THE early part of the year
1841 was productive of some well - written papers. The 'Foreign Quarterly
Review' for January contained an account of the Memoirs of Varnhagen von
Ense,' and its April number introduced Ludwig Uhland and his followers,
grouped as "Suabian Poets," to the reading public.
'Blackwood's Magazine' for
February contained a review of the 'Memoirs of Baron Strombeck,' whose
account of King Jerome Buonaparte's dramatic appearance in Westphalia, as
its satrap for Napoleon, was full of interest for the world of fifty years
ago. In August, John Blackie also contributed to 'Maga' a notable article on
the "Traits and Tendencies of German Literature,' enlarging with point on
the influence of the State upon the national mind.
For 'Tait's Magazine' he
continued the popular "Burschen Melodies," and wrote an article on
"Protestantism, Puseyism, and Catholicism," contributing to the Poet's
Corner "The Emigrant's Song," "To a Caged Eagle," and "My Lady's Picture."
The routine of this year's
spring was varied by an episode, sudden, tumultuous, and fleeting, which can
scarcely be ignored. He fell violently in love with a lady whose identity
the fragmentary indications of flashing eyes and imperious temper, with the
solitary information that her name was Mary, cannot help us to discover. He
met her once without speaking to her, a second time with five minutes'
ordinary talk, and after, dreamt of her for two months together. Then came a
fortunate Wednesday evening, when he was permitted to escort her home from a
party, and when she graciously gave him leave to call. This he was prompt to
do, and his passion growing peremptory, he rashly proposed and was refused.
In the deep dejection which followed he asked advice from his cousin Eliza
Wyld. She gave him the best counsel that a girl could give, veiling her
surprise in sympathetic interest. She pointed out to him that so sudden an
offer would startle and repel any woman whose affection was worth winning,
and that he must give her time to become accustomed to his wooing. John was
grateful for this advice, and adventured further addresses with more
deliberation, finding in Mary's mother a friendly advocate of his suit. But
late in July, when his Chair was won, and when his proposal was backed with
professorial dignity, he returned to the charge in vain. Mary cared not for
him, and for a day he was steeped in misery. Then he called at the house in
Royal Terrace, where the Wylds were living, and found Eliza in the
drawing-room arranging flowers. Her quick glance fathomed his condition, and
she sat down beside him to listen to his story. Her sympathy for his
disappointment was very genuine, although she was woman enough at once to
resent Mary's coquetry, and to be glad that she had failed to recognise the
worth of what she had refused. She said, "I feel so much for you, I feel all
your sorrow." John Blackie rose, took her hand, kissed it, and went away.
But the memory of that consoling kiss pursued him. He went away healed of
his grievous hurt. The soft hand of his gentle cousin had salved the wound
and wiped away its remembrance. The infatuation, which had absorbed him for
four months, lifted and left him free, with "a new song in his mouth."
There can be no doubt that
the upswelling of her heart in such full-flowing sympathy, neither stinted
by petty reserves nor discoloured by resentment, filled his mind with the
vision of her great womanliness, strong to purify and to heal. He left
suddenly because the revulsion overwhelmed him; but the enchantress was cast
out, and in her place was throned the image of the noble woman whom he set
himself to win for his wife. He had made up his mind upon what grounds a man
should marry. In a letter of this year, the subject being urgent, he wrote
A pair of wise hands to
keep your house in order? no doubt; but I despise a man who will marry a
woman merely or mainly to keep his house. I have made up my mind to
marry for love and spiritual sympathy, or not at all.
The month of July came to a
close with this episode. The squares and terraces of Edinburgh were emptying
fast, and Mr and Mrs Wyld were on the eve of their departure for Gilston.
John sent his cousin a gift of Wordsworth's Poems in six beautiful volumes.
She was not to share the family removal, but had accepted an invitation to
spend the month of August at Innerleithen with relatives who had both
insight and sympathy. John Blackie was one of their favourites, and when he
came to the manse at Innerleithen on an improvised visit to the minister
there,—an old comrade, on whose hospitality he could rely,— they made him
welcome to join the family diversions. But a great awe fell upon him as he
drew into closer companionship with Eliza Wyld. How could he hope that this
stately creature, from whom his allegiance had swerved for a space, and who
had withdrawn into the bastioned reserve where women guard their hearts,
should condescend to him? In the humility of a great and reverent love he
sought a woman's counsel. She bade him hope, and promised him an
opportunity. One evening when he called he found Eliza at home alone,
beguiling her solitude with a song,—for a melodious voice was one of her
many gifts,—and without hazarding a commonplace greeting, which might dull
the edge of his daring, he entreated her at once to be his wife.
Next day John Blackie wrote
to Mr Wyld to ask him for his daughter, and the letter produced
consternation at Gilston. The gift was curtly denied, and Eliza was bidden
return to her family. She found father, mother, and brothers in arms against
her engagement, and all September she bore much upbraiding. But she had
given her heart and her promise both, and it did not occur to her that it
was possible to recall her gifts. Her lover wrote to her constantly, and in
a sonnet celebrated the meteoric light which he had mistaken for love's
dawn, whose day was all the time broadening into beauty.
There are two loves, fiery the
one and fierce,
And as stray stars that scare the sleepy night
Sudden and strange, God-sent to cleave and pierce
The inmost marrow with resistless might
The other gentle, as on springy steep
The well that grows to a brook and to a river,
And mellow as rich autumn lights that sweep
The green empurpled hills.
From eager quiver Cupid with that first smote to wound—with this
To heal me (blessed in both wound and healing !),
That I, his bard, might know by sure revealing
The twin Avatars of his bane and bliss:
Fierce flame from Mary's keen electric eye,
And calm warm sun from Eliza's tempered sky.
Eliza wrote to him from
Gilston to describe the disapprobation of her engagement which prevailed
there, and he cheered her constancy with hopeful letters.
The storm blows loudest
when it is nearest the calm. Do not vex yourself, my sweetest,—
The world is wide—hope is
a gallant rider,
God is a good provider.
He was in Edinburgh for three
weeks of September, busy with his introductory lecture. "I must quarry out
and build up," he wrote, "something like a decent Christian architecture of
these harsh and heathenish Romans, whom I hate."
It was not altogether
wonderful that Mr Wyld should have misgivings about the engagement. John
Blackie had chiefly impressed the outer circle of his cousinhood with his
volatility and want of the virtues most held in esteem by respectability. He
had changed his mind so often with regard to a profession; he made a
precarious living by the pen, which the well-to-do deemed then a paltry
trade; he dressed badly; his manners were abrupt - they called them
"harum-scarum, the Blackie manners"; they did not believe that he would hold
his professorship for six months—they gave him just that time "to go to the
devil." One member of the family called on him at Dublin Street to
expostulate about his manners. We may almost suppose that they were at the
bottom of the family opposition.
He was affronted at the
expostulation, and showed some prick of pride; but he wrote to Eliza:
If there be anything
about my manner that offends you, or is calculated to offend other
people, preach me a sermon on that text, and I will listen to you and
obey you like a child. You have the privilege to preach to me now and
This well-placed love,
meeting with such generous response, quickened his deep-seated piety. He
wrote on September 4 :-
I love and reverence
everything that Jesus taught, and I know by experience that there is no
satisfying bliss for the soul except in the regeneration of the heart
and the renovation of the life through all its daily details, by the
doctrine of love which Christ preached; and if you can find anything in
me which you can like, anything that you can esteem, believe me, I have
that mainly from an ancient intimate acquaintance with, and practical
close- clinging to the heart-reaching precepts of the Gospel.
Eliza Wyld was a new
revelation of that Gospel to him, and how gladly he read it!
God preaches His living
Gospel in the heart and life of a glowing, open, truthful woman. Eyes,
open eyes, and always opening wider, and the heart beneath calm, yet
eager. There is a blessing with you, Eliza, because you are
true-hearted, and because you can see.
John Blackie in a manly
letter refused to accept his dismissal at Mr Wyld's hands, and intimated
that only the daughter and not the father could break the bond which united
them, and that his trust in her steadfastness forbade him to fear such a
rupture. The efforts of the family were therefore directed to make Eliza
give him up. She was forbidden to write to him and to receive his letters.
For a time she could only send him an occasional line, saddened by the
displeasure which surrounded her. But he wrote to her every few days brave
and tender letters, which her father handed to her often without question,
—for although he was hostile to the engagement, Mr Wyld did not stoop to the
meaner forms of interference.
John Blackie left Edinburgh
for Aberdeen about the 20th of September, and stayed for a time with his
fither, who had removed to a larger house in King Street. Mr Wyld sent him
no answer, but the young Professor refused to be snubbed. At last he
received a demand from Mrs Wyld for the letters which Eliza had aIread
written to him. He declined to return them, and wrote to the daughter
comforting and reassuring her with full measure of his affection. Her
patience under the strain at home was at length exhausted, and one morning
late in October she rose very early, before any one else was up, dressed
herself, and left the house with four shillings and sixpence in her purse.
She walked to Leven, and on the road she met the workers on the farm at
Gilston going to her father's fields. They stared to see their master's
daughter abroad and on foot at such an hour, and she was afraid that they
might go to the house and tell the servants; but she got safely to Leven in
time for the early boat to Leith, where she took a cab and drove to a
relative's house in Edinburgh. The kind friends, although amazed at her
appearance, welcomed her to their home, and she stayed there till February.
She refused to go back so long as her correspondence with John Blackie was
forbidden, and she bade her parents understand that she considered herself
irrevocably pledged to be his wife. She sent him a watch-guard made of her
hair, and the gift relieved him from all fear of her giving way. He began
his work in happy mood.
His installation took place
on November 1, and was graced by the presence of the Provost and Magistrates
of Aberdeen in their robes of office, while he himself wore a lustrous gown,
befrogged and ample, which cost but three guineas. He confronted his first
academical audience successfully, and the lecture which began his forty
years' professoriate made no little stir. In it he gave warning that he
meant by Latin no mere routine of conjugations and declensions, but the
"living vesture" of the thought and action of historical generations.
The question [he wrote
afterwards] whether the conjunction ut in certain cases should be
followed by the imperfect or the perfect subjunctive, seemed to me not
of the slightest significance in reference to the main end of classical
education. What I wanted was, through Latin, to awaken wide human
sympathies, and to enlarge the field of vision.
The lecture was reported in
the Aberdeen newspapers according to the varying taste of their editors, the
one giving an excellent abstract of the matter, the others creaming off its
exuberances for the entertainment of their readers. Exuberances there
certainly were, and a far too exalted estimate of the intelligence of his
class; for his mind, matured by foreign schools of education, soared above
the standard at home. But the lecture drew commendation from the more
scholarly. Aberdonians, and seated him with distinction in his Chair.
Miss Manie Stodart had in the
meantime chosen and furnished for him a small house in Dee Street, New
Aberdeen, and he removed his books and luggage thither during the first week
of November. On the 7th he wrote the first letter to his promised wife from
the home to which he was to bring her in the following April.
It is a lovely day [he
wrote]; the bright sun is shining on the broad blue sea that bounds the
horizon before the window of my snug little study here: the
many-coloured pennons and flags of the ships are sporting in the breeze.
His sister Christina came to
stay with him, and the learned pair conversed in Latin at their meals, which
were solemnised by a Latin benediction. He went on Sundays "to sit once
a-day in the loft of the College Church like a sober, staid, proper
Professor." He was making plans already for their wedding trip,—wished to
take his wife to Germany, to Italy, but feared that many immediate expenses
would blight such hopes. "We must content ourselves with lodg- ings at
Banchory-Ternan, a bonnie, bonnie place, —or elsewhere on Deeside, I fear."
Their prospects were of
pinched housekeeping and small economies. The Professor refused to believe
that Mr Wyld would persist in his displeasure, but counted on no dowry and
made light, of all allusion to her inheritance.
You shall soon [he wrote
to her] see your father, dearest, sitting as comfortably at my fireside
as he does at his own. I believe that the only invincible power in the
world is love; I shall ply your father with that and that only, and if I
do not conquer—Christianity never conquered.
The Senatus Academicus proved
hard to deal with. The new Chair of Humanity received from endowment £200 a
- year, but the fees, which should have amounted to three guineas for each
student during the session, were cut down to less than one-half of that sum,
and Professor Blackie was asked to accept the pittance which the University
had paid to Dr Melvin—one guinea for each member of the first class and
half-a-guinea for each of the second class. It was a preposterous demand,
and no doubt was intended to indicate that the Chair of Humanity did not
occupy the same exalted academical position as those which had already made
Marischal College renowned for its pedantry. The young Professor made
honourable resistance, and the fees were raised to a guinea and a half for
the bajans and fifteen shillings for the semis. For the modest endowment and
these fees he was expected to give nine lectures weekly, and he grumbled,
not at the disproportion between the fees and the work, but at the limited
number of hours allotted to him, and at the attempt to degrade the Chair of
Humanity to a subsidiary place in the scale of importance. For through the
Chair of Humanity he set himself to reform the whole system of Scottish
University teaching, and he needed to marshal on his side every aid, real
and apparent, which could secure to him the attention both of practical and
political educationists. His work in this direction, which had begun in
Gottingen, when he wrote his first appeal to the Scottish public, was
stimulated by the state of education in Aberdeen, petrified and sterile, and
it took from this time a concentrated force from the pressure of daily
experience which was to make it the influential factor in later though still
incomplete reforms. But this subject is too emphatically connected with
Professor Blackie to be touched lightly in a chapter which deals with its
He had worked for four weeks,
making experiences, afterwards to be noted, when the wind began to veer with
regard to his engagement. A faint favouring breeze arose; several members of
the Wyld family criticised unfavourably the attitude at Gilston, and spoke
on behalf of the Professor, openly taking his part. Events were conspiring
for him. It could no longer be gain- said that he held the Chair of Humanity
in Aberdeen and filled it with honour. Mr Wyld's heart was softening towards
his daughter, whose presence he missed, and whose strength of purpose he
began to realise. Friends on all sides upheld her conduct, and censured the
opposition to so fitting a marriage. It was evident that no unreasonable
wrath would frighten Eliza Wyld into a cowardly renunciation. She meant to
stand by the man who loved her, whose intellect and aspiring career she
esteemed far above the comforts of Gilston.
Had it been possible, John
Blackie would have come to marry her in Edinburgh; but his salary was not to
fall due till January, and the fees were in arrears, many of the students
not paying till the session was near its close. Not till April could the
little house be fully arrayed to greet his bride, and he had settled to
marry her in that month,—in Edinburgh, if there was no relenting; at her
home, if Mr Wyld permitted.
In the meantime he was
occupied with making every kind of experiment in teaching which should rouse
the interest of his "boys." He was translating Horace's Odes into blank
verse—a version which he never published, but the interest of which animated
his work at the College. "Maii is a singing animal," he said, and to rouse
up every available faculty in his class he took to poring, till long past
midnight, over "unintelligible erudition about old Greek music." To revive
the classic union of verse with melody, he spent hours in wedding Horace's
Odes to musical measure, and in Spohr's 'Faust' and "Maggie Lauder" found
airs that consorted with their rhythm. Appealing to both ear and eye, he
covered the class-room walls with diagrams, drawn by himself. He wrote: "I
seek to put modern blood and life into these dry old formulas." The task was
hard, and many of those dull young Aberdonians must have remained stony
ground, in spite of all his vigorous delving and harrowing; but a few gave
way, and he recorded:
I have some half-a-dozen
very fine lads, with whom, I think, I have succeeded in setting their
souls astir. We have eight of them to breakfast every Saturday morning.
It was no easy matter to keep
order in a class of boys fresh from the grammar-school, where they had
submitted to the harsh discipline of the tawse, and were too rough and
unmannerly to understand the kindly humour of the new Professor. He began by
taking them for students and treating them as intelligently anxious to work,
and was sore put to it to reduce the noisy crew to submission when,
mistaking his gentleness for weakness, they asserted their natural savagery
in daily disturbances. He had recourse to his only defensive weapon, fines
sternly imposed, and so kept moderate whip-hold of the team. Dr Forbes White
tells us in 'Alma Mater':
By his good nature and by
his cutting wit he soon mastered the turbulent element, and by my year
'43 - '44, an easy, natural good behaviour was the rule. He was loved,
and this love got him respect. He was of course fond of jokes and of
extreme statements which caused a laugh, but the class went on sweetly
and merrily, busily at work, perfectly under control,—a class entirely
different from any other in the ease of its manner.
He found his rooms in Dee
Street very small; they cramped the march to which he beat his thoughts into
language. His maid-servant, too, neglected her duties; he needed a wise
manager at home.
The Professors were bending
from their first formality, and called upon him. They were not interesting,
and it is to be feared that he did not sun himself in their condescension.
He excepted Professor Lizars from the "catalogue of nobodies," and Mr Brown,
the Professor of Greek, who was "jovial and liked a joke, and was by no
means at fault in his particular line."
He managed to visit Edinburgh
for three days of the Christmas week, and spent them with his friends,
seeing much of his promised wife, and growing more aware of her delight in
all things lovely and of good report. He found her brave and cheerful,
speaking tenderly of her father, but resolved to abide by her lover. He
wrote to her after his return more frequently, and if possible more
devotedly, than ever. She was reading Wordsworth and Coleridge with full
sympathy, and her pleasure in their poetry drew from him a characteristic
Poetry is my religion, my
all. I love the Gospel of the blessed Jesus, because it is instinct in
every line with the poetry of emotion and of conduct. It is the
beautiful, the devoted in conduct, to which I cling.
It was on the 25th of January
1842 that he gave his first public and popular lecture. The movement for
popular lectures had just begun, and John Blackie threw himself into it with
vigour, the first Professor in Scotland who did so. His audience was large,
and the subject— "The Principles of Poetry and the Fine Arts" —had the
advantage of being new to the Aberdonians. He wrote to Eliza Wyld on the
following day :-
My lecture last night, so
far as I could read its reception myself, and was informed by others,
was a decided hit. There's for you! Platonism preached to the hard
granite ears of Aberdeen, and with applause! I am a little proud of the
achievement. And such an audience, overflowing! Three cheers for the
little Professor! Hurrah! The ladies are now most mathematically
convinced that the difference between the estimation in which they are
held here, and that which is enjoyed by the Hottentot Venus, depends not
on association and capricious taste, but on eternal, immutable, and
In this lecture he sounded a
Leitmotif, on which he dwelt with varying emphasis all his life. Indeed by
this time he had chosen and proclaimed the texts on which utterance was
given to him, and what other texts were left for later years were but
contexts or revised readings of those.
He read this lecture, but was
sensible of the "bondage of the paper," and it set him thinking upon the
whole subject of public oratory.
I have been set upon a
new scent this week [he wrote], and my ambition has got a new push. It
was the lecture, I think, that did it. I will not be satisfied now till
I become a great public speaker. I have gone to Calvert, our
elocutionist, and am studying the art of speaking and reading, and mean
to educate myself regularly for a lecturer. The field of good here open
for me is immense: I see no bound to it. My intention is to free myself
altogether from the bondage of the paper, and get to preach real poetry
and eloquence. A bold cast for an erect soul, looking not down upon
slavish paper! This is the problem that possesses and vexes me now. Let
me bellow my pedagogic thunders grandly!
Busy with his translation of
the Odes of Horace, with his diagrams, views of Rome, and historical
lectures, with the varied devices by which he sought to rouse minds dulled
by grammar and the tawse, he won some return at last, and in the end of
January was able to write :-
My boys in the first
class, who began with 50, now read 120 lines in an hour quite fluently;
that's something I Progress!
Special studies filled the
hours at leisure from his classes, and these seemed to have been more
particularly the translation of 'Ęschylus' into English verse, a review of
poetical measures, and an investigation into the whole question of Scottish
The first session came to a
close at the end of March, and his marriage was fixed for April 19. In
February Mr Wyld came to Drummond Place and took his daughter home. The
family had returned to 32 Royal Terrace. They had now consented to the
inevitable, and Mr Wyld, from the moment of his surrender, treated Eliza
with the utmost tenderness. He gave her a handsome sum of money for her
preparations, which were now in full swing.
The Professor left Aberdeen
on April 4, bent on walking off the oppression accumulated by seven months
of constant work. He carried out his plan, and walked by Banchory and
Braemar to Coupar-Angus, where he took coach to Edinburgh. The journey thus
prolonged took about a week, but refreshed him thoroughly. From the manse of
Banchory, where he rested the first night, he sent his bride a lyric :-
Wherefore now, nor song nor
Write I thee, Eliza dear?
Love's a plant—the blossom on it
Rhyme, child of the vernal year.
With the full-grown time it ceases,
Waning as the fruit increases:
Therefore now, nor song nor sonnet
Write I thee, Eliza dear.
Ever, as I would be chiming
Pretty, pointed lines to thee,
Seems a power to check my rhyming,
And it reasons thus with me:
Fool, why wilt thou still be prating?
Truth that's known needs no debating!"
Therefore I nor song nor sonnet Write,
Eliza dear, to thee!
It was the fashion in those
days to celebrate Edinburgh weddings in the evening, and at seven o'clock on
April 19, Mr Glover united John Stuart Blackie and Eliza Wyld in the bonds
of holy matrimony. A large party was assembled to honour the occasion, and
amongst them were the bridegroom's friends, Mr Theodore Martin, Sir William
Hamilton, Lord Cunninghame, Mr Robert Horn, and Dr John Brown. The minister
of Banchory was not able to be present, but Mr Andrew Jamieson filled the
post of "best man," and the bride was attended by three bride-maidens, her
special friends. After the rites, the two made man and wife left the company
and drove to Midcalder, about eleven miles from Edinburgh. There had been
much cogitation about the "jaunt," which had to be accomplished in ten days;
for on the last day of April they were due in Aberdeen, in time for certain
summer labours which began with May. So a few days at Midcalder and at
Peebles fulfilled the term of their honeymoon, but they were days of peace
after struggle. Joy quickened the beat of John Blackie's poetic pulse, and
we owe to these days at Peebles two of his best and best- known poems. One
is the "Benedicite," beginning—
High and lowly,
Sing the praises of the Lord!
Earth and sky, all living nature,
Mai', the stamp of thy Creator,
Praise ye, praise ye, God the Lord!
This beautiful hymn has been
since included in many Hymnals, and notably in that of the Jewish Church. It
was metrically arranged to be sung to the German air of "Alles Schweige."
The other song is even better
known. Walking one day along the river-path which skirts the Tweed between
the bridge and Neidpath Castle, he gave utterance to a natural expression of
strong Scottish feeling in the song of "Jenny Geddes" - "the valiant Jenny
Geddes, that flung the three-legged stool." At this time he had not studied
the Hundred Years' War of the Scottish Church, nor was he acquainted with
more than its popular history. The incidents in high relief upon that
gallant record were, however, in strong accord with his enthusiasm for the
"poetry of conduct," and the courage, combativeness, self- assertion, and
heroism which marked the Scottish resistance, found each an echo in his
character. The song took shape accordingly, and when his instinctive
impressions were confirmed by a full acquaintance with the history of the
period, it lay ready to hand as a rally to the flag of the Scottish Church,
when in after-days the tide of southern fashion, setting northwards with
Episcopalianism on its crest, rippled into every nook and corner of his
Professor and Mrs Blackie
went by coach to Aberdeen at the end of April, and set agoing their
home-life in the little house in Dee Street. Here they found awaiting them a
delightful letter from Baron Bunsen, wishing them "Heil! Heil! Heil!
The Professor began his
summer class at once, and this too was the earnest of a movement which it
took thirty years to make practical throughout both England and Scotland,
and fifty years to guide to its natural and logical issue. In his class-room
in Marischal College assembled about a dozen ladies—amongst them his young
wife—on the morning of May 1, to receive lessons in the German language. It
was a new thing for the ladies of Aberdeen to receive instruction from a
Professor, and the lessons went on briskly till the end of June.
Early in July the Professor
and his wife abandoned work for rest, and went to Banchory-Ternan, where
they spent three months in a cottage shared by his father and mother. They
had hoped to go farther afield, but their finances were under heavy embargo
for the first few years. There were expenses for furniture, for books; there
was interest to be paid to Aunt Manie for some hundreds of pounds; the young
wife had condemned her husband's casually assorted wardrobe, and had
insisted upon its reconstitution her talent for domestic economy, notable
and helpful as it was to prove, needed a starting-point of indispensable
expenditure. Besides, the Professor's objection to the cramped limits of the
house in Dee Street was waxing imperious. She was aware of an imminent
flitting, and it had to be reckoned with in her balance-sheet. So the summer
months passed quietly in the little village of Banchory-Ternan, and the
companionship of Mr Anderson made them memorable.