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Written by Margaret C
(2/3/2013 2:12 p.m.)
in consequence of the missive, British Critic quite severe (spoilers), penned by Liesbeth
It was not unheard of for critics to write very severe things about books they had not read (nor was it unheard of for critics to write very flattering things about books they had not read, but had been paid well to write about.)
The Quarterly were 'friends' of Jane Austen: her publisher bankrolled them, and William Gifford (he of the perfectly placed semicolon) if not Walter Scott, personally enjoyed Austen's work (Scott was unambiguously a fan of Austen's when he knew she was dead, but I suspect he saw realism and mysterious authorial identity in anyone but himself, as unwelcome competition, and would rather promote abject imitators of his self than an author with the power to make his works look like melodramatic rubbish. You can see his influence not only in the opinions of contemporaries like Edgeworth, but also on later Romantics like the Brontes.)
In 1818 in the Quarterly, Gifford had claimed "It is not that Mr. Keats (if that be his real name, for we almost doubt that any man in his senses would put his real name to such a rhapsody) -- it is not, we say, that the author has not powers of language, rays of fancy, and gleams of genius. He has all these; but he is unhappily a disciple of the new school of what has been somewhere called 'Cockney Poetry,' which may be defined to consist of the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language."
The same year, Scott's son-in-law, John Lockhart, in Blackwoods, about the same poet and poem "To witness the disease of any human understanding, however feeble, is distressing; but the spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity is of course ten times more afflicting. It is with such sorrow as this that we have contemplated the case of Mr John Keats. ... He was bound apprentice some years ago to a worthy apothecary in town. But all has been undone by a sudden attack of the malady. ... For some time we were in hopes, that he might get off with a violent fit or two; but of late the symptoms are terrible. The phrenzy of the "Poems" was bad enough in its way; but it did not alarm us half so seriously as the calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy of Endymion."
The Edinburgh Review were near as bad, but of the opposite political persuasion. They wrote some equally cruel and ignorant rubbish about Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron (who had all turned from the Whig to the Tory cause around the same time, and for the first two, if not all three, at least partly because they were paid to).
"The Cockney School" the reviewers so loathed was a reference to Leigh Hunt. His short-lived periodical The Examiner, was the first experiment in Independent Journalism (ie. the journal was not owned by a politician for the purpose of promoting his cause, did not accept money from the crown in secret for promoting its causes, and endeavoured to report on the political, theatrical, social and literary events of the day truthfully and without bias, or at least without paid bias.) Of course, Hunt's crew were hated by both sides of the absolutely rotten body politic, and pilloried by every other press.
In any case, when you read some stupidity of this sort (and if you look at what the reviewers have to say about any female author, especially those who are not wealthy and titled, whose works have only the merit of being better than those whose works they are compared with - eg. Anne Radcliffe/ C.R.Maturin, Jane Austen/Maria Edgeworth, you will see it often), it is quite possible the critic has not read the work, or has not been paid enough to give a good opinion of the work.
These critics did a good job promoting Rob Roy and the Rackrents, turning Jacobites and Republicans into the fictional Loyalists and best-sellers of their day, using Establishment politics and religion to define how the poet ought to feel and what the novel ought to elevate, but Where are those songs of spring?
Those foolish critics are long dead and would be forgotten but
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
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