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.

 

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A Reverend in Lansdowne House

Sydney Smith was another visitor to Lansdowne House.  He was a minister, with a lively sense of fun that had everyone rolling in London, as well as in the church aisles.

His quotes from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/s/sydney_smith.html are amusing, and speak for themselves:  

A comfortable house is a great source of happiness. It ranks immediately after health and a good conscience.
A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage. Every day sends to their graves obscure men whose timidity prevented them from making a first effort.
Among the smaller duties of life I hardly know any one more important than that of not praising where praise is not due.
As the French say, there are three sexes – men, women, and clergymen.
Bishop Berkeley destroyed this world in one volume octavo; and nothing remained, after his time, but mind; which experienced a similar fate from the hand of Mr. Hume in 1737.
Correspondences are like small clothes before the invention of suspenders; it is impossible to keep them up.
Do not try to push your way through to the front ranks of your profession; do not run after distinctions and rewards; but do your utmost to find an entry into the world of beauty.
Errors, to be dangerous, must have a great deal of truth mingled with them. It is only from this alliance that they can ever obtain an extensive circulation.
Find fault when you must find fault in private, and if possible sometime after the offense, rather than at the time.
Great men hallow a whole people, and lift up all who live in their time.
Have the courage to be ignorant of a great number of things, in order to avoid the calamity of being ignorant of everything.
Heaven never helps the men who will not act.
I have, alas, only one illusion left, and that is the Archbishop of Canterbury.
I look upon Switzerland as an inferior sort of Scotland.
I never read a book before previewing it; it prejudices a man so.
In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigor it will give your style.
It is safest to be moderately base – to be flexible in shame, and to be always ready for what is generous, good, and just, when anything is to be gained by virtue.
It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little – do what you can.
It resembles a pair of shears, so joined that they cannot be separated, often moving in opposite directions, yet always punishing anyone who comes between them.