Tim Webb, ‘A Great theatre of outrage and disorder’: Figuring Ireland in the Edinburgh Review (1802-09).

Irish-subject reviews in the Edinburgh Review during the first decade of the Union incl. Alexander Murray on Vallancey’s Prospectus for an Irish Dictionary (April 1803); Sydney Smith, review of Edgeworths’ Essay on Irish Bulls (July 1803) and Parnell’s Historical Apology for the Irish Catholics (July 1807), Parnell’s History of the Popery Laws [pamph.] (Octo. 1808); ; [James Loch], review of Plowden’s History of Ireland (Oct. 1804); R. L. and Maria Edgeworth [attrib.], review of Carr’s Stranger in Ireland (April 1807); Macvey Napier, review of Gordon’s History of Ireland (April 1807), Dr. Milner … the Cahtolics of Ireland (April 1809); &c.

Life of Dermody, reviewed by Francis Jeffrey, Edinburgh Review, April 1806; James Barry, reviewed by Richard Payne Knight, in Edinburgh Review, Aug. 1810; Lord Charlemont, reviewed by Francis Jeffrey, in Edinburgh Review, Nov. 1811; J. P. Curran, reviewed by Francis Jeffery, in Edinburgh Review, March 1820; R. L. Edgeworth, reviewed by Francis Jeffrey, in Edinburgh Review, Aug. 1820; R. B. Sheridan, revieweed by Francis Jeffery, in Edinburgh Review, Dec. 1826; Speeches of Curran, reviewed by Francis Jeffrey, in Edinburgh Review, Oct. 1808; Speeches of Grattan, reviewed by Henry Brougham, in Edinburgh Review, Feb. 1823; Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer [reviewed by Francis Jeffrey], in Edinburgh Review, July 1821, and severely criticised for exhibiting a ‘peculiar tendency’ to the ‘gaudy and ornate style’ common among Irish writers and called a ‘national peculiarity’ which had damaged Moore;

Sydney Smyth reviewed Moore’s Captain Rock in Edinburgh Review, Oct. 1824;

Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh deals with Irish politics under the form of allegory in ‘The Fire-Worshippers’ section. Moore himself wrote on the awakening of the Irish novel, though without any attention to Sydney Owenson.

William Hazlitt, reviewing Sydney Owenson’s The Life and Times of Salvator Rosa, in Edinburgh Review, July 1824, admits that he was ‘not among her devoted admirers’ but deplores the ‘unjust … disgusting and disgraceful’ abuse heaped on her by the Tory journals (40, p316.)

James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill, reviewed Arthur Young’s Tour in Edinburgh Review, July 1813 (vol. 21, p.354), and quoted: ‘Landlords of consequence have sssured me, that many of these cotters would think themselves honoured by having their wives or daughters sent to the bed of their master; a mark of slavery that proves the oppression under whch such people must live. Nay, I have heard anecdotes of the lives of people being made free wth, without any apprehension of the justice of a jury.’

Quotes James Macintosh: ‘The exclusion of the Catholics from the privileges of the constitution is a fact of a very peculiar nature, and extremely different from the precautions which have been adopted in other countries by predominant sects, to secure their monopoly of profit and power. It is not to be discussed solely on the general principles of religious liberty. It was not directed against a sect - it was directed against a nation. It was the proscription of a people, under the name of a religion. It was first pronounced by a conquering colony against a conquered nation. It long preceded that religious distinction which is now its outward sign.’ (July 1813; vol. 21, p.363.)

Of the ‘the utter expulsion of the ancient lords of the soil’ after the ‘total conquests’ of Cromwell and William III, Macintosh writes that these events left ‘a mixture of contempot and hatred in the minds of the governing faction, and of hatred and fear in those of the governed, scarcely to be paralleled in any other region of the globe, unless perhaps in a West Indian island, immediately after the suppression of a revolt of slaves.’

Further, of the penal laws: ‘It is the outward visible sign of the evil spirit. It is like th eoperation of colour in those climates where importance and power are determined by complexiion and where the slightest tinge of the degraded colour excludes a man from the privileged caste as effectually as the sablest hue. If the remaining disabilities were in themselves less important than they were, they would still be hideous scars left by paoinful and disgraceful wounds. They constitute a principle of hostile distinction between a conquered and an enslaved race. They are the badges of six hundred years tyranny in th eone, and the brand of six hundred years slavery in the other.’ (Ibid., p.365.)

Sydney Smith wrote: ‘The Irish character contributes something to retard the improvements of that country. The Irishmen has many good qualities. He is brave, witty, generous, eloquent, hospitable, and open-hearted; but he is vain, ostentatious, extravagant, and fond of display - light in counsel - deficient in perseverance - without skil in private or public economy - an enjoyer, not an acquirer - one who despises the slow and patient virtues - who wants the superstructure without the foundation - the result without the previous operation - the oak without the acorn and three hundred years of expectation. The Irish are irascible, prone to debt, and to fight, and very impatient of the restraints of law. Such a people are not likely to keep their eyes steadily upon the main chance, like the Scotch or the Dutch.’ (May 1820; 34, p.335.)

‘Sydney Smith, reviewing of Edgeworths’ Essay on Irish Bulls (July 1803), is ‘unconvinced by the claims for a distinctively Irish imagination [but] provides a ntoable definition of the mental operations involved in the bull and concludes by commending the book’s “lively feeling of compassion … for the distresses of the wilde, kind-hearted, blundering poor of Ireland”.’ (July 1803; 2, p.402.)

Webb notes that review of Carr’s Stranger in Ireland in Edinburgh Review (April 1807) normally attributed to R. L. and Maria Edgeworth incls. clear praise of Scottish education as an example to Ireland which suggests another hand.

Francis Jeffrey writes at some extent about Irish style and language:

Jeffrey: “There is something very peculiar, and very well worth attending to, in the character of Irish eloquence. More vehement, and figured and poetical than any that is now atempted in this country, it aims almost always at dazzling the imaginatino, or enflaming the passions at least, as much as at enlightening the understanding. On almost every subject, it aspires at being pathetic or magnificent; and, while it adorns what is grand, or kindles what is interesting with the rays of its genius, is apt to involve in the redundant veil of its imagery, what is either too low or too simple to become such a drapery. Being the natural language of fearless genius and impassioned feeling, it will not always be found to express judicious sentiments or correct reasoning; but will generally lead to lofty principles, and glmipses of great theory. It is sometimes coarse, and frequently noisy and redundant; but it has usually strength in its coarseness; and, for the most part, fancy if not reason in its extravagance. Though the design and the drawing may frequently be faulty, the colouring is always brilliant, and the expression, for the most part, original and powerful.” (Oct. 1808; 13, 136).

‘In Jeffrey”s view this style had been “defiled” and had degenerated. The case of Curran provided a vivid example of how even its virtues may become dangerous both to the individual and to the larger national discourse which it may influence and corrupt. Milton, Bacon and Taylor did not allow themselves such rhetorical self-indulgence. There “[i]s fancy and figure enough certainly in their compositions, but there is no intoxication of the fancy, and no rioting and revelling among figures - no ungoverned and ungovernable impulse - no fond dalliance with metaphors - no mad and headlong pursuit of brilliant images and passionate expressions - no lingering among tropes and melodies - no giddy bandying of antitheses and allusions - no craving, in short, for perpetual glitter, and panting after effect, till both speaker and hearer are lost in the splendid confusion, and the argument evaporates in the heat which was meant to enforce it” (May 1820; 33, 297)’.

On Melmoth the Wanderer: ‘Their genius runs riot in the wantonness of its own uncontrolled exuberance; - their imagination, disdaining the restraint of judgment, imparts to their literature the characteristics of a nation in one of the earlier stages of civilization and refinement. The florid imagery, gorgeous diction, and Oriental hyperboles, which possess a sort of wild propriety in the vehement sallies of Antar the Bedoween chieftain of the twelfth century, become cold extravagance and floundering fustian in the mouth of a barrister of the present age; and we question whether any but a native of the sister island would have ventured upon the experiment of their adoption.’ (Edinburgh Review, July 1821; 35, 356). Webb remarks: ‘The surprising reference to “a barrister of the present age” reveals clearly that, in the Judgment of the reviewer, the shortcomings of Maturin were also those of contemporary Irish lawyers such as Phillips and Curran.’

Further, ‘This “splendid vice” (146) was identified by other reviewers including Thomas Moore (himself one of Jeffrey”s targets) who diagnosed in February 1826 that “superfinery of phrase and thought, to which the Irish […]but too much addicted” (369). In a suggestive formulation, Moore claimed that there was “a continual phosphorescent sparkling of Wit and humour going on” (359). The image reminds one of Jeffrey’s reviews of Moore’s own poetry and suggests that, here as elsewhere, the process of definition went forward by way of antithesis and comparison. The Irish, the argument went, were much like the English and could be appropriately instructed or, if necessary, tamed and conciliated; and yet, as these responses suggest, they could also be charmingly, if sometimes frighteningly and unmanageably, different.

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