The Collected Letters, Volume 4


TC TO JOHN A. CARLYLE; July 1827; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18270700-TC-JAC-01; CL 4:236-243.


21 Comely Bank [July? 1827].

Last night I supped with John Wilson, Professor of Moral Philosophy here, author of the ‘Isle of Palms,’ &c., a man of the most fervid temperament, fond of all stimulating things, from tragic poetry down to whisky punch. He snuffed and smoked cigars and drank liquors, and talked in the most indescribable style. It was at the lodging of one John Gordon, a young very good man from Kirkcudbright, who sometimes comes here. Daylight came on us before we parted; indeed, it was towards three o'clock as the Professor and I walked home, smoking as we went. I had scarcely either eaten or drunk, being a privileged person, but merely enjoyed the strange volcanic eruptions of our poet's convivial genius. He is a broad sincere man of six feet, with long dishevelled flax-coloured hair, and two blue eyes keen as an eagle's. Now and then he sank into a brown study, and seemed dead in the eye of law. About two o'clock he was sitting in this state smoking languidly, his nose begrimed with snuff, his face hazy and inert; when all at once flashing into existence, he inquired of John Gordon, with an irresistible air, ‘I hope, Mr. Gordon, you don't believe in universal damnation?’ It was wicked, but all hands burst into inextinguishable laughter. But I expect to see Wilson in a more philosophic key ere long; he has promised to call on me, and is, on the whole, a man I should like to know better. Geniuses of any sort, especially of so kindly a sort, are so very rare in this world.


With Professor Wilson, the famous John Wilson, alias Christopher North of Ambrose's Tavern, Edinburgh, and Blackwood's Magazine, I never had much acquaintance, never at bottom a superlative esteem for him, tho' I recognised with admiration his great and singular gifts, liked him really well, and in the then state of my affairs, notions and outlooks, could have well desired more talk and intercourse with him than I ever had. …

It must have been on an April Saturday of 1814, probably enough the last time I ever found myself in this fine Princes Street tide of human life, that an elder comrade and I, passing thro' for some larger stretch of walking, had sight, I for the first time, of a Figure that has rendered it ever since memorable to me. My comrade was by no means an intimate, but he was six or seven years my elder, a polished ingenious enough kind of man, who knew, at least by outside, the lions and the rumours and topics of society, as I by no means did; and with whom, meeting him by accident, I had willingly consented to join company, on this occasion, and who accordingly proved really entertaining to me. His name was Campbell;2 from Galloway somewhere; went before long to be Minister of Peebles, I think; and perhaps this was the first and the last walk we ever had together. Our course lay along Princes Street from the west, the promenade all in its beauty, in its sunny gaiety; well worth looking at, and growing ever denser as we proceeded; fairly a kind of press in the last division eastward. Not far from the very finis, or Register Office itself, Campbell nudged me, and in an under-tone, murmured, glancing to a figure near meeting us, “Isle of Palms; Wilson!” I looked duly; and sure enough, tho' Poem and Poet were as yet only a rumour to me, here was something one could not at once forget. A very tall strong-built and impetuous-looking young man, age perhaps about 28, with a profusion of blond hair, with large flashing countenance of the statuesque sort, flashing pair of blue eyes, which were fixed as if on something far off, was impetuously striding along, regarding nobody to right or left, but gently yet rapidly cleaving the press, and with large strides stepping along, as if too late for some appointment far ahead. His clothing was rough (I think some loose, whitish jacket of kerseystuff), hat of broadish brim, on the big massive head, flanked with such overplus of strong unclipt flaxen hair, seemed to have known many showers in its time; but what struck one most was the glance of those big blue eyes, stern yet loving, pointing so authentically to something far away. We followed this figure, at least I did, so far as looking over one's shoulder would do; saw it, or the head of it eminent above the general level victoriously speeding on its course, for some considerable distance farther. Whether the general promenade took any notice of this big transit thro' it I do not remember, rather think not; but from that day, “John Wilson (Isle of Palms)” was an additional item in the little Private Gallery of Portraits my memory had taken in.

It was about a dozen years more, before I knew anything personally of Wilson, or almost even had seen the face of him again. …

It must have been in the end of 1826 that I first had any personal acquaintance with Wilson; familiar as his name and wild lucubrations now were to me and everybody, I as yet knew nothing farther of him but his figure and his voice. One Gordon, from Kirkcudbright, a visitor at our little Domicile of Comley Bank, and an estimable old acquaintance of mine, often spoke with us about Wilson, and took a certain shine of new dignity from his known familiarity with the famous man and his circle. I suppose it was by him that I was somewhere incidentally on the streets (I quite forget when or where) brought to the enviable honour of a mouthful of speech with the great Professor, and the privilege of speaking two or three words again with him, if it suited both parties, when we chanced to meet. … His conversation, never so casual, in such brief meetings, had generally something piquant in it unlike that of other men; a spicing of wild satire, caricature, or off-hand quiz, wild not cruel, almost always an ingredient traceable. And he loved to dramatise any fact or doctrine to you by an example that might come to hand. It was always evident to me there lay sound sense and discernment in what he said; and I always rather liked to fall in with him, even for a minute or two, and could have liked much more, would he have consented to be really serious and sincere with me, now and then, which he never quite was. On serious speculative points he glided almost immediately into the sentimental; on practical or personal points, into the realm of quiz.

As this was all I could get of my Wilson I had to be content with it, and quietly despair of more. Even so he was better to me than nobody or than a common dull acquaintance claiming speech. A fine fresh stalwart human brother, something massive, not in the figure and gait of him only, but in the form of his address, in the very sound of his voice. He spoke low rather than otherwise, with a melodious potency and breadth of tone, accent essentially Scotch, or even Glasgow-Scotch, tho' with a certain refining tincture of Old-Oxford, too, as if chemically joined there; voice spreading itself out as if in trustful exposition of the current something or nothing, in neighbourlike cordiality, and the determination to be gracious and agreeable,—often a curious overdone self-conscious and self-mocking style of politeness observable, which tickled you into the due posture, and was abundantly piquant and peculiar. In fact Wilson was full of genuine sensibility to human fun; had a great deal of real humour in him; and no man, or hardly any man, was less of a hypocrite. But laughter, virtual, or actual, was his panoply and general cloak-of-darkness; of virtual he had, as it were, no end; and the very tones of his voice testified of it: actual he could abundantly awaken in others, tho' himself, to my recollection, never laughed at all. …

For a long time Gordon had been meditating for me a Supper or Night with Wilson, and deeply pondering how it could be brought about. After various failures the night at length was got fixed, and came. At Gordon's rooms, a party of Four; Wilson versus Gordon himself, and a harmless unimportant Lawyer person (whom I never saw again, name, I think Roy)3 opposite to whom, with Wilson on my right hand, I remember sitting. It was probably soon after nine when we assembled; dusk of a fine summer day;—must have been of the year 1827. Wilson, semi-visible, till lights and supper came, sat interesting us, and flowingly in talk, about a call he had just been making on Lockhart who had arrived on visit to his old friends that afternoon from London: I remember also, his Life of Burns (which Wilson spoke of by and by) was just come out; and that Lockhart had said to him, in regard to London and his element there, ‘Oh, don't ask me; don't bid me speak a word of that,—I have run away to forget all that delirious stuff, for a week or two, among you!’ Bedlam or little better, Lockhart seemed to have thought, and Wilson to think. To all which we grinned or hummed assent with the recognition due from us.

Supper was announced straightway, on these good terms; supper and lights awakened new vivacity, especially the long sequel of whisky-punch did; and there arose such a flood or blaze of talk, Wilson the tongue of it, by nine-tenths or more, we the ear mainly, as I never witnessed or listened to before. The night might well be reckoned amusing; and truly so it was,—tho' one felt it was not very fine amusement, but only very new and very strange. Far more of wisdom, grace, and even of real ingenuity, cleverness and sprightly entertainment I have had in a night, from some gifted man; but never from any man such a boundless, quietly volcanic pouring of himself out in spiritual lava,—all a kind of ‘lava,’—which glowed luminous in the night, and never, for a moment, was mere ashes and soot, tho' perhaps at no moment quite free of those ingredients. For he went along without study or distrust, extempore in all senses; and gave you, with careless abundance, whatever lay in him on the topic going. Nor was he in the least one of those soliloquy talkers (Coleridge, Humboldt, &c., so unendurable, were they eloquent as seraphs), who pump their talk into you as if you were a bucket: on the contrary he rather seemed to wait for your inquiry, for your suggestion of a subject; and never failed to pause at once, when his quick glance told him you nearly had enough. He was ready to talk of anything, even of any person,—and would launch out into blazy high-coloured delineations of distinguished men; dramatising his ideas, often enough (mimicking the great man's words and ways, in dialogues and incidents, which you felt were imaginary and poetised for the nonce); giving you a singularly vivid likeness in caricature. Caricature essentially good-natured almost always, with brushfuls of flattering varnish exuberantly laid on,—tho' you felt, nearly always too, that there lurked something of satirical per-contra at the bottom, and a clear view of the seamy side withal. Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the minor Lakers, he gave us at great length, in this serio-comic or comico-serious, vein; of De Quincey (who, I think, was then, or had lately been, his guest for a good while) he had much to say, in farce-tragedy style, wildly coruscating and caricaturing; Brougham, too, Dugald Stewart, at last even Jeffrey and his own Edinburgh rivals, all done with swift broad strokes, not insincere, and with abundance of flattering varnish and formal kowtowing:—I find our talk, thro' those five hours, was principally of Distinguished Persons whom Wilson knew; Wilson nothing loth of that unsafe theme, the intrinsically guileless, childlike man. There rose, by intervals, plenty of other speculative neutral topics; but this had proved to be the fruitfullest, and we always gravitated back to it. I think it was for most part I that started the game; and probably it was for me mainly that he shaped his volcanic discoursings,—tho' by no means formally for me, all the rest sharing and cooperating throughout, Gordon by some hotch of smothered laughter now and then (uncommonly genial of its kind), and Roy by his constant air of intelligence and interested attention. And so the volcano went, five hours of it; and the spiritual lava, never failing or flagging. Till the actual sun came beaming through the window-shutters, and everybody had to think of moving.

Spiritual lava I called it, but indeed it was spirituous as well, or fully more! Wilson drank a great deal of whisky-punch; steadily, not in haste, but without rest, and as a business, all night: solid part of supper, to him especially, was nothing; the essence of it drink, by way of keeping talk on flame. This too was essentially our case (what we ate, or whether we ate anything, I totally forget); but our aim was, to hear Wilson talk, and we cheerfully (for there was no pressing, or speech about drink) conformed to his law. Gordon and Roy, perhaps, did a little to follow suit afar off; I went upon sipping warmwater, reinforced at long intervals by a spoonful of port-wine negus. Wilson, I think, must have had in all about fourteen tumblers,—considerably above a bottle of ‘pure aquavitae,’ diluted with sugar and hot water. He also incidentally consumed quantities of snuff,—a box of hendy-fort laid duly beside him for accompaniment; tho' usually, I think, he did not wear a snuff-box at all. By degrees his upperlip (a scornful kind of lip, and short for a man of genius)4 got considerably browned or yellowed by the snuff, which gave him a still more off-hand, defiant kind of air. For the rest, the stout whisky-punch, 14 tumblers of it, seemed to produce no effect on him whatever; no more than if you had poured them into an iron pump, which only kept volcanically talking all the same. Towards morning you could perhaps notice that his complexion seemed as if getting halfperceptibly something of a grey-blue tinge intermingled; that the snuffy lip had a still more off-hand defiant look;—and, on the whole, that internally the temper was getting visibly a shade fiercer. Once, I remarked, and once only among the whole of us, poor Roy got a slight brief pat: in some interval, Roy, not a little delighted with his position and entertainment, was venturing to illustrate something by a bit of eulogy on really good business talents; Wilson with a dangerous smile, broke in: ‘Do you know, Mr. Roy, there's nothing I so much detest as an excellent man of business!’—which completely finished that. I remarked too that in speaking of distinguished persons (Dugald Stewart and the like sublimities), tho' his formal flattery and kowtowing of them was more exuberant than ever, there was now first clearly discernible across it a substratum of authentic per-contra; and it seemed to me as if here were a lion, wild monarch of the woods, licking all manner of pretended favourites, but with every stroke of the tongue bringing away blood. In fine, things having got to this pass, and the ruddy sun-rays shining visibly in on us, we all rose to go,—loth, all of us, in a sort,—and went our ways. Wilson's way and mine were the same, for half my distance; and he listened or talked humanely to me, till in Glo'ster Place, perhaps to the relief of both, we could shake ourselves loose. At Comley Bank I was surprised, and at first almost shocked, to find a pure white Spirit, lovely and loving, ‘sitting up for me,’—quietly reading and waiting, hour after hour, till I should come. Ah me, ah me!— In this way had ended my Night with Wilson, the only one I ever had with him, or again attempted to have.

For another year we continued to fall in with one another transiently up and down, and to have a little off-hand discourse; offence there never was on either side, always the contrary indeed: but our intimacy grew no farther, merely continued grown at the small height it had reached, and to me privately declared itself incapable of much growing. Once, perhaps twice, on some trifling occasion I have been in his house for half an hour; once only do I recollect his having been in ours. One of my little errands to him was concerning a letter and certain medals of Goethe's, which I was to deliver to Sir Walter Scott: Sir Walter (to my then great sorrow) had gone out of Town; I too was just going. He said at parting, ‘Yes, I will come and see you, Craigenputtock and you, for certain I will: but you must write specially to ask me!’ I wrote; but knew beforehand, there would nothing come, not even an answer. Forty years afterwards my poor bit of Letter, Wilson now gone, came back to me in a Newspaper,—some Biographer of his had found it and thought it printable. …5 I always felt there was in Wilson, more approximately than in any body I had (or yet have) ever seen, the making of a great man; very nearly all the grandest qualities and opulencies that go to that result;—but not quite all; and that, in fine, the great man never could be made. Which did prove, more sadly than I then expected, the result of his blazing course. …

After Spring 1828, we saw no more of Wilson, heard little of him, and from himself nothing. His Noctes or Blackwood we did not see. From 1834 and our removal to London, he had as it were altogether vanished and gone out of memory. He said something bad about the French Revolution, a little word, which somebody, or some chance, brought me sight of. ‘Malice as of a child!’ said I; which indeed it was,—and had something flattering, when I reflected. Once after that he wrote a stiff embarrassed kind of Note, recommending some Edinburgh lad of his acquaintance; to whom I duly attended here, immediately assuring Wilson that I would. Not very long after, we read in the Newspapers that an apoplectic stroke had come upon him; then that he had retired into the Country, to his children and quietude; and in a year or two more that he had gone on the Long Journey, and all his wild eloquence was fallen silent forever. Adieu to him, a kind and sad adieu. (26 March 1868).

Thomas Carlyle.