John Wilson Croker, MP, Secretary of the Admiralty, Quarterly reviewer, and (so said Shelley) assassin of John Keats, was one of the most prolific and well-connected men of letters of the Romantic era. And while he is best known for his harsh reviews of authors destined for the canon (Keats, Mary Shelley, Tennyson), he should be placed among the powerful political and periodical writers – such as Sidney Smith, Francis Jeffrey, and later, Macaulay and Carlyle – who shaped public opinion in the first half of the nineteenth century. Born in Galway in 1780, he matriculated at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1796 and graduated in 1800, the year of the Union. These were dangerous years, with Trinity troops turning out to help quell the Wolfe Tone Rebellion in 1798. Croker's own moderate Toryism was formed at this time – unlike many of his friends, he was steadfast in favour of repealing what Shelley famously called in ‘England in 1819’ ‘time's worst statute’: the restrictions on Catholic civil liberties.
As a young man just out of Trinity, Croker set up as a wit and published anonymous satires (e.g., The History of Cutchacutchoo, 1805). After his marriage in 1806 and subsequent connection with Sir Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington), he became a useful servant to the English establishment and in 1809 moved to London as first secretary of the Admiralty. This was also the year that John Murray began publishing the chief intellectual organ of the Tory party, the London Quarterly Review, and from its beginnings and until his death (1857) Croker was one of its chief contributors, and also a sort of volunteer subeditor. While best known for his conservative literary judgements – he was firmly rooted in the aesthetics of the mid-eighteenth century – the bulk of his contributions to the Quarterly were political or historical. In all he wrote (or helped to write) 250 plus articles over 45 years. While still in office, the impact of his political pieces was enhanced by his insider status, close relationships with powerful noblemen such as Wellington and Hereford, and shrewd ability to read the tides of history. Perhaps more than any other writer, by his pen he created the notion of a ‘conservative’ party that had a less reactionary front and a more forward-thinking leadership than the Tories who fought all reforms.
Croker's review of Keats's Endymion (Quarterly 1818), begins with a startling statement: ‘we shall anticipate the author's complaint, and honestly confess that we have not read his work’ (Croker 1818: 204), which did not stop him, of course, from a series of devastating (and amusing) remarks closely aligned with the ‘Cockney School’ attacks in Blackwood's Magazine. His reviews of contemporary poets, for the most part, held them up to the standards of Dryden, Pope, and Swift – and found them all wanting. He especially objected to any notions of setting up a system or theory of poetry that excluded his favourites. One passage, from his review of Leigh Hunt's Rimini in 1816, may suffice:
Mr. Hunt's First canon is that there should be a great freedom of versification – this is a proposition to which we should have readily assented; but when Mr. Hunt goes on to say that by freedom of versification he means something which neither Pope nor Johnson possessed, and of which even ‘they knew less than any poets perhaps who ever wrote,’ we check our confidence; and, after a little consideration, find that by freedom Mr. Hunt means only an inaccurate, negligent, and harsh style of versification, which our early poets fell into from want of polish, and such poets as Mr. Hunt still practise from want of ease, of expression, and of taste. (Quarterly Review, Jan. 1816: 474)
Croker's attitude towards such slashing up of Romantic poets was completely utilitarian – this sort of writing needed to be done, and was an extension of politics by a different name. It is significant that when he collected his works he only included from the periodicals eight essays treating the French Revolution (he was an expert on all of its events, a collector of documents, and an implacable hater of Napoleon). The literary work that he took pride in was historical and scholarly – including his editions of the papers of two eighteenth-century women, the courtier Lady Hervey (published 1821) and her friend and George II's mistress, Lady Suffolk (1824). Both women were central to the court and the literature of their times. It was his new edition of James Boswell's Life of Johnson (1831), however, that drew the most attention – in part because it appeared at the time he was leading the effort to halt parliamentary reform. After Croker had caught the young Thomas Babington Macaulay out in a historical gaffe during a parliamentary debate, Macaulay wrote a ferocious and famous essay on his Boswell in the Edinburgh Review. Thomas Carlyle's two-part treatment of the edition in Fraser's was more substantive – it is usually republished simply as ‘On Biography’, and contains his most important reflections on realism in art.
Croker was hardworking, highly intelligent, honest, a faithful husband, an acute critic, the convivial founder of the Athenaeum Club, a learned wine-lover – and widely disliked. Disraeli satirized him in two different novels, once under the name of ‘Stapylton Toad’; Dizzy's bon mot was that the two most disgusting things in life were Warrender's wealth and Croker's talents – because both were undeniable. In addition to partisan animosity, the sources of Croker's baleful reputation come from those who suffered his skill at behind the scenes manipulations, were offended by his forceful personality, and those who were prejudiced against his Irishness. In the Quarterly his sting was felt by both Romantic and Victorian poets; his review of Tennyson in 1833 is a masterpiece of damning by fulsome praise, and modestly notes that ‘It has been occasionally our painful lot to excite the displeasure of authors whom we have reviewed, and who have vented their dissatisfaction, some in prose, some in verse, and some in what we could not distinctly say was verse or prose’ (Quarterly Review, Apr. 1833: 95).
SEE ALSO: Hunt, Leigh, Prose; Keats, John, Prose.
- John Wilson Croker. Allen & Unwin, London. (1940)
- Review of Endymion by John Keats. Quarterly Review 19 (April), 204-208. (1818)
- Cutmore, J. (ed.) (n.d.) Quarterly Review Archive. www.rc.umd.edu/reference/qr/index.html.
- Jennings, L. J. (ed.) (1884) The Croker papers: The correspondence and diaries of… John Wilson Croker. 3 vols. London.
- Lockhart to Croker on the Quarterly. PMLA 60(1), 175-198. ; ; (1945)
- John Wilson Croker: Irish ideas and the invention of modern conservatism. Irish Academic Press, Dublin. (2010)
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