To See or Not to See: Francis Jeffrey on William Wordsworth

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To see or not to see
Francis Jeffrey on William Wordsworth

2009.12.14.

Literary criticism has ever been a touchy subject. Throughout cultural history we have seen critics of various shapes and sizes commenting on all works of art in vastly different ways, from the condescending to the rave, the profound to the sarcastic – and all of them were right, in one sense. For a critic is a “voice of the masses”, a representative of readers everywhere, thus whatever opinion a critic has is justified by him having actually seen, read, interpreted and/or digested the given masterpiece, and being moved by it to such an extent as to express this in a verbal form. A true critic, however, is slightly more than that – he possesses a stable sense of cultural value, and the ability to pinpoint the exact place of any artificial creation in the golden canon of immortality, not to mention a sense of humour and a devout humility towards art in general.

Francis Jeffrey (1773-1850) was all these things and more – though admittedly he didn’t bear all the afore-mentioned qualities in equal measure. Even so, owing to his editorship and contributions at the Edinburgh Review, he was undoubtedly one of the most well-known critics of his age (and maybe since then), his utmost concern being to mould public taste in an intelligent and elegant way. And this is how he actually managed to influence the literature he was so keen on dissecting, and whose influence made him write in the first place; so presenting us with the old symbol of a snake biting its tail, one melting into the other, each affecting and being affected by its partner. Jeffrey’s judgements – both well-deserved and slightly less so – were something to be reckoned with, and several notable literary personages of the time can thank him for the growing (or diminishing) number of their readers, serving as an excellent example of what a critic might accomplish.

Three personages are often mentioned in connection with Jeffrey, three men whose works became even more interconnected with his than the rest of the prestigious number he commented on. Jeffrey and Carlyle had an ambiguous relationship, with Jeffrey recognizing the genius of Carlyle early in his career, and going out of his way to present him with opportunities to flourish, while the different personalities of the two men – Jeffrey’s benign curiosity about the younger man’s affairs, and Carlyle’s independence – presented themselves in conflicts of varying intensity. Jeffrey and Dickens, on the other hand, had no major opposition of will, although this may be due to the fact that Jeffrey was an older and slightly kinder critic by the time they met. But neither of these relationships can compare, or even contrast, with the one Jeffrey had with William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

Jeffrey had, from the start, a very strong opinion about Wordsworth – indeed, there are scarcely any criticisms left us which present such an unmasked feeling of dissatisfaction with a poet as his reviews about Wordsworth’s poems. The significance of these reviews is two-fold: on the one hand, they paint a vibrant picture of what the philosophy and idealism of the Lake Poets, and the morality of the Scottish Whig cultural elite, actually was like; on the other hand, Jeffrey’s unique style, made up of sarcasm, wit, elegance, and a slightly biased opinion, offer an insight to his mind, personal experience and ethics. In other words, Jeffrey’s reviews present themselves as a luxurious “feast for the soul and mind”, both contextually and stylistically speaking. In the following, we are going to look at two reviews, one from 1807, the other from 1822 – one of the first and last reviews concerned with Wordsworth and the Poets of the Lakes.

Wordsworth’s Poems, published in 1807, move Jeffrey to express his disappointment with and worries over the new poetic style used therein in no uncertain form (though still much more mildly than in later years!). He begins by...
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