Dear Scotland referendum

Dear Scotland. . . The Legacy of the Edinburgh Review

Wales Arts Review’s Editor, Gary Raymond, pays tribute to the ‘remarkable, and very Scottish, achievement’ of those great minds of The Edinburgh Review.


When you start something as ambitious as Wales Arts Review, you’d do well to have something to aspire to. Of course, in the land of the periodical there are many giants. In our meetings, titles such as The Paris Review, The LRB, The New York Review of Books and others, can often be heard fluttering about the place – sometimes like doves, sometimes like bats. Periodicals as we know them today have existed for around two hundred years, and it is often a useful exercise to look back at the magazine that really started it all. Eighteenth century magazines existed before the place where we come in; and they attracted big names, filled with book reviews and essays on economics and science. But they were often not very well edited, or written (Dr Johnson commented that the reviewers often spent too much time reading the books they were reviewing – tut tut!). It was with the founding of The Edinburgh Review in 1802 that the modern Review was born.

It is difficult to understand just how important The Edinburgh Review almost instantly was. When a rival was set up in London, The Quarterly, it is believed that between them they sold upward of 100,000 copies, the readership being that several fold again. Of the two, The Edinburgh, a bastion of Liberal progressive intellectualism, was by far the most respected and influential. Thomas Carlyle, perhaps the most eminent of all Victorian thinkers, wrote that it was a ‘kind of Delphic Oracle.’ It quickly became integral to British and European intellectual life. When Editor Sir Francis Jeffrey wrote a brilliant essay on the current trends of German literature (aside from steering The Edinburgh for thirty years, probably his greatest achievement), it was Goethe himself who wrote a letter of appreciation to the offices. When Carlyle spoke to his circle of friends at university in 1811-1814 (many of these letters survive entirely) the subjects up for debate, more often than not, was Scott and Byron, Napoleon and war, and The Edinburgh Review. When Wordsworth sought to secure a legacy of the financial sort for his family, it was The Edinburgh Review he was at pains to win over, and so widen his appeal, sales, and therefore monetary worth. The Edinburgh had real authority.

Edinburgh Review

Lord Francis Jeffrey by Andrew Geddes

These early days of serious, influential periodicals were times of passionate, vociferous, sometimes dangerous, politicking, and the Reviews were certainly products of their time. Nowadays there is little merit in a Review being of a particular political bias – although the writers therein should never be pinned back from giving it both barrels if they feel moved to do so. Newspapers have taken on the mantle that The Edinburgh and The Quarterly had back then – that of mouthpieces for vested political interests.

The bitter rivalry of Jeffrey’s Whiggist Edinburgh and London’s Tory Quarterly was something that was to eventually undermine his own beliefs, and, sadly, his place in history. Publications like Wales Arts Review can take lessons from Jeffrey’s mistakes as well as his triumphs.

For instance, Jeffrey was never quite so disbelieving in the quality of Wordsworth in private as he was in public. In his heart evidentially he was a literary progressive who recognised the greatness of Wordsworth, but bowed to his perceived duty as defender of the public sensibility, and made a name for himself – not a good one, as history would have it – as a vociferous enemy of the Lakeside Poets.

Jeffrey held opinions that I believe an editor of any real worth could never hold. He seemed to believe that the heart of the reviewer must be cut in two; there were to be ‘leisurely’ opinions and ‘public’ opinions. And Jeffrey’s ‘public’ opinions were certainly of the conservative view. He believed the critic was the defender of the people, the protector, not the figure who would threaten the status quo by ushering in radicalism.

But he also just didn’t like the fact about the Lakeside Poets that The Quarterly championed them. One thing an editor of a review cannot afford to have is prejudices.

But it worked both ways in Jeffrey’s case, and he perceived the genius of Keats early on, and this too was partly down to The Quarterly’s snide snobbish reaction to the work of the young visionary, a reaction that swerved from mere dismissiveness to outright vicious denunciation. Poetry was not the place of the lower-middle classes, the Tories believed, and they set their finest, foam-mouthed attack dogs onto Keats. The Quarterly denounced Keats for his ‘diction’ (by which they meant his class), and Jeffrey took this as a cue to (sincerely) champion the young genius.

Byron had a slightly more fractious relationship with The Edinburgh and although he did not take kindly to the sarcastic excoriation of his Hours of Idleness, he regarded the Scottish critic a vital commentator (he was awarded many positive reviews in the years following, mind you). Coleridge, despite barely having a good word written about him in it, noted that poetry owed The Edinburgh a great debt. It was The Edinburgh Review that satiated a British public desire for debate, for intellectual discovery, and in that service they brought forth Keats, Byron, repositioned Burns as Scotland’s national poet, and even introduced masses to Wordsworth and Coleridge. Who knows what the landscape of the early nineteenth century – so important in the lineage of modern literature – would have looked like without The Edinburgh Review at its centre?

And that is where it was: at the centre. A great Review does not skip around the edges of ‘a scene’, but, since the early 1800s, it has been integral to a culture focussed on discussion. A great Review, like The Edinburgh, (a product of Scotland’s magnificent and radical education system of the 17 and 1800s), is there to contextualise art, to bring together strands of culture and to put them into a coherent picture. Critics are not apart from ‘practitioners’ (that godawful word for artists who create art). That view is an ignorant as it is infuriating. Few great writers since the days of The Edinburgh have not spent brain power in critical non-fiction. It is part of the armoury of any literary mind. The reason that we are writers because we love and discuss literature. It is in our blood. To think a novelist and a critic are different is not only idiotic, but it ignores the history of the literary world. What great writer could possibly be cut off from the essentialness of the tapestries a great Review provides?

In the century-long life of The Edinburgh (it finally stopped printing in 1929, just as the new Scottish Renaissance of MacDiarmid et al. was in full swing), there is not a single writer of worth in Britain of the 19th and early 20th centuries who did not contribute to it as one point or another.

Looking back at the Reviews of the early nineteenth century, it is easy to appreciate the age they ushered in, rather than the periodicals themselves. Even by the 1850s, the likes of Leslie Stephen (Virginia Woolf’s father) and Walter Bagehot bemoaned in print just how myopically political these journals were, and how staid the literary essays often seemed. But The Edinburgh Review, a vibrant and open forum for intellectual debate, unimaginable borne of any other city, changed the world, set the trend for everything that came after. A remarkable, and very Scottish, achievement.