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قراءة كتاب The 'Blackwood' Group

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The 'Blackwood' Group

The 'Blackwood' Group

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
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strong Tory reaction—a reaction of the excesses of which Henry Cockburn, in his Memorials, has left a highly-coloured and perhaps not unprejudiced account. In 1802, as a counterpoise to overwhelming Tory supremacy, and a rallying-point for those thereto opposed, the Edinburgh Review had been established. It was supported by a group of remarkably able young men, whose talents soon raised it to a position of unexampled influence in the world of letters. That it performed excellent service in the cause of enlightenment is undeniable; yet it failed to bear itself with all the moderation proper to success, and in time showed signs of becoming in its turn a tyranny. Those who were opposed to it, whilst regarding as dangerous its opinions in politics and religion, also grew tired (in their own words) of its flippancy and conceit. Now it happened that about this time a certain new magazine, recently founded by a very shrewd and enterprising Edinburgh publisher, after languishing for some months under incompetent editorship, had reached the very point of dissolution. In this periodical the Tory malcontents saw an instrument ready to their hands. New spirit was infused into its nerveless frame, and in October 1817 appeared the first number of Blackwood's remodelled Edinburgh Magazine. And among those who gave the hot fresh blood of youth to revive its languishing existence, one of the foremost was John Wilson. It may be mentioned that before this he had contributed a literary article to the rival organ, with the presiding genius of which he was on terms of friendship. His new departure led to a rupture of that friendship, but to hold that his acts had committed him to the support of the Edinburgh Review would be to put an altogether strained construction upon them.

A detailed history of the stormy first years of the new publication, however piquant and racy it might be made, forms no part of our present scheme. Suffice it to remind the reader that the 'success of scandal' which the magazine at once obtained is matter of notoriety; nor can that success be pronounced undeserved. Indeed the very first number of the new issue, besides scathing articles on Coleridge and Leigh Hunt, contained the celebrated 'Translation from an Ancient Chaldee Manuscript'—afterwards suppressed—consisting of a thinly-veiled attack upon a rival magazine, and abounding in gross personalities to the address of leading citizens of Edinburgh. These excesses, though the cause of much heart-burning at the time, can scarcely be pronounced of enduring interest; and it is more profitable, as well as more pleasing, to turn to the other side of the picture. For it must not by any means be supposed that the new venture relied solely upon objectionable personalities for attracting and holding its readers. 'These,' as Wilson's biographer observes, 'would have excited but a slight and temporary notice, had the bulk of the articles not displayed a rare combination of much higher qualities;' and she goes on to say that whatever subjects were discussed were handled with a masterly vigour and freshness, and developed with a fulness of knowledge and variety of talent that could not fail to command respect even from the least approving critic. Still it is undeniable that for many months to come the series of onslaughts was kept up almost without intermission, whilst even persons locally as highly and as justly respected as Chalmers and Playfair were made to feel the sting of the lash. Consisting as it did of a recrudescence of the discountenanced literary methods of the age of Smollett, all this is regrettable enough, and of much of it there can be little doubt that 'The Leopard'—to give Wilson the name which he bore in the magazine—was art and part. His exact share in productions which were not merely anonymous but of which mystification was an essential feature is impossible to trace; but we are glad at least to have the assurance of his daughter that, amid all the violence of language and extravagance of censure which disfigured his early contributions to the magazine, she has been unable to bring home to his hand 'any instance of unmanly attack, or one shade of real malignity.' Our knowledge of the man's character makes us ready enough to believe that he did not mean to give pain; whilst there is always this excuse—whatever it may be worth—for Maga's early indiscretions: that they were the work of inexperienced men, carried away by the exuberance of their spirits, and genuinely—if indefensibly—ignorant of the laws of literary good manners, or, as one of themselves has expressed it, of the 'structure and practice of literature' as it existed at that day in Britain. With which reflection, an unthankful subject may be dismissed. For ourselves the real significance of the magazine in its early days consists, not in stories of challenges sent or damages paid, but in the fact that it afforded to John Wilson a first opportunity of giving full and free play to his talents. The characteristic of his genius was not so much fineness as abundance, and thus we may believe that his gain from the new stimulus to constant and rapid production more than balanced his loss from absence of opportunities of polishing his work. Certainly from the time of his active and regular employment, he began to throw off those tendencies to affectation and philandering which had characterised his early efforts in the 'Lake' school, and though he never quite lost the habit of as the French say 'caressing his phrase,' he became from henceforth more virile, more himself.

Standing now to all appearance committed to literature as his vocation, in the year 1819 he left his mother's hospitable roof, and removed with his wife and family to a small house of his own, situated in Ann Street, on the outskirts of the town, where, besides having Watson Gordon, the portrait-painter, for his immediate neighbour, he enjoyed the society of Raeburn and Allan among artists, and of Lockhart, Galt, Hogg, and the Hamiltons among literary men.

In April of the year following, by the death of Dr Thomas Brown, the Chair of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh became vacant. Wilson thereupon resolved to present himself as a candidate for it, as did Sir William Hamilton, and though the names of other aspirants are mentioned, from the first the real contest lay between these two. They had both been brilliant students at Oxford, but in almost every other respect their qualifications for the coveted post were about as different as could be; for since his college days Hamilton had devoted himself exclusively to the study of philosophy, and had now substantial results of his labours to exhibit, whilst Wilson—though we are expressly told that the study in question had always had a powerful attraction for him—was yet known to the world only as a daring and brilliant littérateur, and a genial and somewhat Bohemian personality. There is no need to say with which of the two, in such a competition, the advantage at first sight seemed to lie. But it is necessary to explain that the election was fought on political grounds, that Hamilton was a Whig, and that the electing body was the Town Council of Edinburgh. It is gratifying to be able to record that the candidates themselves remained upon friendly terms. But never had party-feeling been known to run so high as between their respective adherents,—so that, before the election was over, Wilson had been called on to face charges of being a 'reveller,' which he probably was, a blasphemer, which we cannot think him ever to have been, and a bad husband and father, which he certainly was not. In the end he secured a majority of twelve out of thirty votes; whilst an attempt to set aside his election, which was made at a subsequent meeting of the Council, ignominiously collapsed.

Keenly alive to the

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