Recent Poems and Plays

John Nichol

General Description

Date: 1856
Genre: Review


◦ Georgiana Burne–Jones, Memorials.

◦ Gordon, “Oxford and Cambridge Magazine”.

◦ Houghton, The Wellesley Index, pp. 723-731.

◦ “John Nichol.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

◦ Mackail, J. W. Life of William Morris .

Scholarly Commentary

Guest Editor: PC Fleming


This review of Sydney Dobell’s “England in the Time of War” and George MacDonald’s “Within and Without” is by John Nichol (1833-1894). It was his only contribution to The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. Nichol was a well-known scholar later in his life, and a friend of Swinburne’s. He published books on Byron, Carlyle, and Bacon, among others.

Nichol was at Oxford with Morris and Burne-Jones, but was not a member of their “set”. Neither Mackail nor Georgiana Burne-Jones mentions him at all, nor does Walter Gordon in his critical edition of the Magazine; he attributes this essay to Georgiana. The Wellesley Index corrects the error, citing as primary evidence the fact that this essay was reprinted in an 1860 collection of Nichol’s essays (731).

It was in the December issue that the entries in the magazine were categorized as either essays, poems, tales, or notices of books, and the latter is by far the smallest category, with only six entries (two by Heeley.) Though there were two published in the January issue, there were none between July and November. This makes it all the more surprising that this essay, Nichol’s first and only contribution, would be categorized as a notice, rather than an essay. His is the only work in this category to discuss two works, by different authors, and he is more critical of his subjects than the other reviewers in the Magazine. His review is generally positive, but the amount of negative criticism is surprising, given the other reviews in the Magazine and Cormell Price’s statement in his diary that he, Burne-Jones, and Morris had agreed in 1855 “there is to be no shewing off, no quips, no sneers, no lampooning in our Magazine” (Mackail 81).

Nichol begins by lamenting the number of bad plays recently produced, then proceeds to point out the defects of Dobell’s early books; of “Balder”, he says “We close the book with a feeling of fatigue, and think we would rather have [Burns or Browning], than the whole mass of it.” But if he is critical of Dobell’s earlier books, he admires the volume he is reviewing, “England in Time of War.” He praises Dobell for eschewing politics in his poetry, and for reducing the affectation and “wild ejaculation” that detracted from his earlier works. Still, Nichol faults Dobell for occasional “false expression and absurd application,” and although the review is on the whole favorable, such criticisms set this essay apart from the other essays in the Magazine, which are always laudatory, and whose praise is generally untapered.

Nichol was acquainted with Dobell before this essay was published. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography dates the beginning of their friendship to 1854, when Nichol was editing the Glasgow University Album. He would later write the introductions to his Poems (1875) and Thoughts on Art, Philosophy and Religion (1876).

In reviewing MacDonald’s work, Nichol praises him for his portrayal of the characters, claiming that although it is a dramatic monologue, not a drama, it does have the rudiments necessary for a stage play. Nichol is not so hard on MacDonald as he is on Dobell, and he spends most of the essay summarizing the plot of “Within and Without,” which he praises as a “grand sermon on the abundantly sustaining power of confidence in one Omnipotent.” But his praise is still not entirely free from criticism, and he can’t resist faulting MacDonald for his over-refinement of imagery that would have better been left to the reader’s imagination.

Printing History

First printed in The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine , December, 1856.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: Nichol001.raw.xml