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'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.' [1] 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', [2] 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.' [3] 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.' [4] A year later the next generation of English poets continued the attack when Alfred Tennyson mocked Wilson as critically incompetent. Addressing him under his famous pseudonym of 'Christopher North', Tennyson observed disdainfully:

You did late review my lays,

     Crusty Christopher;

You did mingle blame and praise,

     Rusty Christopher.

When I learnt from whom it came,

I forgave you all the blame,

     Musty Christopher;

I could not forgive the praise,

     Fusty Christopher. [5]

In 1845 Aubrey De Vere 'heard a lecture from Professor Wilson, in support of a modified Utilitarianism—it was delivered with a sort of pompous energy disproportionate to the occasion, and evidently unreal.' Three years later Ralph Waldo Emerson was in Edinburgh and he spoke with Wilson, but noted revealingly that 'nothing important was said.' Later he too heard Wilson lecture, and described how he 'foamed at the mouth with physical exertion', but spoke without 'a ray of wit or thought.' [6] To many contemporaries Wilson was almost a figure of fun, while his writings were dismissed as insubstantial and derivative.

Following his death in 1854 Wilson faded quickly from critical view, and though he has occasionally been summoned from this oblivion, it is usually to be soundly scourged and then hurled back there with redoubled force. In 1936 Hugh MacDiarmid wrote scathingly of Wilson as the original 'hollow man', and as 'the most extraordinary exponent' of a kind of 'verbiage' which is intended 'simply to batter the hearer into a pulpy state of vague acquiescence.' MacDiarmid finds 'the utter immorality' of Wilson's 1820 appointment as Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh 'piquant in the extreme', and Wilson's abject dependence on his friends to write his lectures 'probably without a parallel.' [7] In The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, John Gross describes Wilson as 'a pest, lashing out viciously at friends as well as enemies under the cover of anonymity, and then trembling in case they penetrated his disguise. Often he sounds half-cracked; and the famous Noctes Ambrosianae...are (to my mind at least) so much unreadable rigmorole.' [8] Most recently, and even more harshly, Andrew Noble argues that 'Wilson was significantly responsible for setting back Scottish literature by almost a century since he bears so much of the burden for inverting the discontented, radical nationalist genius into the totem of a sentimental cult which worshipped almost everything Burns loathed.' [9] Throughout his career Wilson both exploited and provoked a language of extremity, and in recent years he has been condemned with a truculence that not only ironically mirrors his own critical practices, but that has seemingly confirmed his place as, at best, a mawkish mediocrity and, at worst, a national disgrace.

Yet this is not the way Wilson seemed to many of his contemporaries. He was at different periods on intimate terms with some of the leading figures of the age; he was regarded by many as a leading figure himself; and he was repeatedly praised as critic, poet, fiction writer, and magazinist. Wilson was for a time an intimate member of the Coleridge/Wordsworth circle. He moved to the Lake District in 1807 to be near both men. His intimacy with Coleridge reached its height in 1809 when he helped write the 'Letter of Mathetes' for Coleridge's paper The Friend, a 'Letter' that Coleridge commented had been 'much admired, and by Men of Genius.' [10] Wilson's intimacy with Wordsworth reached its height in 1810 when he became godparent to Wordsworth's son William junior, and when at this same time he claimed he was allowed to read the unpublished Prelude, a manuscript reserved for the eyes of only Wordsworth's closest friends and admirers. 'I remember', Wilson recalled, 'when I was very young, sleeping at his house, and when I was in bed he brought it to me to read. I read it during a grand storm of thunder and lightning and, whether influenced by that, together with the excitement of finding myself so honoured by Wordsworth, I know not—but I thought it one of the finest things I ever read.' [11] In 1815 Wilson moved to Edinburgh, where he soon found himself on familiar terms with some of the leading Scottish writers of the day, including Francis Jeffrey and Walter Scott, and his position amongst the Edinburgh literati was consolidated when he assumed a leading role with Blackwood's Magazine and fell into the company of J. G. Lockhart, John Galt, James Hogg, and Thomas Carlyle. Wilson's relationship with several of these men was complicated and unsatisfactory, but he enjoyed an intimacy with all of them, and his writings repeatedly challenge and explore these intimacies. As late as 1844 even Wordsworth could refer to 'my old Friend...Wilson.' [12]

Wilson was an immensely popular writer, and the scene Emily Brontë describes of 'Aunt upstairs in her room...reading Blackwood's magazine to papa' [13] must have been repeated in thousands of British and North American homes every month. Certainly the Brontës were great admirers: 'I cannot express...the heavenliness of associations connected with such articles as Professor Wilson's', wrote Branwell in 1835, 'read and re-read while a little child, with all their poetry of language and divine flights into that visionary realm of imagination' (Alexander, 57). And the Brontës were not alone. In 1820 Byron described Wilson as 'a man of great powers and acquirements.' Ten years later in On the Constitution of the Church and State Coleridge spoke of the 'very many obligations' Wilson had 'conferred on his readers (among whom he has few more constant or more thankful than myself).' [14] Elizabeth Barrett Browning called Wilson 'a writer of indubitable genius', and in 1838 George Lewes listed him as one of 'our greatest men.' [15] In America, Edgar Allan Poe asserted that 'no man of his age has shown greater versatility of talent, and few, of any age, richer powers of imagination. [Wilson's] literary influence has far exceeded that of any Englishman who ever existed.' In 1841 Charles Dickens asked, 'Who can revert to the literature of the land of Scott and Burns without having directly in his mind, as inseparable from the subject and foremost in the picture, that old man of might, with his lion heart and sceptred crutch, Christopher North?' [16] Carlyle wrote often and contradictorily of Wilson, but in his final assessment of 1868 he declared that 'never from any man' had he heard

such a boundless, quietly volcanic pouring of himself out in spiritual lava,—all a kind of "lava", which glowed luminous in the night, and never, for a moment, was mere ashes and soot, tho' perhaps at no moment quite free of those ingredients. For he went along without study or distrust, extempore in all senses; and gave you, with careless abundance, whatever lay in him on the topic going. [17]

Wilson has often been portrayed as a ruthless miscreant who enjoyed inflicting pain on his betters from behind a mask of anonymity, but his work had an enormous impact on both sides of the Atlantic, and he was praised by several of his leading contemporaries.

Wilson's personality embraced remarkable extremes. He made his living at different times as a professional writer, lawyer, and academic, yet he was 'a very robust athletic man' who excelled at 'leaping, wrestling' and 'boxing.' [18] David Masson noted that much of Wilson's early work 'might very well have been written by some lily-handed young gentleman who could neither shoot, nor fish, nor drive a gig', [19] yet Wilson was responsible for some of the most violent and salacious criticism of the age, while his imaginative work often centres on scenes of desolation, depravation, and emotional excess. Henry Cockburn said Wilson wrote 'the best Scotch that has been written in modern times', yet he has been cited as the 'founding father of [the] sorry school' of kailyard fiction. [20] George Saintsbury listed him as one of the 'three chief pioneers' of English prose rhythm, yet Wilson seems to revel in passages of remarkable bluntness and vulgarity: typically, he writes of when 'a drunk street-blackguard...attempting to spit in the face of some sickly gentleman well stricken in years, grew so sick with blue ruin as to spew—while a sudden blast of wind from an opposite direction blew the filth back with a blash all over his ferocious physiognomy.' [21] George Gilfillan remarked that when at Oxford Wilson became 'a Radical so flaming, that it is said he would not allow a servant to black his shoes', [22] yet Wilson was notorious throughout his Blackwood's career for his belligerent Toryism. Carlyle spotted the paradox right away: Wilson's 'very Toryism...considerably dissatisfied me', he wrote, 'for I perceived that, like myself, he was among the born Radicals of his generation.' Alive to all these contradictions, Barrett Browning said simply, 'I call [Wilson] a brute-angel' (Carlyle, 106; BC, VI. 344).

Wilson exploited these extremes throughout his writings. As a critic, he is of course best known for his reckless cruelty and shameless muckraking, yet he also wrote a good deal that is characterized by insightfulness and sympathy. His critical career began at only seventeen when he wrote a penetrating letter to his idol William Wordsworth, in which he described how in adhering 'strictly to natural feelings' Wordsworth had 'surpassed every poet both of ancient and modern times', but in which he also insisted that Wordsworth had 'in several cases...fallen into...error', particularly in 'The Idiot Boy', where 'the excessive fondness of the mother disgusts us, and prevents us from sympathizing with her.' [23] This combination of confidence, keen perception, and provocation was characteristic of Wilson, and in his best writing from the start. On the negative side, these qualities were often perverted into a poisonous blend of arrogance, callousness, and scorn, as can be seen in his numerous attacks on Keats, Hunt, Haydon, Hazlitt and the other 'Cockneys'. [24] Yet on the positive side, Wilson had a track record of singling out achievement that compares favourably with any other critic of his age. He wrote enthusiastically of established writers like Charles Lamb, who was 'without doubt a man of genius', and whose 'mind has not a very wide range; but every thing it sees rises up before it in vivid beauty. He is never deceived by mere seeming magnitude.' [25] Wilson observed that Byron's genius had a 'kingly dignity....To no poet was there ever given so awful a revelation of the passions of the human soul'; Byron himself said Wilson's review of Manfred 'had all the air of being a poet's, and was a very good one.' [26] Wilson treated Coleridge with great severity on occasion, but he also declared that he had 'perhaps the finest superstitious vein of any person alive', and his Wallenstein was 'the best translation of a foreign drama which our English literature possesses' (BM, 3 (1818), 649; Colmer, 115).

More impressively, Wilson was also among the very first to recognize or champion the work of unknown or despised figures. His supposedly adamantine Tory principles did not prevent him from seizing upon the democratic impulse of Lyrical Ballads so that, in 1802, while Jeffrey and the Edinburgh laughed at the Lake School, Wilson perceived how these poems demonstrated 'that every creature on the face of the earth is entitled in some measure to our kindness. They prove that in every mind, however depraved, there exist some qualities deserving our esteem. They point out the proper way to happiness.' Twenty years later in Blackwood's he continued to praise Wordsworth, and for similar reasons: he 'was the first man that vindicated the native dignity of human nature...He was the first man that stripped thought and passion of all vain or foolish disguises....He was the first man who in poetry knew the real province of language' (Gordon, 29; BM, 12 (1822), 175). Wilson was also one of the few contemporary critics to write discerningly of Shelley, and at a time when other members of the Tory press were trying willfully to outdo one another in their abuse of the poet. Wilson played a minor role in Blackwood's 1819 review of The Revolt of Islam, one of the most incisive essays on Shelley to be published during his lifetime, and an essay that Richard Holmes asserts shows 'a finer and more ranging appreciation' [27] than Leigh Hunt's Examiner critique of the same poem. There were also a series of shorter references, as in Wilson's December 1819 review of Hunt's Literary Pocket-Book, where he cites Shelley's 'deep voice of inspiration' and quotes the whole of 'Marianne's Dream', and his April 1821 discussion of the 'very disgusting nature' of The Cenci, which is nevertheless praised as 'very powerfully conceived and powerfully executed' (BM, 6 (1819), 240-41; BM, 9 [1821], 93). [28] Wilson wrote appreciatively of Carlyle well before he became generally known to the public, first in 1828 when he warmly recommended him for the Chair of Moral Philosophy at St Andrews, and then again in 1832, when he noted in Blackwood's that Carlyle possessed 'a soul that sees all that is good and great, beautiful and sublime, in the works of inspiration.' [29] Finally, Wilson was among the earliest admirers of Barrett Browning. In his 1838 review of The Seraphim he wrote that 'no common mind displays itself in this Preface pregnant with lofty thoughts', and of the poem itself he stated that he read it 'not without certain regrets almost amounting to blame, but far more with love and admiration.' Barrett Browning was 'delighted' with the review. 'Professor Wilson's praise I have always coveted', she wrote, 'yet scarcely dared to hope for' (BC, IV. 379, 72). As a critic, however, Wilson had shown himself alive to literary promise for nearly four decades—and alive, it is worth emphasizing, to democratic and radical voices like those of the young Wordsworth, Shelley, and Carlyle—so that his record of defying his own Toryism and publicly celebrating writers who had previously been either vilified or neglected is far more impressive than is usually realized. He committed a series of well-publicized reprisals and literary executions, and he rarely reviewed without mingling blame and praise. But he wrote judiciously of Lamb, Byron and Coleridge, and can justly claim to have been amongst the earliest and most discriminating admirers of Wordsworth, Shelley, Carlyle, and Barrett Browning. It is hard to think of another contemporary critic who can boast a comparable record.

As a poet, Wilson passed from one extreme to the other, for he began by writing a cloyingly saccharine verse but was much more successful when he moved to the opposite pole of violent Gothic excess. His first major work, The Isle of Palms, was charitably described by Poe as a piece in which 'the poetic predominates greatly over the intellectual element', and certainly the poem is prettified and pious at the expense of what Crabb Robinson called 'strength of imagination.' [30] Typically,

In such a fairy Isle now prayed

Fitz-Owen and his darling Maid.

The setting sun, with a pensive glow,

Hath bathed their foreheads bending low,

Nor ceased the voice, or breath of their prayer,

Till the moonlight lay on the mellowed air. [31]

In The City of the Plague (1816), however, Wilson decisively changed tactics, replacing the Isle's 'raptures about female purity and moonlight landscapes, and fine dreams, and flowers, and singing-birds' [32] with scenes of violence, hysteria, and desecration. 'The "City of the Plague"', declared Byron, '...[is] full of the best "matériel" for tragedy that has been seen since Horace Walpole', and Francis Jeffrey praised the poem's 'savage and powerful eloquence'. [33] Aleksandr Pushkin used a scene from the poem for his 1832 tragedy The Feast during the Plague, which one critic characterizes as 'merely a translation' from Wilson. [34] Shelley read the poem as soon as it appeared and, as Eleanor Sickels has persuasively argued, almost certainly borrowed from it a year later in The Revolt of Islam, where scenes of massacre, famine, and religious terror seem clearly to draw on Wilson's imagery and rhetoric. [35] 'What signifies a living maniac's face?', Wilson asks:

Have we not often seen the unsheeted dead

Reared up like troops in line against the walls?

...And as I hurried off in shivering fear,

Methought I heard a deep and dismal groan

From that long line of mortal visages

Shudder through the deepening darkness of the street.

Wilson, Works, XII. 167

Much of Wilson's poetry is sanctimonious and unreservedly sentimental, but when he turned to the Gothic mode he was much more successful. The desolation and terror of The City of the Plague impressed Byron and Jeffrey, influenced Pushkin, and almost certainly informed Shelley's Revolt.

This same divide between the sentimental and the violent is evident in Wilson's fiction, though in this instance he exploited both extremes to considerable effect. Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life (1822) was Wilson's first book of fiction, and was aptly described by Henry Mackenzie as 'on the whole a syrupy dish for young sentimentalists' (Swann, 115), an assessment which infuriated Wilson, who had no doubted expected a rather more sympathetic reading from a writer known to the world as 'The Man of Feeling'. But if Mackenzie found bathos were he was supposed to find pathos, Wilson would have felt himself vindicated by the sales, which were immense. Nearly twenty-five years after its publication Hogg's Weekly Instructor noted that Lights and Shadows was already in every town and village library, but that a recently published and cheaper edition would soon mean that it would have 'a place on the shelf of every cottage in the Kingdom' (Swann, 115). Dickens, too, was impressed, and referred to Lights and Shadows as 'that beautiful book to which I have turned again and again, always to find new beauties and fresh sources of interest' (Fielding, 12). Charlotte Brontë's interest was apparently even keener, for two of the tales, 'Blind Allan' and 'Helen Eyre', seem likely to have played a role in shaping key scenes from Jane Eyre, as Maria Laughlin has convincingly demonstrated. The resemblance between 'Helen Eyre' and Jane Eyre, she notes, 'is marked, and though "Helen Eyre" is sentimental and slightly absurd, it is possible that...Brontë had this story in mind both in choosing the surname of her heroine, and in describing the betrothal and separation of Jane and Rochester.' [36] Wilson's fiction has often been damned as insipid, but its contemporary impact was deep and pervasive. Barrett Browning was a great admirer of Wilson in this sentimental mode, and was quick to assure Mary Russell Mitford of his 'influence for good & admiration over my own heart. The man is a poet through his prose' (BC, VII. 15).

Wilson made an even more significant contribution to the literature of terror. During its first fifteen years of publication, Blackwood's Magazine became notorious for the lurid descriptions and the precisely calculated alarm of its fictional offerings, and shifted the Gothic tradition away from the protracted unease and suspense cultivated by Ann Radcliffe in her novels of the 1790s, and toward the concise and explicit terrors dramatized by Edgar Allan Poe in his tales of the 1830s and 1840s. The pivotal writer whose works most clearly mark this shift is Wilson, for in Blackwood's first year alone he published three powerful stories that helped largely to introduce the tale of terror as a fictional form, and that set the trend for the horror fiction published in the magazine over the next several decades. Byron wanted to publish his vampire tale 'Augustus Darvell' in 'the Edinburgh Magazine (Wilsons & Blackwoods)', and Poe, who devoured Blackwood's fiction, described its terror tales as ones in which 'the ludicrous [was] heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical.' [37] This extremity—coupled with the innovation of rigorous compression—characterizes Wilson's finest tales for the magazine. 'Remarkable Preservation from Death at Sea', published in Blackwood's for February 1818, tells the tale of a man who has accidentally fallen overboard and must struggle for survival whilst he awaits rescue. 'That death, which to my imagination had ever appeared the most hideous...had now in good truth befallen me; but dreadful as all my dreams had been, what were they all to this?' The castaway oscillates between momentary hope and frantic despair before sliding into delirium. 'I thought I had a companion at my side, even her I best loved...and now like myself needing to be comforted, lying on my bosom cold, drenched, despairing, and insane, and uttering...the most horrid and dreadful imprecations' (BM, 2 (1818), 492-93). In 'Hospital Scene in Portugal', published only two months later in April 1818, Wilson describes a British officer who comes across a massacre. 'Have these ghastly things parents, brothers, sisters, lovers?', he asks. 'Did these convulsed, and bloody, and mangled bodies once lie in undisturbed beds? Did those clutched hands once press in infancy a mother's breast?' Then suddenly, from amongst these corpses, 'something rose up with an angry growl....It was a huge dark-coloured wolf-dog...and seeing me, he leaped forwards with gaunt and boney limbs.' The officer backs to the door and escapes out into 'the open air', just as, incongruously, 'a bugle was playing, and the light-infantry company of my own regiment was entering the village' (BM, 3 (1818), 89-90). In 'Hospital Scene', as in 'Remarkable Preservation', Wilson shamelessly sought to extend the kinds of graphic sensationalism that enabled Blackwood's to make such a mark in its early years. Yet the two tales rendered terror in ways far more explicit, condensed, and disturbing than anything found in Radcliffe, and at the same time they exploit those stark contrasts that were soon to become such a staple in the fiction of Poe: rationality and insanity, dream and reality, calm and frenzy, deformity and purity, volition and helplessness.

Yet perhaps Wilson's finest tale of terror is 'Extracts from Gosschen's Diary', which appeared in Blackwood's for August 1818, and which tells the story of a madman 'in all the beauty of youth, distinguished above his fellows for graceful accomplishments, and the last of a noble family'. [38] This man has murdered his mistress, and now speaks to a priest on the eve of his execution. 'Do you think there was no pleasure in murdering her?', he asks.

I grasped her by that radiant, that golden hair,—I bared those snow-white breasts,—I dragged her sweet body towards me, and, as God is my witness, I stabbed, and stabbed her with this very dagger, ten, twenty, forty times, through and through her heart. She never so much as gave one shriek, for she was dead in a moment,—but she would not have shrieked had she endured pang after pang, for she saw my face of wrath turned upon her,—she knew that my wrath was just, and that I did right to murder her who would have forsaken her lover in his insanity.

I laid her down upon a bank of flowers,—that were soon stained with her blood. I saw the dim blue eyes beneath the half-closed lids,—that face so changeful in its living beauty was now fixed as ice, and the balmy breath came from her sweet lips no more. My joy, my happiness, was perfect.

Tales of Terror, 21

The tale's combination of nobility, insanity, innocence, and senseless brutality is still unsettling, and is Wilson's most successful exploration of the psychology of perversion. Bryan Procter ('Barry Cornwall') explicitly acknowledged his debt to 'Gosschen's Diary' for 'the catastrophe' of his dramatic poem Marcian Colonna (1820). 'The murderer and the murder'd', he writes,

                              —one as pale

As marble shining white beneath the moon,

The other dark as storms, when the winds rail

At the chafed sea,—but not to calm so soon.—

No bitterness, nor hate, nor dread was there;

But love still clinging round a wild despair,

A wintry aspect and a troubled eye,

Mourning o'er youth and beauty born to die. [39]

More significantly, Procter's friend Robert Browning is also indebted to 'Gosschen's Diary' for his chilling dramatic monologue, 'Porphyria's Lover' (1836). In Wilson's tale, notes Michael Mason,

the claimed absence of suffering to the victim, and some of her physical traits—the white flesh, the golden hair, and above all the blue eyes still visible—are details that are strongly echoed by Browning. Interesting aspects of the murderer—the erotic nature of his act and his religious fanaticism—are also retained in "Porphyria" in a subdued and modified form. [40]

'Gosschen's Diary' is an unnerving study of religious and sexual perversion, and the primary model for one of Browning's most famous dramatic monologues. Wilson's terror fiction established the Blackwood's mode and played a key role in the development of the Gothic tale. Such fiction, as critics have noted, 'may appear scurrilous and reprehensibly commercial, remote from the higher possibilities of literary art. And yet it was upon the basis of such unwholesome traffic that the modern short story emerged as an internationally significant form in these decades—in the productions of Hoffman, Pushkin, Mérimée, Balzac, Hawthorne, and Poe' (The Vampyre, xxi-xxii). Wilson was one of the earliest and most innovative practitioners in this form. Fittingly, one of the finest tales of terror of the nineteenth century, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, was first published in Blackwood's in late 1899, and may be seen as the climax of a tradition of terror literature in the magazine that Wilson himself had largely initiated over eighty years earlier.

As the single most important writer for Blackwood's during its first twenty-five years, Wilson domesticated the extremes and inconsistencies of his personality into the magazine, and was chiefly responsible for giving Blackwood's its extensive range, its fearless tone, its boundless energy, and its prolonged notoriety. 'How it occurs I know not', wrote William Harrison Ainsworth in 1830, 'but some people never read so well as in a magazine. Wilson, for example...where could the Professor write as he does in Blackwood—surely not in the three hot-pressed volumes, to be published by Henry Colburn of Old Burlington Street?' [41]Blackwood's suited Wilson, and he largely helped to invent it, because it allowed him to write prolifically but in short bursts, and in a format that prized novelty, paradox, and variety. In his longer works his exuberance too quickly went soft or stale, but in the magazine he capitalized on the fragmented and contradictory nature of his knowledge to produce a kind of rhapsodic intellectual play in which he ranged broadly over a myriad of topics, fictionalized friendships and animosities, blurred boundaries and conventions, and poured forth an endless series of parodies, diatribes, caricatures, and squibs. In Blackwood's, Wilson produced essays on everything from 'the Dress of the Elizabethan Age' and 'Literary Censorship', through prisons, snow storms, 'Letters from the Lakes', and an 'Automaton Chess Player', to 'Lectures on the Fine Arts' and a series on 'Boxiana'. He assumed a host of fictive guises, praised and damned with impunity, and wrote in prose styles that extended from the sublime to the ridiculous, and oftentimes within the same article.

Wilson combined these qualities most fully in his best known work for Blackwood's, for the Noctes Ambrosianae (1822-35) vividly displays his genius for satire, ventriloquism, foolery, and imaginative insight, and was the most popular magazine serial to appear before Pickwick Papers. The series is a sustained piece of meta-fiction in which within the context of the magazine Wilson assumes the guise of Blackwood's notional editor Christopher North, and introduces fictive impersonations of a number of other Blackwood's contributors, all of whom then discuss the production, dynamics, and direction of the magazine. The Noctes are a commentary in Blackwood's on the running of Blackwood's, and ideally harnassed Wilson's fascination with fictive plurality and the manipulation of identity. Masson said that with the series Wilson introduced 'a fulness and breadth of humanity into periodical writing which was not to be found in the contemporary periodical literature of Cockneydom, or in that of Edinburgh Whiggism' (National Review, 185). In 1854 Gilfillan wrote that 'each dialogue is in fact a miniature Don Juan, jerking you down at every point from the highest to the lowest reaches of feeling and thought', an opinion echoed most recently by J. H. Alexander when he contends that the Noctes is 'comparable in many ways with...Don Juan in its outrageousness, its variety, its virtuoso improvisatory quality, its exploratory and subversive aspect, its allusiveness, and its vast entertainment value.' [42] In the Noctes Wilson's gift for irony and exuberance balances and subsumes his mawkishness, arrogance, and maliciousness, for the dialogic form both disciplined and freed him. In 1825 Hazlitt famously castigated 'the present' as 'an age of talkers, and not of doers', (Hazlitt, Works, XI. 28) but Wilson's 'talk' produced one of the most far-reaching and incisive commentaries on the political, social and literary climate of the day, and perhaps the most important prose works in English written between James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner in 1824 and Carlyle's Sartor Resartus ten years later. As a magazinist, Wilson did not edit Blackwood's but when Mary Russell Mitford labeled the magazine 'a very libellous, naughty, wicked, scandalous, story-telling, entertaining work', [43] the praise was largely his. In an age of personalities, Wilson's thoroughly informed the Noctes, and was at the heart of the most successful magazine of the first half of the nineteenth century.

Wilson's centrality to the Blackwood's enterprise meant not only that he was widely read and frequently praised. It meant also that when other authors came to write for Blackwood's, they consciously adopted the style and tone that he himself had done so much to create: if one hoped to publish in Blackwood's, one needed to know, as Poe put it in his famous spoof of 1838, 'How to Write a Blackwood Article'. [44] Wilson's influence in this regard is perhaps most forcefully demonstrated in his relationship with Thomas De Quincey, who turned himself into a Blackwood's writer under Wilson's tutelage, and who was far more reliant on Wilson's advice and instruction than has usually been assumed. De Quincey and Wilson had a remarkable amount in common: they were born within three months of one another, their fathers were both prosperous merchants and, whilst still in their teens and unknown to one another, both wrote a fan letter to Wordsworth in which they hailed him as the greatest poet of the age. Both went to Oxford and then moved to the Lake District, drawn there by what De Quincey called 'the deep, deep magnet...of William Wordsworth'. [45] Here they met, inherited sizeable patrimonies (though Wilson's was much larger than De Quincey's), and lived for a time as gentlemen scholars and intimate members of the Wordsworth/Coleridge circle. Both lost their fortunes before ending up on the Blackwood's staff and writing for the periodical press, where both specialized in satires, Toryism, terror fiction, and gossipmongering.

Wilson and De Quincey may possibly also have shared a more serious vice: opium addiction. Like De Quincey, Wilson took the drug at Oxford. 'I [am] in a curious', he wrote a friend in 1807, 'from having taken laudanum, not exactly with a view to annihilation, but spirits.' Wilson referred to the drug as a 'blessed beverage' that at times made him 'as drunk as Chloe' and at others sunk him 'in despair and misery.' [46] In 'Remarkable Preservation from Death at Sea', Wilson recounted an opium experience, and in terms that distinctly anticipated De Quincey's descriptions in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, published only three years later, and originally intended for Blackwood's. The castaway in the tale swallows a whole 'phial of laudanum', and soon experiences the 'pain and pleasure' of opium. 'I imagined myself in a vessel and on a voyage, and had a dreamy impression that there was connected with it something of glory....Then, suddenly, a cold tremulous sickness would fall on me—a weight of sadness and despair' (BM, 3 (1818), 493). In the Noctes Wilson discussed a series of opium experiments, including those of Mordecai Mullion and the Ettrick Shepherd, who when under the influence of opium encountered 'an awfu' smell, like the rotten sea; and a confusion between the right hand and the left...and motion as of everlasting earthquake'. [47] Finally, there are two remarkable letters from Wilson to his close friend Alexander Blair, both of which seem to date from late 1826. 'I have been prevented from writing to you for months past', Wilson avers,

by great mental anguish....I cannot write down the cause of my affliction; nor do I know if you were by my side this moment if I could tell it to you. It kills my soul day by day; & has been doing so for years past. It involves in me no moral blame; & therefore did you know it, you would forgive me much....I am deserving of your deepest pity.

In the next letter Wilson continues: 'I am the most miserable of men. That dreadful evil of which I spoke is not abated, & weighs me down to the ground with sorrow and despair. Oh! do come—for my soul is troubled. I am utterly helpless.' [48] Further research is needed to try and determine the exact source of Wilson's misery, but his rhetoric and physical condition seem at least to suggest the possibility of an opium addiction. Wilson was given to extravagant self-dramatization and overheated descriptions of his own misery, but in these letters his reticence and 'mental anguish', his denial of moral culpability, his attention to time and the past, his tortured soul, and his helplessness and despair seem almost consciously to evoke the De Quincey of Confessions, and to hint that the 'dreadful evil' is some kind of drug dependency. Wilson and De Quincey came from similar backgrounds, had a great deal in common, and might possibly even have shared De Quincey's most famous vice.

De Quincey's relationship with Wilson was a strange one, and evoked in him both great hostility and enduring affection. At its nadir in 1821, De Quincey could scarcely speak of Wilson without contempt, and in a series of conversations with Keats's friend Richard Woodhouse he attacked him with an intensity that verged on paranoia. 'Wilson has no principles at all, and no judgment', De Quincey maintains. He is 'vindictive & malicious', quick to 'attack & pull down the reputation of all other poets whom he thought he could safely assail', but 'submissive & crouching to all whom the world had marked with its approbation.' De Quincey is haunted by 'a sort of feeling or ominous anticipation, that possibly there was some being in the world who was fated to do him at some time a great & unexpiable injury....Many circumstances seemed to make it not improbable that Wilson might be that man.' [49] Yet on other occasions De Quincey's assessment was much more balanced, and he spoke warmly of Wilson and of their friendship. The two men met in 1808 and, though there was a gradual slackening of their intimacy, they remained friends until Wilson's death nearly half a century later. De Quincey lived in Wilson's house for months at a time, in both the Lake District and Edinburgh. 'Now and then as I went down-stairs at seven in the morning,' Wilson recalled, 'I would meet De Quincey coming up to bed with a candle in his hand. He was a gentle, courteous creature'. [50] De Quincey remembers how he and his 'illustrious friend...walked for twenty years amongst our British lakes and mountains hatless, and amidst both snow and rain', or when they went together to the theatre to watch Mrs. Siddons 'with a delight embittered by the certainty that we saw her for the last time'. [51] According to De Quincey's American publisher James Fields, toward the end of his life De Quincey 'spoke of Charles Lamb and Southey with love and tenderness, and when he mentioned John Wilson his eyes filled and his voice trembled.' In 1839, after over three decades of friendship, De Quincey himself described Wilson as 'the only very intimate male friend I have had' (Fields, 467; Masson, II.355).

De Quincey's opinion of Wilson as a writer was often decidedly negative. 'All his serious writings are extravagant & overdone', he declared; 'they give the reader a sense of exaggeration, & a feeling that the Author is insincere.' He described 'the Sentimental' as Wilson's 'evil genius' and late in life 'ridiculed the...evidently...vulgar, over-wrought religionism' of his works. [52] On other occasions De Quincey worked very hard not to comment on Wilson as writer, efforts that reach almost comic proportions in his three-part 1829 essay, where he discusses Wilson as walker, leaper, boxer, prankster, boatsman, gownsman, naturalist, and home owner—Wilson, it seems, as everything except author. [53] Yet such condemnations and evasions on De Quincey's part have tended to disguise how persistent a presence Wilson is in his writing, and how often De Quincey speaks of him with high regard. Wilson was Blackwood's 'intellectual Atlas', declared De Quincey, 'and very probably, in one sense, its creator' (Masson, V. 293). It was Wilson who 'first accustomed the public ear to the language of admiration coupled with the name of Wordsworth'. 'These things', argues De Quincey, 'must be known and understood properly to value the prophetic eye and the intrepidity of...Wilson...who outran, in fact, [his] contemporaries by one entire generation, and did that about 1802 which the rest of the world are doing in chorus about 1832.' [54] De Quincey also examines Wilson's genius as contrasted with Lamb's, and concludes that while Lamb's mind was 'discontinuous and abrupt', Wilson's was 'in its movement and style of feeling, eminently diffusive'; and while Lamb's humour was 'minute, delicate and scintillating', Wilson's was 'broad, overwhelming, riotously opulent' (Masson, III. 87-88). It was Wilson who coined 'the English word Hedonist'; Wilson who conceived 'the pleasant distinction' between 'the "coarse" [and] the "fine" arts'; Wilson who wrote an 'exquisite' piece on the Greek figure Argus for the February 1838 issue of Blackwood's. [55] 'A philosophy of human nature, like the philosophy of Shakespeare, and of Jeremy Taylor, and of Edmund scattered through the miscellaneous papers of Professor Wilson', De Quincey concluded in 1850. 'It is a philosophy that cannot be presented in abstract forms, but hides itself as an incarnation in voluminous mazes of eloquence and poetic feeling. Look for this amongst the critical essays of Professor Wilson; which, for continual glimpses and revelations of hidden truth, are perhaps absolutely unmatched.' [56] De Quincey sometimes damned Wilson as craven and insubstantial, but on other occasions he praised him with almost equal fervour.

Indeed, De Quincey's own inconsistencies and stark shifts in opinion seem only to mirror the manoeuvres and fictions of Wilson's own writing, which thrives on startling paradox, abrupt reversals, and sustained irony. This has repeatedly led to the charge that Wilson was unprincipled, but in Blackwood's at least such inconsistencies were a virtue, for they helped to generate the open-endedness, and debate, and imaginative frisson that characterized the magazine. As Alexander has noted, 'Maga made a point of admitting the validity of differing attitudes' and 'acknowledged...that certain aspects of even one's favourite writers are annoying; in some moods they are almost intolerable.' [57] Wilson found Coleridge brilliant in some instances; in others he found him self-pitying and absurd. And he said so. 'The notion of unity of mind, in a Journal like this, is a thing quite below our contempt', Lockhart declared flatly in 1825 (BM, 17 (1825), 132). Those looking for consistency were missing the joke—and the critical insight. Wilson habitually sought conflict rather than compromise; distortion rather than discretion; showmanship rather than sobriety; excess rather that restraint. He coupled a host of fictive identities and disguises with a creative impulse that was always pushing toward caricature and contradiction. It was part of the ploy, part of his temperament, part of selling magazines, part of creating controversy. Too often it made Blackwood's callous and extravagance, but it was also one of the fundamental reasons why the magazine was the most debated and imaginative periodical of the age. It is worth remembering that Wilson's 1802 letter to Wordsworth had an unsettling and characteristic effect: it provoked in the poet an important literary declaration that, as one critic notes, Wordsworth 'polished…more than he did some of his published prose pieces.' [58] De Quincey could be as scornful as Wilson's most severe critic, yet he also recognized that Wilson's finest work was characterized by a combination of intellectualism, intrepidity, opulence, and keen insight. De Quincey, said Gilfillan, had a 'profound' love of eight writers: 'Burke, Coleridge, Schiller, Jean Paul Richter, as well as Wordsworth, Shelley, Hazlitt, and Wilson.' [59]

De Quincey's own work was often shaped by Wilson. The two collaborated on the 1809 'Letter of Mathetes' for Coleridge's The Friend[60] and, after Wilson recruited De Quincey for Blackwood's in 1819, they collaborated again on the magazine's review of Shelley's 'The Revolt of Islam.' Wilson appeared twice in the 1821 version of Confessions, once as an exception to the rule about the unimaginativeness of Scottish Professors, and once as the 'friend in Edinburgh' who sent De Quincey for review David Ricardo's 1817 tract on the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, a work of 'profound understanding' that gave De Quincey 'a pleasure and an activity which [he] had not known for years' (Lindop, 64). From 1826 onward De Quincey produced over ninety essays for Blackwood's, many of which bear the mark of Wilson's influence. The two continued to collaborate. In June 1830 De Quincey told Blackwood that he could soon expect 'the Proof of my Article [on Kant] corrected and with the addition of a close...added at Professor Wilson's suggestion—both because it would make the end of my essay fall out more consistently...and also because both of us felt that something was wanting to a proper termination' (Morrison, 45-6). Wilson acted as a reader for Blackwood's, and played an active part in revising some of De Quincey's essays. In 1838 he helped reshape De Quincey's finest tale of terror, 'The Avenger', and a year later he told Robert Blackwood that he had 'corrected' De Quincey's essay 'On Miracles' 'with the utmost accuracy. 'Tis a good article - & will please.' [61] Wilson and De Quincey also spent a good deal of time together and during their many informal conversations the reclusive De Quincey was given the chance to discuss and develop ideas that would later make their way into the pages of Blackwood's. The terror writer and novelist Samuel Warren remembered visiting Wilson in 1828 when De Quincey was also a guest. 'Mr. De Quincey was taciturn for some time', Warren writes,

but gradually fell into conversation, in which Professor Wilson joined with vivacity. "Is such a thing as forgetfulness possible to the human mind?" asked Mr De Quincey—"Does the mind ever actually lose anything for ever? Is not every impression it has once received reproducible? How often a thing is suddenly recollected that had happened many, many years before, but never been thought of since till that moment! [62]

These thoughts, of course, appeared nearly twenty years later in De Quincey's famous Blackwood's sequel to Confessions, 'Suspiria de Profundis' (1845), where he explores memory and the mind and forgetfulness at great length, and most compellingly in his discussion of 'the mind as palimpsest': 'Everlasting layers of ideas, images, feelings, have fallen upon your brain softly as light. Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet in reality not one has been extinguished.' [63] Warren concludes that he 'was so absorbed with watching and listening to the conversation of Professor Wilson and Mr De Quincey, that [he] left almost supperless.' De Quincey undoubtedly had many similar discussions with Wilson that were equally absorbing, and much of this material would certainly have found its way into Blackwood's. During De Quincey's long career with the magazine, Wilson was his collaborator, editor, and companion.

But Wilson's influence did not end there. Perhaps more fundamentally, De Quincey when he wrote for Blackwood's also consciously adopted the Blackwood's manner and tone that Wilson himself had established and promulgated. Like his fellow-contributors, De Quincey regularly addressed himself to Wilson in his fictive guise as 'Christopher North', asking his opinion, recounting shared experiences, and pointing out paradoxes, grievances and absurdities, all of which extended that tone of intimacy and intellectual badinage that was so essential to Blackwood's broad appeal. In a series of articles, including 'Toilette of the Hebrew Lady', 'Kant in his Miscellaneous Essays', 'Richard Bentley', 'Dr Parr and his Contemporaries', and 'The Caesars', De Quincey addresses 'North' as a means of both exploiting and acknowledging the Blackwood's context, and of furthering that familiar Blackwood's interplay of audience, editor and writer. In the second instalment of 'On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts' (1839), he opens with a characteristic address: 'Doctor North, You are a liberal man' and 'being so, I am sure that you will sympathize with my case. I am an ill-used man, Dr North...and, with your permission, I will briefly explain how' (BM, 46 (1839), 661). The rest of the essay then develops the posturing and ironic distance established between the Opium-Eater and Sir Christopher in this opening address. Indeed, the extent to which De Quincey tailored his style to the Blackwood's format is succinctly demonstrated in an 1857 letter he wrote when revising his 1830 Blackwood's essay on Richard Bentley. In the letter De Quincey asks the compositor to put in quotation marks words like 'trounced' and 'cleaned out'. 'The reason being briefly this', he explains.

Both words belong to the slang vocabulary. Now this paper on Bent[ley] was originally written for Blackwood, in which journal Professor Wilson's spirit of jovial and headlong gaiety had kindled a general habit of riotous fun, with which an occasional use of street slang was not out of harmony. But perhaps on republishing any paper from that may be better to weed out such expressions.

Morrison, 80

De Quincey was intimately aware of context and audience, and when he wrote for Blackwood's he did so in a style consciously indebted to Wilson. It is worth adding that though he may have favoured a revised text in which these slang expressions were weeded out, many readers have long preferred—and the new Collected Edition of De Quincey's works is reprinting—his essays in their original periodical format, for it was in magazines like Blackwood's, and not when he revised his essays for book publication in the 1850s, that De Quincey brought most fully to fruition his gift for sophisticated banter, black humour, psychological insight, and critical exegesis. From recruitment, collaboration, and in-house editing to style, tone, and mannerism, Wilson played a major role both in creating the Blackwood's forum, and in shaping the work of the magazine's many contributors, including De Quincey.

In 1823, the minor magazinist John Carne visited Wilson at Elleray in the Lake District. 'It is my great desire, beyond the highest rank or dignity that could be given me', Wilson told Carne at this time, 'to possess but a place in the literature of my country, that my name might go down and my works be read after my death.' [64] Wilson's 'great desire' can hardly be said to have come to pass, and since his death he has had virtually no place in the literature of his country or in considerations of Romanticism. Yet he was one of the most prolific and recognizable figures of the day. Carlyle wrote that Wilson's 'whole existence yawned in inconsistencies', (Carlyle, 116) and while his indulgences in the extremes of sentimentality and spitefulness have generated a rhetoric that is often as extreme in its condemnation of him as 'unreadable' or a 'berserker', Wilson also produced work that is equally notable for its tolerance, insight, and disturbing emotional extravagance. De Quincey, who both attacked and admired him, concluded in 1850 that Wilson walked 'in the van of men the most memorable and original that have adorned our memorable and original age' (Masson, V. 301). Certainly he deserves to be brought back into our considerations of that age, for in a variety of different genres and for nearly four decades, he appealed to a wide mass audience, engaged some of his leading contemporaries, and produced an innovative and remarkably influential body of work that both reflected and shaped Romantic and early Victorian literature.