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James Frederick Ferrier
Chapter 2 - Wanderjahre, Social Life in Scotland, Beginning of his Literary Work


IN the present century in Germany we have seen a period of almost unparalleled literary glory succeeded by a time of great commercial prosperity and national enthusiasm. But when Ferrier visited that country in 1834 the era of its intellectual greatness had hardly passed away; some, at least, of its stars remained, and others had very recently ceased to be. Goethe had died just two years before, but Heine lived till many years afterwards; amongst the philosophers, though Kant and Fichte, of course, were long since gone, Schelling was still at work at Munich, and Hegel lived at Berlin till November of 1831, when he was cut off during an epidemic of cholera. Most of the great men had disappeared, and yet the memory of their achievements still survived, and the impetus they gave to thought could not have been lost. The traditional lines of speculation consistently carried out since Reformation days had survived war and national calamity, and it remained to be seen whether the greater tests of prosperity and success would be as triumphantly undergone.

We can imagine Ferrier's feelings when this new world opened up before him, a Scottish youth, to whom it was a new, untrodden country. It may be true that it was his literary rather than his speculative affinities that first attracted him to Germany. To form in literature he always attached the greatest value, and to the end his interest in letters was only second to his attachment to philosophy. German poetry was to him what it was to so many of the youth of the country from which it came— the expression of their deepest, and likewise of their freshest aspiration. The poetry of other countries and other tongues—English and Latin, for example—meant much to him, but that of Germany was nearest to his heart. French learning did not attract him; neither its literature nor its metaphysics and psychological method appealed to his thoughtful, analytic mind; but in Germany he found a nation which had not as yet resigned its interest in things of transcendental import in favour of what pertained to mere material welfare.

Such was the Germany into which Ferrier came in 1834. He did not, so far as we can hear, enter deeply into its social life; he visited it as a traveller, rather than as a student, and his stay in it was brief. Considering the shortness of his time there, and the circumstances of his visit, the impression that it made upon him is all the more remarkable, for it was an impression that lasted and was evident throughout all his after life. Since his day, indeed, it would be difficult to say how many young Scotsmen have been impressed in a similar way by a few months' residence at a University town in Germany. For partly owing to Ferrier's own efforts, and perhaps even more owing to the 'boom'—to use a vulgarism—brought about by Carlyle's writings, and by his first making known the marvels of German literature to the ordinary English-speaking public, who had never learned the language or tried to understand its recent history, the old traditional literary alliance between Scotland and France appeared for the time being to have broken down in favour of a similar association with its rival country, Germany. The work of Goethe was at last appreciated, nothing was now too favourable to say about its merits; philosophy was suddenly discovered to have its home in Germany, and there alone; our insularity in keeping to our antiquated methods—dryasdust, we were told, as the old ones of the schools, and perhaps as edifying—was vigorously denounced. Theology, which had hitherto found complete support from the philosophic system which acted as her handmaid, and was only tolerated as such, was naturally affected in like manner by the change; and to her credit be it said, that instead of with averted eyes looking elsewhere, as might easily have been done, she determined to face the worst, and wisely asked the question whether in her department too she had not something she could learn from a sister country across the sea. Hence a great change was brought about in the mental attitude of Scotland; but we anticipate.

Ferrier, after leaving Heidelberg, paid a short visit to Leipzig, and then for a few weeks took up his abode at Berlin. From Leipzig he writes to Miss Wilson again: "How do you like an epislola dated from this great emporium of taste and letters, this culminating point of Germanism, where waggons jostle philosophy, and tobacco- impregnated air is articulated into divinest music? It is fair-time, and I did not arrive, as one usually does, a day behind it, but on the very day it commenced. It will last, I believe, some weeks, and during that time all business is done on the open streets, which are lined on each side with large wooden booths, and are swarming with men and merchandise of every description and from every quarter of the world. It very much resembles a Ladies' Sale in the Assembly Rooms (what I never saw), only the ladies here are frequently Jews with fierce beards, and have always a pipe in their mouths when not eating or drinking. As you walk along you will find the order of the day to be somewhat as follows. You first come to pipes, then shawls, then nails, then pipes, pipes again, pipes, gingerbread, dolls, then pipes, bridles, spurs, pipes, books, warming-pans, pipes, china, writing-desks, pipes again, pipes, pipes, pipes, nothing but pipes—the very pen will write nothing but pipes. Pipes, you see, decidedly carry it. I wonder they don't erect public tobacco -smoke works, lay pipes for it along the streets, and smoke away—a city at a time. Private families might take it in as we do gas!'

Ferrier appears to have spent a week at Frankfort before reaching his destination at Leipzig. He describes his journey there: 'At Frankfort I saw nothing worthy of note except a divine statue of Ariadne riding on a leopard. After lumbering along for two nights and two days in a clumsy diligence, I reached Leipzig two days ago. I thought that by the way I might perhaps see something worthy of mention, and accordingly sometimes put my head out of the window to look. But no—the trees, for instance, had all to a man planted their heads in the earth, and were growing with their legs upwards, just as they do with us; and as for the natives, they, on the contrary, had each of them filled a flower-pot, called a skull, full of earth, put their heads in it, and were growing downwards, just as the same animal does in our country; and on coming to one's recollection in the morning in a German diligence you find yourself surrounded by the same drowsy, idiotical, glazed, stained, and gummy complement of faces which might have accompanied you into Carlisle on an autumn morning after a night of travel in His Majesty's mail coach.'

Berlin impressed Ferrier by its imposing public buildings and general aspect of prosperity. It had, of course, long before reached a position of importance under the great Frederick's government, though not the importance or the size that it afterwards attained. Still, it was the centre of attraction for all classes throughout Prussia, and possessed a cultivated society in which the middle- class element was to all appearances predominant. Ferrier writes of the town: 'Of the inside of the buildings and what is to be seen there I have nothing yet to say, but their external aspect is most magnificent. Palaces, churches, mosque -like structures, spires and domes and towers all standing together, but with large spaces and fine open drives between, so that all are seen to the greatest possible advantage, conspire to form a most glorious city. At this moment a fountain which I can see from my window is playing in the middle of the square. Ajel d'eau indeed!! It may do very well for a Frenchman to call it that, but we must call it a perfect volcano of water. A huge column goes hissing up as high as a steeple, with the speed and force of a rocket, and comes down in thunder, and little rainbows are flitting about in the showery spray. It being Sunday, every thing and person is gayer than usual. Bands are playing and soldiers are parading all through the town; everything, indeed, is military, and yet little is foppish—a statement which to English ears will sound like a direct contradiction.'

Our traveller had been given letters to certain Berlin Professors from young Blackie, afterwards Professor of Greek in Edinburgh University, who had just translated Goethe's FazisE into the English tongue. 'I went about half an hour ago to call upon a sort of Professor here to whom I had a letter and a Faust to present from Blackie —found him ill and confined to bed—was admitted, however, very well received, and shall call again when I think there is a chance of his being better. I have still another Professor to call on with a letter and book from Blackie, and there my acquaintance with the society of Berlin is likely to terminate.' One other introduction to Ferrier on this expedition to Germany is mentioned in a note from his aunt, Miss Susan Ferrier, the only letter to her nephew that has apparently been preserved whether or not he availed himself of the offer, history does not record. It runs as follows:-

'EDINB., 1st August.

'I could not get a letter to Lord Corehouse's German sister (Countess Purgstall), as it seems she is in bad health, and not fit to entertain vagabonds, but I enclose a very kind one from my friend, Mrs. Erskine, to the ambassadress at Munich, and if you don't go there you may send it by post, as it will be welcome at any time on its own account.'

It was, as has been said, only about three years previously to this visit that Hegel had passed away at Berlin, and one wonders whether Ferrier first began to interest himself in his writings at this time, and whether he visited the graveyard near the city gate where Hegel lies, close to his great predecessor Fichte. One would almost think this last was so from the exact description given in his short biography of Hegel; and it is significant that on his return he brought with him a medallion and a photograph of the great philosopher. This would seem to indicate that his thoughts were already tending in the direction of Hegelian metaphysics, but how far this was so we cannot tell. Certainly the knowledge of the German language acquired by Ferrier during this visit to the country proved most valuable to him, and enabled him to study its philosophy at a time when translations were practically non-existent, and few had learned to read it. That knowledge must indeed have been tolerably complete, for in 1851, when Sir Edward Buiwer (afterwards Lord Lytton) was about to republish his translation of Schillcr's Ballads, he corresponded with Ferrier regarding the accuracy and exactness of his work. He afterwards, in the preface to the volume, acknowledges the great services Ferrier had rendered; and in dedicating the book to him, speaks of the debt of gratitude he owes to one whose 'critical judgment and skill in detecting the finer shades of meaning in the original' had been so useful. Ferrier likewise has the credit, accorded him by De Quincey, of having corrected several errors in all the English translations of Faust then extant—errors which were not merely literary inaccuracies, but which also detracted from the vital sense of the original. As to Lord Lytton, Ferrier must at this time have been interested in his writings; for in a letter to Miss Wilson, he advises her to read Bulwer's Pilgrims of the Rhine if she wishes for a description of the scenery, and speaks of the high esteem with which he was regarded by the Germans.

It was in 1837 that Ferrier married the young lady with whom he had so long corresponded. The marriage was in all respects a happy one. Mrs. Ferrier's gifts and graces, inherited from her father, will not soon be forgotten, either in St. Andrews where she lived so long, or in Edinburgh, the later home of her widowhood. One whose spirits were less gay might have found a husband whose interests were so completely in his work—and that a work in which she could not share—difficult to deal with; but she possessed understanding to appreciate that work, as well as humour, and could accommodate herself to the circumstances in which she found herself; while he, on his part, entered into the gaiety on occasion with the best. A friend and student of the St. Andrews' days writes of Ferrier : ' He married his cousin Margaret, Professor's Wilson's daughter, and I don't doubt that a shorthand report of their courtship would have been better worth reading than nine hundred and ninety-nine out of every thousand courtships, for she had wit as well as beauty, and he was capable of appreciating both. No more charming woman have I ever seen or heard making game of mankind in general, and in particular of pedants and hypocrites. She would even laugh at her husband on occasion, but it was dangerous for any volunteer to try to help her in that sport. A finer- looking couple I have never seen.'

During her infancy Edinburgh had become Mrs. Ferrier's home, though she made frequent visits to Westmorland, of whose dialect she had a complete command. The courtship, however, had been for the most part carried on at the picturesque old house of Gorton, where 'Christopher North' was temporarily residing, and which, situated as it is overlooking the lovely glen made immortal by the name of Hawthornden, in view of Roslin Chapel, and surrounded by old-fashioned walks and gardens, must have been an ideal spot for a romantic couple like the Ferriers to roam in. Another friend writes of Wilson's later home at Elleray: 'In his hospitable house, where the wits of Blackwood gathered at intervals and visited individually in season and out of season, his daughter saw strange men of genius, such as few young ladies had the fortune to see, and heard talk such as hardly another has the fortune to hear. Lockhart, with his caricatures and his incisive sarcasm, was an intimate of the house. The Ettrick Shepherd, with his plaid and homely Doric, broke in occasionally, as did also De Quincey, generally towards midnight, when he used to sit pouring forth his finely-balanced, graceful sentences far on among the small hours of the morning. There were students, too, year after year, many of them not undistinguished, and some of whom had, we doubt not, ideas of their own regarding the flashing hazel eyes of their eloquent Professor's eldest daughter.' But her cousin was her choice, though wealth offered no attraction, and neither side had reason to regret the marriage of affection.

At the time of his marriage Ferrier had been practising at the Bar, probably with no great measure of success, seeing that his heart was not really set upon his work. It was at this period that he first began to write, and his first contribution to literature took the form of certain papers contributed to Black wood's Magazine, the subject being the 'Philosophy of Consciousness.' From that time onwards Ferrier continued to write on philosophic or literary topics until his death, and many of these writings were first published in the famous magazine.

Before entering, however, on any consideration of Ferrier's writings and of the philosophy of the day, it might be worth while to try to picture to ourselves the social conditions and feelings of the time, in order that we may get some idea of the influences which surrounded him, and be assisted in our efforts to understand his outlook.

In the beginning of the nineteenth century Scotland had been ground down by a strange tyranny—the tyranny of one man as it seemed, which man was Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville, who for many long years ruled our country as few countries have been ruled before. What this' despotism meant it is difficult for us, a century later, to figure to ourselves. All offices were dependent on his patronage; it was to him that everyone had to look for whatever post, advancement, or concession was required. And Dundas, with consummate power and administrative ability, moulded Scotland to his will, and by his own acts made her what she was before the world. But all the while, though unperceived, a new spirit was really dawning; the principles of the Revolution, in spite of everything, had spread, and all unobserved the time-spirit made its influence felt below a surface of apparent calm. It laid hold first of all of the common people—weavers and the like: it roused these rough, uneducated men to a sense of wrong and the resolution to seek a remedy. Not much, however, was accomplished. Some futile risings took place—risings pitiable in their inadequacy—of hard-working weavers armed with pikes and antiquated muskets. Of course, such rebels were easily suppressed the leaders were sentenced to execution or transportation, as the case might be; but though peace apparently was restored and public meetings to oppose the Government were rigorously suppressed, trade and manufactures were arising: Scotland was not really dead, as she appeared. A new life was dawning: reform was in the air, and in due time made its presence felt. But the memory of these times of political oppression, when the franchise was the privilege of the few, and of the few who were entirely out of sympathy with the most part of their countrymen or their country's wants, remained with the people just as did the 'Killing-time' of Covenanting days two centuries before. Time heals the wounds of a country as of an individual, but the operation is slow, and it is doubtful whether either period of history will ever be forgotten. At any- rate, if they are so as this century closes, they were not in the Scotland known to Ferrier; they were still a very present memory and one whose influence was keenly felt.

And along with this political struggle yet another struggle was taking place, no less real though not so evident. The religion of the country had been as dead as was the politics in the century that was gone—dead in the sleep of Moderatism and indifferentism. But it, too, had awakened; the evangelical school arose, liberty of church government was claimed, a liberty which, when denied it, rent the Established Church in twain.

In our country it has been characteristic that great movements have usually begun with those most in touch with its inmost life, the so-called lower orders of its citizens. The nobles and the kings have rather followed than taken the lead. In the awakening of the present century this at any rate was the case. 'Society,' so called, remained conservative in its view for long after the people had determined to advance. Scott, it must be remembered, was a retrogressive influence. The romanticism of his novels lent a charm to days gone by which might or might not be deserved; but they also encouraged their readers to imagine a revival of those days of chivalry as a possibility even now, when men were crying for their rights, when they had awakened to a sense of their possessions, and would take nothing in their place. The real chieftains were no more; they were imitation chieftains only who were playing at the game, and it was a game the clansmen would not join in. Few exercises could be more strange than first to read the account of Scottish life in one of the immortal novels by Scott dealing with last century, and then to turn to Miss Ferrier or Gait, depicting a period not so very different. Setting aside all questions of genius, where comparison would be absurd, it would seem as if a beautiful enamel had been removed, and a bare reality revealed, somewhat sordid in comparison. The life was not really sordid,— realism as usual had overshot its mark,—but the enamel had been somewhat thickly laid, and might require to be removed, if truth were to be revealed.

So in the higher grades of Edinburgh society the enamel of gentility has done its best to prejudice us against much true and genuine worth. It was characterised by a certain conventional unconventionality, a certain 'preciosity' which brought it near deserving a still stronger name, and it maintained its right to formulate the canons of criticism for the kingdom. Edinburgh, it must be recollected, was no 'mean city,' no ordinary provincial town. It was still esteemed a metropolis. It had its aristocracy, though mainly of the order of those unable to bear the greater expense of London life. It had no manufactories to speak of no mercantile class to 'vulgarise' it; it possessed a University, and the law courts of the nation. But above all it had a literary society. In the beginning of the century it had such men as Henry Mackenzie, Dugald Stewart, John Playfair, Dr. Gregory, Dr. Thomas Brown, not to speak of Scott and Jeffrey—a society unrivalled out of London. And in later days, when these were gone, others rose to fill their places.

Of course, in addition to the movement of the working people, there was an educated protest against Toryism, and it was made by a party who, to their credit he it said, risked their prospects of advancement for the principles of freedom. In their days Toryism, we must recollect, meant something very different from what it might be supposed to signify in our own. It meant an attitude of obstruction as regards all change from established standards of whatever kind; it signified a point of view which said that grievances should be unredressed unless it was in its interest to redress them. The new party of opposition included in its numbers Whig lawyers like Gibson Craig and Henry Erskine, in earlier days, and Francis Jeffrey and Lord Cockburn later on; a party of progress was also formed within the Church, and the same within the precincts of the University. The movement, as became a movement on the political side largely headed by lawyers, had no tendency to violence; it was moderate in its policy, and by no means revolutionary-indeed it may be doubted whether there ever was much tendency to revolt even amongst those working men who expressed themselves most strongly. The advance party, however, carried the day, and when Ferrier began to write, Scotland was in a very different state from that of twenty years before. The Reform Bill had passed, and men had the moulding of their country's destiny practically placed within their hands. In the University, again, Sir William Hamilton, a Whig, had just been appointed to the Chair of Logic, while Moncreiff, Chalmers, and the rest, were prominent in the Church. The traditions of literary Edinburgh at the beginning of the century had been kept up by a circle amongst whom Lockhart, Wilson, and De Quincey may be mentioned; now Carlyle, who had left Edinburgh not long before, was coming into notice, and a new era seemed to be dawning, not so glorious as the past, but more untrammelled and more free.

How philosophy was affected by the change, and how Ferrier assisted in its progress, it is our business now to tell; but we must first briefly sketch the history of Scottish speculation to this date, in order to show the position in which he found it.


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