« EdellinenJatka »
[BLACKWOOD'S MAGAZINE, APRIL 1819)
The historical and critical essay is a species of literary composition which has arisen, and been brought to perfection, in the lifetime of a single generation. Preceding writers, indeed, bad excelled in detached pieces of a lighter and briefer kind; and in the whole annals of thought there is nothing more charming than some of those which graced the age of Queen Anne, and the reigns of the first Georges. But though these delightful essays remain, and will ever remain, models of the purest and most elegant composition, and are always distinguished by just and moral reflections, yet their influence has sensibly declined ; and they are turned to, now, rather from the felicity of the expression by which they are graced, or the delicate satire they convey, than either the information which they contain, the originality by which they are distinguished, or the depth of the views which they unfold. It is still true that “he who would attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant without being ostentatious, must give his days and his nights to the study of Addison.” It is not less true, that he who would appreciate the force of which the English language is capable, and acquire the condensed vigour of expression which enters so largely into the highest kind of composition, will ever study the prose of Johnson; as much as the poet, for similar excellences, will recur to the Vanity of Human Wishes, or the epistles and satires of Pope.
But, with the advent of the French Revolution, the rise of fiercer passions, and the collision of dearer interests, the elegant and amusing class of essays rendered so popular by
MACAULAY's History of England, 2 vols. London, 1849.
Addison and his followers passed away. The incessant recurrence of moralising, the frequent use of allegory, the constant straining after conceits, which appear even in the pages of the Spectator and the Rambler, are scarcely redeemed by the taste of Addison, the fancy of Steele, or the vigour of Johnson. In inferior hands they became insupportable. Men whose minds were stimulated by the Rights of Man—who were entranced by the eloquence of Pitt-who were stunned by the thunderbolts of Nelsonwho followed the career of Wellington—could not recur to the Delias, the Chloes, or the Phillises of a slumbering and pacific age.
The proclamation of war to the palace and peace to the cottage, sent the stories of the coquette, the prude, and the woman of sense to the right-about. What was now required was something which could minister to the cravings of an excited and enthusiastic age; which should support or combat the new ideas generally prevalent ; which should bring the experience of the past to bear on the visions of the present, and tell men, from the recorded events of history, what they had to hope, and what to fear, from the passion for innovation which had seized possession of so large a portion of the active part of mankind.
The Edinburgh Review was the first journal which gave a decided indication of this change in the temper of the public mind. From the very outset it exhibited that vigour of thought, fearlessness of discussion, and raciness of expression, which bespoke the prevalence of independent feeling, novel yearnings, and original ideas, among the people. There was something refreshing and exhilarating in the change. Its success was immediate and immense. The long slumbering dominion of the Monthly and other reviews, which then bad possession of the sceptre of criticism, was at once destroyed. Mediocrity fell into the shade when the light of genius appeared ; criticism assumed a bolder and more decided character, when its writers became independent. Men rejoiced to see the pretensions of authors levelled, their vanity mortified, their errors exposed, their pride pulled down, by the stern hand of the merciless reviewer. The practical application of the maxim, “ Judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur * gave universal satisfaction. Every one felt his own consequence increased, his personal feelings soothed, his vanity flattered, when the selfconstituted teachers of mankind were pulled down from their lofty pinnacle.
* "The judge is condemned when the guilty is acquitted."
But it was not merely in literary criticism that the Edinburgh Review opened a new era in our periodical literature. To its early supporters we owe the introduction of the CRITICAL AND HISTORICAL Essay, which was an entirely new species of composition, and to the frequent use of which the rapid success of that journal is mainly to be ascribed. The essay always had the name of a book prefixed to it : it professed to be a review. But it was generally a review only in name.
The author was frequently never once mentioned in its whole extent. His work was made use of merely as a peg on which to hang a long disquisition on the subject of which it treated. This disquisition was not, like the essays of Addison or Johnson, the work of a few hours' writing, and drawn chiefly from the fancy or imagination of the author : it was the elaborate production of a mind imbued with the subject, and the fruit of weeks or months of careful composition. It was sometimes founded on years of previous and laborious study. Thence its great and obvious value. It not only enlarged the circle of our ideas ; it added to the stock of our knowledge. Men came to study a paper on a subject in a review, as carefully as they did a regular work of a known and respectable author : they looked to it not only for amusement, but for information. It had this immense advantage—it was shorter than a book, and often contained its essence. It was distilled thought; it was abbreviated knowledge. To say that many of these elaborate and attractive treatises were founded in error—that they were directed to objects of the moment, not of durable interest, and that their authors too often
“ To party gave up what was meant for mankind”
is no impeachment either of the ability with which they were executed, or denial of the beneficial ends to which they ultimately became subservient. What though great part of the talents with which they were written is now seen to have been misdirected—of the views they contained to have been erroneous? It was that talent wbich raised the counter spirit that righted the public mind; it was those views which ultimately led to their own correction. In an age of intelligence and mental activity, no dread need be entertained of the ultimate sway of error. Experience, the great assertor of truth, is ever at hand to scatter its assailants. It is in an age of mental torpor and inactivity that the chains of falsehood, whether in religion or politics, are abidingly thrown over the human mind.
But from this very cause, the political essays of the Edinburgh Review have been left behind by the march of the world ; they have been stranded on the shoals of time; they have almost all been disproved by the event. Open one of the political essays in the Blue-and-Yellow, which were read and admired by all the world thirty or forty years ago, and what do you find ? Loud declamations against the continuance of the war, and emphatic assertions of the inability of England to contend at land with the conqueror of continental Europe ; continual reproaches of incapacity against the Ministry, who were preparing the liberation of Spain and the battle of Waterloo ; ceaseless assertions that the misery of Ireland was entirely owing to misgovernment—that nothing but Catholic emancipation, and the curtailment of the Protestant church, were required to make that island the most happy, loyal, and contented realm, and its Celtic inhabitants the most industrious and well-conditioned in Europe ; loud denunciations that the power of the crown "had increased, was increasing, and ought to be diminished;" lamentations on the evidently approaching extinction of the liberties of England, under the combined action of a gigantic war expenditure and a corrupt selfish oligarchy ; strong recommendations of the speedy abolition of slavery in our West India colonies, as the only mode of enabling our planters to compete with the efforts of the slave-sugar states. Time has enabled the world to estimate these doctrines at their true value. It is not surprising that the political essays of a journal, professing such principles, have, amidst great efforts towards bolstering up, and ceaseless strains of party laudation, been quietly consigned by subsequent times to the vault of all the Capulets. It is on its literary, critical
, and historical essays, therefore, that the reputation of the journal now almost entirely rests.
No bookseller bas yet ventured on the hazardous step of
The great characteristic of LORD JEFFREY is, with some