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Significant Scots
John Wilson


WILSON, JOHN, Professor of Moral Philosophy, Edinburgh.—In writing a memoir of John Wilson adequate to so eventful a career as his, and the wide literary reputation he obtained in his day, two difficulties almost insurmountable occur at the outset. The first arises from the absence of a regular narrative, as his biography has still to be written—a task which, it is hoped, some one of his distinguished contemporaries will gladly and affectionately undertake. The second difficulty arises from the anonymous as well as miscellaneous character of his writings, which, thrown off as they were for the hour, and available for their especial purposes, have not yet stood the test of time, and been tried by their intrinsic merits, irrespective of the causes in which they originated, and the temporary or local effects they produced. Such, indeed, in the present age, must be the fate of genius, however transcendant, that devotes itself to periodical literature. The "Christopher North" or "The Thunderer" of to-day, maybe supplanted by the "Ezekiel South" or "Jupiter Olympus" of to-morrow; and the newspaper or magazine of which they were the living soul, passes away, and gives place to the idols of a new generation. All this is but the natural price of such a mode of writing. The veiled author has laboured for the present, and, verily, he has had his reward.

Of such writers whose immediate influence was so wide and prevalent, but whose futurity is so questionable and uncertain, John Wilson holds, perhaps, with the exception of Francis Jeffrey, the most distinguished place in modern literature. He was born in or near Paisley, on the 19th May, 1785 or 1786, for we are unable to ascertain the precise year. He was the eldest, we believe, of three brothers. As his father was a thriving Paisley manufacturer, in which occupation he realized a considerable fortune, while his mother was of a wealthy Glasgow family, the early youth of the future Christopher North was not subject to those privations that crush the weak, and nurse the strong into greater hardihood. Of the first stages of his education at a Paisley school he has left no account; but we learn from his "Recreations," that at a more advanced period he was placed under the tuition of a country minister, who, in those days of scanty teinds, eked out his stipend by receiving pupils into the manse as boarders. In this rural situation, the boy conned his lessons within doors; but the chief training for his future sphere consisted of many a long ramble among the beautiful scenery with which he was surrounded, and the frolics or conversation of the peasantry, among whom he soon became a general favourite. On reaching the age of fourteen he was sent to the university of Glasgow, where he studied Greek and Logic during three sessions under professors Young and Jardine. Few literary minds could pass under the training of such teachers, and especially the last, without finding it constitute a most important epoch in their intellectual history; and it was to Jardine that Wilson’s great rival in critical literature—Jeffrey—acknowledged those first mental impulses which he afterwards prosecuted so successfully. In 1804, John Wilson went to Oxford, and was entered into Magdalen College as a gentleman-commoner; and there his diligence was attested by the knowledge of the best classical writers of antiquity which he afterwards displayed; and his native genius by the production of an English poem of fifty lines for the Newdigate prize of 50, in which he was the successful competitor. In another kind of college exercises he was also particularly distinguished, such as leaping, running, and boxing, and the sports of boat-rowing, cricket-playing, and coursing, with other amusements of a more boisterous and perhaps more questionable nature. But in the days of "Town-and-Gown," and with such iron strength of limb and fierce effervescence of animal spirits as Wilson possessed, the case could scarcely have been otherwise. It was hard therefore that these curious escapades, while an Oxford student, should have been numbered up against him, when he sought at a future period to become the guide and preceptor of students. On one occasion, it was said, he joined, during the college recess, a band of strolling players, with whom he roamed from town to town, enjoying their merry vagabond life, and playing every character, from the lover "sighing like furnace," to the "lean and slippered pantaloon." This we can easily believe; the event is no unfrequent recoil from the strictness of a college life; and more than one grave personage is yet alive, in whose venerated position, as well as awe-inspiring wrinkles, no one could read the fact, that once on a time they had drank small beer with king Cambyses, or handed a cracked tea-cup of gin to Cleopatra. On another occasion, he became waiter at an inn, that he might be within the sphere of one of its fair female residents, and in this capacity so endeared himself by his inexhaustible glee to the whole establishment, that they were disconsolate when he cast off his slough and disappeared. But the oddest of all the adventures attributed to him was his having fallen in love with a daughter of the sovereign of the gipsies, of whom he would fain have been the king Cophetua, and for whose sake he transformed himself into an Egyptian, and took a share in the wanderings of the tribe, until the successful pursuit of his friends restored him to civilized life. This incessant restlessness and love of desperate enterprise was accompanied with many a purpose of foreign travel, and while at one time he calculated upon a tour over the Peninsula in the rear of the British army, or a run through Turkey; at another, he meditated an African exploration that was to extend to Timbuctoo. But he was not destined to tread the same path with Campbell or Byron, or even the humble missionary, John Campbell, and these resolutions ended like dissolving views or day-dreams. It is curious that one of such a stirring spirit was at last contented with Britain, beyond the limits of which he never carried his peregrinations. Having succeeded at the age of twenty-one to a considerable fortune by the death of his father, he purchased, in 1808, the small but beautiful estate of Elleray, in Cumberland, embosomed amidst the picturesque lakes, with their distinguished poets for his neighbours and companions.

Thus settled for the time as a border laird, Wilson was as yet too young to subside into regular study or peaceful meditation; and on many occasions the turbulence of life within him only burst out the more violently from the compression of such narrow limits. One specimen of his desperate frolics at this period is thus recorded: "A young man, name not given, had taken up his abode in the Vale of Grasmere, anxious for an introduction to Mr. Wilson, and strolled out early one fine summer morning—three o’clock—to that rocky and moorish common (called the White Moss) which overhangs the Vale of Rydal, dividing it from Grasmere. Looking southward in the direction of Rydal, he suddenly became aware of a huge beast advancing at a long trot, with the heavy and thundering tread of a hippopotamus, along the public road. The creature soon arrived within half a mile of him, in the gray light of morning—a bull apparently flying from unseen danger in the rear. As yet, all was mystery; till suddenly three horsemen emerged round a turn in the road, hurrying after it at full speed, in evident pursuit. The bull made heavily for the moor, which he reached; then paused, panting, blowing out smoke, and looking back. The animal was not safe, however; the horsemen scarcely relaxing their speed, charged up hill, gained the rear of the bull, and drove him at full gallop over the worst part of this impracticable ground to that below; while the stranger perceived by the increasing light that the three were armed with immense spears, fourteen feet long. By these the fugitive beast was soon dislodged, scouring down to the plain, his hunters at his tail, toward the marsh, and into it; till, after plunging together for a quarter of an hour, all suddenly regained terra firma, the bull making again for the rocks. Till then there had been the silence of phantasmagoria, amidst which it was doubtful whether the spectacle were a pageant of aerial spectres, ghostly huntsmen, imaginary lances, and unreal bull; but just at that crisis a voice shouted aloud—‘Turn the villain—turn that villain, or he will take to Cumberland.’ It was the voice of Elleray (Wilson) for whom the young stranger succeeded in performing the required service, the villain being turned to flee southwards; the hunters, lance in rest, rushed after him, all bowing their thanks as they fled past, except, of course, the frantic object of chase. The singular cavalcade swiftly took the high road, doubled the cape, and disappeared, leaving the quiet valley to its original silence; while the young stranger, and two grave Westmoreland statesmen just come into sight, stood quietly wondering, saying to themselves, perhaps,

The air hath bubbles, as the water hath,
And these are of them.’

It was no bubble however; the bull was substantial, and may have taken no harm at all from being turned out occasionally for a midnight run of fifteen or twenty miles—no doubt to his own amazement, and his owner’s perplexity at the beast’s bedraggled condition next day." Thus far goes the account of one of Wilson’s early frolics; and certainly it was "very tragical mirth;" but thus to hunt a poor domestic bull that from its earliest calf-ship has been snubbed and cudgelled into submission, has almost as little of the romantic in it as the flight of a terrified dog with a pan tied to its tail, and the whole village school in close pursuit. If a man must needs taurize, let it be in the appointed lists, where

"Spanish cavaliers with lances,
At once wound bulls and ladies’ fancies."

There, the chances are pretty fairly balanced between the bull and his bold antagonist, and when the career commences it is difficult to tell whether lance or horn shall have the better of it.

These rural pursuits of Wilson were oddly enough combined with the study of law, for on leaving the university of Oxford he had resolved to betake himself to the Scottish bar. Such was the case with many young gentlemen at this time, who, although of independent fortune, were desirous of passing as advocates, on account of the specific rank and literary standing with which the title was accompanied. Having finished the usual terms, Mr. Wilson was enrolled among the advocates in 1814. It will scarcely be imagined however, that he was either the most anxious or the most industrious of barristers; the "Stove School," if it then existed in the outer court of Parliament House, was more likely to enjoy his presence, than the solemn atmosphere of the inner halls. But already he had commenced his public literary career, and in the character of a poet, by a set of beautiful stanzas entitled the "Magic Mirror," which were published in the Annual Register for 1812. During the same year he also published, but anonymously, an elegy on the death of James Graham, author of the Sabbath, with which Joanna Baillie was so highly pleased, that she applied to Sir Walter Scott for the name of the author. Sir Walter sent the desired information, and added: "He is now engaged in a poem called the Isle of Palms, something in the style of Southey. He is an eccentric genius, and has fixed himself upon the banks of Windermere, but occasionally resides in Edinburgh, where he now is. He seems an excellent, warmhearted, and enthusiastic young man; something too much, perhaps, of the latter quality, places him among the list of originals." During the same year "The Isle of Palms, and other Poems" was published, a work that at once stamped their author as one of the poets of the Lake school—a class after which the whole host of critics were at present in full cry. It was much, therefore, that at such a period Wilson should have produced a poem that, according to the Edinburgh reviewers, promised "to raise its name, and advance its interests, even among the tribes of the unbelievers." Much however as the "Isle of Palms" was admired and beloved in its day, and abounding though it unquestionably did in touches of true feeling and passages of great poetical power, it has been unable to endure the test of time, and therefore it was quietly consigned to general forgetfulness long before the author himself had passed away. Such indeed has also been the fate of the "Curse of Kehama," upon which the versification of the "Isle of Palms" was evidently modelled. Still, the approbation which his effort excited was enough to encourage Wilson to a renewed effort in poetry; and accordingly, in 1816, he produced "The City of the Plague," a dramatic poem of a higher as well as more masculine character than his former production. But it too has failed to secure that enduring popularity which has been accorded to the productions of the highest and even the second- rate poets of his own period. Perhaps he was unfortunate in the subject of his choice, which was the great plague of London in 1665. But indeed it would require the powers of a Milton, or even of a Shakspeare, to invest such a theme with fresh interest, after the descriptions of De Foe. In the same volume, among other smaller productions, was a dramatic fragment entitled "The Convict," in which Wilson was more successful, perhaps because the subject was less daring, and more within the usual scope of poetry.

Whatever might be his poetical merits, a sufficient proof had now been given that Wilson could scarcely establish a permanent celebrity by these alone. But he was fitted for greater excellence in a different sphere, and that sphere he was now to find. Blackwood’s Magazine had been started as the champion of Tory principles in opposition to the Edinburgh Review; and as Thomas Pringle, its amiable and talented editor, was a Whig, he was obliged to abandon its management after the publication of a few numbers. On the disruption that ensued between the two rival publishers, Constable and Blackwood, Wilson, in company with Hogg and Lockhart, took part with the latter; and soon after the Chaldee Manuscript appeared, a production, the remarkable wit of which was insufficient to redeem it from merited condemnation, on account of its profanity. Its first draught in the rough had been drawn up by the Ettrick Shepherd, in which form it is said to have scarcely amounted to more than a third of its published bulk; but the idea being reckoned a happy one, it was expanded, chiefly, as has been supposed, by Wilson and Lockhart, until it finally grew into an article that raised the public excitement into an absolute uproar. After the storm had been successfully weathered, the character of the Magazine, notwithstanding its manifold trespasses, which on more than one occasion led to cudgelling, and even to bloodshed, continued to grow in reputation, until it reached the highest rank in the world of literature and criticism. And who was the veiled editor under whose remarkable management all this success had been achieved? The question was a universal one, and the answer generally given was—"John Wilson." The high reputation he had already won, and his well-known connection with Maga, made the public voice single him out in preference to all the other writers by whom its pages were enriched. It was a natural mistake, but a mistake after all. This important part of the business was retained by Ebony himself, who selected the articles, corresponded with the contributors, and discharged all the business duties of the editorship. But the living soul and literary spirit was Wilson himself, so that in spite of every disclamation he was proclaimed by the public voice the editor of Blackwood’s Magazine until within a few years of his death.

While he was thus holding onward in his meteoric course, at one part of the year at Elleray and the other in Edinburgh alternately—running down bulls on the Scottish border, and bores in the metropolis—and becoming loved, dreaded, or wondered at in his various capacities of hospitable country gentleman, rough-riding sportsman, gay, civic symposiarch, Abbot of Misrule, and Aristarchus of reviewers and magazine writers, his means of settled domestic tranquillity and happiness had been such as seldom fall to the lot either of meditative poets or belligerent journalists. For in 1810, after he had set his beautiful home among the lakes in order, and furnished it with all the comforts that wealth, directed by a classical taste, could devise, he married an English lady of great beauty, accomplishments, and amiable disposition, who further enriched him with a fortune of 10,000. But only ten years thereafter, Wilson, now the father of two sons and three daughters, was reduced to a very limited income compared with his former resources. As profuse of his money as of his ideas, he had flung both about with reckless prodigality; but while the latter stock, like the purse of Fortunatus, underwent no diminution let him squander it as he pleased, it was otherwise with the former, which had dissolved he knew not how. Thus it was with him to the end of his days: he made little or no account of money while it lasted, and was one of those happy uncalculating spirits, to whom the difference between 10 and 100 is a mere nothing. Something more than the scanty relics of his fortune, with the additional profits of authorship, was necessary; and in 1820 a favourable prospect occurred, in consequence of the death of Dr. Thomas Brown, by which the chair of moral philosophy in the university of Edinburgh became vacant. Wilson presented his name among the candidates for the charge, and his friends commenced an active canvass in his behalf. But the proposal took Edinburgh aback. Wilson a teacher of morals! The religious remembered the unlucky Chaldee Manuscript, and the grave and orderly bethought them of his revels. Even those who took a more tolerant view of the subject, could not comprehend how the president of Ambrose’s noctes could be fitted for the chair of Brown and Dugald Stewart. But what, perhaps, weighed more heavily with the citizen-electors was the fact of his Toryism, to which, like the generality of shopkeepers and merchants, they were decidedly hostile. All these obstacles, Sir Walter Scott, who had long known and admired the genius of the applicant, fully calculated, and thus expressed in his usual tolerant manner: "You are aware that the only point of exception to Wilson may be, that, with the fire of genius, he has possessed some of its eccentricities; but did he ever approach to those of Henry Brougham, who is the god of Whiggish idolatry? If the high and rare qualities with which he is invested are to be thrown aside as useless, because they may be clouded by a few grains of dust which he can blow aside at pleasure, it is less a punishment on Mr. Wilson than on the country. I have little doubt he would consider success in this weighty matter as a pledge for binding down his acute and powerful mind to more regular labour than circumstances have hitherto required of him; for indeed, without doing so, the appointment could in no point of view answer his purpose. . . .You must of course recommend to Wilson great temper in his canvass—for wrath will do no good. After all, he must leave off sack, purge and live cleanly as a gentleman ought to do; otherwise, people will compare his present ambition to that of Sir Terry O’Fagg, when he wished to become a judge. ‘Our pleasant follies are made the whips to scourge us,’ as Lear says; for otherwise, what could possibly stand in the way of his nomination? I trust it will take place, and give him the consistence and steadiness which are all he wants to make him the first man of the age." The nomination did take place according to Sir Walter’s wish, notwithstanding an amount of opposition seldom offered in such elections; and Wilson, to the general surprise of all classes, became professor of moral philosophy, a grave and important charge which he occupied thirty-two years.

In this manner, at the early age of thirty-four, a man esteemed so reckless in temper and unfixed in purpose, so devoted to the whim of the passing hour and careless of the morrow, had yet by sheer force of talent fought his way to an eminence of the highest literary as well as moral responsibility. As a reviewer, his dictum in the world of authorship was the guide of thousands, who received it as an oracle; as a general essayist, he directed the public taste, and imbued it with his own feelings; and now, as a national teacher of moral truth, he was to train the characters and direct the minds of those who were in turn to become the guides and instructors of a future generation. Was this the same man who but yesterday, was the midnight tauridor upon the wilds of Cumberland? That the old spirit had neither died nor become deadened within him, his Noctes Ambrosianoe, to speak of no other token, were sufficient evidence. As a professor, his elevation introduced a remarkable change in the chair of moral philosophy in Edinburgh. Hitherto, metaphysics, that science so congenial to the Scottish intellect, had there obtained full predominance, whether propounded according to Aristotelian rule, or the innovations of Locke and Bacon; but Wilson, though he could dream like Plato himself, was no practised metaphysician. It also behoved him to establish a theory of morals, and demonstrate it with all the exactness and nicety of a mathematical problem; but with Wilson it was enough that he knew what was right—and was not wholly ignorant of its opposite. Whence, then, was he to derive those materials for which his pupils were hungering and thirsting? Even from the resources of that fertile mind which as yet had never failed him. He could enter into the very pith and marrow of a subject, and detect truth or error however concealed. And all this he could illustrate with a poetical array of imagery and eloquence of language, such as has seldom issued from the lips of an expounder of hard things in ethical and metaphysical philosophy. Such was the kind of teaching in which his classes delighted—a suggestive and impulsive course, in which, after having been kindled with his ardour, each pupil might start off upon the career of inquiry best suited to his own tastes and capacities. This, indeed, was not science, properly so called—but was it not something as good? The toils of lecturing during each session, were combined with the more onerous labour of examining some hundreds of class essays; and it is perhaps needless to add, that in such a work Professor Wilson was completely in his element. In this way he taught the young ideas how to shoot; and if they did not produce rich fruits, the cultivator at least was not to blame. At the close of the season, the official gown was thrown off and Christopher North was himself again. He hied away during the spring to Elleray, and spent the summer and autumn in the districts of the Tweed or the Highland hills, while his exploits in fishing and shooting, or his musings among the varied scenery, came pouring in close succession and rich variety into the pages of his magazine.

Among these recreations by land and water which were so dear to the heart of Wilson, we must not omit that from which he derived his title of "Admiral of the Lake." This he enjoyed in consequence of his taking the lead in those splendid regattas which were held upon the lake of Windermere, when his yacht was commonly to be seen at the head of the gay armada. One of these, held in honour of a visit from Mr. Canning, the premier, and Sir Walter Scott, in 1825, is thus chronicled in the life of the latter by his son-in-law:——"There were brilliant cavalcades through the woods in the mornings, and delicious boatings on the lake by moonlight; and the last day ‘the Admiral of the Lake’ presided over one of the most splendid regattas that ever enlivened Windermere. Perhaps there were not fewer than fifty barges following in the professor’s radiant procession, when it paused at the point of Storrs to admit into the place of honour the vessel that carried kind and happy Mr. Bolton and his guests. The bards of the lakes led the cheers that hailed Scott and Canning; and music and sunshine, flags, streamers, and gay dresses, the merry hum of voices, and the rapid splashing of innumerable oars, made up a dazzling mixture of sensations as the flotilla wound its way among the richly-foliaged islands, and along bays and promontories peopled with enthusiastic spectators." On one occasion, Wilson’s rank of admiral promoted him to an office at which Nelson, Collingwood, Howe, and Jervis would have laughed with sailor-like merriment; it invested him with the command of a real fleet, instead of an armament of cockleshells. "I remember," he said in his old days, "being with my friend, Sir Pulteney Malcolm, when he commanded the experimental squadron in the Channel—in 1832, I think—one day on the flag-ship’s quarter-deck, amidst the officers and ladies, Sir Pulteney suddenly took me rather aback by saying, in his loudest official tone, ‘Professor Wilson will now put the ship about!’ It was really expected of me, I believe; so setting the best face upon it, and having previously paid attention to such evolutions, I took voice, and contrived to get through it very creditably—in a fine working breeze, when the worst of it was that the eyes of thousands of people were upon us, and the whole column of ships were to follow in regular succession. The flutter of that critical moment when the helm was put down, and the least error in seizing it must have hung the noble line-of-battle-ship in stays, I shall never forget. I had rather have failed in carrying the class—nay, ten thousand classes—through a point of casuistry in moral philosophy. Yet the sensation was glorious; there was a moral grandeur in the emotion. The feelings of a great admiral in difficult weather bringing on a battle must, in some respects, surpass even those of Shakspeare imagining Hamlet or Lear!"

In this way the life of Wilson went onward for years, of which unfortunately no memorial has as yet been published; while of the ten thousand rumours that have endeavoured to supply the deficiency, scarcely a tithe would be worthy of the least attention. He so largely occupied the public notice, that every literary gossip had some tale to tell of him, either fabricated for the purpose or picked up at second hand, and each story-teller endeavoured to establish the veracity of his narrative, by its superior amount of romance and extravagance. After the death of Blackwood in 1834, Wilson took little further concern in the magazine; indeed, he had already done so much for it, and placed it in so firm a position, that he may have felt as if his task in that department had ended, and might be safely intrusted to younger hands. His class also was sufficient to occupy his full attention, more especially when the increase of intellectual demand, and the growing improvements in public education, required every teacher to be up and doing to his uttermost. His private life, tamed down to the gravity of age, without losing its health or vivacity, continued to be enlivened with the society of the learned and talented, of whom a new generation was fast springing up, and among whom he was venerated as a father, while he was loved as a companion and friend. His chief public exhibitions were now at the Burns’ Festival, where he was a regular attendant as well as chief orator. In 1851, that profitable literary distinction now so generously accorded by government in the form of a substantial pension, was bestowed upon him, amounting to 300 per annum; and on the spring of the following year he resigned his professorship, after holding it thirty-two years, and without making the usual claim of a retiring allowance. After this, he was almost daily to be seen upon his accustomed walk in Prince’s Street, until the beginning of the present year (1854), when paralysis, and a dropsical affection, laid him wholly aside, and he died in his house in Gloucester Place, on the morning of the 3d of April. His remains were interred in the Dean Cemetery on the 7th, and the funeral, which was a public one, was attended by thousands, consisting of every rank and occupation, who thus indicated their respect for one so universally known and esteemed. Proceedings for a monument to his memory in the city of Edinburgh have been so successful, that its site and particular character are now the only subjects of question.

The poetical productions of Wilson, by which he commenced his career as an aspirant for the honours of authorship, we have already enumerated. The oblivion into which they are even already sinking, shows that it was not by his poems that he was to build for himself a name, admired though they were at their first appearance before the public. They satisfied a certain temporary taste which at that time happened to be predominant; and having done this, they had fulfilled their purpose, and were therefore quietly laid aside. Neither was the matter greatly amended by his subsequent attempts as a novelist; and his three productions in this capacity—the "Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life," "The Foresters," and the "Trials of Margaret Lyndsay," have been placed by public estimation in the same category with the "Isle of Palms" and "City of the Plague." In fact, he lacked that quality of inventiveness so essential for the construction of a tale, whether in poetry or prose, and therefore his narratives have little or no plot, and very few incidents—a defect which neither fine writing nor descriptive power is sufficient to counterbalance. It is upon Blackwood’s Magazine that his claims to posthumous distinction must fall back; for there we find his whole heart at work, and all his intellectual powers in full action. Of these productions, too, his critical notices can scarcely be taken into account—vigorous, just, and often terrible though they were; nor even his Noctes Ambrosianoe, though these for the time were by far the most popular of all his writings. But it is as Christopher North, whether in his shooting-jacket, or with his fishing-rod, or "under canvas," that he will be best remembered and most highly valued. The scenery which in that character he has so beautifully painted, and the deep emotions to which he has given utterance, are not things of a day, but for all time, and will continue to be read, admired, and cherished, when the rest of his numerous writings have passed away.

You can download the book "Memoir of John Wilson" in pdf format here


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