It is doubtful which of the two young men, whose eager co-operation and delighted seizure upon an instrument as new as it was effective with which to move the world gave Blackwood's project immediate force and energy, was the more important to that great undertaking and to himself. It is evident, however, that at the first start it was Lockhart who was more immediately prominent, though Wilson soon became the chief influence and more constant worker, — at once the prop and the plague, as will be seen, of Magazine and publisher. Though he was the very impersonation of irregularity, careless prodigality of strength, and want of system, he had the great advantage of remaining on the spot and continuing in the same circle of adherents and friends, and was thus a more prevailing presence than his more exact and less accidental comrade and coadjutor. They were both, when they began the work of life, as little systematic, as careless of all rule, as can be conceived. It was the joy and glory of youth in those days to win its honours and attain its effects with almost an affectation of idleness and indifference to any serious motive. I do not know whether there was so much more force of impulse and energy in the generation that this was the expression of a natural tendency or the sign of their special stage of development. I am free to confess that to account for it in this way seems to me the mere jargon of science applied to matters with which it has little to do. And we may admit that there is still a prejudice in the youthful mind in favour of prizes lightly won, and of the young hero who never seems to work, yet gaily gains the reward of work by some dazzling impossibility which delights his companions. Alas! I fear that it is now his stupid companions, the comrades of his pleasures, who are delighted; and that virtuous youth, to which the labour is the great thing, and the reward more or less professedly indifferent if not given as the recompense of struggle and effort, is of quite another way of thinking.
But in those days there was no perpetual and ever-repeated ordeal of examinations, and perhaps there was a certain advantage in the fact that brilliant natural faculties sometimes won the day over that perseverance and steadfast plodding which is our reformed ideal nowadays. Wilson was one of the most marked examples of that beginning-of-the-century method. Everybody saw him at play. He was the most vigorous athlete, the most reckless wanderer, ever ready for frolic or fight — and rarely or never was he seen at work: nevertheless he was publicly complimented when he left Oxford, and perhaps during the course of his literary life there was no one more brilliant or more appreciated or more productive, though those who knew him best were continually provoked by what appeared his carelessness and indolence, and were convinced, even at the height of labours which were never believed in, because it was his whim to undervalue them, that any excuse was sufficient to induce him to shirk work and cast duty aside. In everything he had to do, he did more than other men. When his companions took a decorous ramble by coach or carriage, he tramped with his knapsack, burying himself in Border valleys or among the Highland glens. He sought adventure everywhere by flood or field. He idled, talked, jested, wasted his time, did everything but work; yet somehow seldom, in his early life at least, failed in the great demands made upon him, and produced a whole literature of that criticism of life which we have remarked as the grand characteristic of his compositions and those of his friend — not a literature, perhaps, which has lasted, or is likely to last except in brilliant fragments, but one which inspired and delighted his age, and made his generation acquainted with a larger view and widened conception of things intellectual and moral, a scorn of the poor and paltry, a generous appreciation of the neglected. The "Noctes" of Blackwood, which finally fell into his hands after the joint manipulation of several others, was a storeroom of wisdom and of wit, of sport and earnest, of the gravest discussions and the gayest commentaries, and had a large, unacknowledged, perhaps uncomprehended, share in the mental training of our fathers. It is a little humbling to reflect that these fathers, whom we inevitably feel less wise than ourselves, often knew a great deal more than we do, and had read more — just as we are conscious that we have a better acquaintance with the literature of our own country than the latest generation, which prides itself on reading nothing. We do not hesitate to say that the nation's power of expressing itself, its faculty of judging between the bad and good, or the not-so-bad and good-enough, were considerably affected by the lively dialogue, the fine criticism, and beautiful descriptions, of that famous literary commentary on contemporary life.
John Wilson was born in 1785, the son of a wealthy manufacturer in Paisley, though not without gentle blood on his mother's side. We are told by his daughter, Mrs. Gordon, that the blood of the gallant and noble Montrose was in his veins, — a potent element, delightful to contemplate, though he never made any boast of it so far as we are aware — a singular, nay, almost an unkindly omission, for such an ancestor as Montrose was a thing which it was a duty to brag of. He was a son of wealth, trained in luxury, one of the ostentatiously superior class of gentleman-commoners, no longer existing — at Magdalen College, Oxford, and set out in life as the possessor of a comfortable fortune. But the favourites of heaven generally manage early to shake off by hook or by crook that unnecessary appendage. He lost his money in 1815, and on that event gave up his idle and enjoyable life of love, poetry, and athletic amusement in the Lake Country, and came to Edinburgh, already a married man, with young children to provide for, to work for his living, not very well knowing how. He was called to the Scottish bar, but there was so little meaning in that ceremonial in his case that he is said, when he found by chance a brief on his table, to have contemplated it with whimsical alarm, wondering what the devil he was to do with it! He soon found something, however, to do with his leisure, or rather with that mysterious and inappreciable portion of his time in which he did his work. It must be added that there never seems to have been anything like poverty, or the usual struggle for life common to ruined men, in his experience at this early period. He came to Edinburgh, not to any restricted existence, but to his mother's ample and comfortable house; and was evidently able to wait without any great strain until occupation and income came. In 1817, as has been already told, he and Lockhart — by that time his inseparable friend and companion, much younger in years but always more mature in soul-flung themselves into the creation of "Blackwood's Magazine," in which both found the most congenial work, and the opportunity for which both were unconsciously waiting. Its first effect was certainly anything but a conciliatory one upon the temper of the town or its authorities, and it is with a sense of courage almost as reckless as if the bailies of Edinburgh had been so many Oxford bargees (extinct as adversaries, and known no more to the less muscular undergraduate nowadays), that we find Wilson, only three years after he had set the Forth aflame, presenting himself for the suffrages of these said bailies as a candidate for the Professorship of Moral Philosophy in the University — the appointment to which, as to most of the other chairs, by some curious arrangement descending from the days when Edinburgh burgesses were a very important part of every movement, the civic authorities held in their hands. This fact made every such selection more or less a matter of politics, the Whigs carrying their candidate when Whiggery was in the ascendant, the Tories theirs when their day came round.
There could not, however, be a more triumphant answer to the complaints and remonstrances of Mr. Murray of Albemarle Street and others, as to the personalities which were to ruin the Magazine, than the success of Wilson on this occasion. Perhaps the Southern wit will say that it required a joke as wild and riotous as that of the Chaldee Manuscript to penetrate the Scottish understanding: at all events, it is clear that it was taken in no such ill part as the outer world imagined. No doubt there was much opposition to Wilson's candidature, but that was chiefly on personal, and, indeed, on religious, grounds, — many accusations of profanity quite unproved, and some of reckless living, having been brought against him. Scott himself took an active part in the canvass, writing to the Lord Provost in defence of Wilson's character, and sparing no pains to bring the contest to a successful issue. But it did come to a successful issue; and at the very moment when, according to the London journalist, the "outrages" of the "miscreants" of Blackwood had "desolated society in Edinburgh," one of them was elected to a chair in "The College," that time-honoured institution which holds so important a part in the life of the metropolis of Scotland.
No doubt it will be said that every influence except the most legitimate one of fitness for the post was brought to bear on the election, and that it was chiefly a Tory triumph. But, at the same time, Wilson's testimonials were unanswerable. They were lyrical, a series of effusions, in which high-flying Oxford sang the praises of a kind of being unknown to it in any other specimen, — a Norse-god of heroic genius as well as person, with coruscations of northern lights about him which dazzled all sober eyes. And Scott upheld his standard with a vigorous and thoroughgoing support, pledging himself for the young man's character, powers, religious opinions, domestic amiability, with a force which left no man a word to say. Wilson's religious opinions were, like those of all his class — especially, perhaps, on the Tory side — chiefly distinguished by a reverential respect for doctrines, observances, and, within certain limits, of clergymen, which very often involved a desire to hear no more about them than was necessary, but which held doubt or criticism on such subjects ungentlemanly and in the worst taste, and infidelity as a greater offence against all the principles of society than even vice. It is difficult in the present day to understand the junction of this profound and constantly expressed reverence with a profane wit which stuck at nothing: as it is also difficult to understand the ease and simplicity of the admission to his wife of "I fear I did not go to bed sober," with the facts of a life of great domestic regularity and propriety; but it was not so difficult in those days, when men's peccadilloes were regarded with an indulgent eye so long as their principles were sound and their demeanour what it ought to be. We remember that, among the grave objections made to Wilson during the contest, the singing of a certain song in the lingering and diminished party which carried on its revels into the small hours after some public dinner, from which the sober seniors had gone home hours before, was discussed before the respectable bailies, making their hair stand on end. It is needless to add that the immense potations of Ambrose's were at all times fictitious: this will be already apparent from the fact, which the reader has seen, that the famous "Noctes" came from the study at Chiefswood, in the supreme silence of the country, as often, at least at first, as from any jovial centre where they might have been otherwise inspired.
We labour under the same difficulty in respect to Wilson's correspondence with Mr. Blackwood as we have already experienced in that of Lockhart — a complete absence of dates, reducing us in many cases to the difficult process of putting together a number of scraps, not so much for any importance in themselves, as to illustrate — which is our chief object — the nature of the intercourse between him and Blackwood. There are, however, at the beginning of the correspondence a few letters which we can place in their proper position, and which show how early the connection was formed, with what enthusiasm on one side and eager response on the other. The first I find was written in the dark days of Pringle and Cleghorn, before the real "Maga" had begun. It is addressed to Wilson at a Highland address, while he was absent on one of his many sporting expeditions, and is dated—
"EDINBURGH, 2nd August 1817.
W. Blackwood to J. Wilson.
Allow me to offer you my warmest thanks and congratulations for your most interesting packet. I got it safe by this day's coach. Mr. and Mrs. Robert [Wilson?] called just as I opened it. They are equally with me in raptures with your articles and the beautiful little poems. How striking you have made the Highland Glen! and what a delightful and new turn you give to the hackneyed wish which all express on being pleased with a particular spot The widowed mother is most affecting; but what delights me most in your poetry is the heartfeit glow of religious and moral feeling with which you enrich it. The Sonnet is uncommonly good, but does not affect me like the other two. I hope you will pardon me for indulging so much 'ultra crepidam.'
"I have only had time to read the two Reviews very hurriedly. They are capital, and, so far as I can judge from a hasty glance, to the full as interesting as your former ones. I can give them no higher praise. I hope you have by this time received the letter I wrote on Saturday last, and the parcel which I forwarded to you by same post, addressed to you at Captain Harden's. The parcel contained Lord Byron's 'Lament of Tasso'; Frere's 'Prospectus,' &c.; Coleridge's 'Leaves' and his 'Biographia Literaria.'
"After what I have now received from you, you must think me a very importunate person to be asking more. I hope, however, you will have occasional moments of leisure which you will gratify all your friends by filling up as you have done already. To speak more selfishly, as it may be considered, it will be of the last importance to me that you go on to assist me, as without your help I do not expect to make No. 6 good for anything, and this would be perfectly ruinous to me. I have now positively determined to go on with a Magazine, were it on no other account than that these fellows, the Crafty and his new and most honourable allies, are triumphing over my sinking before them. But laying this wholly out of the question, I am now urged to go on by all my friends, and promised every kind of support. I would give anything almost to have you here just now to consult with, and to tell you a number of things which I have casually learnt lately with regard to the manner in which P. and Cleghorn have behaved in the business.... I have no doubt they will be besieging you for your assistance. I need not say how much I would regret your going over to the enemy's camp. I will not attempt to urge you to favour me with your support. All I shall say is, that I feel indebted to you for what you have already done more than I can express, and that I flatter myself you will find my publication to the full as respectable as the other. I hope, when you come to know, you will be fully satisfied of this."
This letter found Wilson about the trout-streams in his holiday, tramping in the wet over moss and heather, carrying at one time, apparently in his knapsack, on his Herculean shoulders, "about a dozen heavy books." This was in preparation for the first number of the new issue. It gives a curious glimpse into the manner in which articles could be composed in these robust days:—
"John Wilson to W. Blackwood.
I received the packet addressed to me at Captain Harden's on my arrival at Braemar, and found much amusement therefrom on two rainy days which I was obliged to pass there. It contained Coleridge's Life and poems, Frere's poem, and the 'Lament of Tasso.' I carried them and my other books with me to Grantown on the Spey, where a calamity, if I may use such a word, befell me. I had written an account of Coleridge's Life and a review of the 'Lament,' which I crammed into my pocket; and during my ascent to the top of Cairngorm they must have fallen out, for on returning to Grantown at night they were gone and irretrievably lost. This was certainly provoking, especially as it will be out of my power to do anything till I return to Edinburgh. I found my luggage insupportably heavy, and therefore packed up all my books, amounting to more than a dozen heavy volumes, and sent them off to Edinburgh. I am now able to walk with some comfort, which before was not the case. I expect to be in Edinburgh by the 4th or 5th of September. What it may be in my power to do for your sixth number shall be done, and if I have three or four days in Edinburgh I can do something. But tumbled about as I am now, I have no heart to do anything — especially after losing the two best articles I had written, and which I can never rewrite. I will, notwithstanding, try to say a few words on the 'Lament,' and, if possible, make a leading article of Coleridge: only you will see how difficult it is for me to promise. Frere's verses are most facetious and entertaining, but of their meaning I have no comprehension. I know not whether they are politically, theologically, or poetically critical: if you have a key tell me. For your next number get Thomas Gray's Life by Graham, which is really very good. No doubt Senex will give you something. My brother James should bestir himself, so that, with the addition of some little scientific matter from Brewster or his friends, something odd from Riddell, &c., &c., why may not a tolerable number be made out? I will, if possible, give you 'Coleridge,' 'Defence of Wordsworth,' 'Account of Marlow's Edward II.,' 'Lament of Tasso,' another short review of 'Mrs. Spence,' and 'Supposed Contents of M'Cormick.'
"I think you are right in going on with a Magazine. With respect to myself, you know that I am not to be depended upon. But if you do go on, I shall now and then, when the spirit compels, lend a hand. You should have in No. 6 an account of Kemble's leaving the stage, some critique on him, which J. Ballantyne could do, and Campbell's verses."
With such calm did the young man contemplate the work which was to bring him the chief successes of his life. But the Chaldee Manuscript had not as yet been thought of, and it was that wild onslaught which excited the brotherhood and woke them to full exercise of their powers. We should have been glad not to have the assurance thus conveyed that the article on Coleridge — a very much greater offence against public morality and humanity — was Wilson's doing. Perhaps the lost article, which dropped out of his careless pocket on the slopes of Cairngorm, was written in a better spirit, and the loss of it lent bitterness to the after-writing. Anyhow, the offence of the Chaldee Manuscript was as nothing in comparison to this review, with which, we are sad to say, "Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine" began.
In the years immediately following there is little correspondence, presumably because of the close personal intercourse between author and publisher. The following letter was evidently written in the interest of one of the feebler members of that Lake School which Wilson alternately assailed and caressed. The reader will probably feel that it carries sympathy for one friend too courageously to the debit of another:—
I enclose for your perusal a letter from Mr. Lloyd. I feel so extremely for him, knowing his character and all the circumstances of his life, that I would not for any consideration give him pain, which might produce fatal effects upon him.
"When I first wrote to him about his Tragedy I stated positively that it would be inserted at ten guineas per sheet, as I did not doubt it would be worth it. You see what his feeling about it is. With respect to the Tragedy or Drama I have not read it; but it cannot, heavy as it may be, but be exceedingly clever in many respects — that is certain. And therefore it may not, on the whole, injure the Magazine, indeed it may benefit it, although few read it. I feel myself, therefore, as you will see, obliged, by the strongest motives, to request that it may be published in the Magazine. I have no doubt that otherwise Mr. L. would be affected mentally and miserably.
"Of course it cannot go into this number; but part of it next, and so on till it is finished. It will take four numbers of about eight pages each, as I conceive. I wish, therefore, that you would send Mr. L. an order for twenty guineas, being one-half, and permission to draw upon you for the rest at six months: or perhaps the twenty guineas will do at present without the other. I shall write to him by this day's post, and if you agree with me on the necessity of this, I can enclose the order for £21 in my letter. I see no way of avoiding this. I cannot lend him money without inserting the Tragedy. That would make him worse than anything."
This would seem a curious argument nowadays for inserting so solemn a matter as a tragedy in a periodical; but men's hearts were softer, and their ways less rigid, perhaps less conventional, in the beginning of the century. The Lloyd referred to was, no doubt, Charles Lloyd, one of the brotherhood of the Lakes, an unlucky mortal astray among the band of the Immortals, and paying dearly for that privilege. Mr. Blackwood's reply to this, addressed to the unfortunate author, is decisive enough. "The gentleman who at present conducts this department" is a very transparent mystery, seeing that what influence Wilson had was chiefly in the region of poetry.
"W. Blackwood to C. Lloyd, London.
EDIN., 10 Oct. 1820.
He [Mr. Wilson] has requested me as a favour done to himself to send you twenty guineas for your Tragedy, which it seems to me, if inserted in the Magazine, will occupy about two sheets. Mr. Wilson has informed me that he had ventured to tell you that such was the rate at which communications to the work were paid. The gentleman, however, who at present conducts this department of the Magazine follows his own ideas and his own selection of articles, and not even a request of Mr. Wilson's, much as we are beholden to him, will induce him to swerve from his arrangement. I may mention, however, that your Drama seems to him not to be well adapted for a periodical work, and that its interest is more for the metaphysical than general reader, and that even that interest is likely to be impaired by the necessary publication of the Drama piecemeal.
"To show you, however, how much I am disposed to act liberally towards any literary man, and more particularly towards any friend of Mr. Wilson's, I now send you an order on Cadell & Davies for twenty guineas, and should the Tragedy be ultimately deemed, with all its merits, not adapted to the peculiar nature of the Magazine, the MS. will be returned to you, and I hope you will favour us at some other time with such communications as may supply its place."
The poem was eventually returned to the author "in a coach parcel."
It is seldom, however, that the boundless faith which the writers had in their publisher is checked in this summary way. He was very ready in general to receive their recommendations, and though the rate of remuneration at this period cannot be said to be high, invariably eager to secure a new contributor with ready cheques and cordial welcome.
The perfect intimacy of persons in close and daily communication with each other, and the fact that in most cases the Magazine and its articles are the prevailing subject of these flying scraps of letters, detract considerably from the interest of the correspondence; but we cannot better show how warm and constant the intercourse was, and what were the vicissitudes to which it was subject, than by quoting the following broken fragment, without beginning or end, in which there is a moan of injured affection not at all of the kind which has been supposed to be possible between author and publisher. Grub Street never knew any such relationship as this of which Mr. Blackwood sadly records the momentary breach, but which it is evident was only the rent of a moment, immediately brought together again:—
"W. Blackwood to Professor Wilson.
May 14, 1821.
I had just come from my solitary meal at Ambrose's, when the pleasure of your short letter — short as it is — raised my spirits. It is not the not receiving articles that has depressed me, but it has been the feeling of being, as it were, left to myself, and no one caring for me."
I had written the above this day se'nnight, and intended to have said something more, but I felt it too much for me, and put it into my pocket, where it has lain ever since. How to account for your conduct I know not, and you mistake my feelings if you suppose that it is the not receiving your and Mr. Lockhart's promised support to the Magazine that has vexed me. What I feel hurt at is, that after devoting my every thought and energy to whatever I conceived would be gratifying or useful to you, and never for a moment thinking of myself, you should act with this kind of indifference, so completely foreign to your usual warm-heartedness. My confidence in your friendship is the only thing that has borne me up in many difficulties, and feeling strongly that I have ever deserved it, I need not say how painful it is to me."
This letter balances, with its note of sentiment, the many wails of wounded friendship which came from Wilson's capacious bosom in after-days.
In 1822 there was published Wilson's first work in prose, "The Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life," a work exceedingly popular at the time, though perhaps giving too sentimental and superlative a view of peasant life in Scotland or anywhere else. There are several highly amusing letters upon this publication and the criticisms it called forth, which we may quote as highly characteristic of the man. No tyro could have been more anxious, more excited, than he who had dealt death and wounds round him with so much "gaiete du coeur." He expected a review from Lockhart, which he writes from the country to say he did not wish to see before it was published. "I wish to swallow it in one lump. You have no idea how sweet flattery is in the country. My appetite for it even in a town is steady, if not voracious: here, I verily believe I could bolt anything." It does not seem, however, that his hopes of flattery were satisfied. The book was given for review to Henry Mackenzie, the now very old head and patron of literature in Edinburgh, the Man of Feeling, long since reconciled to the Magazine, and whose approval was supposed to be the highest gratification to which any writer could aspire. Mr. Blackwood thanks the old gentleman effusively for his review of Galt; but Wilson evidently was very far from being of this opinion, and his reply to Mackenzie's criticism is so tremendous in its wrath, and it is so seldom that an author's remonstrance is made visible to the public, that though the letter is somewhat long, we venture to give it entire. It is dated "Kelso, Friday." The date was probably sometime in May 1822, and begins by an announcement that he has "read over the sheets of 'Maga' with the greatest pleasure," and that the number will be "most lively and amusing."
I consider old M. to be the greatest nuisance that ever infested any Magazine. His review of Galt's 'Annals' was poor and worthless: that of 'Adam Blair' still worse: and this of 'Lights and Shadows' the most despicable and foolish of all. His remarks on 'Adam Blair' did the book no good, but much harm with dull stupid people, and this wretched article cannot fail to do the same to a greater degree. I cannot express my disgust with it. He damns the book at once by comparing it with Gessner: for he draws a most degrading character (falsely, I presume) of that writer, and then says that my book is 'a close imitation of it.' Gessner's 'Idylls' are syrupy, it seems, and only fit for young sentimentalists who have never looked into the mirror of nature; and of him I am said to be a close imitator. The Colonel himself could not have told a baser lie, although from baser motives — those of the old dotard being simply self -conceit and sheer incapacity. Whatever he may bring himself to say afterwards, this is his idea of the book published to the world, that it is on the whole a syrupy dish for young sentimentalists, — the very thing which might be said by some malignant Idiot. Of Gessner I never read one syllable — nor indeed ever saw a volume of his even lying on the table. But from what I have heard of him I believe, first, that he has great merit; secondly, that he is unlike in all points to me, J. W. What he says about 'Idylls' shows ignorance; and his non-acquaintance with the origin of the term blue-stocking is altogether incomprehensible. In short, all this is a dull, vile falsehood, and one that cannot fail of being got by heart by thousands, and of injuring the book. The next paragraph is on the whole worse. 'Rural images are always pleasing' is a clever way of talking of the scenery in the volume — shepherds are 'Arcadian,' the Lights and Shadows are not Scottish, it seems. And then his own attempts at description in this paragraph, what miserable drivelling! In the third paragraph it is said that the morality is pure, it seems, but still something wrong with it. What he says of the minister's widow is most execrable, — 'never indulges it beyond civility and attention to her friends'!!!! Oh Moses! The Covenanter's marriage-day nearly happened; that is, a young man betrothed to a young woman was dragged out of his concealment in her father's house and shot by soldiers. It is not German, but intensely Scottish. The circumstances of the soldiers are misstated by Mackenzie. In sixth paragraph he says the scenery, though professedly Scots, is not always true to this profession of its locality. I say it is. Where is it not? It seems 'some passages' are an exception to this condemnation. That is lucky. In paragraph seventh he indulges in a lie, and it is a lie that ought to be pointed out to the old critic. He says, 'We are sorry that the concluding stroke of the author's pencil should have spoiled this solemn picture.' That is the picture of a wild, furious, snow-stormy night. And then he quotes a passage about diamonds and dew-drops. Now, would you believe it, the said passage of the milliner is not there at all. It occurs at the top of page 116, and is the finishing stroke to a description of youth, beauty, and happiness. Indeed had it been otherwise I must have lost my senses. I request you to read the passages 115 and 116 in the snow-storm, and you will see that the old captious body has been playing a trick to make a criticism. The passage as I have written it is beyond the literary power of any milliner's girl, and the old dotard should be told that he has grossly and falsely misquoted it, for a despicable purpose. He then says that this passage of the milliner is copied and spoiled from Thomson; for he cannot swear that the snowstorm in general is. Now, I lay my ears nothing like it can be in Thomson. Nor is there, except the snow, and even that is very different, one single point of resemblance, but all points of utter dissimilitude, between my child saved from death and his farmer family wrapt up in a greatcoat. This is foolish and false and disgusting. Lastly, my abhorrence of 'lace and embroideries' is as great and far greater than ever his was. In short, the whole article is loathsome, and gives me and Mrs. the utmost disgust. It is sickening to see it in the Magazine, and utterly destroys the pleasure which Mr. L.'s article would otherwise give me. It is not, as you well know, that I can possibly be such an ass as to dislike criticism. But this is mere drivelling falsehood and misrepresentation — calculated to injure the book, I declare, even in my own eyes, and to do it the greatest injury with the public. It is the most sickening dose of mawkish misrepresentation I ever read."
The article which filled Wilson (and Mrs. W.) with such disgust and resentment never appeared in the Magazine — probably it was only in proof that he read it: and this angry remonstrance caused its being replaced by a laudatory review in June 1822. It is edifying, however, to perceive how little the critic liked the methods which he himself used so freely. The murmurs of the passing storm echo still, though much softened and mingled with the usual business of the Magazine, in the following letter. Old M. is forgotten; the usual circle comes into sight again; and the matter discussed is a critical letter on Mr. Blackwood's books in general, attributed to that great authority Mr. Croker, with interpolations from the ubiquitous Maginn, by this time mixed up with everything that was going on:—
You must have observed that I am excessively sore and silly on the subject of 'Lights and Shadows.' I do not wish it cut up or greatly sneered at in your Magazine. Probably I shall have quite enough of that in good time elsewhere. I do not object, however, to a nice little eulogistic touch of censure now and then, but I must always do these with my own hand. As to the Doctor's addition, I object to it, first, that it is most brutal; secondly, stupidish; and thirdly, quite unlike in style and sentiment to Croker's letter. These are three good reasons, and let the Doctor know them. Croker praises the 'Lights and Shadows,' it is true; but it is because he likes the book rather: he abuses 'Pen Owen,' partly because he thinks it deserves abuse, and partly for other reasons which you know: and he abuses Galt because he hates and also despises him. Mr. L. has no business to get a calumniator to abuse my works, and tell him so from me, let the consequences be what they will. Firstly, Croker's letter ought for the joke's sake to be printed just as it is, and I do not think seriously he would like to see it interpolated. It certainly is his.
"I do not know whether my letter to Philomag is at all good. The Doctor or Mr. L. may improve it by sharp and ingenious touches if they will. But let them not meddle with 'Lights and Shadows' at their peril. The propriety of damning all your own books is, I think, questionable. Were I in Galt's situation I should be extremely sulky. But he is 400 miles off, and his books sell, therefore you may abuse his books with impunity to him or yourself. I am only 40 miles off, and my books don't sell. That makes the difference.
"I have done but a short article on Green. But more in another number. Observe how it is printed. The note is almost as long as the article, and it is to run along in line on each page. I will send a page or two on Henry White, and with extracts four or five on Bowles. My articles are in general far too long. You have Doubleday, and may use it or not as you think proper. I will probably send something else. Lady Blessington's book is very, very poor stuff indeed — quite inferior to the other, which was bad enough.... Dr. Maginn is one of the cleverest men now living: but he writes best when most original. I do not so well like his imitations of others in 'Maga.' His 'Hexameters,' his 'Chevy Chase' (in Latin verse), his 'Irish Melodies,' &c., are better than can be. His 'Tete-a-tete,' &c., were not so happy. Tell him so from me.
"I hope everything good about the trial. Hope will manage the case with power and propriety. Dr. Maginn and Mr. L., if assistance can be given, are equal to anything required. Most anxious shall I be to hear from you about it.
"This number must on no account be a middling one, and remember to do with my articles anything you choose except abuse the writer of them, who is excessively thin-skinned. All the Magazines of last month except your own are worthless.
"I could write a page or two rather funny on Hogg's Romance, but will not, if Mr. L. is doing it or to do it. Though averse to being cut up myself, I like to abuse my friends. But this I would do with good-humour."
In the course of the year 1823 a new danger of an action for libel seems to have threatened the Magazine on the part of Leigh Hunt, whose former menace of the same kind seems to have come to nothing. The assaults upon the Cockney School had been going on briskly from time to time, both sides being warmly engaged. The special exasperation which occasioned this renewed threat it is scarcely worth while to record, for indeed it is difficult for an uninstructed person to draw the line between the abuse which is actionable and that which keeps outside the range of law. Hunt's intention had been communicated as before by the London agent — in this case Messrs Cadell & Davies, who, like their predecessors, were much troubled by the idea of being made parties in a libel case.
If this business of Hunt's annoys you, I am exceedingly sorry, especially as it is an article of mine. Mr. Cadell has long wished, I think, to get quit of the Magazine, but that you know best. Hunt's insolence is intolerable. The accursed scoundrel has a thousand times called you a Blackguard by name [in the 'Liberal' newspaper], and myself and Mr. L. the same by implication, as all who write in your Magazine. I wish not to get into contact with such a scoundrel, for it might possibly lead to the loss of my chair; but damn the Cockney if he shall crow over me! I do not know what answer you wrote about the author's name; but if, on consulting only two or three of my most judicious friends, Mr. L. and you think I should give my name without being in any predicament, do so by all means. I saw the passage in the 'Liberal.' But independently of that I am entitled to call him blackguard at all times, and I never shall conceal being the writer if my friends think it would not be exposing myself to a degrading squabble. As it is, I leave it to Mr. L. and yourself. If anybody asks me my answer, Yes, to be sure.... In my opinion he has no action and will fail. Why does he not bring one against you? He dare not; and that will be obvious to a jury if he bring one. I shall expect to hear progress. Meanwhile let not my name be withheld, if by giving it you and your best friends think good can be done."
A second letter follows to a similar effect:—
It appears to me that I might write a letter to Mr. Cadell telling him I was ready to give my name on being asked it by Hunt himself or on being informed that he wanted my name for his own satisfaction. But that I dislike libel actions, either as Prosecutor or Defender, I have no sort of objection (an action excepted) to give my name, — quite the reverse, I assure you, and neither Cockney nor any one else shall ever intimidate me either by a blow (! ! ! ! !) or a bluster. If the knave really asks my name, he shall have it without an hour's delay.
"I am most happy in the thought of seeing you at Elleray, and on the whole it is better to take no step till you come up, when either I shall write to Mr. Cadell or you be empowered to let Hunt know that the NAME is at his service. Perhaps that is the best way, as I wish to write no unnecessary letters. Consult with Mr. L. before you leave Edinburgh, and ask him from me (with thanks for his letters) to write such a letter from me to Cadell as you think judicious, which bring with you here. The publicity alone of any affair with this miscreant annoys me, for I value him at a single kick. Would the Tiger be at my service if wanted?
"I am most happy to hear good accounts of 'Dalton,' and do not fear that it will succeed as it deserves, and that the author will be ere long a Rival — to any man."
Mr. Blackwood did go to Elleray on his way to London, and his impression of the place and of his visit are contained in a letter to his wife, dated, alas! only Thursday morning, six o'clock, in which the half-apologetic tone of a man conscious of idling away valuable time is amusingly apparent:
"W. Blackwood to Mrs. Blackwood.
When you see where this is dated from, you will, I fear, be saying I have been too long here; but I think if you were here with me you would say, What a pity it is we could not stay longer at such a delightful place, and with such delightful friends! I anxiously hope you have been continuing to improve, and have been able to be in the garden to enjoy the fine weather. I also trust that the children have been all well, and doing everything you could wish — particularly Alec and Robert, upon whom I depend so much for making you happy during my absence.
"You laugh, I know, when I write you that such and such a one was happy to see me. Well, I have just the same to say with regard to Mr. and Mrs. Wilson: they were kind as friends could be. I never saw the Professor looking better: he was clean shaved, which he had not been for some days, and quite in spirits at seeing me. Elleray is one of the most delightful places ever I saw. It commands a view of the whole Lake of Windermere, which is about thirteen miles long. It stands upon the face of a hill, and the grounds are very fine and well laid out. After dinner we walked about, admiring the whole of the very striking situation and surrounding scenery. I had resolved upon coming back to Kendal yesterday morning, so as to catch the mail, but the Professor and Mrs. W. insisted so much upon my staying another day, that I was at last obliged to yield: you will say I would not require much pressing, but I do assure you I wanted above all things to get on, I am so anxious to be in London and then to get back to you all again.
"After breakfast yesterday morning the Professor and I walked to Bowness, about a mile and a half, where his boat The Endeavour, lies. You never saw such a boat — it is beautiful. We got on board before twelve, and sailed about on the lake till near four o'clock. It was quite delightful. The Professor would have been sadly mortified if I had gone away without sailing in his boat, which is quite the boast of all the Lakes.
"Tell Alex. to tell Mr. Lockhart that the Professor is in great spirits about the Magazine and everything else: he is to write to him to-day or to-morrow. I have just breakfasted at Kendal, and the coach is waiting."
The alarm of Hunt's action, which the Professor was prepared to meet so manfully, seems to have passed over without result; but now another shadow appeared on his path, a much more serious incident of a similar kind, and one which overwhelmed Wilson with horror and dismay: the utmost weight of poetic justice seemed about to overtake and almost crush the reckless performer of so many hasty and unconsidered acts. The "Noctes" was perhaps the most dangerous medium which could have been invented for men of impulses so rash and utterances so free. And in one of these lively dialogues it so happened that reference was made to two persons in the usual slashing way. One of these was a certain hot-headed Irish squire called Martin, who had made himself remarkable by some eccentric appearances at the London police courts. The other was Wordsworth. Martin was called a jackass, which probably he was; but Wordsworth — Why and for what reason the poet was assailed nobody could tell. He was, or had been, Wilson's friend, though there had recently been some unexplained coolness between them; but this was how, apparently in cold blood, or excited by nothing stronger than the rush of imaginary conversation, North, always pleased to startle and stir up, awoke the echoes with this much-discussed name:—
"North. Wordsworth often writes like an idiot: and never more so than when he wrote of Milton, 'My soul was like a star, and dwelt apart.' For it dwelt in tumult and mischief and rebellion. Wordsworth is in all things the reverse of Milton: a good man and a bad poet.
Tickler. What! That Wordsworth whom 'Maga' cries up as the Prince of Poets.
North. Be it so: I must humour the fancies of some of my friends. But had that man been a great poet he would have produced a deep and lasting impression on the mind of England; whereas his verses are becoming less and less known every day, and he is in good truth already one of the illustrious obscure.
Tickler. I never thought him more than a very ordinary man — with some imagination certainly, but with no grasp of understanding, and apparently little acquainted with the history of his kind. My God! to compare such a writer with Scott and Byron!
North. And yet with his creed what might not a great poet have done.... What, pray, has he made out of this true and philosophical creed? A few ballads, pretty at the best, two or three moral fables, some natural description of scenery, and half-a-dozen variations of common distress or happiness. Not one single character has he created, not one incident — not one tragical catastrophe. He has thrown no light on man's estate here below; and Crabbe with all his defects stands immeasurably above Wordsworth as the Poet of the Poor.
Tickler. Good. And yet the youngsters in that absurd Magazine of yours set him up to the stars as their idol, and kiss his very feet as if the toes were of gold.
North. Well, well; let them have their own way a while. I confess that the 'Excursion' is the worst poem of any character in the English language.... And then how ludicrously he overrates his own powers. This we all do; but Wordsworth's pride is like that of a straw-crowned king of Bedlam. For example, he indited some silly lines to a hedge-sparrow's nest with five eggs, and years after in a fit of exultation told the world in another poem equally childish that the Address to the Sparrow was 'one strain that will not die.'" ["Maga," September 1825.]
One of the amazing things in this most extraordinary and unprovoked assault was, that Wilson himself was the first of the "youngsters" who had "set up to the stars" the poet whom he thus fell upon with so much apparent rancour: and that no comprehensible reason had ever been suggested for the sudden change of sentiment. "Scott's poetry puzzles me," he says in the same astounding chapter; "it is often very bad. Except when his martial soul is up, he is but a tame and feeble writer." One cannot but surmise that his capacious yet wayward brain was temporarily "possessed," and that he did not know what he was saying. The moment, too, was a most extraordinary one for such an utterance. Immediately before he concocted this article we have a glimpse of him in one of Lockhart's notes describing the return journey from Ireland in attendance upon Scott. They landed in Wales, and afterwards proceeded to the Lake Country, where their proceedings are reported as follows:—
"J. G. Lockhart to W. Blackwood.
CHIEFSWOOD, August 26, 1825.
I came home last night in safety after a long and certainly a very pleasing journey. The last week we spent at the Lakes, when Sir W. Scott and I were two nights with the Professor at Elleray, and afterwards at Storrs, where Mr. Canning is, at Wordsworth's, Southey's, and lastly Lowther Castle. The Professor was in his glory, with champagne, regattas, carronades, &c., at discretion. I am happy to tell you he went with us to Rydal Mount, and as if to make up for the absence or abstinence of seven years, ate up at our breakfast a whole jar of Miramichi herrings, two of which were at first produced as a great 'bonne bouche' by the Stamp-master."
It would seem by this that his onslaught upon Wordsworth was immediately preceded by a visit of reconciliation and renewed friendship.
All this, however, might have passed under the shield of "Maga," and might have been set down to some other of the wild brotherhood, who exchanged names and individualities so often, had not, "sur ces entrefaites," a terrible event occurred. Mr. Martin, called a jackass in the same article, resented that description, as was not unnatural, and threatened an action, demanding with much clamour the name of the writer. The reader will not be surprised that when this demand reached Wilson in his leisure at Elleray, it should have come upon him like a thunderclap. Mr. Blackwood, as usual, had to bear the brunt, and stands out in the long correspondence that follows, arguing, soothing, apologising in letter after letter, evading Martin's demand, yet holding out what hopes he could that it might be granted, while the true criminal writhed and moaned out of sight behind. The following letter shows Wilson's state of mind:—
This is the third prosecution threatened against articles of mine within three summers; and it is really time, both on my own account and yours, that the little I write for the Magazine should be less. Of the distress of mind such things cause me, it would be vain to speak. But let that be a topic for another day. An Irish Jackass he is assuredly, and an action will prove him one. I really do not know what advice to give. To give my name in this case is impossible.
"Had not my feelings been necessarily, owing to other things in the 'Noctes,' of the most agonising kind, I should have come forward instantly, as I did before in Hunt's case; but as it was, death to my honour and happiness would have been the instant consequence, owing to several circumstances which I will communicate when I see you.
"One distressing thing after another occurs to me. About a week ago a shocking accident happened on the lake. A boat was upset, and a fine youth, a friend of ours, drowned; and my boys' tutor got ashore with difficulty. He had violated my orders in being there at all, and it was twenty to one that he had taken John and Blair with him! This event has caused great misery to many here, and Mrs. Wilson has been for two days almost distracted."
Here the pathetic mixture of troubles within and without, remorse of mind and illness of body, and the incident of the half-drowned tutor, adding another distraction with exasperating perversity, bring in a half-comic element: but the next is tragedy indeed, and shows an almost despairing collapse of every faculty:—
I would fain write you a long letter; but long or short, of this be assured, that it is most kind, as every word uttered by me to you has ever been and ever will be. For I am your friend, as you are mine. That is sufficient; nor will it ever be otherwise. When I last wrote I was in a state of great anguish and misery of mind, and have been ever since, though called upon to be present in the company of many strangers and acquaintances. To-day only I got your packet, it having lain at a farmhouse at some distance for at least two days. On reading your enclosures I was seized with a trembling and shivering fit, and was deadly sick for some hours. I am somewhat better, but in my bed, whence I now write. All this may be needless, but it is the case, and I am absolutely an object of any true friend's commiseration. To own that article is for a thousand reasons impossible. It would involve me in lies abhorrent to my nature. I would rather die this evening. Remember how with Hunt I was most willing to come forward; here it is death to do so. I am absolutely not in my right mind to-night. I wish well to all mankind, and am incapable of dishonour. This avowal would be fatal to my character, my peace, to existence. Say nothing to me that could add to my present misery.
"All you have done seems on the whole right. With Mr. Lockhart within a day's journey, how could it be otherwise, and your own excellent sense?
"Write to me instantly, and tell me what I can do in this business — as to writing another 'Noctes' about it, or anything else. Were I to go to London it would be to throw myself into the Thames. All this may, but will not, I hope, be unintelligible to you. Lying or dishonour are to me death. I am wholly incapable just now of giving advice, but I am able to do what you wish in the affair, on which some light will probably be thrown from London by this time.
"In itself it is contemptible as to Martin, but in other points shocking to me. If I must avow myself, I will not survive it.
"Act in it with that proviso, as you and Mr. L. and others choose, and you cannot go wrong far or at all. I would come to Edinburgh, but am unable from distraction of mind. I shall be there on the 25th of October. Meanwhile will instantly answer your letter, and do whatever you wish as to any article about it."
There is, no doubt, something of the exaggeration of an excitable mind in this, but Wilson's horror and anguish were not without just foundation. To be obliged to acknowledge himself as the harsh and unkindly critic not only of Wordsworth, whose bread he had recently eaten, but of Scott, his tried and trusty friend, whose support had been of such importance to him in more than one crisis of his life, was indeed a prospect which the boldest might find it difficult to face. And one can scarcely wonder that Wilson, so little bold morally, should be in despair — helpless and without resource in an emergency of this kind, though ready and delighted to face any physical danger, and withal a really affectionate and loving human creature, genuinely remorseful for the evil, though unfortunately not perceiving it till after its committal. In the endless correspondence that followed, we have many illustrations of what would have been the whimsical, if it had not been the very disagreeable, position of Blackwood — something like that of a mother standing in front of and shielding a very naughty child, endeavouring with every argument to prove that he did not mean it, that it was only his fun, &c., &c., while all the friends gathered round, making a circle to shield the culprit. Maginn, who had been hastily appealed to, to calm his countryman, did all but take the guilt upon himself in the impulsive generosity which redeemed many qualities less praiseworthy; and Lockhart came instantly forward, with indignant disapproval indeed, but every desire to help, as the following letter will show:
I can't but write to say how truly I am grieved to find you again annoyed with this disgusting sort of business, which, as you say, I thought had all been well over. One thing I must say: when, after seeing Wordsworth and Wilson together in such a friendly style, I came down here and found on my table that 'Noctes,' I could not understand Wilson's having been able to act as I had just been seeing him do. However, this is nothing to the matter, altho' I confess it gives me more pain than any merely pecuniary punishment he ever can undergo for the squib about Martin. I suspected that blockhead would be up, from what he said the other day about Black and the 'Morning Chronicle.' Bold man is he to dare both the Whig and the Tory press, if he persists.
"His action, if brought in London, would not be worth thinking of comparatively; but the Jury Court is another business. I trust the Professor will write some good-humoured thing sufficient to settle the madman's vanity. If he does not, I will try what I can do upon again hearing from you, and seeing what he says. Meantime by all means have Maginn's opinion.
"If the worst come to the worst, I think the man who neglects one of the largest and most dreary estates of miserable Ireland, where scarcely a man has clothes to cover his nakedness, and keeps up a roar about cruelty to Horses and Bullocks in the London Police Courts, will not be likely to come very well off if properly buckled to, even before a jury of Adamites. It is a great thing for you that the 'Morning Chronicle' is in the same scrape."
"I am sadly afraid from what appeared in yesterday's 'New Times' that you are to have more trouble about Martin. If I can do anything, I am at your command; but really the Professor ought to attend to his own business. Maginn's behaviour is most generous. Sorry indeed should I be to see him placing me under such an obligation, and I trust Wilson will take a proper view of the case. I myself would not, 'coute que coute,' allow this; and besides, it will be of no use. One thing is obvious, that no disgrace can come to you or the Magazine from the business — the idiocy of Martin being so notorious. Wilson cannot suffer you to have any loss in your purse. Therefore don't, after doing your best, permit this thing to worry or annoy your mind. He would never get heavy damages most certainly.
"I shall be very anxious to hear the result of your letter, which has been skilfully done — much improved in your hands. The Mag. is a very good number. 'Mansie' and the 'Noctes' highly diverting, and the political articles of real excellence, and a cursed deal too much of poetry such as every human being can write and nobody ever will read, — of that you may be assured."
"September 18, 1825.
The Professor really seems to act on such occasions as if he were mad. I am sure you must have remonstrated against that 'Noctes,' and it is too bad to fly out thus, altho' forewarned in so many ways. But we understand these failures of one of the best-hearted men ever God put breath into."
The end of this story, so far as I can make out, was the publication in the next number of the Magazine of a letter called "Midsummer Madness and Mr. Martin," in which the hand of Lockhart seems discernible. "'Why, this is very midsummer madness,' says the Lady Olivia," he begins:—
"Letter of Phillipus — Blackwood's Mag., Oct. 1825.
The midsummer moon, Mr. North, seems to have poured her brightest beams upon Ambrose's Athens during the last of your 'Noctes Coenaeque ' — I cannot on this particular occasion add 'Deum.' Now that the air has been chastened with a few night-frosts, and the leaves begin to assume the sober livery of autumn, I am in hopes that you will not cast your eye over the pages in which that 'colloquy divine' is embalmed without some feeling of regret — I had almost said of shame. If I were in your place I know full surely what my own sensations would be. At all events, permit me to expect that at the fag-end of September you will listen quietly to what a staunch friend of 'Maga' and of the Good Cause thinks it incumbent on him to say....
"That the opinions expressed in the last of the 'Noctes Ambrosian' in regard to Mr. Wordsworth are really the opinions of Mr. North, I cannot for a moment believe — in the face of the long and triumphant battle which 'Maga' has fought in defence of that gentleman's character and genius. As little, I would fain take upon me to decide, does the sober intellect of the sage Christopher sanction the wild and cruel rhapsody of which my worthy friend the member for Galway is made the subject by those jovial interlocutors. The jocular depreciation of Wordsworth will, I daresay, be understood well enough by those who, from long experience, know that the Poet of the Lakes has no admirer in the world half so efficient as yourself: they will perceive at once that you were all in your 'lunes' when such things were said, or supposed to be said. But I do not remember that Mr. Martin's name was ever before introduced in your pages, and am the more concerned that it should have been introduced for the first time in this manner; because, sir, it happens to be the fact that at this moment the character of that most humane and generous individual is rendered systematically and seriously the butt of the malevolent wit, if wit it can be called, of a portion of the periodical press with which in general no one seems to hold less in common than the person I have the honour of addressing. The nonsense which you have permitted yourself to set forth for mere nonsense sake is cherished and applauded, as solemnly thought and deliberately said, by creatures who for once enjoy the satisfaction of finding a name that really does carry weight and authority with it on their side, their own paltry side."
An account and panegyric of Martin follows. He was the first man to introduce into Parliament a bill for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: and he did not confine his philanthropical exertions to carrying this measure, but himself stayed in London, through all the trying progress of the autumn, scorning the delights of grouse and other sport in order to watch over the execution of its regulations, bringing unfortunate drovers to justice, and then with delightful Irish inconsistency begging them off again, and pledging himself that they would never do it again — from whence his constant appearance at the police courts, and consequent exposure to all the jibes of the Press. Never was a more complete 'amende' made in words, and Christopher was not spared by his stern apologist. Wilson himself put the best face upon it, and added a note.
"Our friend [he said] has evidently taken a very serious view of what was not, nor was ever meant to be, anything but a joke. We take it, not very many of our readers are so far behindhand as to be in any danger of misunderstanding matters of this kind. Above all, we are very sure the kind and merry spirit of Mr. Martin is far above being moved, in the way our correspondent seems to suspect, by anything in the shape of a joke, even if it were a bad one."
It is somewhat difficult to understand the nature of such a joke. And how Wilson, even at the very height of reckless utterance, could have indulged in jesting of the kind, nobody has ever been able to explain. We can but give him the advantage of Lockhart's generous description, "one of the best-hearted men ever God put breath into," and forgive him for its sake. What better testimonial could a friend give? And it is without suspicion, as said to a third party, and mingled with both blame and regret.
There was, however, a great deal of trouble even after this, and I have no doubt the publisher's pocket again suffered; but it is to be hoped that in the end the "kind and merry spirit of Mr. Martin" was satisfied. The eulogy which he had received in the pages of "Maga" was certainly much more extensive and important than the offence.
In returning to the ordinary course of affairs after this exciting episode, we may place here a proof that, after all, notwithstanding the periodical risks to which he exposed both publisher and publication, Wilson was indeed the mainspring of the Magazine, and the chief upholder of all that was most precious to the ambition, and important in the career, of the friend whose fidelity to him was never shaken, whatever might occur, and who never lost an occasion of celebrating his good deeds. The following letter has all the greater weight as coming immediately after the Martin episode: and it reveals in a most engaging manner the close connection between the two men, and the deep and warm feeling in Mr. Blackwood's heart, ready to forget the peccadilloes which he had so often to pardon and condone:
"W. Blackwood to J. Wilson.
EDINBURGH, 17th Dec. 1825.
I have sent Mrs. Wilson the Magazine, and I trust she will be as much delighted with it as I am, and that is saying a great deal.
"How deeply I am indebted to you, it is quite impossible for me to express. Anxious and restless as I always am at all times, I was more especially so just now; but I felt it cruel, as you were so unwell, even to wish you to make an exertion: still I could not help my wishes, and nobly and most effectively have you gone beyond them. Great as the advantages must be to me at such a moment to publish such a number, it is not on this account that I feel so happy; but it is from the delight I always have had, and always will have, in seeing you doing what no one else can attempt but yourself. So much is this feeling, as it were, a part of my nature, that by a sort of momentary mental delusion I think of your articles as if I had been capable of producing them myself: sure I am I could not feel more proud of them if I had been capable of producing them. You will excuse all this, which I could not help saying to you in the fulness of my heart.
"And you will also, I hope, pardon me for saying that the Magazine is now going on so well I trust I will every day have it more in my power to make it worth your while to give your powerful aid to it, and that it will be every day, more and more creditable to every one connected with it. The last of the disagreeables (and I trust it will be the last) that concerned Martin's business is now settled, as you will see by the enclosed letter from Cadell. This I take upon myself, and I hope you will consider our Magazine accounts for 1825 as closed. I hope and flatter myself that I shall have the pleasure of sending you some good round scores early in 1826."
On the other hand, to counterbalance the warm sentiment of the publisher, Wilson, though constantly disappointing and wearying out his almost boundless patience, now and then had fine impulses of work, and placed himself within the safeguard of rules and promises, most heartily undertaken, though doomed to be broken. These alternations of extreme virtue and a devotion almost too complete, with breakings down nearly as notable, occur in amusing succession all through the record — by no means, however, so amusing to Blackwood as to us.
"J. Wilson to W. Blackwood.
See if the printers have anything ready. I want an impulse much to get on. But I intend to write for the Mag. every day till dinner — and then my other affairs — till Tuesday, which will, I hope, bring a long article to a close. It has not yet assumed much shape. If the number contains any Critique, pray let me see it.
"I send now the last of the leading article. I must stop till I know how long it is; perhaps it is long enough.... Had I attempted to put in all the matter I have, the whole would have been ruined. Tell me this evening how many pages remain for me after Croly and Mr. Hay's poem of three pages, which being lively should go in by itself — I think after Croly, if my article will not be much shortened thereby.
"I have read over the article twice with great attention. I hope you will leave out everything I have scored. Two or three things not unobjectionable I have allowed to remain, for they cannot be struck out without hurting something that remains. The article will read well as it now stands. But I would on no account call it No. V., for that looks like poverty. The Doctor ought to follow; he is a better writer than Croly.
We are thus brought once again to the machinery of the Magazine after Wilson had become the chief adviser, and the first excitement of the beginning was over: though, indeed, as the reader has seen, there was no one so good as he in keeping that excitement alive. The scraps of criticism are few, for these were no doubt sent flying from one to another round the table in the saloon, where all the brotherhood, soon thinned by removal and change, still met continually, and were thus exhausted and never got into print: but here and there comes a word of interest mingled with all the discussions of articles done, or doing, or, alas! at the last moment found not capable of being done.
Here, for example, is a curious scrap. Galt's books, "The Provost" and "Sir Andrew Wylie," were, as will be seen hereafter, specially revised and superintended by Mr. Blackwood himself, and therefore extremely interesting to him:—
"I hear 'The Provost' is doing excellently. 'Nigel' has amused me much. It is beyond all his works, lively, spirited, dramatic, new — and after all not a Work. 'Sir Andrew Wylie,' I have heard, assisted the author in the character of King James."
This will probably cause the reader to look with more respect on the history of "Sir Andrew Wylie," which has lately been reprinted by the Messrs Blackwood in a very attractive new edition, and is, in many respects, a most amusing book. There are, in fact, certain analogies between its shrewd simplicity and astuteness and the wonderful picture of gentle King Jamie, which a little later came from the greater artist's hand. One can imagine Scott's laugh and cordial statement of the suggestion he had found in the cunning and the fun of the humble hero — a suggestion no doubt overstated in his large and generous way.
The few words which head the following letter are liberal for the time and place in which they were written. Silvio Pellico has been tamed down into a book for the schoolroom, a first lesson in lucid Italian, without the difficulties either of the archaic or the too modern; but in those days he was a rebel, a revolutionary — such a being as a High Tory, under whatever difference of foreign circumstances he might exist, could scarcely forgive:—
"I like Pellico: he is a Liberal: but an Italian need not be a slave to the aristocracies. The book is a very interesting one. I should like to see no politics in the December number, if possible. I have not done anything, nor has it been possible. I have not even an introductory lecture for Tuesday; but I wish to arrange for next week, and then I shall begin to arrange the Spenser. The Anthology will end the Magazine. I have most of the materials for it ready; and if it is of any consequence, can send to the printers eight or ten or twelve pages to be putting into type on Monday. I shall also do a Morning Monologue, what I wrote of the other day being useless. These are my three articles: Byron, Pellico (?), Barrington, will make six — all good and light and amusing; and three or four more as good or better, and also light and amusing, would make a lively number. But I am prosing needlessly. Spenser cannot be less than thirty pages — ten of extracts, and twenty of my own writing. The printers have a Spenser, and thus no delay will occur when they get my manuscript. Till Tuesday morning I shall occupy myself with my class; after that I shall work for 'Maga.'"
Six articles seem a liberal allowance from one hand, but we wonder whether they all came to port in peace; for if they did, there must have been halcyon times in Princes Street, where so often the publisher's office was occupied by troubled men, emissaries from the printer added to the already excited staff, gnashing their teeth, probably using improper language, worn to the last thread of their patience before the lagging manuscript came. The poor little printer's devil, who had to cool his heels for hours in the hall in Wilson's house at Ann Street, came in sometimes, it appears, for blame, as will be seen in the solemnity of the following appeal. "I shall be up at three," says the culpable Professor—
"but have done nothing. I remember to-morrow. I hope to be able to begin fairly this evening. I have tried, but fallen through everything.
"I request you to call John, the bearer of this, and your boy into the back-shop. John denies keeping him above five minutes; and he himself declared to me in John's presence that it certainly was not a quarter of an hour. I told him you had yourself told me that he said he was detained three-quarters of an hour, and he declared he had not said so, and must have been misunderstood. I wish you, then, to ascertain from the parties how this was — that the boy may never again have to wait one minute. My belief is, from his own avowal, that he was not kept ten minutes, or rather not five."
One does not hear, unfortunately, what the result was of the examination in the back-shop; but without further evidence, and without any blame to John, we feel inclined to give our vote in favour of the boy.
The following must have been written in a gayer mood:—
"Do your orders to all the devils on no account to call at any time on me without giving me an opportunity of confabulating with their demonships. The system of giving in parcels and flying off without an answer has again begun, and is too much by far for my temper. The imp whom I caught last night in the act of evanishment promised to haunt me this morning at seven, but I smell no brimstone. Nevertheless 'by the pricking of my thumbs' I feel his approach, and here he is.
"Set up the accompanying MSS. immediately."
The Professor's proceedings evolved in the minds of the Blackwood family in general a distrust of literary punctuality which has scarcely died out in the third generation. The now much diminished band who fought under the banner of John Blackwood will remember the twinkle in his eye with which, quite irrespective of fact, he would suggest to his contributors to "remember that this was a short month," while at the same time prepared to meet any delay with a laugh and a ready excuse for the guilty writer, which must also have been a development from the much-tried patience of his father. I myself remember in the sixties to have been in the condition of Wilson, having "done nothing," on the 20th of the month, to the next number of a story then running in the Magazine: the said Magazine being due in London by the 1st of the next month. But these were still heroic days. The correspondence of Wilson continues always in the same tone, explaining with the plausible amplitude of a habitual sinner the reason of his delays, or with the simplicity of a defaulter at school forestalling the expected reproof, or with almost a whimper, like a woman wounded, in fond or indignant woe, declaring that he cannot bear the changed look or disapproving word. Our excellent founder had to support all these varieties of treatment as he might, sometimes pacing his office in the fret and fume of wrathful impatience, almost au bout, fearing for a breakdown altogether of the all-important Magazine; sometimes meeting with all his sober strength the petulant protest of the man who would not endure reproach; sometimes melting in answer to an agonised complaint of changed looks or tones which the tender culprit could not bear. It was amusing to hear in the many descriptions and anecdotes of that lifelong connection, which I have heard from Miss Isabella Blackwood, the thrill still existing of the tone of family wrath, resentment, affection, and enthusiasm for that intolerable and beloved Professor, who kept the father of the house in continual commotion, sometimes all delight and admiration, sometimes half wild with indignation and impatience. The publisher's daughter could not, to her last days, laugh at the amusing, exasperating, continued struggle, though her listeners did so at the whimsical record. The reader will be able to form an idea of it from the following letters. The reference in the first is to an article which he had been asked to revise and improve:—
"The lad had better call as late to-night as possible — say eleven — as I have done nothing to Abion — after flinging aside as much as would make a good many pages, written on various points, all inapplicable, I fear, and useless.
"It is true that I willingly enough agreed to add what I could to the Abion article, and it is true that in saying so I said a very foolish thing: for I knew that I was saying what is rarely possible to be done — at least by me. I do not believe you yourself know what is wanted to his article, but merely have a vague idea that it might be much better. No doubt it will or may be a disappointment that I have not done that, whatever it may be; but there is no blame on my part, for the simple truth is that I cannot, and there is an end of it.
"Perhaps it would be better to leave me 24 pages at the beginning, and make Abion to follow. I shall also say here, mildly but firmly, that in future, in case of any disappointment arising to you from any delay on my part, you must not speak in the manner you sometimes choose to assume towards me, as for instance on Friday. You may mean a thing, nay, you may think it, all right; but I do not, and as my manner is always courteous to all men, I cannot at all like yours on such occasions: and whether I am reasonable or unreasonable, I repeat, in the most friendly temper of mind, that you must consider what I now write, and not suffer me to leave your shop with the feeling that you have become basely cruel. There is no use in your saying a single word to me on the subject. I do not believe you will take any blame to yourself for your manner, but that you will think me in the wrong. Be it so: but I am getting older every day, and such things are offensive to me in a degree, perhaps more than should be. We have neither of us any reason to doubt the other's esteem; but as I know that I am entitled always to politeness, I wish you to consider what I now say, for whether I am right or wrong I feel as I say, and I have made up my mind to stay away at all times when I feel your manners to be unpleasant."
Finally this particular business seems to have ended well enough, for we hear in another note that the "corrected slips" of the Abion have been gone over and sent to Mr. St. Barbe, presumably the author of the same. But the feeling of injury continues:—
"No man is more unwilling to give or take offence from trifles than I am; and no man more disposed to allow to a friend the same privilege of finding fault with me as I with him in trifles. But it either is a merit or demerit in me, to dislike any symptom of displeasure shown towards me unnecessarily, or at a time when it can do no good, and when I am endeavouring to do what I can. I lose many more hours and days in trying to fix on what to write, and to bring my mind into capacity to write, than in writing. All this is painfully known to myself, but cannot be so well known to you. For three days have I sat like an idiot with slips before me, and scribbling childish nonsense without success or hope of reward, and ended in disappointing you not unjustly. It may be unreasonable to do so and yet expect you to be not displeased, for it certainly must be annoying; but it adds to my own annoyance to have added to my consciousness of imbecility your expression of annoyance also. You cannot imagine the hundredth part of the lets and hindrances that besiege my mind about articles; and they often assail me at the very juncture when their operation is worst for all parties. That is a fact; but so far from any good being done by your letting me see your annoyance, the evil is magnified thereby a hundredfold. It amounts, in short, to utter extinction of all form whatever, as you must frequently have seen. So no more about it.
"I shall begin to-day if possible with —. If not, with whatever else I can do, that we may get on.
"P.S. — I think, on the whole, that you had better let the number be finished without saying a word about my letters; and after that I shall certainly, as I ought, read kindly whatever you may say, or, what will be better, show by a good article or two that there is no need of anything being said."
Be indeed a good boy and never do it again. Such are the curious remonstrances, complaints, and excuses, with tears in the big blue eyes, and a tremulous commotion in the big Hercules frame, when his publisher was angry with him! There are so many of these emotional protests and confessions that it is difficult to choose from among them. Here is another of a more practical tone. It is dated from Elleray, the cottage on Windermere, to which Wilson still escaped when he could, in that delightful recess of the entire summer which makes a chair in a Scottish university the most heavenly of official situations:—
"I had wished and intended to write you a very long letter, but shall not. Suffice it to say that it was more for my own interest than yours that I should have written many articles during the summer. When a man is not able to attend to his own interests he is not able to attend to those of another. I would not have come here had I not intended to write a good deal. This being the case, no blame attaches to me, for mind and body, the former through the latter, incapacitated me from doing almost anything. I wish therefore not a word to be said further between, us on any account on this matter. I am at this moment scarcely able from nervousness to write these few lines.
"I shall arrive at your house by coach or mail on Tuesday first, if there is a place; if not, on Wednesday. I hope that change of scene and the journey may do me good. I have material ready, and next day I will set to work on anything I can do, so as to ensure a good number. I suppose that four or five days will be at my service, and if I can get into good spirits, I will work stoutly for these days. I will return with 'Maga' in my pocket."
No doubt he was the soul of the family circle while he was there, and filled the house with jest and laughter. The following note, without any name, refers to some such visit:—
"Professor W. came to town on Monday last week, and stayed at Newington till the Thursday, when he went back again to Innerleithen, where he and his family had been for the last four weeks. While in our house he began and finished the concluding article in this No. of 'Maga,' the review of Moore's 'Epicurean.' He had disappointed me sadly in not sending me articles he had promised, and I had also been disappointed by Mr. Robinson, so that I was in a most miserable state with regard to this number till the Prof. came to town. I had a terrible hurry and skurry to get ready in time. The whole number was printed and published in eight or ten days."
Our next view of the Professor is after some important correspondence as to ways and means, in the shape of a triumphantly reformed character, anticipating nothing in the future but duty and glory, perfect trust and co-operation, and boundless and successful work
"I am extremely glad that I explained myself at some length in my letter, because it has been the cause of your most friendly and flattering letter. I am extremely glad that I alluded to a belief in my mind that you had often overpaid me a guinea page. If I know anything of myself, it is that I am not too money-fond. Better for me it had been, if long ago I had been more so. But your answer has prevented the possibility of my fearing that you could ever think so. My contributions to 'Maga' shall be regular and vigorous. I see, as you say, that I may make 600 guineas a-year, and I will do so. You shall always, if I am in health at all, have as much of mine as you wish — and never a single page more. With fourteen numbers in the year perhaps I may earn considerably more than 600! but not one line of mine shall ever go into 'Maga' that you do not prefer for her interests to any other contributor. Mutual benefit is the spirit of our understanding.
"Meanwhile think of things to be done during the winter. I have thought of a good many — and if a bad number appears during the next year, 'Deo volente," I shall wonder at my own imbecility.
"I send a 'Noctes' and a [name illegible]. Both seem very long; but let both be put up immediately. The first I can easily if necessary cut down into two with some additions, and the other likewise has some passages which, if too long, will go into some other literary article. A good literary article shall be in every number. For the love of God no chill slow 'Noctes'; for few, if anybody, liked them, and many hated them. That was my fault, or rather my misfortune."
It would be vain to hope that such a beatific state of affairs could last. Wilson, it is evident, retired to the country, as many have done, with a certainty that in the leisure and quiet he could do wonderful things; but the open air, and the summer, and the hundred inducements to idle and to wander, were too many for him, and winter and the long evenings seemed then the only hope. But by times everything failed, and indolence, or dilatoriness, or "nervousness," not then as now so tremendous an agency in men's lives, got the better of him once more. Things came now and then to such a dreadful pitch that a Magazine appeared without him — that is, without anything from his hand. He writes in startled admiration and wonder of this strange fact, not without a faint tone of injury, though quite aware it is his own fault. "Let the Doctor [Maginn] do all kinds of clever things for 'Maga' this time," he says; "there should be a new, striking, delightful, and conclusive preface, which M. and L. can do very well without W."
Another cry of compunction follows:—
I have passed several very unhappy days in the thought of acting badly towards you and the Magazine. I declare it to be utterly impossible for me to write either on Dalton or a 'Noctes.' Here have I sat for two hours in vain, unable to write a syllable. If it were otherwise, you know that I would strain every nerve to do it. It seems silly and unaccountable, but it is absolutely true; I do not believe I could do it to save my life. I have lost as many hours in not doing anything as I might have done the articles in. I feel it impossible — out of my power-and I have done all I could to do them. I therefore shall go home. For misery it is to sit here impotent.
"You must just put Wrest in place of the 'Noctes,' — and either Beddoes or anything else that is tolerable in place of Dalton.
"There is no use in saying more: absolute incapacity prevents me, and for five hundred pounds I could not do what I wished to do most earnestly and truly."
Here follows an exchange of compliments in respect to money, that fruitful source of misunderstandings, in which all is amiable, honourable, and magnanimous. The letter is endorsed by Mr. Blackwood, "Received 14th December 1826, in answer to my note telling him I had been disappointed of Robinson's [a political writer] article, begging of him to do something, and enclosing him a draft on the Royal Bank for £50."
I return the order, for although to all men with families, &c., money is most desirable, yet under present circumstances I cannot accept this order. It is returned, however, merely from a feeling; and no thought of your being wrong in sending it. Sending money to me can never be wrong — it must always be extremely right and pleasant, but just now I cannot but return it.
"I am distressed, too, about Robinson; and yet, perhaps, although such articles are necessary at times, and frequently, they are not necessary always. All last night was I forced to lose in an idiotic Inquest, with that accident on Windermere — and am this moment up, having been wearied to death. I must evidently do something at this pinch, and perhaps four or five pleasant articles without much pretence may do. I dine out at six, but shall begin to something in a quarter of an hour."
The courteous publisher replied in the same strain of high politeness and lofty feeling:—
Saturday, Dec. 1826.
Since you think it best (and your wishes will always be my rule) to return me the draft, I hope you will with the same frankness draw on me from time to time. My anxious wish is that the Magazine should really be an object worth your attending to, both as respects remuneration, respectability, and general influence.
"It is no doubt annoying that Robinson has not been able to do his article at this particular moment, but if you can find leisure to do what you intend, the number will be much more popular, and the cessation from politics for one month will have no bad effect. Perhaps, however, you may land upon something political connected with literature. I cannot help still thinking that if Croly's critique upon Sheridan's Dramas were altered and shortened, and a spirited view given of Moore's life in your own admirable way, it would be a most delightful article. But I do not wish to suggest anything except what wholly strikes yourself."
Another time, however, the Professor was less coy. "I keep the twenty guineas," he says, "as it is foolish to return money. But it would be a little Jewish or so to consider my articles worth forty guineas, and, therefore, I will give you a good sheet or two for your next, if required, gratis. Money is an excellent stimulant to all virtuous actions."
Robinson appears from time to time, sometimes applauded, sometimes much the reverse. Here is an instance of the difficulties which all contributors had to pass through:—
"The beginning of R— is beastly. He is quite mad on one Idea. But possibly what he says about the Poor Laws may be good: and if so and not long, I would perhaps clip off the beginning and insert it. He must submit, as I and others are willing to do occasionally, to reason, and your and the Magazine's interests. As soon as I get the whole of the 'Noctes' I will finish it off. I have got all except what was sent last night and this morning. I think it will be good, but it must be interspersed with touches here and there. It will be thirty-two pages."
The following is interesting, as bearing upon the vexed question, so often discussed since, of the editorship. Wilson gives no uncertain sound on this subject; and the faint grudge as to the profit of the post, which Blackwood did not choose to depute to any one, gives point to the disclaimer. It was an opportunity of giving the publisher a friendly prick in passing.
Last night I received a letter from Dr Philpotts, of the kindest nature, but saying that he had been told yesterday that I was the editor of 'that invaluable Magazine.' I must answer his letter this evening, and in alluding to that part of it do not wish to say anything that may seem to contradict anything in your letter to him if you have written to him, and if from any expression in your letter he uses that expression to me.
"I am not editor of that invaluable Magazine either in responsibility or in annual income, which ought to be to the editor — namely, Mr. Blackwood — at the rate of other periodicals, from £500 to £1500 per annum. But I am always most willing to assist and give my advice to the said editor, and to write articles, and good ones occasionally when I can, at the rate of sixteen guineas per sheet-good payment to a first-rate contributor. I am always ready, too, to avow publicly or privately my connection with 'Maga,' or to say to Dr. Philpotts or any other man that I am in your confidence and you in mine on the subject of 'Maga.' If I were to say to the doctor, 'I am not editor, and you are misinformed,' I should be saying the truth, but might seem, perhaps, to him to contradict your letter, if it be from that he speaks. If I were to say 'I am editor,' or acquiesce virtually in his remark, I would be taking credit to myself for what I do not deserve, and defrauding you of the merit of capacity and spirit in the conduct thereof.
"If, therefore, you have not written to the doctor at all, I shall, without disavowing anything, tell him I am not editor but a friend of yours, always ready to give advice and an opinion when requested, and a chief writer in 'Maga.' If you have written to him anything from which he draws the conclusion aforesaid, it would be well I should know its import, that you and I should not to such a man appear to be saying two different things."
This matter, however, which seems to be taken up in so amiable a manner, must, it would appear, have given rise to one more of the frequently recurring and tragical breaches between Wilson and the much-enduring head of affairs in Princes Street. There are several voluminous letters on the subject, in which our child of genius goes further even than before in his wounded feelings, and complains, for many pages, of a manner, an air, a look of distance and indifference, which he could not bear:—
"I beg leave to say there was something by no means agreeable to me in the style of your manner yesterday in respect to Mr. Philpotts and his pamphlet. Notwithstanding that, however, I overlooked it, and to-day sent a few lines for you to send to him, which I read to you. You did not thank me for these, either by word or manner, but merely said rather drily that you had intended to say the same yourself. Now, I prefer writing this to saying it. I have to-day shown you all kindness and disposition to kindness, in spite of the displeasure I felt. But if ever again you assume any shade of the same manner, however slight, you may depend on this, as surely as that you and I are alive, that I will confine myself henceforth solely and exclusively to the occasional writing of articles, and leave everything else entirely to yourself.
"Neither am I going to argue on this subject, or to say that you are wrong in assuming such a manner. But I merely say that I will not endure any of it, even the very least; and it is to me most offensive.
"With respect to not sending as usual a copy of the Magazine down to me, which, from your manner, seemed connected with the same cause or some cause to me unknown, it is purely laughable and absurd, and to me, of course, who have seen the sheets till I may well be tired of them, a matter of utter indifference. Why this occurred to you now and not before, I do not know; but the caution or reserve, or whatever else it may be, is utterly ludicrous."
An answer, expressing surprise at so sudden an onslaught on such visionary cause, seems to have been sent, and this is the reply:—
"Perhaps it is unnecessary to say anything more on this subject, especially as of all men I most dislike and have the least turn for letter-writing that can seem to be of a querulous, character; yet to prevent any present or future misconception I shall say a few words.
"I do not see why you should have been so utterly confounded by my letter, for my displeasure — I will say anger — on Friday was obvious enough, and, therefore, that I should afterwards say so to you seems to be nothing unexpected or extraordinary. I did not conceal my displeasure, which was reasonable and just; and I am sure you did not conceal yours, and therefore my letter need not have at all surprised you, whether you agreed or disagreed with its contents.
"I say my anger was perfectly reasonable and just, for I could not comprehend then, nor do I now, what you meant or wished to be done in the matter of Philpotts. You offended me by insisting on the word promise; and when I denied all promise, told me I must have forgotten: which was not the case, memory having nothing to do with it. There neither has nor could have been any promise. I offered to review the pamphlet, but not surely in the face of sense or reason, and I gave you the day before, Thursday, my impressions on one point of difficulty, in which you perfectly agreed with me. I told you if that difficulty could be removed or got over in any way, the article should be written, and yet in the midst of all this, which you felt as much to be a difficulty as I did, and acquiesced in all I said about it, you kept looking dissatisfied, and saying something or other which was to me unintelligible. There was nothing further for me to say or do. I explained clearly a certain difficulty which you clearly saw, and for you to write to Philpotts telling him that I thought so or felt so at present, but would write to him by-and-by, was said by me from the very beginning. In such a case to call by the name of promise, and to seem to think that promise violated or rejected by me, what was merely a proposal to do that which might be useful to the Magazine, but which had turned out to be the reverse (till the difficulty was removed), did annoy me very much and justly; for allow me to say there was something exceedingly disagreeable in your whole manner, and what I will not on any future occasion endure....
"It is true that I curbed but did not conceal my displeasure. I spoke to you about the Magazine, and I wrote the paragraph to Philpotts. There was no reason why I should not. But I take credit rather than otherwise for that; because, having determined to tell you my mind, I felt no inclination to be unkind or indifferent about the Magazine or any other matter. That you consciously or positively intended any slight or insult to me in the matter of the latter I did not and do not say; but I did and do say that your manner was not only ungracious but uncivil, and I question if any man was ever called back ten times unceremoniously from the street and given a letter to read, and then allowed to depart, with such perfect nonchalance and indifference.
"As for the stoppage of the Magazine, I said in my letter to you that the occurrence of that measure at present, and in connection with what had occurred, seemed to arise possibly from that cause; whether it did or not is best known to yourself. I believe it did not exactly, as you withheld it from Mr. Cay; but from a certain feeling of dissatisfaction.... From whatever cause proceeding, the circumstance of not sending the Magazine to me as you used to do, both with alacrity and pleasure, continues to appear to me in a ludicrous light, for I do not understand it. When you mentioned your intention there was the same dryness and distance in your manner to which you have alluded: in short, there was nothing but a slight sneer of contempt, so slight, it would appear, that it had escaped your notice, so that you interpreted literally words, the true meaning of which I did not think could be mistaken. That I could approve of any such absurd or unnecessary measure was not possible. Some reason or other there must be for the alteration; and I must conjecture that it is merely that there may be in the world one General Oracle without any exception.
"To be done once and for ever, I repeat that I was offended because not treated in the only way I ought to be, and offended the more because I never did once in the whole of my life treat you with the slightest approach to annoyance, and because in an intercourse which is not merely one of business but of voluntary acts of kindness, also of advice, always cheerfully offered when wanted, I cannot, I will not, I ought not to stomach anything of the sort, whether intentional or unintentional. I was not treated in the way I like, that is the short and the long of the matter, and there must be no repetition of it.
"As to anything vexing you, if it be anything serious, I can only say that I am truly sorry for it, and hope that it is gone by. Let there be no further mention or allusion to this subject if you please, nor shall you ever perceive the slightest effect on my behaviour or feelings towards you from what is in one sense a mere nothing, but in another a something to be avoided."
Perhaps this letter was rather too long to quote; but it affords a curious view of the emotional and childlike character of the man, so big, so strong, so almost riotous in his personality, — the jovial if sometimes crusty Christopher, the hero of Ambrose's in fun and frolic and poetry; in real life an athlete who carried everything before him, as in literature he was one of the most daring of Free-Lances, — yet here well-nigh weeping over the dry tone, the distant air, the unkind manner of his publisher, proclaiming to heaven and earth — or at least to the saloon and the backshop — the wrongs of his wounded soul; but writing himself into good-humour again, and a quite inconsequent prayer that nothing more might be said nor any allusion made to the subject. That all the floods of sentiment and indignation poured at intervals — if that unfortunate man of many toils and cares happened to look preoccupied, or the new number of the Magazine was not sent out hot from the press — upon his devoted head, should have driven Blackwood almost off his sober balance occasionally, would only have been natural. But probably because of these tragic and comic fluctuations, and the wonderful charm yet exasperation which lies in never knowing what the object of your thoughts will do next, the relationship of the publisher to his most potent and really indefatigable contributor was always as attractive as it was faithful and true. It was said that nobody but Mr. Blackwood could manage the Professor; but the office was not a sinecure. It was one that required constant attention, watchfulness, and a great patience. I regret that the letters written in answer to these are not to be found; but perhaps it is really more expressive of Blackwood's attitude that he should here say nothing in reply to such objurgations and complaints. The accuser has it all his own way; but in his flurry gives a great advantage to the silent partner, whose steadiness of character and manful composure seem to be emphasised by the silence. And it is no small testimony to both to say that, though these whimsical outbursts were repeated a hundred times, and though even Blackwood's temper — not a meek one — did sometimes when "much enforced give forth a hasty spark," yet that the steady affection and esteem with which they each regarded the other sustained no damage. The following letter is an expression of Mr. Blackwood's sincerest feelings on this subject:—
"All I shall say is that you have been the Genius and the Living Spirit which has animated the work, and whatever success it has had I owe most unquestionably to you in the first and chief place. I can most conscientiously declare that, wholly independent of the success of the work (to which your articles were always sure to contribute), I have felt a happiness in receiving your communications which to me was far beyond any considerations of personal advantage, and I had always more pleasure in paying you 100 gus. than any one else 50. The times are fertile in subjects, and your feeling and fancy are inexhaustible. I have much to say but I refrain. All I shall add is that there is nothing in this life I am so proud of as your friendship, and I hope and pray to God that it may continue while life lasts and with our children's children."
Professor Wilson lived to see three of Blackwood's sons in rotation assume the reins. He continued to kick sometimes now and then against the sway of the younger spirits; but he stood by them loyally through every change. And he was himself a sort of tutelary deity to the Blackwood house. His bust and portrait still stand leonine, with flowing mane, presiding over everything that goes on, as he did in his fine and careless person both in youth and age.
I may add here two letters of advice, both on poetical subjects; the first treating of the poetry of Mrs. Hemans, then in her youth, and applauded to all the echoes in public, though not so enthusiastically in the freedom of private life:—
"Professor Wilson to W. Blackwood.
I really do not know how I can advise you respecting Mrs. H. It seems a case on which you alone can decide — to wit, whether her contributions are or are not worth the money.
My opinion, on the whole, is as follows: She is the best of our female writers of what is called Poetry. Her verses are often beautiful, always melodious, but — I think they should either be all accepted or all declined. For none of them that I have read are unworthy of a place in that department of a Magazine, as verses go — and she is a popular enough writer, entitled, I think, to that right. It would be offensive to her to have them returned; and I scarcely think any of them should be rejected. Are they then worth the money? Confound me if I know! To me they are not. But, I believe, to many readers they give much pleasure. They make an agreeable break, and they are generally pleasant reading. Besides, she was, I presume, flattered by their reception, and perhaps might feel hurt by being cut off, as well as injured by the loss of the coin. I am rather disposed to think you should go on with her; but I will converse with you about it, as it certainly is a point rather perplexing. It is surprising that she is not run out entirely, and dry as a whistle. Poetry is certainly a drug — but hers don't seem to disgust. I conclude my unsatisfactory epistle."
The second of these letters concerns a poem of Mr. Aird, of whom Wilson thought more highly than of Mrs. Hemans, though we doubt whether his high opinion has been confirmed. It is somewhat startling to think of the publication of a long and serious poem as a serial, much as that method of publication has developed since then.
27 Oct. 1831.
To prevent any misunderstanding about Mr. Aird's poem, I will mention what passed between him and me about it and the Magazine.
"I said to him that in my opinion a Magazine was little the better or the worse for short copies of verses good or bad, and that a new feature in a magazine and a good feature would be the occasional introduction of a long poem, three or four times a-year. I think it would. Some months ago I read his poem and thought it possessed great power, as all his poems do: also much beauty.
"A few days ago Mr. Aird reminded me of what I said about long poems for the Magazine, and told me he had shown it to you, with a view of its being inserted if you liked it. I told him he had done right. With regard to prose contributions I told Mr. Aird that I generally agreed with your judgment, so much so that I never thought of giving an opinion about them, except when asked to do so in a doubtful case; but that in poetry it was different: for that I held that no one could judge perfectly well of poetry but those who could write it: this is my opinion. I told him, therefore, that in cases of poetry, I considered myself to be a better judge than you, and that I had no objection to advise poetry to be inserted in the Magazine, even if it should not appear to you so good as it appeared to me, which I would not do in the case of prose.
"I said this to him. I told him so in the belief that you might object to his poem on account of its peculiarities or other causes, more than I should do, although I did not doubt that you would appreciate its merits.
"This is the cast and substance of our conversation, and I added that I would on the first opportunity speak to you about the poem. With regard to that poem or any other which Mr. Aird will write, it will have strongly marked upon it certain peculiarities, and the question will be simply this, whether they are such as to exclude it or not from insertion in the Magazine.
"In my opinion the merits are far greater than the defects: and that a twenty-page poem, if showing power and genius, would be better in the Magazine than many a prose paper even of average ability or interest. That is to say, now and then.
"To get long poems faultless, or free from great and many faults, is not easy. "The Jewess of the Cave" is not of the number. Still Mr. Aird's poem may have in your eyes, looking at it with a view to all I have said, greater faults than in mine, and such faults as may make you decide, however reluctantly, against its admission. And if so, then I think you will be justified in not inserting it, notwithstanding my vote on the other side. Probably you may be of the opinion that long poems would not benefit the Magazine, however talented, unless such as would on the whole defy criticism, and be universally or very generally popular. To me it appears that such long poems would be seldom if ever got, and that, therefore, the idea of inserting long poems in the Magazine (as a new feature — now and then) will have to be relinquished, unless such are inserted whose merits overbalance their defects, however numerous and strong these may be.
"This is a long story; but I have troubled you with it, that you may exactly understand my views in general. Consider these, and then judge from a careful perusal for yourself whether or not Mr. Aird's poem fulfils the provisions of the new Act.
"P.S. — This letter reminds me of De Quincey."
The letter does very much resemble De Quincey: much more than it resembles Wilson, in its elaborate balance of arguments and complete inconclusiveness. It is a curious question, and we can imagine Blackwood, who never had written any poetry, to have been somewhat confused by it, though probably he settled such matters summarily on the simpler issue, whether he liked a poem or not.
The negotiation about the publication of Wilson's own collected poems, though of considerably earlier date, may be added. These poems have faded very much out of the popular memory, yet they had some reputation in their day.
26th April 1824.
With respect to my poems, I prefer writing a few lines to you, as I dislike conversations about money, although very fond of money itself.
"My wishes are as follows, and my reasons for my wish are as follows:—
"I wish you to take the copyright for two hundred and fifty guineas. You spoke of two hundred guineas, and in case of another edition a hundred more. It does not seem, therefore, that what I ask is anything much beyond your proposal.
"The reason why I wish to sell you the copyright just now is neither more nor less than that I want money. For I ought to have had four hundred guineas from you had I done my duty in writing 'The Foresters' or any other volume — over this, a proposal for a new book, there would be no difficulty in settling at once; but really as to my poems I know not what may be their value to you, or whether what I now ask may be at all advisable for you to give. But the value of a thing is what it will bring the proprietor, and I could have considerably more than the two hundred and fifty guineas for the said copyright if I chose to be a Dealer, but that, of course, is not likely to happen. I wish the poems to be published by you, and to belong to you, and I have mentioned the terms."
The same day, this letter having evidently been answered at once, the Professor explains what seems the enigmatical character of a part of what had been said in it:—
"Your acceptance of the terms proposed is prompt and friendly, and shall be considered such. The offer I allude to was as follows: I was carelessly speaking of the worthlessness in the market of poetry such as mine, half in jest, half in earnest, and next morning a gentleman, who had been of the company, offered me four hundred guineas for the copyright of all my poems. I never thought of taking it, as I felt at the time it was meant as a handsome inducement for me to give that gentleman something else; neither did I then mention it to you, for, if I had, I thought it might either put you under the necessity of offering the same, which would have been unjust, or at least my speaking of having rejected an offer on your account, which would also not have been agreeable.
"Things for me are much better as they are, and I hope, too, that neither will you suffer in any respect by your ready acquiescence in my proposal."
We have already remarked upon the extraordinary irregularities and delays that made the intercourse between the publisher and writer all through their long connection a constant succession of risks and alarms. There are sheaves of notes like the following in the correspondence:—
"However painful to myself, and I fear also to you, I am obliged to give up the attempt to do a 'Noctes.' I have tried as earnestly as I could, and I cannot. If I could I would, on all accounts, my own as well as yours. I have sat up three nights till 3 o'clock and done nothing but utter heavy nonsense, which I have thrown into the fire; a bad 'Noctes' would do more harm than any one thing else. My mind has been incapable of doing what it was my most anxious wish to do; and that being the case truly, it must be put up with, and nothing said on the subject, except a hope that it will be otherwise next month, and any heaviness of this number redeemed then. It will pain me to see you annoyed at this. I will do what I can: nobody can do more."
"For more than two months I have not had more than two entire days of anything like peace of mind. I cannot write more on a subject so distressing. But till a fortnight or rather more, one hour's rest of mind or body has been rare to me. Mrs. W.'s life was long in imminent danger, and her health is yet precarious. As for my own, I have suffered a great deal more than any one knows. But for the present no more. Two weeks ago I was beginning to get easy again, and began to do something; but John, my boy, was suddenly taken dangerously ill, and fainted so often that the medical men did not know what to make of it. If this, and more than this by far, does not excuse a man for being incapacitated for writing, what in God's name does?
"As to my friendship, you have it as before; but I have not read a book or written a word, except lately three or four letters, since I came here. God only knows all I have suffered, and if you have been angry your anger has been misplaced."
Many of these notes are marked, being without date, with that of their reception by the publisher, written with an exasperated pencil, in all the eloquence of a protest and appeal to heaven and earth, like the following: "Received at 10 o'clock at night, Dec. 9." The day of publication was the 20th in those days, and the Professor had not yet put pen to paper:—
"Tell Robert to call on me to-morrow on his way to the shop, and let me see exactly how things are.
"Everything has conspired to make me useless; but I think things have been as bad before, and I shall furnish the articles manfully yet. The Homer (when done) may go in anywhere, and thus no time be lost.
"This very night am I obliged to go out, else my daughter Margaret must stay at home from a party: I forgot it. Curse me if I do not get them done right, in spite of all the demons in Dulness' halls."
We fear that Blackwood, though very soft-hearted towards the maidens and their merrymakings, having two of his own, would not be very indulgent towards Miss Margaret and her party, on that occasion at least.
These scraps of hasty letters take us behind the scenes, and let us see how hard it was to keep all in working order: and how doubly hard to drive a winged steed in the vehicle which is to carry your eggs to market, over all the rough roads and harsh macadam of the half-made ways. It is much steadier driving nowadays, when the teams are so much tamer, and the roads crushed smooth by endless merchandise. And yet perhaps it was a different rate of going, with all its risks and continual danger of upsetting, in the old heroic days.
It is not necessary here to enter into the details of Wilson's private history, which have already formed the subject of a biography — well and modestly done, so far as he was concerned, though with many mistakes in regard to other people — by his daughter; nor of his legend — the myth and tradition of Christopher North — his crutch, his convivialities, the symposia in which he was the chief figure, which originated in the earliest days of the Magazine, and continued so long. He lived to be an old man — one of the landmarks of the faithful city which has a knack of turning its favourites into demigods. A Norse demigod, not a Greek, was Wilson, with his yellow locks hanging about his great shoulders. It is one of the recollections of my early days to have been taken to see him — a young writer, much abashed with so novel a character — when he was near the end of his life. My companion and patron was Dr. Moir, the gentle "Delta" of Blackwood, the well-beloved physician, whom everybody delighted to honour. Professor Wilson came to us, large, and loosely clad, with noiseless large footsteps such as some big men have the gift of: his hair thin, which had been so abundant, and dimmed out of its fine colour, but still picturesquely falling about his ears, making a background for his still ruddy countenance. My friend said something, perhaps a little conventionally, about my modest achievement in literature, and that I must be warned against overwork. "No need of that," said Christopher; "so long as she is young and happy work will do her no harm." I have great difficulty in realising that the little person who gazed reverentially upon that majestic old figure, as upon one of the forefathers, judges, and lawgivers among men, had any connection with myself; but the picture remains very clear upon the mind, as though of yesterday — the two men, both transfigured in a pair of young eyes, the large old poet like a tower, and opposite to him the keen Scots professional man, clean shaved and closely shorn, genial and kind, with the glimmer of gentle poetry in him, which all the kind brethren swore by, though it was but a modest taper. Wilson by that time had almost ceased to work, yet not long before had published a belated series called "Christopher under Canvas," in which there were many fine pieces of poetical criticism, like diamonds among the rinsings of the mine: but the world had outgrown him by that time.