LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
[John Scott]
Lord Byron: French Critics: Newspapers: Magazines.
London Magazine  Vol. 1  No. 5  (May 1820)  492-97.
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No V. MAY, 1820. Vol. I.


Lord Byron has become extremely popular in France, which is surely extraordinary if his French critics be right in affirming that he is unintelligible in England. They instance Milton and Shakspeare, as more within the reach of our common readers! The French, after all, are your only people for delivering clear and decisive judgments: when they have once said a thing, it may he considered as settled—for some six months, at least, until they themselves choose to say directly the contrary.

We learn from the Paris Reviews,

* “Il est peu de poetës Anglais qui soient plus malaisés à comprendre.” There are few English poets so difficult to be understood.
“Beaucoup d’Anglais ne comprendent pas ce potëte.” Many of the English themselves cannot understand this poet.—Revue Encyclopédique—13th Livraison. p. 130.
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&c. that our noble and wandering Ishmael, whose hand is against—not exactly every man, for he compliments
Mr. Roger’s poetry—but many men, while numerous male and female fists are raised against him—“has conquered,” as they express it, “a colossal reputation in France. The admiration has taken the character of infatuation; nothing is spoken of but the master-pieces of Lord Byron; and the blind passion for these, now in vogue, has gone so far as to lead people to exalt this English writer, at the expense of those poets whose works chiefly redound to the honour of France.”

This, we have no hesitation to say—and we say it seriously—is a pity. We are sorry to hear of the extreme popularity of Lord Byron’s poetry amongst our neighbours: and we shall regret it the more, if we find that this imported novelty leads the French to disregard or despise their old literary models, to which they have hitherto been constant in the midst of infidelity to every thing else; from their devotion to which they never swerved, even when their legislature passed a decree that there was no God in the heavens, and that death was an eternal sleep. Our reason for so feeling is not an enthusiastic admiration of what is called the classical style in France, but rather a fear, that, if the French take to embracing the doctrines of the romantic school, we shall have them out-heroding Herod,—turning all proprieties and discretions topsy-turvy—in short, behaving as they did in regard to liberty, disgracing a good cause by an indiscreet manner of supporting it, as they had before outraged it by ignorant self-sufficient calumny. Nature deals much in compensations for defects: the nation in question has received, to remedy in some measure the effects of its volatility of temperament, a slowness, or rather an incapacity, of imagination; and we find, accordingly, that the practice of the French, in all that has most immediate relation to the latter faculty, has generally been peculiarly timid, poor, and dry. When any thing happens to give them a momentary impulse beyond their rules, definitions, and academical precepts, their extravagance proves that they know nothing of what they are about; and that, though they may have nominally adopted an excellent doctrine, they are just as insensible to its real merits, under the title of its friends, as they were when their pride consisted in being its obstinate opposers. The balanced power, and artificial splendour of their greatest authors, are their only safe objects of admiration:—not but that there are qualities still more worthy of admiration, but because the French are sure to lose their way, or overshoot their mark, if they set out seeking for these. Imagine a Frenchman of the Institute trying his hand at an imitation of Romeo! How nauseous he would make Werter even, if he attempted him seriously! He is limited by nature to the ability of reducing these to the standard taste of his own Boulevards, and fitting for representation by a common buffoon actor, the most exalted and subtle conceptions of the rarest spirits of the world. God forbid, then, that the celebrity of Lord Byron’s works should set the poets amongst our neighbours on getting up Giaours, Alps, and, least of all, Don Juans! We have been trembling, for some time back, lest, from abusing, the French critics should take to patronising the romantic sect, or schism,—which the reader pleases. Our dread of this arises from a conviction that the principles which we regard as the true ones with reference to this point, are more than others likely to be spoiled and disgraced in the handling of the ignorant and the unfeeling: that they are, unfortunately, just as well-calculated to give the reins to presumption as liberty to genius: that they form a peculiarly disgusting cant when professed affectedly, and without discernment and taste: and that they lad to jargon and blunders of a very offensive kind, when they are reduced to practice in incompetent or unsuitable quarters. They tempt the generality of persons to talk on matters that are usually insulted when made the subject of conversation, in short, a block-headed classic, strong in French rules, and armed with French quotations, is far more tolerable than a block-headed romantic, full of Schlegel and Madame de Stael. This, however,
494Lord Byron: his French Critics: the
is only saying that the former system is adapted for blockheads, and that the latter is not.

It is to be hoped, however, that the poetical Unities and Regularities—according to the French interpretation of these terms—will not gain converts and followers in England:—We trust that Barry Cornwall, for instance, will never think of renouncing the study of Ford, Massinger, and Shakspeare, for the sake of forming a style after the manner of the lofty and pompous Corneille, or even imitating the fashioned elegance and modulated harmony of the exquisitely-gifted Racine. And Lord Byron himself, we hope, has made no barter with his French admirers and imitators: be it for him still to feel “the waves bound beneath him as a steed that knows its rider,”—and let those who like better the regulatory of pleasure-ground ponds, and the magnificence of a thousand squirts—all playing according to rule and proportion—congratulate themselves on the superior refinement of their tastes. We repeat that the French have judged unwisely, supposing it to be true, that they are inclined to exchange their court brilliants, belonging to them since the age of Louis quatorze, for any new foreign curiosities, however shewy their fashion, and ingenious their manufacture: and England, on the other hand, must keep what she has, for we are afraid she would not turn to a good account any thing she might receive from France. Let an interchange of national commodities be made the basis of a treaty of commerce:—we should be happy to see this done:—but we cannot consent to ship off Coleridge to Calais, receiving in return Benjamin Constant, packed in the sheets of the Minérve. Mr. Jouy, the author of Belisaire, a tragedy, and of sundry Hermits in Paris, Provence, and other places, where people “most do congregate,” would be small compensation to us for the loss of the author of the Scotch novels; though possibly there might be no objection on our side to a truck between the Monastery and some of the best of the separate Essays from the pen of the above French writer. But, unless it be by means of our journalists, and political and economical writers, we really do not know how we could prudently arrange a traffic on the principle of exchange, between the literature of the two countries. The French have nothing, we believe, so dull as the Morning Chronicle in that line, so they might expect us to throw in with it some of the best of the Sunday sheets, to make together an equivalent for one of the second-rate Parisian newspapers. The Courier is heavier than the Quotidienne, but not of greater value we fear: the former is base in practice, and the latter in theory: let those, who may think it worth their while, strike the balance. In the Minérve there is more talent and less conscientiousness than in the Examiner: the conductors of the Paris journal are not fools enough to think all they say, and the editor of the London one we really believe is. It would not be fair to call upon the French to exchange theirs against ours here—unless indeed there should be thrown into the bale, with the Examiners, one of Mr. Hunt’s volumes of poetry,—and then there would be reason for complain on our side.* The tale of Rimini is worth more than the whole set of the Minérve, with the tragedy of Belisaire to boot: though when we recollect that De Berenger’s songs are included in the French series, and that Rimini contains a dedication and fourth canto, we are almost inclined to recant what we have said.

If we turn to magazines and reviews, we shall find that the French have nothing comparable to the Edinburgh and Quarterly; and we have nothing, either to compare or exchange with the French, in this class of goods, but the Edinburgh and Quarterly—so, in the article of reviews there can be no dealing. Blackwood’s Magazine, we are sure, and the London, we hope and trust, are a good deal superior to any of the Paris periodicals, weekly or monthly, that have fallen in the way of our observation:—we remark, however, in the foreign works of this sort, evidence

* It would be still worse for us to give up the Indicator;—this, with some few freckles allowed for, maybe pronounced a beautiful little paper.
Newspapers: and the Magazines.495
of a greater variety of principal contributors, than has as yet made itself apparent in the pages of the London—but it is still but early days with this magazine, and good contributors are slow and sure; ordinary ones as “plenty as blackberries.” In the mean time, we are requested by the regular Staff to hitch in a pledge, that, barring “sickness and sudden death,” no offensive deficiency shall make itself observeable. Our Edinburgh brethren, we see, wish us to leave them an exclusive privilege to handle certain subjects: this is surely too much to ask;—all we can promise them is, to respect, as theirs exclusively, by every right of property, the manner of handling certain subjects which we find adopted in their magazine. We should reject, for instance, though
Mr. Croker might recommend, the mean insincerity, and vulgar slander of Z, destroying whatever there might otherwise he of justice in some of his strictures, and altogether disgracing the principles of integrity and good taste for the honour of which he professes to be zealous. We engage never to imitate the mouthing cant of the article on Don Juan; the exaggeration of which is carried so far as to give reason for doubting, whether the writer he not a notorious libertine, openly mocking his readers, or only a hypocrite clumsily endeavouring to impose upon them. Again, we disclaim a right to encroach on the mountebank, but tedious farce, carried on with the Ettrick Shepherd. Mr. Hogg, with singular good nature, seems to have consented to act the part of Blackwood’s “Mr. Merry-man;” and, in this capacity, he submits to degrading and insulting treatment, and exposes himself in a ridiculous light, for the sake of raising a horse-laugh amongst the subscribers. Nor shall we seek to impart to our sheets that redolancy of Leith-ale, and tobacco smoke, which floats about all the pleasantry of the magazine in question,—giving one the idea of its facetious articles having been written on the slopped table of a tavern parlour in the back-wynd, after the convives had retired, and left the author to solitude, silence, pipe-ashes, and the dregs of black-strap. The indecency of personalities, and the unmanliness of retractions, we mean to respect as belonging to our Scotch friends:—also the pleasures of caning and being caned,—or cudgelling, and being cudgelled—item, the magnanimous expedient of purchasing immunity for admitted calumny. Finally, and in order to make their minds easy, we seriously assure them, that we shall never seek to transplant into our pages, from theirs, that recklessness and levity in regard to truth and consistency, which pervade their departments of political argument, and sometimes of literary criticism; qualities which afford convincing evidence, that the writers think nothing of less consequence than their own convictions, which might easily be shewn to be totally different from the tenour of many of their Essays. It is probably their consciousness of this, that leads them to indulge in that overstrained and overheaped style of language which often distinguishes their serious articles, giving them an unpleasant lumbering effect, and leading us to wonder whether, from ridiculing Irish Philips, they have not passed to employing, or at least imitating, that mighty master of words destitute of meaning and good faith.

Such are the qualities and features of one of the cleverest periodical works of the day, on which we assure its editors, we shall most carefully avoid trespassing:—but, on the other hand,—as rivals, we necessarily are, the one to the other,—we give them fair notice, that we esteem them enough to seek to take lessons from their example, what to do, as well as what to avoid in our new task. That their work was, and is, a great improvement, in point of talent, on

* We have heard several opinions as to who Z really is;—the secret is surely less interesting than that of the author of Waverley. It is very possible that the editors may have lately been clubbing to keep up this last of the letters; but the signature, we fancy, did not originally belong to either of them. We suspect we have seen the gentleman before in the Quarterly. It has been a question also, who wrote the articles on Hazlitt and Hunt that have appeared in the latter journal. Some say Mr. Gifford, others Mr. Canning:—it strikes us, however, that Mr. Gifford is too honourable, and Mr. Canning too clever, for either one or other to have written them. But Mr. Canning has a colleague to whom neither of these objections would apply.
496Lord Byron: his French Critics: the
the general run of magazines, we have always been amongst the foremost to affirm, and our present position shall not induce us to retract our words. Its principal recommendation is a spirit of life, not usually characterizing such publications. Generally speaking, it has done important service to the cause of taste and truth by its poetical criticisms: indeed, before its appearance, there was no periodical work whatever, belonging to any part of the united kingdom, that could be looked to far a decent judgment on poetry. Their constitutional carelessness of principle has, to be sure, marked the conduct of the Editors of
Blackwood even in this department: and several most unworthy articles have crept into it, under the influence probably of divers motives:—sometimes, it would seem, only to attract popular attention by a lively sally;—at others, we really believe, to play off a contemptuous hoax on the public, and give occasion far a laugh at Ambrose’s;—occasionally, in pure malice and ill-temper;—and most frequently in deference to the shabby spite of Z.—whose dirty bait, held out to the popular greediness for slander, the publisher has perhaps found useful, though Scottish anglers are accustomed to pursue nobler sport in a cleaner manner.—But, with these exceptions, Blackwood’s Magazine has distinguished itself by a just and quick feeling of the elements of poetical beauty and power: it has vindicated with ability, energy, and effect, several neglected and calumniated, but highly deserving poetical reputations:—it has shown much skill and sensibility in displaying the finer and rarer of those rainbow-hues that play in the “plighted clouds of genuine poesy,—the subtleness and delicacy of which cause them to escape the grosser vision of the critics that take the lead in the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews on such subjects. This magazine, too, has, in some measure, vindicated the national character, which had become seriously compromised in the flippant and ignorant attacks, so frequently made, in certain popular journals, on the most exalted literary names of the continent. But, if we go on much further, we shall balance the creditor against the debtor side of the account; and this would be, after all, incorrect. On the whole, then, and in conclusion, we pronounce, with becoming and appropriate dogmatism, that Blackwood’s Magazine is a clever production which we would rather read than write: more amusing than respectable, and often amusing at the expence of those qualities that confer respectability:—that, nevertheless, its faults, gross as they are, bear the character of whims, and flights, rather than of radical vices. We have little doubt, that its principal offenders only require to get better placed, to cut a better figure:—we therefore hear with pleasure, that this is likely soon to happen in regard to one of them at least. A sort of animal boisterousness, and coarse, sanguine, vivacity, render it impossible to be very angry with their excesses.—It would, indeed, give us some pain, to have any serious disagreement with the “Edinburgh lads;” for, whether it proceed from professional or national sympathy, we feel, after all, a sort sneaking kindness about our heart, for them and their work. We wish them to know, that we took, with warmth, the part of their “Tent” Number, which we thought excellently done ho its way,—though, we believe, the public did not like it at all. There are two reasons, therefore, why we wish them to give its such another. The German Baron, Lauerwinkle, was excellent: the visitor to the Lakes, too turgid, and “mouthy:” the writer on Coleridge and Wordsworth, has, we believe, violated much that ought to be respected in private intercourse; and his criticism is but so-so. The serious poetry in this magazine is generally good: the comic is more clever than agreeable. It is obsolete to our feelings, where it is not repulsive: its fun is without interest; its jokes are admitted to have talent, but do not produce a sense of mirth or hilarity. Ringing the changes on ugly spinsters, and vulgar widows, is now out of date; there is an air of low company about such factiousness which is disagreeable. If he had not libelled the Bull Inn, at the head of Leith walk, we should have imagined that the principal Editor of Blackwood had been in the habit of frequenting no other house:—his style at least, does not savour of the made dishes or French wines of the dashing
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hotels of the New Town.—His Correspondent, who has stepped after our esteemed friend Mr. Weathercock (who we are much afraid is dead*) into George’s Coffee-house, has at least the merit of following a good example.—But enough has now been conceded to fraternal affection:—and yet one word more to our dear brethren, before sighing farewell—
A sound that hath been, and must be:—
we purpose visiting Auld Reekie some time soon, when the elegant new Smack, the Walter Scott,—(why not the Sir Walter?) in regard to whose preparing accommodations Rumour is now busily employing all her hundred tongues,—shall be afloat. The truth is, we are much in need of a holiday to recruit our health, at present seriously hurt by damp proofs and dry manuscripts. If the Edinburgh Editors should think of asking us to dinner on our arrival (which we doubt not they will) we take the liberty of requesting that the
Ettrick shepherd may be of the party; for we should be glad, after what we have said of him a little way back, to have an opportunity of assuring him personally of the high respect in which we hold his talents, of the delight with which we have read his works; and that we only regret—that he should allow himself to he treated with a coarse familiarity, the effect of which is at once degrading to hi character, and disgusting to the public’s sense of propriety. His part of buffoon in Blackwood’s Magazine interferes disagreeably with the idea of him as poet, and causes those who take in any interest in him as an individual, to feel either sorrow for hits mortification, or shame for his insensibility.

* We have since instituted particular inquiries, and find, with pleasure, that Mr. W. only made an attempt on his own life, which luckily proved abortive.