Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 10. The New Monthly Magazine

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

VI. Reviews and Magazines in the Early Years of the Nineteenth Century

§ 10. The New Monthly Magazine

When, in 1821, Thomas Campbell undertook the editorship of Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine, he declared in his preface that its main object would be literary, not political. It reported the news of the day, furnished a chronicle and register of events and contained valuable original papers, prose and poetry, covering a vast variety of subjects. Campbell’s own Lectures on Poetry, and several of his most admired poems, such as The Last Man, first appeared in its pages. It was a miscellany, not a review or a critical journal at all; and, though he obtained the services of some distinguished men as contributors, Campbell’s editorship, which lasted nine years, was hardly successful. And now a new era was opening for the monthlies, when the greatest masters of English fiction were to turn to them as providing the readiest access to the public ear, and when, for a magazine, there would be no such “sheet anchor” as a great novelist.

No one can take a broad survey of the work accomplished by the English reviews and magazines that came into existence in the earlier part of the nineteenth century, and by their successors, without being impressed by the immense service they have rendered to English literature, both by direct contribution, and by the support they have given (often essential support) to men in their younger days, who were to achieve future literary eminence. At the same time, it is difficult not to be struck by the strange fatality under which their criticism, in very conspicuous instances, went hopelessly astray. Especially in the hostile reception given to new poetical works of real genius, the leaders of English criticism appear, to the eyes of a later generation, to have been singularly blind. We have already noticed the attitude assumed by The Edinburgh towards Wordsworth and the “lakers.” The Quarterly, in 1818, showed as little discrimination, in that well-known article by the redoubtable Croker which has been popularly, but erroneously, made responsible for the death of Keats. In its centenary number, The Quarterly justly observed that a worse choice could not have been made than that of Croker for discussing the merits or demerits of “the poet’s poet”; since, though some poetry may have been within his range, and though he admired Scott and Byron, “Croker was a thoroughly unpoetical person.” This is true; but, if an explanation, it is certainly no excuse for the choice. Inasmuch as Lockhart saw in Keats merely “a cockney follower” of Leigh Hunt, and as Shelley, at this period, seems almost to have shared Lockhart’s sentiments, it seems safer to fall back upon Andrew Lang’s comment:

  • Shelley’s letter to Leigh Hunt, with Lockhart’s obiter dicta, prove that poet and writer alike may fail fully to know contemporary genius when they meet it, and may as in Shelley’s preference for Leigh Hunt to Keats prefer contemporary mediocrity.
  • It is not given to all men—even to all editors—to recognise “genius when they meet it.” On the other hand, editors and critics have very often discovered, and enabled to win fame, quite unknown men, possessed, as the world in later days has recognised, of real ability, men, who, but for them, might have had great difficulty in emerging from obscurity at all. Moreover, the editor of a periodical has often a difficult task in building up, out of varied and excellent material, a complete and effective whole. It is not surprising that the relations between Carlyle and his editors were, notwithstanding his indisputable genius, sometimes strained. He could not stand “editorial hacking and hewing,” he wrote to Macvey Napier of The Edinburgh, for, surely, he, of all men, might be trusted to write quietly, without hysterical vehemence, as one who not merely supposed but knew. Lockhart, of The Quarterly, was compelled to decline an article from Carlyle on chartism, partly, because he stood in awe of his powerful lieutenant, Croker, and, partly, because the article almost assumed the dimensions of a book. In the years 1833 and 1834, Sartor Resartus was appearing in Fraser; but the editor was hurrying it to a close, finding that it did not meet the taste of his readers.

    A century and more has passed since Walter Scott declared there was no literary criticism to be found outside The Edinburgh. In quantity, at all events, the deficiency was soon supplied; and quarterlies and monthlies and weekly and daily newspapers poured out a never ceasing flood of comment on almost every publication that saw the light. Reviews and magazines soon outgrew the extravagance of their stormy youth, and the excessive violence of language and the gross personalities once in fashion passed away almost as completely as the habit of duelling. The meeting between Jeffrey and Moore, and the more tragical encounter between Christie and Scott, brought credit to no one. Personal animosity and private dislike continued occasionally to colour criticism and to make it more scathing and pungent, as when Macaulay and Croker, in their respective organs, “dusted each other’s jackets”; but, differences between men of the pen were now left to the pen to settle, so, even the courts of law ceased to be invoked in their quarrels. The extraordinary development of periodical literature, as of journalism, in recent times, has greatly changed the character of literary criticism and the public to which it appealed—so much so that it is difficult for us, nowadays, to understand the thrill of emotion with which the first number of The Edinburgh was received, or the violent excitement created throughout the country by the extravagancies and absurdities of “the Chaldee MS.”

    Yet, the great services rendered, in the early years of the nineteenth century, by the pioneers of the new advance of periodical literature in this country, and of independent criticism in many fields, in that of literature more especially, will, nevertheless, remain unforgotten.