LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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[Frederick Denison Maurice]
Sketches of Contemporary Authors. Mr. Jeffrey and the Edinburgh Review.
The Athenaeum  Vol. i  No. 4  (23 January 1828)  49-50.
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Literary and Critical Journal.



No. II.
Mr. Jeffrey and The Edinburgh Review.

TheEdinburgh Review’ is now chiefly known as a political pamphlet of great talent, published once a quarter. The gold and azure of its dawning gives us the promise of three or four solid calculating articles on history and political economy, a paper of pleasant jokes against the Tories, and, perhaps, a few pages of scandalous chronicle on the sins of our great grandmothers, with some gentle gossip about modern science and the Society for Useful Knowledge. It was not always thus. The time has been when not only the dealers in political small-talk, but the whole mass of literary feeling and opinion, and no trifling portion of what is called the religious public, were disturbed and startled by the successive charges of these Edinburgh Light-Horse-Volunteers, in their sky-blue uniforms, and yellow facings.

What we have to say upon the causes of this change must be merely incidental, as the main subject of the present paper is the mental character of Mr. Jeffrey, the boldest and most bustling of these redoubted cavaliers.

Mr. Jeffrey’s name first became known as that of an anonymous critic (anonymous to the world in general, from the omission of an avowed name to his articles, but sufficiently known to all the literary circles of Europe). He came into life with the kind of cleverness, and the degree of self-confidence, naturally produced by conflict only with men of his own age and stamp, in literary and debating societies. In these he had found little to call out the higher powers of the mind, or the nobler moral capacities; among very young, and not very learned men, he can scarcely have encountered any antagonist over whom he could not triumph, at least in appearance, by his ready and ingenious volubility, and the resources of a fertile, though rather flippant, fancy. He was, therefore, admirably qualified to be the Editor of a new Review. His profusion of plausible language would enable him to supply with ease and decency any accidental deficiency of matter; his levity in the treatment of grave subjects would make them amusing, if not instructive, to the meanest capacity; and the careless impudence of his editorial colouring was excellently calculated to lend the appearance of conscious superiority even to the blunders and inanities of his associates.

The Review accordingly appeared, and bore in every line the traces of Mr. Jeffrey’s superintendence. Airy ridicule, or solemn banter, the declamatory roar, the decisive dogma, the sly half-masked inuendo, all and each were employed alternately or together; so that the sufferings of authors, and the applauses of the public, were equally obvious and unprecedented. No single book probably ever made so decided and general a sensation. It is not wonderful that a knot of young men, reeking from the pleasurable exertions of debating societies, and the delight of mutual applause, should have been led into taking that tone of decision and defiance which is the main secret of their first success. It is still less to be marvelled at, that the shouts and gratulations of the whole mob of literature should have urged them to still bolder enterprises. Least of all, will a wise man be surprised at the triumph of the Edinburgh Reviewers, when he considers the state of the public mind to which they addressed themselves, and the nature of the instruments they used.

Mr. Jeffrey appeared before the world at a time when the minds of men were all afloat; not indeed resolutely bent, as at the period of the Reformation, upon a voyage of discovery; but wandering at the will of the breezes and the billows, and now and then unconsciously following for a moment the guidance of some self-appointed pilot, or the course of some hidden current. In politics, the overpowering interest and frightful nearness of the French Revolution, had destroyed men’s belief in principles, and absorbed their anxiety in the contemplation of mighty and terrible events. The aristocracy of this country, moreover, had felt or thought themselves in such imminent peril, that they had exerted all their influence over the public mind; and, by the aid of newspapers and debates, political dinners, and bloody battles, had succeeded in making every appearance of sympathy with the people, or attempt at speculation on the theory of government, in the highest degree unpopular and unfashionable. The ‘Edinburgh Review,’ accordingly, instead of opposing itself to an anti-revolutionary horror, which though just in itself, was then carried infinitely too far, assumed and held for several years a high aristocratical and monarchical tone of opinion. This was only modified by its becoming the tool and organ of a party. The political discussions of the ‘Edinburgh Review’ have thus been always based upon the narrow system of a particular sect; and we doubt whether it has ever contained a single article tending to enlarge or exalt men’s views of the social interests of their species.

In criticism, before Mr. Jeffrey became notorious for his attempts to philosophize upon poetry, this country had been fed upon such weak and mawkish spoon meat, that it is no wonder we did not for some time discover how really vague, unsubstantial, and unsatisfactory were the speculations of this celebrated author. Any one who looks back to his writings from the vantage ground on which we now stand, will readily perceive that, under a considerable appearance of freshness and novelty, and of a tendency to look at poetry in connection with the nature of the human mind, instead of with the rules of the critics, there is really to be found little more than an elaborate attention to details, a wish to conciliate the appearance of originality with a real determination to oppose no popular prejudice, and a want of any fine discrimination between the essential characteristics of great authors. His disgraceful obstinacy in depreciating Wordsworth, and exaggerating the merits of various men of undeniable elegance of mind, but of no creative power whatsoever, is lamentable proof of wilfulness and prejudice. He has given us no tolerable estimate of the merits of any living poet, except perhaps Mr. Moore, whom his mind is exactly calculated to appreciate. In this case, the want of profoundness, both of thought and feeling, in the critic, becomes of less importance, from the absence of any thing in the poet on which it could be exercised; while all Mr. Jeffrey’s liveliness, prettiness, and neatness of mind, are brought into full play by the corresponding qualities in the object of his admiration.

But if we had time to enter into a detailed examination of the indications which Mr. Jeffrey has given of his metaphysical, moral, and religious opinions, we should have to lead our readers through a long and grave discussion of matters at present, we fear, very unlikely to suit the taste of general society. The whole structure of Mr. Jeffrey’s mind is eminently French, and the only books in the higher departments of speculation for which he seems to feel a thorough liking, are the works of French philosophers. It is a singular illustration of the spirit of the times, that while this is undeniably true, he should yet have been one of the most earnest champions for the strength and freedom of our elder poetry. Nevertheless, the whole tone of his writings seems to us to be redolent of his fondness for the solemn flippancy and sparkling common-places which abound in the works of Voltaire, Diderot, and Helvetius. His philosophy is, like theirs, of the stamp which brings every thing from without, and sees in the human mind nothing more precious or powerful than an empty receptacle for those dead forms which are borne in upon it by the external world. We have not at present the opportunity of following out all the conclusions as to his mind, which may be derived from this principle, and which are verified in every page of his writings. But we have no doubt that it is very closely connected with the absence of all warm moral enthusiasm, the contempt for all plans of wide political amelioration, and the recourse for the elements of human virtue, not to any native strength or highs aspirations within us, but to subtle calculations of consequences, whereby he would substitute for the definite and unchangeable rule, that the right is always the expedient, the maxim of the knave and the fool, or rather of that compound of both—the sophist, that the expedient is always the right.

The only virtues which have been much insisted upon by Mr. Jeffrey, as far as we remember, are goodnature and family affection. These are, doubtless, excellent things, and we very sincerely believe that Mr. Jeffrey is himself a conspicuous and most amiable example of the qualities which he delights to honour in his writings. But how small a portion are they of all which is demanded from us by God, our consciences, and society; and how much may a man be distinguished for what is commonly called good-nature, and for the fulfilment of ordinary domestic duties, without ever dreaming of accomplishing a tithe of that good which is within the reach of every one. Humility, self-denial, vigorous unceasing exertion for the benefit of others,—these are duties imposed upon every man. Instead of this, the ‘Edinburgh Review’ has exhibited to us, under Mr. Jeffrey’s guidance, the wanton indulgence in a most criminal vanity, at the expense of the reputation and feelings of authors, of all the moral delicacy of its readers, and very often of truth on the part of its writers. It scarcely contains a page which does not attempt to depress, either by contemptuous silence, grave argument, or flippant ribaldry, every emotion and principle that spreads itself beyond the narrow circuit of our external and personal interest. And almost all the men of our day who have attempted to widen the petty confines of our former intellectual and moral domain, however they may have been different in other respects, yet have been uniformly treated with the same contempt by Mr. Jeffrey. Lessing, Goëthe, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Godwin,—there probably are scarcely any names connected in our memories with systems and peculiarities so
discordant,—and by what singular combination of circumstances is it, that Mr. Jeffrey has united his reputation, whatever it may be, with the recollection of his abuse, or at least his contempt of these men, who are among the wisest and the greatest of our age? To them the evil is nothing, for their glory and their usefulness are nourished in a far different atmosphere from that of declaimers and reviewers, and ephemeral ribaldry. Their fame has already become a part of the empyrean galaxy, whence they shed upon the dusty pathways of this work-day world a consolatory influence and holy dew. The sting and bitterness are all reserved for the writer who has corrupted his own mind to such vile uses, and perverted to such widely mischievous ends that instrument, so powerful for good or for evil, with which his hands were intrusted. The real misery is for him, and for those of his readers who may have imbibed from him any portion of that scornful and careless indifference to all that is most profoundly important in man’s nature; which, in almost any age but ours, would have broadly marked out from all his contemporaries the Editor of the ‘
Edinburgh Review.’

In fine, the peculiarities of Mr. Jeffrey’s mind appear to us to be extremely prominent and well defined, He has little of genial and joyous wit, absolutely nothing of pure imagination, very little of the power of abstraction, but a good deal of ability for sarcasm and repartee, a graceful and flittering fancy, a singular talent for clear distribution and lively illustration, and a very vivid apprehension of the outward and formal differences of minds so superior to his own, that he has never been able to conceive their earnestness, strength, and majesty. And here, in fact, consists his essential incapacity to be an instrument of any wide and permanent good; that he has felt within himself so feeble and casual an action of those nobler moral and religious propensities which are the glory and consummation of our nature, as to be utterly incapable of flinging himself boldly and decidedly, and with an utter sacrifice of merely personal objects, into any high and unfrequented path of exertion; and, as is especially remarkable in his attempts to estimate the rarer and mightier spirits of our age, he seems to have a mind as hard and dead as the nether mill-stone to the impression of that highest order of genius, which alone offers us a subject of study uniformly pregnant and inexhaustible.