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The Study Of Literature
English Literature Of The 19th Century:
 First Or Pre-victorian Period--1800-1837

 Walter Scott

 Lord Byron

 Thomas Moore

 Percy Bysshe Shelley

 John Keats

 Leigh Hunt

 William Wordsworth

 Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 Robert Southey

 Read More Articles About: English Literature Of The 19th Century

First Or Pre-victorian Period--1800-1837

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

In the opening of the Nineteenth Century the virtuous but obstinate George III was King of England. His government, strongly backed by the people, was strenuous in resisting the ambition of Napoleon and the equally dangerous spread of French revolutionary ideas. William Pitt, who had been inclined to liberal reforms, had, under the stress of war, become severe and arbitrary in his home policy. But while the ruling classes were reactionary and were aiding the cause of despotism on the Continent, the great humanitarian movement which had given rise to the French Revolution was still in progress and manifested itself in manifold ways. The freedom of the press was invoked and maintained in its behalf. Poets and philosophers gave varied utterance to its spirit and delivered its message to the hearts of men. Not alone the oppressed and discontented listened and echoed its cries. The thoughtful, religious, and tender-hearted of all classes were moved and incited to action. The timid sought escape from evils of the present in dreams of a golden age, in stories of mediaeval faith and feudal chivalry. But the bold were more eager and ardent in their passion for reforming the world. In the political field the revolutionary movement was repressed by William Pitt and the Tory party, but in the literary field it was soon overwhelmingly triumphant.

London has been the literary center of England from the golden age of Queen Elizabeth not merely the emporium of books and publishers, but the residence or frequent resort of all who have felt impelled to instruct or delight their fellow-men with the pen. There, in the reign of Queen Anne, Addison at Will's coffee-house gave his little Senate laws. There Pope and Swift and kindred spirits met and concocted the sayings and doings of the Scribler's Club. Not far off was the odious, noisy Grub Street, in which needy poets vainly strove to eke out a miserable existence. In his early years Dr. Samuel Johnson in his satire, "London," imitated Juvenal's famous description of Rome, but after drudgery had brought him fame, he ruled with imperious sway in the Club, which contained Sir Joshua Reynolds, Garrick, Goldsmith, and Burke. Great as was the gathering of intellect and genius in the English metropolis, its life was largely political and commercial, and it is justly called the modern Babylon. The fresh impulse that was to recreate parched English literature with the new century came from the North from the hills and lakes of Scotland, and from the spirited debates of its picturesque capital.

The literary rivalship of Edinburgh is a prominent feature at the opening of the Nineteenth Century. The union of Scotland with England in 1707 had partly diminished the city's importance, yet it continued to be the residence of many of the Scotch nobility. It was the seat of a flourishing university, and the place of publication of many historical and philosophical works. The Scotch have always shown skill in compiling text-books, and encyclopedias and other works of reference have been wont to appear in Edinburgh. In spite of its nickname, "Auld Reekie," the town had an intellectual atmosphere, and its citizens were justified in giving it the surname of "the modern Athens." Notwithstanding political divisions, its general tendency has been Liberal. When the British government under Pitt was lavishing its wealth and bending its utmost energies for the overthrow of Napoleon, the citizens of the Northern capital were still discussing the principles and tendencies of the French Revolution. From this intellectual ferment came the new impulse which was to transform English literature.

About 1797 the witty English clergyman, Sydney Smith, started to go to Germany with a pupil, but was driven by the outbreak of war to take refuge in Edinburgh, and there officiated in a chapel. Forming the acquaintance of a number of talented young Whigs, who chafed under the repression of Liberal views, he persuaded them to start the "Edinburgh Review" in 1802. For its motto he proposed a line from Vergil, which he translated, "We cultivate literature on a little oatmeal," but as this statement was too close to the truth, a more severe sentence from an almost unknown classic was substituted. The first contributors were Francis Jeffrey, Henry Brougham, Francis Horner, J. A. Murray, and Smith, who edited a single number. Jeffrey, as the responsible editor from 1803 to 1829, exercised an immense influence on periodical literature and criticism. Soon the power of the "Edinburgh Review" was widely felt and acknowledged. It was due to the fact that its contributors were men of decided convictions. They were liberally paid for the candid expression of their opinions on new publications. Its judgment was looked for by authors with fear and trembling. In it Jeffrey castigated Byron's first volume, "Hours of Idleness," but called forth a fierce retort in his "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers." He was bold enough to condemn Scott's "Marmion" as childish. Jeffrey also persistently condemned and ridiculed Wordsworth's poetry, opening his critique on "The Excursion" in 1815, with the memorable words, "This will never do." In matters of taste Jeffrey still adhered to the established ideas of the Eighteenth Century. He was succeeded by Macvey Napier.

The "Edinburgh Review" was an independent expositor of the principles of the Whig party. It advocated reforms in church and state, Catholic emancipation and removal of disabilities from Dissenters, Parliamentary reform and extension of the suffrage. It reopened questions of history as well as politics, and rendered new verdicts according to new light. Many of its articles were not merely reviews, but monographs on interesting questions. Thus it furnished Macaulay the proper field for the brilliant miscellanies which gave him much of his fame, and prepared the way for his history. Sir Walter Scott, though a Tory, contributed to the "Edinburgh Review" until the vehemence of its Whiggism required him to withdraw.

In opposition to the brave and vigorous "Edinburgh," the English Tories felt compelled to establish an organ of their own. It was called "The Quarterly Re-view," and was first published in London in 1809, edited by William Gifford, a satirist and translator of Juvenal. It attained its best repute when under the control of John G. Lockhart, son-in-law and biographer of Sir Walter Scott. Among its early contributors were Canning, Southey, Wordsworth, Scott, and John W. Croker. Besides its steady defence of the old principles and anomalies of the British Constitution, it was noted for its ponderous learning.

But the Tories of the North, smarting under the attacks of the "Edinburgh Review," were not fully satisfied with their new ally. It was too remote; its guns too heavy and slow. Therefore William Blackwood, the Tory publisher of Edinburgh, began in 1817 to issue a monthly in their behalf. As regards politics it was fiercely conservative, defending monarchy, aristocracy and the Established Church; and briskly attacking all innovations; on its literary side it presented from the start brilliant stories and poems, and it overflowed with fun and animal spirits. An early number contained a pre-tended "Chaldee Manuscript," which gave in the style of the English Bible, a bitter satire on the Edinburgh notorieties of the time. This was soon followed by the "Noctes Ambrosianae," a series of mirthful dialogues, interspersed with songs and poems, professed to be held by its chief contributors at Ambrose's tavern. These were mostly written by the brilliant Professor John Wilson, who, in his editorial capacity, bore the pseudonym of "Christopher North." He was a noted athlete and sportsman, a lover of the beautiful, a writer of pathetic tales and charming poetry, and was also professor of moral philosophy in the University of Edinburgh. His love of fun and display of it in "Maga" caused his more serious powers to be somewhat disparaged and neglected.

Beyond the Whigs of the "Edinburgh Review" there was a class of thinkers, urging Utilitarianism in philosophy and Radicalism in politics. These opposed the existing systems in church and state, and were severely criticized in the "Edinburgh" as well as in the "Quarterly." Jeremy Bentham was one of their leaders, and to defend and propagate their views, he founded in 1824 the "Westminster Review." Among its contributors were James Mill, and his greater son, John Stuart Mill, Sir John Bowring, and the philosophic historian, Buckle. As it led the way in removing the restrictions and legal disabilities of women, it is not surprising to find two eminent women writing for its pages Harriet Martineau, and Marian Evans, who was to win fame as "George Eliot." It was long an object of curious dread in Conservative and Orthodox circles.

The literary success of "Blackwood's Magazine" led to the founding of other monthlies; some of which had no decided political bias. The "New Monthly Magazine" was edited by the poet Campbell, and numbered among its contributors Bulwer and Hood. Captain Marryat published in it some of his famous sea-stories. "Fraser's Magazine," started in 1830, was of high order, and gave cordial welcome to articles not readily accepted else-where. Thus Carlyle, who had done much writing, especially on German subjects, for the "Edinburgh Review," turned to "Fraser" when he wished to bring before the world his new fantastic clothes-philosophy in "Sartor Resartus." The "Dublin University Magazine," begun in 1832, was an outlet for the wit and learning which were cherished among the Irish Protestants of Trinity College, Dublin. It is remarkable that while scholars and graduates of the English Universities assisted in various reviews and magazines, no periodical was regularly issued in connection with either Oxford or Cambridge. The life of the English scholar was distinctly apart from the activity even of the literary world. But the reform movement began by the brisk, alert Sydney Smith in Edinburgh, eventually reached and agitated the quiet academic retreats on the Cam and the Isis. Then it took a new and strange form, and an Oxford movement, chiefly eccleciastical, passed around the English-speaking world. For a time it bore the name of Dr. Pusey, but the true leader was the preacher and theologian who became Cardinal Newman.

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