Copyright
Francis Jeffrey Jeffrey.

Selections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey online

. (page 19 of 21)
Online LibraryFrancis Jeffrey JeffreySelections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey → online text (page 19 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


relation between author and public, his theory of art and his practice
of criticism would both have been modified. He would have got
beyond the view of poetry that makes it a mere pastime ; and in
criticising contemporary poetry he would have considered it in its
relation to social conditions and as the expression of a spirit whose
presence must be historically accounted for.

105 1. This will never do. These words have done Jeffrey's
reputation an infinite deal of damage. Wordsworth finally con-
quered the public, and Jeffrey's epigrammatic contempt became for
Wordsworth's admirers a mark of the critic's irredeemable shallow-
ness. Of late years, however, opinion has been shifting away from
Wordsworth ; the estimate of Wordsworth's poetry that Mr. Court-
hope has included in chap. i6 of his Life of Pope y tallies in many
respects with Jeffrey's estimate. Mr. Courthope takes exception
to Wordsworth's constant interpretation of life in terms of his own
quaint emotion and to his persistent neglect of the point of view
and the moods of the vast majority of cultivated people. These
are, of course, precisely the objections Jeffrey urges on pages
109-10. On the whole, then, a fair-minded reader of Jeffrey's
essay, particularly if he be no devotee of transcendentalism, will
find it sound in many of its strictures, and irresistibly droll in
its play upon the poet's solemn egotism. The article certainly
fails to do Wordsworth justice; but that it is totally wrong in
its cavilling, as the poet's admirers used to urge, no critic now will
assert.

108 21. The admonitions he has received. This is the very tone
and manner of pedagogic criticism. The author is a schoolboy with
an ill-written exercise and the critic is the master or " monitor " who
rates him for his blunders. In the essays he selected for preserva-
tion Jeffrey is rarely so magisterial. Cf. 101-96.



2 02 NOTES.

109 29. Prevailing impressions. Cf. Courthope's Life of Pope,
chap. i6 : " The two main points of difference tetween the classical
and the modern romantic schools are here brought into vivid relief.
Pope, the antagonist of the metaphysical school, had taught that the
essence of poetry was the presentation, in a perfect form, of imagin-
ative materials common to the poet and the reader — ' What oft was
thought, but ne'er so well expressed.' Wordsworth maintained, on
the contrary, that matter, not in itself stimulating to the general
imagination, might become a proper subject for poetry if glorified by
the imagination of the poet."

110 6. " /^« occasional reference to what ivill he thought of
them.'" Cf. Keats's assertion : " When I am writing for myself for
the mere sake of the moment's enjoyment, perhaps nature has its
course with me — but a Preface is written to the Public. ... I
never wrote one single line of Poetry with the least shadow of public
thought." Letters of John Keats, April 9, 18 18. Cf. also Sydney
Dobell's Thoughts on Art, p. 48 : " Poetry ... is the expression of
a mind according to its own laws ; Rhetoric is the expression of a
mind according to the laws of its Hearer." Wordsworth rejected
emphatically the conventional taste of the world as a standard of
poetic excellence. Cf. his letter to Lady IJeaumont, May 21, 1807 :
" It is impossible that any expectations can be lower than mine
concerning the immediate effect of this little work upon what is
called the public. I do not here take into consideration the envy
and malevolence, and all the bad passions which always stand in the
way of a work of any merit from a living poet ; but merely think of
the pure, absolute, honest ignorance in which all worldlings of every
rank and situation must be enveloped, with respect to the thoughts,
feelings, and images, on which the life of my poems depends. The
things which I have taken, whether from within or without, what
have they to do with routs, dinners, morning calls, hurry from door
to door, from street to street, on foot or in carriage; with Mr. Pitt
or Mr. Fox, Mr. Paul or Sir Francis Burdett, the Westminster
election or the borough of Iloniton ? In a word — for I cannot stop
to make my way through the hurry of images that present them-
selves to me — what have they to do with endless talking about
things nobody cares anything for except as far as their own vanity is
concerned, and this with persons they care nothing for but as their
vanity or selfishness is concerned? — What have they to do (to say
all at once) with a life without love t . . . It is an awful truth, that
there neither is, nor can be, any genuine enjoyment of poetry among



NOTES. 203

nineteen out of twenty of those persons who live, or wish to live, in
the broad light of the world — among those who either are, or are
striving to make themselves, people of consideration in society."
Christopher Wordsworth's Memoirs of IVordswort/i, Boston, 1851,

I> 33Z-

111 ]]. A settled perversity 0/ taste. What is unpardonable in
Jeffrey is not his rejection of Wordsworth's transcendentalism but
his failure to comprehend it. He insists on regarding it either as a
mere affectation of singularity for the sake of effect, or as an inex-
plicable mental aberration. Apparently he never made a serious
effort to understand Wordsworth's theory of poetry or theory of
life. He never examined Wordsworth's work in a scientific spirit
and with the simple purpose of mastering Wordsworth's ideas. In
such essays as this the injurious effects of the dogmatic spirit in
criticism are most unmistakable.

113 10. The old familiar one. In this passage Jeffrey disregards
all that is genuinely distinctive in Wordsworth's new poetical Pan-
theism, and makes of him merely a somewhat quaint exponent of
the old-time view of the mechanical relation of the universe to a great
First Cause. Neglecting entirely Wordsworth's doctrine of the
immanence of God in nature, Jeffrey, of course, failed to understand
his mystical interpretation of nature and found it merely a mass of
" moral and devotional ravings."

118 The White Doe. Wordsworth's explanation of his aim in this
poem should be read in connection with Jeffrey's criticism. "The
subject being taken from feudal times has led to its being compared
to some of Walter Scott's poems that belong to the same age and
state of society. The comparison is inconsiderate. Sir Walter
pursued the customary and very natural course of conducting an
action, presenting various turns of fortune, to some outstanding
point on which the mind might rest as a termination or catastrophe.
The course I attempted to pursue is entirely different. Everything
that is attempted by the principal personages in ' The White Doe '
fails, so far as its object is external and substantial. So far as it is
moral and spiritual it succeeds. . . . The anticipated beatification, if
I may say so, of [the heroine's] mind, and the apotheosis of the
companion of her solitude, are the points at which the Poem aims,
and constitute its legitimate catastrophe, far too spiritual a one for
instant or widely-spread sympathy, but not therefore the less-fitted
to make a deep and permanent impression upon that class of minds
who think and feel more independently, than the many do, of the



2 04 NOTES.

surfaces of things and interests transitory because belonging more to
the outward and social forms of life than to its internal spirit."
Christopher Wordsworth's Memoirs of Wordsworth, chap. 36.

122 ]8. The impenetrable armour of its conjunct audacity. The
phrase is unusually epigrammatic for Jeffrey, who, despite his repu-
tation among his contemporaries for brilliancy and sparkle of style,
rarely gives his readers a phrase they can quote.

127 12. True to Nattire. To-day Scott's sins against truth are a
favorite topic with the realists : in Jeffrey's day Scott seemed " true
to nature throughout," and was praised for "copying from actual
existences." This well illustrates how relative a matter is realism in
fiction : one man's truth is another man's lie.

131 20. Mr. Scott. This good guess must duly be noted as an
illustration of Jeffrey's acuteness.

133 6. Works of fiction. Jeffrey's apologies for treating novels as
serious literature are historically interesting. lie has himself alluded
to these apologies and explained them in his preface to those of his
essays that deal with novels and tales.

" As I perceive I have, in some of the following papers, made a sort of
apology for seeking to direct the attention of my readers to things so insig-
nificant as Novels, it may be worth while to inform the present generation
that, iji 7iiy youth, writings of this sort were rated very low with us — scarcely
allowed indeed to pass as part of a nation's permanent literature — and
generally deemed altogether unworthy of any grave critical notice. Nor, in
truth — in spite of Cervantes and Le Sage — and Marivaux, Rousseau, and
Voltaire abroad — and even our own Richardson and Fielding at home —
would it have been easy to controvert that opinion, in our England, at the
time : For certainly a greater mass of trash and rubbish never disgraced the
press of any country, than the ordinary Novels that filled and supported our
circulating libraries, down nearly to the time of Miss Edgeworth's first
appearance. There had been, the Vicar of Wakefield, to be sure, before ; and
Miss Burney's Evelina and Cecilia — and Mackenzie's Man of Feeling, and
some bolder and more varied fictions of the Misses Lee. But the staple of
our Novel market was, beyond imagination, despicable : and had consequently
sunk and degraded the whole department of literature, of which it had
usurped the name.

" All this, however, has since been signally, and happily, changed ; and that
rabble rout of abominations driven from our confines for ever. The Novels
of Sir Walter Scott are, beyond all question, the most remarkable productions
of the present age ; and have made a sensation, and produced an effect, all
over Europe, to which nothing parallel can be mentioned since the days of
Rousseau and Voltaire; while, in our own country, they have attained a
place, inferior only to that which must te filled for ever by the unapproach-



AZOTES. 205

able glory of Shakespeare. With the help, no doubt, of their political revolu-
tions, they have produced, in France, Victor Hugo, Balzac, Paul de Kock,
etc., the Promcssi Sposi in Italy — and Cooper, at least, in America. — In
England, also, they have had imitators enough ; in the persons of Mr. James,
Mr. Lover, and others. But the works most akin to them in excellence have
rather, I think, been related as collaterals than as descendants. Miss Edge-
worth, indeed, stands more in the line of their ancestry ; and I take Miss
Austen and Sir E. L. Bulwer to be as intrinsically original; — as well as the
great German writers, Goetlie, Tieck, Jean Paul Richter, etc. Among them,
however, the honour of tliis branch of literature has at any rate been
splendidly redeemed ; — and now bids fair to maintain its place, at the head
of all that is graceful and instructive in the productions of modern genius."

136 24. Graceful and gentlemaii-like prmciples. In such passages
as this Jeffrey's powers of analysis and of quick and sure generaliza-
tion come out very strikingly. This account of the ethics of the
author of the five new anonymous novels tallies perfectly with the
conclusions that careful study of Scott's complete works and life
has established as regards his ideas of conduct. These essays on
Scott are examples of Jeffrey's best manner. He is confident with-
out being supercilious, severe without being captious or harsh ; his
alertness and sureness of touch are conspicuous, as are also the
swiftness and eager variety of his style ; the insight into the sources
of the author's power, the analysis of methods, and the ready
appreciation of general effects are all characteristic of Jeffrey's best
critical work ; and finally his interpretation of the ethical spirit of
Scott's novels is just and suggestive, and illustrates the kind of literary
discussion in which Jeffrey felt himself most original and effective.

138 25. So tame and mawkish. Jeffrey here recognizes the limita-
tion in Scott's genius that Scott himself confessed to in his well-
known eulogy on Jane Austen : " The big bow-wow strain I can do
myself, like any now going ; but the exquisite touch which renders
ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the
truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me." Scott's
Diary in Lockhart's Life of Scott, March 14, 1826.

149 1. These criticisms. In the opening pages of this essay
Jeffrey has considered two possible views of Beauty : first, that
Beauty is a special quality inherent in all beautiful objects, and that
this quality is recognized by a special sense or faculty called the
power of taste ; secondly, that the Beautiful is merely the agreeable.
The first theory he finds untenable because of men's conflicting
judgments about beauty. If beauty were, like color, a simple quality,
perceived directly by a peculiar sense, all men ought to agree in their



2o6 NOTES.

perceptions of beauty as they agree in their perceptions of color ; a
beautiful object ought to force its beauty on a man's sense of beauty
as unmistakably and individually as a colored object forces its color
on his sense of sight. In point of fact, men differ irreconcilably, not
simply as to the degree or kind of beauty in a given object, but as to
whether it has beauty at all. Hence, Jeffrey contends, Beauty cannot
be a simple quality perceived by a single sense. Nor, in the
second place, can the Beautiful be merely the agreeable. For it is
plain on a moment's thought, that there are countless objects, such
as sugar,, an easy chair, an old friend, which are agreeable without
being beautiful. After disposing briefly of these two impossible
theories of Beauty, Jeffrey propounds his own theory in a single
sentence ; that sentence is not worth rei^eating, inasmuch as Jeffrey
at once expounds his theory in the second paragraph of the
extract in the text. Finally, Jeffrey takes up historically the most
important theories of Beauty from the times of the Greeks to his
own day, summarizes each, and suggests its shortcomings. It is at
this point that the extract in the text begins.

149 8. Mr. Alisoii's. Rev. Archibald Alison (1757-1839) was the
father of the well-known historian. Sir Archibald Alison. Though
Scotch by birth, he was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, took
orders in the English Church, and held various livings in different
parts of England. In 1800 he was made minister of the Episcopal
Chapel, Cowgate, Edinburgh, and the rest of his life was spent in
the Scottish capital. He published various sermons, of which those
on the seasons were specially admired. Brougham is said to have
called the sermon on autumn " one of the finest pieces of compo-
sition in the language." Alison's Essay on the Nature and Prmciples
<?/■ 7aj/^ appeared in 1790; the second edition (181 1) gave occasion
for Jeffrey's review, which was published in the Edinburgh for May,
181 1. Jeffrey's article was afterwards enlarged and included in
the Encyclopedia Britannica, where it formed the discussion on
Beauty. It was omitted in the ninth edition. To examine
adequately the theory that Jeffrey expounds would require a
complete essay and a consideration of many difiicult questions. The
reader who may be interested in determining the precise grounds on
which Lord Jeffrey's theory is discredited may find them convinc-
ingly set forth in the IVestminster Beview, L,lll, 1-58, April, 1850.
He may also consult Prof. Knight's Philosophy of the Bcatitifjily
London, 1893, P^''^ ^i> 39~45- ^^ ^^^^ contends to-day that a
inan's individual experience has manufactured his sense of beauty;



NOTES. 207

or that the associations that are drawn from his past life, as an
independent, conscious being, can account for his delight in the
contemplation of a beautiful object. Cf. Spencer's Principles of
Psychology, New York, 1873, II, p. 636 ff. The extracts in the text,
then, are given, not because of any permanent worth in the theory
they express, but because of their historical significance and
because of the light they throw on Jeffrey's principles of criticism
and ways of conceiving of literature. Cf. Introductioji, p. xxiv.

149 11. The reflection of ojir own imvard emotions. Cf. the
comment of F>urns in a letter to Alison acknowledging the receipt of
his Essay. " I own, sir, that at first glance several of your propo-
sitions startled me as paradoxical. That the martial clangor of a
trumpet had something in it vastly more grand, heroic, and sublime,
than the twingle-twangle of a jews-harp; that the delicate flexure of
a rose-twig, when the half-blown flower is heavy with the tears of
the dawn, was infinitely more beautiful and elegant than the upright
stub of a burdock, and that from something innate and independent
of all associations of ideas ; — these I had set down as irrefragable,
orthodox truths, until perusing your book shook my faith." Poems,
Songs, and Letters of Robert Burns, Globe edition, p. 489.

151 33. Material objects. Cf. the review of Knight's Principles
of Taste, in the Edinburgh for Jan., 1806: " It is hard to say what
others feel ; but we have often experienced that the sublime of
natural objects, after the first effect of nnexpectedness is over, leaves
a kind of disappointment, a vacuity and want of satisfaction in the
mind. It is not until our imaginations have infused life, and
therefore power, into the still mass of nature, that we feel real
emotions of sublimity. This we do, sometimes by impersonating the
inanimate objects themselves ; sometimes by associating real or
fancied beings with the scenes which we behold. This is that which
distinguishes the delight of a rich and refined imagination, amidst
the grandest scenery of Wales or Scotland, from the rude stare of a
London cockney. The one sees mere rocks and wildernesses, and
sighs in secret for Whitechapel ; the other acknowledges in every
mountain a tutelary genius of the land, and peoples every glen with
the heroes of former times; — defends the passage of Killicranky
with Dundee; or rushes with Caractacus from the heights of
Snowdon."

154 28. What a matt feels to be distinctly beautiful, is beautiful to
him. Jeffrey's conclusion, then, seems to be as follows : Any object
is beautiful to that individual out of whose past it has the subtle



2o8 NOTES.

power of evoking strangely-blent chords of pleasure and pain. Any
object may therefore be beautiful to some special individual. But
there are objects that have this subtle evocative power over the past
of " the greater part of mankind," by means of " associations that
are universal and indestructible." These objects are beautiful par
excellence ; the ability to create or portray this kind of beauty is the
characteristic of the great artist, and the ability to recognize it the
characteristic of the good critic. Jeffrey, however, suggests no
means of determining abstractly what associations are universal and
indestructible, and hence no means of discriminating in thought
between a man's own peculiar objects of beauty and those objects
which may be regarded as universally or absolutely beautiful.
Jeffrey's standard of beauty therefore becomes purely arbitrary.
He has to appeal for a decision as regards the relative worth of
associations and emotions to the taste of a capriciously chosen
minority. Cf. his essay on the Lady of the Lake, p. 39, lines 13-29.
His judges are "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." How these judges are to be
recognized or chosen, — whether, for example, Gifford of the
Quarterly Reviexv is one of these judges, and how they are to settle
their disputes among themselves, — these are questions that Jeffrey
leaves unanswered. In other words, Jeffrey can discover no
objective standard of beauty, and the only escape from absolute
lawlessness, that he suggests, consists in his offer of himself as
"self-constituted judge of poesy."

155 11. The best taste . . . belongs to the best affectio7is. It seems
singular that Jeffrey could have maintained this belief after a glance
at his most intimate friends. Sydney Smith, for example, was a
man of overflowing social sympathies, of quick and lively fancy, of
great readiness of observation ; yet he had only the slightest interest
in art ; he boasted of having spent but fifteen minutes in the Louvre;
and in all his book-reviews there is no trace of appreciation of
beauties of style, or of the purely artistic qualities of prose or of
verse.

155 16. Sensibility and social sympathies. It is interesting to
note how this theory of the nature of beauty falls in with Jeffrey's
principles and practice in literary criticism, — particularly with his
ethical interpretation of literature. The recognition of beauty
depends, in Jeffrey's view of the matter, wholly on a man's uncon-



NOTES. 209

scious revival of past emotions of sympathy with his fellows.
Accordingly, a man who has been immersed in himself, and has felt
no love or pity for his kind, will have a very narrow range of
aesthetic emotion ; and a man who has loved, or pitied, or feared, or
hated on wrong occasions, i. e., immorally, will have a debased and
ignoble taste in art. On this theory of the origin of taste, it is plain
that the ethical value of literature, the moral spirit of an author,
must assume for the critic a great importance ; and that the
discussion of an author's moral tone will be in the highest degree
necessary, not simply because of the moral influence his writings will
be likely to exert, but because the key to the writer's feeling for the
beautiful is likely to be found in his moral feelings. From this
point of view, then, Jeffrey's development of the ethical criticism of
literature, — a kind of criticism for which in the introduction to his
collected essays he takes special credit, — is seen to follow neces-
sarily from his general theory of art. Cf. Introduction, p. xxv.

159. Wilhclm Meister's Apprenticeship. This was, of course,
Carlyle's translation of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Jeffrey's
specific judgments on the book are worthless, but his speculations
on the relation between National Character and National Taste are
worth preserving, and should be compared with his ideas on the
same subject as expressed in the essay on Madame de Stael's De la
Litteratnre {1812), and in the essay on the Memoirs of Baber (1827).
An increase in Jeffrey's firmness of grasp on at least the theory of
the historical method is certainly noticeable.

159 7. Himian nature . . . fundamentally the same. Cf. Jeffrey's
conclusion, two years later, touching " inherent " differences of char-
acter between Asiatic and European races. See the essay on the
Memoirs of Baber, p. 180 ff.

159 11. T%vo great classes. This passage recalls Taine's classifica-
tion of the forces that shape and determine a nation's literature.
Such forces may be grouped, according to Taine, under the three
categories, — race, milieu, moment, race, surroundings, and epoch.
" What we call the race," Taine explains, " are the innate and
hereditary dispositions which man brings with him into the world,
and which, as a rule, are united with the marked differences in the
temperament and structure of the body." This element in the
problem Jeffrey neglects in the present essay ; two years later, how-
ever, in the essay on the Memoirs of Baber, Jeffrey admits explicitly
that races differ inherently in character, and after such an admission
he could hardly have denied the influence of such differences on



2IO NOTES.

national literatures. Taine's account of his second class of forces
is as follows : " Man is not alone in the world ; nature surrounds
him, and his fellow-men surround him ; accidental and secondary
tendencies overlay his primitive tendencies, and physical or social
circumstances disturb or confirm the character committed to their
charge. Sometimes the climate has had its effect. . . . Sometimes
the state policy has been at work. . . . Sometimes the social condi-
tions have impressed their mark, as eighteen centuries ago by
Christianity, and twenty-five centuries ago by Buddhism." The
parallelism is unmistakable between this class of causes and Jeffrey's
" accidental causes . . . such as . . . government . . . relative posi-


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 19 21

Online LibraryFrancis Jeffrey JeffreySelections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey → online text (page 19 of 21)