Jorge Bastos da Silva

A Scottish Critique of (English) Romanticism: Aspects of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine’s “Noctes Ambrosianae”

Written by John Wilson, John Gibson Lockhart, William Maginn and other Scottish intellectuals of the time, “Noctes Ambrosianae” became a regular feature of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine between 1822 and 1835, where it operated as a welcome comic counterweight to the more serious contents of the periodical. It depicted a sort of gentleman’s club whose meeting place was William Ambrose’s tavern (hence the name) in Edinburgh. Among the members of the club were Christopher North (Wilson’s alter ego) and the Ettrick Shepherd (who stood for James Hogg). Occasional visitors included the English Opium-Eater (Thomas De Quincey). The “Noctes” were therefore humorously posed somewhere between fiction and reality.

The club met in order to discuss matters of literature, politics, painting, philosophy, and customs – as well as to eat, drink, and be merry, sometimes poking fun at its own members. Among many other topics, the group focused on the dominant literary trends of the period, satirizing the aesthetic and moral tenets of Romanticism, especially as the latter was manifest in the work of contemporary English poets. This paper intends to assess the import of this critique by characterizing its terms, by setting it in a broader context of “English bards” versus “Scots reviewers” (to borrow a phrase from Byron), and by suggesting that, if correctly historicized, this critique amounted as much to a challenging as to a contribution to the definition of Romanticism as a construct then in the making.

Jorge Bastos da Silva,University of Porto