Romantic Literary Criticism

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Criticism: Literary Reviews

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6951

SOURCE: Hayden, John O. “Attitudes, Policies, and Practices.” In The Romantic Reviewers 1802-1824, pp. 243-60. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

[In the following excerpt, Hayden discusses the common features, editorial policies, and critical assumptions shared by the various literary reviews of the Romantic period.]

Not even in the most expansive moments of generalizing would anyone familiar with the Romantic Reviews imagine that in attempting to ascertain and set forth common policies and practices of the reviewers he was speaking about all the Reviews, much less all the reviewers. The difficulties inherent in such a misconception are only too obvious. There are too many Reviews of too many different kinds; and there are too many different reviewers involved, each writing for periodicals which, as individual entities, are often inconsistent in policy and practice. Yet there are patterns of critical thought, policy, and practice that allow for generalizations, mostly in need of qualification but nevertheless valid as far as they go. The following general comments are intended to supply such patterns.

One of the most common attributes of the reviewers is their sense of performing an important function, of being part of a serious endeavor—serious not solemn, for there is too much humor in most of the reviews to pose a question of solemnity. Literature itself was almost always taken seriously. Misuse of diction could lead to corruption of the language; the public taste could also finally be corrupted by bad literature. Literature, in the words of the British Review, is ‘a powerful engine of moral persuasion …’, capable of much good or much evil.1

Sharing this serious attitude, the reviewers thought their critical function was to influence both the writer and the reader. Duty to the writer was more often mentioned; frequently the poet was to be set straight on certain errors of content or form, and his imitators were often included in the strictures. This corrective influence was most frequently considered to be direct; that is, the reviewer pointed out errors which the writer would, unless incorrigible, take pains to correct. There were even claims put forward occasionally that a particular poet had listened to specific advice (as no doubt must sometimes have happened), but there were also asides, not without at times a tinge of self-pity or frustration, that the poet under review would most probably ignore such advice. A more likely explanation of the effects of their critical pronouncements was given by the Monthly Review:

It would indeed be a satisfaction to the professional critic, and a reward for his long labours, if he could entertain the remotest idea of any direct effect being produced by them, on the extravagant mistakes of genius, and on the corruptions of contemporary taste. It might be Utopian to form an expectation of this nature: but it perhaps may not be wholly chimerical to entertain the pleasing hope that an indirect effect is, in some distinguished cases, so produced; and that the re-action of literary opinion produces an amendment in style which no individual censor, or body of censors, can accomplish. In this comparatively slow result of criticism, in this good produced by the circuitous diffusion of truth, the critic only shares the common lot of all who work for the improvement of their fellow-men. Especially may he console himself with the reflection, that his superiors in the great council of the nation, who criticize on so much ampler a scale, are forced like himself, to wait for this same round-about result of their patriotic orations: ministers being quite as incorrigible as authors by any direct appeal; and the well-informed of the community—whose judgment needs only to be awakened and recalled to sound principles, whether of government or of literary composition, in order to demand and to secure the necessary changes in practice—being at last the rational reformers by whom the prevailing evils are corrected.2

And along with this attempt at a corrective influence, individual reviewers frequently made an effort to defend a poet or poem; sometimes they even appealed to the reader to reserve his judgment until he had read a poem several times.

Responsibility to the reading public seems to have been generally considered secondary to duty to the poet. Since readers turned to Reviews for information about which books were worth buying and reading, this information had to be supplied. On this account, the reviewers waged relentless war against ‘bookmaking’. Limited and expensive quarto editions were frequently attacked, as well as collections hastily and poorly thrown together and publications with little substance, eked out and padded with long notes or prefaces. Moreover, the taste of the public, as well as its wallet, had to be protected; and even more important, public morality required careful protection, as will be discussed shortly.

The reviewers realized that in order to fulfill these obligations they must possess certain qualities. Impartiality was considered one of the most important; certainly it was the virtue most often claimed. Critical liberality and flexibility were esteemed to be next in importance, though here there was the recognizable danger of falling into the traps posed by that extreme opposite from dogmatism—critical flabbiness. The Universal Magazine voiced what was probably the majority opinion on this matter in its answer to Crabbe's advice to critics (‘Spite of truth, let mercy guide your pen’): ‘This is specious reasoning: it cloathes error in the form of virtue; and would dignify, sometimes, the vices of the heart with the laurels which should be worn by the uncorrupted, and incorruptible, powers of the mind.—Mercy unrestrained by truth, and unsupported by justice, is a solemn crime against the rights of society.’3 Humility was not an uncommon element in reviews. Despite the general concept of reviewers as implacable and rule-ridden, they did not generally fill that role in their criticism, even making disarmingly frank admissions of their human fallibility on occasions.

All of their upright attitudes toward literature and criticism and their attempts at virtue were not, however, sufficient to protect the reviewers from the scorn of their contemporaries. The truth is that people do not like criticism, although they may recognize its importance and validity; criticism is in the end always a thankless task. Poets have long been recognized as irritable and peculiarly sensitive to criticism, and the Romantic poets were no exception. At least thirteen separate literary works published in the period contained some sign of disdain for criticism. In addition, ironically, individual reviewers themselves quite often expressed great scorn for their colleagues. Cant, bias, insensitivity were only some of the charges leveled at others; in fact, no later commentator, no matter how indignant, could match the reviewers in this regard. When the Romantic reviewers are evaluated, it is only fair to remember some of these irritants they had to endure.

Because attitudes toward literature have undergone such drastic changes since the Romantic period, there are other aspects of reviewing which contemporaries took for granted but which are now obstacles to a just appreciation of the Reviews: the introduction of morality, religion, politics, and ‘personality’ into literary considerations.

Moral issues would most probably cause the least discomfort now, although there is at least one example of a recent commentator who considered the raising of moral issues as mere bigotry.4 And the claim that literature is purposeless is not uncommon in critical circles. Art-for-art's-sake is a concept developed during the nineteenth century and probably would not even have been understood by the Romantic reviewers (or the Romantic poets, for that matter).5 It is worth remarking that all of the great minds in critical theory from Aristotle to Matthew Arnold were of the same mind as the reviewers. The morality of art is, in any case, still an open question.

Literature, as far as the reviewers were concerned, had a moral purpose, variously described but always present either explicitly or implicitly. Most often moral issues were raised in order to censure writers, but this was not always so. A good deal of praise was dispensed, usually of a general nature, in a situation, for example, when a work had the proper overall moral tone.

When the moral concern of the reviewers was censorious the criticism was often quite specific. Matters of sexual morality were conspicuous among such objections, although confined mainly to Byron's Beppo and Don Juan, Hazlitt's Liber Amoris, and many works of Shelley and Moore. Outright examples of prurience in poetry of the times were rare, and many reviewers were aware of this. They often insisted, however, that this only made some works more dangerous. Natural modesty might lead one to close a pornographic book—and, besides, such could be legislated against—but a work which by sheer poetic enchantment could insinuate a lax attitude toward sexual morality, especially in the young and inexperienced, was extremely dangerous.

That position, reasonable or otherwise, is not, however, an end of the matter. The phrasing of their strictures concerning sexual morality frequently becomes emotional enough to detract from their arguments, and so issues are often confused. Even worse, some reviewers showed signs of an unhealthy puritanical attitude. The Christian Observer, usually more sophisticated, announced that although sex and marriage are both God-given, ‘We cannot but look forward to that time when, in its grosser sense, “we shall neither marry nor be given in marriage, but shall be as the angels of God in heaven”’.6 There were also obtuse objections raised to kinds of subject-matter per se, particularly themes of incest; while some of the moral strictures took on a ridiculous nationalistic slant, chaste England being compared with indecent France or voluptuous Italy. Works were, moreover, sometimes proscribed only for the fair sex, who were considered often to be innocent and modest, besides being blessed with warm sensibilities which made them especially susceptible to corruptive poetry. The exclusion of dangerous works from the family circle, another form of condemnation, is not easily dismissed, since family readings were a custom of the age; and depending on the volatility of the subject-matter or the scruples and ages of those present, such warnings, at least in theory, could be legitimate.

But sexual morality, although it was raised more often than any other single issue in the reviews, was by no means the only moral issue raised. In fact, other kinds of moral objections in total, amount to more than double those made on the grounds of sexual morality. The sixth commandment had not yet taken over the field.

The dissemination of corrupting sentiments and principles was a frequent moral objection. The sympathetic representation of contempt for law and order met with such censure, as did an overly degrading view of human nature, which might lead to despair. Fatalism and ridicule of virtue were also objected to. The Eclectic Review carried on an almost single-handed campaign against the glorification of war; and others attacked works which advocated or displayed admiration for cruelty, revenge, or suicide. Presenting vicious heroes was censured on many grounds, chief of which were that vice and virtue were often confused and that dangerous sympathy was evoked for the hero's vices by token of his virtues. Trifling with sentiments, objected to so strongly in reviews of Don Juan, was vaguely regarded as immoral, presumably because the trifling led to cynicism.

Since literature was considered moral and since many works published in the period had no ostensible end other than entertainment, lack of moral purpose was a frequent point of censure. The Anti-jacobin Review gave what was probably the position of many reviewers: ‘An interesting poem, and an amusing novel, are the best channels of instruction to the general class of readers; and he who, having the ability to inform or amend others, neglects to employ [it] for that purpose, does not perform his duty to society.’7 The Horatian formula that art pleases and instructs was generally accepted, but just how the poet went about instructing his readers is not always clear. The reviewers had little use for strictly didactic poetry, but sometimes the process of instruction is considered to be as direct as is otherwise possible; that is, instruction is conveyed by stories which tell of vice punished and virtue rewarded. And yet references to poetic or dramatic justice in the reviews covered in this study amount to no more than a dozen. There were also occasional statements concerning the moral purpose of poetry which indicate a wider, more acceptable concept. The Edinburgh Monthly Review, for example, remarked ‘that for sublime and impressive moral effect, many pages of Milton and Shakspeare far transcend every thing that has been written by the semi-prosaic school of direct moral teachers …’, and the Christian Observer commented that Crabbe instructed by his close delineation of characters, which help us to discriminate in real life, as well as by ‘the perpetual recurrence, of inimitable home-strokes’, which help us to judge our own minds and motives.8

The morality of the reviewers was fundamentally Christian, and the moral strictures were not confined to the periodicals with religious affiliations. Nor was the introduction of more strictly religious matters into literary criticism, although the religiously oriented periodicals were naturally more concerned with religious issues. Such issues were raised frequently in the criticism of the period; and if the moral insistence of the reviewers is distasteful to some today, the intrusion of religion will be even more so. Some of the objections on religious grounds were indeed obtuse, while others contained intelligent arguments against irreligious theories, themselves intruded into works under review. Unless ideas are considered unimportant, silence on the part of the opposite side would be unnatural; and in any case the reviewers did consider such ideas important. They usually did not go out of their way to introduce religious issues, and it is likely that had there been no provocation, the issues would not have been raised.

The religious battle was often joined on the philosophical level, somewhere beyond particular doctrines and creeds. The pre-existence of the soul, the rejection of an afterlife, and scepticism in general were discussed, sometimes heatedly, sometimes rationally. The latter mode was not always easy; the provocations, for example, in The Revolt of Islam, were sometimes wild and irrational themselves. The Literary Register observed, ‘We think it reasonable that, in a free country, any man shall be allowed to try whatever theoretic voyage he pleases—decently; gravely, or wittily, but still decently: like a philosopher; like a man. …’ Atheism should be respected if sincere and presented with decency, ‘but if it be attempted with sneers and scoffs instead of cool assertion and argument—if our quiet belief—say prejudice—is to be insulted with mockery, and not approached with argument; if we are bandied upon our attributed weakness … fie, fie—such a course of proceeding can only arouse our loathing and our chastisement.’9

The reviewing periodicals were almost solidly Christian in outlook, but there was sectarian bickering in the reviews, attacks and defenses of Methodists, Unitarians, and Roman Catholics. There was also, nevertheless, a fairly consistent stand taken against profane use of Scripture, blasphemy, levity in the treatment of religious subjects, and anti-clericalism. The principal exception to this solid front was the Examiner, in which Leigh Hunt expounded his Universalist views.

Although on all of the above points, both philosophic and more strictly religious, there were level-headed discussions, not infrequently extreme positions were taken. Often the reviewers, especially in the periodicals with religious affiliations, would indulge in religious comments which were simply impertinent. Byron, for instance, was several times advised to read his Bible, and several writers were referred to as fiends. Such excesses are, of course, indefensible, and lowered the tone of the reviews, at least from a literary point of view. On the other hand, there were many instances of a more sophisticated attitude on religious issues, as well as attacks on the religious excesses, which were usually referred to as ‘cant’.

Religion is one topic traditionally proscribed from the drawing room; politics is another. But ‘traditionally’ must be qualified to mean since sometime after the Romantic period, for politics then pervaded almost every aspect of life. ‘Never’, recorded William Roberts in the British Review, ‘has the mind of man been so bent from its natural and ordinary state by the great events of any era as by those of the present day’, as by the French Revolution especially.10 Walter Scott in the Quarterly Review referred to politics as ‘that extensive gulph whose eddies draw every thing that is British into their vortex’.11

The Reviews, some of which were established for specifically political reasons, were at the center of that vortex. Three factions are discernible in the political life of the times and in the Reviews: the Whigs, the Tories, and the Radicals; but since the lines of distinction are often so hazy and since the Whigs and the Radicals often shared liberal attitudes in opposition to the Tories, it is more convenient to speak of the factions as two—liberal and conservative. Most of the reviewing periodicals, despite frequent claims of political independence, were aligned with either one side or the other. They were, in fact, split approximately down the middle, not in numbers—there being more conservative Reviews—but in probable degree of importance and influence. There were also a few, such as the Literary Museum, which not only claimed political independence but showed it in their political remarks.

Since, as was the case with religious issues, the writers of the period often obtruded their political views into their publications, political bias was bound sometimes to have influenced the evaluations of their works by the reviewers. It is, however, difficult to decide in most cases whether a reviewer is substituting political for literary values. Reviewers at times made such charges against each other, but in all the reviews covered the British Critic is the only Review to admit to having criticized with bias and the Quarterly Review is the only one to claim that literary considerations were subordinate to political; in neither case is it clear that reviewing policy is in question.12 Without such evidence, it is presumptuous to consider a review to be biased merely on the grounds that the author and Review belong to opposite political camps; for literary values are almost always brought forward in the literary assessment. These values must first be proven falsely applied before such an allegation is justified. Furthermore, there are a sufficient number of instances of crossing of political lines in evaluations to make one wary of too easy charges of political bigotry.

The political bias, in any case, did not, of course, all work against the poets. Members of the Cockney School, for example, received more help than hindrance from their reviewers, where prejudice was probably involved. And the existence of political bigotry was not necessarily totally undesirable. The British Critic at least found some value in it:

If one party condemn in excess, another will generally be found to praise in an equal excess; and after the first fermentation of contending opinions has a little subsided, the real truth gradually separates itself from the errors, with which it had been mixed, and becomes perhaps better and more certainly distinguishable, than by almost any other process, to which it could have been subjected. … One review is set up by men strongly biassed in favour of one system of principles; another starts in opposition to it by men as warmly favourable to the opposite; both of them, indeed, affect to speak with the authority, that belongs to the judicial office; but they are listened to as judges, only by those of their own party; the public knows well, that they are mere advocates, hired by their prejudices to plead the cause of a particular sect; and by listening to both sides, is much more likely to be put in possession of all the arguments in favour of each, than if it implicitly trusted to the impartiality, with which any single review could state them.13

Of the political observations occasioned by political elements in the works under review, some are concerned strictly with partisan politics. Such partisan remarks are usually very brief, since they were most often called forth by some slighting treatment of political figures, such as Wellington or Fox. When the work under review was a political satire, more remarks would of course be forthcoming; but if the author was not bitter and kept his satire within partisan limits, as was the case with Moore's Fudge Family in Paris, the criticism of the work was on the whole level-headed.

The introduction of dangerous political principles was something else again. Jacobinism, republicanism, attacks on monarchs and monarchy, unpatriotic censure of England or of the British army or navy, and praise of the French Revolution or Napoleon, on one side, and attacks on freedom of the press, on the other, were not strictly partisan issues. Censure of these political extremes was common to both the liberal and conservative periodicals, even though the emphasis differed. And in an age which had seen the aftermath of the French Revolution, it was only natural that concern with political principles and theories should have been intense and the censure heated. In the midst of the furor, an occasional voice could be heard appealing to the poets to exclude politics from their works.

Closely related to political bias was ‘personality’, or malicious allusions to the private lives of authors. ‘Personality’ does not, it should be pointed out, include references to an author where the author's personal make-up has in some way affected a work. Such would be a remark upon Hunt's mawkish sensibility, which is within the legitimate limits of the critic's concern. But references to Byron's lameness or to Shelley's marital problems are not.

The reviewers occasionally set forth a policy of reviewing the work and not the man, and many of them did just that. They also berated the writers themselves for unfair allusions to the private lives of fellow writers and political figures—Hazlitt and Byron were especially arraigned for this practice. And there was in fact very little ‘personality’ in the reviews. It is found mostly in Blackwood's, the Quarterly Review, and the Literary Gazette, all of which belonged to the conservative camp. The poets principally involved—Byron, Shelley, and Keats—were liberal in politics. Political animus is an obvious motive; the Literary Gazette, indeed, after mentioning that Shelley's children had been taken from him and that his first wife had committed suicide, admitted that critics should steer clear of a poet's private life, and yet added: ‘but when the most horrible doctrines are promulgated with appalling force, it is the duty of every man to expose, in every way, the abominations to which they irresistibly drive their odious professors’.14 Keats, it is worth noting with regard to ‘personality’, was not only personally maligned by Blackwood's, but had reference made to his ‘sickened and shaken body’ by Leigh Hunt in the Indicator; both personal allusions are equally out of place in criticism.15

Attendant on the political and social upheavals of the age, and perhaps to a great extent affected by them, the critical values of the reviewers were neither uniform nor well established. Sir James Macintosh, writing in the Edinburgh in 1813, called the age one in which ‘the rules of judging and the habits of feeling are unsettled’.16 The literature of the period has often been called the ‘Romantic Revolution’; and the reviewers too sometimes discussed it in such terms. This view certainly is not far from the truth, for even though there was no real break with the past, there was a great deal of experimentation in literary form and content.

Probably in part to diminish feelings of insecurity in the face of so much change, some reviewers had recourse to what were variously referred to as ‘established laws’, ‘rules of composition’, ‘models of taste’, and ‘classical authority’. Quite often these phrases occur in passing with little or no explanation. At other times, reviewers went into more detail, explaining that rules of literary criticism were in fact ascertainable from general or universal nature, from the fundamentally unchanging conditions and make-up of human nature itself. In the words of William Roberts in the British Review, such rules ‘have their foundation in nature, truth, and just sentiment’.17

In any case, explicit appeal to rules occurs in a small percentage of the reviews covered in this study. And there are almost as many pronouncements on the insufficiency of criticism which relies too heavily on rules. The New Monthly Magazine, for example, remarked that

it is not enough that the censor be acquainted with those common rules for the discussion of his subject, which have been suggested by the ablest writers of antiquity; he must have a mind pervious to the force of the ‘thoughts that breathe and words that burn’ of the poet upon whose productions he undertakes to comment—he must be alive to all those recondite excellencies which might escape the notice of an ordinary observer, and he must possess, withal, a certain sublime sense of perfection which common readers are strangers to; and which, while it enables him to detect worthlessness and deformity, affords him also equally the means of duly appreciating the beauty of loveliness.18

The Universal Magazine took the most extreme position: ‘The favourite rules of composition, hitherto received, are seldom drawn from any settled principle, or self-evident postulate; neither are they adapted to the natural and invariable constitution of things, but will be found upon examination the arbitrary edicts of legislators, authorized only by themselves. …’19 Furthermore, rejections of arguments based on precedent occur. There are a good number of appeals to experience, both to the personal experience of the reviewer (and sometimes of those with whom he has conversed) on reading a particular work, and, more important, to general experience or observation when appraising the credibility of incidents or characters in a piece of literature. Occasionally, too, readers are merely given quotations and told to judge for themselves the quality of a work.

The charge of dogmatism which has frequently been made against the reviewers most probably originates with a distaste for the overconfident tone of some of them. The reviewers, it is true, for the most part appear to have felt that they knew very well what they were about. This spirit, held within bounds, is, I believe, an asset to a critic. It was not, however, always held within reasonable bounds; Francis Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review, for example, upon the rejection of his previous advice to George Crabbe, began his review of Crabbe's next volume: ‘We are very thankful to Mr. Crabbe for these Tales; as we must always be for any thing that comes from his hands. But they are not exactly the tales which we wanted.’20

And yet the reviewers' final pronouncements, regardless of the tone of the rest of the review, are almost always qualified. Such words and phrases as ‘we think’, ‘in our opinion’, ‘perhaps’, ‘on the whole’ are fitted in somewhere in the judgments. Although admittedly they probably often fulfill a rhetorical function in the prose rhythm, there is every reason to suppose that this function is subordinate to that of qualification. That the reviewers were aware of the limitations of their pronouncements is evidenced by their use of qualifications that occasionally result in annoyingly fainthearted critiques. The Monitor summed up its criticism of Manfred: ‘With respect to the general merit of the poem, as a whole, it is perhaps the most finished of his Lordship's productions. …’21

With or without strict rules, the reviewers must necessarily have had some general notions about literature, what it is and how it comes into being. Since, however, reviewing is mainly concerned with the description and evaluation of particular works, there are but few, scattered, brief attempts at setting forth esthetic or creative theories. And yet, reviewing being what it is, there are many comments on single aspects of literature occasioned by the works under review; and these comments reveal patterns of literary thought.

There seems, for one thing, to have been a consensus that literature was either concerned directly with humanity or was concerned with nothing. The reviewers had little use for allegory; and poems which leaned far toward the wonderful, such as The Curse of Kehama and Christabel, called forth protests from the reviewers. Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review was typical in referring to human life as ‘the great centre and source of all interest in the works of human beings—to which both verse and prose invariably bring us back, when they succeed in rivetting our attention, or rousing our emotions. …’22

The criterion of reason and common sense and the demand for more thought content were also shared by most of the reviewers. These common attitudes are not surprising considering the importance which the reviewers attached to both literature and ideas. Some of the reviewers felt that they were fighting a last-ditch battle; the Monthly Review, for example, remarked, ‘The friends of Reason, we are assured, will stand or fall with her; and if she be quite extinct, why then a cheerful good night to her survivors!’23 Most were, however, content to demand clarity, or at least intelligibility, of expression and of plot. As for ideas, the reviewers had great disdain for ‘mysticism’, a term that applies to anything that is inexplicable; and if this disdain is a limitation, at least it kept the reviewers from any fuzzy attempts at explaining the inexplicable.

A few reviewers observed that, of course, good sense is not all there is to poetry, but this qualification was in reality unnecessary. None of the reviewers ever implied that good sense was sufficient; and in view of their decided concern with the role of feelings in poetry, no one would be likely to mistake their position for an extreme rationalism. The Literary Chronicle insisted that ‘true poetry … speaks to every heart …’; and Grosvenor Bedford in the Quarterly remarked, ‘If poetry has any fundamental rules but those which exhibit the feelings of the human heart, we confess that we are strangers to them.’24 Many such comments occurred, and sentiments in the works under review were almost always commented upon. Often, too, the reviewers reversed the process by describing the feeling or impression which a poem or a passage seemed to convey. Moreover, although some critics censured poems for mawkish sentiments or affectation, others, especially John Wilson, Thomas N. Talfourd, and P. G. Patmore, were themselves beginning, by the end of the second decade of the nineteenth century, to indulge in mawkish sentiments in their reviews.

Criticisms of description and imagery tended to be concerned more with feeling than with reason. Descriptions were frequently said to be either worthy of a painter's efforts or reminiscent of a particular painter (very often Salvator Rosa). When a description or visual image was considered too detailed, however, comparison was made with the Dutch School of painting, because, like the Dutch artists, the poet by too much detail left nothing for the imagination of the reader to fill in.

Flaws in diction and versification, on the other hand, were dealt with more summarily in terms of reason and experience. Coinages, quaint and obsolete expressions, foreign words, vulgarisms, and compounds, unless no word already existed in current usage to convey the same idea, were considered distractions in a work and potential corrupters of the language. Versification likewise was often censured through its connection with the thought of a poem; tetrameter, it was said, leads to prolixity and lack of thought, just as the Spenserian stanza through its complexity of rhyme leads to confused ideas, unless handled with a great deal of skill. All forms of verse, especially blank verse, were censured for prosiness, harshness, and irregularity. A favorite method of attack was to print an offensive passage as prose, a technique sometimes referred to as ‘transprosing’.

The contemporary poets often did not satisfy the critical demands of the reviewers, and yet on the whole the reviewers were favorably disposed to the literature of their times and often openly preferred it to Augustan poetry. Sometimes the claims made for contemporary poetry even got out of hand, as in the comment of the European Magazine:

The present period is rich in the master-spirits of poetry—perhaps at no time have more brilliant names adorned the poetical annals of our country than in our day—Even the age of Elizabeth, the Augustan aera of our poetry in point of number and excellence, cannot be said to have surpassed our latter times.25

Among the more important periodicals, the only exception to this generally favorable attitude was the Monthly Review, which seems to have had a fundamental lack of sympathy with the age.

Individually also the poets were well received. Most of them in fact received judgments favorable in excess of their merits, at least as those merits have been sifted by time. This is true of Southey, Scott, Byron, and Moore, as well as of the first two volumes of Keats' poetry. The reviewers did not often err in the other direction. The unfavorable reviews of Wordsworth's poetry represent the most flagrant errors committed by contemporary critics, but the errors are confined principally to critiques of the Poems in Two Volumes. Although these errors, particularly the latter, are serious enough, they are not a matter for wonder, I think, considering the problems incident to the criticism of immediately contemporary works. Furthermore, it is a mistake to evaluate such criticism, or any criticism for that matter, only in terms of its validity in the light of ultimate judgments. Criticism performs other functions, not the least of which is the protection and nurture of proper attitudes toward literature in poets and in the reading public. In an age of political and social upheaval and of literary experimentation, this function is all the more important; and the reviewers, I believe, performed it with distinction.

On many counts, the secondary Reviews provided criticism superior to that of the Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review. The Eclectic Review and the British Critic offered superior criticism of Wordsworth, the Champion and the Edinburgh Magazine of Coleridge, the Monthly Review of Scott and Shelley. Perhaps the two major Reviews were too big and influential, too concerned with their own images. Certainly, the Quarterly Review at times indulged in political bias (as in its review of Hazlitt's Round Table) and in ‘personality’ (as in its review of Shelley's The Revolt of Islam). The Edinburgh Review sinned mostly in the other direction, with Jeffrey's disingenuously favorable reviews of works of his friends: Campbell's Gertrude of Wyoming and Moore's Lalla Rookh. Blackwood's Magazine, probably the third most influential reviewing periodical of the time, was without question the worst of the critical organs; it had a record of critical irresponsibility, political bias, and personal slander.

With the policies, practices, and attitudes of the reviewers in mind, it is now time to define their place in the tradition of English literary criticism. Such a task has been attempted before, resulting in the viewpoint that the Romantic reviewers were actually eighteenth-century reactionaries, born fifty years too late and anxious to turn back the clock. Presumably, such a view has its foundation in the scattered, more famous instances of attempted repression of particular poets, especially Wordsworth and Keats. But the simple fact is that the reviewers were on the whole not only favorable toward but also proud of their contemporary literature, indicating that something is radically amiss in the abovementioned viewpoint.

Before proceeding, however, it should be remarked that the function of reviewing puts the Romantic reviewers in a separate category in the history of English literary criticism. Their job required them to describe and evaluate individual works of immediately contemporary literature. Most of the reviewers did not have the space to set forth creative and critical theories, and reviewing policies often militated against them in any case. Those writing for the quarterlies were in a more advantageous position as regards both space and policies. Even so, there could not be much theorizing of the sort that is found in such works as Coleridge's Biographia Literaria or Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.

Theories of literary criticism and creativity are often considered as falling within the limits of that much-abused term ‘criticism’; such theories, in fact, usually take precedence in histories of literary criticism. And so it is important to distinguish the critical function of the reviewers: in current parlance it would be called practical criticism. This form of criticism, which is etymologically the only one entitled to be called criticism, involves applying a set of values, either explicit or assumed, to a literary work and judging that work as it conforms to them.

The literary values of the Romantic reviewers were in general those that had come down the classical tradition from Aristotle through Horace, Dryden, and Samuel Johnson. Art was, in this traditional view, imitative and it was moral; criticism relied heavily on reason and experience. When the tradition was restated in the Renaissance, the tendency, which can be seen in Sidney's Defense of Poesy, was toward the codification of hard-and-fast rules, such as those concerning the unities. But, as Walter Jackson Bate has pointed out, English criticism in this tradition became more rather than less flexible during the eighteenth century.26 The Romantic reviewers, I believe, were an extension of that later tradition.

When commentators on the Romantic reviewers remark that they resemble literary critics of the eighteenth century, the commentators are, of course, correct, if they are referring to critics, such as Johnson, working in the same tradition. But the criticism of the reviewers also resembles the practical criticism of other critics of their own age as well. Coleridge's criticism of Wordsworth's poetry in the Biographia Literaria, for example, had for the most part been made before by the reviewers; and William Hazlitt's reviews, such as his critique of Wordsworth's Excursion in the Examiner or of Shelley's Posthumous Poems in the Edinburgh, do not differ in basic approach from those of other reviewers. They were all working in the same tradition and held in practice the same general critical presuppositions.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century in England, the late Renaissance restatement of the classical tradition in part was made by a group of critics—denominated by Bate as ‘Neoclassical Rationalists’ and typified by Thomas Rymer—who sought to evaluate literature guided by a set of strict rules. If later commentators mean to place the reviewers in such a category (and the usual implications are that they do), they are clearly wrong. For the reviewers, a century after Rymer, had no such respect for rules. If they had been rule-ridden, which of the Romantic poets would have received critical approval at their hands? And yet, as we have seen, all of them did receive such approval, even though the allotment was at times disproportionate to respective merits.

A similarity between the reviewers and Dr. Johnson has already been suggested; and the flexibility of the reviewers, their emphasis on the human in literature, their reliance on reason and experience, and their firm belief in the morality of literature would seem to augment such a similarity. There were, in fact, many more references to Johnson in the reviews than to any previous literary critic, a statistic which would imply the operation of considerable influence by Johnson on their critical thinking. And yet they did not, taken either singly or as a whole, measure up to Dr. Johnson as critics of literature; indeed, that would have been a high standard to approach. In certain respects, however, their occupation of reviewing—a special kind of criticism—perhaps required different capabilities. George Saintsbury, arguing later in the nineteenth century against the proposition that reviewers should be specialists, observed:

The perfect reviewer would be … the Platonic or pseudo-Platonic philosopher who is ‘second best in everything’, who has enough special knowledge not to miss merits or defects, and enough general knowledge to estimate the particular at, and not above, its relative value to the whole.27

That, I submit, is not an unfair description of the majority of the Romantic reviewers.


  1. BR, IX (Feb., 1817), 21.

  2. MR, XCIII (Oct., 1820), 132-33.

  3. UM, XI 25 (Jan., 1809), 44-45.

  4. William S. Ward, ‘Some Aspects of the Conservative Attitude toward Poetry in English Criticism, 1798-1820’, pp. 394-95.

  5. For the attitude of the Romantic poets to the morality of literature, see Walter Jackson Bate, From Classic to Romantic (New York: Harper, 1946), pp. 168-72; and M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), pp. 328-32.

  6. CO, XVIII (Oct., 1819), 666.

  7. AjR, XXXIV (Sept., 1809), 5.

  8. EMR, V (May, 1821), 625; CO, XVIII (Oct., 1819), 660.

  9. LitReg, Oct. 19, 1822, p. 241.

  10. BR, XII (Aug., 1818), 7.

  11. QR, XVI (Oct., 1816), 197.

  12. BC, XIV 2s Sept., 1820), 257; QR, XXI (Apr., 1819), 461.

  13. BC, VIII 2s (Nov., 1817), 468.

  14. LG, May 19, 1821, p. 305n.

  15. Indic, Aug. 9, 1820, p. 345.

  16. ER, XXII (Oct., 1813), 38.

  17. BR, VII (May, 1816), 457.

  18. NMM, XI (May, 1819), 337.

  19. UM, XVI (Aug., 1811), 126.

  20. ER, XX (Nov., 1812), 277.

  21. Monitor, I (1817), 181.

  22. ER, XXXI (Mar., 1819), 325.

  23. MR, XCIV (Feb., 1821), 162.

  24. LC, July 1, 1820, p. 421; QR, XIII (Apr., 1815), 83.

  25. EM, LXXV (May, 1819), 445.

  26. Walter Jackson Bate (ed.), Criticism: The Major Texts (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952), pp. 10-11. See also J. W. H. Atkins, English Literary Criticism: 17th and 18th Centuries (London: Methuen, 1951), pp. 356-57.

  27. George Saintsbury, Essays in English Literature 1780-1860, p. xxiv.

British Reviewing Periodicals 1802-24

AjR Antijacobin Review and Magazine (1798-1821).

BC British Critic (1793-1826).

BR British Review (1811-25).

CO Christian Observer (1802-74).

EM European Magazine and London Review (1782-1826).

EMR Edinburgh Monthly Review (1819-21).

ER Edinburgh Review (1802-1929).

Indic Indicator (1819-21).

LC Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review (1819-29).

LG Literary Gazette (1817-62).

LitReg Literary Register (1822-23).

MR Monthly Review (1749-1845).

NMM New Monthly Magazine (1814-36).

QR Quarterly Review (1809-).

UM Universal Magazine (1747-1814).

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