Francis Jeffrey Jeffrey.

Selections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey online

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Of course, for the classic passages expressing his im-
patience of the new movement, we must go to the essays
on Wordsworth's Excursion and White Doe. Jeffrey's
objections to the Lakers fall under four heads: First,
the new poets are nonsensically mystical ; secondly, they
falsify life by showing it through a distorting medium of
personal emotion, i.e. they are misleadingly subjective;
thirdly, they are guilty of grotesque bad taste in their
realism ; fourthly, they are pedantically earnest and
serious in their treatment of art, and inexcusably pre-
tentious in their proclamation of a new gospel of life.

1 Selections^ p. 57. 2 Selections^ p. 58.

INTR on UC TION. xix

To consider these points in detail would lead to a dis-
cussion of Wordsworth and Coleridge rather than to a
discussion of Jeffrey. Still, Jeffrey's position toward the
Lakers is very characteristic of the man, and illustrates
admirably both his limitations and his positive qualities ;
moreover, his treatment of the Lakers has become a
tradition in the history of criticism and deserves for that
reason some discussion. A little closer examination,
then, of the grounds of Jeffrey's objection to the new
movement in literature will not be out of place.

When Jeffrey praises, as he often does, the poetry of
the Elizabethan age, delights in its passion, celebrates its
imaginative beauty, its figurative richness, its fervor and
wayward splendor, the reader seems to be listening to a
genuine disciple of the new school of poetry ; and he
cannot but expect Jeffrey to show the same hearty
appreciation for Coleridge and Wordsworth as for the
writings of their chosen models. Jeffrey's rejection,
however, of the new school begins at the very point
where for their admirers their superiority to the older
school begins to show itself, — viz., the moment they
commence to interpret life in terms of the infinite.
The intenser spiritual consciousness of Wordsworth, his
constant and unchanging recognition of the relation
of every-day life to the unseen world, are for Words-
worth's admirers characteristic sources of power which
place him above the Elizabethan dramatists as an im-
aginative interpreter of life. For Jeffrey they are the
precise qualities which lead to Wordsworth's worst ab-
surdities and most appallingly nonsensical rhapsodies.
After quoting some typical passages where Wordsworth
gives free utterance to his idealism, Jeffrey exclaims: —
" This is a fair sample of that rapturous mysticism which
eludes all comprehension, and fills the despairing reader


with painful giddiness and terror."^ This is a perfectly
sincere expression of genuine suffering on Jeffrey's part.
We cannot doubt that his whole mental life was perturbed
by such poems of Wordsworth as the great Ode^ and that
it was an act of self-preservation on his part to burst
into indignant ridicule and violent protest. To find a
man of Wordsworth's age and literary experience delib-
erately penning such bewildering stanzas and expressing
such unintelligible emotions, shook for the moment
Jeffrey's faith in his own little, well-ordered universe,
and then, as he recovered from his earthquake, escaped
from its vapors, and felt secure once more in the clear
every-day light of common sense, led him into fierce
invective against the cause of his momentary panic.

Hardly less impatient is Jeffrey of Wordsworth's sub-
jectivity than of his mysticism. Why cannot Wordsworth
feel about life as other people feel about it, as any
well-bred, cultivated man of the world feels about it ?
When such a man sees a poor old peasant gathering
leeches in a pool, he pulls out his purse, gives him a
shilling, and walks on, speculating about the state of
the poor law ; Wordsworth, on the contrary, bursts into
a strange fit of raving about Chatterton and Burns, and
'■ mighty poets in their misery dead," and then in some
mysterious fashion converts the peasant's stolidity into a
defence against these gloomy thoughts. This way of
treating the peasant seems to Jeffrey utterly unjustifiable,
in the first place because of its grotesque mysticism, and
in the second place because it thrusts a personal motif
discourteously into the face of the public and falsifies
ludicrously the peasant's character and life. Wordsworth
has no right, Jeffrey insists, to treat the peasant merely
as the symbol of his own peculiar mood. Here, as in

1 Sc-ections, p. 1 1 5-


his protest against Wordsworth's mysticism, Jeffrey pleads
for common sense and the commonplace ; he is the type
of what Lamb calls " the Caledonian intellect," which
rejects scornfully ideas that cannot be adequately ex-
pressed in good plain terms, and grasped " by twelve
men on a jury."

Crabbe's superiority to the Lakers lies for Jeffrey
chiefly in the fact that he has no idiosyncrasies
though he has many mannerisms ; he expresses no new
theories and no peculiar emotions in his portrayal of
common life. Hence his choice of vulgar subjects is
endurable — even highly commendable. His peasants
are the well-known peasants of every-day England, with
whose hard lot it behoves an enlightened Whig to sym-
pathize — from a distance. But a realism that, like
Wordsworth's, professes to find in these poor peasants
the deepest spiritual insight and the purest springs of
moral life is simply for Jeffrey grotesque in its mala-
droitness and its confusion of values. Sydney Smith
used to say, " If I am doomed to be a slave at all, I
would rather be the slave of a king than a cobbler."
And this same prejudice against any topsy-turvy re-
assignment of values was largely responsible for Jeffrey's
dislike of Wordsworth's peasants and of his treatment of
common life. If peasants keep their places, as Crabbe's
peasants do, they may perfectly well be brought into the
precincts of poetry ; but to exalt them into types of moral
virtue and into heavenly messengers of divine truth, is to
"make tyrants of cobblers." Jacobinism in art as in
politics is to Jeffrey detestable.

In fact, all the pretensions of the new school to
illustrate by its art a new gospel of life were intensely
disagreeable to Jeffrey. Just so long as Romanticism
showed itself purely decorative, as in Scott or Keats,


Jeffrey could tolerate it or even delight in it. But the
moment it begins, whether in Byron or Wordsworth, to
take itself seriously and to struggle to express new moral
and spiritual ideals, Jeffrey protests. Just here lies the
key to what some critics have found rather a perplexing
problem, — the reasons for the precise degree of Jeffrey's
sympathy with Romanticism. Keats's luxuriant pictures
of Greek life in E?idyjnion, Jeffrey finds irresistible in
" the intoxication of their sweetness " and in the " en-
chantments which they so lavishly present." ^ Let the
poet remain a mere master of the revels, or a mere
magician calling up by his incantations in verse a gor-
geous phantasmagoria of sights and sounds for the delec-
tation of idle readers, and Jeffrey will admire his fertility
of invention, his wealth of imagination, his "rich lights
of fancy " and "his flowers of poetry." For these reasons
Moore and Campbell seem to Jeffrey the most admirable
of the Romanticists, and their works the very best of the
somewhat extravagant modern school. Writing in 1829,
he arranges recent poets in the following order according
to the probable duration of their fame : — " The tuneful
quartos of Southey are already little better than lumber :
— and the rich melodies of Keats and Shelley, — and the
fantastical emphasis of Wordsworth, — and the plebeian
pathos of Crabbe, are melting fast from the field of our
view. The novels of Scott have put out his poetry. Even
the splendid strains of Moore are fading into distance
and dimness . . . and the blazing star of Byron himself
is receding from its place of pride. . . . The two who
have the longest withstood this rapid withering of the
laurel . . . are Rogers and Campbell ; neither of them,
it may be remarked, voluminous writers, and both dis-
tinguished rather for the fine taste and consummate

1 Selections, p. 88.

INTR on UC TION. xxui

elegance of their writings, than for that fiery passion,
and disdainful vehemence, which seemed for a time to
be so much more in favour with the public." ^ Now a
glance at Jeffrey's list of poets makes it clear that those
for whom he prophesies lasting fame are either pseudo-
classicists or decorative Romanticists, and that those
whose day he declares to be over are for the most
part poets whose Romanticism was a vital principle.
Rogers is, of course, a genuine representative of the
psuedo-classical tradition, with all its devotion to form,
its self-restraint, its poverty of imagination, and its dis-
trust of passion. Moore, whom Jeffrey places last in
his list of fading luminaries, and Campbell, whom he
finds most nearly unchanging in lustre, are both in a
way Romanticists ; but they are alike in seeking chiefly
for decorative effects and in not taking their art too
seriously. So long, then, as the fire and the heat of
Romanticism spent themselves merely in giving imagi-
native splendor to style, Jeffrey could tolerate the move-
ment, and could even regard it with favor, as a return
to that power and fervor and wild beauty that he had
taught himself to admire in Elizabethan poetry. But the
moment the new energy was suffered to penetrate life
itself and to convert the conventional world of dead fact,
through the vitalizing power of passion, into a genuinely
new poetic material, then Jeffrey stood aghast at what
seemed to him a return to chaos. Byron with his fiery
bursts of selfish passion, Wordsworth with his steadily
glowing consciousness of the infinite, and Shelley with
his "white heat of transcendentalism," were all alike
for Jeffrey portentously dangerous forces and unhealthy

In the preceding discussion of Jeffrey's relation to

^ Jeffrey's review of Mrs. Hemans's Records of Women.


Romanticism, the most noteworthy characteristics of his
taste in Hterature and art have been suggested. It is
useless to search his writings for an attempt to justify
these Ukes and dislikes, in any other way than by an
appeal to common sense, or to the consensus of the
best instructed opinion. His famous review of Alison
on Taste would be the most natural place for a formal
argument in behalf of certain favorite principles of art.
In this review, which in a somewhat altered form stood
for many years in the EncydopcBdia Britannica as the
standard discussion of Beauty, Jeffrey considers the nature
of taste, the origin of the feelings of the Sublime and the
Beautiful, and sundry kindred questions ; but the out-
come of the long discussion is wholly negative so far as
concerns the suggestion of any criterion of beauty or
satisfactory test of the claims of conflicting schools in
literature or in art.

Jeffrey's arguments in the essay on Beauty cannot be
analyzed here in detail ; analyses and comments will be
found in the Notes. His conclusion is that the beauty of
an object is merely the power of that object to set
vibrating in a human heart certain subtle chords of past
pleasure and pain ; that for any individual observer the
object that touches his heart in this subtly conjuring
fashion is unquestionably beautiful ; and that there are
therefore as many kinds of real beauty as there are
individuals with varying past experiences. This seems
to make hopeless the attempt to set up any standard of
taste, to say of any object, this is beautiful by divine
right and should be so accepted by all judges. Yet
Jeffrey seems to assert that there are such preeminently
beautiful objects ; they are the objects which by virtue
of " universal and indestructible " associations, do, as a
matter of fact, set vibrating in the hearts of " the greater


part of mankind," chords of past pleasure and pain.
The unerring recognition of these objects is the charac-
teristic of the best taste. Unfortunately, Jeffrey suggests
no rule for determining abstractly what associations are
"universal and indestructible," and no standard by which
the clashing judgments of rival judges can be tested.
Hence, his famous discussion offers very little practical
guidance to those who are trying to train their tastes,
throws very little light on Jeffrey's own likes and dislikes,
and suggests hardly any principles of criticism.

In one way, however, the discussion is serviceable
to students of Jeffrey's critical methods ; it makes
clearer the line of thought that led him to value so highly
the ethical interpretation of literature. Throughout the
essay he insists on the intimate connection between a
man's sense of beauty and his moral feelings. Beauty,
he teaches, is the disguised suggestion of past passions, — of
love, and pity, and fear, and hate. Now these emotions
can be faintly re-awakened only in temperaments that
have experienced them richly and intensely at first-hand ;
hence a keen sense of beauty can exist only in a nature
that has sympathized widely and generously with its
fellows. Moreover, the character of these past moral
emotions will condition the character of a man's feeling
for beauty, and will determine the kind of objects that
stimulate him aesthetically. For all these reasons, then,
the ethical value of literature was closely connected in
Jeffrey's thought with its aesthetic value, and the ethical
interpretation of literature seemed to him one of the most
important duties of the critic.

Accordingly, in the preface to his collected essays
Jeffrey claims special credit for his frequent use of the
ethical point of view. " If I might be permitted farther
to state, in what particular department, and generally, on


account of what, I should most wish to claim a share of
those merits, I should certainly say, that it was by having
constantly endeavoured to combine Ethical precepts with
Literary Criticism, and earnestly sought to impress my
readers with a sense, both of the close connection
between sound Intellectual attainments and the higher
elements of Duty and Enjoyment ; and of the just and
ultimate subordination of the former to the latter. The
praise in short to which I aspire, and to merit which
I am conscious that my efforts were most constantly
directed, is, that I have, more uniformly and earnestly
than any preceding critic, made the Moral tendencies
of the works under consideration a leading subject of

This "proud claim," as Jeffrey calls it, seems amply
justified when we compare Jeffrey's essays either with
the critical essays in the earlier Reviews or with the more
formal and elaborate critical essays of the eighteenth
century. Even Dr. Johnson with all his didacticism
had little notion of extracting from a piece of literature
the subtle spirit of good or of evil by which it draws men
this way or that way in conduct. An obvious infringe-
ment of good morals in speech or in plot he was sure to
condemn, and a formal inculcation of moral truth he was
sure to recognize and approve. But neither in Johnson
nor anywhere else before Jeffrey do we find a critic con-
stantly attempting to detect and define the moral atmos-
phere that pervades the whole work of an author, and to
determine the relation between this moral atmosphere
and the author's personality as man and as author. To
have perceived the value of this ethical criticism, to have
practised it skilfully, and to have fostered a taste for it,
these are true claims to distinction ; and Jeffrey's services
in these directions have been too often forgotten. The


greater breadth of view of later critics and their surer
appreciation of ethical values should not be allowed to
deprive Jeffrey of his honor as a pioneer in ethical

Of the modern historical method of criticism Jeffrey
never made thorough and consistent use. His grasp on
the principles of the method and his ability to apply them
are best illustrated in the essays on Ford's Dramatic
Works (August, 1811), on Mme. de Stael's De la
Litteratiire (November, 18 12), and on WilhelDi Meister's
Appre7iticeship (August, 1825). The essay on Ford con-
tains, in the rapid survey of English poetry from the
earliest times, a piece of work that is very characteristic
of Jeffrey ; the readiness of handling, the sure eye for
structure, the just distribution of emphasis, the aptness
of phrasing and briskness of style are such as no other
critic in 181 1 could have reached. But even more note-
worthy is the breadth of view ; the attempt to generalize
the qualities of the literature of the Restoration period,
and to explain them as resulting from the social life of
the time is a courageous and fairly effective application
of the historical method, and must have seemed to
Jeffrey's contemporaries startlingly original. Except
for this essay we might have supposed that Jeffrey's
introduction to the historical method came through
Mme. de Stael's work on the relations between literature
and social institutions. But this work was not published
till 18 1 2, whereas Jeffrey's essay on Ford dates from

The most interesting of all the passages, however,
where Jeffrey applies or discusses the historical method
is the introduction to the essay on Wilheh?i Meister,
written in 1825. Here Jeffrey comes surprisingly near
anticipating Taine in a formal statement of the race,


milieu^ and mo77ient theory of literature. The passage
will be found on pages 159-164 of this volume. It will
be seen that in this essay Jeffrey totally disregards race
as a modifying force ; he takes it for granted that
'' human nature is everywhere fundamentally the same."
Taine's other two forces, — mo77ient and 7mlieu, — Jeffrey
defines in words which Taine would have accepted with
very little alteration. "The circumstances which have
distinguished [literature] into so many local varieties
. . . may be divided into two great classes, — the one
embracing all that relates to the newness or antiquity
of the society to which they belong,' or, in other words,
to the stage which any particular nation has attained
in that progress from rudeness to refinement, in which
all are engaged ; — the other comprehending what may
be termed the accidental causes by which the character
and condition of communities may be affected ; such as
their government, their relative position as to power and
civilization to neighboring countries, their prevailing
occupations, determined in some degree by the capabili-
ties of their soil and climate." ^ This is to all intents
and purposes the classification that Taine makes in the
famous l7itroductio7i to his Histoi7'e de la litterature

Despite, however, his clear perception of the principles
on which the use of the historical method rests, Jeffrey
is never to be trusted to make intelligent and effective
use of the method, or to be faithful to the point of view
it presupposes. He is specially apt to be unhistorical
when he treats of the beginnings either of literature or
of institutions. He lacked the knowledge of facts
which alone could render possible a fruitfully historical

^ Selections, p. 1 59.

2 Cf. Notes, pp. 211-15.


conception. His construction of early periods is always
a priori in terms of a cheap psychology. His account,
in the essay on Leckie^ of the origin of government,
should be compared with his description of the earliest
attempts at poetic composition. In both cases he has
a great deal to say about what " it was natural " for the
earliest experimenters in each kind of work to aim at
and to effect, and he has substantially nothing to say
of the actual facts as determined by investigation.
Moreover, these earliest experimenters are for Jeffrey
marvellously like eighteenth-century connoisseurs^ con-
fronting consciously, and trying to solve reflectively,
intricate problems in art or in politics. This view is, of
course, unhistorical, and illustrates the difficulty Jeffrey
had in escaping from old ways of thought.
■ Finally, Jeffrey never applies the historical method
successfully to the study of any contemporary piece of
literature ; almost his sole attempt so to use the his-
torical method is in his essay on Wilhelm Meister, and
the inadequacy of his treatment there is such as to make
the reader admire his discretion in not oftener trying to
interpret historically the life and art of his own day.
His failure to appreciate the mad revolt of Byron and
Shelley against the conventionalism and poverty of
eighteenth-century moral ideals has already been noted,
as well as his corresponding failure to comprehend
Wordsworth's high conservatism. Perhaps the most
damaging accusation, that can be made against Jeffrey,
as a critic, is inability to read and interpret the age in
which he lived.

Jeffrey's imperfect grasp of the historical method is
shown in one other way ; he never realized that there
was any conflict between his work as a dogmatic critic
and his work as a scientific student of literature, and


apparently he never had a premonition of the blighting
effect the historical method was ultimately to have on the
prestige of the dogmatic critic. The history of criticism
since Jeffrey's day has been largely the history of the
decline in power of the dogmatic critic. Critics to-day
explain and interpret, or else they translate for their
readers by means of beautiful symbols their dim and
obscure sensations of pleasure and pain in reading a
piece of literature. They are scientific or they are
impressionistic ; they rarely dogmatize ; and when they
dogmatize, they speak with a fine consciousness of their
human fallibility, which is curiously unlike the confidence
of Jeffrey and his compeers. This change iias been
brought about partly by the Romantic movement with its
fostering of individualism in art, and partly by the spread
of historical conceptions in all departments of thought.
Both these forces were in full play during Jeffrey's
life, and of neither did he at all measure the scope or


It remains to speak of the new venture in literature
with which Jeffrey's name and fame are always con-
nected, the Edinburgh Review, and to consider what
causes, apart from Jeffrey's personality, can be suggested
to account for its prompt and unexampled success.

The story of the foundation of the Review has been
told so often that it will hardly bear repeating. The
classical account is Sydney Smith's and is to be found in
the Preface of his collected Works ; it has been repro-
duced in Lord Cockburn's Life of Jeffrey'^ and in the Life

1 Ed. Philadelphia, 1852, I, loi.


and Times of Lord Brougham} With his usual crabbed-
ness Brougham disputes a few minor^ details, but he
leaves the substantial accuracy of "Sydney's" story unim-
peached. The main facts may be briefly set together.

The idea of the new Review was Sydney Smith's. The
most important conspirators were Sydney, Jeffrey, Francis
Horner, and Brougham. The plot was discussed and
matured in Jeffrey's house in Buccleuch Place, Edin-
burgh, Sydney Smith's famous proposal of a motto,
Temii musafti 7neditam2ir avena, " We cultivate literature
on a little oatmeal," was rejected ; the "sage Horner's"
suggestion was adopted, — a line from Publius Syrus,
Judex damnatur cum nocefis absolvitur, which foretold the
righteous severity of tone that was to characterize the
Review. The first number was to have appeared in June,
1802, but owing to dilatory contributors and Jeffrey's faint-
heartedness was seriously delayed ; it finally appeared in
October, 1802, under the supervision of Sydney Smith.
After the publication t)f the first number Jeffrey was
formally appointed editor, and with some hesitation
accepted the post.

The success of the Revieia was from the start beyond
all expectation. " The effect," says Lord Cockburn,
was electrical. And instead of expiring, as many wished,
in their first effort, the force of the shock was increased
on each subsequent discharge. It is impossible for those
who did not live at the time, and in the heart of the
scene, to feel, or almost to understand the impression
made by the new luminary, or the anxieties with which
its motions were observed." '^ Lord Brougham's account
of the matter is no less emphatic. " The success was
far beyond any of our expectations. It was so great that

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Online LibraryFrancis Jeffrey JeffreySelections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey → online text (page 2 of 21)