Copyright
Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

Modern eloquence; (Volume 5) online

. (page 15 of 38)
Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 5) → online text (page 15 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


cloys; his rapidity dazzles and distracts the sight. The
graceful ease with which he lends himself to every sub-
ject, the genial spirit with which he indulges in every
sentiment, prevents him from giving their full force to the
masses of things, from connecting them into a whole. He
wants intensity, strength, and grandeur. His mind does
not brood over the great and permanent ; it glances over



THE LIVING POETS



551



the surfaces, the first impressions of things, instead of
grappling with the deep-rooted prejudices of the mind, its
inveterate habits, and that " perilous stuff that weighs
upon the heart." His pen, as it is rapid and fanciful" wants
momentum and passion. It requires the same principle to
make us thoroughly like poetry, that makes us like our-
selves so well, the feeling of continued identity. The im-
pressions of Mr. Moore's poetry are detached, desultory,
and physical. Its gorgeous colors brighten and fade like
the rainbow's. Its sweetness evaporates like the effluvia
exhaled from beds of flowers ! His gay, laughing style,
which relates to the immediate pleasures of love or wine,
is better than his sentimental and romantic vein. His
Irish melodies are not free from affectation and a certain
sickliness of pretension. His serious descriptions are apt
to run into flowery tenderness. His pathos sometimes
melts into a mawkish sensibility, or crystallizes into all the
prettinesses of allegorical language, and glittering hard-
ness of external imagery. But he has wit at will, and of
the first quality. His satirical and burlesque poetry is his
best : it is first-rate. His " Two-penny Post-Bag " is a per-
fect " nest of spicery," where the Cayenne is not spared.
The politician there sharpens the poet's pen. In this,
too, our bard resembles the bee : he has its honey and its
sting.

Mr. Moore ought not to have written " Lalla Rookh,"
even for three thousand guineas. His fame is worth
more than that. He should have minded the advice of
Fadladeen. It is not, however, a failure, so much as an
evasion and a consequent disappointment of public ex-
pectation. He should have left it to others to break con-
ventions with nations, and faith with the world. He
should, at any rate, have kept his with the public. " Lalla
Rookh " is not what people wanted to see whether Mr.
Moore could do ; namely, whether he could write a long
epic poem. It is four short tales. The interest, however,
is often high-wrought and tragic, but the execution still
turns to the effeminate and voluptuous side. Fortitude of
mind is the first requisite of a tragic or epic writer. Hap-
piness of nature and felicity of genius are the preeminent
characteristics of the bard of Erin. If he is not perfectly
contented with what he is, all the world beside is. He



552



WILLIAM HAZLITT



had no temptation to risk anything in adding to the love
and admiration of his age, and more than one country :

" Therefore to be possessed with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heav'n to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess."

The same might be said of Mr. Moore's seeking to bind
an epic crown, or the shadow of one, round his other
laurels.

If Mr. Moore has not suffered enough personally, Lord
Byron (judging from the tone of his writings) might be
thought to have suffered too much to be a truly great
poet. If Mr. Moore lays himself too open to all the
various impulses of things, the outward shows of earth
and sky, to every breath that blows, to every stray senti-
ment that crosses his fancy Lord Byron shuts himself up
too much in the impenetrable gloom of his own thoughts,
and buries the natural light of things in " nook monastic."
The " Giaour," the " Corsair," " Childe Harold," are all the
same person, and they are apparently all himself. The
everlasting repetition of one subject, the same dark ground
of fiction, with the darker colors of the poet's mind spread
over it, the unceasing accumulation of horrors on horror's
head, steels the mind against the sense of pain, as inev-
itably as the unwearied Siren sounds and luxurious
monotony of Mr. Moore's poetry makes it inaccessable to
pleasure. Lord Byron's poetry is as morbid as Mr.
Moore's is careless and dissipated. He has more depth of
passion, more force and impetuosity, but the passion is
always of the same unaccountable character, at once vio-
lent and sullen, fierce and gloomy. It is not the passion
of a mind struggling with misfortune, or the hopelessness
of its desires, but of a mind preying upon itself, and dis-
gusted with, or indifferent to, all other things. There is
nothing less poetical than this sort of unaccommodating
selfishness. There is nothing more repulsive than this



THE LIVING POETS 553

sort of ideal absorption of all the interests of others, of
the good and ills of life, in the ruling passion and moody
abstraction of a single mind, as if it would make itself the
centre of the universe, and there was nothing worth cher-
ishing but its intellectual diseases. It is like a cancer eat-
ing into the heart of poetry. But still there is power ; and
power rivets attention and forces admiration. " He hath
a demon " : and that is the next thing to being full of the
\ God. His brow collects the scattered gloom : his eye
> flashes livid fire that withers and consumes. But still we
watch the progress of the scathing bolt with interest, and
mark the ruin it leaves behind with awe. Within the con-
tracted range of his imagination, he has great unity and
truth of keeping. He chooses elements and agents con-
genial to his mind, the dark and glittering ocean, the frail
bark hurrying before the storm, pirates and men that
" house on the wild sea with wild usages." He gives the
tumultuous eagerness of action and the fixed despair of
thought. In vigor of style and force of conception, he
in one sense surpasses every writer of the present day.
His indignant apothegms are like oracles of misanthropy.
He who wishes for a " curse to kill with," may find it in
Lord Byron's writings. Yet he has beauty lurking under-
neath his strength, tenderness sometimes joined with the
frenzy of despair. A flash of golden light sometimes fol-
lows from a stroke of his pencil, like a falling meteor.
The flowers that adorn his poetry bloom over charnel-
houses and the grave!

There is one subject on which Lord Byron is foncl of
writing on which I wish he would not write Bonaparte.
Not that I quarrel with his writing for him, or against
him, but with his writing both for him and against him.
What right has he to do this? Bonaparte's character, be
it what else it may, does not change every hour according
to his Lordship's varying humor. He is not a pipe for
fortune's finger, or for his Lordship's Muse, to play what
stop she pleases on. Why should Lord Byron now laud
him to the skies in the hour of his success, and then
peevishly wreak his disappointment on the God of his
idolatry ? The man he writes of does not rise or fall with
circumstances, but looks on tempests and is never



WILLIAM HAZLITT

shaken." Besides, he is a subject for history, and not for
poetry :

" Great princes' favourites their fair leaves spread,

But as the marigold at the sun's eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried ;

For at a frown they in their glory die.
The painful warrior, famoused for fight,

After a thousand victories once foil'd,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,

And all the rest forgot for which he toil'd."

If Lord Byron will write anything more on this hazardous
theme, let him take these lines of Shakespeare for his
guide, and finish them in the spirit of the original: they
will then be worthy of the subject.

Walter Scott is the most popular of all the poets of the
present day, and deservedly so. He describes that which
is most easily and generally understood with more vivac-
ity and effect than anybody else. He has no excellences,
either of a lofty or recondite kind, which lie beyond the
reach of the most ordinary capacity to find out; but he
has all the good qualities which all the world agree to
understand. His style is clear, flowing, and transparent :
his sentiments, of which his style is an easy and natural
medium, are common to him with his readers. He has
none of Mr. Wordsworth's idiosyncracy. He differs from
his readers only in a greater range of knowledge and
facility of expression. His poetry belongs to the class of
improvisatore poetry. It has neither depth, height, nor
breadth in it ; neither uncommon strength, nor uncommon
refinement of thought, sentiment, or language. It has no
originality. But if this author has no research, no moving
power in his own breast, he relies with the greater safety
and success on the force of his subject. He selects a story
such as is sure to please, full of incidents, characters,
peculiar manners, costume, and scenery : and he tells it in
a way that can offend no one. He never wearies or dis-
appoints you. He is communicative and garrulous; but
he is not his own hero. He never obtrudes himself on
your notice to prevent your seeing the subject. What
passes in the poem, passes much as it would have done in
reality. The author has little or nothing to do with it.



THE LIVING POETS 555

Mr. Scott has great intuitive power of fancy, great vivid-
ness of pencil in placing external objects and events be-
for the eye. The force of his mind is picturesque, rather
than moral. He gives more of the features of nature than
the soul of passion. He conveys the distinct outlines and
visible changes in outward subjects, rather than " their
moral consequences." He is very inferior to Lord Byron
in intense passion, to Moore in delightful fancy, to Mr.
Wordsworth in profound sentiment ; but he has more pic-
turesque power than any of them; that is, he places the
objects themselves, about which they might feel and think,
in a much more striking point of view, with greater vari-
ety of dress and attitude, and with more local truth of
coloring.

His imagery is Gothic and grotesque. The manners
and actions have the interest and curiosity belonging to
a wild country and a distant period of time. Few descrip-
tions have a more complete reality, a more striking ap-
pearance of life and motion, than that of the warriors in
the " Lady of the Lake," who start up at the command
of Rhoderic Dhu from their concealment under the fern,
and disappear again in an instant. The " Lay of the Last
Minstrel " and " Marmion " are the first, and perhaps the
best of his works. The Goblin Page in the first of these
is a very interesting and inscrutable little personage. In
reading these poems, I confess I am a little disconcerted,
in turning over the page, to find Mr. Westall's pictures,
which always seem facsimiles of the persons represented,
with ancient costume and a theatrical air. This may be a
compliment to Mr. Westall, but it is not one to Walter
1 Scott. The truth is, there is a modern air in the midst of
the antiquarian research of Mr. Scott's poetry. It is his-
tory or tradition in masquerade. Not only the crust of
old words and images is worn off with time, the sub-
stance is grown comparatively light and worthless. The
forms are old and uncouth ; but the spirit is effeminate
and frivolous. This is a deduction from the praise I have
given to his pencil for extreme fidelity, though it has been
no obstacle to its drawing-room success. He has just hit
the town between the romantic and the fashionable, and
between the two secured all classes of readers on his side.
In a word, I conceive that he is to the great poet what an



556 WILLIAM HAZLITT

excellent mimic is to a great actor. There is no Deter-
minate impression left on the mind by reading his poetry.
It has no results. The reader rises up from the perusal
with new images and associations, but he remains the
same man that he was before. A great mind is one that
molds the minds of others. Mr. Scott has put the Bor-
der Minstrelsy and scattered traditions of the country into
easy, animated verse. But the Notes to his poems are
just as entertaining as the poems themselves, and his
poems are only entertaining.

Mr. Wordsworth is the most original poet now living.
He is the reverse of Walter Scott in his defects and ex-
cellences. He has nearly all that the other wants, and
wants all that the other possesses. His poetry is not ex-
ternal, but internal; it does not depend upon tradition, op
story, or old song; he furnishes it from his own mind, and
is his own subject. He is the poet of mere sentiment. Of
many of the " Lyrical Ballads," it is not possible to speak
in terms of too high praise, such as " Hart-leap Well,"
the "Banks of the Wye," "Poor Susan," parts of the
" Leech-gatherer," the " Lines to a Cuckoo," " To a
Daisy," " The Complaint," several of the " Sonnets," and
a hundred others of inconceivable beauty, or perfect orig-
inality and pathos. They open a finer and deeper vein of
thought and feeling than any poet in modern times has
done, or attempted. He has produced a deeper impres-
sion, and on a smaller circle, than any other of his con-
temporaries. His powers have been mistaken by the age,
nor does he exactly understand them himself. He cannot
form a whole. He has not the constructive faculty. He
can give only the fine tones of thought, drawn from his
mind by accident, or nature, like the sounds drawn from
the ^Eolian harp by the wandering gale. He is totally
deficient in all the machinery of poetry. His " Excur-
sion," taken as a whole, notwithstanding the noble mate-
rials thrown away in it, is a proof of this. The line labors,
the sentiment moves slow ; but the poem stands stock-still.
The reader makes no way from the first line to the last.
It is more than anything in the world like Robinson
Crusoe's boat, which would have been an excellent good
boat, and would have carried him to the other side of the
globe, but that he could not get it out of the sand where



THE LIVING POETS



557



it stuck fast. I did what little I could to help launch it at
the time, but it would not do. I am not, however, one of
those who laugh at the attempts or failures of men of
genius. It is not my way to cry, " Long life to the con-
queror!" Success and desert are not with me synony-
mous terms; and the less Mr. Wordsworth's general
merits have been understood, the more necessary is it to
insist upon them. This is not the place to repeat what I
have already said on the subject. The reader may turn to
it in the " Round Table." I do not think, however, there
is anything in the larger poem equal to many of the de-
tached pieces in the " Lyrical Ballads."

Mr. Wordsworth is at the head of that which has been
denominated the Lake school of poetry; a school which,
with all my respect for it, I do not think sacred from
criticism or exempt from faults, of some of which faults
I shall speak with becoming frankness; for I do not see
that the liberty of the press ought to be shackled, or
freedom of speech curtailed, to screen either its revolu-
tionary or renegade extravagances. This school of poetry
had its origin in the French Revolution, or rather in those
sentiments and opinions which produced that revolution ;
and which sentiments and opinions were directly imported
into this country in translations from the German about
that period. Our poetical literature had, towards the
close of the last century, degenerated into the most trite,
insipid and mechanical of all things, in the hands of the
followers of Pope and the old French school of poetry.
It wanted something to stir it up, and it found that some-
thing in the principles and events of the French Revolu-
tion. From the impulse it thus received, it rose at once
from the most servile imitation and tamest commonplace,
to the utmost pitch of singularity and paradox. The
change in the belles-lettres was as complete, and to many
persons as startling, as the change in politics, with which
it went hand in hand. There was a mighty ferment in the
heads of statesmen and poets, kings and people. Accord-
ing to the prevailing notions, all was to be natural and
new. Nothing that was established was to be tolerated.
All the commonplace figures of poetry, tropes, allegories,
personifications, with the whole heathen mythology, were
instantly discarded ; a classical allusion was considered as



558



WILLIAM HAZLITT



a piece of antiquated foppery; capital letters were no
more allowed in print, than letters-patent of nobility were
permitted in real life; kings and queens were dethroned
from their rank and station in legitimate tragedy or epic
poetry, as they were decapitated elsewhere; rhyme was
looked upon as a relic of the feudal system, and regular
metre was abolished along with regular government.
Authority and fashion, elegance or arrangement, were
hooted out of countenance as pedantry and prejudice.
Every one did that which was good in his own eyes. The
object was to reduce all things to an absolute level; and
a singularly affected and outrageous simplicity prevailed
in dress and manners, in style and sentiment. A striking
effect produced where it was least expected, something
new and original, no matter whether good, bad, or in-
different, whether mean or lofty, extravagant or childish,
was all that was aimed at, or considered as compatible
with sound philosophy and an age of reason. The licen-
tiousness grew extreme : " Coryate's Crudities " were
nothing to it. The world was to be turned topsy-turvy;
and poetry, by the good will of Adam-wits, was to share
its fate and begin de novo.

It was a time of promise, a renewal of the world and of
letters; and the Deucalions, who were paid to perform
this feat of regeneration, were the present poet-laureate
and the two authors of " Lyrical Ballads." The Germans
who made heroes of robbers, and honest women of cast-
off mistresses, had already exhausted the extravagant and
marvelous in sentiment and situation ; our native writers
adopted a wonderful simplicity of style and matter. The
paradox they set out with was, that all things are by na-
ture equally fit subjects for poetry ; or that if there is any
preference to be given, those that are the meanest and
most unpromising are the best, as they leave the greatest
scope for the unbounded stores of thought and fancy in
the writer's own mind. Poetry had with them " neither
buttress nor coign of vantage to make its pendant bed
and procreant cradle." It was not " born so high : its
aiery buildeth in the cedar's top, and dallies with the wind,
and scorns the sun." It grew like a mushroom out of the
ground, or was hidden in it like a truffle, which it required
a particular sagacity and industry to find out and dig up.



THE LIVING POETS 559

They founded the new school on a principle of sheer
humanity, on pure nature void of art.

It could not be said of these sweeping reformers and
dictators in the republic of letters, that " in their train
walked crowns and crownets ; that realms and islands, like
plates, dropt from their pockets " : but they were sur-
rounded, in company with the Muses, by a mixed rabble
of idle apprentices and Botany Bay convicts, female
vagrants, gypsies, meek daughters in the family of Christ,
of idiot boys and mad mothers, and after them " owls and
night-ravens flew." They scorned " degrees, priority, and
place, insisture, course, proportion, season, form, office,
and custom in all line of order " : the distinctions of birth,
the vicissitudes of fortune, did not enter into their ab-
stracted, lofty, and leveling calculation of human nature.
He who was more than man, with them was none. They
claimed kindred only with the commonest of the people:
peasants, peddlers, and village barbers were their oracles
and bosom friends.

Their poetry, in the extreme to which it professedly
tended and was in effect carried, levels all distinctions of
nature and society ; has no " figures nor no fantasies "
which the prejudices of superstition or the customs of the
world draw in the brains of men ; " no trivial fond re-
cords " of all that has existed in the history of past ages ;
it has no adventitious pride, pomp, or circumstances, to
set it off: "the marshal's truncheon, nor the judge's
robe" : neither tradition, reverence, nor ceremony " that
to great ones 'longs" : it breaks in pieces the golden im-
ages of poetry, and defaces its armorial bearings, to melt
them down in the mold of common humanity or of its
own upstart self-sufficiency. They took the same method
in their new-fangled " metre ballad-mongering " scheme
which Rousseau did in his prose paradoxes, of exciting
attention by reversing the established standards of opinion
and estimation in the world. They were for bringing
poetry back to its primitive simplicity and state of nature,
as he was for bringing society back to the savage state :
so that the only thing remarkable left in the world by
this change would be the persons who had produced it.

A thorough adept in this school of poetry and philan-
thropy is jealous of all excellence but his own. He does



560



WILLIAM HAZLITT



not even like to share his reputation with his subject; for
he would have it all proceed from his own power and
originality of mind. Such a one is slow to admire any-
thing that is admirable, feels no interest in what is most
interesting to others, no grandeur in anything grand, no
beauty in anything beautiful. He tolerates only what he
himself creates ; he sympathizes only with what can enter
into no competition with him, with " the bare trees and
mountains bare, and grass in the green field." He sees
nothing but himself and the universe. He hates all great-
ness and all pretensions to it, whether well or ill-founded.
His egotism is in some respects a madness ; for he scorns
even the admiration of himself, thinking it a presumption
in any one to suppose that he has taste or sense enough
to understand him. He hates all science and all art; he
hates chemistry ; he hates conchology ; he hates Voltaire ;
he hates Sir Isaac Newton; he hates wisdom; he hates
wit; he hates metaphysics, which he says are unintelli-
gible, and yet he would be thought to understand them ;
he hates prose ; he hates all poetry but his own ; he hates
the dialogues in Shakespeare; he hates music, dancing,
and painting; he hates Rubens; he hates Rembrandt; he
hates Raphael; he hates Titian; he hates Vandyke; he
hates the antique; he hates the Apollo Belvidere; he
hates the Venus of Medicis. This is the reason that so
few people take an interest in his writings, because he
takes an interest in nothing that others do !

The effect has been perceived as something odd ; but
the cause or principle has never been distinctly traced to
its source before, as far as I know. The proofs are to be
found everywhere : in Mr. Southey's " Botany Bay
Eclogues," in his book of " Songs and Sonnets," his
" Odes and Inscriptions," so well parodied in the " Anti-
Jacobin Review," in his "Joan of Arc," and last, though
not least, in his " Wat Tyler " :

" When Adam delved, and Eve span,
Where was then the gentleman ? "

(or the poet laureate either, we may ask?) in Mr.
Coleridge's " Ode to an Ass's Foal," in his lines to Sarah,
his " Religious Musings " ; and in his and Mr. Words-
worth's " Lyrical Ballads," passim.



THE LIVING POETS



561



Of Mr. Southey's larger epics, I have but a faint
recollection at this distance of time, but all that I remem-
ber of them is mechanical and extravagant, heavy and
superficial. His affected, disjointed style is well imitated
in the " Rejected Addresses." The difference between
him and Sir Richard Blackmore seems to be, that the one
is heavy and the other light, the one solemn and the other
pragmatical, the one phlegmatic and the other flippant;
and that there is no Gay in the present time to give a " Cat-
alogue Raisonne " of the performances of the living under- '
taker of epics. " Kehama " is a loose sprawling figure, such *
as we see cut out of wood or paper, and pulled or jerked
with wire or thread, to make sudden and surprising mo-
tions without meaning, grace, or nature in them. By far
the best of his works are some of his shorter personal
compositions, in which there is an ironical mixture of the
quaint and serious, such as his lines on a picture of Caspar
Poussin, the fine tale of " Gualberto," his " Description of a
Pig," and the " Holly-Tree," which is an affecting, beauti-



Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 5) → online text (page 15 of 38)