William Hazlitt.

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

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But left behind, her ain grey tail :
The Carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

Now, wha this tale o' truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother's son tak heed :
Whane'er to drink you are inclin'd,
Or Cutty Sarks rin in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys owre dear;
Remember Tarn o' Shanter's mare.'

Burns has given the extremes of licentious eccentricity and con-
vivial enjoyment, in the story of this scape-grace, and of patriarchal
simplicity and gravity in describing the old national character of the
Scottish peasantry. The Cotter's Saturday Night is a noble and
pathetic picture of human manners, mingled with a fine religious awe.
It comes over the mind like a slow and solemn strain of music. The
soul of the poet aspires from this scene of low-thoughted care, and
reposes, in trembling hope, on 'the bosom of its Father and its God.'
Hardly any thing can be more touching than the following stanzas,
for instance, whether as they describe human interests, or breathe a
lofty devotional spirit.

' The toil-worn Cotter frae his labour goes,

This night his weekly moil is at an end,
Collects his spades, his mattocks, and his hoes,

Hoping the morn in ease and rest to spend,
And weary, o'er the moor, his course does hameward bend.

At length his lonely cot appears in view,

Beneath the shelter of an aged tree ;
Th' expectant wee-things, toddlin, stacher through

To meet their dad, wi' flichterin noise and glee.



His wee-bit ingle, blinkin bonilie,

His clean hearth-stane, his thriftie wifie's smile,
The lisping infant, prattling on his knee,

Does a' his weary carking cares beguile,
And makes him quite forget his labour and his toil.

Belyve, the elder bairns come drapping in,

At service out, amang the farmers roun',
Some ca' the pleugh, some herd, some tentie rill

A cannie errand to a neebor town ;
Their eldest hope, their Jenny, woman-grown,

In youthfu' bloom, love sparkling in her e'e,
Comes hame, perhaps, to shew a braw new gou n,

Or deposit her sair-won penny-fee,
To help her parents dear, if they in hardship be.

Wi' joy unfeign'd, brothers and sisters meet,

An' each for other's welfare kindly spiers ;
The social hours, swift-winged, unnotic'd fleet ;

Each tells the uncos that he sees or hears :
The parents, partial, eye their hopeful years;

Anticipation forward points the view ;
The mither, wi' her needle an' her shears,

Gars auld claes look amaist as weel 's the new 5
The father mixes a' wi' admonition due.

But, hark ! a rap comes gently to the door;

Jenny, wha kens the meaning o' the same.
Tells how a neebor lad cam o'er the moor,

To do some errands, and convoy her hame.
The wily mother sees the conscious flame

Sparkle in Jenny's e'e, and flush her cheek ;
With heart-struck, anxious care, inquires his name,

While Jenny hafflins is afraid to speak ;
Weel pleas'd the mother hears it's nae wild, worthless rake.

Wi' kindly welcome, Jenny brings him ben ;

A strappan youth ; he taks the mother's eye ;
Blithe Jenny sees the visit 's no ill ta'en ;

The father craks of horses, pleughs, and kye.
The youngster's artless heart o'erflows wi' joy,

But blate an' laithfu', scarce can weel behave;
The mother, wi' a woman's wiles, can spy

What makes the youth sae bashfu' an' sae grave ;

t>]r;ts\l to think her bairn's respected like the lave.


Bui now the supper crowns their simple board,
The halesome parritch, chief o' Scotia's food;


The soupe their only hawkie does afford,

That 'yont the hallan snugly chows her cood •

The dame brings forth, in complimental mood,
To grace the lad, her weel-hain'd kebbuck, fell.

An' aft he 's prest, an' aft he ca's it guid ;
The frugal wifie, garrulous, will tell,

How 'twas a towmond auld, sin 1 lint was i' the bell.

The cheerfu' supper done, wi' serious face,

They, round the ingle, form a circle wide ;
The sire turns o'er, with patriarchal grace,

The big ha'-Bible, ance his father's pride:
His bonnet rev'rently is laid aside,

His lyart haffets wearing thin an' bare;
Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide,

He wales a portion wi' judicious care ;
And 'Let us worship God ! ' he says, with solemn air.

They chant their artless notes in simple guise ;

They tune their hearts, by far the noblest aim :
Perhaps Dundee's wild-warbling measures rise,

Or plaintive Martyrs, worthy of the name ;
Or noble Elgin beets the heav'n-ward flame,

The sweetest far of Scotia's holy lays :
Compar'd with these, Italian trills are tame ;

The tickled ears no heart-felt raptures raise ;
Nae unison hae they with our Creator's praise.' —

Burns's poetical epistles to his friends are admirable, whether for
the touches of satire, the painting of character, or the sincerity of
friendship they display. Those to Captain Grose, and to Davie, a
brother poet, are among the best: — they are 'the true pathos and
sublime of human life.' His prose-letters are sometimes tinctured
with affectation. They seem written by a man who has been
admired for his wit, and is expected on all occasions to shine. Those in
which he expresses his ideas of natural beauty in reference to Alison's
Essay on Taste, and advocates the keeping up the remembrances of
old customs and seasons, are the most powerfully written. His
English serious odes and moral stanzas are, in general, failures, such
as the The Lament, Man was made to Mourn, &c. nor do I much
admire his ' Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled.' In this strain of
didactic or sentimental moralising, the lines to Glencairn are the
most happy, and impressive. His imitations of the old humorous
ballad style of Ferguson's songs are no whit inferior to the admirable
originals, such as « John Anderson, my Joe,' and many more. But
of all his productions, the pathetic and serious love-songs which he



has left behind him, in the manner of the old ballads, are perhaps
those which take the deepest and most lasting hold of the mind.
Such are the lines to Mary Morison, and those entitled Jessy.

' Here 's a health to ane I lo'e dear —
Here 's a health to ane I lo'e dear —
Thou art sweet as the smile when fond lovers meet,
And soft as their parting tear — Jessy !

Altho 1 thou maun never be mine,

Altho' even hope is denied ;
*Tis sweeter for thee despairing,

Than aught in the world beside — Jessy 1 *

The conclusion of the other is as follows.

•Yestreen, when to the trembling string

The dance gaed through the lighted ha',
To thee my fancy took its wing,

I sat, but neither heard nor saw.
Tho 1 this was fair, and that was bra',

And yon the toast of a' the town,
I sighed and said among them a",

Ye are na' Mary Morison/

That beginning, ' Oh gin my love were a bonny red rose,' is a piece
of rich and fantastic description. One would think that nothing
could surpass these in beauty of expression, and in true pathos : and
nothing does or can, but some of the old Scotch ballads themselves.
There is in them a still more original cast of thought, a more
romantic imagery —the thistle's glittering down, the gillifiower on the
old garden-wall, the horseman's silver bells, the hawk on its perch —
a closer intimacy with nature, a firmer reliance on it, as the only
stock of wealth which the mind has to resort to, a more infantine
simplicity of manners, a greater strength of affection, hopes longer
cherished and longer deferred, sighs that the heart dare hardly heave,
and ' thoughts that often lie too deep for tears.' We seem to feel
that those who wrote and sung them (the earlv minstrels) lived in the
open air, wandering on from place to place with restless feet and
thoughts, and lending an ever-open ear to the fearful accidents of war
or love, floating on the breath of old tradition or common fame, and
moving the strings of their harp with sounds that sank into a nation's
heart. I low line an illustration of this is that passage in Don
Ouixote, where the knight and Sancho, going in search of Dulcinea,
inquire their way of the countryman, who was driving his mules to
plough before break of day, • singing the ancient ballad of Ronces-


valles.' Sir Thomas Overbury describes his country girl as still
accompanied with fragments of old songs. One of the best and most
striking descriptions of the effects of this mixture of national poetry
and music is to be found in one of the letters of Archbishop Herring,
giving an account of a confirmation-tour in the mountains of Wales.

' That pleasure over, our work became very arduous, for we were to
mount a rock, and in many places of the road, over natural stairs of stone.
I submitted to this, which they told me was but a taste of the country, and
to prepare me for worse things to come. However, worse things did not
come that morning, for we dined soon after out of our own wallets; and
though our inn stood in a place of the most frightful solitude, and the best
formed for the habitation of monks (who once possessed it) in the world,
yet we made a cheerful meal. The novelty of the thing gave me spirits, and
the air gave me appetite much keener than the knife I ate with. We had
our music too ; for there came in a harper, who soon drew about us a group
of figures that Hogarth would have given any price for. The harper was
in his true place and attitude ; a man and woman stood before him, singing
to his instrument wildly, but not disagreeably; a little dirty child was
playing with the bottom of the harp ; a woman in a sick night-cap hanging
over the stairs ; a boy with crutches fixed in a staring attention, and a girl
carding wool in the chimney, and rocking a cradle with her naked feet,
interrupted in her business by the charms of the music ; all ragged and
dirty, and all silently attentive. These figures gave us a most entertaining
picture, and would please you or any man of observation ; and one reflection
gave me a particular comfort, that the assembly before us demonstrated,
that even here, the influential sun warmed poor mortals, and inspired them
with love and music/

I could wish that Mr. Wilkie had been recommended to take this
group as the subject of his admirable pencil ; he has painted a picture
of Bathsheba, instead.

In speaking of the old Scotch ballads, I need do no more than
mention the name of Auld Robin Gray. The effect of reading this
old ballad is as if all our hopes and fears hung upon the last fibre of
the heart, and we felt that giving way. What silence, what loneli-
ness, what leisure for grief and despair !

* My father pressed me sair,

Though my mother did na' speak j
But she looked in my face

Till my heart was like to break.'

The irksomeness of the situations, the sense of painful dependence, is
excessive ; and yet the sentiment of deep-rooted, patient affection
triumphs over all, and is the only impression that remains. Lady



Ann Bothwell's Lament is not, I think, quite equal to the lines
beginning —

1 O waly, waly, up the bank,

And waly, waly, down the brae,
And waly, waly, yon burn side,

Where I and my love wont to gae.
I leant my back unto an aik,

I thought it was a trusty tree ;
But first it bow'd, and syne it brak,

Sae my true-love 's forsaken me.

O waly, waly, love is bonny,

A little time while it is new;
But when its auld, it waxeth cauld,

And fades awa' like the morning dew.
When cockle-shells turn siller bells,

And muscles grow on every tree,
Whan frost and snaw sail warm us aw,

Then sail my love prove true to me.

Now Arthur seat sali be my bed,
The sheets sail ne'er be fyld by me :

Saint Anton's well sail be my drink,
Since my true-love 's forsaken me.

Martinmas wind, when wilt thou blaw,
And shake the green leaves affthe tree r

gentle death, whan wilt thou cum,
And tak' a life that wearies me !

'Tis not the frost that freezes sae,

\or blawing snaw's inclemencie,
'Tis not sic cauld, that makes me cry,

But my love's heart grown cauld to me.
Whan we came in by Glasgow town,

We were a comely sight to see,
My love was clad in black velvet,

And I myself in cramasie.

But had I wist before I kist,

That love had been sae hard to win ;

1 \i lockt my heart in case of gowd,

And pinn'd it with a siller pin.
And oh ! if my poor babe were born,

And set upon the nurse's knee,
And I mysel in the cold grave !

Since my true-love 's forsaken me.*

The finest modern imitation of this style is the Braes of Yarrow ;
and perhaps the finest subject for a story of the same kind in any



modern book, is that told in Turner's History of England, of a
Mahometan woman, who having fallen in love with an English
merchant, the father of Thomas a Becket, followed him all the way
to England, knowing only the word London, and the name of her
lover, Gilbert.

But to have done with this, which is rather too serious a subject. —
The old English ballads are of a gayer and more lively turn. They
are adventurous and romantic ; but they relate chiefly to good living
and good fellowship, to drinking and hunting scenes. Robin Hood
is the chief of these, and he still, in imagination, haunts Sherwood
Forest. The archers green glimmer under the waving branches ;
the print on the grass remains where they have just finished their
noon-tide meal under the green-wood tree ; and the echo of their
bugle-horn and twanging bows resounds through the tangled mazes of
the forest, as the tall slim deer glances startled by.

* The trees in Sherwood Forest are old and good ;
The grass beneath them now is dimly green :
Are they deserted all ? Is no young mien,
With loose-slung bugle, met within the wood ?

No arrow found — foil'd of its antler'd food —

Struck in the oak's rude side ? — Is there nought seen
To mark the revelries which there have been,

In the sweet days of merry Robin Hood ?

Go there with summer, and with evening — go

In the soft shadows, like some wandVing man —

And thou shalt far amid the forest know
The archer-men in green, with belt and bow,

Feasting on pheasant, river-fowl and swan,

With Robin at their head, and Marian.'' :



' No more of talk where God or Angel guest
With man, as with his friend, familiar us'd
To sit indulgent.'

Genius is the heir of fame ; but the hard condition on which the
bright reversion must be earned is the loss of life. Fame is the
recompense not of the living, but of the dead. The temple of fame

1 Sonnet on Sherwood Forest, by J. H. Reynolds, Esq.



stands upon the grave : the flame that burns upon its altars is kindled
from the ashes of great men. Fame itself is immortal, but it is not
begot till the breath of genius is extinguished. For fame is not
popularity, the shout of the multitude, the idle buzz of fashion, the
venal putf, the soothing flattery of favour or of friendship ; but it is
the spirit of a man surviving himself in the minds and thoughts of
other men, undying and imperishable. It is the power which the
intellect exercises over the intellect, and the lasting homage which is
paid to it, as such, independently of time and circumstances, purified
from partiality and evil-speaking. Fame is the sound which the
stream of high thoughts, carried down to future ages, makes as it flows
— deep, distant, murmuring evermore like the waters of the mighty
ocean. He who has ears truly touched to this music, is in a manner
deaf to the voice of popularity. — The love of fame differs from mere
vanity in this, that the one is immediate and personal, the other ideal
and abstracted. It is not the direct and gross homage paid to himself,
that the lover of true fame seeks or is proud of; but the indirect and
pure homage paid to the eternal forms of truth and beauty as they
are reflected in his mind, that gives him confidence and hope. The
love of nature is the first thing in the mind of the true poet : the
admiration of himself the last. A man of genius cannot well be
a coxcomb ; for his mind is too full of other things to be much
occupied with his own person. He who is conscious of great powers in
himself, has also a high standard of excellence with which to compare
his efforts : he appeals also to a test and judge of merit, which is
the highest, but which is too remote, grave, and impartial, to flatter his
II love extravagantly, or puff him up with intolerable and vain conceit.
This, indeed, is one test of genius and of real greatness of mind,
whether a man can wait patiently and calmly for the award of
posterity, satisfied with the unwearied exercise of his faculties, retired
within the sanctuary of his own thoughts ; or whether he is eager to
forestal his own immortality, and mortgage it for a newspaper puff.
He who thinks much of himself, will be in danger of being forgotten
by the rest of the world : he who is always trying to lay violent
hands on reputation, will not secure the best and most lasting. If
the restless candidate for praise takes no pleasure, no sincere and
heartfelt delight in his works, but as they are admired and applauded
by others, what should others see in them to admire or applaud ?
They cannot be expected to admire them because they are bis ; but
for the truth and nature contained in them, which must first be inly
felt and copied with severe delight, from the love of truth and nature,
before it can ever appear there. Was Raphael, think you, when he
painted his pictures of the Virgin and Child in all their inconceivable
i 44


truth and beauty of expression, thinking most of his subject or of
himself? Do you suppose that Titian, when he painted a landscape,
was pluming himself on being thought the finest colourist in the world,
or making himself so by looking at nature ? Do you imagine that
Shakspeare, when he wrote Lear or Othello, was thinking of any
thing but Lear and Othello ? Or that Mr. Kean, when he plays
these characters, is thinking of the audience ? — No : he who would
be great in the eyes of others, must first learn to be nothing in his
own. The love of fame, as it enters at times into his mind, is onlv
another name for the love of excellence ; or it is the ambition to attain
the highest excellence, sanctioned by the highest authority— that of

Those minds, then, which are the most entitled to expect it, can
best put up with the postponement of their claims to lasting fame.
They can afford to wait. They are not afraid that truth and nature
will ever wear out ; will lose their gloss with novelty, or their effect
with fashion. If their works have the seeds of immortality in them,
they will live ; if they have not, they care little about them as theirs.
They do not complain of the start which others have got of them in
the race of everlasting renown, or of the impossibility of attaining the
honours which time alone can give, during the term of their natural
lives. They know that no applause, however loud and violent, can
anticipate or over-rule the judgment of posterity ; that the opinion of
no one individual, nor of any one generation, can have the weight, the
authority (to say nothing of the force of sympathy and prejudice),
which must belong to that of successive generations. The brightest
living reputation cannot be equally imposing to the imagination, with
that which is covered and rendered venerable with the hoar of
innumerable ages. No modern production can have the same
atmosphere of sentiment around it, as the remains of classical
antiquity. But then our moderns may console themselves with the
reflection, that they will be old in their turn, and will either be
remembered with still increasing honours, or quite forgotten!

I would speak of the living poets as I have spoken of the dead
(for I think highly of many of them) ; but I cannot speak of them
with the same reverence, because I do not feel it ; with the same
confidence, because I cannot have the same authority to sanction my
opinion. I cannot be absolutely certain that any body, twenty years
hence, will think any thing about any of them ; but we may be
pretty sure that Milton and Shakspeare will be remembered twenty
years hence. We are, therefore, not without excuse if we husband our
enthusiasm a little, and do not prematurely lay out our whole stock
in untried ventures, and what may turn out to be false bottoms. I



have myself out-lived one generation of favourite poets, the Darwins,
the Hayleys, the Sewards. Who reads them now ? — If, however, I
have not the verdict of posterity to bear me out in bestowing the
most unqualified praises on their immediate successors, it is also to
be remembered, that neither does it warrant me in condemning them.
Indeed, it was not my wish to go into this ungrateful part of the
subject ; but something of the sort is expected from me, and I must
run the gauntlet as well as I can. Another circumstance that adds
to the difficulty of doing justice to all parties is, that I happen to
have had a personal acquaintance with some of these jealous votaries
of the Muses ; and that is not the likeliest way to imbibe a high
opinion of the rest. Poets do not praise one another in the language
of hyperbole. I am afraid, therefore, that I labour under a degree
of prejudice against some of the most popular poets of the day, from
an early habit of deference to the critical opinions of some of the
least popular. I cannot say that I ever learnt much about Shakspeare
or Milton, Spenser or Chaucer, from these professed guides ; for I
never heard them say much about them. They were always talking
of themselves and one another. Nor am I certain that this sort of
personal intercourse with living authors, while it takes away all real
relish or freedom of opinion with regard to their contemporaries,
greatly enhances our respect for themselves. Poets are not ideal beings ;
but have their prose-sides, like the commonest of the people. We
often hear persons say, What they would have given to have seen
Shakspeare ! For my part, I would give a great deal not to have
seen him ; at least, if he was at all like any body else that I have
ever seen. But why should he ; for his works are not ! This is,
doubtless, one great advantage which the dead have over the living.
It is always fortunate for ourselves and others, when we are prevented
from exchanging admiration for knowledge. The splendid vision
that in youth haunts our idea of the poetical character, fades, upon
acquaintance, into the light of common day ; as the azure tints that
deck the mountain's brow are lost on a nearer approach to them.
It is well, according to the moral of one of the Lyrical Ballads, —
'To leave Yarrow unvisited.' But to leave this 'face-making,' and
. —

1 .mi a great admirer of the female writers of the present day ;
they appear to me like so many modern Muses. I could be in love
with Mrs. Inchbald, romantic with Mrs. Radcliffe, and sarcastic
with Madame D'Arblay : but they are novel-writers, and, like
Audrey, may 'thank the Gods for not having made them poetical.'
Did any one here ever read Mrs. Leicester's School? If they have
Dot, I wish they would ; there will be just time before the next three

i \()


volumes of the Tales of My Landlord come out. That is not a
school of affectation, but of humanity. No one can think too highly
of the work, or highly enough of the author.

The first poetess I can recollect is Mrs. Barbauld, with whose
works I became acquainted before those of any other author, male
or female, when I was learning to spell words of one syllable in her
story-books for children. I became acquainted with her poetical
works long after in Enfield's Speaker ; and remember being much
divided in my opinion at that time, between her Ode to Spring and
Collins's Ode to Evening. I wish I could repay my childish debt of
gratitude in terms of appropriate praise. She is a very pretty poetess;
and, to my fancy, strews the flowers of poetry most agreeably round
the borders of religious controversy. She is a neat and pointed
prose-writer. Her ' Thoughts on the Inconsistency of Human
Expectations,' is one of the most ingenious and sensible essays in
the language. There is the same idea in one of Barrow's Sermons.

Mrs. Hannah More is another celebrated modern poetess, and I
believe still living. She has written a great deal which I have never

Miss Baillie must make up this trio of female poets. Her tragedies
and comedies, one of each to illustrate each of the passions, separately

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 15 of 38)