The fame of a review, however, does not always depend on merit. The scandalous attacks on the Cockney school, for example, were neither good literature nor honest criticism. We still pause in wonder before the streams of virulent personal abuse and unbridled licence in temper which disgrace the early pages of volumes we now associate with sound and dignified, if somewhat conventional, utterances on the art of Literature as viewed from the table-land of authority. And, as inevitably the most famous reviews are those which attend the birth of genius, we must include more respectable errors of judgment, if we find also several remarkable appreciations which prove singular insight.
Following the “early” reviews, whether distinguished for culpable blindness, private hostility, or rare sympathy, we must depend for our second main source of material upon that fortunate combination of circumstances when one of the mighty has been invited to pass judgment upon his peers. When Scott notices Jane Austen, Macaulay James Boswell, Gladstone and John Stuart Mill Lord Tennyson, the article acquires a double value from author and subject. Curiously enough, as it would seem to us in these days of advertisement, many such treasures of criticism were published anonymously; and accident has often aided research in the discovery of their authorship. It is only too probable that more were written than we have yet on record.
In reviewing, as elsewhere, the growth of professionalism has tended to level the quality of work. The mass of thoroughly competent criticism issued to-day has raised enormously the general tone of the press; but genuine men of letters are seldom employed to welcome, or stifle, a newcomer; though Meredith, and more frequently Swinburne, have on occasion elected to pronounce judgment upon the passing generation; as Mrs. Meynell or Mr. G.K. Chesterton have sometimes said the right thing about their contemporaries. The days when postcard notices from Gladstone secured a record in sales are over; and, from whatever combination of causes, we hear no more of famous reviews.
R. BRIMLEY JOHNSON.
It is with regret that I have found it impossible to print more than a few of the following reviews complete. The writing of those days was, in almost every case, extremely prolix, and often irrelevant. It nearly always makes heavy reading in the originals. The principle of selection adopted is to retain the most pithy, and attractive, portion of each article: omitting quotations and the discussion of particular passages. It therefore becomes necessary to remark—in justice to the writers—that most of the criticisms here quoted were accompanied by references to what was regarded by the reviewer as evidence supporting them. Most of the authors, or books, noticed however, are sufficiently well known for the reader to have no difficulty in judging for himself.
R. B. J.