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Lockhart
by [?]

In every age there are certain writers who seem to miss their due meed of fame, and this is most naturally and unavoidably the case in ages which see a great deal of what may be called occasional literature. There is, as it seems to me, a special example of this general proposition in the present century, and that example is the writer whose name stands at the head of this chapter. No one, perhaps, who speaks with any competence either of knowledge or judgment, would say that Lockhart made an inconsiderable figure in English literature. He wrote what some men consider the best biography on a large scale, and what almost every one considers the second best biography on a large scale, in English. His Spanish Ballads are admitted, by those who know the originals, to have done them almost more than justice; and by those who do not know those originals, to be charming in themselves. His novels, if not masterpieces, have kept the field better than most: I saw a very badly printed and flaringly-covered copy of Reginald Dalton for sale at the bookstall at Victoria Station the day before writing these words. He was a pillar of the Quarterly, of Blackwood, of Fraser, at a time when quarterly and monthly magazines played a greater part in literature than they have played since or are likely to play again. He edited one of these periodicals for thirty years. “Nobody,” as Mr. Browning has it, “calls him a dunce.” Yet there is no collected edition of his works; his sober, sound, scholarly, admirably witty, and, with some very few exceptions, admirably catholic literary criticism, is rarely quoted; and to add to this, there is a curious prepossession against him, which, though nearly a generation has passed since his death, has by no means disappeared.[1] Some years ago, in a periodical where I was, for the most part, allowed to say exactly what I liked in matters literary, I found a sentence laudatory of Lockhart, from the purely literary point of view, omitted between proof and publication. It so happened that the editor of this periodical could not even have known Lockhart personally, or have been offended by his management of the Quarterly, much less by his early fredaines in Blackwood and Fraser. It was this circumstance that first suggested to me the notion of trying to supply something like a criticism of this remarkable critic, which nobody has yet (1884) done, and which seems worth doing. For while the work of many of Lockhart’s contemporaries, famous at the time, distinctly loses by re-reading, his for the most part does not; and it happens to display exactly the characteristics which are most wanting in criticism, biographical and literary, at the present day. If any one at the outset desires a definition, or at least an enumeration of those characteristics, I should say that they are sobriety of style and reserve of feeling, coupled with delicacy of intellectual appreciation and aesthetic sympathy, a strong and firm creed in matters political and literary, not excluding that catholicity of judgment which men of strong belief frequently lack, and, above all, the faculty of writing like a gentleman without writing like a mere gentleman. No one can charge Lockhart with dilettantism: no one certainly can charge him with feebleness of intellect, or insufficient equipment of culture, or lack of humour and wit.

His life was, except for the domestic misfortunes which marked its close, by no means eventful; and the present writer, if he had access to any special sources of information (which he has not), would abstain very carefully from using them. John Gibson Lockhart was born at the Manse of Cambusnethan on 14th July 1794, went to school early, was matriculated at Glasgow at twelve years old, transferred himself by means of a Snell exhibition to Balliol at fifteen, and took a first class in 1813. They said he caricatured the examiners: this was, perhaps, not the unparalleled audacity which admiring commentators have described it as being. Very many very odd things have been done in the Schools. But if there was nothing extraordinary in his Oxford life except what was, even for those days, the early age at which he began it, his next step was something out of the common; for he went to Germany, was introduced to Goethe, and spent some time there. An odd coincidence in the literary history of the nineteenth century is that both Lockhart and Quinet practically began literature by translating a German book, and that both had the remarkably good luck to find publishers who paid them beforehand. There are few such publishers now. Lockhart’s book was Schlegel’s Lectures on History, and his publisher was Mr. Blackwood. Then he came back to Scotland and to Edinburgh, and was called to the bar, and “swept the outer house with his gown,” after the fashion admirably described in Peter’s Letters, and referred to by Scott in not the least delightful though one of the most melancholy of his works, the Introduction to the Chronicles of the Canongate. Lockhart, one of whose distinguishing characteristics throughout life was shyness and reserve, was no speaker. Indeed, as he happily enough remarked in reply to the toast of his health at the farewell dinner given to celebrate his removal to London, “I cannot speak; if I could, I should not have left you.” But if he could not speak he could write, and the establishment of Blackwood’s Magazine, after its first abortive numbers, gave him scope. “The scorpion which delighteth to sting the faces of men,” as he or Wilson describes himself in the Chaldee Manuscript (for the passage is beyond Hogg’s part), certainly justified the description. As to this famous Manuscript, the late Professor Ferrier undoubtedly made a blunder (in the same key as those that he made in describing the Noctes, in company with which he reprinted it) as “in its way as good as The Battle of the Books.” The Battle of the Books, full of mistakes as it is, is literature, and the Chaldee Manuscript is only capital journalism. But it is capital journalism; and the exuberance of its wit, if it be only wit of the undergraduate kind (and Lockhart at least was still but an undergraduate in years), is refreshing enough. The dreadful manner in which it fluttered the dovecotes of Edinburgh Whiggism need not be further commented on, till Lockhart’s next work (this time an almost though not quite independent one) has been noticed. This was Peter’s Letters to his Kinsfolk, an elaborate book, half lampoon, half mystification, which appeared in 1819. This book, which derived its title from Scott’s account of his journey to Paris, and in its plan followed to some extent Humphrey Clinker, is one of the most careful examples of literary hoaxing to be found. It purported to be the work of a certain Dr. Peter Morris, a Welshman, and it is hardly necessary to say that there was no such person. It had a handsome frontispiece depicting this Peter Morris, and displaying not, like the portrait in Southey’s Doctor, the occiput merely, but the full face and features. This portrait was described, and as far as that went it seems truly described, as “an interesting example of a new style of engraving by Lizars.” Mr. Bates, who probably knows, says that there was no first edition, but that it was published with “second edition” on the title-page. My copy has the same date, 1819, but is styled the third edition, and has a postscript commenting on the to-do the book made. However all this may be, it is a very handsome book, excellently printed and containing capital portraits and vignettes, while the matter is worthy of the get-up. The descriptions of the Outer-House, of Craigcrook and its high jinks, of Abbotsford, of the finding of “Ambrose’s,” of the manufacture of Glasgow punch, and of many other things, are admirable; and there is a charming sketch of Oxford undergraduate life, less exaggerated than that in Reginald Dalton, probably be
cause the subject was fresher in the author’s memory.