1862 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Wilson

Mary Wilson Gordon (daughter), in Christopher North (1862; 1894) 159-67.



My father's connection with Blackwood's Magazine was such as to make it absolutely necessary, in any record of his life, to give some account of the rise of this periodical, and of the circumstances which led to his becoming so intimately associated with its history. I shall endeavor to do so as briefly as I can. Fortunately, we are now sufficiently removed by time from the controversies of those exciting days, to look at them with perfect calmness, if not impartiality; with something of wonder, it may be, at the fierceness displayed in contests about things which, in our own more peaceful times, are treated with at least the affectation of philosophic indifference; but also, with some admiration of the vigor manifested in supporting what was heartily believed. It is, indeed, impossible for us at this time to realise fully the state of feeling that prevailed in the literature and politics of the years between 1810 and 1830. We can hardly imagine why men, who at heart respected and liked each other, should have found it necessary to hold no communion, but, on the contrary, to wage bitter war because the one was an admirer of the Prince Regent and Lord Castlereagh, the other a supporter of Queen Caroline and Mr. Brougham. We cannot conceive why a poet should be stigmatized as a base and detestable character, merely because he was a Cockney and a Radical; nor can we comprehend how gentlemen, aggrieved by articles in newspapers or magazines, should have thought it necessary to the vindication of their honor, to horsewhip or shoot the printers or editors of the publications in which such articles appeared. Yet in 1817, and the following years, we find such to have been the state of things in the capital of Scotland. Not only was society actually less civilized; but politics, which now happily forms no barrier between men of otherwise congenial minds, then constituted the one great line of demarcation. You were either a Tory and a good man, or a Whig and a rascal, and vice versa. If you were a Tory, and wanted a place, it was the duty of all good Tories to stand by you; if you were a Whig, your chance was small; but its feebleness was all the more reason why you should be proclaimed a martyr, and all your opponents profligate mercenaries. If I exaggerate, I am open to correction; but such appears to me to have been the prevailing tone among the men who figured most actively in public life about the time to which this chapter relates. In literature, at that time, the Edinburgh Review was supreme. Its doctrines were received, among those who believed in them, as oracular; and in the hands of the small retailers of political and literary dogmas who swore by it, these were becoming insufferably tiresome to the Tory part of mankind, who, singularly enough, had no literary oracle of their own north of the Tweed. I suppose the party being strong in power did not feel the want of such influence. The more ardent and active minds on that side, however, were naturally impatient of the dictatorship exercised by Mr. Jeffrey, and wanted only opportunity to establish an opposing force in the interests of their own venerable creed. That opportunity came, and was vigorously used, too vigorously at first, sometimes cruelly and unjustly, but ultimately with results eminently beneficial.

To begin then at the beginning. In the month of December, 1816, Mr. William Blackwood, who had by uncommon tact and energy, established his character in the course of a few years as an enterprising publisher in Edinburgh, was applied to by two literary men to become the publisher of a new monthly magazine, which they had projected. These gentlemen were James Cleghorn, who had acquired some literary position as editor of a Farmers' Magazine, and Thomas Pringle, a pleasant writer and poet, who afterwards emigrated to South Africa. The idea was good, and the time fitting for the "felt want," which is now pleaded about once a week as the ground for establishing some new journal, was then a serious reality; the only periodical in Edinburgh of any mark besides the Review being the Scots Magazine, published by Constable, once a highly respectable, but at that time a vapid and almost "doited" publication. Messrs. Cleghorn and Pringle had secured the co-operation of several clever writers — among others, Mr. R. P. Gillies and James Hogg — and Mr. Blackwood's sagacious eye at once discerned the elements of success in the project. The arrangements were accordingly proceeded with, on the footing that the publisher and the editors were to be joint proprietors, and share the profits, if any. The first number appeared in April, 1817, under the title of The Edinburgh Monthly Magazine. The contents were varied and agreeable, but no way remarkable; and a prefatory note to the next number, in which the editors spoke of "Our humble Miscellany," indicates a certain mediocrity of aim which must have been distasteful to the aspiring energy of the publisher, who had very different views of what the Magazine ought to be made. There was no definite arrangement for the payment of contributors. In fact it seems to have been taken for granted that contributions were to be supplied on the most moderate terms, if not altogether gratuitously. I find Mr. Blackwood stating in his subsequent vindication of himself, in reply to the charge of having supplied no money to the editors, that during the six months of their connection, he "had paid them different sums, amounting to 50." He adds, "They will tell you I never refused them any money they applied for. They may perhaps say the money was for contributors; but to this moment I am utterly ignorant of any contributors to whom they either have or were called upon to pay money, excepting some very trifling sums to two individuals." Perhaps this fact may have something to do with the crisis that soon occurred in the management of the Magazine; at all events, it had not gone beyond two numbers, when editors and publisher found they could not work together. Mr. Pringle was a very amiable man, but his brother editor was a less agreeable person, and with an estimate of his own literary powers considerably higher than that entertained by his sagacious publisher. On the 19th of May the co-editors formally wrote to Mr. Blackwood, letting him know that his interference with their editorial functions could no longer be endured. Mr. Blackwood was probably nothing loath to receive such an intimation, and in the exercise of his rights as partner and publisher, advertised in the June number of the Magazine that its publication would be discontinued at the end of three months from that date. The editors, thrown adrift by this coup, immediately offered their services to Messrs. Constable and Co., as editors of a new series of the Scots Magazine, to appear under the title of The Edinburgh Magazine; while Mr. Blackwood, after some contention and correspondence, agreed to pay his quondam partners 125 for their share in the copyright of the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine. In acquiring the copyright of the Magazine, Mr. Blackwood determined to abandon its old title, and give it a name combining the double advantage that it would not be confounded with any other, and would at the same time help to spread the reputation of the publisher.

Accordingly in October, 1817, appeared for the first time Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (No. VII. from commencement), and it needed no advertising trumpet to let the world know that a new reign (a reign of terror in its way) had begun. In the previous six numbers there had been nothing allowed to creep in that could possibly offend the most zealous partisan of the Blue and Yellow. On the contrary, the opening article of No. I. was a good-natured eulogium on Mr. Francis Horner; the Edinburgh Review was praised for its ability, moderation, and good taste; politics were rather eschewed than otherwise; the literary notices were, with one or two exceptions, elaborately commonplace and complaisant, and, in fact, every thing was exemplarily careful, correct, and colorless. No. VII. spoke a different language, and proclaimed a new and sterner creed. Among a considerable variety of papers, most of them able and interesting, it contained not less than three of a kind well calculated to arouse curiosity and excitement, and to give deep offence to sections more or less extensive of the reading public. The first was a most unwarrantable assault on Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, which was adjudged to be a "most execrable" performance, and its author a miserable compound of "egotism and malignity." The second was an even more unjustifiable attack on Leigh Hunt, who was spoken of as a "profligate creature," a person "without reverence either for God or man." The third was the famous "Chaldee Manuscript," compared with which the sins of the others were almost pardonable in the eyes of a great portion of the public. The effect of this article upon the small society of Edinburgh can now hardly be realized.

It was evident, in a word, that a new and very formidable power had come into existence, and that those who wielded it, whoever they were, were not men to stick at trifles. The sensation produced by the first number, was kept up in those that followed. There was hardly a number for many months that did not contain at least one attack upon somebody, and the business was gone about with a systematic determination that showed there was an ample store of the same ammunition in reserve. Most people, however virtuous, have a kind of malicious pleasure in seeing others sacrificed, if the process be artistically gone about, and the Blackwood tomahawkers were undeniable adepts in the art. Even those who most condemned them, accordingly showed their appreciation of their performances by reading and talking of them, which was exactly the thing to increase their influence. It must not be imagined, however, that the staple of Blackwood 's contributions consisted of mere banter and personality. These would have excited but slight and temporary notice, had the bulk of the articles not displayed a rare combination of much higher qualities. Whatever subjects were discussed, were handled with a masterly vigor and freshness, and developed a fulness of knowledge and variety of talent that could not fail to command respect even from the least approving critic. The publisher knew too well what suited the public taste, and had too much innate sense and fairness, to allow more than a reasonable modicum of abuse in the pages of his Magazine. But he had a difficult task in accommodating the inclinations of his fiery associates to the dictates of prudence and justice; appreciating highly, as he did, their remarkable talents, and unwilling to lose their services, it required great tact and firmness to restrain their sharp pens, and he more than once paid dearly, in solid cash, for their wanton and immoderate expressions.

The public, whether pleased or angry, inquired with wonder where all this sudden talent had lain bid that now threatened to set the Forth on fire. Suspicions were rife; but Mr. Blackwood could keep a secret, and knew the power of mystery. Who his contributors were, who his editor, were matters on which neither he nor they chose to give more information than was necessary. It might suffice for the public to know, from the allegorical descriptions of the Chaldee MS., that there was a host of mighty creatures in the service of the "man in plain apparel," conspicuous among which were the "beautiful Leopard from the valley of the Palm trees," and "the Scorpion which delighteth to sting the faces of men." As for their leader, he was judiciously represented as a veiled personage, whose name it was in vain to ask, and whose personality was itself a mystery. On that point the public, which cannot rest satisfied without attributing specific powers to specific persons, refused after a time to acknowledge the mystery, and insisted on recognizing in John Wilson the real impersonation of Blackwood's "veiled editor." The error has been often emphatically corrected: let it once again be repeated, on the best authority, that the only real editor Blackwood's Magazine ever had was Blackwood himself. Of this fact I have abundant proofs. Suffice it that contributions from Wilson's own pen have been altered, cut down, and kept back, in compliance with the strong will of the man whose name on the title-page of the Magazine truly indicated with whom lay the sole responsibility of the management.