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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John Gibson Lockhart (1794–1854)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE POET and essayist John Gibson Lockhart is a striking example of the class of men of no mean literary attainments whose names have been overshadowed by being connected with one greater than themselves. He is generally remembered as the biographer and son-in-law of Walter Scott. He is less often named as the admirable translator of the ‘Spanish Ballads,’ and still more seldom spoken of as the scholarly editor of the Quarterly Review. Yet he was one of the most brilliant and most versatile of the lesser men of English literature.  1
  Lockhart was born in the manse of Cambusnethan in Lanarkshire, where his father was then a minister of the gospel. Two years later the preacher was transferred to Glasgow, and here presently the boy entered the High School, and in time the Glasgow College. He was remarkably clever,—endowed with such unusual powers of concentration and memory that study seemed no effort; and he seemed to idle through his class hours, chiefly employed in drawing caricatures of the instructors. He entered Balliol College, Oxford, when just past fourteen; an unusually early age even for those days. He was well equipped in languages, ancient and modern, and had a store of curious information picked up in voracious reading; but he cared little for mathematics, excellence in which was greatly insisted upon. He continued caricaturing his tutors, and playing other harmless jokes upon them; for he had an irrepressibly frolicsome turn of mind, and was unconsciously developing his vein of satire and sarcasm. But he was proud and reserved, and of a constitutional shyness that remained with him all his life.  2
  After graduation, he went to the Continent on money advanced by Blackwood for a prospective translation of Friedrich Schlegel’s ‘Lectures on the Study of History,’ his first essay in authorship,—which however did not appear until some years later. He visited Goethe at Weimar, and went through France and the Netherlands studying art and architecture. Returning to Edinburgh, he read law, and was called to the bar in 1816. But he soon joined the staff of Blackwood’s Magazine, contributing literary papers and exercising his unrivaled powers of satire in political and critical essays. Here also he printed a number of the ‘Spanish Ballads.’ About this time he became acquainted with Walter Scott, who took a great fancy to the handsome, scholarly, witty young fellow, and accepted him as a son-in-law in 1820. In the cottage which he fitted up for the young couple on his own estate, they lived for some years in an ideal family relation.  3
  Having made himself a famous name for caustic wit and luminous exposition, the brilliant critic of Blackwood was invited to take charge of the (Tory) London Quarterly, from which “Anti-Jacobin” Gifford was about to retire. He seems to have had, like Jeffrey, some doubts as to whether well-paid editorship was an office quite becoming a gentleman. But at Scott’s advice he accepted the post, for which he was admirably fitted. A born critic, his wide scholarship, his sane, unbiased judgment, and his decided literary and political views, gave great weight to his opinions. Aside from his editorial duties he contributed many papers to the magazine. He is credited with having written in his twenty-eight years of editorship no fewer than one hundred carefully finished articles, besides scores of less elaborate papers. His was the celebrated review on Tennyson’s volume of 1832, which began with a sarcastic pretense of retracting the Quarterly’s adverse judgment of Keats (plainly intimating that the writer still thought the public admiration was the real mistake), and went on to say that here at least was a case where it would never be necessary to retract anything! The new mistake was fully as bad as the old; but it by no means follows that the reviewer was altogether wrong in either case. There were weak spots in the early work of both poets; and their most individual note—a luxurious lingering over sensuous imagery, and sometimes almost effeminate dalliance with verbal prettiness—was precisely what most revolted the balladist, whose preference was for rough and vigorous manliness of style.  4
  Busy as he was, Lockhart managed to find time for contributions to Blackwood’s and to Fraser’s. In 1843 he was appointed to the auditorship of the Duchy of Lancaster, his only political preferment, which he resigned in 1853 to spend that winter in Rome. Like Sir Walter, however, he returned home to die. At Abbotsford, November 25th, 1854, he passed away, in the arms of his only surviving daughter, Mrs. Hope-Scott, to whose son descended the title and estate of his great-grandfather.  5
  Lockhart was a brilliant talker and a delightful companion among a few friends. In larger assemblies his shyness made him appear haughty and reserved. He had not the gift of attracting the good-will of strangers, and this debarred him from success as a public speaker. His caustic pen, and his delicate position as responsible editor of a great magazine, made him many enemies, both among persons whose opinions he criticized and contributors whose articles he blue-penciled. He was a man of most affectionate nature, not expansive but deep, with almost a woman’s love for children and compassion for suffering. His life, outwardly uneventful, was saddened by family bereavements: the death in 1831 of his eldest and favorite son,—the Hugh Littlejohn of the ‘Tales of a Grandfather,’—the death of his beloved wife in 1837, and the waywardness of his second son, who also died before him.  6
  Lockhart’s writings have never been collected, nor have all his review articles been identified. In 1819 was published ‘Peter’s Letters to his Kinsfolk,’ purporting to be written by a Welsh dentist, one “Dr. Peter Morris, the Odontist,” on a visit to Edinburgh,—a mocking satire on the society of the Scotch capital. It originated from an ostensible “review,” by Lockhart in Blackwood’s, of this (then non-existent) book, with copious “extracts.” There were so many calls for the book in consequence that Lockhart wrote it,—probably with some help from John Wilson,—incorporating the “extracts,” and Blackwood published it as a “second edition.” The first would surpass all bibliophilic treasures in existence. He tried his hand at novel-writing, producing within the next five years ‘Valerius: A Roman Story,’ of the time of the Emperor Trajan; ‘Adam Blair,’ a tale of great power, involving the moral downfall of a Scotch minister; ‘Reginald Dalton,’ a story of undergraduate life at Oxford; and ‘Matthew Wald.’ These stories, though scholarly and well written, lack vital interest. Lockhart had not the novelist’s gift of projecting himself into his characters and making them alive to the reader, and he wisely desisted from further efforts. He was a perfect biographer, for the same reason that he was a foremost critic. In 1829 he opened Murray’s ‘Family Library’ with a ‘Life of Napoleon,’ which however is little more than a clever abridgment of Scott’s Life of the Emperor. His ‘Life of Burns’ is a most charming piece of work, which renders all other biographies of the Scotch singer superfluous. The ‘Life of Theodore Hook,’ within a smaller compass, is adequate to its purpose; but his most enduring work is the ‘Life of Scott.’ He was well fitted to undertake that task by his long and loving friendship, which yet did not cloud his judgment. He sets his hero before the reader as a living being, great-hearted, generous, full of life and energy. The self-effacement of the biographer is remarkable; he never dogmatizes, but gives an entirely objective picture. The task was a delicate one for a son-in-law to undertake, but it was executed to perfection. Next to Boswell’s ‘Johnson’ the book is the best biography in the language. By his translations of the ‘Spanish Ballads,’ Lockhart showed himself a vigorous poet with great command over English ballad metres. They are Englished with great force and spirit; and while closely following the Spanish, yet read like original poems.  7
 
 
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