Nichol, as he was affectionately known to a generation of students at
Glasgow University, was the second of the name known to the city. He was
born at Montrose, when his father was Rector of the Academy there, 8th
September, 1833. Four years later the father was appointed to the chair of
Astronomy in Glasgow. Here, first of all in the old College court in High
Street, and afterwards in the new Observatory, to which the household
migrated in 1841, Nichol’s boyhood was spent. In his early years he was an
omnivorous reader, and was attracted to the study of geology and astronomy.
From the Western Academy, with a year at the Grammar School of Kelso, the
reserved, timid lad passed to Glasgow University and Balliol College,
Even in his boyish clays he
wrote verses, and in 1854 he contributed a poem on Ailsa Craig to the
Glasgow University Album, a production which he organised and edited. In the
same year he printed privately his first volume of verse, under the title of
"Leaves." Among the friends of his earlier years at Glasgow were Alexander
Smith and Sydney Dobell, and at Oxford he founded an essay-reading club, the
Old Mortality, which included James Payne, T. II. Green, and A. C.
Swinburne. Jowett was his kindly mentor and life-long friend. After taking
his degree with first-class honours, he kept his terms in London for the
English Bar, and he built up a reputation as one of the most successful
"coaches" at Oxford. In 1861 he married the eldest daughter of Henry
Glassford Bell, who proved, in a peculiar sense, the good angel of his life.
By her he became the father of a son and two daughters.
Defeated by John Veitch in
his candidature for the chair of Logic and English Literature at St.
Andrews, he was appointed to the new chair of English Literature at Glasgow
in 1862, and occupied it for a quarter of a century with brilliant success.
He afterwards was an unsuccessful candidate for the chairs of Logic and
Moral Philosophy at Glasgow and of English Literature at Oxford. In 1873 he
published "Hannibal, an Historical Drama," and received the degree of LL. D.
from St. Andrews University. In the crash of the City of Glasgow Bank he was
involved as trustee for a shareholder, but through the honourable conduct of
the relations for whom he held the trust he ultimately suffered little loss.
In 1889 Nichol resigned his
chair With failing health, and failing enthusiasm for the rough work of the
Scottish class-room, he had begun to believe there was a conspiracy against
him in the world of letters, and his idea was to devote himself more freely
to literature and to conquer his opponents by a tour de force. He had always
been a contributor to the Glasgow Herald and Manchester Guardian, especially
of obituary notices, and he had contributed a series of articles on the
Scottish poets to the Encyclopedia Britannica. He had compiled in 1877, on a
suggestion of Professor Knight, his laborious "Tables of European History,
Literature, Science, and Art "; had produced a valuable "Primer of English
Composition" in 1879; had contributed to the English Men of Letters Series
in 1880 a monograph on Byron which Swinburne called "the very best
apologia for another man that ever was made"; had published his best
poetical work, The Death of Themistocles and Other Poems" in 1881; had
Burns, a Summary of his Career and Genius," and a history of American
literature in 1882; and in 1888 he had published a monograph on Francis
Bacon. Alas ! after his resignation of the chair he was to produce only one
book more, though indeed it was his best, his monograph on Carlyle. This
appeared in 1S92. A year earlier his portrait by Orchardson had been
presented to him in Glasgow University. Two years later he was dead. lie had
taken up residence in London, and he died there 11th October, 1894.
Nichol’s greatest work was
probably that done in the class-room at Gilmorehill, where he inspired a
generation of the picked young minds of Scotland with a love for the real
graces and glories of our literature. But his monographs on Byron, Burns,
Bacon, and Carlyle are themselves among the vital criticism of his time.
And, in poetry, if his portraits of Hannibal and Themistocles depict
subjects perhaps too remote for modern enthusiasm, 'his sonnets and short
poems are in many cases pure gold. A memoir of Nichol, by his friend,
Professor Knight, was published by Messrs. MacLehose in 1896.
Memoir of John
Professor of English Literature in the University of Glasgow
By Professor Knight (1896)
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