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North of the Border: Cultural Crossing in the Noctes Ambrosiane [*][Record]

  • Nicola Z. Trott

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  • Nicola Z. Trott
    University of Glasgow

In September 1825, Christopher North and his cronies had three worthies in their sights: Wordsworth, Scott, and 'That Irish jackass, Martin'. Richard Martin, M.P. for Galway, had carried through Parliament a bill preventing cruelty to animals, but had also 'infest[ed] the police-offices with informations' about the perpetrators of this new crime of animal cruelty (NA i 31n.). Always a keen predator of Whig politicians, Wilson scented blood, and in a hot September Nox had his equally sporting alter ego, North, incite the exasperated drovers of Britain to rise up in defence of their time-honoured custom of 'banging the hide of an over-fed ox': on hearing Tickler's account of Martin's 'insufferable idiotism', North asks simply, 'Why don't they murder him at once?' (NA i 32). Idiotism seems to have been the infirmity of the month: a page or two later, it is 'Wordsworth [who] often writes like an idiot', whose 'verses are becoming less and less known every day', and who has become a farmyard spectacle among 'your great bawling He-Poets from the Lakes, who go round and round about, strutting upon nothing, like so many turkey-cocks gobbling with a long red pendant at their noses' (i 34,36). Clearly, there is more than one way of being cruel to animals. Wordsworth was a poet well seasoned in insult and not much given to lawyering. However, the Honourable Richard Martin, M.P., was not so quiescent, and threatened litigation. When it 'look[ed] as though Blackwood might be forced to reveal that Wilson was the author', the author's reaction was both bizarre and highly characteristic: 'Wilson took to his bed in despair and wrote to Blackwood that, on learning of the matter, "[he] was seized with a trembling and shivering fit, and was deadly sick for some hours…. To own that article is for a thousand reasons impossible. It would involve me in lies abhorrent to my nature. I would rather die this evening."' Not for the first time, a cornered Wilson threatened to commit suicide. One of the 'thousand reasons' that made owning the article impossible was presumably that Professor Wilson had only just returned from a visit to the Lakes, where he had been a guest at a gala gathering in honour of Scott and Canning, and then been privately entertained by the great He-Poet himself, William Wordsworth. In this context, Wilson's irritability is entirely understandable: to one of his temperament, few things would have been more galling than witnessing the triumphs of those whose society he had coveted but not quite succeeded in winning. Coming back north of the border to face again the 'tussle' of professional life, Wilson was able to vent his spleen in a Noctes attack on 'the arrogance of the stamp-master' and 'lyrical ballad monger' who 'sneers at almost every profession but his own' (NA i 37)—a sure sign that the Lake Poet had permitted himself some cutting remarks about Edinburgh Reviewers. Wilson's trump card was the anonymity into which, as an Edinburgh reviewer, he could at once retreat—except that, this time, thanks to 'That Irish jackass, Martin', his cover was apparently about to be blown. This little episode raises two of the governing principles of Wilson's writing life: the use (or abuse) of anonymity and the underlying risk of exposure. That Wilson saw the publication of his name as 'involv[ing him] in lies abhorrent to [his] nature' suggests how much his anonymity allowed him in the way of transgression, or of unacknowledged crossings-over into morally irresponsible and impure territories. There is even an odd sense in which Wilson remained anonymous to himself: …