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Vol. 2 No. 1 · 24 January 1980

Sound Advice for Scotch Reviewers

Karl Miller

The manuscripts of Henry Cockburn’s letters have been gathered together in the National Library of Scotland, where they cry out for a collected edition. When such an edition appears, they cannot fail to be recognised as a masterpiece of Scottish literature. I came, while engaged in writing a book about Cockburn, to love his letters, and I have even managed to love those which turned up too late for consideration in the book. A further letter has now arrived in the Library, from Canada.

It was addressed, on a bright spring Sunday, the fourth of March 1810, to the poet James Grahame, who had attained an early fame as the author of pastoral meditations, such as The Sabbath, and who had now brought out his British Georgics. This Scotsman had become an Anglican curate, whose cure lay in the ‘foreign land’, as Cockburn puts it, of South Britain, near Bath. Large-featured, long-faced, Grahame was given to fits of Whig conscience, and of ‘indolence’ and drink. He was someone who needed cheering up, and this Cockburn’s letters try to do, pointing him, for example, towards the consolations of the religion he professed, and of the role of priest. Here Cockburn tells him whether his Georgics will be well, in the sense of favourably, reviewed in the Edinburgh Review, and what it is to contribute to this anonymous publication. With Cockburn’s friend Francis Jeffrey as editor, the journal had been running for almost ten years as an instrument of the Whig persuasion, and was to run on as such into a future that held the Parliamentary triumph of 1832, when the Reform Bill was passed, with Cockburn and Jeffrey responsible for the consequential Scottish measures.

The letter plays out a comedy of the literary life. Reviewing is spoken of as a peculiar art – it was also a comparatively recent one – with Jeffrey as its great dictator. Jeffrey’s dictates, the idiosyncrasies of his editorial practice, and of that of his age, were to be highly influential for the journalism of times to come, for the politico-cultural weekly of modern times, in particular, with its front and back halves. Grahame’s apprehensions and aspirations, and the abrasive comfort dispensed by Cockburn, do not relate, in other words, to a literary world that has now completely gone. Anonymity – what Cockburn was to call ‘concealed authorship’ – helped Jeffrey to create propaganda for Whig Reform, and to ride his two horses of politics and letters – an act that was to become more difficult for many of his successors in literary journalism. Jeffrey rode his horses under cover of darkness – while benefiting from the fact that the authorship of certain pieces could be known, and could attract a blaze of publicity – and he rode them on a tight rein. It may be supposed, however, that, for reasons of friendship and for the sake of both of the friends in question, Cockburn’s letter describes Jeffrey’s editorial methods as more fearsomely authoritarian than they really were. Contributing to this quarterly can hardly have been quite as subversive of human self-esteem as Cockburn warns.

When, in the course of the 19th century, secrecy was abolished for most areas of literary journalism, Jeffrey’s degree of dictatorial rewriting did not die out, and a folk wisdom has persisted to the effect that reviewers write to order, at the behest of a Jeffrey, who tells them what to say and ghosts their reviews. But the old enmity between politics and letters grew harder to conceal, in journals of the binary kind, when signatures supervened. Eventually there arose the phenomenon of the well-known bulges and cross-purposes on the part of the New Statesman ‘pantomime horse’ – not much in evidence there, admittedly, at the present time. The problem constituted by the rival needs of literature and politics has long been familiar to modern editors. John Dunn writes about it elsewhere in this issue of the London Review of Books. The present New Statesman has dealt with it by seeming never to have heard of it. It is a problem which, in certain of its relations, may be thought to have been new to the world when Francis Jeffrey drove the dark horses of the Edinburgh Review.

Cockburn refers in the letter to a number of acquaintances, some of them prominent, such as the jurist George Joseph Bell and the scientist Sir David Brewster, and some of them obscure. Close friends used to forgather with him at the house of Woodhall in the lea of the Pentland Hills, where the letter was written. The house was that of the philanthropic Miss Hills, and its frequenters made up a circle of men and women of feeling, Whig romantics, who compiled a commonplace-book of favourite poems – a collection which flew in the face of the inimical Edinburgh Review by honouring, and strongly displaying, the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge. The letter catches the secret spirit of Woodhall, as Cockburn might have been willing to express it, and allows one to see them ensconced in their communal solitude – retired from the town in search of nature and romance, patrolling their hills, or sitting out the Sabbath, ‘each with his or her own book’.

It is a little constrained by its instructional content, by the tact of the consoler. But it has flashes of Cockburn’s best epistolary performance – in the account of the child’s ordeal in the rat-trap, and the verdict passed on Walter Scott’s copious narrative verse. ‘I know no poet who has committed such suicide as Watty’ – the words deliver us back into the past as in some time-warp. Poor Grahame’s ‘worthy lungs’ were not to last much longer: having escaped from his damp English church, he was soon beyond the reach of consolation and ‘cordials’, and of sound advice as to how he might become a Scotch reviewer.

When Grahame’s Georgics were noticed in the Edinburgh Review, Jeffrey was as good as Cockburn’s word: in more ways than one, the notice was fairly favourable. It begins by aspersing the poetry of instruction, and proceeds: ‘The poem before us, we fear, will not take away this reproach of the Didactic Muse; and may indeed be divided, more certainly and commodiously than most of its family, into the two great compartments of the legible and the illegible.’ Jeffrey had on a previous occasion consigned no less a poem than Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality’ Ode to the compartment of the illegible. Here he conveys that it isn’t the unsoundness of the ‘agricultural precepts’ he objects to, as the letter might lead one to think, but the fact that they have been put into a poem, and are ‘as dull and prosaic as any precepts we ever met with’. But Jeffrey praises the passages of description. For the sake of these, ‘we must pardon Mr Grahame, we believe, for his bucolic lectures – his scraps, half versified, from the Farmer’s Magazine, and all his dullness about drains, fences, and manures.’ He is kind to Grahame’s ‘softness of heart’, and sincerity. ‘We do love him in our hearts, we are afraid, for speaking so affectionately of Scotland,’ whose rustics are ‘less brutish than the great body of the English peasantry’. What was Jeffrey ‘afraid’ of, in giving his opinion? What did he ‘fear’? Grahame was an early and intimate North British friend of his, whose deficiencies might possibly have been experienced as a threat, as mildly contagious. In this respect, the poet was not altogether unlike his own damp church.

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