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قراءة كتاب The 'Blackwood' Group

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‏اللغة: English
The 'Blackwood' Group

The 'Blackwood' Group

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
الصفحة رقم: 2

address a letter of generous admiration, not, however, untempered with criticism, to the author of the Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth replied, and thus was begun an intercourse which was afterwards destined to ripen into friendship.

In June 1803, Wilson was transferred from Glasgow to Oxford, where he was entered as a gentleman-commoner of Magdalen College. He began his career there with ambitious views, his course of study, as shown by his commonplace books, being designed to embrace not only the prescribed curriculum in the Ancient Classics, but studies in Law, History, Philosophy, and Poetry as well. But, if he read hard—as, with occasional intermissions, he undoubtedly did—he also entered with zest into the athletics and other amusements of the place, testing his prowess in wrestling, leaping, boating, and running, and, at the same time, indulging in what to a later age may appear the more questionable sports of pugilism and cock-fighting. Some traditions of the feats then performed by him survive. Among these are stories of his triumphant encounter with a certain redoubtable pugilist who had insulted him; of his coming out one night from a dinner-party in Grosvenor Square, and proceeding then and there to walk back to Oxford—accomplishing the distance of fifty-eight miles in some eight or nine hours; or, of his clearing the river Cherwell at a flying leap—twenty-three feet in breadth on the dead level. Yet, these distractions notwithstanding, he succeeded in passing the examination for his Bachelor's Degree, in a manner which his tutor characterised as 'glorious,' and in producing such an impression of scholarship on the minds of the Examiners as to call forth the rare testimony of a public expression of their thanks. He also carried off the Newdigate Prize, awarded for English verse. In commenting on the amiability of his disposition, his biographer observes that he harboured not an envious thought. But surely to have done so were a very superfluity of naughtiness; for, gifted as he was, by fortune as well as nature, whom was it possible for this admirable youth to envy?

After taking his degree, he still continued for a time to frequent Oxford, astonishing the younger members of the common-room of his college by his extraordinary conversational powers and by occasional quaint freaks, but at the same time delighting them by his good-humour. It is told of him at this time that he would sometimes indulge his fancy by resorting to the coaching-inns at the hour of the arrival of the mails, presiding at the travellers' supper-table, and hob-nobbing with all and sundry, whom his wit and pleasantry seldom failed to impress. At this era his personal appearance is described as especially striking. It was that of a man of great muscular strength, but lightly built; about five feet ten inches in height, with uncommon breadth of chest; florid, and wearing a profusion of hair, and enormous whiskers—the latter being in those days very unusual. De Quincey says he was not handsome, but against such testimony we may surely set off that of Raeburn's portrait, painted a few years earlier.

These ought to have been golden days, indeed, but much of their happiness was marred by an unlucky love-affair. At Glasgow, some years before, Wilson had made the acquaintance of a young lady of great charm of person and character, who in the biography figures as 'Margaret,' or The Orphan Maid. The impression which she produced upon him was profound and lasting, and at parting he had inscribed to her a small volume of manuscript poems of his own. From this point the biographer is rather vague in her account of the progress of the attachment; yet we have abundant evidence that its course was a most troubled one. For instance, in August 1803, we find our hero writing to a friend in the following desperate strain:—'By heavens! I will, perhaps, some day blow my brains out, and there is an end of the matter.' Later he says: 'The word happy will never again be joined to the name of John Wilson.' And again he speaks of summoning two friends to support him and pass with him the night on which Margaret was to be married to another. This dreaded marriage did not take place, but it is quite evident that the lover long continued in a most unsettled state of mind. Thus we hear of his having swallowed laudanum, lost his powers of study, indulged in 'unbridled dissipation'; of sudden aimless journeys, undertaken on the spur of the moment, and landing him at nightfall at such unlikely places as Coventry or Nottingham; of solitary rambles in Ireland and in Wales. 'Whilst I keep moving,' he writes, in October 1805, 'life goes on well enough; but whenever I pause the fever of the soul begins.' He even entertained an idea of joining the expedition of Mungo Park to Timbuctoo. No doubt in all this he believed himself sincere enough at the time, but it is not necessary for us to take his utterances quite seriously. The blowing out of brains has been alluded to, and it seems more than probable that a point of Wertherism entered into his distemper. At any rate, in giving an order for the works of Rousseau at the time, he is careful to emphasize his desire to have them complete. In dismissing the episode it may be mentioned that, though the various obstacles to a union between himself and Margaret are not detailed, in his case filial obedience would seem to have been the final deterrent.

During a tour in the English lake country in 1805, Wilson had fallen in love with and purchased the property of Elleray, consisting of a delightful cottage-residence, standing in grounds of its own, and commanding lovely views of mountain, lawn, and forest scenery, rising above the waters of Lake Windermere; and it was there that, on leaving Oxford in 1807, he took up his abode. He was now in the fullest sense his own master, and at this point it may be worth while briefly to take note of his attitude towards life.

The ideal of the sound mind in the sound body has been universally recognised as a good one; but, whether deliberately or instinctively, Wilson seems to have aimed higher still. He aspired to the mind of a philosopher in the body of an athlete; and the word philosopher must here be taken in its highest sense—to signify not the thinker only, but the lover of wisdom for its own sake. A saner or loftier ideal could scarcely be conceived; and Nature, who too often unites the soaring mind with the body which does it previous wrong, had in this case given the means of attaining, or at least approaching it. Thus the Christopher North of this period remains a possession and a standard of manhood to his countrymen. He brings home to them the Hellenic ideal, pure and unvitiated by any taint of Keatsian sensuality, as Goethe had brought it home to Germany. In the process of naturalization that ideal underwent some modification; but the fact that the poetry which North wrote at this time was of perishable quality does not in reality detract from the service which he rendered to his country.

For poetical composition seems to have been now the serious business of his life. As for his diversions, they remained of the same healthy type as in his Oxford days. The sailing of a fleet of boats on Windermere, and the rearing of game birds were perhaps his special hobbies; but wherever manly exercises were to the fore, there was he to be found. The country in which he was now located being a wrestling country, he became an enthusiastic patron of that excellent exercise, and effected much for its encouragement. And at the same time he was free of the society of Wordsworth, Coleridge, De Quincey, and the other able and gifted men whose presence made the district at that era a centre of intellectual light.

Amid these varied interests, two or three years were passed contentedly enough; but at the end of that time