Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by J. H. Millar
Francis Jeffrey (17731850)
[Francis Jeffrey was born at Edinburgh in 1773. After a course at the Edinburgh High School and Glasgow University, he proceeded to Queens College, Oxford, where, however, he resided for only a year, and whence he consequently went down without a degree. He passed advocate in 1794, and embraced Whig opinions, at that time in no great favour in the Parliament House. In 1803 he became editor of the Edinburgh Review, which he had been largely instrumental in establishing in the preceding year, and he continued to conduct that celebrated periodical with equal ability and success till 1829, when he was chosen to fill the highly honourable post of Dean of Faculty. Upon the accession of his party to power in 1831 he was appointed Lord Advocate, and three years afterwards was raised to the bench. He died in 1850, having published in 1844 a selection, in four volumes, from his very numerous contributions to the Edinburgh.]
THOUGH his works no longer delight the general public, Lord Jeffrey will always occupy a respectable position in English letters as the founder, to all intents and purposes, of reviewing. His intellect was nimble rather than penetrating, and his knowledge miscellaneous rather than profound; while his sensibility at times was too strong for his sense. Indeed, his characteristic admission to Macvey Napier that he had read Macaulays essay on Bacon not only with delight but with emotion, with throbbings of the heart and tears in the eye, seems to afford a hint at once of the measure of his attainments in philosophy and of his extreme susceptibility to any form of excitation. Yet his brisk and dapper habit of mind was no bad qualification for the literary work of his life; and perhaps the best proof of his success is the long existence which his convention has enjoyed. Every sentence of Macaulay attests his statement that he had read and re-read Jeffreys old articles till he knew them by heart; and for close upon a hundred years critic after critic, consciously or unconsciously, has copied his methods, has imitated his tone and bearing, has aped his omniscience, and has endeavoured to assume his awful air of authority. The penalty attached to this good fortune has been the obloquy of all who have learned the cant of an author, and begun to treat critics with contempt; who find a singular consolation for the sense of their own incompetence in Jeffreys declaration that The Excursion would never do; and who feel their immortality assured by the fact that Jeffrey preferred Rogers and Campbell to Shelley and Byron. Whatever lack of perception such notorious judgments may argue, Lord Jeffrey has at all events made good a substantial claim to applause, if not upon the dubiously relevant ground of having made the Moral tendencies of the works under consideration a leading subject of discussion, and neglected no opportunity of elucidating the true constituents of human happiness and virtue, at all events for having succeeded in permanently raising the standard, and increasing the influence of all such Occasional writings as his own.
An overflowing vocabulary and an unhesitating fluency are apt to be bad masters; to Jeffrey they were ever the best of servants; for he never suffered them to impair the lucidity which is the outstanding merit of his writing. The thought he desires to express may be little worth expressing, but it is always clothed in language of which the meaning is impossible to mistake. In spite of occasional grammatical errors, he never becomes slipshod, and his style is so clean, so finished, and so scrupulously precise as to partake in some degree of the peculiar charm of good French prose. He had measured his own powers, it may be assumed, with tolerable accuracy, and seldom attempted flights for which he was naturally unfitted. But his imagination was a lively one, and the similes in which from time to time he indulges possess the merits of being neither trite nor far-fetched, of being exactly appropriate, and of never breaking down. Finally, the want of more substantial and impressive excellences is felt to be almost atoned for by the irresistible sprightliness and vivacity which animate all his pieces.
Of Jeffrey in his capacity of critic something has been already hinted, and little more need be said. He is charged with a lack of humour, and he was doubtless unable to see the joke of being attacked as he himself had attacked others. But the Edinburgh reviewer who spoke of the deliberate and indulgent criticism which we exercise rather for the encouragement of talent than its warning can scarcely have been destitute of the saving quality. His campaign against the Lake school was vigorous and persistent; yet the worst that he said against Wordsworth is perhaps more excusable than the faint praise with which he welcomed the poetry of Sir Walter Scott. For this, however, he made ample amends when he reviewed the works of the author of Waverley; and, indeed, he could turn a compliment with at least as good a grace as he could direct a sarcasm. His powers of detraction and depreciation have probably been overestimated; and though he could sneer and banter with unflagging spirit, his genius was of too restless and pert an order ever to attain to that sublime of insolence which Lockhart scaled. Nevertheless, he dispensed his chastisements with all his heart; and if the blows sometimes fell upon the wrong back, it must be remembered that they were prompted, not by malice nor stupidity, but by attachment to the cardinal principle that literature is an art, that its practice not only requires the utmost care, diligence, and preparation, but also involves a convention, and that, therefore, the haphazard use of the common unsifted vocabulary of everyday life can never consist with poetry. Against the indiscriminate censure bestowed by Jeffrey upon Wordsworth may fairly be set off his generous, yet judicious, eulogy of Keats.