1897 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. George Croly

Margaret Oliphant, in William Blackwood and his Sons (1897) 1:479-80.



Besides the contributors already referred to, Mr. Blackwood had a surrounding of zealous friends and correspondents, who appear behind him, a crowd of eager faces like the background of an old picture, busy as a throng of bees, productive, filling up every corner. One of the numerous jokes against him in the laughing circle that was nearest to him was, that he asked every man whom he met to contribute to the Magazine; and certainly this was true enough of all men of genius or remarkable gifts who came in his way. We have seen that he received with open arms the young man who wrote to him from Cork, giving only initials, and had published his articles for some time before he had any idea who he was. This kind of mystery was delightful to the mood of the period, and added to the pleasure with which a new writer was received. And Blackwood had a number of agents and retainers about the world, especially in London, including the aforesaid anonymous young man from Cork, Dr. Maginn, who were specially intrusted with a roving commission to find young men of parts who were capable of being turned into contributors: some of these agents, I have been told, received a small annual allowance for this, and were literary crimps, seizing hold of every likely young fellow who came by. Maginn drew a whole tribe around him out of Ireland, from the smaller fry who never came to much, up to Crofton Croker, already an author and a Member of Parliament; and almost every important member of the staff brought others in his train.

The greatest and most faithful of the contributors in the secondary rank were, without doubt, two clergymen, — the Rev. Dr. Croly, and the Rev. G. R. Gleig, afterwards Chaplain-General. The contributions of both of these gentlemen were endless and of extraordinary variety: they would write on any subject at a week's or even a few days' notice, review any book, criticise any political movement, produce a story, or 'en dernier ressort' furnish a few verses "to fill up a stray half page." They were not, perhaps, of the sparkling or brilliant order, like those whose performances made the reputation and founded the fortunes of the Magazine, as has been already seen; but they were most useful and able workmen, doing yeomen's service, always faithful, always ready, and gaining much applause and a steady little thread of income, no doubt ever welcome in addition to the small revenue of the curacy or vicarage which they held, neither of them attaining any preferment of importance during the greater part of their lives. Gleig indeed received the dignified post of Chaplain-General at the end of his, but Croly never got anything greater than a church in the City — St. Stephen's, Walbrook — where his incumbency was passed in a hand-to-hand fight with churchwardens and vestrymen in the interests of the public and the poor. He was an Irishman, as so many of the literary men of the period were, and still are, with that gift of fluency, often rising to eloquence, sometimes dropping into mere rhetoric, which is the special gift of his race. And he was not much less of an adventurer than his early friend Maginn, and flung himself, like that dashing and brilliant but unfortunate son of the Muses, upon the great world of London, with prospects no more certain and gifts less dazzling — although in Holy Orders, and not unmindful of the special topics of his profession. Here he held a certain place by continued exertion, and an industry which perhaps is the last thing for which the professor of literature cares to be distinguished, but which, in the case of such a literary man-of-all-work as Croly, is often the utmost that can be said, — his best work, with its excellent level of talent and its flashes of fine perception, being buried in the endless stores of the "Magazine," gaining indeed their meed of admiration at the moment, but thereafter indistinguishable from the general mass, except by the special student. Croly, like all the rest, was most anxious to remain anonymous. "You are quite right," he says, "in keeping the names of your contributors sacred, for in default of knowing the true writer, any coxcomb fastens on any one known contributor the errors of all. All that one gets by disclosure is the miserable honour of triumph in a paper war." "I take it for granted," he adds, with fallacious assurance, "that you scrupulously burn all letters. You are mortal like the rest of us; and it would not be well that a collector of manuscripts should lay hold of your 'porte-feuille' for the benefit of the reading world." Dr Croly's hope, alas! was quite unjustified: to the confusion, yet advantage, of the historian, Mr. Blackwood carefully kept every letter. But Croly's epistles, of which there are many, are defended from the curiosity of the public by an armour almost as effectual. They are dull — mere records of articles, records of payments, of cheques at first treated with the lofty indifference which was one of the fashions of the time, but afterwards received with cordial welcome, as that steady source of revenue became habitual. Literature, in its details, is no more interesting, perhaps sometimes less so, than the details of any other profession; such a subject treated in so many sheets, such a book mauled or applauded, — perhaps, still more, an attack upon a forgotten measure just brought into Parliament, — having really less inherent life in them, after the moment has passed by, than a record of bales shipped or manufactures carried on. It had fortunately not become the habit then, as it is now, to reproduce in a permanent form the articles compounded for the necessities of the passing day.

Dr Croly's reputation now chiefly rests upon the curious and weird romance of "Salathiel," a version of the history of the Wandering Jew, which he describes at some length as follows:—

"Dr. Croly to W. Blackwood.

BROMPTON, Nov. 3, 1827.

I have been offered five hundred pounds for the first edition of any novel or romance that I write. If you think that you can conveniently give this, I should be gratified by leaving the present work in your hands, on whose honour and punctuality I can so perfectly rely. But I by no means wish to urge you to what may be inconsistent with your purposes.

"The work is conceived on the idea of a man, undying: driven in succession through all ages, all countries, pressed by violent passions, and encumbered with bitter calamities of successive kinds. Such a subject would give room for all that the human pen is capable of. Of course no one should speak of his own work. But I am satisfied that I have done as well as I could. And what that measure may be, your experience of my scribbling can ascertain perhaps better than I can myself.

"There would be an obvious inconvenience in sending the MSS. — or indeed any part of it — to you, from the chance of loss, and the still greater inconvenience of delay: but the proofs of course of the first two or three sheets might be sent to acquaint you with the style. It is to be much [feared] that you have no London [correspondent] for publications of this kind, by which Colburn has cleared 20,000 a-year for the last three years. However, the question is merely this, Will you give five hundred pounds for a romance by an untried novelist?"

The suggestion of sending a few sheets of proof to show the style does not appear to have satisfied the publisher, and the manuscript, notwithstanding all dangers of the post, would seem to have been sent to Edinburgh; but it evidently did not please Mr. Blackwood, and was not published by him. Lessons upon the extravagance of literary hopes are not needed; but it is always sad to see an effort with which so many hopes were concerned fall so soon into absolute oblivion. A reader who knew "Salathiel" would be more hard to find nowadays than one who had studied the poets of Persia, or the most ancient mysteries of human knowledge. It had, however, its success in its day.

Not uncongenial to this mystic romance was another work which Croly, without any suggestion that he should publish it, describes in the unintentionally amusing note which follows to his friendly publisher — "the volume on the Apocalypse," of which he begs his acceptance, and respecting which, as the proper study of his profession, he had no desire to take shelter in anonymity:—

"Dr. Croly to W. Blackwood.

March 81, 1827.

The subject is treated in an entirely new way, and you may rely upon it that way is the true one: however, of this the world must make up its mind for itself. It has been published a few days, and I have received some very civil testimonies from some of the Bishops of their opinion. None of them, however, had gone further than a few pages, as indeed their acknowledgments were so immediate that they had no time to have read more.

"Scotland reads a great deal on this subject, and I should be glad to have the work introduced into the hands of such a man as Chalmers, whose deserved reputation would give some degree of value to anything of which he thought well."

It is curious that so acute an Irish mind should not have seen through the well-known trick of the much-tried critics whose acknowledgments are "so immediate" that it is impossible they can have read more than a few pages; but humour and perception are extraordinarily apt to fail us in our own case.