The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

VI. Reviews and Magazines in the Early Years of the Nineteenth Century

§ 8. Noctes Ambrosianœ

To these two Scotsmen—“the Great Twin Brethren,” as they are admiringly called in Annals of a Publishing House (Blackwood)—there was added a typical Irishman, the brilliant, rollicking, reckless Maginn, once a schoolmaster in Cork, a man of wit and learning, to whom Trinity college, Dublin, had given an honorary degree. Taken into the utmost confidence by the inner circle of Maga, Maginn, before long, was contributing a large portion of its articles and almost all its verse; and he did it a yet greater service, if it is true that the suggestion of the famous Noctes Ambrosianae came from him. It was from Maginn that Thackeray drew the portrait of captain Shandon in Pendennis. Garnett has described him as

  • a man of undoubtedly extraordinary faculties. They were those of an accomplished scholar grafted on a brilliant improvisatore—the compound constituting a perfectly ideal magazinist.
  • But, with all his endowments, his faults and failings were many. In 1830, he did good work in founding Fraser’s Magazine (on the same lines as Blackwood), which, with the co-operation of such men as Coleridge and Thackeray and Carlyle, was for years to stand in the front rank of the monthlies. His connection with the newspaper press, however, tended to become less reputable, and his intemperate habits hastened the way downhill of a man who had many admirers, and no enemy but himself.

    The Blackwood group, however much their behaviour may have occasionally shocked public sensibilities, contained men of very remarkable genius. Through Wilson, De Quincey, now settled in Edinburgh, obtained his introduction to Blackwood, and it was as early as 7 January, 1821, that he described himself, in a letter to the startled editor, as “the Atlas of the Magazine,” who could alone “save it from the fate which its stupidity deserved!” Coleridge, also an occasional contributor, was full of advice as to its proper management. Lockhart, Hogg, Wilson, De Quincey, Maginn would have been an awkward team for an editor or publisher of less commanding qualities than Blackwood to control. Noctes Ambrosianae added for many years greatly to the fame and popularity of Maga. Striking out a new line, these papers reported imaginary dialogues and conversations on questions and events of the day, on remarkable books and the characters of public men, carried on, at social gatherings and suppers at Ambrose’s, with all the freedom of familiar intercourse between intimate friends. They were, to begin with, the composition of several authors, of Lockhart or Hogg, of Wilson or Maginn; but, after two or three years, they became almost wholly the work of Wilson. Beginning in 1822, they continued till 1835, and number 71 papers. Of these, 41, Wilson’s own composition, have been included in his collected works, edited by Ferrier, of which they form the first four volumes. The characters who occupy the stage are Christopher North (Wilson himself), Hogg, the Ettrick shepherd, Timothy Tickler, more or less an impersonation of a maternal uncle of Wilson, and, in a few papers, De Quincey—“the English Opium Eater,” and O’Doherty, representing Maginn. Sometimes, personages wholly fictitious are introduced, while, sometimes, real persons, without any consent of their own, are pressed into the service at the good pleasure of Maga. The inimitable wit and humour of these discussions, the freshness of thought and criticism, and the racy language of the talkers, have given Noctes a place in English literature. The impersonation of Hogg, in particular, is a realistic triumph, and in that vivid portraiture the Ettrick shepherd will live hardly less than in the records of his actual life and work.