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ESSAYS AND REVIEWS.
It is impossible to cast even a careless glance over the literature of the last thirty years, without perceiving the prominent station occupied by critics, reviewers and essayists. Criticism, in the old days of Monthly Reviews and Gentlemen's Magazines, was quite an humble occupation, and was chiefly monopolized by the “barren rascals” of letters, who scribbled, sinned and starved in attics and cellars; but it has since been almost exalted into a creative art, and numbers among its professors some of the most accomplished writers of the age. Dennis, Rhymer, Winstanley, Theophilus Cibber, Griffiths, and other “eminent hands,” as well as the nameless contributors to defunct periodicals and deceased pamphlets, have departed, body and soul, and left not a wreck behind ; and their places have been supplied by such men as Coleridge, Carlyle, Macaulay, Lamb, Hazlitt, Jeffrey, Wilson, Gifford, Mackintosh, Sydney Smith, Hal. lam, Campbell, Talfourd and Brougham. Indeed, every celebrated writer of the present century, without, it is believed, a solitary exception, has dabbled or excelled in criti.
* Boston Miscellany, February, 1843.
cism. It has been the road to fame and profit, and has commanded both applause and guineas, when the unfortunate objects of it have been blessed with neither. Many of the strongest minds of the age will leave no other record be. hind them, than critical essays and popular speeches. To those who have made criticism a business, it has led to success in other professions. The Edinburgh Review, which took the lead in the establishment of the new order of things, was projected in a lofty attic by two briefless barristers and a titheless parson; the former are now lords, and the latter is a snug prebendary, rejoicing in the reputation of being the divinest wit and wittiest divine of the age. That celebrated journal made reviewing more respectable than authorship. It was started at a time when the degeneracy of literature demanded a radical reform, and a sharp vein of criticism. Its contributors were men who possessed talents and information, and so far held a slight advantage over most of those they reviewed, who did not happen to possess either. Grub-street quarterly quaked to its foundations, as the northern comet shot its portentous glare into the dark alleys where bathos and puerility buzzed and hived. The citizens of Brussels, on the night previous to Waterloo, were hardly more terror-struck than the vast array of fated authors who, every three months, waited the appearance of the baleful luminary, and, starting at every sound which betokened its arrival,
“Whispered with white lips, the foe! it comes ! it comes !"
In the early and palmy days of the Review, when reviewers were wits, and writers were hacks, the shore of the great ocean of books was “heaped with the damned like pebbles.” Like an “eagle in a dovecote,” it fluttered the leaves of the Minerva Press, and stifled the weak notes of imbecile elegance, and the dull croak of insipid vulgarity, learned ignorance, and pompous humility. The descent of Attila on the Roman Empire, was not a more awful visitation to the Italians, than the fell swoop of the Edinburgh Review on the degenerate denizens of Grub-street and Pater. noster Row. It carried ruin and devastation whithersoever it went, and in many cases it carried those severe but provi. dential dispensations to the right places, and made havoc consistent both with political and poetic justice. The Edinburgh reviewers were found not to be of the old school of critics. They were not contented with the humble task of chronicling the appearance of books, and meekly condensing their weak contents for the edification of lazy heads; but when they deigned to read and analyze the work they judged, they sought rather for opportunities to display their own wit and knowledge, than to flatter the vanity of the author, or to increase his readers. Many of their most splendid articles were essays rather than reviews. The writer, whose work afforded the name of the subject, was summarily disposed of in a quiet sneer, a terse sarcasm, or a faint panegyric, and the remainder of the article hardly recognized his existence. It is to these purely original contributions, written by men of the first order of talent, that the Review owes most of its reputation; and their frequent appearance has exalted it above all other periodicals of the age, and has atoned for its frequent injustice to authors, its numerous inconsistencies, and its many supposed heresies in taste, philosophy and religion.
Among the many noted critics and essayists, who have made the great quarterly their medium of communication with the public, there is none who has obtained a wider celebrity, or justified his popularity by compositions of more intrinsic excellence, than Thomas Babington Macaulay. He began to contribute to the Review when it appeared to be passing from the green into the yellow leaf of public favor, and his articles commanded immediate attention, and breathed into it new life and brilliancy. The estimation in which he was early held is evinced by the remark of Mackintosh, that he was master of every species of composition,—a saying which obtained for both a clumsy sneer from Wilson in Blackwood's Magazine. From the year 1825 to the present period, Macaulay has continued his connection with the Review. There probably never was a series of articles communicated to a periodical, which can challenge comparison with those of Macaulay, for artistic effect. They are characterized by many of the qualities of heart and mind which stamp the productions of an Edinburgh reviewer; but in the combination of various excellences, they far excel the finest efforts of the class. As nimble and concise in wit as Sydney Smith ; an eye quick to seize all those delicate refinements of language and happy turns of expression, which charm us in Jeffrey ; displaying much of the imperious scorn, passionate strength and swelling diction of Brougham; as brilliant and as acute in critical dissection as Hazlitt, without his unsoundness of mind; at times evincing a critical judgment which would not disgrace the stern gravity of Hal. lam, and a range of thought and knowledge which reminds us of Mackintosh,-Macaulay seems to be the abstract and epitome of the whole journal,—seerns the utmost that an Edinburgh reviewer “ can come to.” He delights every one -high or low, intelligent or ignorant. His spice is of so keen a flavor, that it tickles the coarsest palate. He has the hesitating suffrages of men of taste, and the plaudits of the million. The man who has a common knowledge of the English language, and the scholar who has mastered its refinements, seem equally sensible to the charm of his diction. No matter how unpromising the subject on which he writes may appear to the common eye, in his hands it is made pleasing. Statistics, history, biography, political economy, all suffer a transformation into “something rich and strange.' Prosaists are made to love poetry, tory politicians to sympathize with Hampden and Milton, and novel-readers to obtain some idea of Bacon and his philosophy. The wonderful clearness, point and vigor of his style, send his thoughts right into every brain. Indeed, a person who is utterly insensible to the witchery of Macaulay's diction, must be either a Yahoo or a beatified intelligence.
Some of the causes of this wide and general popularity may be discerned in a very superficial survey of Macaulay's writings. The brilliancy which is diffused through them all, the felicity of their style, and the strong mental qualities which are displayed in their conception and composition, strike us at a glance. Every page is brightened with wit, ennobled by sentiment, freighted with knowledge, or decorated with imagery. Thought is conveyed with a directness and clearness which can hardly be surpassed. Knowledge, and important principles generalized from knowledge, are scattered with careless ease and prodigality, as though they would hardly be missed in the fulness of mind from which they proceed. History is made a picture, flushed with the most brilliant hues of the imagination, and illuminated with the constant flashes of a never-failing wit. Compression, arrangement, proportion—all the arts of which an accomplished rhetorician avails himself to give effect to his composition-are used with a tact and taste which conceal from us the appearance of labor and reflection. The most intri. cate questions of criticism and philosophy, the characters and actions of distinguished men,-poetry, history, political economy, king-craft, metaphysics,-are all discussed with the same unhesitating confidence and ability, and without the