1809 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Mackenzie

Nathan Drake, in Essays Illustrative of the Rambler (1809-10) 2:366-75.



THE MIRROR. This very elegant and pleasing paper, which has deservedly obtained a place among our classical essayists, made its appearance in Edinburgh on the 23d of January, 1779, and was continued pretty constantly every Tuesday and Saturday, to May the 27th, 1780, on which day it concluded with the hundred and tenth number. It has since been repeatedly printed in three volumes duodecimo, and in two volumes octavo.

In the closing essay of the Mirror its chief writer and conductor has favoured us with the following detail of its origin. "The idea of publishing a periodical paper in Edinburgh took its rise in a company of gentlemen, whom particular circumstances of connexion brought frequently together. Their discourse often turned upon subjects of manners, of taste, and of literature. By one of those accidental resolutions, of which the origin cannot easily be traced, it was determined to put their thoughts into writing, and to read them for the entertainment of each other. Their essays assumed the form, and, soon after, some one gave them the name, of a periodical publication; the writers of it were naturally associated; and their meetings increased the importance, as well as the number, of their productions. Cultivating letters in the midst of business, composition was to them an amusement only; that amusement was heightened by the audience which this society afforded; the idea of publication suggested itself as productive of still higher entertainment.

"It was not, however, without diffidence that such a resolution was taken. From that, and several other circumstances, it was thought proper to observe the strictest secrecy with regard to the authors; a purpose in which they have been so successful, that, at this moment, the very publisher of the work knows only one of their number, to whom the conduct of it was entrusted."

The gentleman thus disclosed to the publisher, was Mr. Henry Mackenzie, at that time well known to the literary world as the author of "The Man of Feeling." The society to which he alludes, in the quotation just given, consisted, beside himself, of Mr. George Home, a Clerk of the Court of Session; and of Mr. W. Craig, Mr. Alexander Abercromby, Mr. M'Leod Bannatyne, Mr. R. Cullen, and Mr. George Ogilvy, Advocates; all of whom, with the exception of Mr. Ogilvy, were contributors to the Mirror.

To these, who might be termed the regular members for contribution, were added several most valuable correspondents; namely, Mr. Richardson, Professor of Humanity in the University of Glasgow; Lord Hailes; Mr. Frazer Tyler, Professor of History in the College of Edinburgh; Dr. Beattie, the author of the Minstrel; Mr. David Hume, nephew to the Historian; Mr. Gordon, Baron of the Exchequer in Scotland; and Mr. William Strahan, Printer to his Majesty. Two papers, Nos. 22, and 95, were communicated by persons unknown; and parts, likewise, of Nos. 9, 79, and 89, have not hitherto been claimed.

To Mr. Mackenzie, the most distinguished, and also the most copious, writer in the Mirror, we are indebted for thirty-nine entire papers; viz. Nos. 2, 5, 7, 11, 12, 14, 16, 23, 25, 30, 32, 34, 38, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 49, 53, 54, 61, 64, 72, 78, 80, 81, 84, 91, 92, 93, 99, 100, 101, 105, 107, 108, 109, and 110. He gave considerable assistance, moreover, to the contents of Nos. 17, 21, 29, 55, 56, 85, 89, 96, 102, and 103.

Of these contributions by the author of "The Man of Feeling," the most interesting are those which excite the emotions of pity through the medium of narrative. Few modern writers have been more fortunate than Mr. Mackenzie, in their appeals to the heart; and his fictions in the Mirror hold a conspicuous rank among the best efforts in pathetic composition. The Story of Le Roche, in Nos. 42, 43, and 44; that of Nancy Collins, in No. 49; of Maria, in No. 72; and of Louisa Venoni, in Nos. 108 and 109, are related with great simplicity and effect; the style is clear, sweet, and unaffected; and the characters are sketched with so much delicacy and adherence to Nature, with touches so powerful in awakening the softer passions, that they have called forth the tears of thousands.

In humorous delineation, also, Mr. Mackenzie has presented us with various specimens; among the number, we may point out, as peculiarly happy, No. 7, on the Importance of Names in writing; Nos. 12, 25, and 53, descriptive of the Family of the Homespuns; and Nos. 34 and 41, on the characters of Mr. Bearskin and Mr. Blubber.

To critical discussion the authors of the Mirror appear to have been little attached; seven or eight papers are all which are discoverable in this department; and of these Mr. Mackenzie has contributed two in Nos. 99 and 100, containing an ingenious, and, in many respects, a just criticism on the character and tragedy of Hamlet.

The writer next to Mr. Mackenzie, in the bulk of his communications, is Mr. Craig; he has written sixteen entire papers, Nos. 3, 10, 19, 20, 26, 31, 36, 47, 55, 60, 63, 69, 77, 83, 88, 106, and has assisted in the composition of Nos. 42, 85, and 94. Mr. Craig excels in the Drawing of Characters, on which subject he has given us an essay in No. 31. His portraits of Fleetwood and Umphraville, in Nos. 10, and 19, are very happily delineated; and he has favoured us, with several spirited sketches in the same style, in Nos. 47, 55, 63, 69, 88, and 106. A very elegant and interesting paper, on the character and genius of Michael Bruce, occupies No. 36, and suggests to the reader a most pleasing idea of the benevolent tendency of Mr. Craig's mind.

From the pen of Mr. Abercromby, the Mirror has received eleven essays on life, education, and manners; they include Nos. 4, 9, 18, 45, 51, 57, 65, 68, 87, 90, and 104; and of these the two most impressive are No. 87, on Superstition and the Fear of Death; and No. 90, on the Calamities incident to extreme old Age.

Six papers, Nos. 1, 15, 39, 67, 70, and 71, are ascribed to Mr. Home; No. 39, on the Danger, incident to Men of fine Feelings, of quarrelling with the World; and the Story of Antonio, in Nos. 70, and 71, possess considerable merit.

With Mr. Bannatyne, who has written five papers in the Mirror, Nos. 6, 28, 33, 58, and 76, appears to have originated the character of Mr. Umphraville; at least, No. 6 introduces him to the reader's notice, and the portrait receives additional finishing in Nos. 28, and 76.

To Mr. Cullen we are indebted for three very valuable essays; No. 13, Remarks on the Poems of Ossian; No. 27, on the silent Expression of Sorrow; and No. 48, on the question, whether, in the pleasure derived from the art of painting, the Artist or Connoisseur has an advantage over the common spectator? Much just feeling and correct taste are exhibited in these papers.

In enumerating the papers written by the Correspondents of the Mirror, we shall commence with Professor Richardson, a gentleman of established reputation in the critical and poetical world. From his stores the Mirror has been enriched with five essays, Nos. 8, 24, 29, 66, and 96. Two of these, Nos. 24 and 66, are accurate and elegant pieces of criticism, on the Allegro and Penseroso of Milton; and on the love-scene between Richard and Lady Anne, in Shakespeare's Richard the Third. The style of Mr. Richardson is peculiarly correct, and nearly, if not altogether, free from scoticisms.

The essays of Lord Hailes, occupying Nos. 62, 75, 86, 97, 98, and part of 46, are entirely devoted to subjects of humour; and, together with considerable knowledge of human life, exhibit no mean powers in the display of what is ludicrous in character and conduct.

For the two papers on Dreaming, in Nos. 73 and 74, we are indebted to Dr. Beattie; they are entertaining, but inconclusive. In a letter to the Duchess of Gordon, the Dr. speaking of these essays, remarks, "I had no ambition to view myself in any of these folio looking-glasses (the Mirrors;) but, as the publisher had sent me a set from the beginning, and told me that he would have no returns but in kind; and, as I had never refused the terms, I thought myself bound in a sort of debt of honour, which I endeavoured to pay with some detached thoughts 'On Dreaming.' It is a subject which I ought to understand as well as other people; for I believe I have dreamed as much, both sleeping and waking, as most men of my age. Your Grace will observe, that the subject is not concluded, I have not yet got time to transcribe the last part. The foolish gasconade at the top of the first, is an addition by the printer."

The last part, thus alluded to, was added to the seventy-fourth number, when the Mirror was republished in volumes.

To Mr. D. Hume are ascribed No. 50, on the ruin brought on Genius and Talents by Indolence and Inactivity; and No. 103, containing a ludicrous account from Simon Softly of his law-suit with Sir Ralph Holdencourt.

Of the four remaining Correspondents of the Mirror, three contributed a single paper each; to Mr. Tyler, for instance, is attributed No. 59, on Lounging; to Mr. Alexander Craig, No. 52, including a humorous proposal for improving agriculture; and to Baron Gordon, No. 82, on Sign-posts. The first of these gentlemen likewise assisted in writing Nos. 17 and 79; the second was the author of a letter in No. 89; and the third composed the epistle signed Moderatus in No. 102. To Mr. Strahan an acknowledgment is due for a pleasing letter on the improvements of Edinburgh in No. 94.

Sir William Forbes, when noticing the Mirror-Club, in his Appendix to the Life of Dr. Beattie, observes, that "the names of the authors of each paper, show of what distinguished characters this literary society consisted and it is not a little remarkable, that of these essayists, no fewer than six either are, or have been, Judges of the supreme courts of law in Scotland." The persons thus alluded to are, Lord Abercromby, Lord Craig, Lord Cullen, Lord Hailes, Mr. Baron Gordon, and Tytler Lord Woodhouselee.

The Mirror, though inferior to the Spectator in variety and humour; to the Rambler in dignity and ethic precept; and to the Adventurer in the field of splendid fiction; yet supports a character which has justly rendered it a favourite with the public. There is, owing in a great measure to the genius of Mr. Mackenzie, a pathetic charm, a tender strain of morality, thrown over its pages, which greatly interests; nor is it, by any means, sterile or defective in the delineation of character. These qualifications are to me, by many degrees, more pleasing and permanently impressive, than the eternal wit and irony which pervade the World and Connoisseur. When we affirm, therefore, that sweetness, delicacy, and pathos, are the distinguishing features of the Mirror, we doubt not, from the imperishable nature of these ingredients, that it is formed to delight a distant posterity.