Page images

institutions. Besides, it is not to be questioned, that the party spirit which pervades our leading periodical journals is neutralized by its lempting the reader to peruse the arguments on both sides of every momentous question. The prejudice he imbibes from one is dispelled or weakened by another. It is impossible that erroneous opinions as to government, or measures of pational improvement, or the acts of public functionaries, should long prevail, where there is access lo different political journals. They occasionally, no doubt, disseminate unsound and dangerous opinions; byt these are sure to be fully exposed; so that even their errors contribute to encourage a spirit of free enquiry; to make mon read and meditate upon the topics investigaled in their pages; and to give them a strong desire and the requisite facilities for the acquisition of useful knowledge. There are few persons in the middle or lower ranks of ļife whose opporļuņiljes enable them to collect, from a series of original works, the malerials necessary for a comprehensive examination of every important question of national policy, and difficult problem in political science, in which their own interest, and that of the great mass of their fellow-creatures, may be deeply involve They are, probably, ignorant of the books that should be consulted ; and though they knew where to apply for information, they may have no leisure to yndergo the toil without which it cannot be obtained. Is it not of inconceivable importance to the well-being of society, and to the spread of sound opinions, that our Reviews are supplied with dissertations on every subject most interesting to the reading portion of the community ?--that in them is concentrated the essence of many a learned treatise, too voluminous to be generally read, and too dyll to be attractive and that the ablest writers make them vehicles for enlightening mankind ?

Our periodical publications would have had a more direet influence on the conduet and sentiments of the majority of the people had it not been for their price, which is greatly increased by oppressive taxes. The labouring classes are not, it is true, so enlightened as they should be in a nation that boasts of its civilization ; but such of them as have studied ihe elementary principles of political science, have evinced no less aculeness, than their superiors, in comprehending abstract truths. If the imperfect instruction they have received, and that little obtained by their own unassisted exertions, io !he midst of toils and privalions, should lead them into error, with rese peet to the principles of government, and the working of political institutions, why need we affeet surprise? The poor are precisely what they have been made, by those who should have supplied them with better means of acquiring sound information. Those who have strained every nerve to impede the progress of intellectual improvement, in order that tyranny and misrule might continue undetected and unpunished, have much with which to reproach themselves. But the Edinburgh Reviewers owp no fellowship with such persons. On the contrary, they have done more than all the other journalists in the country put together, lo furpish all classes with solid instruction on every topic of public interest. They have neither flattered popular prejudices, nor quailed before the frowns of the great ; they have sought less to please than to instruct. Principles and truths of the ulmost consequence to all, have been unfolded in their pages with singular talent, and with a disinterestedness and success that will ensure the enduring applauses of the wise and good.

The love of diolation and severity assumed by the Reviewers in their cri

[ocr errors]


tical notices, increased the celebrity of their efforts, though it may have had, in a few instances, a blighting influence on genius. A caustic attack upon some distinguished poet or philosopher, to whom a numerous circle of admirers gave their undissembled homage, made the Review be talked about, quoted in the newspapers, and read by thousands, indifferent, perhaps, to the poetical and political doctrines of which it was the advocate.

In general, it may be safely affirmed, that excessive severity in criticism has a tendency to repress the timid, and to abate the perseverance by which excellence is attained. It is only occasionally that authors are to be met with who “neither deserve the lash nor the spur; whose genius is of that vigorous and healthful constitution, as to allow the free and ordinary course of criticism to be administered, without fear that their ric*kety bantlings may be crushed in the correction.” There is a delicacy inseparable from minds of a sensitive cast that recoils from rude assault. To govern by terror, whether in literature or politics, is never sase or judicious. The sway of the despot fails to ensure a willing obedience; nor is his power always an adequate protection against the resentment of those whom he galls by his tyranny. That there are cases in which Reviewers should apply the lash unmoved by the cries and reproaches of the sufferer, no one will dispute. When insolence is to be rebuked, imposture detected, and dishonesty exposed, no personal consideration or feelings of misplaced sympathy, should deter the critic from discharging his duty with unmitigated severity. But, in general, it will be found, that a gentle mode of treatment produces the most useful results. An author, whose pride and obstinacy would revolt with disdain from a tyrannical exercise of critical authority, might yield to respectful remonstrance, if conveyed in the accents of kindness and courtesy. Nor should the adoption of a lenient mode of inflicting literary chastisement be deemed a compromise of the Reviewer's integrity. There is a reverence due to genius, even when its light and glory are obscured by passing clouds. He who would recall it from its wanderings, and train it to excellence, must not press too severely on its irregularities, lest it perish under the treatment designed to prolong its existence.*

* Miss Edgeworth has been adduced as a remarkable instance of a writer whom the most liberal praise bas not improperly elevated, nor the bitterest censure depressed. It is true, as her eloquent critic has observed, “ that the overweening politeness which might be thought due to her sex, is forgotten in the contemplation of her manly understanding, and a long series of writings, all directed to some great and permanent improvement of society." Besides, that highly gifted lady should not be classed with the general mass of individuals who have made literature a profession. Her mind is not of a common order; and what would chill the energies of weaker intellects might only stimulate her meritorious exertions to instruct and amuse mankind. The few blemishes which the keen eye of the critic has discovered in the admirable works of Miss Edgeworth, have been visited with very slight reprehension. Reviewers of every rank and character have delighted to do honour to her genius. There is only one other author of our times whose writings have been remembered with so large a portion of approbation. Sir Walter Scott has never manifested impatience or petulance at the attacks of the press; but it should be recollected, that he possesses the courage which is as necessary as talent to secure literary fame. Though he has proved himself superior to censure, it ought not to be forgotten, that he has had little to complain of from his critical judges, compared with other eminent literary characters; as, for example, Byron or Moore, Keats or Shelley. His productions have been ushered into the world amid the grateful applauses of thousands; and Reviewers have dealt gently with his most glaring faults. Still it is impossible not to admire the spirit in which the following remarks are composed. “I determined,” says this truly great man, that, without shutting my ears to the voice of true criticism, I would pay no regard to that which assumes the form of satire. I do therefore resolve to arm myself with the triple brass

[ocr errors]


[ocr errors]

Heving described the nature of these changes which the Edinburgh Review introduced into the old system of criticism, it remains to show, that, the intellectual and political state of the country at the period of its establishment contributed, though subordinately to more general causes, its popularity. It was not till towards the close of last century, that the periodical literature of Great Britain began to assume the political and commanding tone by which it is al present distinguished. It rose into estimation as that fascinating species of composition declined which, was introduced by Steele and Addison.

The striking revolution in national taste, which consigned the “Taller,” “ Spectator," and other works of a similar character to comparative obscurity, may be traced to the change eflected in society by political causes, and to the passion for more substantial and exciting information than they supplied. The periodical literature, brought to perfection by Steele and his contemporaries, was precisely adopted to the character of their age. The form of their Essays, the topics they discussed, the light and vivacious spirit by which they were animated, were better calculated than any other description of writing, to arrest the attention and captivate the imagination of the reader. They had also a powerful influence in preparing the public for the reception of more solid compositions and loftier flights of genius. It must, however, be admitted that in the papers of Addison, more than in those of his associates, there was evidence of a nobler aim, a greater compass of mind, and a deeper penetration into the sources of taste,criticism, and morals.

Important events took place, during the reign of George the Third, which gave a new direction to popular taste, quickened into action the intellect of the whole nation, and turned it from the “ green pastures and still waters” of literature into the itated ocean of political discussion.. It was then that those graphic sketches of manners, and playful satires on fashionable amusements, which ouce created so lively a sensation, began to be regarded with frigid indifference. The minds of the people vere roused to the investigation of more momentous topics than those furnished by the habits and frivolities of the higher classes, or by the peculiarities of individual character. Publications were quickly adapted to the altered taste of the times. They treated of civil privileges, of the objects of governments, and the duties and rights of the people. They breathed the renovated spirit of a new era. Bold, eloquent, and vigorous in their style, they appealed to immutable principles and enduring interests ; and, in the course of a few years, supplanted, in popular favour, the finely tempered irony and pungeni wit of Steele, the grace and moral beauty of Addison, the Oriental richness of Hawkesworth, the pomp of Johnson, the vivacity of Colman, the fertile genius of Cumberland, and the pathos of Mackenzie.

To expaliate, at any length, on the productions of those masters of our language, would be foreign to the object of the present Essay. It was necessary, however, to glance at the subject, in order to account for that er Horace, against all the roving warfare of satire, parody, and sarcasm : to laugh if the jest was a good one; or, if otherwise, to let it hum and buzz itself to sleep. It is to the observance of these rules, according to my best belief, that, after a life of thirty years engaged in literary labours of various kinds, I attribute my never having been entangled in any literary quarrel or controversy; and, which is a more pleasing result, that I have been distinguished by the personal friendship of my most approved contemporaries of all parties." — Autobiography of Sir Walter Scoti. See Preface to. • new edition of his Poems, lately published by Cadell,


change in the mental tendencies of society which ensured a brilliant celebrity to sueh journals as the Edinburgh Review. To the works of the British Essayists, as specimens of polished compositioti, as faithful pors traitures of männers, and glowing pictures of society, such ample justice has been done by a modern author, that none of inferiòt attainments and more limited information should revert to the subject.*

That those charming productions were the means of sowing the seeds of a delicate and refined laste, and diffused among the community models of graceful and polished, though feeble, composition, has never been disa puted. They were exactly fitted to the intellectual attainments of the nation during the reign of Queen Anne, A desire for instruction bad begun to appear among the people ; but they had hot arrived at that ada vaneed stage of improvement when they could derive gratification from works of greater depth and learning. The class of publications most likely to attrael the greatest number of readers, were those which required no exertion of thought, no variety of erudition, to eomprehend their meaning and appreciate their beauty. It was not surprising, therefore, that a series of essays which blended amusement with informalion - which abounded in wit, vivaeity, and humour-which excelled in lively illustration, laughable anécdote, pieluresque description, and delineation of character, should have produced so instantaneous and vivid an impression ; and have presérved their ascendency Undiminished, until events took place in the world of politics, which turned men's thoughts to the cabals of politicians, the intrigues of cabinets, and the revolution of empires.

Another leading characteristic in the periodical labours of Steele and Addison, is their being almost exclusively restricted to subjects of a literary, eritieal, or moral nature. Political questions are but seldom discussed. To ridicule èecentricity, to excite laughter at personal peculiarities, and to administër à gentle corrective lo the venial errors of mankind, were the primary objects of those distinguished ornaments of English literature. But we do not resort to their works for dissertations on forms of government me for an exposition of the science of jurisprudence and the principles of political economy--for impartial strictures on the conduct of those in authority-ot for a manly vindication of the rights of the people. They attempt nothing that concerns the general passions of man, or the laws by which he is governed as a member of political society,

This abstinence from political discussion in the publications referred to, may be traced to the circumstances in which England was then placed. The people had begun to enjoy temporary repose after an arduous and protracted contest with despotic power. From the period of the civil wars, down to the Revolution of 1688, they had been engaged in a struggle for their rights against the encroachment of political and ecclesiastical tyranny. The dissensions in which they had acted so conspicuous à part, were, in some respects, injurious to national literature. They divested i of that grace, elegance, and refinement, by which it is distinguished in more peaceful times. To compensate for this loss, genius and talent sprung put of the convulsion, and a race of sturdy champions appeared to contend

The reader will recognize Dr. Drake as the writer herë teserred to. Those who have perused his critical and biographical Essays on the “ Tatler,” “ Spectator," "Rambler,

Idler,” and “Guardian,” must have admired the extensive research and critical acumen which they display. In no other work of a similar kind will be found so fun and in teresting an account of the rise, progress, and effects of those publications. .

[ocr errors]

for the civil and religious liberties of their countrymer. Having attained their object, the stimulus was withdrawe which had previously operated upon their minds; and they turned their thoughts to the tranquil and improving pursuits of literature. Hence it was, that the periodical literature of that age took its complexion, as it always does, from the prevailing taste of the community; and politics ceased, at least for a time, to interest the public. No sooner, however, did new circumstances arise to recall the attenLion of men to their political and religious interests, than the journals of the day followed in the track of popular opinion, and became an unerring index of its variations.

The era at which the periodical literature of England and Scotland evinced the most marked change in its spirit and character was one of unexampled interest. The policy adopted by George the Third, on his becoming MoDarch of these realms, immediately formed the subject of keen and animated discussion. A variety of questions, connected with affairs both at home and abroad, were mooted in every circle, that divided the nation into parties, and afforded inexhaustible materials for the deliberation of the Legislature, the comments of journalists, and the consideration of the people.

The intrigues of the party supposed to influence the King; the excitemeat given to the public mind by the proceedings against Wilkes; the validity and legality of general warrants; and the constitutional questions that ensued, in relation to the privileges of members of parliament,-- were lopics which kept the public mind in a state of constant agitation, furnished. the press with materials to work upon, and brought Junius into the field. But the political controversy most important in its nature, and in the consequences which it involved, arose out of the proceedings of the British parliament respecting the right of taxing America. The fierce disputations which this question occasioned, the critical position in which it placed the advisers of the Crown, and the unparalleled interest it gave to the debates of Parliament, conspired to give a political character to most works that issued from the press; and to mark with the same stamp the sentiments of all ranks of the community. Under the influence of circumstances so strongly calculated lo make an impression on the literature of the nation, most Reviews and Magazines became the organs of popular sentiment, and łaboured in their several departments to furnish their readers with the mental food most congenial to their tastes. The periodical press contributed, in no ordinary degree, to enlighten and direct publie opinion upon the topics which agilated the kingdom. The admission must, indeed, be made with regret, that its conductors were not all sufficiently virtuous to spurn official solicitations. Some of them were prevailed on to justify the wildest excesses of arbitrary power. There were many, however, more honourable and conscientious, who employed the powerful engine of which they had the control, to expose misgovernment, lo warn the nation of its consequences, and to demand the punishment of its authors. The public mind was invigorated by the discussion of questions which grew out of the war. Men began to suspect, that it originated in a desire to give an ascendency to despotic principles; and that the daring experiment, if successful on the other side of the Atlantic, might some time be tried in England. The principles of government and the rights of man became, under circumstances so favourable to freedom of speech, the theme of discussion, in every private circle, at every public meeting, and in every periodical journal. The field of controversy was occupied by skilful and able com

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »