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John Wilson Conference (University of Glasgow)—A Report[Record]

  • Philip Dundas and
  • John Strachan

…more information

  • Philip Dundas
    University of Glasgow

  • John Strachan
    University of Sunderland

The search for information on the life of a literary figure, often starts as an entry in one of the many guides and companions compiled by the big publishing houses. However, new editions of these tomes, with claims of regular revision, seldom seem to offer the insights of the most up-to-date research. Their remit is presumably too narrow to do anything but simply reduplicate information on all but the most clearly canonical characters. Hence a student of Romanticism who wanted the current view on John Wilson, will find scant detail of worth in such as Margaret Drabble's new edition of the Oxford Companion to English Literature (OUP 2000) or even Jon Mee and Iain McCalman's otherwise excellent Companion to the Romantic Age (OUP 1999). They simply re-iterate details from Mary Gordon's 1862 Memoir of Christopher North (itself a largely domestic and highly subjective biographical blandishment). The key points are duly noted with some loose variations; his association with the Lake School, some palely derivative poetry, the loss of a personal fortune and the subsequent writing for Blackwood's, which led to the invention of 'Christopher North' and the Noctes Ambrosianae. Wilson was elected Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University for purely political reasons and was author of several 'mawkish' novels. Such beggarly description belies the man but it is symptomatic of the sea of doldrums in which Wilson has found himself adrift throughout most of the last century. Today he is seen at best as a minor figure, who took advantage of his literary contacts, abused his friends and even worse through the pages of Blackwood's, damaged the budding literary genius of his day. But such a perspective, judging the man of history by contemporary social and political mores, lacks academic rigour and seems largely based on an irrational prejudice. There is a tendency among romanticists to be over-protective towards the great canonical writers of the period. So Wilson's reviews of Wordsworth are censured although he arguably did more than anyone to focus public attention on the poet. Crabb Robinson described Wilson's own work as an 'attenuation' of Wordsworth's, who according to the gossipy diarist, was never close to the younger man. And yet there is clear evidence that as well as being godfather to Wordsworth's son and companion to his family, Wilson for a time was a confidante and the two men often walked in the mountains together. Indeed Wilson attempted, with considerable public success in The Isle of Palms, a volume of poetry with Wordsworth as his chief model. This might be seen as affirmation rather than denigration. From contemporary Scottish literary scholars accusations fly of Wilson's treachery towards what they interpret as radical tradition inherited from Burns, marking him as the progenitor of the kailyard school. Alternatively, plainly for reasons of personal financial security, Wilson fed a public appetite for sentimental fiction. A somewhat different picture of John Wilson emerges when a more painstaking examination of his life and work is attempted. Clearly from an early age he was precocious in his talents and enthusiasms. A recently discovered volume of unpublished poetry, accompanied by a thirty-five page preface, written between the ages of fourteen and sixteen while still at Glasgow University, shows a sharp intellect wholly engaging with eighteenth century poetic traditions, while simultaneously embracing the new ideas enshrined in the 'Preface' to Lyrical Ballads. The poems fit perfectly Robert Mayo's discussion of contemporary magazine poetry; they are imitative in form and content but he uses his subject matter deftly, producing a credible synthesis of many turn-of-the-century poetic influences and subjects, …