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John Wilson Conference (University of Glasgow)—A Report

  • Philip Dundas et
  • John Strachan

…plus d’informations

  • Philip Dundas
    University of Glasgow

  • John Strachan
    University of Sunderland

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Corps de l’article

(i) Introduction by Philip Dundas

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, from Rousseau and Ossian, to Campbell, Bowles, Charlotte Smith, Rogers, Thomson and Pope. In his essay Wilson focuses on highly controversial elements of contemporary literary debate, taking issue directly with Jeffrey's review of Thalaba, recognising the importance of the natural and sublime over neoclassical order and avows Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth as the important poets of the age. At this time Wilson was a pupil of George Jardine, Professor of Logic at Glasgow, who himself had been one of Adam Smith's best students. Under Jardine's tutelage, Wilson composed one of the most perceptive critiques of Lyrical Ballads ever written in his 1802 letter to Wordsworth; significant enough to elicit an uncharacteristically long reply from the poet. From my research it transpires that the May 1802 letter had such an impact on Wordsworth that later that year, wishing to reconsider its contents, he had it forwarded to him at Calais in August. This is a detail so far missed by the biographers which might sound volumes in the silence of that meeting between Wordsworth and his ten year-old daughter Caroline. After Wilson's years at Oxford, where he was a renowned wrestler, cock-fighter, whig and scholar (winning the first Newdigate Prize for poetry in 1806), he purchased land at Elleray, overlooking Windermere, and became friends with the Wordsworths, making his one lifelong friendship in Thomas De Quincey and acting as a runner to the library at Calgarth for Coleridge. As well as contributing to The Friend, Wilson wrote his own volume of poems, Isle of Palms which was well received by many critics and went into second edition. On losing his considerable fortune he returned to Scotland and trained as an advocate but had little taste for the law. But he found himself at the heart of the important literary and artistic circles in Edinburgh. He was soon a close associate of Hogg, Blackwood and Lockhart and was on good terms with Scott, Cockburn and Jeffrey, dining in the same houses and attending the same literary societies and debating clubs.

Wilson was rarely interested in the political implications of his literary views but he, like Hogg, was temperamentally on the side of tradition. Finding the Whig literary constituency taken up the Edinburgh Review, William Blackwood must have seemed an attractive and persuasive alternative, to which anyone who has read his letters will attest. The literary carve-up of Edinburgh's magazine war could begin in earnest. Psychologically Wilson was more politically inclined towards Jacobitism than to anti-Jacobin realpolitik. His elevation to the Chair of Moral Philosophy by Edinburgh Town Council was an astute move to fend off what the city fathers perceived to be the unwelcome threat of Sir James Mackintosh, although ultimately the battle was between Wilson and his old school friend William Hamilton, who later took the Chair of Logic. Critics of Wilson claim that, evidently unqualified for the job, he was chosen only because of his avowed Tory principles and then had his lectures written for him by his friend Alexander Blair: a surprisingly naïve assessment of history. Wilson's appointment was by no means untypical (judgement of his suitability can hardly be more credibly judged today) and a perusal of the Blair letters in the Brotherton Library in Leeds, will show that although Wilson was given considerable help and support with the content of his original lectures, they were by no means written by his friend. Thirty-five years, lecturing to hundreds of students in the classes of Moral Philosophy and Political Economy at Edinburgh University must be some testimonial to his abilities.

As to the disparate extremes of Wilson's responses to Hunt, Keats, Wordsworth, Hogg, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron or Tennyson in the pages of Blackwood's, they were hardly politically motivated. As a critic Wilson was controlled by an entirely personal ethos of what he saw as literary integrity. However inconsistent that might have been, he was never frightened to change his mind or extend himself beyond the boundaries of fashionable criticism. He promoted a highly original and robust critical style; a match for the greatest of his day. His reputation in his day was as leonine as it is asinine today.

To really establish a clear idea of Wilson's contribution to the Romantic age, even if it is sometimes as devil's advocate, examination and discussion has to begin. This is what happened last summer at the BARS conference at Keele, when I was approached by Dr John Strachan from the University of Sunderland, who has a great interest in Wilson and Blackwood's. Having been already told by one of the luminary romanticists and plenary speakers at the conference that Wilson was a waste of time and a 'ghastly man', I was delighted to share an ambrosian night with another fan of Kit North and Maga. We then decided to organise a one-day conference on Wilson. What follows is John Strachan's report on the day.

(ii) Conference Report by John Strachan

We are pleased to present a small number of the papers delivered at the John Wilson/'Christopher North' Conference held in Glasgow on 20 May 2000. The event, chaired by Philip Dundas, and co-organised by the Universities of Glasgow and Sunderland, was the first conference to address the work, relationships and legacy of John Wilson, the brilliant, if troubling, poet, satirist and leading light of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. The conference saw speakers from Britain and North America present papers which dealt with all aspects of Wilson's work: the bludgeoning though highly effective satirist, the prose fictionalist, and the poet. However, the day's principal focus was upon Wilson the magazinist, with much attention being paid to his contributions to Blackwood's, where Wilson might be said to have become the presiding spirit of that capricious, highly irresponsible and highly imaginative journal. Both J. H. Alexander  [1] and Nicola Trott addressed the Noctes Ambrosianae, the brilliant series of imaginary conversations by Wilson and others which appeared in the journal between 1822 and 1835; David Walker spoke on Wilson's meditative prose in the Recreations of Christopher North (which were originally published in Maga), and David Finkelstein considered Mrs Oliphant's rendering of the history of Blackwood's.  [2] Much attention was paid to Wilson's relationships—sometimes fruitful, sometimes vexatious—with his peers: Douglas Mack addressed Wilson and Hogg, David Higgins dealt with Wilson and Wordsworth. Like Mack, Lindsey Lunan's focus was on Wilson's status in the Scottish literary canon, and her forthrightly argued piece maintained that Wilson's influence here was, on the whole, a negative one. An afternoon session focused upon North the sportsman, with Jane Moore considering Wilson's Blackwood's essays on boxing and Richard Hunter addressing his writings on fishing. John Strachan completed this session with an account of Blackwood's antipathetic reception of phrenological thought. The two essays published in this issue of RoN offer a general account of Wilson's work and status, and a thoughtful meditation on his finest work. Robert Morrison's opening address, 'Blackwood's Beserker', makes an able and powerfully-argued case for Wilson's importance, and Nicola Trott's 'Cultural Crossings in the Noctes Ambrosianae' makes a highly significant contribution to Noctesian criticism. These essays, and the conference as a whole, testify to a renewed and increasing level of interest in Blackwood's in general and Wilson in particular. They are part of an ongoing process of critical reassessment of Wilson's work and reputation.

Parties annexes