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and energetic in the desence of good taste, and what they deemed necessary to human happiness; and which acted upon the only right principle of such works,-a rigid resolution to attack and hew down whatever polluted the purity of literature or stood opposed to truth. In looking over the whole series of the Edinburgh Review, from its commencement in 1802 to the present time, the most superficial observer can hardly fail of discovering the bold track it has followed through the wide field of general knowledge, the weight with which it has crushed the most noisome and prolific weeds that have risen in its path, and the unsparing hand with which it has wrenched them up, when deep-rooted and of long growth. But it is not by its particular criticisms, by its reviews of a single book or author, that it has obtained the power and influence it has so long possessed. It was discovered, that merely pointing out a few verbal blunders in a book, condemning or lauding some production of the day, in reference to its individual deserts only, or presenting isolated extracts of works, the substance of which it was impossible to give, would be infinitely less useful and influential than taking hold of the very subject itself to which a publication referred, giving extended and general views of questions it involved, furnishing the reader with the rules and principles on which his decision ought to rest, and gathering into a close and compact digest the best arguments, the soundest opinions, or the most striking illustrations, of which any matter, either of taste or reason, admits. In conformity with this idea, the Edinburgh Review became the expounder of principles, the setter-forth of dogmas, the proud and lofty-toned denunciator; sometimes bearing out its decisions by a keen anatomy of some contemporary work, but more frequently contenting itself with holding up the mirror of its philosophy, and leaving the reader to judge of truth and falsehood, beauty and deformity, by the lines he sees portrayed upon its surface. In one word, it has from time to time left authors, to attack systems; neglected to analyse a book, that it might develope a theory; lifted its lash, like a churlish pedagogue, against a poem or an essay; but stood forth in the full panoply of reason, when general truth was its object. It has spoken' with a somewhat untempered tone of literature in detail, but has argued nobly on the universality of its power and excellence. It has sported in the wantonness of strength with whatever it found on the surface of the field, but dug with the earnestness of a miser where it traced signs of hidden wealth. It has mocked in determined scorn at ideas of conciliation or courtesy in criticism, but it has brought all authors to the same stern lest of truth and propriety. It has neglected to satisfy curiosity on many books, but it has drawn a wide circle, by remark and investigation, which embraces almost all the subjects on which human thought can be employed."'*
The narrow limits to which this Preface is unavoidably restricted, render it impossible to give a complele outline of the contents of the Review. But the reader will, perhaps, be enabled to form some estimate of its merits, if he be supplied with such general references as may convey to him a view of the subjects and information which it embraces. The most salisfactory me
* Character of the Edipburgh Review, by the Rev. Henry Stebbing.
thod of accomplishing this object will be, to follow, as closely as possible, the classification of topics adopted in this compendium of the work, and to give an analysis of its most interesting articles. The plan is, perhaps, not the most exact that could have been devised ; but it is sufficiently accurate and minute to answer the intended purpose.
The Essays on Poetry and the Drama deserve to be first noticed. They occupy a large portion of the Review ; and, for some years after its commencement, were more generally read and admired than any other description of articles. It has been understood, that the most attractive of them were from the pen of the late editor; and it is not difficult to trace, in their composition, abundant evidence of his fertile genius and exquisite taste. is, however, from this department that the most conspicuous examples of critical inconsistency have been selected by those whom disappointed ambition or personal resentment, literary rivalry or political hostility, has induced to employ their talents in ransacking whole volumes for a single discrepancy, and in laughing at beauties they were incompetent to appreciate. The Edinburgh Reviewers have been accused of criticising the most splendid productions of English poetry in a spirit of petty cavil and coxcombical pretension. They have, it is affirmed, changed their opinions so frequently and so capriciously, that it would be impossible to give a correct exposition of their views, or to collect from their flighty speculations, any satisfactory proof of capacity to estimate poetical genius, and to feel the power of its inspiration. For example, in one of the early numbers, the “ laws of poetry are said to be fixed and unchangeable, whose authority it is no longer permitted to doubt ;"* and, soon afterwards, some modern poet is complimented for his boldness in striking out a new course, and disregarding the insipidity and feebleness of his predecessors, whose merit consisted in a rigid observance of certain assumed principles. At one time Pope, and the other writers belonging to his school, were lauded in a strain of laboured panegyric; whilst the older writers were spoken of in a tone of disparagement. At a subsequent period, when the altered taste of the nation no longer held in veneration ihe wits of Queen Anne's time, but turned, with unaffected homage, to the gigantic intellects that lowered above all competition in the unrivalled age of Elizabeth, the Reviewers abandoned their favourite theories, and swam with the tide of popular feeling. It would be easy to adduce similar proofs of variation of opinion from critiques upon different works of the same author. But these vacillations may be acknowledged, without subjecting the writers to much, if any, censure. They grew unavoidably out of the method of conducting the Review. Each article was intended to be a diquisition on the subject of the book criticised. The author was desirous of displaying his own powers; and, as each number of the work consisted of a variety of productions from different contributors, it would be absurd to expect that any considerable uniformity should be maintained through a series of volumes during a period of thirty years. The readers of a critical journal expect to find in it something of novelty in the selection of topics, and in the style of composition. They are eager for what is new, and are disappointed if every dissertation be not characterised by qualities, in the thoughts and language, that strike and surprise. For this purpose, numerous minds must be
* See Essay on the Lake School of Poetry.
employed to suit the work to the public taste. Among them, however agræd upon general principles, shades of distinction will be apparent, and Contradictions must inevitably occur. It has been remarked," in reference to the discrepancies to be found in our best Reviews : -“We do not consider this as matter either of surprise or censure. A series of unconDected decisions, each resting upon its own specialities, pronounced perhaps by different judges of the same court, can scarcely afford coherent materials for compiling a code of laws. But, perhaps, the articles of a Review still more resemble the pleadings of an ingenious barrister upon various points of law, or the theses of a learned sophist on different points of controversy, in which the sole object, besides that of displaying the versatile genius of an advocate, is the maintaining some isolated and unconnected proposition by arguments; which, upon another occasion, may be changed or exploded, without incurring the charge of inconsistency. Thus, the same premises may be used, on various occasions, as authorising the most opposite conclusions. For example, the decided and extended popularity of one author may be represented as arising from his dealing more in the common-places of poetry than his contemporaries; and another may be consoled by the assurance that, if his work be caviare to the multitude, it is the more valuable to the few who can estimate the just representations of the most ordinary feelings of our nature, which are precisely those upon which the common-places of poetry are founded : nay, if it be necessary, both these propositions may be abandoned, to charge a third poet with want of popularity, as a conclusive sentence against him, pronounced by the silent practical judgment of the public. Now, although each of these dogmata may be supported by very plausible and ingenious reasoning, it must certainly puzzle any author, disposed to act under such high authority, to discover whether, by using the most hackneyed language and subjects of his art, he is most likely to secure the applause of the multitude, or that only of the select few; and if he should determine on pursuing the road to popularity, recommended in the reviewer's latest opinion, he would be still uncertain whether, when attained, it is to be considered as a mark of merit or reprobation."
This is not an exaggeraled statement of the inconsistencies to which all periodical journals are liable, that are conducted upon the present plan. But every one not biassed by party or personal considerations, sees that a Peview is to be judged of by all that it contains, and not by garbled extracts from a few critiques. “A certain tone of exaggeration,” says an eminent contributor to the Edinburgh Review, “is incident to the sort of writing in which we are engaged. Reckoning a little too much, perhaps, on the dulness of our readers, we are often led, unconsciously, to overstate our sentiments in order to make them understood; and when a little controversjal warmth is added to a little love of effect, an excess of colouring is apt to steal over the canvass, which ultimately offends no eye so much as our own." |
This will account for many of the rash judgments of the Edinburgh crilics upon other authors besides Burns, to whom the preceding remarks were designed to apply. That they were mistaken in some instances, and
Essay on Periodical Criticism, in the Annual Register for 1809, p. 570. + See Edinburgh Review, vol. xxxi. p. 492.
unnecessarily severe and contemptuous in others, must be admitted. But if we would judge fairly of any article, we must carry ourselves back tothe period when it was written, and try it by the standards then in existence. The article on Byron has been much condemned; but we venture to say, that, had “Childe Harold” not been written, few would have objected to it: and who will blame the Reviewer for not detecting the future“ Childe" in the “Hours of Idleness?”
In the articles on the poetry of Wordsworth and Southey, there is much ingenuity in the exposition of the metaphysical theory upon which the Lake School is founded. The error of the Reviewers lies in their caricaturing, with too much bitterness, the offensive peculiarities of its founders. Their object was to prove that their poetical tenets are fundamentally erro
Many competent judges conceived that this position was established; but it was at the same time obvious, that the style of criticism was not calculated to qualify the reader for forming an unbiassed judgment of works against which he had been prejudiced by the ludicrous specimens laid before him. It has been said that the Edinburgh critics have never given a fair portion of commendation to the talents of Wordsworth and Southey. This is not true. They have eulogised in the strongest terms their capacity to instruct and delight mankind. Their most unbounded censures have been intermingled with flattering expressions of regard and admiration for their accomplishments. They have characterised their productions as distinguished by “ fertility and force, by warmth of feeling and exaltation of imagination, and pronounced them to be superior, in spite of their extreme affectation and babyish simplicity, to those of every other poet except Milton and Shakspeare.”
Periodical writers of no mean authority have affected to despise some of the cleverest dissertations in the Review on the Lake School of Poels, and have affirmed that they possess no other claim to admiration than the grace, polish, and brilliancy of the language in which they are clothed. This is not the place to investigate critically the theories of the Reviewers on this interesting subject of controversy, which they have defended with a power of intellect and an exuberance of fancy that have seldom been equalled.
If a superficial reader of the Edinburgh Review were to form his judgment of ils critiques from the sew articles of dubious reputation to which allusion has now been made, or from the comments of its enemies, he might be led to suppose, that ils principal contributors have been frequently unjust in their estimates of contemporary genius ; that no living writers have escaped their "gibes and jeers;" that they have attempted to destroy “at one fell swoop” the rising celebrity of every aspiring candidate for literary fame; and that all the names, now most venerated in the word of letters, have been abused without mercy, noticed with reluctance, or dismissed with contempt. But such an opinion would be totally without foundation. The altack on the “Hours of Idleness,” the ludicrous critique on the Lyrical Ballads, the alleged caricatures of Southey and Coleridge, the cold reception of Graham, and the sarcasms on Montgomery, are not very inexpiable faulis. But admitting them to be all that their enemies represent, what then? Are some half dozen articles, however unfair, to rough down whole volumes of the most luminous and profound criticism? Are the splendid disquisitions which have appeared in the Review, upon Shakspeare, Milton, Dryden, Byron, Scott, Moore, Campbell, Rogers,
Crabbe, and many others, to be forgotten , because “ The Vision of Judgment" was held up to public scorn?
Concerning the theories advocated by the Reviewers, on the different chools of poetry, considerable difference of opinion prevails. They were fairly open to discussion; and no ordinary ability has been manifested in attempts to demonstrate their fallacy. An honourable disputant would bear testimony to the quickness of discernment, the acuteness,-richness of fancy,-variety of illustration, and felicity of language, so apparent in many of these Essays. Such, however, is not the spirit in which they have been occasionally criticised. But the Reviews of “Gertrude of Wyoming;” “Marmion;” “ Thalaba ;” “ Tales of the Hall;" “ Manfred;" * Childe Harold ;” “Lalla Rookh,” etc., will charm and instruct thousands of readers, long after the impertinent-cavils of envious commentators have been buried in oblivion.
The miscellaneous articles on Poetry and the Drama are numerous and interesting. Of these we could admit only a few of the best into these Selections. It is almost unnecessary to direct the attention of the reader to the Essays on “Spanish Poetry;" on the state of “English Literature during the Reigns of Elizabeth and James ;" on the Character of English Poetry from the Reign of Queen Anne to the present Times;" on the “ Progress and Decline of Poetry;" on the “ History of the Drama;” and on the “Life and Works of Lord Byron.” It would be useless to dwell og the acknowledged merit of these compositions. On a perusal of the contributions to this department of the Edinburgh Review, it is observable, that the faults to which the least forbearance is shown, are such as tend to bring the poetical character into disrepute. The heaviest rebukes have fallen upon those peculiarities of taste and phraseology which exercise a pernicious influence over the faculties of the poet, and diminish his power of ministering to intellectual pleasure and improvement. Affectation, dogmatism, and perverted simplicity, are the blemishes which the Reviewers have been most anxious to remove. They have never hesitated to denounce what appeared silly, feeble, and ludicrous. But the nobler altributes of poetry, such as are to be found in the writings of Milton, Byron, Campbell
, and Shelley, have been criticised in a kindred spirit, and with the feelings of men who knew how to appreciate the efforts of real and lorty genius. Nor have they ever shrunk from the duty of censuring those defects in the works of popular authors, which they conceived to be either dangerous to public morals, or calculated to vitiate the popular taste.
The Reviewers have seldom adverted to their own merits, unless when stimulated to defend their character and motives against the slanders of anonymous traducers. It is only an act of justice to subjoin the following extracts from their critique on Wilson's “ City of the Plague:"-"Hardly as we have been accused of dealing with some poetical adventurers, we Natler ourselves that we have always manifested the greatest tenderness and consideration for the whole tuneful brotherhood. There are some laulls, indeed, to which we have found it impossible to show any mercy. But to all those errors that arise out of the poetical temperament, or are at least consistent with its higher attributes, we venture to assert, that we have been uniformly indulgent in a very remarkable degree ; and have shown more favour than any critics ever did before us to extravagance and exaggeration, when springing from a genuine enthusiasm ;