« PreviousContinue »
departments the New Monthly and the London assume a high station.*
Yet there are no publications whatever which at once exemplify the advancement and the perversion of mind at this particular time, by such decided symptoms of both, as the magazines already named, which are at the head of their class. In the leading articles of these, there is scarcely a line of natural writing from month-end to month-end. Let this sweeping censure be admitted with what qualification it may, the general truth of the assertion may be established by an appeal to any page of any one of them opened at random. That admirable talents are in full exercise there will be instantly acknowledged; but then all is effort, and splendour, and display. It is fine acting, which only falls short of nature;
but it is not nature, and therefore cannot quite please, even at its best; we feel there is something wrong ; we may not know exactly what it is, but this we do know, that all is not right. The contributions are got up in a masterly manner, but evidently for the purpose of producing the greatest possible effect; they are positive experiments upon the minds of the readers—not the unburdening of the minds of the writers themselves, glad to pour out in words the fulness of feelings long cherished in secret, and which they would have uttered in a desert island, where rocks, and woods, and streams were their only auditors. Authors write best for the public when they write for themselves.t
Reviews not only rank higher than magazines in literature rather by usurpation than right—but they rival newspapers themselves in political influence, while they hold divided empire with the weightier classes of literature-books of every size, and kind, and character, on which moreover they exercise an authority peculiar to the present age, and never dreamed of by critics in any past period since the ' alphabet was invented. Formerly reviews were, on the whole, what they professed to be critical essays on new publications; and they filled a respectable office in the republic of letters, as censors who did their duty, not always with ability, but generally with fairness; or, if otherwise, with a decent gravity of injustice that seldom exposed them to retaliation. The commencement of the Edinburgh Review was the discovery of a new world in criticism, to which all authors were liable to be transported as criminals, and there dealt with according to laws made on the spot, and executed by those who made them. The speculation answered well, the adventurers grew rich and renowned, and their ambition increased with their wealth and celebrity.
* And, since this essay was composed, the Metropolitan, Frazer's Magazine, and others.
f It is but justice to say, that since this paper was originally composed (in 1823), considerable improvement has been introduced in the style of many magazine articles, but still sufficient of the prodigality of genius (as well as the extravagance of bad taste) is exhibited monthly in such publications to justify the retention of the passage as it originally stood, with that abatement of its severity which this note implies.
Another work, the Quarterly Review, on the same scale, in the course of a few
years was started in opposition to it; and this has flourished not less than its prototype, by adopting nearly the same system of tactics in literature, while it has been inveterately confronted to it in politics.
The Westminster "Review and the British Critic, in their respective departments, exercise no small influence over respectable classes of readers.
In these nondescript publications downright authorship and critical commentary are combined; the latter being often subsidiary to the former, and a nominal review being an original essay on the subject, of which the work placed at the head of the article sometimes furnishes little more than the title. These distinguished periodicals, on the ground of their decided superiority to all contemporary journals
in which the same subjects are discussed, have long commanded the admiration both of friends and foes; and it is a proud proof of the ascendency of literature in our own day, that these several reviews are the most powerful political auxiliaries, or rather engines of the several parties, whịch, in such a state as ours, divide public opinion between them on questions of national interest. It may be added that there are other respectable publications, bearing the name also of reviews, especially the Monthly and the Eclectic, which are conducted with various degrees of ability, but all employing more or less the same arts of criticism, and making criticism subservient to purposes foreign to itself, though captivating to the world of idle and capricious, as well as curious and intelligent, readers. By these, as well as by the magazines and newspapers, such variety and abundance of extracts from new books are regularly copied into their own pages, as almost to supersede the use of the originals; whatever is most valuable in each being thus gratuitously furnished to the public. To authors of high powers this practice is eminently serviceable, as by these means they are earlier and more advantageously introduced to favour and fame than they could otherwise have been by all the arts of puffing and the expense of advertising.
On the whole, therefore, periodical publications of every order may be regarded as propitious in their influence to the circulation of knowledge and the interests of literature; while truth, however perverted in some instances by passion and prejudice, is more rapidly, effectually, and universally diffused by the ever-varying and everlasting conflicts maintained in these, than the same quantity with the same force of evidence could be developed in bulkier volumes, by a slower process, and within an incomparably more contracted circle. Works, however, of the largest kind, and the most elaborate structure, in every department of learning, abound among us; cyclopedias without measure, compilations without number, besides original treatises, which equally show the industry, talent, and acquirements of authors in all ranks of society, and of every gradation of intellect. Nor are there wanting works of history, voyages and travels, divinity, law, and physic, of sterling value, and worthy of the British nation, which in arts and arms is second to none in the world. The majority of these publications exhibit the same characteristic features as the more fashionable and fugitive ones previously delineated : namely, strong excitement in profession, ambitious display in execution, and excessive gratification in the entertainment which they provide. The books of every era must resemble those who wrote, and those who read them. Great expectation must be met with proportionate effect; and (unreasonable as it may appear, and as it is) if the effect be not beyond both, a degree of disappointment is experienced on the one hand, and a measure of failure on the other.
Such, according to the best judgment of the writer of these imperfect remarks, is the present state of literature in this country, especially of popular literature, including poetry, the drama, works of imagination, and the periodical press. Of its future progress or decline it is unnecessary to offer any conjecture. It does, however, seem to have approached a crisis, when some considerable change for the better or the worse may be anticipated; when literature in England will return to the love of nature and simplicity, or degenerate into bombast and frivolity.