« PreviousContinue »
Francis Jeffrey was born in Edinburgh in 1773. He received his early education in the High School of his native city, and afterwards in the Universities of Glasgow and Oxford. He divided his time between law and letters, and became equally eminent as judge and as the editor of the famous Edinburgh Review.
Criticism is a comparatively modern science, and the reviewer has but lately been admitted among authors. The faculty of appreciation, even in its highest forms, is very different from that of creation; but some critics have displayed so much learning and taste, have in fused so much of imagination into their work, and have so powerfully directed the current of public opinion, that they must be recognized, in any survey of literary history, as among the most useful, if not always the most brilliant, of writers. The essays of Jeffrey, now published in one large octavo volume, extend over a period of nearly thirty years - a period a'most unexampled in the number of great and original works to which it gave birth. In his capacity as critic he was frequently in the wrong-not always recognizing genius at first sight; but he was never consciously unfair; and when allowance is made for the shock of novel impressions, and especially for the lurking prejudice arising from party politics and from literary clanship, Jeffrey will be allowed a high rank as a just, inflexible, well-informed, and elegant writer. He died in 1850.
THE UNCERTAIN TENURE OF LITERARY FAME.
NEXT to the impression of the vast fertility, compass, and beauty of our English poetry, the reflection that recurs most frequently and forcibly to us in accompanying Mr. Campbell through his wide survey, is the perishable nature of poetical fame, and the speedy oblivion that has overtaken so many of the promised heirs of immortality. Of near two hundred and fifty authors, whose works are cited in these volumes, by far the greater part of whom were celebrated in their generation, there are not thirty who now enjoy anything that can be called popularity—whose works are to be found in the hands of ordinary readers, in the shops of ordinary booksellers, or in the press for republication. About fifty more may be tolerably familiar to men of taste or literature: the rest slumber on the shelves of collectors, and are partially known to a few antiquaries and scholars. Now, the fame of a poet is popular, or nothing. He does not address himself, like the man of science, to the learned, or those who desire to learn, but to all mankind; and his purpose being to delight and to be praised, necessarily extends to all who can receive pleasure, or join in applause. It is strange, and somewhat humiliating, to see how great a proportion of those who had once fought their way successfully to distinction, and surmounted the rivalry of contemporary envy, have again sunk into neglect. We have great deference for public opinion, and readily admit that nothing but what
is good can be permanently popular. But though its vivat be generally oracular, its pereat appears to us to be often sufficiently capricious; and while we would foster all that it bids to live, we would willingly revive much that it leaves to die. The very multiplication of works of amusement necessarily withdraws many from notice that deserve to be kept in remembrance; for we should soon find it labor, and not amusement, if we were obliged to make use of them all, or even to take all upon trial. As the materials of enjoyment and instruction accumulate around us, more and more must thus be daily rejected and left to waste; for while our tasks lengthen, our lives remain as short as ever; and the calls on our time multiply, while our time itself is flying swiftly away. This superfluity and abundance of our treasures, therefore, necessarily renders much of them worthless; and the veriest accidents may, in such a case, determine what part shall be preserved, and what thrown away and neglected. When an army is decimated, the very bravest may fall; and many poets, worthy of eternal remembrance, have been forgotten, merely because there was not room in our memories for all.
By such a work as the Specimens, however, this injustice of fortune may be partly redressed, some small fragments of an immortal strain may still be rescued from oblivion,—and a wreck of a name preserved, which time appeared to have swallowed up forever. There is something pious, we think, and endearing, in the office of thus gathering up the ashes of renown that has passed away; or rather, of calling back the departed life for a transitory glow, and enabling those great spirits which seemed to be laid forever, still to draw a tear of pity, or a throb of admiration, from the hearts of a forgetful generation. The body of their poetry, probably, can never be revived; but some sparks of its spirit may yet be preserved in a narrower and feebler frame.
When we look back upon the havoc which two hundred years have thus made in the ranks of our immortals, — and, above all, when we refer their rapid disappearance to the quick succession of new competitors, and the accumulation of more good works than there is time to peruse, we cannot help being dismayed at the prospect which lies before the writers of the present day. There never was an age so prolific of popular poetry as that in which we now live; and as wealth, population, and education extend, the produce is likely to go on increasing. The last ten years have produced, we think, an annual supply of about ten thousand lines of good staple poetry-poetry from the very first hands that we can
boast of, — that runs quickly to three or four large editions, — and is as likely to be permanent as present success can make it. Now, if this goes on for a hundred years longer, what a task will await the poetical readers of 1919! Our living poets will then be nearly as old as Pope and Swift are at present, but there will stand between them and that generation nearly ten times as much fresh and fashionable poetry as is now interposed between us and those writers; and if Scott, and Byron, and Campbell have already cast Pope and Swift a good deal into the shade, in what form and dimensions are they themselves likely to be presented to the eyes of their greatgrandchildren? The thought, we own, is a little appalling; and, we confess, we see nothing better to imagine than that they may find a comfortable place in some new collection of specimens — the centenary of the present publication. There if the future editor have anything like the indulgence and veneration for antiquity of his predecessor—there shall posterity still hang with rapture on the half of Campbell, and the fourth part of Byron, and the sixth of Scott, and the scattered tithes of Crabbe, and the three per cent. of Southey; while some good-natured critic shall sit in our mouldering chair, and more than half prefer them to those by whom they have been superseded! It is an hyperbole of good nature, however, we fear, to ascribe to them even those dimensions at the end of a century. After a lapse of two hundred and fifty years, we are afraid to think of the space they may have shrunk into. We have no Shakespeare, alas! to shed a never-setting light on his contemporaries; and if we continue to write and rhyme at the present rate for two hundred years longer, there must be some new art of shorthand reading invented, or all reading must be given up in despair.
If in the history of literature the space allotted to an author were measured by the amount of labor done; and if that labor had included years of thought and endeavor, following years of faithful study; if this were the history of no ordinary mind, but of one full of noble ideas, and enriched by il'ustrations from all the learning of the ages; if to strong natural sense the charm of a beautiful style were added; and if for all these faculties and energies it should be claimed that fame would properly and inevitably follow, been surely predicted for Robert Southey.
then immortality could have
He was born in 1774, was educated at Westminster School, and afterwards spent two years at Oxford. He was in early life a democrat in politics, and a Unitarian in religion, but be came conservative in after years. He married the sister of Mrs. S. T. Coleridge, and resided in the Lake district, a companion and friend of Wordsworth. His life was wholly devoted
to literary pursuits, and his industry, both as a student and writer, was unparalleled. But if he had the divine "vision," the rarer divine "faculty" was wanting. His poems, as a rule, are wholly wanting in human interest; their inspiration was from the author's library, not from the world of nature or of man. And though the search for flowers should be made for the hundredth time, only a few scattered blossoms could be gathered from his interminable gardens. It is but just to say, however, that many of these poetic blooms are perfect of their kind. His principal poems are The Curse of Kehama, Thalaba, Madoc, Roderick the Last of the Goths, and The Vision of Judgment. The last was savagely burlesqued by Lord Byron. His most popular prose work, the Life of Lord Nelson, is still read. Another singular medley of essay, colloquy, and criticism, entitled The Doctor, is highly esteemed by scholars. He was appointed poet-laureate in 1813. In his private life he was without a stain; and his cheerful temper, lively fancy, and genuine scholarly tastes, endeared him to all his circle. He died in 1843. His life and letters have been published in six volumes by his son, Rev. Charles Cuthbert Southey.
My days among the Dead are past;
Where'er these casual eyes are cast,
With them I take delight in weal,
And while I understand and feel
My cheeks have often been bedewed
My thoughts are with the Dead; with them
Their virtues love, their faults condemn,
And from their lessons seek and find
My hopes are with the Dead; anon
Yet leaving here a name, I trust,
IMMORTALITY OF LOVE.
All others are but vanity.
Its holy flame forever burneth;
It here is tried and purified,
THE INCHCAPE ROCK.
No stir in the air, no stir in the sea,
Without either sign or sound of their shock,
The holy abbot of Aberbrothok
Had floated that bell on the Inchcape Rock;
On the waves of the storm it floated and swung,
And louder and louder its warning rung.