1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Mackenzie

John Wilson to William Blackwood, May 1822; Margaret Oliphant, William Blackwood and his Sons (1897) 1:270-72.



John Wilson to W. Blackwood.

I consider old M. to be the greatest nuisance that ever infested any Magazine. His review of Galt's "Annals" was poor and worthless: that of "Adam Blair" still worse: and this of "Lights and Shadows" the most despicable and foolish of all. His remarks on "Adam Blair" did the book no good, but much harm with dull stupid people, and this wretched article cannot fail to do the same to a greater degree. I cannot express my disgust with it. He damns the book at once by comparing it with Gessner: for he draws a most degrading character (falsely, I presume) of that writer, and then says that my book is "a close imitation of it." Gessner's "Idylls" are syrupy, it seems, and only fit for young sentimentalists who have never looked into the mirror of nature; and of him I am said to be a close imitator. The Colonel himself could not have told a baser lie, although from baser motives — those of the old dotard being simply self -conceit and sheer incapacity. Whatever he may bring himself to say afterwards, this is his idea of the book published to the world, that it is on the whole a syrupy dish for young sentimentalists, — the very thing which might be said by some malignant Idiot. Of Gessner I never read one syllable — nor indeed ever saw a volume of his even lying on the table. But from what I have heard of him I believe, first, that he has great merit; secondly, that he is unlike in all points to me, J. W. What he says about "Idylls" shows ignorance; and his non-acquaintance with the origin of the term blue-stocking is altogether incomprehensible. In short, all this is a dull, vile falsehood, and one that cannot fail of being got by heart by thousands, and of injuring the book. The next paragraph is on the whole worse. "Rural images are always pleasing" is a clever way of talking of the scenery in the volume — shepherds are "Arcadian," the Lights and Shadows are not Scottish, it seems. And then his own attempts at description in this paragraph, what miserable drivelling! In the third paragraph it is said that the morality is pure, it seems, but still something wrong with it. What he says of the minister's widow is most execrable, — "never indulges it beyond civility and attention to her friends"!!!! Oh Moses! The Covenanter's marriage-day nearly happened; that is, a young man betrothed to a young woman was dragged out of his concealment in her father's house and shot by soldiers. It is not German, but intensely Scottish. The circumstances of the soldiers are misstated by Mackenzie. In sixth paragraph he says the scenery, though professedly Scots, is not always true to this profession of its locality. I say it is. Where is it not? It seems "some passages" are an exception to this condemnation. That is lucky. In paragraph seventh he indulges in a lie, and it is a lie that ought to be pointed out to the old critic. He says, "We are sorry that the concluding stroke of the author's pencil should have spoiled this solemn picture." That is the picture of a wild, furious, snow-stormy night. And then he quotes a passage about diamonds and dew-drops. Now, would you believe it, the said passage of the milliner is not there at all. It occurs at the top of page 116, and is the finishing stroke to a description of youth, beauty, and happiness. Indeed had it been otherwise I must have lost my senses. I request you to read the passages 115 and 116 in the snow-storm, and you will see that the old captious body has been playing a trick to make a criticism. The passage as I have written it is beyond the literary power of any milliner's girl, and the old dotard should be told that he has grossly and falsely misquoted it, for a despicable purpose. He then says that this passage of the milliner is copied and spoiled from Thomson; for he cannot swear that the snowstorm in general is. Now, I lay my ears nothing like it can be in Thomson. Nor is there, except the snow, and even that is very different, one single point of resemblance, but all points of utter dissimilitude, between my child saved from death and his farmer family wrapt up in a greatcoat. This is foolish and false and disgusting. Lastly, my abhorrence of "lace and embroideries" is as great and far greater than ever his was. In short, the whole article is loathsome, and gives me and Mrs. the utmost disgust. It is sickening to see it in the Magazine, and utterly destroys the pleasure which Mr. L.'s article would otherwise give me. It is not, as you well know, that I can possibly be such an ass as to dislike criticism. But this is mere drivelling falsehood and misrepresentation — calculated to injure the book, I declare, even in my own eyes, and to do it the greatest injury with the public. It is the most sickening dose of mawkish misrepresentation I ever read.