Read CHAPTER IV - JEFFREY of Essays in English Literature‚ 1780-1860 , free online book, by George Saintsbury, on

“Jeffrey and I,” says Christopher North in one of his more malicious moments, “do nothing original; it’s porter’s work.”  A tolerably experienced student of human nature might almost, without knowing the facts, guess the amount of truth contained in this fling.  North, as North, had done nothing that the world calls original:  North, as Wilson, had done a by no means inconsiderable quantity of such work in verse and prose.  But Jeffrey really did underlie the accusation contained in the words.  A great name in literature, nothing stands to his credit in permanent literary record but a volume (a sufficiently big one, no doubt) of criticisms on the work of other men; and though this volume is only a selection from his actual writings, no further gleaning could be made of any different material.  Even his celebrated, or once celebrated, “Treatise on Beauty” is but a review article, worked up into an encyclopaedia article, and dealing almost wholly with pure criticism.  Against him, if against any one, the famous and constantly repeated gibe about the fellows who have failed in literature and art, falls short and harmless.  In another of its forms, “the corruption of a poet is the generation of a critic,” it might be more appropriate.  For Jeffrey, as we know from his boyish letters, once thought, like almost every boy who is not an idiot, that he might be a poet, and scribbled verses in plenty.  But the distinguishing feature in this case was, that he waited for no failure, for no public ridicule or neglect, not even for any private nipping of the merciful, but so seldom effective, sort, to check those sterile growths.  The critic was sufficiently early developed in him to prevent the corruption of the poet from presenting itself, in its usual disastrous fashion, to the senses of the world.  Thus he lives (for his political and legal renown, though not inconsiderable, is comparatively unimportant) as a critic pure and simple.

His biographer, Lord Cockburn, tells us that “Francis Jeffrey, the greatest of British critics, was born in Edinburgh on 23d October 1773.”  It must be at the end, not the beginning, of this paper that we decide whether Jeffrey deserves the superlative.  He seems certainly to have begun his critical practice very early.  He was the son of a depute-clerk of the Court of Session, and respectably, though not brilliantly, connected.  His father was a great Tory, and, though it would be uncharitable to say that this was the reason why Jeffrey was a great Liberal, the two facts were probably not unconnected in the line of causation.  Francis went to the High School when he was eight, and to the College at Glasgow when he was fourteen.  He does not appear to have been a prodigy at either; but he has an almost unequalled record for early work of the self-undertaken kind.  He seems from his boyhood to have been addicted to filling reams of paper, and shelves full of note-books, with extracts, abstracts, critical annotations, criticisms of these criticisms, and all manner of writing of the same kind.  I believe it is the general experience that this kind of thing does harm in nineteen cases, for one in which it does good; but Jeffrey was certainly a striking exception to the rule, though perhaps he might not have been so if his producing, or at least publishing, time had not been unusually delayed.  Indeed, his whole mental history appears to have been of a curiously piecemeal character; and his scrappy and self-guided education may have conduced to the priggishness which he showed early, and never entirely lost, till fame, prosperity, and the approach of old age mellowed it out of him.  He was not sixteen when his sojourn at Glasgow came to an end; and, for more than two years, he seems to have been left to a kind of studious independence, attending only a couple of law classes at Edinburgh University.  Then his father insisted on his going to Oxford:  a curious step, the reasons for which are anything but clear.  For the paternal idea seems to have been that Jeffrey was to study not arts, but law; a study for which Oxford may present facilities now, but which most certainly was quite out of its way in Jeffrey’s time, and especially in the case of a Scotch boy of ordinary freshman’s age.

It is painful to have to say that Jeffrey hated Oxford, because there are few instances on record in which such hatred does not show the hater to have been a very bad man indeed.  There are, however, some special excuses for the little Scotchman.  His college (Queen’s) was not perhaps very happily selected; he had been sent there in the teeth of his own will, which was a pretty strong will; he was horrified, after the free selection of Scotch classes, to find a regular curriculum which he had to take or leave as a whole; the priggishness of Oxford was not his priggishness, its amusements (for he hated sport of every kind) were not his amusements; and, in short, there was a general incompatibility.  He came up in September and went down in July, having done nothing except having, according to a not ill-natured jest, “lost the broad Scotch, but gained only the narrow English,” ­a peculiarity which sometimes brought a little mild ridicule on him both from Scotchmen and Englishmen.

Very soon after his return to Edinburgh, he seems to have settled down steadily to study for the Scotch bar, and during his studies distinguished himself as a member of the famous Speculative Society, both in essay-writing and in the debates.  He was called on 16th December 1794.

Although there have never been very quick returns at the bar, either of England or Scotland, the smaller numbers of the latter might be thought likely to bring young men of talent earlier to the front.  This advantage, however, appears to have been counterbalanced partly by the strong family interests which made a kind of aristocracy among Scotch lawyers, and partly by the influence of politics and of Government patronage.  Jeffrey was, comparatively speaking, a “kinless loon”; and, while he was steadily resolved not to put himself forward as a candidate for the Tory manna of which Dundas was the Moses, his filial reverence long prevented him from declaring himself a very violent Whig.  Indeed, he gave an instance of this reverence which might serve as a pretty text for a casuistical discussion.  Henry Erskine, Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, was in 1796 deprived by vote of that, the most honourable position of the Scotch bar, for having presided at a Whig meeting.  Jeffrey, like Gibbon, sighed as a Whig, but obeyed as a son, and stayed away from the poll.  His days were certainly long in the land; but I am inclined to think that, in a parallel case, some Tories at least would have taken the chance of shorter life with less speckled honour.  However, it is hard to quarrel with a man for obeying his parents; and perhaps, after all, the Whigs did not think the matter of so much importance as they affected to do.  It is certain that Jeffrey was a little dashed by the slowness of his success at the bar.  Towards the end of 1798, he set out for London with a budget of letters of introduction, and thoughts of settling down to literature.  But the editors and publishers to whom he was introduced did not know what a treasure lay underneath the scanty surface of this Scotch advocate, and they were either inaccessible or repulsive.  He returned to Edinburgh, and, for another two years, waited for fortune philosophically enough, though with lingering thoughts of England, and growing ones of India.  It was just at the turn of the century, that his fortunes began, in various ways, also to take a turn.  For some years, though a person by no means given to miscellaneous acquaintances, he had been slowly forming the remarkable circle of friends from whose combined brains was soon to start the Edinburgh Review.  He fell in love, and married his second cousin, Catherine Wilson, on 1st November 1801 ­a bold and by no means canny step, for his father was ill-off, the bride was tocherless, and he says that he had never earned a hundred pounds a year in fees.  They did not, however, launch out greatly, and their house in Buccleuch Place (not the least famous locality in literature) was furnished on a scale which some modern colleges, conducted on the principles of enforced economy, would think Spartan for an undergraduate.  Shortly afterwards, and very little before the appearance of the Blue and Yellow, Jeffrey made another innovation, which was perhaps not less profitable to him, by establishing a practice in ecclesiastical causes; though he met with a professional check in his rejection, on party principles, for the so-called collectorship, a kind of reporter’s post of some emolument and not inconsiderable distinction.

The story of the Edinburgh Review and its foundation has been very often told on the humorous, if not exactly historical, authority of Sydney Smith.  It is unnecessary to repeat it.  It is undoubted that the idea was Sydney’s.  It is equally undoubted that, but for Jeffrey, the said idea might never have taken form at all, and would never have retained any form for more than a few months.  It was only Jeffrey’s long-established habit of critical writing, the untiring energy into which he whipped up his no doubt gifted but quite untrained contributors, and the skill which he almost at once developed in editing proper, ­that is to say in selecting, arranging, adapting, and, even to some extent, re-writing contributions ­which secured success.  Very different opinions have been expressed at different times on the intrinsic merits of this celebrated production; and perhaps, on the whole, the principal feeling of explorers into the long and dusty ranges of its early volumes, has been one of disappointment.  I believe myself that, in similar cases, a similar result is very common indeed, and that it is due to the operation of two familiar fallacies.  The one is the delusion as to the products of former times being necessarily better than those of the present; a delusion which is not the less deluding because of its counterpart, the delusion about progress.  The other is a more peculiar and subtle one.  I shall not go so far as a very experienced journalist who once said to me commiseratingly, “My good sir, I won’t exactly say that literary merit hurts a newspaper.”  But there is no doubt that all the great successes of journalism, for the last hundred years, have been much more due to the fact of the new venture being new, of its supplying something that the public wanted and had not got, than to the fact of the supply being extraordinarily good in kind.  In nearly every case, the intrinsic merit has improved as the thing went on, but it has ceased to be a novel merit.  Nothing would be easier than to show that the early Edinburgh articles were very far from perfect.  Of Jeffrey we shall speak presently, and there is no doubt that Sydney at his best was, and is always, delightful.  But the blundering bluster of Brougham, the solemn ineffectiveness of Horner (of whom I can never think without also thinking of Scott’s delightful Shandean jest on him), the respectable erudition of the Scotch professors, cannot for one single moment be compared with the work which, in Jeffrey’s own later days, in those of Macvey Napier, and in the earlier ones of Empson, was contributed by Hazlitt, by Carlyle, by Stephen, and, above all, by Macaulay.  The Review never had any one who could emulate the ornateness of De Quincey or Wilson, the pure and perfect English of Southey, or the inimitable insolence, so polished and so intangible, of Lockhart.  But it may at least claim that it led the way, and that the very men who attacked its principles and surpassed its practice had, in some cases, been actually trained in its school, and were in all, imitating and following its model.  To analyse, with chemical exactness, the constituents of a literary novelty is never easy, if it is ever possible.  But some of the contrasts between the style of criticism most prevalent at the time, and the style of the new venture are obvious and important.  The older rivals of the Edinburgh maintained for the most part a decent and amiable impartiality; the Edinburgh, whatever it pretended to be, was violently partisan, unhesitatingly personal, and more inclined to find fault, the more distinguished the subject was.  The reviews of the time had got into the hands either of gentlemen and ladies who were happy to be thought literary, and only too glad to write for nothing, or else into those of the lowest booksellers’ hacks, who praised or blamed according to orders, wrote without interest and without vigour, and were quite content to earn the smallest pittance.  The Edinburgh started from the first on the principle that its contributors should be paid, and paid well, whether they liked it or not, thus establishing at once an inducement to do well and a check on personal eccentricity and irresponsibility; while whatever partisanship there might be in its pages, there was at any rate no mere literary puffery.

From being, but for his private studies, rather an idle person, Jeffrey became an extremely busy one.  The Review gave him not a little occupation, and his practice increased rapidly.  In 1803 the institution, at Scott’s suggestion, of the famous Friday Club, in which, for the greater part of the first half of this century, the best men in Edinburgh, Johnstone and Maxwell, Whig and Tory alike, met in peaceable conviviality, did a good deal to console Jeffrey, who was now as much given to company as he had been in his early youth to solitude, for the partial breaking up of the circle of friends ­Allen, Horner, Smith, Brougham, Lord Webb Seymour ­in which he had previously mixed.  In the same year he became a volunteer, an act of patriotism the more creditable, that he seems to have been sincerely convinced of the probability of an invasion, and of the certainty of its success if it occurred.  But I have no room here for anything but a rapid review of the not very numerous or striking events of his life.  Soon, however, after the date last mentioned, he met with two afflictions peculiarly trying to a man whose domestic affections were unusually strong.  These were the deaths of his favourite sister in May 1804, and of his wife in October 1805.  The last blow drove him nearly to despair; and the extreme and open-mouthed “sensibility” of his private letters, on this and similar occasions, is very valuable as an index of character, oddly as it contrasts, in the vulgar estimate, with the supposed cynicism and savagery of the critic.  In yet another year occurred the somewhat ludicrous duel, or beginning of a duel, with Moore, in which several police constables did perform the friendly office which Mr. Winkle vainly deprecated, and in which Jeffrey’s, not Moore’s, pistol was discovered to be leadless.  There is a sentence in a letter of Jeffrey’s concerning the thing which is characteristic and amusing:  “I am glad to have gone through this scene, both because it satisfies me that my nerves are good enough to enable me to act in conformity to my notions of propriety without any suffering, and because it also assures me that I am really as little in love with life as I have been for some time in the habit of professing.”  It is needless to say that this was an example of the excellence of beginning with a little aversion, for Jeffrey and Moore fraternised immediately afterwards and remained friends for life.  The quarrel, or half quarrel, with Scott as to the review of “Marmion,” the planning and producing of the Quarterly Review, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, not a few other events of the same kind, must be passed over rapidly.  About six years after the death of his first wife, Jeffrey met, and fell in love with, a certain Miss Charlotte Wilkes, great-niece of the patriot, and niece of a New York banker, and of a Monsieur and Madame Simond, who were travelling in Europe.  He married her two years later, having gone through the very respectable probation of crossing and re-crossing the Atlantic (he was a very bad sailor) in a sailing ship, in winter, and in time of war, to fetch his bride.  Nor had he long been married before he took the celebrated country house of Craigcrook, where, for more than thirty years, he spent all the spare time of an exceedingly happy life.  Then we may jump some fifteen years to the great Reform contest which gave Jeffrey the reward, such as it was, of his long constancy in opposition, in the shape of the Lord Advocateship.  He was not always successful as a debater; but he had the opportunity of adding a third reputation to those which he had already gained in literature and in law.  He had the historical duty of piloting the Scotch Reform Bill through Parliament, and he had the, in his case, pleasurable and honourable pain of taking the official steps in Parliament necessitated by the mental incapacity of Sir Walter Scott.  Early in 1834 he was provided for by promotion to the Scotch Bench.  He had five years before, on being appointed Dean of Faculty, given up the editorship of the Review, which he had held for seven-and-twenty years.  For some time previous to his resignation, his own contributions, which in early days had run up to half a dozen in a single number, and had averaged two or three for more than twenty years, had become more and more intermittent.  After that resignation he contributed two or three articles at very long intervals.  He was perhaps more lavish of advice than he need have been to Macvey Napier, and after Napier’s death it passed into the control of his own son-in-law, Empson.  Long, however, before the reins passed from his own hands, a rival more galling if less formidable than the Quarterly had arisen in the shape of Blackwood’s Magazine.  The more ponderous and stately publication always affected, to some extent, to ignore its audacious junior; and Lord Cockburn (perhaps instigated not more by prudence than by regard for Lockhart and Wilson, both of whom were living) passes over in complete silence the establishment of the magazine, the publication of the Chaldee manuscript, and the still greater hubbub which arose around the supposed attacks of Lockhart on Playfair, and the Edinburgh reviewers generally, with regard to their religious opinions.  How deep the feelings really excited were, may be seen from a letter of Jeffrey’s, published, not by Cockburn, but by Wilson’s daughter in the life of her father.  In this Jeffrey practically drums out a new and certainly most promising recruit for his supposed share in the business, and inveighs in the most passionate terms against the imputation.  It is undesirable to enter at length into any such matters here.  It need only be said that Allen, one of the founders of the Edinburgh, and always a kind of standing counsel to it, is now acknowledged to have been something uncommonly like an atheist, that Sydney Smith (as I believe most unjustly) was often, and is sometimes still, regarded as standing towards his profession very much in the attitude of a French abbe of the eighteenth century, that almost the whole staff of the Review, including Jeffrey, had, as every Edinburgh man of position knew, belonged to the so-called Academy of Physics, the first principle of which was that only three facts (the words are Lord Cockburn’s) were to be admitted without proof:  (1) Mind exists; (2) matter exists; (3) every change indicates a cause.  Nowadays the most orthodox of metaphysicians would admit that this limitation of position by no means implied atheism.  But seventy years ago it would have been the exception to find an orthodox metaphysician who did admit it; and Lockhart, or rather Baron von Lauerwinkel, was perfectly justified in taking the view which ordinary opinion took.

These jars, however, were long over when Jeffrey became Lord Jeffrey, and subsided upon the placid bench.  He lived sixteen years longer, alternating between Edinburgh, Craigcrook, and divers houses which he hired from time to time, on Loch Lomond, on the Clyde, and latterly at some English watering-places in the west.  His health was not particularly good, though hardly worse than any man who lives to nearly eighty, with constant sedentary and few out-of-door occupations, and with a cheerful devotion to the good things of this life, must expect.  And he was on the whole singularly happy, being passionately devoted to his wife, his daughter, and his grandchildren; possessing ample means, and making a cheerful and sensible use of them; seeing the increasing triumph of the political principles to which he had attached himself; knowing that he was regarded by friends and foes alike, as the chief living English representative of an important branch of literature; and retaining to the last an almost unparalleled juvenility of tastes and interests.  His letters to Dickens are well known, and, though I should be very sorry to stake his critical reputation upon them, there could not be better documents for his vivid enjoyment of life.  He died on 26th January 1850, in his seventy-seventh year, having been in harness almost to the very last.  He had written a letter the day before to Empson, describing one of those curious waking visions known to all sick folk, in which there had appeared part of a proof-sheet of a new edition of the Apocrypha, and a new political paper filled with discussions on Free Trade.

In reading Jeffrey’s work nowadays, the critical reader finds it considerably more difficult to gain and keep the author’s own point of view than in the case of any other great English critic.  With Hazlitt, with Coleridge, with Wilson, with Carlyle, with Macaulay, we very soon fall into step, so to speak, with our author.  If we cannot exactly prophesy what he will say on any given subject, we can make a pretty shrewd guess at it; and when, as it seems to us, he stumbles and shies, we have a sort of feeling beforehand that he is going to do it, and a decided inkling of the reason.  But my own experience is, that a modern reader of Jeffrey, who takes him systematically, and endeavours to trace cause and effect in him, is liable to be constantly thrown out before he finds the secret.  For Jeffrey, in the most puzzling way, lies between the ancients and the moderns in matter of criticism, and we never quite know where to have him.  It is ten to one, for instance, that the novice approaches him with the idea that he is a “classic” of the old rock.  Imagine the said novice’s confusion, when he finds Jeffrey not merely exalting Shakespeare to the skies, but warmly praising Elizabethan poetry in general, anticipating Mr. Matthew Arnold almost literally, in the estimate of Dryden and Pope as classics of our prose, and hailing with tears of joy the herald of the emancipation in Cowper.  Surely our novice may be excused if, despite certain misgiving memories of such reviews as that of “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” he concludes that Jeffrey has been maligned, and that he was really a Romantic before Romanticism.  Unhappy novice! he will find his new conclusion not less rapidly and more completely staggered than his old.  Indeed, until the clue is once gained, Jeffrey must appear to be one of the most incomprehensibly inconsistent of writers and of critics.  On one page he declares that Campbell’s extracts from Chamberlayne’s “Pharonnida” have made him “quite impatient for an opportunity of perusing the whole poem,” ­Romantic surely, quite Romantic.  “The tameness and poorness of the serious style of Addison and Swift,” ­Romantic again, quite Romantic.  Yet when we come to Jeffrey’s own contemporaries, he constantly appears as much bewigged and befogged with pseudo-classicism as M. de Jouy himself.  He commits himself, in the year of grace 1829, to the statement that “the rich melodies of Keats and Shelley, and the fantastical emphasis of Wordsworth are melting fast from the field of our vision,” while he contrasts with this “rapid withering of the laurel” the “comparative absence of marks of decay” on Rogers and Campbell.  The poets of his own time whom he praises most heartily, and with least reserve, are Campbell and Crabbe; and he is quite as enthusiastic over “Theodric” and “Gertrude” as over the two great war-pieces of the same author, which are worth a hundred “Gertrudes” and about ten thousand “Theodrics.”  Reviewing Scott, not merely when they were personal friends (they were always that), but when Scott was a contributor to the Edinburgh, and giving general praise to “The Lay,” he glances with an unmistakable meaning at the “dignity of the subject,” regrets the “imitation and antiquarian researches,” and criticises the versification in a way which shows that he had not in the least grasped its scheme.  It is hardly necessary to quote his well-known attacks on Wordsworth; but, though I am myself anything but a Wordsworthian, and would willingly give up to chaos and old night nineteen-twentieths of the “extremely valooable chains of thought” which the good man used to forge, it is in the first place quite clear that the twentieth ought to have saved him from Jeffrey’s claws; in the second, that the critic constantly selects the wrong things as well as the right for condemnation and ridicule; and in the third, that he would have praised, or at any rate not blamed, in another, the very things which he blames in Wordsworth.  Even his praise of Crabbe, excessive as it may now appear, is diversified by curious patches of blame which seem to me at any rate, singularly uncritical.  There are, for instance, a very great many worse jests in poetry than,

    Oh, had he learnt to make the wig he wears!

­which Jeffrey pronounces a misplaced piece of buffoonery.  I cannot help thinking that if Campbell instead of Southey had written the lines,

    To see brute nature scorn him and renounce     Its homage to the human form divine,

Jeffrey would, to say the least, not have hinted that they were “little better than drivelling.”  But I do not think that when Jeffrey wrote these things, or when he actually perpetrated such almost unforgivable phrases as “stuff about dancing daffodils,” he was speaking away from his sincere conviction.  On the contrary, though partisanship may frequently have determined the suppression or the utterance, the emphasising or the softening, of his opinions, I do not think that he ever said anything but what he sincerely thought.  The problem, therefore, is to discover and define, if possible, the critical standpoint of a man whose judgment was at once so acute and so purblind; who could write the admirable surveys of English poetry contained in the essays on Mme. de Stael and Campbell, and yet be guilty of the stuff (we thank him for the word) about the dancing daffodils; who could talk of “the splendid strains of Moore” (though I have myself a relatively high opinion of Moore) and pronounce “The White Doe of Rylstone” (though I am not very fond of that animal as a whole) “the very worst poem he ever saw printed in a quarto volume”; who could really appreciate parts even of Wordsworth himself, and yet sneer at the very finest passages of the poems he partly admired.  It is unnecessary to multiply inconsistencies, because the reader who does not want the trouble of reading Jeffrey must be content to take them for granted, and the reader who does read Jeffrey will discover them in plenty for himself.  But they are not limited, it should be said, to purely literary criticism; and they appear, if not quite so strongly, in his estimates of personal character, and even in his purely political arguments.

The explanation, as far as there is any, (and perhaps such explanations, as Hume says of another matter, only push ignorance a stage farther back), seems to me to lie in what I can only call the Gallicanism of Jeffrey’s mind and character.  As Horace Walpole has been pronounced the most French of Englishmen, so may Francis Jeffrey be pronounced the most French of Scotchmen.  The reader of his letters, no less than the reader of his essays, constantly comes across the most curious and multiform instances of this Frenchness.  The early priggishness is French; the effusive domestic affection is French; the antipathy to dogmatic theology, combined with general recognition of the Supreme Being, is French; the talk (I had almost said the chatter) about virtue and sympathy, and so forth, is French; the Whig recognition of the rights of man, joined to a kind of bureaucratical distrust and terror of the common people (a combination almost unknown in England), is French.  Everybody remembers the ingenious argument in Peter Simple that the French were quite as brave as the English, indeed more so, but that they were extraordinarily ticklish.  Jeffrey, we have seen, was very far from being a coward, but he was very ticklish indeed.  His private letters throw the most curious light possible on the secret, as far as he was concerned, of the earlier Whig opposition to the war, and of the later Whig advocacy of reform.  Jeffrey by no means thought the cause of the Revolution divine, like the Friends of Liberty, or admired Napoleon like Hazlitt, or believed in the inherent right of Manchester and Birmingham to representation like the zealots of 1830.  But he was always dreadfully afraid of invasion in the first place, and of popular insurrection in the second; and he wanted peace and reform to calm his fears.  As a young man he was, with a lack of confidence in his countrymen probably unparalleled in a Scotchman, sure that a French corporal’s guard might march from end to end of Scotland, and a French privateer’s boat’s crew carry off “the fattest cattle and the fairest women” (these are his very words) “of any Scotch seaboard county.”  The famous, or infamous, Cevallos article ­an ungenerous and pusillanimous attack on the Spanish patriots, which practically founded the Quarterly Review, by finally disgusting all Tories and many Whigs with the Edinburgh ­was, it seems, prompted merely by the conviction that the Spanish cause was hopeless, and that maintaining it, or assisting it, must lead to mere useless bloodshed.  He felt profoundly the crime of Napoleon’s rule; but he thought Napoleon unconquerable, and so did his best to prevent him being conquered.  He was sure that the multitude would revolt if reform was not granted; and he was, therefore, eager for reform.  Later, he got into his head the oddest crotchet of all his life, which was that a Conservative government, with a sort of approval from the people generally, and especially from the English peasantry, would scheme for a coup d’etat, and (his own words again) “make mincemeat of their opponents in a single year.”  He may be said almost to have left the world in a state of despair over the probable results of the Revolutions of 1848-49; and it is impossible to guess what would have happened to him if he had survived to witness the Second of December.  Never was there such a case, at least among Englishmen, of timorous pugnacity and plucky pessimism.  But it would be by no means difficult to parallel the temperament in France; and, indeed, the comparative frequency of it there, may be thought to be no small cause of the political and military disasters of the country.

In literature, and especially in criticism, Jeffrey’s characteristics were still more decidedly and unquestionably French.  He came into the world almost too soon to feel the German impulse, even if he had been disposed to feel it.  But, as a matter of fact, he was not at all disposed.  The faults of taste of the German Romantic School, its alternate homeliness and extravagance, its abuse of the supernatural, its undoubted offences against order and proportion, scandalised him only a little less than they would have scandalised Voltaire and did scandalise the later Voltairians.  Jeffrey was perfectly prepared to be Romantic up to a certain point, ­the point which he had himself reached in his early course of independent reading and criticism.  He was even a little inclined to sympathise with the reverend Mr. Bowles on the great question whether Pope was a poet; and, as I have said, he uses, about the older English literature, phrases which might almost satisfy a fanatic of the school of Hazlitt or of Lamb.  He is, if anything, rather too severe on French as compared with English drama.  Yet, when he comes to his own contemporaries, and sometimes even in reference to earlier writers, we find him slipping into those purely arbitrary severities of condemnation, those capricious stigmatisings of this as improper, and that as vulgar, and the other as unbecoming, which are the characteristics of the pseudo-correct and pseudo-classical school of criticism.  He was a great admirer of Cowper, and yet he is shocked by Cowper’s use, in his translation of Homer, of the phrases, “to entreat Achilles to a calm” (evidently he had forgotten Shakespeare’s “pursue him and entreat him to a peace"), “this wrangler here,” “like a fellow of no worth.”  He was certainly not likely to be unjust to Charles James Fox.  So he is unhappy, rather than contemptuous, over such excellent phrases as “swearing away the lives,” “crying injustice,” “fond of ill-treating.”  These appear to Mr. Aristarchus Jeffrey too “homely and familiar,” too “low and vapid”; while a harmless and rather agreeable Shakespearian parallel of Fox’s seems to him downright impropriety.  The fun of the thing is that the passage turns on the well-known misuse of “flat burglary”; and if Jeffrey had had a little more sense of humour (his deficiency in which, for all his keen wit, is another Gallic note in him), he must have seen that the words were ludicrously applicable to his own condemnation and his own frame of mind.  These settings-up of a wholly arbitrary canon of mere taste, these excommunicatings of such and such a thing as “low” and “improper,” without assigned or assignable reason, are eminently Gallic.  They may be found not merely in the older school before 1830, but in almost all French critics up to the present day:  there is perhaps not one, with the single exception of Sainte-Beuve, who is habitually free from them.  The critic may be quite unable to say why tarte a la crème is such a shocking expression, or even to produce any important authority for the shockingness of it.  But he is quite certain that it is shocking.  Jeffrey is but too much given to protesting against tarte a la crème; and the reasons for his error are almost exactly the same as in the case of the usual Frenchman; that is to say, a very just and wholesome preference for order, proportion, literary orthodoxy, freedom from will-worship and eccentric divagations, unfortunately distorted by a certain absence of catholicity, by a tendency to regard novelty as bad, merely because it is novelty, and by a curious reluctance, as Lamb has it of another great man of the same generation, to go shares with any newcomer in literary commerce.

But when these reservations have been made, when his standpoint has been clearly discovered and marked out, and when some little tricks, such as the affectation of delivering judgments without appeal, which is still kept up by a few, though very few, reviewers, have been further allowed for, Jeffrey is a most admirable essayist and critic.  As an essayist, a writer of causeries, I do not think he has been surpassed among Englishmen in the art of interweaving quotation, abstract, and comment.  The best proof of his felicity in this respect is that in almost all the books which he has reviewed, (and he has reviewed many of the most interesting books in literature) the passages and traits, the anecdotes and phrases, which have made most mark in the general memory, and which are often remembered with very indistinct consciousness of their origin, are to be found in his reviews.  Sometimes the very perfection of his skill in this respect makes it rather difficult to know where he is abstracting or paraphrasing, and where he is speaking outright and for himself; but that is a very small fault.  Yet his merits as an essayist, though considerable, are not to be compared, even to the extent to which Hazlitt’s are to be compared, with his merits as a critic, and especially as a literary critic.  It would be interesting to criticise his political criticism; but it is always best to keep politics out where it can be managed.  Besides, Jeffrey as a political critic is a subject of almost exclusively historical interest, while as a literary critic he is important at this very day, and perhaps more important than he was in his own.  For the spirit of merely aesthetic criticism, which was in his day only in its infancy, has long been full grown and rampant; so that, good work as it has done in its time, it decidedly needs chastening by an admixture of the dogmatic criticism, which at least tries to keep its impressions together and in order, and to connect them into some coherent doctrine and creed.

Of this dogmatic criticism Jeffrey, with all his shortcomings, is perhaps the very best example that we have in English.  He had addressed himself more directly and theoretically to literary criticism than Lockhart.  Prejudiced as he often was, he was not affected by the wild gusts of personal and political passion which frequently blew Hazlitt a thousand miles off the course of true criticism.  He keeps his eye on the object, which De Quincey seldom does.  He is not affected by that desire to preach on certain pet subjects which affects the admirable critical faculty of Carlyle.  He never blusters and splashes at random like Wilson.  And he never indulges in the mannered and rather superfluous graces which marred, to some tastes, the work of his successor in critical authority, if there has been any such, the author of Essays in Criticism.

Let us, as we just now looked through Jeffrey’s work to pick out the less favourable characteristics which distinguish his position, look through it again to see those qualities which he shares, but in greater measure than most, with all good critics.  The literary essay which stands first in his collected works is on Madame de Stael.  Now that good lady, of whom some judges in these days do not think very much, was a kind of goddess on earth in literature, however much she might bore them in life, to the English Whig party in general; while Jeffrey’s French tastes must have made her, or at least her books, specially attractive to him.  Accordingly he has written a great deal about her, no less than three essays appearing in the collected works.  Writing at least partly in her lifetime and under the influences just glanced at, he is of course profuse in compliments.  But it is very amusing and highly instructive to observe how, in the intervals of these compliments, he contrives to take the good Corinne to pieces, to smash up her ingenious Perfectibilism, and to put in order her rather rash literary judgments.  It is in connection also with her, that he gives one of the best of not a few general sketches of the history of literature which his work contains.  Of course there are here, as always, isolated expressions as to which, however much we admit that Jeffrey was a clever man, we cannot agree with Jeffrey.  He thinks Aristophanes “coarse” and “vulgar” just as a living pundit thinks him “base,” while (though nobody of course can deny the coarseness) Aristophanes and vulgarity are certainly many miles asunder.  We may protest against the chronological, even more than against the critical, blunder which couples Cowley and Donne, putting Donne, moreover, who wrote long before Cowley was born, and differs from him in genius almost as the author of the Iliad does from the author of the Henriade, second.  But hardly anything in English criticism is better than Jeffrey’s discussion of the general French imputation of “want of taste and politeness” to English and German writers, especially English.  It is a very general, and a very mistaken notion that the Romantic movement in France has done away with this imputation to a great extent.  On the contrary, though it has long been a kind of fashion in France to admire Shakespeare, and though since the labours of MM.  Taine and Montegut, the study of English literature generally has grown and flourished, it is, I believe, the very rarest thing to find a Frenchman who, in his heart of hearts, does not cling to the old “pearls in the dung-heap” idea, not merely in reference to Shakespeare, but to English writers, and especially English humorists, generally.  Nothing can be more admirable than Jeffrey’s comments on this matter.  They are especially admirable because they are not made from the point of view of a Romantique a tous crins; because, as has been already pointed out, he himself is largely penetrated by the very preference for order and proportion which is at the bottom of the French mistake; and because he is, therefore, arguing in a tongue understanded of those whom he censures.  Another essay which may be read with especial advantage is that on Scott’s edition of Swift.  Here, again, there was a kind of test subject, and perhaps Jeffrey does not come quite scatheless out of the trial:  to me, at any rate, his account of Swift’s political and moral conduct and character seems both uncritical and unfair.  But here, too, the value of his literary criticism shows itself.  He might very easily have been tempted to extend his injustice from the writer to the writings, especially since, as has been elsewhere shown, he was by no means a fanatical admirer of the Augustan age, and thought the serious style of Addison and Swift tame and poor.  It is possible of course, here also, to find things that seem to be errors, both in the general sketch which Jeffrey, according to his custom, prefixes, and in the particular remarks on Swift himself.  For instance, to deny fancy to the author of the Tale of a Tub, of Gulliver, and of the Polite Conversation, is very odd indeed.  But there are few instances of a greater triumph of sound literary judgment over political and personal prejudice than Jeffrey’s description, not merely of the great works just mentioned (it is curious, and illustrates his defective appreciation of humour, that he likes the greatest least, and is positively unjust to the Tale of a Tub), but also of those wonderful pamphlets, articles, lampoons, skits (libels if any one likes), which proved too strong for the generalship of Marlborough and the administrative talents of Godolphin; and which are perhaps the only literary works that ever really changed, for a not inconsiderable period, the government of England.  “Considered,” he says, “with a view to the purposes for which they were intended, they have probably never been equalled in any period of the world.”  They certainly have not; but to find a Whig, and a Whig writing in the very moment of Tory triumph after Waterloo, ready to admit the fact, is not a trivial thing.  Another excellent example of Jeffrey’s strength, by no means unmixed with examples of his weakness, is to be found in his essays on Cowper.  I have already given some of the weakness:  the strength is to be found in his general description of Cowper’s revolt, thought so daring at the time, now so apparently moderate, against poetic diction.  These instances are to be found under miscellaneous sections, biographical, historical, and so forth; but the reader will naturally turn to the considerable divisions headed Poetry and Fiction.  Here are the chief rocks of offence already indicated, and here also are many excellent things which deserve reading.  Here is the remarkable essay, quoted above, on Campbell’s Specimens.  Here is the criticism of Weber’s edition of Ford, and another of those critical surveys of the course of English literature which Jeffrey was so fond of doing, and which he did so well, together with some remarks on the magnificently spendthrift style of our Elizabethan dramatists which would deserve almost the first place in an anthology of his critical beauties.  The paper on Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespeare (Hazlitt was an Edinburgh reviewer, and his biographer, not Jeffrey’s, has chronicled a remarkable piece of generosity on Jeffrey’s part towards his wayward contributor) is a little defaced by a patronising spirit, not, indeed, of that memorably mistaken kind which induced the famous and unlucky sentence to Macvey Napier about Carlyle, but something in the spirit of the schoolmaster who observes, “See this clever boy of mine, and only think how much better I could do it myself.”  Yet it contains some admirable passages on Shakespeare, if not on Hazlitt; and it would be impossible to deny that its hinted condemnation of Hazlitt’s “desultory and capricious acuteness” is just enough.  On the other hand, how significant is it of Jeffrey’s own limitations that he should protest against Hazlitt’s sympathy with such “conceits and puerilities” as the immortal and unmatchable

    Take him and cut him out in little stars,

with the rest of the passage.  But there you have the French spirit.  I do not believe that there ever was a Frenchman since the seventeenth century (unless perchance it was Gerard de Nerval, and he was not quite sane), who could put his hand on his heart and deny that the little stars seemed to him puerile and conceited.

Jeffrey’s dealings with Byron (I do not now speak of the article on Hours of Idleness, which was simply a just rebuke of really puerile and conceited rubbish) are not, to me, very satisfactory.  The critic seems, in the rather numerous articles which he has devoted to the “noble Poet,” as they used to call him, to have felt his genius unduly rebuked by that of his subject.  He spends a great deal, and surely an unnecessarily great deal, of time in solemnly, and no doubt quite sincerely, rebuking Byron’s morality; and in doing so he is sometimes almost absurd.  He calls him “not more obscene perhaps than Dryden or Prior,” which is simply ludicrous, because it is very rare that this particular word can be applied to Byron at all, while even his staunchest champion must admit that it applies to glorious John and to dear Mat Prior.  He helps, unconsciously no doubt, to spread the very contagion which he denounces, by talking about Byron’s demoniacal power, going so far as actually to contrast Manfred with Marlowe to the advantage of the former.  And he is so completely overcome by what he calls the “dreadful tone of sincerity” of this “puissant spirit,” that he never seems to have had leisure or courage to apply the critical tests and solvents of which few men have had a greater command.  Had he done so, it is impossible not to believe that, whether he did or did not pronounce Byron’s sentiment to be as theatrical, as vulgar, and as false as it seems to some later critics, he would at any rate have substituted for his edifying but rather irrelevant moral denunciations some exposure of those gross faults in style and metre, in phrase and form, which now disgust us.

There are many essays remaining on which I should like to comment if there were room enough.  But I have only space for a few more general remarks on his general characteristics, and especially those which, as Sainte-Beuve said to the altered Jeffrey of our altered days, are “important to us.”  Let me repeat then that the peculiar value of Jeffrey is not, as is that of Coleridge, of Hazlitt, or of Lamb, in very subtle, very profound, or very original views of his subjects.  He is neither a critical Columbus nor a critical Socrates; he neither opens up undiscovered countries, nor provokes and stimulates to the discovery of them.  His strength lies in the combination of a fairly wide range of sympathy with an extraordinary shrewdness and good sense in applying that sympathy.  Tested for range alone, or for subtlety alone, he will frequently be found wanting; but he almost invariably catches up those who have thus outstripped him, when the subject of the trial is shifted to soundness of estimate, intelligent connection of view, and absence of eccentricity.  And it must be again and again repeated that Jeffrey is by no means justly chargeable with the Dryasdust failings so often attributed to academic criticism.  They said that on the actual Bench he worried counsel a little too much, but that his decisions were almost invariably sound.  Not quite so much perhaps can be said for his other exercise of the judicial function.  But however much he may sometimes seem to carp and complain, however much we may sometimes wish for a little more equity and a little less law, it is astonishing how weighty Jeffrey’s critical judgments are after three quarters of a century which has seen so many seeming heavy things grow light.  There may be much that he does not see; there may be some things which he is physically unable to see; but what he does see, he sees with a clearness, and co-ordinates in its bearings on other things seen with a precision, which are hardly to be matched among the fluctuating and diverse race of critics.