William Maginn

Robert Shelton Mackenzie, "Memoir of William Maginn, LL.D." Noctes Ambrosianae, ed. Mackenzie (1854) 5:iii-xii.

WILLIAM MAGINN, one of the most distinguished writers of his time, and very eminent for his knowledge of ancient and modern literature, was an Irishman. His father kept a classical academy in Marlborough-street, Cork, where William (the eldest son) was born on the 10th July, 1793. From the earliest age, he had a great aptitude for acquiring knowledge — so much so, that before he had completed his tenth year, young Maginn was sufficiently advanced to enter Trinity College, Dublin. The entrance examination there is nearly as difficult, after four years' study, as that on which students obtain their degrees at the Scotch and many other universities. Maginn's answering was so good, on this examination, that (the rank being invariably given according to merit) he was "placed" among the first ten, out of more than a hundred competitors, two-thirds of whom were double his own age.

The distinction which he thus obtained, at the commencement of his university career, he preserved to its close. He passed through all his classes with credit, obtained several prizes, appeared to learn without an effort, and graduated before he was fourteen. No one (since the brilliant career of Cardinal Wolsey, at Oxford) better merited the appellation of "The Boy-Bachelor." His college tutor, Dr. Kyle, then a fellow and afterwards Provost of the University, repeatedly declared, in after years, that Maginn, while in his teens, had more literary and general knowledge than most men of mature age whom he had ever met.

Returning to Cork, Maginn became principal assistant in his father's school. In 1813, his father died, and William Maginn, at the age of twenty, on whom was now thrown the necessity of supporting his family, determined to carry on the school, — a course which he pursued, with marked success, for ten years, when he retired, his brother succeeding him.

While Maginn resided in Cork, it obtained the name of "The Athens of Ireland," and was highly distinguished for the energy and success with which its sons applied themselves to the cultivation of literature. Among the most eminent Irishmen of the present day, at least one-half belong to the city or county of Cork. An eminently social man, Maginn soon became "the life, grace, and ornament of society," in his native city. Nor did he spare the quip and the jest, the epigram and the satire, upon his townsmen's vulnerable points. In his youth, he as freely and fearlessly hit at them, right and left, as, in riper years, at statesmen, publicists, and authors. Throughout his life he never could understand how, when the arrow had hit the mark, it was possible for it to rankle in the wound. That, after the writer had forgotten the squib, the victim whom it had ridiculed could feel annoyed, was wholly out of his calculation , — almost beyond his comprehension. Never was satirist less influenced by ill-nature. There was no motive of malice in his wittiest sarcasms. The subject tempted him — he dashed off the impromptu — laughed at it, as others did — dismissed it from his mind — and saw no reason why he should not be as friendly as before with him whom he had made ridiculous.

In 1816, being then only twenty-three years old, Maginn received the degree of Doctor of Laws, from his Alma Mater. His standing in the university was over thirteen years, and the degree — which never before had been obtained by one so young — was his, of right.

Dr. Maginn, with some leisure, his head filled with learning and miscellaneous knowledge, and teeming with wit and frolic, took to authorship, almost as a matter of course. It is not worth while to notice his contributions to the local newspapers. His first communication to any periodical out of Ireland was sent, in 1819, to the Literary Gazette, which had been commenced not long before, and, from the peculiar character of its critiques, (giving full and well-selected quotations from the newest books,) had obtained a large provincial circulation. He did not write, for a long time, under his own name, but signed his letters " P. J. Crossman." His articles for the Gazette, at this time, consisted chiefly of miscellaneous scraps in prose and verse, parodies of well-known songs, translations from and into several languages, bagatelles of all sorts, notices of books, and discussions on classical literature. All this was sent gratuitously. One of his hardest hits was a lively review of the errors of Debrett's Peerage, a reply to which drew forth a longer and more sarcastic notice. Thus early, also, had he begun to exercise his great mastery of classic lore. One of his earliest Gazette articles was "The Second Epode of Horace done in a New Style," by which, he said, the powers of the translator and the original could be both fairly represented in one book. It commences thus:

Blest man! who far from busy hum,
Ut prisca gens mortalium,
Whistles his team afield with glee
Solutus omni foenore:
He lives in peace, from battles free,
Neq' horret iratum mare;
And shuns the forum and the gay
Potentiorum limina.

Blackwood's Magazine was rapidly making way, at this time, and it has been stated by [Delta] (D. M. Moir) that Maginn's first contribution was the translation of the old ballad of Chevy Chase into Latin verse, which appeared ii the number for November, 1819. This is a mistake: Mrs. McWhirter's song, on the Powldoodies of Burran, (vide "Christopher in the Tent," vol. I. p. 98, of the present edition,) was certainly Maginn's. It is Irish all over, and has the Doctor's mark upon it.

The translation of the first part of Chevy Chase into the universal language of Europe, Latin, was sent anonymously to Blackwood, and the writer, who simply signed O. P., boasted, and not without cause, that he had "retained the measure and structure of the verse most religiously." It opens thus:

The Percy out of Northumberland,
And a vow to God made he,
That he would hunt in the mountains
Of Cheviot within days three,
In the manger of doughty Douglas,
And all that with him be.

Persaeus ex Northumbria,
Vovebat, Diis iratis,
Venare inter dies tres
In montibus Cheviatis,
Contemtis forti Douglaso
Et omnibus cognatis.

Here is Roger Withrington's gallant boast, spiritedly rendered:

I wot ye be great lords two,
I am a poor squire of land,
I will never see my captain fight in a field,
And look on myself and stand;
But while I may my weapon wield
I will not fail both heart and hand.

Vos estis magni comites
Et pauper miles ego,
Sed pugnaturum dominum,
Me otioso, nego:
Sed corde, manu, enseque,
Pugnabo quamdiu dego.

The concluding portion did not appear until June, 1820. In it, Percy's apostrophe over the body of Douglas runs thus:

The Percy leant upon his brand,
And saw the Douglas die;
He took the dead man by the hand,
And said, "Woe is me for thee.

Persaeus nitens gladio
Douglasi vidit mortem,
Et manu capta mortui
Ploravit ejus sortem.

"To have saved thy life I'd have parted with
My lands for years three;
For a better man of heart nor hand
Was not in all the north countrie."

"Tribus annis agros dederem
Servare virum talem;
Nam fortior nemo fuit per
Regionem borealem."

The quaint stanza, on Withrington's gallantry, is rendered in this manner:

For Withrington my heart is woe,
That o'er he slain should be;
For when his legs were hewn in two,
He knelt, and fought upon his knee.

Pro Withringtono doleo
Quem fatum triste stravit;
Nam binis fractis cruribus
In genibus pugnavit.

In a note appended to the first fitte of Chevy Chase was a statement that the writer had also translated the poem into Greek, of which the first verse was given as a specimen: [Greek characters]. The translator added, "I was thinking of translating old Chevy into Hebrew — for I am a Masorite; but as Professor Leslie has declared Hebrew to be a 'rude and poor dialect,' in his book on Arithmetic, I was afraid to come under the censure of that learned gentleman. To be sure, he does not know (as I can prove from his writings) even the alphabet of the language he abuses, but still I am afraid he would freeze me if I had any thing to do with it."

At this time, Professor Leslie had just succeeded Playfair in the chair of natural philosophy in the University of Edinburgh — he had been elected to the chair of mathematics in 1805, and met with great opposition from the strict Presbyterian clergy, on the ground of his supposed scepticism. He was a very strong Whig partisan, also, and a contributor to the Edinburgh Review. From these causes, and probably others more personal, Blackwood strongly opposed Leslie, and the challenge, as to his scholarship, thrown down by Maginn, induced Mr. Blackwood to write to his new and unknown contributor, begging that he would prove Leslie's ignorance, as to Hebrew. A letter, headed "Leslie v. Hebrew," accordingly, appeared in Blackwood for February, 1820, in which the accusation was fully proved. This was followed, in November, by another letter signed O. P. (which Blackwood changed into "Olinthus Petre, D.D., of Trinity College, Dublin,") which repeated the charge that Leslie "did not know even a letter of the tongue he had the impudence to pretend to criticise," ridiculed his pretensions to be considered a great mathematician, alluded to Brewster's Journal having accused him of "conveying" his doctrines and discoveries respecting Heat from the Philosophical Transactions, and glanced at his presumed disbelief of the Scriptures and Revelation. All this, boldly written and fearlessly published, in a manner compelled Professor Leslie to vindicate his character in a court of law. He commenced a libel-suit against Blackwood, and obtained — a farthing damages!

In the interval, Maginn continued to contribute extensively to the Magazine. The quantity, variety, spirit, and value of his articles made him an excellent assistant. His private letters to Mr. Blackwood were signed "R. T. S," but, being urgently solicited, he relaxed, so far as to subscribe himself Ralph Tuckett Scott. He had never alluded to remuneration. Blackwood, who was very liberal, entreated him, if he would not accept money, to receive such books as he might require to complete his library. When, as he thought, he had at last got his contributor's name, he sent a cheque for a large amount, payable to Ralph Tuckett Scott, or order, and Maginn (who still maintained his incognito) wrote him an amusing letter, detailing the difficulties which he encountered in getting cash for a cheque drawn in favor of and endorsed by an imaginary person.

From the appearance of the Latin version of Chevy Chase, scarcely a number of Blackwood appeared without one or more articles by Maginn. He soon assumed the sobriquet of Morgan Odoherty — a sketch of whose (pretended) life had been given in 1818.

In May, 1820, when vacation was so near that he could leave the management of the school to his brother, who now was his assistant, Dr. Maginn visited Edinburgh. Mr. Blackwood, writing to Delta, said, "I have living with me just now, my celebrated Cork correspondent, who pummelled Professor Leslie in such a grand style. He has come over quite on purpose to see me, and, till he introduced himself to me on Monday, I did not know his name, or any thing of him, except by his letters under an assumed signature, like yourself."

His introduction to Blaekwood was original and amusing. He called at Blackwood's place of business; assumed a very strong Irish brogue; presented himself as a gentleman from Cork, who had been grossly libelled in Maga; demanded the writer's name, inquired whether "one Tuckett Scott" did not contribute; nearly frightened Mr. Blackwood out of his wits; and finally said, pulling out a bundle of letters, "I suppose you will not deny your own handwriting; may be these letters are not written to Scott, and may be you'll say that I am not the man? I am Dr. Maginn, of Cork." They shook hands, and the result was, for the six weeks of Maginn's stay in Edinburgh, he was Blackwood's guest, and was introduced to, and became familiar with, Wilson, Lockhart, Gillies, Captain Hamilton, (Cyril Thornton,) William Harrison, (the M. de Peudemots, so much praised in "Peter's Letters,") and the other leading writers in Maga.

Maginn returned to Cork in the middle of July, 1820, and resumed his pen, with his wonted industry and ability. In 1823, he married a lady named Cullen, and determined to give up his school, and make literature his profession. His Blackwood articles, the authorship of which was now well known, had won him considerable reputation, and he was received in London as a well-known writer, of great wit, readiness, learning, and Toryism. Theodore Hook invited him to conduct a Wednesday's newspaper, which the proprietors of the John Bull intended to raise on the ruins of half-a-dozen nearly defunct journals. He was employed, also, on the London Literary Journal, (a weak and short-lived rival to the Literary Gazette,) and wrote several articles in the Quarterly Review. Indeed, so high did he stand, at this time, that when it was determined, on what was called "the destruction" of Lord Byron's autobiographic manuscripts, that Moore should not write the Life of the noble Childe, it was Maginn that Murray selected for that purpose. Mr. Kenealy, the friend and biographer of Maginn, says, "Nothing can more clearly show the high opinion of those best qualified to judge of his abilities, than this fact. A young man, from an Irish provincial town, who had never written a book, and whose name was little known, intrusted with the biography of the greatest of England's poets, by one of the shrewdest booksellers that ever lived, is a spectacle not often seen, and Maginn used to speak of it with no little satisfaction. The papers and letters of his Lordship were accordingly placed in the Doctor's hands, and remained in his possession for some time, but no steps were taken in the biography, and it was finally intrusted to Mr. Moore."

In 1824, when John Murray started his daily journal, called "The Representative," he sent Maginn to Paris, as foreign correspondent; he remained there for some months, returning when the speculation became a decided failure.

Whether in Cork, London, or Paris, he maintained his fealty to Blackwood. The NOCTES AMBROSIANAE were his suggestion, and he occasionally contributed largely to that brilliant series. The whole of No. IV., where Byron and Odoherty, at Pisa, are the only speakers, was written by Maginn. His poetical compositions are scattered over the series; — most brilliant among them are "Cork in the Aiden, for you, love, and me" — the slang song from Vidocq's Memoirs, — the Latin version of "Back and side go bare," — the Irishman, and the imitation (of which Peel was the hero, not Brougham, as stated in the Irish Quarterly Review) of Beranger's "Monsieur Judas."

The London evening newspaper, called The Standard, was commenced in 1828, and Maginn was appointed its junior editor, under the present able conductor, Dr. Lees Giffard. It was an ultra Tory Journal, and advocated the political principles which Maginn always held. At this time his time was greatly and profitably occupied. He produced a political novel, called "Whitehall, or the Days of George IV.," which is now forgotten, but is as singular a work of fiction as I have ever perused. It would not be understood, in this country [the United States], with the personalities which are to be found on nearly every page, without careful annotation. Maginn also wrote largely for the Annuals — his stories called "A Vision of Purgatory," and "The City of the Demon," appeared in the Literary Souvenir, for 1828-1829, and were specimens of his "Tales of the Talmud," which was repeatedly announced as "nearly ready."

In the winter of 1829, the first number of "Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country" saw the light. It was projected by Maginn and his friend Hugh Fraser. They wrote nearly the whole of the first three numbers. Very soon, a great deal of the floating talent of London was employed on this periodical, which had the distinguishing points of fearlessness and power. The Gallery of Illustrious Literary Characters (which opened in June, 1830, with a pen-and-ink sketch of Jerdan, of the Literary Gazette, to accompany a very clever etching) was a feature so attractive that, ere Fraser's Magazine was a year old, its circulation was considerable.

The portraits in this "Gallery" were executed by Daniel Maclise, one of Maginn's townsmen, and now among the first historical painters in London. The series was not completed until April, 1838, when No. LXXXI. exhibited no less a personage than the Rev. Sydney Smith. A prose description, occupying not more than a page, accompanied each portrait, and, with one or two exceptions, all these were written by Maginn. I have been told that he would dash these off, as readily as another man would write a letter. They are more or less personal, — lively, witty, sarcastic. The series included nearly all the principal male and female British authors of the day.

The editorship of Fraser naturally tended to draw Maginn away from Blackwood's Magazine. In 1834, however, he resumed his connection with Ebony, his "Story without a Tail," and "Bob Burke's Duel with Ensign Brady," being among his new contributions. The "Tobias Correspondence," which satirically exposes how newspapers are conducted in England, was published in Maga in July and August, 1840.

An article in Fraser for August, 1836, severely personal on a novel written by the Hon. Grantley Berkeley, led to a duel between that person and Maginn. Berkeley, a large and powerful man, went to Fraser's shop, met the publisher there, closed the door, and, while Craven Berkeley (his brother) kept watch, beat the unfortunate bibliopole (a small and infirm man, in bad health) with the butt end of a loaded whip, planting the blows upon the head and neck. On this, Maginn informed Berkeley that it was he who had written the offensive critique, and in the duel which ensued, each party fired three shots, quitting the ground without exchanging a word. For the assault upon Fraser, a jury made Berkeley pay £100 damages.

"The Shakspeare Papers" were begun in 1837, and the Homeric Ballads, of which he published sixteen, in 1838 — the very last was dictated on his death-bed, to his tried and faithful friend, Edward Kenealy.

But the evil days had arrived. As Mr. Kenealy truly says, "The rock upon which Steele and Burns split, the sole blot upon Addison, the only stigma upon Charles Lamb, that which exiled Fox from the Cabinet of England, and reduced Sheridan to poverty and shame, was the ruin, too, of the late William Maginn." Irregularities caused by such indulgences led to the cessation of his connection with The Standard, and, to a great extent, now excluded his articles from Fraser. Imprudence accompanied the other evil. He was beset by duns, pursued by sheriff's officers, and passed his time between imprisonment for his debts and concealment, in obscure and mean retreats, from his creditors.

In 1839, he was induced — partly by the promise of a good salary, and partly from the hope that he would by distance escape persecution from the myrmidons of the law — to go to Liverpool, as editor of a weekly paper called the Lancashire Herald. Unfortunately, the proprietor of this paper was hospitable, with an excellent cellar. Maginn became his guest and — the result may be imagined: he wrote as little and enjoyed himself as much as he could. His articles, chiefly political, were only occasionally good. The end speedily came. The proprietor had not money enough to maintain the newspaper until its pecuniary outlay was returned. He failed. Maginn returned to London, at the close of 1839, bringing with him some half-dozen chapters of a romance, the scene of which was in Liverpool, which he had called "John Manesty, the Liverpool Merchant." After his death, Mr. Charles Ollier, gleaning from Miss Maginn her ideas of what her father had intended to write, completed the work, which was published, in two volumes, with illustrations by Cruikshank, for the benefit of the family.

In 1840, Maginn commenced the publication, in weekly numbers, of "Magazine Miscellanies, by Doctor Maginn." They were badly got up and brought out. In his palmy days, such a selection of his best articles would have sold extensively. Now, only a few numbers were issued. The only complete copy (containing ten numbers, and extending to 160 pages, small folio) is in the possession of Mr. Kenealy, who has favored me with a list of the contents for my forthcoming edition of Maginn's works.

After suffering imprisonment for debt early in 1842, and obtaining his liberty by passing through the Insolvency Court, Maginn partly resumed his connection with Fraser, and chiefly depended upon a very inadequate salary for writing for a paper called The Age. His health was quite broken. He had been the able and consistent champion of Toryism for a quarter of a century, and had some reason to expect to be remembered and rewarded, when his party came into power. They obtained office — hopes were held out that be should have a minor diplomatic appointment at Vienna. He was forgotten. Sir Robert Peel personally remembered him, and, hearing of his failing health, delicately sent him £100 from his private purse. Maginn retired to Walton-on-Thames, (a rural suburb of London,) whither, in July, 1842, Mr. Kenealy, almost his only remaining friend — and a brother in affection — was summoned to his bedside. He was penniless, but very confident that a sea-voyage or a few months at Cheltenham, neither of which he could afford, would restore his health.

In this extremity, Mr. Kenealy wrote a letter to Peel, simply stating the facts. Immediate relief, from his own purse, as before, was largely given by Sir Robert Peel. Maginn's family, probably from dread of exciting him, did not apprise him of this gift, and he died, of consumption, on August 21, 1842, ignorant of the Premier's humane liberality. He was only forty-nine years old. Maginn left a widow, a son, and two daughters, wholly unprovided for. Sir Robert Peel presented the son with a cadetship in the East Indies. A public subscription was raised, if I recollect rightly, for Mrs. Maginn and her daughter, of whom only one now survives.

Maginn's Magazine articles were not confined to Blackwood and Fraser. There are some papers of his in the Quarterly, and many in Bentley's Miscellany, and in the first and second volumes of Punch. Most of the flash songs, and nearly the whole of Turpin's Ride to York, in "Rookwood," were written by Maginn. Like most literary men of active mind, he was full of projects. One of these was the production of "Tales of the Talmud " — another was a work on the subject of "Jason" — a third was a tragedy to be called Queen Anne." He told Mr. Croker that he intended to write a serious work on the Greek Drama. In 1824-5, he certainly wrote an original work of fiction, the scene of which was laid in Paris, the hero being a student who passes to the last resting-place of the Morgue, through a variety of powerfully-drawn incidents of riotous living. The manuscript of this work was in Blackwood's hands in 1827, was duly returned to Maginn, and has not since been heard of.

In person, Dr. Maginn was rather under the middle stature, slight in figure, active in motion, and very natural in manners. He was gray at the age of 26, and, during his last ten years, was almost white — exhibiting the peculiarity of bright, keen eyes and youthful features with the hoary locks of age. Of the two portraits which have been published-by Maclise, in Fraser, and by Skillin, in the Dublin University Magazine — I think the latter is the better likeness. It forms the frontispiece to this volume.

It would be gross injustice to a most able and amiable man to conclude this notice without referring to the affecting narrative of Maginn's life and death which appeared in the Dublin University Magazine for January, 1844: — a truthful narrative, in which I know not whether most to admire the scholarly intelligence which pervades it, the labor lovingly bestowed in the collection of facts, or the truly Christian spirit of humanity with which it speaks of such of the errors of mortality as "profaned the spirit, sank the brow" of William Maginn, as gentle a creature, in all the relations of society, as ever breathed the breath of life.

Whoever has to learn or to write any thing about Maginn, cannot do either, satisfactorily, without studying this biography by Kenealy. In this rapid sketch I have drawn largely upon that memoir, and shall have to use it, yet more extensively, perhaps, in the Life of Maginn which will be prefixed to the Collective Edition of his Miscellaneous Writings, which I have undertaken to select, superintend, and annotate. Of all men living, Mr. Kenealy is best fitted to execute this duty. He writes to me, "Seeing no hope of a republication of his writings in this country, [England,] I dismissed the matter wholly from my thought, but not without regret that no such monument should be raised to his fame and memory. I am delighted that it has fallen into such competent hands as your own to collect his works, for the great American people, and I have no doubt it will far exceed any thing of the kind I could do"

He adds, "You have a glorious opportunity to edit a rare work, where you have no fear of libel law before your eyes. Maginn's best things can never be republished here, until all his victims have passed from the scene."

*In concluding this outline of a memoir, (for the full biography, with personal anecdotes and traits of character, properly belongs to the forthcoming edition of Maginn's writings,) I have to acknowledge a supply of personal recollections, kindly furnished me by Mr. Kenealy, by Mr. Richard Martin, barrister, (of the Middle Temple, London,) and by my brother, J. Campbell Mackenzie, of Galignani's Messenger, Paris. All of these I shall make use of in the extended Memoir, to be prefixed to Dr. Maginn's collected Writings.