William Hazlitt.

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

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men thwart their own genius, Prior's sentimental and romantic pro-
ductions are mere affectation, the result not of powerful impulse or
real feeling, but of a consciousness of his deficiencies, and a wish to
supply their place by labour and art.

Gay was sometimes grosser than Prior, not systematically, but
inadvertently — from not being so well aware of what he was about ;
nor was there the same necessity for caution, for his grossness is by no
means so seductive or inviting.

Gay's Fables are certainly a work of great merit, both as to the
quantity of invention implied, and as to the elegance and facility of the
execution. They are, however, spun out too long ; the descriptions
and narrative are too diffuse and desultory ; and the moral is some-
times without point. They are more like Tales than Fables. The
best are, perhaps, the Hare with Many Friends, the Monkeys, and
the Fox at the Point of Death. His Pastorals are pleasing and
poetical. But his capital work is his Beggar's Opera. It is indeed
a masterpiece of wit and genius, not to say of morality. In composing
it, he chose a very unpromising ground to work upon, and he has
prided himself in adorning it with all the graces, the precision, and
brilliancy of style. It is a vulgar error to call this a vulgar play.
So far from it, that I do not scruple to say that it appears to me one
of the most refined productions in the language. The elegance of
the composition is in exact proportion to the coarseness of the
materials : by ' happy alchemy of mind,' the author has extracted an
essence of refinement from the dregs of human life, and turns its very
dross into gold. The scenes, characters, and incidents are, in
themselves, of the lowest and most disgusting kind : but, by the
sentiments and reflections which are put into the mouths of highway-
men, turnkeys, their mistresses, wives, or daughters, he has converted
this motley group into a set of fine gentlemen and ladies, satirists and
philosophers. He has also effected this transformation without once
violating probability, or ' o'erstepping the modesty of nature.' In fact,
Gay has turned the tables on the critics ; and by the assumed licence
of the mock-heroic style, has enabled himself to do justice to nature,
that is, to give all the force, truth, and locality of real feeling to the
thoughts and expressions, without being called to the bar of false
taste and affected delicacy. The extreme beauty and feeling of the
song, 'Woman is like the fair flower in its lustre,' are only equaled
by its characteristic propriety and naivete. Polly describes her lover
going to the gallows, with the same touching simplicity, and with all
the natural fondness of a young girl in her circumstances, who sees in
his approaching catastrophe nothing but the misfortunes and the
personal accomplishments of the object of her affections. ' I see



him sweeter than the nosegay in his hand ; the admiring crowd
lament that so lovely a youth should come to an untimely end : —
even butchers weep, and Jack Ketch refuses his fee rather than
consent to tie the fatal knot.' The preservation of the character
and costume is complete. It has been said by a great authority —
' There is some soul of goodness in things evil ' : — and the Beggar s
Opera is a good-natured but instructive comment on this text. The
poet has thrown all the gaiety and sunshine of the imagination, all the
intoxication of pleasure, and the vanity of despair, round the short-
lived existence of his heroes ; while Peacbum and Lochitt are seen in
the back-ground, parcelling out their months and weeks between
them. The general view exhibited of human life is of the most
subtle and abstracted kind. The author has, with great felicity,
brought out the good qualities and interesting emotions almost in-
separable from the lowest conditions ; and with the same penetrating
glance, has detected the disguises which rank and circumstances lend
to exalted vice. Every line in this sterling comedy sparkles with
wit, and is fraught with the keenest sarcasm. The very wit,
however, takes off from the offensiveness of the satire ; and I have
seen great statesmen, very great statesmen, heartily enjoying the joke,
laughing most immoderately at the compliments paid to them as not
much worse than pickpockets and cut-throats in a different line of
life, and pleased, as it were, to see themselves humanised by some
sort of fellowship with their kind. Indeed, it may be said that the
moral of the piece is to shew the vulgarity of vice ; or that the same
violations of integrity and decorum, the same habitual sophistry in
palliating their want of principle, are common to the great and
powerful, with the meanest and most contemptible of the species.
What can be more convincing than the arguments used by these
would-be politicians, to shew that in hypocrisy, selfishness, and
treachery, they do not come up to many of their betters ? The
exclamation ot Mrs. Peacbum, when her daughter marries Macheatb,
« Hussy, hussy, you will be as ill used, and as much neglected, as it
you had married a lord,' is worth all Miss Hannah More's laboured
invectives on the laxity of the manners of high life!

I shall conclude this account of Gay with his verses on Sir Richard
Blackmore, which may serve at once as a specimen of his own
manner, and as a character of a voluminous contemporary poet, who
was admired by Mr. Locke, and knighted by King William in.

'See who ne'er was nor will be half-read,
Who first sung Arthur, then sung Alfred ;
Praised great Eliza in God's anger,
Till all true Englishmen cried, ' Hang her ! '—


Maul'd human wit in one thick satire ;

Next in three books spoil'd human nature:

Undid Creation at a jerk,

And of Redemption made damn'd work.

Then took his Muse at once, and dipt her

Full in the middle of the Scripture.

What wonders there the man, grown old, did ?

Sternhold himself he out Sternholded.

Made David seem so mad and freakish,

All thought him just what thought King Achish.

No mortal read his Solomon

But judg'd Re'boam his own son.

Moses he serv'd as Moses Pharaoh,

And Deborah as she Siserah ;

Made Jeremy full sore to cry,

And Job himself curse God and die.

What punishment all this must follow ?

Shall Arthur use him like King Tollo ?

Shall David as Uriah slay him ?

Or dextrous Deborah Siserah him ?

No ! — none of these ! Heaven spare his life!

But send him, honest Job, thy wife ! '

Gay's Trivia, or Art of Walking the Streets, is as pleasant as
walking the streets must have been at the time when it was written.
His ballad of Black Eyed Susan is one of the most delightful that
can be imagined ; nor do I see that it is a bit the worse for
Mr. Jekyll's parody on it.

Swift's reputation as a poet has been in a manner obscured by the
greater splendour, by the natural force and inventive genius of his
prose writings ; but if he had never written either the Tale of a Tub
or Gulliver's Travels, his name merely as a poet would have come
down to us, and have gone down to posterity with well-earned
honours. His Imitations of Horace, and still more his Verses on
his own Death, place him in the first rank of agreeable moralists in
verse. There is not only a dry humour, an exquisite tone of irony,
in these productions of his pen ; but there is a touching, unpretending
pathos, mixed up with the most whimsical and eccentric strokes of
pleasantry and satire. His Description of the Morning in London,
and of a City Shower, which were first published in the Tatler, are
among the most delightful of the contents of that very delightful
work. Swift shone as one of the most sensible of the poets ; he is
also distinguished as one of the most nonsensical of them. No man
has written so many !ack-a-daisical, slip-shod, tedious, trifling, foolish,
fantastical verses as he, which are so little an imputation on the
wisdom of the writer ; and which, in fact, only shew his readiness



to oblige others, and to forget himself. He has gone so far as to
invent a new stanza of fourteen and sixteen syllable lines for Mary
the cookmaid to vent her budget of nothings, and for Mrs. Harris to
gossip with the deaf old housekeeper. Oh, when shall we have such
another Rector of Laracor ! — The Tale of a Tub is one of the most
masterly compositions in the language, whether for thought, wit, or
style. It is so capital and undeniable a proof of the author's talents,
that Dr. Johnson, who did not like Swift, would not allow that he
wrote it. It is hard that the same performance should stand in the
way of a man's promotion to a bishopric, as wanting gravity, and at the
same time be denied to be his, as having too much wit. It is a pity
the Doctor did not find out some graver author, for whom he felt a
critical kindness, on whom to father this splendid but unacknowledged
production. Dr. Johnson could not deny that Gulliver's Travels
were his ; he therefore disputed their merits, and said that after the
first idea of them was conceived, they were easy to execute ; all the
rest followed mechanically. I do not know how that may be ; but
the mechanism employed is something very different from any that
the author of Rasselas was in the habit of bringing to bear on such
occasions. There is nothing more futile, as well as invidious, than
this mode of criticising a work of original genius. Its greatest merit
is supposed to be in the invention ; and you say, very wisely, that it
is not in the execution. You might as well take away the merit of the
invention of the telescope, by saving that, after its uses were explained
and understood, any ordinary eyesight could look through it. Whether
the excellence of Gulliver's Travels is in the conception or the
execution, is of little consequence ; the power is somewhere, and it
is a power that has moved the world. The power is not that of big
words and vaunting common places. Swift left these to those who
wanted them ; and has done what his acuteness and intensity of mind
could enable any one to conceive or to perform. His object
was to strip empty pride and grandeur of the imposing air which
external circumstances throw around them ; and for this purpose he
has cheated the imagination of the illusions which the prejudices of
• and of the world put upon it, by reducing every thing to the
act predicament of size. He enlarges or diminishes the scale, as
he wishes to shew the insignificance or the grossness of our over-
weening self-love. That he has done this with mathematical precision,
with complete presence of mind and perfect keeping, in a manner that
< nines equally home to the understanding of the man and of the child,
does not take away from the merit of the work or the genius of the
author. He has taken a new view of human nature, such as a being
of a higher sphere might take of it; he has torn the scales from off
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his moral vision ; he has tried an experiment upon human life, and
sifted its pretensions from the alloy of circumstances ; he has measured
it with a rule, has weighed it in a balance, and found it, for the most
part, wanting and worthless — in substance and in shew. Nothing solid,
nothing valuable is left in his system but virtue and wisdom. What a
libel is this upon mankind ! What a convincing proof of misanthropy !
What presumption and what malice prepense, to shew men what they are,
and to teach them what they ought to be ! What a mortifying stroke
aimed at national glory, is that unlucky incident of Gulliver's wading
across the channel and carrying off the whole fleet of Blefuscu !
After that, we have only to consider which of the contending parties
was in the right. What a shock to personal vanity is given in the
account of Gulliver's nurse Glumdalclitch ! Still, notwithstanding
the disparagement to her personal charms, her good-nature remains
the same amiable quality as before. I cannot see the harm, the
misanthropy, the immoral and degrading tendency of this. The
moral lesson is as fine as the intellectual exhibition is amusing. It is
an attempt to tear off the mask of imposture from the world ; and
nothing but imposture has a right to complain of it. It is, indeed, the
way with our quacks in morality to preach up the dignity of human
nature, to pamper pride and hypocrisy with the idle mockeries of the
virtues they pretend to, and which they have not : but it was not
Swift's way to cant morality, or any thing else ; nor did his genius
prompt him to write unmeaning panegyrics on mankind !

I do not, therefore, agree with the estimate of Swift's moral or
intellectual character, given by an eminent critic, who does not seem
:o have forgotten the party politics of Swift. I do not carry my
political resentments so far back : I can at this time of day forgive
Swift for having been a Tory. I feel little disturbance (whatever I
might think of them) at his political sentiments, which died with him,
:onsidering how much else he has left behind him of a more solid and
imperishable nature! If he had, indeed, (like some others) merely
left behind him the lasting infamy of a destroyer of his country, or
:he shining example of an apostate from liberty, I might have thought
the case altered.

The determination with which Swift persisted in a preconcerted
theory, savoured of the morbid affection of which he died. There is
nothing more likely to drive a man mad, than the being unable to get
rid of the idea of the distinction between right and wrong, and an
obstinate, constitutional preference of the true to the agreeable. Swift
was not a Frenchman. In this respect he differed from Rabelais and
Voltaire. They have been accounted the three greatest wits in
modern times ; but their wit was of a peculiar kind in each. They

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are little beholden to each other ; there is some resemblance between
Lord Peter in the Tale of a Tub, and Rabelais' Friar John ; but in
general they are all three authors of a substantive character in them-
selves. Swift's wit (particularly in his chief prose works) was
serious, saturnine, and practical ; Rabelais' was fantastical and joyous ;
Voltaire's was light, sportive, and verbal. Swift's wit was the wit of
sense ; Rabelais', the wit of nonsense ; Voltaire's, of indifference to
both. The ludicrous in Swift arises out of his keen sense of
impropriety, his soreness and impatience of the least absurdity. He
separates, with a severe and caustic air, truth from falsehood, folly
from wisdom, ' shews vice her own image, scorn her own feature ' ;
and it is the force, the precision, and the honest abruptness with
which the separation is made, that excites our surprise, our admiration,
and laughter. He sets a mark of reprobation on that which offends
good sense and good manners, which cannot be mistaken, and which
holds it up to our ridicule and contempt ever after. His occasional
disposition to trifling (already noticed) was a relaxation from the
excessive earnestness of his mind. Indignat'w facit "versus. His better
genius was his spleen. It was the biting acrimony of his temper that-
sharpened his other faculties. The truth of his perceptions produced
the pointed coruscations of his wit ; his playful irony was the result of
inward bitterness of thought ; his imagination was the product of the
literal, dry, incorrigible tenaciousness of his understanding. He
endeavoured to escape from the persecution of realities into the
regions of fancy, and invented his Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians,
Yahoos, and Houynhyms, as a diversion to the more painful knowledge
of the world around him: they only made him laugh, while men and
women made him angry. His feverish impatience made him view
the infirmities of that great baby the world, with the same scrutiniz-
ing glance and jealous irritability that a parent regards the of
its offspring ; but, as Rousseau has well observed, parents have not on
this account been supposed to have more affection for other people's
children than their own. In other respects, and except from the
sparkling effervescence of his gall, Swift's brain was as 'dry as the
remainder biscuit after a voyage.' He hated absurdity — Rabelais
loved it, exaggerated it with supreme satisfaction, luxuriated in its
endless varieties, rioted in nonsense, 'reigned there and revelled.'
He dwelt on the absurd and ludicrous for the pleasure they gave him,
not for the pain. He lived upon laughter, and died laughing. He
indulged his vein, and took his full swing of folly. He did not
baulk his fancy or his readers. His wit was to him 'as riches
fineless ' ; he saw no end of his wealth in that way, and set no limits
to his extravagance : he was communicative, prodigal, boundless, and

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inexhaustible. His were the Saturnalia of wit, the riches and the
royalty, the health and long life. He is intoxicated with gaiety,
mad with folly. His animal spirits drown him in a flood of mirth :
his blood courses up and down his veins like wine. His thirst of
enjoyment is as great as his thirst of drink : his appetite for good
things of all sorts is unsatisfied, and there is a never-ending supply.
Discourse is dry ; so they moisten their words in their cups, and
relish their dry jests with plenty of Botargos and dried neats' tongues.
It is like Camacho's wedding in Don Quixote, where Sancho ladled
out whole pullets and fat geese from the soup-kettles at a pull. The
flagons are set a running, their tongues wag at the same time, and
their mirth flows as a river. How Friar John roars and lays about
him in the vineyard ! How Panurge whines in the storm, and how
dexterously he contrives to throw the sheep overboard ! How much
Pantagruel behaves like a wise king ! How Gargantua mewls, and
pules, and slabbers his nurse, and demeans himself most like a royal
infant ! what provinces he devours ! what seas he drinks up ! How
he eats, drinks, and sleeps— sleeps, eats, and drinks ! The style of
Rabelais is no less prodigious than his matter. His words are of
marrow, unctuous, dropping fatness. He was a mad wag, the king
of good fellows, and prince 'of practical philosophers!

Rabelais was a Frenchman of the old school — Voltaire of the new.
The wit of the one arose from an exuberance of enjoyment — of the
other, from an excess of indifference, real or assumed. Voltaire had
no enthusiasm for one thing or another : he made light of every thing.
In his hands all things turn to chaff and dross, as the pieces of silver
money in the Arabian Nights were changed by the hands of the en-
chanter into little dry crumbling leaves ! He is a Parisian. He never
exaggerates, is never violent : he treats things with the most provok-
ing sangfroid; and expresses his contempt by the most indirect hints,
and in the fewest words, as if he hardly thought them worth even his
contempt. He retains complete possession of himself and of his
subject. He does not effect his purpose by the eagerness of his
blows, but by the delicacy of his tact. The poisoned wound he
inflicted was so fine, as scarcely to be felt till it rankled and festered
in its * mortal consequences.' His callousness was an excellent foil
for the antagonists he had mostly to deal with. He took knaves and
fools on his shield well. He stole away its cloak from grave
imposture. If he reduced other things below their true value, making
them seem worthless and hollow, he did not degrade the pretensions
of tyranny and superstition below their true value, by making them
seem utterly worthless and hollow, as contemptible as they were
odious. This was the service he rendered to truth and mankind !

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His Candide is a masterpiece of wit. It has been called ' the dull
product of a scoffer's pen ' ; it is indeed the ' product of a scoffer's pen ';
but after reading the Excursion, few people will think it dull. It is in
the most perfect keeping, and without any appearance of effort. Every
sentence tells, and the whole reads like one sentence. There is some-
thing sublime in Martin's sceptical indifference to moral good and evil.
It is the repose of the grave. It is better to suffer this living death,
than a living martyrdom. 'Nothing can touch him further.' The
moral of Candide (such as it is) is the same as that of Rasselas : the
execution is different. Voltaire says, « A great book is a great evil.'
Dr. Johnson would have laboured this short apophthegm into a
voluminous common-place. Voltaire's traveller (in another work)
being asked ' whether he likes black or white mutton best,' replies
that ' he is indifferent, provided it is tender.' Dr. Johnson did not
get at a conclusion by so short a way as this. If Voltaire's licentious-
ness is objected to me, I say, let it be placed to its true account, the
manners of the age and court in which he lived. The lords and
ladies of the bedchamber in the reign of Louis xv. found no fault
with the immoral tendency of his writings. Why then should our
modern purists quarrel with them ? — But to return.

Young is a gloomy epigrammatist. He has abused great powers
both of thought and language. His moral reflections are sometimes
excellent ; but he spoils their beauty by overloading them with a
religious horror, and at the same time giving them all the smart turns
and quaint expression of an enigma or repartee in verse. The well-
known lines on Procrastination are in his best manner :

' Be wise to-day ; 'tis madness to defer ;
Next day the fatal precedent will plead ;
Thus on, till wisdom is push'd out of life.
Procrastination is the thief of time ;
Year after year it steals, till all are fled,
And to the mercies of a moment leaves
The vast concerns of an eternal scene.

Of man's miraculous mistakes, this bears
The palm, " That all men are about to live,"
1 1 ever on the brink of being born.
All pay themselves the compliment to think
They, one day, shall not drivel ; and their pride
On this reversion takes up ready praise ;
At least, their own; their future selves applauds ;
How excellent that life they ne'er will lead !
Time lodg'd in their own hands is Folly's vails :
That lodg'd in Fate's, to Wisdom they consign ;
king they can't but purpose, they postpone.


'Tis not in Folly, not to scorn a fool ;

And scarce in human Wisdom to do more.

All Promise is poor dilatory man,

And that through every stage. When young, indeed,

In full content we, sometimes, nobly rest,

Un-anxious for ourselves ; and only wish,

As duteous sons, our fathers were more wise.

At thirty man suspects himself a fool ;

Knows it at forty, and reforms his plan ;

At fifty chides his infamous delay,

Pushes his prudent purpose to Resolve;

Ii: all the magnanimity of thought

Resolves, and re-resolves ; then dies the same.

And why ? Because he thinks himself immortal.
All men think all men mortal, but themselves;
Themselves, when some alarming shock of fate
Strikes through their wounded hearts the sudden dread j
But their hearts wounded, like the wounded air,
Soon close ; where past the shaft, no trace is found.
As from the wing no scar the sky retains;
The parted wave no furrow from the keel ;
So dies in human hearts the thought of death.
Ev'n with the tender tear which nature sheds
O'er those we love, we drop it in their grave.'

His Universal Passion is a keen and powerful satire ; but the effort
takes from the effect, and oppresses attention by perpetual and violent
demands upon it. His tragedy of the Revenge is monkish and
scholastic. Zanga is a vulgar caricature of Iago. The finest lines
in it are the burst of triumph at the end, when his revenge is
completed :

'Let Europe and her pallid sons go weep,
Let Afric on her hundred thrones rejoice,' &c.

Collins is a writer of a very different stamp, who had perhaps less
general power of mind than Young ; but he had that true vhnda vis,
that genuine inspiration, which alone can give birth to the highest
efforts of poetry. He leaves stings in the minds of his readers,
certain traces of thought and feelings which never wear out, because
nature had left them in his own mind. He is the only one of the
minor poets of whom, if he had lived, it cannot be said that he might
not have done the greatest things. The germ is there. He is some-
times affected, unmeaning, and obscure ; but he also catches rich
glimpses of the bowers of Paradise, and has lofty aspirations after

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 12 of 38)