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poetry, that even when perplexed and bewildered in their labyrinths it is impossible to resist the intoxication of their sweetness, or to shut our hearts to the enchantments they so lavishly present.
The thin and scanty tissue of his story (Endymion) is merely the light framework on which his florid wreaths are suspended; and while his imaginations go rambling and entangling themselves everywhere, like wild honeysuckles, all idea of sober reason, and plan, and consistency, is utterly forgotten and strangled in their waste fertility.' A great part of the work, indeed, is written in the strangest and most fantastical manner that can be imagined. It seems as if the author had ventured everything that had occurred to him in the shape of a glittering image or striking expression—taken the first word that presented itself to make up a rhyme, and then made that word the germ of a new cluster of images—a hint for a new excursion of the fancy~ and so wandered on, equally forgetful whence he came and heedless whither he was going, till he had covered his pages with an interminable arabesque of connected and incongruous figures, that multiplied as they extended, and were only harmonized by the brightness of their tints and the graces of their forms. In this rash and headlong career he has, of course, many lapses and failures. There is no work, accordingly, from which a malicious critic could cull more matter for ridicule, or select more obscure, unnatural, or absurd passages. But it is, in truth, at least as full of genius as of absurdity.”—Edinburgh Review, 1820.
On a Number of Dickens's Copperfield.—“Bless you, my dear Dickens, and happy new-years for centuries to you and yours! A thousand thanks for your kind letter of December, and for your sweet, soothing Copperfield of the new-year. It is not a hinging or marking chapter in the story of the Life, but it is full of good matter, and we are all the better for it. The scene with Agnes is the most impressive, though there is much promise in Traddles. Uriah is too disgusting; and I confess I should have been contented to have heard no more of the Micawbers. But there is no saying what you may make of them.”Letter to Mr. Dickens, Jan. 6, 1850.—Lord Cockburn's Life, vol. ii. pp. 464, 465.
These extracts, though, with the exception of that on Keats, which is really a fine piece of meaning finely expressed, they do not illustrate sufficiently Jeffrey's powers as a writer-the delicacy and tact of his discrimination, his clear and genial wit, and his happy fluency in choice and garnished and lightly moving phrases--yet convey an exact and adequate idea of his manner as a critic. The “ beauty and blemish principle,” if we may so express it, was the principle of criticism in the application of which to the writings of his day Jeffrey was a master. To point out the special beauties of a poem or novel, to append or interweave an enumeration of the special blemishes, and to illustrate both by ample and appropriate extracts—this was the standing formula according to which almost all the critical papers in the
Edinburgh Review were written, during the editorship of Jeffrey It was the organ for telling society at large, and ladies and gentlemen of taste in particular, what they were to think of the last new books. It performed on the large scale, and with a kind of princely decisiveness to which there is nothing now comparable, that important social function which smaller periodicals now attempt to discharge, when, for example, they consult public convenience by answering, ex cathedra, the question so often put at private parties, "What do you think of the new number of Bleak House?" As readers of the present day, and especially those unopinionative readers who are apt to take Bleak House or anything else as it comes, without making up their minds in any distinct manner as to its merits or demerits, owe a debt of grati tude to the smaller periodicals which point these out; so, in the first quarter of this century, and in a degree a hundred times. greater, were readers indebted to the Edinburgh Review. To pronounce judgments on new books and to disseminate Whig principles, were the two professed ends of the Review; and as its fidelity to the one end was undoubted, so no one could deny the vigilance with which it attended to the other.
It is a known fact, however, exemplified nowhere more conspicuously than in the progress of the Edinburgh Review itself, that the sketchy "beauty and blemish" species of criticism in which Jeffrey excelled, has now passed out of date, and been succeeded, at least in all our higher periodicals, by a kind of criticism intrinsically deeper and more laborious. Partly by reason of that enormous increase of books which has made it a physical necessity to devolve the task of general literary censorship upon the weekly periodicals, and even on the daily newspapers; partly by reason of the rise among us of an altogether higher sense of what criticism is, or may be-the papers which now constitute the staple of our magazines and quarterlies are of a kind of which similar periodicals in older times exhibit few or no examples. It is not, perhaps, at least it is not in all cases, that there is greater positive ability than formerly in those who betake themselves to this species of writing-for it would be no easy thing to find a person in any class or any profession with a greater fund of talent available for any purpose whatever than existed in Jeffrey; it is that the new principle which usage has, since Jeffrey's time, established in the art of periodical writing, compels those who betake themselves to it, be their abilities what they may, to task these abilities harder. Merely to note the beauties and blemishes of a new book, or the merits and defects of a known author in that rapid superficial way which enables the public to say whether the book or author has been noticed favourably or otherwise, is not now the business of a
Change in our Periodical Literature.
critic in the Quarterlies. What is usually required of him is, either some original disquisition, for which a book or a certain number of books may furnish the test; or some critical appreciation of a new intellectual tendency running through simultaneous scores of books, several of which are named by way of specimen; or, some thorough dissection of an important new book, considered as the product of a peculiar mode of thought exhibited nowhere else; or, lastly, and perhaps most frequently, some elaborate literary monograph, or study of character, in which the attempt is made to delineate in exact portraiture the features of some representative man, and to trace the stamp of these in his writings or the circumstances of his life. It is needless, in illustration of this change in the nature of our periodical literature, to do more than allude to those occasional essays of Macaulay and Carlyle, which, if they did not assist to bring about the change, at least mark, in a very striking manner, that a change has taken place. Side by side with the republished contributions of these and some later writers to our periodical literature, Jeffrey's reprinted criticisms appear slight and ephemeral. The truth is, that his literary criticisms rank lower, in point of thought or permanent intellectual contents, than his political articles. In these articles, as we have seen, there is often a marked tendency to general speculation, a successful effort to reach a scientific principle. There is far less of this in his literary criticisms. General disquisition, indeed, is not wanting, and leading canons of taste are duly implied or laid down; but, on the whole, the papers have the appearance of light things dashed off on the “ beauty and blemish” principle, by a brilliant and happy writer, whose simple business it was to read new books and tell the public frankly what he thought of them. Considered as such, however-as criticisms of the hour—as the applications of one man's taste and judgment, sometimes in the form of reproof and chastisement, to the whole current literature of his generation-we have no series of criticisms approaching to them in merit. Jeffrey, in this sense, was truly the king of critics. If he has not left behind him more solid monuments of his own literary genius, it is because, like a true king, he occupied himself so assiduously with the task of governing and controllingof administering, as it were, day by day, portions of his individuality into the course of affairs as they were. That, while performing this task so well, he was able at the same time to sustain the character of being himself a fine and graceful writer, is so much merit ip addition. Slight as the texture of Jeffrey's criticisms is, there are passages in them of such happy and ingenious and even rich and eloquent expression, that no series of * Elegant Extracts” would now be complete that did not contain specimens from them, as a recognised portion of our classic British literature.
Whatever may be thought of the depth of Jeffrey's criticisms, it must be allowed that, on the whole, they were singularly just
. There have been, we imagine, very few men so courageous in giving opinions on things, whose opinions on things could be more fully trusted, when given. Even his critical observations on historical transactions, so distant and difficult to appreciate as those of the first French Revolution, were probably as sound as it was possible for critical observations of that nature to be. And his literary criticisms, for the most part, stand good even yet. The opinions pronounced by Jeffrey thirty or forty years ago on the works of Scott, Byron, Campbell, Crabbe, Moore, Keats, Rogers, and all the other literary chiefs of that period, are, for the most part, the opinions that people hold on the same works now; and some of the very phrases which Jeffrey used to describe his impressions as to what was characteristic in these writers, have now all the sanction of prescriptive usage. Lord Cockburn is very decided upon this point. “What poet," he asks, “whom Jeffrey condemns, continues a favourite with the public, except in the works, or in the passages, or in the qualities which he applauds ?" We cannot, however, go quite so far as Lord Cockburn when he says this. Although Jeffrey's judgments on the poets and other writers of his time were, on the whole, as accurate as they were frank, there are cases in which the public has found it necessary to leave him and his criticisms far behind. Every man has his natural limitations; and there are things contemporary with every man, according to external appearance, which properly are not contemporary with him, but indicate preparations by nature for the future, and her tendency towards what shall be in vigour and flourish when he shall have passed away. Jeffrey, by nature, had probably more of sympathy with what was fine, and exquisite, and pathetic in literature, in its already established forms, than with what, either in thought or in method, proposed an innovation; and although the range of his intellectual appreciation was large when he directed his attention to the past, there were deep tendencies of his own time towards which, with a pertinacity which at once gave the measure of his intelligence, and shewed its strength within that measure, he remained entirely negative. It is needless to do more than allude, in illustration of this, to his criticism on Goethe in connexion with the novel of Wilhem Meister, and to his long series of attacks on Wordsworth and the Lake Poets. The « This will never do” which, in both these cases, was substantially his critical verdict, can now only be regarded as an interesting example of the old in literature perturbed by the ap
A New Era in British Literature.
proach of the new There are of course persons yet amongst us to whom Jeffrey's verdict in those cases seems still the right one; but for all who properly belong to our epoch, the question has been long ago ended.
The truth is, a new spirit in literature, as well as in other things, was taking possession of the age as Jeffrey passed away from it. Influences akin to those which Jeffrey resisted in his attacks on Coleridge and Wordsworth, streamed in on the mind of Britain from all sides; and before Jeffrey died he saw a very changed world. From the peaceful retreat at Craigcrook, where he spent his declining years, leading in the circle of his private friends that kindly, and sociable, and pensive home-life, of which Lord Cockburn has told us too little, but of which we obtain some beautiful and charming glimpses from his own letters, Jeffrey must have looked out with mingled feelings of surprise, admiration, and regret upon the tide of new things that time and labour were evoking all around him. In politics, a new French Revolution, a whole continent once more defying despotism, and speculations of far deeper colour than the authentic old buff and blue, came in the end to assure him—more profoundly and convincingly perhaps than he had been assured before—that men will not suffer Whiggism to be the final formula in political science. And in literature, he stood at last like a Nestor amid the warriors of a second and third generation. The Scotts, the Byrons, the Campbells, the Crabbes, the Coleridges, the Southeys, the Moores, the Mackintoshes, and the Rogerses, who were properly his contemporaries, had either passed away or taken out their superannuation; Wordsworth, whom he had attacked, was the poet-patriarch of England, removed high beyond all critical reach; the power and the glory of British literature had passed to chiefs trained within the period of his own activity--the Wilsons, and Carlyles, and Hunts, and Landors, and Macaulays, and Brewsters, and Stephens, and Hamiltons, who still live and labour among us; year after year a new name, such as that of Bulwer, or Isaac Taylor, or Dickens, or Thackeray, or Jerrold, or Tennyson, or Robert Chambers, or Hugh Miller, or John Mill, was added, before his eyes, to the list of our men of intellectual and literary enuinence; and as he looked still farther along the series for what was appearing or about to be, he could discern, as of greater or less note, and of various promise, in a generation still younger, such men as Stanley, and Ruskin, and Samuel Brown, and Wilkinson, and George Wilson, and Marston, and Lewes, and Aytoun, and Kingsley, and Browning, and Patmore. Genial
, and lively, and sympathetic as he was, he saw all this with a kindly and genuine interest, and with the readiest approbation of whatever was good