John Wilson

Cyrus Redding, in Fifty Years' Recollections (1858) 3:43-52.

Professor Wilson being in town, he dined with me. Campbell was to meet him. We waited some time for the poet who did not appear. I had a fear, from having been a little unwell, that the renowned Christopher might tempt me to take more wine than I ought to do, under the circumstances. Edinburgh in those days scorned thin potations. I knew when "the steam was up," I should not be able to calculate odds, and that Wilson and myself being only two in number were not likely to part without the chance of a head-ache, for one of us at least. My indisposition seemed to vanish as we proceeded. Wilson took port with his dinner, a custom peculiar to himself. I took white wine, and but little. Still fearing Wilson's fame with the whiskey people of the north, among whom he once told me he could manage a bottle at a sitting, and had seen a Highlander take two, I thought I would not take more wine, but have some rum punch made without brandy, of which I was least afraid, calculating that Wilson would not touch that, and keep to wine. We should not then pass the bottle regularly. I was deceived. Wilson tasted my beverage, and thought it excellent. He joined me at once, and then I thought of the "whistle" of Burns. "Well, I will not mind it; I scarcely feel my indisposition, I must go on as if I had not been unwell at all," I said to myself. The "Noctes Ambrosianae" had alarmed me. The Edinburgh Symposia in Blackwood's pages were formidable things. Even Sir Walter himself only took wine in the way of an amuzette, rather to cool than stimulate a stomach accustomed to corn alcohol of fifty-four degrees proof.

"There is excellent whiskey at hand — I never take it," I observed.

"That's all well in Edinburgh, I shall take your beverage here."

Wilson became as lively and entertaining as the very Noctes themselves. He filled his glass from the bowl, and kept me at the same pace. I felt my courage rise, as a sailor once told me his did in action, for there was no back-door to run out at. There was no one to "divert the fire" as military men say. I must fill glass and glass — so be it. I still felt coming across my mind to scare me, the words Christopher put into Hogg's mouth, "Gie me the real Glenlivet — such as Awmrose aye has in the hoose, and I weel believe that I could make drinkable toddy out o' sea water. The human mind never tires of Glenlivet, any mair than of caller air. If a body could just find out the exact proper porportion o' quantity that ought to be drank every day, an keep to that, I verily trow that he might leeve for ever, without dying at a', and that doctors and kirkyards would go out o' fashion."

Aye, "that exact proper proportion." The "Right and wrong Club" of the shepherd to wit; where the stalwart Edinburghians drank themselves into fevers!

"This is good," said Wilson, "and not very strong — how smooth it drinks,"

"Do you wish a little more spirit added?" I queried most insincerely.

"O, no, it is excellent."

He became yet more pleasant but desultory — when was he otherwise? As usual there was a wild earnestness about him that I don't recollect ever seeing about any other man. He never set about a thing with only half a heart. His copious conversation never missed being amusing, and in his whims that way he was no respector of persons or things. Sometimes when you imagined he was going into the depth of the argument, he flew away from it or stifled it in a jest. He surprised me by a request, which from some of the less noted literary heroes of the north, I should not have been surprised to receive. I regret to say that I have too often found it a besetting sin of Scotchmen that they express sentiments to the public, both in speaking and writing to which their real opinions are diametrically opposed. Campbell, in his better days, scorned this line of conduct; but, I fear, showed some instances of it in the later years of his life, though in trivial things. Wilson was a great sinner in this respect. I believe he was in his heart a thorough going liberal, yet his sentiments in "Blackwood" are well known. On this occasion he pulled from his pocket a little volume of poems inscribed to Lord Brougham, called "The Village Curate."

"What do you want me to do with this?"

"It is an excellent little thing just make a mention of it for me in some work with which you are connected. It deserves a good notice. It is excellent, you will think so. It touches times."

"With all my heart; but why do you not give it a lift in 'Blackwood?'"

"No, that will hardly do — I dare not; read it, you will see why."

"But you are all powerful there."

"It would not suit their politics — 'Blackwood' would fall into hysterics."

I did what he wished, and keep the book in his remembrance, for though I heard from him, I never saw him afterwards.

Campbell just then made his appearance. We were filling our glasses from the last drop of the bowl. The poet made an excuse about detention, and I ordered the bowl to be replenished, thinking Campbell would join us; but he would have brandy and water, Wilson trying to persuade him the punch was nectar. Wilson and myself, therefore, had the second bowl to ourselves. He declared it excellent, while my courage on the strength of the first braved all apprehension about the second. It is the most unlucky thing that men in advancing towards ebriety imbibe fresh confidence, while the wanderer near the verge of the precipice, draws back in place of walking over. Wolcot well says of punch, it—

Smiles in his face as though it meant him bliss,
Then like an alligator drags him in.

Wilson now became more entertaining as Campbell, talking of the Poles, became more vituperative of Nicolas of Russia. Wilson, in badinage, took the emperor's part, and ran on at a great rate. Campbell, who was in earnest, seemed vexed at Wilson's playing upon the Poles, in his accustomed fashion. The former declared that the Polish children had been moved to the distant military colonies of Russia, torn away from their families to stock the new establishments, to be heard of by their friends no more. That the ties of nature were nothing in the sight of the Russian despot.

"My dear Campbell," said Wilson, "depend upon it all that is an error. The Slavonic is a very difficult language. Mistranslation of the newspapers, no doubt — all a blunder. Some cockney translator who was half drunk when he turned the account into English. It is my firm belief that in place of young Poles, we should read young pigs."

"It is no jest," returned the poet of Hope, "only fancy such an atrocity taking place here. What I have stated is a fact. I heard it just now at the Polish Committee."

"All partizans of the Poles there you know. They were not children but young pigs. The Slavonic may be translated either pigs or children, both are young, a little carelessness, I dare say. Translations from these out of the way languages are often erroneous."

"There is no error: those Russians are terrible barbarians."

"It is all a mistranslation, depend upon it."

Campbell was silent not seeming to admit a jest in the affair. He would not laugh at what he thought a serious thing, nor take open offence at Wilson's jesting with him. He did not feel much at ease, sipping his brandy and water awkwardly, and appearing as if he wished himself away; while Wilson, whom the punch seemed to have excited, every now and then reverted to Poland in a jocular manner. Campbell did not repeat his glass, but rose and wished us good-night. The renowned Christopher and myself were now far in our second bowl. I did not feel myself at all affected, while Wilson less accustomed, perhaps, to that beverage than one manufactured with whiskey, was evidently exhilarated. I find that sometimes neither wine nor spirits will exhilarate me, and only a severe headache has been the consequence of exceeding but a moderate allowance, while at another time a very little, comparatively, will easily affect me. We were drawing near the bottom of the second bowl, chatting on all sorts of subjects, when a mutual friend made his appearance. On this I proposed coffee, ordering it at once. Soon afterwards we parted. Mr. W—, who had just come in, agreeing to walk with Wilson to the Union Hotel. The latter was evidently much exhilarated. I was bold, and insisted on a stirrup-glass at parting.

Nothing will convince me that the Professor of Moral Philosophy, Hogg, Lockhart, and with Scott himself, were not sufferers from the mode in which they lived. Company and good fellowship, whisky toddy night after night, could not but affect men of studious pursuits in the end. Hogg confessed having drunk himself this way into a fever, though he had been bred in a hardy manner. The Scotch drink harder than the English or Irish. In England I have observed sturdy Scotchmen fall into an atrophy in a manner unaccountable, who were never observed to be inebriated. The truth was, that day after day they touched the verge of inebriety with their potent corn-spirit, and thus descended to the grave with that apparent sobriety which people quote to characterize their morality. A few years ago the spirit consumption of all kinds was for Scotland, more than that for England or Ireland per head. Hardy as Hogg had been bred, he died at sixty-three, Scott at sixty-one, Wilson at sixty-eight, the latter a long while before his departure, greatly changed in appearance. Scott's death may have been hastened by his labours it is true, but both he and Wilson were men of much corporal strength.

Wilson's cheerful constitution and spirit, boisterous, overflowing at times to wildness, and leaping all bounds, are depicted in the very style and lack-principle of the "Noctes." He would say and publish things regarding his best friends which were personal and annoying. They would write and remonstrate, often out of temper, and he would laugh at them, and explain it away in his peculiar mode. As to offending him by retorting it was impossible. He would have his sport though it were horse-play to others. I heard of many doings in Edinburgh, where Englishmen fancy all is morality and decorum, because the exterior is well kept, which would startle the Southrons. Campbell who would let no one abuse the Scotch Athens, but himself, used to confess the care with which all sorts of sins there were kept out of sight of the world, and "was it not right it should be so!"

"Yes," I would reply, "did it not raise a false opinion of your virtues; let us have the truth where we can."

Thomas Pringle had a stock of narratives of the doings of the Edinburgh folks, which he would sometimes relate, unconsciously showing how far profession and practice were apart in the capital of the Land o'Cakes, which would fain be deemed that of transcendental propriety. I remember one scene he described where Wilson, Lockhart, and a number of wild men were met, and something being said about christening, Wilson proposed to christen a cat instanter, and went through the entire ceremony, as I presume in the Scotch mode, with a spirit of parody of the most comic kind, nothing being too extravagant, or too whimsical for him to undertake. Attractive you scarcely knew why, rich in knowledge, derived from the world as well as books, diffuse, inaccurate, by throwing his whole soul into his outpourings, his conversation became irresistably captivating. He toyed with his pen rather than wrote in seriousness, so that at times it seemed doubtful whether he was in earnest about anything, until what he wrote was reperused. He would not have succeeded at the bar, to which he had once thought of going; he was too eccentric. The tautology and technicality of the law would have been his stumbling block. He was as he was to be, an original from nature's own hand, full of fancy, feeling, eloquence, and a power of expression great but irregular. I believe he was not one of very fixed principles, literary or political, from his advocating any side of a question to suit the occasion. A delightful companion, he would sometimes offend by his vivacious hits, declare all he had said a joke, and ask his butt to dinner the next day. We were never near enough to be on a footing of great familiarity, as it was I ever found him most friendly, and I never judged men's hearts by their political creed. His manners were easy, but his air was not gentlemanly. With his tall athletic form, his lower limbs were more than usually developed, and muscular. His features were not patrician, nor striking, except the chin, the rest was common. The whole countenance singular and intellectual, not on the whole handsome, the entire expression speaking something of his natural wildness, and fitful studiousness, his frolic and sobriety, as it varied in conversation. He was candour itself in all he said, wholly divested of pretension, delightfully unaffected. In his moments of hilarity, a dissertation on boxing, a point of metaphysics, a bit of classical criticism, and a poetical sentiment would follow each other linked in a singular connection. Yet it was often provoking to find, in the midst of a conversation on a subject highly interesting, dazzling with poetical glory, and rich in illustration, the whole suddenly broken off by the intervention of a comparative triviality, flinging you at once from the Line to the Arctic. His mind was rude with nature's lore. He was never tired of the country. Talking to him about residing there, he told me he was forced to leave his place at Ellery. The truth was, Wilson could not live without society, and all his guests and projects for rural enjoyment were expensive: yet he had originally inherited a fortune adequate to any reasonable purpose. Wilson seemed to me at fifty, what I was at twenty-five, but then his age came too rapidly upon him.