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 21 of 38)
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trying to subject the Muse to transcendental theories : in his abstract
reasoning, he misses his way by strewing it with flowers. All that
he has done of moment, he had done twenty years ago : since then,
he may be said to have lived on the sound of his own voice. Mr.
Coleridge is too rich in intellectual wealth, to need to task himself to
any drudgery : he has only to draw the sliders of his imagination, and
a thousand subjects expand before him, startling him with their
brilliancy, or losing themselves in endless obscurity —

' And by the force of blear illusion,
They draw him on to his confusion.'

What is the little he could add to the stock, compared with the
countless stores that lie about him, that he should stoop to pick up a
name, or to polish an idle fancy ? He walks abroad in the majesty
of an universal understanding, eyeing the « rich strond,' or golden sky
above him, and 'goes sounding on his way,' in eloquent accents,
uncompelled and free !

Persons of the greatest capacity are often those, who for this reason
do the least; for surveying themselves from the highest point of
view, amidst the infinite variety of the universe, their own share in it
.seems trifling, and scarce worth a thought, and they prefer the con-
dition of all that is, or has been, or can be, to the making a coil
about doing what, when done, is no better than vanity. It is hard to
concentrate all our attention and efforts on one pursuit, except from
ignorance of others; and without this concentration of our faculties,
real progress can be made in any one thing. It is not merely
•he mind is not capable of the effort ; it does not think the effort
worth making. Action is one ; but thought is manifold. He whose
eye glances through the wide compass of nature and art, will
not consent to have 'his own nothings monslered ' : but he must do


this, before he can give his whole soul to them. The rain J, after
' letting contemplation have its fill,' or

' Sailing with supreme dominion
Through the azure deep of air,'

sinks down on the ground, breathless, exhausted, powerlesss, in-
active ; or if it must have some vent to its feelings, seeks the most
easy and obvious ; is soothed by friendly flattery, lulled by the
murmur of immediate applause, thinks as it were aloud, and babbles
in its dreams! A scholar (so to speak) is a more disinterested and
abstracted character than a mere author. The first looks at the
numberless volumes of a library, and says, * All these are mine ' :
the other points to a single volume (perhaps it may be an immortal
one) and says, 'My name is written on the back of it.' This is a
puny and groveling ambition, beneath the lofty amplitude of Mr.
Coleridge's mind. No, he revolves in his wayward soul, or utters to
the passing wind, or discourses to his own shadow, things mightier
and more various ! — Let us draw the curtain, and unlock the

Learning rocked him in his cradle, and while yet a child,

' He lisped in numbers, for the numbers came.'

At sixteen he wrote his Ode on Chatterton, and he still reverts to that
period with delight, not so much as it relates to himself (for that
string of his own early promise of fame rather jars than otherwise)
but as exemplifying the youth of a poet. Mr. Coleridge talks of
himself, without being an egotist, for in him the individual is always
merged in the abstract and general. He distinguished himself at
school and at the University by his knowledge of the classics, and
gained several prizes for Greek epigrams. How many men are
there (great scholars, celebrated names in literature) who having
done the same thing in their youth, have no other idea all the rest
of their lives but of this achievement, of a fellowship and dinner, and
who, installed in academic honours, would look down on our author
as a mere strolling bard ! At Christ's Hospital, where he was
brought up, he was the idol of those among his schoolfellows, who
mingled with their bookish studies the music of thought and of
humanity ; and he was usually attended round the cloisters by a
group of these (inspiring and inspired) whose hearts, even then,
burnt within them as he talked, and where the sounds yet linger to
mock Elia on his way, still turning pensive to the past ! One of the
finest and rarest parts of Mr. Coleridge's conversation, is when he
expatiates on the Greek tragedians (not that he is not v/ell acquai:



when he pleases, with the epic poets, or the philosophers, or orators,
or historians of antiquity) — on the subtle reasonings and melting
pathos of Euripides, on the harmonious gracefulness of Sophocles,
tuning his love-laboured song, like sweetest warblings from a sacred
grove ; on the high-wrought trumpet-tongued eloquence of iEschylus,
whose Prometheus, above all, is like an Ode to Fate, and a plead-
ing with Providence, his thoughts being let loose as his body is
chained on his solitary rock, and his afflicted will (the emblem of

'Struggling in vain with ruthless destiny.'

As the impassioned critic speaks and rises in his theme, you would
think you heard the voice of the Man hated by the Gods, con-
tending with the wild winds as they roar, and his eye glitters with the
spirit of Antiquity !

Next, he was engaged with Hartley's tribes of mind, 'etherial
braid, thought-woven,' — and he busied himself for a year or two with
vibrations and vibratiuncles and the great law of association that binds
all things in its mystic chain, and the doctrine of Necessity (the mild
teacher of Charity) and the Millennium, anticipative of a life to come
— and he plunged deep into the controversy on Matter and Spirit,
and, as an escape from Dr. Priestley's Materialism, where he felt
himself imprisoned by the logician's spell, like Ariel in the cloven
pine-tree, he became suddenly enamoured of Bishop Berkeley's fairy-
world, 1 and used in all companies to build the universe, like a brave
poetical fiction, of fine words — and he was deep-read in Malebranche,
and in Cudworth's Intellectual System (a huge pile of learning,
unwieldy, enormous) and in Lord Brook's hieroglyphic theories, and
in Bishop Butler's Sermons, and in the Duchess of Newcastle's
fantastic folios, and in Clarke and South and Tillotson, and all the
fir.e thinkers and masculine reasoners of that age — and Leibnitz's
Pre-Establ\shed Harmony reared its arch above his head, like the
rainbow in the cloud, convenanting with the hopes of man — and then
he : ell plump, ten thousand fathoms down (but his wings saved him
harmless) into the hortus siccus of Dissent, where he pared religion
down to the standard of reason, and stripped faith of mystery, and

1 Mr. Co!crid(.'c named bis eldest son (the writer of some beautiful Sonnets)
after Hartley, and the second after Berkeley. The third was called Derwent,
after the river of that name. Nothing can be more characteristic of his mind
than this circumstance. All his ideas indeed are like a river, flowing on for
ever, and still murmuring as it flows, discharging its waters and still replenished—

'And so by many winding nooks it strays,
With willing sport to the wild ocean !'


preached Christ crucified and the Unity of the Godhead, and so
dwelt for a while in the spirit with John Huss and Jerome of
Prague and Socinus and old John Zisca, and ran through Neal's
History of the Puritans, and Calamy's Non-Conformists' Memorial,
having like thoughts and passions with them — but then Spinoza
became his God, and he took up the vast chain of being in his hand,
and the round world became the centre and the soul of all things in
some shadowy sense, forlorn of meaning, and around him he beheld
the living traces and the sky-pointing proportions of the mighty Pan
— but poetry redeemed him from this spectral philosophy, and
he bathed his heart in beauty, and gazed at the golden light of
heaven, and drank of the spirit of the universe, and wandered at eve
by fairy-stream or fountain,

' When he saw nought but beauty,

When he heard the voice of that Almighty One

In every breeze that blew, or wave that murmured ' —

and wedded with truth in Plato's shade, and in the writings of
Proclus and Plotinus saw the ideas of things in the eternal mind,
and unfolded all mysteries with the Schoolmen and fathomed the
depths of Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas, and entered the third
heaven with Jacob Behmen, and walked hand in hand with Sweden-
borg through the pavilions of the New Jerusalem, and sung his faith
in the promise and in the word in his Religious Musings — and
lowering himself from that dizzy height, poised himself on Milton's
wings, and spread out his thoughts in charity with the glad prose of
Jeremy Taylor, and wept over Bowles's Sonnets, and studied
Cowper's blank verse, and betook himself to Thomson's Castle of
Indolence, and sported with the wits of Charles the Second's days
and of Queen Anne, and relished Swift's style and that of the John
Bull (Arbuthnot's we mean, not Mr. Croker's), and dallied with
the British Essayists and Novelists, and knew all qualities of more
modern writers with a learned spirit, Johnson, and Goldsmith, and
Junius, and Burke, and Godwin, and the Sorrows of Werter, and
Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire, and Marivaux, and Crebillon,
and thousands more — now ' laughed with Rabelais in his easy chair '
or pointed to Hogarth, or afterwards dwelt on Claude's classic
scenes, or spoke with rapture of Raphael, and compared the women
at Rome to figures that had walked out of his pictures, or visited the
Oratory of Pisa, and described the works of Giotto and Ghirlandaio
and Massaccio, and gave the moral of the picture of the Triumph of
Death, where the beggars and the wretched invoke his dreadful dart,
but the rich and mighty of the earth quail and shrink before it ;



and in that land of siren sights and sounds, saw a dance of peasant
girls, and was charmed with lutes and gondolas, — or wandered into
Germany and lost himself in the labyrinths of the Hartz Forest
and of the Kantean philosophy, and amongst the cabalistic names of
Fichte and Schelling and Lessing, and God knows who — this was
long after, but all the former while, he had nerved his heart and filled
his eyes with tears, as he hailed the rising orb of liberty, since
quenched in darkness and in blood, and had kindled his affections at
the blaze of the French Revolution, and sang for joy when the
towers of the Bastile and the proud places of the insolent and the
oppressor fell, and would have floated his bark, freighted with
fondest fancies, across the Atlantic wave with Southey and others to
seek for peace and freedom —

' In Philarmonia's undivided dale !'

Alas ! ' Frailty, thy name is Genius ! ' — What is become of all
this mighty heap of hope, of thought, of learning, and humanity ?
It has ended in swallowing doses of oblivion and in writing
paragraphs in the Courier. — Such and so little is the mind of man !

It was not to be supposed that Mr. Coleridge could keep on at
the rate he set off; he could not realize all he knew or thought, and
less could not fix his desultory ambition ; other stimulants supplied
the place, and kept up the intoxicating dream, the fever and the
madness of his early impressions. Liberty (the philosopher's and
the poet's bride) had fallen a victim, meanwhile, to the murderous
practices of the hag, Legitimacy. Proscribed by court-hirelings, too
romantic for the herd of vulgar politicians, our enthusiast stood at
bay, and at last turned on the pivot of a subtle casuistry to the unclean
side : but his discursive reason would not let him trammel himself
into a poet-laureate or stamp-distributor, and he stopped, ere he had
quite passed that well-known ' bourne from whence no traveller
returns ' — and so has sunk into torpid, uneasy repose, tantalized by
useless resources, haunted by vain imaginings, his lips idly moving, but
his heart for ever still, or, as the shattered chords vibrate of them-
selves, making melancholy music to the ear of memory ! Such is
the fate of genius in an age, when in the unequal contest with
sovereign wrong, every man is ground to powder who is not either a
born slave, or who does not willingly and at once offer up the
yearnings of humanity and the dictates of reason as a welcome
sacrifice to besotted prejudice and loathsome power.

Of all Mr. Coleridge's productions, the Ancient Mariner is the
only one that we could with confidence put into any person's hands,
on whom wc wished to impress a favourable idea of his extraordinary



powers. Let whatever other objections be made to it, it is unques-
tionably a work or genius — of uild, irregular, overwhelming imagina-
tion, and has that rich, varied movement in the verse, which gives a
distant idea of the lofty or changeful tones of Mr. Coleridge's voice.
In the Christabel, there is one splendid passage on divided friendship.
The Translation of Schiller s Wallenste'tn is also a masterly production
in its kind, faithful and spirited. Among his smaller pieces there are
occasional bursts of pathos and fancy, equal to what we might expect
from him ; but these form the exception, and not the rule. Such,
for instance, is his affecting Sonnet to the author of the Robbers.

' 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 withVing scene diminish'd pass'd.

Ah ! Bard tremendous in sublimity!

Could I behold thee in thy loftier mood,

WandVing 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 ecstasy.'

His Tragedy, entitled Remorse, is full of beautiful and striking
passages, but it does not place the author in the first rank of dramatic
writers. But if Mr. Coleridge's works do not place him in that rank,
they injure instead of conveying a just idea of the man, for he himself
is certainly in the first class of general intellect.

If our author's poetry is inferior to his conversation, his prose is
utterly abortive. Hardly a gleam is to be found in it of the brilliancy
and richness of those stores of thought and language that he pours out
incessantly, when they are lost like drops of water in the ground.
The principal work, in which he has attempted to embody his general
views of things, is the Friend, of which, though it contains some
noble passages and fine trains of thought, prolixity and obscurity are
the most frequent characteristics.

No two persons can be conceived more opposite in character or
genius than the subject of the present and of the preceding sketch.
Mr. Godwin, with less natural capacity, and with fewer acquired
advantages, by concentrating his mind on some given object, and
doing what he had to do with all his might, has accomplished much,
and will leave more than one monument of a powerful intellect behind



him ; Mr. Coleridge, by dissipating his, and dallying with every
subject by turns, has done little or nothing to justify to the world or
to posterity, the high opinion which all who have ever heard him
converse, or known him intimately, with one accord entertain of him.
Mr. Godwin's faculties have kept at home, and plied their task in the
workshop of the brain, diligently and effectually : Mr. Coleridge's
have gossiped away their time, and gadded about from house to
house, as if life's business were to melt the hours in listless talk.
Mr. Godwin is intent on a subject, only as it concerns himself and
his reputation ; he works it out as a matter of duty, and discards
from his mind whatever does not forward his main object as impertinent
and vain. Mr. Coleridge, on the other hand, delights in nothing but
episodes and digressions, neglects whatever he undertakes to perform,
and can act only on spontaneous impulses, without object or method.
'He cannot be constrained by mastery.' While he should be
occupied with a given pursuit, he is thinking of a thousand other
things ; a thousand tastes, a thousand objects tempt him, and distract
his mind, which keeps open house, and entertains all comers ; and
after being fatigued and amused with morning calls from idle visitors,
finds the day consumed and its business unconcluded. Mr. Godwin,
on the contrary, is somewhat exclusive and unsocial in his habits of
mind, entertains no company but what he gives his whole time and
attention to, and wisely writes over the doors of his understanding,
his fancy, and his senses — ' No admittance except on business.' He
has none of that fastidious refinement and false delicacy, which might
lead him to balance between the endless variety of modern attain-
ments. He does not throw away his life (nor a single half-hour of
it) in adjusting the claims of different accomplishments, and in choos-
ing between them or making himself master of them all. He sets
about his task, (whatever it mav be) and goes through it with spirit
and fortitude. He has the happiness to think an author the greatest
character in the world, and himself the greatest author in it. Mr.
Coleridge, in writing an harmonious stanza, would stop to consider
whether there was not more grace and beauty in a Pas de trois, and
would not proceed till he had resolved this question by a chain of
metaphysical reasoning without end. Not so Mr. Godwin. That is
best to him, which he can do best. He does not waste himself in
vain aspirations and effeminate sympathies. He is blind, deaf,
insensible to all but the trump of Fame. Plays, operas, painting,
music, ball-rooms, wealth, fashion, titles, lords, ladies, touch him not
— all these are no more to him than to the magician in his cell, and
he writes on to the end of the chapter, through good report and evil
report. Pingo in eternitatem — is his motto. He neither envies nor


admires what others are, but is contented to be what he is, and strives
to do the utmost he can. Mr. Coleridge has flirted with the Muses
as with a set of mistresses : Mr. Godwin has been married twice, to
Reason and to Fancy, and has to boast no short-lived progeny by
each. So to speak, he has valves belonging to his mind, to regulate
the quantity of gas admitted into it, so that like the bare, unsightly,
but well-compacted steam-vessel, it cuts its liquid way, and arrives at
its promised end : while Mr. Coleridge's bark, ' taught with the little
nautilus to sail,' the sport of every breath, dancing to every wave,

' Youth at its prow, and Pleasure at its helm,'

flutters its gaudy pennons in the air, glitters in the sun, but we wait
in vain to hear of its arrival in the destined harbour. Mr. Godwin,
with less variety and vividness, with less subtlety and susceptibility
both of thought and feeling, has had firmer nerves, a more determined
purpose, a more comprehensive grasp of his subject, and the results
are as we find them. Each has met with his reward : for justice has,
after all, been done to the pretensions of each ; and we must, in all
cases, use means to ends !

It was a misfortune to any man of talent to be born in the latter
end of the last century. Genius stopped the way of Legitimacy, and
therefore it was to be abated, crushed, or set aside as a nuisance.
The spirit of the monarchy was at variance with the spirit of the age.
The flame of liberty, the light of intellect, was to be extinguished
with the sword — or with slander, whose edge is sharper than the
sword. The war between power and reason was carried on by the
first of these abroad — by the last at home. No quarter was given
(then or now) by the Government-critics, the authorised censors of
the press, to those who followed the dictates of independence, who
listened to the voice of the tempter, Fancy. Instead of gathering
fruits and flowers, immortal fruits and amaranthine iiowers, they soon
found themselves beset not only by a host of prejudices, but assailed
with all the engines of power, by nicknames, by lies, by all the arts
of malice, interest and hypocrisy, without the possibility of their
defending themselves ' from the pelting of the pitiless storm,' that
poured down upon them from the strong-holds of corruption and
authority. The philosophers, the dry abstract reasoners, submitted
to this reverse pretty well, and armed themselves with patience ' as
with triple steel,' to bear discomfiture, persecution, and disgrace
But the poets, the creatures of sympathy, could not stand the frowns
both of king and people. They did not like to be shut out when
places and pensions, when the critic's praises, and the laurel-wreath
were about to be distributed. They did not stomach being sent to



Coventry, and Mr. Coleridge sounded a retreat for them by the help
of casuistry, and a musical voice. — ' His words were hollow, but
they pleased the ear ' of his friends of the Lake School, who turned
back disgusted and panic-struck from the dry desert of unpopularity,
like Hassan the camel-driver,

' And curs'd the hour, and cursM the luckless day,
When first from Shiraz' walls they bent their way.'

They are safely inclosed there, but Mr. Coleridge did not enter
with them ; pitching his tent upon the barren waste without, and
having no abiding place nor city of refuge !


Thi.- gentleman has gained an almost unprecedented, and not an
altogether unmerited popularity as a preacher. As he is, perhaps,
though a burning and a shining light, not ' one of the fixed,' we shall
take this opportunity of discussing his merits, while he is at his
meridian height ; and in doing so, shall ' nothing extenuate, nor set
down aught in malice.'

Few circumstances show the prevailing and preposterous rage for
novelty in a more striking point of view, than the success of Mr.
Irving' s oratory. People go to hear him in crowds, and come away
with a mixture of delight and astonishment — they go again to see if
the effect will continue, and send others to try to find out the
mystery — and in the noisy conflict between extravagant encomiums
and splenetic objections, the true secret escapes observation, which is,
that the whole thing is, nearly from beginning to end, a transposition
of ideas. If the subject of these remarks had come out as a player,
with all his advantages of figure, voice, and action, we think he
would have failed ; if, as a preacher, he had kept within the strict
bounds of pulpit-oratory, he would scarcely have been much dis-
tinguished among his Calvinistic brethren : as a mere author, he
would have excited attention rather by his quaintness and affectation
of an obsolete style and mode of thinking, than by any thing else.
But he has contrived to jumble these several characters together in an
unheard-of and unwarranted manner, and the fascination is altogether
irresistible. Our Caledonian divine is equally an anomaly in religion,
in literature, in personal appearance, and in public speaking. To
hear a person spout Shakspeare on the stage is nothing — the charm is
nearly worn out — but to hear any one spout Shakspeare (and that



not in a sneaking under-tone, but at the top of his voice, and with
the full breadth of his chest) from a Calvinistic pulpit, is new
and wonderful. The Fancy have lately lost something of their gloss
in public estimation, and after the last fight, few would go far
to see a Neat or a Spring set-to ; — but to see a man who is able
to enter the ring with either of them, or brandish a quarter-staff
with Friar Tuck, or a broad-sword with Shaw the Life-guard's
man, stand up in a strait-laced old-fashioned pulpit, and bandy
dialectics with modern philosophers, or give a cross-buttock to a
cabinet minister, there is something in a sight like this also, that is a
cure for sore eyes. It is as if Crib or Molyneux had turned
Methodist parson, or as if a Patagonian savage were to come
forward as the patron-saint of Evangelical religion. Again, the
doctrine ot eternal punishment was one of the staple arguments with
which, everlastingly drawled out, the old school of Presbyterian
divines used to keep their audiences awake, or lull them to sleep ;
but to which people of taste and fashion paid little attention, as
inelegant and barbarous, till Mr. Irving, with his cast-iron features

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 21 of 38)