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THE NATIONAL REVIEW.
ART. I.-THE FIRST EDINBURGH REVIEWERS.
A Memoir of the Rev. Sydney Smith. By his Daughter,
Lady Holland. With a Selection from his Letters. Edited
by Mrs. Austin. 2 vols. Longman. Lord Jeffrey's Contributions to the Edinburgh Review. A new
Edition in one volume. Longman. Lord Brougham's Collected Works. Vols. I. II. III. Lives of
Philosophers of the Reign of George III. Lives of Men of Letters of the Reign of George III. Historical Sketches of the Statesmen who flourished in the Reign of George
III. Griffin. The Rev. Sydney Smith's Miscellaneous Works. Including his
Contributions to the Edinburgh Review. Longman.
IT T is odd to hear that the Edinburgh Review was once thought
an incendiary publication. A young generation, which has always regarded the appearance of that periodical as a grave constitutional event, (and been told that, at least during liberal ministries, the Queen and the cream-coloured horses go forth to receive from the publisher a particularly buff copy,) can scarcely believe, that once grave gentlemen kicked it out of doors-that the dignified classes murmured at “those young men” starting such views, abetting such tendencies, using such expressionsthat aged men said “very clever, but not at all sound.” Rumour, too, exaggerates; people say the Review was planned in a garret ; but this is clearly incredible. Merely to take so wise a work now into a garret would be inconsistent with propriety; but
No. II. OCTOBER, 1855.
that the original conception, -- not a stray volume, but the pure, undefecated idea to which each number is a quarterly aspiration-ever was in a garret, seems the evident fiction of reminiscent age, striving and failing to remember.
Review writing is one of the features of modern literature. Many able men really give themselves up to the pursuit. Comments on ancient writings are scarcely so common as formerly ; no great part of our literary talent is devoted to the illustration of the ancient masters; but what seems at first sight less dignified, annotation on modern writings, was never so frequent as it is now. Hazlitt, who was not a reading man, started the question, whether it would not be as well to review works which did not appear, in lieu of those which did, being desirous, as a reviewer, to escape the labour of perusing print, and, as a human being, wishing to save his fellowcreatures from the slow torture of tedious extracts. But, though approximations to this original idea may frequently be noticed—though the neglect of authors and independence of critics are on the increase—the conception, in its imposing grandeur, has never been carried out. Of course, it looks, at first sight, odd that writers should wish to comment on one another; it appears a tedious mode of stating opinions, and a needless confusion of personal facts with abstract arguments; and some, especially authors who have been criticized severely, are rather ready with the suggestion, that the cause is laziness —that it is easier to write a review than a book-and that reviewers are, as Coleridge declared, a species of maggots, (not bookworms, for that would be to admit them studious, living on the delicious brains of real genius. Indeed, it would be very nice, but our world is so imperfect. This idea is wholly false. It is easier, of course, to write one review than one book; but not, which is the real case, many reviews than one book. A deeper cause must be looked for.
In fact, review-writing only exemplifies the casual character of modern literature. Everything about it is temporary and fragmentary. Look at a railway stall; you see books of every colour, blue, yellow, crimson,“ ring-streaked, speckled, and spotted,” on every subject, in every style, of every opinion, with every conceivable difference, celestial or sublunary, maleficent, beneficent-but all small. People take their literature in morsels, as they take sandwiches on a journey. The volumes at least, you can see clearly, are not intended to be everlasting. It may be all very well for a pure essence like poetry to be immortal in a perishable world ; it has no feeling, any more than the wandering Jew; but paper cannot endure it, paste cannot bear it, string has no heart for it. The race has made up its mind to be fugitive, as well as minute. What a change from the ancient volume !
“ That weight of wood, with leathern coat o'erlaid,
Those ample clasps, of solid metal made ;
Where yet the title stands in tarnish'd gold.' And the change in the appearance of books has been accompanied-has been caused by a similar change in readers. What a transition from the student of former ages !—from a grave man, with grave cheeks and a considerate eye, who spends his life in study, has no interest in the outward world, hears nothing of its din, and cares nothing for its honours, who would gladly learn and gladly teach, whose whole soul is taken up with a few books of "Aristotle and his Philosophy,"—to the mercbant in the railway, with a head full of sums, an idea that tallow is “up," a conviction that teas are “lively," and a mind reverting perpetually from the little volume which he reads to these mundane topics, to the railway, to the shares, to the buying and bargaining universe. It is no wonder that the outside of books is so different, when the inner nature of those for whom they are written is so changed.
It is, indeed, a peculiarity of our times, that we must instruct so many persons. On politics, on religion, on all less important topics à fortiori, every one thinks himself competent to think, -in some casual manner does think,—to the best of our means must be taught to think rightly. Even if we had a profound and far-seeing statesman, his deep ideas and long-reaching vision would be useless to us, unless we could impart a confidence in them to the mass of influential persons, to the unelected Commons, the unchosen Council, who assist at the deliberations of the nation. In religion the appeal now is, not to the technicalities of scholars, or the fictions of recluse schoolmen, but to the deep feelings, the sure sentiments, the painful strivings of all who think and hope. And this appeal to the many necessarily brings with it a consequence. We must speak to the many so that they will listen, -that they will like to listen, -that they will understand. It is of no use
. addressing them with the forms of science, or the rigour of accuracy, or the tedium of exhaustive discussion. The multitude are impatient of system, desirous of brevity, puzzled by formality. They agree with Sydney Smith : “Political economy has become, in the hands of Malthus and Ricardo, a school of metaphysics. All seem agreed what is to be done: the con
tention is, how the subject is to be divided and defined. Meddle with no such matters.” We are not sneering at the last of these sciences; we are concerned with the essential doctrine, and not with the particular instance. Such is the taste of the public.
There is, as yet, no Act of Parliament compelling a bonú fide traveller to read. If you wish him to read, you must make reading pleasant. You must give him short views, and clear sentences. It will not answer to explain what all the things which you describe, are not. You must begin by saying what they are. There is exactly the difference between the books of this age, and those of a more laborious age, that we feel between the lecture of a professor and the talk of the man of the world -the former profound, systematic, suggesting all arguments, analysing all difficulties, discussing all doubts, very admirable, a little tedious, slowly winding an elaborate way, the characteristic effort of one who has hived wisdom during many studious years, agreeable to such as he is, anything but agreeable to such as he is not-the latter, the talk of the manifold talker, glancing lightly from topic to topic, suggesting deep things in a jest, unfolding unanswerable arguments in an absurd illustration, expounding nothing, completing nothing, exhausting nothing, yet really suggesting the lessons of a wider experience, embodying the results of a more finely tested philosophy, passing with a more Shakspearian transition, connecting topics with a more subtle link, refining on them with an acuter perception, and what is more to the purpose, pleasing all that hear him, charming high and low, in season and out of season, with a word of illustration for each and a touch of humour intelligible to all, fragmentary yet imparting what he says, allusive yet explaining what he intends, disconnected yet impressing what he maintains. This is the very model of our modern writing. The man of the modern world is used to speak what the modern world will hear; the writer of the modern world must write what that world will indulgently and pleasantly peruse.
In this transition from ancient writing to modern, the reviewlike essay and the essay-like review fill a large space. Their small bulk, their slight pretension to systematic completeness, their avowal, it might be said, of necessary incompleteness, the facility of changing the subject, of selecting points to attack, of exposing only the best corner for defence, are great temptations. Still greater is the advantage of “our limits.” A real reviewer always spends his first and best pages on the parts of a subject on which he wishes to write, the easy comfortable parts which he knows. The formidable difficulties which he
owns, you foresee by a strange fatality he will only reach two pages before the end; to his great grief there is no opportunity for discussing them. As a young gentleman, at the India House examination, wrote “ Time up ” on nine unfinished papers in succession, so you may occasionally read a whole review, in every article of which, the principal difficulty of each successive question is about to be reached at the conclusion. Nor can any one deny that this is the suitable skill, the judicious custom, of the craft. Some
be inclined to mourn over the old days of systematic arguments and regular discussion. A "field-day argument is a fine thing. These skirmishes have much danger and no glory. Yet there is one immense advantage. The appeal now is to the mass of sensible persons. Professed students are not generally suspected of common sense; and though they often show acuteness in their peculiar pursuits, yet they naturally want the various experience, the changing imagination, the feeling nature, the realized detail which are necessary data for a thousand questions. The Edinburgh Review was, at its beginning, a material step in the change. No doubt the Spectator and Tatler, and such-like writings, had opened a similar vein, but their size was too small. They could only deal with small fragments, or the extreme essence of a subject. They could not give a view of what was complicated, or analyse what was involved. The modern man must be told what to think, shortly no doubt, bat he must be told it. The essay-like criticism of modern times is about the length which he likes. The Edinburgh Review, which began the system, may be said to be, in this country, the commence. ment on large topics of suitable views for sensible persons.
. The circumstances of the time were especially favourable to such an undertaking. Those years were the commencement of what is called the Eldonine period. The cold and haughty Pitt had gone down to the grave in circumstances singularly contrasting with his vigorous and prosperous youth, and he had carried along with him the inner essence of half-liberal principle, which had clung to his tenacious mind from youthful associations, and was all that remained to the Tories of abstraction or theory. As for Lord Eldon, it is the most difficult thing in the world to believe that there ever was such a man. It only shows how intense historical evidence is, that no one really doubts it. He believed in everything which it is impossible to believe in—in the danger of Parliamentary Reform, the danger of Catholic Emancipation, the danger of altering the Court of Chancery, the danger of altering the Courts of Law, the danger of abolishing capital punishments for