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Blackwood's Berserker: John Wilson and the Language of Extremity[Record]

  • Robert Morrison

…more information

  • Robert Morrison
    Acadia University

'A sixteen stoner...a cocker, a racer, a six bottler, a twenty-four tumbler—an out-and-outer—a true, upright, knocking-down, poetical, prosaic, moral, professorial, hard-drinking, fierce-eating, good-looking, honourable, and straight-forward Tory.' So wrote William Maginn in 1831 in response to his own question, 'What can be said of Professor Wilson worthy of his various merits?' Beyond Wilson's physical prowess and Toryism, however, Maginn himself was brief and notably vague, and questions of Wilson's 'various merits', as well as of his enormous impact on the Romantic age, have gone unexplored and largely unasked. For a long line of critics, this is quite simply because Wilson is without merit, or very nearly so, a bizarre mixture of charlatanry, viciousness, sentimentality, and cowardice. Yet to many of his most distinguished contemporaries, Wilson seemed a far more substantial and accomplished figure than such criticism allows. His personality embodied remarkable extremes, and he exploited these extremes for nearly forty years to become one of the most popular and prolific writers of his age. As a critic, he wrote often highly perceptive reviews, and on a number of writers, from Wordsworth through Shelley to Barrett Browning. As a poet, he was praised by Jeffrey and Byron and probably influenced Shelley. His fiction impressed Dickens and the Brontës, while his short tales of terror played a central role in shifting the Gothic tradition from the suspense and unease of Ann Radcliffe to the explicit horrors and concentrated dread of Edgar Allan Poe. As a magazinist, Wilson gave the immensely influential Blackwood's its tone, its range, and its fearlessness, as seen most vividly in the Noctes Ambrosianae series. Wilson's impact on the magazine also meant that when other authors came to write for Blackwood's, they consciously assumed the tone and style that Wilson himself had done so much to create. His influence in this regard was extensive, but is perhaps most strikingly revealed in his relationship with Thomas De Quincey, with whom he had a great deal in common and might possibly even have shared an opium addiction. Wilson provoked in De Quincey both bitter scorn and great affection, but he is a persistent presence throughout De Quincey's writings, and helped to shape many of his works, from early collaborations through to De Quincey's finest Blackwood's essays of the 1830s and 1840s. Andrew Motion has recently dismissed Wilson as 'a Berserker', but his impact on his era was various, profound, and enduring. For well over a hundred years Wilson has had virtually no presence in critical considerations of the Romantic era, and his writings have always been the subject of derision and contemptuous abuse. In his lifetime he was castigated for everything from sentimentality and plagiarism to spitefulness and vacuity. After reading The Isle of Palms (1812), Crabb Robinson labeled Wilson 'a female Wordsworth...without riches or strength of imagination.' After reading The Trials of Margaret Lyndsay (1823), Wordsworth himself said that Wilson was 'a perverse Mortal' who had 'played the Plagiarist—with the very tale of Margaret in the Excursion, which he abuses....More mawkish stuff I never encountered.' In 1828 William Hazlitt highlighted the dubious nature of Wilson's character when he taunted him as 'Mr Lecturer on Moral Philosophy, or author of Chaldee Manuscript, whichever title pleases you best!' Three years later Benjamin Robert Haydon lashed out at Wilson for his role in the Blackwood's assaults on John Keats and the 'Cockney School.' 'Ah, Wilson & Lockhart, if ever man was murdered, it was John Keats—and if ever men were murderers, ye are they!', Haydon cried. Wilson, he added, 'could not bear [Keats's] high poetical Genius....He spoke of him with undisguised malignity.' …