1883 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Wilson Croker

William Bates, after William Maginn; Maclise Gallery (1883; 1898) 72-74.



It is Southey who somewhere says that bad poets make malevolent critics, just as weak wine turns to vinegar; and he elsewhere expresses a doubt whether any man ever criticised a good poem maliciously who had not written a bad one himself. So poor Haydon wrote, in consolatory vein, to Mary Russell Mitford smarting under adverse judgment, — "all the critics in the papers are ci-devant poets, painters, and tragedy-writers who have failed. A successful tragedy, and by a lady, rouses their mortified pride, and damnation is their only balm. Be assured of this." So, long before Southey and Haydon, in the prologue to his Conquest of Granada, wrote Dryden:—

They who write ill, and they who ne'er durst write,
Turn critics out of mere revenge and spite.

There is a seductiveness in antithesis which leads us to inquire closely into the truth of any axiom where this figure of speech has place; but I believe, notwithstanding, that the principle here laid down is perfectly true; and that William Gifford and John Wilson Croker are not in any respect exceptions to its applicability. Both of these men were critics of the most acrimonious and venomous malignity, in whose hands the ferula of Aristarchus became a poisoned dagger; and yet both produced substantive works of no mean ability. One, the Magnus Apollo of Lord Byron, was author of The Baviad and Maeviad those terse and vigorous satires which annihilated the school of "Della Crusca;" and the other, in his Familiar Epistles to Frederick F. Jones, Esq., on the Present State of the Irish Stage, which drove poor Edwin, the comedian, to the bottle which killed him, gave evidence of that power of invective and sarcasm which was, in the future, to become the tool of private malice and party ferocity. Still these pieces themselves were purely critical in character, and differing in no essential respect from their author's subsequent prose diatribes in the Quarterly Review, or the Courier, cannot be held to invalidate the rule so neatly formulated by Dryden and Southey.

Croker, though of English descent, was an Irishman by the accident of birth, and first saw the light in County Galway, in December, 1780. He was educated at the University of Dublin, where he graduated B.A. in 1800. He sat for many years for Downpatrick in the House of Commons, and, for the first five years of his parliamentary career, represented his University; but he had been among the most strenuous opponents of the Reform Bill, and resolutely withdrew from public affairs upon the dissolution which followed that momentous measure. He was Secretary to the Admiralty, from 1809 to 1830; and, in 1828, became a Privy Councillor. "He was a bigoted Tory," says Edmund Yates, "a violent partisan, and a most malevolent and unscrupulous critic." In the spring of 1809, Croker, in association with Sir Walter Scott, George Canning, Merritt, and George Ellis, set on foot the Quarterly Review, as an equipoise to the Edinburgh, which had become obnoxious to the Tory party, and hated for the reckless ferocity of its criticism. It is difficult, if not impossible, at this length of time, to discriminate between the articles of Gifford and those of Croker, — "par nubile fratrum," — and no doubt many are attributed to the latter which were actually written by the former. But still it was undoubtedly Croker who wrote that virulent review of Lord John Russell's Life of Moore, which gave such distress to the poet's widow, who could not be made to believe that it was Croker's, as she had believed him her husband's friend; it was Croker, who left the munificent hospitality of Drayton Manor, only to cut up his host in a political article; and it was Croker who, in the London Courier, penned that bitter notice of his friend Scott's Letters of Malachi Malagrowther, which evoked such a delicate and touching rebuke from their author, then succumbing to adversity and disease. It was Croker, again, — at least the dramatist always thought so, — who wrote that trenchant review of Galt's tragedy, Majolo, which was a cruel blow to the declining and ruined author. It was he who was the arch-enemy of Lady Morgan, charging her in the Quarterly with blasphemy, profligacy, and disloyalty, — not to mention that unkindliest cut of all, his epithet of "female Methuselah," — for all of which Miladi well avenged herself, when she pilloried him before her readers and admirers, who were only increased in number by the unreasoning abuse, in the character of "Crawley junior," in her Florence Macarthy. Finally, it was Croker, of whom a competent judge of his character said that he was "a man who would go a hundred miles through sleet and snow, in a December night, to search a parish register, for the sake of showing that a man was illegitimate, or a woman older than she said she was."

The miserable man whose portrait is before us, — "tasteless and shameless," as Mr. Rossetti has it, — so willing to wound, so fearless to strike, so anxious to inflict pain, — and that without the excuse of the critic in Bulwer's tale, that "he was in distress, and the only thing the magazines would buy of him was abuse," — met with a retribution which tended doubtless, in some sort, to embitter his latter days. Disraeli, in his Coningsby, under the transparent fiction of "Rigby," has held up Croker and his pretensions to the ridicule and contempt of his contemporaries, with a success but very imperfectly impaired by the retaliative review in the Quarterly; Macaulay, an old opponent, who had long waited his opportunity, did his best by every artifice that could be employed by an unprincipled and disingenuous political enemy, to destroy by his article in the Edinburgh on Croker's admirable edition of Boswell's Johnson, any reputation for industry, sagacity and learning which the editor had enjoyed; and finally, he must have keenly felt the injury which his social footing had received by the revelations on the trial of Lord Hertford's valet, — though here there was to console him, his lordship's bequest of £21,000, and his cellar of wine!

The earlier works of Croker are now but little known, but many are worth the trouble of hunting up. In An Intercepted Letter from Canton (1805, 8vo), will be found a curious satirical account of Dublin at that date; his Battle of Talavera (1809, 8vo), and his Songs of Trafalgar, afford evidence, together with his fine verses on the death of his friend, George Canning, of no mean poetical abilities; his Stories from the History of England for Children served as model, as Sir Walter Scott states in his preface, for that great novelist's Tales of a Grandfather; his annotated edition of Boswell's Johnson is, in the best sense, a "book which no gentleman's library can be without"; the notes and literary illustrations collected by him, and incorporated in the edition of Pope now publishing under the editorial care of the Rev. Whitwell Elvin (Murray, 1871, etc.), conduce to render this the most valuable extant; and the little volume, in appropriate sanguine cover, The History of the Guillotine, is full of curious information, and worth far more than the shilling it costs.

Croker died at his seat at West Moulsey, — where, about his hospitable "round table," the men of his time most distinguished for wit and learning had been wont to assemble, — August 10, 1857, in the seventy-seventh year of his age.