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Among those judgments of his contemporaries which make a sort of Inferno of the posthumous writings of Thomas Carlyle, that passed upon “Christopher North” has always seemed to me the most interesting, and perhaps on the whole the fairest.  There is enough and to spare of onesidedness in it, and of the harshness which comes from onesidedness.  But it is hardly at all sour, and, when allowance is made for the point of view, by no means unjust.  The whole is interesting from the literary side, but as it fills two large pages it is much too long to quote.  The personal description, “the broad-shouldered stately bulk of the man struck me:  his flashing eye, copious dishevelled head of hair, and rapid unconcerned progress like that of a plough through stubble,” is characteristically graphic, and far the best of the numerous pen sketches of “the Professor.”  As for the criticism, the following is the kernel passage of it: ­

Wilson had much nobleness of heart and many traits of noble genius, but the central tie-beam seemed wanting always; very long ago I perceived in him the most irreconcilable contradictions:  Toryism with sansculottism; Methodism of a sort with total incredulity; a noble loyal and religious nature not strong enough to vanquish the perverse element it is born into.  Hence a being all split into precipitous chasms and the wildest volcanic tumults; rocks over-grown indeed with tropical luxuriance of leaf and flower but knit together at the bottom ­that was my old figure of speech ­only by an ocean of whisky punch.  On these terms nothing can be done.  Wilson seems to me always by far the most gifted of our literary men either then or still.  And yet intrinsically he has written nothing that can endure.  The central gift was wanting.

Something in the unfavourable part of this must no doubt be set down to the critic’s usual forgetfulness of his own admirable dictum, “he is not thou, but himself; other than thou.”  John was quite other than Thomas, and Thomas judged him somewhat summarily as if he were a failure of a Thomas.  Yet the criticism, if partly harsh and as a whole somewhat incomplete, is true enough.  Wilson has written “intrinsically nothing that can endure,” if it be judged by any severe test.  An English Diderot, he must bear a harder version of the judgment on Diderot, that he had written good pages but no good book.  Only very rarely has he even written good pages, in the sense of pages good throughout.  The almost inconceivable haste with which he wrote (he is credited with having on one occasion actually written fifty-six pages of print for Blackwood in two days, and in the years of its double numbers he often contributed from a hundred to a hundred and fifty pages in a single month) ­this prodigious haste would not of itself account for the puerilities, the touches of bad taste, the false pathos, the tedious burlesque, the more tedious jactation which disfigure his work.  A man writing against time may be driven to dulness, or commonplace, or inelegance of style; but he need never commit any of the faults just noticed.  They were due beyond doubt, in Wilson’s case, to a natural idiosyncrasy, the great characteristic of which Carlyle has happily hit off in the phrase, “want of a tie-beam,” whether he has or has not been charitable in suggesting that the missing link was supplied by whisky punch.  The least attractive point about Wilson’s work is undoubtedly what his censor elsewhere describes as his habit of “giving a kick” to many men and things.  There is no more unpleasant feature of the Noctes than the apparent inability of the writer to refrain from sly “kicks” even at the objects of his greatest veneration.  A kind of mania of detraction seizes him at times, a mania which some of his admirers have more kindly than wisely endeavoured to shuffle off as a humorous dramatic touch intentionally administered to him by his Eidolon North.  The most disgraceful, perhaps the only really disgraceful, instance of this is the carping and offensive criticism of Scott’s Demonology, written and published at a time when Sir Walter’s known state of health and fortunes might have protected him even from an enemy, much more from a friend, and a deeply obliged friend such as Wilson.  Nor is this the only fling at Scott.  Wordsworth, much more vulnerable, is also much more frequently assailed; and even Shakespeare does not come off scot-free when Wilson is in his ugly moods.

It need hardly be said that I have no intention of saying that Scott or Wordsworth or Shakespeare may not be criticised.  It is the way in which the criticism is done which is the crime; and for these acts of literary high treason, or at least leasing-making, as well as for all Wilson’s other faults, nothing seems to me so much responsible as the want of bottom which Carlyle notes.  I do not think that Wilson had any solid fund of principles, putting morals and religion aside, either in politics or in literature.  He liked and he hated much and strongly, and being a healthy creature he on the whole liked the right things and hated the wrong ones; but it was for the most part a merely instinctive liking and hatred, quite un-coordinated, and by no means unlikely to pass the next moment into hatred or liking as the case might be.

These are grave faults.  But for the purpose of providing that pleasure which is to be got from literature (and this, like one or two other chapters here, is partly an effort in literary hedonism) Wilson stands very high, indeed so high that he can be ranked only below the highest.  He who will enjoy him must be an intelligent voluptuary, and especially well versed in the art of skipping.  When Wilson begins to talk fine, when he begins to wax pathetic, and when he gets into many others of his numerous altitudes, it will behove the reader, according to his own tastes, to skip with discretion and vigour.  If he cannot do this, if his eye is not wary enough, or if his conscience forbids him to obey his eyes’ warnings, Wilson is not for him.  It is true that Mr. Skelton has tried to make a “Comedy of the Noctes Ambrosianae,” in which the skipping is done ready to hand.  But, with all the respect due to the author of Thalatta, the process is not, at least speaking according to my judgment, successful.  No one can really taste that eccentric book unless he reads it as a whole; its humours arbitrarily separated and cut-and-dried are nearly unintelligible.  Indeed Professor Ferrier’s original attempt to give Wilson’s work only, and not all of that work when it happened to be mixed with others, seems to me to have been a mistake.  But of that further, when we come to speak of the Noctes themselves.

Wilson’s life, for more than two-thirds of it a very happy one and not devoid of a certain eventfulness, can be summarised pretty briefly, especially as a full account of it is available in the very delightful work of his daughter Mrs. Gordon.  Born in 1785, the son of a rich manufacturer of Paisley and a mother who boasted gentle blood, he was brought up first in the house of a country minister (whose parish he has made famous in several sketches), then at the University of Glasgow, and then at Magdalen College, Oxford.  He was early left possessor of a considerable fortune, and his first love, a certain “Margaret,” having proved unkind, he established himself at Elleray on Windermere and entered into all the Lake society.  Before very long (he was twenty-six at the time) he married Miss Jane Penny, daughter of a Liverpool merchant, and kept open house at Elleray for some years.  Then his fortune disappeared in the keeping of a dishonest relation, and he had, in a way, his livelihood to make.  I say “in a way,” because the wind appears to have been considerably tempered to this shorn but robust lamb.  He had not even to give up Elleray, though he could not live there in his old style.  He had a mother who was able and willing to entertain him at Edinburgh, on the sole understanding that he did not “turn Whig,” of which there was very little danger.  He was enabled to keep not too exhausting or anxious terms as an advocate at the Scottish bar; and before long he was endowed, against the infinitely superior claims of Sir William Hamilton, and by sheer force of personal and political influence, with the lucrative Professorship of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh.  But even before this he had been exempted from the necessity of cultivating literature on a little oatmeal by his connexion with Blackwood’s Magazine.  The story of that magazine has often been told; never perhaps quite fully, but sufficiently.  Wilson was not at any time, strictly speaking, editor; and a statement under his own hand avers that he never received any editorial pay, and was sometimes subject to that criticism which the publisher, as all men know from a famous letter of Scott’s, was sometimes in the habit of exercising rather indiscreetly.  But for a very great number of years, there is no doubt that he held a kind of quasi-editorial position, which included the censorship of other men’s work and an almost, if not quite, unlimited right of printing his own.  For some time the even more masterful spirit of Lockhart (against whom by the way Mrs. Gordon seems to have had a rather unreasonable prejudice) qualified his control over “Maga.”  But Lockhart’s promotion to the Quarterly removed this influence, and from 1825 (speaking roughly) to 1835 Wilson was supreme.  The death of William Blackwood and of the Ettrick Shepherd in the last-named year, and of his own wife in 1837 (the latter a blow from which he never recovered), strongly affected not his control over the publication but his desire to control it; and after 1839 his contributions (save in the years 1845 and 1848) were very few.  Ill health and broken spirits disabled him, and in 1852 he had to resign his professorship, dying two years later after some months of almost total prostration.  Of the rest of the deeds of Christopher, and of his pugilism, and of his learning, and of his pedestrian exploits, and of his fishing, and of his cock-fighting, and of his hearty enjoyment of life generally, the books of the chronicles of Mrs. Gordon, and still more the twelve volumes of his works and the unreprinted contributions to Blackwood, shall tell.

It is with those works that our principal business is, and some of them I shall take the liberty of at once dismissing.  His poems are now matters of interest to very few mortals.  It is not that they are bad, for they are not; but that they are almost wholly without distinction.  He came just late enough to have got the seed of the great romantic revival; and his verse work is rarely more than the work of a clever man who has partly learnt and partly divined the manner of Burns, Scott, Campbell, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, and the rest.  Nor, to my fancy, are his prose tales of much more value.  I read them many years ago and cared little for them.  I re-read, or attempted to re-read, them the other day and cared less.  There seems, from the original prospectus of the edition of his works, to have been an intention of editing the course of moral philosophy which, with more or fewer variations, obtained him the agreeable income of a thousand a year or so for thirty years.  But whether (as Mrs. Gordon seems to hint) the notes were in too dilapidated and chaotic a condition for use, or whether Professor Ferrier, his son-in-law and editor (himself, with Dean Mansel, the last of the exact philosophers of Britain), revolted at the idea of printing anything so merely literary, or what it was, I know not ­at any rate they do not now figure in the list.  This leaves us ten volumes of collected works, to wit, four of the Noctes Ambrosianae, four of Essays Critical and Imaginative, and two of The Recreations of Christopher North, all with a very few exceptions reprinted from Blackwood.  Mrs. Gordon filially groans because the reprint was not more extensive, and without endorsing her own very high opinion of her father’s work, it is possible to agree with her.  It is especially noteworthy that from the essays are excluded three out of the four chief critical series which Wilson wrote ­that on Spenser, praised by a writer so little given to reckless praise as Hallam, the Specimens of British Critics, and the Dies Boreales, ­leaving only the series on Homer with its quasi-Appendix on the Greek dramatists, and the Noctes themselves.

It must be confessed that the Noctes Ambrosianae are not easy things to commend to the modern reader, if I may use the word commend in its proper sense and with no air of patronage.  Even Scotchmen (perhaps, indeed, Scotchmen most of all) are wont nowadays to praise them rather apologetically, as may be seen in the case of their editor and abridger Mr. Skelton.  Like most other very original things they drew after them a flock of imbecile imitations; and up to the present day those who have lived in the remoter parts of Scotland must know, or recently remember, dreary compositions in corrupt following of the Noctes, with exaggerated attempts at Christopher’s worst mannerisms, and invariably including a ghastly caricature of the Shepherd.  Even in themselves they abound in stumbling-blocks, which are perhaps multiplied, at least at the threshold, by the arbitrary separation in Ferrier’s edition of Wilson’s part, and not all his part, from the whole series; eighteen numbers being excluded bodily to begin with, while many more and parts of more are omitted subsequently.  The critical mistake of this is evident, for much of the machinery and all the characters of the Noctes were given to, not by, Wilson, and in all probability he accepted them not too willingly.  The origin of the fantastic personages, the creation of which was a perfect mania with the early contributors to Blackwood, and who are, it is to be feared, too often a nuisance to modern readers, is rather dubious.  Maginn’s friends have claimed the origination of the Noctes proper, and of its well-known motto paraphrased from Phocylides, for “The Doctor,” or, if his chief Blackwood designation be preferred, for the Ensign ­Ensign O’Doherty.  Professor Ferrier, on the other hand, has shown a not unnatural but by no means critical or exact desire to hint that Wilson invented the whole.  There is no doubt that the real original is to be found in the actual suppers at “Ambrose’s.”  These Lockhart had described, in Peter’s Letters, before the appearance of the first Noctes (the reader must not be shocked, the false concord is invariable in the book itself) and not long after the establishment of “Maga.”  As was the case with the magazine generally, the early numbers were extremely local and extremely personal.  Wilson’s glory is that he to a great extent, though not wholly, lifted them out of this rut, when he became the chief if not the sole writer after Lockhart’s removal to London, and, with rare exceptions, reduced the personages to three strongly marked and very dramatic characters, Christopher North himself, the Ettrick Shepherd, and “Tickler.”  All these three were in a manner portraits, but no one is a mere photograph from a single person.  On the whole, however, I suspect that Christopher North is a much closer likeness, if not of what Wilson himself was, yet at any rate of what he would have liked to be, than some of his apologists maintain.  These charitable souls excuse the egotism, the personality, the violence, the inconsistency, the absurd assumption of omniscience and Admirable-Crichtonism, on the plea that “Christopher” is only the ideal Editor and not the actual Professor.  It is quite true that Wilson, who, like all men of humour, must have known his own foibles, not unfrequently satirises them; but it is clear from his other work and from his private letters that they were his foibles.  The figure of the Shepherd, who is the chief speaker and on the whole the most interesting, is a more debatable one.  It is certain that many of Hogg’s friends, and, in his touchy moments he himself, considered that great liberty was taken with him, if not that (as the Quarterly put it in a phrase which evidently made Wilson very angry) he was represented as a mere “boozing buffoon.”  On the other hand it is equally certain that the Shepherd never did anything that exhibited half the power over thought and language which is shown in the best passages of his Noctes eidolon.  Some of the adventures described as having happened to him are historically known as having happened to Wilson himself, and his sentiments are much more the writer’s than the speaker’s.  At the same time the admirably imitated patois and the subtle rendering of Hogg’s very well known foibles ­his inordinate and stupendous vanity, his proneness to take liberties with his betters, his irritable temper, and the rest ­give a false air of identity which is very noteworthy.  The third portrait is said to have been the farthest from life, except in some physical peculiarities, of the three.  “Tickler,” whose original was Wilson’s maternal uncle Robert Sym, an Edinburgh “writer,” and something of a humorist in the flesh, is very skilfully made to hold the position of common-sense intermediary between the two originals, North and the Shepherd.  He has his own peculiarities, but he has also a habit of bringing his friends down from their altitudes in a Voltairian fashion which is of great benefit to the dialogues, and may be compared to Peacock’s similar use of some of his characters.  The few occasional interlocutors are of little moment, with one exception; and the only female characters, Mrs. and Miss Gentle, would have been very much better away.  They are not in the least lifelike, and usually exhibit the namby-pambiness into which Wilson too often fell when he wished to be refined and pathetic.  The “English” or half-English characters, who come in sometimes as foils, are also rather of the stick, sticky.  On the other hand, the interruptions of Ambrose, the host, and his household, though a little farcical, are well judged.  And of the one exception above mentioned, the live Thomas De Quincey, who is brought in without disguise or excuse in some of the very best of the series, it can only be said that the imitation of his written style is extraordinary, and that men who knew his conversation say that the rendering of that is more extraordinary still.

The same designed exaggeration which some uncritical persons have called Rabelaisian (not noticing that the very fault of the Noctes is that, unlike Rabelais, their author mixes up probabilities and improbabilities so that there is a perpetual jarring) is maintained throughout the scenery and etceteras.  The comfortable but modest accommodations of Ambrose’s hotels in Gabriel’s Road and Picardy Place are turned into abodes of not particularly tasteful luxury which put Lord Beaconsfield’s famous upholstery to shame, and remind one of what they probably suggested, Edgar Poe’s equally famous and much more terrible sketch of a model drawing-room.  All the plate is carefully described as “silver”; if it had been gold there might have been some humour in it.  The “wax” candles and “silken” curtains (if they had been Arabian Nights lamps and oriental drapery the same might be said) are always insisted on.  If there is any joke here it seems to lie in the contrast with Wilson’s actual habits, which were very simple.  For instance, he gives us a gorgeous description of the apparatus of North’s solitary confinement when writing for Blackwood; his daughter’s unvarnished account of the same process agrees exactly as to time, rate of production, and so forth, but substitutes water for the old hock and “Scots pint” (magnum) of claret, a dirty little terra-cotta inkstand for the silver utensil of the Noctes, and a single large tallow candle for Christopher’s “floods of light.”  He carried the whim so far as to construct for himself ­his Noctes self ­an imaginary hall-by-the-sea on the Firth of Forth, which in the same way seems to have had an actual resemblance, half of likeness, half of contrast, to the actual Elleray, and to enlarge his own comfortable town house in Gloucester Place to a sort of fairy palace in Moray Place.  But that which has most puzzled and shocked readers are the specially Gargantuan passages relating to eating and drinking.  The comments made on this seem (he was anything but patient of criticism) to have annoyed Wilson very much; and in some of the later Noctes he drops hints that the whole is mere Barmecide business.  Unfortunately the same criticism applies to this as to the upholstery ­the exaggeration is “done too natural.”  The Shepherd’s consumption of oysters not by dozens but by fifties, the allowance of “six common kettles-full of water” for the night’s toddy ration of the three, North’s above-mentioned bottle of old hock at dinner and magnum of claret after, the dinners and suppers and “whets” which appear so often; ­all these stop short of the actually incredible, and are nothing more than extremely convivial men of the time, who were also large eaters, would have actually consumed.  Lord Alvanley’s three hearty suppers, the exploits of the old member of Parliament in Boz’s sketch of Bellamy’s (I forget his real name, but he was not a myth), and other things might be quoted to show that there is a fatal verisimilitude in the Ambrosian feasts which may, or may not, make them shocking (they don’t shock me), but which certainly takes them out of the category of merely humorous exaggeration.  The Shepherd’s “jugs” numerous as they are (and by the way the Shepherd propounds two absolutely contradictory theories of toddy-making, one of which, according to the instructions of my preceptors in that art, who lived within sight of the hills that look down on Glenlivet, is a damnable heresy) are not in the least like the seze muiz, deux bussars, et six tupíns of tripe that Gargamelle so rashly devoured.  There are men now living, and honoured members of society in Scotland, who admit the soft impeachment of having drunk in their youth twelve or fourteen “double” tumblers at a sitting.  Now a double tumbler, be it known to the Southron, is a jorum of toddy to which there go two wineglasses (of course of the old-fashioned size, not our modern goblets) of whisky.  “Indeed,” said a humorous and indulgent lady correspondent of Wilson’s, “indeed, I really think you eat too many oysters at the Noctes;” and any one who believes in distributive justice must admit that they did.

If, therefore, the reader is of the modern cutlet-and-cup-of-coffee school of feeding, he will no doubt find the Noctes most grossly and palpably gluttonous.  If he be a very superior person he will smile at the upholstery.  If he objects to horseplay he will be horrified at finding the characters on one occasion engaging in a regular “mill,” on more than one corking each other’s faces during slumber, sometimes playing at pyramids like the bounding brothers of acrobatic fame, at others indulging in leap-frog with the servants, permitting themselves practical jokes of all kinds, affecting to be drowned by an explosive haggis, and so forth.  Every now and then he will come to a passage at which, without being superfine at all, he may find his gorge rise; though there is nothing quite so bad in the Noctes as the picture of the ravens eating a dead Quaker in the Recreations, a picture for which Wilson offers a very lame defence elsewhere.  He must put all sorts of prejudice, literary, political, and other, in his pocket.  He must be prepared not only for constant and very scurrilous flings at “Cockneys” (Wilson extends the term far beyond the Hunt and Hazlitt school, an extension which to this day seems to give a strange delight to Edinburgh journalists), but for the wildest hétérodoxies and inconsistencies of political, literary, and miscellaneous judgment, for much bastard verse-prose, for a good many quite uninteresting local and ephemeral allusions, and, of course, for any quantity of Scotch dialect.  If all these allowances and provisos are too many for him to make, it is probably useless for him to attempt the Noctes at all.  He will pretty certainly, with the Quarterly reviewer, set their characters down as boozing buffoons, and decline the honour of an invitation to Ambrose’s or The Lodge, to Southside or the tent in Ettrick Forest.

But any one who can accommodate himself to these little matters, much more any one who can enter into the spirit of days merrier, more leisurely, and if not less straitlaced than our own, yet lacing their laces in a different fashion, will find the Noctes very delightful indeed.  The mere high jinks, when the secret of being in the vein with them has been mastered, are seldom unamusing, and sometimes (notably in the long swim out to sea of Tickler and the Shepherd) are quite admirable fooling.  No one who has an eye for the literary-dramatic can help, after a few Noctes have been read, admiring the skill with which the characters are at once typified and individualised, the substance which they acquire in the reader’s mind, the personal interest in them which is excited.  And to all this, peculiarly suited for an alterative in these solemn days, has to be added the abundance of scattered and incomplete but remarkable gems of expression and thought that come at every few pages, sometimes at every page, of the series.

Some of the burlesque narratives (such as the Shepherd’s Mazeppa-like ride on the Bonassus) are inimitably good, though they are too often spoilt by Wilson’s great faults of prolixity and uncertainty of touch.  The criticisms, of which there are many, are also extremely unequal, but not a few very fine passages may be found among them.  The politics, it must be owned, are not good for much, even from the Tory point of view.  But the greatest attraction of the whole, next to its sunshiny heartiness and humour, is to be found in innumerable and indescribable bits, phrases, sentences, short paragraphs, which have, more than anything out of the dialogues of the very best novels, the character and charm of actual conversation.  To read a Noctes has, for those who have the happy gift of realising literature, not much less than the effect of actually taking part in one, with no danger of headache or indigestion after, and without the risk of being playfully corked, or required to leap the table for a wager, or forced to extemporise sixteen stanzas standing on the mantelpiece.  There must be some peculiar virtue in this, for, as is very well known, the usual dialogue leaves the reader more outside of it than almost any other kind of literature.

This peculiar charm is of necessity wanting to the rest of Wilson’s works, and in so far they are inferior to the Noctes; but they have compensatory merits of their own, while, considered merely as literature, there are better things in them than anything that is to be found in the colloquies of those men of great gormandising abilities ­Christopher North, James Hogg, and Timothy Tickler.  Of the four volumes of Essays Critical and Imaginative, the fourth, on Homer and his translators, with an unfinished companion piece on the Greek drama, stands by itself, and has indeed, I believe, been separately published.  It is well worth reading through at a sitting, which cannot be said of every volume of criticism.  What is more, it may, I think, be put almost first in its own division of the art, though whether that division of the art is a high or low one is another question.  I should not myself rank it very high.  With Wilson, criticism, at least here, is little more than the eloquent expression of likes and dislikes.  The long passages in which he deals with the wrath of Achilles and with the love of Calypso, though subject to the general stricture already more than once passed, are really beautiful specimens of literary enthusiasm; nor is there anything in English more calculated to initiate the reader, especially the young reader, in the love at least, if not the understanding, of Homer.  The same enthusiastic and obviously quite genuine appreciation appears in the essay on the “Agamemnon.”  But of criticism as criticism ­of what has been called tracing of literary cause and effect, of any coherent and co-ordinated theory of the good and bad in verse and prose, and the reasons of their goodness or badness, it must be said of this, as of Wilson’s other critical work, that it is to be found nusquam nullibi nullimodis.  He can preach (though with too great volubility, and with occasional faults of taste) delightful sermons about what he likes at the moment ­for it is by no means always the same; and he can make formidable onslaughts with various weapons on what he dislikes at the moment ­which again is not always the same.  But a man so certain to go off at score whenever his likes or dislikes are excited, and so absolutely unable to check himself whenever he feels tempted thus to go off, lacks the very first qualifications of the critic: ­lacks them, indeed, almost as much as the mere word-grinder who looks to see whether a plural substantive has a singular verb, and is satisfied if it has not, and horrified if it has.  His most famous sentence “The Animosities are mortal, but the Humanities live for ever” is certainly noble.  But it would have been better if the Humanities had oftener choked the Animosities at their birth.

Wilson’s criticism is to be found more or less everywhere in his collected writings.  I have said that I think it a pity that, of his longest critical attempts, only one has been republished; and the reason is simple.  For with an unequal writer (and Wilson is a writer unequalled in his inequality) his best work is as likely to be found in his worst book as his worst work in his best book; while the constant contemplation for a considerable period of one subject is more likely than anything else to dispel his habits of digression and padding.  But the ubiquity of his criticism through the ten volumes was, in the circumstances of their editing, simply unavoidable.  He had himself superintended a selection of all kinds, which he called The Recreations of Christopher North, and this had to be reprinted entire.  It followed that, in the Essays Critical and Imaginative, an equally miscellaneous character should be observed.  Almost everything given, and much not given, in the Works is worth consideration, but for critical purposes a choice is necessary.  Let us take the consolidated essay on Wordsworth (most of which dates before 1822), the famous paper on Lord, then Mr., Tennyson’s poems in 1832, and the generous palinode on Macaulay’s “Lays” of 1842.  No three papers could better show Wilson in his three literary stages, that of rather cautious tentative (for though he was not a very young man in 1818, the date of the earliest of the Wordsworth papers, he was a young writer), that of practised and unrestrained vigour (for 1832 represents about his literary zenith), and that of reflective decadence, for by 1842 he had ceased to write habitually, and was already bowed down by mental sorrows and physical ailments.

In the first paper, or set of papers, it is evident that he is ambitiously groping after a more systematic style of criticism than he found in practice to be possible for him.  Although he elsewhere scoffs at definitions, he tries to formulate very precisely the genius of Scott, of Byron, and of Wordsworth; he does his best to connect his individual judgments with these formulas; he shuns mere verbal criticism, and (to some extent) mere exaltation or depreciation of particular passages.  But it is quite evident that he is ill at ease; and I do not think that any one now reading the essay can call it a successful one, or can attempt to rank it with those which, from different points of view, Hazlitt and De Quincey (Hazlitt nearly at the same time) wrote about Wordsworth.  Indeed, Hazlitt is the most valuable of all examples for a critical comparison with Wilson; both being violent partisans and crotcheteers, both being animated with the truest love of poetry, but the one possessing and the other lacking the “tie-beam” of a consistent critical theory.

A dozen years later Wilson had cast his slough, and had become the autocratic, freespoken, self-constituted dictator, Christopher North.  He was confronted with the very difficult problem of Mr. Tennyson’s poems.  He knew they were poetry; that he could not help seeing and knowing.  But they seemed to him to be the work of a “cockney” (it would be interesting to know whether there ever was any one less of a cockney than the author of “Mariana"), and he was irritated by some silly praise which had been given to them.  So he set to work, and perpetrated the queerest jumble of sound and unsound criticism that exists in the archives of that art, so far as a humble but laborious student and practitioner thereof knoweth.  He could not for the life of him help admiring “Adeline,” “Oriana,” “Mariana,” “The Ode to Memory.”  Yet he had nothing but scorn for the scarcely less exquisite “Mermaid” and “Sea Fairies” ­though the first few lines of the latter, excluded by this and other pseudo-criticism from the knowledge of half a generation of English readers, equal almost anything that the poet has ever done.  And only the lucky memory of a remark of Hartley Coleridge’s (who never went wrong in criticism, whatever he did in life) saved him from explicitly damning “The Dying Swan,” which stands at the very head of a whole class of poetry.  In all this essay, to borrow one of his own favourite words, he simply “plouters” ­splashes and flounders about without any guidance of critical theory.  Compare, to keep up the comparative method, the paper with the still more famous and far more deadly attack which Lockhart made a little later in the Quarterly.  There one finds little, if any, generosity; an infinitely more cold-blooded and deliberate determination to “cut up.”  But the critic (and how quaint and pathetic it is to think that the said critic was the author of “I ride from land to land” and “When youthful hope is fled”) sees his theory of poetry straight before him, and never takes his eye off it.  The individual censures may be just or unjust, but they fit together like the propositions of a masterpiece of legal judgment.  The poet is condemned under the statute, ­so much the worse for the statute perhaps, but that does not matter ­and he can only plead No jurisdiction; whereas with Christopher it is quite different.  If he does not exactly blunder right (and he sometimes does that), he constantly blunders wrong ­goes wrong, that is to say, without any excuse of theory or general view.  That is not criticism.

We shall not find matters much mended from the strictly critical point of view, when we come, ten years later, to the article on the “Lays.”  Here Christopher, as I hold with all respect to persons of distinction, is absolutely right.  He does not say one word too much of the fire and life of those wonderful verses, of that fight of all fights ­as far as English verse goes, except Drayton’s “Agincourt” and the last canto of “Marmion”; as far as English prose goes, except some passages of Mallory and two or three pages of Kingsley’s ­the Battle of the Lake Regillus.  The subject and the swing attracted him; he liked the fight, and he liked the ring as of Sir Walter at his very best.  But he goes appallingly wrong all through on general critical points.

Yet, according to his own perverse fashion, he never goes wrong without going right.  Throughout his critical work there are scattered the most intelligent ideas, the neatest phrases, the most appreciative judgments.  How good is it to say that “the battle of Trafalgar, though in some sort it neither began nor ended anything, was a kind of consummation of national prowess.”  How good again in its very straightforwardness and simplicity is the dictum “it is not necessary that we should understand fine poetry in order to feel and enjoy it, any more than fine music.”  Hundreds and thousands of these things lie about the pages.  And in the next page to each the critic probably goes and says something which shows that he had entirely forgotten them.  An intelligent man may be angry with Christopher ­I should doubt whether any one who is not occasionally both angry and disgusted with him can be an intelligent man.  But it is impossible to dislike him or fail to admire him as a whole.

There is a third and very extensive division of Wilson’s work which may not improbably be more popular, or might be if it were accessible separately, with the public of to-day, than either of those which have been surveyed.  His “drunken Noctes,” as Carlyle unkindly calls them, require a certain peculiar attitude of mind to appreciate them.  As for his criticisms, it is frequently said, and it certainly would not become me to deny it, that nobody reads criticism but critics.  But Wilson’s renown as an athlete, a sportsman, and a lover of nature, who had a singular gift in expressing his love, has not yet died; and there is an ample audience now for men who can write about athletics, about sport, and about scenery.  Nor is it questionable that on these subjects he is seen, on the whole, at his best.  True, his faults pursue him even here, and are aggravated by a sort of fashion of the time which made him elaborately digress into politics, into literature, even (God rest his soul!) into a kind of quasi-professional and professorial sermonising on morals and theology, in the midst of his sporting articles.  But the metal more attractive of the main subject would probably recommend these papers widely, if they were not scattered pell-mell about the Essays Critical and Imaginative, and the Recreations of Christopher North.  Speaking generally they fall into three divisions ­essays on sport in general, essays on the English Lakes, and essays on the Scottish Highlands.  The best of the first class are the famous papers called “Christopher North in his Sporting Jacket,” and the scattered reviews and articles redacted in the Recreations under the general title of “Anglimania.”  In the second class all are good; and a volume composed of “Christopher at the Lakes,” “A Day at Windermere,” “Christopher on Colonsay” (a wild extravaganza which had a sort of basis of fact in a trotting-match won on a pony which Wilson afterwards sold for four pounds), and “A Saunter at Grasmere,” with one or two more, would be a thing of price.  The best of the third class beyond all question is the collection, also redacted by the author for the Recreations, entitled “The Moors.”  This last is perhaps the best of all the sporting and descriptive pieces, though not the least exemplary of its authors vagaries; for before he can get to the Moors, he gives us heaven knows how many pages of a criticism on Wordsworth, which, in that place at any rate, we do not in the least want; and in the very middle of his wonderful and sanguinary exploits on and near Ben Cruachan, he “interrupts the muffins” in order to deliver to a most farcical and impertinent assemblage a quite serious and still more impertinent sermon.  But all these papers are more or less delightful.  For the glowing description of, and the sneaking apology for, cat-worrying which the “Sporting Jacket” contains, nothing can be said.  Wilson deliberately overlooks the fact that the whole fun of that nefarious amusement consists in the pitting of a plucky but weak animal against something much more strongly built and armed than itself.  One may regret the P.R., and indulge in a not wholly sneaking affection for cock-fighting, dog-fighting, and anything in which there is a fair match, without having the slightest weakness for this kind of brutality.  But, generally speaking, Wilson is a thoroughly fair sportsman, and how enthusiastic he is, no one who has read him can fail to know.  Of the scenery of loch or lake, of hill or mountain, he was at once an ardent lover and a describer who has never been equalled.  His accustomed exaggeration and false emphasis are nowhere so little perceptible as when he deals with Ben Cruachan or the Old Man of Coniston, with the Four Great Lakes of Britain, East and West (one of his finest passages), or with the glens of Etive and Borrowdale.  The accursed influence of an unchastened taste is indeed observable in the before-mentioned “Dead Quaker of Helvellyn,” a piece of unrelieved nastiness which he has in vain tried to excuse.  But the whole of the series from which this is taken ("Christopher in his Aviary”) is in his least happy style, alternately grandiose and low, relieved indeed by touches of observation and feeling, as all his work is, but hardly redeemed by them.  The depths of his possible fall may also be seen from a short piece which Professor Ferrier, obligingly describing it as “too lively to be omitted,” has adjoined to “Christopher at the Lakes.”  But, on the whole, all the articles mentioned in the list at the beginning of this paragraph, with the capital “Streams” as an addition, with the soliloquies on “The Seasons,” and with part (not the narrative part) of “Highland Storms,” are delightful reading.  The progress of the sportsman has never been better given than in “Christopher North in his Sporting Jacket.”  In “The Moors” the actual sporting part is perhaps a little spoilt by the affectation of infallibility, qualified it is true by an aside or two, which so often mars the Christopherian utterances.  But Wilson’s description has never been bettered.  The thunderstorm on the hill, the rough conviviality at the illicit distillery, the evening voyage on the loch, match, if they do not beat, anything of the kind in much more recent books far better known to the present generation.  A special favourite of mine is the rather unceremonious review of Sir Humphry Davy’s strangely over-praised “Salmonia.”  The passage of utter scorn and indignation at the preposterous statement of the chief personage in the dialogues, that after an exceptionally hard day’s walking and fishing “half a pint of claret per man is enough,” is sublime.  Nearly the earliest, and certainly the best, protest against some modern fashions in shooting is to be found in “The Moors.”  In the same series, the visit to the hill cottage, preceding that to the still, has what it has since become the fashion to call the idyllic flavour, without too much of the rather mawkish pathos with which, in imitation of Mackenzie and the sensibility-writers of the last century, Wilson is apt to daub his pictures of rural and humble life.  The passages on Oxford, to go to a slightly different but allied subject, in “Old North and Young North” (a paper not yet mentioned), may have full appeal to Oxford men, but I can hardly be mistaken in thinking that outsiders must see at least some of the beauty of them.  But the list of specially desirable things in these articles is endless; hardly one of them can be taken up without discovering many such, not one of them without discovering some.

And, throughout the whole collection, there is the additional satisfaction that the author is writing only of what he thoroughly knows and understands.  At the Lakes Wilson lived for years, and was familiar with every cranny of the hills, from the Pillar to Hawes Water, and from Newby Bridge to Saddleback.  He began marching and fishing through the Highlands when he was a boy, enticed even his wife into perilous pedestrian enterprises with him, and, though the extent of his knowledge was perhaps not quite so large as he pretends, he certainly knew great tracts as well as he knew Edinburgh.  Nor were his qualifications as a sportsman less authentic, despite the somewhat Munchausenish appearance which some of the feats narrated in the Noctes and the Recreations wear, and are indeed intended to wear.  His enormous baskets of trout seem to have been, if not quite so regular as he sometimes makes them out, at any rate fully historical as occasional feats.  As has been hinted, he really did win the trotting-match on the pony, Colonsay, against a thoroughbred, though it was only on the technical point of the thoroughbred breaking his pace.  His walk from London to Oxford in a night seems to have been a fact, and indeed there is nothing at all impossible in it, for the distance through Wycombe is not more than fifty-three miles; while the less certainly authenticated feat of walking from Liverpool to Elleray (eighty miles at least), without more than a short rest, also appears to be genuine.  Like the heroes of a song that he loved, though he seems to have sung it in a corrupt text, he could wrestle and fight and jump out anywhere; and, until he was thoroughly broken by illness, he appears to have made the very most of the not inconsiderable spare time of a Scotch professor who has once got his long series of lectures committed to paper, and has nothing to do for the rest of his life but collect bundles of pound notes at the beginning of each session.  All this, joined to his literary gifts, gives a reality to his out-of-door papers which is hardly to be found elsewhere except in some passages of Kingsley, between whom and Wilson there are many and most curious resemblances, chequered by national and personal differences only less curious.

I do not think he was a good reviewer, even after making allowance for the prejudices and partisanships of the time, and for the monkey tricks of mannerism, which, at any rate in his earlier days, were incumbent on a reviewer in “Maga.”  He is too prone to the besetting sins of reviewing ­the right hand defections and left hand fallings off, which, being interpreted, consist first in expressing agreement or disagreement with the author’s views, and secondly in digressing into personal statements of one’s own views of things connected with them instead of expounding more or less clearly what the book is, and addressing oneself to the great question, Is it a good or a bad piece of work according to the standard which the author himself strove to reach?  I have said that I do not think he was on the whole a good critic (for a man may be a good critic and a bad reviewer, though the reverse will hardly stand), and I have given my reasons.  That he was neither a great, nor even a very good poet or tale-teller, I have no doubt whatever.  But this leaves untouched the attraction of his miscellaneous work, and its suitableness for the purpose of recreation.  For that purpose I think it to be among the very best work in all literature.  Its unfailing life and vigour, its vast variety, the healthy and inspiriting character of the subjects with which in the main it deals, are the characteristics which make its volumes easy-chair books of the best order.  Its beauty no doubt is irregular, faulty, engaging rather than exquisite, attractive rather than artistically or scientifically perfect.  I do not know that there is even any reason to join in the general lament over Wilson as being a gigantic failure, a monument of wasted energies and half-developed faculty.  I do not at all think that there was anything in him much better than he actually did, or that he ever could have polished and sand-papered the faults out of his work.  It would pretty certainly have lost freshness and vigour; it would quite certainly have been less in bulk, and bulk is a very important point in literature that is to serve as recreation.  It is to me not much less certain that it never would have attained the first rank in symmetry and order.  I am quite content with it as it is, and I only wish that still more of it were easily accessible.