1871 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Jerdan

S. C. Hall, "William Jerdan" in A Book of Memories: Great Men and Women of the Age, from personal Acquaintance (1871) 283-86.



I cannot close this Memory of poor unhappy Laetitia Landon without introducing some comments concerning the career of WILLIAM JERDAN, who was so long "before the world" as the editor of many works, more especially the Literary Gazette.

He tells us in his "Autobiography " that he was born at Kelso, on the 16th of April, 1782: he died at Bushy Heath, in Kent, on the 11th of July, 1869, in his eightyeighth year. His was, therefore, a very long life; and if its historian cannot describe it as altogether creditable, it was certainly useful.

It would be difficult now to comprehend the immense power exercised by the literary Gazette for a period of time extending over the years between 1820 and 1840. A laudatory review was almost sure to sell an edition of a book, and an author's fame was established when he had obtained the praise of that journal. People do not, perhaps, think more for themselves now than they did then; but the hands that bestowed the laurels were, at that time, few: country readers and provincial booksellers had no other guide. There are now a hundred reviewers in London, and in the several shires of the kingdom thrice as many; but for a quarter of a century there was but one who was accepted as "authority." The Gazette stood alone as the arbiter of fate, literary and artistic. In process of time other Daniels came to judgment: several rivals had appeared — to live a brief while and die; but the Athenaeum became a competitor irresistible. The elder Dilke was a gentleman of energy and independence; moreover, he had capital. That periodical had been tried and did nothing in the hands of Silk Buckingham, but when Mr. Dilke became its sustaining influence it rapidly rose; the Literary Gazette as rapidly fell. In 1850 it passed from the hands of Mr. Jerdan, and in 1862 it died, and is forgotten.

It is but justice to say of Mr. Jerdan that he ever "did his spiriting gently," was always ready to help, and never willing to depress, the efforts of men striving for fame; and many are they who achieved greatness mainly as a consequence of the encouragement received at his hands, whom severity of rebuke might have depressed into oblivion. It is scarcely too much to say that during his fifty years of labour there was hardly a young author who did not gratefully thank him for "good words."

As with authors, so with artists. He may have occasionally over-appreciated inferiority, and there may have been a few cases in which he failed to see the promise in the bud; but generally — almost universally — his judgment was sound, and his verdicts such as were seldom questioned either by competitors or successors. That is no slight praise of one who wielded a power of which existing conductors of the public press can form but a weak estimate. Some of them would do well to imitate his example; some who think little of the broken hearts they cause when occupied in the business of criticism; who do not often go to rest without the consciousness that the bitter "justice" of the pen has made some one miserable.

To their consideration I recommend this verse of a hymn:—

Help us to help each other, Lord,
Each other's cross to hear;
Let each his friendly aid afford
To soothe his brother's care!

But Mr. Jerdan was not the editor of the Literary Gazette only; he was the author of many original works. None of them, indeed, have maintained any hold on the public, but they served their purpose for a time, and were evidence of thought and industry as well as ability.

In 1852-3 he published his "Autobiography;" and in 1866 a volume entitled "The Men I have Known" — printed originally in that useful and interesting and thoroughly good periodical, the Leisure Hour. I confess I have wondered how it was that these works contain so little: no man has lived who had so many opportunities of personal intercourse with the leading authors and artists of his age. He seems to have neglected such opportunities strangely; probably he never contemplated being called upon to write concerning them; and it is certain that he was not of those who sow seed for an anticipated harvest.

I was not one of his intimate friends, but I have met occasionally at his residence, Grove House, Brompton, a house long ago removed to make way for Ovington Square, many of the chief wits, leading authors, and principal artists of the time — a time comprising many years — and a very large proportion of them were contributors to his Gazette.

Still, although his "Autobiography" disappoints me, it does not follow that it will disappoint others. The volumes were hurriedly pushed through the press; he did not stay to clothe naked facts, or to describe the person of whom he undertook to say something. I have been surprised to note how rarely I have been indebted to him for a suggestion, or an idea, in recalling my own Memories."

I met him at dinner about three years ago, when he was in his eighty-fifth year. It was at the society of "Noviomagus," a social society founded by Crofton Croker some forty years ago, consisting exclusively of Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries, and which has numbered among its members, and especially its guests, many distinguished and remarkable men. Jerdan was singularly full of life and vigour, said many witty things, conversed with great animation of his long-past, and delivered a speech, pointed, epigrammatic, nay, even eloquent. It would have been a matter to remember if it had occurred even in his best days. Yet he was then, as he had long been, as Hawthorne has described him, "time-worn, but not reverend."

I would gladly say more than I have felt justified in saying of William Jerdan. Many liked and regarded, without respecting him; no doubt he was of heedless habits; no doubt he cared little for the cost of self-gratification; no doubt he was far too little guided, all his life long, by high and upright principle; but I, for one, will not decline to accept the "apology" thus offered in his "Autobiography" — a hope "that some fond and faithful regret might embalm the memory of the sleeper, who can never wake more to participate in a sorrow and bestow a solace, listen to distress and bring it relief, serve a friend and forgive a foe, perform his duties as perfectly as his human frailty allowed, never wilfully do injury to man, woman, or child, and love his neighbours — of one sex as himself, and of the other better."

I quote with less satisfaction another passage in which Jerdan said of himself — "I have drained the Circe-cup to the lees; but I still gratefully acknowledge the enchanting draught of its exquisite and transporting sweetness, in spite of the emptiness of its froth and the bitterness of its dregs." Far better for him would it have been if he had more often put away from his lips the Circe-cup, and given heed to the warning that its pernicious effects may poison mind, heart, and soul.

"He was nobody's enemy but his own" — a saying common enough, but one more utterly fallacious or more calculated to work evil could not be quoted. The man who is his own enemy is the enemy of all mankind, not only in the wrongs he actually induces, but in the example he gives — in the lessons he is perpetually teaching to those who are either wicked or weak imitators.

His first appearance in print was in 1804-5; his latest articles were given to the printer in 1869. He died in harness — it may almost be said with the pen in his hand; for although aided in his later days by the Crown pension of 100 a year, his necessities compelled him to work for bread. He had many attached friends with ready help when want came too near him. The most assiduous was the sculptor Joseph Durham, who stood by him to the last, and saw him placed in his grave. The most generous and helpful was Sir Frederick Pollock, the companion of his boyhood and his friend always. That most learned, most good, and most admirable man, who went to his rest on the very day when I wrote this Memory, "full of years and honours" indeed — might have been an example (which he was not) as well as a friend (which he was) to William Jerdan. Estimable in all the relations of life, he adorned and honoured the elevated position to which he raised himself, not less by integrity than by genius, and added one more to the long list of great lawyers who have been good men.

It is strong testimony to the merits of William Jerdan, that for more than sixty years he kept the friendship of Frederick Pollock.