Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

Modern eloquence; (Volume 5) online

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the "Paradise Lost," is a task as irksome as it would be to
decipher an ill-written manuscript in a language that is
almost forgotten. But, although we are not to be always
reading epics, and are chiefly in the mood for slighter
things, to be absolutely unable to read Milton or Dante
with enjoyment, is to be in a very bad way. Aristo-
phanes, Theocritus, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Moliere are
often as light as the driven foam ; but they are not light
enough for the general reader. Their humor is too bright
and lovely for the groundlings. They are, alas ! " clas-
sics," somewhat apart from our everyday ways; they are
not banal enough for us ; and so for us they slumber " un-
known in a long night," just because they are immortal
poets, and are not scribblers of to-day.



When will men understand that the reading of great
books is a faculty to be acquired, not a natural gift, at
least not to those who are spoiled by our current educa-
tion and habits of life ? Ceci tuera cela, the last great poet
might have said of the first circulating library. An in-
satiable appetite for new novels makes it as hard to read a
masterpiece as it seems to a Parisian boulevardier to live
in a quiet country. Until a man can truly enjoy a draft
of clear water bubbling from a mountain side, his taste is
in an unwholesome state.

And so he who finds the Heliconian spring insipid
should look to the state of his nerves. Putting aside the
iced air of the difficult mountain tops of epic, tragedy, or
psalm, there are some simple pieces which may serve as
an unerring test of a healthy or a vicious taste for imagi-
native work. If the " Cid," the " Vita Nuova," the " Can-
terbury Tales," Shakespeare's " Sonnets," and " Lycidas "
pall on a man; if he care not for Malory's " Morte d' Ar-
thur " and the " Red Cross Knight " ; if he thinks " Cru-
soe " and the "Vicar" books for the young; if he thrill
not with " The Ode to the West Wind," and " The Ode to
a Grecian Urn " ; if he have no stomach for " Christabel "
or the lines written on " The Wye above Tintern Abbey,"
he should fall on his knees and pray for a cleanlier and
quieter spirit.

The intellectual system of most of us in these days
needs " to purge and to live cleanly." Only by a course
of treatment shall we bring our minds to feel at peace
with the grand pure works of the world. Something we
ought all to know of the masterpieces of antiquity, and
of the other nations of Europe. To understand a great
national poet, such as Dante, Calderon, Corneille, or
Goethe, is to know other types of human cilivization in
ways which a library of histories does not sufficiently
teach. The great masterpieces of the world are thus,
quite apart from the charm and solace they give us, the
master instruments of a solid education.



[Lecture by William Hazlitt, essayist (born in Mitre Lane, Maid-
stone, England, April 10, 1778; died in London, September 18, 1830),
delivered at the Surrey Institution in 1818: the last of his series of
lectures upon "The English Poets." Hazlitt's criticism of contem-
porary men and manners was frank and fearless; and this lecture,
treating as it did of many of his personal friends, created a sensation
in the London literary world of his day.]

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: Genius is the heir of fame;
but the hard condition on which the bright reversion must
be earned is the loss of life. Fame is the recompense
not of the living, but of the dead. The temple of fame
stands upon the grave: the flame that burns upon its
altars is kindled from the ashes of great men. Fame
itself is immortal, but it is not begot till the breath of
genius is extinguished. For fame is not popularity, the
shout of the multitude, the idle buzz of fashion, the venal
puff, the soothing flattery of favor or of friendship; but
it is the spirit of a man surviving himself in the minds
and thoughts of other men, undying and imperishable.
It is the power which the intellect exercises over the
intellect, and the lasting homage which is paid to it as
such, independently of time and circumstances, purified
from partiality and evil-speaking. Fame is the sound
which the stream of high thoughts, carried down to future
ages, makes as it flows: deep, distant, murmuring ever-
more like the waters of the mighty ocean. He who has
ears truly touched to this music, is in a manner deaf to
the voice of popularity. The love of fame differs from
mere vanity in this, that the one is immediate and per-



sonal, the other ideal and abstracted. It is not the direct
and gross homage paid to himself that the lover of true
fame seeks or is proud of, but the indirect and pure
homage paid to the eternal forms of truth and beauty
as they are reflected in his mind that gives him confidence
and hope. The love of nature is the first thing in the
mind of the true poet : the admiration of himself, the last.
A man of genius cannot well be a coxcomb ; for his mind
is too full of other things to be much occupied with his
own person. He who is conscious of great powers in
himself, has also a high standard of excellence with which
to compare his efforts : he appeals also to a test and judge
of merit, which is the highest, but which is too remote,
grave, and impartial, to flatter his self-love extravagantly,
or puff him up with intolerable and vain conceit.

This, indeed, is one test of genius and of real greatness
of mind, whether a man can wait patiently and calmly
for the award of posterity, satisfied with the unwearied
exercise of his faculties, retired within the sanctuary of
his own thoughts ; or whether he is eager to forestall his
own immortality, and mortgage it for a newspaper puff.
He who thinks much of himself, will be in danger of being
forgotten by the rest of the world: he who is always
trying to lay violent hands on reputation, will not secure
the best and most lasting. If the restless candidate for
praise takes no pleasure, no sincere and heartfelt delight,
in his works, but as they are admired and applauded by
others, what should others see in them to admire or
applaud? They cannot be expected to admire them be-
cause they are his, but for the truth and nature contained
in them, which must first be inwardly felt and copied with
severe delight, from the love of truth and nature, before
it can ever appear there. Was Raphael, think you, when
he painted his pictures of the Virgin and Child in all their
inconceivable truth and beauty of expression, thinking
most of his subject or of himself? Do you suppose that
Titian, when he painted a landscape, was pluming himself
on being thought the finest colorist in the world, or making
himself so by looking at nature? Do you imagine that
Shakespeare, when he wrote " Lear " or " Othello," was
thinking of anything but " Lear " and " Othello " ? Or
that Mr. Kean, when he plays these characters, is thinking-



of the audience ? No : he who would be great in the eyes
of others, must first learn to be nothing in his own.
The love of fame, as it enters at times into his mind, is only
another name for the love of excellence; or it is the
ambition to attain the highest excellence, sanctioned by
the highest authority, that of time.

Those minds, then, which are the most entitled to
expect it, can best put up with the postponement of their
claims to lasting fame. They can afford to wait. They
are not afraid that truth and nature will ever wear out,
will lose their gloss with novelty or their effect with
fashion. If their works have the seeds of immortality
in them, they will live ; if they have not, they care little
about them as theirs. They do not complain of the start
which others have got of them in the race of everlasting
renown, or of the impossibility of attaining the honors
which time alone can give, during the term of their natural
lives. They know that no applause, however loud and
violent, can anticipate or overrule the judgment of pos-
terity ; that the opinion of no one individual, nor of any
one generation, can have the weight, the authority (to
say nothing of the force of sympathy and prejudice), which
must belong to that of successive generations. The
brightest living reputation cannot be equally imposing to
the imagination, with that which is covered and rendered
venerable with the hoar of innumerable ages. No mod-
ern production can have the same atmosphere of senti-
ment around it as the remains of classical antiquity. But
then our moderns may console themselves with the re-
flection, that they will be old in their turn, and will either
be remembered with still increasing honors, or quite
forgotten !

I would speak of the living poets as I have spoken of
the dead (for I think highly of many of them) ; but I
cannot speak of them with the same reverence, because
I do not feel it ; with the same confidence, because I can-
not have the same authority to sanction my opinion. I
cannot be absolutely certain that anybody, twenty years
hence, will think anything about any of them ; but we
may be pretty sure that Milton and Shakespeare will be
remembered twenty years hence. We are, therefore, not
without excuse if we husband our enthusiasm a little, and



do not prematurely lay out our whole stock in untrieH
ventures, and what may turn out to be false bottoms. I
have myself outlived one generation of favorite poets
the Darwins, the Hayleys, the Sewards. Who reads them
now? If, however, I have not the verdict of posterity
to bear me out in bestowing the most unqualified praises
on their immediate successors, it is also to be remem-
bered that neither does it warrant me in condemning
them. Indeed, it was not my wish to go into this un-
grateful part of the subject; but something of the sort
is expected from me, and I must run the gantlet as
well as I can.

Another circumstance that adds to the difficulty of
doing justice to all parties is, that I happen to have a
personal acquaintance with some of these jealous votaries
of the Muses ; and that is not the likeliest way to imbibe
a high opinion of the rest. Poets do not praise one
another in the language of hyperbole. I am afraid,
therefore, that I labor under a degree of prejudice against
some of the most popular poets of the day, from an early
habit of deference to the critical opinions of some of the
least popular. I cannot say that I ever learnt much about
Shakespeare or Milton, Spenser or Chaucer, from these
professed guides ; for I never heard them say much about
them. They were always talking of themselves and one
another. Nor am I certain that this sort of personal
intercourse with living authors, while it takes away all
real relish or freedom of opinion with regard to their
contemporaries, greatly enhances our respect for them-
selves. Poets are not ideal beings ; but have their prose-
sides, like the commonest of the people. We often hear
persons say, What they would have given to have seen
Shakespeare ! For my part, I would have given a great
deal not to have seen him; at least, if he was at all like
anybody else that I have ever seen. But why should he be ?
for his works are not! This is, doubtless, one great ad-
vantage which the dead have over the living. It is always
fortunate for ourselves and others when we are prevented
from exchanging admiration for knowledge. The splen-
did vision that in youth haunts our idea of the poetical
character, fades upon acquaintance into the light of com-
mon day ; as the azure tints that deck the mountain's brow



are lost on a nearer approach to them. It is well, ac-
cording to the moral of one of the Lyrical Ballads, " to
leave Yarrow unvisited." But to leave this " face-
making," and begin.

I am a great admirer of the female writers of the pres-
ent day; they appear to me- like so many modern Muses.
I could be in love with Mrs. Inchbald, romantic with Mrs.
Radcliffe, and sarcastic with Madame D'Arblay : but they
are novel-writers, and, like Audrey, may " thank the Gods
for not having made them poetical." Did any persons here
ever read " Mrs. Leicester's School " ? If they have not,
I wish they would ; there will be just time before the next
three volumes of the " Tales of My Landlord " come out.
That is not a school of affectation, but of humanity. No
one can think too highly of the work, or highly enough
of the author.

The first poetess I can recollect is Mrs. Barbauld, with
whose works I became acquainted before those of any
other author, male or female, when I was learning to spell
words of one syllable in her story-books for children. I
became acquainted with her poetical works long after in
" Enfield's Speaker," and remember being much divided in
my opinion at that time between her " Ode to Spring " and
Collin's " Ode to Evening." I wish I could repay my
childish debt of gratitude in terms of appropriate praise.
She is a very pretty poetess ; and, to my fancy, strews the
flowers of poetry most agreeably round the borders of
religious controversy. She is a neat and pointed prose
writer. Her " Thoughts On the Inconsistency of Human
Expectations," is one of the most ingenious and sensible
essays in the language. There is the same idea in one
of " Barrows Sermons."

Mrs. Hannah More is another celebrated modern
poetess, and I believe still living. She has written a great
deal which I have never read.

Miss Baillie must make up this trio of female poets.
Her tragedies and comedies, one of each to illustrate each
of the passions separately from the rest, are heresies in
the dramatic art. She is a Unitarian in poetry. With
her the passions are, like the French Republic, one and
indivisible : they are not so in nature, or in Shakespeare.
Mr. Southey has, I believe, somewhere expressed an


opinion, that the " Basil " of Miss Baillie is superior to
" Romeo and Juliet." I shall not stay to contradict him.
On the other hand, I prefer her " De Montfort," which
was condemned on the stage, to some later tragedies,
which have been more fortunate, to the " Remorse,"
" Bertram," and, lastly, " Fazio." There is in the chief
character of that play a nerve, a continued unity of in-
terest, a setness of purpose and precision of outline which
John Kemble alone was capable of giving; and there is
all the grace which women have in writing. In saying
that " De Montfort " was a character which just suited
Mr. Kemble, I mean to pay a compliment to both. He
was not " a man of no mark or likelihood " ; and what he
could be supposed to do particularly well, must have a
meaning in it. As to the other tragedies just mentioned,
there is no reason why any common actor should not
" make mouths in them at the invisible event," one as
well as another. Having thus expressed my sense of the
merits of this authoress, I must add, that her comedy of
the " Election," performed last summer (1817) at the
Lyceum with indifferent success, appears to me the per-
fection of baby-house theatricals. Everything in it has
such a do-me-good air is so insipid and amiable. Virtue
seems such a pretty playing at make-believe, and vice is
such a naughty word. It is a theory of some French
author, that little girls ought not to be suffered to have
dolls to play with, to call them " pretty dears," to admire
their black eyes and cherry cheeks, to lament and bewail
over them if they fall down and hurt their faces, to praise
them when they are good, and scold them when they are
naughty. It is a school of affectation: Miss Baillie has
profited of it. She treats her grown men and women
as little girls treat their dolls, makes moral puppets of
them, pulls the wires, and they talk virtue and act vice,
according to their cue and the title prefixed to each com-
edy or tragedy, not from any real passions of their own,
or love either of virtue or vice.

The transition from these to Mr. Rogers's " Pleasures
of Memory" is not far: he is a very lady-like poet. He
is an elegant, but feeble writer. He wraps up obvious
thoughts in a glittering cover of fine words, is full of
enigmas with no meaning to them, is studiously inverted


and scrupulously far-fetched; and his verses are poetry,
chiefly because no particle, line, or syllable of them reads
like prose. He differs from Milton in this respect, who
is accused of having inserted a number of prosiac lines in
" Paradise Lost." This kind of poetry, which is a more
minute and inoffensive species of the Delia Cruscan, is
like a game of asking what one's thoughts are like. It
is a tortuous, tottering, wriggling, fidgety translation of
everything from the vulgar tongue, into all the tantaliz-
ing, teasing, tripping, lisping mimminee-pimmince of the
highest brilliancy and fashion of poetical diction. You
have nothing like truth of nature or simplicity of expres-
sion. The fastidious and languid reader is never shocked
by meeting, from the rarest chance in the world, with a
single homely phrase or intelligible idea. You cannot see
the thought for the ambiguity of the language, the figure
for the finery, the picture for the varnish. The whole is
refined, and frittered away into an appearance of the
most evanescent brilliancy and tremulous imbecility.
There is no other fault to be found with the " Pleasures
of Memory " than a want of taste and genius. The senti-
ments are amiable, and the notes at the end highly inter-
esting, particularly the one relating to the " Countess's
Pillar" (as it is called) between Appleby and Penrith,
erected (as the inscription tells the thoughtful traveler)
by Anne, Countess of Pembroke, in the year 1648, in
memory of her last parting with her good and pious
mother in the same place in the year 1616

" To shew that power of love, how great
Beyond all human estimate."

This story is also told in the poem, but with so many
artful innuendoes and tinsel words, that it is hardly intel-
ligible ; and still less does it reach the heart.

Campbell's " Pleasures of Hope " is of the same school :
in which a painful attention is paid to the expression in
proportion as there is little to express, and the decom-
position of prose is substituted for the composition of
poetry. How much the sense and keeping in the ideas
are sacrificed to a jingle of words and epigrammatic turn
of expression, may be seen in such lines as the following :


One of the characters, an old invalid, wishes to end his
days under

" Some hamlet shade, to yield his sickly form
Health in the breeze, and shelter in the storm."

Now the antithesis here totally fails : for it is the breeze,
and not the tree or, as it is quaintly expressed, " hamlet
shade " that affords health, though it is the tree that
affords shelter in or from the storm. Instances of the
same sort of curiosa infelicitas are not rare in this author.
His verses on the " Battle of Hohenlinden " have consid-
erable spirit and animation. His " Gertrude of Wyom-
ing " is his principal performance. It is a kind of histori-
cal paraphrase of Mr. Wordsworth's poem of " Ruth."
It shows little power, or power enervated by extreme
fastidiousness. It is

" Of outward show

Elaborate : of inward less exact."

There are painters who trust more to the setting of
their pictures than to the truth of the likeness. Mr.
Campbell always seems to me to be thinking how
his poetry will look when it comes to be hot-pressed on
superfine wove paper, to have a disproportionate eye to
points and commas, and dread of errors of the press. He
is so afraid of doing wrong, of making the smallest mis-
take, that he does little or nothing. Lest he should wan-
der irretrievably from the right path, he stands still. He
writes according to established etiquette. He offers the
Muses no violence. If he lights upon a good thought,
he immediately drops it for fear of spoiling a good thing.
When he launches a sentiment that you think will float
him triumphantly for once to the bottom of the stanza, he
stops short at the end of the first or second line, and
stands shivering on the brink of beauty, afraid to trust
himself to the fathomless abyss. Tutus nimium, timidusque
procellce. His very circumspection betrays him. The
poet, as well as the woman, that deliberates is undone.
He is much like a man whose heart fails him just as he
is going up in a balloon, and who breaks his neck by
flinging himself out of it when it is too late. Mr. Camp-



bell too often maims and mangles his ideas before they
are full formed, to fit them to the Procrustes' bed of criti-
cism, or strangles his intellectual offspring in the birth,
lest they should come to an untimely end in the " Edin-
burgh Review." He plays the hypercritic on himself, and
starves his genius to death from a needless apprehension
of a plethora. No writer who thinks habitually of the
critics, either to tremble at their censures or set them
at defiance, can write well. It is the business of reviewers
to watch poets, not of poets to watch reviewers. There
is one admirable simile in this poem of the European
child brought by the sooty Indian in his hand, " like
morning brought by night." The love scenes in " Ger-
trude of Wyoming" breathe a balmy voluptuousness of
sentiment; but they are generally broken off in the mid-
dle : they are like the scent of a bank of violets, faint and
rich, which the gale suddenly conveys in a different direc-
tion. Mr. Campbell is careful of his own reputation, and
economical of the pleasure of his readers. He treats
them as the fox in the fable treated his guest, the stork;
or, to use his own expression, his fine things are

" Like angels' visits, few, and far between."

There is another fault in this poem, which is the me-
chanical structure of the fable. The most striking events
occur in the shape of antitheses. The story is cut into
the form of a parallelogram. There is the same system-
atic alteration of good and evil, of violence and repose,
that there is of light and shade in a picture. The Indian,
who is the chief agent in the interest of the poem, vanishes
and returns after long intervals, like the periodical revolu-
.tions of the planets. He unexpectedly appears just in the
nick of time, after years of absence, and without any
known reason but the convenience of the author and the
astonishment of the reader: as if nature were a machine
constructed on a principle of complete contrast, to pro-
duce a theatrical effect. Nee Dens intersit, nisi dignus
vindice nodus. Mr. Campbell's savage never appears but
upon great occasions, and then his punctuality is preter-
natural and alarming. He is the most wonderful instance
on record of poetical reliability. The most dreadful mis-


chiefs happen at the most mortifying moments ; and when
your expectations are wound up to the highest pitch, you
are sure to have them knocked on the head by a pre-
meditated and remorseless stroke of the poet's pen. This
is done so often for the convenience of the author, that
in the end it ceases to be for the satisfaction of the reader.

Tom Moore is a poet of a quite different stamp. He is
as heedless, gay, and prodigal of his poetical wealth, as
the other is careful, reserved, and parsimonious. The
genius of both is national. Mr. Moore's " Muse " is an-
other Ariel, as light, as tricksy, as indefatigable, and as
humane a spirit. His fancy is forever on the wing, flut-
ters in the gale, glitters in the sun. Everything lives,
moves, and sparkles in his poetry, while over all love waves
his purple light. His thoughts are as restless, as many,
and as bright as the insects that people the sun's beam.
" So work the honey bees," extracting liquid sweets from
opening buds; so the butterfly expands its wings to the
idle air; so the thistle's silver down is wafted over summer
seas. An airy voyager on life's stream, his mind inhales
the fragrance of a thousand shores, and drinks of endless
pleasures under halcyon skies. Wherever his footsteps
tend over the enameled ground of fairy fiction

" Around him the bees in play flutter and cluster,
And gaudy butterflies frolic around."

The fault of Mr. Moore is an exuberance of involuntary
power. His faculty of production lessens the effect of,
and hangs as a dead weight upon, what he produces.
His levity at last oppresses. The infinite delight he takes
in such an infinite number of things, creates indifference
in minds less susceptible of pleasure than his own. He
exhausts attention by being inexhaustible. His variety

Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 5) → online text (page 14 of 38)