Although I knew Professor Wilson under other, and always pleasant, circumstances, I associate my happiest remembrance of him with "The Festival" that took place in the pretty and picturesque town of Ayr, on the 6th of August, 1844, when a vast assemblage of the Scottish people tendered homage to the memory of Robert Burns, by welcoming to Scotland his sons, two of whom had been absent in India during more than a quarter of a century. I do not think I shall try the patience of my readers if I recall that exciting scene on that memorable day. I will first ask them to accompany me to a comparatively humble, but neat and comfortably-furnished, cottage, where resided Mrs. Begg, the sister of the poet, and in which met, on the evening succeeding "the day," all the members of his family — his sister, her children, and her husband's brother, the poet's three sons, and the daughter of Colonel James Glencairn — the only "strangers" (for the poet's friend and biographer, McDiarmid, was no stranger) being Mrs. Hall and myself, and an artist whose genius was then in the bud, but who has since become famous — Sir Joseph Noel Paton, R.S.A., whose friendship we have had the happiness to retain from that far-away time to this.
Mrs. Begg was a plain and very simple woman, obviously of a gentle and kindly nature, but giving no evidence that to her had been allotted any portion of the intellectual power of which her great brother had so much. Her sons and her daughter were in no way remarkable. Her husband's brother wore the dress of a Scottish peasant of the better class, and, I believe, had never aimed at any position beyond it. He spoke of "Robbie Burns" as a companion with whom he had passed many a pleasant day and merry night, and wore the bonnet and plaid as he had done fifty years before that evening. Robert Burns, the eldest son of Robert Burns, died long ago. He is said to have greatly resembled his illustrious father. I give the portrait of him as I gave it in 1844: — "His eyes are large, dark, and intelligent; and his memory is stored with legends, poems, and historical records of great value. These materials are not only abundant, but well arranged and ordered; and when a question is asked, intelligent reply is ready. His conversation is rich in illustration, and though he gracefully said 'the mantle of Elijah had not descended upon Elisha,' the son possesses much of the ability, if not the genius, of the father." The other two sons, Colonel William Nicol and Colonel James Glencairn, are still living at Cheltenham; and no gentlemen in that favoured town of retired worth are more honoured or respected. Both are men of considerable talent; they have not been called upon to exert it; but pleasanter companions are rarely met. It is a treat that many have enjoyed to hear Colonel James sing his father's songs.
Such was the group we met in that homely cottage by "the auld brig" at Ayr on the eve after the poet's triumph — a triumph certainly greater than any that has honoured a memory in Great Britain at any period of its history.
Mrs. Hall had her Album with her. Colonel James Glencairn had previously written in it; his name being prefaced by the following:—
"This is confessedly a collection of the autographs of 'Lions;' and as it is impossible Mrs. Hall can get that of the Lion my father, she probably thinks the next best thing is to obtain that of one of his Cubs. I therefore have much pleasure in transcribing, at her request, the first verse of the address to a mountain daisy."
When assembled in that cottage at Ayr, it was suggested by our friend the Colonel that on the page which contained his name and the passage quoted, the names of the other members of the family should follow, as they never had met all together before, and most probably would never meet all together again. My readers will, I am sure, be pleased to see these autographs as they were then and there written.
A dull and gloomy morning ushered in "THE DAY." Nevertheless, upwards of eighty thousand persons were "gathered" at Ayr. They came from all parts of the kingdom, and some from foreign lands. The town was full of triumphal arches — "forests of evergreens" at every point associated with the poet's history; processions of people fancifully dressed; Lodges of Freemasons, Foresters, and Odd Fellows; and the trades, — weavers, tailors, boot-makers, and so forth, — with no lack of bands; and at least a score of bagpipes heading parties of stalwart Highlandmen, each playing his own pibroch, all of them "in harmony."
At one end of a field was a platform, on the first bench of which sat the family of Robert Burns. Before them the multitude passed in orderly procession, pausing when they reached the point, and bowing in homage to the sons of the poet; then marching on to the music with which every one of them was familiar, and joining in a song, the words of which were known all the world over. When all had thus passed, they collected into a mass, and raised a cheer such as can be heard nowhere else in the world — literally eighty thousand voices of eighty thousand hearts!
It was not difficult to distinguish those to whom chiefly appertained that day the glory and the triumph. The honest lads and bonnie lasses, workers at the loom, tillers of the soil, who belonged to "the land of Burns," had their full share of his renown; and never, perhaps, in the history of any country has there been such conclusive evidence that a people, nine-tenths of whom were the grandchildren of his co-mates, identified themselves with a poet who had been half a century in his grave.
On the platform — on the seat immediately beneath us — sat a man of powerful frame, large-limbed and tall, who in youth was of a surety "the best wrestler on the green," and who in age seemed one of the elder sons of Anak, of whose "boisterous vigour" many pens and tongues have written and spoken. Look at his massive head, his clear grey eye, his firm-set and finely-chiselled mouth, his broad and intellectual brow, and you will be sure it is not physical force alone that makes him greatest of the many great men by whom he is surrounded. His hair, thin and grizzled and unusually long, was moved by the breeze as he rose to speak — in a voice manly as his form, richly and truly eloquent. He was master of his theme, and loved it; but then and there a stoic would have been an enthusiast, with the cheers of such a multitude booming in his ears. That was JOHN WILSON.
While he was speaking, and his long thin locks waved about in the wind, I thought I might steal imperceptibly, at such a moment, a single hair. I saw one that I believed had been accidentally detached, and I ran the hazard of taking it. The Professor felt the touch, and turning instantly round, flashed upon me one of those fierce looks of which I had heard so much from those who had seen the "lurking devil in his keen grey eye;" but at once perceiving that no insult was meant, and perhaps appreciating the motive of the theft, as I murmured out something like "It is but one to keep for ever," his lips as suddenly assumed a smile of lovable grace such as might have won the heart of an enemy. That "single hair" is on my table as I write.
From the platform there was an adjournment of the "select" — but the select consisted of two thousand persons — to a monster tent or "pavilion" that had been erected to receive the guests at the dinner. The President was the good, graceful, and gracious Earl of Eglintoun, whose two memorable words, "Repentant Scotland," had an enduring echo there that day in every Scottish heart. There was a gathering of Scottish "men of mark" ranged on either side of the noble chairman, following in order: the sons of Burns on his right, and the sister and her children on his left; with some of the poet's early friends; and one, a venerable matron then, who, when a blooming lass of sweet seventeen, had been the subject of his verse. Among the guests were Alison, Aytoun, Glasford Bell, "Delta" Moir, Charles Mackay, and the brothers, William and Robert Chambers. And good right had Robert Chambers to be there, foremost among the men whom the people delight to honour; for, but for his exertions, near relatives of the great poet — to render homage to whose memory the tens of thousands had assembled — would have had to bear neglected penury instead of independent comfort. Scotland owes to these admirable brothers a debt the extent of which it would be difficult to calculate.
But on that day of glory the assembly of the "aristocracy" of Rank and Letters was far too small; from England and Ireland there were few guests, while Scotland did not contribute a fourth of the number she ought to have sent to the gathering. Its glory and its triumph were to "the common people;" and certainly the appearance of these-for whom tents had been provided — was an object of even higher importance than the assembling of the "select."
As we looked upon the heaving multitude, we could not avoid thinking that if all the preparations for the banquet had suddenly disappeared, the manifestation of respect on the part of the people towards their poet would have been accomplished — the heart-beatings of Scotland as thoroughly exhibited, if no pavilion, with its tasteful draperies and elevated galleries, had been planted on the banks of the river that waters the land of Burns. Who that witnessed the glorious sight can have ceased to remember the fervent looks of the old and middle-aged, the tearful eyes and exclamations of the young, the eagerness with which parents pointed out to their children the grey-haired sons of the poet they delighted to honour? On, and on, and on, they came, in peace and harmony, disturbed by no jarring feelings, moved by no political object, warmed by the genial influence of the tenderest and most elevated patriotism. The shouts of the people were echoed by the enthusiastic cheers of the noblemen and gentlemen who were on the platform, while the tears of the fairer portion of the assembly proved how deeply they sympathised with the great purpose all had met to commemorate. As long as the procession was in progress, the men who composed it refrained from any manifestation of their feelings beyond lowering their banners, uncovering their heads, and gazing upon the poet's sons; but when the gigantic thistle, the emblem of their native country, closed the procession, and had been not only honoured, but divided and borne off blossom by blossom, and leaf by leaf, as mementoes of the "field of Burns," there was a rush of human beings back towards the platform, and eager hands were upstretched from below to grasp the hands of the family of the poet.
Yet it was a most exciting scene within the pavilion, where nearly two thousand persons, ladies and gentlemen, were seated. We recall their fervid enthusiasm when the noble chairman rose and proposed the memory of Robert Burns — "drunk in solemn silence," but followed a few minutes afterwards by a shout such as is seldom heard more than once in a lifetime. The Earl of Eglintoun was then in his zenith — a thorough "gentleman" in look, in manner, and in heart. His address was brief, pithy, and condensed, yet remarkably conclusive and comprehensive. It was, indeed, an example of true eloquence — if eloquence is to be estimated by effect produced. There was in it no word too much — not a syllable that might have been as well left unsaid.
Then Professor Wilson rose to "welcome the sons of Burns." He was "in his glory." His robust and manly form appeared to grow under his theme, his magnificent head positively seemed to roll about over his huge shoulders, and his large hands to sweep away all let and hindrance to his gigantic energy.
I cannot attempt to give the toasts that followed; among them "Wordsworth and the Poets of England" — "Moore and the Poets of Ireland." The latter was proposed by Henry Glasford Bell; and in the course of his eloquent speech he took occasion to introduce the name of Mrs. S. C. Hall thus: — "I have to-day seen that not the gifted sons alone, but also some of the gifted daughters, of Ireland have come as pilgrims to the shrine of Burns — that one in particular — one of the most distinguished of that fair sisterhood who give by their talents additional lustre to the genius of the present day — has paid her first visit to Scotland that she might be present on this occasion, and whom I have myself seen moved even to tears by the glory of the gathering. She is one who has thrown additional light on the antiquities, manners, scenery, and traditions of Ireland, and whose graceful and truly feminine works are known to us all, and whom we are proud to see among us." — (Blackwood.)
I cannot give even an outline of the Professor's speech, which occupied full an hour. Perhaps the apologies he offered for the failings and shortcomings of the poet might have been spared, and were considered out of keeping with the occasion; still it was a most masterly discourse; and those who heard it can never forget the wild burst of applause that followed his concluding sentence, — "We rise to welcome you to your father's land." The whole assembly rose with a loud and long-continued cheer.
My readers will believe the event to be the most exciting of all our "Memories." It is inseparably associated (I shall never desire to separate them) with the memory of Professor Wilson — the Burns Festival, where so many living worthies, linked hand in hand with the Ploughman and the Artisan, assembled in earnest homage to glorify the illustrious dead.
To live in hearts we leave behind
Is not to die.
John Wilson was born on the 18th of May, 1785, in a "somewhat gloomy-looking house in a dingy court at the head of the High Street," Paisley. The house is still standing, being "preserved" for public uses, under the name of "Wilson's Hall." His father was a wealthy man, having realised a fortune in trade as a gauze manufacturer, and was respected for social worth and moral integrity. His mother is described as "beautiful, of rare intellect, wit, humour, wisdom, and grace." The boy John was "precocious," physically and intellectually; "foremost in the playground and in the task;" running a race against ponies while yet a child; in youth surpassing men in bodily feats, and in early manhood excelling all competitors in strength of arm and swiftness of foot. Almost from his birth to his death, as one of his friends wrote long afterwards, "whatever he did was done with all his soul."
In June, 1803, he entered as a gentleman commoner at Magdalen College, Oxford, having been previously "well educated" at Glasgow. His father left him an "unencumbered fortune of £50,000." Thus endowed, with rare personal advantages, "the world was all before him, where to choose," in a sense very different from that which applies generally to the heir of the Muses. Yet, so early as 1807, he selected an abiding-place on the banks of Windermere, and the cottage of Elleray was his home until the year 1815.
When at Oxford, and indeed everywhere, he had the acquaintance of the refined and the rough — the learned and the ignorant — the "brutal," indeed. Dr. Routh, the President of his College at Oxford, was his friend; but his "friends" also were the "grooms, the cobblers, and the stable-boys." He gave wide scope for scandal, but such were the joyousness of his nature, the buoyancy of his big heart, and his many endearing qualities; so prominent also were his powers as a student and a scholar — his after-fame being clearly foreseen — that his eccentricities were visited with no heavy penalties, and he passed from the University with honour, if not with unmingled respect.
I have given my own portrait of Wilson as I saw him, and heard him speak, in 1844; I may add that of Mr. Aird, the editor of the Dumfriesshire Herald, when writing of the Burns Festival, and in reference to the Professor's speech on that memorable occasion: — "Now broad in humour; now sportive and playful; now sarcastic, scornful, and searching; now calmly philosophic in criticism; now thoughtful and solemn, large of 'reverent discourse, looking before and after' with all the sweetest by-plays of humanity, with every reconciling softness of charity, — such in turns, and in quickest intermingled tissue of the ethereal woof, have been the many illustrations which this large-minded, large-hearted Scotchman, in whose character there is neither corner nor cranny, has poured in the very prodigality of his affectionate abundance around and over the name and the fame of Robert Burns."
Talfourd, considering him as an editor, and contrasting him with Campbell in that capacity, speaks of his "boisterous vigour, riotous in power, reckless in wisdom, fusing the productions of various intellects into one brilliant reflex of his own master mind;" and Hallam describes him as a "writer of the most ardent and enthusiastic genius, whose eloquence is as the rush of mighty waters."
In 1812, Scott, in a letter to Joanna Baillie, referred to him as a "young man of very extraordinary powers" — "an eccentric genius" — "a warm-hearted and enthusiastic young man" — "something too much, perhaps, of the latter quality places him among the list of originals."
De Quincey writes, in 1808, of "his large expansion of heart, and a certain air of noble frankness." "He seemed to have an intense enjoyment of life." Young, rich, healthy, and full of intellectual activity then, with no care, present or foreshadowed, how could it have been otherwise?
James Hogg, in one of his lay-sermons, says, — "Professor Wilson's conversation is rich and brilliant; but then he takes sulky fits. If there be anybody in the company whom he does not like, the party will not get much out of him for that night; his eyes gleam like those of a dragon; and a poet says of him (Wordsworth, I think), 'He utters a short hem! at every pause, but further ventures not.'"
The poetry of Professor Wilson has not attained the popularity to which it is entitled; probably because, when he first published, he had to compete with a formidable rival in his own illustrious countryman, and the fame which, in England, nearly at the same period, was about to absorb that of all other bards. His poems are, however, full of beauty; they have all the freshness of the heather; a true relish for nature breaks out in them all; there is no puerile or sickly sentimentalism; they are the earnest breathings of a happy and buoyant spirit; a giving out, as it were, of the breath that has been inhaled among the mountains. They manifest, moreover, the finest sympathies with humanity; nothing harsh or repining seems to have entered the poet's thoughts; they may be read as compositions of the highest merit, — as bearing the severest test of critical asperity; but also as graceful and beautiful transcripts of Nature, when her grace and beauty are felt and appreciated by all. There is no evidence of "fine frenzy" in his glances "from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;" but there is ample proof of the depth of his worship, and the fulness of his affection for all the objects which "nature's God" has made graceful and fruitful.
He was ever gentle and kindly, and meek and humble, in verse; holy and tranquillising was the influence he obtained by associating with the Muses. It was only in prose he was harsh, uncompromising, and bitter; yet in his criticisms there was always evidence of a sound heart — of a nature like the Highland breezes he loved to breast, keen, biting, but healthy; often most invigorating when most severe, but to be safely encountered only by those whose stamina was unquestionable.
On the banks of Windermere he had his "full fling" of "animal delights" — racing, leaping, wrestling, boxing, fishing, boating, and cock-fighting — one of the sports in which our not far-off ancestors indulged as of the "manly" English. And if there be ample testimony to his lofty genius and social worth, there is certainly quite as much to uphold the declaration of one of his comrades for a time: — "It was a' life an' murth amang us as lang as Professor Wilson was at Wasd'le Heed."
He dearly loved the gentle craft of the angler. Dogs were his familiar friends, but so were other animals. From the horse to the spider they were objects of study that gave him pleasure — generally healthy pleasure, but sometimes pleasure that was not so. He had large humanity — earnest love of all things in nature. For dogs his affection was intense, and many curious illustrative anecdotes are told of that passion. Especially he loved all things that needed help. For nearly eleven years he kept in his room a sparrow he had found, scarcely fledged, on his door-step. Who that has read can have forgotten his terrific anathema against those who were more than suspected of having poisoned his dog Bronte, in revenge for his awful denunciation of those who had "patronised" the butchers Hare and Burke?
Yet there is abundant evidence that the fierce leopard of "Maga" could be as gentle as a lamb — that the giant could use a giant's strength as tenderly as a young mother nursing her firstborn. Let us picture the Professor as he was seen one day, long after the period to which I am now referring, with a carter's whip in his hand, walking beside a miserable horse through Edinburgh streets. He had released the animal from a brute far more worthless, had unharnessed him from a cart full of coal, upset the coal into the street, given the carter one blow, and promised him another, and left the fellow, utterly astonished, "gaping wide-mouthed," and speechless, as he followed the horse to the charge of the police.
Notwithstanding his somewhat perilous attractions, he found a wife worthy of him. Miss Jane Penny was "the belle of the Lake district" — as good as she was beautiful — "whom he had sensibility to love, ambition to attempt, and skill to win." In May, 1811, he married. In 1815 he was called to the Scottish Bar, having quitted "dear sycamore-sheltered Elleray" in consequence of a breach of trust on the part of a "guardian" that deprived him of nearly all his property.
Elleray is a nest in the midst of mountains, in an elevated dell surrounded by foregrounds of great beauty, sequestered and secluded, commanding views of surpassing loveliness and of exceeding grandeur. The sight is at once graceful and magnificent, and no marvel that the poet loved it with his whole heart. This is De Quincey's description of Elleray: — "Within a bow-shot of each other may be found stations of the deepest seclusion, fenced in by verdurous heights, and presenting a limited scene of beauty — deep, solemn, noiseless, severely sequestered — and other stations of a magnificence so gorgeous as few estates in this island can boast, and, of those few, perhaps none in such close connection with a dwelling-house. Stepping out from the very windows of the drawing-room, you find yourself on a terrace, which gives you the feeling of a 'specular height' such as you might expect on Ararat, or more appropriately conceive on 'Athos seen from Samothrace.'" Mrs. Gordon adds that "Windermere is best seen from Elleray — every point and bay, island and cove, lying there unveiled."
The cottage is now denuded of its "profusion of jasmine, clematis, and honeysuckle." The trellis no longer "clusters with wild roses," but the gigantic sycamore still flourishes, and overshadows the lowly dwelling that was so long the home of the poet. He dearly loved that tree. "Never in this well-wooded world," he writes, "not even in the days of the Druids, could there have been such another." "Oh, sweetest and shadiest of all sycamores, we love thee above all other trees!"
Not far off was Keswick, where the high-souled Southey lived, and Rydal, where great Wordsworth communed with Nature. Thither, as to a cool fountain, came the man in his buoyant and hearty youthhood; there his favourite pursuits were to the full enjoyed. He had "a fleet of yachts" on the lake. He excelled in all manly exercises and field sports; on road, field, flood, foot, or horseback, he was equally at home. In wrestling he had few equals, being, as a professor of the "noble art of self-defence" described him, "a vera bad un to lick."
In the summer of 1865 I paid a visit to Elleray, to the cottage in which he dwelt during the earlier part of his residence in the district, and to the comparatively sumptuous house he built, and which was afterwards for many years his home.
And sweet that dwelling rests upon the brow,
Beneath that sycamore of Orest Hill,
As if it smiled on Windermere below.
It occupies a commanding site above the eastern bank of Windermere, and near to the picturesque town of Bowness; consequently, the views are supremely grand and beautiful. There are many houses all about it now. A railway terminus discharges its cargo thrice a day close to the gate that leads to the well-wooded grounds of the "mansion," and probably the nightingales and cushat doves have been chased from the locality. It would no doubt grieve the great Nature-lover to hear the shrieking "whistle" in their stead; but there are some things even civil engineers cannot destroy: the outlook from the hall door at Elleray is one of them.
Mrs. Hemans thus writes of Elleray: — "I never saw any landscape bearing so triumphant a character. The house, which is beautiful, seems built as if to overlook some fairy pageant, something like the Venetian splendour of old, on the glorious lake beneath."
In 1817 — a memorable year for letters — was commenced the publication of Blackwood's Magazine, so inseparably linked with the name of Wilson from its birth to his death. The Edinburgh Review was then in its prime. To that work Wilson contributed one article — his first and his last — a review of Byron; but the Tories were a powerful party in Edinburgh, and some of them resolved that the Whigs should not have it "all their own way."
One of two who suggested the idea to Mr. William Blackwood, an enterprising publisher in Edinburgh, was THOMAS PRINGLE, "a pleasant poet," who afterwards emigrated to South Africa, from which he subsequently returned, and became editor of the Friendship's Offering, one of the annuals, published first by Lupton Relfe, a bookseller in Cornhill, and afterwards by Smith and Elder.
I knew Pringle somewhat intimately. He was a kindly and courteous gentleman, with limited literary power, but with much taste and feeling for literature and for art. What was his occupation at the Cape I cannot say. He could not have been an "effective settler," for he was lame — so lame, indeed, as to be compelled to use a crutch. His politics got him into "a scrape" with the authorities at Cape Town. He was compelled to quit the colony, and strove to exist as an author in London, where not long afterwards he died. Those who desire to know more of him may read his "Narrative of a Residence in South Africa." I published some of his stray pieces and poems in the British Magazine, a work I then conducted. They were never, I believe, collected.
The first number of the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine was issued by Mr. Blackwood in April, 1817. Its infancy was weak and unpromising. Misunderstandings having arisen between Blackwood and the then editors — Messrs. Cleghorn and Pringle — they withdrew. The title was changed, and in October, 1817, was issued Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. It began in a storm; a ferocious spirit influenced the leading writers from the first. "The Mohawks of the press," as Lady Morgan afterwards styled them, produced something like a shudder, and excited an amount of wrath scarcely conceivable nowadays; for there was such abundant evidence of high ability in all its departments, that no one could despise, however much he hated. Later in its history, Leigh Hunt, in the Liberal, described its writers as "a troop of Yahoos, or a tribe of satyrs," "adoring Blackwood as some Indian tribes do the devil!"
It soon became more than a suspicion that Wilson, if not the editor, was, at all events, a principal contributor. He was like an athlete in the arena, dashing at a score of foes; striking now here, now there; wounding alike friends and foes; heedless where he struck, or who fell beneath his blows; while "even in his fiercest moods he was alive to pity, tenderness, and humour," and would have been the first to heal the wounds he inflicted. The magazine prospered, and has ever since maintained its high repute. It was famous, and it was feared, and Wilson was assailed — not without show of reason — as a reprobate and a moral assassin.
It is known that one of Wilson's closest allies in the conduct of Blackwood was JOHN GIBSON LOCKHART, the son-in-law of Sir Walter Scott, and the successor of Gifford in the editorship of the Quarterly Review. The personal appearance of Lockhart was familiar to all habitues of society reception-rooms in London. Neither in aspect nor manner, in mind nor in character, had he aught of the genial nature, the utter unselfishness, the large and universal sympathy, of his friend Wilson. Indeed, it would have been difficult to find two men so utterly dissimilar.
This is the portrait of Lockhart in Mrs. Gordon's Life of her father, Professor Wilson: — "His 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: cold, haughty, supercilious in manner, he seldom won love." He is described by other authorities as "systematic, cool, and circumspect: "when he armed himself for conflict it was with a fell and deadly determination:" "no thrill of compassion ever held back his hand when he had made up his mind to strike." In Edinburgh he received the cognomen of "the Scorpion." His friend Wilson — through the mouth of the Ettrick shepherd — described him "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." In "Peter's Letters" he thus pictures himself: — "His features are regular and quite definite in their outline: his forehead is well advanced, and largest in the region of observation and perception." He protests against its being supposed that his play of "fancy is to gratify a sardonic bitterness, or to nourish a sour and atrabilious spirit." He was young then, and hoping to find there were better things in literature than satire. He did not find it, because he did not seek for it.
Certainly he was a strikingly handsome man: tall and slight, with abundant dark hair on a head well set on his shoulders, and with features "finely cut;" but on his face there was a perpetual sneer, as if he grudged humanity a virtue.
BLACKWOOD, the eminent bibliopole, so often the mark of assailants as merciless as were those who upheld him, Wilson describes as "a perfectly honourable and honest man." I saw him often during his brief visits to London, and once in his shop in Edinburgh. We were invited to his house — an invitation circumstances compelled us to postpone; and on a subsequent visit to Edinburgh he had been removed from earth. He was a plain man, somewhat burly of form; of his shrewd intelligence there can be no doubt; he did not convey the idea of an intellectual man; neither, I believe, did he ever assume to be one. But he was a man of strong will; he did not hesitate to "cut down" even the papers of Wilson, and was the only "real editor" of the magazine in the day of its strength. He died in September, 1854, esteemed, respected, and beloved by those who knew him best, and by none more than his constant ally and perpetual trust, Professor Wilson.
In 1820 John Wilson obtained the chair of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, and was thenceforth known as "Professor Wilson;" not, as was to have been expected, without strenuous opposition. His enemies (and he had earned them) attacked the moral character of the candidate for the chair of Moral Philosophy, but in that they failed; there he was, as Mrs. Grant, of Laggan, wrote, "invulnerable." He had twenty-one votes out of thirty, notwithstanding all the efforts of political and personal foes.
Thenceforward he gave free vent to the more lovable qualities of his nature, the outpourings of his generous soul, his earnest sympathy with the young whom it became his duty to arm for the battle of life. One of his pupils describes "his grand and noble form excited into bold and passionate action; his manly and eloquent voice sounding forth its stirring utterances with all the strange and fitful cadence of a music quite peculiar to itself" — "with eye, hand, voice, and soul, bearing his audience with him." Thus writes another: — "The tremulous upper lip, curving with every wave of thought or hint of passion, and the goldengrey hair floating on the old man's mighty shoulders — if, indeed, that could be called age which seemed but the immortality of a more majestic youth."
In after years his writings were chiefly limited to his contributions to Blackwood. "He became," writes his daughter, in her most pious and most beautiful "Life," "identified with its character, its aims, and its interests." And in 1823 he was in a position again to reside at Elleray; to enjoy again its woods and walks, "his idle time not idly spent" beside the banks of the lake, rod in hand; to look upon the hills he loved; to see the snow in summer on the mountain-tops. Here he had passed his joyous and energetic youth, when animal strength and animal spirits were "over-boiling," so to speak; and thither, when advancing age had matured his judgment and subdued his passions, when—
Consideration, like an angel, came,
And whipped the offending Adam out of him—
he went, with as full a love of Nature as ever, to enjoy the abundant gifts of which she is so lavish in that most lovely locality.
In 1837 his beloved wife died, "leaving the world thenceforward to him dark and dreary." Cannot we hear his voice "tremulous with emotion," as he met his class, "with a depressed and solemn spirit," murmuring, "Pardon me, but since we last met I have been in the valley of the shadow of death?" And he wore "weepers" — badges of mourning — on his sleeves until he received his own summons to join her.
One event connected with this period of his life is especially remembered at "the Lakes." In 1825, George Canning, writing to Scott, hopes he will join a party on the banks of Windermere (where he was visiting Mr. Bolton, at Storr's Hall), and he adds, "Our friend the Professor (who is Admiral of the Lakes) will fit out his whole flotilla and fire all his guns in honour of your arrival." Scott went, and Wordsworth was of the party. The weather was brilliant; so was the company, especially by moonlight. Fifty barges, gay with banners and fair ladies, formed the cortege; music and merry songs came from each one of them, as the flotilla made its way among the islands; while the shores were lined with enthusiastic spectators, whose perpetual cheers were echoed by the mountains.
That grand event occurred in August, 1825: a record of it will be found in the Memoirs of Sir Walter Scott, and in those of Wordsworth.
So late as 1848 Wilson was at Elleray; but it had lost its charm — the beloved of his heart had been called to a better home; he complained of "its silence and loneliness," and did not remain there long before he quitted it for ever. In 1850 he was "breaking up;" strength was gradually decaying; he grew meditative and solemn. Occasionally there were glimpses of his old self, when he "strolled" beside the banks of Dochart, rod in hand (the use of one hand had gone), and rejoiced to see it had not quite lost its cunning, as he transferred to his basket the trout from the stream.
His work was drawing to a close; he resigned the chair of Moral Philosophy, and prepared for the coming change; "the head grew sick, and the heart faint;" he remained altogether "within doors;" "something of a settled melancholy rested on his spirit;" he seldom spoke, and did not often smile. Fully conscious of his altered state, "my mind is going — I feel it," he sadly said.
Now and then he rallied, "presenting a serene and beautiful picture of calm and genial old age." There were yet thoughts for his duties, and one of his latest labours — when he moved with difficulty, when his feet were feeble and unsteady, and the foreshadow of death was over him — was to drive into Edinburgh to give his vote for Thomas Babington Macaulay, then a candidate for the representation of the city — a Whig — a political opponent all his life.
But as his good and devoted daughter, his biographer, writes, — "He humbly looked in the coming days of darkness for the light that rises to the upright, and hopefully awaited the summons that should call him to rest from his labours, and enter into the joy of his Lord."
The final summons did not find him reluctant to obey it. His fishing-tackle lay scattered near him, and it pleased him to arrange his flies; but his Bible was ever at his bedside, and was read to him, morning and evening, when he was no longer able to read it himself.
It came at length — it came at midnight, just as a Sabbath-day had passed. Just as the clock struck twelve the mighty heart was still, as if in answer to his prayer uttered long years before—
When nature feels the solemn hour has come
That parts the spirit from its mortal clay,
May that hour find me in my weeping home,
'Mid the blest stillness of a Sabbath-day!
May none I deeply love be then away!
He died at No. 6, Gloucester Place, Edinburgh, the house in which he had long dwelt, on the 3rd of April, 1854.
On the 7th of April he was interred in the "Dean Cemetery," at Edinburgh; perhaps the most beautiful (the word is not out of place) graveyard in the kingdom: it is richly planted with various trees, and, at all seasons, is full of flowers. The graves are carefully and neatly kept: no weed is suffered to grow there, although wild flowers are not excluded from associations with the dead. To those who can recall the old graveyards that environed our churches — they were nowhere else — these modern improvements are sources of no common gratification. I remember, some thirty-five years ago, when the subject was first broached by a Mr. Carden, and I had the satisfaction earnestly to advocate the movement (in the Morning Journal, of which I was for a time the editor), it encountered bitter hostility, as a movement that was hostile to the well-being of society, fatal to the interests of the Church, and, indeed, "contre la nature." At that time Pere-la-Chaise was the only burial-ground in Europe that invited lovers of the picturesque; and no visitor to Paris ever left it without seeing that, its leading attraction. Yet to induce imitators in England was, for a long while, uphill work; those who advocated the innovation were condemned as not only un-English, but anti-Christian.
If in England the feeling was strong, we may imagine it must have been even stronger in Scotland, where "time-honoured" prejudices have ever taken deeper root. It is, however, one of the departures from rules of the "good old times" on which society has to be congratulated.
But his fellow-countrymen raised a monument to his memory; I give an engraving of it. It was erected by public subscription; and the statue, in bronze, ten feet high, is the work of Mr. John Steel, R.S.A. It is thus described by the pen of a loving friend: — "The careless ease of Professor Wilson's ordinary dress is adopted, with scarcely a touch of artistic license, in the statue; a plaid, which he was in the frequent habit of wearing, supplies the needed folds of drapery, and the trunk of a palm-tree gives a rest to the figure, while it indicates, commemoratively, his principal poetical work. The lion-like head and face, full of mental and muscular power, thrown slightly upward and backward, express fervid and impulsive genius evolving itself in free and fruitful thought, the glow of poetical inspiration animating every feature. The figure tall, massive, athletic; the hands — the right grasping a pen, at the same time clutching the plaid that hangs across the chest, the left resting negligently on the leaves of a half-open manuscript; the limbs loosely planted, yet firm and vigorous — all correspond with the grandly-elevated expression of the countenance." This description brings the man vividly before us. The statue stands in one of the great thoroughfares — in Princes Street — and adjoins the "Institution" in the city of Edinburgh.
But the best monument to the memory of Professor Wilson are the two volumes of Memoirs written and compiled by his daughter, Mrs. Gordon. They are charming records of his active, energetic, busy, and useful life, written in a spirit of devoted affection and genuine piety. That is not strange, for if he was loved almost to adoration by those who knew him only afar off, intense must have been the feeling with which he was regarded by those who were of his household, and who were portions of his great heart.