William Hazlitt.

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

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and sledge-hammer blows, puffing like a grim Vulcan, set to work
to forge more classic thunderbolts, and kindle the expiring flames
anew with the very sweepings of sceptical and infidel libraries, so
as to excite a pleasing horror in the female part of his congregation.
In short, our popular declaimer has, contrary to the Scripture-caution,
put new wine into old bottles, or new cloth on old garments. He
has, with an unlimited and daring licence, mixed the sacred and the
profane together, the carnal and the spiritual man, the petulance of
the bar with the dogmatism of the pulpit, the theatrical and theo-
logical, the modern and the obsolete; — what wonder that this
splendid piece of patchwork, splendid by contradiction and contrast,
has delighted some and confounded others ? The more serious part
of his congregation indeed complain, though not bitterly, that their
pastor has converted their meeting-house into a play-house : but when
a lady of quality, introducing herself and her three daughters to the
preacher, assures him that they have been to all the most fashionable
places of resort, the opera, the theatre, assemblies, Miss Macauley's
readings, and Exeter-Change, and have been equally entertained no
where else, we apprehend that no remonstrances of a committee of
ruling-elders will be able to bring him to his senses again, or make
him forego such sweet, but ill-assorted praise. What we mean to
insist upon is, that Mr. Irving owes his triumphant success, not to
any one quality for which he has been extolled, but to a combination
of qualities, the more striking in their immediate effect, in proportion
as they are unlooked-for and heterogeneous, like the violent opposition



of light and shade in a picture. We shall endeavour to explain this
view of the subject more at large.

Mr. Irving, then, is no common or mean man. He has four or
five qualities, possessed in a moderate or in a paramount degree,
which, added or multiplied together, fill up the important space he
occupies in the public eye. Mr. Irving's intellect itself is of a
superior order ; he has undoubtedly both talents and acquirements
beyond the ordinary run of every-day preachers. These alone,
however, we hold, would not account for a twentieth part of the
effect he has produced : they would have lifted him perhaps out of
the mire and slough of sordid obscurity, but would never have
launched him into the ocean-stream of popularity, in which he ' lies
floating many a rood ' ; — but to these he adds uncommon height,
a graceful figure and action, a clear and powerful voice, a striking,
if not a fine face, a bold and fiery spirit, and a most portentous
obliquity of vision, which throw him to an immeasurable distance
bevond all competition, and effectually relieve whatever there might
be of common-place or bombast in his style of composition. Put
the case that Mr. Irving had been five feet high — Would he ever
have been heard of, or, as he does now, have * bestrode the world
like a Colossus ? ' No, the thing speaks for itself. He would in
pain have lifted his Lilliputian arm to Heaven, people would have
Lm. ied at his monkey-tricks. Again, had he been as tall as he
is, but had wanted other recommendations, he would have been

' The player's province they but vainly try,
Who want these powers, deportment, voice, and eye.'

Conceive a rough, ugly, shock-headed Scotchman, standing up in the
Caledonian Chapel, and dealing ' damnation round the land ' in a
broad northern dialect, and with a harsh, screaking voice, what ear
polite, what smile serene would have hailed the barbarous prodigy,
or not consigned him to utter neglect and derision ? But the Rev.
Edward Irving, with all his native wildness, ' hath a smooth aspect
framed to make women ' saints ; his very unusual size and height are
carried off and moulded into elegance by the most admirable symmetry
of form and ease of gesture ; his sable locks, his clear iron-grey
complexion, and firm-set features, turn the raw, uncouth Scotchman
into the likeness of a noble Italian picture; and even his distortion
of sight only redeems the otherwise 'faultless monster' within the
bounds of humanity, and, when admiration is exhausted and curiosity
ceases, excites a new interest by leading to the idle question whether
it is an advantage to the preacher or not. Farther, give him all his


actual and remarkable advantages of body and mind, let him be as
tall, as strait, as dark and clear of skin, as much at his ease, as silver-
tongued, as eloquent and as argumentative as he is, yet with all
these, and without a little charlatanery to set them off he had been
nothing. He might, keeping within the rigid line of his duty and
professed calling, have preached on for ever ; he might have divided
the old-fashioned doctrines of election, grace, reprobation, predestina-
tion, into his sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth heads, and his
lastly have been looked for as a ' consummation devoutly to be
wished ' ; he might have defied the devil and all his works, and by
the help of a loud voice and strong-set person —

' A lusty man to ben an Abbot able ; ' —

have increased his own congregation, and been quoted among the
godly as a powerful preacher of the word ; but in addition to this,
he went out of his way to attack Jeremy Bentham, and the town
was up in arms. The thing was new. He thus wiped the stain of
musty ignorance and formal bigotry out of his style. Mr. Irving
must have something superior in him, to look over the shining close-
packed heads of his congregation to have a hit at the Great Juris-
consult in his study. He next, ere the report of the former blow had
subsided, made a lunge at Mr. Brougham, and glanced an eye at
Mr. Canning; mystified Mr. Coleridge, and stultified Lord Liverpool
in his place — in the Gallery. It was rare sport to see him, ' like an
eagle in a dovecote, flutter the Volscians in Corioli.' He has found
out the secret of attracting by repelling. Those whom he is likely
to attack are curious to hear what he says of them : they go again,
to show that they do not mind it. It is no less interesting to the
bystanders, who like to witness this sort of onslaught — like a charge
of cavalry, the shock, and the resistance. Mr. Irving has, in fact,
without leave asked or a licence granted, converted the Caledonian
Chapel into a Westminster Forum or Debating Society, with the
sanctity of religion added to it. Our spirited polemic is not
contented to defend the citadel of orthodoxy against all impugners,
and shut himself up in texts of Scripture and huge volumes of the
Commentators as an impregnable fortress ; — he merely makes use of
the strong-hold of religion as a resting-place, from which he sallies
forth, armed with modern topics and with penal fire, like Achilles
of old rushing from the Grecian tents, against the adversaries of God
and man. Peter Aretine is said to have laid the Princes of Europe
under contribution by penning satires against them : so Mr. Irving
keeps the public in awe by insulting all their favourite idols. He
does not spare their politicians, their rulers, their moralists, their



poets, their players, their critics, their reviewers, their magazine-
writers ; he levels their resorts of business, their places of amusement,
at a blow — their cities, churches, palaces, ranks and professions,
refinements, and elegances — and leaves nothing standing but himself,
a mighty landmark in a degenerate age, overlooking the wide havoc
he has made ! He makes war upon all arts and sciences, upon the
faculties and nature of man, on his vices and his virtues, on all
existing institutions, and all possible improvements, that nothing may
be left but the Kirk of Scotland, and that he may be the head of it.
He literally sends a challenge to all London in the name of the
King of Heaven, to evacuate its streets, to disperse its population,
to lay aside its employments, to burn its wealth, to renounce its
vanities and pomp ; and for what ? — that he may enter in as the
King of Glory ; or after enforcing his threat with the battering-ram
of logic, the grape-shot of rhetoric, and the cross-fire of his double
vision, reduce the British metropolis to a Scottish heath, with a few
miserable hovels upon it, where they may worship God according to
the root of the matter, and where an old man with a blue bonnet, a
fair-haired girl, and a little child would form the flower of his flock !
Such is the pretension and the boast of this new Peter the Hermit,
who would get rid of all we have done in the way of improvement
on a state of barbarous ignorance, or still more barbarous prejudice,
in order to begin again on a tabula rasa of Calvinism, and have a
world of his own making. It is not very surprising that when
nearly the whole mass and texture of civil society is indicted as a
nuisance, and threatened to be pulled down as a rotten building ready
to fall on the heads of the inhabitants, that all classes of people run
to hear the crash, and to see the engines and levers at work which
are to effect this laudable purpose. What else can be the meaning
of our preacher's taking upon himself to denounce the sentiments of
the most serious professors in great cities, as vitiated and stark-naught,
of relegating religion to his native glens, and pretending that the
hymn of praise or the sigh of contrition cannot ascend acceptably
to the throne of grace from the crowded street as well as from the
barren rock or silent valley ? Why put this affront upon his hearers ?
Why belie his own aspirations ?

' God made the country, and man made the town.*

So says the poet ; does Mr. Irving say so ? If he does, and finds
the air of the city death to his piety, why does he not return home
? But if he can breathe it with impunity, and still retain the
fervour of his early enthusiasm, and the simplicity and purity of the
faith that was once delivered to the saints, why not extend the benefit


of his own experience to others, instead of taunting them with a vapid
pastoral theory? Or, if our popular and eloquent divine finds a
change in himself, that flattery prevents the growth of grace, that he
is becoming the God of his own idolatry by being that of others,
that the glittering of coronet-coaches rolling down Holborn-Hill to
Hatton Garden, that titled beauty, that the parliamentary complexion
of his audience, the compliments of poets, and the stare of peers
discompose his wandering thoughts a little ; and yet that he cannot
give up these strong temptations tugging at his heart ; why not
extend more charity to others, and show more candour in speaking
of himself? There is either a good deal of bigoted intolerance with
a deplorable want of self-knowledge in all this ; or at least an equal
degree of cant and quackery.

To which ever cause we are to attribute this hyperbolical tone,
we hold it certain he could not have adopted it, if he had been a little
man. But his imposing figure and dignified manner enable him to
hazard sentiments or assertions that would be fatal to others. His
controversial daring is bached by his bodily prowess ; and by bringing
his intellectual pretensions boldly into a line with his physical
accomplishments, he, indeed, presents a very formidable front to the
sceptic or the scoffer. Take a cubit from his stature, and his whole
manner resolves itself into an impertinence. But with that addition,
he overcrows the town, browbeats their prejudices, and bullies them
out of their senses, and is not afraid of being contradicted by any
one less than himself. It may be said, that individuals with great
personal defects have made a considerable figure as public speakers ;
and Mr. Wilberforce, among others, may be held out as an instance.
Nothing can be more insignificant as to mere outward ap] earance,
and yet he is listened to in the House of Commons. But he does
not wield it, he does not insult or bully it. He leads by following
opinion, he trims, he shifts, he glides on the silvery sounds of his
undulating, flexible, cautiously modulated voice, winding his way
betwixt heaven and earth, now courting popularity, now calling
servility to his aid, and with a large estate, the ' saints,' and the
population of Yorkshire to swell his influence, never venturing on
the forlorn hope, or doing any thing more than 'hitting the house
between wind and water.' Yet he is probably a cleverer man than
Mr. Irving.

There is a Mr. Fox, a Dissenting Minister, as fluent a speaker,
with a sweeter voice and a more animated and beneficent countenance
than Mr. Irving, who expresses himself with manly spirit at a public
meeting, takes a hand at whist, and is the darling of his congregation ;
but he is no more, because he is diminutive in person. His head is



not seen above the crowd the length of a street off. He is the
Duke of Sussex in miniature, hut the Duke of Sussex does not go
to hear him preach, as he attends Mr. Irving, who rises up against
him like a martello tower, and is nothing loth to confront the spirit
of a man of genius with the blood-royal. We allow there are, or
may be, talents sufficient to produce this equality without a single
personal advantage ; but we deny that this would be the effect of any
that our great preacher possesses. We conceive it not improbable
that the consciousness of muscular power, that the admiration of his
person by strangers might first have inspired Mr. Irving with an
ambition to be something, intellectually speaking, and have given
him confidence to attempt the greatest things. He has not failed
for want of courage. The public, as well as the fair, are won by
a show of gallantry. Mr. Irving has shrunk from no opinion, how-
ever paradoxical. He has scrupled to avow no sentiment, however
obnoxious. He has revived exploded prejudices, he has scouted
prevailing fashions. He has opposed the spirit of the age, and not
consulted the esprit de corps. He has brought back the doctrines of
Calvinism in all their inveteracy, and relaxed the inveteracy of his
northern accents. He has turned religion and the Caledonian
Chapel topsy-turvy. He has held a play-book in one hand, and a
Bible in the other, and quoted Shakespeare and Melancthon in the
same breath. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is no
longer, with his grafting, a dry withered stump ; it shoots its branches
to the skies, and hangs out its blossoms to the gale —

• Miraturque novos fructus, et non sua poma.'

He has taken the thorns and briars of scholastic divinity, and
garlanded them with the flowers of modern literature. He has
done all this, relying on the strength of a remarkably fine person and
manner, and through that he has succeeded — otherwise he would
have perished miserably.

Dr. Chalmers is not by any means so good a looking man, nor so
accomplished a speaker as Mr. Irving ; yet he at one time almost
equalled his oratorical celebrity, and certainly paved the way for him.
He has therefore more merit than his admired pupil, as he has done
as much with fewer means. He has more scope of intellect and
more intensity of purpose. Both his matter and his manner, setting
aside his face and figure, are more impressive. Take the volume of
' Sermons on Astronomy,' by Dr. Chalmers, and the « Four Orations
for the Oracles of God ' which Mr. Irving lately published, and we
apprehend there can be no comparison as to their success. The
first ran like wild-fire through the country, were the darlings of



watering-places, were laid in the windows of inns, 1 and were to be
met with in all places of public resort; while the ' Orations' get on
but slowly, on Milton's stilts, and are pompously announced as in a
Third Edition. We believe the fairest and fondest of his admirers
would rather see and hear Mr. Irving than read him. The reason
is, that the ground work of his compositions is trashy and hackneyed,
though set off by extravagant metaphors and an affected phraseology ;
that without the turn of his head and wave of his hand, his periods
have nothing in them ; and that he himself is the only idea with
which he has yet enriched the public mind ! He must play off his
person, as Orator Henley used to dazzle his hearers with his diamond-
ring. The small frontispiece prefixed to the ' Orations ' does not
serve to convey an adequate idea of the magnitude of the man, nor
of the ease and freedom of his motions in the pulpit. How different
is Dr. Chalmers! He is like 'a monkey-preacher' to the other.
He cannot boast of personal appearance to set him off. But then
he is like the very genius or demon of theological controversy
personified. He has neither airs nor graces at command ; he thinks
nothing of himself: he has nothing theatrical about him (which
cannot be said of his successor and rival) ; but you see a man in
mortal throes and agony with doubts and difficulties, seizing stubborn
knotty points with his teeth, tearing them with his hands, and strain-
ing his eyeballs till they almost start out of their sockets, in pursuit
of a train of visionary reasoning, like a Highland-seer with his
second sight. The description of Balfour of Burley in his cave,
with his Bible in one hand and his sword in the other, contending
with the imaginary enemy of mankind, gasping for breath, and with
the cold moisture running down his face, gives a lively idea of
Dr. Chalmers's prophetic fury in the pulpit. If we could have
looked in to have seen Burley hard-beset ' by the coinage of his heat-
oppressed brain,' who would have asked whether he was a handsome
man or not? It would be enough to see a man haunted by a spirit,
under the strong and entire dominion of a wilful hallucination. So
the integrity and vehemence of Dr. Chalmers's manner, the deter-
mined way in which he gives himself up to his subject, or lays about
him and buffets sceptics and gain-sayers, arrests attention in spite of
every other circumstance, and fixes it on that, and that alone, which
excites such interest and such eagerness in his own breast ! Besides,
he is a logician, has a theory in support of whatever he chooses to

1 We remember finding the volume in the orchard at Burford-bridge near
Boxhill, and passing a whole and very delightful morning in reading it, without
quitting the shade of an apple-tree. We have not been able to pay Mr. Irving'f
book, the same compliment of reading it at a sitting.



advance, and weaves the tissue of his sophistry so close and intricate,
that it is difficult not to be entangled in it, or to escape from it.
'There's magic in the web.' Whatever appeals to the pride of
the human understanding, has a subtle charm in it. The mind is
naturally pugnacious, cannot refuse a challenge of strength or skill,
sturdily enters the lists and resolves to conquer, or to yield itself
vanquished in the forms. This is the chief hold Dr. Chalmers had
upon his hearers, and upon the readers of his ' Astronomical Dis-
courses.' No one was satisfied with his arguments, no one could
answer them, but every one wanted to try what he could make of
them, as we try to find out a riddle. ' By his so potent art,' the
art of laying down problematical premises, and drawing from them
still more doubtful, but not impossible, conclusions, ' he could bedim
the noonday sun, betwixt the green sea and the azure vault set
roaring war,' and almost compel the stars in their courses to testify
to his opinions. The mode in which he undertook to make the
circuit of the universe, and demand categorical information 'now of
the planetary and now of the fixed,' might put one in mind of
ite's mocie of ascending in a machine from the stage, 'midst
troops of spirits,' in which you now admire the skill of the artist,
and next tremble for the fate of the performer, fearing that the
audacity of the attempt will turn his head or break his neck. The
styie of these ' Discourses ' also, though not elegant or poetical, was,
like the subject, intricate and endless. It was that of a man pushing
his way through a labyrinth of difficulties, and determined not to
flinch. The impression on the reader was proportionate ; for, what-
ever were the merits of the style or matter, both were new and
striking ; and the train of thought that was unfolded at such length
and with such strenuousness, was bold, well-sustained, and consistent
with itself.

Air. Irving wants the continuity of thought and manner which
distinguishes his rival — and shines by patches and in bursts. He
does not warm or acquire increasing force or rapidity with his
progress. He is never hurried away by a deep or lofty enthusiasm,
nor touches the highest point of genius or fanaticism, but ' in the
very storm and whirlwind of his passion, he acquires and begets a
temperance that may give it smoothness.' He has the self-possession
and masterly execution of an experienced player or fencer, and does
not seem to express his natural convictions, or to be engaged in a
mortal struggle. This greater ease and indifference is the result of
vast superiority of personal appearance, which 'to be admired needs
but to be seen,' and does not require the possessor to work himself
up into a passion, or to use any violent contortions to gain attention

2 12


or to keep it. These two celebrated preachers are in almost all
respects an antithesis to each other. If Mr. Irving is an example
of what can be done by the help of external advantages, Dr.
Chalmers is a proof of what can be done without them. The one
is most indebted to his mind, the other to his body. If Mr. Irving
inclines one to suspect fashionable or popular religion of a little
anthropomorphihsm, Dr. Chalmers effectually redeems it from that


Mr. Horne Tooke was one of those who may be considered as
connecting links between a former period and the existing generation.
His education and accomplishments, nay, his political opinions, were
of the last age ; his mind, and the tone of his feelings were modern.
There was a hard, dry materialism in the very texture of his under-
standing, varnished over by the external refinements of the old school.
Mr. Tooke had great scope of attainment, ind great versatility of
pursuit ; but the same shrewdness, quickness, cool self-possession, the
same literalness of perception, and absence of passion and enthusiasm,
characterised nearly all he did, said, or wrote. He was without a
rival (almost) in private conversation, an expert public speaker, a
keen politician, a first-rate grammarian, and the finest gentleman (to
say the least) of his own party. He had no imagination (or he
would not have scorned it!) — no delicacy of taste, no rooted
prejudices or strong attachments: his intellect was like a bow of
polished steel, from which he shot sharp-pointed poisoned arrows at
his friends in private, at his enemies in public. His mind (so to
speak) had no religion in it, and very little even of the moral qualities
of genius ; but he was a man of the world, a scholar bred, and a
most acute and powerful logician. He was also a wit, and a for-
midable one : yet it may be questioned whether his wit was any
thing more than an excess of his logical faculty : it did not consist
in the play of fancy, but in close and cutting combinations of the
understanding. ' The law is open to every one : so,' said Mr.
Tooke, ' is the London Tavern ! ' It is the previous deduction
formed in the mind, and the splenetic contempt felt for a practical
sophism, that beats about the bush for, and at last finds the apt illustra-
tion ; not the casual, glancing coincidence of two objects, that points
out an absurdity to the understanding. So, on another occasion,
when Sir Allan Gardiner (who was a candidate for Westminster)
had objected to Mr. Fox, that 'he was always against the minister,



•whether right or wrong,' and Mr. Fox, in his reply, had overlooked
this slip of the tongue, Mr. Tooke immediately seized on it, and
said, ' he thought it at least an equal objection to Sir Allan, that he
was alwavs tvith the minister, whether right or wrong.' This retort
had all the effect, and produced the same surprise as the most
brilliant display of wit or fancy: yet it was only the detecting a flaw
in an argument, like a flaw in an indictment, by a kind of legal
pertinacity, or rather by a rigid and constant habit of attending to
the exact import of every word and clause in a sentence. Mr.

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 22 of 38)