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THE FIRST EDINBURGH REVIEWERS. 1 (1855.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 2 (Historical & Financial Essays) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 2.
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THE FIRST EDINBURGH REVIEWERS.1
It is odd to hear that the Edinburgh Review was once thought an incendiary publication. A young generation, which has always regarded the appearance of that periodical as a grave constitutional event (and been told that its composition is entrusted to Privy Councillors only), can scarcely believe, that once grave gentlemen kicked it out of doors—that the dignified classes murmured at “those young men” starting such views, abetting such tendencies, using such expressions—that aged men said: “Very clever, but not at all sound”. Venerable men, too, exaggerate. People say the Review was planned in a garret, but this is incredible. Merely to take such a work into a garret would be inconsistent with propriety; and the tale that the original conception, the pure idea to which each number is a quarterly aspiration, ever was in a garret is the evident fiction of reminiscent ages—striving and failing to remember.
Review writing is one of the features of modern literature. Many able men really give themselves up to it. Comments on ancient writings are scarcely so common as formerly; no great part of our literary talent is devoted to the illustration of the ancient masters; but what seems at first sight less dignified, annotation on modern writings was never so frequent. Hazlitt started the question, whether it would not be as well to review works which did not appear, in lieu of those which did—wishing, as a reviewer, to escape the labour of perusing print, and, as a man, to save his fellow-creatures from the slow torture of tedious extracts. But, though approximations may frequently be noticed—though the neglect of authors and independence of critics are on the increase—this conception, in its grandeur, has never been carried out. We are surprised at first sight, that writers should wish to comment on one another; it appears a tedious mode of stating opinions, and a needless confusion of personal facts with abstract arguments; and some, especially authors who have been censured, say that the cause is laziness—that it is easier to write a review than a book—and that reviewers are, as Coleridge declared, a species of maggots, inferior to bookworms, living on the delicious brains of real genius. Indeed, it would be very nice, but our world is so imperfect. This idea is wholly false. Doubtless it is easier to write one review than one book: but not, which is the real case, many reviews than one book. A deeper cause must be looked for.
In truth, review writing but exemplifies the casual character of modern literature. Everything about it is temporary and fragmentary. Look at a railway stall; you see books of every colour—blue, yellow, crimson, “ring-streaked, speckled, and spotted,” on every subject, in every style, of every opinion, with every conceivable difference, celestial or sublunary, maleficent, beneficent—but all small. People take their literature in morsels, as they take sandwiches on a journey. The volumes, at least, you can see clearly, are not intended to be everlasting. It may be all very well for a pure essence like poetry to be immortal in a perishable world; it has no feeling; but paper cannot endure it, paste cannot bear it, string has no heart for it. The race has made up its mind to be fugitive, as well as minute. What a change from the ancient volume!—
And the change in the appearance of books has been accompanied—has been caused—by a similar change in readers. What a transition from the student of former ages!—from a grave man, with grave cheeks and a considerate eye, who spends his life in study, has no interest in the outward world, hears nothing of its din, and cares nothing for its honours, who would gladly learn and gladly teach, whose whole soul is taken up with a few books of “Aristotle and his Philosophy,”—to the merchant in the railway, with a head full of sums, an idea that tallow is “up,” a conviction that teas are “lively,” and a mind reverting perpetually from the little volume which he reads to these mundane topics, to the railway, to the shares, to the buying and bargaining universe. We must not wonder that the outside of books is so different, when the inner nature of those for whom they are written is so changed.
It is indeed a peculiarity of our times, that we must instruct so many persons. On politics, on religion, on all less important topics still more, every one thinks himself competent to think,—in some casual manner does think—to the best of our means must be taught to think—rightly. Even if we had a profound and far-seeing statesman, his deep ideas and long-reaching vision would be useless to us, unless we could impart a confidence in them to the mass of influential persons, to the unelected Commons, the unchosen Council, who assist at the deliberations of the nation. In religion the appeal now is not to the technicalities of scholars, or the fiction of recluse schoolmen, but to the deep feelings, the sure sentiments, the painful strivings of all who think and hope. And this appeal to the many necessarily brings with it a consequence. We must speak to the many so that they will listen—that they will like to listen—that they will understand. It is of no use addressing them with the forms of science, or the rigour of accuracy, or the tedium of exhaustive discussion. The multitude are impatient of system, desirous of brevity, puzzled by formality. They agree with Sydney Smith: “Political economy has become, in the hands of Malthus and Ricardo, a school of metaphysics. All seem agreed what is to be done; the contention is, how the subject is to be divided and defined. Meddle with no such matters.” We are not sneering at “the last of the sciences”; we are concerned with the essential doctrine, and not with the particular instance. Such is the taste of mankind.
We may repeat ourselves.
There is, as yet, no Act of Parliament compelling a bonâ fide traveller to read. If you wish him to read, you must make reading pleasant. You must give him short views, and clear sentences. It will not answer to explain what all the things which you describe are not. You must begin by saying what they are. There is exactly the difference between the books of this age, and those of a more laborious age, that we feel between the lecture of a professor and the talk of the man of the world—the former profound, systematic, suggesting all arguments, analysing all difficulties, discussing all doubts,—very admirable, a little tedious, slowly winding an elaborate way, the characteristic effort of one who has hived wisdom during many studious years, agreeable to such as he is, anything but agreeable to such as he is not: the latter, the talk of the manifold talker, glancing lightly from topic to topic, suggesting deep things in a jest, unfolding unanswerable arguments in an absurd illustration, expounding nothing, completing nothing, exhausting nothing, yet really suggesting the lessons of a wider experience, embodying the results of a more finely tested philosophy, passing with a more Shakespearian transition, connecting topics with a more subtle link, refining on them with an acuter perception, and what is more to the purpose, pleasing all that hear him, charming high and low, in season and out of season, with a word of illustration for each and a touch of humour intelligible to all,—fragmentary yet imparting what he says, allusive yet explaining what he intends, disconnected yet impressing what he maintains. This is the very model of our modern writing. The man of the modern world is used to speak what the modern world will hear; the writer of the modern world must write what that world will indulgently and pleasantly peruse.
In this transition from ancient writing to modern, the review-like essay and the essay-like review fill a large space. Their small bulk, their slight pretension to systematic completeness, their avowal, it might be said, of necessary incompleteness, the facility of changing the subject, of selecting points to attack, of exposing only the best corner for defence, are great temptations. Still greater is the advantage of “our limits”. A real reviewer always spends his first and best pages on the parts of a subject on which he wishes to write, the easy comfortable parts which he knows. The formidable difficulties which he acknowledges, you foresee by a strange fatality that he will only reach two pages before the end; to his great grief there is no opportunity for discussing them. As a young gentleman, at the India House examination, wrote “Time up” on nine unfinished papers in succession, so you may occasionally read a whole review, in every article of which the principal difficulty of each successive question is about to be reached at the conclusion. Nor can any one deny that this is the suitable skill, the judicious custom of the craft.
Some may be inclined to mourn over the old days of systematic arguments and regular discussion. A “field-day” controversy is a fine thing. These skirmishes have much danger and no glory. Yet there is one immense advantage. The appeal now is to the mass of sensible persons. Professed students are not generally suspected of common-sense; and though they often show acuteness in their peculiar pursuits, they have not the various experience, the changing imagination, the feeling nature, the realised detail which are necessary data for a thousand questions. Whatever we may think on this point, however, the transition has been made. The EdinburghReview was, at its beginning, a material step in the change. Unquestionably, the Spectator and Tatler, and such-like writings, had opened a similar vein, but their size was too small. They could only deal with small fragments, or the extreme essence of a subject. They could not give a view of what was complicated, or analyse what was involved. The modern man must be told what to think—shortly, no doubt, but he must be told it. The essay-like criticism of modern times is about the length which he likes. The Edinburgh Review, which began the system, may be said to be, in this country, the commencement on large topics of suitable views for sensible persons.
The circumstances of the time were especially favourable to such an undertaking. Those years were the commencement of what is called the Eldonine period. The cold and haughty Pitt had gone down to the grave in circumstances singularly contrasting with his prosperous youth, and he had carried along with him the inner essence of half-liberal principle, which had clung to a tenacious mind from youthful associations, and was all that remained to the Tories of abstraction or theory. As for Lord Eldon, it is the most difficult thing in the world to believe that there ever was such a man. It only shows how intense historical evidence is, that no one really doubts it. He believed in everything which it is impossible to believe in—in the danger of Parliamentary Reform, the danger of Catholic Emancipation, the danger of altering the Court of Chancery, the danger of altering the Courts of Law, the danger of abolishing capital punishment for trivial thefts, the danger of making landowners pay their debts, the danger of making anything more, the danger of making anything less. It seems as if he maturely thought: “Now I know the present state of things to be consistent with the existence of John Lord Eldon; but if we begin altering that state, I am sure I do not know that it will be consistent”. As Sir Robert Walpole was against all committees of inquiry on the simple ground, “If they once begin that sort of thing, who knows who will be safe?”—so that great Chancellor (still remembered in his own scene) looked pleasantly down from the woolsack, and seemed to observe: “Well it is a queer thing that I should be here, and here I mean to stay”. With this idea he employed, for many years, all the abstract intellect of an accomplished lawyer, all the practical bonhomie of an accomplished courtier, all the energy of both professions, all the subtlety acquired in either, in the task of maintaining John Lord Eldon in the Cabinet, and maintaining a Cabinet that would suit John Lord Eldon. No matter what change or misfortunes happened to the Royal house,—whether the most important person in court politics was the old King or the young King, Queen Charlotte or Queen Caroline—whether it was a question of talking grave business to the mutton of George III., or queer stories beside the champagne of George IV., there was the same figure. To the first he was tearfully conscientious, and at the second the old northern circuit stories (how old, what outlasting tradition shall ever say?) told with a cheerful bonhomie, and a strong conviction that they were ludicrous, really seem to have pleased as well as the more artificial niceties of the professed wits. He was always agreeable and always serviceable. No little peccadillo offended him: the ideal, according to the satirist, of a “good-natured man,”1 he cared for nothing until he was himself hurt. He ever remembered the statute which absolves obedience to a king de facto. And it was the same in the political world. There was one man who never changed. No matter what politicians came and went—and a good many, including several that are now scarcely remembered, did come and go—the “Cabinet-maker,” as men called him, still remained. “As to Lord Liverpool being Prime Minister,” continued Mr. Brougham, “he is no more Prime Minister than I am. I reckon Lord Liverpool as a sort of member of opposition; and after what has recently passed, if I were required, I should designate him as ‘a noble lord with whom I have the honour to act’. Lord Liverpool may have collateral influence, but Lord Eldon has all the direct influence of the Prime Minister. He is Prime Minister to all intents and purposes, and he stands alone in the full exercise of all the influence of that high situation. Lord Liverpool has carried measures against the Lord Chancellor; so have I. If Lord Liverpool carried the Marriage Act, I carried the Education Bill,” etc., etc. And though the general views of Lord Eldon may be described—though one can say at least negatively and intelligibly that he objected to everything proposed, and never proposed anything himself—the arguments are such as it would require great intellectual courage to endeavour at all to explain. What follows is a favourable specimen. “Lord Grey,” says his biographer,1 “having introduced a bill for dispensing with the declarations prescribed by the Acts of 25 and 30 Car. II., against the doctrine of Transubstantiation and the Invocation of Saints, moved the second reading of it on the 10th of June, when the Lord Chancellor again opposed the principle of such a measure, urging that the law which had been introduced under Charles II. had been re-enacted in the first Parliament of William III., the founder of our civil and religious liberties. It had been thought necessary for the preservation of these, that Papists should not be allowed to sit in Parliament, and some test was necessary by which it might be ascertained whether a man was a Catholic or Protestant. The only possible test for such a purpose was an oath declaratory of religious belief, and, as Dr. Paley had observed, it was perfectly just to have a religious test of a political creed. He entreated the House not to commit the crime against posterity of transmitting to them in an impaired and insecure state the civil and religious liberties of England.” And this sort of appeal to Paley and King William is made the ground—one can hardly say the reason—for the most rigid adherence to all that was established.
It may be asked: How came the English people to endure this? They are not naturally illiberal; on the contrary, though slow and cautious, they are prone to steady improvement, and not at all disposed to acquiesce in the unlimited perfection of their rulers. On a certain imaginative side, unquestionably, there is or was a strong feeling of loyalty, of attachment to what is old, love for what is ancestral, belief in what has been tried. But the fond attachment to the past is a very different idea from a slavish adoration of the present. Nothing is more removed from the Eldonine idolatry of the status quo than the old cavalier feeling of deep idolatry for the ancient realm—that half-mystic idea that consecrated what it touched; the moonlight, as it were, which—
Why, then, did the English endure the everlasting Chancellor?
The fact is, that Lord Eldon’s rule was maintained a great deal on the same motives as that of Louis Napoleon. One can fancy his astonishment at hearing it said, and his cheerful rejoinder: “That whatever he was, and Mr. Brougham was in the habit of calling him strange names, no one should ever make him believe that he was a Bonaparte”. But, in fact, he was, like the present Emperor, the head of what we call the party of order. Everybody knows what keeps Louis Napoleon in his place. It is not attachment to him, but dread of what he restrains—dread of revolution. The present may not be good, and having such newspapers—you might say no newspapers—is dreadful; but it is better than no trade, bankrupt banks, loss of old savings; your mother beheaded on destructive principles; your eldest son shot on conservative ones. Very similar was the feeling of Englishmen in the year 1800. They had no liking at all for the French system. Statesmen saw its absurdity, holy men were shocked at its impiety, mercantile men saw its effect on the five per cents. Everybody was revolted by its cruelty. That it came across the Channel was no great recommendation. A witty writer of our own time says, that if a still Mussulman, in his flowing robes, wished to give his son a warning against renouncing his faith, he would take the completest, smartest, dapperest French dandy out of the streets of Pera, and say: “There, my son, if ever you come to forget God and the Prophet, you may come to look like that”. Exactly similar in old conservative speeches is the use of the French Revolution. If you proposed to alter anything, of importance or not of importance, legal or social, religious or not religious, the same answer was ready: “You see what the French have come to. They made alterations; if we make alterations, who knows but we may end in the same way?” It was not any peculiar bigotry in Lord Eldon that actuated him, or he would have been powerless; still less was it any affected feeling which he put forward (though, doubtless, he was aware of its persuasive potency, and worked on it most skilfully to his own ends); it was genuine, hearty, craven fear; and he ruled naturally the commonplace Englishman, because he sympathised in his sentiments, and excelled him in his powers.
There was, too, another cause beside fear which then inclined, and which in similar times of miscellaneous revolution will ever incline, subtle rather than creative intellects to a narrow conservatism. Such intellects require an exact creed; they want to be able clearly to distinguish themselves from those around them, to tell to each man where they differ, and why they differ; they cannot make assumptions; they cannot, like the merely practical man, be content with rough and obvious axioms; they require a theory. Such a want it is difficult to satisfy in an age of confusion and tumult, when old habits are shaken, old views overthrown, ancient assumptions rudely questioned, ancient inferences utterly denied, when each man has a different view from his neighbour, when an intellectual change has set father and son at variance, when a man’s own household are the special foes of his favourite and self-adopted creed. A bold and original mind breaks through these vexations, and forms for itself a theory satisfactory to its notions, and sufficient for its wants. A weak mind yields a passive obedience to those among whom it is thrown. But a mind which is searching without being creative, which is accurate and logical enough to see defects, without being combinative or inventive enough to provide remedies—which, in the old language, is discriminative rather than discursive—is wholly unable, out of the medley of new suggestions, to provide itself with an adequate belief; and it naturally falls back on the status quo. This is, at least, clear and simple and defined; you know at any rate what you propose—where you end—why you pause;—an argumentative defence it is, doubtless, difficult to find; but there are arguments, on all sides; the world is a medley of arguments; no one is agreed in which direction to alter the world; what is proposed is as liable to objection as what exists; nonsense for nonsense, the old should keep its ground: and so in times of convulsion, the philosophic scepticism—the ever-questioning hesitation of Hume and Montaigne—the subtlest quintessence of the most restless and refining abstraction—becomes allied to the stupidest, crudest acquiescence in the present and concrete world. We read occasionally in conservative literature (the remark is as true of religion as of politics) alternations of sentences, the first an appeal to the coarsest prejudice,—the next a subtle hint to a craving and insatiable scepticism. You may trace this even in Vesey junior. Lord Eldon never read Hume or Montaigne, but sometimes, in the interstices of cumbrous law, you may find sentences with their meaning, if not in their manner; “Dumpor’s case always struck me as extraordinary; but if you depart from Dumpor’s case, what is there to prevent a departure in every direction?”
The glory of the Edinburgh Review is that from the first it steadily set itself to oppose this timorous acquiescence in the actual system. On domestic subjects the history of the first thirty years of the nineteenth century is a species of duel between the Edinburgh Review and Lord Eldon. All the ancient abuses which he thought it most dangerous to impair, they thought it most dangerous to retain. “To appreciate the value of the Edinburgh Review,” says one of the founders,1 “the state of England at the period when that journal began should be had in remembrance. The Catholics were not emancipated. The Corporation and Test Acts were unrepealed. The game-laws were horribly oppressive; steel-traps and spring-guns were set all over the country; prisoners tried for their lives could have no counsel. Lord Eldon and the Court of Chancery pressed heavily on mankind. Libel was punished by the most cruel and vindictive imprisonments. The principles of political economy were little understood. The laws of debt and conspiracy were on the worst footing. The enormous wickedness of the slave-trade was tolerated. A thousand evils were in existence which the talents of good and noble men have since lessened or removed: and these efforts have been not a little assisted by the honest boldness of the Edinburgh Review.” And even more characteristic than the advocacy of these or any other partial or particular reforms is the systematic opposition of the Edinburgh Review to the crude acquiescence in the status quo; the timorous dislike to change because it was change; to the optimistic conclusion, “that what is, ought to be”; the sceptical query: “How do you know that what you say will be any better?”
In this defence of the principle of innovation, a defence which it requires great imagination (or, as we suggested, the looking across the Channel) to conceive the efficacy of now, the Edinburgh Review was but the doctrinal organ of the Whigs. A great deal of philosophy has been expended in endeavouring to fix and express theoretically the creed of that party: various forms of abstract doctrine have been drawn out, in which elaborate sentence follows hard on elaborate sentence, to be set aside, or at least vigorously questioned by the next or succeeding inquirers. In truth Whiggism is not a creed, it is a character. Perhaps as long as there has been a political history in this country there have been certain men of a cool, moderate, resolute firmness, not gifted with high imagination, little prone to enthusiastic sentiment, heedless of large theories and speculations, careless of dreamy scepticism; with a clear view of the next step, and a wise intention to take it; a strong conviction that the elements of knowledge are true, and a steady belief that the present world can, and should be, quietly improved.
These are the Whigs. A tinge of simplicity still clings to the character; of old it was the Country Party. The limitation of their imagination is in some sort an advantage to such men; it confines them to a simple path, prevents their being drawn aside by various speculations, restricts them to what is clear and intelligible, and at hand. “I cannot,” said Sir S. Romilly, “be convinced without arguments, and I do not see that either Burke or Paine advance any.” He was unable to see that the most convincing arguments—and some of those in the work of Burke which he alludes to,1 are certainly sound enough—may be expressed imaginatively, and may work a far firmer persuasion than any neat and abstract statement. Nor are the intellectual powers of the characteristic element in this party exactly of the loftiest order; they have no call to make great discoveries, or pursue unbounded designs, or amaze the world by some wild dream of empire and renown. That terrible essence of daring genius, such as we see it in Napoleon, and can imagine it in some of the conquerors of old time, is utterly removed from their cool and placid judgment. In taste they are correct,—that is, better appreciating the complete compliance with explicit and ascertained rules, than the unconscious exuberance of inexplicable and unforeseen beauties. In their own writings, they display the defined neatness of the second order, rather than the aspiring hardihood of the first excellence. In action they are quiet and reasonable rather than inventive and overwhelming. Their power, indeed, is scarcely intellectual; on the contrary, it resides in what Aristotle would have called their ἠθος, and we should call their nature. They are emphatically pure-natured and firm-natured. Instinctively casting aside the coarse temptations and crude excitements of a vulgar earth, they pass like a September breeze across the other air, cool and refreshing, unable, one might fancy, even to comprehend the many offences with which all else is fainting and oppressed. So far even as their excellence is intellectual, it consists less in the supereminent possession of any single talent or endowment, than in the simultaneous enjoyment and felicitous adjustment of many or several;—in a certain balance of the faculties which we call judgment or sense, which placidly indicates to them what should be done, and which is not preserved without an equable calm, and a patient, persistent watchfulness. In such men the moral and intellectual nature half become one. Whether, according to the Greek question, manly virtue can be taught or not, assuredly it has never been taught to them; it seems a native endowment; it seems a soul—a soul of honour—as we speak, within the exterior soul; a fine impalpable essence, more exquisite than the rest of the being; as the thin pillar of the cloud, more beautiful than the other blue of heaven, governing and guiding a simple way through the dark wilderness of our world.
To descend from such elevations, among people Sir Samuel Romilly is the best-known type of this character. The admirable biography of him made public his admirable virtues. Yet it is probable that among the aristocratic Whigs, persons as typical of the character can be found. This species of noble nature is exactly of the kind which hereditary associations tend to purify and confirm; just that casual, delicate, placid virtue, which it is so hard to find, perhaps so sanguine to expect, in a rough tribune of the people. Defects enough there are in this character, on which we shall say something; yet it is wonderful to see what an influence in this sublunary sphere it gains and preserves. The world makes an oracle of its judgment. There is a curious living instance of this. You may observe that when an ancient liberal, Lord John Russell, or any of the essential sect, has done anything very queer, the last thing you would imagine anybody would dream of doing, and is attacked for it, he always answers boldly, “Lord Lansdowne said I might”; or if it is a ponderous day, the eloquence runs, “A noble friend with whom I have ever had the inestimable advantage of being associated from the commencement (the infantile period, I might say) of my political life, and to whose advice,” etc., etc., etc.—and a very cheerful existence it must be for “my noble friend” to be expected to justify—(for they never say it except they have done something very odd)—and dignify every aberration. Still it must be a beautiful feeling to have a man like Lord John, to have a stiff, small man bowing down before you. And a good judge1 certainly suggested the conferring of this authority. “Why do they not talk over the virtues and excellences of Lansdowne? There is no man who performs the duties of life better, or fills a high station in a more becoming manner. He is full of knowledge, and eager for its acquisition. His remarkable politeness is the result of good nature, regulated by good sense. He looks for talents and qualities among all ranks of men, and adds them to his stock of society, as a botanist does his plants; and while other aristocrats are yawning among stars and garters, Lansdowne is refreshing his soul with the fancy and genius which he has found in odd places, and gathered to the marbles and pictures of his palace. Then he is an honest politician, a wise statesman, and has a philosophic mind,” etc., etc.1 Here is devotion for a carping critic; and who ever heard before of bonhomie in an idol?
It may strike some that this equable kind of character is not the most interesting. Many will prefer the bold felicities of daring genius, the deep plans of latent and searching sagacity, the hardy triumphs of an overawing and imperious will. Yet it is not unremarkable that an experienced and erudite Frenchman, not unalive to artistic effect, has just now selected this very species of character for the main figure in a large portion of an elaborate work. The hero of M. Villemain is one to whom he delights to ascribe such things as bon sens, esprit juste, cœur excellent. The result, it may be owned, is a little dull, yet it is not the less characteristic. The instructed observer has detected the deficiency of his country. If France had more men of firm will, quiet composure, with a suspicion of enormous principle and a taste for moderate improvement: if a Whig party, in a word, were possible in France, France would be free. And though there are doubtless crises in affairs, dark and terrible moments, when a more creative intellect is needful to propose, a more dictatorial will is necessary to carry out, a sudden and daring resolution; though in times of inextricable confusion—perhaps the present is one of them2 —a more abstruse and disentangling intellect is required to untwist the ravelled perplexities of a complicated world; yet England will cease to be the England of our fathers, when a large share in great affairs is no longer given to the equable sense, the composed resolution, the homely purity of the characteristic Whigs.
It is evident that between such men and Lord Eldon there could be no peace; and between them and the Edinburgh Review there was a natural alliance. Not only the kind of reforms there proposed, the species of views therein maintained, but the very manner in which those views and alterations are put forward and maintained, is just what they would like. The kind of writing suitable to such minds is not the elaborate, ambitious, exhaustive discussion of former ages, but the clear, simple, occasional writing (as we just now described it) of the present times. The opinions to be expressed are short and simple; the innovations suggested are natural and evident; neither one nor the other require more than an intelligible statement, a distinct exposition to the world; and their reception would be only impeded and complicated by operose and cumbrous argumentation. The exact mind which of all others dislikes the stupid adherence to the status quo, is the keen, quiet, improving Whig mind; the exact kind of writing most adapted to express that dislike is the cool, pungent, didactic essay.
Equally common to the Whigs and the Edinburgh Review is the enmity to the sceptical, over-refining Toryism of Hume and Montaigne. The Whigs, it is true, have a conservatism of their own, but it instinctively clings to certain practical rules tried by steady adherence, to appropriate formulæ verified by the regular application and steady success of many ages. Political philosophers speak of it as a great step when the idea of an attachment to an organised code and system of rules and laws takes the place of the exclusive oriental attachment to the person of the single monarch. This step is natural, is instinctive to the Whig mind; that cool impassive intelligence is little likely to yield to ardent emotions of personal loyalty; but its chosen ideal is a body or collection of wise rules fitly applicable to great affairs, pleasing a placid sense by an evident propriety, gratifying the capacity for business by a constant and clear applicability. The Whigs are constitutional by instinct, as the Cavaliers were monarchical by devotion. It has been a jest at their present leader1 that he is over familiar with public forms and parliamentary rites. The first wish of the Whigs is to retain the constitution; the second—and it is of almost equal strength—is to improve it. They think the body of laws now existing to be, in the main and in its essence, excellent; but yet that there are exceptional defects which should be remedied, superficial inconsistencies that should be corrected. The most opposite creed is that of the sceptic, who teaches that you are to keep what is because it exists; not from a conviction of its excellence, but from an uncertainty that anything better can be obtained. The one is an attachment to precise rules for specific reasons; the other an acquiescence in the present on grounds that would be equally applicable to its very opposite, from a disbelief in the possibility of improvement, and a conviction of the uncertainty of all things. And equally adverse to an unlimited scepticism is the nature of popular writing. It is true that the greatest teachers of that creed have sometimes, and as it were of set purpose, adopted that species of writing; yet essentially it is inimical to them. Its appeal is to the people; as has been shown, it addresses the élite of common men, sensible in their affairs, intelligent in their tastes, influential among their neighbours. What is absolute scepticism to such men?—a dream, a chimera, an inexplicable absurdity. Tell it to them to-day, and they will have forgotten it tomorrow. A man of business hates elaborate trifling. “If you do not believe your own senses,” he will say, “there is no use in my talking to you.” As to the multiplicity of arguments and the complexity of questions, he feels them little. He has a plain, simple, as he would say, practical way of looking at the matter; and you will never make him comprehend any other. He knows the world can be improved. And thus what we may call the middle species of writing—which is intermediate between the light, frivolous style of merely amusing literature, and the heavy, conscientious elaborateness of methodical philosophy—the style of the original Edinburgh—is, in truth, as opposed to the vague, desponding conservatism of the sceptic as it is to the stupid conservatism of the crude and uninstructed; and substantially for the same reason—that it is addressed to men of cool, clear, and practical understandings.
It is, indeed, no wonder that the Edinburgh Review should be agreeable to the Whigs, for the people who founded it were Whigs. Among these, three stand pre-eminent—Horner, Jeffrey, and Sydney Smith. Other men of equal ability may have contributed—and a few did contribute—to its pages; but these men were, more than any one else, the first Edinburgh Review.
Francis Horner’s was a short and singular life. He was the son of an Edinburgh shopkeeper. He died at thirty-nine; and when he died, from all sides of the usually cold House of Commons great statesmen and thorough gentlemen got up to deplore his loss. Tears are rarely parliamentary: all men are arid towards young Scotchmen; yet it was one of that inclement nation whom statesmen of the species Castlereagh, and statesmen of the species Whitbread—with all the many kinds and species that lie between the two—rose in succession to lament. The fortunes and superficial aspect of the man make it more singular. He had no wealth, was a briefless barrister, never held an office, was a conspicuous member of the most unpopular of all oppositions—the opposition to a glorious and successful war. He never had the means of obliging any one. He was destitute of showy abilities: he had not the intense eloquence or overwhelming ardour which enthral and captivate popular assemblies: his powers of administration were little tried, and may possibly be slightly questioned. In his youthful reading he was remarkable for laying down, for a few months of study, enormous plans, such as many years would scarcely complete; and not especially remarkable for doing anything wonderful towards accomplishing those plans. Sir Walter Scott, who, though not illiberal in his essential intellect, was a keen partisan on superficial matters, and no lenient critic on actual Edinburgh Whigs, used to observe: “I cannot admire your Horner; he always reminds me of Obadiah’s bull, who, though he never certainly did produce a calf, nevertheless went about his business with so much gravity, that he commanded the respect of the whole parish”.1 It is no explanation of the universal regret, that he was a considerable political economist: no real English gentleman, in his secret soul, was ever sorry for the death of a political economist: he is much more likely to be sorry for his life. There is an idea that he has something to do with statistics; or, if that be exploded, that he is a person who writes upon “value”: says that rent is—you cannot very well make out what; talks excruciating currency; he may be useful as drying machines are useful;1 but the notion of crying about him is absurd. The economical loss might be great, but it will not explain the mourning for Francis Horner.
The fact is that Horner is a striking example of the advantage of keeping an atmosphere. This may sound like nonsense, and yet it is true. There is around some men a kind of circle or halo of influences, and traits, and associations, by which they infallibly leave a distinct and uniform impression on all their contemporaries. It is very difficult, even for those who have the best opportunities, to analyse exactly what this impression consists in, or why it was made—but it is made. There is a certain undefinable keeping in the traits and manner, and common speech and characteristic actions of some men, which inevitably stamps the same mark and image. It is like a man’s style. There are some writers who can be known by a few words of their writing; each syllable is instinct with a certain spirit: put it into the hands of any one chosen at random, the same impression will be produced by the same casual and felicitous means. Just so in character, the air and atmosphere, so to speak, which are around a man, have a delicate and expressive power, and leave a stamp of unity on the interpretative faculty of mankind. Death dissolves this association, and it becomes a problem for posterity what it was that contemporaries observed and reverenced. There is Lord Somers. Does any one know why he had such a reputation? He was Lord Chancellor, and decided a Bank case, and had an influence in the Cabinet; but there have been Lord Chancellors, and Bank cases, and influential Cabinet ministers not a few, that have never attained to a like reputation. There is little we can connect specifically with his name. Lord Macaulay, indeed, says that he spoke for five minutes on the Bishops’ trial; and that when he sat down, his reputation as an orator and constitutional lawyer was established. But this must be a trifle eloquent; hardly any orator could be fast enough to attain such a reputation in five minutes. The truth is, that Lord Somers had around him that inexpressible attraction and influence of which we speak. He left a sure, and if we may trust the historian, even a momentary impression on those who saw him. By a species of tact they felt him to be a great man. The ethical sense—for there is almost such a thing in simple persons—discriminated the fine and placid oneness of his nature. It was the same on a smaller scale with Horner. After he had left Edinburgh several years, his closest and most confidential associate writes to him: “There is no circumstance in your life, my dear Horner, so enviable as the universal confidence which your conduct has produced among all descriptions of men. I do not speak of your friends, who have been near and close observers; but I have had some occasions of observing the impression which those who are distant spectators have had, and I believe there are few instances of any person of your age possessing the same character for independence and integrity, qualities for which very little credit is given in general to young men.”1 Sydney Smith said, “the Ten Commandments were written on his countenance”. Of course he was a very ugly man, but the moral impression in fact conveyed was equally efficacious. “I have often,” said the same most just observer, “told him, that there was not a crime he might not commit with impunity, as no judge or jury who saw him would give the smallest credit to any evidence against him. There was in his look a calm settled love of all that was honourable and good—an air of wisdom and of sweetness. You saw at once that he was a great man, whom Nature had intended for a leader of human beings; you ranged yourself willingly under his banners, and cheerfully submitted to his sway.” From the somewhat lengthened description of what we defined as the essential Whig character, it is evident how agreeable and suitable such a man was to their quiet, composed, and aristocratic nature. His tone was agreeable to English gentlemen: a firm and placid manliness, without effort or pretension, is what they like best; and therefore it was that the House of Commons grieved for his loss—unanimously and without distinction.
Some friends of Horner’s, in his own time, mildly criticised him for a tendency to party spirit. The disease in him, if real, was by no means virulent; but it is worth noticing as one of the defects to which the proper Whig character is specially prone. It is evident in the quiet agreement of the men. Their composed, unimaginative nature is inclined to isolate itself in a single view; their placid disposition, never prone to self-distrust, is rather susceptible of friendly influence; their practical habit is concentrated on what should be done. They do not wish—they do not like to go forth into various speculation; to put themselves in the position of opponents; to weigh in a refining scale the special weight of small objections. Their fancy is hardly vivid enough to explain to them all the characters of those whom they oppose; their intellect scarcely detective enough to discover a meaning for each grain in opposing arguments. Nor is their temper, it may be, always prone to be patient with propositions which tease, and persons who resist them. The wish to call down fire from heaven is rarely absent in pure zeal for a pure cause.
A good deal of praise has naturally been bestowed upon the Whigs for adopting such a man as Horner, with Romilly and others of that time; and much excellent eulogy has been expended on the close boroughs, which afforded to the Whig leaders a useful mode of showing their favour. Certainly, the character of Horner was one altogether calculated to ingratiate itself with the best and most special Whig nature. But as for the eulogy on the proprietary seats in Parliament, it is certain that from the position of the Whig party, the nomination system was then most likely to show its excellences, and to conceal its defects. Nobody but an honest man would bind himself thoroughly to the Whigs. It was evident that the reign of Lord Eldon must be long; the heavy and common Englishman (after all, the most steady and powerful force in our political constitution) had been told that Lord Grey was in favour of the “Papists,” and liked Bonaparte; and the consequence was a long, painful, arduous exile on “the other side of the table,”—the last place any political adventurer would wish to arrive at. Those who have no bribes will never charm the corrupt; those who have nothing to give will not please those who desire that much shall be given them. There is an observation of Niel Blane, the innkeeper, in Old Mortality. “ ‘And what are we to eat ourselves, then, father,’ asked Jenny, ‘when we hae sent awa the haile meal in the ark and the girnel?’ ‘We maun gaur wheat flour serve us for a blink,’ said Niel, with an air of resignation. ‘It is not that ill food, though far frae being sae hearty and kindly to a Scotchman’s stomach as the curney aitmeal is: the Englishers live amaist upon it,’ ” etc. It was so with the Whigs; they were obliged to put up with honest and virtuous men, and they wanted able men to carry on a keen opposition; and, after all, they and the “Englishers” like such men best.
In another point of view, too, Horner’s life was characteristic of those times. It might seem, at first sight, odd that the English Whigs should go to Scotland to find a literary representative. There was no place where Toryism was so intense. The constitution of Scotland at that time has been described as the worst constitution in Europe. The nature of the representation made the entire country a Government borough. In the towns, the franchise belonged to a close and self-electing corporation, who were always carefully watched: the county representation, anciently resting on a property qualification, had become vested in a few titular freeholders, something like lords of the manor, only that they might have no manor; and these, even with the addition of the borough freeholders, did not amount to three thousand. The whole were in the hands of Lord Eldon’s party, and the entire force, influence, and patronage of Government were spent to maintain and keep it so. By inevitable consequence, Liberalism, even of the most moderate kind, was thought almost a criminal offence. The mild Horner was considered a man of “very violent opinions”.1 Jeffrey’s father, a careful and discerning parent, was so anxious to shield him from the intellectual taint, as to forbid his attendance at Stewart’s lectures. This seems an odd place to find the eruption of a liberal review. Of course the necessary effect of a close and commonplace tyranny was to engender a strong reaction in searching and vigorous minds. The Liberals of the North, though far fewer, may perhaps have been stronger Liberals than those of the South; but this will hardly explain the phenomenon. The reason is an academical one; the teaching of Scotland seems to have been designed to teach men to write essays and articles. There are two kinds of education, into all the details of which it is not now pleasant to go, but which may be adequately described as the education of facts, and the education of speculation. The system of facts is the English system. The strength of the pedagogue and the agony of the pupil are designed to engender a good knowledge of two languages; in the old times, a little arithmetic; now, also a knowledge, more or less, of mathematics and mathematical physics. The positive tastes and tendencies of the English mind confine its training to ascertained learning and definite science. In Scotland the case has long been different. The time of a man like Horner was taken up with speculations like these: “I have long been feeding my ambition with the prospect of accomplishing, at some future period of my life, a work similar to that which Sir Francis Bacon executed, about two hundred years ago. It will depend on the sweep and turn of my speculations, whether they shall be thrown into the form of a discursive commentary on the Instauratio Magna of that great author, or shall be entitled to an original form, under the title of a ‘View of the Limits of Human Knowledge and a System of the Principles of Philosophical Inquiry’. I shall say nothing at present of the audacity,” etc., etc. And this sort of planning, which is the staple of his youthful biography, was really accompanied by much application to metaphysics, history, political economy, and such like studies. It is not at all to our present purpose to compare this speculative and indeterminate kind of study with the rigorous accurate education of England. The fault of the former is sometimes to produce a sort of lecturer in vacuo, ignorant of exact pursuits, and diffusive of vague words. The English now and then produce a learned creature like a thistle, prickly with all facts, and incapable of all fruit. But, passing by this general question, it cannot be doubted that, as a preparation for the writing of various articles, the system of Edinburgh is enormously superior to that of Cambridge. The particular, compact, exclusive learning of England is inferior in this respect to the general, diversified, omnipresent information of the North; and what is more, the speculative, dubious nature of metaphysical and such like pursuits tends, in a really strong mind, to cultivate habits of independent thought and original discussion. A bold mind so trained will even wish to advance its peculiar ideas, on its own account, in a written and special form; that is, as we said, to write an article. Such are the excellences in this respect of the system of which Horner is an example. The defects tend the same way. It tends, as is said, to make a man fancy he knows everything. “Well then, at least,” it may be answered, “I can write an article on everything.”
The facility and boldness of the habits so produced were curiously exemplified in Lord Jeffrey. During the first six years of the Edinburgh Review he wrote as many as seventy-nine articles; in a like period afterwards he wrote forty. Any one who should expect to find a pure perfection in these miscellaneous productions, should remember their bulk. If all his reviews were reprinted, they would be very many. And all the while, he was a busy lawyer, was editor of the Review, did the business, corrected the proof-sheets; and more than all, what one would have thought a very strong man’s work, actually managed Henry Brougham. You must not criticise papers like these, rapidly written in the hurry of life, as you would the painful words of an elaborate sage, slowly and with anxious awfulness instructing mankind. Some things, a few things, are for eternity; some, and a good many, are for time. We do not expect the everlastingness of the Pyramids from the vibratory grandeur of a Tyburnian mansion.
The truth is, that Lord Jeffrey was something of a Whig critic. We have hinted, that among the peculiarities of that character, an excessive partiality for new, arduous, overwhelming, original excellence, was by no means to be numbered. Their tendency inclining to the quiet footsteps of custom, they like to trace the exact fulfilment of admitted rules, a just accordance with the familiar features of ancient merit. But they are most averse to mysticism. A clear, precise, discriminating intellect shrinks at once from the symbolic, the unbounded, the indefinite. The misfortune is that mysticism is true. There certainly are kinds of truths, borne in as it were instinctively on the human intellect, most influential on the character and the heart, yet hardly capable of stringent statement, difficult to limit by an elaborate definition. Their course is shadowy; the mind seems rather to have seen than to see them, more to feel after than definitely apprehend them. They commonly involve an infinite element, which of course cannot be stated precisely, or else a first principle—an original tendency—of our intellectual constitution, which it is impossible not to feel, and yet which it is hard to extricate in terms and words. Of this latter kind is what has been called the religion of Nature, or more exactly perhaps, the religion of the imagination. This is an interpretation of the world. According to it the beauty of the universe has a meaning, its grandeur a soul, its sublimity an expression. As we gaze on the faces of those whom we love; as we watch the light of life in the dawning of their eyes, and the play of their features, and the wildness of their animation; as we trace in changing lineaments a varying sign; as a charm and a thrill seem to run along the tone of a voice, to haunt the mind with a mere word; as a tone seems to roam in the ear; as a trembling fancy hears words that are unspoken; so in Nature the mystical sense finds a motion in the mountain, and a power in the waves, and a meaning in the long white line of the shore, and a thought in the blue of heaven, and a gushing soul in the buoyant light, an unbounded being in the vast void of air, and
“Wakeful watchings in the pointed stars”.
There is a philosophy in this which might be explained, if explaining were to our purpose. It might be advanced that there are original sources of expression in the essential grandeur and sublimity of Nature, of an analogous though fainter kind, to those familiar, inexplicable signs by which we trace in the very face and outward lineaments of man the existence and working of the mind within. But be this as it may, it is certain that Mr. Wordsworth preached this kind of religion, and that Lord Jeffrey did not believe a word of it. His cool, sharp, collected mind revolted from its mysticism; his detective intelligence was absorbed in its apparent fallaciousness; his light humour made sport with the sublimities of the preacher. His love of perspicuity was vexed by its indefiniteness; the precise philosopher was amazed at its mystic unintelligibility. Finding a little fault was doubtless not unpleasant to him. The reviewer’s pen—ϕόνοσ ἡρώεσσινhas seldom been more poignantly wielded. “If,” he was told, “you could be alarmed into the semblance of modesty, you would charm everybody; but remember my joke against you” (Sydney Smith loquitur) “about the moon. D—n the solar system—bad light—planets too distant—pestered with comets: feeble contrivance; could make a better with great ease.” Yet we do not mean that in this great literary feud, either of the combatants had all the right, or gained all the victory. The world has given judgment. Both Mr. Wordsworth and Lord Jeffrey have received their reward. The one had his own generation; the laughter of men, the applause of drawing-rooms, the concurrence of the crowd: the other a succeeding age, the fond enthusiasm of secret students, the lonely rapture of lonely minds. And each has received according to his kind. If all cultivated men speak differently because of the existence of Wordsworth and Coleridge; if not a thoughtful English book has appeared for forty years, without some trace for good or evil of their influence; if sermon-writers subsist upon their thoughts; if “sacred poets” thrive by translating their weaker portion into the speech of women; if, when all this is over, some sufficient part of their writing will ever be fitting food for wild musing and solitary meditation, surely this is because they possessed the inner nature—“an intense and glowing mind,” “the vision and the faculty divine”.1 But if, perchance, in their weaker moments, the great authors of the Lyrical Ballads did ever imagine that the world was to pause because of their verses: that “Peter Bell” would be popular in drawing-rooms; that “Christabel” would be perused in the City; that people of fashion would make a handbook of the “Excursion,”—it was well for them to be told at once that this was not so. Nature ingeniously prepared a shrill artificial voice, which spoke in season and out of season, enough and more than enough, what will ever be the idea of the cities of the plain concerning those who live alone among the mountains; of the frivolous concerning the grave; of the gregarious concerning the recluse; of those who laugh concerning those who laugh not; of the common concerning the uncommon; of those who lend on usury concerning those who lend not; the notion of the world of those whom it will not reckon among the righteous—it said,2 “This won’t do!” And so in all time will the lovers of polished Liberalism speak, concerning the intense and lonely prophet.
Yet, if Lord Jeffrey had the natural infirmities of a Whig critic, he certainly had also its extrinsic and political advantages. Especially at Edinburgh the Whigs wanted a literary man. The Liberal party in Scotland had long groaned under political exclusion; they had suffered, with acute mortification, the heavy sway of Henry Dundas, but they had been compensated by a literary supremacy; in the book-world they enjoyed a domination. On a sudden this was rudely threatened. The fame of Sir Walter Scott was echoed from the southern world and appealed to every national sentiment—to the inmost heart of every Scotchman. And what a ruler! a lame Tory, a jocose Jacobite, a laugher at Liberalism, a scoffer at metaphysics, an unbeliever in political economy! What a Gothic ruler for the modern Athens;—was this man to reign over them? It would not have been like human nature, if a strong and intellectual party had not soon found a clever and noticeable rival. Poets, indeed, are not made “to order”; but Byron, speaking the sentiment of his time and circle, counted reviewers their equals. If a Tory produced “Marmion,” a Whig wrote the best article upon it; Scott might, so ran Liberal speech, be the best living writer of fiction; Jeffrey, clearly, was the most shrewd and accomplished of literary critics.
And though this was an absurd delusion, Lord Jeffrey was no everyday man. He invented the trade of editorship. Before him an editor was a bookseller’s drudge; he is now a distinguished functionary. If Jeffrey was not a great critic, he had, what very great critics have wanted, the art of writing what most people would think good criticism. He might not know his subject, but he knew his readers. People like to read ideas which they can imagine to have been their own. “Why does Scarlett always persuade the jury?” asked a rustic gentleman. “Because there are twelve Scarletts in the jury-box,” replied an envious advocate. What Scarlett was in law, Jeffrey was in criticism; he could become that which his readers could not avoid being. He was neither a pathetic writer nor a profound writer; but he was a quick-eyed, bustling, black-haired, sagacious, agreeable man of the world. He had his day, and was entitled to his day; but a gentle oblivion must now cover his already subsiding reputation.
Sydney Smith was an after-dinner writer. His words have a flow, a vigour, an expression, which is not given to hungry mortals. You seem to read of good wine, of good cheer, of beaming and buoyant enjoyment. There is little trace of labour in his composition; it is poured forth like an unceasing torrent, rejoicing daily to run its course. And what courage there is in it! There is as much variety of pluck in writing across a sheet, as in riding across a country. Cautious men have many adverbs, “usually,” “nearly,” “almost”: safe men begin, “it may be advanced”: you never know precisely what their premises are, nor what their conclusion is; they go tremulously like a timid rider; they turn hither and thither; they do not go straight across a subject, like a masterly mind. A few sentences are enough for a master of sentences. A practical topic wants rough vigour and strong exposition. This is the writing of Sydney Smith. It is suited to the broader kind of important questions. For anything requiring fine nicety of speculation, long elaborateness of deduction, evanescent sharpness of distinction, neither his style nor his mind was fit. He had no patience for long argument, no acuteness for delicate precision, no fangs for recondite research. Writers, like teeth, are divided into incisors and grinders. Sydney Smith was a “molar”. He did not run a long sharp argument into the interior of a question; he did not, in the common phrase, go deeply into it; but he kept it steadily under the contact of a strong, capable, heavy, jaw-like understanding,—pressing its surface, effacing its intricacies, grinding it down. Yet, as we said, this is done without toil. The play of the “molar” is instinctive and placid; he could not help it; it would seem that he had an enjoyment in it.
The story is, that he liked a bright light; that when he was a poor parson in the country, he used, not being able to afford more delicate luminaries, to adorn his drawing-room with a hundred little lamps of tin metal and mutton fat. When you know this, you see it in all his writings. There is the same preference of perspicuity throughout them. Elegance, fine savour, sweet illustration, are quite secondary. His only question to an argument was, “Will it tell?” as to an example, “Will it exemplify?” Like what is called “push” in a practical man, his style goes straight to its object; it is not restrained by the gentle hindrances, the delicate decorums of refining natures. There is nothing more characteristic of the Scandinavian mythology, than that it had a god with a hammer. You have no better illustration of our English humour, than the great success of this huge and healthy organisation.
There is something about this not exactly to the Whig taste. They do not like such broad fun, and rather dislike unlimited statement. Lord Melbourne, it is plain, declined to make him a bishop. In this there might be a vestige of Canningite prejudice, but on the whole, there was the distinction between the two men which there is between the loud wit and the recherché thinker—between the bold controversialist and the discriminative statesman. A refined noblesse can hardly respect a humorist; he amuses them, and they like him, but they are puzzled to know whether he does not laugh at them as well as with them; and the notion of being laughed at, ever, or on any score, is alien to their shy decorum and suppressed pride. But in a broader point of view, and taking a wider range of general character, there was a good deal in common. More than any one else, Sydney Smith was Liberalism in life. Somebody has defined Liberalism as the spirit of the world. It represents its genial enjoyment, its wise sense, its steady judgment, its preference of the near to the far, of the seen to the unseen; it represents, too, its shrinking from difficult dogma, from stern statement, from imperious superstition. What health is to the animal, Liberalism is to the polity. It is a principle of fermenting enjoyment, running over all the nerves, inspiring the frame, happy in its mind, easy in its place, glad to behold the sun. All this Sydney Smith, as it were, personified. The biography just published of him will be very serviceable to his fame. He has been regarded too much as a fashionable jester, and metropolitan wit of society. We have now for the first time a description of him as he was,—equally at home in the crude world of Yorkshire, and amid the quintessential refinements of Mayfair. It is impossible to believe that he did not give the epithet to his parish: it is now called Foston le Clay. It was a “mute inglorious” Sydney of the district, that invented the name, if it is really older than the century. The place has an obtuse soil, inhabited by stiff-clayed Yorkshiremen. There was nobody in the parish to speak to, only peasants, farmers, and such like (what the clergy call “parishioners”) and an old clerk who thought every one who came from London a fool, “but you I do zee, Mr. Smith, be no fool”. This was the sort of life.
“I turned schoolmaster, to educate my son, as I could not afford to send him to school. Mrs. Sydney turned schoolmistress, to educate my girls, as I could not afford a governess. I turned farmer, as I could not let my land. A man-servant was too expensive; so I caught up a little garden-girl, made like a mile-stone, christened her Bunch, put a napkin in her hand, and made her my butler. The girls taught her to read, Mrs. Sydney to wait, and I undertook her morals. Bunch became the best butler in the county.
“I had little furniture, so I bought a cart-load of deals; took a carpenter (who came to me for parish relief, called Jack Robinson) with a face like a full-moon, into my service; established him in a barn, and said: ‘Jack, furnish my house’. You see the result!
“At last it was suggested that a carriage was much wanted in the establishment. After diligent search, I discovered in the back settlements of a York coach-maker an ancient green chariot, supposed to have been the earliest invention of the kind. I brought it home in triumph to my admiring family. Being somewhat dilapidated, the village tailor lined it, the village blacksmith repaired it; nay (but for Mrs. Sydney’s earnest entreaties), we believe the village painter would have exercised his genius upon the exterior; it escaped this danger however, and the result was wonderful. Each year added to its charms: it grew younger and younger; a new wheel, a new spring; I christened it the Immortal; it was known all over the neighbourhood; the village boys cheered it, and the village dogs barked at it; but ‘Faber meæ fortunæ’ was my motto, and we had no false shame.
“Added to all these domestic cares, I was village parson, village doctor, village comforter, village magistrate, and Edinburgh Reviewer; so you see I had not much time left on my hands to regret London.”
It is impossible that this should not at once remind us of the life of Sir Walter Scott. There is the same strong sense, the same glowing, natural pleasure, the same power of dealing with men, the same power of diffusing common happiness. Both enjoyed as much in a day, as an ordinary man in a month. The term “animal spirits” peculiarly expresses this bold enjoyment; it seems to come from a principle intermediate between the mind and the body; to be hardly intellectual enough for the soul, and yet too permeating and aspiring for crude matter. Of course, there is an immense imaginative world in Scott’s existence to which Sydney Smith had no claim. But they met upon the present world; they enjoyed the spirit of life; “they loved the world, and the world them;” they did not pain themselves with immaterial speculation—roast beef was an admitted fact. A certain, even excessive practical caution which is ascribed to the Englishman, Scott would have been the better for. Yet his biography would have been the worse. There is nothing in the life before us comparable in interest to the tragic, gradual cracking of the great mind; the overtasking of the great capital, and the ensuing failure; the spectacle of heaving genius breaking in the contact with misfortune. The anticipation of this pain increases the pleasure of the reader; the commencing threads of coming calamity shade the woof of pleasure; the proximity of suffering softens the ὕβρις, the terrible, fatiguing energy of enjoyment.
A great deal of excellent research has been spent on the difference between “humour” and “wit,” into which metaphysical problem “our limits,” of course, forbid us to enter. There is, however, between them, the distinction of dry sticks and green sticks; there is in humour a living energy, a diffused potency, a noble sap; it grows upon the character of the humorist. Wit is part of the machinery of the intellect; as Madame de Stael says, “La gaieté de l’esprit est facile à tous les hommes d’esprit”. We wonder Mr. Babbage does not invent a punning-engine; it is just as possible as a calculating one. Sydney Smith’s mirth was essentially humorous; it clings to the character of the man; as with the sayings of Dr. Johnson, there is a species of personality attaching to it; the word is more graphic because Sydney Smith—that man being the man that he was—said it, than it would have been if said by any one else. In a desponding moment, he would have it he was none the better for the jests which he made, any more than a bottle for the wine which passed through it: this is a true description of many a wit, but he was very unjust in attributing it to himself.
Sydney Smith is often compared to Swift; but this only shows with how little thought our common criticism is written. The two men have really nothing in common, except that they were both high in the Church, and both wrote amusing letters about Ireland. Of course, to the great constructive and elaborative power displayed in Swift’s longer works, Sydney Smith has no pretension; he could not have written Gulliver’s Travels; but so far as the two series of Irish letters go, it seems plain that he has the advantage. Plymley’s letters are true; the treatment may be incomplete—the Catholic religion may have latent dangers and insidious attractions which are not there mentioned—but the main principle is sound; the common-sense of religious toleration is hardly susceptible of better explanation. Drapier’s letters, on the contrary, are essentially absurd; they are a clever appeal to ridiculous prejudices. Who cares now for a disputation on the evils to be apprehended a hundred years ago from adulterated halfpence, especially when we know that the halfpence were not adulterated, and that if they had been, those evils would never have arisen? Any one, too, who wishes to make a collection of currency crotchets, will find those letters worth his attention. No doubt there is a clever affectation of common-sense, as in all of Swift’s political writings, and the style has an air of business; yet, on the other hand, there are no passages which any one would now care to quote for their manner and their matter; and there are many in “Plymley” that will be constantly cited, so long as existing controversies are at all remembered. The whole genius of the two writers is emphatically opposed. Sydney Smith’s is the ideal of popular, buoyant, riotous fun; it cries and laughs with boisterous mirth; it rolls hither and thither like a mob, with elastic and commonplace joy. Swift was a detective in a dean’s wig; he watched the mob; his whole wit is a kind of dexterous indication of popular frailties; he hated the crowd; he was a spy on beaming smiles, and a common informer against genial enjoyment. His whole essence was a soreness against mortality. Show him innocent mirth, he would say, How absurd! He was painfully wretched, no doubt, in himself: perhaps, as they say, he had no heart; but his mind, his brain had a frightful capacity for secret pain; his sharpness was the sharpness of disease; his power the sole acumen of morbid wretchedness. It is impossible to fancy a parallel more proper to show the excellence, the unspeakable superiority of a buoyant and bounding writer.
At the same time, it is impossible to give to Sydney Smith the highest rank, even as a humorist. Almost all his humour has reference to the incongruity of special means to special ends. The notion of Plymley is want of conformity between the notions of “my brother Abraham,” and the means of which he makes use; of the quiet clergyman, who was always told he was a bit of a goose, advocating conversion by muskets, and stopping Bonaparte by Peruvian bark. The notion of the letters to Archdeacon Singleton is, a bench of bishops placidly and pleasantly destroying the Church. It is the same with most of his writings. Even when there is nothing absolutely practical in the idea, the subject is from the scenery of practice, from concrete entities, near institutions, superficial facts. You might quote a hundred instances. Here is one: “A gentleman, in speaking of a nobleman’s wife of great rank and fortune, lamented very much that she had no children. A medical gentleman who was present observed that to have no children was a great misfortune, but he had often observed it was hereditary in families.” This is what we mean by saying his mirth lies in the superficial relations of phenomena (some will say we are pompous, like the medical man); in the relation of one external fact to another external fact; of one detail of common life to another detail of common life. But this is not the highest topic of humour. Taken as a whole, the universe is absurd. There seems an unalterable contradiction between the human mind and its employments. How can a soul be a merchant? What relation to an immortal being have the price of linseed, the fall of butter, the tare on tallow, or the brokerage on hemp? Can an undying creature debit “petty expenses,” and charge for “carriage paid”? All the world’s a stage;—“the satchel, and the shining morning face”—the “strange oaths”;—“the bubble reputation”—the
Can these things be real? Surely they are acting. What relation have they to the truth as we see it in theory? What connection with our certain hopes, our deep desires, our craving and infinite thought? “In respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect it is a shepherd’s life, it is nought.” The soul ties its shoe; the mind washes its hands in a basin. All is incongruous.
Certain, ’tis certain; very sure, very sure; death, as the Psalmist saith, is certain to all; all shall die.—How a good yoke of bullocks at Stamford fair?
Truly, cousin, I was not there.
Death is certain.—Is old Double, of your town, living yet?
Dead. See! See! He drew a good bow,—and dead He shot a fine shoot. John of Gaunt loved him well, and betted much money on his head.—Dead! He would have clapped i’ the clout at fourscore, and carried you a forehandshaft, a fourteen and fourteen and a half, that it would have done a man’s heart good to see.—How a score of ewes now?
Thereafter as they be; a score of ewes may be worth ten pounds.
And is Double dead!—”1
It is because Sydney Smith had so little of this Shakespearian humour, that there is a glare in his pages, and that in the midst of his best writing, we sigh for the soothing superiority of quieter writers.
Sydney Smith was not only the wit of the first Edinburgh, but likewise the divine. He was, to use his own expression, the only clergyman who in those days “turned out” to fight the battles of the Whigs. In some sort this was not so important. A curious abstinence from religious topics characterises the original Review. There is a wonderful omission of this most natural topic of speculation in the lives of Horner and Jeffrey. In truth, it would seem that, living in the incessant din of a Calvinistic country, the best course for thoughtful and serious men was to be silent—at least they instinctively thought so. They felt no involuntary call to be theological teachers themselves, and gently recoiled from the coarse admonition around them. Even in the present milder time, few cultivated persons willingly think on the special dogmas of distinct theology. They do not deny them, but they live apart from them: they do not disbelieve them, but they are silent when they are stated. They do not question the existence of Kamschatka, but they have no call to busy themselves with Kamschatka; they abstain from peculiar tenets. Nor in truth is this, though much aggravated by existing facts, a mere accident of this age. There are some people to whom such a course of conduct is always natural: there are certain persons who do not, as it would seem cannot, feel all that others feel; who have, so to say, no ear for much of religion: who are in some sort out of its reach. “It is impossible,” says a divine of the Church of England,1 “not to observe that innumerable persons (may we not say the majority of mankind?) who have a belief in God and immortality, have, nevertheless, scarcely any consciousness of the peculiar doctrines of the Gospel. They seem to live aloof from them in the world of business or of pleasure, ‘the common life of all men,’ not without a sense of right, and a rule of truth and honesty, yet insensible” to much which we need not name. “They have never in their whole lives experienced the love of God, the sense of sin, or the need of forgiveness. Often they are remarkable for the purity of their morals; many of them have strong and disinterested attachments and quick human sympathies; sometimes a stoical feeling of uprightness, or a peculiar sensitiveness to dishonour. It would be a mistake to say that they are without religion. They join in its public acts; they are offended at profaneness or impiety; they are thankful for the blessings of life, and do not rebel against its misfortunes. Such men meet us at every step. They are those whom we know and associate with; honest in their dealings, respectable in their lives, decent in their conversation. The Scripture speaks to us of two classes, represented by the Church and the world, the wheat and the tares, the sheep and the goats, the friends and enemies of God. We cannot say in which of these two divisions we should find a place for them.” They believe always a kind of “natural religion”. Now these are what we may call, in the language of the present, Liberals. Those who can remember, or who will re-read our delineation of the Whig character, may observe its conformity. There is the same purity and delicacy, the same tranquil sense; an equal want of imagination, of impulsive enthusiasm, of shrinking fear. You need not speak like the above writer of “peculiar doctrines”; the phenomenon is no speciality of a particular creed. Glance over the whole of history. As the classical world stood beside the Jewish; as Horace beside St. Paul; like the heavy ark and the buoyant waves, so are men in contrast with one another. You cannot imagine a classical Isaiah; you cannot fancy a Whig St. Dominic; there is no such thing as a Liberal Augustine. The deep sea of mysticism lies opposed to some natures; in some moods it is a sublime wonder; in others an “impious ocean,”—they will never put forth on it at any time.
All this is intelligible, and in a manner beautiful as a character; but it is not equally excellent as a creed. A certain class of Liberal divines have endeavoured to petrify into a theory, a pure and placid disposition. In some respects Sydney Smith is one of these; his sermons are the least excellent of his writings; of course they are sensible and well-intentioned, but they have the defect of his school. With misdirected energy, these divines have laboured after a plain religion; they have forgotten that a quiet and definite mind is confined to a placid and definite world; that religion has its essence in awe, its charm in infinity, its sanction in dread; that its dominion is an inexplicable dominion; that mystery is its power. There is a reluctance in all such writers; they creep away from the unintelligible parts of the subject: they always seem to have something behind;—not to like to bring out what they know to be at hand. They are in their nature apologists; and, as George the Third said: “I did not know the Bible needed an apology”. As well might the thunder be ashamed to roll, as religion hesitate to be too awful for mankind. The invective of Lucretius is truer than the placid patronage of the divine. Let us admire Liberals in life, but let us keep no terms with Paleyans in speculation.
And so we must draw to a conclusion. We have in some sort given a description of, with one great exception, the most remarkable men connected at its origin with the Edinburgh Review. And that exception is a man of too fitful, defective, and strange greatness to be spoken of now. Henry Brougham must be left to after-times. Indeed, he would have marred the unity of our article. He was connected with the Whigs, but he never was one. His impulsive ardour is the opposite of their coolness; his irregular, discursive intellect contrasts with their quiet and perfecting mind. Of those of whom we have spoken, let us say, that if none of them attained to the highest rank of abstract intellect; if the disposition of none of them was ardent or glowing enough to hurry them forward to the extreme point of daring greatness; if only one can be said to have a lasting place in real literature:—it is clear that they vanquished a slavish cohort; that they upheld the name of freemen in a time of bondmen; that they applied themselves to that which was real, and accomplished much which was very difficult; that the very critics who question their inimitable excellence will yet admire their just and scarcely imitable example.
[1 ]A Memoir of the Rev. Sydney Smith. By his daughter, Lady Holland. With a Selection from his Letters. Edited by Mrs. Austin. 2 vols. Longmans.
Lord Jeffrey’s Contributions to the “Edinburgh Review”. A new Edition in one volume. Longmans.
Lord Brougham’s Collected Works, vols. i., ii., iii. Lives of Philosophers of the Reign of George III. Lives of Men of Letters of the Reign of George III. Historical Sketches of the Statesmen who flourished in the Reign of George III. Griffin.
The Rev. Sydney Smith’s Miscellaneous Works. Including his Contributions to the “Edinburgh Review”. Longmans.
[1 ] Crabbe: “The Library”.
[1 ] Hazlitt on Eldon in the “Spirit of the Age”.
[1 ] Twiss.
[1 ] Introduction to “Kenilworth,” from Evans’s Old Ballads (Forrest Morgan).
[1 ] Sydney Smith.
[1 ]Reflections upon the Revolution in France.
[1 ] Sydney Smith.
[1 ] Sydney Smith, Letter to John Murray, June 4, 1843; “Memoir,” vol. ii.
[2 ] This was published in October, 1855.
[1 ] Lord Palmerston.
[1 ] See last chapter of “Tristram Shandy”.
[1 ] “Horner is ill. He was desired to read amusing books: upon searching his library, it appeared he had no amusing books; the nearest approach to a work of that description being the Indian Trader’s Complete Guide.”—Sydney Smith’s Letter to Lady Holland.
[1 ] Letter from Lord Murray.
[1 ] Lady Holland: Memoirs of Sydney Smith.
[1 ] Wordsworth’s “Excursion”.
[2 ] The first words of Jeffrey’s review of the “Excursion” are: “This will never do”.
[1 ] Shakespeare: “As You Like It”.
[1 ] Shakespeare: “Henry IV.”.
[1 ] Dr. Jowett.