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

§ 2. Jeffrey

The Edinburgh Review, “to be continued quarterly,” of 1802, which was to become famous and permanent as an exponent of literary and political criticism, abandoned the idea of noticing all the productions of the press, and proposed to confine its attentions to the most important. The new journal, it was hoped, would be “distinguished for the selection rather than for the number of its articles.” To three young men, then quite unknown to fame, belongs the honour of originating The Edinburgh Review, and of winning for it its high place in English literature, namely—Francis Jeffrey, a Scottish advocate, still almost briefless, who had been educated at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford; Sydney Smith, a distinguished Wykehamist and Oxonian, who, while waiting for an English living, was in Edinburgh as the private tutor of young Michael Hicks Beach, then attending classes in the university; and Henry Brougham, the future lord chancellor, who had only lately been called to the Scottish bar, and who, with abundant leisure, was, like Jeffrey, still treading the floor of the parliament house.

The history of the birth and early years of The Edinburgh is well known. Nothing of the kind, with the exception of the discouraging precedent already mentioned, had ever been attempted in Scotland. It was easy to say on the title page of the first number that it was “to be continued quarterly”; yet, Jeffrey himself, who was to edit the Review for the next seven and twenty years, was full of anxiety as to whether it would pay its expenses for the one year for which he and his friends had bound themselves to the publishers. His apprehensions were quickly dispelled. By all accounts, the effect on the public mind of the appearance of the first number (10 October, 1802) was “electrical.” The little literary criticism then existing was lifeless—mere hackwork, subsidised by publishers to puff their own wares. Here was a review showing upon every page, whether the reader agreed with, or differed from, its expressions of opinion, conspicuous ability, vigour and independence. Succeeding numbers added to the popularity and the fame of The Edinburgh. In half-a-dozen years, its circulation rose from 800 to 9000; in ten years, it had grown to about 10,000; and, by 1818, it had attained a circulation of nearly 14,000, which was never exceeded. Even these figures do not show the number of copies ultimately bought by the public, for each volume (containing two numbers) had “a book value”; and many volumes ran through a large number of editions. For example, in the years 1814 and 1815, there were published the tenth and seventh editions of volume I and volume II respectively.

The first number contained no fewer than 29 articles, and 252 pages. Nine articles were written by Sydney Smith, six by Jeffrey, four by Francis Horner, three by Brougham and others by Thomson, Murray and Hamilton. Some of the contributions were so short that they were rather notices of books than serious and critical reviews. During the first three years, the list of contributors was increased by the names of Walter Scott, Playfair, John Allen, George Ellis, Henry Hallam and others. Jeffrey and his friends did not long maintain their original intention of declining all remuneration for their contributions; and only the first two numbers were written without reward. As a matter of fact, Sydney Smith had edited the first number; and he quickly saw that, if permanency was sought, the Review would have to be conducted on business principles. Thus, he assured Constable the publisher that a payment of £200 a year to the editor and ten guineas a sheet for contributions would render him the possessor of “the best Review in Europe.” The system of “all gentlemen and no pay” thus quickly came to an end, for, though the publisher considered the rate of pay suggested was unprecedented, he recognised that so, too, was the success of the Review, and, in later days, it was very largely increased. In the twentieth century, it is not easy to understand the coyness with which, a hundred years ago, men accepted payment for literary services. Jeffrey, who became editor under the new arrangement, satisfied himself by enquiry that none of his men would reject the £10 honorarium, and, “under the sanction of their example,” he thought he might himself accept the offered salary “without being supposed to have suffered any degradation.”

The first three or four numbers indicated clearly enough the political and literary tendencies which were to characterise the Review. The first article of all, written by Jeffrey, reviewed a book by Mounier, late president of the French national assembly, on the causes of the revolution. Jeffrey held what were called popular principles, but he was no revolutionist, and he looked forward to the time when men on both sides would be able to take calmer views of that great convulsion than was possible to most Englishmen in 1802. Francis Horner, in later years regarded as one of the greatest authorities on political economy, wrote on “The Paper Credit of Great Britain,” whilst Brougham discussed “The Crisis in the Sugar Colonies.” The literary article in the first number—on Southey’s Thalaba—indicated the spirit of much of the future literary criticism of the Review. Jeffrey seems anxious to show that the stern motto of The Edinburgh—Judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur—had, in the eyes of its editor, a very real meaning.

Those who look back to the earlier numbers of The Edinburgh will perceive, not without amusement, that nothing so greatly roused the ire of these advanced reformers in the world political as the slightest new departure from ancient ways in the world of letters. Southey, it was urged, was nothing less than “a champion and apostle” of a new sect of poets. They were all of them

  • dissenters from the established system in poetry and criticism.… Southey is the first of these brought before us for judgment, and we cannot discharge our inquisitorial office conscientiously without pronouncing a few words upon the nature and tendency of the tenets he has helped to propagate.
  • The Review protested against “the representation of vulgar manners in vulgar language,” and would recall its generation to “the vigilance and labour which sustained the loftiness of Milton, and gave energy and directness to the pointed and fine propriety of Pope.” The article, however, was by no means entirely condemnatory; but enough has been quoted to show that already the note of battle had been sounded in that long war with the “lakers” whom, half a generation later, the Review was still denouncing as “a puling and self-admiring race.”

    The literary judgments of The Edinburgh Review have, in a large number of instances, not been confirmed by the judgment of posterity. In many other instances, on the other hand, their criticisms have been amply vindicated. Jeffrey and his friends, in short, were not infallible, though they arrogated to themselves an authority hardly less than pontifical. Still, there was always something robust and manly in the tone they adopted. They were men of the world, engaged in the active occupations of life; of wide reading, it is true, and gifted with great literary acumen; but, perhaps, with too little leisure to appreciate contemplative poetry at its true value. They were prone to despise those whom they considered mere penmen and nothing else, and they were exasperated at the notion that any small literary coterie, holding itself aloof from the active world, should lay down laws for the regulation of poetry and taste, and give itself airs of superiority even towards the great masters of the English language. In his later life, Jeffrey, in republishing a selection of his articles in the Review, admits that the manner in which he treated the lake poets was not such as commended itself to his matured judgment and taste. It is not likely that his famous article of 1814 on Wordsworth’s Excursion, opening with the words, “This will never do,” can have been altogether pleasant reading to its author in his old age. There was, however, in Wordsworth’s poetry, much for which Jeffrey had always felt and expressed admiration, and he has declared that, though he repented of the “vivacities” of manner in this much censured paper, with the substance of his articles on the poetry of the lake school (taking account of both praise and censure) he had little fault to find.

    Far the most eminent of Jeffrey’s contributors was Walter Scott, for whose patronage, though he had not yet published The Lay of the Last Minstrel, or written a page of fiction, Scottish and English publishers were eagerly striving. The first number of the second year of The Edinburgh contained two articles from his pen; and, before the end of 1806, he had contributed ten more. Among these were papers on Ellis’s Early English Poets, on Godwin’s Life of Chaucer, on Chatterton’s Works and on Froissart’s Chronicles. After that year, he withdrew his countenance and support from The Edinburgh, though, throughout his life, he remained on terms of friendship and intimacy with Jeffrey. Indeed, in 1818, he once more returned to its pages, publishing, in the June number, an elaborate review of a novel by Maturin, Women, or Pour et Contre, a tale by the author of Bertram.

    It was impossible that hearty co-operation in what was becoming more and more an organ of political party should long continue between the whiggism of Jeffrey, Brougham and Sydney Smith, and the toryism of Walter Scott. The latter had already remonstrated with the editor on the excessive partisanship which now marked every issue of the Review. “The Edinburgh,” Jeffrey had replied, “has but two legs to stand on. Literature is one of them, but its right leg is politics.” Next to Jeffrey himself, the Review, from its origin for a quarter of a century onward, was mainly dependent on Sidney Smith and Henry Brougham, each of whom contributed a marvellous number of articles on a vast variety of subjects. Sydney Smith the only Englishman among the founders of the Review, and famous throughout his life as the most brilliant of humourists, knew how to utilise his great gifts in the forwarding of many a good cause and serious reform. Some who delighted in the clever jesting and rollicking high spirits which distinguished him, alike in social intercourse and in the written page, failed to recognise, as did his real intimates, the thoroughness and sincerity of his character, and his genuine desire to leave the world a better place than he found it.