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An essay by Charles S. Brooks

The Asperities Of The Early British Reviewers

Title:     The Asperities Of The Early British Reviewers
Author: Charles S. Brooks [More Titles by Brooks]

Book reviewers nowadays direct their attention, for the most part, to the worthy books and they habitually neglect those that seem beneath their regard. On a rare occasion they assail an unprofitable book, but even this is often but a bit of practice. They swish a bludgeon to try their hand. They only take their anger, as it were, upon an outing, lest with too close housing it grow pallid and shrink in girth. Or maybe they indulge themselves in humor. Perhaps they think that their pages grow dull and that ridicule will restore the balance. They throw it in like a drunken porter to relieve a solemn scene. I fancy that editors of this baser sort keep on their shelves one or two volumes for their readers' sport and mirth. I read recently a review of an historical romance--a last faltering descendant of the race--whose author in an endeavor to restore the past, had made too free a use of obsolete words. With what playfulness was he held up to scorn! Mary come up, sweet chuck! How his quaint phrasing was turned against him! What a merry fellow it is who writes, how sharp and caustic! There's pepper on his mood.

But generally, it is said, book reviews are too flattering. Professor Bliss Perry, being of this opinion, offered some time ago a statement that "Magazine writing about current books is for the most part bland, complaisant, pulpy.... The Pedagogue no longer gets a chance at the gifted young rascal who needs, first and foremost, a premonitory whipping; the youthful genius simply stays away from school and carries his unwhipped talents into the market place." At a somewhat different angle of the same opinion, Dr. Crothers suggests in an essay that instead of being directed to the best books, we need to be warned from the worst. He proposes to set up a list of the Hundred Worst Books. For is it not better, he asks, to put a lighthouse on a reef than in the channel? The open sea does not need a bell-buoy to sound its depth.

On these hints I have read some of the book criticisms of days past to learn whether they too were pulpy--whether our present silken criticism always wore its gloves and perfumed itself, or whether it has fallen to this smiling senility from a sterner youth. Although I am usually a rusty student, yet by diligence I have sought to mend my knowledge that I might lay it out before you. Lately, therefore, if you had come within our Public Library, you would have found me in one of these attempts. Here I went, scrimping the other business of the day in order that I might be at my studies before the rush set in up town. Mine was the alcove farthest from the door, where are the mustier volumes that fit a bookish student. So if your quest was the lighter books--such verse and novels as present fame attests--you did not find me. I was hooped and bowed around the corner. I am no real scholar, but I study on a spurt. For a whole week together I may read old plays until their jigging style infects my own. I have set myself against the lofty histories, although I tire upon their lower slopes and have not yet persisted to their upper and windier ridges. I have, also, a pretty knowledge of the Queen Anne wits and feel that I must have dogged and spied upon them while they were yet alive. But in general, although I am curious in the earlier chapters of learning, I lag in the inner windings. However, for a fortnight I have sat piled about with old reviews, whose leather rots and smells, in order that I might study the fading criticisms of the past.

Until rather near the end of the eighteenth century, those who made their living in England by writing were chiefly publishers' hacks, fellows of the Dunciad sucking their quills in garrets and selling their labor for a crust, for the reading public was too small to support them. Or they found a patron and gave him a sugared sonnet for a pittance, or strained themselves to the length of an Ode for a berth in his household. Or frequently they supported a political party and received a place in the Red Tape Office. But even in politics, on account of the smallness of the reading public and the politicians' indifference to its approval, their services were of slight account. Too often a political office was granted from a pocket borough in which a restricted electorate could be bought at a trifling expense. To gain support inside the House of Commons was enough. The greater public outside could be ignored. This attitude changed with the coming of the French Revolution. Here was a new force unrealized before--that of a crowd which, being unrepresented and with a real grievance, could, when it liked, take a club and go after what it wanted. For the first time in many years in England--such were the whiffs of liberty across the Channel--the power of an unrepresented public came to be known. It was not that the English crowd had as yet taken the club in its hands, but there were new thoughts abroad in the world, and there was the possibility to be regarded. To influence this larger public, therefore, men who could write came little by little into a larger demand. And as writers were comparatively scarce, all kinds--whether they wrote poems or prose--were pressed into service. It is significant, too, that it was in the decades subjected to the first influence of the French Revolution that the English daily paper took its start as an agent to influence public opinion.

It was therefore rather more than one hundred years ago that writers came to a better prosperity. They came out of their garrets, took rooms on the second floor, polished their brasses and became Persons. I can fancy that a writer after spending a morning in the composition of a political article on the whisper of a Cabinet Minister, wrote a sonnet after lunch, and a book review before dinner. Let us see in what mood they took their advancement! Let us examine their temper--but in book reviewing only, for that alone concerns us! In doing this, we have the advantage of knowing the final estimate of the books they judged. Like the witch, we have looked into the seeds of time and we know "which grain will grow and which will not."

In 1802, when the Edinburgh Review (which was the first of its line to acquire distinction) came into being, the passion of the times found voice in politics. Both Whigs and Tories had been alarmed by the excesses of the French Revolution; both feared that England was drifting the way of France; each had a remedy, but opposed and violently maintained. The Tories put the blame of the Revolution on the compromises of Louis XVI, and accordingly they were hostile to any political change. The Whigs, on the other hand, saw the rottenness of England as a cause that would incite her to revolution also, and they advocated reform while yet there was time. The general fear of a revolution gave the government of England to the Tories, and kept them in power for several decades. And England was ripe for trouble. The government was but nominally representative. No Catholic, Jew, Dissenter or poor man had a vote or could hold a seat in Parliament. Industrially and economically the country was in the condition of France in the year of Arthur Young's journey. The poverty was abject, the relief futile and the hatred of the poor for the rich was inflammatory. George III, slipping into feebleness and insanity, yet jealous of his unconstitutional power, was a vacillating despot, quarrelling with his Commons and his Ministers. Lord Eldon as Chancellor, but with as nearly the control of a Premier as the King would allow, was the staunch upholder of all things that have since been disproved and discarded. Bagehot said of him that "he believed in everything which it is impossible to believe in." France and Napoleon threatened across the narrow channel. England still growled at the loss of her American colonies. It was as yet the England of the old regime. The great reforms were to come thirty years later--the Catholic Emancipation, the abolishment of slavery in the colonies, the suppression of the pocket boroughs, the gross bribery of elections, the cleaning of the poor laws and the courts of justice.

It was in this dark hour of English history that the writers polished their brasses and set up as Persons. And if the leading articles that they wrote of mornings stung and snapped with venom, it is natural that the book reviews on which they spent their afternoons had also some vinegar in them, especially if they concerned books written by those of the opposition. And other writers, even if they had no political connection, borrowed their manners from those who had. It was the animosities of party politics that set the general tone. Billingsgate that had grown along the wharves of the lower river, was found to be of service in Parliament and gave a spice and sparkle even to a book review. Presently a large part of literary England wore the tags of political preference. Writers were often as clearly distinguished as were the ladies in the earlier day, when Addison wrote his paper on party patches. There were seats of Moral Philosophy to be handed out, under-secretaryships, consular appointments. It is not enough to say that Francis Jeffrey was a reviewer, he was as well a Whig and was running a Review that was Whig from the front cover to the back. Leigh Hunt was not merely a poet, for he was also a radical, and therefore in the opinions of Tories, a believer in immorality and indecency. No matter how innocent a title might appear, it was held in suspicion, on the chance that it assailed the Ministry or endangered the purity of England. William Gifford was more than merely the editor of the Quarterly Review, for he was as well a Tory editor whose duty it was to pry into Whiggish roguery. Lockhart and Wilson, who wrote in Blackwood's, were Tories tooth and nail, biting and scratching for party. Nowadays, literature, having found the public to be its most profitable patron, works hard and even abjectly for its favor. Although there are defects in the arrangement, it must be confessed that the divorce of literature from politics contributes to the general peace of the household.

The Edinburgh Review was founded in 1802, the Quarterly Review in 1809, Blackwood's Magazine in 1817. These three won distinction among others of less importance, and from them only I quote. In 1802, when Tory rule was strongest and Lord Eldon flourished, there was living in Edinburgh a group of young men who were for the most part briefless barristers. Their case was worse because they were Whigs. Few cases came their way and no offices. These young men were Francis Jeffrey, Francis Horner, Henry Brougham, and there was also Sydney Smith who had just come to Edinburgh from an English country parish. The eldest was thirty-one, the youngest twenty-three. Although all of them had brilliant lives before them, not one of them had made as yet more than a step toward his accomplishment. Sydney Smith had been but lately an obscure curate, buried in the middle of Salisbury Plain, away from all contact with the world. Francis Jeffrey had been a hack writer in London, had studied medicine, had sought unsuccessfully a government position in India, had written poor sonnets, and was now lounging with but a scanty occupation in the halls of the law courts. Francis Horner had just come to the Scottish bar straight from his studies. Henry Brougham, who in days to come was to be Lord Chancellor of England and to whose skill in debate the passing of the Great Reform bill of 1832 is partly due, is also just admitted to the practice of the law.

The founding of the Review was casual. These men were accustomed to meet of an evening for general discussion and speculation. It happened one night as they sat together--the place was a garret if legend is to be believed--that Sydney Smith lamented that their discussions came to nothing, for they were all Whigs, all converted to the cause; whereas if they could only bring their opinions to the outside public they could stir opinion. From so slight a root the Review sprouted. Sydney Smith was made editor and kept the position until after the appearance of the first number, when Jeffrey succeeded him. The Review became immediately a power, appearing quarterly and striking its blows anonymously against a sluggish government, lashing the Tory writers, and taking its part, which is of greater consequence, in the promulgation of the Whig reforms which were to ripen in thirty years and convert the old into modern England. In the destruction of outworn things, it was, as it were, a magazine of Whig explosives.

The Quarterly Review was the next to come and it was Tory. John Murray, the London publisher, had been the English distributor of the Edinburgh Review. In 1809, two considerations moved him to found in London a review to rival the Scotch periodical. First the Tory party was being hard hit by the Edinburgh Review and there was need of defense and retaliation. In the second place, John Murray saw that if his publishing house was to flourish, it must provide this new form of literature that had become so popular. For the very shortness of the essays and articles, in which extensive conditions were summarized for quick digestion, had met with English approval as well as Scotch. People had become accustomed, says Bagehot, of taking "their literature in morsels, as they take sandwiches on a journey." Murray appealed to George Canning, then in office, for assistance and was introduced to William Gifford as a man capable of the undertaking, who would also meet the favor of the government party. The rise of the Quarterly Review was not brilliant. It did not fill the craving for novelty, inasmuch as the Edinburgh was already in the field. Furthermore, there is not the opportunity in defense for as conspicuous gallantry as in offensive warfare.

It was eight years before another enduring review was started. William Blackwood of Edinburgh had grown like Murray from a bookseller to a publisher, and he, too, looked for a means of increasing his prestige. He had launched a review the year previously, in 1816, but it had foundered when it was scarcely off the ways. His second attempt he was determined must be successful. His new editors were John G. Lockhart and John Wilson, and the new policy, although nominally Tory, was first and last the magazine's notoriety. It hawked its wares into public notice by sensational articles and personal vilification. Wilson was thirty-two and Lockhart twenty-three, yet they were as mischievous as boys. In their pages is found the most abominable raving that has ever passed for literary criticism. They did not need any party hatred to fire them. William Blackwood welcomed any abuse that took his magazine out of "the calm of respectable mediocrity." Anything that stung or startled was welcome to a place in its pages.

So Blackwood's was published and Edinburgh city, we may be sure, set up a roar of delight and anger. Never before had one's friends been so assailed. Never before had one's enemies been so grilled. How pleasing for a Tory fireside was the mud bath with which it defiled Coleridge, who was--and you had always known it--"little better than a rogue." One's Tory dinner was the more toothsome for the hot abuse of the Chaldee Manuscript. What stout Tory, indeed, would doze of an evening on such a sheet! There followed of course cases of libel. The editors even found it safer, after the publication of the first number, to retire for a time to the country until the city cooled.

I choose now to turn to the pages of these three reviews and set out before you samples of their criticisms, in order that you may contrast them with our own literary judgments. I warn you in fairness that I have been disposed to choose the worst, yet there are hundreds of other criticisms but little better. Of the three reviews, Blackwood's was the least seriously political in its policy, yet its critical vilifications are the worst. The Edinburgh Review, the most able of the three and the most in earnest in politics, is the least vituperative. With this introduction, let us shake the pepperpot and lay out the strong vinegar of our feast!

In the judgment of the Edinburgh Review, Tom Moore, who had just published his "Odes and Epistles" but had not yet begun his Irish melodies, is a man who "with some brilliancy of fancy, and some show of classical erudition ... may boast, if the boast can please him, of being the most licentious of modern versifiers, and the most poetical of those who, in our times, have devoted their talents to the propagation of immorality. We regard his book, indeed, as a public nuisance.... He sits down to ransact the impure places of his memory for inflammatory images and expressions, and commits them laboriously in writing, for the purpose of insinuating pollution into the minds of unknown and unsuspecting readers."

Francis Jeffrey wrote this, and Moore challenged him to fight. The police interfered, and as Jeffrey put it, "the affair ended amicably. We have since breakfasted together very lovingly. He has expressed penitence for what he has written and declared that he will never again apply any little talents he may possess to such purpose: and I have said that I shall be happy to praise him whenever I find that he has abjured these objectionable topics." It was Sydney Smith who said of Jeffrey he would "damn the solar system--bad light--planets too distant--pestered with comets. Feeble contrivance--could make a better with great ease."

Jeffrey reviewed Wordsworth and found in the "Lyrical Ballads" "vulgarity, affectation and silliness." He is alarmed, moreover, lest his "childishness, conceit and affectation" spread to other authors. He proposes a poem to be called "Elegiac Stanzas to a Sucking Pig," and of "Alice Fell" he writes that "if the publishing of such trash as this be not felt as an insult on the public taste, we are afraid it cannot be insulted." When the "White Doe of Rylstone" was published--no prime favorite, I confess, of my own--Jeffrey wrote that it had the merit of being the very worst poem he ever saw imprinted in a quarto volume. "It seems to us," he wrote, "to consist of a happy union of all the faults, without any of the beauties, which belong to his school of poetry. It is just such a work, in short, as some wicked enemy of that, school might be supposed to have devised, on purpose to make it ridiculous."

Lord Byron, on the publication of an early volume, is counselled "that he do forthwith abandon poetry ... the mere rhyming of the final syllable, even when accompanied by the presence of a certain number of feet ... is not the whole art of poetry. We would entreat him to believe," continued the reviewer, "that a certain portion of liveliness, somewhat of fancy, is necessary to constitute a poem; and that a poem in the present day, to be read, must contain at least one thought...." It was this attack that brought forth Byron's "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers."

As long as Jeffrey hoped to enlist Southey to write for the Edinburgh Review, he treated him with some favor. But Southey took up with the Quarterly. "The Laureate," says the Edinburgh presently, "has now been out of song for a long time: But we had comforted ourselves with the supposition that he was only growing fat and lazy.... The strain, however, of this publication, and indeed of some that went before it, makes us apprehensive that a worse thing has befallen him ... that the worthy inditer of epics is falling gently into dotage."

Now for the Quarterly Review, if by chance it can show an equal spleen!

There lived in the early days of the nineteenth century a woman by the name of Lady Morgan, who was the author of several novels and books of travel. Although her record in intelligence and morals is good, John Croker, who regularly reviewed her books, accuses her works of licentiousness, profligacy, irreverence, blasphemy, libertinism, disloyalty and atheism. There are twenty-six pages of this in one review only, and any paragraph would be worth the quoting for its ferocity. After this attack it was Macaulay who said he hated Croker like "cold boiled veal."

The Quarterly reviewed Keats' "Endymion," although the writer naively states at the outset that he has not read the poem. "Not that we have been wanting in our duty," he writes, "far from it--indeed, we have made efforts almost as superhuman as the story itself appears to be, to get through it; but with the fullest stretch of our perseverance we are forced to confess that we have not been able to struggle beyond the first of the four books...." Finally he questions whether Keats is the author's name, for he doubts "that any man in his senses would put his real name to such a rhapsody."

Leigh Hunt's "Rimini" the Quarterly finds to be an "ungrammatical, unauthorized, chaotic jargon, such as we believe was never before spoken, much less written.... We never," concludes the reviewer, "in so few lines saw so many clear marks of the vulgar impatience of a low man, conscious and ashamed of his wretched vanity, and labouring, with coarse flippancy, to scramble over the bounds of birth and education, and fidget himself into the stout-heartedness of being familiar with a Lord." In a later review, Hunt is a propounder of atheism. "Henceforth," says the reviewer, "... he may slander a few more eminent characters, he may go on to deride venerable and holy institutions, he may stir up more discontent and sedition, but he will have no peace of mind within ... he will live and die unhonoured in his own generation, and, for his own sake it is to be hoped, moulder unknown in those which are to follow."

Hazlitt belongs to a "class of men by whom literature is more than at any period disgraced." His style is suited for washerwomen, a "class of females with whom ... he and his friend Mr. Hunt particularly delight to associate."

Shelley, writes the Quarterly, "is one of that industrious knot of authors, the tendency of whose works we have in our late Numbers exposed to the caution of our readers ... for with perfect deliberation and the steadiest perseverance he perverts all the gifts of his nature, and does all the injury, both public and private, which his faculties enable him to perpetrate." His "poetry is in general a mere jumble of words and heterogeneous ideas." "The Cloud" is "simple nonsense." "Prometheus Unbound" is a "great storehouse of the obscure and unintelligible." In the "Sensitive Plant" there is "no meaning." And for Shelley himself, he is guilty of a great many terrible things, including verbiage, impiety, immorality and absurdity.

Of Blackwood's Magazine the special victims were Keats and Hunt and Coleridge. "Mr. Coleridge," says the reviewer, "... seems to believe that every tongue is wagging in his praise--that every ear is open to imbibe the oracular breathings of his inspiration ... no sound is so sweet to him as that of his own voice ... he seems to consider the mighty universe itself as nothing better than a mirror in which, with a grinning and idiot self-complacency, he may contemplate the physiognomy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.... Yet insignificant as he assuredly is, he cannot put pen to paper without a feeling that millions of eyes are fixed upon him...."

Leigh Hunt, says Blackwood, "is a man of extravagant pretensions ... exquisitely bad taste and extremely vulgar modes of thinking." His "Rimini" "is so wretchedly written that one feels disgust at its pretense, affectation and gaudiness, ignorance, vulgarity, irreverence, quackery, glittering and rancid obscenities."

Blackwood's wrote of the "calm, settled, imperturbable, drivelling idiocy of Endymion," and elsewhere of Keats' "prurient and vulgar lines, evidently meant for some young lady east of Temple Bar.... It is a better and a wiser thing," it commented, "to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop, Mr. John, back to 'plasters, pills and ointment boxes.'" And even when Shelley wrote his "Adonais" on the death of Keats, Blackwood's met it with a contemptible parody:

"Weep for my Tom cat! all ye Tabbies weep!"

Perhaps I have quoted enough. This is the parentage of our silken and flattering criticism.

The pages of these old reviews rest yellow on the shelves. From them there comes a smell of rotting leather, as though the infection spreads. The hour grows late. Like the ghost of the elder Hamlet, I detect the morning to be near.

[The end]
Charles S. Brooks's essay: Asperities Of The Early British Reviewers