William Hazlitt.

Lectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. online

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Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 1 of 38)
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London : J. M. DENT & SONS, Ltd.
New York: E. P. DUTTON & CO.




First Issue of this Edition . 1910
Reprinted .... 1914

The following is a list of Hazlitt's published works: —

Essay an the Principles of Human Action . . . with Remarks on the
System of Hartley and Helvetius, 1805; Free Thoughts on Public Affairs,
1806; Abridgment of Abraham Tucker's Light of Nature, 1807; Eloquence
of the British Senate (Parliamentary Speeches and Notes), 1807; Reply
to Malthus, 1807; A New and Improved Grammar of the English Tongue,
etc., 1810; Memoir of Thomas Holcroft, written by himself, etc., con-
tinued by Hazlitt, 1816; The Round Table, from The Examiner, 1817;
Characters of Shakspeare's Plays, 1817, 1818; A Review of the English
Stage; or, a Series of Dramatic Criticisms, 1818, 1821; Lectures on the
English Poets, 1818, 1819; Lectures on the English Comic Writers, 1819;
Letter to William Clifford, 1819; Political Essays, with Sketches of Public
Characters, 1819, 1822; Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Reign
of Queen Elizabeth, 1820; Table Talk; or, Original Essays on Men and
Manners, 1821-2, 1824; Liber Amoris; or, The New Pygmalion, 1823;
Sketches of the Principal Picture Galleries in England, with a criticism on
Marriage a la Mode (in part from London Magazine), 1824; Characteristics,
in the manner of Rochefoucauld's Maxims, 1823, 1837; The Spirit of the
Age; or, Contemporary Portraits, 1825; The Plain Speaker; or, Opinions
on Books, Men, and Things, 1826; Notes of a Journey through France and
Italy (from Morning Chronicle), 1826; Boswell Redivivus, 1827; The
Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, vols. i. and ii., 1828; iii. and iv., 1830;
Conversations of James Northcote, Esq., R.A., 1830.

Posthumous Publications. — Criticisms on Art, etc., 1843, 1844;
Literary Remains, etc., 1836; Winterslow: Essays and Characters
written there, 1850; Sketches and Essays, now first collected, 1839-
republished as Men and Manners, 1852.

Collected Works. — Edited Waller and Glover, 13 vols., 1902-6.




I. Introductory — On Poetry in General
II. On Chaucer and Spenser

III. On Shakspearh and Milton .

IV. On Dryden and Pope .
V. On Thomson and Cowper

VI. On Swift, Young, Gray, Collins, etc.
VII. On Burns, and the Old English Ballads
VIII. On the Living Poets ....




Jeremy Bentham ......... 171

William Godwin . . . . . . . . .182

Mr. Coleridge ......... 194

Rev. Mr. Irving ......... 204

The Late Mr. Horne Tooke ....... 213

Sir Walter Scott ......... 223

Lord Byron .......... 235

Mr. Southey .......... 244

Mr. Wordsworth ......... 252

Sir James Macintosh ........ 261

Mr. Malthus .......... 269

Mr. Gifford .......... 280

Mr. Jeffrey .......... 292

Mr. Brougham — Sir F. Burdett ...... 300

Lord Eldon — Mr. Wilberforce ...... 307

Mr. Cobbett .......... 316

Mr. Campbell — Mr. Crabbe ....... 325

Mr. T. Moore — Mr. Leigh Hunt ...... 335

Elia — Geoffry Crayon ........ 344






The best general notion which I can give of poetry is, that it is the
natural impression of any object or event, by its vividness exciting
an involuntary movement of imagination and passion, and producing,
by sympathy, a certain modulation of the voice, or sounds, ex-
pressing it.

In treating of poetry, I shall speak first of the subject-matter of it,
next of the forms of expression to which it gives birth, and afterwards
of its connection with harmony of sound.

Poetry is the language of the imagination and the passions. It re-
lates to whatever gives immediate pleasure or pain to the human mind.
It comes home to the bosoms and businesses of men ; for nothing
but what so comes home to them in the most general and intelligible
shape, can be a subject for poetry. Poetry is the universal language
which the heart holds with nature and itself. He who has a con-
tempt for poetry, cannot have much respect for himself, or for any
thing else. It is not a mere frivolous accomplishment, (as some
persons have been led to imagine) the trifling amusement of a few
idle readers or leisure hours — it has been the study and delight of
mankind in all ages. Many people suppose that poetry is something
to be found only in books, contained in lines of ten syllables, with
like endings : but wherever there is a sense of beauty, or power, or
harmony, as in the motion of a wave of the sea, in the growth of a
flower that ' spreads its sweet leaves to the air, and dedicates its
beauty to the sun,' — there is poetry, in its birth. If history is a grave
study, poetry may be said to be a graver : its materials lie deeper, and
A ' i


are spread wider. History treats, for the most part, of the cumbrous
and unwieldly masses of things, the empty cases in which the affairs of
the world are packed, under the heads of intrigue or war, in different
states, and from century to century : but there is no thought or feel-
ing that can have entered into the mind of man, which he would be
eager to communicate to others, or which they would listen to with
delight, that is not a fit subject for poetry. It is not a branch of
authorship : it is ' the stuff of which our life is made.' The rest is
' mere oblivion,' a dead letter : for all that is worth remembering in
life, is the poetry of it. Fear is poetry, hope is poetry, love is
poetry, hatred is poetry ; contempt, jealousy, remorse, admiration,
wonder, pity, despair, or madness, are all poetry. Poetry is that
fine particle within us, that expands, rarefies, refines, raises our whole
being : without it ' man's life is poor as beast's.' Man is a poetical
animal : and those of us who do not study the principles of poetry,
act upon them all our lives, like Moliere's Bourgeois Getitilhomme, who
had always spoken prose without knowing it. The child is a poet
in fact, when he first plays at hide-and-seek, or repeats the story of
Jack the Giant-killer ; the shepherd-boy is a poet, when he first
crowns his mistress with a garland of flowers ; the countryman, when
he stops to look at the rainbow ; the city-apprentice, when he gazes
after the Lord-Mayor's show ; the miser, when he hugs his gold ;
the courtier, who builds his hopes upon a smile ; the savage, who
paints his idol with blood ; the slave, who worships a tyrant, or the
tyrant, who fancies himself a god ; — the vain, the ambitious, the proud,
the choleric man, the hero and the coward, the beggar and the king,
the rich and the poor, the young and the old, all live in a world of
their own making ; and the poet does no more than describe what all
the others think and act. If his art is folly and madness, it is folly
and madness at second hand. ' There is warrant for it.' Poets
alone have not ' such seething brains, such shaping fantasies, that
apprehend more than cooler reason ' can.

' The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
.Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold ;
The madman. While the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heav'n to earth, from earth to heav'n ;
And a-, imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination.'


If poetry is a dream, the business of life is much the same. If
it is a fiction, made up of what we wish things to be, and fancy
that they are, because we wish them so, there is no other nor
better reality. Ariosto has described the loves of Angelica and
Medoro : but was not Medoro, who carved the name of his mistress
on the barks of trees, as much enamoured of her charms as he ?
Homer has celebrated the anger of Achilles : but was not the hero
as mad as the poet ? Plato banished the poets from his Common-
wealth, lest their descriptions of the natural man should spoil his
mathematical man, who was to be without passions and affections,
who was neither to laugh nor weep, to feel sorrow nor anger, to be
cast down nor elated by any thing. This was a chimera, however,
which never existed but in the brain of the inventor ; and Homer's
poetical world has outlived Plato's philosophical Republic.

Poetry then is an imitation of nature, but the imagination and the
passions are a part of man's nature. We shape things according to
our wishes and fancies, without poetry ; but poetry is the most
emphatical language that can be found for those creations of the
mind 'which ecstacy is very cunning in.' Neither a mere description
of natural objects, nor a mere delineation of natural feelings, however
distinct or forcible, constitutes the ultimate end and aim of poetry,
without the heightenings of the imagination. The light of poetry is
not only a direct but also a reflected light, that while it shews us the
object, throws a sparkling radiance on all around it : the flame of
the passions, communicated to the imagination, reveals to us, as with
a flash of lightning, the inmost recesses of thought, and penetrates our
whole being. Poetry represents forms chiefly as they suggest other
forms ; feelings, as they suggest forms or other feelings. Poetry puts
a spirit of life and motion into the universe. It describes the flowing,
not the fixed. It does not define the limits of sense, or analyze the
distinctions of the understanding, but signifies the excess of the
imagination beyond the actual or ordinary impression of any object
or feeling. The poetical impression of any object is that uneasy,
exquisite sense of beauty or power that cannot be contained within
itself; that is impatient of all limit; that (as flame bends to flame)
strives to link itself to some other image of kindred beauty or
grandeur ; to enshrine itself, as it were, in the highest forms of fancy,
and to relieve the aching sense of pleasure by expressing it in the
boldest manner, and by the most striking examples of the same quality
in other instances. Poetry, according to Lord Bacon, for this
reason, ' has something divine in it, because it raises the mind and
hurries it into sublimity, by conforming the shows of things to the
desires of the soul, instead of subjecting the soul to external things,



as reason and history do.' It is strictly the language of the imagina-
tion ; and the imagination is that faculty which represents objects,
not as they are in themselves, but as they are moulded by other
thoughts and feelings, into an infinite variety of shapes and combina-
tions of power. This language is not the less true to nature, because
it is false in point of fact ; but so much the more true and natural, if
it conveys the impression which the object under the influence or
passion makes on the mind. Let an object, for instance, be pre-
sented to the senses in a state of agitation or fear — and the imagination
will distort or magnify the object, and convert it into the likeness of
whatever is most proper to encourage the fear. ' Our eyes are made
the fools ' of our other faculties. This is the universal law of the

' That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some biinger of that joy :
Or in the night imagining some fear,
How easy is each bush suppos'd a hear ! '

When lachimo says of Imogen,

' The flame o' th 1 tapei

Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids
To see the enclosed lights" —

this passionate interpretation of the motion of the flame to accord
with the speaker's own feelings, is true poetry. The lover, equally
with the poet, speaks of the auburn tresses of his mistress as locks of
shining gold, because the least tinge of yellow in the hair has, from
novelty and a sense of personal beauty, a more lustrous effect to the
imagination than the purest gold. We compare a man of gigantic
stature to a tower : not that he is any thing like so large, but because
the excess of his size beyond what we are accustomed to expect, or
the usual size of things of the same class, produces by contrast a
greater feeling of magnitude and ponderous strength than another
object often times the same dimensions. The intensity of the feeling
makes up for the disproportion of the objects. Things are equal to
the imagination, which have the power of affecting the mind with an
equal degree of terror, admiration, delight, or love. When Lear
calls upon the heavens to avenge his cause, 'for they are old like
him,' there is nothing extravagant or impious in this sublime identifica-
•i in of his age with theirs; for there is no other image which could
do justice to the agonising sense of his wrongs and his despair !

Poetry is the high-wrought enthusiasm of fancy and feeling. As
in describing natural objects, it impregnates sensible impressions with



the forms of fancy, so it describes the feelings of pleasure or pain, by
blending them with the strongest movements of passion, and the most
striking forms of nature. Tragic poetry, which is the most im-
passioned species of it, strives to carry on the feeling to the utmost
point of sublimity or pathos, by all the force of comparison or con-
trast ; loses the sense of present suffering in the imaginary exaggeration
of it ; exhausts the terror or pity by an unlimited indulgence of it ;
grapples with impossibilities in its desperate impatience of restraint ;
throws us back upon the past, forward into the future ; brings every
moment of our being or object of nature in startling review before us;
and in the rapid whirl of events, lifts us from the depths of woe to
the highest contemplations on human life. When Lear says of
Edgar, • Nothing but his unkind daughters could have brought him
to this ; ' what a bewildered amazement, what a wrench of the
imagination, that cannot be brought to conceive of any other cause of
misery than that which has bowed it down, and absorbs all other
sorrow in its own ! His sorrow, like a flood, supplies the sources of
all other sorrow. Again, when he exclaims in the mad scene, 'The
little dogs and all, Tray, Blanche, and Sweetheart, see, they bark at
me!' it is passion lending occasion to imagination to make every
creature in league against him, conjuring up ingratitude and insult in
their least looked-for and most galling shapes, searching every thread
and fibre of his heart, and finding out the last remaining image of
respect or attachment in the bottom of his breast, only to torture and
kill it ! In like manner, the ' So I am ' of Cordelia gushes from her
heart like a torrent of tears, relieving it of a weight of love and of
supposed ingratitude, which had pressed upon it for years. What a
fine return of the passion upon itself is that in Othello — with what
a mingled agony of regret and despair he clings to the last traces of
departed happiness — when he exclaims,

' Oh now, for ever

Farewel the tranquil mind. Farewel content ;
Farewel the plumed troops and the big war,
That make ambition virtue ! Oh farewel !
Farewel the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war :
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
Th' immortal Jove's dread clamours counterfeit,
Farewel ! Othello's occupation's gone !'

How his passion lashes itself up and swells and rages like a tide in its


sounding course, when in answer to the doubts expressed of his
returning love, he says,

' Never, Iago. Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont :
Even so mv bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up.' —

The climax of his expostulation afterwards with Desdemona is at
that line,

' But there where I had gamer'd up my heart,
To be discarded thence ! ' —

One mode in which the dramatic exhibition or passion excites our
sympathy without raising our disgust is, that in proportion as it
sharpens the edge of calamity and disappointment, it strengthens the
desire of good. It enhances our consciousness of the blessing, by
making us sensible of the magnitude of the loss. The storm of
passion lays bare and shews us the rich depths of the human soul :
the whole of our existence, the sum total of our passions and pursuits,
of that which we desire and that which we dread, is brought before
us by contrast; the action and re-action are equal; the keenness of
immediate suffering only gives us a more intense aspiration after, and
a more intimate participation with the antagonist world of good ;
makes us drink deeper of the cup of human life ; tugs at the heart-
strings ; loosens the pressure about them ; and calls the springs of
thought and feeling into play with tenfold force.

Impassioned poetry is an emanation of the moral and intellectual
part of our nature, as well as of the sensitive — of the desire to know,
the will to act, and the power to feel ; and ought to appeal to these
different parts of our constitution, in order to be perfect. The
domestic or prose tragedy, which is thought to be the most natural,
is in this sense the least so, because it appeals almost exclusively to
one of these faculties, our sensibility. The tragedies of Moore and
Lillo, for this reason, however affecting at the time, oppress and lie
like a dead weight upon the mind, a load of misery which it is unable
to throw off: the tragedy of Shakspeare, which is true poetry, stirs
our inmost affections; abstracts evil from itself by combining it with
all the forms of imagination, and with the deepest workings of the
heart, and rouses the whole man within us.



The pleasure, however, derived from tragic poetry, is not any
thing peculiar to it as poetry, as a fictitious and fanciful thing. It is
not an anomaly of the imagination. It has its source and ground- work
in the common love of strong excitement. As Mr. Burke observes,
people flock to see a tragedy ; but if there were a public execution in
the next street, the theatre would very soon be empty. It is not
then the difference between fiction and reality that solves the difficulty.
Children are satisfied with the stories of ghosts and witches in plain
prose : nor do the hawkers of full, true, and particular accounts of
murders and executions about the streets, find it necessary to have
them turned into penny ballads, before they can dispose of these
interesting and authentic documents. The grave politician drives a
thriving trade of abuse and calumnies poured out against those whom
he makes his enemies for no other end than that he may live by them.
The popular preacher makes less frequent mention of heaven than of
hell. Oaths and nicknames are only a more vulgar sort of poetry or
rhetoric. We are as fond of indulging our violent passions as of
reading a description of those of others. We are as prone to make
a torment of our fears, as to luxuriate in our hopes of good. If it be
asked, Why we do so ? the best answer will be, Because we cannot
help it. The sense of power is as strong a principle in the mind as
the love of pleasure. Objects of terror and pity exercise the same
despotic control over it as those of love or beauty. It is as natural
to hate as to love, to despise as to admire, to express our hatred or
contempt, as our love or admiration.

' Masterless passion sways us to the mood
Of what it likes or loathes.''

Not that we like what we loathe ; but we like to indulge our
hatred and scorn of it ; to dwell upon it, to exasperate our idea of it
by every refinement of ingenuity and extravagance of illustration ; to
make it a bugbear to ourselves, to point it out to others in all the
splendour of deformity, to embody it to the senses, to stigmatise it by
name, to grapple with it in thought, in action, to sharpen our intellect,
to arm our will against it, to know the worst we have to contend
with, and to contend with it to the utmost. Poetry is only the
highest eloquence of passion, the most vivid form of expression that
can be given to our conception of any thing, whether pleasurable or
painful, mean or dignified, delightful or distressing. It is the perfect
coincidence of the image and the words with the feeling we have,
and of which we cannot get rid in any other way, that gives an instant
'satisfaction to the thought.' This is equally the origin of wit and


fancy, of comedy and tragedy, of the sublime and pathetic. When
Pope says of the Lord Mayor's shew, —

' Now night descending, the proud scene is o'er,
But lives in Settle's numbers one day more!'

— when Collins makes Danger, 'with limbs of giant mould,*

'Throw him on the steep

Of some loose hanging rock asleep : '

when Lear calls out in extreme anguish,

' Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend,
How much more hideous shew'st in a child
Than the sea-monster!'

. — the passion of contempt in the one case, of terror in the other, and
of indignation in the last, is perfectly satisfied. We see the thing
ourselves, and shew it to others as we feel it to exist, and as, in spite
of ourselves, we are compelled to think of it. The imagination, by
thus embodying and turning them to shape, gives an obvious relief to
the indistinct and importunate cravings of the will. — We do not
wish the thing to be so ; but we wish it to appear such as it is.
For knowledge is conscious power ; and the mind is no longer, in this
case, the dupe, though it may be the victim of vice or folly.

Poetry is in all its shapes the language of the imagination and the
passions, of fancy and will. Nothing, therefore, can be more absurd
than the outcry which has been sometimes raised by frigid and pedantic
critics, for reducing the language of poetry to the standard of common
sense and reason : tor the end and use ot poetry, ' both at the first
and now, was and is to hold the mirror up to nature,' seen through
the medium of passion and imagination, not divested of that medium
by means of literal truth or abstract reason. The painter of history
might as well be required to represent the face of a person who has
just trod upon a serpent with the still-life expression of a common
portrait, as the poet to describe the most striking and vivid impressions
which things can be supposed to make upon the mind, in the language
of common conversation. Let who will strip nature of the colours
and the shapes of fancy, the poet is not bound to do so ; the im-
pressions of common sense and strong imagination, that is, of passion
and indifference, cannot be the same, and they must have a separate
language to do justice to either. Objects must strike differently upon
the mind, independently of what they are in themselves, as long as
we have a different interest in them, as we 6ee them in a different
point of view, nearer or at a greater distance Amorally or physically



speaking) from novelty, from old acquaintance, from our ignorance
of them, from our fear of their consequences, from contrast, from
unexpected likeness. We can no more take away the faculty of
the imagination, than we can see all objects without light or shade.
Some things must dazzle us by their preternatural light ; others must
hold us in suspense, and tempt our curiosity to explore their obscurity.
Those who would dispel these various illusions, to give us their drab-

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 1 of 38)