1883 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Jerdan

William Bates, after William Maginn; Maclise Gallery (1883; 1898) 1-4.



The Gallery commenced appropriately with the [Greek characters, "Eidolon"] of WILLIAM JERDAN, the Nestor, if not the Aristarchus, of journalistic critics. Maginn, in what Charles Lamb would have called a "matter of lie" sort of way, assigns his birth vaguely to "about the year 1730;" but, without venturing to contravene such high authority, I may venture to state that a William Jerdan first saw the light at Kelso, where his father had a small estate, on April 16, 1782. Some seventy years after this event, — in August, 1851, — a testimonial was set on foot, "as a public acknowledgment of the literary labours of William Jerdan, animating to many, and instructive to all, since the commencement of the Literary Gazette, in 1817, to the close of last year, and of the value of his services to Literature, Science and the Fine and Useful Arts." On the Committee for the promotion of this laudable object were men of the highest position in, literature, art and politics, — Brougham, Croly, Lockhart, Maclise, Thackeray, Bulwer, Cruikshank, etc.

The editor of Byron's Don Juan, in his Preface to that immortal poem, speaks of "William, Jerdan, Esq., of Grove House, Brompton," as "sure of being remembered hereafter for his gallant seizure of Bellingham the assassin of Perceval, in the lobby of the House of Commons, on the 11th May, 1812; and the establishment of the first Weekly journal of Criticism and Belles Lettres in England." It would appear, however, from a statement of the able bibliographer, "Olphar Hamst" (Mr. Ralph Thomas), that Jerdan, so far from being founder of the magazine with which his name is associated, did not assume the editorial conduct of the serial till the twenty-sixth number, his first contribution having appeared in the one previous. Among the other credentials of the critic to be remembered by posterity maybe mentioned his narrow escape of at least receiving a challenge to fight a duel with the noble author of the poem I have mentioned. It appears that some remarks which he had made on Byron's lines to Mrs. Charlemont — "Born in a garret, in a kitchen bred, etc.," having given offence, the irate bard entrusted a cartel of mortal defiance to his friend, the Hon. Douglas Kinnaird, — whom, later on, as one "well versed in the duello or monomachie," he commissioned to challenge Southey, — who, wisely retaining the document in his possession till he had an opportunity of appealing "from Philip drunk to Philip sober," succeeded in dissuading the poet from his angry purpose.

"A great cry," says Maginn, "was got up a few years ago by some foolish Cockneys, who, having contrived to impose upon Jerdan a sonnet of Shakespeare's as a modern composition continue to ring the changes on this notable blunder ever since, — as if there were any man in England on whom the same trick could not have been played with every chance of success. None but a puppy or a pedant will pretend that he knows all Shakespeare's sonnets by heart. If no worse critical lapse than this be committed by Jerdan, he may set his heart at ease, and drink his third bottle in quietness." Of the incident referred to I have no recollection; but am, too, of opinion that to have been so deceived is no impeachment on Jerdan's critical sagacity, — or, indeed, on that of any one else. That man may be safely written down an ass who assumes judicial infallibility in literary or artistic discrimination. The most cautious, learned and experienced judges are liable to error. Authors have forgotten their own writings, and painters failed to recognize the work of their hands. Did not Muretus deceive Scaliger by palming upon him some verses of his own as the work of an ancient? Did not Peter Burmann express doubts as to the antiquity of Jortin's inscription, and Thomas Warton give it a place in his Deleclus? Was not Sir Walter Scott as open to deception as his own Monkbarns, though no one should have known the ring of a border ballad better than he? Were no acute critics, like Chalmers and Parr, entrapped by Ireland; and had not the monk, Rowley, as invented by Chatterton — "The marvellous boy, that perish'd in his pride" — his believers by hundreds? Are the Letters of Phalaris authentic; and did not Simonides hoodwink the learned Dindorf at Leipzig? Where is there a more experienced judge of paintings than Dr. Waagen, and did he not laud as most genuine specimens of the old masters, pictures painted for the Earl of Normanton, in our own day, by "Mr. Josh R. Powell, of Brompton"? Where was the judgment of Sir Thomas Lawrence, when he staked his reputation on the genuineness of the Coreggio Christ in the Garden, in the National Gallery, which now turns out to be a copy from the original in the collection at Apsley House? "Risum teneatis"! one might go on for ever with similar questions, out of the hundreds which are suggested in the history of literature and art, and the answers to them should lead to modesty in the assumption of infallible sagacity, and leniency towards others who have fallen into error.

The spacious house at Brompton in which Jerdan long resided had been built for Sir John Macpherson, — the "gentle giant," as he was called, — him who succeeded Warren Hastings, and preceded Marquis Cornwallis, as Governor-General of India, and thus figures in history as a bad shilling between two good ones. Jerdan himself was, in figure, a big hulking fellow; he was hospitable, genial and good-natured; and always ready to lend a hand to struggling genius. Thus the late Mrs. S. C. Hall, who long was a valued contributor to the Literary Gazette, in writing to its editor on a Christmas day, concluded her letter by reminding him, that when looking back upon all that they had lost, he must enjoy "much real happiness from the knowledge that he had always fostered young talent, given circulation to opinions calculated to promote the influences of religion and morality, and never inflicted a careless wound on any living thing."

In those old days Jerdan was a power in the Republic of Letters. Reputations were thought to depend upon his nod; he could make, or unmake, the fortune of a book; and the young argonaut, adventuring forth on the ocean of fame, looked anxiously for "a puff from the river Jordan" (as an old caricature in Figaro had it), to waft his bark into the haven of success. But, if the truth must be told, he held his sceptre with a feeble grasp, and made but a poor use of the power which his position afforded him. Thus he and his magazine, shortly after the appearance of this portrait, went down, after a connection which had endured for thirty-four years, before the higher pretensions of the Atheneaum, when it came under the able management of Charles Wentworth Dilke.

The life of William Jerdan may be said to have been wholly devoted to journalistic literature. He was early on the staff of the Morning Post, the Pilot, the British Press, the Satirist, or Monthly Meteor, — the copyright of which he bought from its former editor and proprietor, George Manners, and which is not to be confounded with the Satirist newspaper of more recent date, — and the Sun. He edited the Sheffield Mercury, a Birmingham paper, and other provincial prints. He translated a Voyage to the Isle of Elba from the French of Arsene de Berneaud (1814); and he wrote the "Biographical Memoirs" for Fisher's National Portrait Gallery of Illustrious and Eminent Personages of the Nineteenth Century. In later days he was connected with the Leisure Hour, for which he wrote at intervals during several years an interesting, if somewhat feeble, series of sketches of eminent characters, which he subsequently republished under the title of Men I have Known (London, 1866, 8vo, pp. 490). He has moreover left us his Autobiography, with his Literary, Political, and Social Reminiscences and Correspondence (London, 1853, 4 vols. 8vo.), from which may be gathered all those minute details of his social and literary life which were to be expected from the "studium immane loquendi" of protracted age.

In 1826, Jerdan became a member of the Royal Society of Antiquaries; and it should not be forgotten that the Royal Society of Literature, founded in 1821, of which he was one of the earliest members, owes its existence in great measure to his efforts.

In 1830, he helped to start and edit the Foreign Literary Gazette, which, however, only lived through thirteen numbers.

Those who wish to learn more of the literary career of William Jerdan must refer to his Men I have Known; his Autobiography; Men of the Time, ed. 1856; and the obituary notice in the Gentleman's Magazine, vol. xlvi. N.S., p. 441.

The little band of literary co-workers who seek or communicate information in the pleasant pages of Notes and Queries may like to be reminded that under the pseudonym of "Bushey Heath" was concealed the familiar name of William Jerdan.

This veteran critic closed his long and honourable career July, 1869, at the patriarchal age of 88.

Over his grave, in the churchyard of Bushey, Hertfordshire, a tombstone has been erected. Upon one side it bears the following inscription in Roman capitals, — "William Jerdan, F.S.A.; born at Kelso, April 16, 1782, died at Bushey, July 17, 1869. Founder of the Literary Gazette, and its Editor for 34 years;" on the other side, "Erected as a tribute to his memory by his Friends and Associates in the Society of Noviomagus, 1874."