1830 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Jerdan

William Maginn, "Gallery of Illustrious Literary Characters: William Jerdan, Esq., Editor of the Literary Gazette" Fraser's Magazine 1 (June 1830) 605-06.



WILLIAM JERDAN was born in Scotland about the year 1730. The first seventy or eighty years of his life he spent in the usual dissipations of youth — a detail of which we may be excused from giving, as the follies of our early days afford no instruction to the moralist, and supply no just means of appreciating the character of the full-grown man. On his arrival London, a centre to which all talent gravitates, as certainly as falling bodies descend to the earth, we find him employed in that profession by whose labours the opinions, or at least the declarations, of our statesmen, are conveyed to the world. Afterwards, filled with a just indignation against the vices of society, his name occurs among those who determined to tear off their deceitful mask, and to expose, by name, to the public scorn, culprits whom they deemed unworthy of being concealed from the penalties of their turpitude. Vice being, as usual, triumphant in this metropolis, it is not astonishing that his well-meant endeavours for the public good were not long continued; and we next discover him in the character of Apollo, or, to drop the language of mythology, directing the Sun. In this task he was assisted by Mr. John Taylor, a gentleman whose name will be remembered as long as the tail of Mathews or Gattie waves in the hundreds of Drury, or the courts of Covent Garden. The duplex government of these editors was principally remarkable for a controversy, carried on in the paper itself between them, — each, as he was lord of the ascendant of the day, emptying the vials of abuse upon his coadjutor, to the no small diversion of the public. During his solar government, he seized, in the lobby of the House of Commons, Bellingham, the assassin of Perceval, of which he has given an account in his life of that statesman. After favouring the world with a translation of the Hermit in Paris, and other works, he finally settled as Editor of the Literary Gazette (a proof of which he is in the picture before us reading, with scrutinising eye, in quest of literals); and there he sits still enthroned, high arbiter of wit.

So far for a Johnsonian notice — as for the rest, we have not much more to add, except that he is the best of good fellows, convivial abroad, hospitable at home — that, in spite of what a small set of very small critics, or disappointed authors, say, he manages his Literary Gazette admirably well — that he gives the earliest literary news — chooses the fairest specimens from new books — does not encumber us with criticism, and is wholly free from spite and rivalry. That in the hurry of weekly composition and selection, he, or those whom he employs, is sometimes mistaken, is true enough; the only wonder is, that he does not slip oftener. A great cry was got up a few years ago by some foolish Cockneys, who, having contrived to impose upon him a sonnet of Shakespear'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 Shakespear'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.

His criticism, we are told, is not brilliant or deep — he is no Dr. Johnson, or Longinus, or Aristotle, or Schlegel, or any other of the fine names. So be it; but there is something to be said for him, nevertheless. With opportunities of being smart and caustic, of inflicting hurt and injury, to shew his wit or gratify his spleen, he has taken the other course — that of aiding the efforts of early genius, of encouraging the hopes of neglected talent, of cheering the path of authors anxiously struggling on through the difficulties of their way; and if the books of Colburn and Longman obtain their due share of notice, must it of necessity be attributed to other motives than a fair bias in favour of partners and friends in whose choice of works his own advice is often taken? It would be strange, indeed, if he should not sometimes express in his Gazette the same favourable opinions which urged him to recommend to the publishers the purchase of a novel or a poem.

But supposing this to be a blemish, and admitting that the necessitous litterateurs who sometimes contribute to the Gazette, complain every now and then of the niggardly hand with which payment for their needy labours is doled out, — these are faults of others, not of himself. He supplies us with a pleasant paper every Saturday; and, to conclude,

If to his fault some critic errors fall,
Look in his face, and you'll forget them all.

But we allow that the best time for looking at it is not that chosen by our Rembrandt — the favourable hour is ten o'clock at night, and his position at the head of a table, firmly seated behind an entrenchment of decanters.