1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Maginn

Margaret Oliphant, in The Literary History of England (1882) 3:261-62.



A better-known and more characteristic figure [than George Croly] is that of William Maginn, one of the most brilliant of the band of magazine writers to whom Blackwood first afforded a medium — younger than the great critics of the reviews, more dashing but less serious, who in one way never reached the level of Jeffrey, but in another surpassed and excelled him. Maginn was born in Cork, and was a schoolmaster there for some part of his early existence. At twenty-six he began to contribute to Blackwood's Magazine, which had then (1819) been for about two years in existence, and was in full tide of that reckless youth which permitted itself every literary liberty, and to which, indeed — notwithstanding the fires of resentment it lit everywhere, to the anguish of the victims and amusement of the public — almost every liberty was allowed. Maginn was if anything, less scrupulous than the original coterie of Edinburgh, the compilers of the Chaldee Manuscript: and he had not only an excellent style, but an easy and powerful command of classical subjects, than which nothing is more effective and telling in periodical literature. A bit of brilliant translation, an adaptation from Homer, a scrap of Horace, lightly turned into contemporary use, is everything to the light gallop of a slashing article , and confers on the writer a position which the world immediately appreciates, and the less learned envy. Everybody will remember Captain Shandon, in Pendennis, peppering his sentences with learned extracts from old Burton. Maginn, unfortunately, had many features like those of Shandon, and like him lived a distracted life from luxury to misery, through prisons and disreputable hidings, and every vicissitude that poverty and levity and bad habits and an unstable mind produce. He was still young and full of hope, "with genius, wit, learning, life's trophies to win," as Lockhart says of him, when he went to London in 1823 — abandoning any security of anchorage that he might have had at home. But his career in town was not prosperous. He was employed on various papers, and in 1830 became one of the chief writers in Fraser's Magazine, which then came into being, and which moulded itself perhaps too much on the model of the already famous and firmly established Blackwood, of which it was the first rival. Maginn attempted in this new undertaking the part which Christopher North played in the old; but, great as was the popularity of the Noctes, a second effort of the same kind was a literary mistake, and the attempt showed an absence of originating power, and was probably a cause of permanent damage to the new magazine, which ought, in order to secure the success of its predecessor, to have struck a new vein. And the brilliant Irishman had not the continuance in him of Wilson. He spent himself like a fortune, and died before he was fifty, poor, suffering, and solitary. Sir Robert Peel, the one Minister of State in recent times whose heart was always open to the distresses of men of letters, and to whom it seemed a duty of the State to care for her servants in this department, was appealed to on behalf of Maginn; but too late. Lockhart's epitaph, with its jingle upon one rhyme, has a levity in it which, though probably very harmonious with the relations between them, and with the poor author's reckless and haphazard ways, must, we should think, have jarred even upon the ear of a man about town when given forth over a grave; but the description is worth quoting:

He turned author ere yet there was beard on his chin;
And whoever was out, or whoever was in,
For you Tories his fine Irish brains he would spin—
Who received prose and rhyme with a promising grin—
"Go ahead, you queer fish, and more power to your fin!"
But to save from starvation stirred never a pin.
Light for long was his heart, though his breeches were thin;
But at last he was beat—

Poor Maginn! It was his own fault, as it has been the fault of so many, that their lives are squandered and their faculties lost; but that does not make the loss less pitiful, rather more.