1845 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Wilson

George Gilfillan, "Professor Wilson" Gallery of Literary Portraits (1845) 183-92.



Our sketch, at present, is of a very extraordinary man; the wise, the witty, the warm-hearted, the eloquent Professor of Moral Philosophy in Edinburgh University, John Wilson, to his familiars; Wilson, to his foes; Professor Wilson, to his students. Christopher North, to all Europe!

We know not at what corner of this many-sided man to commence our rapid review. John Wilson is a host, he is a continent in himself. Like "Leviathan, he lies floating many a rood." Whether we view him as the generous, copious, acute, and ardent critic, — as the pathetic and most eloquent lecturer, — as the tender poet, — as the popular and powerful tale-writer, as the fervid politician, — as the kindly man; — we have before us one of the most remarkable, and, next to Brougham, the cleverest man of the nineteenth century. It is probable, indeed, that the very variety and versatility of Wilson's powers have done him an injury in the estimation of many. They call hardly believe that an actor, who can play so many parts, is perfect in all. Because he is, confessedly, one of the most eloquent of men, it is doubted if he can be profound: because he is a fine poet, he must be a shallow metaphysician; — because he is the editor of Blackwood, he must be an inefficient professor. There are "more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy." There is such a thing, on this round earth, though not, perhaps, within the categories of their limited and false theories, as diffusion along with depth, as the versatile and vigorous mind of a man of genius mastering a multitude of topics, while they are blunderingly acquiring one, — as a man "multiplying himself among mankind, the Proteus of their talents," and proving that the Voltairian activity of brain has been severed, in one splendid instance at least, from the Voltairian sneer, and the Voltairian shallowness. Such an instance as that of our illustrious Professor, who is ready for every tack, — who can, at one time, scorch a poetaster to a cinder, at another cast illumination into the "dark deep holds" of a moral question, by a glance of his genius; — at one time dash off the picture of a Highland glen, with the force of a Salvator, at another, lay bare the anatomy of a passion with the precision and the power of an Angelo, — write, now, the sweetest verse, and now the most energetic prose, — now let slip, from his spirit, a single star, like the "evening cloud," and now unfurl a Noctes upon the wondering world, — now paint Avarice till his audience are dying with laughter, and now Emulation and Sympathy till they are choked with tears, — write now, The Elder's Deathbed, and now the Address to a Wild Deer, — be equally at home in describing the sufferings of all orphan girl, and the undressing of a dead Quaker, by a congregation of ravens, under the brow of Helvellyn.

Professor Wilson, as a lecturer and professor, has great and peculiar merit. Inferior to Dugald Stewart in the elegance and refinement of metaphysical criticism, — to Thomas Brown, in original and daring speculation — in the combination of subtlety, depth, and beauty which distinguished that prince of Scottish philosophers, — to Chalmers in the intensity of his mind, and the contagious fury of his manner, he is inferior to none in the richness of his fancy, and in that singular vein of pathetic and original eloquence which gives such a charm to his spoken style. Chalmers rouses, Wilson melts. Chalmers has, now at least, but slender command over the sources of tears, Wilson touches them at his pleasure. Chalmers has a strong, but monotonous fancy, Wilson has the rich and glowing, and fertile and forgetive imagination of a poet. Chalmers has a style of much energy but limited resources, Wilson is copious to a fault. Chalmers speaks with more rapidity — is more fluent — carries you more triumphantly away at the moment; Wilson does not strike you as so eloquent at the time, but there is a slow and solemn music in his voice, which fills at once the ear and the soul; he plants stings within you which can be plucked out only with the last bleeding fibres of the heart; his very tones linger in your ear — the very glances of his eye, years after, haunt your memory — the magic of his eloquence makes you its slave for life. Never shall we forget the manner in which he pronounced the fine words of Thomson, "the melancholy main," with deep lingering accents, as if his soul were swelling forth on the sound, while his look seemed to mirror the "the great bright eye" of old Ocean. And who that has heard him describe Caesar weeping at the tomb of Alexander, can cease to remember the very tremor of the voice, which brought out so finely his conception of that noble scene? The tones in which he uttered the words, "fading youth," will be with us to our dying day. They involved in them a world of sentiment and pathos. In recitation of poetry, he is altogether unrivalled. His whole man — eye, lip, chest, arms, voice, become surcharged and overflowing with the spirit of the particular composition. He reads it as the poet's own soul would wish it read. And you say, as you listen, now what an actor, and now what a preacher, would he have made. The main current, indeed, of his nature is rapt and religious. In proof of this, we have heard, that on one occasion, he was crossing the hills from St. Mary's Loch to Moffat. It was a misty morning; but, as he ascended, the mist began to break into columns before the radiant finger of the rising sun. Wilson's feelings became too excited for silence, and he began to speak, and, from speaking, began to pray; and prayed aloud and alone, for thirty miles together, in the misty morn. We can conceive what a prayer it would be, and with what awe some passing shepherd may have heard the incarnate voice, "sounding on its dim and perilous way."

It has often appeared to us, that Wilson is somewhat damped by the imperfect sympathies of his audience. A large proportion of his general hearers is, necessarily, composed of plodding ethical inquirers, who come to get information, not to hear eloquence. Sitting, note-book and pencil in hand, fresh from Reid and Stewart, how can they relish those deep allusions in which he indulges? how can they worship that strange fire which has come from its far volcanic sources, to lighten on his brow and eye? To produce his highest style of impression, he would require an audience of poets. With a sympathizing and discriminating auditory he could work wonders of excitement, — move passions which Chalmers could not touch, — bring aglow to the brows of prepared spirits, like the sunset hues of a higher heaven. As it is, his true power, as a public speaker, is not fully felt. He is, indeed, always eloquent, — eloquent alike at the professorial desk, in the public meeting, amid the uproarious atmosphere of the after-dinner party, in the private circle, every motion of his spirit, every where, is eloquence, but, not unfrequently, it misses by overshooting its mark, and the oratory, which might enthral angels, fails to rouse men.

Into his merits, or demerits, as a political partisan, the plan of this publication does not permit us to enter. Let us turn, rather, to glance at him in the more pleasing light of a critic. His generous judgment of the essays written by the young men of his class, must not be overlooked.

His praise is not conveyed in scanty and envious driblets; it is not meted out with mean and narrow-minded parsimony, — it is not confined in the conduit-pipes of set and formal phrases; it is the free outpouring of a catholic and noble nature, intensely sympathizing with all excellence, and fearlessly expressing that sympathy. His blame is open, — honest, as to the matter of it, — gentle and measured as to the language. The author is justified, by the experience of hundreds of students of Edinburgh University, in declaring that a more gentlemanly, just, and honourable distributor of honours is not to be imagined; and, in thanking him for the encouragement, sympathy, and praise which he has bestowed upon numberless deserving and struggling scholars, each and all of whom regard his compliments "as equal to an house or estate."

The literature of his country is indebted to Wilson for a series of the most eloquent criticisms ever penned, from which passages of every variety of merit might be selected, in a style of execution altogether unparalleled, combining much of Macaulay's point, Hazlitt's gorgeousness, Jeffrey's vivacity, Sidney Smith's broad humour, with a freedom, force, variety, and rush of sounding words, and glow of whirling images, quite peculiar to himself. How powerful and fearless his criticisms on Moore's Byron! With what a trumpet tongue did he talk of Homer and his translators! With what a fine tact did he plunge us into the "witch element" of Spenser! What beautiful morsels, moreover, of rich critical dust did his prodigal genius scatter amid the broad fun, the inextinguishable laughter, the Shaksperean imagination of the "Noctes"! With what masterly ease, and sovereign good humour did he extinguish the author of The Age, Henry Sewell Stokes, &c., and clip the wings, though he could not, altogether, arrest the flight of Edwin Atherston! And what a fine, fresh, and frank spirit did there breathe out from his reviews of William Howitt, Ebenezer Elliott, and others, of a school of politics directly opposite to his own! "Be mine," said Gray, "to read eternal novels of Marivaux and Crebillon." Give us eternal criticisms of Wilson.

His poetry is not, perhaps, his strongest claim to immortality, but there is much of it which must survive. It has not the stern and concentrated energy of Byron's verse, nor the depth and grand simplicity of Wordsworth's, nor the tumultuous glow and transcendental graces of Shelley's, nor the wild Ezekiel-like mystic energy of Coleridge's, nor the stately march and sounding eloquence of Croly's, nor the homely vigour of Crabbe's, nor the holy charm of Montgomery's, nor the robust and masculine strength of Ebenezer Elliott's. It is a poetry altogether distinct from that of any other author, living or dead. The sole spring of its inspiration is a kind of apostolic meekness or love, which overflows from his heart, as a centre, and colours all things with its own soft and fairy lustre. The result is, either a glad diffusion or a pensive melancholy. We find the former in The Isle of Palms. Deficient as that poem is in profound purpose and overwhelming power, its beauty, like that of the child in We are seven, makes us glad. A fairy world surrounds us; "strange and star-bright" flowers bloom around; humming-birds flutter amid the leaves; palms, undisturbed since the deluge, are stirred to make a music, over our heads; unknown stars peep down upon us through the many coloured foliage; breezes, sweet as those which awoke from their slumbers the roses of Eden, breathe a balm upon our brows. It is the very clime and home of love.

An isle, "under Atlantic skies,"
Beautiful as the wreck of Paradise.

The whole performance is, indeed, the first dizzy and dazzling leap of a fine and youthful fancy — the first sweet sin of a poetical genius; and therefore, we doat upon The Isle of Palms.

The City of the Plague is a more mature and elaborate production; and though it has failed in obtaining a general and giddy popularity, it is rising slowly and surely to its level in public estimation. It does not, perhaps, come up to the ideal of a great poem in the subject. It must not be named with the description of that dire calamity in Boccaccio, for picturesque interest; nor with the picture of it by De Foe, in homely horror; nor with the sketch of it in The Revolt of Islam, in ideal grandeur. It does not conduct us, with a throbbing, heart and trembling footsteps, from bedside to bedside of the pest, till the minute, by multiplication, waxes into the magnificent; nor does it, on the other hand, show us, in distinct perspective, the plague poison hanging in the air over the "high-viced city," leaving it to imagination to tell us what is going on under that canopy of Fear. Between the two modes of painting the pest, the poem, we think, fails. It wants the literal interest of the one, and the high and bold relief of the other. It neither gives the harrowing disgust, nor the sublime moral of the evil. It has caught, however, a variety of the more pathetic and beautiful aspects of the scene, and steeped them in the rich dyes of fancy, and painted them with a tender and touching hand. We do not quarrel with the author of this exquisite poetical drama, for not combining all the qualities requisite to an ideal painter of the plague. Shakspere alone would have been this; and, had he turned his mind to the theme, would have united more than the literal distinctness of De Foe to more than the fine picturesque of Boccaccio, and more than the lofty imagination of Shelley. But our complaint of Wilson is, that he has, in, some measure, given the subject the slip — painted with great beauty and pathos some scenes on the outskirts of the judgment — but neither introduced us sufficiently into the heart of its blackness of darkness, nor placed that fearful gloom in the point of view where imagination would make it visible, in its lines of dim and distant magnificence. But whatever be our opinions of The City of the Plague as a whole, we cannot be blind to those graces of thought, imagery, and diction, which are scattered upon it with all the profusion of conscious wealth. These, however, are chiefly of a pathetic kind. He does not once, it is singular enough, in this his most elaborate work, touch the true sublime of tragedy, although there is hardly a sketch, or review, or Noctes from his pen, but discovers capabilities for moving, not merely pity, but terror of a very high order.

His smaller poems are many of them exquisite. Who can have forgot An evening in Furness Abbey, Unimore, or a Dream of the Highlands, Lines written in a Highland Glen? Indeed Wilson, like Rob Roy, is never so much himself as on the heather. The Highlands! The very name stirs his blood and intensifies his eloquence.

Next to his writings in Blackwood, it is by his tales that Professor Wilson is chiefly known to the public; and the general opinion, in reference to them, is so fixed and favourable, that nothing remains for us but to express our cordial concurrerce in it. Perhaps The Forresters, and Maragret Lindsay, have never had justice done to them. It were vain to deny that a certain degree of sameness and tediousness adheres to their plan; but it is the sameness of excellence, the weariness springing from a repletion of good things. And what nice little pictures and sentences are sprinkled throughout their quiet and simple tenor! — The drowning of Henry Needham has seldom been equalled. — The losing of Lucy Forrester is equally good in a different style.

And what shall we say of that noble series of Scottish studies, called the Lights and Shadows? Several of them are merely slight sketches, rough draughts thrown hastily off, as if at a single sitting. Some are pure fancy pieces, utterly unlike Scottish, or any life, and somewhat mawkish withal. Others are above praise. Witness the Snow Storm, Simon Gray, (an appalling story — Adam Blair in miniature,) the Family Tryste, &c. &c. It were wasting time to criticise such things as these. As long as the thistle shakes in the Scottish breeze — and the heather, with its purple eye, looks up to the blue of the Scottish heaven — and the salmon springs in the Highland burn — and the gray ghost-like mist gathers in the hollows of Glen Etive — and the black thunder-cloud flings its weight of gloom upon Ben Nevis, — so long shall the Scottish eye sparkle up at the Lights, and weep over the Shadows, which the hand of one of the first of living Scotsmen has so faithfully and feelingly portrayed.

The sketch would not be complete without a word on the personal appearance of its subject. In spite of De Quincey's invectives against what he calls the "missy" spirit which prompts such inquiries about a celebrated man — as, what is he like? the feeling is natural, universal, and irresistible; and the Opium eater has condescended for a series of years himself to gratify it. Professor Wilson's appearance is that of a hale, stout, broad-shouldered man, with a golden mass of hair, now, alas! waxing thin upon the temples, with study and sorrow. He is a man of powerful bone and muscle, above six feet high, and one whom every one stops on the street to gaze after. His brow is more ample than prominent — a broad mass of imagination on either temple. His eve is quick, stern, and lively; but, greatly as it is praised, we have seen far finer and more expressive eyes in men of much more prosaic mould. M'Nish of Glasgow says, somewhere, that he never knew a man of imagination who wanted fine eyes. He had forgot Dr. Chalmers, whose eyes are peculiar but not fine. He had also forgot Sir Walter Scott. We knew a man, not inferior to either of these in native genius, whose eyes were small, piggish, and, till excited, had no expression whatever.

Professor Wilson's eyes are certainly very characteristic of the volubility and impetuosity of his nature. They have sometimes an irresistibly comic look; at other times, they seem like Chatterton's, "as if fire rolled under them;" and we have seen them shining through unshed tears. His dress is generally negligent, whether from carelessness or caprice we cannot tell; but certainly not from affectation, from which, no human being is more free. We can add only, concerning the personality of the man, that he writes with immense rapidity, and in a fierce, rapid, unintelligible scrawl; and that his voice is the richest and deepest in its tones of any we have heard. He has lately been tried by severe domestic affliction, under which his noble heart has bled profusely, and in which he has had the deep and universal sympathies of the public. How characteristic of him, and how affecting, was his saying to his students, in apology for not returning their essays at the usual time, "I could not see to read them in the Valley and the Shadow of Death."