1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Wilson

John Gibson Lockhart, in Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk (1819) 1:125-29, 3:255-61.



One of the best speeches, perhaps the very best, delivered during the whole of the evening, was that of Mr. J— W—n, in proposing the health of the Ettrick Shepherd. I had heard a great deal of W—n from W—, 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 vigour. 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 the 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 fervour 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. J— W—n. His declamation is often loose and irregular to an extent that is not quite worthy of a 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 expressive dimness 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 compose 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 uncontrolable 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. W—n, 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 the thing had been otherwise....

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The author of the Isle of Palms, and the City of the Plague (whose exquisite Lines on the Death of James Grahame, are engraved on the memory of not a few here [Glasgow], and elsewhere,) is himself also a native of this place, and connected by blood with many of the most respectable families of this vicinity. I mentioned this gentleman more than once to you in my letters from Edinburgh, and am glad that you were pleased with my account of his eloquence. The truth is, that I do not think justice is at all done in general to his genius — it is everywhere, indeed, admitted to be beautiful and various; but I suspect its strength and originality are not adequately appreciated, even by those who ought to be most capable of studying its productions. The meed of poetical popularity, (in its proudest sense) has been bestowed in our time in a way that cannot be considered in any other light than that of extreme partiality, by all who contemplate the poetical works which have been produced among us, with a calm and deliberate eye. The reputation of those who have acquired great reputation, is perfectly just and proper; but there are not a few names which ought to share more than they do in the high honours which have been lavished on our first-rate favourites. Such, most assuredly, are the names of Coleridge, of Lamb, and of Wilson — three poets distinguished by very different kinds of acquirement, and very different kinds of genius, — but all agreeing in one particular, and that no unimportant one neither — namely, that they have appealed too exclusively to the most delicate feelings of our nature, and neglected, in a great measure, to call upon those more widespread sympathies, whose responses are so much more easy to be wakened — and, being once aroused, so much louder in their cheering and reverberating notes. I should except, however, from this rule, as applied to Mr. Wilson's poetry, his last and longest poem, the City of the Plague — in which there is surely no want of passionate and powerful appeals to all those feelings and propensities which have been most excited and gratified by the most popular poets of our day. Of the comparative unpopularity of that poem, something no doubt may be attributed to the hasty nature of its plan and composition, and something also to the defective structure of its blank verse, which is certainly by no means what it should be — but I think no person who reads it, can doubt that it displays altogether a richness and fervour of poetic invention, and, at the same time, a clear pathetic mastery of all the softer strings of the human heart — such as in a wiser or a less capricious age, would have long since procured for the poem very extensive popularity — and for the poet himself, a much more copious reward of serious admiration than seems as yet to have been bestowed by the general voice upon Mr. Wilson.

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 ensure his success. But he whose mind is rich in a thousand quarters — who finds himself surrounded with an intellectual armoury of many and various kinds of weapons — is happy indeed if he do not lose much time in 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 truth 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 he 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 vigour 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 favourites 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 the boughs of some large weeping willow bending slowly and sadly to the dirges of the night-breeze, over some clear classical streamlet fed by the tears of Naiads.

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P. M.