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"Achilles ponders in his tent,
The kings of modern thought are dumb; Silent they are though not content;
They wait to see the future come : They have the griefs men had of yore, But they contend and cry no more."
JOHN WILSON AND THE NOCTES
THE Noctes Ambrosianæ appeared in Blackwood between 1822 and 1835, arousing an excitement and taking by storm a popularity almost unique in their kinds. Many causes beyond the intrinsic merits and vigour of the dialogues contributed to these results. When the series began, the capital of Scotland was a real literary capital, with the Great Unknown for its half-veiled monarch. Party spirit was high and fierce. The Whigs with the Edinburgh Review, started in the second year of the century, carried all before them in periodical literature; until, fifteen years later, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, came into the field. (The Quarterly, commenced in 1809, being of the modern Babylon, had but slight influence on the modern Athens.) The Review, which had been fractious and turbulent enough in its infancy, had now arrived at years of some discretion, and become comparatively decorous.
"The Comedy of the Noctes Ambrosianæ," by Christopher North. Selected and arranged by John Skelton, advocate (author of "The Impeachment of Mary Stuart," &c.). William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London, 1876.
The young Magazine rushed into the battle ramping and raging, bellowing and roaring, full of tropical ardour and savagery, neither taking nor giving quarter; and in the dust and confusion of the fray, and the bewilderment of manifold mystifications, unscrupulous impersonations, fantastic disguises, interchanges of armour and arms, it was impossible for the spectators clearly and surely to discern who was the captain of the host and who were the warriors. If their own defiant proclamation could be trusted,* there were some strange wild beasts in this deluge of anthropophagi suddenly let loose upon Whigs, Radicals, Benthamites, Joe-Humists, Cockneys, Heretics, haverers, haverils, gouks, sumphs, e tutti quanti; for this rampageous Apocalyptic menagerie had constituted themselves the heraldic supporters of the Nobility, the bodyguard of the Throne, the watch-dogs of the quiet sanctities of the Altar-around which they yelped and barked day and night. In the "Ancient Chaldee Manuscript" are specified some of the principal champions of "the man in plain apparel, which had his camp in the place of Princes, whose name was as it had been the colour of ebony, and whose number was the number of a maiden, when the days of the years of her virginity have expired" (Blackwood, 17 Princes Street). "And the first which came was after the likeness of a beautiful leopard, from the valley of the palm-trees, whose going forth was comely
* "Translation from an ancient Chaldee Manuscript," Blackwood, October 1817; quickly suppressed, so that few sets contain it; but republished as appendix to the "Noctes," in vol. iv. of the twelve-volume edition of the Works of Professor Wilson, edited by his son-in-law, the late Professor J. F. Ferrier. (Blackwood, 1855.)
as the greyhound, and his eyes like the lightning of fiery flame (Wilson, author of the Isle of Palms') There came also from a far country the scorpion, which delighteth to sting the faces of men (Lockhart). . . Also the great wild boar from the forest of Lebanon, and he roused up his spirit, and I saw him whetting his dreadful tusks for the battle (Hogg, from Ettrick Forest). Also the black eagle of the desert, whose cry is as the sound of an unknown tongue, which flieth over the ruins of the ancient cities, and hath his dwelling among the tombs of the wise men (Sir William Hamilton)." The formidable catalogue included also the lynx, the griffin, the stork, the hyæna, "and the beagle and the slowhound after their kind, and all the beasts of the field, more than could be numbered, they were so many."
Charged with such powerful explosives as political passion and reckless personalities, a paper or series of papers will indeed go up like a rocket, but is apt to come down like the stick. If, then, when the gunpowder has been long burnt out, and the firework blaze long since swallowed up in oblivious darkness, the "Noctes" still float in the upper air, and still shine with a certain pale or ruddy light, it must be because of some inherent buoyancy and brilliance. It is true that of the original series of seventy-one, Professor J. F. Ferrier, in his twelve-volumed edition of the works of his father-in-law, left about thirty to haunt as wan ghosts the sepulchral limbo of old sets of Blackwood; some because they were mainly occupied with matters of merely local and temporary interest, others because Wilson had but small part in them; but the remainder (forty-one by Preface,
thirty-nine by Contents), dating from 1825 to 1835, being wholly Wilson's, various songs excepted, he set forth as a permanent galaxy in the starry heavens of our literature; and who will may study or restudy the same as a systematic whole in the first four volumes of the said works. Ferrier was a subtle thinker, an accomplished scholar, an acute and independent critic; but the father of his wife had thrown a glamour over him, as over so many others, and to his eyes every star in that constellation was of the first magnitude. But we, who never came within the scope of Christopher North's personal influence, and whose youth was scarce touched by his written spells, cannot but discern that the cluster is far less splendid than reported, and far from well-defined-that no one of its stars is of the first or even of the second degree; that their light is provokingly intermittent, and, at the brightest, rather wavering and diffuse than intense. For his personality, beyond doubt, was exceedingly more potent than his literary genius; and, while fully admitting and admiring the natural fascination which the former exercised on those with whom he came in contact, we must reserve and exercise our right to distinguish and separate this from the legitimate influence of the latter.
In order to clearly explain this, it may be necessary to write somewhat about the man, gathering the facts from the "Memoir" by his daughter, Mrs. Mary Gordon (two vols., Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1862). John Wilson was born at Paisley on the 18th May 1785, his father being a wealthy gauze manufacturer; his mother, lineally descended by the female side from the great Marquis of Montrose, a stately lady, of