Literature in Transition


IF France held the political stage in this era, England led in literature. What, except for Chateaubriand’s prose, has France to compare with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley?—not to include Keats (1795–1821), whose masterpieces slip out of our present range. Next to the age of Elizabeth I, this was the brightest flowering in the four centuries of English poetry.

Even correspondence could then be literature, for the letters of Byron and Coleridge seem more contemporary with us than their verse. In those days, when, usually, the recipient paid the postage, he demanded substance or style for his stamp; but to receive a letter from such ebullient spirits could be a passport to life after death.

The newspapers, however, were not literature. Normally each was a sheet folded into four pages; the first and fourth of these were taken up by advertisements, the second went to politics, including a summary of yesterday’s Parliamentary doings. London had several dailies: chiefly the Times, founded in 1788, and having some five thousand purchasers; the Courier, with ten thousand; the Morning Post, organ of the Whigs, and featuring “leaders” by Coleridge; and the Examiner, voice of liberals like Leigh Hunt. County or borough centers had each its own paper, sometimes two, one for the Ins and one for the Outs. There were several weeklies, of which the most popular was William Cobbett’s Political Register. And there were several periodicals of political, social, and literary comment. The most powerful of these were the quarterly Edinburgh Review, founded in 1802 by Francis Jeffrey, Henry Brougham, and Sydney Smith*to defend progressive ideas; and the Quarterly Review, established in 1807 by John Murray, Robert Southey, and Walter Scott to plead the Tory cause.

The power of the press was a prominent element in the British scene. It was no longer a vehicle of literature as in the leisurely days of Addison and Steele; it had become an outlet for advertisers and an organ of political groups. Since the advertisers paid according to circulation, the editor and the publishers had to consider public opinion, often at the expense of the party in power; so the press lampooned the wastrel sons of the King despite all efforts of the government to shield them. Gradually, as the nineteenth century advanced, the press became an instrument, finally an indispensable constituent, of the rising democracy.

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