Copyright
William Hazlitt.

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

. (page 16 of 38)
Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 16 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


from the rest, are heresies in the dramatic art. She is a Unitarian
in poetry. With her the passions are, like the French republic, one
and indivisible : they are not so in nature, or in Shakspeare. Mr.
Southey has, I believe, somewhere expressed an opinion, that the
Basil of Miss Baillie is superior to Romeo and Juliet. I shall not
stay to contradict him. On the other hand, I prefer her De Mont-
fort, which was condemned on the stage, to some later tragedies,
which have been more fortunate — to the Remorse, Bertram, and
lastly, Fazio. There is in the chief character of that play a nerve,
a continued unity of interest, a setness of purpose and precision of
outline which John Kemble alone was capable of giving ; and there
is all the grace which women have in writing. In saying that De
Montfort was a character which just suited Mr. Kemble, I mean to
pay a compliment to both. He was not ' a man of no mark or likeli-
hood ' : and what he could be supposed to do particularly well, must
have a meaning in it. As to the other tragedies just mentioned, there
is no reason why any common actor should not ' make mouths in
them at the invisible event,' — one as well as another. Having thus
expressed my sense of the merits of the authoress, I must add, that
her comedy of the Election, performed last summer at the Lyceum
with indifferent success, appears to me the perfection of baby-house
theatricals. Every thing in it has such a do-me-good air, is so insipid

147



LECTUKES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

and amiable. Virtue seems such a pretty playing at make-believe,
and vice is such a naughty word. It is a theory of some French
author, that little girls ought not to be suffered to have dolls to play
with, to call them pretty dears, to admire their black eyes and cherry
cheeks, to lament and bewail over them if they fall down and hurt
their faces, to praise them when they are good, and scold them when
they are naughty. It is a school of affectation : Miss Baillie has
profited of it. She treats her grown men and women as little girls
treat their dolls — makes moral puppets of them, pulls the wires, and
they talk virtue and act vice, according to their cue and the title
prefixed to each comedy or tragedy, not from any real passions of
their own, or love either of virtue or vice.

The transition from these to Mr. Rogers's Pleasures of Memory,
is not far : he is a very lady-like poet. He is an elegant, but feeble
writer. He wraps up obvious thoughts in a glittering cover of fine
words ; is full of enigmas with no meaning to them ; is studiously
inverted, and scrupulously far-fetched ; and his verses are poetry,
chiefly because no particle, line, or syllable of them reads like prose.
He differs from Milton in this respect, who is accused of having
inserted a number of prosaic lines in Paradise Lost. This kind
of poetry, which is a more minute and inoffensive species of the
Delia Cruscan, is like the game of asking what one's thoughts are
like. It is a tortuous, tottering, wriggling, fidgetty translation of
every thing from the vulgar tongue, into all the tantalizing, teasing,
tripping, lisping mimminee-pimminee of the highest brilliancy and
fashion of poetical diction. You have nothing like truth of nature
or simplicity of expression. The fastidious and languid reader is
never shocked by meeting, from the rarest chance in the world,
with a single homely phrase or intelligible idea. You cannot see
the thought for the ambiguity of the language, the figure for the
finery, the picture for the varnish. The whole is refined, and
frittered away into an appearance of the most evanescent brilliancy
and tremulous imbecility. — There is no other fault to be found with
the Pleasures of Memory, than a want of taste and genius. The
sentiments are amiable, and the notes at the end highly interesting,
particularly the one relating to the Countess Pillar (as it is called)
between Appleby and Penrith, erected (as the inscription tells the
thoughtful traveller) by Anne Countess of Pembroke, in the year
1648, in memory of her last parting with her good and pious mother
in the same place in the year 161 6.

* To shew that power of love, how great
Beyond all human estimate.'
I48



ON THE LIVING POETS

This story is also told in the poem, but with so many artful innuendos
and tinsel words, that it is hardly intelligible ; and still less does it
reach the heart.

Campbell's Pleasures of Hope is of the same school, in which a
painful attention is paid to the expression in proportion as there is
little to express, and the decomposition of prose is substituted for the
composition of poetry. How much the sense and keeping in the
ideas are sacrificed to a jingle of words and epigrammatic turn of
expression, may be seen in such lines as the following : — one of the
characters, an old invalid, wishes to end his days under

* Some hamlet shade, to yield his sickly form
Health in the breeze, and shelter in the storm.''

Now the antithesis here totally fails : for it is the breeze, and not
the tree, or as it is quaintly expressed, hamlet shade, that affords
health, though it is the tree that affords shelter in or from the storm.
Instances of the same sort of curiosa infelicitas are not rare in this
author. His verses on the Battle of Hohenlinden have considerable
spirit and animation. His Gertrude of Wyoming is his principal
performance. It is a kind of historical paraphrase of Mr. Words-
worth's poem of Ruth. It shews little power, or power enervated
by extreme fastidiousness. It is

' — Of outward show

Elaborate; of inward less exact.'

There are painters who trust more to the setting of their pictures
than to the truth of the likeness. Mr. Campbell always seems to me
to be thinking how his poetry will look when it comes to be hot-
pressed on superfine wove paper, to have a disproportionate eye to
points and commas, and dread of errors of the press. He is so
afraid of doing wrong, of making the smallest mistake, that he does
little or nothing. Lest he should wander irretrievably from the
right path, he stands still. He writes according to established
etiquette. He offers the Muses no violence. If he lights upon a
good thought, he immediately drops it for fear of spoiling a good
thing. When he launches a sentiment that you think will float him
triumphantly for once to the bottom of the stanza, he stops short
at the end of the first or second line, and stands shivering on the
brink of beauty, afraid to trust himself to the fathomless abyss. Tutus
nimium, timidusque procellarum. His very circumspection betrays
him. The poet, as well as the woman, that deliberates, is undone.
He is much like a man whose heart fails him just as he is going up
in a balloon, and who breaks his neck by flinging himself out of it

149



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

when it is too late. Mr. Campbell too often maims and mangles
his ideas before they are full formed, to fit them to the Procustes'
bed of criticism ; or strangles his intellectual offspring in the birth,
lest they should come to an untimely end in the Edinburgh Review.
He plays the hypercritic on himself, and starves his genius to death
from a needless apprehension of a plethora. No writer who thinks
habitually of the critics, either to tremble at their censures or set
them at defiance, can write well. It is the business of reviewers
to watch poets, not of poets to watch reviewers. — There is one
admirable simile in this poem, of the European child brought by
the sooty Indian in his hand, ' like morning brought by night.' The
love-scenes in Gertrude of Wyoming breathe a balmy voluptuousness
of sentiment ; but they are generally broken off in the middle ; they
are like the scent of a bank of violets, faint and rich, which the
.-ale suddenly conveys in a different direction. Mr. Campbell is
careful of his own reputation, and economical of the pleasures of
his readers. He treats them as the fox in the fable treated his
guest the stork ; or, to use his own expression, his fine things are

'Like angels' vi- its, few, and far between.' 1

There is another fault in this poem, which is the mechanical structure
of the fable. The most striking events occur in the shape of
antitheses. The story is cut into the form of a parallelogram
There is the same systematic alternation of good and evil, of violence
and repose, that there is of light and shade in a picture. The Indian,
who is the chief agent in the interest of the poem, vanishes and
returns after long intervals, like the periodical revolutions of the
planets. He unexpectedly appears just in the nick of time, after
years of absence, and without any known reason but the convenience
of the author and the astonishment of the reader ; as if nature were
a machine constructed on a principle of complete contrast, to produce
a theatrical effect. Nee Deus intersit, nisi dignus vindice nodus. Mr.
Campbell's savage never appears but upon great occasions, and then
his punctuality is preternatural and alarming. He is the most
wonderful instance on record of poetical reliability. The most
Iful mischiefs happen at the most mortifying moments; and
when your expectations are wound up to the highest pitch, you are
sure to have them knocked on the head by a premeditated and

1 There is the same idea in Blair's I

' Its visits.

Like those of angels, short, and far between.

Mr. Campbell in altering the expression hag spoiled it. 'Few,' and 'far
between,' are the same thing.
I 5



ON THE LIVING POETS

remorseless stroke of the poet's pen. This is done so often for the
convenience of the author, that in the end it ceases to be for the
satisfaction of the reader.

Tom Moore is a poet of a quite different stamp. He is as heed-
less, gay, and prodigal of his poetical wealth, as the other is careful,
reserved, and parsimonious. The genius of both is national. Mr.
Moore's Muse is another Ariel, as light, as tricksy, as indefatigable,
and as humane a spirit. His fancy is for ever on the wing, flutters
in the gale, glitters in the sun. Every thing lives, moves, and
sparkles in his poetry, while over all love waves his purple light.
His thoughts are as restless, as many, and as bright as the insects
that people the sun's beam. * So work the honey-bees,' extracting
liquid sweets from opening buds ; so the butterfly expands its wings
to the idle air ; so the thistle's silver down is wafted over summer
seas. An airy voyager on life's stream, his mind inhales the fragrance
of a thousand shores, and drinks of endless pleasures under halcyon
skies. Wherever his footsteps tend over the enamelled ground of
fairy fiction —

4 Around him the bees in play flutter and cluster,
And gaudy butterflies frolic around.'

The fault of Mr. Moore is an exuberance of involuntary power.
His facility of production lessens the effect of, and hangs as a dead
weight upon, what he produces. His levity at last oppresses. The
infinite delight he takes in such an infinite number of things, creates
indifference in minds less susceptible of pleasure than his own. He
exhausts attention by being inexhaustible. His variety cloys ; his
rapidity dazzles and distracts the sight. The graceful ease with
which he lends himself to every subject, the genial spirit with which
he indulges in every sentiment, prevents him from giving their full
force to the masses of things, from connecting them into a whole.
He wants intensity, strength, and grandeur. His mind does not
brood over the great and permanent ; it glances over the surfaces,
the first impressions of things, instead of grappling with the deep-
rooted prejudices of the mind, its inveterate habits, and that ' perilous
stuff that weighs upon the heart.' His pen, as it is rapid and fanciful,
wants momentum and passion. It requires the same principle to
make us thoroughly like poetry, that makes us like ourselves so well,
the feeling of continued identity. The impressions of Mr. Moore's
poetry are detached, desultory, and physical. Its gorgeous colours
brighten and fade like the rainbow's. Its sweetness evaporates like
the effluvia exhaled from beds of flowers ! His gay laughing style,
which relates to the immediate pleasures of love or wine, is better

'5 1



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

than his sentimental and romantic vein. His Irish melodies are not
free from affectation and a certain sickliness of pretension. His
serious descriptions are apt to run into flowery tenderness. His
pathos sometimes melts into a mawkish sensibility, or crystallizes
into all the prettinesses of allegorical language, and glittering hardness
of external imagery. But he has wit at will, and of the first quality.
His satirical and burlesque poetry is his best : it is first-rate. His
Twopenny Post- Bag is a perfect 'nest of spicery ' ; where the Cayenne
is not spared. The politician there sharpens the poet's pen. In this
too, our bard resembles the bee — he has its honey and its sting.

Mr. Moore ought not to have written Lalla Rookh, even for three
thousand guineas. His fame is worth more than that. He should
have minded the advice of Fadladeen. It is not, however, a failure,
so much as an evasion and a consequent disappointment of public
expectation. He should have left it to others to break conventions
with nations, and faith with the world. He should, at any rate,
have kept his with the public. Lalla Rookh is not what people
wanted to see whether Mr. Moore could do ; namely, whether he
could write a long epic poem. It is four short tales. The interest,
however, is often high-wrought and tragic, but the execution still
turns to the effeminate and voluptuous side. Fortitude of mind is
the first requisite of a tragic or epic writer. Happiness of nature
and felicity of genius are the pre-eminent characteristics of the bard
of Erin. If he is not perfectly contented with what he is, all the
world beside is. He had no temptation to risk any thing in adding
to the love and admiration of his age, and more than one country

' Therefore to be possessed with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper light
To seek the beauteous eye of heav'n to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.'

'1 be aame might be said of Mr. Moore's seeking to bind an epic
crown, or the shadow of one, round his other laurels.

If Mr. Moore has not suffered enough personally, Lord Byron
(judging from the tone of his writings) might be thought to have
Buffered too much to be a truly great poet. If Mr. Moore lays
himself too open to all the various impulses of things, the outward
shews of earth and sky, to every breath that blows, to every stray
M-ntiment that crosses his fancy ; Lord Byron shuts himself up too

152



ON THE LIVING POETS

much in the impenetrable gloom of his own thoughts, and buries the
natural light of things in ' nook, monastic.' The Giaour, the Corsair,
Childe Harold, are all the same person, and they are apparently all
himself. The everlasting repetition of one subject, the same dark
ground of fiction, with the darker colours of the poet's mind spread
over it, the unceasing accumulation of horrors on horror's head, steels
the mind against the sense of pain, as inevitably as the unwearied
Siren sounds and luxurious monotony of Mr. Moore's poetry make
it inaccessible to pleasure. Lord Byron's poetry is as morbid as
Mr. Moore's is careless and dissipated. He has more depth of
passion, more force and impetuosity, but the passion is always of the
same unaccountable character, at once violent and sullen, fierce and
gloomy. It is not the passion of a mind struggling with misfortune,
or the hopelessness of its desires, but of a mind preying upon itself,
and disgusted with, or indifferent to all other things. There is
nothing less poetical than this sort of unaccommodating selfishness.
There is nothing more repulsive than this sort of ideal absorption of
all the interests of others, of the good and ills of life, in the ruling
passion and moody abstraction of a single mind, as if it would make
itself the centre of the universe, and there was nothing worth cherish-
ing but its intellectual diseases. It is like a cancer, eating into the
heart of poetry. But still there is power ; and power rivets attention
and forces admiration. ' He hath a demon : ' and that is the next
thing to being full of the God. His brow collects the scattered gloom :
his eye flashes livid fire that withers and consumes. But still we
watch the progress of the scathing bolt with interest, and mark the
ruin it leaves behind with awe. Within the contracted range of his
imagination, he has great unity and truth of keeping. He chooses
elements and agents congenial to his mind, the dark and glittering
ocean, the frail bark hurrying before the storm, pirates and men that
' house on the wild sea with wild usages.' He gives the tumultuous
eagerness of action, and the fixed despair of thought. In vigour of
style and force of conception, he in one sense surpasses every writer
of the present day. His indignant apothegms are like oracles of
misanthropy. He who wishes for ' a curse to kill with,' may find it
in Lord Byron's writings. Yet he has beauty lurking underneath
his strength, tenderness sometimes joined with the phrenzy of despair.
A flash of golden light sometimes follows from a stroke of his pencil,
like a falling meteor. The flowers that adorn his poetry bloom over
charnel-houses and the grave !

There is one subject on which Lord Byron is fond of writing, on
which I wish he would not write — Buonaparte. Not that I quarrel
with his writing for him, or against him, but with his writing both

f 53



LECTURES ON THE ExXGLISH POETS

for him and against him. What right has he to do this? Buonaparte's
character, be it what else it may, does not change every hour accord-
ing to his Lordship's varying humour. He is not a pipe for Fortune's
finger, or for his Lordship's Muse, to play what stop she pleases on.
Why should Lord Byron now laud him to the skies in the hour of
his success, and then peevishly wreak his disappointment on the God
of his idolatry ? The man he writes of does not rise or fall with
circumstances : but ' looks on tempests and is never shaken.' Besides,
he is a subject for history, and not for poetry.

'Great princes* favourites their fair leaves spread,

But as the marigold at the sun's eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried ;

For at a frown they in their glory die.
The painful warrior, famoused for fight,

After a thousand victories once foil'd,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,

And all the rest forgot for which he toil'd.'

If Lord Byron will write any thing more on this hazardous theme,
let him take these lines of Shakspeare for his guide, and finish them
in the spirit of the original — they will then be worthy of the subject.

Walter Scott is the most popular of all the poets of the present
day, and deservedly so. He describes that which is most easily and
generally understood with more vivacity and effect than any body else.
He has no excellences, either of a lofty or recondite kind, which lie
beyond the reach of the most ordinary capacity to find out ; but he
has all the good qualities which all the world agree to understand.
His style is clear, flowing, and transparent: his sentiments, of which
his style is an easy and natural medium, are common to him with his
readers. He has none of Mr. Wordsworth's idiosyncracy. He differs
from his readers only in a greater range of knowledge and facility of
expression. His poetry belongs to the class of improvisator! poetry.
It has neither depth, height, nor breadth in it ; neither uncommon
strength, nor uncommon refinement of thought, sentiment, or lan-
c It has no originality. But if this author has no research,
no moving power in his own breast, he relies with the greater safety
and success on the force of his subject. He selects a story such as
is sure to please, full of incidents, characters, peculiar manners,
costume, and scenery ; and he tells it in a way that can offend no
one. He never wearies or disappoints you. He is communicative
and garrulous ; but he is not his own hero. He never obtrudes him-
self on your notice to prevent your seeing the subject. What passes
in the poem, passes much as it would have done in reality. The
author has little or nothing to do with it. Mr. Scott has great

•54



ON THE LIVING POETS

intuitive power of fancy, great vividness of pencil in placing externa!
objects and events before the eye. The force of his mind is pic-
turesque, rather than moral. He gives more of the features of nature
than the soul of passion. He conveys the distinct outlines and visible
changes in outward objects, rather than 'their mortal consequences.'
He is very inferior to Lord Byron in intense passion, to Moore in
delightful fancy, to Mr. Wordsworth in profound sentiment : but he
has more picturesque power than any of them ; that is, he places the
objects themselves, about which they might feel and think, in a much
more striking point of view, with greater variety of dress and attitude,
and with more local truth of colouring. His imagery is Gothic and
grotesque. The manners and actions have the interest and curiosity
belonging to a wild country and a distant period of time. Few
descriptions have a more complete reality, a more striking appearance
of life and motion, than that of the warriors in the Lady of the Lake,
who start up at the command of Rhoderic Dhu, from their conceal-
ment under the fern, and disappear again in an instant. The Lay of
the Last Minstrel and Marmion are the first, and perhaps the best
of his works. The Goblin Page, in the first of these, is a very
interesting and inscrutable little personage. In reading these poems,
I confess I am a little disconcerted, in turning over the page, to find
Mr. Westall's pictures, which always seem facsimiles of the persons
represented, with ancient costume and a theatrical air. This may be
a compliment to Mr. Westall, but it is not one to Walter Scott.
The truth is, there is a modern air in the midst of the antiquarian
research of Mr. Scott's poetry. It is history or tradition in mas-
querade. Not only the crust of old words and images is worn off
with time, — the substance is grown comparatively light and worthless.
The forms are old and uncouth ; but the spirit is effeminate and
frivolous. This is a deduction from the praise I have given to his
pencil for extreme fidelity, though it has been no obstacle to its
drawing-room success. He has just hit the town between the
romantic and the fashionable ; and between the two, secured all
classes of readers on his side. In a word, I conceive that he is to
the great poet, what an excellent mimic is to a great actor. There
is no determinate impression left on the mind by reading his poetry.
It has no results. The reader rises up from the perusal with new
images and associations, but he remains the same man that he was
before. A great mind is one that moulds the minds of others.
Mr. Scott has put the Border Minstrelsy and scattered traditions of
the country into easy, animated verse. But the Notes to his poems
are just as entertaining as the poems themselves, and his poems are
only entertaining.

1 55



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

Mr. Wordsworth is the most original poet now living. He is the
reverse of Walter Scott in his defects and excellences. He has
nearly all that the other wants, and wants all that the other possesses
His poetrv is not external, but internal ; it does not depend upon
tradition, or story, or old song ; he furnishes it from his own mind,
and is his own subject. He is the poet of mere sentiment. Of many
of the Lvrical Ballads, it is not possible to speak in terms of too high
praise, such as Hart-leap Well, the Banks of the Wye, Poor Susan,
parts of the Leech-gatherer, the lines to a Cuckoo, to * Daisy, the
Complaint, several of the Sonnets, and a hundred others of incon-
ceivable beauty, of perfect originality and pathos. They open a finer
and deeper vein of thought and feeling than any poet in modern times
has done, or attempted. He has produced a deeper impression, and
on a smaller circle, than any other of his contemporaries. His
powers have been mistaken by the age, nor does he exactly under-
stand them himself. He cannot form a whole. He has not the
constructive faculty. He can give only the fine tones of thought,
drawn rrom his mind by accident or nature, like the sounds drawn
from the iEolian harp by the wandering gale. — He is totally deficient



Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 16 of 38)