the greatest orators of the day, naming Lords Derby, Brougham, Lyndhurst; Peel, O'Connell, Sheil, Follett, Chalmers, Caird, Guthrie, M'Neile; and has heard them 'in their very best styles make some of their most celebrated appearances; but for popular eloquence, for resistless force, for the seeming inspiration that swayed the soul, and the glowing sympathy that entranced the hearts of his entire audience, that lecture by Professor Wilson far excelled the best of these I ever listened to.'
This, within its proper limits, is the strongest praise. And, on the other hand, we must guard against the supposition that these lectures—highly-coloured and emotional as they undoubtedly were—consisted solely, or even mainly, of oratorical, or conscious or unconscious dramatic display. We are assured that this was by no means the case; that the Professor scorned to sacrifice the serviceable to the ornamental, never for a moment hesitating to grapple with the central difficulties of his subject, or shirking the irksome duty of 'hammering' at them during the greater part of a Session.
Increased financial resources now enabled him to resume occupation of his beloved Elleray, where a new and larger dwelling-house, suitable to the accommodation of a family, had by this time been built. There, many of the intervals of his busy University life were spent in happy domesticity, and there, in 1825, he was visited by Sir Walter Scott, whom he fêted with a brilliant regatta on Windermere. It is to these years of professional duties varied by vacations in the country that his novels and tales belong. They comprise three volumes, and, as their characteristics are identical, may be considered side by side. They consist uniformly of tales of pastoral or humble life, and the author has recorded that his object in writing them was to speak of the 'elementary feelings of the human soul in isolation, under the light of a veil of poetry.' The impression which they produce upon a reader of the present day is that this programme has been but too systematically adhered to. The stories themselves do not lack interest, and their motives are at all times human; but they are deliberately localized in some other world than ours, and if there thence ensues a certain æsthetic gain, it is accompanied by a more than proportionate loss in vraisemblance and in moral force. To speak more plainly, if the world of Wilson's tales is a better world than ours, it yet remains an artificial one, his stories develope in accordance with the rules of a preconceived ideal, and a weakening of their interest is the result. For though many a writer has seen life in a way of his own, Wilson seems to have deliberately set himself to see it in a way belonging to somebody else. In fact, throughout this series of little books, he aspires to appear in the character of a prose Wordsworth; but he is a Wordsworth who has lost the noble plainness of his original, and though his actual style is less marred by floridness and redundancy here than elsewhere, still the vices of prettiness, self-consciousness, artificiality, and sentiment suffice to stamp his work as an imitation, decadent from the lofty source of its inspiration.
Of the Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life, a volume of short tales published in 1822, the not impartial author of the biography, writing in the early sixties, remarks that it has acquired a popularity of the most enduring kind—a statement which to-day one would hesitate to endorse. She adds that the stories are 'poems in prose, in which, amid fanciful scenes and characters, the struggles of humanity are depicted with pathetic fidelity, and the noblest lessons of virtue and religion are interwoven, in no imaginary harmony, with the homely realities of Scottish peasant life.' And subject to the not inconsiderable abatements noted above, this may no doubt be accepted.
The Foresters (1825) is the history of the family of one Michael Forester, who is exhibited in turn in his relation as a dutiful son, a kind self-sacrificing brother, a loving and faithful husband, and a wise affectionate father; whilst from time to time we are also enabled to trace his beneficent influence in the affairs of other members of the small community in which he lives. The tone of the book is peaceful and soothing; it inculcates cheerfulness and resignation, and holds up for our edification a picture of that contentment which springs from the practice of virtue. A group of faultless creatures—for none but the subordinate characters have any faults—pursue the tenor of their lives amid fair scenes of nature, and, when sorrow or misfortune falls to their lot, meet it with an inspiring fortitude. To scoff at such a book were to supply proof of incompetence in criticism—of which the very soul consists in sympathy with all that is sincere in spirit and not inadequate in execution. Yet equally uncritical were it to fail to mark how far short this story falls of the exquisite spontaneity of such work as Goldsmith's immortal essay in the same style.
Possibly, however, of the three volumes, the Trials of Margaret Lyndsay (1823) is that which most forcibly conveys the lessons common to all—the teaching of Wordsworth, that is to say, as made plain by a sympathetic disciple. It is the story of a beautiful and virtuous maiden, the daughter of a printer who, having become imbued with the doctrines of Tom Paine, falls into evil courses and is imprisoned on a charge of sedition. His family—consisting of Margaret, her ailing mother, aged grandmother, and two sisters, one of whom is mentally afflicted and the other blind—are in consequence reduced to great poverty, which, supported by their piety, they endure without complaint. Removing from their country home to a dark and narrow street in Edinburgh, they open a small school, and for a time with fair success make head against their troubles. But misfortune follows relentlessly upon their traces. Lyndsay dies in disgrace, Margaret's sailor sweetheart perishes by drowning, and one after the other she sees the members of the little group which surrounds her removed by death. Still she does not lose heart. Left alone in the world, she is received into the house of a benevolent young lady, and, there, is happy enough, until the undesired attentions of the young lady's brother compel her to seek another home. Journeying alone and on foot, she seeks a refuge with a distant and estranged relation; by whom she is coldly received, but upon whose withered heart her gentle influence in time works the most happy change. And now, at length, it seems that her hardly-won happiness is to be crowned by marriage to the man of her choice. But what has seemed her good fortune turns out to be in reality the worst of all her woes; for the brave but dissolute soldier who has won her heart is discovered to possess a wife already. Thus from trial to trial do we follow her, until at last she is left in possession of a very modest share of felicity, whilst from her story we learn the lesson of the duties of courage and cheerfulness, the consolations of virtue, and the healing power of nature.
But of course it is not to the department of fiction that Wilson's most conspicuous literary achievements belong. When once he had settled down into the swing of his professorial duties, his connexion with Blackwood's Magazine was resumed, and his biographer truly remarks that probably no periodical was ever more indebted to one individual than was 'Maga' to Christopher North. And, in passing, it may be stated that this name, which had at first been assumed by various of the contributors, was soon exclusively associated with himself. As to the number, variety, and extent of his contributions, Mrs Gordon has furnished some curious information. During many