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Significant Scots
John Lockhart

LOCKHART, JOHN GIBSON.—This distinguished miscellaneous writer, who occupied so high a station in the tribunal of literary criticism, was born at Glasgow, and, as is generally supposed, in the year 1793. His father, the Rev. Dr. John Lockhart, who, for nearly fifty years, was minister of the College or Blackfriar’s Church, Glasgow, will not soon be forgot by the denizens of that good city, not only on account of his piety and worth, but also his remarkable wit and extreme absence of mind—two qualities which are seldom found united in the same character. The stories with which Glasgow is still rife, of the worthy doctor’s occasional obliviousness, and the amusing mistakes and blunders it occasioned, are even richer than those of Dominie Samson; for, when he awoke from his dream, he could either laugh with the laughers, or turn the laugh against them if necessary. But his remarkable powers of sarcasm, as well as his creative talents in embellishing an amusing story, were so strictly under the control of religious principle and amiable feeling, that he would often stop short when sensitiveness was likely to be wounded, or the strictness of truth violated. It would have been well if the same power, which was so conspicuous in his talented son, had been always kept under the same coercion.

Of this amiable divine John Gibson Lockhart was the second son, and the eldest by a second marriage, his mother having been a daughter of the Rev. Dr. Gibson, one of the ministers of Edinburgh. At an early age he prosecuted his studies at the university of Glasgow, and with such success, that he received one of its richest tokens of approval in a Snell exhibition to Baliol College, Oxford. Here he could prosecute, with increased facilities, those classical studies to which he was most addicted; and in a short time he took a high station as an accomplished linguist, even among the students of Oxford. His studies at Baliol College, which were directed to the profession of the law, were followed by a continental tour; and, on returning to Scotland, he was called to the Scottish bar in 1816. It was soon evident, however, that he was not likely to win fame or fortune by the profession of an advocate. He lacked, indeed, that power without which all legal attainments are useless to a barrister—he could not make a speech. Accordingly, when he rose to speak on a case, his first sentence was only a plunge into the mud; while all that followed was but a struggle to get out of it. Had the matter depended upon writing, we can judge how it would have gone otherwise; had it even depended on pictorial pleading, he would have been the most persuasive of silent orators, for, during the course of the trial, his pen was usually employed, not in taking notes, but sketching caricatures of the proceedings, the drollery of which would have overcome both judge and jury. As it was, he became a briefless barrister, and paced the boards of Parliament House, discussing with his equally luckless brethren the passing questions of politics and literary criticism. He made a happy allusion to this strange professional infirmity at a dinner, which was given by his friends in Edinburgh, on his departure to assume the charge of the "Quarterly Review." He attempted to address them, and broke down as usual, but covered his retreat with, "Gentlemen, you know that if I could speak we would not have been here."

In Mr. Lockhart’s case it was the less to be regretted that he was not likely to win his way to the honours of a silk gown, as he had already found a more agreeable and equally distinguishing sphere of action. He devoted himself to literature, and literature adopted him for her own. He had already made attempts in periodical writing, and the favour with which his contributions were regarded encouraged his choice and confirmed him in authorship. A more settled course of exertion was opened up for him in 1817, the year after he had passed as advocate, by the establishment of "Blackwood’s Magazine." Of this distinguished periodical he became, with John Wilson, the principal contributor; and now it was that the whole torrent of thought, which the bar may have kept in check, burst forth in full profusion. Eloquence, and wit, and learning distinguished his numerous articles, and imparted a prevailing character to the work which it long after retained; but unfortunately with these attractive qualities there was often mingled a causticity of sarcasm and fierceness of censure that engendered hatred and strife, and at last led to bloodshed. But into this painful topic we have no wish to enter; and the unhappy termination of his quarrel with the author of "Paris Visited" and "Paris Revisited" may as well be allowed to sleep in oblivion. It is more pleasing to turn to his "Peter’s Letters to his Kinsfolk," a wonderful series of eloquent, vigorous, and truthful sketches, embodying the distinguished men in almost every department, by whom Scotland was at that period distinguished above every other nation. Not a few, at the appearance of this, his first separate work, were loud in their outcry against the author, not only as a partial delineator, but an invader of the privacies of life and character; but now that years have elapsed, and that the living men whom he so minutely depicted have passed away from the world, the condemnation has been reversed, and the resentment been superseded by gratitude. How could we otherwise have possessed such a valuable picture-gallery of the great of the past generation? All this Sir Walter Scott fully appreciated when he thus wrote to the author of "Peter’s Letters" in 1819:—"What an acquisition it would have been to our general information to have had such a work written, I do not say fifty, but even five-and-twenty years ago; and how much of grave and gay might then have been preserved, as it were, in amber, which have now mouldered away! When I think that, at an age not much younger than yours, I knew Black, Ferguson, Robertson, Erskine, Adam Smith, John Horne, &c., &c., and at last saw Burns, I can appreciate better than any one the value of a work which, like this, would have handed them down to posterity in their living colours."

It was in May, 1818, that Lockhart first formed that acquaintanceship with Sir Walter Scott, which so materially influenced the course of his after-life. The introduction to the "Great Unknown" took place in Edinburgh, at the house of Mr. Home Drummond, of Blair-Drummond, where a small but select party was assembled; and Scott, who understood that Mr. Lockhart had but lately returned from a tour in Germany, held with him an amusing conversation on Goethe, and German literature. This introduction soon ripened into an intimacy, in which Miss Scott became a principal personage, as a marriage treaty, with the concurrence of all parties, was settled so early as the February of 1820. On the 29th of April, the marriage took place at Edinburgh, and Sir Walter, who was the worshipper as well as recorder of good old Scottish fashions, caused the wedding to be held in the evening, and "gave a jolly supper afterwards to all the friends and connections of the young couple." Mr. Lockhart and his bride took up their abode at the little cottage of Chiefswood, about two miles from Abbotsford, which became their usual summer residence—and thither Sir Walter, when inundated by sight-seers and hero-worshippers, was occasionally glad to escape, that he might breathe in a tranquil atmosphere, and write a chapter or two of the novel that might be on hand, to despatch to the craving press in Edinburgh. These were happy visits, that spoke of no coming cloud; "the clatter of Sibyl Grey’s hoofs, the yelping of Mustard and Spice, and his own joyous shout of reveillee under our windows, were the signal that he had burst his toils, and meant for that day to ‘take his ease in his inn.’ On descending, he was to be found seated with all his dogs and ours about him, under a spreading ash that overshadowed half the bank between the cottage and the brook, pointing the edge of his woodmans axe for himself, and listening to Tom Purdie’s lecture touching the plantation that most needed thinning." By the year 1837 how completely all this had terminated! In the last volume of the "Life of Sir Walter Scott,’ Lockhart thus closes the description: "Death has laid a heavy hand upon that circle—as happy a circle, I believe, as ever met. Bright eyes now closed in dust, gay voices for ever silenced, seem to haunt me as I write. . . . She whom I may now sadly record as, next to Sir Walter himself, the chief ornament and delight at all those simple meetings—she to whose love I owed my own place in them—Scott’s eldest daughter, the one of all his children who in countenance, mind, and manners, most resembled himself, and who indeed was as like in all things as a gentle innocent woman can ever be to a great man, deeply tried and skilled in the struggles and perplexities of active life—she, too, is no more." In December, 1831, John Hugh Lockhart, the Master Hugh Littlejohn of the "Tales of a Grandfather," died, and in 1853, Lockhart’s only surviving son, Walter Scott Lockhart Scott, leaving no remains of the family except a daughter, Charlotte, married in August, 1847, to James Robert Hope-Stuart, who succeeded to the estate of Abbotsford. In this way the representatives of both Sir Walter Scott and John Lockhart have terminated in one little girl, Monica, the only surviving child of Hope-Scott of Abbotsford.

Leaving this domestic narrative, so full of happiness, disappointment, and sorrow, we gladly turn to the literary life of John Gibson Lockhart. After the publication of "Peter’s Letters," his pen was in constant operation; and notwithstanding the large circle of acquaintance to which his marriage introduced him, and the engagements it entailed upon him, he not only continued his regular supplies to "Blackwood’s Magazine," but produced several separate works, with a fertility that seemed to have caught its inspiration from the example of his father-in-law. The first of these was "Valerius," one of the most classical tales descriptive of ancient Rome, and the manners of its people, which the English language has as yet embodied. After this came "Adam Blair," a tale which, in spite of its impossible termination, so opposed to all Scottish canon law, abounds with the deepest touches of genuine feeling, as well as descriptive power. The next was "Reginald Dalton," a three-volumed novel, in which he largely brought forward his reminiscences of student-life at Oxford, and the town-and-gown affrays with which it was enlivened. The last of this series of novels was "Matthew Weld," which fully sustained the high character of its predecessors. It will always happen in the literary world, that when a critical censor and sharp reviewer puts forth a separate work of his own, it will fare like the tub thrown overboard to the tender mercies of the whale: the enemies he has raised, and the wrath he has provoked, have now found their legitimate object, and the stinging censures he has bestowed upon the works of others, are sure to recoil with tenfold severity upon his own. And thus it fared with Lockhart’s productions; the incognito of their author was easily penetrated, and a thundershower of angry criticism followed. But this hostile feeling having lasted its time, is now dying a natural death, and the rising generation, who cannot enter into the feuds of their fathers, regard these writings with a more just appreciation of their excellence. After a short interval, Lockhart came forth in a new character, by his translations from the "Spanish Ballads;" and such was the classical taste, melody of versification, and rich command of language which these translations evinced, that the regret was general that he had not been more exclusively a poet, instead of a student and author in miscellaneous literature. His next productions were in the department of biography, in which he gave an earnest of his fitness to be the literary executor and historian of his illustrious father-in-law—these were the "Life of Robert Burns," which appeared in "Constable’s Miscellany," and the "Life of Napoleon Bonaparte," which was published in "Murray’s Family Library."

The varied attainments of Mr. Lockhart, and the distinction he had won in so many different departments of authorship, obtained for him, at the close of 1825, a situation of no ordinary responsibility. This was the editorship of the "Quarterly Review," the great champion of Toryism, when the political principles of Toryism were no longer in the ascendant, and which was now reduced to a hard battle, as much for life itself as for victory and conquest. It was no ordinary merit that could have won such a ticklish elevation at the age of thirty-two. Lockhart gladly accepted the perilous honour, linked, however, as it was with the alternatives of fame and emolument; and for twenty-eight years he discharged its duties through the good and evil report with which they were accompanied. In his case, as might be expected, the latter prevailed, and the angry complaints of scarified authors were loudly swelled by the outcries of a political party now grown into full strength and activity. With the justice or the unreasonableness of these complaints we have nothing to do; but it speaks highly for the able management of Lockhart, that in spite of such opposition, the "Review" continued to maintain the high literary and intellectual character of its earlier years. His own contributions to the "Quarterly" will, we trust, be yet collected into a separate work, as has been the case with the journalism of Jeffrey, Sydney Smith, and Macaulay; and that they will be found fully worthy of such a distinguished brotherhood. During the latter years of his life, his health was greatly impaired; but for this, his intellectual exertions, as well as family calamities and bereavements, will sufficiently account. In the summer of 1853, he resigned his editorship of the "Quarterly Review," and spent the following winter in Italy; but the maladies under which he laboured, although assuaged for a time, came back with double violence after his return home, and he died at Abbotsford, now the seat of his son-in-law, on the 25th of November, 1854.

Although not directly enumerated in the list of his authorship, the ablest, the widest known, and probably the most enduring of all Lockhart’s productions, will here naturally occur to the mind of the reader. Who, indeed, throughout the whole range of educated society, has failed to peruse his "Life of Scott," or will forget the impressions it produced? But even here, too, the angry objections with which "Peter’s Letters to his Kinsfolk" was encountered, were revived with tenfold bitterness, and the charges of violated confidence, unnecessary exposure, or vainglorious adulation, were raised according to the mood of each dissatisfied complainer. But could a more perfect and complete picture of the whole mind of Sir Walter Scott, in all its greatness and defects, have been better or even otherwise produced? Posterity, that will recognize no such defects in this great master-piece of biography, will wonder at the ingratitude of their predecessors, whom it so enlightened, and who yet could "cram, and blaspheme the feeder." Faults, indeed, it possesses; how could these have been wholly avoided? but by no means to such extent as the charges seek to establish. Only a few days have closed over the departure of John Gibson Lockhart, and calumny is still busy with his reputation; but time, the impartial judge, will vindicate his character, and a very few years will suffice to teach us his full value.

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