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The First Edinburgh Reviewers by Leslie Stephen


When browsing at random in a respectable library, one is pretty sure to hit upon the early numbers of the 'Edinburgh Review,' and prompted in consequence to ask oneself the question, What are the intrinsic merits of writing which produced so great an effect upon our grandfathers? The 'Review,' we may say, has lived into a third generation. The last survivor of the original set has passed away; and there are but few relics even of that second galaxy of authors amongst whom Macaulay was the most brilliant star. One may speak, therefore, without shocking existing susceptibilities, of the 'Review' in its first period, when Jeffrey, Sydney Smith, and Brougham were the most prominent names. A man may still call himself middle-aged and yet have a distinct memory of Brougham courting, rather too eagerly, the applause of the Social Science Association; or Jeffrey, as he appeared in his kindly old age, when he could hardly have spoken sharply of a Lake poet; and even of the last outpourings of the irrepressible gaiety of Sydney Smith. But the period of their literary activity is already so distant as to have passed into the domain of history. It is the same thing to say that it already belongs in some degree to the neighbouring or overlapping domain of fiction.

There is, in fact, already a conventional history of the early 'Edinburgh Review,' repeated without hesitation in all literary histories and assumed in a thousand allusions, which becomes a little incredible when we take down the dusty old volumes, where dingy calf has replaced the original splendours of the blue and yellow, and which have inevitably lost much of their savour during more than half a century's repose. The story of the original publication has been given by the chief founders. Edinburgh, at the beginning of the century, was one of those provincial centres of intellectual activity which have an increasing difficulty in maintaining themselves against metropolitan attractions. In the last half of the eighteenth century, such philosophical activity as existed in the country seemed to have taken refuge in the northern half of the island. A set of brilliant young men, living in a society still proud of the reputation of Hume, Adam Smith, Reid, Robertson, Dugald Stewart, and other northern luminaries, might naturally be susceptible to the stimulus of literary ambition. In politics the most rampant Conservatism, rendered bitter by the recent experience of the French Revolution, exercised a sway in Scotland more undisputed and vigorous than it is now easy to understand. The younger men who inclined to Liberalism were naturally prepared to welcome an organ for the expression of their views. Accordingly a knot of clever lads (Smith was 31, Jeffrey 29, Brown 24, Horner 24, and Brougham 23) met in the third (not, as Smith afterwards said, the 'eighth or ninth') story of a house in Edinburgh and started the journal by acclamation. The first number appeared in October 1802, and produced, we are told, an 'electrical' effect. Its old humdrum rivals collapsed before it. Its science, its philosophy, its literature were equally admired. Its politics excited the wrath and dread of Tories and the exultant delight of Whigs. It was, says Cockburn, a 'pillar of fire,' a far-seen beacon, suddenly lighted in a dark place. Its able advocacy of political principles was as striking as its judicial air of criticism, unprecedented in periodical literature. To appreciate its influence, we must remember, says Sydney Smith, that in those days a number of reforms, now familiar to us all, were still regarded as startling innovations. The Catholics were not emancipated, nor the game-laws softened, nor the Court of Chancery reformed, nor the slave-trade abolished. Cruel punishment still disgraced the criminal code, libel was put down with vindictive severity, prisoners were not allowed counsel in capital cases, and many other grievances now wholly or partially redressed were still flourishing in full force.

Were they put down solely by the 'Edinburgh Review?' That, of course, would not be alleged by its most ardent admirers; though Sydney Smith certainly holds that the attacks of the 'Edinburgh' were amongst the most efficient causes of the many victories which followed. I am not concerned to dispute the statement; nor in fact do I doubt that it contains much truth. But if we look at the 'Review' simply as literary connoisseurs, and examine its volumes expecting to be edified by such critical vigour and such a plentiful outpouring of righteous indignation in burning language as might correspond to this picture of a great organ of liberal opinion, we shall, I fear, be cruelly disappointed. Let us speak the plain truth at once. Everyone who turns from the periodical literature of the present day to the original 'Edinburgh Review' will be amazed at its inferiority. It is generally dull, and, when not dull, flimsy. The vigour has departed; the fire is extinct. To some extent, of course, this is inevitable. Even the magnificent eloquence of Burke has lost some of its early gloss. We can read, comparatively unmoved, passages that would have once carried us off our legs in the exuberant torrent of passionate invective. But, making all possible allowance for the fading of all things human, I think that every reader who is frank will admit his disappointment. Here and there, of course, amusing passages illuminated by Sydney Smith's humour or Jeffrey's slashing and swaggering retain a few sparks of fire. The pertness and petulance of the youthful critics are amusing, though hardly in the way intended by themselves. But, as a rule, one may most easily characterise the contents by saying that few of the articles would have a chance of acceptance by the editor of a first-rate periodical to-day; and that the majority belong to an inferior variety of what is now called 'padding'—mere perfunctory bits of work, obviously manufactured by the critic out of the book before him.

The great political importance of the 'Edinburgh Review' belongs to a later period. When the Whigs began to revive after the long reign of Tory principles, and such questions as Roman Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary Reform were seriously coming to the front, the 'Review' grew to be a most effective organ of the rising party. Even in earlier years, it was doubtless a matter of real moment that the ablest periodical of the day should manifest sympathies with the cause then so profoundly depressed. But in those years there is nothing of that vehement and unsparing advocacy of Whig principles which we might expect from a band of youthful enthusiasts. So far indeed was the 'Review' from unhesitating partisanship that the sound Tory Scott contributed to its pages for some years; and so late as the end of 1807 invited Southey, then developing into fiercer Toryism, as became a 'renegade' or a 'convert,' to enlist under Jeffrey. Southey, it is true, was prevented from joining by scruples shared by his correspondent, but it was not for another year that the breach became irreparable. The final offence was given by the 'famous article upon Cevallos,' which appeared in October 1808. Even at that period Scott understood some remarks of Jeffrey's as an offer to suppress the partisan tendencies of his 'Review.' Jeffrey repudiated this interpretation; but the statement is enough to show that, for six years after its birth, the 'Review' had not been conducted in such a way as to pledge itself beyond all redemption in the eyes of staunch Tories.[21]

The Cevallos article, the work in uncertain proportions of Brougham and Jeffrey, was undoubtedly calculated to give offence. It contained an eloquent expression of foreboding as to the chances of the war in Spain. The Whigs, whose policy had been opposed to the war, naturally prophesied its ill-success, and, until this period, facts had certainly not confuted their auguries. It was equally natural that their opponents should be scandalised by their apparent want of patriotism. Scott's indignation was characteristic. The 'Edinburgh Review,' he says, 'tells you coolly, “We foresee a revolution in this country as well as Mr. Cobbett;” and, to say the truth, by degrading the person of the sovereign, exalting the power of the French armies and the wisdom of their counsels, holding forth that peace (which they allow can only be purchased by the humiliating prostration of our honour) is indispensable to the very existence of this country, I think that for these two years past they have done their utmost to hasten the fulfilment of their own prophecy.' Yet, he adds, 9,000 copies are printed quarterly, 'no genteel family can pretend to be without it,' and it contains the only valuable literary criticism of the day. The antidote was to be supplied by the foundation of the 'Quarterly.' The Cevallos article, as Brougham says, 'first made the Reviewers conspicuous as Liberals.'

Jeffrey and his friends were in fact in the very difficult position of all middle parties during a period of intense national and patriotic excitement. If they attacked Perceval or Canning or Castlereagh in one direction, they were equally opposed to the rough-and-ready democracy of Cobbett or Burdett, and to the more philosophical radicalism of men like Godwin or Bentham. They were generally too young to have been infected by the original Whig sympathy for the French Revolution, or embittered by the reaction. They condemned the principles of '89 as decidedly if not as heartily as the Tories. The difference, as Sydney Smith said to his imaginary Tory, Abraham Plymley, is 'in the means, not in the end. We both love the Constitution, respect the King, and abhor the French.' Only, as the difference about the means was diametrical, Tories naturally held them to be playing into the hands of destructives, though more out of cowardice than malignity. In such a position it is not surprising if the Reviewers generally spoke in apologetic terms and with bated breath. They could protest against the dominant policy as rash and bigoted, but could not put forwards conflicting principles without guarding themselves against the imputation of favouring the common enemy. The Puritans of Radicalism set down this vacillation to a total want of fixed principle, if not to baser motives. The first volume of the 'Westminster Review' (1824) contains a characteristic assault upon the 'see-saw' system of the 'Edinburgh' by the two Mills. The 'Edinburgh' is sternly condemned for its truckling to the aristocracy, its cowardice, political immorality, and (of all things!) its sentimentalism. In after years J. S. Mill contributed to its pages himself; but the opinion of his fervid youth was that of the whole Bentham school.[22] It is plain, however, that the 'Review,' even when it had succeeded, did not absorb the activities of its contributors so exclusively as is sometimes suggested. They rapidly dispersed to enter upon different careers. Even before the first number appeared, Jeffrey complains that almost all his friends are about to emigrate to London; and the prediction was soon verified. Sydney Smith left to begin his career as a clergyman in London; Horner and Brougham almost immediately took to the English bar, with a view to pushing into public life; Allen joined Lord Holland; Charles Bell set up in a London practice; two other promising contributors took offence, and deserted the 'Review' in its infancy; and Jeffrey was left almost alone, though still a centre of attraction to the scattered group. He himself only undertook the editorship on the understanding that he might renounce it as soon as he could do without it; and always guarded himself most carefully against any appearance of deserting a legal for a literary career. Although the Edinburgh cénacle was not dissolved, its bonds were greatly loosened; the chief contributors were in no sense men who looked upon literature as a principal occupation; and Jeffrey, as much as Brougham and Horner, would have resented, as a mischievous imputation, the suggestion that his chief energies were devoted to the 'Review.' In some sense this might be an advantage. An article upon politics or philosophy is, of course, better done by a professed statesman and thinker than by a literary hack; but, on the other hand, a man who turns aside from politics or philosophy to do mere hackwork, does it worse than the professed man of letters. Work, taken up at odd hours to satisfy editorial importunity or add a few pounds to a narrow income, is apt to show the characteristic defects of all amateur performances. A very large part of the early numbers is amateurish in this objectionable sense. It is mere hand-to-mouth information, and is written, so to speak, with the left hand. A clever man has turned over the last new book of travels or poetry, or made a sudden incursion into foreign literature or into some passage of history entirely fresh to him, and has given his first impressions with an audacity which almost disarms one by its extraordinary naïveté. The standard of such disquisitions was then so low that writing which would now be impossible passed muster without an objection. When, in later years, Macaulay discussed Hampden or Chatham, the book which he ostensibly reviewed was a mere pretext for producing the rich stores of a mind trained by years of previous historical study. Jeffrey wrote about Mrs. Hutchinson's 'Memoirs' and Pepys's 'Diary' as though the books had for the first time revealed to him the existence of Puritans or of courtiers under the Restoration. The author of an article upon German metaphysics at the present day would think it necessary to show that if he had not the portentous learning which Sir William Hamilton embodied in his 'Edinburgh' articles, he had at least read the book under review, and knew something of the language. The author (Thomas Brown—a man who should have known better) of a contemptuous review of Kant, in an early number of the 'Edinburgh,' makes it even ostentatiously evident that he has never read a line of the original, and that his whole knowledge is derived from what (by his own account) is a very rambling and inadequate French essay. The young gentlemen who wrote in those days have a jaunty mode of pronouncing upon all conceivable topics without even affecting to have studied the subject, which is amusing in its way, and which fully explains the flimsy nature of their performance.

The authors, in fact, regarded these essays, at the time, as purely ephemeral. The success of the 'Review' suggested republication long afterwards. The first collection of articles was, I presume, Sydney Smith's in 1839; Jeffrey's and Macaulay's followed in 1843; and at that time even Macaulay thought it necessary to explain that the republication was forced upon him by the Americans. The plan of passing even the most serious books through the pages of a periodical has become so common that such modesty would now imply the emptiest affectation. The collections of Jeffrey and Sydney Smith will give a sufficient impression of the earlier numbers of the 'Review.' The only contributors of equal reputation were Horner and Brougham. Horner, so far as one can judge, was a typical representative of those solid, indomitable Scotchmen whom one knows not whether to respect for their energy or to dread as the most intolerable of bores. He plodded through legal, metaphysical, scientific, and literary studies like an elephant forcing his way through a jungle; and laboured as resolutely and systematically to acquire graces of style as to master the intricacies of the 'dismal science.' At an early age, and with no advantages of position, he had gained extraordinary authority in Parliament. Sydney Smith said of him that he had the Ten Commandments written on his face, and looked so virtuous that he might commit any crime with impunity. His death probably deprived us of a most exemplary statesman and first-rate Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it can hardly have been a great loss to literature. Passages from Horner's journals, given in his 'Memoirs,' are quaint illustrations of the frame of mind generally inculcated in manuals for the use of virtuous young men. At the age of twenty-eight, he resolves one day to meditate upon various topics, distributed under nine heads, including the society to be frequented in the metropolis; the characters to be studied; the scale of intimacies; the style of conversation; the use of other men's minds in self-education; the regulation of ambition, of political sentiments, connections, and conduct; the importance of 'steadily systematising all plans and aims of life, and so providing against contingencies as to put happiness at least out of the reach of accident,' and the cultivation of moral feelings by 'dignified sentiments and pleasing associations' derived from poets, moralists, or actual life. Sydney Smith, in a very lively portrait, says that Horner was the best, kindest, simplest, and most incorruptible of mankind; but intimates sufficiently that his impenetrability to the facetious was something almost unexampled. A jest upon an important subject was, it seems, the only affliction which his strength of principle would not enable him to bear with patience. His contributions gave some solid economical speculation to the 'Review,' but were neither numerous nor lively. Brougham's amazing vitality wasted itself in a different way. His multifarious energy, from early boyhood to the borders of old age, would be almost incredible, if we had not the good fortune to be contemporaries of Mr. Gladstone. His share in the opening numbers of the 'Review' is another of the points upon which there is an odd conflict of testimony.[23] But from a very early period he was the most voluminous and, at times, the most valuable of contributors. It has been said that he once wrote a whole number, including articles upon lithotomy and Chinese music. It is more authentic that he contributed six articles to one number at the very crisis of his political career, and at the same period he boasts of having written a fifth of the whole 'Review' to that time. He would sit down in a morning and write off twenty pages at a single effort. Jeffrey compares his own editorial authority to that of a feudal monarch over some independent barons. When Jeffrey gave up the 'Review,' this 'baron' aspired to something more like domination than independence. He made the unfortunate editor's life a burden to him. He wrote voluminous letters, objurgating, entreating, boasting of past services, denouncing rival contributors, declaring that a regard for the views of any other man was base subservience to a renegade Ministry, or foolish attention to the hints of understrappers; threatening, if he was neglected, to set up a rival Review, and generally hectoring, bullying, and declaiming in a manner which gives one the highest opinion of the diplomatic skill of the editor, who managed, without truckling, to avoid a breach with his tremendous contributor. Brougham, indeed, was not quite blind to the fact that the 'Review' was as useful to him as he could be to the 'Review,' and was therefore more amenable than might have been expected, in the last resort. But he was in every relation one of those men who are nearly as much hated and dreaded by their colleagues as by the adversary—a kind of irrepressible rocket, only too easy to discharge, but whose course defied prediction.

It is, however, admitted by everyone that the literary results of this portentous activity were essentially ephemeral. His writings are hopelessly commonplace in substance and slipshod in style. His garden offers a bushel of potatoes instead of a single peach. Much of Brougham's work was up to the level necessary to give effect to the manifesto of an active politician. It was a forcible exposition of the arguments common at the time; but it has nowhere that stamp of originality in thought or brilliance in expression which could confer upon it a permanent vitality.

Jeffrey and Sydney Smith deserve more respectful treatment. Macaulay speaks of his first editor with respectful enthusiasm. He says of the collected contributions that the 'variety and fertility of Jeffrey's mind' seem more extraordinary than ever. Scarcely could any three men have produced such 'diversified excellence.' 'When I compare him with Sydney and myself, I feel, with humility perfectly sincere, that his range is immeasurably wider than ours. And this is only as a writer. But he is not only a writer, he has been a great advocate, and he is a great judge. Take him all in all, I think him more nearly an universal genius than any man of our time; certainly far more nearly than Brougham, much as Brougham affects the character.' Macaulay hated Brougham, and was, perhaps, a little unjust to him. But what are we to say of the writings upon which this panegyric is pronounced?

Jeffrey's collected articles include about eighty out of two hundred reviews, nearly all contributed to the 'Edinburgh' within its first period of twenty-five years. They fill four volumes, and are distributed under the seven heads—general literature, history, poetry, metaphysics, fiction, politics, and miscellaneous. Certainly there is versatility enough implied in such a list, and we may be sure that he has ample opportunity for displaying whatever may be in him. It is, however, easy to dismiss some of these divisions. Jeffrey knew history as an English gentleman of average cultivation knew it; that is to say, not enough to justify him in writing about it. He knew as much of metaphysics as a clever lad was likely to pick up at Edinburgh during the reign of Dugald Stewart; his essays in that kind, though they show some aptitude and abundant confidence, do not now deserve serious attention. His chief speculative performance was an essay upon Beauty contributed to the 'Encyclopædia Britannica,' of which his biographer says quaintly that it is 'as sound as the subject admits of.' It is crude and meagre in substance. The principal conclusion is the rather unsatisfactory one for a professional critic, that there are no particular rules about beauty, and consequently that one taste is about as good as another. Nobody, however, could be less inclined to apply this over-liberal theory to questions of literary taste. There, he evidently holds there is most decidedly a right and wrong, and everybody is very plainly in the wrong who differs from himself.

Jeffrey's chief fame—or, should we say, notoriety?—was gained, and his merit should be tested by his success in this department. The greatest triumph that a literary critic can win is the early recognition of genius not yet appreciated by his contemporaries. The next test of his merit is his capacity for pronouncing sound judgment upon controversies which are fully before the public; and, finally, no inconsiderable merit must be allowed to any critic who has a vigorous taste of his own—not hopelessly eccentric or silly—and expresses it with true literary force. If not a judge, he may in that case be a useful advocate.

What can we say for Jeffrey upon this understanding? Did he ever encourage a rising genius? The sole approach to such a success is an appreciative notice of Keats, which would be the more satisfactory if poor Keats had not been previously assailed by the Opposition journal. The other judgments are for the most part pronounced upon men already celebrated; and the single phrase which has survived is the celebrated 'This will never do,' directed against Wordsworth's 'Excursion.' Every critic has a sacred and inalienable right to blunder at times: but Jeffrey's blundering is amazingly systematic and comprehensive. In the last of his poetical critiques (October 1829) he sums up his critical experience. He doubts whether Mrs. Hemans, whom he is reviewing at the time, will be immortal. 'The tuneful quartos of Southey,' he says, 'are already little better than lumber; and the rich melodies of Keats and Shelley, and the fantastical emphasis of Wordsworth, and the plebeian pathos of Crabbe, are melting fast from the field of vision. The novels of Scott have put out his poetry. Even the splendid strains of Moore are fading into distance and dimness, except where they have been married to immortal music; and the blazing star of Byron himself is receding from its place of pride.' Who survive this general decay? Not Coleridge, who is not even mentioned; nor is Mrs. Hemans secure. The two who show least marks of decay are—of all people in the world—Rogers and Campbell! It is only to be added that this summary was republished in 1843, by which time the true proportions of the great reputations of the period were becoming more obvious to an ordinary observer. It seems almost incredible now that any sane critic should pick out the poems of Rogers and Campbell as the sole enduring relics from the age of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, and Byron.

Doubtless a critic should rather draw the moral of his own fallibility than of his superiority to Jeffrey. Criticism is a still more perishable commodity than poetry. Jeffrey was a man of unusual intelligence and quickness of feeling; and a follower in his steps should think twice before he ventures to cast the first stone. If all critics who have grossly blundered are therefore to be pronounced utterly incompetent, we should, I fear, have to condemn nearly everyone who has taken up the profession. Not only Dennis and Rymer, but Dryden, Pope, Addison, Johnson, Gray, Wordsworth, Byron, and even Coleridge, down to the last new critic in the latest and most fashionable journals, would have to be censured. Still there are blunders and blunders; and some of Jeffrey's sins in that kind are such as it is not very easy to forgive. If he attacked great men, it has been said in his defence, he attacked those parts of their writings which were really objectionable. And, of course, nobody will deny that (for example) Wordsworth's wilful and ostentatious inversion of accepted rules presented a very tempting mark to the critic. But—to say nothing of Jeffrey's failure to discharge adequately the correlative duty of generous praise—it must be admitted that his ridicule seems to strike pretty much at random. He picks out Southey, certainly the least eminent of the so-called school of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Lamb, as the one writer of the set whose poetry deserves serious consideration; and, besides attacking Wordsworth's faults, his occasional flatness and childishness, selects some of his finest poems (e.g. the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality) as flagrant specimens of the hopelessly absurd.

The 'White Doe of Rylstone' may not be Wordsworth's best work, but a man who begins a review of it by proclaiming it to be 'the very worst poem ever imprinted in a quarto volume,' who follows up this remark by unmixed and indiscriminating abuse, and who publishes the review twenty-eight years later as expressing his mature convictions, is certainly proclaiming his own gross incompetence. Or, again, Jeffrey writes about 'Wilhelm Meister' (in 1824), knowing its high reputation in Germany, and finds in it nothing but a text for a dissertation upon the amazing eccentricity of national taste which can admire 'sheer nonsense,' and at length proclaims himself tired of extracting 'so much trash.' There is a kind of indecency, a wanton disregard of the general consensus of opinion, in such treatment of a contemporary classic (then just translated by Carlyle, and so brought within Jeffrey's sphere) which one would hope to be now impossible. It is true that Jeffrey relents a little at the end, admits that Goethe has 'great talent,' and would like to withdraw some of his censure. Whilst, therefore, he regards the novel as an instance of that diversity of national taste which makes a writer idolised in one country who would not be tolerated in another, he would hold it out rather as an object of wonder than contempt. Though the greater part 'would not be endured, and, indeed, could not have been written in England,' there are many passages of which any country might naturally be proud. Truly this is an illustration of Jeffrey's fundamental principle, that taste has no laws, and is a matter of accidental caprice.

It may be said that better critics have erred with equal recklessness. De Quincey, who could be an admirable critic where his indolent prejudices were not concerned, is even more dead to the merits of Goethe. Byron's critical remarks are generally worth reading, in spite of his wilful eccentricity; and he spoke of Wordsworth and Southey still more brutally than Jeffrey, and admired Rogers as unreasonably. In such cases we may admit the principle already suggested, that even the most reckless criticism has a kind of value when it implies a genuine (even though a mistaken) taste. So long as a man says sincerely what he thinks, he tells us something worth knowing.

Unluckily, this is just where Jeffrey is apt to fail; though he affects to be a dictator, he is really a follower of the fashion. He could put up with Rogers's flattest 'correctness,' Moore's most intolerable tinsel, and even Southey's most ponderous epic poetry, because admiration was respectable. He could endorse, though rather coldly, the general verdict in Scott's favour, only guarding his dignity by some not too judicious criticism; preferring, for example, the sham romantic business of the 'Lay' to the incomparable vigour of the rough moss-troopers,

    Who sought the beeves that made their broth
    In Scotland and in England both—

terribly undignified lines, as Jeffrey thinks. So far, though his judicial swagger strikes us now as rather absurd, and we feel that he is passing sentence on bigger men than himself, he does fairly enough. But, unluckily, the 'Edinburgh' wanted a butt. All lively critical journals, it would seem, resemble the old-fashioned squires who kept a badger ready to be baited whenever a little amusement was desirable. The rising school of Lake poets, with their austere professions and real weaknesses, was just the game to show a little sport; and, accordingly, poor Jeffrey blundered into grievous misapprehensions, and has survived chiefly by his worst errors. The simple fact is, that he accepted whatever seemed to a hasty observer to be the safest opinion, that which was current in the most orthodox critical circles, and expressed it with rather more point than his neighbours. But his criticism implies no serious thought or any deeper sentiment than pleasure at having found a good laughing-stock. The most unmistakable bit of genuine expression of his own feelings in Jeffrey's writings is, I think, to be found in his letters to Dickens. 'Oh! my dear, dear Dickens!' he exclaims, 'what a No. 5' (of 'Dombey and Son') 'you have now given us. I have so cried and sobbed over it last night and again this morning, and felt my heart purified by those tears, and blessed and loved you for making me shed them; and I never can bless and love you enough. Since that divine Nelly was found dead on her humble couch, beneath the snow and ivy, there has been nothing like the actual dying of that sweet Paul in the summer sunshine of that lofty room.' The emotion is a little senile, and most of us think it exaggerated; but at least it is genuine. The earlier thunders of the 'Edinburgh Review' have lost their terrors, because they are in fact mere echoes of commonplace opinion. They are often clever enough, and have all the air of judicial authority, but we feel that they are empty shams, concealing no solid core of strong personal feeling even of the perverse variety. The critic has been asking himself, not 'What do I feel?' but 'What is the correct remark to make?'

Jeffrey's political writing suggests, I think, in some respects a higher estimate of his merits. He has not, it is true, very strong convictions, but his sentiments are liberal in the better sense of the word, and he has a more philosophical tone than is usual with English publicists. He appreciates the truths, now become commonplace, that the political constitution of the country should be developed so as to give free play for the underlying social forces without breaking abruptly with the old traditions. He combats with dignity the narrow prejudices which led to a policy of rigid repression, and which, in his opinion, could only lead to revolution. But the effect of his principles is not a little marred by a certain timidity both of character and intellect. Hopefulness should be the mark of an ardent reformer, and Jeffrey seems to be always decided by his fears. His favourite topic is the advantage of a strong middle party, for he is terribly afraid of a collision between the two extremes; he can only look forward to despotism if the Tories triumph, and a sweeping revolution if they are beaten. Meanwhile, for many years he thinks it most probable that both parties will be swallowed up by the common enemy. Never was there such a determined croaker. In 1808 he suspects that Bonaparte will be in Dublin in about fifteen months, when he, if he survives, will try to go to America. In 1811 he expects Bonaparte to be in Ireland in eighteen months, and asks how England can then be kept, and whether it would be worth keeping? France is certain to conquer the Continent, and our interference will only 'exasperate and accelerate.' Bonaparte's invasion of Russia in 1813 made him still more gloomy. He rejoiced at the French defeat as one delivered from a great terror, but the return of the Emperor dejects him again. All he can say of the war (just before Waterloo) is that he is 'mortally afraid of it,' and that he hates Bonaparte 'because he makes me more afraid than anybody else.' In 1829 he anticipates 'tragical scenes' and a sanguinary revolution; in 1821 he thinks as ill as ever 'of the state and prospects of the country,' though with less alarm of speedy mischief; and in 1822 he looks forward to revolutionary wars all over the Continent, from which we may possibly escape by reason of our 'miserable poverty;' whilst it is probable that our old tyrannies and corruptions will last for some 4,000 or 5,000 years longer.

A stalwart politician, Whig or Tory, is rarely developed out of a Mr. Much-Afraid or a Mr. Despondency; they are too closely related to Mr. Facing-both-Ways. Jeffrey thinks it generally a duty to conceal his fears and affect a confidence which he does not feel; but perhaps the best piece of writing in his essays is that in which he for once gives full expression to his pessimist sentiment. It occurs in a review of a book in which Madame de Staël maintains the doctrine of human perfectibility. Jeffrey explains his more despondent view in a really eloquent passage. He thinks that the increase of educated intelligence will not diminish the permanent causes of human misery. War will be as common as ever, wealth will be used with at least equal selfishness, luxury and dissipation will increase, enthusiasm will diminish, intellectual originality will become rarer, the division of labour will make men's lives pettier and more mechanical, and pauperism grow with the development of manufactures. When republishing his essays Jeffrey expresses his continued adherence to these views, and they are more interesting than most of his work, because they have at least the merits of originality and sincerity. Still, one cannot help observing that if the 'Edinburgh Review' was an efficient organ of progress, it was not from any ardent faith in progress entertained by its chief conductor.

It is a relief to turn from Jeffrey to Sydney Smith. The highest epithet applicable to Jeffrey is 'clever,' to which we may prefix some modest intensitive. He is a brilliant, versatile, and at bottom liberal and kindly man of the world; but he never gets fairly beyond the border-line which irrevocably separates lively talent from original power. There are dozens of writers who could turn out work on the same pattern and about equally good. Smith, on the other hand, stamps all his work with his peculiar characteristics. It is original and unmistakable; and in a certain department—not, of course, a very high one—he has almost unique merits. I do not think that the 'Plymley Letters' can be surpassed by anything in the language as specimens of the terse, effective treatment of a great subject in language suitable for popular readers. Of course they have no pretence to the keen polish of Junius, or the weight of thought of Burke, or the rhetorical splendours of Milton; but their humour, freshness, and spirit are inimitable. The 'Drapier Letters,' to which they have often been compared, were more effective at the moment; but no fair critic can deny, I think, that Sydney Smith's performance is now more interesting than Swift's.

The comparison between the Dean and the Canon is an obvious one, and has often been made. There is a likeness in the external history of the two clergymen who both sought for preferment through politics, and were both, even by friends, felt to have sinned against professional proprieties, and were put off with scanty rewards in consequence. Both, too, were masters of a vigorous style, and original humourists. But the likeness does not go very deep. Swift had the most powerful intellect and the strongest passion as undeniably as Smith had the sweetest nature. The admirable good-humour with which Smith accepted his position and devoted himself to honest work in an obscure country parish, is the strongest contrast with Swift's misanthropical seclusion; and nothing can be less like than Smith's admirable domestic history and the mysterious love affairs with Stella and Vanessa. Smith's character reminds us more closely of Fuller, whose peculiar humour is much of the same stamp; and who, falling upon hard times, and therefore tinged by a more melancholy sentiment, yet showed the same unconquerable cheerfulness and intellectual vivacity.

Most of Sydney Smith's 'Edinburgh' articles are of a very slight texture, though the reader is rewarded by an occasional turn of characteristic quaintness. The criticism is of the most simple-minded kind; but here and there crops up a comment which is irresistibly comic. Here, for example, is a quaint passage from a review of Waterton's 'Wanderings:'—

     How astonishing are the freaks and fancies of nature! To
     what purpose, we say, is a bird placed in the woods of
     Cayenne, with a bill a yard long, making a noise like a
     puppy-dog, and laying eggs in hollow trees? To be sure, the
     toucan might retort, To what purpose were gentlemen in Bond
     Street created? To what purpose were certain members of
     Parliament created, pestering the House of Commons with
     their ignorance and folly, and impeding the business of the
     country? There is no end of such questions. So we will not
     enter into the metaphysics of the toucan.

Smith's humour is most aptly used to give point to the vigorous logic of a thoroughly healthy nature, contemptuous of all nonsense, full of shrewd common-sense, and righteously indignant in the presence of all injustice and outworn abuse. It would be difficult to find anywhere a more brilliant assault upon the prejudices which defend established grievances than the inimitable 'Noodle's Oration,' into which Smith has compressed the pith of Bentham's 'Book of Fallacies.' There is a certain resemblance between the logic of Smith and Macaulay, both of whom, it must be admitted, are rather given to proving commonplaces and inclined to remain on the surface of things. Smith, like Macaulay, fully understands the advantage of putting the concrete for the abstract, and hammering obvious truths into men's heads by dint of homely explanation. Smith's memory does not supply so vast a store of parallels as that upon which Macaulay could draw so freely; but his humorous illustrations are more amusing and effective. There could not be a happier way of putting the argument for what may be called the lottery system of endowments than the picture of the respectable baker driving past Northumberland House to St. Paul's Churchyard, and speculating on the chance of elevating his 'little muffin-faced son' to a place among the Percies or the highest seat in the Cathedral. Macaulay would have enforced his reasoning by a catalogue of successful ecclesiastics. The folly of alienating Catholic sympathies, during our great struggle, by maintaining the old disabilities, is brought out with equal skill by the apologue in the 'Plymley Letters' of the orthodox captain of a frigate in a dangerous action, securing twenty or thirty of his crew, who happened to be Papists, under a Protestant guard; reminding his sailors, in a bitter harangue, that they are of different religions; exhorting the Episcopal gunner to distrust the Presbyterian quartermaster; rushing through blood and brains to examine his men in the Thirty-nine Articles, and forbidding anyone to spunge or ram who has not taken the sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England. It is quite another question whether Smith really penetrates to the bottom of the dispute; but the only fault to be found with his statement of the case, as he saw it, is that it makes it rather too clear. The arguments are never all on one side in any political question, and the writer who sees absolutely no difficulty, suggests to a wary reader that he is ignoring something relevant. Still, this is hardly an objection to a popular advocate, and it is fair to add that Smith's logic is not more admirable than the hearty generosity of his sympathy with the oppressed Catholic. The appeal to cowardice is lost in the appeal to true philanthropic sentiment.

With all his merits, there is a less favourable side to Smith's advocacy. When he was condemned as being too worldly and facetious for a priest, it was easy to retort that humour is not of necessity irreligious. It might be added that in his writings it is strictly subservient to solid argument. In a London party he might throw the reins upon the neck of his fancy and go on playing with a ludicrous image till his audience felt the agony of laughter to be really painful. In his writings he aims almost as straight at his mark as Swift, and is never diverted by the spirit of pure fun. The humour always illuminates well-strung logic. But the scandal was not quite groundless. When he directs his powers against sheer obstruction and antiquated prejudice—against abuses in prisons, or the game-laws, or education—we can have no fault to find; nor is it fair to condemn a reviewer because in all these questions he is a follower rather than a leader. It is enough if he knows a good cause when he sees it, and does his best to back up reformers in the press, though hardly a working reformer, and certainly not an originator of reform. But it is less easy to excuse his want of sympathy for the reformers themselves.

If there is one thing which Sydney Smith dreads and dislikes, it is enthusiasm. Nobody would deny, at the present day, that the zeal which supplied the true leverage for some of the greatest social reforms of the time was to be found chiefly amongst the so-called Evangelicals and Methodists. For them Smith has nothing but the heartiest aversion. He is always having a quiet jest at the religious sentiments of Perceval or Wilberforce, and his most prominent articles in the 'Review' were a series of inexcusably bitter attacks upon the Methodists. He is thoroughly alarmed and disgusted by their progress. He thinks them likely to succeed, and says that, if they succeed, 'happiness will be destroyed, reason degraded, and sound religion banished from the world,' and that a reign of fanaticism will be succeeded by 'a long period of the grossest immorality, atheism, and debauchery.' He is not sure that any remedy or considerable palliative is possible, but he suggests, as hopeful, the employment of ridicule, and applies it himself most unsparingly. When the Methodists try to convert the Hindoos, he attacks them furiously for endangering the empire. They naturally reply that a Christian is bound to propagate his belief. The answer, says Smith, is short: 'It is not Christianity which is introduced (into India), but the debased nonsense and mummery of the Methodists, which has little more to do with the Christian religion than it has to do with the religion of China.' The missionaries, he says, are so foolish, 'that the natives almost instinctively duck and pelt them,' as, one cannot help remembering, missionaries of an earlier Christian era had been ducked and pelted. He pronounces the enterprise to be hopeless and cruel, and clenches his argument by a statement which sounds strangely enough in the mouth of a sincere Christian:—

     Let us ask (he says), if the Bible is universally diffused
     in Hindostan, what must be the astonishment of the natives
     to find that we are forbidden to rob, murder, and steal—we
     who, in fifty years, have extended our empire from a few
     acres about Madras over the whole peninsula and sixty
     millions of people, and exemplified in our public conduct
     every crime of which human nature is capable? What matchless
     impudence, to follow up such practice with such precepts! If
     we have common prudence, let us keep the gospel at home, and
     tell them that Machiavel is our prophet and the god of the
     Manichæans our god.

We are to make our practice consistent by giving up our virtues instead of our vices. Of course, Smith ends his article by a phrase about 'the slow, solid, and temperate introduction of Christianity;' but the Methodists might well feel that the 'matchless impudence' was not all on their side, and that this Christian priest, had he lived some centuries earlier, would have sympathised a good deal more with Gallio than with St. Paul.

It is a question which I need not here discuss how far Smith could be justified in his ridicule of men who, with all their undeniable absurdity, were at least zealous believers in the creed which he—as is quite manifest—held in all sincerity. But one remark is obvious; the Edinburgh Reviewers justify, to a certain point, the claim put forward by Sydney Smith; they condemned many crying abuses, and condemned them heartily. They condemned them, as thoroughly sensible men of the world, animated partly by a really generous sentiment, partly by a tacit scepticism as to the value of the protected interests, and above all by the strong conviction that it was quite essential for the middle party—that is, for the bulk of the respectable well-bred classes—to throw overboard gross abuses which afforded so many points of attack to thoroughgoing radicals. On the other hand, they were quite indifferent or openly hostile to most of the new forces which stirred men's minds. They patronised political economy because Malthus began by opposing the revolutionary dreams of Godwin and his like. But every one of the great impulses of the time was treated by them in an antagonistic spirit. They savagely ridiculed Coleridge, the great seminal mind of one philosophical school; they fiercely attacked Bentham and James Mill, the great leaders of the antagonist school; they were equally opposed to the Evangelicals who revered Wilberforce, and, in later times, to the religious party, of which Dr. Newman was the great ornament: in poetry they clung, as long as they could, to the safe old principles represented by Crabbe and Rogers: they, covered Wordsworth and Coleridge with almost unmixed ridicule, ignored Shelley, and were only tender to Byron and Scott because Scott and Byron were fashionable idols. The truth is, that it is a mistake to suppose that the eighteenth century ended with the year 1800. It lasted in the upper currents of opinion till at least 1832. Sydney Smith's theology is that of Paley and the common-sense divines of the previous period. Jeffrey's politics were but slightly in advance of the true old Whigs, who still worshipped according to the tradition of their fathers in Holland House. The ideal of the party was to bring the practice of the country up to the theory whose main outlines had been accepted in the Revolution of 1688; and they studiously shut their eyes to any newer intellectual and social movements.

I do not say this by way of simple condemnation; for we have daily more reason to acknowledge the immense value of calm, clear common-sense, which sees the absurd side of even the best impulses. But it is necessary to bear the fact in mind when estimating such claims as those put forward by Sydney Smith. The truth seems to be that the 'Edinburgh Review' enormously raised the tone of periodical literature at the time, by opening an arena for perfectly independent discussion. Its great merit, at starting, was that it was no mere publisher's organ, like its rivals, and that it paid contributors well enough to attract the most rising talent of the day. As the 'Review' progressed, its capacities became more generally understood, and its writers, as they rose to eminence and attracted new allies, put more genuine work into articles certain to obtain a wide circulation and to come with great authority. This implies a long step towards the development of the present system, whose merits and defects would deserve a full discussion—the system according to which much of the most solid and original work of the time first appears in periodicals. The tone of periodicals has been enormously raised, but the effect upon general literature may be more questionable. But the 'Edinburgh' was not in its early years a journal with a mission, or the organ of an enthusiastic sect. Rather it was the instrument used by a number of very clever young men to put forward the ideas current in the more liberal section of the upper classes, with much occasional vigour and a large infusion of common-sense, but also with abundant flippancy and superficiality, and, in a literary sense, without that solidity of workmanship which is essential for enduring vitality.


[21] Scott's letter, stating that this overture had been made by Jeffrey under terror of the 'Quarterly,' was first published in Lockhart's 'Life of Scott.' Jeffrey denied that he could ever have made the offer, both because his contributors were too independent and because he had always considered politics to be (as he remembered to have told Scott) the 'right leg' of the 'Review.' Undoubtedly, though Scott's letter was written at the time and Jeffrey's contradiction many years afterwards, it seems that Scott must have exaggerated. And yet in Horner's 'Memoirs' we find a letter from Jeffrey which goes far to show that there was more than might be supposed to confirm Scott's statement. Jeffrey begs for Horner's assistance in the 'day of need,' caused by the Cevallos article and the threatened 'Quarterly.' He tells Horner that he may write upon any subject he pleases—'only no party politics, and nothing but exemplary moderation and impartiality on all politics. I have allowed too much mischief to be done from my mere indifference and love of sport; but it would be inexcusable to spoil the powerful instrument we have got hold of for the sake of teasing and playing tricks.'—Horner's Memoirs, i. 439. It was on the occasion of the Cevallos article that the Earl of Buchan solemnly kicked the 'Review' from his study into the street—a performance which he supposed would be fatal to its circulation.

[22] See Mill's Autobiography, p. 92, for an interesting account of these articles.

[23] It would appear, from one of Jeffrey's statements, that Brougham selfishly hung back till after the third number of the 'Review,' and its 'assured success' (Horner's Memoirs, i. p. 186, and Macvey Napier's Correspondence, p. 422); from another, that Brougham, though anxious to contribute, was excluded by Sydney Smith, from prudential motives. On the other hand, Brougham in his autobiography claims (by name) seven articles in the first number, five in the second, eight in the third, and five in the fourth; in five of which he had a collaborator. His hesitation, he says, ended before the appearance of the first number, and was due to doubts as to Jeffrey's possession of sufficient editorial power.


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