William Hazlitt.

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

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descriptive poets. There are set descriptions of the flowers, for
instance, in Thomson, Cowper, and others ; but none equal to those
in Milton's Lycidas, and in the Winter's Tale.

We have few good pastorals in the language. Our manners are
not Arcadian ; our climate is not an eternal spring ; our age is not
the age of gold. We have no pastoral-writers equal to Theocritus,
nor any landscapes like those of Claude Lorraine. The best parts of
Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar are two fables, Mother Hubberd's
Tale, and the Oak and the Briar ; which last is as splendid a piece
ot oratory as any to be found in the records of the eloquence of the
British senate ! Browne, who came after Spenser, and Withers,
have left some pleasing allegorical poems of this kind. Pope's are as
full of senseless finery and trite affectation, as if a peer of the realm
were to sit for his picture with a crook and cocked hat on, smiling
with an insipid air of no-meaning, between nature and fashion. Sir
Philip Sidney's Arcadia is a lasting monument of perverted power ;
where an image of extreme beauty, as that of ' the shepherd boy
piping as though he should never be old,' peeps out once in a hundred
folio pages, amidst heaps of intricate sophistry and scholastic quaint-
It is not at all like Nicholas Poussin's picture, in which he
represents some shepherds wandering out in a morning of the spring,
and coming to a tomb with this inscription — ' I also was an Arcadian ! '
Perhaps the best pastoral in the language is that prose-poem, Walton's
Complete Angler. That well-known work has a beauty and romantic
interest equal to its simplicity, and arising out of it. In the descrip
tion of a fishing-tackle, you perceive the piety and humanity of the
author's mind. It is to be doubted whether Sannazarius's Piscatory
oguee are equal to the scenes described by Walton on the banks
or the river Lea. He gives the feeling of the open air : we walk
with him along the dusty road-side, or repose on the banks of the
river under a shady tree ; and in watching for the finny prey, imbibe
what he beautifully calls ' the patience and simplicity of poor honest
fishermen.' We accompany them to their inn at night, and partake
of their simple, but delicious fare ; while Maud, the pretty milk-maid,



at her mother's desire, sings the classical ditties of the poet Marlow;
' Come live with me, and be my love.' Good cheer is not neglected
in this work, any more than in Homer, or any other history that sets
a proper value on the good things of this life. The prints in the
Complete Angler give an additional reality and interest to the scenes
it describes. While Tottenham Cross shall stand, and longer, thy
work, amiable and happy old man, shall last !— It is in the notes to
it that we find that character of ' a fair and happy milkmaid,' by Sir
Thomas Overbury, which may vie in beauty and feeling with
Chaucer's character of Griselda.

' A fair and happy milk-maid is a country wench that is so far from
making herself beautiful by art, that one look of her's is able to put all
face-physic out of countenance. She knows a fair look is but a dumb
orator to commend virtue, therefore minds it not. All her excellences
stand in her so silently, as if they had stolen upon her without her know-
ledge. The lining of her apparel (which is herself) is far better than
outsides of tissue; for though she be not arrayed in the spoil of the silk-
worm, she is decked in innocency, a far better wearing. She doth not,
with lying long in bed, spoil both her complexion and conditions. Nature
hath taught her, too immoderate sleep is rust to the soul : she rises therefore
with chanticleer, her dame's cock, and at night makes the lamb her curfew.
Her breath is her own, which scents all the year long of June, like a new-
made haycock. She makes her hand hard with labour, and her heart soft
with pity ; and when winter evenings fall early (sitting at her merry wheel)
she sings a defiance to the giddy wheel of Fortune. She doth all things
with so sweet a grace, it seems ignorance will not suffer her to do ill, bein^
her mind is to do well. She bestows her year's wages at next fair ; and in
choosing her garments, counts no bravery in the world like decency. The
garden and bee-hive are all her physic and chirurgery, and she lives the
longer for't. She dares go alone, and unfold sheep in the night, and fears
no manner of ill, because she means none : yet, to say the truth, she is
never alone, for she is still accompanied with old songs, honest thoughts,
and prayers, but short ones ; yet they have their efficacy, in that they are
not palled with ensuing idle cogitations. Lastly, her dreams are so chaste,
that she dare tell them $ only a Friday's dream is all her superstition ; that
she conceals for fear of anger. Thus lives she ,• and all her care is she
may die in the spring-time, to have store of flowers stuck upon her

The love of the country has been sung by poets, and echoed by
philosophers ; but the first have not attempted, and the last have been
greatly puzzled to account for it. I do not know that any one has
ever explained, satisfactorily, the true source of this feeling, or of that
soothing emotion which the sight of the country, or a lively descrip-
tion of rural objects hardly ever fails to infuse into the mind. Some
have ascribed this feeling to the natural beauty of the objects them



selves ; others to the freedom from care, the silence and tranquillity
which scenes of retirement afford ; others to the healthy and innocent
employments of a country life ; others to the simplicity of country
manners, and others to a variety of different causes ; but none to the
right one. All these, indeed, have their effect ; but there is another
principal one which has not been touched upon, or only slightly
glanced at. I will not, however, imitate Mr. Home Tooke, who
after enumerating seventeen different definitions of the verb, and
laughing at them all as deficient and nugatory, at the end of two
quarto volumes does not tell us what the verb really is, and has left
posterity to pluck out ' the heart of his mystery.' I will say at once
what it is that distinguishes this interest from others, and that is its
abstractedness. The interest we feel in human nature is exclusive,
and confined to the individual ; the interest we feel in external nature
is common, and transferable from one object to all others of the same
class. Thus.

Rousseau in his Confessions relates, that when he took possession
of his room at Annecy, he found that he could see 'a little spot ot
green ' from his window, which endeared his situation the more to
him, because, he says, it was the first time he had had this object
constantly before him since he left Boissy, the place where he was at
school when a child. 1 Some such feeling as that here described will
be found lurking at the bottom of all our attachments of this sort.
W ere it not for the recollections habitually associated with them,
natural objects could not interest the mind in the manner they do.
No doubt, the sky is beautiful, the clouds sail majestically along its
bosom ; the sun is cheering ; there is something exquisitely graceful
in the manner in which a plant or tree puts forth its branches ; the
motion with which they bend and tremble in the evening breeze is
soft and lovely ; there is music in the babbling of a brook ; the view
from the top of a mountain is full of grandeur ; nor can we behold
the ocean with indifference. Or, as the Minstrel sweetly sings,

' Oh, how canst thou renounce the boundless store
Of charms which Nature to her votary yields !
The warbling woodland, the resounding shore,
The pomp of groves, and garniture of fields;
All that the genial ray of morning gilds,

And all that echoes to the song of even,
All that the mountain's sheltering bosom shields,
And all the dread magnificence of heaven,
O!), how canst thou renounce, and hope to be forgiven !*

1 Pope also declares that he had a particular regard for an old post vihich stood
in the court-yard before the house where he was brought up.


It is not, however, the beautiful and magnificent alone that we
admire in Nature ; the most insignificant and rudest objects are often
found connected with the strongest emotions ; we become attached to
the most common and familiar images, as to the face of a friend whom
we have long known, and from whom we have received many benefits.
It is because natural objects have been associated with the sports of
our childhood, with air and exercise, with our feelings in solitude,
when the mind takes the strongest hold of things, and clings with
the fondest interest to whatever strikes its attention ; with change of
place, the pursuit of new scenes, and thoughts of distant friends ; it is
because they have surrounded us in almost all situations, in joy and in
sorrow, in pleasure and in pain ; because they have been one chief
source and nourishment of our feelings, and a part of our being, that
we love them as we do ourselves.

There is, generally speaking, the same foundation for our love ot
Nature as for all our habitual attachments, namely, association of
ideas. But this is not all. That which distinguishes this attachment
from others is the transferable nature of our feelings with respect to
physical objects ; the associations connected with any one object
extending to the whole class. Our having been attached to any
particular person does not make us feel the same attachment to the
next person we may chance to meet ; but, if we have once associated
strong feelings of delight with the objects of natural scenery, the tie
becomes indissoluble, and we shall ever after feel the same attachment
to other objects of the same sort. I remember when I was abroad,
the trees, and grass, and wet leaves, rustling in the walks of the
Thuilleries, seemed to be as much English, to be as much the same
trees and grass, that I had always been used to, as the sun shining
over my head was the same sun which I saw in England ; the faces
only were foreign to me. Whence comes this difference ? It arises
from our always imperceptibly connecting the idea of the individual
with man, and only the idea of the class with natural objects. In the
one case, the external appearance or physical structure is the least
thing to be attended to ; in the other, it is every thing. The springs
that move the human form, and make it friendly or adverse to me, lie
hid within it. There is an infinity of motives, passions, and ideas,
contained in that narrow compass, of which I know nothing, and in
which I have no share. Each individual is a world to himself,
governed by a thousand contradictory and wayward impulses. I can,
therefore, make no inference from one individual to another ; nor can
my habitual sentiments, with respect to any individual, extend beyond
himself to others. A crowd of people presents a disjointed, confused,
and unsatisfactory appearance to the eye, because there is nothing to




connect the motley assemblage into one continuous or general im-
pression, unless when there is some common object of interest to fix
their attention, as in the case of a full pit at the play-house. The
same principle will also account for that feeling of littleness, vacuity,
and perplexity, which a stranger feels on entering the streets of a
populous city. Every individual he meets is a blow to his personal
identity. Every new face is a teazing, unanswered riddle. He feels
the same wearisome sensation in walking from Oxford Street to
Temple Bar, as a person would do who should be compelled to read
through the first leaf of all the volumes in a library. But it is other-
wise with respect to nature. A flock of sheep is not a contemptible,
but a beautiful sight. The greatest number and variety of physical
objects do not puzzle the will, or distract the attention, but are
massed together under one uniform and harmonious feeling. The
heart reposes in greater security on the immensity of Nature's works,
* expatiates freely there,' and finds elbow room and breathing space.
We are always at home with Nature. There is neither hvpocrisy,
caprice, nor mental reservation in her favours. Our intercourse with
her is not liable to accident or change, suspicion or disappointment :
she smiles on us still the same. A rose is always sweet, a lily is
always beautiful : we do not hate the one, nor envy the other. If
we have once enjoyed the cool shade of a tree, and been lulled into a
deep repose by the sound of a brook running at its foot, we are sure
that wherever we can find a shady stream, we can enjoy the same
pleasure again ; so that when we imagine these objects, we can easily
form a mystic personification of the friendly power that inhabits them,
Dryad or Naiad, offering its cool fountain or its tempting shade.
Hence the origin of the Grecian mythology. All objects of the
same kind being the same, not only in their appearance, but in their
practical uses, we habitually confound them together under the same
general idea ; and whatever fondness we may have conceived for one,
is immediately placed to the common account. The most opposite
kinds and remote trains of feeling gradually go to enrich the same
sentiment; and in our love of nature, there is all the force of in-
dividual attachment, combined witli the most airy abstraction. It is
this circumstance which gives that refinement, expansion, and wild
interest, to feelings of this sort, when strongly excited, which every
one must have experienced who is a true lover of nature.

It is the same setting sun that we see and remember year after
year, through summer and winter, seed-time and harvest. The moon
that shines above our heads, or plays through the checquered shade,
is the same moon that we used to read of in Mrs. Radcliffe's
romances. We see no difference in the trees first covered with leaves

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in the spring. The dry reeds rustling on the side of a stream — the
woods swept by the loud blast — the dark massy foliage of autumn —
the grey trunks and naked branches of the trees in winter — the
sequestered copse, and wide-extended heath — the glittering sunny
showers, and December snows — are still the same, or accompanied
with the same thoughts and feelings : there is no object, however
trifling or rude, that does not in some mood or other find its way into
the heart, as a link in the chain of our living being ; and this it is that
makes good that saying of the poet —

' To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.'

Thus nature is a kind of universal home, and every object it presents
to us an old acquaintance with unaltered looks ; for there is that
consent and mutual harmony among all her works, one undivided
spirit pervading them throughout, that to him who has well acquainted
himself with them, they speak always the same well-known language,
striking on the heart, amidst unquiet thoughts and the tumult of the
world, like the music of one's native tongue heard in some far-off

4 My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky :

So was it when my life began,

So is it now I am a man,

So shall it be when I grow old and die.

The child 's the father of the man,

And I would have my years to be

Linked each to each by natural piety.'

The daisy that first strikes the child's eye in trying to leap over
his own shadow, is the same flower that with timid upward glance
implores the grown man not to tread upon it. Rousseau, in one of
his botanical excursions, meeting with the periwinkle, fell upon his
knees, crying out — Ah ! voi/a de la pevuenche ! It was because
he had thirty years before brought home the same flower with him
in one of his rambles with Madame de Warens, near Chambery. It
struck him as the same identical little blue flower that he remembered
so well ; and thirty years of sorrow and bitter regret were effaced
from his memory. That, or a thousand other flowers of the same
name, were the same to him, to the heart, and to the eye ; but there
was but one Madame Warens in the world, whose image was never
absent from his thoughts ; with whom flowers and verdure sprung up
beneath his feet, and without whom all was cold and barren in nature
and in his own breast. The cuckoo, ' that wandering voice,' that



comes and goes with the spring, mocks our ears with one note from
youth to age ; and the lapwing, screaming round the traveller's path,
repeats for ever the same sad story of Tereus and Philomel !



I shall in the present Lecture go back to the age of Queen Anne,
and endeavour to give a cursory account of the most eminent of our
poets, of whom I have not already spoken, from that period to the

The three principal poets among the wits of Queen Anne's reign,
next to Pope, were Prior, Swift, and Gay. Parnell, though a good-
natured, easy man, and a friend to poets and the Muses, was himself
little more than an occasional versifier ; and Arbuthnot, who had as
much wit as the best of them, chose to shew it in prose, and not in
verse. He had a very notable share in the immortal History of John
Bull, and the inimitable and praise-worthy Memoirs of Martinus
Scriblerus. There has been a great deal said and written about the
plagiarisms of Sterne ; but the only real plagiarism he has been guilty
of (if such theft were a crime), is in taking Tristram Shandy's father
from Martin's, the elder Scriblerus. The original idea of the
character, that is, of the opinionated, captious old gentleman, who is
pedantic, not from profession, but choice, belongs to Arbuthnot. —
Arbuthnot's style is distinguished from that of his contemporaries,
even by a greater degree of terseness and conciseness. He leaves out
every superfluous word ; is sparing of connecting particles, and intro-
ductory phrases ; uses always the simplest forms of construction ; and
is more a master of the idiomatic peculiarities and internal resources
of the language than almost any other writer. There is a research in
the choice of a plain, as well as of an ornamented or learned style ;
and, in fact, a great deal more. Among common English words,
there may be ten expressing the same thing with different degrees of
force and propriety, and only one of them the very word we want,
because it is the only one that answers exactly with the idea we have
in our minds. Each word in familiar use has a different set of
associations and shades of meaning attached to it, and distinguished
from each other by inveterate custom ; and it is in having the whole
of these at our command, and in knowing which to choose, as they
are called for by the occasion, that the perfection of a pure conversa-
tional prose-style consists. But in writing a florid and artificial style,

1 04


neither the same range of invention, nor the same quick, sense of pro-
priety — nothing but learning is required. If you know the words,
and their general meaning, it is sufficient : it is impossible you should
know the nicer inflections of signification, depending on an endless
variety of application, in expressions borrowed from a foreign or dead
language. They all impose upon the ear alike, because they are not
familiar to it ; the only distinction left is between the pompous and
the plain ; the sesquipedalia verba have this advantage, that they are
all of one length ; and any words are equally fit for a learned style,
so that we have never heard them before. Themistocles thought
that the same sounding epithets could not suit all subjects, as the
same dress does not fit all persons. The style of our modern prose-
writers is very fine in itself; but it wants variety of inflection and
adaptation ; it hinders us from seeing the differences of the things it
undertakes to describe.

What I have here insisted on will be found to be the leading dis-
tinction between the style of Swift, Arbuthnot, Steele, and the other
writers of the age of Queen Anne, and the style of Dr. Johnson,
which succeeded to it. The one is English, and the other is not.
The writers first mentioned, in order to express their thoughts, looked
about them for the properest word to convey any idea, that the
language which they spoke, and which their countrymen understood,
afforded : Dr. Johnson takes the first English word that offers, and
by translating it at a venture into the first Greek or Latin word he
can think of, only retaining the English termination, produces an
extraordinary effect upon the reader, by much the same sort of
mechanical process that Trim converted the old jack-boots into a pair
of new mortars.

Dr. Johnson was a lazy learned man, who liked to think and talk,
better than to read or write ; who, however, wrote much and well,
but too often by rote. His long compound Latin phrases required
less thought, and took up more room than others. What shews the
facilities afforded by this style of imposing generalization, is, that it
was instantly adopted with success by all those who were writers by
profession, or who were not; and that at present, we cannot see a
lottery puff or a quack advertisement pasted against a wall, that is
not perfectly Johnsonian in style. Formerly, the learned had the
privilege of translating their notions into Latin; and a great privilege
it was, as it confined the reputation and emoluments of learning to
themselves. Dr. Johnson may be said to have naturalised this
privilege, by inventing a sort of jargon translated half-way out of one
language into the other, which raised the Doctor's reputation, and
confounded all ranks in literature.



In the short period above alluded to, authors professed to write as
other men spoke; every body now affects to speak as authors write; and
any one who retains the use of his mother tongue, either in writing or
conversation, is looked upon as a very illiterate character.

Prior and Gay belong, in the characteristic excellences of their
t.tyle, to the same class of writers with Suckling, Rochester, and
Sedley : the former imbibed most of the licentious levity of the age
of Charles u. and carried it on beyond the Revolution under King
William. Prior has left no single work equal to Gay's Fables, or
the Beggar's Opera. But in his lyrical and fugitive pieces he has
shown even more genius, more playfulness, more mischievous gaiety.
No one has exceeded him in the laughing grace with which he glances
at a subject that will not bear examining, with which he gently hints
at what cannot be directly insisted on, with which he half con-
ceals, and half draws aside the veil from some of the Muses' nicest
mysteries. His Muse is, in fact, a giddy wanton flirt, who spends
her time in playing at snap-dragon and blind-man's buff, who tells
what she should not, and knows more than she tells. She laughs
at the tricks she shews us, and blushes, or would be thought to do so,
at what she keeps concealed. Prior has translated several of Fontaine's
Tales from the French ; and they have lost nothing in the translation,
either of their wit or malice. I need not name them : but the one I
like the most, is that of Cupid in search of Venus's doves. No one
could insinuate a knavish plot, a tender point, a loose moral, with
such unconscious archness, and careless raillery, as if he gained new
self-possession and adroitness from the perplexity and confusion into
which he throws scrupulous imaginations, and knew how to seize on
all the ticklish parts of his subject, from their involuntarily shrinking
under his grasp. Some of his imitations of Boileau's servile addresses
to Louis xiv. which he has applied with a happy mixture of wit and
patriotic enthusiasm to King William, or as he familiarly calls him, tc

'Little Will, the scourge of France,
No Godhead, but the first of men,'

are excellent, and shew the same talent for double-entendre and the
same gallantry of spirit, whether in the softer lyric, or the more lively
heroic. Some of Prior's bon mots are the best that are recorded. —
His serious poetry, as his Solomon, is as heavy as his familiar style
was light and agreeable. His moral Muse is a Magdalen, and should
not have obtruded herself on public view. Henry and Emma is
a paraphrase of the old ballad of the Nut-brown Maid, and not so
good as the original. In short, as we often see in other cases, where

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 11 of 38)