John Wilson

Biography of John Wilson

John Wilson of Elleray (1785-1854) was an alumnus who became a literary critic and author. He published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine under the pseudonym Christopher North.

John Wilson was born in Paisley, the eldest son of gauze manufacturer John Wilson and his wife Margaret Sym. He attended classes at the University of Glasgow for six years leaving his signature in William Richardson’s class roll in 1797. He was greatly influenced by Professors George Jardine and John Young.

In 1802, at the age of seventeen and while still an undergraduate at Glasgow, Wilson daringly wrote to William Wordsworth in praise of his recently published Lyrical Ballads (1798). Impressed, Wordsworth responded in a long letter, later reprinted in his memoirs. On turning eighteen Wilson inherited a substantial fortune of £50,000 from his father's estate and in 1803 went to Magdalen College, Oxford. In 1806 he distinguished himself by winning the first Newdigate prize for poetry, for a poem reflecting his enduring interest in Greek and Roman culture, ‘A recommendation of the study of the remains of ancient Grecian and Roman architecture, sculpture and painting’. In 1807 he took his BA, with the examiners describing it as ‘an examination which afforded the strongest proofs of very great application, and genius, and scholarship’. He graduated MA there in May 1810.

In 1805 Wilson purchased a house and property at Elleray in the Lake District. In 1807 he moved there and spent much time in Wordsworth's company, and it was at his home in 1808 that he met Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1812 John Smith of Glasgow published Wilson's first collection of poetry, The Isle of Palms and other Poems. He published his final major collection of poetry, . The City of the Plague, in 1816. Wilson's poetry received mixed reviews during his lifetime.

Wilson was called to the bar in 1815 but legal work did not suit him. In the same year he lost a substantial proportion of his inheritance due to fraud and turned to writing for the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Another career beckoned in 1820 when the chair of Moral Philosophy and Political Economy at the University of Edinburgh became vacant. With support from among others Sir Walter Scott, Wilson was elected to the post. He remained there until his retirement due to ill health in 1851. He was subsequently granted a pension of £300 per annum by the British government in recognition of his literary and academic services. He continued to contribute to Blackwood's Magazine until shortly before his death from a stroke on 1 April 1854. He was buried in the Dean Village cemetery, and a statue of him by John Steell was erected in Princes Street, Edinburgh, in 1857.

Summary

John Wilson
Author and Journalist

Born 18 May 1785.
Died 1 April 1854.
University Link: Alumnus
GU Degree:
Occupation categories: authors; journalists
Record last updated: 7th Sep 2015

University Connections

University Roles

  • Alumnus

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