Francis Jeffrey Jeffrey.

Selections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey online

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Htbenarum press Series.

This series is intended to furnish a

library of the best English literature

from Chaucer to the present time in a

form adapted to the needs of both the

student and the general reader. The

works selected are carefully edited, with

biographical and critical introductions,

full explanatory notes, and other neces-

— — . — ^

sary apparatus.













Copyright, 1894,
By lewis E. gates.



The following Selections from Jeffrey's Essays have a
three-fold purpose : first, to illustrate Jeffrey's style and
methods as a critic and his most characteristic opinions ;
secondly, to give examples of what was in its day deemed
the best literary criticism, with a view to suggesting the
changes in methods and aims that have since been
wrought ; thirdly, to bring together elementary discus-
sions of a few terms and topics in literature which
students are always supposed to be familiar with, but
which they can hardly find treated in ordinary manuals
or reference-books. With these aims in mind it has
seemed best to limit the Selections to essays on literature.
This limitation ensures unity, and the resulting volume
may well be used by classes that are beginning the inde-
pendent study of literary topics and of methods of

On the other hand, this limitation prevents the Selec-
tions from doing justice to Jeffrey's versatility, and from
illustrating satisfactorily certain points on which much
stress is laid in the Intro ductio?i^ — the range of the
Edinburgh essays, and their courage and vigor in the
treatment of religious, social, and political questions.
The reader who wishes illustrations of these points,
must consult Jeffrey's four volumes of Contributions


to the Edinburgh Review, or turn to the files of the

The text of the Selections is entire as far as it goes,
except in four essays, where omissions are marked by
stars ; but every Selection ends, when Jeffrey turns from
his discussion of general questions, and begins to deal
specifically with the book before him by means of sum-
maries and extracts. It has not been thought worth
while to mark this form of incompleteness with stars.

The best short sketch of Jeffrey's life is that of Mr.
Leslie Stephen in the Dictionary of National Biography ;
the standard biography is Lord Cockburn's Life a7id Cor-
respondence of Lord feffrey, in two volumes.

The text of the Selections, including punctuation and
spelling, is precisely that of the London edition of 1844,
save for the correction of a few obvious and trifling

Harvard University.
December 26, 1893.





Introduction vii

I. Jeffrey's Fame vii

II. Jeffrey the Critic x

III. The Edinburgh Review xxx

IV. The Earlier Reviews xxxiv

V. The New Literary Form xl

Selections from Jeffrey's Essays i

Chronological List of Essays 183

Dates in Jeffrey's Life 184

English Reviews 185

Notes 187




During the thirty years after his death Francis Jeffrey
was remembered in literature with very Httle honor.
Those of his essays that were most often recalled were
his attacks on the Lake poets ; and as Wordsworth and
Coleridge had ultimately persuaded the public, or the
larger part of it, to take their poetry at their own valua-
tion, Jeffrey's reputation as a critic suffered proportionally.

Of late years, however, two sets of causes have been
tending to gain for Jeffrey a second hearing and to secure
for him a fair recognition. In the first place, the mystical
view of life, which he found so offensive in Wordsworth
and attacked so relentlessly, has been more and more
falling into disfavor, and giving place to a positive and
scientific habit of thought. The positivism of to-day is
not Jeffrey's positivism, and our insensibility to Words-
worth is not Jeffrey's insensibility ; and yet the temper
of our time is perhaps nearer like Jeffrey's than like
Wordsworth's ; and Jeffrey's frank, comprehensible blun-
ders are nearer tolerable to a latter-day, prose-loving
public than are the extravagances and cloudy mysticism
of much of the poetry he assails.

Then, in the second place, the mere passage of time
has been in Jeffrey's favor ; the historical point of view
has largely replaced the partisan point of view in dis-
cussions of the early literature of the century, and a


scientific recognition of Jeffrey's former prestige has
replaced an impatient dislike of his critical opinions.
Questions of cause and effect, of action and reaction, of
movements and tendencies, have more and more come
to the front ; and for a student of problems of this kind
Jeffrey is not a quantity that can be neglected.

It is hardly possible to glance through the life of any
literary man of the early part of the century without
chancing on evidence of Jeffrey's popularity and prestige.
Macaulay, for example, was a devoted admirer of Jeffrey.
One of his letters of 1828 deals wholly with his impressions
of Jeffrey, at whose home he had just been staying ; the
tone of the letter is that of unmixed hero-worship ; no
details of the Scotch critic's appearance or habits or
opinions are too slight to be sent to the Macaulay
household in London. " He has twenty faces almost as
unlike each other as my father's to Mr. Wilberforce's."
... " The mere outline of his face is insignificant.
The expression is everything ; and such power and
variety of expression I never saw in any human coun-
tenance." . . . "The flow of his kindness is quite
inexhaustible." ... " His conversation is very much
like his countenance and his voice, of immense variety."
... " He is a shrewd observer ; and so- fastidious
that I am not surprised at the awe in which many
people seem to stand when in his company." ^ These
are only a few of Macaulay's details and admiring
comments. Nor did Macaulay outgrow this intense
admiration. In April, 1843, he writes Macvey Napier
that he has read and reread Jeffrey's old articles till he
knows them by heart ; - and in December, 1843, ^^ ^^
appearance of Jeffrey's collected essays, he expresses

1 Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, chap. 3.
- Ibid., chap. 9.


himself in almost unmeasured terms : " The variety and
versatility of Jeffrey's mind seems to me more extraordi-
nary than ever. ... I do not think that any one man
except Jeffrey, nay that any three men, could have
produced such diversified excellence. . . . Take him all
in all, I think him more nearly an universal genius than
any man of our time." ^

Macaulay's opinion, however, may not be wholly
beyond suspicion. He himself had much of Jeffrey's
dryness and positiveness of nature, and was tempera-
mentally limited in much the same ways ; he was, more-
over, like Jeffrey an ardent Whig of the Constitutional
type ; and for all these reasons he may be thought to
have been prejudiced. But in Carlyle we have a witness
who was never for a moment in sympathy with Jeffrey's
neat little formulas in art and in politics, and who has
never been accused of registering unduly charitable
opinions of even his best friends. Yet of Jeffrey he
says, " It is certain there has no Critic appeared among
us since who was worth naming beside him ; — and his
influence, for good and for evil, in Literature and other-
wise, has been very great." . . . "His Edinburgh
Review [was] a kind of Delphic Oracle, and Voice of
the Inspired, for great majorities of what is called the
'Intelligent Public'; and himself regarded universally
as a man of consummate penetration, and the facile
princeps in the d^artment he had chosen to cultivate
and practise." ^

These quotations may stand in place of countless minor
ones that might be marshalled ; they will serve to make
real to readers of to-day the magnitude of Jeffrey's power
in literary matters during the first quarter of the century.

^ Life and Letters, chap. 9.

'^ Carlyle's Reminiscences, ed. Norton, II, 271.


Horner's nickname for Jeffrey, " King Jamfray," ^ was
not a misnomer.

What, then, were the causes of Jeffrey's prestige and
popularity? To find a satisfactory explanation, it will
be necessary to look beyond Jeffrey's personality, beyond
even the band of brilliant workers with whom he was
associated, and of whose cleverness and knowledge he
made such well-advised use. It will be necessary to take
into account the nature of the new venture in literature
by means of which Jeffrey won his reputation, the
Edinburgh Review^ and to consider carefully its organ-
ization, its relation to earlier Reviews, its principles in
politick and on social questions, its grounds of appeal to
the public, and even such prosaic matters as its business
arrangements. But before taking up these broader
questions it will be well to examine briefly Jeffrey's
individual characteristics as a literary critic.


The point on which Macaulay laid greatest stress in
his praise of Jeffrey's work was its versatility ; and to-day
as in 1843 t^^is versatility is noteworthy, even after
standards of acquirement and performance have had
a half century in which to develop. Jeffrey ranges
with the same unfaltering step over the most diverse
fields of knowledge. He seems equMly sure of himself
in dealing with politics, history, fiction, poetry, and
philosophy. That his air of bravado and of unquestion-
able mastery was something of a trick, we now know very
well. But even with our latter-day knowledge of the
tricks of the reviewer's trade, we cannot help admiring
and being impressed with the masterful air with which

1 Memoirs and Correspondence of Horner, II, 140.


Jeffrey at one moment sketches the history of Enghsh
poetry, at another analyzes the questions at issue be-
tween materialists and idealists in philosophy, now
argues against the doctrine of perfectibility, and now
discusses points of constitutional law and of government.
A little careful study of Jeffrey's work will usually show
that he has had nothing startlingly novel to say on any
of these questions. And yet our admiration for the
critic's cleverness of manipulation survives even a series
of such disenchanting analyses. If these analyses fail
to show much reserve power or originality, they make
perfectly clear the skill of treatment, the thorough
command of essential facts, the readiness of illustration,
the keenness of vision within a certain range, and the
ease of presentation, which are characteristic of Jeffrey's
best work. Admirers of his versatility, then, will not
claim for him great originality or vast erudition, or that
kind of transforming insight that gives familiar facts an
unsuspected significance by bringing them into relation
with a new set of first principles. But they will insist on
their right to delight in his readiness of adaptation, in his
quick-eyed perception, in his tact in simplifying complex
problems, and in his unfailing certainty of aim and
sureness of motion. He always bears himself gracefully
and confidently and threads his way with the perfection
of sure-footing to the goal he has from the first foreseen ;
and he does all this with equal precision and clairvoyance
whether he is dealing with Scott's Ma?'f?iio?i, or the
Memoirs of Dr. Priestley., or Dugald Stewart's Philo-
sophical Essays, or the French translation of Jeremy
Bentham's Works. Jeffrey's mastery of his subject is
like the successful barrister's knowledge of his brief ; he
is sure to know whatever he needs to know in order to
carry the matter in hand triumphantly through.


Indeed his readiness and his plausibility are not the
only points in which Jeffrey the critic suggests Jeffrey the
advocate. He has the defects as well as the merits of
the lawyer in literature. He is always making points ;
he is always demonstrating. The intellectual interest
preponderates in his critical work, and his discussions
often seem, particularly to a reader of modern impression-
istic criticism, hard, unsympathetic, searchingly analytical,
repellingly abstract and systematic. He is always on the
watch ; he never lends himself confidingly to his author
and takes passively and gratefully the mood and the
images his author suggests. He never loiters or dreams.
He is full of business and bustle and perpetually distracts
you with his sense of what is coming next. He might
well have been in Wordsworth's mind when the poet
wrote of those who think that

" Nothing of itself must come
But we must still be seeking."

Of course, however, it must be borne in mind that this
tone and manner, so objectionable to some, and nowa-
days perhaps not wholly winning in the eyes of any, are
common to Jeffrey with all dogmatic critics ; and unques-
tionably it is as a dogmatic critic that Jeffrey must be
classed. By the theory of criticism that had been in
vogue during the eighteenth century, there were certain
laws of composition and principles of taste which must
needs be observed, if the literary artist were to attain
any degree of excellence. These laws and principles
had been partially set down in various treatises, and in
this form were within the ken of the critic and ready for
his use as he might need to appeal to them in praising or
blaming the productions of would-be authors. But even
where these laws had not been codified, they existed, so


ran the ingenious and comforting theory, impUcitly in the
mind of the critic. In short, the dogmatic critic regarded
himself and was generally regarded as able to apply abso-
lute tests of merit to all literary work, and as the final
authority on all doubtful matters of taste.

Now, Jeffrey was the inheritor of this tradition in
criticism, and naturally adopted at times its prophetic
tone and its pontifical manner toward public and authors.
Yet, following his temperamental fondness for com-
promises, for middle parties and mediating measures,
Jeffrey never tried formally to defend this old doctrine
or represented himself as an absolute law-giver in litera-
ture. Nowhere does he lay down a complete set of
principles, like the rules of Bossu for epic poetry, or
those of Rapin for the drama, by which excellence in
any form of literature may be absolutely tested. Such
a high-and-dry Tory theory of criticism does not suggest
itself to Jeffrey as tenable. He is a Whig in taste as in
politics, and desires in both spheres the supremacy of a
chosen aristocracy. In his essay on Scott's Lady of the
Lake he declares the standard of literary excellence to
reside in " the taste of a few . . . persons, eminently
qualified, by natural sensibility, and long experience and
reflection, to perceive all beauties that really exist, as
well as to settle the relative value and importance of all
the different sorts of beauty." ^ Jeffrey regards himself
as one of the choicest spirits of this chosen aristocracy,
and it is as the exponent of the best current opinion that
he speaks on all questions of taste. His business, then,
is to dogmatize, to pronounce this right and that wrong,
to praise this author and blame that one ; but his dog-
matism is not the dogmatism of reason, but the dog-
matism of taste ; he justifies his decisions, not by

1 Selections, p. 39.


referring to a code of written laws from which there
is no appeal, but by a more or less direct suggestion
that he has all the best instructed opinion behind him.

For the most part, therefore, in his condemnation of
an author,- he makes- no use of scientific terms of disap-
proval and he appeals to no abstract principles ; he
simply expresses his personal discontent with the author
in commonplace terms of dissatisfaction. Goethe's
Wilhelm Meister, for example, is "sheer nonsense," "ludi-
crously unnatural," full of "pure childishness or mere
folly," " vulgar and obscure," full of " absurdities and
affectations." These terms are, for the most part, mere
circumlocutions for Jeffrey's dislike, mere roundabout
ways of saying that the book is not to his taste. As
for any attempt to come to an understanding with author
or reader about the ends of prose fiction or the best
methods of reaching those ends, Jeffrey never thinks
of such a thing. He simply takes up various passages
and declares he does not comprehend them, or does
not fancy the subjects they treat of, or does not like
the author's ideas or methods. He gives no reasons
for his likes or dislikes, but is content to express them
emphatically and picturesquely. This is, of course, dog-
matism pure and simple, and a dogmatism, too, more
irritating than the dogmatism that argues, for it seems
more arbitrary and more challenging. It is of this tone
and method that Coleridge complains in the twenty-first
chapter of his Biographia Literaria^ when, in comment-
ing on current critical literature, he protests against " the
substitution of assertion for argument " and against
"the frequency of arbitrary and sometimes petulant

But irritating as is this pragmatic, unreasoning dog-
matism, it is nevertheless plainly a step forward from


the view that makes the critic absolute law-giver in art.
As the Whig position in politics is mtdway between
absolute Monarchy and Democracy, so what we may
term the Whig compromise in criticism stands midway
between the tyranny of earlier critics and our modern
freedom. The mere recognition of the fact that the
critic speaks with authority only as representing a coterie,
only as interpreting public opinion, is plainly a change
for the better. The critic no longer regards himself as
by divine right lord alike of public and authors ; he no
longer measures literary success solely by his own little
cut and dried formulas of excellence ; he admits more or
less explicitly that the taste of living readers, not rules
drawn from the works of dead writers, must decide what
in literature is good or bad. He still, to be sure, limits
arbitrarily the circle whose taste he regards as a valid
test ; but it is plain that a new principle has implicitly
been accepted, and that the way is opened for the devel-
opment and recognition of all kinds of beauty and power
the public may require.

Jeffrey himself, however, seems never to have suspected
the conclusions that might legitimately be drawn from
the ideas that he was helping to make current. He
seems never to have had a qualm of doubt touching his
right to dogmatize on the merits and defects of art as
violently as a critic of the older school. In theory, he
held that all artistic excellence is relative ; but in practice,
he never let this doctrine mitigate the severity of his judg-
ments. He asserts in his review of Alison on Taste that
" what a man feels distinctly to be beautiful, is beautiful
to him";^ and that so far as the individual is concerned
all pleasure in art is equally real and justifiable. Yet
this doctrine seems never to have paralyzed in the

1 Selections, p. 154.


least his faith in the superior worth of his ovv^n kind
of pleasure ; and he rates Wordsworth and Coleridge
just as indignantly for not ministering to that pleasure,
as if he had some abstract standard of poetic excellence,
which he could prove they fell short of.

When we try to define Jeffrey's taste and to deter-
mine just what he liked and disliked in literature, we
find an odd combination of sympathies and antipathies.
Mr. Leslie Stephen has spoken of him as in politics an
eighteenth-century survival ; ^ and this seems at first a
tempting formula to apply to his taste in literature.
But a little consideration will show the impropriety of
any such use of terms. The typical eighteenth-century
man of letters is a pseudo-classicist ; and beyond the
pseudo-classical point of view Jeffrey had passed, just as
certainly as he had never reached the Romantic point of
view. Of Pope, for example, he says : he is " much the
best, we think, of the classical Continental school ; but
he is not to be compared with the masters — nor with
the pupils — of that Old English one from which there
had been so lamentable an apostasy." ^ Addison he con-
demns for his " extreme caution, timidity, and flatness," ^
and he declares that " the narrowness of his range in
poetical sentiment and diction, and the utter want either
of passion or of brilliancy, render it difficult to believe
that he was born under the same sun with Shakespeare." ^
These opinions are proof patent of Jeffrey's contempt for
pseudo-classicism. Then, too, Jeffrey is, as he himself
boasts, almost superstitious in his reverence for Shak-
spere.^ More significant still is his admiration for other
Elizabethan dramatists, like Beaumont, Fletcher, Ford,
and Webster. " Of the old English dramatists," he

1 Hours in a Library, III, 176. ^ Selections^ p. 10.

3 Selections, p. 21.


assures us in his essay on Ford^ " it may be said, in
general, tiiat they. are more poetical, and more original in
their diction, than the dramatists of any other age or
country. Their scenes abound more in varied images,
and gratuitous excursions of fancy. Their illustrations,
and figures of speech, are more borrowed from rural life,
and from the simple occupations or universal feelings of
mankind. They are not confined to a certain range of
dignified expressions, nor restricted to a particular assort-
ment of imagery, beyond which it is not lawful to look
for embellishments." ^ Finally, he even commends Cole-
ridge's great favorite, Jeremy Taylor, as enthusiastically
as Coleridge himself could do : " There is in any one of
the prose folios of Jeremy Taylor," he asserts, " more fine
fancy and original imagery — more brilliant conceptions
and glowing expressions — more new figures, and new
applications of old figures — more, in short, of the body
and the soul of poetry, than in all the odes and the epics
that have since been produced in Europe." ^

All these judgments tally exactly with the faith of
Lamb, Coleridge and Wordsworth ; and as one after
another they fall under his eye, the reader is led to fancy
that he has to do with a devotee of Romanticism, with a
critic who is thoroughly in sympathy with the new spirit
in literature. But soon, judgments of an altogether
different nature force themselves on his notice. The
long series of essays is encountered that discusses
Crabbe's poetry ; and the reader sees at once how far
Jeffrey is from welcoming heartily the new age in poetry
or even from allowing its prophets to prophesy in peace
and obscurity. Throughout his praise of Crabbe Jeffrey is
by implication condemning Wordsworth ; nor does he con-
fine himself to this indirect method of attacking Roman-

1 Selections, p. i6. ^ Selections, p. 5.


ticism. In the very first essay on Crabbe he turns aside
from his subject to ridicule, " the Wordsworths, and the
Southeys, and Coleridges and all that ambitious frater-
nity," and contrasts at great length Crabbe's sanity with
Wordsworth's mysticism. " Mr. Crabbe exhibits the
common people of England pretty much as they are ; "-^
whereas " Mr. Wordsworth and his associates . . . intro-
duce us to beings whose existence was not previously
suspected by the acutest observers of nature ; and excite
an interest for them — where they do excite any in-
terest — more by an eloquent and refined analysis of
their own capricious feelings, than by any obvious or
intelligible ground of sympathy in their situation." ^
With Crabbe, Jeffrey feels he is on solid ground, deal-
ing with a man who sees life clearly and sensibly, as
he himself sees it ; and in his enthusiastic praise of the
minute fidelity of Crabbe, of his uncompromising truth
and realism, and of his freedom from all meretricious
effects, from affectation and from absurd mysticism, we
have at once the measure of Jeffrey's poetic sensibility
and the sure evidence of his inability to sympathize
genuinely with "the Lakers."

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Online LibraryFrancis Jeffrey JeffreySelections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey → online text (page 1 of 21)