1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Wilson

Allan Cunningham, in "Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the last Fifty Years" The Athenaeum (16 November 1833) 770.



The west of Scotland, as I have shown, produced Burns, Grahame, and Campbell; I have now to add a fourth — John Wilson. He is a native of Paisley, and was born in May, 1789. The affluent circumstances of his father enabled him to have the benefit of a classic education; he obtained the rudiments of his learning in Glasgow, and went from thence to Oxford, where he obtained prizes in his college: one of them was an essay, in verse, On the Merits of Ancient Sculpture — there is a flow of words and the dawning of pure taste. He courted public attention, first, in his poem of The Isle of Palms: it exhibits scenes of enchanting beauty, a prodigality of loveliness united to uncommon sweetness and tranquil grace. The City of the Plague succeeded: a noble and deeply pathetic poem — a picture of London, suffering under the calamity which laid her streets and squares desolate. It possesses great dramatic interest, and displays picture after picture of private suffering and public misery: the darkness is relieved by such flashes of light as few bards have at command; in the abodes of despair there are rays of hope let in — on the brink of the grave flowers of beauty are scattered; nor do we tread the floor of the charnel-house but in joy mingled with fear. His most dolorous scenes are redeemed back to our sympathy by inimitable touches of nature; and we rise from the spell of perusal sobered and elevated.

His poetical powers are very varied: that is, he can handle any subject in its own peculiar spirit. His Edith and Nora is one of those fairy-fictions of which he once promised a volume; there is a wondrous beauty shed over the landscape on which he brings out his spiritual folk to sport and play, and do good deeds to men: nor has he wasted all his sweetness on the not insensible earth; he has endowed his fairies with charms from a hundred traditions, assigned them poetic and moral tasks, and poured inspiration into their speech. Another fine poem of his is An Address to a Wild Deer: for bounding elasticity of language, hurrying thoughts, and crowding imagery, it is without a parallel. Indeed, throughout all his smaller poems there is a deep feeling for nature; an intimate knowledge of the workings of the heart, and a liquid fluency of language almost lyrical. He is distinguished, in all his compositions, for splendour of imagination, for loftiness of thought, for sympathy with all that is grand or honourable in man, for transitions surprising and unexpected, but never forced, and for situations such as appear to an eye which sees through all nature. He may be accused sometimes of an overflow of enthusiasm about his subject; nor has he escaped from the charge of sometimes overflooding sentiments with words. In person he is the noblest looking of all our poets; in company he is free, companionable, and eloquent; never hesitates to do a good deed to a deserving person, or give the young and meritorious a lift on the road to fame. He is a foe to all affectation, either in dress or verse, and mauls the fop of the toilet and the fop in poetry with equal wit and mercilessness.