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

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the highest seats of the Muses. With a great deal of tinsel and
splendid patch-work, he has not been able to hide the solid sterling

"5



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

ore or genius. In his best works there is an attic simplicity, a pathos,
and fervour of imagination, which make us the more lament that the
efforts of his mind were at first depressed by neglect and pecuniary
embarrassment, and at length buried in the gloom of an unconquerable
and fatal malady. How many poets have gone through all the
horrors of poverty and contempt, and ended their days in moping
melancholy or moody madness !

' We poets in our youth begin in gladness,
But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.'

Is this the fault of themselves, of nature in tempering them of too
fine a clay, or of the world, that spurner of living, and patron of dead
merit ? Read the account of Collins — with hopes frustrated, with
faculties blighted, at last, when it was too late for himself or others,
receiving the deceitful favours of relenting Fortune, which served
only to throw their sunshine on his decay, and to light him to an
early grave. He was found sitting with every spark of imagination
extinguished, and with only the faint traces of memory and reason
left — with only one book in his room, the Bible ; ' but that,' he said,
4 was the best.' A melancholy damp hung like an unwholesome
mildew upon his faculties — a canker had consumed the flower of his
life. He produced works of genius, and the public regarded them
with scorn : he aimed at excellence that should be his own, and his
friends treated his efforts as the wanderings of fatuity. The proofs
of his capacity are, his Ode on Evening, his Ode on the Passions
(particularly the fine personification of Hope), his Ode to Fear, the
Dirge in Cymbeline, the Lines on Thomson's Grave, and his
Eclogues, parts of which are admirable. But perhaps his Ode on
the Poetical Character is the best of all. A rich distilled perfume
emanates from it like the breath of genius ; a golden cloud envelopes
it ; a honeyed paste of poetic diction encrusts it, like the candied coat
of the auricula. His Ode to Evening shews equal genius in the
images and versification. The sounds steal slowly over the ear, like
the gradual coming on of evening itself:

' I; aught of oaten stop or pastoral song
May hope, (haste Eve, to soothe thy modest ear,
Like thy own solemn springs,
Thy springs and dying gales,

O nymph reserv'd, while now the bright-haired sun
SitB on yon western tent, whose cloudy skirts
With brede ethereal wove,
O'erhang his wavy bed :
116



SWIFT, YOUNG, GRAY, COLLINS, ETC.

Now air is husrTd, save where the weak-ey'd bat,
With short shrill shriek flits by on leathern wing,

Or where the beetle winds

His small but sullen horn,

As oft he rises midst the twilight path,
Against the pilgrim borne in heedless hum.

Now teach me, maid compos'd,

To breathe some soften'd strain,

Whose numbers stealing through thy darkling vale
May not unseemly with its stillness suit,

As musing slow, I hail

Thy genial, lov'd return !

For when thy folding star arising shews
His paly circlet, at his warning lamp

The fragrant Hours and Elves

Who slept in flow'rs the day,

And many a nymph who wreathes her brows with sedge,
And sheds the freshening dew, and lovelier still,

The pensive Pleasures sweet

Prepare thy shadowy car ;

Then lead, calm Votress, where some sheety lake
Cheers the lone heath, or some time-hallow'd pile.

Or upland fallows grey

Reflect its last cool gleam.

But when chill blust'ring winds, or driving rain,
Forbid my willing feet, be mine the hut,

That from the mountain's side

Views wilds and swelling floods,

And hamlets brown, and dim discover 'd spires,
And hears their simple bell, and marks o'er all

Thy dewy fingers draw

The gradual dusky veil.

While Spring shall pour his show'rs, as oft he wont,
And bathe thy breathing tresses, meekest Eve !

While Summer loves to sport

Beneath thy lingering light ;

While sallow Autumn fills thy lap with leaves j
Or Winter yelling through the troublous air,

Affrights thy shrinking train,

And rudely rends thy robes 5

So long, sure-found beneath the sylvan shed,

Shall Fancy, Friendship, Science, rose-lipp'd Health,

Thy gentlest influence own,

And hymn thy favourite name.''

117



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

Hammond, whose poems are bound up with Collins's, in Bell's
pocket edition, was a young gentleman, who appears to have fallen
in love about the year 17 40, and who translated Tibullus into English
verse, to let his mistress and the public know of it.

I should conceive that Collins had a much greater poetical genius
than Gray : he had more of that fine madness which is inseparable
from it, of its turbid effervescence, of all that pushes it to the verge
of agony or rapture. Gray's Pindaric Odes are, I believe, generally
given up at present: they are stately and pedantic, a kind of
methodical borrowed phrenzy. But I cannot so easily give up, nor
will the world be in any haste to part with his Elegy in a Country
Church-yard : it is one of the most classical productions that ever
was penned by a refined and thoughtful mind, moralising on human
lire. Mr. Coleridge (in his Literary Life) says, that his friend
Mr. Wordsworth had undertaken to shew that the language of the
Elegy is unintelligible: it has, however, been understood! The
Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College is more mechanical and
common-place ; but it touches on certain strings about the heart,
that vibrate in unison with it to our latest breath. No one ever
passes by Windsor's ' stately heights,' or sees the distant spires of
Eton College below, without thinking of Gray. He deserves that
we should think of him ; for he thought of others, and turned a
trembling, ever-watchful ear to 'the still sad music of humanity.' —
His Letters are inimitably fine. If his poems are sometimes finical
and pedantic, his prose is quite free from affectation. He pours his
thoughts out upon paper as they arise in his mind ; and they arise in
his mind without pretence, or constraint, from the pure impulse
of learned leisure and contemplative indolence. He is not here on
stilts or in buckram ; but smiles in his easy chair, as he moralises
through the loopholes of retreat, on the bustle and raree-show of the
world, or on 'those reverend bedlams, colleges and schools!' He
had nothing to do but to read and to think, and to tell his friends
what he read and thought. His life was a luxurious, thoughtful
dream. 'Be mine,' he says in one of his Letters, 'to read eternal
new romances of Marivaux and Crebillon.' And in another, to shew
Lis contempt for action and the turmoils of ambition, he says to some

one, ' Don't you remember Lords and , who are now great

ten, little dirty boys playing at cricket? For my part, I do
not feel a bit wiser, or bigger, or older than I did then.' What an
equivalent for not being wise or great, to be always young! What
a happiness never to lose or gain any thing in the game of human life,
by being never any thing more than a looker-on i

How different from Shenstone, who only wanted to be looked at:
us



ON SWIFT, YOUNG, GRAY, COLLINS, ETC.

who withdrew from the world to be followed by the crowd, and
courted popularity by affecting privacy ! His Letters shew him to
have lived in a continual fever of petty vanity, and to have been a
finished literary coquet. He seems always to say, ' You will find
nothing in the world so amiable as Nature and me : come, and admire
us.' His poems are indifferent and tasteless, except his Pastoral
Ballad, his Lines on Jemmy Dawson, and his School-mistress, which
last is a perfect piece of writing.

Akenside had in him the materials of poetry, but he was hardly a
great poet. He improved his Pleasures of the Imagination in the
subsequent editions, by pruning away a great many redundances of
style and ornament. Armstrong is better, though he has not chosen
a very exhilarating subject — The Art of Preserving Health.
Churchill's Satires on the Scotch, and Characters of the Players,
are as good as the subjects deserved — they are strong, coarse, and
full of an air of hardened assurance. I ought not to pass over with-
out mention Green's Poem on the Spleen, or Dyer's Grongar Hill.

The principal name of the period we are now come to is that of
Goldsmith, than which few names stand higher or fairer in the
annals of modern literature. One should have his own pen to
describe him as he ought to be described — amiable, various, and
bland, with careless inimitable grace touching on every kind of
excellence — with manners unstudied, but a gentle heart — performing
miracles of skill from pure happiness of nature, and whose greatest
fault was ignorance of his own worth. As a poet, he is the most
flowing and elegant of our versifiers since Pope, with traits of artless
nature which Pope had not, and with a peculiar felicity in his turns
upon words, which he constantly repeated with delightful effect :
such as —

' His lot, though small,

He sees that little lot, the lot of all.*
* * * * *

' And turn'd and look'd, and turn'd to look again.'

As a novelist, his Vicar of Wakefield has charmed all Europe.
What reader is there in the civilised world, who is not the better for
the story of the washes which the worthy Dr. Primrose demolished
so deliberately with the poker — for the knowledge of the guinea
which the Miss Primroses kept unchanged in their pockets — the
adventure of the picture of the Vicar's family, which could not be
got into the house — and that of the Flamborough family, all painted
with oranges in their hands — or for the story of the case of shagreen
spectacles and the cosmogony ?

119



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

As a comic writer, his Tony Lumpkin draws forth new powers
from Mr. Liston's face. That alone is praise enough for it. Poor
Goldsmith ! how happy he has made others ! how unhappy he was
in himself! He never had the pleasure of reading his own works!
He had only the satisfaction of good-naturedly relieving the necessities
of others, and the consolation of being harassed to death with his
own ! He is the most amusing and interesting person, in one of the
muit amusing and interesting books in the world, Boswell's Life of
Johnson. His peach-coloured coat shall always bloom in Boswell's
writings, and his fame survive in his own ! — His genius was a
mixture of originality and imitation : he could do nothing without
some model before him, and he could copy nothing that he did not
adorn with the graces of his own mind. Almost all the latter part
of the Vicar of Wakefield, and a great deal of the former, is taken
from Joseph Andrews ; but the circumstances I have mentioned
above are not.

The finest things he has left behind him in verse are his character
of a country school-master, and that prophetic description of Burke
in the Retaliation. His moral Essays in the Citizen of the World,
are as agreeable chit-chat as can be conveyed in the form of didactic
discourses.

Warton was a poet and a scholar, studious with ease, learned with-
out affectation. He had a happiness which some have been prouder
ot than he, who deserved it less — he was poet-laureat.

' And that green wreath which decks the bard when dead,
That laurel garland crown'd his living head.'

But he bore his honours meekly, and performed his half-yearly task
regularly. I should not have mentioned him for this distinction alone
(the highest which a poet can receive from the state), but for another
circumstance ; I mean his being the author of some of the finest
sonnets in the language — at least so they appear to me ; and as this
species of composition has the necessary advantage of being short
(though it is also sometimes both 'tedious and brief), I will here
repeat two or three of them, as treating pleasing subjects in a pleasing
and philosophical way.

// r it ten in a blank lea} of Dugdales Monasticon

1 Deem not, devoid of elegance, the sage,
By Fancy's genuine feelings unbeguil'd,
Ot painful pedantry the poring child ,
Who turns of these proud domes the historic page,



ON SWIFT, YOUNG, GRAY, COLLINS, ETC.

Now sunk by Time, and Henry's fiercer rage.
Think'st thou the warbling Muses never smil'd
On his lone hours ? Ingenuous views engage
His thoughts, on themes unclassic falsely styl'd,
Intent. While cloister'd piety displays
Her mouldering roll, the piercing eye explores
New manners, and the pomp of elder days,
Whence culls the pensive bard his pictur'd stores.
Not rough nor barren are the winding ways
Of hoar Antiquity, but strewn with flowers/

Sonnet. Written at Stonehenge.

1 Thou noblest monument of Albion's isle,
Whether, by Merlin's aid, from Scythia's shore
To Amber's fatal plain Pendragon bore,
Huge frame of giant hands, the mighty pile,
T' entomb his Britons slain by Hengist's guile :
Or Druid priests, sprinkled with human gore,
Taught mid thy massy maze their mystic lore :
Or Danish chiefs, enrich'd with savage spoil,
To victory's idol vast, an unhewn shrine,
Rear'd the rude heap, or in thy hallow'd ground
Repose the kings of Brutus' genuine line;
Or here those kings in solemn state were crown'd ;
Studious to trace thy wondrous origin,
We muse on many an ancient tale renown'd.'

Nothing can be more admirable than the learning here displayed, or
the inference from it, that it is of no use but as it leads to interesting
thought and reflection.

That written after seeing Wilton House is in the same style, but I
prefer concluding with that to the river Lodon, which has a personal
as well as poetical interest about it.

' Ah ! what a weaiy race my reet have run,
Since first I trod thy banks with alders crown'd,
And thought my way was all through fairy ground,
Beneath the azure sky and golden sun :
When first my Muse to lisp her notes begun !
While pensive memory traces back the round
Which fills the varied interval between ;
Much pleasure, more of sorrow, marks the scene. —
Sweet native stream ! those skies and suns so pure
No more return, to cheer my evening road !
Yet still one joy remains, that not obscure
Nor useless, all my vacant days have flow'd
From youth's gay dawn to manhood's prime mature,
Nor with the Muse's laurel unbestow'd.'



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

I have thus gone through all the names of this period I could
think of, but I find that there are others still waiting behind that I
had never thought of. Here is a list of some of them — Pattison,
Tickell, Hill, Somerville, Browne, Pitt, Wilkie, Dodsley, Shaw,
Smart, Langhorne, Bruce, Greame, Glover, Lovibond, Penrose,
Mickle, Jago, Scott, Whitehead, .lenyns, Logan, Cotton, Cunning-
ham, and Blacklock. — I think it wiil be best to let them pass and say
nothing about them. It will be hard to persuade so many respectable
persons that they are dull writers, and if we give them any praise,
they will send others.

But here comes one whose claims cannot be so easily set aside :
they have been sanctioned by learning, hailed by genius, and hallowed
by misfortune — I mean Chatterton. Yet I must say what I think of
him, and that is not what is generally thought. I pass over the
disputes between the learned antiquaries, Dr. Mills, Herbert Croft,
and Dr. Knox, whether he was to be placed after Shakspeare and
Dryden, or to come after Shakspeare alone. A living poet has
borne a better testimony to him —

' I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous boy,
The sleepless soul that perished in his pride ;
And him > who walked in glory and in joy
Beside his plough along the mountain side.'

I am loth to put asunder whom so great an authority has joined

together ; but I cannot find in Chatterton's works any thing so

ordinary as the age at which they were written. They have a

facility, vigour, and knowledge, which were prodigious in a boy of

sixteen, but which would not have been so in a man of twenty. He

did not shew extraordinary powers of genius, but extraordinary

precocity. Nor do I believe he would have written better, had he

lie knew this himself, or he would have lived. Great

geniuses, like great kings, have too much to think of to kill them-

i their mind to them also 'a kingdom is.' With an un-

accountaMe power coming over him at an unusual age, and with the

youthful confidence it inspired, he performed wonders, and was will-

•■) set a seal on his reputation by a tragic catastrophe. He had

his best ; and, like another Empedocles, threw himself into

-l'.tna, to ensure immortality. The brazen slippers alone remain ! —

1 Burn*. — Ti, sc lines are taken from the introduction to Mr. Wonisworth'g
tlir Lerch-gathimier.



ON BURNS, AND THE OLD ENGLISH BALLADS



LECTURE VII



ON BURNS, AND THE OLD ENGLISH BALLADS

I am sorry that what I said in the conclusion of the last Lecture
respecting Chatterton, should have given dissatisfaction to some
persons, with whom I would willingly agree on all such matters.
What I meant was less to call in question Chatterton's genius, than
to object to the common mode of estimating its magnitude by its
prematureness. The lists of fame are not rilled with the dates of
births or deaths ; and the side-mark of the age at which they were
done, wears out in works destined for immortality. Had Chatterton
really done more, we should have thought less of him, for our
attention would then have been fixed on the excellence of the works
themselves, instead of the singularity of the circumstances in which
they were produced. But because he attained to the full powers of
manhood at an early age, I do not see that he would have attained to
more than those powers, had he lived to be a man. He was a
prodigy, because in him the ordinary march of nature was violently
precipitated ; and it is therefore inferred, that he would have con-
tinued to hold on his course, ' unslacked of motion.' On the
contrary, who knows but he might have lived to be poet-laureat ? It
is much better to let him remain as he was. Of his actual produc-
tions, any one may think as highly as he pleases ; I would only
guard against adding to the account of his quantum meruit, those
possible productions by which the learned rhapodists of his time
raised his gigantic pretensions to an equality with those of Homer
and Shakspeare. It is amusing to read some of these exaggerated
descriptions, each rising above the other in extravagance. In
Anderson's Life, we find that Mr. Warton speaks of him 'as a
prodigy of genius,' as 'a singular instance of prematurity of abilities' :
that may be true enough, and Warton was at any rate a competent judge ;
but Mr. Malone ' believes him to have been the greatest genius that
England has produced since the days of Shakspeare.' Dr. Gregory
says, ' he must rank, as a universal genius, above Dryden, and
perhaps only second to Shakspeare.' Mr. Herbert Croft is still more
unqualified in his praises ; he asserts, that « no such being, at any
period of life, has ever been known, or possibly ever will be known.'
He runs a parallel between Chatterton and Milton ; and asserts, that
'an army of Macedonian and Swedish mad butchers fly before him,'

123



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

ing, I suppose, that Alexander the Great and Charles the
Twelfth were nothing to him; 'nor,' he adds, 'does my memory
supply me with any human being, who at such an age, with such
advantages, has produced such compositions. Under the heathen
mythology, superstition and admiration would have explained all,
by bringing Apollo on earth ; nor would the God ever have
descended with more credit to himself.' — Chatterton's physiognomy
would at least have enabled him to pass incognito. It is quite
different from the look of timid wonder and delight with which
Annibal Caracci has painted a young Apollo listening to the first
Is he draws from a Pan's pipe, under the tutelage of the old
Silenus ! If Mr. Croft is sublime on the occasion, Dr. Knox is no
less pathetic. ' The testimony of Dr. Knox,' says Dr. Anderson,
, p. 144), 'does equal credit to the classical taste and
amiable benevolence of the writer, and the genius and reputation of
Chatterton.' ' When I read,' says the Doctor, ' the researches of
those learned antiquaries who have endeavoured to prove that the
poems attributed to Rowley were really written by him, I observe
many ingenious remarks in confirmation of their opinion, which it
would be tedious, if not difficult, to controvert.'

Now this is so far from the mark, that the whole controversy
might have been settled by any one but the learned antiquaries them
selves, who had the smallest share of their learning, from this single
circumstance, that the poems read as smooth as any modern poems, if
you read them as modern compositions ; and that you cannot read them,
Of make verse of them at all, if you pronounce or accent the words as
they were spoken at the time when the poems were pretended to
have been written. The whole secret of the imposture, which
nothing but a deal of learned dust, raised by collecting and removing
eat deal of learned rubbish, could have prevented our laborious
critics from seeing through, lies on the face of it (to say nothing of
the burlesque air which is scarcely disguised throughout) in the
repetition of a few obsolete words, and in the mis-spelling of common
ones.

' No sooner,' proceeds the Doctor, ' do I turn to the poems, than
the labour of the antiquaries appears only waste of time ; and I am
involuntarily forced to join in placing that laurel, which he seems so
well to have deserved, on the brow of Chatterton. The poems bear
so many marks of superior genius, that they have deservedly excited
the general attention of polite scholars, and are considered as the
remarkaMc productions in modern poetry. We have many
nces of poetical eminence at an early age; but neither Cowley,
Milton, nor Pope, ever produced any thing while they were boys-

124



ON BURNS, AND THE OLD ENGLISH BALLADS

which can justly be compared to the poems of Chatterton. The
learned antiquaries do not indeed dispute their excellence. They
extol it in the highest terms of applause. They raise their favourite
Rowley to a rivalry with Homer : but they make the very merits of
the works an argument against their real author. Is it possible, say
they, that a boy should produce compositions so beautiful and
masterly ? That a common boy should produce them is not possible,'
rejoins the Doctor ; ' but that they should be produced by a boy
of an extraordinary genius, such as was that of Homer or Shakspeare,
though a prodigy, is such a one as by no means exceeds the bounds
of rational credibility.'

Now it does not appear that Shakspeare or Homer were such early
prodigies ; so that by this reasoning he must take precedence of them
too, as well as of Milton, Cowley, and Pope. The reverend and
classical writer then breaks out into the following melancholy
raptures : —

* Unfortunate boy ! short and evil were thy days, but thy fame
shall be immortal. Hadst thou been known to the munificent
patrons of genius. . .

• Unfortunate boy ! poorly wast thou accommodated during thy
short sojourning here among us ; — rudely wast thou treated — sorely did
thy feelings suffer from the scorn of the unworthy ; and there are at last
those who wish to rob thee of thy only meed, thy posthumous glory.
Severe too are the censures of thy morals. In the gloomy moments
of despondency, I fear thou hast uttered impious and blasphemous
thoughts. But let thy more rigid censors reflect, that thou wast
literally and strictly but a boy. Let many of thy bitterest enemies
reflect what were their own religious principles, and whether they
had any at the age of fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen. Surely it is
a severe and unjust surmise that thou wouldst probably have ended
thy life as a victim to the laws, if thou hadst not ended it as thou
didst.'

Enough, enough, of the learned antiquaries, and of the classical and
benevolent testimony of Dr. Knox. Chatterton was, indeed, badly
enough off; but he was at least saved from the pain and shame of
reading this woful lamentation over fallen genius, which circulates
splendidly bound in the fourteenth edition, while he is a prey to
worms. As to those who are really capable of admiring Chatterton's
genius, or of feeling an interest in his fate, I would only say, that I
never heard any one speak of any one of his works as if it were an
old well-known favourite, and had become a faith and a religion in his
mind. It is his name, his youth, and what he might have lived to



Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 13 of 38)