his poetry is conversant, are the gentler sympathies of our nature — tender compassion, confiding affection, and guiltless sorrow. From all these there results, along with a most touching and tranquillising sweetness, a certain monotony and languor, which, to those who read poetry for amusement merely, will be apt to appear like dulness, and must be felt as a defect by all who have been used to the variety, rapidity, and energy of the popular poetry of the day." Some of the scenes in the City of the Plague are, however, exquisitely drawn, and his descriptions of lake and mountain scenery, though idealised by his imagination, are not unworthy of Wordsworth. The prose descriptions of Wilson have obscured his poetical, because in the former he gives the reins to his fancy, and, while preserving the general outline and distinctive features of the landscape, adds a number of subsidiary charms and attractions.