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DURING the thirty years after his death Francis Jeffrey was remembered in literature with very little honor. Those of his essays that were most often recalled were his attacks on the Lake poets; and as Wordsworth and Coleridge had ultimately persuaded the public, or the larger part of it, to take their poetry at their own valuation, Jeffrey's reputation as a critic suffered proportionally.
Of late years, however, two sets of causes have been tending to gain for Jeffrey a second hearing and to secure for him a fair recognition. In the first place, the mystical view of life, which he found so offensive in Wordsworth and attacked so relentlessly, has been more and more falling into disfavor, and giving place to a positive and scientific habit of thought. The positivism of to-day is not Jeffrey's positivism, and our insensibility to Wordsworth is not Jeffrey's insensibility; and yet the temper of our time is perhaps nearer like Jeffrey's than like Wordsworth's; and Jeffrey's frank, comprehensible blunders are nearer tolerable to a latter-day, prose-loving public than are the extravagances and cloudy mysticism of much of the poetry he assails.
Then, in the second place, the mere passage of time has been in Jeffrey's favor; the historical point of view has largely replaced the partisan point of view in discussions of the early literature of the century, and a
scientific recognition of Jeffrey's former prestige has replaced an impatient dislike of his critical opinions. Questions of cause and effect, of action and reaction, of movements and tendencies, have more and more come to the front; and for a student of problems of this kind Jeffrey is not a quantity that can be neglected.
It is hardly possible to glance through the life of any literary man of the early part of the century without chancing on evidence of Jeffrey's popularity and prestige. Macaulay, for example, was a devoted admirer of Jeffrey. One of his letters of 1828 deals wholly with his impressions of Jeffrey, at whose home he had just been staying; the tone of the letter is that of unmixed hero-worship; no details of the Scotch critic's appearance or habits or opinions are too slight to be sent to the Macaulay household in London. "He has twenty faces almost as unlike each other as my father's to Mr. Wilberforce's." "The mere outline of his face is insignificant. The expression is everything; and such power and variety of expression I never saw in any human countenance." "The flow of his kindness is quite inexhaustible." ... "His conversation is very much like his countenance and his voice, of immense variety." "He is a shrewd observer; and so fastidious that I am not surprised at the awe in which many people seem to stand when in his company.”1 These are only a few of Macaulay's details and admiring comments. Nor did Macaulay outgrow this intense admiration. In April, 1843, he writes Macvey Napier that he has read and reread Jeffrey's old articles till he knows them by heart; 2 and in December, 1843, on the appearance of Jeffrey's collected essays, he expresses
1 Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, chap. 3.
himself in almost unmeasured terms: "The variety and versatility of Jeffrey's mind seems to me more extraordinary than ever. ... I do not think that any one man except Jeffrey, nay that any three men, could have produced such diversified excellence. . . . Take him all in all, I think him more nearly an universal genius than any man of our time." 1
Macaulay's opinion, however, may not be wholly beyond suspicion. He himself had much of Jeffrey's dryness and positiveness of nature, and was temperamentally limited in much the same ways; he was, moreover, like Jeffrey an ardent Whig of the Constitutional type; and for all these reasons he may be thought to have been prejudiced. But in Carlyle we have a witness who was never for a moment in sympathy with Jeffrey's neat little formulas in art and in politics, and who has never been accused of registering unduly charitable opinions of even his best friends. Yet of Jeffrey he "It is certain there has no Critic appeared among says, us since who was worth naming beside him ; — and his influence, for good and for evil, in Literature and otherwise, has been very great." "His Edinburgh Review [was] a kind of Delphic Oracle, and Voice of the Inspired, for great majorities of what is called the 'Intelligent Public'; and himself regarded universally as a man of consummate penetration, and the facile princeps in the department he had chosen to cultivate and practise." 2
These quotations may stand in place of countless minor ones that might be marshalled; they will serve to make real to readers of to-day the magnitude of Jeffrey's power in literary matters during the first quarter of the century.
1 Life and Letters, chap. 9.
2 Carlyle's Reminiscences, ed. Norton, II, 271.
Horner's nickname for Jeffrey, "King Jamfray," 1 was not a misnomer.
What, then, were the causes of Jeffrey's prestige and popularity? To find a satisfactory explanation, it will be necessary to look beyond Jeffrey's personality, beyond even the band of brilliant workers with whom he was associated, and of whose cleverness and knowledge he made such well-advised use. It will be necessary to take into account the nature of the new venture in literature by means of which Jeffrey won his reputation, the Edinburgh Review, and to consider carefully its organization, its relation to earlier Reviews, its principles in politics and on social questions, its grounds of appeal to the public, and even such prosaic matters as its business arrangements. But before taking up these broader questions it will be well to examine briefly Jeffrey's individual characteristics as a literary critic.
The point on which Macaulay laid greatest stress in his praise of Jeffrey's work was its versatility; and to-day as in 1843 this versatility is noteworthy, even after standards of acquirement and performance have had a half century in which to develop. Jeffrey ranges with the same unfaltering step over the most diverse fields of knowledge. He seems equally sure of himself in dealing with politics, history, fiction, poetry, and philosophy. That his air of bravado and of unquestionable mastery was something of a trick, we now know very well. But even with our latter-day knowledge of the tricks of the reviewer's trade, we cannot help admiring and being impressed with the masterful air with which
1 Memoirs and Correspondence of Horner, II, 140.
Jeffrey at one moment sketches the history of English poetry, at another analyzes the questions at issue between materialists and idealists in philosophy, now argues against the doctrine of perfectibility, and now discusses points of constitutional law and of government. A little careful study of Jeffrey's work will usually show that he has had nothing startlingly novel to say on any of these questions. And yet our admiration for the critic's cleverness of manipulation survives even a series of such disenchanting analyses. If these analyses fail to show much reserve power or originality, they make perfectly clear the skill of treatment, the thorough command of essential facts, the readiness of illustration, the keenness of vision within a certain range, and the ease of presentation, which are characteristic of Jeffrey's best work. Admirers of his versatility, then, will not claim for him great originality or vast erudition, or that kind of transforming insight that gives familiar facts an unsuspected significance by bringing them into relation with a new set of first principles. But they will insist on their right to delight in his readiness of adaptation, in his quick-eyed perception, in his tact in simplifying complex problems, and in his unfailing certainty of aim and sureness of motion. He always bears himself gracefully and confidently and threads his way with the perfection of sure-footing to the goal he has from the first foreseen; and he does all this with equal precision and clairvoyance whether he is dealing with Scott's Marmion, or the Memoirs of Dr. Priestley, or Dugald Stewart's Philosophical Essays, or the French translation of Jeremy Bentham's Works. Jeffrey's mastery of his subject is like the successful barrister's knowledge of his brief; he is sure to know whatever he needs to know in order to carry the matter in hand triumphantly through,