LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
[Henry Brougham]
National Library—Galt's Life of Lord Byron.
Edinburgh Review  Vol. 52  (October 1830)  228-230.
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OCTOBER, 1830.

Art. XI.—The National Library. Conducted by the Rev. G. R. Gleig, M.A. Vol. I. The Life of Lord Byron, by John Galt, Esq. 12mo. London: 1830.

This is one of the many works which have been lately published in imitation, or apparent imitation, of the plan adopted by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Of these, Dr Lardner's Cyclopædia is by much the most valuable, and the most recommended by distinguished assistance, scientific and literary. Considered as bookselling speculations, they may all be allowed to be moderately priced; but in this most essential recommendation they are still greatly excelled by the Libraries of the Society.

This quality is really so material a requisite in such publications, that nothing can supply its place. The Society originally bent itself almost exclusively to the important task of bringing down the enormous price of books, which was by degrees confining the use of them more and more to those classes of the community who are in easy circumstances. Writings of an original cast, and of extraordinary genius, it was impossible, at least until most extensive circulation could be obtained, to publish at such very small cost as those of the Society are sold at. Sixpence only for as much matter as would fill a hundred pages of a common volume, with a number of excellent engravings, was plainly out of the question, if high prices were to be paid for original genius, or learning of the first order. It is of the essence of such books to be extremely cheap, but, or rather we should say, therefore, of a kind which many men may be able to write, as well as all to read. The immense circulation of twenty-five or thirty thousand, may now have enabled the Society to extend its remuneration greatly to authors. Its maps, too, are extensively circulated, and certainly of a very rare excellence, as well in the composition as in the execution. But it is manifest that such books as many of the volumes forming the Libraries, both of Entertaining Knowledge, and the Family Library, might be composed by a variety of literary men; and that, consequently, competition must be fatal to any one of this sort not sold at the lowest price possible. This applies in an especial manner to works published by individuals. Those of the Society must always have a material advantage, from being revised by many eminent men of science and letters, which gives a security against errors, and even against omissions, not attainable by the works of unaided individuals. Hence, the authority of the Society's Treatises will always be higher, and therefore competition will be
Moore's Life of Lord Byron.229
less hurtful to them. Yet, the fact is undeniable, that, notwithstanding this very material advantage, they are incomparably cheaper than any brought out by the common publishers. They are much cheaper than
Mr Murray's—in other respects a very excellent and always entertaining, if not always instructive miscellany. They bear an equal preference, in point of price, over the new publication of Mr Colburn, of which the volume before us is the commencement.

These remarks are forced from us by the great importance of the subject. It is the very use of such works, to be of easy access to all purses, and consequently of unlimited circulation. They must comply with this requisite to be permanent favourites, or even to succeed long with the public; for other booksellers, and other writers, can so easily take up the same kind of works, that they will inevitably undersell them, until the lowest price be reached. Indeed, there is nothing at all characteristic in either Mr Murray's or Mr Colburn's Library. The works are connected together by no tie; they fall under no particular class or arrangement; they are merely a succession of so many books of a certain size and price;—that is all they have in common, and to distinguish them from other sets of separate books. Their titles are extremely little applicable as descriptions of their nature.

Another remark we must be allowed to add, because it is of essential importance. The Society intended its books for the benefit—the solid use—the substantial profit—of the community;—in a word, for their instruction and their improvement. To communicate knowledge, and knowledge of real value, was their primary design; to this entertainment was subsidiary—accordingly, the Entertaining Library conveys as much entertainment only as is consistent with the plan of instruction, by conveying useful knowledge too. The imitative works to which the Society's have furnished the example, excepting Dr Lardner's Cyclopædia, all depart widely in this great particular from their original. It is not very easy to perceive the great instruction to be derived by the people from reading the Lives of Napoleon or of Lord Byron, especially as no pains are taken to read useful moral lessons by the writers, in the progress of their narratives. The Society never omits a single occasion to give the practical improvement, the useful reflections, suggested by, or which can, by some stretch, be connected with, the more amusing parts of its treatises. All tends to instruction in its treatises; in those of the other Libraries, which adopt the name, but widely depart from the nature of the thing, amusement, in
230Moore's Life of Lord Byron.
fact sale, is the main object. To begin a National Library with
Lord Byron's Life, argues a determination to consult only the taste and fashion of the times. These might, indeed, have been taken advantage of, for important purposes; and under the cloak of a popular biography, some useful matter, some wholesome truths, might well have been recorded, and widely disseminated. But a perusal of Mr Galt's work obliges us to say, that no such considerate and instructive course has been pursued by him.

As Mr Colburn is an active and very enterprising man, to whom literature is under considerable obligations; and as Mr Gleig is a very respectable writer, we are willing to hope that they will both believe us when we state our good wishes towards their project, and our hopes that the observations we are making may minister towards its success. It is really our purpose to further that object, by improving both the execution and the plan. We must therefore be allowed, on behalf of all the most approved principles of good taste, all the soundest canons of criticism, nay, the rules of the English language, and even of ordinary grammar, to enter our protest against the manner of writing which Mr Galt has thought fit to adopt. He is favourably known as a novelist of a certain class; but he is strangely mistaken if he thinks himself of such consideration in the republic of letters, as to entitle him to make himself a dictator over language, or rather sultan of the Dictionary. His composition is often a wild mixture of absurd and incongruous images—his language a preposterous medley of old words used in new senses, and new words coined without either the warrant of necessity, etymology, analogy, or harmony. His book is in other respects liable to censure; but it is not of sufficient importance to call for detailed criticism; and we should not have noticed it at all, except as forming the initial part of a publication calling itself National. This requires of us that we should guard the public taste from any chance of contamination that might arise from the circulation of such a production; and the more so, that it has been lauded by some as a rare specimen of biographical skill and masterly composition. These praises are not more ludicrous than its own pretensions. We leave it and its eulogists to the ridicule that must ever attach to the signal failure of overweening claims, and to literary encomiums bestowed on the palpable transgressors of literary rules.