1897 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Wilson Croker

Margaret Oliphant, "Mr. Croker's Criticism" William Blackwood and his Sons (1897) 1:472-76.



To introduce after this hard-worked man of letters and official hack [John Galt], whose incessant labours brought so small a reward, the name of the Right Honourable J. Wilson Croker, the critic who disposed so summarily of his pretensions to know anything at all of that high life which the great man and the small both sought after so eagerly, seems a failure of respect to the convenances, and contempt of the prejudices of life. Croker was not, so far as I know, a contributor to the "Magazine" at all, but only a constant critic, appearing very often in Mr. Blackwood's correspondence, and rarely with any geniality or good-humour, though he franked letters occasionally, and never was indisposed to give good advice. We have hitherto heard, from persons interested in its progress, nothing but good of the Magazine in the point of view of brilliancy and intellectual force. Those who complained, complained of personal attacks, but never of any want of wit. It is amusing to contrast with these the following piece of criticism from the sharp pen of the man who, being himself one of the literary celebrities of the period, has left almost the least amiable impression behind him of any writer of his time. From both sides this very important Personage in his generation has been done to death, or rather has been exhibited in all his cleverness and bitterness and officialism as a man for whom there was no milk of human kindness to spare. It was natural, perhaps, in those days when Whigs and Tories were ever at each other's throats, and even so mild and genial a man as William Blackwood spoke of his opponents as "the cursed Whigs," that Macaulay should cut to pieces in his most incisive way his political antagonist. But that the same individual should also be assailed in the house of his friends, and set up as an image of scorn in that house for the warning and edification of future generations, was a hard fate. It is, accordingly, with a sense of pleasure that we place before the reader the only sour and discontented sentence we have met with, as from the pen of Croker. He was one of those to whom Mr. Blackwood had sent his cherished Magazine almost from the beginning, and it had been a great pleasure to the Edinburgh publisher to make the acquaintance of so brilliant and rising a man when he passed through Edinburgh some time before. There was great amity between them, and an occasional exchange of good offices, nor is there any sign that Mr. Croker's frankness aroused feelings of resentment, — though his "Maga" was to Mr. Blackwood as the apple of his eye, and any reflection upon her much worse to him than if his own character had been assailed.

"J. Wilson Croker to W. Blackwood.

ADMIRALTY, December 28, 1821.

You will think me very ungrateful for not having taken any notice of your monthly presents; but in spite of all my reasonable excuses for any ordinary silence, I should think myself a monster of ingratitude if I did not thank you for a duplicate reduplication of your kindness. I have received your 48th and 49th numbers, and am surprised at the vigour of pleasantry which you maintain. I confess your articles on the Characters of Seamen do not please me, and I hear from those who understand that delicate subject better than I do that they are rather twaddlish, and show no deep knowledge of seamen or their characters; but let that pass. On the other subjects I have only to repeat my old observation, that witty and wise and droll and dignified as they are in their several ways, 'opus est haruspice nobis,' we want an interpreter. The waggery is obscure to us Southerns, and, like Persius, we cannot understand some of the best of your satire without a commentary. You in Princes Street are quite 'au fait'; but I fancy, if the truth were told, there are those in the Saut Market at Glasgow who would wish for an annotator as well as we poor dolts of Charing Cross.

"I have also to thank you for your 'David Lyndsay,' which I however have not read; for Murray happened to call upon me as I got the volume, and he begged leave to carry it off to compare his Cain with your Cain. To say the truth, I am a slow reader of tragedies, and if David Lyndsay be a real bond fide tragedian, I fear I shall not go deep into his book even when I get it back.

"Your American Memoirs do not seem to me to deserve the praise the Editor gives them. With a few biographical notes of the persons mentioned it might have been made more interesting; but in its present state it is almost as obscure as the Standard-bearer, and much less funny, — indeed I might say not funny at all, except that here and there the vanity of the poor Tory Jonathan makes one smile.

"I am a little anxious to see 'Sir Andrew Wylie.' The 'Annals of the Parish' and the 'Ayrshire Legatees' were not only good, but they gave promise of greater things; and I should not be surprised, if the author will but be a little careful in what he does, and if he will not expend his vigour in dragging a Steamboat' against the stream, to find him acknowledged hereafter as second, and only second, to the great 'Oudees' of Waverley. This I know may look like an extravagant anticipation; but there are pages in the 'Annals' and spots in the 'Legatees' which would be shining places in the 'Pirate.' If he be a young author he may scatter his wild oats about; but if he be anything like a veteran, he should husband his resources and make not more than one great effort per annum.

"You generally put Mr. Hook's Magazine under my cover, but by this means he never gets it till very late. He seldom calls, and still less often is willing to carry off a parcel in his fashionable pockets. He lives five miles off, and the twopenny post will not accept such voluminous packets as your Magazine. I would therefore suggest your forwarding the future numbers to him by your regular channel. His address is No 1 Kentish Town, or at least was when I last heard of him; but he was talking of flitting, and I believe he has been for the last three weeks with his brother at Winchester."

"You will see that I have in a true spirit of trade answered your double present with a double sheet of acknowledgment."

The double sheets are gilt-edged, heavy, and of thick paper, as if to show the ostentatious freedom of a man who possessed the power of franking his letter, over the ordinary mortals who crammed one poor sheet to the point of suffocation, writing on every available morsel of space in order to avoid a second page and a double postage.

Mr. Croker repeated the same sort of commentary on another occasion at less length. He says, in the very spirit of those good-natured friends who love to let their victim know the worst that is said of him, and in the true spirit of Disraeli's caricature:—

"I think the most friendly thing I can do by you is to tell you honestly what I think of your 'Magazine.' I think from the cursory view which I have taken of it that it is not so good as the last, though it is better than the former. You must endeavour to make your articles shorter and more various — more in the style of the 'Gentleman's Magazine."

This last touch would have been insupportable if it had not been so absurd. "I shall always be glad to hear from you when you have any literary news to communicate," adds Mr. Rigby, true to the wonderful portrait of him which was at that time still in young Disraeli's brain.

Though these letters are quoted simply as a pleasant alteration from the usual panegyrics of the Magazine, I may add here another note in Croker's hand, which will be interesting to those who know him better as the victim of Macaulay's review than in his own important person. It is dated 13th October 1831:

"J. Wilson Croker to W. Blackwood.

If your editor should be disposed to notice the Edinburgh review of my 'Boswell,' I enclose you some materials. If you should not think the thing worth the trouble, pray return me the notes, which you receive under separate covers. I know the review was concocted at Holland House, and Murray says by Macaulay and Atheist Allen. Many errors, much too many, I have myself made, chiefly from the bad habit of trusting to memory, and when I attain the substance neglecting the details. But in the more important passages I think the notes will show you that the Reviewer is not only wrong, but sometimes grossly wrong. If you print my notes, I think it would be well to print the review in one column and the answer in another: that method has an excellent effect when the answers are complete, as some of ours certainly are."