JOHN WILSON, the most illustrious Scotchman of these later days, was born in Paisley, (a manufacturing town near Glasgow,) on the 19th of May, 1785. He died, at his brother's residence, near Edinburgh, on the 3d of April, 1854. Had he lived six weeks longer, he would have completed his sixty-ninth year.
His father was a cloth manufacturer at Paisley. His mother (who was sister of the clever man, Robert Sym, who for many years was the Timothy Tickler of Blackwood's Magazine, and a constant interlocutor at THE NOCTES) possessed much native shrewdness, had read a good deal, and was possessed of considerable general knowledge. He had four brothers and two sisters: of these, James Wilson, who survives, has long been considered one of the best naturalists in Scotland; one sister is the wife of Sir John McNeill, formerly British Minister at the Court of Persia; the other married Mr. Ferrier.
John Wilson lost his father while yet a youth. He was educated by a country clergyman, Dr. McIntyre, of Glenorchy, (in the Scottish Highlands,) who rather encouraged his pupil's strong desire for wandering among the mountains and valleys of his native land; was delighted with the lad's remarks upon what he had seen in these adventurous excursions; and used generally to wind up with the encouraging remark, "My man, you should write storybooks!" McIntyre, the Oberlin of the district, was a good classical scholar, and while he allowed Wilson a wider outdoor range and license than is generally permitted to school-boys, insisted on his learning his allotted tasks. Fond of rural life, with its athletic exercises and sports, the Doctor thought it only natural and proper that young Wilson should relish it as keenly as himself, and was as proud, almost, of his proficiency in leaping, wrestling, curling, boxing, running, and swimming, as of his proficiency in Greek and Latin.
At the age of thirteen, Wilson became a student of Glasgow University. Then, as now, the Scottish universities were little more than high-schools. In Scotland, mere schoolboys enter college, to gather learning, from its very rudiments; while in England, each student, on entrance, usually knows as much of the dead languages and the exact sciences, as would enable him to obtain a degree at a Scotch college.
It was Wilson's good fortune, at Glasgow, to be for some years under the especial care of Mr. Jardine, the Professor of Logic, a man who, (to use Lockhart's words,) "by the singular felicity of his tact in watching and encouraging the developments of youthful minds, had done more good to a whole host of individuals, and gifted individuals too, than their utmost gratitude could ever adequately repay."
Wilson went through a full course of education in languages, philosophy, and belles lettres. He was remarked, among his fellow-students, for the originality of his views, the ardor with which he asserted and defended them, and the unrivalled power — something beyond eloquence — with which he forced them into the minds of others. "He lived in my family," said Professor Jardine, "during the whole course of his studies at Glasgow, and the general superintendence of his education was committed to me; and it is but justice to him to declare, that during my long experience, I never had a pupil who discovered more genius, more ardor, or more active and persevering diligence."
From Glasgow, Wilson removed to Oxford, and became a gentleman-commoner of Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin) College, Oxford — the beautiful and venerable structure, which owes its tall tower to Cardinal Wolsey, who had been a "boy-bachelor" within its precincts — which boasts of Addison as one of its members, preserving the retired walk in which he was wont to meditate — and which is now governed by a President, Dr. Routh, who has been about sixty years in office, was intimate with Samuel Johnson, and is even now publishing a historical and critical work, at the age of nearly one hundred.
Here Wilson acquired the friendship of two men, since eminently distinguished: — Reginald Heber, afterwards Bishop of Calcutta, and Henry Phillpotts, the present Bishop of Exeter.
At Oxford, in 1806, Wilson competed for. and obtained the prize of fifty guineas, founded by a certain Sir Richard Newdigate, for as many lines on a given subject. In this case, it was on Painting, Poetry, and Architecture. The poetry on such occasions, written by under-graduates who have lately emerged from their teens, is usually of that class which neither gods nor columns do admire. But there have been a few exceptions, including Heber's "Palestine." Lockhart, in later days, himself contemporary at Oxford with Wilson, spoke warmly in praise of his friend's prize poem. However, Wilson looked upon it as no more than a college exercise, for he did not include it among his collected poems.
As far as the acquisition of learning went, Wilson's Oxford career was very creditable. His mode of life was somewhat eccentric. He was addicted to solitary wanderings, and to violent bodily exercises of all kinds. No one was more fearless in the steeple-chase, or when following the hounds across the country. In the season, half his time was spent on the river, in his boat. The contests between "Town" and" Gown" (so well described in Lockhart's "Reginald Dalton") were frequent and violent, in Wilson's time, and whoever shrunk from them, he did not. There remains, even yet, an Oxford tradition of a gigantic shoemaker, the champion of the "Town" combatants, who repeatedly had encountered and defeated Wilson. This happened three years consecutively. In the fourth, Wilson was the conqueror, and, when the shoe-maker confessed that he had found his match at last, Wilson shook hands with him, and having discovered shortly after that the man was very poor, privately visited him, and insisted on his accepting £20, which, he said, would put him even with the world once more.
The admirers of "Christopher North" will be surprised to learn that Wilson was remarkable, at Oxford, for entertaining such extreme liberal views in politics that, to show his sincerity, he used ostentatiously to clean his own shoes!
The shortest and perhaps the truest account of Wilson's career at Oxford, was that which one of his contemporaries gave me, many years after it had ceased: — "Wilson," said he, "read hard, lived hard, but never ran into vulgar or vicious dissipation. He talked well, and loved to talk. Such gushes of poetic eloquence as I have heard from his lips — I doubt whether Jeremy Taylor himself, could be speak as well as he wrote, could have kept up with him. Every one anticipated his doing well, whatever profession he might adopt, and, when he left us, old Oxford seemed as if a shadow had fallen upon its beauty."
From Oxford to Edinburgh was a journey of more than three hundred miles, usually performed, forty or fifty years ago, in the mail-coach or by posting. Wilson, who loved to be singular, accomplished it on foot, when he quitted the university. He fell in with a camp of gypsies; immediately became familiar with themselves and their ways; accepted their invitation to join the party for a time; spent some weeks in this free-and-easy companionship, taking part in all their pursuits, (including poaching and bagging farm-yard fowl,) and parted from them, with much regret on both sides, when they reached the Border. He then went to his mother, who lived in Queen-street, Edinburgh, and saw something of Scottish society. In his university vacations (one of which is about four months long) he had traversed on foot nearly all of Wales, a large portion of the north of Scotland, the whole of the Border Laud, every hill, valley, and moor in Yorkshire, and the glorious Lake districts of Lancashire, Westmoreland, and Cumberland.
He resided at Edinburgh in 1809-10, and his reputation had preceded him; for a poem upon the death of James Grahame, author of "The Sabbath," having appeared in print, Joanna Baillie inquired of Walter Scott whether he knew the writer, and Scott wrote back that he was "John Wilson, a young man of very considerable poetical powers," and concluded by describing him as "an excellent, warm-hearted, and enthusiastic young man; something too much, perhaps, of the latter quality, places him among the list of originals." He added that he was then "engaged on a poem called 'The Isle of Palms,' something in the style of Southey."
This was in 1812, and about the same time appeared Byron's "Childe Harold." Shortly before, Wilson had purchased Elleray, a romantic estate on the banks of Windermere, in Westmoreland, where he became a neighbor and friend of Wordsworth. This was indeed the place for a poet's home. Its picturesque beauty was great, and its vicinity to the homes of several of his literary friends was very agreeable. Within a mile was Calgarth, the residence of Dr. Watson, the celebrated Bishop of Llandaff. Near at hand was Charles Lloyd, the translator of Alfieri. Within a few miles was Grasmere, where then resided Wordsworth. A little farther off was Keswick, where Southey had planted himself, his vast literary projects, and his large library; and —great a charm as any, perhaps — Elleray was on the banks of beautiful Windermere.
It was at Low Brathay, where Charles Lloyd lived, that De Quincey first saw Wilson, "in circumstances of animation, and buoyant with youthful spirits, under the excitement of lights, wine, and, above all, of female company." The Opium-Eater adds that Wilson was the best male dancer, not professional, he had ever seen; an "advantage which he owed to the extraordinary strength of his foot in all its parts, to its peculiarly happy conformation, and to the accuracy of his ear," — for, it is added, he never had received saltatory instruction. Of that party was she, then the leading belle of the Lake country, who became Wilson's wife, soon after.
As might be expected from his ardent temperament, it was a love-match. The lady was an English heiress, of considerable beauty. Among the many anecdotes of his courtship is one, which has been generally believed — of his having accidentally met the lady while she was on a tour; of following her in the disguise of a waiter, to various inns at the Lakes; of her father noticing, at last, that wherever they went, there was the self-same attendant; of his demanding an explanation; of Wilson's revealing his name and condition; of his obtaining leave to woo the lady; and of his immediate success when he addressed her. Her only stipulation was that he should abandon a favorite project of making a tour of discovery into the interior of Africa! The required promise was given and kept. The marriage followed, and bride and bridegroom, instead of loitering through the honeymoon in silken and luxurious ease, spent the bright summer in a pedestrian journey through the Highlands.
Whatever was rough and untoward in Wilson's manner and character, this gentle creature softened and subdued. In her he had that greatest wealth which man can possess — a wife at once loveable and lovely; the charm of his home; the friend of his friends; the calm and affectionate counsellor and companion; the joy and comfort of his heart, whether in sunshine or sorrow; the fond mother, lovelier in her matron beauty than in her fair maidenhood; in a word, the one being, out of all others, who could make him happy, and he happy herself in making him so.
In after years, it was said by one who knew her well, that "if ever there was a woman to be sorrowed for through a widowed life, it was she — so opposite to the dazzling, impetuous spirit of her mate, in the beautiful gentleness and equanimity of her temper, yet adapting herself so entirely to his tastes, and repaid by such a deep and lasting affection." Her death was the first heavy blow beneath which Wilson's manly spirit quailed. Even where there is not such love as filled his bosom, it is a bitter thing to lament the loss of the companionship of over thirty years. When Wilson first met his class, in the University, after his wife's death, he had to adjudicate on the comparative merits of various essays which had been sent in on competition for a prize. He bowed to his class, and in as firm voice as he could command apologized for not having examined the essays, — "for," said he, "I could not see to read them in the darkness of the shadow of the Valley of Death." As he spoke, the tears roiled down his cheeks; he said no more, but waved his hand to his class, who stood up as he concluded, and hurried out of the lecture-room.
Some time later, when lecturing upon Memory, he described the way in which a long-widowed husband would look back upon the early partner of his lot. The warm eloquence of the lecturer held his audience enchained. On and on he went, waxing more and more touching and impressive, and his face lighting up with emotion as the words came rushing to his lips. His eyes began to fill with moisture — then the lower jaw began to tremble — and at last, overpowered by his emotions, the old man stopped in mid career, and buried his head in his arms on the desk before him. For a minute there was perfect stillness in the class; but when Wilson again raised his head, and two big tears were seen rolling down his cheeks as he essayed to proceed, his voice was drowned in the loud cheers of the young students around him.
I have anticipated. Let us return. — It was after his marriage, I believe, that Wilson wrote the "Elegy on James Grahame." To this epoch of domestic enjoyment may be referred the composition of "The Isle of Palms," — a poem which won praise from even the hypercritical Jeffrey, and at a bound placed its writer among the best living authors. It was published in 1812. It is rich in fine passages, among which there is one, describing the wreck of a vessel with five hundred souls on board, who are swept away in one dread moment of death and horror:
Oh! many a dream was in the ship
An hour before her death;
And sights of home with sighs disturbed
The sleeper's long-drawn breath.
Instead of the murmur of the sea,
The sailor heard the humming tree
Alive through all its leaves,
The hum of the spreading sycamore
That grows before his cottage door,
And the swallow's song in the eaves.
His arms inclosed a blooming boy,
Who listened with tears of sorrow and joy
To the dangers his father had passed;
And his wife by turns she wept and smiled,
As she looked on the father of her child,
Returned to her heart at last.
He wakes at the vessel's sudden roll,
And the rush of the waters is in his soul.
Astounded, the reeling deck he paces,
Mid hurrying forms and ghastly faces;
The whole ship's crew are there!
Wailings around and overhead,
Brave spirits stupefied or dead,
And madness and despair.
By this time Wilson was well acquainted with Scott, and may be allowed the honor of having originated for him the distinctive designation of "The Great Magician." The term occurs in a beautiful poem called The Magic Mirror, addressed by Wilson to Scott, and published in the Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1812. Two years after, having determined to apply his mind to some fixed purpose, he was admitted to the Scottish Bar, but made no progress as a lawyer.
When the Third Canto of Childe Harold was published, an eloquent and elaborate criticism upon it appeared in the Edinburgh Review. This was written by Wilson — probably before he had determined to oppose the politics of Jeffrey and the powerful organ he directed.
In 1817, Wilson published a dramatic poem called "The City of the Plague." It has many noble passages, but the choice of subject was unfortunate. About this time, too, appeared "Sentimental Scenes, selected from celebrated Plays." This was a 12mo volume, which ran through three editions, in eighteen mouths. I have never seen it, nor met any one who had.
Blackwood's Magazine was commenced early in 1817, and Wilson soon became a principal contributor. In an article which appeared in 1830, and was a sort of rapid sketch of the difficulties which that periodical had encountered and overcome, Wilson declared that his own connection with it had begun with No. VII. — that to which The Chaldee Manuscript had given such notoriety. He entered into the labor con amore; wrote on a variety of subjects; penned a great number of projects; and, in fact, sometimes did the work of half a dozen contributors. He said of himself:
"We love to do our work by fits and starts. We hate to keep fiddling away, an hour or two at a time, at one article for weeks. So, on with our coat, and at it like a blacksmith. When we once get the way of it, hand over hip, we laugh at Vulcan and all his Cyclops. From nine of the morning till nine at night, we keep hammering away at the metal, iron or gold, till we pro duce a most beautiful article. A biscuit and a glass of Madeira, twice or thrice at the most — and then to a well-won dinner. In three days, gentle reader, have We, Christopher North, often produced a whole Magazine — a most splendid Number. For the next three weeks we were as idle as a desert, and vast as an antre — and thus on we go, alternately laboring like an ant, and relaxing, in the sunny air, like a dragon-fly, enamoured of extremes."
At that period Edinburgh was crowded with clever men — most of them young — who considered that the (Tory) party to which they belonged had been too loudly crowed over by the Edinburgh Review. They dashed into a contest at once, and whatever else Blackwood wanted, it was not deficient in personalities — audacious, lively, vehement, unjustified, unscrupulous, and witty. Associated with Wilson were Lockhart, Hogg, Gillies, Hamilton, Moir, Sym, and Maginn. In a short time, Blackwood's Magazine had become not only a literary organ, but the wielder of great political power. It destroyed the force of the Edinburgh Review, previously despotic and dreaded, and soon assumed the unity of purpose and conduct which has become its great characteristic.
Wilson had been on intimate terms with Sir Walter Scott, from the time of his return from Oxford. There is a lively account by Lockhart, in his Life of Scott, of a visit which Wilson and himself paid to Abbotsford, in October, 1818, on their return from Elleray. They were kindly invited, for the purpose of meeting Lord Melville, then one of the British Cabinet, and the dispenser of Government legal patronage in Scotland. As Lockhart and Wilson belonged to the Scottish bar, though neither had any practice, they were eligible for many of the numerous official situations with which it has been the habit to reward partisanship rather than merit. Melville's countenance, in favor of Wilson, was shortly afterwards required.
In 1819, appeared "Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk," in which Lockhart has well sketched Wilson, mind and body, as he then was, that I think this is proper place to quote the description. Alluding to the Burns' dinner, which came off it Edinburgh, January 25, 1818, (the anniversary of the poet's birth-day,) Lockhart says:
"One of the best speeches, perhaps the very best, delivered during the whole the evening, was that of Mr. John Wilson, in proposing the health of the Ettrick Shepherd. I had heard a great deal of Wilson from Wastle, but he had been out of Edinburgh ever since my arrival, and indeed had walked only fifty miles that very morning, in order to be present on this occasion. He showed no symptoms, however, of being fatigued with his journey, and his style of eloquence, above all, whatever faults it might have, displayed certainly no deficiency of freshness and vigor. As I know you admire some of his verses very much, you will be pleased with a sketch of his appearance. He is, I imagine, (but I guess principally from the date of his Oxford prize poem,) some ten years your junior and mine — a very robust athletic man, broad across he back — firm set upon his limbs — and having altogether very much of that sort of air which is inseparable from the consciousness of great bodily energies. I suppose, in leaping, wrestling, or boxing, he might easily beat any of the poets, his contemporaries — and I rather suspect, that in speaking, he would have as easy a triumph over the whole of them, except Coleridge. In complexion, he is the best specimen. I have ever seen of the genuine or ideal Goth. His hair is of the true Sicambrian yellow; his eyes are of the lightest, and at the same time of the clearest blue; and the blood glows in his cheek with as firm a fervor as it did, according to the description of Jornandes, in those of the 'Bello gaudentes, praelio ridentes Teutones' of Attila. I had never suspected, before I saw him, that such extreme fairness and freshness of complexion could be compatible with so much variety and tenderness, but, above all, with so much depth of expression. His forehead is finely, but strangely shaped; the regions of pure fancy and of pure wit being both developed in a very striking manner — which is but seldom the case in any one individual — and the organ of observation having projected the sinus frontalis to a degree that is altogether uncommon. I have never seen a physiognomy which could pass with so much rapidity from the serious to the most ludicrous of effects. It is more eloquent, both in its gravity and in its levity, than almost any countenance I am acquainted with is in any one cast of expression; and yet I am not without my suspicions, that the versatility of its language may, in the end, take away from its power.
"In a convivial meeting — more particularly after the first two hours are over — the beauty to which men are most alive in any piece of eloquence is that which depends on its being impregnated and instinct with feeling. Of this beauty, no eloquence can be more full than that of Mr. John Wilson. His declamation is often loose and irregular to an extent that is not quits worthy of man of his fine education and masculine powers; but all is redeemed, and more than redeemed, by his rich abundance of quick, generous, and expansive feeling. The flashing brightness, and now and then the still more expressiveness of his eye — and the tremulous music of a voice that is equally at home in the highest and the lowest of notes — and the attitude bent forward with an earnestness to which the graces could make no valuable addition — all together impose an index which they that run may read — a rod of communication to whose electricity no heart is barred. Inaccuracies of language are small matters when the ear is fed with the wild and mysterious cadences of the most natural of all melodies, and the mind filled to overflowing with the bright suggestions of an imagination, whose only fault lies in the uncontrollable profusion with which it scatters forth its fruits. With such gifts as these, and with the noblest of themes to excite and adorn them, I have no doubt, that Mr. Wilson, had he been in the church, would have left all the impassioned preachers I have ever heard many thousand leagues behind him. Nor do I at all question, that even in some departments of his own profession of the law, had he in good earnest devoted his energies to its service, his success might have been equally brilliant. But his ambition had probably taken too decidedly another turn; nor, perhaps, would it be quite fair, either to him or to ourselves, to wish that he thing had been otherwise.
"As Mr. Wilson has not only a great admiration, but a great private friendship for Mr. Hogg, his eloquence displayed, it is probable, upon the present occasion, a large share of every feeling that might most happily inspire it. His theme was indeed the very best that the occasion could have thrown in his way; for what homage could be so appropriate, or so grateful to the Manes of Burns, as that which sought to attain its object by welcoming and honoring the only worthy successor of his genius? I wish I could recall for your delight any portion of those glowing words in which this enthusiastic speaker strove to embody his own ideas — and indeed those of his audience — concerning the high and holy connection which exists between the dead and the living peasant — both sprung from the very bosom of the people, both identifying themselves in all things with the spirit of their station, and endeavoring to ennoble themselves only by elevating it. It was thus, indeed, that a national assembly might most effectually do honor to a national poet This was the true spirit for a commemoration of Robert Burns.
"The effect which Mr. Wilson's speech produced on Hogg himself, was, to my mind, by far the most delightful thing that happened during the whole of the night. The Shepherd was one of the stewards, and in every point of view he must have expected some particular notice to he taken of his name; but either he had not been prepared for being spoken of at so early an hour, or was entirely thrown off his balance by the extraordinary flood of eloquence which Mr. Wilson poured out, to do honor to his genius; for nothing could be more visibly unaffected, than the air of utter blank amazement with which he rose to return his thanks. He rose, by the way, long before the time came. He had listened to Mr. Wilson for some minutes, without comprehending the drift of his discourse: but when once he fairly discovered that he himself was the theme, he started to his feet, and with a face flushed all over deeper than scarlet, and eyes brimful of tears, devoured the words of the speaker,
Like hungry Jew in wilderness,
Rejoicing o'er his manna.
His voice, when he essayed to address the company, seemed at first entirely to fail him; but he found means to snake us hear a very few words, which told better than any speech could have done. 'I've aye been vera proud, gentlemen,' (said he,) 'to be a Scots poet — and I was never sac proud o't as I am just noo.' I believe there was no one there who did not sympathize heartily with this most honest pride. For my part, I began to be quite in love with the Ettrick Shepherd."
Subsequently, treating of the phrenological development of eminent men, the author of Peter's Letters says that Wilson's head "is full of the marks of genuine enthusiasm, and lower down of intense perception, and love of localities — which last feature, by the way, may perhaps account for his wild delight in rambling. I have heard that in his early youth, he proposed to go out to Africa, in quest of the Joliba, and was dissuaded only by the representations made to him on the subject of his remarkably fair and florid complexion — but I believe he has since walked over every hill and valley in the three kingdoms — having angling and versifying, no doubt, for his usual occupations, but finding room every now and then, by way of interlude, for astonishing the fairs and wakes all over these islands, by his miraculous feats in leaping, wrestling, and single-stick."
In another place, dating from Glasgow, we have the redoubtable Dr. Morris thus playing the critic upon Wilson, who, at this time, was in his thirty-fifth year, and had scarcely done more than begin his brilliant and eccentric course. He says:
"It has often occurred to me, in thinking of other individuals besides this poet, that early attainment of great fame is by no means most in the power of those who possess the greatest variety of capacities and attainments. A man who has only one talent, and who is so fortunate as to be led early to exercise it in a judicious direction, may soon be expected to sound the depth of his power, and to strengthen himself with those appliances which are most proper to insure his success. But he whose mind is rich in a thousand quarters — who finds himself surrounded with an intellectual armory of many and various kinds of weapons — is happy indeed if he do not lose much time its dipping into the surface of more ores than his life can allow him time to dig to their foundations — in trying the edge of more instruments than it is possible for any one man to understand thoroughly, and wield with the assured skill of a true master. Mr. Wilson seems to possess one of the widest ranges of intellectual capacity of any I have ever met with. In his conversation, he passes from the gravest to the gayest of themes, and seems to be alike at home in them all — but perhaps the facility with which in conversation he finds himself able to make use of all his powers, may only serve to give him wrong and loose notions concerning the more serious purposes to which he ought to render his great powers subservient. In his prose writings, in like manner, he handles every kind of key, and he handles many well — but this also, I should fear, may tend only to render him over careless in his choice — more slow in selecting some one field — or, if you will, more than one — on which to concentrate his energies, and make a sober, manly, determinate display of what Nature has rendered him capable of doing. To do every thing is impossible. To do many things well is a very inferior matter to doing a few things — yes, or one thing — as well as it can be done; and this is a truths which I question not Mr. Wilson will soon learn, without any hints beyond those which his own keen observing eye must throw in his way. On the whole, when one remembers that be has not yet reached the time of life at which most of the great poets even of our time began to come before the public, there seems to be no reason to doubt that every thing is yet before him — and that hereafter the works which he has already published may be referred to rather as curiosities, and as displaying the early richness and variety of his capacities, than as expressing the full vigor of that 'imagination all compact,' which shall then have found more perfect and more admirable vehicles in the more comprehensive thoughtfulness of matured genius and judgment. I regret his comparative want of popularity, chiefly for this reason, that I think the enthusiastic echoes of public approbation, directed loudly to any one production, would have afforded a fine and immediate stimulus for farther exertions in the same way-and such is his variety of powers, that I think it a matter of comparatively minor importance, on which of his many possible triumphs his ambition should be first fully concentrated. You will observe that I have been speaking solely with an eye to his larger productions. In many of his smaller ones — conceived, it is probable, and executed at a single heat — I see every thing to be commended, and nothing whatever to be found fault with. My chief favorites have always been the Children's Dance — the Address to the Wild Deer seen on some of the mountains of Lochaber — and, best of all, the Scholar's Funeral. This last poem is, indeed, a most perfect master-piece in conception-in feeling-and in execution. The flow of it is entire and unbroken in its desolate music. Line follows line, and stanza follows stanza, with a grand graceful melancholy sweep, like this dirges of the bough of some large weeping willow bending slowly and sadly to the night-breeze, over some clear classical streamlet fed by the tears of Naiads."
In January, 1820, "A Lay of Fairy-Land," professing to be "from a volume of Poems by John Wilson, now in the Press," was published in Blackwood. It is a delightful and fanciful composition, somewhat like Hogg's "Kilmeny," as respects its subject, but treated in a different manner. It tells how, early on a Sabbath morn, a widow and her child are together, in Glenmore's black forest, guarding their little flock. The child wanders away — is missed — mourned — and welcomed back, at eventide, wearing a beautiful chaplet of unknown flowers. She then relates how, while reading the Bible, the Lady of the Wood had visited and smiled upon her:
She laid her hand as soft as light upon your daughter's hair,
And up that white arm flowed my heart into her bosom fair;
And all at once I loved her well as she my mate had been,
Though she had come from Fairy-Land and was the Fairy-Queen.
The Mother remembers that, in evanished years, another daughter had been lost to her, whom she never could fancy to he dead. The Child goes on to relate how the Fairy-Queen takes her into Fairy-land, where she meets her sister:
Well knew I my fair sister, and her unforgotten face!
Strange meeting one so beautiful in that bewildering place!
And like two solitary rills that by themselves flowed on,
And had been long divided-eve melted into one.
When that the shower was all wept out of our delightful tears,
And love rose in our hearts that had been buried there for years,
You well may think another shower straightway began to fall,
Even for our mother and our home to leave that heavenly Hall!
The two children find the glories departed, and both standing by the great burial-stone, near their own loved river. The Mother swoons as she hears that wild and wondrous story:
And, when her senses are restored, whom sees she at her side,
But her believed in childhood to have wandered off and died!
In these small hands, so lily-white, is water from the spring,
And a grateful coolness drops from it as from an angel's wing,
And to her Mother's pale lips her rosy lips are laid,
While these long soft eyelashes drop tears on her hoary head.
She stirs not in her Child's embrace, but yields her old gray hairs
Unto that heavenly dew of tears, the heavenly breath of prayers
No voice bath she to bless her child, till that strong fit go by,
But gazeth on the long-lost face, and then upon the sky.
The Sabbath-morn was beautiful — and the long Sabbath-day—
The Evening-star rose beautiful when daylight died away;
Morn, day, and twilight, this lone Glen flowed over with delight,
But the fulness of all mortal Joy hath blessed the Sabbath-night.
The "Lays of Fairy-Land" were never published. Wilson believed that the relish for new poetry had declined. The poems must exist, however, and may be expected to appear ere long, among Wilson's Literary Remains.
The death of Dr. Thomas Brown, in 1820, brought Wilson into the field as a candidate for the Professorship of Moral Philosophy, in the University of Edinburgh. His expenditure at Elleray had been too liberal for his means, and he was desirous, at the age of thirty-five, with a young family growing up around him, of obtaining a permanent income and an honorable station. There was considerable opposition to his being appointed — chiefly on the ground of the personalities in which, up to that time, Blackwood's Magazine had indulged. But Wilson's politics were Tory, like those of the Edinburgh Town Council, who had the right to appoint Brown's successor. Scott interfered very warmly in his behalf. Leading politicians in London (with Lord Melville at their head) used their personal influence, and Wilson was appointed. Scott's letter, at this crisis, so fully discusses the character of Wilson, as it appeared then, that I shall copy part of it. He wrote: "There needed no apology for mentioning any thing in which I could be of service to Wilson; and, so far as good words and good wishes here can do, I think he will be successful; but the battle must be fought in Edinburgh. You are aware that the only point of exception to Wilson may he that, with the fire of genius, he has possessed some of its eccentricities; but did he ever approach to those of Henry Brougham, who is the god of Whiggish idolatry? If the high and rare qualities with which he is invested are to he thrown aside as useless because they may be clouded by a few grains of dust which he can blow aside at pleasure, it is less a punishment on Mr. Wilson than on the country. I have little doubt he would consider success in this weighty matter as a pledge for binding down his acute and powerful mind to more regular labor than circumstances have hitherto required of him — for, indeed, without doing so, the appointment could in no point of view answer his purpose. He must stretch to the oar for his own credit, as well as that of his friends; and, if he does so, there can be no doubt that his efforts will be doubly blessed, in reference both to himself and to public utility. You must, of course, 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 follies 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."
Wilson, once that he wore the Professor's gown, really did proceed to enter into the "more regular labor" on which Scott suggested that he should direct his acute and powerful mind. He sketched out the syllabus of a course of lectures for his class — with whom he always was extremely popular — and, for the next one-and-thirty years, allowed nothing to prevent the performance of his sessional duties as teacher. Into this, as into every thing else, he entered with earnestness and enthusiasm, and it is to be lamented that his eloquent addresses, addressed as much to the heart as to the head — so beautifully blended was their Poetry with their Philosophy — live only in the uncertain memory of those who heard them.
In Blackwood, for February, 1822, was the announcement of Wilson's first prose work, under the title of "Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life; a selection from the papers of the late Arthur Austin, student of divinity." They were published in May, and reviewed by Maga in June. This critique, which commenced by remarking that the writing of verses was then an unpopular and unprofitable exercise, said, "Wilson's Lays of Fairy-Land have been, it is probable, knocked out of his head by Scotch metaphysics." The critic very properly described the Lights and Shadows as a volume most undoubtedly full of exquisite poetry — and of poetry which ought not to have been written, at least a great part of it, in any thing but verse — that is, that the purely poetical materials bear too great a proportion to the prosaic. Of the twenty-four stories in the volume, beauty, innocence, and repose (with a great knowledge of the human heart and much familiarity with external nature) are the main constituents. The incidents are few, the plots clear, the motif apparent. But there is a world of poetry in the thoughts and the language. Some of the scenes are eminently touching, as that in which Allan Bruce, a blind man, whose sight has been restored by "couching," sees his children's faces for the first time, and — but I must quote and not describe the passage:
"But when his Fanny — she on whom he had so loved to look when she was a maiden in her teens, and who would not forsake him, in the first misery of that great affliction, but had been overjoyed to link the sweet freedom of her prime to one sitting in perpetual dark — when she, now a staid and lovely matron, stood before him with a face pale in bliss, and all drenched in the flood-like tears of an insupportable happiness — then truly did he feel what a heaven it was to see. And, as he took her to his heart, he gently bent back her head, that he might devour with his eyes that benign beauty which had for so many years smiled on him unbeheld, and which, now that he had seen once more, he felt that he could at that very moment die in peace."
The Forgers, the Hour at the Manse, Simon Gray, and other stories, show the dark part of man and his nature, but pure and beautiful tenderness is the prevailing character of the work. It has been well remarked of these stories that "the religion of them all is divine — no dogmas — no doctrines — nothing sectarian; — but pure, bright, beautiful Christianity." Another point is their intense nationality. They are Scottish, and nothing else. They obtained immediate and permanent popularity. When republished in 1843, over four thousand copies were sold in a month — a much larger sale than even the first class original works usually command in Britain.
"The Trials of Margaret Lyndsay, an Orphan," (as the book was originally called,) announced in January, was published in March, 1823. This story was immediately and greatly popular. Like the "Lights and Shadows," it consisted of a single volume. In May, when it was reviewed in Blackwood, it had run through a second edition, and, like that work, it chronicled the "annals of the poor." In one connected and extended story, here were embodied the unassuming virtues of persons in a lowly condition of life, tried by suffering and sorrow, sustained by the patience and courage which Faith bestows, trusting in the humanity of man, firmly depending on the goodness of God, and hearing all trials as Christian souls alone can bear them. Margaret Lyndsay, the heroine, "a perfect woman, nobly planned," has to suffer much, even from the days of childhood; some joys occasionally cast their sunshine across her path, but the sorrows far outnumber them. While lowly life is drawn with fidelity, there is a deep, and not unnatural tinge of poetry and passion thrown over it. In truth, the romance of every-day life, could we but learn it, exceeds what Fiction has imagined.
The plot of this story is plain and simple. Margaret Lyndsay's trials are many — but they are things of common occurrence. An orphan, deserted by her father; persecuted by the addresses of a lover in high life; married to a man who turns out to have already been the husband of another; adopting and maintaining the child of that first marriage, after its mother's death and its unhappy father's flight; happy, at last, in the return and repentance of the lover of her youth, though with shattered health; become his wife again, and the mother of two children; comforting him in his lingering illness, which ends in death; and practising, as a widow, the virtues and benevolence which, even in her darkest days of poverty and sorrow, had sustained herself and given happiness to others. There are some beautiful episodes, scarcely be longing to, but so artistically dovetailed into the main story that no reader can think them out of place. The great merit is, the absence of exaggerated feeling or language; one is earnest, the other is often poetical, but both are truthful. There is one character — that of Daniel Craig, a miserly grand-uncle, who gradually becomes a wiser, better, and happier man under Margaret's influence — which is remarkably well drawn; the reader feels, as this man's idiosyncrasy is developed, how very natural is the change, almost insensible, wrought on that rugged heart by the maidenly purity, the calm beauty, the gentle bearing of Margaret, his only surviving female relative. Nor is it character alone which makes the charm of this work. Here, in brief, is a poet-painter's sketch of the landscape of a Scottish summer morning:
"It was one of the perfect days of July, when Nature is felt to he within the very heart of the year, and when there seems never to have been such a thing as winter or decay. The blue heavens were steadfast with their marbled clouds, and all the fair and gorgeous array of perishable vapors seemed then as if they were everlasting. A gentle murmur of bliss prevailed, and it accompanied the solitary girl, as she walked along the houseless moor. Every moment there was something that delighted her — the green lizard, as it glided through the rustling tall grass by the wayside — the lap-wing, now less wily that its young were fledged, walking along the lea-fields with its graceful crest — the large yellow-circled ground bees, booming by in their joyful industry — the dragon-fly, with his shivering wings shooting in eccentric flight, almost like a bird of prey — the bleating of the lambs on the sunny knowes — or the deep cooing of the cushat-dove, somewhere afar off in his lonesome wood."
"The Foresters," announced in September, 1823, was not published until June, 1825. Like Wilson's two preceding prose works, it was complete in a single volume. The story was one of familiar life — rose-tinged, as before, by the writer's poetic thought. This closed Wilson's separate and distinct publications. His article on Burns, and his notice of the Ettrick Shepherd, are nothing more than Magazine articles.
Nor, after the composition of his "Lays from Fairy-Land," did Wilson write much poetry. I recollect only two poems — both of which appeared in Blackwood, where they attracted attention and admiration. The first of these, "An Evening in Furness Abbey," was thus laid before the public in September, 1829, and consists of about twelve hundred lines in blank verse, — thoughtful, earnest, eloquent, breathing purity and passion, and rich in sweet episodes of old romance. How beautiful are some passages:
Those days are gone;
And it has pleased high Heaven to crown my life
With such a load of happiness, that at times
My very soul is faint with bearing up
The blessed burden.
For rising up throughout my wedded years
That melted each away so quietly
Into the other, that I never thought
Of wondering at the growth before my eyes
Of my own human Flowers most beautiful—
So imperceptible had been the change
From infancy to childhood — lovely both—
And then to grace most meek and maidenly,
Three Spirits given by God to guard and keep
For ever in their native innocence,
Glide o'er my floors like sunbeams, and like larks
Are oft heard singing to their happy selves,
No eye upon them but the eye of Heaven.
And now, revisiting these Abbey-walls,
How changed my state from what it was of yore,
When mid an hundred homes no home had I
Whose hearth had power to chain me from the rest.
No roof, no room, no bower in the near wood
In which at once are now concentrated
All the sweet scents and all the touching sounds,
All the bright rays of life.
Link'd hand in hand,
Mute and must spirit-like, from out the gloom
Of the old Abbey issuing, all their smiles
Subdued to a sweet settled pensiveness
By the religion of the Ruin, lo!
The Three came softly gliding on my dream,
Attended by the moonshine; for the Orb
Look'd through the oriel window, and the Vale
Soon overflow'd with light. As they approach'd,
My heart embraced them in their innocence,
And sinless pride express'd itself in prayer.
From morn they had been with me in the glens
And on the mountains, by the lakes and rivers,
And through the bush of the primeval woods,
And such a beauteous day was fitly closed
By such a beauteous night. No word they spake,
But held their swimming eyes in earnestness
Fix'd upon mine, as if they wish'd to hear
My voice amid the silence, for the place
Had grown too awful for their innocent hearts;
And half in love, and half in fear, they prest
Close to their Father's side, till at a sign
They sat them down upon a fragment fall'n,
With all its flowers and mosses, from the arch
Through which the moon was looking; and I said
That I would tell to them a Tale of Tears,
A Tale of Sorrows suffered long ago!
The tale which follows, bathed in the rich hues of old Romance, is "beautiful exceedingly," — and The Flower of Furness, who is its gentle heroine, as soft a creation as fair Humanity and fruitful Poesy ever united to give birth to. Lofty in pride and lineage, in love and prowess, is the Knight who seeks to spoil the Eden of which this fair Flower was the life and light. Delicately and tenderly is the story told; sad is the record of the maiden's wreck of mind and tragic the conclusion. In a word, it is Wilson all over.
"Unimore, a Dream of the Highlands. By Professor Wilson," appeared as the opening article in Blackwood for August, 1831. It occupied fifty-five pages of Maga, and extended to over three thousand lines of blank verse. Perhaps this, the most ambitious of Wilson's poems, has more beauties than any — I had almost written, than all the rest. It consisted of ten Visions; — Morven, The Naiad, The Lady of the Castle, The Sisters, The Oratory, The Seer, The Demon, The Confession, Expiation, and Retribution. With free and masterly hand are drawn the portraits of Unimore, the Chieftain Seadweller — the Lady of the Castle — those exquisite eidolons, the fair and youthful sisters — the Apparition of the Ocean-lost returned to his ancestral home — the stately Stag-hunt — the denunciations of the doom-predicting Seer — the passion of the Orphans for Unimore, the Pirate-chieftain — the confession, each to each, of their betrayal, — their sudden death, — and then, after a lapse of forty years, the return of the sin-darkened Unimore, and the terrible retribution:
Lo! lifting up his frame, almost as straight
And tall as when in his majestic prime,
A stately Spectre, shatter'd by the blows
Of Time and Trouble, Misery and Despair,
And, worst of all sin-smiters, gaunt Remorse,
Totters away among the tombs and out
Of the hush'd Cemetery in among the woods,—
The Chief of Morven, princely Unimore!
A shadow now! a Phantom! Ghost, or Dream!
Lo! on the Pine-Tree Bridge the Spectre stands!
Outstretch'd his arms as in the act to save
The visionary Orphans! Stormy years
Have prey'd upon the stem of that fall'n Pine
Since last it shook beneath his tread — the lightnings
Have smitten it, and o'er that Bridge the roe
Would walk not, instinct-taught that it is frail
And hung on danger. With a splintering crash
It snaps asunder, frush as willow-wand,
And with the Phantoms of the Orphans down
Precipitate with the sheer Cataract
Into the uufathom'd depth sinks Unimore.
It now becomes requisite to go back a little. It has been already stated that, from No. VII. of Blackwood's Magazine, a principal part of the literary editorship fell into Wilson's hands. Blackwood, possessing much knowledge of books and being a good judge of what was likely to suit the public taste, conducted the business department of the Magazine, including the principal correspondence with contributors. He was a prompt and liberal paymaster, and has repeatedly given twenty guineas a page for long articles. Associated with Wilson, for some time, was Lockhart — smart, satirical, learned, personal, and fearless. Maginn was as voluminous a contributor, for several years, as Wilson or Lockhart, but had little influence as to the manner in which the Magazine was conducted, owing to his far-remote residence in the South of Ireland. Frequently, in prose as well as verse, the Ettrick Shepherd also lent his assistance. Most of Wilson's short stories-afterwards collected into the volume called "Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life " — first appeared in Maga. As yet, Wilson had not put forth his strength: perhaps he had not then learned how great it was.
The far-renowned NOCTES AMBROSIANAE, which contributed mainly to the celebrity of Blackwood's Magazine, were commenced in March, 1822. The idea, I have understood, was suggested by Maginn. The first number, a colloquy between North and Odoherty, bears little mark of Wilson's mind, but a great deal of Maginn's. No. IV., where the scene is transferred to Pisa, and Lord Byron and Odoherty are the dramatis personae, was wholly written by Maginn. At first, a variety of contributors joined in the production of these papers — Lockhart, Hogg, Sym, and Maginn, in particular — but Wilson's was the pervading spirit, and, when all the rest had fallen off, contributing only fragmentary portions of prose and verse to be worked in, as occasion served, it was Wilson who, year after year, maybe said to have been the author. As an illustration to this volume, I present a page of the original NOCTES, in Wilson's own handwriting. It bears the marks of great rapidity, is dashed off without blot or erasure, and is not very legible.
The NOCTES (of which the last appeared in February, 1835) never flagged in spirit or interest, from their commencement to their close. They were full of information, abundant in personalities, violent in politics, somewhat dictatorial in literary matters, but always able, acute, bold, and eloquent. They are distinguished, also, for the individuality with which each character is drawn. Christopher North and Timothy Tickler hold the same political opinions — but how widely different is the mode in which each asserts and defends them. So do the Irish fun and recklessness of Odoherty stand out by themselves, peculiar. So, also, the Scottish patois of Hogg. Read a dialogue between North and Tickler, in any one of THE NOCTES, putting the attributed language of North into Tickler's mouth, and ere half a page be gone through, the veriest "sumph" who listens to you will have discovered that the words are credited to the wrong man. In truth, Wilson was, and none but himself could be, the redoubtable Christopher North; — it has been well said that "Sir Kit is but an enlarged portrait of Wilson, painted with breadth and heightened color and quaint accessories for the sake of effect."
In the thirteen years during which The Noctes were appearing, Wilson and Maga were in their glory and triumph. Of him it might he said that
Through each mode of the lyre, and was master of all.
Critic and rhapsodist, poet and story-teller, essayist and wit, he was a remarkable man during all these years. In one number you would meet with philosophy as deep as the Stagyrite's, wit as lively as Sheridan's, pathos as tearful as Scott's, imagination wide as Byron's, and sociality as genial as that of Captain Morris. It seemed as if he could play upon every instrument in the vast orchestra of thought. To this time belong the brilliant articles, some of which were collected in 1842, as "The Recreations of Christopher North."
The loss of his wife paralyzed his efforts for a season. The giant again arose. Not to write was a pain to him. Then came his criticisms on the English Poets — his Commentaries on Homeric translations, with original versions by himself, and as a conclusion to THE NOCTES, the beautiful series entitled "DIES BOREALES, or Christopher under Canvas." He had begun with The Tent, and he ended with it.
This series was commenced in June, 1849, and his obituary notice (Blackwood, May, 1854) says: "As a proof of how long his mental vigor and capacity of exertion survived the effects of physical decline, it may he mentioned that two of the papers entitled 'Dies Boreales,' the last of the fine series on Milton's Paradise Lost, were written by him in August and September, 1852, some months after the occurrence of that calamity by which his strong frame had been stricken down; papers written with his usual fine perception and impressive diction, but in a hand so tremulous, so feeble and indistinct, as to prove the strong effort of will by which alone such a task could have been accomplished. These were the last papers he ever wrote: they want, as is evident enough, the dazzling splendor of his earlier writings: they do not stir the heart like the trumpet tones of his prime, but they breathe a tone of sober grandeur and settled conviction; and these subdued and earnest words, now that we know them to have been his last, sink into the heart, like the parting accents of a friend, with a melancholy charm." It must be confessed that there is much truth in what was said by one of his critics, that the "Dies Boreales," compared to the "Noctes Ambrosianae," were but as the days of Shetland in January, compared with the nights of Italy or of Greece in June.
In 1851, he was smitten with paralysis of the lower limbs, which prevented the performance of his usual duties as Professor of Moral Philosophy and Political Economy. He resigned his office in 1852, and the Crown granted him a pension of £200 a year. I have a letter now before me dated Edinburgh, July 14, 1852, in which is recorded the last public act of his brilliant life. Alluding to the contest at the General Election of 1852, for the parlimentary representation of the Scottish Capital, when Macaulay, the Historian, Essayist, Orator, and Poet, was brought forward, without any solicitation or personal interference of his own, and placed at the head of the poll by a large majority, it is said: "One of the incidents of the election contest was the appearance of Professor Wilson, who is much disabled by palsy of his lower limbs, to vote for Macaulay. He had come in from his brother's place, eight miles distant, and had not been seen in public since his attack till this occasion brought him out. His sympathies with genius are as strong as ever." Macaulay's Liberalism was no obstacle to Wilson's manifestation in honor of a man of marked ability.
In October, 1853, the beautiful picture of "A Glimpse of an English Homestead," painted by J. F. Herring, was exhibited in Edinburgh, at Hill's, in Princes Street. Wilson, who was then residing at Lasswade, insisted on being driven into Edinburgh for the express purpose of seeing it. He was wheeled into the room, in a Bath chair, supported by his daughter, and her husband, Mr. J. T. Gordon, Sheriff of the County of Edinburgh. Mr. H. Lacey, who had charge of the picture, assures me that Wilson's remarks, though spoken in a low tone, were as much to the point and purpose as if he had conceived them twenty years before, in his prime. Disease had prostrated his body, but, almost to the very last hour, had spared his mind.
He died at his house in Gloucester Place, Edinburgh, without bodily pain, at a few minutes after midnight, on the morning of April 3, 1854. He was accorded the honor of a public funeral, and measures have been taken to erect some permanent memorial, in Edinburgh, of him who, for over thirty years was one of the greatest of Scotchmen; — the very greatest, since the death of Scott, in 1832.
There can be little difficulty in deciding on the place which Professor Wilson will hold among the authors of his time. In vastness and variety of general knowledge, in the art of popularly throwing his mind into communion with the minds of his readers, in a peculiar richness of phraseology which no one else has so well succeeded in giving, in strong and nervous expression, in the wondrous faculty by which he made the best words fall into the best places, in a peculiar species of humor which never broke out into mirth, though it often created a smile by its quaintness, and, above all, in a remarkable power, strengthened, when he used it, by a gentle earnestness of diction, of exciting pathetic feelings in the mind, Wilson stands eminently distinguished as a prose-writer. To his credit, also, be it recorded that, with all these combined powers, he was gentle and gracious in their use. From the time that he was a recognised writer in Blackwood, and therefore responsible, he was chary in personality: — in the cause of humanity, in aid of the oppressed, in battle with evil-doers, he was unsparing as he was strong — but, in all other cases, what was said of Grattan was also true of him, that his eloquence or wit
"Ne'er carried a heart-stain away on its blade."
As to his poetry, I cannot say that it has been underrated — I only say that it has been eclipsed by his splendid prose. But in the Isle of Palms and The City of the Plague, to say nothing of his smaller poems, there is much which "the world will not willingly let die." Scott, Southey, and Wilson are men who, had they never written prose, would have stood higher among Poets than they do. The fine traditional Lay of the Last Minstrel; the chivalric story of which Marmion, felon-Knight though he be, is confessedly the hero; the tale of Scottish history in which Roderick Dhu dies like a chieftain, and gentle Ellen, fair daughter of Gray Douglas, sees that
The Knight of Snowdon, James Fitz-James,
The fealty of Scotland claims;
these, had Scott never written another line, would have long kept his memory green in the hearts of all who love Song. The tragic story of Joan of Arc; the stately historic record of the errors and expiation of the Last of the Gothic Kings of Spain; the "wild and wondrous lay" of Thalaba; and the Asiatic splendor of Kehama, have sunk beneath the almost perfect prose of Southey. And the gentle beauty of the Isle of Palms; the tragic passion of the City of the Plague; the sorrowful legend of the Flower of Furness; and the exquisite tenderness which we meet in the Sisters, done to death by the dark faithlessness of Unimore, the Pirate-Chieftain — all these, which would have been familiar to us as household words, have been well nigh swept out of memory by the immortal writings — in truth, as much poetry as prose — of John Wilson. Ivanhoe, and Lion-hearted Richard, and gallant Leicester, and the bold, bad Louis of France, with a long array of glorious creations, have swamped Scott's poetry: — history, biography, criticism, and the quaint humor of "The Doctor," have nearly performed the same task for Southey. As for Professor Wilson, his poetry has been almost traditional, full of beauty though it be, since it became overshadowed by the multifarious brilliancy and fecundity of Kit North.
As a critic, Wilson was sometimes far from impartial — but this was
In his hot youth, when George the Third was King.
Lockhart's connection with the Magazine was slight, after the Editorship of the Quarterly Review removed him to London. From that time, Wilson's own impulses had unrestricted action. Henceforth, he became more generous in his estimate of men and things. Now and then, when he caught a blockhead, Christopher North did lay on the knout with heavy hand and determined purpose. But what man of merit did he ridicule or condemn? Who more impartial in his views of gifted men? He was one of the first to acknowledge the great merits of Wordsworth, even at the time when, in the Edinburgh Review, Jeffrey's criticism on the poet commenced with the scathing sentence, "This will never do." He was the first of his party to appreciate Shelley, and startled the readers of Blockwood's Magazine by cordially praising that gifted poet. He it was who did justice to Byron, while be condemned the obscenity of "Don Juan," and the wandering "Childe" acknowledged his gratitude. In one of his letters published by Moore, there is this sentence from Byron: "Show this to Wilson, for I like the man, and care little for his Magazine." In Wilson, also, Burns found an eloquent champion, and Hogg a discriminating critic and staunch friend. He had kindly feelings for every one who possessed talent, and even those whom he cut up, (such as Robert Montgomery, the verse-maker,) had they really required his sympathy or assistance, might say, "His bark is aye waur (worse) than his bite." How mirthfully used Maga laugh at the "Cockney School of Poetry" — how kindly, when Leigh Hunt was in worldly necessity, did Wilson exert himself, in and out of Blackwood, to better his circumstances! Why do I mention these things? — because I believe it the duty of a writer to tell the truth of the person whose biography he lays before the world. In the case of that erratic genius Edgar A. Poe, it was right so to record — as a warning: in that of Wilson, it is proper to do so, as an example. For over thirty years did Christopher North reign as Autocrat in what he had made unquestionably the most powerful and popular periodical in the world; — in all that time, how few have had cause to complain of injustice at his hands. Let it sink deep into the hearts of all who write for the public, that honesty of purpose with the pen, like honesty of action in the world, is the right, and therefore the best, policy. In truth, across the Atlantic and here, editorial opinions are often expressed with too little recollection of the great responsibility which rests on a public writer. Wilson, once that the wild exuberance of youthful spirits was sobered down, appears to me to have always written with a deep sense of this responsibility. He had made himself a Power — but, like many despots, seldom pushed his autocracy to any thing like its limit. The strongest men are always the most quiet and least demonstrative.
I have here attempted to exhibit Wilson as poet, novelist, critic, essayist, and — Christopher North. There is yet one phase of his multi-faced mind which remains to be shown. It has commonly happened, I know not why, that men who write well rarely possess the art or gift (it partakes of both, perhaps) of oratorical eloquence. Byron had it not. Scott did not possess it. Southey told me that he would as lief sink through the earth as make a speech in public. Wordsworth's conversation, at his own (tea-) table, or among his beloved hills, was a monologue; but he confessed to me that he could not imagine how a man could face a thousand auditors, to arrest their attention. Scott, in public, was content to be merely a speaker who took care not to commit himself. Rogers, whose table-talk was charming, full of the Past, touching on the Present, and inquiringly suggestive of the Future, never could speak in public. I allude, of course, to eloquence in England, where extempore speaking is all-in-all; where the ready, and not the prepared, oration is prized; where the man who delivers a "cut-and-dry" article, miscalled "a speech," makes no impression. — Wilson had the peculiarity, and a splendid one it was, of being at once one of the greatest writers and most brilliant orators of his time.
Lockhart's description of him, at the Burns Dinner, in 1818, has already indicated what manner of speaker Wilson was. He had an energy of diction, a flow of fancy, a fluency of expression, and a wealth of language such as I have never met, before or since, combined in one man. The great charm — the reality of Wilson's eloquence was, that it was wholly spontaneous and unprepared. Of course, like all sensible men who expect to he called upon to deliver their sentiments in public, Professor Wilson thought over what it might be proper for him to say — but he, like most men of ordinary ability, would disdain to cramp his genius by composing and committing to memory what he was to impose upon his hearers as emanating, at the moment, from the occasion. The reason why Sheil had little influence in Parliament was — he got his speeches off by heart, and they were spoken "articles." So, also, with Macaulay, who delivers an essay which would have read very well in the Edinburgh Review, but falls still-born, on the floor of the House of Commons.
On the 25th of June, 1841, a public dinner was given to Charles Dickens, at which two hundred and fifty literati, lawyers, and politicians attended; over which Professor Wilson presided. He spoke more than once, and some of his sentences contain moral truths far higher than the mare eloquence — the garniture of words — in which they were expressed. Speaking of Scottish pride in the national character, he said:
"Nothing great or good can ever be expected to be produced in any land of which the natives do not rejoice that they were born there — who do not consider their clime and their country as the best of all climes and countries under the sun — who are not attached to the customs and habits of their country — who do not reverence the memory of their forefathers, and who do not trust in Providence that their bones may be laid in their native soil."
"Yes, gentlemen, I will say that the love of liberty and the love of literature, are kindred and cognate. I will say that the spirit of literature is a free, bold, and independent spirit, — I will say that this spirit is sacred to liberty, for it spurns from it every thing that is low, mean, and vicious; all servility, and all sycophancy. The man of genius stands erect, and is not ashamed to show his face any where — he is not ashamed to show his face whether in multitudes who may sympathize with him to the very top of his bent, or in multitudes who, by their frowns, desire to spurn him from them. No, his bosom is filled with noble and independent thoughts, that bid defiance to all such passing things, for he who prosecutes literature as it ought to be prosecuted — he to whom Heaven has given time gift of genius, feels his soul free at all times, rejoices in his might, and rejoices to unfold his wings, whether in the sunshine or in the storm, and ardently, desires that the whole human race should enjoy that liberty which is the birthright of all, and by the power of which he himself works all those miracles which delight and astonish mankind."
How truly does he draw the distinction between the genius which is and that which is not popular. After alluding to the favor which Dickens had every where won, he said:
"Now, in regard to popularity, there are some who pretend even to despise it; perhaps if their opinions could be narrowly looked into, and their own characters strictly scanned, it would be found that they despised it chiefly on the ground that it was something placed very far beyond their own reach, and which, nevertheless, they are incessantly hankering after. You are all well aware that there have been always men of transcendent genius who have not been popular. It is easy to believe, for it is difficult to believe otherwise, that great philosophers have not been duly estimated during their own lifetime; it is easy to imagine that come of the greatest poets were not popular during their lifetime, from the nature of the subjects chosen by them — they desired and required a fit audience, and finding it not, they were driven to trust to an accumulation of ages for an audience beyond the tomb. It is undeniable, too, that there are various kinds of beauty which are not immediately apparent. The popular sense requires long years of cultivation to open up the popular mind to the perception of such beauty; and you can easily imagine much beauty of a higher order, which perhaps will never be appreciated by all, for it would scarcely be true to say, that Milton's Paradise Lost, or the sublime poems of Dante, are, or ever will be what is termed popular. But is there any reason for us to look down with scorn on those productions of genius which are truly popular, and popular on just and right grounds, because they appeal to feelings implanted in human nature, and find a universal response returned all over the land?"
Amid some hyperbole of praise (unavoidable, perhaps, on such a complimentary occasion) Wilson proceeded to show in what Dickens's peculiar merits actually lay, and said: "To what, I ask, can the popularity of such a man be attributed but to that insight — that almost Divine insight — into the working of human nature, its passions and affections, to that comprehensive soul and tender heart which sympathizes with all the griefs, sorrows, raptures, joys, and agonies of his fellow-men?" He added, with much truth, "Mr. Dickens is also a satirist. He satirizes human life; but he does not satirize it to degrade it. He does not wish to pull down what is high, into the neighborhood of what is low. He does not seek to represent all virtue as a hollow thing in which no confidence can be placed. He satirizes only the selfish and the hard-hearted and the cruel; he exposes, in a hideous light, that principle which, when acted upon, gives a power to men in the lowest grades to carry on a more terrific tyranny than if placed upon thrones."
How noble, too, is the peroration — all the better for the frank admission, "I came here unprepared." Of course he did. Genius is always ready-armed. Here is the passage, and full of eloquence it is:
"I shall not say — for I do not feel — that our distinguished guest has done full and entire justice to one subject — that he has entirely succeeded where I have no doubt he would be most anxious to succeed, in a full and complete delineation of female character. Who has? I suppose, with the single exception of Shakspeare, it is felt that in almost every delineation of female virtue and goodness there is always something inadequate — something which does not completely fill the desire of our heart, and which does not accord with our own happy and blessed experience. But this he has done. He has not attempted to represent them as charming merely by the aid of accomplishments, however elegant and graceful. He has not depicted those accomplishments as the essentials of their character, but has spoken of them rather as always inspired by a love of domestic duty, by fidelity, by purity, by innocence, by charity, and by hope, which makes them discharge, under the most difficult circumstances, their duties, and which brings over their path in this world some glimpses of the light of heaven. I shall proceed no farther in this course, which I again say I intended to avoid, and I shall conclude with a very few words. Mr. Dickens may be assured that there are felt for him all over Scotland sentiments of kindness, affection, admiration and love — and I know, for certain, that the knowledge of these sentiments must make him happy for I know, though he has been but a short time in our country — (and I trust be will be oftener here and for a longer period) — I know well that his heart turns with fondness to the lovely and endearing image of Scotland — I know well that the dream of his past enthusiasm, and of his imagination, has been the unequalled beauties and sublimities of our country; but far beyond them dear to him must be our time-honored institutions — our hallowed habits — our holy customs, which have risen and grown and flourished round the domestic hearth — that sacred scene, where every virtue attains its full development. In this country there is still an unshaken, heart-felt, awe-struck sense of religion; and when he looks at our kirks in their solitary situations, though now not solitary, for thank Heaven they are numerous, he will understand those feelings, deeper than genius can express, or imagination conceive — how deep-seated in every bosom are those impressions, which, while they adorn and elevate the present life, give hope and consolation to the life that is to come. With these few thoughts, inadequately expressed — for I came here almost unprepared, and scarcely able to speak with that energy which I ought to have done — I beg to propose the health of Mr. Dickens."
Well might Dickens, after that, propose the health of Wilson, as "Christopher North, the old man of the lion-heart and sceptre-crutch." Who that was present, on that occasion, but must have been lost in wonder at the announcement, in the Caledonian Mercury, of the next day, after the report of the proceedings, as follows: "We may mention, what is not generally known, that in consequence of previous indisposition, it was very doubtful in the forenoon whether Professor Wilson would be able to take the chair at the dinner to Mr. Dickens yesterday. Nothing but the energetic character of this distinguished individual, and his generous enthusiasm in the cause of literature, could have enabled him to overcome the task; and his speech shows, that no temporary bodily weakness could dim the ardor of his fancy, or weigh down the elastic vigor of his mind. We never heard him deliver himself with more brilliancy or acute and powerful discrimination."
A later and a nobler display of eloquence was that made by Wilson, at the Burns Festival, in 1844. That was a remarkable occasion, calculated to awaken the sympathies of every person present — particularly of one who, as Wilson had done, had defended the memory of departed and lamented Genius from the shafts of slander. The Festival took place at Ayr, and was such a jubilee as if some well-loved monarch had visited a city upon which he had bestowed signal privileges, benefits, and honors. On the banks of the Doon, oft-named in Burns's immortal songs, a great Platform was erected. Behind it stood the Poet's monument, with old Alloway kirk in the distance. Before it was a mighty Pavilion, erected for the banquet, all gay with flags and streamers. To the right, spanning the water of the Doon, its arch green with the ivy of two centuries, was the Old Bridge, far beyond which the Carrick hills reached far away; and, on the left, were the town and broad bay of Ayr, and Arran with its gray mountains. On that platform stood some of the "fair women and brave men" of Scotland; Lord Eglinton, chairman of the day, representing the old house of Montgomery, famous in the annals of Scotland and France; Boyle, Chief of the Scottish Judges, his head white with the winters of many years; Alison, the historian; Chambers, who had rescued Burns's sister from poverty; and, towering among them, in stature of mind and body, was John Wilson. By his side were an elderly female, and three men — with grave and thoughtful, but calmly-delighted aspect: the sister and the sons of Burns. There, after nearly half a century had passed since the Poet's death, his kinsfolk beheld a nation rendering homage to his genius. Yes, long may be the pedigree of the ennobled and the high, but, on that day, a deeper glory shed its halo upon the lineage of the Peasant-Poet.
It was calculated that eighty thousand persons participated in this Celebration. They surrounded the platform — they accompanied the long procession, as it swept from Ayr, across the new bridge of Doon, returning by the old bridge, and finally past the platform whereon stood, returned in competence to their native land which they had left in yore, the sons of Burns. Loudly pealed the cheers for him and them, for Eglinton and Wilson; there, upon the "banks and braes o' bonny Doon."
Then followed a Banquet, of which two thousand persons partook. Next to Lord Eglinton were the sons of Burns, his sister, and others of his kinsfolk. There, on the very spot where Burns drew his breath, the noble and the gifted met to do him honor, in companionship with the horny-handed and honest-hearted peasantry to which he had belonged. It was a scene to excite the mind. On Wilson, as might be expected, the effect was great. I run no risk of being accounted tedious in quoting a few passages from what he said:
"For many a deep reason the Scottish people love their own Robert Burns. Never was the personal character of poet so strongly and endearingly exhibited in his song. They love him, because he loved his own order, nor ever desired for a single hour to quit it. They love him, because he loved the very humblest condition of humanity, where every thing good was only the more commended to his manly mind by disadvantages of social position. They love him, because he saw with just anger, how much the judgments of 'silly coward man' are determined by such accidents, to the neglect or contempt of native worth. They love him for his independence. What wonder! To be brought into contact with rank and wealth — a world inviting to ambition, and tempting to a thousand desires — and to choose rather to remain lowly and poor, than seek air easier or a brighter lot, by courting favor from the rich and great — was a legitimate ground of pride, if any ground of pride be legitimate. He gave a tongue to this pride, and the boast is inscribed in words of fire in the Manual of the Poor. It was an exuberant feeling, as all his feelings were exuberant, and he let them all overflow. But sometimes, forsooth! He did not express them insufficiently polite or courteous phrase! And that too was well. He stood up not for himself only, but for the great class to which he belonged, and which in his days — and too often in ours — had been insulted by the pride of superior station, when unsupported by personal merit, to every bold peasant a thing of scorn. They love him, because be vindicated the ways of God to man, by showing that there was more genius and virtue in huts, than was dreamt of in the world's philosophy. They love him for his truthful pictures of the poor. Not there are seen slaves sullenly laboring, or madly leaping in their chains; but in nature's bondage, content with their toil, sedate in their sufferings, in their recreations full of mirth — are seen Free Men. The portraiture, upon the whole, is felt by us — and they know it — to demand at times pity as a due; but challenges always respect, and more than respect, for the condition which it glorifies. The Land of Burns! What mean we by the words? Something more, surely, than that Fortune, in mere blindness, had produced a great poet here? We look for the inspiring landscape, and here it is; but what could all its beauties have availed, had not a people inhabited it possessing all the sentiments, thoughts, aspirations, to which nature willed to give a voice in him of her choicest melody? Nothing prodigious, after all, in the birth of such a poet among such a people. Was any thing greater in the son than the austere resignation of the father? In his humble compeers there was much of the same tender affection, sturdy independence, strong sense, self-reliance, as in him; and so has Scotland been prolific, throughout her lower orders, of men who have made a figure in her literature and her history; but to Burns nature gave a finer organization, a more powerful heart, and an ampler brain, imbued with that mystery we call genius, and he stands forth conspicuous above all her sons.
"In the mine, in the dungeon, upon the great waters, in remote lands under fiery skies, Burns's poetry goes with his countrymen. Faithfully portrayed, the image of Scotland lives there; and thus she holds, more palpably felt, her hand upon the hearts of her children, whom the constraint of fortune or ambitions enterprise carries afar from the natal shores. Unrepining and unrepentant exiles, to whom the haunting recollection of hearth and field breathes in that dearest poetry, not with homesick sinkings of heart, but with home-invigorated hopes that the day will come when their eyes shall have their desire, and their feet again feel the greensward and the heatherbent of Scotland. Thus is there but one soul in this our great National Festival; while to swell the multitudes that from morning light continued flocking towards old Ayr, till at mid-day they gathered into one mighty mass in front of Burns's Monument, came enthusiastic crowds from countless villages and towns, from our metropolis, and from the great City of the West, along with the sons of the soil dwelling all round the breezy uplands of Kyle, and in regions that stretch away to the stormy mountains of Morven."
These extracts indifferently give an idea of Wilson's eloquence, on this occasion, described by Aird (who heard it) as something almost sublime: "With those long, heart-drawn, lingering, slow-expiring tones, solemn as a Cathedral chant, the whole of this sacred piece of service (for it can be called nothing else) was like some mournful oratorio by Mozart, soft at once and sublime."
He was one of the last of a noble array of great minds. He had outlived Scott and Wordsworth, Southey and Lamb, Coleridge and Maginn, Byron and Moore, Joanna Baillie and Crabbe, Miss Edgeworth and Mrs. Hemans, Hood and Hook, Jane Porter and L. E. L., Campbell and Roscoe, Shelley and Keats, Galt and Allan Cunningham, Mackenzie and Leslie. A few remained: Rogers, verging on a century; Montgomery, who survived but a few weeks; Landor and Do Quincey, Lockhart and Milman, Hunt and Alison. Great as were and are the dead and the living, he towered among them, with his gigantic intellect.
Had he directed its mighty force upon any isolated subject, perhaps he might have produced that world's wonder, a chef d'oeuvre. But his temperament forbade such concentration of his powers. He held Jove's thunderbolt, but it rather pleased him to play with the lightnings which flashed around it. Why speculate on what he might have done? Contemplate what he did, and ask whether any but the highest genius could have accomplished it.
The person of this man was like his mind. I repeat that he towered above ordinary mortals in stature as in intellect. He was a man like Daniel Webster, who could not appear upon the causeway, in any city in the world, without exciting wonder and admiration. Nature had plainly marked him out as one on whom she had showered an abundance of her richest gifts. His stature was far over the common height. His figure, at the age of 67, when I last saw him, was as erect as it had been in early manhood. Time had tinged his yellow hair with gray, but, to the last, it floated wildly over a brow of remarkable expression, beneath which beamed blue eyes, which seemed to measure your mind and body at a glance. Of all men, he who most resembled Wilson in personal appearance was Audubon, the naturalist: — less robust, and with a face more angular in some of its lines, Audubon appeared, as Wilson did, like a man who had spent much of his time in the open air. There was a marked resemblance in feature, also, as in form. Wilson and Audubon might have passed for brothers. The out-of-door pursuits of Audubon, for the purposes of science, were Wilson's from childhood, by choice, from an overpowering love for external nature, in its varied aspects. There was not a valley or mountain, lake or town, river or streamlet, in all Scotland, which he had not visited. He also had traversed, on foot, nearly every part of England. He excelled in field sports, and his familiarity with all varieties of scenery, may account for the beautiful fidelity and freshness of his descriptions. The force of his poetry was probably influenced by, if not mainly derived from, the same source. No one, except him who had often slept in his plaid in a mountain hut, could have written that glorious "Address to a Wild Deer," one of the most magnificent poems in our language.
In his attire he was careless rather than slovenly. He was over six feet high, and, with floating yellow hair, nose like an eagle's beak, and bright blue eyes, would have passed for a Scandinavian. You could imagine that such must have been one of the bold Sea-Kings of the North, in the olden time. It has repeatedly been declared that, in the Chaldee Manuscript, Hogg has described him "with hair like eagles' feathers, and nails like birds' claws." It happens that these words cannot be found in the Chaldee Manuscript. In one of his numerous autobiographies, Hogg states that, before he saw Wilson, he had heard him described as having a wild aspect, with hair and nails as aforesaid.
There are several good portraits of Wilson. One, executed in 1843, by the late Mr. Duncan, a Scottish artist, is introduced into his historic picture of the Entry of Prince Charles Edward into Edinburgh. It is a good likeness — but Wilson is represented in the crowd, bare-necked, and excited. Another, which shows him in middle age, was painted by Sir John Watson Gordon, of Edinburgh, and has always been considered a fine resemblance. The engraving which illustrates Volume I. of this edition, is after that portrait. There also is a fine likeness of him in Mr. Faed's well-known picture of "Sir Walter Scott and his Literary Friends at Abbotsford," — a composition, by the way, which was commenced at Wilson's suggestion, and executed under his personal superintendence. There is also a poetic likeness of him, in marble, by the late Mr. Fillans, the sculptor. In "Peter's Letters" there is a portrait of him, taken in 1819, when he was thirty-four years old, which has been considered a spirited and characteristic likeness.
He was a man whom to see once, was to forget never. My personal acquaintance with him was made in 1840. I was at Mr. Blackwood's, in George street, Edinburgh, — in the very Sanctum where have met, in free interchange of thought, so many gifted minds, — and awaited the arrival of "The Professor," to whom I was promised an introduction. I heard his heavy tread, as it shook the floor, long before he appeared in bodily presence. He entered into conversation at once, kindly saying that he had heard of me before, and ran into and over twenty different subjects during the two hours we were together, that day. I recollect that he lamented the disappointment of his cherished desire to visit America, during the preceding year, (1839) and said he had heard that his writings were popular there. His principal object in coming to this country would have been, he said, to spend a week at Niagara, and to take by the hand some American authors, whom he named. At that time, he realized a lately published description of him, as "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 when he was listening and silent, while his gray flashing eyes had a weird sort of look which was highly characteristic." At this time he was in his fifty-fifth year.
No where has Wilson been so widely and thoroughly appreciated as in America. Here, all his works have been reprinted, — not only the poems, prose stories, and "Recreations," but THE NOCTES AMBROSIANAE, and the Dies Boreales. His critical and miscellaneous articles were never collected in England, but that good service to literature was done by their appearance, from the Philadelphia press, in 1842. This collection, however, is incomplete, for I could point out two score articles from his pen, and some of his best too, which are not there included. In this country, also, have been republished his Essay on the Genius and Character of Burns, his articles on Shakspearian Literature, and his vigorous and analytic papers on the earlier British poetry.
There would be no difficulty in extending this biographical sketch by introducing some of the personal anecdotes, more or less "founded on facts," which are floating on the surface of literary conversation. But this notice is already of sufficient length: — my object has mainly been to show Wilson in connection with the NOCTES AMBROSIANAE; and I must abridge my own composition, to make room for a portion of the article, in Blackwood for May, 1854, which announced his loss, and gratefully and affectionately paid homage to his Genius. The writer says:
"When first we saw Professor Wilson — now more than three-and-thirty years ago — no more remarkable person could have attracted attention. Physically and mentally he was the embodied type of energy, power, and self-reliance. The tall and elastic frame, the massive head that crowned it, the waving hair, the finely-cut features, the eye flashing with every variety of emotion, the pure and eloquent blood which spoke in the cheek, the stately lion-like port of the man, — all announced, at the first glance, one of Nature's nobles. And to the outward presence corresponded the mind within; for rarely have qualities so varied been blended in such marvellous and harmonious union. The culture of English scholarship had softened the more rugged tires of his Scottish education. The knowledge of life, and sympathy with its forms, from the highest to the lowest, had steadied the views and corrected the sentimental vagueness of the poetical temperament; a strong and practical sagacity pervaded, and gave reality to, all the creations of his imagination. Extensive and excursive reading — at least in English literature and the classics — combined with a singular accuracy and minuteness of natural observation, had stored his mind with facts of every kind, and stamped the results on an iron memory. Nature and early training had so balanced his faculties that all themes seemed to come alike to his hand: the driest, provided only it bore upon the actual concerns of life, had nothing repulsive for him; he could expatiate in the field of the mournful as if it were his habitual element, and turn to the sportive and the fantastic, as if he had been all his life a denizen of the court of Comus. The qualities of the heart partook of his expansive and universal character. Affections as tender as they were impetuous, checked and softened the impulses of a fiery temper and vehement will, and infused a pathetic and relenting spirit into strains of invective that were deviating into harshness. That he should have been without warm dislikings, as well as warm attachments, would imply an impossibility. But from every thing petty or rancorous he was absolutely free. Most justly was he entitled to say of himself, that he never knew envy except as he had studied it in others. His opposition, if it was uncompromising, was always open and manly: to the great good qualities of his opponent he generally did justice from the first — always in the end; and not a few of those who in early life had regarded him merely as the headlong leader of a partisan warfare, both in literature and politics, came to learn their mistake, to reverence in him the high-toned and impartial critic, and to esteem the warm-hearted and generous man.
"His conversation and his public speaking had in them a charm to which no other term is applicable but that of fascination, and which, in the zenith of his powers, we never met with any one able to resist. While his glittering eye held the spectators captive, and the music of the ever-varying voice, modulating up and down with the changing character of the theme, fell on the ear, and a flood of imagery invested the subject with every conceivable attribute of the touching, the playful, or the picturesque, the effect was electric, indescribable: it imprisoned the minds of the auditors; they seemed to fear that the sound would cease — they held their breath as if under the influnce of a spell.
"Thus accomplished by nature and education, did Professor Wilson apply himself to his self-imposed task in this Magazine — that of imparting to periodical literature in general, and to literary criticism in particular, a new body and a new life; of pulling down the old conventional walls within which they had been confined, and of investing criticism itself with something of the creative and poetic character of the great works of imagination to which it was to be applied."
Ample materials for a full and suitable biography of Professor Wilson are in existence. The proper persons to write it are to be found in his own family. His four sons-in-law are well qualified, all and each. There is Lord Neaves, (the recently appointed Scottish Judge, in succession to Lord Cockburn, Wilson's friend of many years,) — there is Sheriff Gordon, who writes as ably as he speaks — there is Professor Ferrier, of St. Andrew's — and there is Professor Aytoun of Edinburgh, understood to have for some time been the conductor of Blackwood's Magazine. Fortunate in seeing his four daughters grow to womanhood, and happily married to men of education, intellect, and character, Wilson's later years glided on, as calmly as could be expected for one who had suffered the heart-quake of a beloved partner's loss. Those who fancy, as Moore did, (in his Life of Byron,) that men of genius are necessarily unfortunate in their domestic relations, would have their theory severely injured by contact with the fact that there seldom has been a man more happy as a father, husband, brother, son, and friend, than Professor Wilson. He was the life, grace, and ornament of general society, but his most felicitous appearance was in the bosom of his family. — It is fitting, for the lesson which such a man's life teaches, as well as for the information which it must convey, that our literature be enriched by a suitable Biography of JOHN WILSON.