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MODERN PERIODICAL LITERATURE.
[New Monthly Magazine.]
Little did the authors of the Spectator, the Tattler, and the Guardian think, while gratifying the simple appetites of our fathers for our periodical literature, how great would be the number, and how extensive the influence, of their successors in the nineteenth century. Little did they know that they were preparing the way for this strange era in the world of letters, when Reviews and Magazines supersede the necessity of research or thought—when each month they become more spirited, more poignant, and more exciting—and on every appearance awaken a pleasing crowd of turbulent sensations in authors, contributors, and the few who belong to neither of these classes, unknown to our laborious ancestors. Without entering, at present, into the inquiry whether this system be, on the whole, as beneficial as it is lively, we will just lightly glance at the chief of its productions, which have such varied and extensive influences for good or for evil.
The Edinburgh Review—though its power is now on the wane—has perhaps, on the whole, produced a deeper and more extensive impression on the public mind than any other work of its species. It has two distinct characters—that of a series of original essays, and a critical examination of the new works of particular authors. The first of these constitutes its fairest claim to honourable distinction. In this point of view, it has one extraordinary merit, that instead of partially illustrating only one set of doctrines, it contains disquisitions equally convincing on almost all sides of almost all questions of literature or state policy. The "bane and antidote" are frequently to be found in the ample compass of its volumes, and not unfrequently from the same pen. Its Essays on Political Economy display talents of a very uncommon order. Their writers have contrived to make the dryest subjects enchanting, and the lowest and most debasing theories beautiful. Touched by them, the wretched dogmas of expediency have worn the air of venerable truths, and the degrading speculations of Malthus have appeared full of benevolence and of wisdom. They have exerted the uncommon art, while working up a sophism into every possible form, to seem as though they had boundless store of reasons to spare—a very exuberance of proof—which the clearness of their argument rendered it unnecessary to use. The celebrated Editor of this work, with little imagination—little genuine wit—and no clear view of any great and central principles of criticism, has contrived to dazzle, to astonish, and occasionally to delight, multitudes of readers, and, at one period, to hold the temporary fate of authors at his will. His qualities are all singularly adapted to his office. Without deep feeling, which few can understand, he has a quick sensibility with which all sympathize; without a command of images, he has a glittering radiance of words which the most superficial may admire; neither too hard-hearted always to refuse his admiration, nor too kindly to suppress a sneer, he has been enabled to appear most witty, most wise, and most eloquent, to those who have chosen him for their oracle. As Reviewers, who have exercised a fearful power over the hearts and the destinies of young aspirants to fame, this gentleman, and his varied coadjutors have done many great and irreparable wrongs. Their very motto, "Judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur," applied to works offending only by their want of genius, asserted a fictitious crime to be punished by a voluntary tribunal. It implied that the author of a dull book was a criminal, whose sensibilities justice required to be stretched on the rack, and whose inmost soul it was a sacred duty to lacerate! They even carried this atrocious absurdity farther—represented youthful poets as prima fade guilty; "swarming with a vicious fecundity which invited and required destruction;" and spoke of the publication of verses as evidence, in itself, of want of sense, to be rebutted only by proofs of surpassing genius.* Thus the sweetest hopes were to be rudely broken—the loveliest visions of existence were to be dissipated—the most ardent and most innocent souls were to be wrung with unutterable anguish—and a fearful risk incurred of crushing genius too mighty for sudden development, or of changing its energies into poison—in order that the public might be secured from the possibility of worthlessness becoming attractive, or individuals shielded from the misery of looking into a work which would not tempt their farther perusal! But the Edinburgh Review has not been contented with deriding the pretensions of honest but ungifted aspirants; it has persued with misrepresentation and ridicule the loftiest and the gentlest spirits of the age, and has perverted the world, for a little season, from recognising and enjoying their genius. One of their earliest numbers contained an elaborate tissue of gross derision on that delicate production of feeling and of fancy—that fresh revival of the old English drama in all its antique graces —that piece of natural sweetness and of wood-land beauty— the tragedy of John Woodvil. They directed the same species of barbarous ridicule against the tale of Cristabel, trying to excite laughter by the cheap process of changing the names of its heroines into Lady C. and Lady G. and employing the easy art of transmuting its romantic incidents into the language of frivolous life, to destroy the fame of its most profound and imaginative author. The mode of criticism adopted on this occasion might, it is obvious, be used with equal success, to give to the purest and loftiest of works a ludicrous air. But the mightiest offence of the Edinburgh Review is the wilful injustice which it has done to Wordsworth, or rather to the multitude whom it has debarred from the noblest stock of intellectual delights to be found in modern poetry, by the misrepresentation and the scorn which it has poured on his effusions. It would require a far longer essay than this to expose all the arts (for arts they have been) which the Review has employed to depreciate this holiest of living bards. To effect this malignant design, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, have been constantly repre
sented as forming one perverse school or band of innovators—though1 there are perhaps no poets whose whole style and train of thought more essentially differ. To the same end, a few peculiar expressions—a few attempts at simplicity of expression on simple themes—a few extreme instances of naked language, which the fashionable gaudiness of poetry had incited—were dwelt on as exhibiting the poet's intellectual character, while passages of the purest and most majestic beauty, of the deepest pathos, and of the noblest music, were regarded as unworthy even to mitigate the critic's scorn. To this end, Southey—who with all his rich and varied accomplishments, has comparatively but a small portion of Wordsworth's genius—and whose " wild and wondrous lays" are the very antithesis to Wordsworth's intense musings on humanity, and new consecrations of familiar things—was represented as redeeming the school which his mightier friend degraded. To this end, even Wilson—one who had delighted to sit humbly at the feet of Wordsworth, and who derived his choicest inspirations from him—was praised as shedding unwonted lustre over the barrenness of his master. But why multiply examples1 Why attempt minutely to expose critics, who in " thoughts which do often lie too deep for tears " can find matter only for jesting—who speak of the high, imaginative conclusion of the White Doe of Rylston as a fine compliment of which they do not know the meaning—and who begin a long and laborious article on the noblest philosophical poem in the world with—" This will never do?"
The Quarterly Review, inferior to the Edinburgh in its mode of treating matters of mere reason—and destitute of that glittering eloquence of which Mr. Jeffrey has been so lavish—is far superior to it in its tone of sentiment, taste, and morals. It has often given intimations of a sense that there are " more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in the philosophy" of the Northern Reviewers. It has not regarded the wealth of nations as every thing and the happiness of nations as nothing—it has not rested all the foundations of good on the shifting expediences of time—it has not treated human nature as a mere problem for critics to analyze and explain. Its articles on travels have been richly tinged with a spirit of the romantic Its views of religious sectarianism—unlike the flippant impieties of its rival—have been full of real kindliness and honest sympathy. Its disquisitions on the State of the Poor have been often replete with thoughts "informed by nobleness," and rich in examples of lowly virtue which have had power to make the heart glow with a genial warmth which Reviews can rarely inspire.
Its attack on Lady Morgan, whatever were the merits of her work, was one of the coarsest insults ever offered in print by man to woman. But perhaps its worst piece of injustice was its laborious attempt to torture and ruin Mr. Keats, a poet then of extreme youth, whose work was wholly unobjectionable in its tendencies, and whose sole offence was a friendship for one of the objects of the Reviewer's hatred, and his courage to avow it. We can form but a faint idea of what the heart of a young poet is when he first begins to exercise his celestial faculties—how eager and tremulous are his hopes—how strange and tumultuous are his joys—how arduous is his difficulty of embodying his rich imaginings in mortal language—how sensibly alive are all his feelings to the touches of this rough world! Yet we can guess enough of these to estimate, in some degree, the enormity of a cool attack on a soul so delicately strung—with such aspirations and such fears—in the beginning of its high career. Mr. Keats—who now happily has attained the vantage-ground whence he may defy criticism—was cruelly or wantonly held up to ridicule in the Quarterly Review—to his transitory pain, we fear, but to the lasting disgrace of his traducer. Shelley has less ground of complaining—for he who attacks established institutions with a martyr's spirit, must not be surprised if he is visited with a martyr's doom. All ridicule of Keats was unprovoked insult and injury—an attack on Shelley was open and honest warfare, in which there is nothing to censure but the mode in which it was conducted. To deprecate his principles—to confute his reasonings—to expose his inconsistencies—to picture forth vividly all that his critics believed respecting the tendencies of his works—was just and lawful; but to give currency to slanderous stories respecting his character, and above all, darkly to insinuate guilt which they forbore to develope, was unmanly, and could only serve to injure an honourable cause. Scarcely less disgraceful to the Review is the late elaborate piece of abuse against