Feature of the Month: Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine

'On Shakspeare’s Sonnets'
In Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine
Edinburgh: W. Blackwood, 1818
[D.-L.L.] (XVII) Bc [Bacon – Appendix – Dialogue]

Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. III
Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. III

The year 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. After an unpromising beginning in April 1817 as The Edinburgh Monthly Magazine, Blackwood’s was relaunched under its new name in October, with writers including John Wilson (who was to contribute some five hundred articles over the next thirty-five years), John Gibson Lockhart, James Hogg, and William Maginn. A Tory publication which wanted to offset the increasing influence of what would be a major rival, The Edinburgh Review, Blackwood’s set out to have a wider remit, offering humour, a variety of articles, and original creative works. Founder William Blackwood (1776-1834) and his successors further pioneered the serialisation of works in the journal which the Blackwood firm subsequently published in book form. They simultaneously wanted to attract new talent. The journal’s serialised publication in 1820-21 of John Galt’s first literary success, The Ayrshire Legatees, is an early example. Later ones include Scenes of Clerical Life (George Eliot’s first published fiction), five novels by Anthony Trollope, and works by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Margaret Oliphant, and Jim Conrad among others. The magazine further played a significant role in introducing German literature to a British audience.

Whilst Senate House Library possesses a complete run of the magazine, an extract from the issue of August 1818 concerning Shakespeare’s sonnets features here. The anonymous author of the three-page article begins: ‘Shakspeare’s poems are almost all lost in the glory of his Divine Dramas’ (p. 585). He notes earlier critical condemnation of them; defends the sonnets’ excellence; and reviews opinions about the addressee, scorning George Chalmers’s opinion that the sonnets were addressed to Queen Elizabeth, and endorsing the view that the addressee was Lord Southampton. He then reproduces Wordsworth’s favourite sonnets and cites Friedrich Schlegel’s praise of the sonnets before heavily abusing the writer and painter William Hazlitt (1778-1830):

Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, August 1818 contents page
Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, August 1818 contents page

It is unlucky for Mr Hazlitt’s character as a literary man, that his own observations are uniformly very bad ones. … To him truth and falsehood are indifferent. He cannot write one syllable on any subject, unless he has an opinion before him, and then he very magnanimously and intellectually contradicts that opinion. … William Shakspeare would have been afraid to open his mouth in the company of William Hazlitt. Hear how the Cockney rates the bard of Avon! … And what may Mr. Hazlitt say of the Sonnets in which Shakspeare does speak of himself? He says, “of the Sonnets we do not well know what to say,” … a most luminous piece of philosophical criticism indeed … . This is the man whom the Edinburgh Review calls an enthusiastic and judicious lover of Shakspeare!

The invective is typical of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine’s sharp attacks and biting satire (which softened in later years), including as a target the Edinburgh Review. The reference to Hazlitt as a Cockney echoes an article series in the periodical, ‘On the Cockney School of Poetry’, which had begun by accusing Leigh Hunt of underbreeding and of moral depravity. Hazlitt appears in another article in the same issue, ‘Hazlitt Cross-Questioned’. Typical, too, is the variety of matter in the issue, with the piece about Shakespeare following a paragraph ‘On the Vertical Strata of the Isle of Wight’ and preceding one on J. Russell’s performances in the Haymarket Theatre. Further topics range from ‘On the state of Music in Edinburgh’ to ‘A Word to the Rival Huttonian and Wernerian Disputants’.

The extract featured is bound with excerpts from the June 1818 issue which include ‘Dialogue between Lord Bacon and Shakspeare’, in a slim volume which belonged to the Baconian protagonist Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence (1837-1914). The ‘Dialogue’ explains the presence of the extracts in Durning-Lawrence’s collection, among numerous books and pamphlets on the Bacon-Shakespeare authorship controversy.

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