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“A cursed spot, 'tis said, in days of yore ;
But nothing ails it now—the place is merry!” But a too literal interpretation is not to be given to the scene of these festivities. Ambrose's Hotel was indeed “a local habitation and a name,” and many were the meetings which Professor Wilson and his friends had within its walls. But the true Ambrose's must be looked for only in the realms of the imagination — the veritable scene of the "Ambrosian nights” existed nowhere but in their Author's brain, and their flashing fire was struck out in solitude by genius wholly independent of the stimulus of companionship.
The same remark applies to the principal characters who take part in these dialogues. Although founded to some extent on the actual, they are in the highest degree idealised. Christopher North was Professor Wilson himself, and here, therefore, the real and the ideal may be viewed as coincident. But Timothy Tickler is a personage whose lineaments bear a resemblance to those of their original only in a few fine although unmistakable outlines, while James Hogg in the flesh was but a faint adumbration of the inspired Shepherd of the Noctes.
Mr Robert Sym (the prototype of Timothy Tickler) was born in 1750, and died in 1844 at the age of ninety-four, having retained to the last the full possession of his faculties, and enjoyed uninterrupted good health to within a very few years of his decease. He followed the profession of Writer to the Signet from 1775 until the close of that century, when he retired from business on a competent fortune. He was uncle to Professor Wilson by the mother's side, and his senior by some five-and-thirty years. He thus belonged to a former generation, and had passed his grand climacteric long before the establishment of Blackwood's Magazine, with which he had no connection whatever beyond taking
an interest in its success. And although his conviviality flowed down upon a later stock, and was never more heartily called forth than when in the company of his nephew, these circumstances must of themselves have prevented the Author of the Noctes from trenching too closely on reality in his effigiation of Timothy Tickler.
Mr Sym's portrait in the character of Timothy Tickler is sketched more than once in the course of the Noctes Ambrosianæ. But the following description of him by the Ettrick Shepherd is so graphic, and for the most part so true, that I cannot resist the pleasure of transcribing it :
"I had never heard,” says Hogg in his Reminiscences of Former Days, 1“ more than merely his (Mr Sym's) name, and imagined him to be some very little man about Leith. Judge of my astonishment when I was admitted by a triple-bolted door into a grand house in George's Square, and introduced to its lord, an uncommonly finelooking elderly gentleman, about seven feet high, and as straight as an arrow! His hair was whitish, his complexion had the freshness and ruddiness of youth, his looks and address full of kindness and benevolence; but whenever he stood straight up (for he always had to stoop about half-way when speaking to a common-sized man like me), then you could not help perceiving a little of the haughty air of the determined and independent old aristocrat.
"From this time forward, during my stay in Edinburgh, Mr Sym's hospitable mansion was the great evening resort of his three nephews and me; sometimes there were a few friends beside, of whom Lockhart and Samuel Anderson* were mostly two, but we four for certain ; and there are no jovial evenings of my bypast life which I reflect on with greater delight than those. Tickler is completely an original, as any man may see who has attended to his remarks ; for there is no sophistry there,—they are every one his own. Nay, I don't believe that North has, would, or durst, put a single sentence into his mouth that had not proceeded out of it. No, no; although
1 Prefixed to Altrive Tales, by the Ettrick Shepherd. London, 1832.
2 This is a slight exaggeration. Mr Sym's house, though sufficiently commodious, was a bachelor domicile of very moderate dimensions.
3 Professor Wilson, Mr Robert Sym Wilson, Manager of the Royal Bank of Scotland, and Mr James Wilson, the eminent naturalist.
4 Samuel Anderson makes his appearance in Noctes Ambrosianæ, May 1834.
• This observation is very wide of the mark. Assuredly Mr Sym was no consenting party to the slight liberties which were taken with him in the Noctes,
I was made a scape-goat, no one, and far less a nephew, might do so with Timothy Tickler. His reading, both ancient and modern, is boundless, his taste and perception acute beyond those of most other men ; his satire keen and biting, but at the same time his good-humour is altogether inexhaustible, save when ignited by coming in collision with Whig or Radical principles. Still, there being no danger of that with me, he and I never differed in one single sentiment in our lives, excepting as to the comparative merits of some strathspey reels.
“ But the pleasantest part of our fellowship is yet to describe. At a certain period of the night our entertainer knew, by the longing looks which I cast to a beloved corner of the dining-room, what was wanting. Then, with “Oh, I beg your pardon, Hogg, I was forgetting,' he would take out a small gold key that hung by a chain of the same precious metal from a particular button-hole, and stalk away as tall as the life, open two splendid fiddle-cases, and produce their contents ; first the one, and then the other, but always keeping the best to himself. I'll never forget with what elated dignity he stood straight up in the middle of that floor and rosined his bow; there was a twist of the lip and an upward beam of the eye that were truly sublime. Then down we sat side by side, and beganat first gently, and with easy motion, like skilful grooms keeping ourselves up for the final heat, which was slowly but surely approaching. At the end of every tune we took a glass, and still our enthusiastic admiration of the Scottish tunes increased-our energies of execution redoubled, till ultimately it became not only a complete and well-contested race, but a trial of strength, to determine which should drown the other. The only feelings short of ecstasy which came across us in these enraptured moments were caused by hearing the laugh and the joke going on with our friends, as if no such thrilling strains had been flowing. But if Sym's eye chanced at all to fall on them, it instantly retreated upwards again in mild indig
and it is not to be supposed that he had more than a faint suspicion of his resemblance to the redoubted Timothy. What Hogg says in regard to the vigour of Mr Sym's talents, and the originality and pointedness of his remarks, is quite true; but had the nephew ventured to report any of the conversations of the uncle, there cannot be a doubt that the “breach of privilege” would have been highly resented by the latter. But the Professor had too much tact for that. He took good care not to sail too near the wind; and the utmost that can be said is, that the language and sentiments of Mr Sym bore some general resemblance, and supplied a sort of groundwork to the conversational characteristics of Mr Tickler.
1 This also is incorrect. Mr Sym's reading, although accurate and intelligent so far as it went, was by no means unbounded. It was limited to our best British classics, and of these his special favourites were Hume and Swift.
nation. To his honour be it mentioned, he has left me a legacy of that inestimable violin, provided that I outlive him. But not for a thousand such would I part with my old friend."
To this description I may be just permitted to add, that in the more serious concerns of life Mr Sym's character and career were exemplary. To the highest sense of honour, and the most scrupulous integrity in his professional dealings, he united the manners of a courtier of the ancient regime, and a kindliness of nature which endeared him to the old and to the young, with the latter of whom, in particular, he was always an especial favourite.
But the animating spirit of the Noctes Ambrosianæ is the Ettrick Shepherd himself. James Hogg was born in 1772, in a cottage on the banks of the Ettrick, a tributary of the Tweed; and died at Altrive, near St Mary's Loch—a lake in the same district—in 1835. His early years were spent in the humblest pastoral avocations, and he scarcely received even the rudiments of the most ordinary education. For long “chill penury repressed his noble rage;" but the poetical instinct was strong within him, and the flame ultimately broke forth under the promptings of his own ambition, and the kind encouragement of Sir Walter Scott. After a few hits and many misses in various departments of literature, he succeeded in striking the right chord in the Queen's Wake, which was published in 1813. This work stamped Hogg as, after Burns (proximus, sed longo intervallo), the greatest poet that had ever sprung from the bosom of the common people. It became at once, and deservedly, popular; and by this poem, together with some admirable songs, imbued with genuine feeling, and the national spirit of his country, he has a good chance of being known favour
1 Hogg did not outlive him. The story of the bequest of the cremona is of course apocryphal. But see Noctes I., p. 12.
ably to posterity. But his surest passport to immortality is his embalmment in the Noctes Ambrosianæ.
In connection with this brief notice of James Hogg, I may take the opportunity of clearing up a point of literary history which has been enveloped in obscurity until now: I allude to the authorship of a composition which is frequently referred to in the Noctes Ambrosianæ, the celebrated Chaldee MS. This trenchant satire on men and things in the metropolis of Scotland, was published in the seventh number of Blackwood's Magazine. It excited the most indescribable commotion at the time—so much noise, indeed, that never since has it been permitted to make any noise whatever, this promising babe having been pitilessly suppressed almost in its cradle, in consequence of threatened legal proceedings. A set of the Magazine containing it is now rarely to be met with. The authorship of this composition has been always a subject of doubt. Hogg used to claim the credit of having written it. I have recently ascertained that to him the original conception of the Chaldee MS. is due ; and also that he was the author of the first thirty-seven verses of Chap. I., and of one or two sentences besides. So that, out of the one hundred and eighty verses of which the whole piece consists, about forty are to be attributed to the Shepherd. Hogg, indeed, wrote and sent to Mr Blackwood much more of the Chaldee MS. than the forty verses aforesaid ; but not more than these were inserted in the magazine ; the rest of the production being the workmanship of Wilson and Lockhart. Such is a true and authentic account of the origin and authorship of the Chaldee MS. There can be little doubt that when this clever jeu d'esprit is republished with annotations (and it may form a very suitable appendix to the Noctes Ambrosianæ), the present generation will be as much amused by its pleasantry, and by the singular state of feeling, literary and political, which it reveals, as our fathers