In the early days of the nineteenth century Edinburgh certainly aspired to prouder eminence as a centre of light and learning than it has continued to maintain. Tory energy, provoked by the arrogance of Jeffrey, had found its earliest expression in London, but the northern capital evidently determined not to be left behind in the game of unprincipled vituperation. Blackwood, unlike its rivals in infancy, was issued monthly, and its closely printed double columns add something to the impression of heaviness in its satire.
There is admittedly something incongruous in any association between the genial and laughter-loving Christopher North and the reputation incurred by the periodical with which he was long so intimately associated. He had contributed—as few of his confederates would have been permitted— to the Edinburgh; but he was Literary Editor to Blackwood from October, 1817, to September, 1852. Originally a disciple of the Lake School, at whom he was frequently girding, he migrated to Edinburgh (where he became Professor of Moral Philosophy in 1820), and attracted to himself many brilliant men of letters, including De Quincey.
The “mountain-looking fellow,” as Dickens called him, the patron of “cock-fighting, wrestling, pugilistic contests, boat-racing, and horse-racing” left his mark on his generation for a unique combination of boisterous joviality and hardhitting. Well known in the houses of the poor; more than one observer has said that he reminded them of the “first man, Adam.” He “swept away all hearts, withersoever he would.” “Thor and Balder in one,” “very Goth,” “a Norse Demigod,” “hair of the true Sicambrian yellow”; Carlyle describes him as “fond of all stimulating things; from tragic poetry down to whiskey-punch. He snuffed and smoked cigars and drank liqueurs, and talked in the most indescribable style.... He is a broad sincere man of six feet, with long dishevelled flax-coloured hair, and two blue eyes keen as an eagle’s ... a being all split into precipitous chasms and the wildest volcanic tumults ... a noble, loyal, and religious nature, not strong enough to vanquish the perverse element it is born into.”
The foundation of Wilson’s criticism, unlike most of his contemporaries, was generous and wide-minded appreciation, yet he “hacked about him, distributing blows right and left, delivered sometimes for fun, though sometimes with the most extraordinary impulse of perversity, in the impetus of his career.” With all a boy’s love of a good fight, he shared with youth its thoughtless indifference to the consequences.