1854 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Wilson

Robert Shelton Mackenzie, "Life of Professor Wilson" in Noctes Ambrosianae, ed. Mackenzie (1854) 2:xxv-vi.



He was one of the first to acknowledge the great merits of Wordsworth, even at the time when, in the Edinburgh Review, Jeffrey's criticism on the poet commenced with the scathing sentence, "This will never do." He was the first of his party to appreciate Shelley, and startled the readers of Blackwood's Magazine by cordially praising that gifted poet. He it was who did justice to Byron, while he condemned the obscenity of Don Juan, and the wandering "Childe" acknowledged his gratitude. In one of his letters published by Moore, there is this sentence from Byron: "Show this to Wilson, for I like the man, and care little for his Magazine." In Wilson, also, Burns found an eloquent champion, and Hogg a discriminating critic and staunch friend. He had kindly feelings for every one who possessed talent, and even those whom he cut up, (such as Robert Montgomery, the verse-maker,) had they really required his sympathy or assistance, might say, "His bark is aye waur (worse) than his bite." How mirthfully used Maga laugh at the "Cockney School of Poetry" — how kindly, when Leigh Hunt was in worldly necessity, did Wilson exert himself, in and out of Blackwood, to better his circumstances! Why do I mention these things? — because I believe it is the duty of a writer to tell the truth of the person whose biography he lays before the world. In the case of that erratic genius Edgar A. Poe, it was right so to record — as a warning: in that of Wilson, it is proper to do so, as an example. For over thirty years did Christopher North reign as Autocrat in what he had made unquestionably the most powerful periodical in the world; — in all that time, how few have had cause to complain of injustice at his hands. Let it sink deep into the hearts of all who write for the public, that honesty of purpose with the pen, like honesty of action in the world, is the right, and therefore the best, policy. In truth, across the Atlantic and here, editorial opinions are often expressed with too little recollection of the great responsibility which rests on a public writer. Wilson, once the wild exuberance of youthful spirits was sobered down, appears to me to have always written with a deep sense of this responsibility. He had to make himself a Power — but, like many despots, seldom pushed his autocracy to any thing like its limit. The strongest men are always the most quiet and least demonstrative.