Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilson, John (1785-1854)

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WILSON, JOHN (1785–1854), author, the ‘Christopher North’ of ‘Blackwood's,’ and professor of moral philosophy in the university of Edinburgh, was born at Paisley on 18 May 1785. His father, John Wilson (d. 1796), was a manufacturer of gauze, who had made a fortune in business; his mother, Margaret Sym (1753–1825), a lady of remarkable dignity of manners and imperious strength of character, was descended in the female line from the Marquis of Montrose. He was the fourth child but eldest son, being one of a family of ten. His youngest brother, James Wilson (1795–1856) [q. v.], is noticed separately. John received his first education in the grammar school of Paisley and in the manse of Mearns, and in 1797 proceeded to Glasgow University, where he was especially influenced by Jardine, the professor of logic, and Young, the professor of Greek. He obtained several prizes in logic, and his career as a student was in general highly creditable to him, though he was still more distinguished as an athlete. ‘I consider Glasgow College as my mother,’ he wrote, ‘and I have almost a son's affection for her.’ From Glasgow he migrated to Oxford, where he became a gentleman commoner at Magdalen College, and matriculated on 26 May 1803. He had previously, in May 1802, afforded an indication of the direction which his thoughts were taking by addressing a long letter, partly reverential, partly expostulatory, to Wordsworth, who returned the boy an elaborate answer, inserted in his own memoir, and reprinted, with Wilson's letter, in Professor Knight's editions of his works. At Oxford ‘he was considered the strongest, the most athletic and most active man of those days, and created more interest among the gownsmen than any of his contemporaries.’ He also studied methodically, and obtained considerable distinction in the schools, besides winning the Newdigate prize in 1806 (with a poem on ‘The Study of Greek and Roman Architecture’). He made many university friends (among them Reginald Heber and Henry Phillpotts), but none whose acquaintance appears to have been especially influential upon his life. During the vacations he wandered over Great Britain and Ireland, associating with characters of all descriptions; but the story related by the Howitts of his having actually married a gipsy is entirely devoid of foundation. In fact his deepest concern during the whole of his Oxford residence was his tender attachment to the lady he celebrates as ‘Margaret,’ ‘an orphan maid of high talent and mental graces,’ which came to nothing from the violent opposition of his mother. Heartbroken from sorrow and disappointment, Wilson went up for his B.A. examination in the Easter term of 1807, under the full conviction that he should be plucked, but on the contrary passed ‘the most illustrious examination within the memory of man.’ He graduated M.A. in 1810. He had already purchased a cottage and land at Elleray on Windermere, and thither he betook himself to lead the life of a country gentleman, not at the time contemplating the pursuit of any profession.

The first four years of Wilson's life at Elleray were divided between improvements to his estate, outdoor recreation, and the composition of poetry. ‘The Isle of Palms’ and other pieces were written by 1810, and published at the beginning of 1812. He also contributed letters to Coleridge's ‘Friend’ under the signature of ‘Mathetes.’ On 11 May 1811 he had married Jane Penny, the daughter of a Liverpool merchant and ‘the leading belle of the lake country,’ who had removed to Ambleside to be near her married sister. The union was most fortunate; but four years afterwards a calamity overtook Wilson by the loss of his property (estimated at 50,000l.) through the dishonesty of an uncle who had acted as steward of the estate. Wilson, so fearfully excitable when the affections were in question, bore the loss of fortune with magnanimity, and even contributed to the support of the delinquent uncle. The blow was indeed in great measure broken by the hospitality of his mother, who received him and his family into her house; nor was he even obliged to relinquish Elleray, though he removed from it for a time. He was called to the bar at Edinburgh in 1815, but made little progress in a profession in which neither taste nor ability qualified him to excel; of the few briefs which came to him he afterwards said, ‘I did not know what the devil to do with them.’ He cultivated literature to better purpose, following up ‘The Isle of Palms’ with ‘The City of the Plague’ and other poems (1816). In 1815 he made a pedestrian highland tour in company with his wife, in those days an almost unparalleled undertaking for a lady. Encouraged by Jeffrey, who had reviewed ‘The City of the Plague’ very kindly, Wilson contributed an article on the fourth canto of ‘Childe Harold’ to the ‘Edinburgh,’ but was almost immediately afterwards caught in the vortex which swept the literary talent of Scottish toryism into the new tory organ, ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ established in April 1817. Up to this time periodical literature in Scotland had been a whig monopoly: all the loaves and fishes had been on one side, and all the pen and ink on the other. This was now to be altered, and although Wilson was not in reality a fierce, much less a bitter or intolerant, partisan, the vehemence of his temperament and the unwonted strength of his language sometimes made him appear the very incarnation of political ferocity.

The early management of ‘Blackwood’ was designedly involved in mystery, but Mrs. Oliphant's ‘Annals of the Publishing House of Blackwood’ has recently made it clear that the sole editor was William Blackwood [q. v.] himself, and that, contrary to the general belief at the time, neither Wilson nor Lockhart was ever entrusted with editorial functions. The first six numbers had appeared as ‘The Edinburgh Monthly Magazine,’ under the nominal conduct of James Cleghorn [q. v.] and Thomas Pringle [q. v.] The endeavours of these gentlemen to make themselves something more than editors by courtesy speedily estranged them from Blackwood; they seceded to the rival publisher Constable, and Blackwood organised a new staff, of which Wilson and John Gibson Lockhart [q. v.] were the most conspicuous members. Seldom has so great a sensation been produced by a periodical as that which attended their first number (October 1817), overflowing with boisterous humour and at the same time with party and personal malignity to a degree to which Edinburgh society was utterly unused. Besides attacks on Coleridge and Leigh Hunt, able and telling, but disgraceful to the writers, the number contained the renowned ‘Chaldee Manuscript’ (afterwards suppressed), which was in fact a satire, in the form of biblical parody, upon the rival publisher and his myrmidons. The authorship was claimed by James Hogg [q. v.], the ‘Ettrick Shepherd;’ but Professor Ferrier authentically states that, although Hogg conceived the original idea, not more than forty out of the 180 verses are actually from his pen. It may be added that the British Museum possesses a proof-sheet with numerous additions suggested in manuscript by Hogg, not one of which was adopted.

‘Blackwood,’ now fairly launched, pursued a headlong and obstreperous but irresistible course for many years. Wilson's overpowering animal spirits and Lockhart's deadly sarcasm were its main supports, but ‘The Leopard’ and ‘The Scorpion’ were powerfully assisted by the ‘Ettrick Shepherd,’ by William Maginn [q. v.], and Robert Pearse Gillies [q. v.] No one but Blackwood himself, however, can bear a general responsibility; his correspondence with Wilson in the latter's life shows how invaluable he was to his erratic contributor, and also what friction often existed between them. The attacks on Keats and Leigh Hunt, applauded at the time, were in after days justly regarded as dark blots on the magazine. Wilson assuredly was not responsible, and may even be deemed to have atoned for them by the enthusiastic yet discriminating encomiums of Shelley in the articles he wrote at this time, under the inspiration, as now known, of De Quincey, an old associate in the lake district. These were days of fierce exasperation on all sides, and much allowance should be made for the attitude of ‘Blackwood,’ which was nevertheless disapproved even in friendly quarters. Jeffrey was driven to renounce all literary connection with Wilson; and Murray, though the publisher of the tory ‘Quarterly,’ gave up his interest in the magazine. An unprovoked attack by Lockhart on the venerable Professor John Playfair [q. v.] was especially resented. Wilson's temperament continually carried him beyond bounds. His correspondence with Blackwood reveals him as at least once in a condition of abject terror at having committed himself, not from any fear of personal consequences, but from the perception that he had spoken in a manner impossible to justify of men whom he really revered.

During 1819 Wilson left his mother's roof and removed with his wife and family to a small house of his own in Ann Street, where Watson Gordon was his immediate neighbour, and where he also enjoyed the society of Raeburn and Allan. Next year the chair of moral philosophy in Edinburgh University fell vacant, and Wilson, who had no obvious qualification and many obvious disqualifications, was elected by the town council over the greatest philosopher in Britain, Sir William Hamilton, by twenty-one votes to nine, given him on the one sufficient ground that he was a tory [see art. Stewart, Dugald]. Having so freely assailed others, his own reputation was not likely to pass unassailed through the excitement of the contest. His wife ‘could not give any idea of the meanness and wickedness of the whigs if she were to write a ream of paper;’ and Wilson found it necessary to get not only his literature but his morals attested by Mrs. Grant of Laggan as well as Sir Walter Scott. Opinion on the other side is summed up by James Mill, when he says, writing to Macvey Napier, ‘The one to whom you allude makes me sick to think of him.’ The appointment was certainly an improper one, but turned out much better than could have been expected. ‘He made,’ says Professor Saintsbury, ‘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.’ It is only to be regretted that his professorship was not one of English literature. There he would have been entirely at home; his geniality, magnanimity, and ardent appreciation of everything which he admired would have found an eager response from his young auditors; while the diffuseness and extravagance of diction which so greatly mar his critical writings would have passed unnoticed in an oral address.

For some years Wilson's more elaborate efforts in ‘Blackwood’ belonged to the department of prose fiction. Most of the ‘Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life’ appeared in the magazine prior to their collective publication in 1822. ‘The Trials of Margaret Lyndsay’ was published in 1823, and ‘The Foresters’ in 1825. These were all works of merit, but are little read now, and would scarcely be read at all but for the celebrity of their author in other fields. It was not until 1822 that Wilson found where his real strength lay, and began to delight the public with his ‘Noctes Ambrosianæ.’ The idea of a symposium of congenial spirits is as old as Plato, and Wilson's application of it had been in some measure anticipated by Peacock. But Plato's banqueters keep to one subject, while Wilson's range over interminable fields of discussion, usually suggested by the topics of the day. As Plato created a Socrates for his own purposes, so Wilson embodied his wit and wisdom, and, more important than either, his poetry, in the ‘Ettrick Shepherd,’ a character for which James Hogg undoubtedly sat in the first instance, but which improved immensely upon the original in humour, pathos, and dramatic force; while the dialect is by common consent one of the finest examples extant of the classical Doric of Scotland. Wilson himself, as ‘Christopher North,’ acts in a measure as prompter to the Shepherd; yet many splendid pieces of eloquence are put into his mouth, and he frequently enacts the chorus, conveying the broad common-sense of a subject. The literary form, or rather absence of form, exactly suited Wilson. Here at last was a great conversationalist writing as he talked, and probably few books so well convey the impression of actual contact with a grand, primitive, and most opulent nature. The dramatic skill shown in the creation of the ‘Shepherd,’ though it has been much exaggerated, is by no means inconsiderable: the other characters, Tickler (Mr. Robert Sym, Wilson's maternal uncle), ‘the opium eater,’ De Quincey, and Ensign O'Doherty, are comparatively insignificant. The original idea of the ‘Noctes’ seems to have been Maginn's, and between 1822 and 1825 they were the work of so many hands that Professor Ferrier has declined to include these early numbers in Wilson's ‘Works.’ After this date until their termination in 1835 they are almost entirely from his pen. Their conclusion was probably thought to be necessitated by the death of Hogg, who could no longer appear before the world as a convivial philosopher. But a blow was impending upon Wilson himself which must have destroyed his power of continuing a work the first requisite of which was exuberant animal spirits. In 1837 he lost his wife, and was never the same man again. For nearly twenty years he had been enriching ‘Blackwood,’ wholly apart from the ‘Noctes,’ with a torrent of contributions—critical, descriptive, political—so representative of the general spirit of the periodical as fully to warrant the erroneous inference that he was its conductor. The death of William Blackwood in September 1834 was a severe blow to him, but he ‘stood by the boys,’ and his relations with them continued to be much the same as they had been with the father, troubled by occasional suspicions and misunderstandings, but on the whole as consistently amicable as was possible in the case of one so wayward and desultory. ‘He was,’ Mrs. Oliphant justly says, ‘a man for an emergency, capable of doing a piece of superhuman work when his heart was touched,’ but not to be relied upon for steady support. In some years the abundance of his contributions was amazing, and in 1833 he wrote no fewer than fifty-four articles for the ‘Magazine.’ Among the most remarkable of his contributions before the death of Blackwood were a series of papers on Homer and his translators, abounding in eloquent and just criticism; similar series of essays on Spenser and British critics, and the memorable review of Tennyson's early poems, bitterly resented by the poet, but which, in fact, allowing for ‘Maga's’ characteristic horseplay, was both sound and kind. Of a later date were some excellent papers entitled the ‘Dies Boreales,’ his last literary labour of importance, and an edition of Burns.

Wilson's spirits had greatly waned after the death of his wife, and his contributions to ‘Blackwood’ became irregular, but he was unremitting in his attention to the duties of his professorship, and continued to fill the conspicuous place he held in Edinburgh society until 1850, when his constitution gave manifest signs of breaking up. In 1851 he resigned his professorship, and a pension of 300l. was conferred upon him in the handsomest spirit by Lord John Russell, the object of so many bitter attacks from him. Wilson exhibited the same spirit by recording his vote at the Edinburgh election of 1852 for his old political opponent Macaulay. This was his last public appearance. On 1 April 1854 at his house in Gloucester Place, Edinburgh, his home since 1826, he had a paralytic stroke, which terminated his life two days afterwards. He was buried in the Dean cemetery with an imposing public funeral on 7 April, and a statue of him by John Steell was erected in Princes Street in 1865. Wilson left two sons, John and Blair, one a clergyman of the church of England, the other for a time secretary to the university of Edinburgh. He had three daughters: Margaret Anne, married to Professor James Frederick Ferrier [q. v.]; Mary, his biographer, married to Mr. J. T. Gordon, sheriff of Midlothian; and Jane Emily, married to William Edmonstoune Aytoun [q. v.]

Wilson was a man of one piece. His personal and literary characters were the same. The chief characteristic of both is a marvellously rich endowment of fine qualities, marred by want of restraining judgment and symmetrical proportion. As a man he was the soul of generosity and magnanimity, but exaggerated in everything, and by recklessness and wilfulness was frequently unjust where he intended to be the reverse. As an author he must have attained high distinction if his keen perception of and intense delight in natural and moral beauty had been accompanied by any recognition of the value of literary form. In the ‘Noctes’ this is in some measure enforced upon him by the absolute necessity of maintaining consistency and propriety among his dramatis personæ. Elsewhere the perpetual frenzy of rapture, although perfectly genuine with him, becomes wearisome. His style is undoubtedly colloquial and sometimes meretricious. Nassau Senior thought so badly of both ‘his dulcia as well as his tristia vitia’ that ‘he would almost as soon try to read Carlyle or Coleridge.’ Such a verdict has no terrors now. Yet it is true that there are few writers of Wilson's calibre who discourse at such length, and from whom so little can be carried away. His descriptions both in prose and verse read like improvisations, leaving behind a general sense of beauty and splendour, but few definite impressions. He will live nevertheless by his often imitated but never rivalled ‘Noctes,’ and should ever be held in honour for the manliness and generosity of his character as an author. The same qualities characterised the mass of his criticism, although at times some insuperable prejudice or freak of perversity intervened, as when in his old age he recanted his former sentiments respecting Wordsworth in an essay which fortunately never saw the light. Such were aberrations of judgment: he was entirely free from malice or vindictiveness, and never cherished resentment. His review of his former adversary Macaulay's ‘Lays of Ancient Rome’ affected Macaulay ‘as generous conduct affects men not ungenerous.’ Long before his death he was entirely reconciled to Jeffrey, and he wrote in 1834 of his bygone enmity with Leigh Hunt, ‘The animosities die, but the humanities live for ever.’ His own function, whether as a painter of natural or an expositor of literary beauty, may be truly and tersely summed up in another dictum, that it was to teach men to admire.

Portraits of Wilson, painted by Raeburn and Watson Gordon, are in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, and in the National Portrait Gallery, London, respectively; an engraving of the latter is prefixed to ‘Professor Wilson: a Memorial and a Sketch’ [by George Cupples], Edinburgh, 1854. A fine engraving of a portrait taken at the age of sixty is prefixed to Mrs. Gordon's biography of her father. Thomas Duncan painted ‘Christopher in his Sporting Jacket’ (engraved by Armytage for the collected works), and a sketch from a statue by Macdonald, with a caricatured background, appeared in the Maclise Gallery in ‘Fraser's Magazine.’

Wilson's works were collected in twelve volumes by his son-in-law, Professor Ferrier, 1855–8. Four volumes are occupied by the ‘Noctes Ambrosianæ;’ four by ‘Essays, Critical and Imaginative;’ two by ‘The Recreations of Christopher North,’ one by the poems, and one by the tales. The collection is not complete, the earlier numbers of the ‘Noctes’ being omitted, as well as the papers on Spenser, ‘Dies Boreales,’ and other matter which but for space might well have been reprinted. A complete and elaborate edition of the ‘Noctes’ was published at New York by Dr. R. Shelton Mackenzie (in five volumes with an excellent index) and revised in 1866.

[Christopher North: a Memoir of John Wilson by his Daughter, Mrs. Gordon, 1862; Mrs. Oliphant's Annals of the Publishing House of Blackwood, William Blackwood and his Sons, 1897; Cupples's Professor Wilson, a Memorial and Estimate by one of his Students, 1854; Blackwood's Mag. May and December 1854; Athenæum, April 1854 and 8 July 1876 (a brilliant but severe estimate of the ‘Noctes,’ which are pronounced to be ‘dying of dropsy’); Quarterly Review, vol. cxiii.; Professor Ferrier's prefaces in Wilson's Works; Lang's Life of John Gibson Lockhart, 1897; De Quincey's Portrait Gallery and Autobiographic Sketches; Gillies's Memoirs of a Literary Veteran, 1851; Douglas's The ‘Blackwood’ Group, 1897; Selections from the Correspondence of Macvey Napier; Lock- hart's Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk, vol. iii.; Gilfillan's Gallery of Literary Portraits; Findlay's Personal Recollections of De Quincey, 1886; Maclise Portrait Gallery, ed. Bates; Parmenides [De Quincey] in the Edinburgh Literary Gazette of 1829.]

R. G.