Literary feuds, like ideas, have consequences. After Sir Walter Scott read a disparaging review of his Marmion in the Edinburgh Review, the bard of the Borders decided that what British life needed above all was a journal that would give his works more respectful treatment and would provide a powerful antidote to the Whiggish and increasingly influential Edinburgh Review. The rest is literary and political history.
The Quarterly Review rapidly joined its great rival as one of the two most important British journals of the 19th century. With the patronage of Scott, Robert Southey, and George Canning, under the guidance of remarkable editors, and published by the respected publisher John Murray II, it soon attracted the support of many members of the Tory establishment and numbered prime ministers, senior clergy, and eminent litterateurs among its contributors. Those who wanted to inform and shape public opinion wrote for the Quarterly Review; those who wanted to understand public opinion had to read it.
The Quarterly Review’s first editor was William Gifford. Gifford was the son of a Derbyshire glazier who went briefly to sea and later served as apprentice to a cobbler. But he was fortunate enough to be talent-spotted by a local surgeon, William Cookesley, who paid for him to be released from his apprenticeship and to go to Oxford, whence he was graduated as a bachelor of arts in 1782. Gifford soon made a name for himself as a satirist, attacking Robert Merry’s Della Cruscan poets as radicals and sentimentalists in a paraphrastic poem called “The Baviad.” In 1797, he became editor of George Canning’s short-lived but effective QR precursor, the Anti-Jacobin, until it folded the following year. In 1800, he had a notorious encounter in Piccadilly with political opponent John Wolcot, who had assailed him in a work called A Cut at a Cobbler. Upon meeting, Wolcot attempted to horsewhip Gifford—only for the smaller Gifford to wrest Wolcot’s stick from him and to thrash him until he ran away.
Equally creditably, if more pacifically, in 1802, Gifford’s translation of Juvenal (still in print today) was published; he also prepared notable editions of the works of Philip Massinger and Ben Jonson. Gifford died in 1827 and was succeeded by Sir J.T. Coleridge (nephew of the poet) and Scott’s biographer (and son-in-law) John Gibson Lockhart.
During his incumbency, Gifford recruited the Irish Tory politician and polemicist John Wilson Croker (supposedly the man who coined the term Conservatives in 1830) as a regular contributor. Croker, who was secretary to the admiralty for a remarkable 20 years and apparently an admirable public servant, was one of the QR’s liveliest and least chivalrous reviewers. His archenemy, Lord Macaulay, once said that Croker was “a man who would go a hundred miles through snow and sleet on top of a coach to search a parish register and prove a man illegitimate or a woman older than she says she is.”
In some 270 QR articles, Croker attacked (among others) Macaulay, Thack-eray, Disraeli, Dumas, Rousseau, Hugo, Balzac, Sands, and, most famously, John Keats. Croker was clearly (and understandably) irritated by such lines as “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” and images such as:
Leading the way, young damsels danced along,
Bearing the burden of a shepherd song;
Each having a white wicker over brimm’d
With April’s tender younglings; next, well trimm’d
A crowd of shepherds with as sunburnt looks
As may be read of in Arcadian books.
Accordingly, he savaged Endymion mercilessly and hilariously. (Lockhart had also tossed and gored Keats in Blackwood’s Magazine.) Croker was handed a gift by Keats’ own faux-humble prefatory remarks that “The two first books, and indeed the two last, I feel sensible are not of such completion as to warrant their passing the press.”
To this Uriah Heep-ish cant, Croker inevitably added:
Thus ‘the two first books’ are, even in his own judgment, unfit to appear, and ‘the two last’ are, it seems, in the same condition—and as two and two make four, and as that is the whole number of books, we have a clear and, we believe, a very just estimate of the entire work.
Croker went on in enjoyably bitchy form,
It is not that Mr Keats, (if that be his real name, for we almost doubt that any man in his senses would put his real name to such a rhapsody,) it is not, we say, that the author has not powers of language, rays of fancy, and gleams of genius—he has all these; but he is unhappily a disciple of the new school of what has been somewhere called Cockney poetry; which may be defined to consist of the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language. . . . We should have abstained from inflicting upon him any of the tortures of the ‘farce hell’ of criticism, which terrify his imagination, if he had not begged to be spared in order that he might write more; if we had not observed in him a certain degree of talent which deserves to be put in the right way, or which, at least, ought to be warned of the wrong; and if, finally, he had not told us that he is of an age and temper which imperiously require mental discipline.
When Keats died in 1821, Shelley and Byron said that Croker was partly responsible, claiming that Keats had been “snuffed out by an article”—although Croker’s review had appeared a full three years earlier. In any case, such fine feelings did not stop Byron from allowing John Murray to publish his books.
QR reviews were by no means all carping. Apart from the positive reviews of his works that he had longed for, Scott himself contributed a positive review of a new book called Emma, written by a first-time writer from a Hampshire rectory—so launching Jane Austen onto a still grateful world.
Apart from reviews covering everything from the latest translations of the classics to economic texts and travelogues, the QR featured agenda-changing political comment. Gifford was a Canningite Tory who advocated political gradualism in many areas—opposing political reform but supporting Catholic emancipation, the gradual elimination of slavery, and the liberalizing of trade. Such a pragmatic philosophy was likely to appeal to one of the QR’s most distinguished writers, three-times prime minister Lord Salisbury.
Salisbury wrote 33 lengthy articles between 1850 and 1883, on topics ranging from America, the Conservative Party, working-class education, the monarchy, philhellenism, Poland, socialism, democracy, and the perils of “disintegration,” stopping only when his anonymity was finally compromised.
Some of these articles have become classics of their kind, such as his withering 1861 attack on democracy: “It is only in the wreck of all ideals, and the collapse of all fantastic hopes, that sober cynical Truth can make her prosaic accents heard.” In his 40-page essay on “Disintegration” (1883, his last article) can be detected the same exasperation with Irish politics that has marked more recent Conservative policy:
Possession of Ireland is our peculiar punishment, our unique affliction, among the family of nations. What crime have we committed, with what particular vice is our national character chargeable, that this chastisement should have befallen us?
Other writers included William Gladstone (while he was a Conservative MP), Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, Lord Acton, conversationalist and cultural arbiter Samuel Rogers (whose 1792 The Pleasure of Memory is often regarded as the last important example of the 18th century’s “Augustan” poetic tone), Sir John Barrow (founder of the Royal Geographical Society and author of Arctic travelogues), French conservative François Guizot, and (once) Ugo Foscolo of Jacopo Ortis fame—when he wasn’t detained at His Majesty’s Pleasure in debtors’ prison.
So the QR continued, all the way up until 1967—a highly respected but increasingly isolated voice of erudite (often very High) Toryism in a country and world more and more characterized by ultraleft thinking. Suddenly, it ceased publication, for reasons I have been unable to discover—although one can guess that it had probably been losing readers for some years. One can see why a journal such as the QR might have been considered anachronistic in the year of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and A Whiter Shade of Pale.
Yet this is not just a bittersweet reminder of a great, lost past, when at least some on the right used to be literary titans. Rather, it is notification that, 40 years since that ill-omened Summer of Love, the Quarterly Review is to be revived.
We who are behind this scheme (the chairman of the editorial board is the former Conservative member of parliament and renowned Eurosceptic, Sir Richard Body) hope that, in time, it might become as important to the 21st century as its illustrious predecessor was to the 19th.
We believe—not too naively, we hope—that, even in these days of tabloid newspapers and dumbed-down culture, there still exists a sizable constituency of British people who are interested in serious matters and high culture, and who care about the state of the world. These are not necessarily “conservatives” or “right-wingers” but include many people who would never think of themselves in those terms, yet are similarly concerned about the looming environmental disaster; social anomie and alienation; cultural decay; the challenges posed by globalization, mass immigration, and the real or potential “clash of civilizations.”
The new journal will, we hope, borrow ideas and information from across the political spectrum, and from around the world, and try to propound genuine answers to serious problems, from abortion to Zimbabwe. It will feature in-depth articles on topical subjects, as well as summaries and reviews of what we see as the most important books of the moment—intermingled with literature, philosophy, arts criticism, and news of relevant events, plus lively columns by the radically different, but equally inimitable, Taki and the Rev. John Papworth.
The aim is to bring together the wisdom of traditional conservatism with the insights of ecologists, localists, small-scale economists, and scientists—all of whose worldviews are, or could be, complementary. We want to formulate a philosophy that is purged of the callowness and callousness of some on the right, and the schmaltzy sentimentality and envy of some on the left.
The QR will give respectful treatment to both tradition and innovation, and be open to non-Western ideas and traditions—although, when necessary, it will also be an unabashed defender of the combined classical, Christian, and humanist heritage of the West.
There will always be a presumption in favor of the human-scale and personal over the large-scale and abstract—whether economies, political systems, or works of art. There will always be a sympathetic interest shown in patriotism, regionalism, and localism. There will always be a respect for what is true—or seems to be true—over what is politically expedient. Furthermore, we hope all the writing in the QR will possess a certain flamboyance as well as classical elegance—and so be worthy of its noble forerunner.
In our small way, we want to help bring about a world that is happier and greener and more civilized—a world where proud villages, towns, counties, provinces, countries, and confederations can co-exist peaceably; a world where individuals can be simultaneously self-reliant and socially interdependent; a world that is free and prosperous, yet stable and quietly idealistic.
These are, perhaps, elevated aims, yet we venture to hope that they are not unrealistic. There is a real hunger for answers and a real desire for change in our world of deceit, wishful thinking, and abysmal leadership—a need that just might be partly met by a journal conscious of a proud past yet looking hopefully toward a future that we can and must change.