COCKBURN'S LIFE OF JEFFREY..
LORD Commune's Life of Jeffrey will, it is to be feared, scarcely satisfy the wishes and expectations of readers out of Scotland.. The author, it is true, possesses some rare qualifications for his task. He is a shrewd judge of character ; he lived for fifty years in habits of close intimacy with his hero ; he was his sympathizing ally in politics ; himself endowed' with a rich and peculiar vein of quiet humour, he could appreciate and enjoy the brilliant fancy of the editor of the Edinburgh -Review; and his natural talents are not inadequate to the measurement of a high intellect. But, on the other hand, a kind of indolent self-indulgence, which has through life beset Lord Cockburn, has prevented him from culti- vating literature with sufficient assiduity to enable him to esti- mate deffrey's true position in the world of letters and science. His intense nationality has betrayed him into a too exclusively Edinburgh view of his subject. Deficient in the faculty of seizing and presenting characteristic traits, he has failed to place vividly before us the personal individuality of Jeffrey and his associates. Lastly, as he himself remarks, he has turned author, for the first time, at an age when "it is seldom safe for one who has never tried to write a book, to commence the attempt." The work consists of two volumes; the first of which is occu- pied by Lord Cockburn's narrative the second by a selection from jeffrey's correspondence. The latter is remarkable both for re- dundancy and omission. Much is published that ought not to have been exposed—letters to friends and relations, such as do honour to a man's heart, but which to the general public, who have not the key to them, and who, instead of perusing one at a time, have whole bushels poured out before them at once' are liable to be thought twaddling, and felt to be wearisome from their monotony. Again, much is omitted in which it is but reasonable to believe matter would have been found to enable the reader to form a more elevated and correct estimate of Jeffrey's intellectual powers. It is indeed strange, that in a collection extending over period of sixty years with the exception of a few letters addressed to Horner, Allen, and Chalmers, and one to Mal- thus, there should not be a single letter of the many he must have written to his most distinguished contemporaries and literary collaborateurs ; not even one to Brougham, Sydney Smith, James Mill, or Playfair. There are omissions equally marked in those parts of the correspondence that are given. The letters written while Jeffrey was Lord-Advocate and in Parlia- ment surely contained more than mere complaints at being de- tained from his home by uncongenial pursuits; yet the meagre extracts from them published by Lord Cockburn leave us utterly ignorant of what part their writer took in public business, or what opinions he expressed of his colleagues and adversaries—of the measures in promoting which he was engaged—of the great events which were in progress. It is possible that some of these omis- sions may be due to the difficulty of obtaining the desiderated documents, and in other eases publication at present might excite irritable and unpleasant feelings. But whatever the cause, the effect is to leave the reader in doubt whether Jeffrey was not more of a mere trifler than the world believed, or whether the suppres- sions in his correspondence are so great as to limit the means of forming a just estimate of him. The narrative in the first volume is of very unequal execution. Passages of solidexcellent writing are mingledwith others of extreme baldness. The unbroken continuity of the narrative, which is un- divided into books or chapters, renders reference for comparison or reminiscence difficult. There is a want of clearness in many parts. For example, we are told in strong but vague phrase that Jeffrey's means were extremely limited in youth, and that he -ultimately attained to affluence as well as distinction ; but none- of the-steps of the progress upwards are even indicated. There is a catalogue of Jeffrey's contributions to the Edinburgh Eeriest; with a general description of his peculiar turn of thought and style of writing ; but nothing to convey an idea of the gradual extension of his knowledge and ripening of his judgment, or the actual results of his literary labours. Again, there are sketches—for weight of matter and felicity of diction not unworthy to rank with the celebrated characters in Clarendon's History of the Great Rebel- lion—of the Erskines, Clerks, Cranstouns, and other lights of Edinburgh in Jeffrey's day ; but nothing that conveys an ade- quate notion of the form and pressure and tone of the so- ciety in which he habitually mingled, and which contributed to develop his powers and stamp them with their peculiar character. It was not to be desired that Lord Cockburn should have made himself Jeffrey's Boswell; but a little of the talent of that prince of reporters would have added a livelier interest to the work, con- veyed a more distinct, tangible, and instructive idea of the man and his associates, than is to be found in these volumes. And. Jeffrey's social circle, reinforced and diversified as it was by fre- uent visits of the most distinguished English and European lite- rary and political notabilities, deserved to have such a record of it preserved.
The summary reviews and estimates of the characters of Jeffrey and his most distinguised townsmen are by far the most valuable portions of Lord Cockburn's book. They are conceived in a spirit of judicial impartiality, and expressed in condensed and weighty diction. Did our limits allow, we might be tempted to transfer to • Life of Lord Jeffrey; with a Selection from his Correspondence. By Lord Cock-
burn. in two volumes. Published by Adam and Charles Meek, Edinburgh.
our columns the greater part of this interesting portrait-gallery. But we must confine ourselves to the central portrait of the group, the principal hero of the story. This is Lord Cockburn's candid and judicious estimate of Jeffrey.
"Ku was not so much distinguished by the predominance of any one great quality as by the union of several of the finest. Rapidity of intellect, in- stead of misleading, as it often does, was combined in him with great sound- ness; and a high condition of the reasoning powers with an active and de- lightful fancy. Though not what is termed learned, his knowledge was vari- ous • and on literature, politics, and the philosophy of life, it was deep. A taste exquisitely delicate and largely exercised, was one of the great sources of his enjoyment, and of his unmatched critical skill. But the peculiar charm of his character lay in the junction of intellectual power with moral worth. His honour was superior to every temptation by which the world could assail it. The pleasures of the heart were necessary for his existence, and were preferred by him to every other gratification, except the pleasures of conscience. Passing much of his time in literary and political contention, he was never once chilled by an unkind feeling, even towards those he was trying to overcome. An habitual gayety never allowed its thoughtlessness, nor an habitual prudence its caution, to interfere with any claim of charity, or duty. Nor was this merely the passive amiableness of a gentle disposition; it was the positive humanity of a resolute man, glowing in the conflicts of the world. "He prepared himself for what he did by judicious, early industry. He then chose the most difficult spheres in which talent can be exerted, and excelled in them all ; rising from obscurity and dependence to afliuence and renown. His splendour as an advocate was exceeded by his eminence as a judge. He was the founder of a new system of criticism, and this a higher one than had ever existed. As an editor, and as a writer, he did as much to improve his country and the world as can almost ever be done, by discussion, bya single man. He was the last of four preEminent Scotch- menrwho, living in their own country, raised its character and extended its re- putation, during the period of his career. The other three were Dugald Stewart, Walter Scott, and Thomas Chalmers ; each of whom, in literature, philosophy, or policy., caused great changes ; and each left upon his age the impression of the mind that produced them. Jeffrey, though surpassed in genius certainly by Scott, and perhaps by Chalmers, was inferior to none of them in public usefulness, or in the beauty of the means by which he
i achieved t, or in its probable duration. The elevation of the public mind was his peculiar glory. In one respect alone he was unfortunate ; the as- saults which he led against error were efforts in which the value of his per- sonal services can never be duly seen. His position required him to dissi- pate, in detailed and nameless exertions, as much philosophy and beautiful composition as would have sustained avowed and important original works. He has raised a great monument, but it is one on which his own name is too faintly engraved."
Jeffrey's moral and intellectual character is here beautifully and truly described. Wherein we are disposed to dissent from Lord Cockburn is his estimate of the kind and extent of Jeffrey's in- fluence upon the literature of his age. Lord Cockburn's desultory labours in the field of literature have left him but imperfectly ac- uainted with it, and he is consequently unqualified to pronounce " in how far Jeffrey was original, or in how far he but followed the footsteps of more original thinkers; whether he impressed his own views, convictions, and feelings, upon the mind of his age, or whether he rather followed the changing phases of that mind: Taking the facts recorded in Lord 'Cockburn's first volume and the letters contained in the second as our guide, we feel an irresistible impulse to attempt such a condensed resume of them as may em- body our notion of the man. This is done in no vain or presump- tuous spirit of rivalry : all that is offered is a view of Jeffrey taken from a different standing-place, under the influence of other asso- ciations.
There are four periods of Jeffrey's life which should be considered, first separately and then in combination, by those who would form a correct estimate of his character and capacity : his youth, from the time of his birth, in 1773, till the commencement of the .Edin- burgh Review, in 1802; his busy manhood, from the starting of the Review tin his abdication of the editorial charge, in 1829; his brief official career, till his appointment to the Bench, in 1834; and what may be learned of his old age, till his death, in 1850. The youth of Jeffrey is chiefly remarkable for the early deve- lopment of his literary ambition, and of that redundantly copious vocabulary which considerably detracted from the excellence both of his oratorical and literary splays throughout life. Much as we admire and respecttelegey, we can imagine that as a boy and lad he must have been intolerable. The appearance of forward- ness and importunity which an honestly confiding and vivacious nature imparted to him, the provincial coxcombry of his manners and address, the overweening confidence in his own powers and ac- quirements common to all ingenuous youth but revealed by him with Singular naiveté, were, it is clear from the remarks of Hor- ner and others, extremely repulsive to strangers. This is perhaps More or less the case with all lads of genius : in the full flush of young existence they are all-sufficient to their own enjoyment, unobservant of the feelings of others, and unconscious of the an- noyance given by their impetuosity. It appears that this peculi- arity excited prejudices against Jeffrey in many quarters, against which he had a severe struggle at the outset of his career.
To his connexion with the Edinburgh Review Jeffrey owes much of the reputation he enjoyed among his countrymen, and al- most all he attained beyond the limits of Scotland. At home, in- deed, he made an impression on the public mind by various means. His articles in the Review told on the reading public; his speeches in the civil and ecclesiastical courts excited a still more lively in- terest; and his conversational talents, in a wide social circle, com- pleted the charm. But in England, on the Continent, and in America, he was only known as editor of the great Review. A pardonable national vanity led his countrymen to form an exagge- rated opinion of his genius ; but, allowance being made for this exaggeration, their sense of his peculiar excellences was tolerably correct. His foreign reputation, except in so far as it was a mere reflex of the opinion of Scotland, was more wide of the mark.•
In youth, Jeffrey was an assiduous and intelligent student, but neither systematic nor profound. These characteristics adhered to him through life. He took a lively interest in every manifestation of intellect ; he read much, but in a desultory fashion; books in many departments of science and literature suggested to him brilliant and ingenious illustrations or objections, to which he gave voice in sparkling though diffuse language : but he mastered no one subject thoroughly, and in no branch of knowledge did he ever attain to dear, precise views of first principles. His criticism is rather elegant, vivacious, sparkling writing about books, than sound judgments of them. His opinions are for the most part the result of sympathy or antipathy and sentiment, rather than of rea- son. A. lively and delicate sense of the beautiful, a generous and chivalrous disposition, much benevolence, and a vivid play of fancy, impart a charm to all his observations ; but it would be diffi- cult to point out in any of his writings one original generalized truth, and his judgments were singularly vacillating and inconsistent. Had Leigh Hunt, Keats, and Carlyle, whom he lived to appreciate, crossed his path in the days when he tome
hawked Wordsworth and Southey, his estimate of them would have been very different. It was his fortune to flourish in an age which produced men of great and diversified original genius. Fox, Pitt, Brougham, Canning, as orators and statesmen—Ben- tham, Brown, Ricardo, Malthus Mill, as jurists and speculators in ethics—Scott, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Moore, as poet's—may serve as examples, not its nearly exhausting the catalogue. Jeffrey was keenly sensible of their excellences, and capable of conveying to less susceptible minds a sympathetic consciousness of the impression they made upon him. He was a highly gifted interpreter between them and the multitude. Over- flowing with vitality and intellect, he stimulated others to enjoy what gave himself such intense pleasure. He thus widened the circle of the thinking public and increased its activity. But he always followed, never guided. His literary career was one con- tinued struggle to emancipate himself from the conventionalities impressed upon him in his youth. There is scarcely one critical canon laid down in his earlier writings that he did not ulti- mately abandon. There is scarcely one political question on which he has not enunciated the most discordant views, and on which he did not remain uncertain and vacillating to the last. His ultimate judgments of his great contemporaries, always generous, are sel- dom unjust ; but there is scarcely one of them whom he did not mistake at the outset.
Jeffrey's reputation as a lawyer resembled his literary character. In no branch of the law does he appear to have been considered deeply or systematically learned. A judicial impartiality of mind, and rectitude of purpose, enabled him to form correct opinions of individual eases. A. tenacious memory enabled him to retain every precedent once presented to his notice. His ingenuity and rare fertility of illustrative fancy enabled him to lend plausibil- ity to the statements of his clients. He was eminently success- ful as a pleader, especially when he had to deal with juries, and in the criminal courts, where natural sagacity has more scope and power than before tribunals which apply complicated conventional rules to questions of property and civil obligations.
It was in social conversation that his peculiar talents were most completely brought into play. His whole being seemed instinct with thought. Ile overflowed with ingenious, delicately beauti- ful, brilliant fancies. His kindly disposition enabled him to derive pleasure and suggestions to thought from the most commonplace companions. The conversation of more gifted minds raised him to a kind of intellectual intoxication. His enjoyment gave itself vent in a lively incessant flow of delightful talk. There was fascination in watching the growth and following the bewildering rapidity of his ideas. It was this, too that imparted its principal charm to his oratory ; which was otherwise deficient in condensation, earnest simplicity of purpose, and adaptation to the general un- derstanding. Herein also consists the main attraction of his writings; though in them, owing to the absence of his vivacious personality, and to his over-copiousness of words, it is less sensibly felt. Jeffrey's genius was more akin to that of the most spirituel notorieties of the Parisian salons in the age of the Encyclopedists than to anything that has been witnessed in this country. He was seen to most advantage among the distinguished guests from all countries who crowded his house ; next, in his forensic exhibitions, where he was often most admirable in comparatively trivial cases ; his writings, excellent though they often are, convey but an inadequate idea of him. To his personal attractions and to his sterling worth it was owing, that, in contradiction to the general experience that a prophet lacks honour in his own country, his reputation was highest in his own " gude thou," and his fame, like that of great actors singers, and orators, will be found to have been greatest in his lifetime.
Jeffivy's reputation attained its culminating point while he was editor of the Edinburgh Review. His short official career was much less distinguished. The truth is, that his interest in politics was lukewarm and intermitting. It is to his honour that in his then deplorably servile country, he from the first avowed libe- ral opinions, and adhered to them undeviatingly. But his tastes were essentially literary, and he often neglected politics for years together. His provincial position, too, prevented his cultivating a close personal intimacy with the leading politicians of the age, while his fastidiousness kept him aloof from the masses with which he sympathized. He was an ornament of his party—an oe- casional assistant, not an active or even influential member of it. The wide and desultory range of his studies precluded the attain.- meat of fixed definite opinions in politics as in everything else. When he entered on his official career, therefore, it was with the unsettled views of men and measures characteristic of a recluse. He went into Parliament and undertook a department of executive administration at an advanced age, too late to acquire that taste for public life which is indispensable to success. He was too high- minded and pure to approve of all that was done by his coadjutors, and too indolent and self-indulgent to struggle against the stream. It would appear also from some hints thrown out by Lord Cock- burn, that his colleagues were rather disposed to keep him back than to afford him opportunities or encouragement to play a Rromi- neat part. The information conveyed by Lord Cockburn in his narrative, and in the selections from the correspondence, leaves much obscurity in this part of Jeffrey's life; but enough appears to show that it was on the whole a failure, and that he was pain- fully sensible of it. i It s to the closing period of his life that the remarks we have made upon the injudicious obtrusion of what ought to have been regarded as strictly confidential correspondence is chiefly applicable. There are many things most justly dear to intimate and attached friends which strangers can neither appreciate nor relish. But, to compensate for the pain occasioned by those indiscreet revelations, they serve to show that his old age, If not the most brilliant, was, notwithstanding the inroads of age and disease, perhaps the happi- est period of his life. His judicial duties were agreeable to him, and not too burdensome. He was in a condition to indulge in that observation of natural beauties, those indolent habits of de- sultory reading, and that expansion of domestic affections, which were through life the great sources of his enjoyment. Loving and beloved by all his associates, casual and intimate, he retained to the last the freshness of youthful sentiment and delighted appre- ciation of intellectual merit. His death was tranquil and beautiful, as became one so kind and honourable.
It has been our aim in this brief and imperfect retrospect to do unexaggerated justice to the excellence of Jeffrey's nature. If he did not equal the great original thinkers and robust political actors of his age, he was a worthy associate and efficient coadju- tor of the best of them. He had a lively sympathy with all that was excellent ; he was alike characterized by unwavering integrity and delicate regard for the feelings of others ; he was e_ver ready by his purse or his exertions to promote a benevo- lent object; his brilliant and fertile fancy imparted charms to every subject he treated. In exact estimate of what he did for literature could only be conveyed by a complete history of his Re- view, and the materials for that have not yet been collected.