24 NOVEMBER 1855, Page 13


liturr of the causes which contributed to the interest excited by the Nodes Ambrosiance, on their first appearance in successive numbers of Blackwood's Magazine, have ceased to,operate. Poli- tical 'measures round which parties were then struggling with fierce passion and loud mutual denunciation have been built as firmly into the constitution as Magna Charta itself. The men.en- gaged in those conflicts have become historical personages, or have fallen into utter oblivion ; in either case escaping from the partial judgments of that time, and no longer lending a charm not its own to panegyric or invective. So, too, the literary celebrities of that day have either attained a fixed rank or been forgotten; we no longer interest ourselves in disputes about their claims. And in 'the case of both political and literary personages, what was then fresh and piquant personality has -become familiar history or stale gossip ; pointed allusions have lost their force, half-re- velations have been superseded ; and we wonder, as we read, at the amount of feeling exhibited towards men and women who are now, for the most part, shadowy names, with scarce an association connecting them with our living sympathies. Yet, in spite of this inevitable effect of the lapse of twenty or thirty years upon papers discussing so largely topics and people of temporary interest, such is the high quality of the genius lavished upon them, that the public will read by far the larger portion of the Noctes with as much delight as at first. They appear now 'with -a claim to rank as English classics—as the choicest produc- tion of their author, one of the most highly endowed men of his time. Their chief interlocutor, the eidolon of the Ettriek Shepherd, is ranked by Professor Wilson's admirers with the most forcible characters known to us through history or created by fiction. Thus, Professor Ferrier, introducing the Noctes with a preface, says—" In wisdom, the Shepherd equals the Socrates of Plato ; in humour, he surpasses 'the Falstaff of Shakapere ; clear and prompt, he might have stood up against Dr. Johnson in close and peremp- tory argument; fertile and copious, he might have rivalled Burke in amplitude of declamation." Socrates, Falstaff, Dr. Johnson, and Burke, all in one ! and that one talking a broad Done, that seems to an English ear the native dialect of humour, plastic alike to pathos, fun, and homely shrewdness; a shepherd, too, knowing

all shy charms of nature in remotest haunts of solitude and silence—all the racy characteristics of pastoral life and pastoral people, their joys, their sorrows, their pleasures, and their busi- ness. Estimated thus, the Shepherd of the Noctes would really

• Noctes Ambrosia:, by Professor Wilson. In four volumes. Vol. I. 'Vol. IL (Works of Professor Wilson, of the University of Edinburgh. Edited by his Son- in-law, Professor Ferrier.) Published by Blackwood and Sou.

be the most marvellous of the creations of that literature -which stands highest among the literatures of Europe for its presentation of human character. And, with some qualification, tie estimate is not so absurd as at first sight our habitual reverence for such names as Professor Ferrier has brought into his comparison would consider it.

The truth is, that Wilson, one of the most remarkable men that ever lived for the variety and strength of his powers, has thrown into the Shepherd's talk the teeming activity of his own mind and heart ; and so far as oharaoters are displayed in life and in that fiction which reflects life, solely. by their desultory talk, the Shep- herd may fairly be matched with any one. If it was simply as a shrewd talker that we knew Socrates—if Falstaff was to us simply a sayer of good things, Dr. Johnson a hard hitter in argument, Burke a copious and splendid declaimer—Wilson's Shepherd might without exaggeration be put upon a level with all these remark- able characters. He talks as shrewdly as Socrates, as wittily as l'alstaff, as weightily as Johnson, as splendidly as Burke ; or, at least, the exaggeration of such assertions might pass without chal- lenge. He does talk more shrewdly, wittily, weightily, and splen- didly, than any man we have the pleasure of knowing. But the talk of these famous personages is all related to action or serious dia- 1 oussion—is the genuine utterance of the men in contact with facts, either engaged in the business of life or in the pursuit of truth. Something more is revealed by it than a kaleidoscope quickness and variety of intellect; it displays at once and subserves the will and the affections. Socrates talks cleverly, and gets his opponent generally into chancery—a feat which would raise him to the rank of a first- ' rate sophist ; but we value him for his genuine earnestness in pursuit of truth, his plainness, his fearlessness, his candour, his pure and aspiring soul—dialectic is simply his instrument. Fal- staff is witty, but not wittier than Sheridan or Hook : what we admire in him is the profound sincerity of his sensual abasement— the devotion of the whole man wit, understanding, reason, con- science, to the pleasures of the man, man—his utter insensibility to the higher claims and enjoyments of his humanity; it is a cha- racter, not a talker, that delights us in the fat knight. So in John- son, and Burke, the 'talk is merely instrumental, symptomatic of a whole man talking. But in the Shepherd of the Noctes the talk is the be-all and the end-all; the man is a talker and little else ; and we identify him with his talk almost as little as we do an actor with his part. This is partly owing to the form adopted : desul- tory talk "de omnibus rebus et quibusdam aliis " can never thoroughly develop a character—can do nothing but show a mans versatility of intellect and command of language. But it is also owing to the fact that one of the Shepherd's traits is the queerest and most grotesque vanity—almost the only trait borrowed from the original model; and that he is throughout represented as talking for effect, to show off his eloquence. We have not, consequently, a character completely developed, but merely a man who can assume all characters for the nonce; can be .funny, pathetic, wise, descriptive, poetical, or sensual, just as the play requires. And he is so palpably acting that he tires us by his cleverness of as- sumption, just as a hired mountebank would tire us by insisting on showing off his powers of mimicry in conversation. Another objection to the Nodes as a whole may be conveyed in the words of Mr. Forster, who, in his admirable life of Goldsmith, says—" Of the many clever and indeed wonderful writings that from age to age are poured forth into the world, what is it that puts upon the few the stamp of immortality, and makes them seem indestructible as nature? what is it but their wise rejection of everything superfluous ?" We estimate works of art, as we esti- mate characters in life, more hy their unity and completeneas than by their richness and profusion of raw material. It is coherence, order, purpose, which make the difference between Nature and Chaos. And if all the wit, the wisdom the geniality, and the imagination of the Noctes ilmbrosiance fail to secure them a place among English classics, it will be because these are reduced to no order, subordinated to no general purpose, organized into no whole. They will even then remain the very best magazine papers that were probably ever written.

Lest any of our younger readers should never have looked through the old numbers of Blackwood that contain them we subjoin an extract, that may indicate the quality and something of the method of the composition.

North. James, many a merry Christmas to us all. What a jug! Shepherd. Its an int:thick wr me noo, makin het whisky toddy. A' the time o' our silly discourse about our skulls, was I steerin about the liquid, plumpin in the bits o' sugar, and garrin the green bottle gurgle—unconscious .0' what I was about—yet, as ye observe, sir, wr your usual sagacity, "What a jug!"

Tickler. There is no such 'school of temperance as Ambrose's in the world —a skived in any room of 'his house clears my head for a month, and re- strings my stomach to such a pitch of power, that, like an ostrich, I can digest a nail or a cork-screw. North. Sobriety is the strength of our physical, moral, and intellectual life. But how can any man hope to continue long sober, who calumniates cordial conviviality—misnames fun folly, and mirth malignity—turns up the whites of his eyes at humour, because it is broad, broad as the sea in sunshine—who in his false wisdom knows not what real wit is, or, half knowing It turns away, abashed and detected, from its corruscations, that are ever harmless to the truly good, and wither only the weak or the wicked —who-- Shepherd. Step, eir—stap—for you'll never be able to foe your way, at this

time o'nicht, out o' sic a sentence, o' a perplexin and bewilderui kind o' construction, and defy.mortal man to make his escape o't without breakin

through, in perfect desperation, a' the rules o' grammar, an upsettin Dr. Syntax at the door o' a parenthesis. North. Never shall sot be suffered-to sit at oar symposium, James, Jot even the genius of a Sheridan— Shepherd. Pshewwboolioo—the genius o' Sheridan ? Oh, sir, but his comedies are cauldrife compositions ; and the hail tot of them's no worth the warst Noctes Ambrosial's° that ever Meister Gurney, that genthman o' the press, extended frae out o' short haun. His mind had baith pint and glitter—but sae has a preen. Sheridan had but a sma' sowl—and even his oratory was feeble false, and fushionless ; and ane o' the auld Covenanters wad has rowted him doun intil a silent ceepher on the hill-side, makin him fin' what eloquence is, no made up o' patches free ither men's pamphlets, and o' lang accounts and statements, interlarded wr rancid rant, and faded figures new-dyed like auld claes, that do weal eneuch by cawnle light, but look desperate shabby in the daytime—wf remarks, forsooth, on human life and the principles of Eternal Justice—nae less—o' which the unhappy neerdoweel kent muckle, me doubt—having never read a good and great book a his days, and associated chiefly with the vilest o' the vile— North. James—What's the meaning of this ? These sudden bursts— Shepherd. I canna thole to hear sic a sot as Sherry aye classed vi' Pitt and Burke.

Tickler. Nor L A couple of clever comedies—a few elegant epilogues—a so-so opera—some spirited speechifyings—a few fitful flashes—some composed corruscations of conversational wit—will these make a great man ? Bali! As to his faults and failings, on their ashes we must tread tenderly— North. Yes; but we must not collect them in an urn, and weep over them in maudlin worship. He was but a town-wit after all, and of a very super- ficial fancy. He had no imagination. Shepherd. No a grain. He could say sharp things upon blunt people— turn a common thocht wr a certain neatness, that gied it, at first hearin, an air o' novelty • and an image bein' to him rather a rare occurrence he polished it aff till the pebble seemed a diamond ; but after a' it couldna write on glass, and was barely worth settin in the waist goold. He wanted copiousness, firteelity, richness, vareeity, feelin truth es' natur, sudden in- spiration, poo'r o' thocht ; and as for either beauty or sublimity, he had a fause notion o' them in words and nae notion them at a5 in things, and never drew a tear or garreethe reader grue* in a' his days.

• " Grue—Shudder."—Blplastatory Note by Professor Ferrier.