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THE EDINBURGH REVIEW.
The July number in 1902 of the Edinburgh Review rounded out and completed the first century of that famous periodical. It was a notable event, for no Review in the world has had a more eventful history, or has exercised so wide an influence on men and manners, on politics and literature, as the Edinburgh Review.
Modern English literary criticism began with it. There had been great English critics before that time, like Dryden and Johnson, and there had been magazines and reviews in which books were praised or lampooned, as the publisher felt inclined, though not at all in accordance with thc merits or demerits of the book, but nothing like independent or impartial criticism in the current periodicals had yet been known.
The story of the founding of the Review has often been told. In the spring of 1802 a group of young men happened to be together in one of the upper flats of a house in Edinburgh. They were Sydney Smith, Francis Horner, Henry Brougham, and Francis Jeffrey. They were well educated, poor, ambitious, and had their own way to make in life. Smith had taken holy orders, had been a tutor, and was looking for a curacy. Jeffrey was a struggling advocate at the Scotch bar, Brougham had just been called to the English bar, and Horner was looking forward to a seat in parliament and the life of a statesman. They were all liberal and progressive in their political opinions, and it is doubtful if there were at that time any other four young men in the kingdom of Britain of greater promise or who achieved greater distinction in after life. Smith became one of the dignitaries of the Church, Brougham rose to be Lord High Chancellor of England, Jeffrey was raised to the Scottish bench, and Horner had a most distinguished career in parliament, though he died prematurely in the very prime of his life. Sydney Smith suggested the Review, and although they could not raise one hundred pounds among them, the suggestion was hailed with acclaim. Smith was appointed editor and commissioned to find a publisher. The young reviewers set to work and in
October, 1802, the first number of the “Blue and Yellow" appeared. It was the literary sensation of the time.
It is difficult for us to appreciate the stir it made, we who are accustomed to the rise and fall of magazines and reviews, “when every day and year brings forth a new one,” but our grandfathers or great-grandfathers thought it a most memorable event and looked upon the new wonder with feelings largely governed by their political bias. If they were Whigs they were exultant, if they were Tories they saw in it nothing but evil, and that continually. It was, or in time it became, the great organ of liberal opinion, and during its career was instrumental in bringing great and bcneficent reforms in English law. In politics and literature it became an immense power, far exceeding even the most extravagant dreams of the youths who founded it.
We now glance over those faded volumes and wonder at the sensation they made. Their fire has long been extinguished, their wit, their vigor, and keenness completely evaporated. We do not care to read them, or if there are among them an occasional article of literary excellence we prefer to read it in the collected works of the author.
With the second number, issued in January, 1803, Jeffrey became the editor, Smith having left Edinburgh to accept an English curacy. Few men have held sway as a critic so long and so powerfully. To him, more than to any one person, is the success of the Review to be attributed. And when it is remembered that during all this period he was in the successful practice of an arduous profession, a leading advocate at the Scottish bar, that he wrote on almost every conceivable subject, that he was obliged to keep constant watch over his contributors, urging them to promptness, and touching up and sometimes rewriting their articles when received, we cannot but be amazed at his versatility and industry. It was no grudging compliment that Macaulay paid him when he wrote: “When I compare him with Sydney and myself I feel, with humility perfectly sincere, that his range is immeasurably wider than ours. And this only as a writer. But he is not only a writer; he has been a great advocate, and he is a great judge. Take him all in all, I think him more nearly a universal genius than any man of our time.” This is, indeed, “praise from Sir Hubert Stanley,” and is praise, indeed. Sir Walter Scott was among the early contributors, but Jeffrey's liberal politics and notions
of reform estranged the great novelist and caused him to assist in setting up the Quarterly as a Tory organ. Nevertheless the Edinburgh was the foremost periodical in Europe for a quarter of a century under Jeffrey's management, and the impulse and direction he gave it remains with it to this day. In his criticism Jeffrey tried to be impartial and he never reviewed a book either from the “friendly ” or the “business office" standpoint. He was a just judge, but often a severe one, though he never had the savage moods that characterized Gifford and Croker in the Quarterly. It was a criticism in the Edinburgh written by Brougham on “Hours of Idleness,” that aroused the wrath of Byron and awakened his genius. “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers” proved that Byron could give as well as receive blows.
Health to immortal Jeffrey ! once, in name,
Byron's later poems met with Jeffrey's praise,