Skirmishes in the Lower Empire

  • Mark Schoenfield
Part of the Nineteenth-Century Major Lives and Letters book series (19CMLL)


Explaining why the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads could not contain a “systematic defense” of his poetic theory, Wordsworth underscores the pervasiveness of print consumption in shaping contemporary experience. Such a defense would require “retracing the revolutions not of literature alone but likewise of society itself” (242–3). Without listing these revolutions, he details factors that, “with combined force,” reduce “the discriminating powers of the mind” to “a state of almost savage torpor”:

The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves. (249, my emphasis)


Periodical Press Reading Public Table Talk Print Culture Poetic Theory 
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  1. 1.
    Southey’s tepid review of the first edition of Lyrical Ballads annoyed Wordsworth because “Southey knew that I published those poems for money and money alone” (WL I:267). Christopher Smith describes Southey’s review as “the tactics of someone already in the ballad market” and “quite prepared to put the opposition in its place, and even damage it a little.”Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Like Southey, Coleridge associated the dominance of the periodical press with a disease of the body politic (bracketed comments from Hazlitt in the Examiner): For among other odd burs and kecksies, the misgrowth of our luxuriant activity, we have now a Reading Public …, [… It seems that whenever an objection in matter of fact occurs to our author’s mind, he instinctively applies the flattering unction of words to smooth it over to his conscience, as you apply a salve to a sore] … whose heads and hearts are dieted at the two public ordinaries of Literature, the circulating libraries and the periodical press … if the average health of the consumers may be judged by the articles of largest consumption [Is not this a side-blow at the Times and Courier?]; if the secretions may be conjectured from the ingredients of the dishes that are found best suited to their palates; from all that I have seen, either of the banquet or the guests, I shall utter my Profiaccia with a desponding sigh. [“Oh, thou particular fellow!”] From a popular philosophy and a philosophic populace, Good Sense deliver us! (Coleridge Statesman’s 36–8; quoted by Hazlitt, ER XXVII: 450 and, as reprinted from the Examiner, December 29, 1816, Political Essays 132) Hazlitt, defending the Periodical Press in the Edinburgh, extends Coleridge’s metaphor by noting, “There is something, then, worse than ‘luxuriant activity,’—the palsy of death” (ER XXVII:450). “Coleridge’s overcooked metaphor,” as Charles Mahoney notes, “draw[s] our attention to an alimentary trope (the periodical press as an ‘ordinary,’ or table d’hôte, for unsophisticated palates) that in turn informs Hazlitt’s own degustation of the state of public taste in an 1823 essay, ‘The Periodical Press”’ (2).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Southey repeats the metaphor of the reviews as fleas in a letter to Scott rejecting the idea of writing for the Edinburgh Review: “[T]hough these things injure me materially in a pecuniary point of view, they make no more impression upon me than the bite of a sucking flea would do upon Gargantua” (230).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Dorothy asked Thomas De Quincey to rebuke Jeffrey: “It would be treating Mr. Jeffrey with too much respect to notice any of his criticisms; but when he makes my Brother censure himself; by quoting words as from his poems which are not there, I do think it is proper that he should be contradicted and put to shame” (LW I1:326). Wordsworth’s Essay, Supplementary to the Preface is “a retort aimed at Francis Jeffrey” for the Edinburgh’s review of The Excursion, which Wordsworth claimed to know only secondhand, despite appropriating its language as when he offers “a vigorous account of critics whose ‘perverseness … is supported by system”’ (Owen 161, 166).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    In his 1823 “On the Periodical Press,” Hazlitt defended the current “critical age” as a consequence of the abundance of prior and contemporary genius that needed organization. He constructs his Spirit of the Age as an explication of the exchange between genius, a topos of individuality, and a public perception instantiated through the periodical press. His maxim, “if we cannot be profound, let us at least be popular” (ER LXXVI:357), as David Stewart has detailed in “We are Absolutely Coining Money,” acts as a tenet for the commercial construction of periodical culture.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Blackwood’s support of Wordsworth was qualified as useful to the magazine’s own goals, which could include disrupting its own authority: [North]: Wordsworth is, in all things, the reverse of Milton—a good man, and a bad poet. Tickler: What !—That Wordsworth whom Maga cries up as the Prince of Poets ? North: Be it so; I must humour the fancies of some of my friends. (XVIII:380)Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Francis Jeffrey sensed the “air of parody” in Wordsworth’s work ( Jones, “Parody” 64). Although serious in tone, Wordsworth’s “Michael” is characteristic of the dialogic voices of periodical culture: when Jeffrey quotes Wordsworth, do ellipsis and decontextualization veer into parody? (“the most significant mark of a parody is the doubt it induces as to whether it is parody”; Jones “Parody” 71). When Wordsworth republishes his earlier work, is he occupying the position of a second self, or forestalling the encroachment of “youthful Poets”? When Southey imitates a periodical review in his letter about reviews, is it self-parody, as he is a reviewer, self-denial (consistent with his rejection of his youthful self, the author of Wat Tyler), or an unconscious mimicry of habituated patterns? The second self of “Michael” is a variant (repetition? parody? palimpsest?) of Dorothy, from “Tintern Abbey,” as a repository of self-presence against the decomposing “world of evil tongues, / Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men” (128–9; a phrase Kenneth Johnston, in “Romantic Anti-Jacobins” associates with the Anti-Jacobin Weekly): in thy voice I catch The language of my former heart, and read My former pleasures in the shooting lights Of thy wild eyes. (116–19)Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Henry Crabbe Robinson was not amused: “I was foolish enough to skim over two volumes of Barrett’s Heroine—a very poor application of the satire of Don Quixote to the sentimental novels and poetical romances of the last and present age. There is some fun in the burlesque of the ridiculous style of the worst of these novels” (I:181). Jane Austen was more appreciative: “I finished the Heroine last night & was very much amused by it. I wonder James did not like it better. It diverted me exceedingly” (255–6).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    His response intimates Cherry’s fate by borrowing from children’s tales, which herald her future as a mother of properly raised boys: “Tommy Horner was a bad boy, and would not get plumcake; and that King Pepin was a good boy, and rode in a golden coach” (III:246). The notes that end each volume (which are not designated in the main text) are a panoply of borrowed language. Most references derive from the “romances” Cherry reads, but others dissolve the facade of her narrative integrity with an authorial nod to the reader’s political awareness. Coming upon a stranger, Cherry declares, “As he came nearer, I perceived, that surely never lighted on this orb, which he hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision” (I:125; 3rd ed. I:116). A note cites Burke’s passage on Marie Antoinette—which this passage, with gender reversed, is quoting, unbeknownst to Cherry (3rd ed. I:216).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Walter Scott, whose own novels exploit linguistic multiplicity to enact cultural collisions and mediation, argues that English, distinct from other European languages, is a “compounded or mingled language.” Writing under the guise of the Edinburgh Reviewer in 1804, Scott maintains that while other languages, of either Teutonic or Latin origins, exhibit “a uniform pattern and texture” (ER IV:152), English exists as a “middle dialect” that encodes historical circumstances as heteroglossia: “the same chance that has peopled Britain with such a variety of tribes and nations” has “decreed that the language of Locke and of Shakespeare should claim no particular affinity” to either the Latinate or Teutonic. Instead, the language mediates between the “Anglo-Norman conquerors and the vanquished Anglo-Saxons” (152). Although imprecise about the uniqueness of English in this regard, Scott’s recognition that the language itself—and therefore its poetry, metaphors, history, and rhetoric, and not merely specific instances of its use—is dialogic underscores the linguistic range present in institutionalized sociolects such as the periodical press.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    “Every system of law that has attained a certain degree of maturity seems compelled by the ever-increasing complexity of human affairs to create persons who are not men, or rather (for this may be a truer statement) to recognize that such persons have come or are coming into existence” (Pollock and Maitland, quoted in Raymond 353). Raymond’s analysis in the “Genesis of the Corporation” demonstrates the development of the corporation as a dialectical process between law and other social units; he argues, e.g., the notion of the corporation as an “ideal person” stems from earlier religious idealizations (360–61). Cornish and Clark provide an account of the jointstock companies from the founding of the Bank of England, and detail both public suspicion about their operation and the reluctance of the law to directly regulate them, a decision which meant that, as Lord Eldon put it in 1825, “they act as a mutual understanding and a kind of moral rule” (Cornish and Clark 250).Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    The Quarterly Review, despite its non-geographic name, was acknowledged as London’s response to Edinburgh; Noah Porter writes: “Perhaps one family read the London Quarterly and another the Edinburgh, which were then reproduced, the one in drab, and the other in blue and yellow” (Books and Reading 341). The initial intent to use “London” in the title was thwarted by the appearance of Richard Cumberland’s London Review, which quickly failed (Wellens 453). The London Magazine, North American Review, and other journals also referred to the Quarterly as the London Quarterly. Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Jon Klancher details the coordination between literary and cosmopolitan development: “The crisis and disintegration of the early modern ‘republic of letters’ amounted to the transformation of an intellectual field, its literary practices and relationships, and the debate about ‘cosmopolitanism’ was one mode in which that field was restructured at the turn of the nineteenth century” (“Discrimination” 79).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Sonia Hofkosh’s “Commodities among Themselves” and Bonnie Gunzenhauser’s “Reading the Rhetoric of Resistance” have noted heteroglossic structures in periodicals.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Tracing commentary from the coinage of “autobiography” in the 1790s to its general usage in the 1820s, James Treadwell argues that the “apparently new genre” grew “with remarkable speed from embryo to monstrosity” (3). In an unusual review for the Quarterly (1827), John Lockhart surveys ten autobiographies that “would normally be unlikely to receive notice in the periodical press” to prove the “inappropriate self-importance and egotism of nobodies” (Treadwell 77) as a national problem.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Kevin Gilmartin’s Print Politics continues Klancher’s revision of the Habermasian conception of the “public sphere.” Gilmartin’s Writing against Revolution further extends Klancher’s work by exploring the sociolects of Romantic-era conservatism.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Although comic in tone, speculating Lamb’s motive was an “eye to poor Mr. Elia’s situation in the London Magazine” (LM VII:160), the essay invokes the death of the London’s editor John Scott, the absent presence that haunts the journal under its subsequent editors. Scott died in a duel with Jonathan Christie (of Edinburgh’s Blackwood’s Magazine). Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Ralph Waldo Emerson commented on this anecdote: The tendency in England towards social and political institutions like those of America, is inevitable, and the ability of its journals is the driving force …. Hundreds of clever Praeds and Freres and Froudes and Hoods and Hooks and Maginns and Mills and Macaulays, make poems, or short essays for a journal, as they make speeches in Parliament and on the hustings, or as they shoot and ride. (262)Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Mansfield had experienced the effectiveness of a less systematic press than the one Eldon faced when Junius had ridiculed him in the Public Advertiser (1769–70) and when subsequent prosecutions of Junius’s publishers and printers, argued before Mansfield, resulted in acquittals and ambiguous verdicts by the jury. The judicial failure prompted more attacks, and Junius’s final letter asserts that Mansfield is “the very worst and most dangerous man in the kingdom,” and that by his own writings, Junius has “bound the victim, and dragged him to the altar” (II:243). Heward narrates this complex argument waged across the press and King’s Bench (128–9).Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    The article notes that “our newspapers” serve as “the not infrequent vehicle of communication between the very noblest minds, and the common sense and heat of the many,” despite their functions as “party engines” (6–7). Writers “are evidently pleading at the bar of the public, and not at that of the legislature or the aristocracy” (10). The bar of the public, however, is never immediately present, but always filtered through the periodical press. The Westminsteris drawing on Jeremy Bentham’s idea of an emerging “regime of publicity” that would counterbalance the government by producing consistent accounts of character, and thereby consistent characters.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    When Eldon wrote this letter, the government was moving to arrest Cobbett for sedition and was prosecuting the publisher of the Morning Chronicle (Cole 151–3).Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Byron appropriates a “nickname” from Cobbett for the first line of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers that he glosses, “Mr. Fitzgerald, facetiously termed by Cobbett the ‘Small Beer Poet,’ inflicts his annual tribute of verse on the ‘Literary Fund’” (CWB III:399–400). In Spirit, Hazlitt described “Cobbett” as “a kind of Fourth Estate in the politics of the country” (216).Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Paul Elledge notes that in 1805 “[i]njured monarchy had of course saturated British consciousness for some years, to such an extent that public performances of King Lear had been suspended out of deference to King George III’s observable but not yet officially conceded mental and emotional impairment” (158).Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Prosecuting the publisher and proprietors of the Morning Chronicle for inserting an advertisement “purporting to have been issued by a political society in Derby,” Eldon, as attorney general, had spoken for the king, or for his most pervasive metonymy: “the crown, upon the temperate consideration of what the jury does, will not be dissatisfied with the verdict” (Melikan 95). Both crime and prosecution are acts of impersonation.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Kevin Gilmartin explains, “Although formal prohibitions against parliamentary reporting were dropped in 1771, a full and accurate account was still a long way off.” Gilmartin notes that the Tory press “learned to answer radical attacks on corruption with the argument that parliamentary publication was a sufficient concession to extra-parliamentary opinion,” while the “Whig Edinburgh Review also treated the publication of debates as a‘democratical’ accommodation that dictated against radical demands for universal suffrage” (Gilmartin, Print Politics 27–8, citing ER XXXI:176).Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    In Byron’s unfinished “The Devil’s Drive,” Byron highlights the “tears in Lord Eldon’s eyes” (145). Robert Montgomery, in a note to “The Runaways” comments, “And then his Lordship’s late gush of tears in the House of Lords, and the Court,—I really cannot convey my admiration, on this point, with sufficient energy” (326).Google Scholar

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© Mark Schoenfield 2009

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  • Mark Schoenfield

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