Francis Jeffrey Jeffrey.

Selections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey online

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which human pride and vanity have established in the
world, and a mingled scorn and compassion for the lofty
pretensions under which men so often disguise the noth-

15 ingness of their chosen occupations. When the many-
coloured scene of life, with all its petty agitations, its
shifting pomps, and perishable passions, is surveyed by
one who does not mix in its business, it is impossible
that it should not appear a very pitiable and almost

20 ridiculous affair ; or that the heart should not echo

back the brief and emphatic exclamation of the mighty

dramatist —

" Life's a poor player,

Who frets and struts his hour upon the stage,
25 And then is heard no more ! " —

Or the more sarcastic amplification of it, in the words
of our great moral poet —

" Behold the Child, by Nature's kindly law,
Pleas'd with a rattle, tickl'd with a straw !

30 Some livelier plaything gives our Youth delight,

A little louder, but as empty quite :
Scarfs, garters, gold our riper years engage ;
And beads and prayer-books are the toys of Age !
Pleas'd with this bauble still as that before, ,

35 Till tir'd we sleep — and Life' s poor play is o'er f''


This is the more solemn view of the subject : — But
the first fruits of observation are most commonly found
to issue in Satire — the unmasking the vain pretenders to
wisdom, and worth, and happiness, wdth whom society is
infested, and holding up to the derision of mankind those 5
meannesses of the great, those miseries of the fortunate,
and those

" Fears of the brave, and follies of the wise,"

which the eye of a dispassionate observer so quickly
detects under the glittering exterior by which they would 10
fain be disguised — and which bring pretty much to a
level the intellect, and morals, and enjoyments, of the
great mass of mankind.

This misanthropic end has unquestionably been by far
the most common result of a habit of observation ; and 15
that in which its effects have most generally terminated :
Yet we cannot bring ourselves to think that it is their
just or natural termination. Something, no doubt, will
depend on the temper of the individual, and the propor-
tions in which the gall and the milk of human kindness 20
have been originally mingled in his composition, — Yet
satirists, we think, have not in general been ill-natured
persons — and we are inclined rather to ascribe this
limited and uncharitable application of their powers of
observation to their love of fame and popularity, — which 25
are well known to be best secured bv successful ridicule
or invective — or, quite as probably, indeed, to the
narrowness and insufficiency of the observations them-
selves, and the imperfection of their talents for their due
conduct and extension. It is certain, at least, we think, 3°
that the satirist makes use of but half the discoveries of
the observer ; and teaches but half — the worser half-
of the lessons which may be deduced from his occupa-


tion. He puts down, indeed, the proud pretensions of
the great and arrogant, and levels the vain distinctions
which human ambition has established among the
brethren of mankind ; he

S " Bares the mean heart that lurks beneath a Star,"

— and destroys the illusions which would limit our
sympathy to the forward and figuring persons of this
world — the favourites of fame and fortune. But the
true result of observation should be, not so much to cast

10 down the proud, as to raise up the lowly ; — not so
much to diminish our sympathy with the powerful and
renowned, as to extend it to all, who, in humbler condi-
tions, have the same, or still higher claims on our esteem
or affection. — It is not surely the natural consequence

15 of learning to judge truly of the characters of men, that
we should despise or be indifferent about them all ; —
and, though we have learned to see through the false
glare which plays round the envied summits of existence,
and to know how little dignity, or happiness, or worth, or

20 wisdom, may sometimes belong to the possessors of
power, and fortune, and learning and renown, — it does
not follow, by any means, that we should look upon the
whole of human life as a mere deceit and imposture
or think the concerns of our species fit subjects only

25 for scorn and derision. Our promptitude to admire and
to envy will indeed be corrected, our enthusiasm abated,
and our distrust of appearances increased ; — but the
sympathies and affections of our nature will continue, and
be better directed — our love of our kind will not be

30 diminished — and our indulgence for their faults and
follies, if we read our lesson aright, will be signally
strengthened and confirmed. The true and proper effect,
therefore, of a habit of observation, and a thorough and


penetrating knowledge of human character, will be, not
to extinguish our sympathy, but to extend it — to turn,
no doubt, many a throb of admiration, and many a sigh
of love into a smile of derison or of pity ; but at the
same time to reveal much that commands our homage 5
and excites our affection, in those humble and unexplored
regions. of the heart and understanding, which never
engage the attention of the incurious, — and to bring the
whole family of mankind nearer to a level, by finding out
latent merits as well as latent defects in all its members, 10
and compensating the flaws that are detected in the
boasted ornaments of life, by bringing to light the rich-
ness and the lustre that sleep in the mines beneath its

We are afraid some of our readers may not at once 15
perceive the application of these profound remarks to
the subject immediately before us. But there are others,
we doubt not, who do not need to be told that they are
intended to explain how Mr. Crabbe, and other persons
with the same gift of observation, should so often busy 20
themselves with what may be considered as low and
vulgar character ; and, declining all dealings with heroes
and heroic topics, should not only venture to seek for an
interest in the concerns of ordinary mortals, but actually
intersperse small pieces of ridicule with their undignified 25
pathos, and endeavour to make their readers look on their
book with the same mingled feelings of compassion and
amusement, with which — unnatural as it may appear to
the readers of poetry — they, and all judicious observers,
actually look upon human life and human nature. — This, 30
we are persuaded, is the true key to the greater part of
the peculiarities of the author before us ; and though we
have disserted upon it a little longer than was necessary,
we really think it may enable our readers to comprehend


him, and our remarks on him, something better than they
could have done without it.

There is, as everybody must have felt, a strange satire
and sympathy in all his productions — a great kindliness
5 and compassion for the errors and sufferings of our poor
human nature, but a strong distrust of its heroic virtues
and high pretensions. His heart is always open to pity,
and all the milder emotions — but there is little aspira-
tion after the grand and sublime of character, nor very

lo much encouragement for raptures and ecstasies of any
description. These, he seems to think, are things rather
too fine for the said poor human nature : and that, in our
low and erring condition, it is a little ridiculous to pre-
tend, either to very exalted and immaculate virtue, or

15 very pure and exquisite happiness. He not only never
meddles, therefore, with the delicate distresses and noble
fires of the heroes and heroines of tragic and epic fable,
but may generally be detected indulging in a lurking
sneer at the pomp and vanity of all such superfine

20 imaginations — and turning from them, to draw men in
their true postures and dimensions, and with all the
imperfections that actually belong to their condition: —
the prosperous and happy overshadowed with passing
clouds of eimui^ and disturbed with little flaws of bad

25 humour and discontent — the great and wise beset at
times with strange weaknesses and meannesses and
paltry vexations — and even the most virtuous and
enlightened falling far below the standard of poetical
perfection — and stooping every now and then to paltry

30 jealousies and prejudices — or sinking into shabby sensu-
alities — or meditating on their own excellence and
importance, with a ludicrous and lamentable anxiety.

This is one side of the picture ; and characterises
sufficiently the satirical vein of our author : But the other


is the most extensive and important. In rejecting the
vulgar sources of interest in poetical narratives, and
reducing his ideal persons to the standard of reality,
Mr, C. does by no means seek to extinguish the sparks
of human sympathy within us, or to throw any damp on 5
the curiosity with which we naturally explore the char-
acters of each other. On the contrary, he has afforded
new and more wholesome food for all those propensities
— and, by placing before us those details which our
pride or fastidiousness is so apt to overlook, has dis- 10
closed, in all their truth and simplicity, the native and
unadulterated workings of those affections which are at
the bottom of all social interest, and are really rendered
less touching by the exaggerations of more ambitious
artists — while he exhibits, with admirable force and 15
endless variety, all those combinations of passions and
opinions, and all that cross-play of selfishness and
vanity, and indolence and ambition, and habit and
reason, which make up the intellectual character of
individuals, and present to every one an instructive 20
picture of his neighbour or himself. Seeing, by the per-
fection of his art, the master passions in their springs,
and the high capacities in their rudiments — and having
acquired the gift of tracing all the propensities and
marking tendencies of our plastic nature, in their first 25
slight indications, or even from the aspect of the dis-
guises they so often assume, he does not need, in order
to draw out his characters in all their life and distinct-
ness, the vulgar demonstration of those striking and
decided actions by which their maturity is proclaimed 30
even to the careless and inattentive; — but delights to
point out to his readers, the seeds or tender filaments of
those talents and feelings which wait only for occasion
and opportunity to burst out and astonish the world —


and to accustom them to trace, in characters and actions
apparently of the most ordinary description, the self-same
attributes that, under other circumstances, would attract
universal attention, and furnish themes for the most
5 popular and impassioned descriptions.

That he should not be guided in the choice of his
subject by any regard to the rank or condition which his
persons hold in society, may easily be imagined ; and,
with a view to the ends he aims at, might readily be

10 forgiven. But we fear that his passion for observation,
and the delight he takes in tracing out and analyzing all
the little traits that indicate character, and all the little
circumstances that influence it, have sometimes led him
to be careless about his selection of the instances in

15 which it was to be exhibited, or at least to select them
upon principles very different from those which give them
an interest in the eyes of ordinary readers. For the
purpose of mere anatomy, beauty of form or complexion
are things quite indifferent ; and the physiologist, who

20 examines plants only to study their internal structure,
and to make himself master of the contrivances by which
their various functions are performed, pays no regard to
the brilliancy of their hues, the sweetness of their odours,
or the graces of their form. Those who come to him

25 for the sole purpose of acquiring knowledge may partici-
pate perhaps in this indifference ; but the world at large
will wonder at them — and he will engage fewer pupils to
listen to his instructions, than if he had condescended in
some degree to consult their predilections in the begin-

30 ning. It is the same case, we think, in many respects,
with Mr. Crabbe. Relying for the interest he is to pro-
duce, on the curious expositions he is to make of the
elements of human character, or at least finding his own
chief gratification in those subtle investigations, he seems


to care very little upon what particular individuals he
pitches for the purpose of these demonstrations. Almost
every human mind, he seems to think, may serve to
display that fine and mysterious mechanism which it is
his delight to explore and explain ; — and almost every 5
condition, and every history of life, afford occasions to
show how it may be put into action, and pass through its
various combinations. It seems, therefore, almost as if
he had caught up the first dozen or two of persons that
came across him in the ordinary walks of life, — and then 10
fitting in his little window in their breasts, and applying
his tests and instruments of observation, had set himself
about such a minute and curious scrutiny of their whole
habits, history, adventures, and dispositions, as he
thought must ultimately create not only a familiarity, but 15
an interest, which the first aspect of the subject was far
enough from leading any one to expect. That he
succeeds more frequently than could have been antici-
pated, we are very willing to allow. But we cannot help
feeling, also, that a little more pains bestowed in the 20
selection of his characters, would have made his power
of observation and description tell with tenfold effect ;
and that, in spite of the exquisite truth of his delinea-
tions, and the fineness of the perceptions by which he
was enabled to make them, it is impossible to take any 25
considerable interest in many of his personages, or to
avoid feeling some degree of fatigue at the minute and
patient exposition that is made of all that belongs to


A Poetic Romance. By John Keats. 8vo, pp. 20^. Lotidon, 1818.

We had never happened to see either of these volumes
till very lately — and have been exceedingly struck with
the genius they display, and the spirit of poetry which
breathes through all their extravagance. That imitation
5 of our old writers, and especially of our older dramatists,
to which we cannot help flattering ourselves that we have
somewhat contributed, has brought on, as it were, a
second spring in our poetry ; — and few of its blossoms
are either more profuse of sweetness, or richer in promise,

10 than this which is now before us. Mr. Keats, we under-
stand, is still a very young man ; and his whole works,
indeed, bear evidence enough of the fact. They are full
of extravagance and irregularity, rash attempts at origi-
nality, interminable wanderings, and excessive obscurity.

15 They manifestly require, therefore, all the indulgence
that can be claimed for a first attempt : — But we think
it no less plain that they deserve it : For they are flushed
all over with the rich lights of fancy ; and so coloured
and bestrewn with the flowers of poetry ; that even while

20 perplexed and bewildered in their labyrinths, it is im-
possible to resist the intoxication of their sweetness, or
to shut our hearts to the enchantments they so lavishly
present. The models upon which he has formed himself,
in the Endymion, the earliest and by much the most con-

25 siderable of his poems, are obviously The Faithful


Shepherdess of Fletcher, and the Sad Shepherd of Ben
Jonson ; — the exquisite metres and inspired diction of
which he has copied with great boldness and fidelity —
and, like his great originals, has also contrived to impart
to the whole piece that true rural and poetical air — 5
which breathes only in them, and in Theocritus — which
is at once homely and majestic, luxurious and rude, and
sets before us the genuine sights and sounds and smells
of the country, with all the magic and grace of Elysium.
His subject has the disadvantage of being Mythological ; 10
and in this respect, as well as on account of the raised
and rapturous tone it consequently assumes, his poem, it
may be thought, would be better compared to the Comus
and the Arcades of Milton, of which, also, there are
many traces of imitation. The great distinction, how- 15
ever, between him and these divine authors, is, that
imagination in them is subordinate to reason and judg-
ment, while, with him, it is paramount and supreme —
that their ornaments and images are employed to em-
bellish and recommend just sentiments, engaging inci- 20
dents, and natural characters, while his are poured out
without measure or restraint, and with no apparent
design but to unburden the breast of the author, and give
vent to the overflowing vein of his fancy. The thin and
scanty tissue of his story is merely the light framework 25
on which his florid wreaths are suspended ; and while
his imaginations go rambling and entangling themselves
every where, like wild honeysuckles, all idea of sober
reason, and plan, and consistency, is utterly forgotten,
and " strangled in their waste fertility." A great part of 30
the work, indeed, is written in the strangest and most
fantastical manner that can be imagined. It seems as if
the author had ventured every thing that occured to him
in the shape of a glittering image or striking expression


— taken the first word that presented itself to make up a
rhyme, and then made that word the germ of a new
cluster of images — a hint for a new excursion of the
fancy — and so wandered on, equally forgetful whence he
5 came, and heedless whither he was going, till he had
covered his pages with an interminable arabesque of
connected and incongruous figures, that multiplied as
they extended, and were only harmonised by the bright-
ness of their tints, and the graces of their forms. In

lo this rash and headlong career he has of course many
lapses and failures. There is no work, accordingly, from
which a malicious critic could cull more matter for
ridicule, or select more obscure, unnatural, or absurd
passages. But we do not take that to be our office ; —

15 and must beg leave, on the contrary, to say, that any one
who, on this account, would represent the whole poem as
despicable, must either have no notion of poetry, or no
regard to truth.

It is, in truth, at least as full of genius as of absurdity ;

20 and he who does not find a great deal in it to admire and
to give delight, cannot in his heart see much beauty in
the two exquisite dramas to which we have already
alluded ; or find any great pleasure in some of the finest
creations of Milton and Shakespeare. There are very

25 many such persons, we verily believe, even among the
reading and judicious part of the community — correct
scholars, we have no doubt, many of them, and, it may
be, very classical composers in prose and in verse — but
utterly ignorant, on our view of the matter, of the true

30 genius of English poetry, and incapable of estimating its
appropriate and most exquisite beauties. With that
spirit we have no hesitation in saying that Mr. Keats is
deeply imbued — and of those beauties he has presented
us with many striking examples. We are very much


inclined indeed to add, that we do not know any book
which we would sooner employ as a test to ascertain
whether any one had in him a native relish for poetry,
and a genuine sensibility to its intrinsic charm. The
greater and more distinguished poets of our country have 5
so much else in them, to gratify other tastes and pro-
pensities, that they are pretty sure to captivate and
amuse those to whom their poetry may be but an hinder-
ance and obstruction, as well as those to whom it
constitutes their chief attraction. The interest of the 10
stories they tell — the vivacity of the characters they
delineate — the weight and force of the maxims and
sentiments in which they abound — the very pathos, and
wit and humour they display, which may all and each of
them exist apart from their poetry, and independent of it, 15
are quite sufficient to account for their popularity, with-
out referring much to that still higher gift, by which they
subdue to their enchantments those whose souls are truly
attuned to the finer impulses of poetry. It is only,
therefore, where those other recommendations are want- 20
ing, or exist in a weaker degree, that the true force of
the attraction, exercised by the pure poetry with which
they are so often combined, can be fairly appreciated : —
where, without much incident or many characters, and
with little wit, wisdom, or arrangement, a number of 25
bright pictures are presented to the imagination, and a
fine feeling expressed of those mysterious relations by
which visible external things are assimilated with inward
thoughts and emotions, and become the images and
exponents of all passions and affections. To an un- 30
poetical reader such passages will generally appear mere
raving and absurdity — and to this censure a very great
part of the volumes before us will certainly be exposed,
with this class of readers. Even in the judgment of a


fitter audience, however, it must, we fear, be admitted,
that, besides the riot and extravagance of his fancy the
scope and substance of Mr. Keats's poetry is rather too
dreamy and abstracted to excite the strongest interest, or
5 to sustain the attention through a work of any great
compass or extent. He deals too much with shadowy and
incomprehensible beings, and is too constantly rapt into
an extramundane Elysium, to command a lasting interest
with ordinary mortals — and must employ the agency of

lo more varied and coarser emotions, if he wishes to take
rank with the enduring poets of this or of former genera-
tions. There is something very curious, too, we think,
in the way in which he, and Mr. Barry Cornwall also,
have dealt with the Pagan mythology, of which they have

15 made so much use in their poetry. Instead of presenting
its imaginary persons under the trite and vulgar traits
that belong to them in the ordinary systems, little more
is borrowed from these than the general conception of
their condition and relations ; and an original character

20 and distinct individuality is then bestowed upon them,
which has all the merit of invention, and all the grace
and attraction of the fictions on which it is engrafted.
The ancients, though they probably did not stand in any
great awe of their deities, have yet abstained very much

25 from any minute or dramatic representation of their
feelings and affections. In Hesiod and Homer, they
are broadly delineated by some of their actions and
adventures, and introduced to us merely as the agents in
those particular transactions ; while in the Hymns, from

30 those ascribed to Orpheus and Homer, down to those of
Callimachus, we have little but pompous epithets and
invocations, with a flattering commemoration of their
most famous exploits — and are never allowed to enter
into their bosoms, or follow out the train of their feelings,


with the presumption of our human sympathy. Except
the love-song of the Cyclops to his Sea Nymph in
Theocritus — the Lamentation of Venus for Adonis in
Moschus — and the more recent Legend of Apuleius, we
scarcely recollect a passage in all the writings of anti- 5
quity in which the passions of an immortal are fairly dis-
closed to the scrutiny and observation of men. The
author before us, however, and some of his contem-
poraries, have dealt differently with the subject ; — and,
sheltering the violence of the fiction under the ancient 10
traditionary fable, have in reality created and imagined
an entire new set of characters ; and brought closely and
minutely before us the loves and sorrows and perplexities
of beings, with whose names and supernatural attributes
we had long been familiar, without any sense or feeling 15
of their personal character. We have more than doubts
of the fitness of such personages to maintain a permanent
interest with the modern public ; — but the way in which
they are here managed certainly gives them the best
chance that now remains for them ; and, at all events, it 20
cannot be denied that the effect is striking and graceful.
But we must now proceed to our extracts.

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Online LibraryFrancis Jeffrey JeffreySelections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey → online text (page 10 of 21)