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One cool morning, during our last war with England, a group of Knickerbocker savans might have been seen on the Battery, eagerly watching the approach of a vessel. On her deck, at the same moment, the inspection of a passenger's baggage was going on, under the eye of a vigilant officer of the customs, whose herculean proportions and deliberate air were in amusing contrast with the brisk movements and diminutive figure of the indignant owner of the trunks and boxes thus overhauled and scrutinized. At last, swelling with indignation, the little man turned to his burly tormentor, with the question --- à la Cæsar — "Sir! do you know who I am ?”
“Yes,” replied the officer, "you are the editor of a Scotch magazine ;” and immediately continued his examination, as if determined to prove the querist a smuggler.
Quite different were the manners of the expectant group at the pier, when the irritated gentleman stepped upon shore. Their deferential greeting and urgent hospitality soon put him in better humor, without, however, diminishing the self-complacency of his bearing. The scene perfectly illustrated a singular characteristic of the times — the ascendency gained over public opinion by the press, and the newly-established power of criticism.
The gentleman, whose arrival in the United States was thus signalized, was Francis Jeffrey, who, having contracted an engagement of marriage with an American lady whom he met abroad, had come over, under the protection of a cartel specially granted for the purpose, in a government ship, to marry the woman of his choice. The practical independence and good sense of the scion of democracy who examined his baggage rebelled at a certain vague idea he had somewhere acquired, that the wise men of his native city pinned their faith upon a foreign periodicat; and, sharing in the animosity then cherished against Great Britain, he was far from pleased at the demonstration of respect to the Scotch editor manifested in the vessel that brought and the reception that awaited him; while the learned coterie, who eagerly seized upon the stranger, beheld in him the incarnation of mental vigor, wit, knowledge, and pleasantry, which, under the name of the Edinburgh Review, bad been their chief intellectual repast for several preceding years. There was nature and reason on both sides ; à resistance to foreign domination, even in matters of taste and speculation, on the one hand, -- for the custom-house
officer had published a book or two in his day, - and a hearty recognition of mental obligation on the other. Looking upon the man through the expanding vista of succeeding triumphs in periodical criticism and enlarged literary culture, we can readily take that medium ground between the extremes of independence and admiration, where the truth doubtless lies.
At the period referred to, however, Jeffrey's position was a remarkable social phenomenon. The son of a Glasgow tradesman or mechanic, and educated for 'the bar, by means of a certain degree of taste, a winning style, polished irony, and clever argumentative ability, he vaulted to the throne of criticism — became a literary autocrat, the Napoleon of the world of letters ; not without some claim to the distinction, indeed, but yet owing it chiefly to ingenuity, perseverance, and audacity. The reason of this success is obvious. He was the pioneer reviewer; the first who discovered the entire significance of the cabalistic we." With an acute, though not comprehensive, power of reflection, he united remarkable tact; and, by virtue of these two qualities, naturally succeeded in pleasing that large class of readers who are neither wholly superficial nor profound, but a little of both. He had a metaphysical turn, without rising to the title of a moral philosopher; and could speculate upon
abstract questions with an ease and agreeableness that rendered them entertaining Accordingly, he made abstruse subjects familiar, and delighted many, who had never been conscious of great insight, with the idea that they could appreciate the mysteries of knowledge. There is more, however, that is plausible and attractive, than original or suggestive, in the metaphysical dissertations of Jeffrey. The talent of the writer, rather than the novelty or consistency of his theories, is to be admired. The article, for instance, on Alison's Taste, is a charming specimen of this kind of writing; but it wants definite and satisfactory impressions. It gratifies a taste in composition rather than a passion for truth, which should guide and inspire such investigations.
Qualities attractive in themselves become obnoxious when incongruously united with others of an opposite moral nature. To an honest and loving spirit the coëxistence of beauty and falsehood is too painful for contemplation; and the most fascinating manners revolt when their hypocrisy is once discovered. Sterne prays for a reader who will surrender the reins of imagination to the author's hands. Now, it is a law of human nature that such a tribute is only spontaneously yielded to geniality; and the difficulty of a hearty concession, even of opinion, to Lord Jeffrey, is, that he is more peremptory and acute than sympathetic and respectful. An independent, and, especially, a reverent mind, naturally distrusts the dogmatical tone and plausible reasoning of his criticisms. He discusses a subject with charming vivacity, exhibits an ingenuity that is admirable, and displays a knowledge of outward relations and historical facts that commands respect; and, if the theme is purely objective, unassociated with sentiment of any description, and appealing to mere curiosity, there are few writers who are more delightful. But, when he approaches a subject dear to affection, or consecrated by hallowed memories, we often shrink as from the touch of a coarse and mechanical operator. He then seems to speak without authority; we instinctively question his right to teach, and feel that he is a ruthless intruder into sacred places.
The truth is, that Lord Jeffrey, by nature, education, and habits of thought, was a special pleader. He used words and ideas for an immediate purpose ; his object, when most in earnest, is to
gain a point; his liberality and depth of feeling were in reverse proportion to his cleverness and information. His great moral defect was want of modesty. He does not appear to have known, by experience, the feeling of self-distrust, but thought himself quite competent to dictate to the world, not only on legal, but on literary and social topics. This reliance upon his own reason gives force and point to those disquisitions the scope of which come within his legitimate range, but makes him offensive, with all his agreeability of style, the moment he transcends his
proper sphere. He ‘manifests, in an extraordinary degree, the Scotch idiosyncrasy which refers everything exclusively to the understanding. He was essentially literal.
The interest of Lord Jeffrey's memoirs centres in the fact that its subject was the prime agent of a literary revolution. The incidents of his life are the reverse of extraordinary; his professional career has been surpassed, in many instances, by his fellowadvocates; his habits were systematic and moral; and his outward experience was the usual alternation of business, society, journeys, and rural seclusion, which constitutes the routine of a prosperous and intelligent citizen.' A native of Edinburgh, where he was chiefly educated, he passed a few uncomfortable months at Oxford ; returned home and finished his preparatory studies, under excellent teachers ; after much hesitation, adopted the law as a pursuit; in due time was admitted to the bar, rose to the office of Lord Advocate, took an active part in politics, was twice happily married. IIe visited London frequently, and there enjoyed the best intellectual society; made excursions to different parts of England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland; engaged zealously in the debates and genial intercourse of one of the most brilliant clubs ever instituted ; and died in his seventy-seventh year, deeply lamented by a large and gifted circle of Edinburgh society, as well as by a tenderly attached family, and a host of noble friends. In this career, so eminently respectable and fortunate, there is obviously little to impress the public. No dramatic scenes, curious adventures, tragic combats with fate, or touching mysteries of inward life; all is plain, sensible, prudent, and successful. With the exception of a rhetorical triumph, a good descriptive hint of scenery or character, and those interludes of sorrow incident to the lot of man, when the angel of death bears off the loved and honored, a singularly even tenor marks the experience of Jeffrey, as described in his correspondence.
Neither is there discoverable any surprising endowment, or fascinating gift, such as renders the very name of some men a spell to quicken fancy, and to draw tears. The order of his mind is within the sphere of the familiar; only in aptness, in constant exercise and skill, was it above the average. With the utilitarian instinct and thorough rationalism of his country, Jeffrey wisely cultivated and judiciously used his powers ; above all, he never distrusted them, but, with the patience and the faith of a determined will, kept them at work to the best advantage, and probably reaped as large a harvest, in proportion both to the quality of the soil and the quantity of the seed, as Scotch shrewdness and thrift ever realized. Yet, to continue the similitude, it was more by successive crops, than by grand and lasting fruits, that his labor was rewarded. Some flowers of fancy and a goodly stock of palatable fodder grew in his little garden, but no stately evergreens, sacred night-bloom, or glowing passion-flowers, such as make lovely forever the haunts of original genius. To drop metaphor, Lord Jeffrey owes his reputation, and is indebted for the interest of his biography, to the éclat, influence, and fame, of the Edinburgh Review. The merit of taking the initiative in a more free and bold style of periodical literature, the advantages of the reform thus induced, and the intellectual pleasure derived from the open and spirited discussion, by adequate writers, of public questions, are benefits justly associated with his name, and altogether honorable to his memory. These services, however, are identified, in many minds, with an undue sense of his critical authority, and a submission to his dicta, occasioned by a graceful effrontery of tone, rather than absolute capacity.
Circumstances greatly favored his literary success. At the epoch of the commencement of his enterprise, the liberal party stood in need of an efficient organ. The existent periodicals were comparatively tame and old-fashioned. It was one of those moments in public affairs when a bold appeal was certain to meet with an emphatic response ; and the party of friends, among whom originated the idea of a new and spirited journal, were not