IT was in an old bookshop that I came across the three volumes of the Recreations of Christopher North. Where else indeed, unless it were in libraries slightly antiquated, would one be likely to find at the present day this miscellany of culled contributions to Blackwood’s by old Christopher, that Nimrod of the North, redoubtable Scotch Worthy, and Edinburgh’s Old Man Eloquent, who, if Laurence Sterne has been described as the least exemplary of English clergymen, may in the same spirit be called the least conventional of Scotch Professors of Moral Philosophy? For John Wilson, or Christopher North as he was best known in his own day, seems quite forgotten, utterly of the past, and these Recreations, filled as they are with the beauty and delight that charmed an earlier generation, must litter old bookstalls or grow musty and worm-eaten on library shelves. Even the Noctes Ambrosianæ, most memorable of his works, with all their boisterous fun, pungent wit, and still racy comic characterization of contemporary men of letters, are well-nigh forgotten; nor is it accounted a lack of cultivation not to be familiar with poetry that men of his own time assured him was as good as any then being written — and that in the age of Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Scott, and Coleridge! The canon of his criticism is a dead letter, and his critical work is occasionally revived only to illustrate, as in the case of his attack on Keats, the fallibility of contemporary judgments. In fine, that fate has overtaken Wilson which bowls over so many of those who achieve a splendid reputation in their own day, a sort of premature immortality in advance of posterity’s final decision. Destiny works strange reversals, though possibly under a law, and Wilson is the victim of one of them.
Perhaps his very popularity has been against him. Perhaps he belonged too exclusively to his own age, represented its tastes too completely in their most intimate aspects, to make an effective appeal to the generation succeeding that to which he was a sort of literary grandfather. For no man can live beyond his own day who does not keep in reserve some little mystery of mind for future generations to penetrate, who has not suffered somewhat of contumely for an element of incomprehensibility with respect to those among whom he lived. Wilson had many notable qualities, but he had none of this incomprehensibility, this reserve of genius. He wrote absolutely from the point of view of the present, in the manner of journalism as we now call it, and with the present he slipped back inevitably into the past.
And yet, however much there may be lacking in Wilson’s work as literature, there is in the man himself something vital and persistently defiant of oblivion. This grows largely out of his personality and the strenuous part he played as a man of action in the world of letters. In a measure he was the most representative man of his day, combining in his eccentric, paradoxical, yet always lovable personality, its most dissimilar aspects. A thorough-going sportsman, he loved nothing better than a day’s or a month’s fishing in the streams of the Scotch Highlands, or a good fight between men or cocks, the prize-ring and the cocking-main not then having fallen into that disrepute in which they are allowed to languish in these days. On the other hand, nothing could have been more brilliant than his academic career at Glasgow and Oxford. Add to this that he was an accepted poet and critic in his own day, the virtual editor of a great magazine at a time when the paucity of periodicals compared with their present multiplicity gave to Such a position rare distinction and authority. Add also that he was Professor of Morality in the University of Edinburgh for thirty years, during which time he wielded such influence on the Scottish youth of many academic generations as it is given to very few to acquire and hold, — add these intellectual distinctions to what we have said of the physical picturesqueness of his career, and one will begin to have some conception of what Wilson’s life and personality must have been and how he must have impressed himself upon his age.
Such men History does not readily let slip from her records, however much critics may differ as to the permanent value of their literary accomplishment. Consequently Wilson belongs to the domain of history rather than of literature, and his fame is the reverse of that by which most men of letters gain their share of immortality. For with these, as with Shakespeare, the personal element tends to become obliterated by the impersonal, universal element in their work. In the case of Wilson it is the personality that survives, while the work perishes, save only in so far as it can contribute to the revitalizing of this personal element in our remembrance of the man himself.
John Wilson was born at Paisley in 1785. His parents were well to do, his father having amassed a fortune in those manufacturing enterprises which have made the especial fame of that city, so that from the start he had every opportunity and prospect of success in life that wealth and a gentle breeding could give him. In this he was different from so many of his fellow Scots, Burns and Carlyle, for example, who have had to win their way from a bleak boyhood. He was most like Scott in this assurance of a life of comparative ease; though like Scott curiously enough, before half his life was done, he was forced by circumstances to take his place in the world of affairs to recover the fortune Fate had wrested from him.
Wilson’s boyhood is of peculiar importance as determining our conception of the character of the man, for the reason that he never entirely grew away from it, but retained always a bit of the boy tucked away in his heart to give zest to life and joy to the sheer act of living. He always kept an imaginative hold upon the scenes of his childhood that enabled him to render expression to those poetic moods of mind which, awakened within him at the birth of consciousness, remained unobscured and untarnished by the various vicissitudes of a long and not unharassed life. For him his boyhood was, as Stevenson wrote in Virginibus Puerisque, “ not only the beginning, but the perennial spring of his faculties,” and to him preëminently belonged the power of “retiring upon occasion into the green enchanted forest of his childhood.”
For Wilson this “green enchanted forest. ” was the parish of Mearns, to which he was sent for his schooling at the Manse, and which he describes over and over again so glowingly in the Recreations. There is a great temptation to linger over these schooldays in the Scotch parish “half highland, half lowland,” and over the captivating personality of the lad whom his daughter, Mrs. Gordon, so exquisitely characterized when she wrote that “in his earlier years, John Wilson was as beautiful and animated a creature as ever played in the sunshine.” He was indeed a brilliant and beautiful boy, in whom the healthiest of natural instincts were touched with a glory of Wordsworthian boyhood, which raised common sports and pastimes, followed on “flood, field, and fell ” into ennobling pursuits worthy of the divinity of a young demigod. Wilson has left us an account of this period of his life in Christopher in His Sporting Jacket in the Recreations. Some allowance must of course be made for that frank idealization of himself to which Wilson confesses, in the figure of young Kit North, in this sketch of his own boyhood. They who would recall their vanished youth “ must perhaps, ” writes Wilson in Christmas Dreams in the same collection, “ transfuse also something of their maturer minds into those dreams of their former being.” Thus Kit becomes more than the mere picture of Wilson’s own youthful self; he is rather an imaginative type of the ideal boy as he develops under the formative influences of sport pursued in the face of nature, while yet retaining in the main the physiognomy of selfportraiture. This last point must not be lost sight of; for the fact remains that however much of the more reflective passages in the Sporting Jacket we may attribute to the mature mind of the man working upon the material of boyish experiences, all the freshness and fullness of instinctive joy, and all the sensitiveness to natural beauty revealed in these passionate reminiscences of past glory, belong to the inextinguishable boy within him, and serve to characterize him correctly for us as he was in the days of his youth. Had he not been of that rare race to whom in boyhood nothing in nature is without inspiration, and nothing in emotional experience without significance, he could have had no basis in later life upon which to build such an ideal representation, at once so exalted and so true, as he has given us in the young Kit of the Sporting Jacket.
This representation we have called Wordsworthian, and indeed was it not Wordsworth who first ennobled our conception of boyhood by a recognition of those intimations of immortality that come to it in all the wonder of awakening sense? But Wilson’s delineation of boyhood’s moods and fresh states of consciousness seems even truer and more natural without being any the less ideal than Wordsworth’s own. For him there is no sharp distinction between those coarser pleasures which the Wordsworthian boy is represented in Tintern Abbey as having passed, and those more purely meditative employments to which the maturing lad gives himself wonderingly over. Wordsworth’s boy is never quite convincingly human. He is always a little of that “smug, smooth, prim,and proper prig,” whose existence Wilson deprecates. Not so young Christopher. For him, moods of excitement and enthusiasm for the chase are suddenly shot through with new and strange perceptions of romance. Not only in listening to the thunder of the waterfall, or the sharp ring of steel on the frozen river, arise those rare moods of spiritual excitement that we encounter in Wordsworth. They arise equally in sports partaking not a little of elemental savagery, like coursing and gunning and stalking the deer, from which Wordsworth, with his intellectual and spiritual refinement, was repelled. But such delicacy of sentiment forms no necessary part of the poetic constitution, and in the boy, at least, the poet and the savage are often curiously commingled. The same cause which at one instant may arouse the fierce instinct to kill may result at the next in the flooding of the youthful spirit with a tremulous and tremendous sense of awe and beauty. If one would perceive the quick transition from mood to mood which is characteristic of this exquisite instability of boyish emotion, let him read that unequaled passage in the Sporting Jacket in which Wilson describes the night hunt after the great white swan: —
“To have shot such a creature — so large — so white — so high-soaring — and on the winds of midnight wafted from so far — a creature that seemed not merely a stranger in that loch, but belonging to some mysterious land in another hemisphere, whose coast ships with frozen rigging have been known to visit, driving under bare poles through a month’s snowstorms — to have shot such a creature was an era in our imagination, from which, had nature been more prodigal, we might have sprung up a poet. Once, and but once, we were involved in the glory of that event. The creature had been in a dream of some river or lake in Kamtschatka — or ideally listening, —
The wolf’s long howl from Oonalashka’s shore,’
when, guided by our good genius and our brightest star, we suddenly saw him seated asleep in all his state, within gunshot, in a bay of the moonlight loch! We had nearly fainted — died on the very spot — and why were we not entitled to have died as well as any other passionate spirit, whom joy ever divorced from life? We blew his black bill into pieces — not a feather on his head but was touched; and like a little white-sailed pleasure-boat caught in a whirlwind, the wild swan spun round, and then lay motionless on the water, as if all her masts had gone by the board. We were all alone that night — not even Fro was with us; we had reasons for being alone, for we wished not that there should be any footfall but our own round that mountain hut. Could we swim ? Aye, like the wild swan himself, through surge or breaker. But now the loch was still as the sky, and twenty strokes carried us close to the glorious creature, which, grasped by both hands, and supporting us as it was trailed beneath our breast, while we floated rather than swam ashore, we felt to be in verity our — prey! We trembled with a sort of fear, to behold him lying indeed dead on the sward. The moon — the many stars, here and there one wondrously large and lustrous — the hushed glittering loch — the hills, though somewhat dimmed, green all winter through, with here and there a patch of snow on their summits in the blue sky, on which lay a few fleecy clouds — the mighty foreign bird, whose plumage we had never hoped to touch but in a dream, lying like the ghost of something that ought not to have been destroyed — the scene was altogether such as made our wild young hearts quake, and almost repent of having killed a creature so surpassingly beautiful. But that was a fleeting fancy — and over the wild moors we went, like an American Indian laden with game, journeying to his wigwam over the wilderness. As we whitened towards the village in the light of morning, the earlier laborers held up their hands in wonder what and who we might be; and Fro, who had missed his master, and was lying awake for him on the mount, came bounding along, nor could refrain the bark of delighted passion as his nose muzzled in the soft down of the bosom of the creature whom he remembered to have sometimes seen floating too far off in the lake, or far above our reach cleaving the firmament.”
During the next stage of Wilson’s career, namely those years between the ages of twelve and eighteen which he spent in Glasgow as a student in the University, we lose sight somewhat of those spiritual and poetic traits which characterized him so strikingly as a boy at the period represented in the Sporting Jacket. Nor yet is the forceful and eccentric personality of the older Christopher that we know in the Noctes foreshadowed in the picture of the orderly and conventional college youth who has been taken from the heather and hillsides of Mearns and taught the ways of dress and society. He was passing through that period of transition in a boy’s growth and development, when the fugitive, flower-like personality of childhood seems dissipated for the moment, and when the firmer, more permanent character of the man has as yet hardly begun to assert itself. Seen through his own letters and diaries of this period, his mind has that formal habit which might be expected from the student’s application to the classics, but which later became so delightfully disorganized, so disrupted with a kind of quaint, declamatory eloquence and the riotous trooping of tumultuous ideas pressing for utterance.
One glimpse into Wilson’s young mind is of positive value as showing how the educative influences of this period were shaping the instinctive tendencies of his character into an intellectual conviction which was to be the basis of all his future work as a critic and a man of letters. It is gained through an episode which has also a secondary interest because of its connection with a great figure in literature with whom he afterward came to be conspicuously associated. In the last year of Wilson’s sojourn at Glasgow, when he was therefore eighteen years old, there fell into his hands a copy of that volume of Lyrical Poems and Ballads, the joint work of Wordsworth and Coleridge, which we are now wont in retrospect to regard as epoch-making in the history of English literature. Its great qualities were not then so universally recognized, and Wilson was somewhat in advance of his age in his keen appreciation of the genius of the Lake Poet in whose fresh feeling for nature and the simple rugged life of peasant folk he may well have felt something akin to his own delight, as yet unexpressed, in similar scenes and under similar circumstances. At the same time he did not fail to divine those elements in Wordsworth’s art which were not sound, and which in their tendencies have since been noted as subversive of the older idealism. Led by his youthful enthusiasm, he wrote Wordsworth a letter, which, quite apart from any consideration of the writer’s age, is certainly a remarkable composition. Its interest lies mainly in the objections which it advances to Wordsworth’s poem entitled The Idiot Boy. The letter is too long to quote even on this single point, but the substance of what he said is that while Wordsworth in this poem had adhered to nature as closely as in the rest of his work, and so was entitled to the highest praise for his artistic method, he had failed in this instance to write a great poem, because of the essentially unpoetic character of that aspect of nature which he had chosen to imitate. Wilson argued that only those phases of nature which are in themselves beautiful are fitted for poetical treatment, and that the object of poetry is to heighten this intrinsic element of beauty, not to endeavor to cast a false illusion of artistic glamour over a repellent subject. For to do the latter is to pervert the poet’s office, and is a function of cleverness rather than of real genius. In this criticism Wilson not only anticipated all that has since been advanced by the best critics against Wordsworth’s peculiar notion of a kind of rhythmical logic imposed arbitrarily upon things by the mind of man as the sole source of beauty in the external world, but he summed up as well the whole theory of ideal art whose tradition is transmitted intact through some channel in every age.
At eighteen Wilson went to Oxford, and entered Magdalen College, where he became so prominent as an undergraduate that it is here his public life may be said to have begun. It is here, too, his personality begins to emerge from the uncertain contours of youth. His very appearance was sufficient to distinguish him from his fellows. His physical prowess manifested itself in an athletic figure, and his singularity was further heightened by a shaggy head, always described in later life as leonine, and by enormous whiskers unusual then among university youth, as, indeed, among all classes at the time. His manner of life at Oxford presents features quite as extraordinary as his person. In a new environment his old love of sport, breathed in as the very breath of life on the moors of Mearns, translated itself into new forms, and into proclivities not alone now for those pastimes pursued on hill and heather, but on turf and by ringside as well. Roped area, cocking-main, and paddock were all alike familiar to him, nor were his encounters with those of the pugilistic profession, at least, purely a matter of patronage on his part. In wrestling and boxing, as in all tests of dexterity and strength, Wilson was preëminent, and with his fists he was accounted a match for most professionals and the master of many. Various stories are told to attest his proficiency and courage in the manly art of self-defense. It is related that he once got into an altercation with a pugilist unknown to him by sight, who, when Wilson offered to fight him, thought to frighten the Oxonian, equally unknown, by a parade of his redoubted name. Wilson proceeded to punish the bruiser in the most approved fashion, and his aggressor, when he had sufficiently recovered, exclaimed admiringly, “You can only be one of two; you are either Jack Wilson or the Devil! ” Among the other eccentricities of Wilson’s conduct exhibited while at Oxford was a perfect passion for declamation and debate, which led him to espouse either side of an argument, or both in turn, with equal vigor and address, and to seek out strange companies at coaching taverns to charm with his discourse while he did the honors of the table for the coming and going guests. This kind of experience satisfied his whimsical turn for adventure, otherwise variously indulged in, and in one way especially, by summer walking tours in the Welsh mountains and sojourns among the gypsies, in which respect he recalls that later lover of the Romanies, George Borrow. Like most men of his day, Wilson was a heavy drinker, though never a drunkard, and it may be thought that this trait, taken together with his predilections for rather brutalizing pastimes, presents a certain quality of coarseness in his character. But, as De Quincey says of him, these things grew out of his abundant animal spirits and the needs of a Herculean constitution, and left his nature uncorrupted and undegraded. He never lost or outgrew a certain dewy freshness and pristine innocence of childhood that made him throughout life fit to be typified by the young Kit of the Sporting Jacket. Certainly at Oxford his rather riotous career and madcap escapades did not prevent him from winning academic distinction. He was a regular and methodical student of the kind that keeps commonplace books, wins honors, and stands well in with the Dons.
Love came nearer to wrecking his career at Oxford than riotous living. While at Glasgow he had fallen in love. It was not a mere boyish attachment, but a passion that turned tragic when it found an insurmountable obstacle in the opposition of the girl’s mother. This disappointment lay like a shadow over his Oxford course, inducing or rather emphasizing a certain native cast of melancholy which was temperamental with him, as it is so often with persons of his peculiarly bright and sanguine disposition. And it was partly at least as a relief from a brooding which more than once threatened his health and sanity, that he threw himself so frequently into those indulgences which caused him to forget. The bitterness of disappointed love and ambitious scholarship struggled with him to the very end of his course. Wilson went to his last examination in a despairing frame of mind, quite certain of failure. Pulling himself together under the exhilaration of a stringent cross-questioning he won out on sheer nerve, and left Oxford, having passed, as one of his contemporaries tells us, the most brilliant examination within the memory of man at Magdalen.
After graduation, Wilson settled down to a leisurely life at his home, Elleray, in the Lake Country. He was influenced in his choice of a location, else rather extraordinary for a Scotchman, by a desire to be near Wordsworth, who lived close at hand on Rydal Mount. Nor was Wordsworth the sole intellectual attraction the place afforded. Southey and Coleridge were near-by neighbors, and De Quincey came frequently to visit his friends. But the society of poets and philosophers was not the only world in which Wilson moved. There was that universal element in his nature, of understanding and sympathy, which made him equally welcome among all classes. He joined with the dalesmen in their sports, and added emulation to their contests by the prizes which he offered to reward their championships. He could let himself down to the level of their festivities in neighboring pothouses without degradation or loss of personal dignity. In short, he was the life of the locality and the pride of the countryside. Love came again presently, — for on leaving Oxford, Wilson had put under the most disturbing elements in his early affliction, — and this time it was destined to a very happy consummation. Indeed Wilson’s marriage with Jane Penny, daughter of a Liverpool merchant, who summered among the Lakes, proved the greatest blessing of his life. Not only was the woman of his choice physically fit to mate with such a glorious man as Wilson, — for she was so radiant with health and beauty that when arm in arm they entered a ballroom together, at some local assembly, all eyes were turned to view the splendid pair, man and woman, —but her nature was as noble and rich in its own feminine way as his in its masculine characteristics, and supplied to the full all those higher qualities of womanhood necessary to sustain him and comfort him in the trials that followed close upon his new happiness. Nowhere does Wilson show to greater advantage than in his married life and in all his relations as husband and father. Those who think only of his impressive masculinity will hardly be prepared for the degree of exquisite tenderness, sympathy, and consideration that is revealed in his domestic life.
Wilson had not been long settled at Elleray before disaster came upon him. Through the dishonesty of an uncle, he was defrauded of all but the remnants of a comfortable fortune. It is characteristic of the man that he accepted his reverses with cheerful equanimity and refused to prosecute his betrayer or even to reveal his treachery to the public. To De Quincey alone, to whom he applied for financial assistance, — a curious beginning for a relation in which, so far as money was concerned, the obligations were thereafter all on the other side,— did Wilson reveal the true facts of the case before his uncle’s death.
Wilson had now to face the necessity of earning his living. He immediately closed Elleray and moved his family to Edinburgh, where he studied for the bar, to which he was admitted in 1815. As a barrister Wilson, however, was no greater a success than Scott before him ; nor was he longer dependent on briefs for a livelihood. For now with great suddenness he was projected into that literary career which was to claim him for the rest of his life. Already in 1812, in the quiet of Elleray, he had turned his attention to literature in dilettante fashion, and had published a book which took its title from its main piece, The Isle of Palms, a romantic poem in the manner of Scott. Four years later on coming to Edinburgh he had published a poetic drama entitled The City of the Plague. These books had succeeded in attracting the attention of Jeffrey, the ogre of the Edinburgh Review, who invited him to contribute to that magazine. No sooner, however, had this connection been established than he was called off to support the new Tory magazine, Blackwood’s, which was just making its start in the world with Hogg, Maginn, Lockhart, and other distinguished poets and critics as its contributors. Wilson was a stanch Tory, so this transfer of his allegiance to the new periodical was natural enough, although in the sequel it led to temporary estrangement between him and his friends of the older magazine.
Much has been written of this estrangement, and in general of Wilson’s connection with a magazine that in an age not noted for the amenities of criticism shocked and scandalized all Edinburgh by the virulency of its personal abuse. It seems hardly necessary to go into the details of the controversy that has been waged upon this phase of Wilson’s career, or to attempt to justify a man who was eventually vindicated by his own age and acquitted of anything worse than errors of taste and judgment, which were after all less personal with him than peculiar to the temper of his time, or which, in so far as they were personal, contained nothing of conscious or malicious cruelty. This, it must be remembered, was before the age of scientific appreciation as it is practiced today, and in criticism the cudgel was the favorite weapon of offensive and defensive warfare. In critical combats conducted in this spirit, from which the personal and political element was never entirely eliminated, Wilson was always in the forefront of battle, wielding his quarterstaff with all the head-breaking dexterity of a smock-frocked yokel at a country fair. In reality the mildestmannered man that ever murdered a literary reputation, Wilson suffered, it is said, from the effects upon his own spirit of his critical ferocity, and stood not infrequently aghast at the unforeseen results of the storms he helped to stir in the literary atmosphere of the Scotch capital, — or of all the United Kingdom for the matter of that. The truth is that Wilson carried something of the spirit of sport into his critical labors. Once the cry was raised and the pack loosed, he had no further thought of the quarry as an individual human being, until the hunt was up and he discovered that it was a living man like himself whose breast his barbs had transfixed.
Wilson lived to pass out of the storm and stress period of criticism, and to accommodate himself to less strenuous ways of life and literature. If in his earlier Blackwood’s days his temperament had been worked upon by the stimulus of strife in the world about him, in later years he let the same enthusiastic ardor of utterance lead him into passionate praise of what was good and beautiful in the classic literatures of all ages rather than into equally ardent abuse of what displeased him in his own. Thus he became one of the great educational forces of his day through his stimulating quality of appreciation and his ability to transmit this enthusiasm and, what is more, something of its instinctive bases to the minds of readers.
Wilson’s influence as an educator was extended by his election to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University, which occurred in 1821. Anything more unfitting at first sight than the election of Christopher North — sport, reveler, briefless barrister, and slashing Blackwood’s critic, with no technical qualifications for the position — can hardly be imagined. The situation was further complicated by the fact that opposed to him in the nomination was Sir William Hamilton, Scotland’s greatest living philosopher, who had all the special qualifications Wilson lacked, besides that proper academic dignity of which Wilson was never accused even by his friends. With all fairness to Wilson, it must be admitted that his election under the circumstances was an educational scandal, and could only have been effected by the Tory influence brought to bear in the Town Council, which was exerted in his behalf. He had help from very high quarters ; and even Scott wrote recommending him, though coupling his recommendation with a private admonition to Wilson through a friend, varying the words of Falstaff, addressed also, though in a more strictly literal sense, by Lamb to his friend Hazlitt, to “purge, and leave sack, and live cleanly as a gentleman should.” If Wilson accepted the chair, and with it the odium of an anomalous position in the eyes of the world, it must have been because he had a secure and instinctive sense of his own inner sufficiency for the office which raised him above the superficial lack of dignity in the conduct of his life. After all, the gravest charge of unfitness that could be brought against him was his want of training as a systematic philosopher. How well he succeeded in spite of this deficiency, the affectionate testimony of his students amply proves. He was one of those great teachers of the young, all the more potent for a touch of winning worldliness, whose amplitude of mind educates less by precept than by contact. He never became the scientific pedagogue; indeed his lectures, though his course for the year was always carefully laid out and prepared in its broad outlines, were often the result of sheer improvisation. Absent-minded and unsystematic, he frequently left his subject far afield, but things like this make little difference in a man like Wilson who has only to speak to enchain the attention and exalt the spirit of the student.
Wilson was only thirty-five when he became professor. Though he lived to be nearly sixty-nine, there is little more to recount of his career in the way of new experiences. From this point his life continued to follow the channels that had been marked out for it by the trend of his early activities. With every year the qualities of his character made themselves more and more felt, and his position both at home and in the world of letters was one of increasing dignity and prestige. They were not easy honors that he won and wore in this time. Viewed day by day, his life shows a round of wearying routine that would have proved too much for many a less robust and indomitable man than John Wilson. Blackwood’s became increasingly a burden after the death of its proprietor and the breaking up of the brilliant and fecund little group that had flocked to its standards in the early years, and cries of weariness, almost of desperation, occasionally escape him in his letters to his wife. So long,however, as he had her to sustain him, he was armed for any combat. It is with her death in 1837 that we see the foreshadowing of the end. He never completely recovered from the stroke. For the first time he absented himself for any considerable period from his lectures. The account of his reappearance before his class as described by Dr. McKenzie, his American editor and biographer, is pathetic in the extreme. “He had to adjudicate on the comparative merits of various essays which had been sent in in competition for a prize. He bowed to his class, and in as firm a voice as he could command, apologized for not having read the essays, —‘ for,’ said he, ‘I could not see to read them in the darkness of the shadow of the Valley of Death.’ As he spoke, the tears rolled down his cheeks; he said no more, but waved his hand to his class, who stood up as he concluded, and hurried out of the lecture-room.”
From this time he withdrew slowly but steadily from active life. He resigned his professorship in 1851, and in 1852 he made his last contribution to Blackwood’s. He died in 1854.
We have given Wilson’s life thus in detail because, as we have said, it was the man himself rather than his work as a man of letters that is most likely to live in the history of the period. We have seen, however, in speaking of the Recreations, and of the light which these papers throw upon Wilson’s boyhood, how important are certain parts of his writings in helping us to revitalize our impression of his personality. What is true of Christopher in His Sporting Jacket is true equally of the Noctes, and indeed of all the works which he executed under the name of Christopher North, and which are, for the most part, no more than simple transcripts, quite without any idea of an artistic rendering, of his own transitory moods of thought and emotion.
In the Recreations we get one set of ideas and impressions, those pertaining chiefly to his private life and to those private pastimes in which the child lived in him unchanged and undiminished by the flight of time. In the Noctes we get another and quite different set. Originally the Christopher North of the Noctes was a very loose appellation, the ægis under which whosoever at the time spoke editorially in Maga — Lockhart, Hogg, Maginn, Wilson himself — concealed his personality. But as time passed and Wilson assumed fuller control of the magazine, he became more and more completely identified with Christopher, not only in character and in the judgments which were passed on the political and literary questions of the day, but in the subtler shadings of personality, until the fiction became concrete, crystallized fact, and the creator so merged in the created, that it was no longer possible for the popular mind to separate them. The assumed age of Christopher was of course greater at the start than that of Wilson; for Christopher was a patriarch when the young barrister was first called to the conduct of the new magazine. But this assumption of great venerableness suited Wilson admirably. It permitted the more completely to manifest itself that element of authority, as of an Olympian sitting in judgment, which is a leading characteristic of Wilson’s mental attitude. In a certain sense he was always old, old like Nestor, with all the finest and most gracious qualities of old age, just as in another sense he was always young, with all the freshest, most poignant attributes of boyhood. Youthful in heart, ancient in intellect — that is the paradox in Wilson’s nature that catches the fragrance of his manhood and gives the peculiar savor to his original personality. For him there was apparently no present of middle-age mediocrity. He lived in an ideal world of his own imagining, passing easily and as if the spirit informing both ages were essentially the same, from the blitheness of boyhood in the Sporting Jacket to the easy assumption of that absolute authority which is conceded to old age in the Noctes.
Such a temperament is not without its disadvantages, so far as one’s relations with the actual, practical world are concerned. For the world has its own distinctions of dignity among the various offices to which it assigns men. Wilson did not escape these inconsistencies with the world’s standards or their consequences. The boyish element was often seemingly at variance with the gravity of his obligations to society. But in return he maintained for himself a unity in his own life and a hold upon the poetry of existence that are often denied to those endowed with greater cautiousness and discretion, the practical wisdom of the world.
William Aspenwall Bradley.