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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John Keats: Mr. Darcy

“I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love,” said Darcy.

“Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

One of a surfeit of sequels, I daresay.

One of a surfeit of sequels, I daresay.

A surfeit of anything, be it lampreys or love, can be a bad thing.

This notion was well-known to Austen heroines like darling Lizzie and beloved Anne. Indeed, during the Regency, the rise of Romanticism in art was viewed with some alarm because it unleashed longing, passionate love. If it could be confined to the landscape of nature and politics, then all should be well.

And then along came Keats.

Despised “above all” by Byron, John Keats (1795 – 1821) remains the most enduring poet to inform us on Regency love. And, as Mr. Darcy pointed out in that discerning way of his, poetry is so necessary to love that the latter could not exist without it.

Keats felt the same way.

Long before he was known for his love poetry, his friends knew him as a man of love. Keats was, they said, a loveable as opposed to an amiable man. The painter Joseph Severn said “there was a strong bias of the beautiful side of humanity in every thing he did.”

However, Keats struggled to translate his sympathy for all things loving onto paper. When he managed to produce something, his work was subject to vicious criticism. Some said his verse was the vulgar product of a “Cockney poetaster,” that his writings shall have “our very footmen composing tragedies” and turn the heads of “farm-servants and unmarried ladies.”

He corresponded with Wordsworth and lived with Leigh Hunt, but the way these men wrote poetry seemed particularly unsuited to Keats’ desire for expression. His inspiration was Shakespeare, whose Twelfth Night mentioned death caused by a surfeit of music.  Like the Bard, Keats needed to explore love in its full expression, with all its “World of Pains.”

And then along came Fanny Brawne:

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.
Bright Star by John Keats
Bright Star

The passionate Bright Star, considered to be his love verse to Fanny, burst forth like a comet, the glorious Hyperion and Ode to a Grecian Urn in its blazing wake. These works have risen above all other poems of the Regency and indeed, higher than any other, of the nineteenth century.

Keats died young, suffering from the great love he bore his bright muse. His poetry is still the food of love today, and is one of Regency love’s greatest legacies.

Regency Poetry: Nuances of Sensibility

Speaking of Downton Abbey, Violet’s character is so very rich, is it not? Her remarks are cleverly acid and yet illuminating as well. Certainly we know what her ladyship thinks of Byron. We probably can guess what she thinks of Regency poetry in general, with its idealism and “sensibility:”

Edith: “..am I to be the maiden aunt? Isn’t this what they do? Arrange presents for their prettier relations?”

The Dowager Countess: “Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s terribly middle-class.”

No pining about and no nonsense.

"Oh, Anne."

“Oh, Anne.”

I like to speculate what poets my favorite Regency-set characters favor. As dear Anne from Austen’s Persuasion famously says, “We are living through a great age for poetry, I think.” In the next few posts, this blog will consider some characters from Regency fiction and what poets they might find appealing.

Which of the following would Heyer’s Kitty Charing like?

“..Shelley’s ‘silver music,’ Coleridge’s ‘wings of healing,’ Wordsworth’s ‘wild unpeopled hills’ and above all..Keats.”

from  Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life by Edna O’Brien

Hang on–wasn’t it Anne who advised caution against too much poetry? Her companion, Captain Benwick, was:

“..intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet (Walter Scott), and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other [Lord Byron]; he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read poetry.”

Persuasion by Jane Austen (as presented by Janet Aikens Yount in Eighteenth Century Life, Winter 2010)

It must be recalled, however, that Anne Elliot is a masterfully drawn character. She is so nuanced in her beloved, practical way that it is a beautiful serendipity to find in her a great capacity for the “sensibility” vital to Romantic poetry. That capacity was hidden, in a:

“..heart large and expansive, this seat of deep, kind, honest and benevolent feelings–a bosom capacious of universal love, but through which there flowed a deeper stream…” — The Retrospective Review, Vol. 7 Part 1 (1823)

Still waters run deep, as they say.

The Most Popular Man of the Regency

Richard Sharp (1759 – 1835), born in Newfoundland, was a hatter and later prominent merchant in London.  He was also a Dissenter, becoming the champion of adult education.  His powers of persuasion were responsible for establishing the forerunner of the University of London, the London Institution, open to scientific scholars who were denied entrance to Cambridge and Oxford because of their unorthodox religious beliefs.

Richard "Conversation" Sharp - he quite looks like Geoffrey Rush, does he not?  Delightful man.

Richard "Conversation" Sharp - he quite looks like Geoffrey Rush, does he not? Delightful man.

Lansdowne House, along with its rival Holland House, drew Sharp into its orbit not only for these accomplishments, but because of his conversation.

Yes–conversation.  A highly sought-after quality in Regency England

You must remember from Anne Elliott’s declaration from Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  And William Elliott’s equally fine rejoinder:

“My idea of good company…is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.’

‘You are mistaken,’ said he gently, ‘that is not good company, that is the best.”

London was filled with good conversationalists.  Town wits, they were called, frequently evaluating one another and publishing their findings in essays and other periodicals for the delectation of the ton.

Byron (1788 – 1824) was a notable practitioner of the art–his poetry the vehicle for satirizing other conversationalists.  Wordsworth was frequently a target for his notions of solitude and the love of the sublime.  But when it came to describing Sharp, Satire completely failed her master, giving way to her cousin, the Simple Truth.

“A man of elegant mind.”

Indeed, this is where we find not just the good, but the best.

But how?  The key lies in the recollection from a fellow Lansdowne House intimate, Thomas Babington Macauley, 1st Baron Macauley (1800 – 1859)

“One thing I have observed in Sharp which is quite peculiar to him among Town wits and diners-out – he never talks scandal. If he can say nothing good of a man he holds his tongue. I do not of course mean that in confidential communications about politics he does not speak freely of public men, but about the follies of individuals I do not believe that – as much as I have talked with him.”

Richard Sharp remained single all his life.  Yet he was moved to adopt a little girl, orphaned in a volcanic eruption in the West Indies.

He never wanted to be remembered after he died.

Sadly, his wish was granted, with one or two notable exceptions, like the following admonishment from a reader of Gentlemen’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle 1869) that reads like a Who’s Who list of the Regency:

“…your serial is calculated to mislead your numerous readers by giving them the idea that (Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe) was the celebrated person who obtained the sobriquet of ‘Conversation Sharp’ ….. From his extraordinary conversational powers, and his attainments generally, he became the intimate friend of all the leading men of his time, especially of the Whig party, of whom space will not permit me to name more than a few–as Lord Holland, Marquis of Lansdowne, Duke of Somerset, Earl of Darnley, Lord Eskine (who consulted him constantly), Grattan, Curran, Plunkett, Campbell, the poet Moore, Sir James Scarlett, afterwards Lord Abinger, Wordsworth, Rev. Sydney Smith, &etc….A reference to the memoirs (amongst others) of Francis Horner, James Macintosh, Sir Samuel Romilly, Samuel Rogers, the poet, and Moor’s Life of Byron, will at once settle the identity of Mr. Richard Sharp.”