1862 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Gibson Lockhart

Mary Wilson Gordon, in Christopher North (1862; 1894) 171-76.



The staff of contributors whom Mr. Blackwood had contrived to rally round his standard contained many distinguished men. "The Great Unknown," and the venerable "Man of Feeling," were enlisted on his side, and gave some occasional help. Dr. M'Crie, the biographer of Knox, and Dr. Andrew Thomson, were solemnly and at much length reproved by an orthodox pamphleteer, styling himself Calvinus, for their supposed association with the wicked authors of the Chaldee Manuscript. Sir David Brewster contributed scientific articles, as did also Robert Jameson and James Wilson. Among the other contributors, actual or presumed, were De Quincey, Hogg, Gillies, Fraser Tytler, Kirkpatrick Sharpe, Sir William Hamilton, and his brother, the author of Cyril Thornton. But though all these and more figured in the list of Blackwood's supporters, there were but two on whom he placed his main reliance, the most prolific and versatile of all the band, who between them were capable at any time of providing the whole contents of a Number. These were John Wilson and John Gibson Lockhart. Those whose only knowledge of that pair of briefless young advocates was derived from seeing them pacing the Parliament house, or lounging carelessly into Blackwood's saloon to read the newspapers, and pass their jokes on everybody, including themselves, could have little idea of their power of work, or of the formidable manner in which it was being exercised. That blue-eyed and ruddy-cheeked poet, whose time seemed to hang lightly enough upon his hands, did not quite realize one's idea of the redoubtable critic whose "crutch" was to become so formidable a weapon. Nor did his jaunty-looking companion, whose leisure seemed to be wholly occupied in drawing caricatures, appear a likely person, when he sauntered home from Princes street, to sit down to a translation from the German, or to dash off at a sitting "copy" enough to fill a sheet of Blackwood's Magazine. The striking contrast in the outward aspect of the two men corresponded truly to their difference of character and temperament — a difference, however, which proved no obstacle to their close intimacy. There was a picturesque contrast between them, which might be simply defined by light and shade; but there was a more striking dissimilarity than that which is merely the result of coloring. Mr. Lockhart's pale olive complexion had something of a Spanish character in it, that accorded well with the sombre or rather melancholy expression of his countenance; his thin lips, compressed beneath a smile of habitual sarcasm, promised no genial response to the warmer emotions of the heart. His compact, finely-formed head indicated an acute and refined intellect. Cold, haughty, supercilious in manner, he seldom won love, and not unfrequently caused his friends to distrust it in him, for they sometimes found the warmth of their own feelings thrown back upon them in presence of this cold indifference. Circumstances afterwards conferred on him a brilliant position, and he gave way to the weakness which seeks prestige from the reflected glory found in rank. The gay coteries of London society injured his interest in the old friends who had worked hand in hand with him when in Edinburgh. He was well depicted by his friend through the mouth of the Shepherd, as "the Oxford collegian, wi' a pale face and a black toozy head, but an e'e like an eagle's; and a sort o' lauch about the screwed-up mouth o' him that fules ca'ed no canny, for they couldna' thole the meaning o't." I am fortunate enough to be able to give the capital likeness on page 185, drawn by his own hand, in which the satirist who spared no one, has most assuredly not been flattering to himself.

Wilson's appearance in those days is thus described in Peter's Letters by Mr. Lockhart: — "In complexion he is the best specimen I have ever seen of the genuine or ideal Goth. His hair is of the true Sicambrian yellow; his eyes are of the brightest, and at time same time of the clearest blue, and the blood glows in his cheek with as firm a fervor as it did, according to the description of Jornandes, in those of the 'Bello gaudentes, praelio ridentes Teutones' of Attila." The black-haired Spanish-looking Oxonian, with that uncanny laugh of his, was a very dangerous person to encounter in the field of letters. "I've sometimes thocht, Mr. North," says the Shepherd, "that ye were a wee feared for him yoursel', and used rather, without kennin 't, to draw in your horns." Systematic, cool, and circumspect, when he armed himself for conflict it was with a fell and deadly determination. The other rushed into combat rejoicingly, like the Teutons; but even in his fiercest mood, he was alive to pity, tenderness, and humor. When he impaled a victim, he did it, as Walton recommends, not vindictively, but as if he loved him. Lockhart, on the other hand, though susceptible of deep emotions, and gifted with a most playful wit, had no scruple in wounding to the very quick, and no thrill of compassion ever held back his hand when he had made up his mind to strike. He was certainly no coward, but he liked to fight under cover, and keep himself unseen, while Wilson, even under the shield of anonymity, was rather prone to exhibit his own unmistakable personality.

Such were the two principal contributors to Blackwood when it broke upon the startled gaze of Edinburgh Whigdom, like a fiery comet "that with fear of change perplexes monarchs." Not without reason did the adherents of the "Blue and Yellow" wish ill to the formidable newcomer, for, apart from its undeniable offences against good feeling and taste, there was a power and life about the Magazine that betokened ominously for the hitherto unchallenged supremacy of the great Review. In spite of its errors, the substantial merits of the Magazine securely established its popularity, and in the course of a few years it became recognized throughout Britain as the most able and interesting periodical work that had ever been published.