1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Wilson, John (writer)
WILSON, JOHN (1785–1854), Scottish writer, the Christopher North of Blackwood’s Magazine, was born at Paisley on the 18th of May 1785, the son of a wealthy gauze manufacturer who died when John was eleven years old. He was the fourth child, but the eldest son, and he had nine brothers and sisters. He was only twelve when he was first entered at the university of Glasgow, and he continued to attend various classes in that university for six years, being for the most part under the tutorship of Professor George Jardine, with whose family he lived. In these six years Wilson “made himself” in all ways, acquiring not inconsiderable scholarship, perfecting himself in all sports and exercises, and falling in love with a certain “Margaret,” who was the object of his affections for several years.
In 1803 Wilson was entered as a gentleman commoner at Magdalen College, Oxford. Few men have felt more than he the charm of Oxford, and in much of his later work, notably in the essay called “Old North and Young North,” he has expressed his feeling. But it does not appear that his Magdalen days were altogether happy, though he perfected himself in “bruising,” pedestrian ism and other sports, and read so as to obtain a brilliant first class. His love affairs did not go happily, and he seems to have made no intimate friends at his own college and few in the university. He took his degree in 1807, and found himself at twenty-two his own master, with a good income, no father or guardian to control him, and apparently not under any of the influences which in similar circumstances generally make it necessary for a young man to ajlopt some profession, if only in name. His profession was an estate on Windermere caUed Elleray, ever since connected with his name. Here he built, boated, wrestled, shot, fished, walked and otherwise diverted himself for four years, besides composing or collecting from previous compositions a considerable volume of poems, published in 1812 as the Isle of Palms. Here he became intimate with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey and De Quincey. He married in 1811 Jane Penny, a Liverpool lady of good family, and four years of happy married life at Elleray succeeded; then came the event which made a working man of letters of Wilson, and without which he would probably have produced a few volumes of verse and nothing more. The major part of his fortune was lost by the dishonest speculation of an uncle, in whose hands Wilson had carelessly left it. But this hard fate was by no means unqualified. His mother had a house in Edinburgh, in which she was able and willing to receive her son and his family; nor had he even to give up Elleray, though henceforward he was not able constantly to reside in it. He read law and was called to the Scottish bar, in 1815, still taking many a sporting and pedestrian excursion, and publishing in 1816 a second volume of poems, The City of the Plague. In 1817, soon after the founding of Blackwood’s Magazine, Wilson began his connexion with that great Tory monthly by joining with J. G. Lockhart in the October number, in a satire called the Chaldee Manuscript, in the form of biblical parody, on the rival Edinburgh Review, its publisher and his contributors. From this time he was the principal writer for Blackwood’s, though never its nominal editor, the publisher retaining a certain supervision even over Lockhart’s and “Christopher North’s” contributions, which were the making of the magazine. In 1822 began the series of Noctes Ambrosianae, after 1825 mostly Wilson’s work. These are discussions in the form of convivial table-talk, giving occasion to wonderfully various digressions of criticism, description and miscellaneous writing. From their origin it necessarily followed that there was much ephemeral, a certain amount purely local, and something wholly trivial in them. But their dramatic force, their incessant flashes of happy thought and happy expression, their almost incomparable fulness of life, and their magnificent humour give them all but the highest place among genial and recreative literature. “The Ettrick Shepherd,” an idealized portrait of James Hogg, one of the talkers, is a most delightful creation. Before this, Wilson had contributed to Blackwood’s prose tales and sketches, and novels, some of which were afterwards published separately in Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life (1822), The Trials of Margaret Lyndsay (1823) and The Foresters (1825); later appeared essays on Spenser, Homer and all sorts of modern subjects and authors.
The first result of his new occupation on Wilson’s general mode of life was that he left his mother’s house and established himself (1819) in Ann Street, Edinburgh, with his wife and family of five children. The second was much more unlooked for, his election to the chair of moral philosophy in the university of Edinburgh (1820). His qualifications for the post were by no means obvious, even if the fact that the best qualified man in Great Britain, Sir William Hamilton, was also a candidate, be left out of the question. But the matter was made a political one; the Tories still had a majority in the town council; Wilson was powerfully backed by friends. Sir Walter Scott at their head; and his adversaries played into his hands by attacking his moral character, which was not open to any fair reproach. Wilson made a very excellent professor, never perhaps attaining to any great scientific knowledge in his subject or power of expounding it, but acting on generation after generation of students with a stimulating force that is far more valuable than the most exhaustive knowledge of a particular topic. His duties left him plenty of time for magazine work, and for many years his. contributions to Blackwood were extraordinarily voluminous, in one year (1834) amounting to over fifty separate articles. Most of the best and best known of them appeared between 1825 and 1835.
The domestic events of Wilson’s life in the last thirty years of it may be briefly told. He oscillated between Edinburgh and Elleray, with excursions and summer residences elsewhere, a sea trip on board the Experimental Squadron in the Channel during the summer of 1832, and a few other unimportant diversions. The death of his wife in 1837 was an exceedingly severe blow to him, especially as it followed within three years that of his friend Blackwood. For many years after, his literary work was intermittent, and, with some exceptions, not up to the level of his earlier years. Late in 1850 his health showed definite signs of breaking up; and in the next year he resigned his professorship, and a Civil List pension of £300 a year was conferred on him. He died at Edinburgh on the 3rd of April 1854.
Only a very small part of Wilson's extensive work was published in a collected and generally accessible form during his lifetime, the chief and almost sole exceptions being the two volumes of poems referred to, the Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life, and the Recreations of Christopher North (1842), a selection from his magazine articles. These volumes, with a selected edition of the Noctes Ambrosianae in four volumes, and of further essays, critical and imaginative, also in four volumes, were collected and reissued uniformly after his death by his son-in-law, Professor J. F. Ferrier. The collection is very far from exhaustive; and, though it undoubtedly contains most of his best work and comparatively little that is not good, it has been complained, with some justice, that the characteristic, if rather immature, productions of his first eight years on Blackwood are almost entirely omitted, that the Noctes are given but in part, if in their best part, and that at least three long, important and interesting series of papers, less desultory than is his wont, on “Spenser,” on “British Critics” and the set called “Dies Boreales,” have been left out altogether. Wilson's characteristics are, however, uniform enough, and the standard edition exhibits them sufficiently, if not exhaustively. His poems may be dismissed at once as little more than interesting. They would probably not have been written at all if he had not been a young man in the time of the full flood of the Lake school influence. His prose tales have in some estimates stood higher, but will hardly survive the tests of universal criticism. It is as an essayist and critic of the most abounding geniality, if not genius, of great acuteness, of extraordinary eloquence and of a fervid and manifold sympathy, in which he has hardly an equal, that Christopher North will live. His defects lay in the directions of measure and of taste properly so called, that is to say, of the modification of capricious likes and dislikes by reason and principle. He is constantly exaggerated, boisterous, wanting in refinement. But these are the almost necessary defects of his qualities of enthusiasm, eloquence and generous feeling. The well-known adaptation of phrase in which he did not recant but made up for numerous earlier attacks on Leigh Hunt, “the Animosities are mortal, but the Humanities live for ever,” shows him as a writer at his very best, but not without a little characteristic touch of grandiosity and emphasis. As a literary critic, as a sportsman, as a lover of nature and as a convivial humorist, he is not to be shown at equal advantage in miniature; but almost any volume of his miscellaneous works will exhibit him at full length in one of these capacities, if not in all.
See Christopher North, by Mrs Mary Gordon, his daughter (1862); and Mrs Oliphant, Annals of a Publishing House; William Blackwood and his Sons (1897).
- His youngest brother was James Wilson “of Woodville” (1795–1856), the zoologist. He purchased, on behalf of Edinburgh University, in Paris, the Dufresne collection of birds, and arranged them on his return to Scotland. He contributed to Blackwood’s Magazine and to the North British Quarterly Review, and wrote many of the articles on natural history in the seventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.