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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 Wilson (Christopher North) (1785–1854)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
JOHN WILSON was one of those men whose attractive and striking personality makes it difficult to disassociate them from their work. Of marked individuality and leonine presence, he was a large figure in the social and intellectual circles of Edinburgh, a power in the life as well as literature of his period. His faults were those of a big-souled man, who gave himself prodigally and covered too wide an area. As one of his editors, Mr. John Skelton, remarks, “he needed concentration. Had the tree been thoroughly pruned, the fruit would have been larger and richer.” His merits, weighed now in the more impartial scales of a later day, are felt to be distinct. To express Christopher North in metaphor, one would call him a literary “Jupiter tonans.” He possessed a sort of dynamic energy, and breathed out a wholesome atmosphere, as of the sea or hills. This influence was noticeable whether in the intercourse of society, the classroom lecture, or the breezy deliverances of the ‘Noctes Ambrosianæ’ as they appeared in Blackwood. The sheer animal spirits of those famous papers would alone carry them into favor; and they possess besides, abundance of wit and humor, of felicitous description and keen characterization, of wisdom and poetry. They constitute a solid monument to their writer, independent, in the main lines, of much that is local and temporary in the construction.  1
  John Wilson was the son of a rich manufacturer in Paisley, Scotland, where John was born May 18th, 1785. He was educated at the University of Glasgow, and at Oxford, winning the Newdigate Prize for poetry there. His degree was secured in 1807. He bought soon thereafter an estate on Lake Windermere in the Westmoreland country, so rich in literary associations; and for some years was an intimate of Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge. It was in this environment that his poem ‘The Isle of Palms’ was published, in 1812. He removed to Edinburgh in 1815, and was admitted to the bar. The next year appeared the dramatic poem ‘The City of the Plague.’ Blackwood’s Magazine was founded in 1812, and Wilson became at once a valued contributor. The fact that he was elected in 1820 Professor of Morals at the university—defeating Sir William Hamilton, who was also a candidate—testifies to the high rating of him as man and scholar. From this throne Professor Wilson spoke or used his pen for many years.  2
  A number of tales and sketches are aside from what brought him his more permanent reputation. Such are—‘Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life’ (1822), ‘The Trials of Margaret Lindsay’ (1823), ‘The Foresters’ (1825), and the ‘Essay on the Genius of Burns’ (1841). More characteristic and hence more lasting are the ‘Noctes Ambrosianæ,’ contributed to the magazine from 1822 to 1835; the later series ‘Dies Boreales, or Christopher Under Canvas’ (1849–1852) not equaling the earlier in spontaneity or charm. It is not hard to understand the immediate popularity of the ‘Noctes,’ when at Ambrose’s Edinburgh tavern, Mr. Tickler, the Ettrick Shepherd, Christopher North, and other rare good spirits drank their toddy into the wee small hours, and exchanged all manner of talk upon all manner of things. The three main personages are limned with a clear eye and much unction; and one of them at least, the Shepherd, is a true masterpiece in comedy creation. Wilson is open to the charge of being diffuse, and occasionally coarse, in the conductment of these sprightly dialogues; but these are but flies in the ointment.  3
  In 1851 Professor Wilson resigned his seat in the university, and died three years afterward, April 3d, 1854. Professor Ferrier, his son-in-law, has edited his works in twelve volumes; and a ‘Life’ has been written by his daughter, Mrs. Gordon. For purposes of convenience, the general reader is directed to ‘The Comedy of the Noctes Ambrosianæ’; an edition selected and arranged by Mr. John Skelton, presenting the ‘Noctes’ in a much condensed form, whereby that which is slighter, local, and least happy, is eliminated.  4

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