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

§ 3. Brougham

Henry Brougham, the youngest of the three, was to become, in a few years and for a time, by dint of extraordinary energy and ability, one of the most powerful political leaders in England. His services to the Review, in its early days, had been quite invaluable. Hardly any public man of the nineteenth century approached more nearly to the possession of genius. But his great gifts were weighted with very serious faults of character and temper; and, as the years went on, he earned for himself universal distrust among his fellow-workers—editors of, and contributors to, The Edinburgh, or statesmen engaged in the wider field of British politics. It was long a tradition among Edinburgh reviewers that, on one occasion, a complete number of the Review, with its dozen or more of articles, was, from cover to cover, written by the pen of Brougham, and the story, whether true or not, is illustrative of the universality of capacity generally attributed to him.

Many years afterwards, when Jeffrey had retired from The Edinburgh, Brougham was to make the life of his successor, Macvey Napier, burdensome by persistent efforts to run the Review as his own organ—to make it the instrument of his personal ambitions and interests, of his personal prejudices and dislikes. He did not recognise that times had changed, and that he, and his position in the country, had changed with them.

It was an article by Brougham that, in very early days, had brought Byron into the field with his fierce attack upon critics in general and The Edinburgh Review in particular. According to Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff, Brougham, in later days, confessed to the authorhip of the article on Hours of Idleness in the January number for 1808—the moving cause of that most brilliant of satires—English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. The poet with equal zeal scourged both his critics and his rivals—indeed, so far as criticism goes, he was as severe on contemporary poets and on “lakers” as were Edinburgh reviewers themselves. Like them, also, while shaking his head over the poetry of Scott and Wordsworth and Coleridge, he was ready to bow before the poetical genius of Campbell and Rogers. It certainly is a singular circumstance that Jeffrey, by general acknowledgment, in his own day, the first of literary critics, should have made so strange a selection of the poetry which deserved to achieve immortality.

  • A man must serve his time to every trade
  • Save Censure—critics all are ready made.
  • Assuredly, the history of literature abounds with the mistakes of critics. An author, possibly a man of genius, very probably one who has toiled for years to make himself master of his subject, a man whose merits a later age will freely acknowledge, is “brought up for judgment,” as Jeffrey would say, before some clever writer whose youth and inexperience are hidden from the author and the public by the veil of anonymity. Can hurried judgments so pronounced tend to good results as regards progress in the appreciation of literature and art? On the other hand, all criticism would be at an end if the statesman, the poet, the author, the painter were only to be “brought up for judgment” before a wiser statesman, a truer poet, a greater author or artist than himself. The experience of the world surely goes to show that any criticism is better than none. It may be that critics are often mistaken; but, so long as criticism is honest and able and independent, it can hardly be that it will not, in the long run, serve a useful purpose in enlightening the public mind. Edinburgh reviewers, in Jeffrey’s day, doubtless thought, in their conceit, that it was their business to “place” contemporary authors and poets, i.e. to determine their claim to immortality and their order of merit for all time in the judgment of the world. And, in this, they often failed. Their true function was, however, not this; but, rather, by their ability and acumen to stir the minds of men on those multifarious subjects with which the Review dealt, to provoke discussion and to enlist in it the most capable men of the day. This work, the great reviews of the early nineteenth century nobly performed. Their criticisms were written for their own age, and dealt, and were intended to deal for the benefit of contemporaries, with passing subjects of interest. As Sir Leslie Stephen has rightly said, “Criticism is a still more perishable commodity than Poetry.” Time, and time alone, can establish the claim of any author or of any artist to take rank among the immortals.

    It was the strong distaste of a large portion of the public, not for the literary, but for the political, criticisms of The Edinburgh, that, in February, 1809, brought a new and most powerful rival into the field. The article on “Don Cevallos, and the French Usurpation in Spain” was written by Jeffrey himself, and it had, undoubtedly, an exasperating effect on his political opponents. Anyone who chooses to read the article to-day will probably wonder that this should have been so; and he will certainly not find in it any traces of the unpatriotic feeling with which the writer was charged. The expression of what were considered “popular sentiments” in days when the French revolution was very recent history was always sure to rouse warm indignation. Lord Buchan, the eccentric elder brother of those eminent whigs Tom and Harry Erskine, solemnly kicked the offending number of the Review from his hall door into the middle of George street. More sober men, with Walter Scott at the head of them, were genuinely scandalised. It is said, moreover, that the personal hostility of Scott had been stimulated by the article, six months earlier, on Marmion, which was also written by Jeffrey; though it is probable that it was the poet’s worshippers, resenting the disparagement of their hero, rather than the poet himself, who were offended by a review which, while criticising the poem sharply enough in parts and not always wisely, after all placed Scott on a very high pedestal among the great poets of the world.