« PreviousContinue »
petitor. There were both English and Scottish bards at that time, but there were, strictly speaking, only Scotch reviewers. Byron's lines, where he makes the genius of Caledonia address Jeffrey, whom she has just rescued from "Little's leadless pistol," are more than a satire.
"My son," she cried, "ne'er thirst for gore again,
We declare this to be but a satiric myth embodying a real fact. Somewhere about the beginning of the nineteenth century, the genius of Caledonia, residing then with her more buxom and less bony, though somewhat more matronly, sister, the genius of Albion, in the place assigned for the habitation of such entities, did meditate another stroke of Scottish emphasis across the general condition of Britain; and did, after consulting with her sister, and obtaining her assent, (she was somewhat sleepy and in a very good humour at the time,) speed down to Scotland in search of a Scotchman fit to execute her purpose by becoming a critic of all British literature. She hovered, for some time, uncertain, over the land of her care, now glancing at the Highlands, now at the Lowlands; at last, however, she rested, as was natural, over Edinburgh, and discerned the object of her search in the acute, fluent, penetrating little lawyer, living among his books, and at that very moment, we will suppose, reading one of them to his young wife in their small establishment in Buccleuch Place. She liked him all the better for her purpose, that he had had some experience of an English university, spoke with an English accent, and was, on the whole, of a sweet generous disposition, rather English than Scotch. And so, by agreement between the two sisters, Jeffrey was placed in the chair of British criticism, and called upon to pass his judgments both on English and Scottish authors. Sister Albion has sometimes since, we hear, repented of her share in the arrangement, and had cross words with Caledonia on the subject; but being of the noblest temper, she admits, on the whole, that the arrangement was a good one, and that England as well as Scotland has benefited by it.
One qualification which Jeffrey possessed for the task assigned to him, in a degree greater perhaps than any other Scotchman of that time, was extensive knowledge of, and real delight in, the works which constitute, in their series, the past wealth of
Jeffrey as a Critic.
English literature. Always fond of quiet domestic leisure, rather than violent modes of exercise, and always a diligent and rapid reader, he had probably gone through as large a course of reading in the standard British authors, as any of his most cultivated English contemporaries. And while our great prosewriters, whether of the more heavy and severe, or of the more light and sparkling style, bad had a due share of his attention, he had still revelled with a pleasure which custom never made less, in the richer and more fantastic compositions of the older poets. Shakespeare was almost a boundless enthusiasm with him; Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton shared the second place in his regards; with the poetry of the Elizabethan era he was more than usually familiar; and he admired with a just sense of degree, the strength of Dryden, the wit and polish of Pope, the charming grace of Goldsmith, and the fervid genius of Burns. This familiarity with all varieties of literary beauty, this extensive acquaintance with the authors, who-according to a favourite phrase of his own, of which somehow we are now growing ashamed--are to be regarded as "the best models" of English literature, very soon developed, in a mind naturally both sensitive and shrewd, that peculiar aptitude for at once relishing or disliking anything new in literature, which we designate by the word taste. It was the taste of Jeffrey that constituted his special accomplishment as a critic: where that was right, he was right; where that was at fault, he was at fault. It was with this taste, the compound result in him of his native powers and tendencies, and his familiar acquaintance with the established "models," that he came forth to meet the tide of new books which flowed in upon him from all the sources of contemporary British authorship the Scotts, and Byrons, and Crabbes, and Campbells, and Southeys, and Wordsworths of a new and abounding era. His self-appointed task was that he, the Scotchman Jeffrey, should tell of every important new literary composition as it came out, whether he liked it or not, and what passages he liked, and what he did not like in it, and something, also, of his reasons for so liking and disliking. This, and nothing else, was the task which Jeffrey prescribed to himself as a critic.
He performed the task frankly and honestly. By nature the most "sweet-blooded" of creatures, neither malice, nor envy, nor political difference interfered to make him speak ill, where he thought well, of an author. On the other hand, neither private friendship nor political agreement prevented him from expressing a severe opinion where he thought it right to do so. sent the proof-sheets of one of his most severe reviews of Scott to Scott himself, on the very day he was going to dine with him. Moore, with whom he fought a duel, because Moore chose to con
strue his remarks on his Little's Poems into an accusation of personal profligacy, lived to be his guest at Craigcrook, and to sing songs on his lawn. Byron learnt to call him "Dear Jeffrey,' and devoted a stanza of reconciliation to him in one of the cantos of Don Juan. And if Southey and Wordsworth never quite forgave him, this was on account of the peculiarity of the case; and the peculiarity was on their side, and not on his. The fact is, that Jeffrey's whole procedure as a critic, his eulogies on some authors, his attacks on others, his praises of one of an author's compositions, his dispraises of other compositions of the same author, his mingled praises and dispraises of one and the same book, all exhibited what was most singularly his qualification for the task he had assumed-his honest unhesitating reliance on his own taste. When we said some time ago that Jeffrey, like a falcon, looked about him with a sharp, clear, and almost too unbashful eye, what we meant to indicate was precisely this reliance on the competence of his own momentary judgment, this freedom from intellectual diffidence, this exquisite power of pronouncing a thing right or wrong, correct or incorrect, on the mere faith of his own instant sensation of it. Men differ very much in this respect. There are some men, and these often men of real energy and resolution, who possess little or nothing of this unfailing opinionativeness, and who, when a matter is presented to them for the first time, rather take it trustingly as it is given, and let themselves be passively affected by it, than meet it, as it were, at intellectual sword-point. Often, when their opinion is asked, they positively have none to give; and often, when a statement is made to them, in itself perhaps the most questionable in the world, they do not, unless it jars on some specially tender nerve, behave to it dogmatically at all, but seem rather to occupy themselves with pondering the possibilities of it. For example, when the fate of the Crystal Palace was pending, and when the one question in London, which everybody asked of everybody else, was, whether it should be kept up or removed, there were, we believe, many who, though by no means undecided when they had an opinion, really had no opinion whatever on this particular matter, and, therefore, could give none. Instantly to form an opinion in such a case, by calculating all the results positive and negative on both sides-all that would happen and all that would not happen if the Palace stood, and all that would happen and all that would not happen if it were taken away-was clearly beyond the powers of the human reason; and not having either the special feelings of an exhibitor to assist a conclusion on one side, or the special feelings of a Hyde Park proprietor to assist a conclusion on the other, they were content to be opinionless, or to listen reverentially to both
Jeffrey as a Critic.
opinions, or to abominate the whole subject, or perhaps at last to be talked into one of the opinions by others. So also, there are persons who, when anything in art or literature comes before them challenging their admiration, and recommended by high authority, admire it or not, as the case may be but, if they do not admire it, will often shrink from saying so, not from caution, but from a proneness to fancy that there may be more in the thing than meets the eye. When their feelings are not deeply stirred for or against, their tendency is to be neutral, or if they must speak, to say either what is expected, or, out of revenge, the very reverse. They will even laugh sometimes when they do not see the joke, if only there is testimony to its existence. It was quite different with Jeffrey. He had none of this intellectual bashfulness, which disqualifies for affirming or denying, except on occasions when the affirmation or denial must be vehement and continuous. He met all things at intellectual sword-point, and approved or condemned, right and left, without any hesitation. Possibly his habits as a lawyer may have had something to do with this; the mere practice of criticism, likewise, strengthened the tendency to criticise; but Jeffrey was a critic by nature. Whether in politics or in literature he was ready at once with a distinct and honest judgment whenever he was asked for it. In going over the French Revolution, for example, which he has done once or twice in his political and historical papers, he alternates between praise and dispraise almost as regularly as if he had been a criticising piston; now dwelling with approbation on what he considers a great and splendid act of policy in the leaders of that movement, and again exhibiting some blunder, by which, according to his judgment, the movement was, from the first, vitiated and ruined. And so in his remarks on a novel, a play, or a poem. Generally, his good nature and his real enjoyment of literary excellence, led him to devote most space to the praise, when it was possible to praise at all; but there is also almost invariably an enumeration at the end of blemishes or defects; and sometimes in one and the same page, or even in one and the same sentence, the author is lauded highly for his merits and blamed severely for his faults. This character in your novel is good and natural, that absurd and unnatural; this poem in your collection is beautiful and striking, that tame and mawkish; this image in the verse is highly poetical, that extravagant and obscure :-such, allowing for the larger space usually assigned to the praise, was Jeffrey's invariable mode of addressing the subjects of his criticism. Let us illustrate this by a quotation or two taken at random.
On Byron's Tragedies." Considered as poems, we confess they appear to us to be rather heavy, verbose, and inelegant-deficient in the
passion and energy which belong to the other writings of the noble author-and still more in the richness of imagery, the originality of thought, and the sweetness of versification for which he used to be distinguished. They are for the most part solemn, prolix, and ostentatious, lengthened out by large preparations for catastrophes which never arrive, and tantalising us with slight specimens and glimpses of a higher interest, scattered thinly up and down many weary pages declamation. There are some sweet lines and of great many weight and energy; but the general march of the verse is cumbrous and unmusical. His lines do not vibrate like polished lances, at once strong and light, in the hands of his persons, but are wielded like clumsy batons in a bloodless affray. Instead of the graceful familiarity and idiomatical melodies of Shakespeare, they are apt, too, to fall into clumsy prose in their approaches to the easy and colloquial style; and, in the loftier passages, are occasionally deformed by low and common images that harmonize but ill with the general solemnity of the diction."-Edinburgh Review, 1822.
On Scott's Lay of the Last Minstrel.-" From the various extracts we have now given our readers will be enabled to form a tolerably correct judgment of this poem; and if they are pleased with those portions of it which have now been exhibited, we may venture to assure them that they will not be disappointed by the perusal of the whole. The whole night journey of Delorane, the opening of the wizard's tomb, the march of the English battle, and the parley before the walls of the castle, are all executed with the same spirit and poetical energy which we think is conspicuous in the specimens we have already extracted, and a great variety of short passages occur in every part of the poem, which are still more striking and meritorious, though it is impossible to detach them, without injury, in the form of a quotation. There are many passages, as we have already insinuated, which have the general character of heaviness, such as the minstrel's account of his preceptor and Delorane's lamentation over the dead body of Musgrave. But the goblin page is, in our opinion, the capital deformity of the poem. We have already said that the whole machinery is useless; but the magic studies of the lady, and the rifled tomb of Michael Scott, give occasion to such admirable poetry that we can, on no account, consent to part with them. The page, on the other hand, is a perpetual burden to the poet and to the reader; it is an undignified and improbable fiction, which excites neither terror, admiration, nor astonishment, but needlessly debases the strain of the whole work, and excites at once our incredulity and contempt."Edinburgh Review, 1805.
On Keats's Poems." We had never happened to see either of these volumes till very lately, and have been exceedingly struck with the genius they display and the spirit of poetry which breathes through all their extravagance. They are full of extravagance and irregularity, rash attempts at originality, interminable wanderings, and excessive obscurity. But they are flushed all over with the rich lights of fancy, and so coloured and bestrewed with the flowers of