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William Hazlitt.

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

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die deserts of Arabia. This last passage, profound and striking as
it is is not free from those faults of style which I have already
noti

' Breath'd hot

I rom all the boundless furnace of the sky,

And the wide-glitt'ring waste of burning sand,

A ^allocating wind the pilgrim smites

With instant death. Patient of thirst and toil,

Son of the desert, ev'n the camel feels

Shot through his wither'd heart the fiery blast.

Or from the black-red ether, bursting broad.

S:illies the sudden whirlwind. Straight the sands,

nmov'd around, in gath'ring eddies play;
Nearer and nearer still they dark'ning come,
Till with the genVal all-involving storm
Swept up, the whole continuous wilds arise,
And by their noon-day fount dejected thrown,



ON THOMSON AND COWPER

Or sunk at night in sad disastrous sleep,

Beneath descending hills the caravan

Is buried deep. In Cairo's crowded streets,

Th' impatient merchant, wond'ring, waits in vain ;

And Mecca saddens at the long delay.''

There are other passages of equal beauty with these ; sucli as that
of the hunted stag, followed by * the inhuman rout,'

-That from the shady depth



Expel him, circling through his ev'ry shift.
He sweeps the forest oft, and sobbing sees
The glades mild op'ning to the golden day.
Where in kind contest with his butting friends
He wont to struggle, or his loves enjoy.'

The whole of the description of the frozen zone, in the Winter, is
perhaps even finer and more thoroughly felt, as being done from early
associations, that that of the torrid zone in his Summer. Any thing
more beautiful than the following account of the Siberian exiles is, I
think, hardly to be found in the whole range of poetry.

'There through the prison of unbounded wilds,
Barr'd by the hand of nature from escape,
Wide roams the Russian exile. Nought around
Strikes his sad eye but deserts lost in snow,
And heavy-loaded groves, and solid floods,
That stretch athwart the solitary vast
Their icy horrors to the frozen main ;
And cheerless towns far distant, never bless'd,
Save when its annual course the caravan
Bends to the golden coast of rich Cathay,
With news of human kind.'

The feeling of loneliness, of distance, of lingering, slow-revolving
years of pining expectation, of desolation within and without the
heart, was never more finely expressed than it is here.

The account which follows of the employments of the Polar night
— of the journeys of the natives by moonlight, drawn by rein-deer,
and of the return of spring in Lapland —

' Where pure Niemi's fairy mountains rise,
And fring'd with roses Tenglio rolls his stream,'

is equally picturesque and striking in a different way. The traveller
lost in the snow, is a well-known and admirable dramatic episode. I
prefer, however, giving one example of our author's skill in painting
common domestic scenery, as it will bear a more immediate com-
parison with the style of some later writers on such subjects. It is of

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LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POElb

little consequence what passage we take. The following description;
of the first setting in of winter is, perhaps, as pleasing as any.

'Through the hush'd air the whitening shower descends,
At first thin wav'ring, till at last the flakes
Fall broad and wide, and fast, dimming the day
With a continual flow. The cherish'd fields
Put on their winter- robe of purest white :
'Tis brightness all, save where the new snow melt»
Along the mazy current. Low the woods
Bow their hoar head ; and ere the languid Sun,
Faint, from the West tmits his ev'ning ray,
Earth's universal face, deep hid, and chill,
Is one wide dazzling waste, that buries wide
The works of man. Drooping, the lab'rer-ox
Stands cover'd o'er with snow, and then demands
The fruit of all his toil. The fowls of heav'n,
Tam'd by the cruel season, crowd around
The winnowing store, and claim the little boon
Which Providence assigns them. One alone,
The red-breast, sacred to the household Gods,
Wisely regardful of the embroiling sky,
In joyless fields and thorny thickets leaves
His shivering mates, and pays to trusted man
His annual visit. Half-afraid, he first
Against the window beats ; then, brisk, alights
On the warm hearth ; then hopping o'er the floor,
Eyes all the smiling family askance,
And pecks, and starts, and wonders where he is :
Till more familiar grown, the table-crumbs
Attract his slender feet. The food less wilds
Pour forth their brown inhabitants. The hare,
Though timorous of heart, and hard beset
By death in various forms, dark snares and dogs,
And more unpitying men, the garden seeks,
Urg'd on by fearless want. The bleating kind
Eye the bleak heav'n, and next, the glist'ning earth,
With looks of dumb despair; then, sad dispers'd,
Dig for the wither' d herb through heaps of snow.'

It is thus that Thomson always gives a moral sense to nature.

Thomson's blank verse is not harsh, or utterly untuneable ; but it
is heavy and monotonous ; it seems always labouring up-hill. The
selections which have been made from his works in Enfield's
Speaker, and other books of extracts, do not convey the most favour-
able idea of his genius or taste ; such as Palemon and Lavinia, Damon
and Musidora, Celadon and Amelia. Those parts of any author
which are most liable to be stitched in worsted, and framed and

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ON THOMSON AND COWPER

glazed, are not by any means always the best. The moral descriptions
and reflections in the Seasons are in an admirable spirit, and written
with great force and fervour.

His poem on Liberty is not equally good : his Muse was too easy
and good-natured for the subject, which required as much indignation
against unjust and arbitrary power, as complacency in the constitutional
monarchy, under which, just after the expulsion of the Stuarts and
the establishment of the House of Hanover, in contempt of the claims
of hereditary pretenders to the throne, Thomson lived. Thomson
was but an indifferent hater ; and the most indispensable part of the
love of liberty has unfortunately hitherto been the hatred of tyranny.
Spleen is the soul of patriotism, and of public good : but you would
not expect a man who has been seen eating peaches off a tree with
both hands in his waistcoat pockets, to be ' overrun with the spleen,'
or to heat himself needlessly about an abstract proposition.

His plays are liable to the same objection. They are never acted,
and seldom read. The author could not, or would not, put himself
out of his way, to enter into the situations and passions of others,
particularly of a tragic kind. The subject of Tancred and Sigismunda,
which is taken from a serious episode in Gil Bias, is an admirable
one, but poorly handled : the ground may be considered as still
unoccupied.

Cowper, whom I shall speak of in this connection, lived at a
considerable distance of time after Thomson ; and had some advantages
over him, particularly in simplicity of style, in a certain precision and
minuteness of graphical description, and in a more careful and leisurely
choice of such topics only as his genius and peculiar habits of mind
prompted him to treat of. The Task has fewer blemishes than the
Seasons ; but it has not the same capital excellence, the ' unbought
grace ' of poetry, the power of moving and infusing the warmth of the
author's mind into that of the reader. If Cowper had a more
polished taste, Thomson had, beyond comparison, a more fertile
genius, more impulsive force, a more entire forgetfulness of himself
in his subject. If in Thomson you are sometimes offended with the
slovenliness of the author by profession, determined to get through
his task at all events ; in Cowper you are no less dissatisfied with the
finicalness of the private gentleman, who does not care whether he
completes his work or not ; and in whatever he does, is evidently
more solicitous to please himself than the public. There is an
effeminacy about him, which shrinks from and repels common and
hearty sympathy. With all his boasted simplicity and love of the
country, he seldom launches out into general descriptions of nature :
he looks at her over his clipped hedges, and from his well-swept

9 1



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

garden-walks ; or if he makes a bolder experiment now and then,
it is with an air of precaution, as if he were afraid of being caught in
a shower of rain, or of not being able, in case of any untoward
accident, to make good his retreat home. He shakes hands with
nature with a pair of fashionable gloves on, and leads ' his Vashti '
forth to public view with a look of consciousness and attention to
etiquette, as a fine gentleman hands a lady out to dance a minuet.
He is delicate to fastidiousness, and glad to get back, after a romantic
adventure with crazy Kate, a party of gypsies or a little child on
a common, to the drawing room and the ladies again, to the sofa and
the tea-kettle — No, I beg his pardon, not to the sinking, well-scoured
tea-kettle, but to the polished and loud-hissing urn. His walks and
arbours are kept clear of worms and snails, with as much an appear-
ance of petit-maitresbip as of humanity. He has some of the sickly
sensibility and pampered refinements of Pope ; but then Pope prided
himself in them : whereas, Cowper affects to be all simplicity and
plainness. He had neither Thomson's love of the unadorned beauties
of nature, nor Pope's exquisite sense of the elegances of art. He
was, in fact, a nervous man, afraid of trusting himself to the seductions
of the one, and ashamed of putting forward his pretensions to an
intimacy with the other : but to be a coward, is not the way to
succeed either in poetry, in war, or in love ! Still he is a genuine
poet, and deserves all his reputation. His worst vices are amiable
weaknesses, elegant trifling. Though there is a frequent dryness,
timidity, and jejuneness in his manner, he has left a number of
pictures of domestic comfort and social refinement, as well as of
natural imagery and feeling, which can hardly be forgotten but with
the language itself. Such, among others, are his memorable descrip-
tion of the post coming in, that of the preparations for tea in a winter's
evening in the country, of the unexpected fall of snow, of the frosty
morning (with the fine satirical transition to the Empress of Russia's
palace of ice), and most of all, the winter's walk at noon. Every
one of these may be considered as distinct studies, or highly finished
cabinet-pieces, arranged without order or coherence. I shall be
excused for giving the last of them, as what has always appeared
to me one of the most feeling, elegant, and perfect specimens of this
writer's manner.

' I he Dight was winter in his roughest moodj
The morning sharp and clear. But now at noon

■n the southern side of the slant lulls,
And where the woods fence off the northern blast,
The season smiles, resigning all its rage,
And has the warmth of May. The vault is blue,
9 2



ON THOMSON AND COWPER

Without a cloud, and white without a speck

The dazzling splendour of the scene below.

Again the harmony comes o'er the vale ;

And through the trees I view th' embattled tow'r,

Whence all the music. I again perceive

The soothing influence of the wafted strains,

And settle in soft musings as I tread

The walk, still verdant, under oaks and elms,

Whose outspread branches overarch the glade.

The roof, though moveable through all its length,

As the wind sways it, has yet well sufiic'd,

And, intercepting in their silent fall

The frequent flakes, has kept a path for me.

No noise is here, or none that hinders thought.

The redbreast warbles still, but is content

With slender notes, and more than half suppress'd.

Pleas'd with his solitude, and flitting light

From spray to spray, where'er he rests he shake?

From many a twig the pendent drop of ice,

That tinkle in the wither'd leaves below.

Stillness, accompanied with sounds so soft,

Charms more than silence. Meditation here

May think down hours to moments. Here the heart

May give a useful lesson to the head,

And Learning wiser grow without his books.

Knowledge and Wisdom, far from being one.

Have oft-times no connection. Knowledge dwells

In heads replete with thoughts of other men ;

Wisdom in minds attentive to their own.

Books are not seldom talismans and spells,

By which the magic art of shrewder wits

Holds an unthinking multitude enthrall'd.

Some to the fascination of a name

Surrender judgment hood-wink'd. Some the style

Infatuates, and through labyrinths and wilds

Of error leads them, by a tune entranc'd,

While sloth seduces more, too weak to bear

The insupportable fatigue of thought,

And swallowing therefore without pause or choice

The total grist unsifted, husks and all.

But trees, and rivulets whose rapid course

Defies the check of winter, haunts of deer,

And sheep-walks populous with bleating lambs,

And lanes, in which the primrose ere her time

Peeps through the moss that clothes the hawthorn root.

Deceive no student. Wisdom there, and truth,

Not shy, as in the world, and to be won

By slow solicitation, seize at once

The roving thought, and fix it on themselves.'

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LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

His satire is also excellent. It is pointed and forcible, with the
polished manners of the gentleman, and the honest indignation of the
virtuous man. His religious poetry, except where it takes a tincture
of controversial heat, wants elevation and fire. His Muse had not
a seraph's wing. I might refer, in illustration of this opinion, to
the laboured anticipation of the Millennium at the end of the sixth
book. He could describe a piece of shell-work as well as any
modern poet : but he could not describe the New Jerusalem so well
as John Bunyan ; — nor are his verses on Alexander Selkirk so good
as Robinson Crusoe. The one is not so much like a vision, nor is
the other so much like the reality.

The first volume of Cowper's poems has, however, been less read
than it deserved. The comparison in these poems of the proud and
humble believer to the peacock and the pheasant, and the parallel
between Voltaire and the poor cottager, are exquisite pieces of
eloquence and poetry, particularly the last.

' Yon cottager, who weaves at her own door,
Pillow and bobbins all her little store ;
Content though mean, and cheerful if not gay,
Shuffling her threads about the live-long day,
Just earns a scanty pittance, and at night,
Lies down secure, her heart and pocket light ;
She, for her humble sphere by nature fit,
Has little understanding, and no wit,
Receives no praise ; but, though her lot be such,
(Toilsome and indigent) she renders much ;
Just knows, and knows no more, her Bible true —
A truth the brilliant Frenchman never knew;
And in that charter reads with sparkling eyes
Her title to a treasure in the skies.

O happy peasant ! Oh unhappy bard !
His the mere tinsel, hers the rich reward;
He praisM, perhaps, for ages yet to come,
She never heard of half a mile from home:
He lost in errors his vain heart prefers,
She safe in the simplicity of hers.'

His character ot Whitfield, in the poem on Hope, is one ot his
most spirited and striking things. It is written con amore.

' But if, unblameable in word and thought,
A man arise, a man whom God has taught,
With all Elijah's dignity of tone,
And all the love of the beloved John,
To storm the citadels they build in air,
To smite the untemper'd wall ('tis death to spare,)
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ON THOMSON AND COWPER

To sweep away all refuges of lies,

And place, instead of quirks, themselves devise,

Lama Sabachthani before their eyes ;

To show that without Christ all gain is loss,

All hope despair that stands not on his cross ;

Except a few his God may have impressed,

A tenfold phrensy seizes all the rest.'

These lines were quoted, soon after their appearance, by the Monthly
Reviewers, to shew that Cowper was no poet, though they afterwards
took credit to themselves for having been the first to introduce his
verses to the notice of the public. It is not a little remarkable that
these same critics regularly damned, at its first coming out, every
work which has since acquired a standard reputation with the public.
— Cowper's verses on his mother's picture, and his lines to Mary,
are some of the most pathetic that ever were written. His stanzas on
the loss of the Royal George have a masculine strength and feeling
beyond what was usual with him. The story of John Gilpin has
perhaps given as much pleasure to as many people as any thing of the
same length that ever was written.

His life was an unhappy one. It was embittered by a morbid
affection, and by his religious sentiments. Nor are we to wonder at
this, or bring it as a charge against religion ; for it is the nature of
the poetical temperament to carry every thing to excess, whether it
be love, religion, pleasure, or pain, as we may see in the case of
Cowper and of Burns, and to find torment or rapture in that in which
others merely find a resource from ennui., or a relaxation from common
occupation.

There are two poets still living who belong to the same class of
excellence, and of whom I shall here say a few words ; I mean
Crabbe, and Robert Bloomfield, the author of the Farmer's Boy.
As a painter of simple natural scenery, and of the still life of the
country, few writers have more undeniable and unassuming pre-
tensions than the ingenious and self-taught poet, last-mentioned.
Among the sketches of this sort I would mention, as equally distin-
guished for delicacy, faithfulness, and naivete, his description of
lambs racing, of the pigs going out an acorning, of the boy sent to
feed his sheep before the break of day in winter ; and I might add
the innocently told story of the poor bird-boy, who in vain through
the live-long day expects his promised companions at his hut, to
share his feast of roasted sloes with him, as an example of that
humble pathos, in which this author excels. The fault indeed of
his genius is that it is too humble : his Muse has something not
only rustic, but menial in her aspect. He seems afraid of elevating

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LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

nature, lest she should be ashamed of him. Bloomfield very
beautifully describes the lambs in springtime as racing round the
hillocks of green turf: Thomson, in describing the same image,
makes the mound of earth the remains of an old Roman encampment.
Bloomfield never gets beyond his own experience ; and that is some-
what confined. He gives the simple appearance of nature, but he
gives it naked, shivering, and unclothed with the drapery of a moral
imagination. His poetry has much the effect of the first approach
of spring, 'while yet the year is unconfirmed,' where a few tender
buds venture forth here and there, but are chilled by the early frosts
and nipping breath of poverty. — It should seem from this and other
instances that have occurred within the last century, that we cannot
expect from original genius alone, without education, in modern and
more artificial periods, the same bold and independent results as in
former periods. And one reason appears to be, that though such
persons, from whom we might at first expect a restoration of the good
old times of poetry, are not encumbered and enfeebled by the
trammels of custom, and the dull weight of other men's ideas ; yet
they are oppressed by the consciousness of a want of the common
advantages which others have ; are looking at the tinsel finery of the
age, while they neglect the rich unexplored mine in their own breasts;
and instead of setting an example for the world to follow, spend their
lives in aping, or in the despair of aping, the hackneyed accomplish-
ments of their inferiors. Another cause may be, that original genius
aione is not sufficient to produce the highest excellence, without a
corresponding state of manners, passions, and religious belief: that no
single mind can move in direct opposition to the vast machine of the
world around it ; that the poet can do no more than stamp the mind
of his age upon his works ; and that all that the ambition of the highest
is can hope to arrive at, after the lapse of one or two generations,
is the perfection of that more refined and effeminate style of studied
elegance and adventitious ornament, which is the result, not of nature,
but of art. In fact, no other style of poetry has succeeded, or seems
likely to succeed, in the present day. The public taste hangs like a
millstone round the neck of all original genius that does not conform
to established and exclusive models. The writer is not only without
popular sympathy, but without a rich and varied mass of materials
for his mind to work upon and assimilate unconsciously to itself; his
attempts at originality are looked upon as affectation, and in the end,
degenerate into it from the natural spirit of contradiction, and the
constant uneasy sense of disappointment and undeserved ridicule.
But to return.

Crabbe is, if not the most natural, the most literal of our descriptive

9 6



ON THOMSON AND COWPER

poets. He exhibits the smallest circumstances of the smallest things.
He gives the very costume of meanness ; the nonessentials of every
trifling incident. He is his own landscape-painter, and engraver too.
His pastoral scenes seem pricked on paper in little dotted lines. He
describes the interior of a cottage like a person sent there to distrain
for rent. He has an eye to the number of arms in an old worm-
eaten ch^ir, and takes care to inform himself and the reader whether a
joint-stool stands upon three legs or upon four. If a settle by the
fire-side stands awry, it gives him as much disturbance as a tottering
world ; and he records the rent in a ragged counterpane as an event
in history. He is equally curious in his back-grounds and in his
figures. You know the christian and surnames of every one of his
heroes, — the dates of their achievements, whether on a Sunday or a
Monday, — their place of birth and burial, the colour of their clothes,
and of their hair, and whether they squinted or not. He takes an
inventory of the human heart exactly in the same manner as of the
furniture of a sick room : his sentiments have very much the air of
fixtures ; he gives you the petrifaction of a sigh, and carves a tear, to
the life, in stone. Almost all his characters are tired of their lives,
and you heartily wish them dead. They remind one of anatomical
preservations ; or may be said to bear the same relation to actual life
that a stuffed cat in a glass-case does to the real one purring on the
hearth : the skin is the same, but the life and the sense of heat is gone.
Crabbe's poetry is like a museum, or curiosity-shop : every thing has
the same posthumous appearance, the same inanimateness and identity
of character. If Bloomrield is too much of the Farmer's Boy, Crabbe
is too much of the parish beadle, an overseer of the country poor. He
has no delight beyond the walls of a workhouse, and his officious zeal
would convert the world into a vast infirmary. He is a kind of
Ordinary, not of Newgate, but of nature. His poetical morality is taken
from Burn's Justice, or the Statutes against Vagrants. He sets his own
imagination in the stocks, and his Muse, like Malvolio, ' wears cruel
garters.' He collects all the petty vices of the human heart, and
superintends, as in a panopticon, a select circle of rural malefactors.
He makes out the poor to be as bad as the rich — a sort of vermin for
the others to hunt down and trample upon, and this he thinks a good
piece of work. With him there are but two moral categories, riches
and poverty, authority and dependence. His parish apprentice,
Richard Monday, and his wealthy baronet, Sir Richard Monday, of
Monday-place, are the same individual — the extremes of the same
character, and of his whole system. ' The latter end of his Common-
wealth does not forget the beginning.' But his parish ethics are
the very worst model for a state : any thing more degrading and
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LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

helpless cannot well be imagined. He exhibits just the contrary
view of human life to that which Gay has done in his Beggar's
Opera. In a word, Crabbe is the only poet who has attempted and
succeeded in the still life of tragedy : who gives the stagnation of
hope and fear — the deformity of vice without the temptation — the
Vain of sympathy without the interest — and who seems to rely, for
the delight he is to convey to his reader, on the truth and accuracy
with which he describes only what is disagreeable.

The best descriptive poetry is not, after all, to be found in our



Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 10 of 38)