Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Maginn, William
MAGINN, WILLIAM, LL.D. (1793–1842), poet, journalist, and miscellaneous writer, was born at Marlboro's Fort, Cork, on 10 July 1793, and was the son of a private schoolmaster in the city. His precocity in classical study was remarkable; he is alleged to have entered Trinity College, Dublin, at the age of ten; but this is impossible, as he graduated B.A. in 1811. A poem composed during his undergraduate days, and entitled ‘Æneas Eunuchus,’ is said to have attracted great attention by its boldness and eccentricity; but it does not appear whether it was in Latin or English, or whether it was circulated in manuscript or in print. Returning to Cork, he assisted his father in his school, and carried it on after the latter's death in 1813. In 1819 he obtained the degree of LL.D. at Trinity College, and began to contribute to the ‘Literary Gazette’ and ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ commencing the long list of his articles in the latter with a wretched parody of ‘Christabel,’ and continuing it with one of his cleverest performances, a rendering of ‘Chevy Chase’ into doggerel Latin verse. Contributions to both periodicals followed thick and fast, those to ‘Blackwood’ under the assumed name of R. T. Scott, and at first with no claim for remuneration. In 1821, however, he went over to Edinburgh, and introduced himself to his publisher, through whom he soon became acquainted with the leading Edinburgh literati of the tory camp. At this time he frequently adopted the signature of ‘Morgan O'Doherty,’ and most contributions with internal evidence of an Hibernian origin may be ascribed to him, though his biographer, E. V. H. Kenealy [q. v.], appears to doubt the genuiness of the greater part of the mock epic, ‘Daniel O'Rourke,’ attributed to him, a portion of which he certainly wrote. He also indited exceedingly clever poems and songs in Latin, classical and canine, attacked Byron in verse and prose, pointing out his indebtedness to Miss Lee's ‘Canterbury Tales’ for the plot and much of the language of ‘Werner,’ took Moore's style off inimitably, and perpetrated a parody of ‘Adonais’ more inept, if possible, than his previous parody of ‘Christabel.’ He has the credit of having suggested the ‘Noctes Ambrosianæ;’ the motto was certainly his selection and translation, and some of the raciest passages may be confidently ascribed to him. He also appears to have assisted Theodore Hook in the ‘John Bull,’ though the precise date and precise extent of his contributions are doubtful. These literary labours were probably not conducive to the prosperity of his school, which, if Kenealy can be trusted, he had previously conducted with success. At all events, in 1823 he made up his mind to relinquish it and try his fortune as a literary adventurer in London. He had just united himself to Ellen Cullen, described by Jerdan as an excellent woman, though she appears in a less favourable light in the biography of Letitia Elizabeth Landon [q. v.]
Maginn began his London career under brilliant auspices. His connection with ‘Blackwood’ and the ‘Literary Gazette’ recommended him to Murray, who thought for a time of entrusting him with the biography of Byron, but must soon have discovered that Maginn wanted the first qualification of a biographer, interest in his subject. He had little heart and less faculty of admiration, and himself confesses in the ‘Noctes’ that he cared nothing for Byron's poetry in comparison with his literary feuds. Maginn as biographer from this point of view was conceivable, but Murray as publisher was not, and the materials were soon withdrawn. Murray nevertheless enlisted him in his abortive journalistic enterprise, ‘The Representative,’ but Maginn, according to an anecdote related by S. C. Hall, and confirmed by an allusion in a letter from Lockhart, speedily incurred disgrace by yielding to what was becoming his besetting failing of intemperance. He was sent off to Paris as foreign correspondent, but, says Dr. Smiles, ‘proved better at borrowing money than writing articles.’ He was brought back as editor of the lighter portion of the paper at 700l. a year, and is accused of having hastened its inevitable catastrophe by imprudent paragraphs. While at Paris he had begun a novel apparently more serious and elaborate than usual with him, which David Macbeth Moir, to whom the chapters were shown by Blackwood, considered ‘full of power, originality, and interest.’ It was never completed, and appears to be lost. Returning to England, he became joint editor of the ‘Standard’ along with Dr. Stanley Lees Giffard [q. v.], a position which would have insured him a competence but for the unfortunate habits which not only destroyed his health and his means, but overstrained the forbearance and confidence of his creditors. His powers nevertheless were still unimpaired, as he proved by his irresistibly grotesque and delightfully absurd extravaganza, ‘Whitehall, or the Days of George IV,’ 1827, and a singular contrast, the dignified and impressive story of ‘The City of the Demons’ in ‘The Literary Souvenir’ for the following year. It was intended as the forerunner of a series of rabbinical tales which never appeared. Maginn's editorial connection with the ‘Standard’ does not seem to have been of long duration, and it was probably upon its termination that he formed a less reputable and more permanent one with the ‘Age,’ then edited by the notorious C. M. Westmacott.
The suspension for some unexplained reason of his contributions to ‘Blackwood’ in 1828 left him free for the most memorable of his undertakings, the establishment of ‘Fraser's Magazine’ in 1830. Having allied himself with Hugh Fraser, a clever Bohemian of the day, from whom, and not from the publisher, the magazine received its appellation, Maginn walked with his confederate into the shop of James Fraser (d. 1841) [q. v.], produced a quantity of manuscript ready for the printer, and arranged on the spot for the appearance of the periodical. The first three or four numbers were principally from Maginn's pen, but he never acted as editor. The new magazine was in the main an imitation of ‘Blackwood,’ whose characteristic features it equalled or surpassed; but the junction of Carlyle, Thackeray, and other men of genius, soon gave it an independent character, and for many years it stood decidedly at the head of English monthlies. None of its features, probably, was more generally popular than Maginn's ‘Gallery of Literary Characters,’ where his humorous letterpress, made incisive by the necessity for condensation, kept pace with Maclise's perfectly inimitable sketches, enough of caricatures to be laughable, enough of portraits to be valuable memorials of the persons depicted. Maginn wrote at his best; his parodies of Disraeli and Carlyle are especially excellent. His deliberate unfairness to political and literary adversaries passed unnoticed, if not applauded, at a time of violent excitement. ‘The Fraserians’ and the ‘Report on “Fraser's Magazine”’ were also remarkable contributions; others, though even more amusing, were founded on practical jokes which a man of refined feeling would not have permitted himself. Resuming his connection with ‘Blackwood’ in 1834, he wrote for it ‘The Story without a Tail,’ and his masterpiece in humorous fiction, ‘Bob Burke's Duel with Ensign Brady.’ In 1836 his coarse and unjustifiable attack—credibly stated to have been written in an hour in Fraser's back-parlour, ‘when the whole party were heated with wine’—upon the Hon. Grantley Berkeley's worthless novel of ‘Berkeley Castle’ led to a most brutal assault upon the publisher by the exasperated author, and to a duel between him and Maginn, in which shots were thrice exchanged without effect [see Berkeley, G. C. G. F.] The following year, 1837, is indicated by Maginn's biographers as the commencement of his decadence, when his constitution began to yield to the effects of prolonged dissipation, and his embarrassments amounted to absolute bankruptcy. His literary talent, nevertheless, for a time showed no signs of decay. Drawing upon the stores of erudition which he must have accumulated while yet at Cork, he produced about this time his mock review of Southey's ‘Doctor,’ justly described by Professor Bates as ‘a farrago of Rabelaisian wit and learning,’ and his three essays on the ‘Learning of Shakespeare,’ ‘brilliant in treatment and discursive in illustration,’ says the same critic, ‘though leaving Farmer's essay where it found it.’ The pleasantness of Maginn's disquisition is somewhat marred by his aggressive tone towards his predecessor, and the unfounded notion under which he seems to labour, that ignorance of the classics was imputed to Shakespeare as a defect. He also contributed essays on Shakespeare, as well as other articles, to ‘Bentley's Miscellany,’ the prologue to which was written by him. In 1838 he began to publish in ‘Fraser’ his ‘Homeric Ballads,’ versified episodes from the ‘Odyssey,’ whose value depends entirely upon the point of view from which they are regarded. As exercises in the ballad style of poetry they are exceedingly clever, and justify Matthew Arnold's character of them as ‘genuine poems;’ but if intended as restorations of the genuine spirit of Homer, they deserve all the withering scorn heaped upon them by the same critic as dismal perversions of the Homeric spirit. They certainly served to explode the conception of Homer as a kind of Greek ‘Blind Harry.’ If this service on Maginn's part was unintentional, it must be admitted that his notes display much scholarship and much acuteness. They were considerably abridged when the ballads were published separately in 1850, and the editor also allowed himself liberties with the text. A much more successful, though much less known experiment, followed in 1839: a series of reproductions of Lucian's Dialogues in the form of blank-verse comedies. Here the tone throughout is most felicitous, but the general effect was too refined for the average reader; and while the ‘Homeric Ballads’ have been reprinted and much discussed, the Lucianic comediettas have disappeared without leaving a trace, except Peacock's manifest imitation in his version of the ‘Querolus.’ It is even said that some were returned to him by the publisher of the magazine, a liberty which Fraser would not have presumed to take a few years before. Maginn was evidently going down. The death of L. E. Landon, over whose life he had, inadvertently or otherwise, thrown so deep a shadow [see Landon, L. E.], is said to have occasioned him intense grief. He wrote more than ever in the ‘Age’ and ‘Argus,’ compromised what little character for consistency he possessed by contributing at the same time to the radical ‘True Sun,’ and eventually gave the full measure of his political cynicism in the ‘Tobias Correspondence’ in ‘Blackwood,’ which he declared to contain ‘the whole art and mystery of editing a newspaper.’ This clever production was written while hiding from bailiffs in a garret in Wych Street. His circumstances were indeed desperate; he had broken with ‘Fraser;’ the conservatives, perhaps on account of his connection with disreputable journalism, refused to assist him by place or pension; private aid from the king of Hanover, Sir Robert Peel, Lockhart, Thackeray, and others, proved insufficient; thrown into a debtors' prison, he was compelled to obtain his discharge as an insolvent, and emerged broken-hearted and in an advanced stage of consumption. He retired to Walton-on-Thames, where he died on 21 Aug. 1842. His last moments should have been cheered by a munificent donation of 100l. from Sir Robert Peel, but there is reason to believe that this was never communicated to him. Lockhart wrote his epitaph in lines whose superficial burlesque cannot conceal their real feeling. Two years afterwards, ‘John Manesty,’ a novel of Liverpool life in the eighteenth century, was published in his name by his widow, with a dedication to Lockhart. Editorship and dedication should insure its genuineness, but it is utterly unworthy of his powers, and, though illustrated by Cruikshank, has fallen into total oblivion.
Maginn's biographers, S. C. Hall excepted, have dealt kindly with him, but his character is scarcely a more agreeable spectacle than his life. His dissipation might be forgiven, but it is not so easy to overlook the discredit he brought upon the profession of letters by his systematic want of principle, his insensibility to the courtesies and amenities of life, in a word, by the extreme debasement of his standard in everything but scholarship. Thackeray's portrait of him as ‘Captain Shandon’ in ‘Pendennis’ is probably the best which we possess; the vague encomiums of his other friends, Lockhart's epitaph excepted, seem mainly prompted by good nature. His faculties were undoubtedly extraordinary; they were those of an accomplished scholar grafted on a brilliant improvisatore, the compound constituting a perfectly ideal magazinist. Exuberant to the verge of extravagance, he could provide inexhaustible entertainment on any number of topics; his humour made the most ephemeral trifles interesting for the moment, and his learning and critical discrimination gave weight to his more serious disquisitions. His extreme facility inevitably prejudiced him as an artist. He has left only two works of imagination perfect in their respective styles: ‘The City of the Demons,’ and ‘Bob Burke's Duel with Ensign Brady,’ perhaps the raciest Irish story ever written. Half a dozen more like it would have won him a high reputation. Some of his critical papers are valuable; in others, such as that on ‘Lady Macbeth,’ he seems inspired by the spirit of paradox; ‘O'Doherty's Maxims’ are a piquant parody of Rochefoucauld; but he will probably be best remembered by the ‘Gallery of Literary Characters’ as republished by Professor Bates, where Maginn's sarcastic personalities, Maclise's pictorial mastery, and the editor's genial erudition combine to make ‘the threefold cord that is not soon broken.’ His ‘Miscellanies’ were edited in five volumes by Dr. Shelton Mackenzie, New York, 1855–1857, and a selection in two volumes was edited by R. W. Montagu, London, 1885.