Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 6. Blackwood’s 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

§ 6. Blackwood’s Magazine

The birth and early growth of The Quarterly Review were, as we have seen, the direct result of the political animosities called forth by the reforming, and, as was then considered, the dangerous, doctrines, which, for the previous half dozen years, The Edinburgh had been spreading through the land. The rise of Blackwood’s Magazine was mainly due to a quite different cause, though a conservative or tory spirit (to use the then current expression) animated its principal supporters as strongly as it did those whom Scott and Canning had summoned to the launch of The Quarterly on its distinguished career. Constable was the publisher, not the real founder, of The Edinburgh; Murray stood in the same relation to The Quarterly. But the new magazine which appeared in 1817 was brought into life by the energy, ability and acumen of the spirited publisher whose name it bore. In 1802, The Edinburgh—a new departure in this class of literature—resulted from the association, at that time, in Edinburgh, for the purpose of literary and political criticism, of a group of gifted and ardent and independent young men, none of whom was then known to fame. In 1809, its great rival, The Quarterly, had, in a less adventurous fashion, taken the field. It had behind it, from the beginning, the patronage and support of the leading statesmen of the prevailing political party in the state, and it was assisted by some of the most distinguished literary men of the day. Both these reviews had prospered. Their circulation was believed to be, and was, very large. The great position and prosperity of Constable, especially, known in Edinburgh as “the Crafty,” largely due to the wonderful success of The Edinburgh, naturally attracted the attention of aspiring rivals in the trade. At this time, moreover, Blackwood was feeling keenly the defeat of a well-grounded hope that he had established a lasting connection with Scott by the publication of The Black Dwarf, which, however, after the fourth edition, had been, somewhat roughly, transferred to Constable. His feelings, as a high tory in politics, and as a rival in trade, concurred in stirring him to make a great effort to lower whig ascendency, tackle The Edinburgh Review and establish and promote the publishing fame of the house of Blackwood.

In Blackwood’s opinion, The Quarterly, however sound its principles, was too ponderous and dignified and middle-aged to counteract the mischief done by the brilliant and dashing organ of Jeffrey. He was in search of something lighter—an Edinburgh magazine “more nimble, more frequent, more familiar.” His first start was disappointing, and, by the time that the third number of his monthly had been published, its insipidity, want of spirit and lack of party zeal had determined him to place its management in new hands. He saw the necessity of making a sensation. To begin with, at all events, it would be better to startle, and even to shock, the public than merely to win its respectful applause. And the three, in their different ways very gifted men, to whom he now turned were admirably suited for his purpose—Lockhart, in later days to become famous as editor of The Quarterly Review, and the biographer of Scott; Wilson, afterwards professor of moral philosophy and destined to live in English literature as “Christopher North”; and Hogg, the Ettrick shepherd. The result of their joint lucubrations was the famous “Chaldee MS.,” which, in language parodied from Scripture, overwhelmed, with scathing satire and personal ridicule, the best known and most respected notabilities of the Scottish metropolis. Blackwood was reckoning upon the outrageousness of his new number to advertise it. And he had not reckoned in vain, for its bitter personalities and strong flavour of irreverence at once roused a storm, and offended the literary world of Edinburgh. It is surprising that the excitement should have spread far beyond the bounds of Edinburgh and Scotland, where, alone, the personal and local allusions of this famous satire could have been appreciated. Blackwood and his friends had, in their immediate object, succeeded magnificently, for the October number had made Maga, as its supporters loved to call it, famous throughout the land.

Still, notoriety and fame, thus achieved, brought down upon the heads of Blackwood and his coadjutors no little trouble. Libel actions and challenges to mortal combat filled the air. No one would own to being responsible editor; and, as to “the Chaldee MS.,” it would seem to have slipped in almost unawares, if we can believe the account which Blackwood gave to those who threatened him. After a large number of copies had been sold, the magazine was suppressed, and future copies were published without the famous paper. In the eyes of readers of a century later, there are two articles in the same number that deserve even more serious condemnation: namely, the violent attack on Coleridge and his Biographia Literaria, written by Wilson, and the still more virulent attack on Leigh Hunt and the Cockney school of poetry, written by Lockhart. With Blackwood’s Magazine, hatred of “the school,” giving it an extended signification, became an obsession. Leigh Hunt, editor of the radical Examiner, was, doubtless, a red rag to the young tory writers of Maga; but they must have been blind indeed when they threatened with their wrath the “minor adherents” of the school—“the Shelleys, the Keats’s and the Webbes.”

The only excuse Lockhart could make for himself in later years was his extreme youth at the time when he first entered the service of Maga. He had fallen under the influence of Wilson—a dozen years his senior—whose enthusiastic temperament and social charm, united with literary ability of a very high order, had, from the beginning, greatly impressed him. Lockhart consoled himself with the reflection that, in all probability, the reckless violence and personalities of his friend and himself had done no harm to anyone but themselves. The Magazine was sowing its wild oats, and it was some time before Blackwood and his merry men exerted themselves to acquire for it a respected and responsible character. Lockhart’s best friends, including Walter Scott, regretted his close connection with what seemed to them to be a species of literary rowdyism; but Lockhart, though age moderated and softened him, ever remained unshaken in his allegiance to Maga.