Page images
PDF
EPUB

THE DEATH OF SIR ARCHIBALD ALISON.

It is the lot of those who conduct periodicals such as ours, to feel, from time to time, more than a common share in the loss of writers whose repute is national, or European, or world-wide. Brought often into intimate relation with celebrated men, we become bound to them by the double tie of literary connection and of personal friendship. Those who, for the public, are but the shadows of great names, may be to us tangible and near realities; we may lose in them, besides the author, the constant correspondent and intimate associate; and their fame is sometimes so entwined with this Magazine, from which their early efforts derived support, and to which their talents lent lustre, “stealing and giving odour," that our brightest pages become the monuments of the great contributors whom we have lost. Less than two years ago Aytoun died in his prime; now, full of years and ripe in fame, Alison has descended to the grave; and, for both, there is added to our part in that general sorrow which is felt when such men leave us, the deeper mourning and sense of bereavement which flow from our more than common calamity.

Nearly fifty years have elapsed since Alison sent his earliest contributions to these pages. In 1819, when in his twenty-eighth year, his first paper,“On the Discovery of the Bones of Robert Bruce," appeared in this Magazine, which he continued, with little intermission, up to seven or eight years ago, to embellish with his powerful and popular pen. It was in the interval between 1836 and 1856 that his articles followed each other most rapidly. Their subjects are widely diversified, though, as might be supposed, politics and modern history are most frequently discussed. Essays on Reform—on the Fall of Charles X., and of Louis Philippe-on Negro Emancipation-on Irish Affairs-on many commercial and financial questions, and on Colonial Government, mark the track of his thoughts in following the great political events of his age. The lives or the works of notable personages called forth reviews of such diversity of subject, as proves that his sympathies and range of thought extended far into the past, including great men of many nations, and great works in many languages. Homer and Virgil among the ancients—Dante and Tasso in a later past-Chateaubriand, Guizot, Sismondi, De Tocqueville, Montesquieu, Mirabeau, and Madame de Staël among the moderns, are some of the subjects of these ; while articles on the Greek Drama, the Roman Republic, the Athenian Democracy, and the Crusades, attest the variety of the channels into which his speculations were directed. Written as they were in the intervals of a busy professional career, which is marked too by his standard work on the Criminal Law of Scotland, they would of themselves have borne ample testimony to the culture and industry of their author; but they formed only a small proportion of the offspring of his prolific intellect. Many of these papers were but offshoots from the important work which is, and will long remain, identified with his name, and which occupied so large a space in his life. It was, he tells us, while visiting Paris during its occupation by the Allies after the fall of Napoleon, that the idea of writing the History of Europe from the French Revolution took possession of him. Paris, when he saw it, was still the Paris of the former kings of France; streets and palaces, and parks and public buildings, were still the standing records of the old and picturesque monarchy, suggesting its traditions, its policy, its costume ; but the city was thronged

he says,

with the alien troops whose vast camps lay all around it. It was the striking contrast between that not remote past and the actual present which led him to picture to himself so vividly the successive and startling changes that had produced it, and inspired him with the desire to record in one narrative the great events of the Revolution and the Empire. The downfall of the monarchy—the crimes and horrors of the Revolution—the victories of the Republican armies—the glories and final overthrow of the Empire,—such was the rapid and extraordinary course of events which, drawing the destinies of other nations into its current, formed, with them, the subject of his brilliant plan. He tells us in his Preface how high was his conception of the capabilities of this theme. “A subject,”

so splendid in itself, so full of political and military instruction, replete with such great and heroic actions, adorned by so many virtues, and darkened by so many crimes, never yet fell to the lot of an historian.” And we learn from his Preface that he approached the great task in a becoming spirit. "Inexorable and unbending in his opposition to false principles, it is the duty of the historian of such times to be lenient and considerate in his judgment of particular men.” To this just and lofty view of the duties of his vocation he was absolutely faithful. Bringing to his task very strong opinions own, and, in accordance with them, judging rigorously all great national and political questions, it is only when the actions of the men whom he paints are ignoble or criminal that he visits them with absolute condemnation, extenuating mere errors, and setting down nought in malice. Actuated by this candid and just spirit, he brought also to his work an admiration amounting to enthusiasm for heroic effort, whether exhibited in statesmanship or war; and the battle-pieces which abound in his narrative are touched with a fire and vigour which only a kindred feeling for those whose high achievements he recounts could inspire. The Revolutionary soldiers of France; the great marshals who upheld the despotism of Napoleon ; Suwaroff, the faithful servant of the Czar; and the Archduke who covered Austria with his powerful shield, all met with as just, as discriminating, and as warm appreciation as their native historians could bestow, and as our own generals could obtain from Alison. Critics have objected to his style ; yet, if the art of engaging the reader's attention, and sustaining it by the vigour, spirit, and vivacity of the narrative, be a high merit, many popular and many great historians must cede superiority of this kind to Sir Archibald. He wrote, not certainly in the cold judicial style of philosophical history, but with the warmth of one who not only believed but felt all he uttered. And there are long episodes in his work—those, for instance, on the American war of 1812, and on some of our Indian campaigns—which are in themselves complete and elaborate histories of those events, and which give us most useful and interesting information respecting the countries which were the scene of them. It has been the trick of a part of the press, whose cue it is to caricature Conservatism, to disparage his History, questioning its accuracy, and sneering at the principles it upholds. But the best testimony to the candour, fidelity, and ability of his great work is in its enormous popularity. As he says himself of another writer, “No one ever commands, even for a time, the suffrages of the multitude, without the possession, in some respects at least, of remarkable powers." Those suffrages were largely given to Alison. His work, in its original and larger form, obtaining that wide popularity which is attested by its presence on the shelves of so many public and private libraries, a people's edition was issued, and met with a reception which proved how ineffectual had been the malignity of his assailants. His popularity, however, seemed only to exasperate those whose dislike to his steady, consistent, honourable Conservatism had already rendered them hostile, and no great writer of our time has been more consistently and unjustly disparaged by an extreme section of the press than Sir Archibald. But we will dwell no further on this topic in speaking of a man whose character exhibited no more distinctive feature than the large, generous, tolerant spirit in which he viewed adverse opinion.

[graphic]

The same union of lofty principle and kindly feeling which he evinced as an author marked his career as a man. Mildness, firmness, fairness, and dignity, distinguished his long and honoured administration of the duties of Sheriff; and the legal functionaries who lately gave expression, in the Court over which he had presided, to the loss which the tribunal had sustained, bore eloquent testimony to the urbanity, impartiality, and high ability which commanded the respect and confidence alike of suitors and of advocates. Nor was his exhibition of these qualities confined to the judicial bench. As a magistrate it was more than once his lot to exercise his function of assertor of the law in times of popular disturbance; when the same mixture of courage and conciliation enabled him not only to retain, but even to increase, his great popularity in Glasgow, while firmly suppressing riot; and the Tory Sheriff has for at least a whole generation been the most popular citizen, as well as the foremost historian, in Scotland.

Such, for a large part of the present century, has been the useful, industrious, honourable, and honoured public life of Sir Archibald Alison. In the law, as well as in literature, his eminent services were recognised and rewarded, and he was enabled to devote the leisure which remained to him from the duties of his office to the pursuit which he prosecuted with such signal success. Again and again, after completing the portion of his arduous task which he had made his immediate object, he started afresh to continue it; and in the present year he projected an addition which would have included the Crimean War. With this warm and constant interest in public affairs he united the finest domestic tastes; these were shared by a wife whose affectionate devotion always lightened his labours and cheered his home; and we cannot better conclude this memorial than with the following picture of his old age and his end, drawn by one nearest to him in blood, and who was of those who stood round his deathbed :

“You ask for any of the characteristics of the latter years of my father's life. The most remarkable of them certainly was the extraordinary development of his love for the beautiful, alike in nature, literature, and art. To walk under the old trees at Possil, or pace up and down the pretty flower-garden there, was to the last one of his greatest enjoyments. Every day he read works in English, French, Italian, and German, generally of imagination,—and to the higher branches of German literature he was perhaps most devoted. His small but very beautiful collection of water-colour drawings used to afford him the greatest pleasure ; and he often used to sit and gaze for minutes together at the fine sketch of the 'Ruins of Pæstum' by Williams. The loneliness and tranquillity of this picture seemed to exercise a singular fascination over his mind. He used constantly to say that he had found old age the happiest period of life, and those who saw the remarkable and almost unearthly serenity of expression which marked his latter years will have been fully convinced that it was so in his case. He had come to care little for mixing in general or gay society, and his greatest happiness was derived from his books and his own domestic circle.

“Generally, living entirely alone with Lady Alison, the almost only break in the even tenor of his life was when his children or a few intimate friends gathered round his board. For some weeks before his last illness, my father had been troubled with an occasional cough and breathlessness, but so slight was this that it never interrupted his official business, and on Friday the 10th May he attended as usual in the County Buildings, and appeared in the most perfect health. On the morning of Saturday the 11th, he was seized with a severe attack of spasms in the throat. These recurred again with great severity on the evening of the Monday following, and with such terrible violence on the evening of the ensuing Thursday, that the three medical men who were in attendance on him united in opinion that in all probability he had not half an hour to live. But the great natural strength of his constitution here supervened; he rallied, and the disease changed its type ; the throatspasms entirely ceased, the cough and breathlessness greatly diminished, and he slept much. His strength now gradually and slowly sank, and at half-past eleven o'clock on the evening of Thursday the 23d May, surrounded by every member of his family, he peacefully sank to rest. So calm was his end, that we could not tell the exact moment of his death. During the whole of his illness, when awake, he was perfectly conscious, and the tranquillity and peace of mind which he exhibited was, throughout, of the most striking nature. The good servant had done his work, and was ready and willing to go when his Master called him.".

The concourse of the citizens of Glasgow at his funeral was a great proof of the respect and affection with which he had inspired them. From Possil Gate (his residence, two miles from the town) to the railway station, the whole way was lined with a dense mass of people, estimated at from 100,000 to 150,000. Of these, who numbered half the working population of the city, at least three-fourths were artisans, mill-girls, and iron-foundry workers, swarthy with toil. These were the attendants who, at the sacrifice of some of their means of livelihood, assembled to pay a last respect to the most unbending Conservative in Great Britain. Such obsequies were honourable both to the dead and the living. They were a tribute to qualities the recognition of which is a public virtue ; a tribute the more welcome as rendered at a time when courage and consistency seem almost out of date, and when there are many signs that in the public men of the future we are likely to feel more and more the want of the manly and generous spirit which to the last animated Alison.

* In the opinion of Dr Pierce Simpson, his constant medical attendant from the first hour of his illness to the last, and also in that of Professor Gairdner, his death was caused by “spasinodic cough and difficulty of respiration, asthmatic in character, but probably depending upon structural changes at the root of the lungs."

Printed by William Bluckovod i Sons, Edinburgh.

"

[blocks in formation]

It was almost dark when Jack an ordinary commonplace sort of reached Swayne's Cottages, and way the dogcart and the mare and there was no light in Mrs Preston's the groom had been jogging back window to indicate her presence. along the dusty roads, while he The only bit of illumination there had been so weightily engaged ; was in the dim dewy twilight road, and how all those people had been

a gleam from old Betty's calmly dining at Ridley - were perennial fire, which shone out as dining now, no doubt-and menshe opened the door to watch the tally criticising the dishes, and passage of the dogcart just then making feeble dinner table-talk, returning from Ridley, where it while he had been settling his fate; ought to have carried Mr John to in less time than they could have dinner. The dogcart was just re- got half through their dinner-in turning home, in an innocent, un- less time than even the bay mare conscious way; but how much had could devour the way between the happened in the interval! the two houses! Jack felt slightly giddy thought made Jack's head whirl a as he thought of it, and his face little, and made him half-smile; grew serious again under his smile. only half-smile-for such a momen- The cottage door stood innocently tous crisis is not amusing. He had open; there was nobody and nonot had time to think whether or thing between him and his businot he was rapturously happy, as a ness; he had not even to knock, young lover ought to be on the to be opened to by a curious inwhole, it was a very serious busi- different servant, as would have ness. There a thousand been the case in another kind of things to think of, such as take the house. The little passage was laughter out of a man ; yet he did quite dark, but there was another smile as it occurred to him in what gleam of firelight from the kitchen, VOL. CII.-NO. DCXXII.

I

were

« PreviousContinue »