William Hazlitt.

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

. (page 20 of 38)
Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 20 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

philosophy has, 'fallen first into a fasting, then into a sadness, then into
a decline, and last, into the dissolution of which we all complain ! '
This is a worse error than the former : we may be said to have ' lost
the immortal part of ourselves, and what remains is beastly! '

The point of view from which this matter may be fairly considered,
is two-fold, and may be stated thus : — In the first place, it by no
means follows, because reason is found not to be the oniy infallible or safe
rule of conduct, that it is no rule at all ; or that we are to discard it
altogether with derision and ignominy. On the contrary, if not the
sole, it is the principal ground of action; it is, 'the guide, the stay
and anchor of our purest thoughts, and soul of all our moral being.'
In proportion as we strengthen and expand this principle, and bring
our affections and subordinate, but perhaps more powerful motives of
action into harmony with it, it will not admit of a doubt that we



advance to the goal of perfection, and answer the ends of our creation,
those ends which not only morality enjoins, but which religion
sanctions. If with the utmost stretch of reason, man cannot (as some
seemed inclined to suppo r e) soar up to the God, and quit the ground
of human frailty, yet, stripped wholly of it, he sinks at once into the
brute. Jf it cannot stand alone, in its naked simplicity, but requires
other props to buttress it up, or ornaments to set it off; yet with-
out it the moral structure would fall flat and dishonoured to the
ground. Private reason is that which raises the individual above
his mere animal instincts, appetites, and passions : public reason in
its gradual progress separates the savage from the civilized state.
Without the one, men would resemble wild beasts in their dens ;
without the other, they would be speedily converted into hordes
of barbarians or banditti. Sir Walter Scott, in his zeal to restore
the spirit of loyalty, of passive obedience and non-resistance as
an acknowledgment for his having been created a Baronet by a
Prince of the House of Brunswick, may think it a fine thing to
return in imagination to the good old times, ' when in Auvergne
alone, there were three hundred nobles whose most ordinary actions
were robbery, rape, and murder,' when the castle of each Norman
baron was a strong hold from which the lordly proprietor issued
to oppress and plunder the neighbouring districts, and when the
Saxon peasantry were treated by their gay and gallant tyrants as
a herd of loathsome swine — but for our own parts, we beg to be
excused ; we had rather live in the same age with the author ot
Waverley and Blackwood's Magazine. Reason is the meter and
alnager in civil intercourse, by which each person's upstart and con-
tradictory pretensions are weighed and approved or found wanting,
and without which it could not subsist, any more than traffic or the
exchange of commodities could be carried on without weights and
measures. It is the medium of knowledge, and the polisher or
manners, by creating common interests and ideas. Or in the words
ot a contemporary writer, ' Reason is the queen of the moral world,
the soul of the universe, the lamp of human life, the pillar of society,
the foundation of law, the beacon of nations, the golden chain let
down from heaven, which links all accountable and all intelligent
natures in one common system — and in the vain strife between fanatic
innovation and fanatic prejudice, we are exhorted to dethrone this
queen of the world, to blot out this light of the mind, to deface this
fair column, to break in pieces this golden chain ! We are to discard
and throw from us with loud taunts and bitter execrations that reason,
which has been the lofty theme of the philosopher, the poet, the
moralist, and the divine, whose name was not first named to be


abused by the enthusiasts of the French Revolution, or to be blas-
phemed by the madder enthusiasts, the advocates of Divine Right,
but which is coeval with, and inseparable from the nature and faculties
of man — is the image of his Maker stamped upon him at his birth,
the understanding breathed into htm with the breath of life, and in
the participation and improvement of which alone he is raised above
the brute creation and his own physical nature ! ' — The overstrained
and ridiculous pretensions of monks and ascetics were never thought
to justify a return to unbridled licence of manners, or the throwing
aside of all decency. The hypocrisy, cruelty, and fanaticism, often
attendant on peculiar professions of sanctity, have not banished the
name of religion from the world. Neither can 'the unreasonableness
of the reason ' of some modern sciolists so ' unreason our reason,' as
to debar us of the benefit of this principle in future, or to dis-
franchise us of the highest privilege of our nature. In the second
place, if it is admitted that Reason alone is not the sole and self-
sufficient ground of morals, it is to Mr. Godwin that we are indebted
for having settled the point. No one denied or distrusted this
principle (before his time) as the absolute judge and interpreter in
all questions of difficulty ; and if this is no longer the case, it is
because he has taken this principle, and followed it into its remotest
consequences with more keenness of eye and steadiness of hand than
any other expounder of ethics. His grand work is (at least) an
experimentum cruets to show the weak sides and imperfections of
human reason as the sole law of human action. By overshooting the
mark, or by ' flying an eagle flight, forth and right on,' he has
pointed out the limit or line of separation, between what is practicable
and what is barely conceivable — by imposing impossible tasks on the
naked strength of the will, he has discovered how far it is or is not
in our power to dispense with the illusions of sense, to resist the calls
of affection, to emancipate ourselves from the force of habit ; and
thus, though he has not said it himself, has enabled others to say to
the towering aspirations after good, and to the over-bearing pride
of human intellect — ' Thus far shalt thou come, and no farther ! '
Captain Parry would be thought to have rendered a service to naviga-
tion and his country, no less by proving that there is no North- West
Passage, than if he had ascertained that there is one : so Mr. Godwin
has rendered an essential service to moral science, by attempting (in
vain) to pass the Arctic Circle and Frozen Regions, where the
understanding is no longer warmed by the affections, nor fanned by the
breeze of fancy ! This is the effect of all bold, original, and power-
ful thinking, that it either discovers the truth, or detects where error
lies; and the only crime with which Mr. Godwin can be charged as



a political and moral reasoner is, that he has displayed a more ardent
spirit, and a more independent activity of thought than others, in
establishing the fallacy (if fallacy it be) of an old popular prejudice
that the Just and True were one, by ' championing it to the Outrance,'
and in the iinal result placing the Gothic structure of human virtue on
an humbler, but a wider and safer foundation than it had hitherto
occupied in the volumes and systems of the learned.

Mr. Godwin is an inventor in the regions of romance, as well as
a skilful and hardy explorer of those of moral truth. Caleb Williams
and St. Leon are two of the most splendid and impressive works or
the imagination that have appeared in our times. It is not merely
that these novels are very well for a philosopher to have produced —
they are admirable and complete in themselves, and would not lead
you to suppose that the author, who is so entirely at home in human
character and dramatic situation, had ever dabbled in logic or meta-
physics. The first of these, particularly, is a master-piece, both as to
invention and execution. The romantic and chivalrous principle of
the love of personal fame is embodied in the finest possible manner in
the character of Falkland 1 ; as in Caleb Williams (who is not the
first, but the second character in the piece) we see the very demon of
curiosity personified. Perhaps the art with which these two char-
acters are contrived to relieve and set off each other, has never been
surpassed in any work of fiction, with the exception of the immortal
satire of Cervantes. The restless and inquisitive spirit of Caleb
Williams, in search and in possession of his patron's fatal secret,
haunts the latter like a second conscience, plants stings in his tortured
mind, fans the flames of his jtalous ambition, struggling with agonized
remorse ; and the hapless but noble-minded Falkland at length falls
a martyr to the persecution of that morbid and overpowering interest,
of which his mingled virtues and vices have rendered him the object.
We conceive no one ever began Caleb Williams that did not read it
through : no one that ever read it could possibly forget it, or speak of
it alter any length of time but with an impression as if the events and
feelings had been personal to himself. This is the case also with
the story of St. Leon, which, with less dramatic interest and intensity
of purpose, is set off by a more gorgeous and flowing eloquence, and
by a crown of preternatural imagery, that waves over it like a palm-
tree ! It is the beauty and the charm of Mr. Godwin's descriptions

1 Mr. Fuseli used to object to this striking delineation a want of historical
correctness, inasmuch as the animating principle of the true chivalrous character
was the sense of honour, not the mere regard to, or saving of, appearances. This,
we think, must be an hypercriticisr.i, from all we remember of books of chivalry
and heroes of romance.



that the reader identifies himself with the author ; and the secret of
this is, that the author has identified himself with his personages.
Indeed, he has created them. They are the proper issue of his
brain, lawfully begot, not foundlings, nor the 'bastards of his art.'
He is not an indifferent, callous spectator of the scenes which he
himself pourtrays, but without seeming to feel them. There is no
look of patch-work and plagiarism, the beggarly copiousness of
borrowed wealth ; no tracery-work from worm-eaten manuscripts,
from forgotten chronicles, nor piecing out of vague traditions with
fragments and snatches of old ballads, so that the result resembles a
gaudy, staring transparency, in which you cannot distinguish the
daubing of the painter from the light that shines through the flimsy
colours and gives them brilliancy. Here all is clearly made out with
strokes of the pencil, by fair, not by factitious means. Our author
takes a given subject from nature or from books, and then fills it up
with the ardent workings of his own mind, with the teeming and
audible pulses of his own heart. The effect is entire and satisfactory
in proportion. The work (so to speak) and the author are one.
We are not puzzled to decide upon their respective pretensions. In
reading Mr. Godwin's novels, we know what share of merit the
author has in them. In reading the Scotch Novels, we are perpetually
embarrassed in asking ourselves this question ; and perhaps it is not
altogether a false modesty that prevents the editor from putting his
name in the title-page — he is (for anything we know to the contrary)
only a more voluminous sort of Allen-a-Dale. At least, we may
claim this advantage for the English author, that the chains with
which he rivets our attention are forged out of his own thoughts, link
by link, blow for blow, with glowing enthusiasm : we see the genuine
ore melted in the furnace of fervid feeling, and moulded into stately
and ideal forms ; and this is so far better than peeping into an old
iron shop, or pilfering from a dealer in marine stores ! There is one
drawback, however, attending this mode of proceeding, which attaches
generally, indeed, to all originality of composition ; namely, that it
has a tendency to a certain degree of monotony. He who draws
upon his own resources, easily comes to an end of his wealth. Mr.
Godwin, in all his writings, dwells upon one idea or exclusive view
of a subject, aggrandises a sentiment, exaggerates a character, or
pushes an argument to extremes, and makes up by the force of style
and continuity of feeling for what he wants in variety of incident or
ease of manner. This necessary defect is observable in his best
works, and is still more so in Fleetwood and Mandeville ; the one of
which, compared with his more admired performances, is mawkish,
and the other morbid. Mr. Godwin is also an essayist, an historian



— in short, what is lie not, that belongs to the character of an in-
defatigable and accomplished author ? His Life of Chaucer would
have given celebrity to any man of letters possessed of three thousand
a vear, with leisure to write quartos : as the legal acuteness displayed
in his Remarks on Judge Eyre's Charge to the Jury would have raised
any briefless barrister to the height of his profession. This temporary
effusion did more — it gave a turn to the trials for high treason in the
year 1794, and possibly saved the lives of twelve innocent individuals,
marked out as political victims to the Moloch of Legitimacy, which
then skulked behind a British throne, and had not yet dared to stalk
forth (as it has done since) from its lurking-place, in the face of
day, to brave the opinion of the world. If it had then glutted its
maw with its intended prey (the sharpness of Mr. Godwin's pen cut
the legal cords with which it was attempted to bind them), it might
have done so sooner, and with more lasting effect. The world do
not know (and we are not sure but the intelligence may startle Mr.
Godwin himself), that he is the author of a volume of Sermons, and
of a life of Chatham. 1

Mr Fawcett (an old friend and fellow-student of our author, and
who always spoke of his writings with admiration, tinctured with
wonder) used to mention a circumstance with respect to the last-
mentioned work, which may throw some light on the history and
progress of Mr. Godwin's mind. He was anxious to make his
biographical account as complete as he could, and applied for this
purpose to many of his acquaintance to furnish him with anecdotes or
to suggest criticisms. Amongst others Mr. Fawcett repeated to him
what he thought a striking passage in a speech on General Warrants
delivered by Lord Chatham, at which he (Mr Fawcett) had been
present. 'Every man's house' (said this emphatic thinker and
speaker) ' has been called his castle. And why is it called his castle ?
Is it because it is defended by a wall, because it is surrounded with
a moat? No, it may be nothing more than a straw-built shed. It
may be open to all the elements : the wind may enter in, the rain may
enter in— but the king cannot enter in ! ' His friend thought that the
point was here palpable enough : but when he came to read the
printed volume, he lound it thus transposed'. 'Every man's house is
his castle. And why is it called so ? Is it because it is defended by
a wall, because it is surrounded with a moat ? No, it may be nothing
more than a straw-built shed. It may be exposed to all the elements :
the rain may enter into it, all the iv'inds of Heaven may whistle round
it, but the king cannot, &c.' This was what Fawcett called a defect

1 Wr had forgotten the tragedies of Antonio and Ferdinand. Peace be with
thrir n-



of natural imagination. He at the same time admitted that Mr.
Godwin had improved his native sterility in this respect ; or atoned
for it by incessant activity of mind and by accumulated stores of
thought and powers of language. In fact, his forte is not the spon-
taneous, but the voluntary exercise of talent. He fixes his ambition
on a high point of excellence, and spares no pains or time in attaining
it. He has less of the appearance of a man of genius, than any one
who has given such decided and ample proofs of it. He is ready only
on reflection : dangerous only at the rebound. He gathers himself
up, and strains every nerve and faculty with deliberate aim to some
heroic and dazzling achievement of intellect : but he must make a
career before he flings himself, armed, upon the enemy, or he is sure
to be unhorsed. Or he resembles an eight-day clock that must be
wound up long before it can strike. Therefore, his powers of
conversation are but limited. He has neither acuteness of remark,
nor a flow of language, both which might be expected from his
writings, as these are no less distinguished by a sustained and impas-
sioned tone of declamation than by novelty of opinion or brilliant
tracks of invention. In company, Home Tooke used to make a
mere child of him — or of any man ! Mr Godwin liked this treat-
ment, 1 and indeed it is his foible to fawn on those who use him
cavalierly, and to be cavalier to those who express an undue or
unqualified admiration of him. He looks up with unfeigned respect
to acknowledged reputation (but then it must be very well ascertained
before he admits it) — and has a favourite hypothesis that Understanding
and Virtue are the same thing. Mr. Godwin possesses a high degree
of philosophical candour, and studiously paid the homage of his pen
and person to Mr. Malthus, Sir James Mackintosh, and Dr. Parr, for
their unsparing attacks on him ; but woe to any poor devil who had
the hardihood to defend him against them ! In private, the author of
Political Justice at one time reminded those who knew him of the
metaphysician engrafted on the Dissenting Minister. There was a
dictatorial, captious, quibbling pettiness of manner. He lost this with
the first blush and awkwardness of popularity, which surprised him
in the retirement of his study ; and he has since, with the wear and
tear of society, from being too pragmatical, become somewhat too
careless. He is, at present, as easy as an old glove. Perhaps there

x To be sure, it was redeemed by a high respect and by some magnificent com-
pliments. Once in particular, at his own table, after a good deal of badinage and
cross-questioning about his being the author of the Reply to Judge Eyre's Charge,
on Mr. Godwin's acknowledging that he was, Mr. Tooke said, ' Come here then,'
— and when his guest went round to his chair, he took his hand, and pressed it to
his lips, saying — 'I can do no less for the hand that saved my life !'


is a little attention to effect in this, and he wishes to appear a foil to
himself. His best moments are with an intimate acquaintance or two,
when he gossips in a fine vein about old authors, Clarendon's History
of the Rebellion, or Burnet's History of his oivn Time; and you
perceive by your host's talk, as by the taste of seasoned wine, that he
has a cellarage in his understanding! Mr. Godwin also has a correct
acquired taste in poetry and the drama. He relishes Donne and Ben
Jonson, and recites a passage from either with an agreeable mixture
of pedantry and lonhommie. He is not one of those who do not grow
wiser with opportunity and reflection : he changes his opinions, and
changes them for the better. The alteration of his taste in poetry,
from an exclusive admiration of the age of Queen Anne to an almost
equally exclusive one of that of Elizabeth, is, we suspect, owing to
Mr. Coleridge, who some twenty years ago, threw a great stone into
the standing pool of criticism, which splashed some persons with the
mud, but which gave a motion to the surface and a reverberation to
the neighbouring echoes, which has not since subsided. In common
company, Mr. Godwin either goes to sleep himself, or sets others to
sleep. He is at present engaged in a History of the Commonwealth
of England. — Esto perpetua ! In size Mr. Godwin is below the
common stature, nor is his deportment graceful or animated. His
face is, however, fine, with an expression of placid temper and
recondite thought. He is not unlike the common portraits of Locke.
There is a very admirable likeness of him by Mr. Northcote, which
a more heroic and dignified air, only does justice to the profound
sagacity and benevolent aspirations of our author's mind. Mr. Godwin
has kept the best company of his time, but he has survived most of
the celebrated persons with whom he lived in habits of intimacy.
He speaks of them with enthusiasm and with discrimination ; and
sometimes dwells with peculiar delight on a day passed at John
Kemble's in company with Mr. Sheridan, Mr. Curran, Mrs.
Wolstonecraft and Mrs. Inchbald, when the conversation took a
most animated turn, and the subject was of Love. Of all these our
author is the only one remaining. Frail tenure, on which human life
and genius are lent us for a while to improve or to enjoy !


The present is an age of talkers, and not of doers ; and the reason
is, that the world is growing old. We are so far advanced in the
Aits and Sciences, that we live in retrospect, and doat on past
achievements The accumulation of knowledge has been so great,


that we are lost in wonder at the height it has reached, instead of
attempting to climb or add to it ; while the variety of objects distracts
and dazzles the looker-on. What niche remains unoccupied ? What
path untried? What is the use of doing anything, unless we could do
better than all those who have gone before us ? What hope is there
of this? We are like those who have bc?n to see some noble
monument of art, who are content to admire without thinking of
rivalling it ; or like guests after a feast, who praise the hospitality of
the donor ' and thank the bounteous Pan '—perhaps carrying away
some trifling fragments ; or like the spectators of a mighty battle, who
still hear its sound afar off, and the clashing of armour and the
neighing of the war-horse and the shout of victory is in their ears,
like the rushing of innumerable waters !

Mr. Coleridge has 'a mind reflecting ages past ' ; his voice is like
the echo of the congregated roar of the 'dark rearward and abyss'
of thought. He who has seen a mouldering tower by the side of a
chrystal lake, hid by the mist, but glittering in the wave below, may
conceive the dim, gleaming, uncertain intelligence of his eye: he who
has marked the evening clouds uprolled (a world of vapours), has
seen the picture of his mind, unearthly, unsubstantial, with gorgeous
tints and ever-varying forms —

' That which was now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct
As water is in water.'

Our author's mind is (as he himself might express it) tangential.
There is no subject on which he has not touched, none on which he
has rested. With an understanding fertile, subtle, expansive, 'quick,
forgetive, apprehensive,' beyond all living precedent, few traces of it
will perhaps remain. He lends himself to all impressions alike ; he
gives up his mind and liberty of thought to none. He is a general
lover of art and science, and wedded to no one in particular. He
pursues knowledge as a mistress, with outstretched hands and winged
speed; but as he is about to embrace her, his Daphne turns — alas!
not to a laurel ! Hardly a speculation has been left on record from
the earliest time, but it is loosely folded up in Mr. Coleridge's
memory, like a rich, but somewhat tattered piece of tapestry : we
might add (with more seeming than real extravagance), that scarce a
thought can pass through the mind of man, but its sound has at some
time or other passed over his head with rustling pinions. On what-
ever question or author you speak, he is prepared to take up the theme
with advantage — from Peter Abelard down to Thomas Moore, from



.btlest metaphysics to the politics of the Courier. There is no
man of genius, in whose praise, he descants, but the critic seems to
stand above the author, and what in him is weak, to strengthen,
what is low, to raise and support ' : nor is there any work of genius
that docs not come out of his hands like an illuminated Missal,
sparkling even in its defects. If Mr. Coleridge had not been the
most impressive talker of his age, he would probably have been the
finest writer ; but he lays down his pen to make sure of an auditor,
and mortgages the admiration of posterity for the stare of an idler.
If he had not been a poet, he would have been a powerful logician ;
if he had not dipped his wing in the Unitarian controversy, he might
have soared to the very summit of fancy. But in writing verse, he is

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 20 of 38)