Regency Critics: A Christmas Tale

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) wrote Zapolya in 1817. He was imitating Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, he claimed, hoping:

“I will be well content if my readers will take it up, read it and judge it, as a Christmas tale.”

Coleridge by Allston

Coleridge by Allston

There is little in the work itself that is decidedly Christmas apart from a mother fleeing with her infant. Instead, there are thrones usurped, sunken caves and werewolves(!) Despite these dramatic motifs, gaining Shakespeare’s lofty status proved elusive.

Writing a good drama was (and still is) hard–even for Coleridge, that “giant among dwarves.”

Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review, Volume 80, was unstinting in its review:

1) Don’t be boring.

“In its present shape, we conceive (Zapolya) has about it that indescribable something, which, if not the dead weight of mediocrity will sink it, will ensure a speedy neglect from the bulk of readers.”

2) Convoluted plots are right out!

“To understand its plot and keep in view its progress, the reader must take some pains, and this is what no reader will ever do.”

3) Show. Don’t Tell.

“Much of the most striking parts of his story is related, and not acted…Enforce these with the exact sentiment which is to body them forth…pushing on the story, that purpose of dramatic action..”

4) Kill the darlings. Kill them.

Zapolya, then, as a drama, will never succeed. Nor, as a tale, is there anything in it to captivate. It must exist as a poem; and even in that case, we think it is decidedly too long.”

A Christmas gift to writers, if you will.



The Lake District of England, where Coleridge resided among other "giants" of English literature, all of whom were uniformly disparaged by the Edinburgh Review as the "Lake Poets."

The Lake District of England, where Coleridge resided among other “giants” of English literature, all of whom were uniformly disparaged by the Edinburgh Review as the “Lake Poets.”

Regency Critics: the Slasher

Edinburgh has been argued as the early nineteenth century’s “capital city of modern literature.” It is there that we find the original Regency-era critic.

The Edinburgh Review was one of the first, if not the inaugural, quarterly journal to feature in-depth literary reviews. It was created by a circle of Whigs, some of whom have been the subject of this blog in the past: Sydney Smith and Henry Brougham. Joined with them were Francis Horner and Francis Jeffrey, the latter becoming the Review’s editor throughout the Regency.

Old Calton Burying Ground in Edinburgh--split in half during the Regency era

Old Calton Burying Ground in Edinburgh–split in half during the Regency era

Francis Jeffrey (1773 – 1850), later Lord Jeffrey, took the helm of the Review with the intent of producing more than just what elementary students would term book reports. His periodical aimed to publish critical reviews that would be sought out for their own merits. These reviews would illustrate a deeper inquiry into literary works of the day, examining their qualities as they relate to Society as a whole. To deliver these mighty opinions one must have a salaried writer, who was hired for his politics as much as for his penmanship.

It was the birth of the professional literary critic.

Jeffrey submitted quite a few of these reviews himself, and in a very short time, he was to discover the hazards of offending the Regency-era writer. He pronounced Thomas Moore’s naughty epistles “a public nuisance” and was challenged to a duel (he and the Irish bard became friends afterwards). He chided beloved Marmion for disrespecting the great Whig politician Fox, and lost Sir Walter Scott’s patronage.

Not to be deterred, Jeffrey continued to develop a “slashing” style of critique that mowed down whatever he perceived to be overly wordy, superfluous and extravagant (we call it purple prose today–then it was known as Rousseau). Few writers in the Romantic vein (the favored poetic style of the Regency) failed to escape his scythe. Especially despised were those he derided as the Lake Poets, and for them a truly masterful trimming was reserved:

Wordsworth–“Even in the worst of [his] productions, there are, no doubt, occasional little traits of delicate feeling and original fancy; but these are quite lost and obscured in the mass of childishness and insipidity with which they are incorporated.”

Lord Francis Jeffrey, by Geddes He would have been a fan of Judge Judy

Lord Francis Jeffrey, by Geddes
He would have been a fan of Judge Judy

Southey – “All the productions of this author, it appears to us, bear very distinctly the impression of an amiable mind, a cultivated fancy, and a perverted taste.”

Keats  – “(Apart from Endymion) there is no work, accordingly, from which a malicious critic could cull more matter for ridicule, or select more obscure, unnatural, or absurd passages.”

Critical review was brutish, nasty work and in any case, Jeffrey had always preferred the practice of law. His popularity as a critic brought him a larger caseload which he welcomed and used to increase his standing at Bar, slashing opposing counsel. In the end, he was awarded elevation to the Bench.

Now that’s justice, (and criticism), with an attitude.