Francis Jeffrey Jeffrey.

Selections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey online

. (page 6 of 21)
Online LibraryFrancis Jeffrey JeffreySelections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey → online text (page 6 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and modern authors, and with the fine and fastidious


remarks which have been made even on those passages.
When he turns his eyes, therefore, on his own conceptions
or designs, they can scarcely fail to appear rude and
contemptible. He is perpetually haunted and depressed
5 by the ideal presence of those great masters, and their
exacting critics. He is aware to what comparisons his
productions will be subjected among his own friends and
associates ; and recollects the derision with which so
many rash adventurers have been chased back to their

10 obscurity. Thus, the merit of his great predecessors
chills, instead of encouraging his ardour ; and the
illustrious names which have already reached to the
summit of excellence, act like the tall and spreading
trees of the forest, which overshadow and strangle the

15 saplings which may have struck root in the soil below — ■
and afford efficient shelter to nothing but creepers and

There is, no doubt, in some few individuals, " that
strong divinity of soul " — that decided and irresistible

20 vocation to glory, which, in spite of all these obstructions,
calls out, perhaps once or twice in a century, a bold and
original poet from the herd of scholars and academical
literati. But the natural tendency of their studies, and
by far their most common effect, is to repress originality,

25 and discourage enterprise ; and either to change those
whom nature meant for poets, into mere readers of
poetry, or to bring them out in the form of witty
parodists, or ingenious imitators. Independent of the
reasons which have been already suggested, it will perhaps

30 be found, too, that necessity is the mother of invention,
in this as well as in the more vulgar arts ; or, at least,
that inventive genius will frequently slumber in inaction,
where the preceding ingenuity has in part supplied the
wants of the owner. A solitary and uninstructed man,


with lively feelings and an inflammable imagination, will
often be irresistibly led to exercise those gifts, and to
occupy and relieve his mind in poetical composition :
But if his education, his reading, and his society supply
him with an abundant store of images and emotions, he 5
will probably think but little of those internal resources,
and feed his mind contentedly with what has been
provided by the industry of others.

To say nothing, therefore, of the distractions and the
dissipation of mind that belong to the commerce of the 10
world, nor of the cares of minute accuracy and high
finishing which are imposed on the professed scholar,
there seem to be deeper reasons for the separation of
originality and accomplishment ; and for the partiality
which has led poetry to choose almost all her prime 15
favourites among the recluse and uninstructed. A youth
of quick parts, in short, and creative fancy — with just so
much reading as to guide his ambition, and roughhew his
notions of excellence — if his lot be thrown in humble
retirement, where he has no reputation to lose, and 20
where he can easily hope to excel all that he sees around
him, is much more likely, we think, to give himself up to
poetry, and to train himself to habits of invention, than if
he had been encumbered by the pretended helps of ex-
tended study and literary society. 25

If these observations should fail to strike of themselves,
they may perhaps derive additional weight from consider-
ing the very remarkable fact, that almost all the great
poets of every country have appeared in an early stage of
their history, and in a period comparatively rude and un- 30
lettered. Homer went forth, like the morning star, before
the dawn of literature in Greece, and almost all the great
and sublime poets of modern Europe are already between
two and three hundred years old. Since that time,


although books and readers, and opportunities of reading,
are multipUed a thousand fold, we have improved chiefly
in point and terseness of expression, in the art of raillery,
and in clearness and simplicity of thought. Force, rich-

5 ness, and variety of invention, are now at least as rare as
ever. But the literature and refinement of the age does
not exist at all for a rustic and illiterate individual ; and,
consequently, the present time is to him what the rude
times of old were to the vigorous writers which adorned

10 them.

But though, for these and for other reasons, we can
see no propriety in regarding the poetry of Burns chiefly
as the wonderful work of a peasant, and thus admiring it
much in the same way as if it had been written with his

15 toes ; yet there are peculiarities in his works which
remind us of the lowness of his origin, and faults for
which the defects of his education afford an obvious
cause, if not a legitimate apology. In forming a correct
estimate of these works, it is necessary to take into

20 account those peculiarities.

The first is, the undiciplined harshness and acrimony
of his invective. The great boast of polished life is the
delicacy, and even the generosity of its hostility — that
quality which is still the characteristic, as it furnishes

25 the denomination, of a gentleman — that principle which
forbids us to attack the defenceless, to strike the fallen,
or to mangle the slain — and enjoins us, in forging the
shafts of satire, to increase the polish exactly as we add
to their keenness or their weight. For this, as well as

30 for other things, we are indebted to chivalry ; and of
this Burns had none. His ingenious and amiable biogra-
pher has spoken repeatedly in praise of his talents for
satire — we think, with a most unhappy partiality. His
epigrams and lampoons appear to us, one and all,


unworthy of him ; — offensive from their extreme coarse-
ness and violence — and contemptible from their want of
wit or brilliancy. They seem to have been written, not
out of playful malice or virtuous indignation, but out of
fierce and ungovernable anger. His whole raillery con- 5
sists in railing ; and his satirical vein displays itself
chiefly in calling names and in swearing. We say this
mainly with a reference to his personalities. In many of
his more general representations of life and manners,
there is no doubt much that may be called satirical, 10
mixed up with admirable humour, and description of
inimitable vivacity.

There is a similar want of polish, or at least of respect-
fulness, in the general tone of his gallantry. He has
written with more passion, perhaps, and more variety of 15
natural feeling, on the subject of love, than any other
poet whatever — but with a fervour that is sometimes
indelicate, and seldom accommodated to the timidity and
" sweet austere composure " of women of refinement. He
has expressed admirably the feelings of an enamoured 20
peasant, who, however refined or eloquent he may be,
always approaches his mistress on a footing of equality ;
but has never caught that tone of chivalrous gallantry
which uniformly abases itself in the presence of the
object of its devotion. Accordingly, instead of suing for 25
a smile, or melting in a tear, his muse deals in nothing
but locked embraces and midnight rencontres ; and, even
in his complimentary effusions to ladies of the highest
rank, is for straining them to the bosom of her impetuous
votary. It is easy, accordingly, to see from his corres- 3°
pondence, that many of his female patronesses shrunk
from the vehement familiarity of his admiration ; and
there are even some traits in the volumes before us, from
which we can gather, that he resented the shyness and


estrangement to which those feelings gave rise, with at

least as little chivalry as he had shown in producing them.

But the leading vice in Burns's character, and the

cardinal deformity, indeed, of all his productions, was his

5 contempt, or affectation of contempt, for prudence,
decency, and regularity ; and his admiration of thought-
lessness, oddity, and vehement sensibility; — his belief,
in short, in the dispensing power of genius and social
feeling, in all matters of morality and common sense.

10 This is the very slang of the worst German plays, and
the lowest of our town-made novels ; nor can any thing
be more lamentable, than that it should have found a
patron in such a man as Burns, and communicated to
many of his productions a character of immorality, at

15 once contemptible and hateful. It is but too true, that
men of the highest genius have frequently been hurried
by their passions into a violation of prudence and duty ;
and there is something generous, at least, in the apology
which their admirers may make for them, on the score of

20 j;heir keener feelings and habitual want of reflection.
But this apology, which is quite unsatisfactory in the
mouth of another, becomes an insult and an absurdity
whenever it proceeds from their own. A man may say
of his friend, that he is a noble-hearted fellow — too

25 generous to be just, and with too much spirit to be
always prudent and regular. But he cannot be allowed
to say even this of himself ; and still less to represent
himself as a hairbrained sentimental soul, constantly
carried away by fine fancies and visions of love and

30 philanthropy, and born to confound and despise the cold-
blooded sons of prudence and sobriety. This apology,
indeed, evidently destroys itself : For it shows that con-
duct to be the result of deliberate system, which it affects
at the same time to justify as the fruit of mere thought-


lessness and casual impulse. Such protestations, there-
fore, will always be treated, as they deserve, not only
with contempt, but with incredulity ; and their magnani-
mous authors set down as determined profligates, who
seek to disguise their selfishness under a name somewhat 5
less revolting. That profligacy is almost always selfish-
ness, and that the excuse of impetuous feeling can hardly
ever be justly pleaded for those who neglect the ordinary
duties of life, must be apparent, we think, even to the
least reflecting of those sons of fancy and song. It 10
requires no habit of deep thinking, nor any thing more,
indeed, than the information of an honest heart, to per-
ceive that it is cruel and base to spend, in vain super-
fluities, that money which belongs of right to the pale
industrious tradesman and his famishing infants ; or that 15
it is a vile prostitution of language, to talk of that man's
generosity or goodness of heart, who sits raving about
friendship and philanthropy in a tavern, while his wife's
heart is breaking at her cheerless fireside, and his chil-
dren pining in solitary poverty. ^ 20

This pitiful cant of careless feeling and eccentric
genius, accordingly, has never found much favour in the
eyes of English sense and morality. The most signal
effect which it ever produced, was on the muddy brains
of some German youth, who are said to have left college 25
in a body to rob on the highway : because Schiller had
represented the captain of a gang as so very noble a
creature. — But in this country, we believe, a predilection
for that houQurable profession must have preceded this ■
admiration of the character. The style we have been 30
speaking of, accordingly, is now the heroics only of the
hulks and the house of correction; and has no chance, we
suppose, of being greatly admired, except in the farewell
speech of a young gentleman preparing for Botany Bay.


It is humiliating to think how deeply Burns has fallen
into this debasing error. He is perpetually making a
parade of his thoughtlessness, inflammability, and impru-
dence, and talking with much complacency and exultation

5 of the offence he has occasioned to the sober and correct
part of mankind. This odious slang infects almost all
his prose, and a very great proportion of his poetry ; and
is, we are persuaded, the chief, if not the only source of
disgust with which, in spite of his genius, we know that

10 he is regarded by many very competent and liberal
judges. His apology, too, we are willing to believe, is to
be found in the original lowness of his situation, and the
slightness of his acquaintance with the world. With his
talents and powers of observation, he could not have

15 seen much of the beings who echoed this raving, without
feeling for them that distrust and contempt which would
have made him blush to think he had ever stretched over
them the protecting shield of his genius.

Akin to this most lamentable trait of vulgarity, and

20 indeed in some measure arising out of it, is that perpetual
boast of his own independence, which is obtruded upon
the readers of Burns in almost every page of his writings.
The sentiment itself is noble, and it is often finely
expressed ; — but a gentleman would only have expressed

25 it when he was insulted or provoked ; and would never
have made it a spontaneous theme to those friends in
whose estimation he felt that his honour stood clear. It
is mixed up, too, in Burns with too fierce a tone of
defiance, and indicates rather the pride , of a sturdy

30 peasant, than the calm and natural elevation of a
generous mind.

The last of the symptoms of rusticity which we think
it necessary to notice in the works of this extraordinary
man, is that frequent mistake of mere exaggeration and


violence, for force and sublimity, which has defaced so
much of his prose composition, and given an air of
heaviness and labour to a good deal of his serious poetry.
The truth is, that his foi'te was in humour and in pathos
— or rather in tenderness of feeling; and that he has 5
very seldom succeeded, either where mere wit and
sprightliness, or where great energy and weight of senti-
ment were requisite. He had evidently a very false and
crude notion of what constituted strejigtJi of writing ; and
instead of that simple and brief directness which stamps 10
the character of vigour upon every syllable, has generally
had recourse to a mere accumulation of hyperbolical
expressions, which encumber the diction instead of
exalting it, and show the determination to be impressive,
without the power of executing it. This error also we 15
are inclined to ascribe entirely to the defects of his
education. The value of simplicity in the expression of
passion, is a lesson, we believe, of nature and of -genius ;
— but its importance in mere grave and impressive writing,
is one of the latest discoveries of rhetorical experience. 20

With the allowances and exceptions we have now
stated, we think Burns entitled to the rank of a great and
original genius. He has in all his compositions great
force of conception ; and great spirit and animation in
its expression. He has taken a large range through the 25
region of Fancy, and naturalized himself in almost all
her climates. He has great humour — great powers of
description — great pathos — and great discrimination of
character. Almost every thing that he says has spirit •
and originality ; and every thing that he says well, is 3°
characterized by a charming facility, which gives a grace
even to occasional rudeness, and communicates to the
reader a delightful sympathy with the spontaneous soar-
ing and conscious inspiration of the poet.


Considering the reception which these works have met
with from the pubHc, and the long period during which
the greater part of them have been in their possession, it
may appear superfluous to say any thing as to their
5 characteristic or peculiar merit. Though the ultimate
judgment of the public, however, be always sound, or at
least decisive as to its general result, it is not always
very apparent upon what grounds it has proceeded ; nor
in consequence of what, or in spite of what, it has been

lo obtained. In Burns's works there is much to censure, as
well as much to praise ; and as time has not yet separated
his ore from its dross, it may be worth while to state, in
a very general way, what we presume to anticipate as the
result of this separation. Without pretending to enter at

15 all into the comparative merit of particular passages, we
may venture to lay it down as our opinion — that his
poetry is far superior to his prose ; that his Scottish
compositions are greatly to be preferred to his English
ones ; and that his Songs will probably outlive all his

20 other productions. A very few remarks on each of these
subjects will comprehend almost all that we have to say
of the volumes now before us.


A Poem by Walter Scott. Second Edition. 8vo, pp. 4^4. t8io.

Mr. Scott, though living in an age unusually prolific
of original poetry, has manifestly outstripped all his
competitors in the race of popularity ; and stands
already upon a height to which no other writer has
attained in the memory of any one now alive. We 5
doubt, indeed, whether any English poet eTcr had so
many of his books sold, or so many of his verses read
and admired by such a multitude of persons in so short
a time. We are credibly informed that nearly thirty
thousand copies of " The Lay " have been already 10
disposed of in this country ; and that the demand for
Marmion, and the poem now before us, has been still
more considerable, — a circulation we believe, altogether
without example, in the case of a bulky work, not
addressed to the bigotry of the mere mob, either religious 15
or political.

A popularity so universal is a pretty sure proof of
extraordinary merit, — a far surer one, we readily admit,
than would be afforded by any praises of ours : and,
therefore, though we pretend to be privileged, in ordinary 20
cases, to foretell the ultimate reception of all claims on
public admiration, our function may be thought to cease,
where the event is already so certain and conspicuous.
As it is a sore thing, however, to be deprived of our
privileges on so important an occasion, we hope to be 25


pardoned for insinuating, that, even in such a case, the
office of the critic may not be altogether superfluous.
Though the success of the author be decisive, and even
likely to be permanent, it still may not be without its use
5 to point out, in consequence of what, and in spite of
what, he has succeeded ; nor altogether uninstructive to
trace the precise limits of the connection which, even in
this dull world, indisputably subsists between success and
desert, and to ascertain how far unexampled popularity

10 does really imply unrivalled talent.

As it is the object of poetry to give pleasure, it would
seem to be a pretty safe conclusion, that that poetry
must be the best which gives the greatest pleasure to the
greatest number of persons. Yet we must pause a little,

15 before we give our assent to so plausible a proposition.
It would not be quite correct, we fear, to say that those
are invariably the best judges who are most easily
pleased. The great multitude, even of the reading world,
must necessarily be uninstructed and injudicious ; and

20 will frequently be found, not only to derive pleasure from
what is worthless in finer eyes, but to be quite insensible
to those beauties which afford the most exquisite delight
to more cultivated understandings. True pathos and
sublimity will indeed charm every one : but, out of this

25 lofty sphere, we are pretty well convinced, that the poetry
which appears most perfect to a very refined taste, will
not often turn out to be very popular poetry.

This, indeed, is saying nothing more, than that the
ordinary readers of poetry have not a very refined taste ;

30 and that they are often insensible to many of its highest
beauties, while they still more frequently mistake its
imperfections for excellence. The fact, when stated in
this simple way, commonly excites neither opposition nor
surprise : and yet, if it be asked, why the taste of a few


individuals, who do not perceive beauty where many others
perceive it, should be exclusively dignified with the name
of a good taste ; or why poetry, which gives pleasure to
a very great number of readers, should be thought
inferior to that which pleases a much smaller number, — 5
the answer, perhaps, may not be quite so ready as might
have been expected from the alacrity of our assent to the
first proposition. That there is a good answer to be
given, however, w^e entertain no doubt : and if that
which we are about to offer should not appear very clear 10
or satisfactory, we must submit to have it thought, that
the fault is not altogether in the subject.

In the first place, then, it should be remembered, that
though the taste of very good judges is necessarily the
taste of a few, it is implied, in their description, that they 15
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 ; — they
are in that very state, in short, to which all who are in 20
any degree capable of tasting those refined pleasures
would certainly arrive, if their sensibility were increased,
and their experience and reflection enlarged. It is
difficult, therefore, in following out the ordinary analogies
of language, to avoid considering them as in the right, 25
and calling their taste the true and the just one ; when
it appears that it is such as is uniformly produced by
the cultivation of those faculties upon which all our
perceptions of taste so obviously depend.

It is to be considered also, that though it be the end 30
of poetry to please, one of the parties whose pleasure,
and whose notions of excellence, will always be primarily
consulted in its composition, is the poet himself ; and as
he must necessarily be more cultivated than the great


body of his readers, the presumption is, that he will
always belong, comparatively speaking, to the class of
good judges^ and endeavour, consequently, to produce
that sort of excellence which is likely to meet with their
5 approbation. When authors, therefore, and those of
whose suffrages authors are most ambitious, thus conspire
to fix upon the same standard of what is good in taste
and composition, it is easy to see how it should come to
bear this name in society, in preference to what might

lo afford more pleasure to individuals of less influence.
Besides all this, it is obvious that it must be infinitely
more difficult to produce any thing comformable to this
exalted standard, than merely to fall in with the current
of popular taste. To attain the former object, it is

15 necessary, for the most part, to understand thoroughly
all the feelings and associations that are modified or
created by cultivation : — To accomplish the latter, it
will often be sufficient merely to have observed the course
of familiar preferences. Success, however, is rare, in

20 proportion as it is difficult ; and it is needless to say, what
a vast addition rarity makes to value, — or how exactly our
admiration at success is proportioned to our sense of the
difficulty of the undertaking.

Such seem to be the most general and immediate

25 causes of the apparent paradox, of reckoning that which
pleases the greatest number as inferior to that which
pleases the few ; and such the leading grounds for fixing
the standard of excellence, in a question of mere feeling
and gratification, by a different rule than that of the

30 quantity of gratification produced. With regard to some
of the fine arts — for the distinction between popular and
actual merit obtains in them all — there are no other
reasons, perhaps, to be assigned ; and, in Music for
example, when we have said that it is the authority of


those who are best qualified by nature and study, and
the difficulty and rarity of the attainment, that entitles
certain exquisite performances to rank higher than others
that give far more general delight, we have probably said
all that can be said in explanation of this mode of ^5
speaking and judging. In poetry, however, and in
some other departments, this familiar, though somewhat
extraordinary rule of estimation, is justified by other

As it is the cultivation of natural and perhaps universal 10
capacities, that produces that refined taste which takes
away our pleasure in vulgar excellence, so, it is to be

1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryFrancis Jeffrey JeffreySelections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey → online text (page 6 of 21)