William Hazlitt.

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

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Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 17 of 38)
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in all the machinery of poetry. His Excursion, taken as a whole, not-
withstanding the noble materials thrown away in it, is a proof of this.
The line labours, the sentiment moves slow, but the poem stands
stock-still. The reader makes no way from the first line to the last.
It is more than any thing in the world like Robinson Crusoe's boat,
which would have been an excellent good boat, and would have
carried him to the other side of the globe, but that he could not get
it out of the sand where it stuck fast. I did what little I could to
help to launch it at the time, but it would not do. I am not, however,
one or those who laugh at the attempts or failures of men of genius.
It is not my way to cry * Long life to the conqueror.' Success and
desert are not with me synonymous terms ; and the less Mr. Words-
worth's general merits have been understood, the more necessary is it
to ins-iist upon them. This is not the place to repeat what I have
already said on the subject. The reader may turn to it in the Round
Table. I do not think, however, there is any thing in the larger
poem equal to many of the detached pieces in the Lyrical Ballads.
As Mr. Wordsworth's poems have been little known to the public,
or chiefly through garbled extracts from them, I will here give an
entire poem (one that has always been a favourite with me), that the
reader may know what it is that the admirers of this author find to
be delighted with in his poetry. Those who do not feel the beauty
and the force of it, may save themselves the trouble of inquiring

I 5 6



The knight had ridden down from Wensley moor
With the slow motion of a summer's cloud ;

He turned aside towards a vassal's door,

And, " Bring another horse ! " he cried aloud.

" Another horse ! " — That shout the vassal heard,
And saddled his best steed, a comely gray;

Sir Walter mounted him ; he was the third
Which he had mounted on that glorious clay.

Joy sparkled in the prancing courser's eyes :
The horse and horseman are a happy pair ;

But, though Sir Walter like a falcon flies,
There is a doleful silence in the air.

A rout this morning left Sir Walter's hall,
That as they galloped made the echoes roar j

But horse and man are vanished, one and all ;
Such race, I think, was never seen before.

Sir Walter, restless as a veering wind,

Calls to the few tired dogs that yet remain :

Brach, Swift, and Music, noblest of their kind,
Follow, and up the weary mountain strain.

The knight hallooed, he chid and cheered them on
With suppliant gestures and upbraidings stern;

But breath and eye-sight fail ; and, one by one,
The dogs are stretched among the mountain fern.

Where is the throng, the tumult of the race ?

The bugles that so joyfully were blown ?
— This chase it looks not like an earthly chase ;

Sir Walter and the hart are left alone.

The poor hart toils along the mountain side ;

I will not stop to tell how far he fled,
Nor will I mention by what death he died ;

But now the knight beholds him lying dead.

Dismounting then, he leaned against a thorn ;

He had no follower, dog, nor man, nor boy :
He neither smacked his whip, nor blew his horn,

But gazed upon the spoil with silent joy.

Close to the thorn on which Sir Walter leaned,
Stood his dumb partner in this glorious act ;

Weak as a lamb the hour that it is yeaned ;
And foaming like a mountain cataract.



Upon his side the hart was lying stretched :
His nose half-touched a spring beneath a hill,

And with the last deep groan his breath had fetched
The waters of the spring were trembling still.

And now, too happy for repose or rest,
(Was never man in such a joyful ca^e !)

Sir Walter walked all round, north, south, and west,
And gazed, and gazed upon that darling place.

And climbing up the hill — (it was at least
Nine roods of sheer ascent) Sir Walter found,

Three several hoof-marks which the hunted beast
Had left imprinted on the verdant ground.

Sir Walter wiped his face and cried, "Till new
Such sight was never seen by living eyes :

Three leaps have borne him from this lotly brow,
Down to the very fountain where he lies.

I Ml build a pleasure-house upon this spot,
And a small arbour, made for rural joy;

'Twill be the traveller's shed, the pilgrim's cot,
A place of love for damsels that are coy.

A cunning artist will I have to frame

A bason for that fountain in the dell ;
And they, who do make mention of the same

From this day forth, shall call it Hart-leap Well.

And, gallant brute ! to make thy praises known,
Another monument shall here be raised ;

Three several pillars, each a rough-hewn stone,

And planted where thy hoofs the turf have grazed.

And, in the summer-time when days are long,
I will come hither with my paramour;

And with the dancers, and the minstrel's song,
We will make merry in that pleasant bower.

Till the foundations of the mountains fail,
My mansion with its arbour shall endure ; —

The joy of them who till the fields of Swale,

And them who dwell among the woods of Ure ! "

'I hen home he went, and left the hart, stone-dead,
With breathless nostrils stretched above the spring.

— Soon did the knight perform what he had said,
And far and wide the fame thereof did rinse.
I 5 8


Ere thrice the moon into her port had steered,
A cup of stone received the living well ;

Three pillars of rude stone Sir Walter reared,
And built a house of pleasure in the dell.

And near the fountain, flowers of stature tall

With trailing plants and trees were intertwined,-

Which soon composed a little sylvan hall,
A leafy shelter from the sun and wind.

And thither, when the summer-days were long,
6ir Walter journeyed with his paramour;

And with the dancers and the minstrel's song
Made merriment within that pleasant bower.

The knight, Sir Walter, died in course of time,
And his bones lie in his paternal vale.; —

But there is matter for a second rhyme,
And I to this would add another tale/


1 The moving accident is not my trade :

To freeze the blood I have no ready arts :
'Tis my delight, alone in summer shade,
To pipe a simple song for thinking hearts.

As I from Hawes to Richmond did repair,
It chanced that I saw standing in a dell

Three aspens at three corners of a square,

And one, not four yards distant, near a well.

What this imported I could ill divine :

And, pulling now the rein my horse to stop,

I saw three pillars standing in a line,
The last stone pillar on a dark hill-top.

The trees were gray, with neither arms nor head ;

Half-wasted the square mound of tawny green ;
So that you just might say, as then I said,

" Here in old time the hand of man hath been."

I looked upon the hill both far and near,
More doleful place did never eye survey;

It ;,eemed as if the spring-time came not here,
And Nature here were willing to decay.

I stood in various thoughts and fancies lost,

When one, who was in shepherd's garb attired,

Came up the hollow : — Him did I accost,

And what this place might be I then inquired.



The shepherd stopped, and that same story told
Which in my former rhyme I have rehearsed.

" A jolly place," said he, " in times of old !
But something ails it now ; the spot is curst.

You see these lifeless stumps of aspen wood —
Some say that they are beeches, others elms —

These were the bower ; and here a mansion stood,
The finest palace of a hundred realms !

The arbour does its own condition tell ;

You see the stones, the fountain, and the stream ;
But as to the great lodge ! you might as well

Hunt half a day for a forgotten dream.

There *s neither dog nor heifer, horse nor sheep,
Will wet his lips within that cup of stone ;

And oftentimes, when all are fast asleep,

This water doth send forth a dolorous groan.

Some say that here a murder has been done,

And blood cries out for blood : but, for my part,

I've guessed, when I 've been sitting in the sun,
That it was all for that unhappy hart.

What thoughts must through the creature's brain have
passed !

Even from the top-most stone, upon the steep,
Are but three bounds — and look, Sir, at this last —

— O Master ! it has been a cruel leap.

For thirteen hours he ran a desperate race}
And in my simple mind we cannot tell

What cause the hart might have to love this place,
And come and make his death-bed near the well.

Here on the grass perhaps asleep he sank,
Lulled by this fountain in the summer-tide;

This water was perhaps the first he drank

When he had wandered from his mother's side.

In April here beneath the scented thorn

He heard the birds their morning carols sing;

And lie, perhaps, for aught we know, was born
Not half a furlong from that self-same spring.

But now here 's neither grass nor pleasant shade ;

The sun on drearier hollow never shone;
So will it be, as I have often said,

Till trees, and stones, and fountain all are gone.*


' Gray-headed Shepherd, thou hast spoken well ;

Small difference lies between thy creed and mine i
This beast not unobserved by Nature fell ;

His death was mourned by sympathy divine.

The Being, that is in the clouds and air,

That is in the green leaves among the groves,

Maintains a deep, and reverential care

For the unoffending creatures whom he loves.

The pleasure-house is dust : — behind, before,
This is no common waste, no common gloom;

But Nature, in due course of* time, once more
Shall here put on her beauty and her bloom.

She leaves these objects to a slow decay,

That what we are, and have been, may be known j

But at the coining of the milder day,

These monuments shall all be overgrown.

One lesson, Shepherd, let us two divide,

Taught both by what she shews, and what conceals,

Never to blend our pleasure or our pride

With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels."

Mr. Wordsworth is at the head of that which has been denominated
the Lake school of poetry ; a school which, with all my respect for
it, I do not think sacred from criticism or exempt from faults, of
some of which faults I shall speak with becoming frankness ; for I
do not see that the liberty of the press ought to be shackled, or free-
dom of speech curtailed, to screen either its revolutionary or renegado
extravagances. This school of poetry had its origin in the French
revolution, or rather in those sentiments and opinions which produced
that revolution ; and which sentiments and opinions were indirectly
imported into this country in translations from the German about that
period. Our poetical literature had, towards the close of the last
century, degenerated into the most trite, insipid, and mechanical of all
things, in the hands of the followers of Pope and the old French school
of poetry. It wanted something to stir it up, and it found that some-
thing in the principles and events of the French revolution. From
the impulse it thus received, it rose at once from the most servile
imitation and tamest common-place, to the utmost pitch of singularity
and paradox. The change in the belles-lettres was as complete, and
to many persons as startling, as the change in politics, with which it
went hand in hand. There was a mighty ferment in the heads of
statesmen and poets, kings and people. According to the prevailing
notions, all was to be natural and new. Nothing that was established
f 161


was to be tolerated. All the common-place figures of poetry, tropes,
allegories, personifications, with the whole heathen mythology, were
instantly discarded; a classical allusion was considered as a piece of
antiquated foppery ; capital letters were no more allowed in print,
than letters-patent of nobility were permitted in real life ; kings and
queens were dethroned from their rank and station in legitimate
tragedy or epic poetry, as they were decapitated elsewhere ; rhyme
was looked upon as a relic of the feudal system, and regular metre
was abolished along with regular government. Authority and fashion,
elegance or arrangement, were hooted out of countenance, as pedantry
and prejudice. Every one did that which was good in his own eyes.
The object was to reduce all things to an absolute level ; and a
singularly affected and outrageous simplicity prevailed in dress and
manners, in style and sentiment. A striking effect produced where
it was least expected, something new and original, no matter whether
good, bad, or indifferent, whether mean or lofty, extravagant or
childish, was all that was aimed at, or considered as compatible with
sound philosophy and an age of reason. The licentiousness grew
extreme : Coryate's Crudities were nothing to it. The world was
to be turned topsy-turvy ; and poetry, by the good will of our Adam-
wits, was to share its fate and begin de novo. It was a time of
promise, a renewal of the world and of letters ; and the Deucalions,
who were to perform this feat of regeneration, were the present poet-
laureat and the two authors of the Lyrical Ballads. The Germans,
who made heroes of robbers, and honest women of cast-off mistresses,
had already exhausted the extravagant and marvellous in sentiment
and situation : our native writers adopted a wonderful simplicity of
style and matter. The paradox they set out with was, that all things
are by nature equally fit subjects for poetry ; or that if there is any
preference to be given, those that are the meanest and most unpro-
mising are the best, as they leave the greatest scope for the unbounded
stores of thought and fancy in the writer's own mind. Poetry had
with them ' neither buttress nor coigne of vantage to make its pendant
bed and procrc-ant cradle.' It was not ' born so high : its aiery
buildeth in the cedar's top, and dallies with the wind, and scorns
the sun.' It grew like a mushroom out of the ground; or was
hidden in it like a truffle, which it required a particular sagacity and
industry to find out and dig up. They founded the new school on a
principle of sheer humanity, on pure nature void of art. It could not
be said of these sweeping reformers and dictators in the republic of
letters, that ' in their train walked crowns and crownets ; that realms
and islands, like plates, dropt from their pockets': but they were
surrounded, in company with the Muses, by a mixed rabble of idle


apprentices and Botany Bay convicts, female vagrants, gipsies, meek
daughters in the family of Christ, of ideot boys and mad mothers,
and after them 'owls and night-ravens flew.' They scorned 'degrees,
priority, and place, insisture, course, proportion, season, form, office,
and custom in all line of order ' : — the distinctions of birth, the
vicissitudes of fortune, did not enter into their abstracted, lofty, and
levelling calculation of human nature. He who was more than man,
with them was none. They claimed kindred only with the commonest
of the people : peasants, pedlars, and village-barbers were their oracles
and bosom friends. Their poetry, in the extreme to which it
professedly tended, and was in effect carried, levels all distinctions
of nature and society ; has ' no figures nor no fantasies,' which the
prejudices of superstition or the customs of the world draw in the
brains of men ; ' no trivial fond records ' of all that has existed in
the history of past ages ; it has no adventitious pride, pomp, or
circumstance, to set it off; 'the marshal's truncheon, nor the judge's
robe'; neither tradition, reverence, nor ceremony, 'that to great
ones 'longs ' : it breaks in pieces the golden images of poetry, and
defaces its armorial bearings, to melt them down in the mould of
common humanity or of its own upstart self-sufficiency. They took
the same method in their new-fangled ' metre ballad-mongering '
scheme, which Rousseau did in his prose paradoxes — of exciting
attention by reversing the established standards of opinion and
estimation in the world. They were for bringing poetry back to
its primitive simplicity and state of nature, as he was for bringing
society back to the savage state : so that the only thing remarkable
left in the world by this change, would be the persons who had
produced it. A thorough adept in this school of poetry and
philanthropy is jealous of all excellence but his own. He does
not even like to share his reputation with his subject ; for he would
have it all proceed from his own power and originality of mind.
Such a one is slow to admire any thing that is admirable ; feels no
interest in what is most interesting to others, no grandeur in any
thing grand, no beauty in anything beautiful. He tolerates only
what he himself creates ; he sympathizes only with what can enter
into no competition with him, with 'the bare trees and mountains
bare, and grass in the green field.' He sees nothing but himself and
the universe. He hates all greatness and all pretensions to it, whether
well or ill-founded. His egotism is in some respects a madness ; for
he scorns even the admiration of himself, thinking it a presumption in
any one to suppose that he has taste or sense enough to understand
him. He hates all science and all art ; he hates chemistry, he hates
conchology ; he hates Voltaire ; he hates Sir Isaac Newton ; he



hates wisdom ; he hates wit ; he hates metaphysics, which he says
are unintelligible, and yet he would be thought to understand them ;
he hates prose ; he hates all poetry but his own ; he hates the
dialogues in Shakespeare ; he hates music, dancing, and painting ; he
hates Rubens, he hates Rembrandt; he hates Raphael, he hates
Titian ; he hates Vandyke ; he hates the antique ; he hates the
Apollo Belvidere ; he hates the Venus of MeJicis. This is the
reason that so few people take an interest in his writings, because he
takes an interest in nothing that others do! — The effect has been
perceived as something odd; but the cause or principle has never
been distinctly traced to its source before, as far as I know. The
proofs are to be found every where — in Mr. Southey's Botany Bay
Eclogues, in his book of Songs and Sonnets, his Odes and Inscrip-
tions, so well parodied in the Anti-Jacobin Review, in his Joan of
Arc, and last, though not least, in his Wat Tyler :

' When Adam delved, and Eve span,
Where was then the gentleman ? '

( — or the poet laureat either, we may ask?) — In Mr. Coleridge's
Ode to an Ass's Foal, in his Lines to Sarah, his Religious Musings ;
and in his and Mr. Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, passim.

Of Mr. Southey's larger epics, I have but a faint recollection at
this distance of time, but all that I remember of them is mechanical
and extravagant, heavy and superficial. His affected, disjointed style
is well imitated in the Rejected Addresses. The difference between
him and Sir Richard Blackmore seems to be, that the one is heavy
and the other light, the one solemn and the other pragmatical, the
one phlegmatic and the other flippant ; and that there is no Gay
in the present time to give a Catalogue Raisonne of the performances
of the living undertaker of epics. Kehama is a loose sprawling
figure, such as we see cut out of wood or paper, and pulled or jerked
with wire or thread, to make sudden and surprising motions, without
meaning, grace, or nature in them. By far the best of his works are
some of his shorter personal compositions, in which there is an
ironical mixture of the quaint and serious, such as his lines on a
picture of Gaspar Poussin, the fine tale of Gualberto, his Description
of a Pig, and the Holly-tree, which is an affecting, beautiful, and
modest retrospect on his own character. May the aspiration with
which it concludes be fulfilled ! l — But the little he has done of true

; ' U reader ! hast thou ever stood to see
The Holly Tree ?
The eye that contemplates it well perceives
Its glossy leaves,
' r >4


and sterling excellence, is overloaded by the quantity of indifferent
matter which he turns out every year, 'prosing or versing,' with
equally mechanical and irresistible facility. His Essays, or political
and moral disquisitions, are not so full of original matter as Montaigne's.
They are second or third rate compositions in that class.

It remains that I should say a few words of Mr. Coleridge ; and
there is no one who has a better right to say what he thinks of him

Ordered by an intelligence so wise

As might confound the Atheist's sophistries.

Below, a circling fence, its leaves are seen

Wrinkled and keen ;
No grazing cattle through their prickly round

Can reach to wound ;
But as they grow where nothing is to fear,
Smooth and unarm'd the pointless leaves appear.

I love to view these things with curious eyes,

And moralize ;
And in the wisdom of the Holly Tree

Can emblems see
Wherewith perchance to make a pleasant rhyme,
Such as may profit in the after time.

So, though abroad perchance I might appear

Harsh and austere,
To those who on my leisure would intrude

Reserved and rude,
Gentle at home amid my friends I 'd be,
Like the high leaves upon the Holly Tree.

And should my youth, as youth is apt I know,

Some harshness show,
All vain asperities I day by day

Would wear away,
Till the smooth temper of my age should be
Like the high leaves upon the Holly Tree.

And as when all the summer trees are seen

So bright and green,
The Holly leaves their fadeless hues display

Less bright than they,
But when the bare and wintry woods we see,
What then so cheerful as the Holly Tree ?

So serious should my youth appear among

The thoughtless throng,
So would I seem amid the young and gay

More grave than they,
That in my age as cheerful I might be
As the green winter of the Holly Tree.' —

I6 5


than I have. ' Is there here any dear friend of Caesar ? To him I
say, that Brutus's love to Caesar was no less than his.' But no
matter. — His Ancient Mariner is his most remarkable performance,
and the only one that I could point out to any one as giving an
adequate idea of his great natural powers. It is high German,
however, and in it he seems to ' conceive of poetry but as a drunken
dream, reckless, careless, and heedless, of past, present, and to come.'
His tragedies (for he has written two) are not answerable to it; they
are, except a few poetical passages, drawling sentiment and meta-
physical jargon. He has no genuine dramatic talent. There is one
fine passage in his Christabel, that which contains the description
of the quarrel between Sir Leoline and Sir Roland de Vaux of
Tryermaine, who had been friends in youth.

' Alas ! they had been friends in youth,
But whispering tongues can poison truth;
And constancy lives in realms above ;
And life is thorny ; and youth is vain 5
And to be wroth with one we love,
Doth work like madness in the brain :
And thus it chanc'd as I divine,
With Roland and Sir Leoline.
Each spake words ot high disdain
And insult to his heart's best brother,
And parted ne'er to meet again !
But neither ever found another
To free the hollow heart from paining —

They stood aloof, the scars remaining,
Like cliffs which had been rent asunder:
A dreary sea now flows between,
But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,
Shall wholly do away I ween
The marks of that which once hath been.

Sir Leoline a moment's space
Stood gazing on the damsel's face ;
And the youthful lord of Tryermaine
Came back upon his heart again.'

It might seem insidious if I were to praise his ode entitled Fire,
Famine, and Slaughter, as an effusion of high poetical enthusiasm,
and strong political feeling. His Sonnet to Schiller conveys a fine
compliment to the author of the Robbers, and an equally fine idea of
the state of youthful enthusiasm in which he composed it.
1 66


'Schiller! that hour I would have wish'd to die,
If through the shudd'ring midnight I had sent
From the dark dungeon of the tower time-rent,
That fearful voice, a famish'd father's cry —

That in no after moment aught less vast

Might stamp me mortal ! A triumphant shout
Black Horror scream'd, and all her goblin rout

From the more with'ring scene diminish 'd pass'd.

Ah ! Bard tremendous in sublimity!

Could I behold thee in thy loftier mood,
Wand'ring at eve, with finely frenzied eye,

Beneath some vast old tempest-swinging wood !

Awhile, with mute awe gazing, I would brood,
Then weep aloud in a wild ecstacy ! ' —

His Conc'tores ad Populum, Watchman, &c. are dreary trash. Of

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 17 of 38)