William Hazlitt.

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

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Tooke had the mind of a lawyer ; but it was applied to a vast variety
of topics and general trains of speculation.

Mr. Home Tooke was in private company, and among his friends,
the finished gentleman of the last age. His manners were as fasci-
nating as his conversation was spirited and delightful. He put one in
mind of the burden of the song of ' The King's Old Courtier, and an
Old Courtier of the King's.' He was, however, of the opposite party.
It was curious to hear our modern sciolist advancing opinions of the
most radical kind without any mixture of radical heat or violence, in
a tone of fashionable nonchalance, with elegance of gesture and attitude,
and with the most perfect good-humour. In the spirit of opposition,
or in the pride of logical superiority, he too often shocked the
prejudices or wounded the self-love of those about him, while he
himself displayed the same unmoved indifference or equanimity. He
said the most provoking things with a laughing gaiety, and a polite
attention, that there was no withstanding. He threw others off their
guard by thwarting their favourite theories, and then availed himself
of the temperance of his own pulse to chafe them into madness. He
had not one particle of deference for the opinion of others, nor of
sympathy with their feelings ; nor had he any obstinate convictions of
his own to defend —

' Lord of himself, uncumbered with a creed V

He took up any topic by chance, and played with it at will, like a
juggler with his cups and balls. He generally ranged himself on the
losing side ; and had rather an ill-natured delight in contradiction,
and in perplexing the understandings of others, without leaving them
any clue to guide them out of the labyrinth into which he had led
them. He understood, in its perfection, the great art of throwing the
ontu probandi on his adversary ; and so could maintain almost any
opinion, however absurd or fantastical, with fearless impunity. I
have heard a sensible and well-informed man say, that he never was in
company with Mr. Tooke without being delighted and surprised, or
without feeling the conversation of every other person to be flat in the


comparison ; but that he did not recollect having ever heard him
make a remark that struck him as a sound and true one, or that he
himself appeared to think so. He used to plague Fuseli by asking
him after the origin of the Teutonic dialects, and Dr. Parr, by wish-
ing to know the meaning of the common copulative, Is. Once at

G 's, he defended Pitt from a charge of verbiage, and endeavoured

to prove him superior to Fox. Some one imitated Pitt's manner, to
show that it was monotonous, and he imitated him also, to show that
it was not. He maintained (what would he not maintain?) that
young Betty's acting was finer than John Kemble's, and recited a
passage from Douglas in the manner of each, to justify the prefer-
ence he gave to the former. The mentioning this will please the
living ; it cannot hurt the dead. He argued on the same occasion
and in the same breath, that Addison's stvle was without modulation,
and that it was physically impossible for any one to write well, who
was habitually silent in company. He sat like a king at his own
table, and gave law to his guests — and to the world ! No man knew
better bow to manage his immediate circle, to foil or bring them out.
A professed orator, beginning to address some observations to Mr.
Tooke with a voluminous apology for his youth and inexperience, he
said, ' Speak up, young man ! ' — and by taking him at his word, cut
short the flower of orations. Porson was the only person of whom he
stood in some degree of awe, on account of his prodigious memory
and knowledge of his favourite subject, Languages. Sheridan, it has
been remarked, said more good things, but had not an equal flow of
pleasantry. As an instance of Mr. Home Tooke's extreme coolness
and command of nerve, it has been mentioned that once at a public
dinner when he had got on the table to return thanks for his health
being drank with a glass of wine in his hand, and when there was a
great clamour and opposition for some time, after it had subsided, he
pointed to the glass to show that it was still full. Mr. Holcroft (the
author of the Road to Ruin) was one of the most violent and fiery-
spirited of all that motley crew of persons, who attended the Sunday
meetings at Wimbledon. One day he was so enraged by some
paradox or raillery of his host, that he indignantly rose from his chair,
and said, * Mr. Tooke, you are a scoundrel ! ' His opponent with-
out manifesting the least emotion, replied, ' Mr. Holcroft, when is it
that I am to dine with you ? shall it be next Thursday ? ' — « If you
please, Mr. Tooke ! ' answered the angry philosopher, and sat down
again. — It was delightful to see him sometimes turn from these
waspish or ludicrous altercations with over-weening antagonists to
some old friend and veteran politician seated at his elbow ; to hear
him recal the time of Wilkes and Liberty, the conversation mellow-



ing like the wine with the smack, of age ; assenting to all the old man
said, bringing out his pleasant traits, and pampering him into childish
self-importance, and sending him away thirty years younger than he


As a public or at least as a parliamentary speaker, Mr. Tooke did
not answer the expectations that had been conceived of him, or
probably that he had conceived of himself. It is natural for men who
have felt a superiority over all those whom they happen to have
encountered, to fancv that this superiority will continue, and that it
will extend from individuals to public bodies. There is no rule in
the case ; or rather, the probability lies the contrary way. That
which constitutes the excellence of conversation is of little use in
addressing large assemblies of people ; while other qualities are
required that are hardly to be looked for in one and the same
capacity. The way to move great masses of men is to show that you
yourself are moved. In a private circle, a ready repartee, a shrewd
cross-question, ridicule and banter, a caustic remark or an amusing
anecdote, whatever sets off the individual to advantage, or gratifies
the curiosity or piques the self-love of the hearers, keeps attention
alive, and secures the triumph of the speaker — it is a personal
contest, and depends on personal and momentary advantages. But in
appealing to the public, no one triumphs but in the triumph of some
public cause, or by showing a sympathy with the general and pre-
dominant feelings of mankind. In a private room, a satirist, a
sophist may provoke admiration by expressing his contempt for each
of his adversaries in turn, and by setting their opinion at defiance —
but when men are congregated together on a great public question and
for a weighty object, they must be treated with more respect ; they
are touched with what affects themselves or the general weal, not
with what flatters the vanity of the speaker ; they must be moved
altogether, if they are moved at all ; they are impressed with gratitude
for a luminous exposition of their claims or for zeal in their cause ;
and the lightning of generous indignation at bad men and bad
measures is followed by thunders of applause — even in the House of
Commons. But a man may sneer and cavil and puzzle and fly-blow
every question that comes before him — be despised and feared by
others, and admired by no one but himself. He who thinks first of
himself, either in the world or in a popular assembly, will be sure to
turn attention away from his claims, instead of fixing it there. He
must make common cause with his hearers. To lead, he must follow
the general bias. Mr. Tooke did not therefore succeed as a speaker
in parliament. He stood aloof, he played antics, he exhibited his
peculiar talent — while he was on his legs, the question before the



House stood still ; the only point at issue respected Mr. Tooke
himself, his personal address and adroitness of intellect. Were there
to be no more places and pensions, because Mr. Tooke's style was
terse and epigrammatic ? Were the Opposition benches to be inflamed
to an unusual pitch of « sacred vehemence,' because he gave them
plainly to understand there was not a pin to choose between Ministers
and Opposition ? Would the House let him remain among them,
because, if they turned him out on account of his black coat, Lord
Camelford had threatened to send his black servant in his place?
This was a good joke, but not a practical one. Would he gain the
affections of the people out of doors, by scouting the question of
reform ? Would the King ever relish the old associate of Wilkes ?
What interest, then, what party did he represent ? He represented
nobody but himself. He was an example of an ingenious man, a
clever talker, but he was out of his place in the House of Commons ;
where people did not come (as in his own house) to admire or break
a lance with him, but to get through the business of the day, and so
adjourn ! He wanted effect and momentum. Each of his sentences
told very well in itself, but they did not altogether make a speech.
He left off where he began. His eloquence was a succession of
drops, not a stream. His arguments, though subtle and new, did not
affect the main body of the question. The coldness and pettiness of
his manner did not warm the hearts or expand the understandings of
his hearers. Instead of encouraging, he checked the ardour of his
friends ; and teazed, instead of overpowering his antagonists. The
only palpable hit he ever made, while he remained there, was the
comparing his own situation in being rejected by the House, on
account of the supposed purity of his clerical character, to the story
of the girl at the Magdalen, who was told * she must turn out and
qualify.' 1 This met with laughter and loud applause. It was a
home thrust, and the House (to do them justice) are obliged to any
one who, by a smart blow, relieves them of the load of grave
responsibility, which sits heavy on their shoulders. — At the hustings,
or as an election-candidate, Mr. Tooke did better. There was no
great question to move or carry — it was an affair of political sparring
between himself and the other candidates. He took it in a very cool
and leisurely manner — watched his competitors with a wary, sarcastic
eye ; picked up the mistakes or absurdities that fell from them, and
retorted them on their heads ; told a story to the mob ; and smiled
and took snuff with a gentlemanly and becoming air, as if he was
already seated in the House. But a Court of Law was the place

1 'They receive him like a virgin at the Magdalen, Go thou and do likewise' —

~ x 7


where Mr. Tooke made the best figure in public. He might
assuredly be said to be 'native and endued unto that element.' He
had here to s.and merely on the defensive — not to advance himself,
but to block up the way— not to impress others, but to be himself
impenetrable. All he wanted was negative success ; and to this no
one was better qualified to aspire. Cross purposes, moot-points, pleas,
demurrers, flaws in the indictment, double meanings, cases, incon-
>equentialities, these were the play-things, the darlings of Mr. Tooke's
mind ; and with these he baffled the Judge, dumb-founded the Counsel,
and outwitted the Jury. The report of his trial before Lord
Kenyon is a masterpiece of acuteness, dexterity, modest assurance,
and leeal effect. It is much like his examination before the
Commissioners of the Income-Tax — nothing could be got out of him
in either case !

Mr. Tooke, as a political leader, belonged to the class of trimmers %
or at most, it was his delight to make mischief and spoil sport. He
would rather be against himself than for any body else. He v/as neither
a bold nor a safe leader. He enticed others into scrapes, and kept out
of them himself. Provided he could say a clever or a spiteful thing,
he did not care whether it served or injured the cause. Spleen or
the exercise of intellectual power was the motive of his patriotism,
rather than principle. He would talk treason with a saving clause ;
and instil sedition into the public mind, through the medium of a
third (who was to be the responsible) party. He made Sir Francis
Burden his spokesman in the House and to the country, often venting
his chagrin or singularity of sentiment at the expense of his friend ;
but what in the first was trick or reckless vanity, was in the last plain
downright English honesty and singleness of heart. In the case of
the State Trials, in 1794, Mr. Tooke rather compromised his friends
to screen himself. He kept repeating that ' others might have gone
on to Windsor, but he had stopped at Hounslow,' as if to go farther
might have been dangerous and unwarrantable. It was not the
question how far he or others had actually gone, but how far they
had a right to go, according to the law. His conduct was not the
limit of the law, nor did treasonable excess begin where prudence or
principle taught him to stop short, though this was the oblique in-
ference liable to be drawn from his line of defence. Mr. Tooke was
uneasy and apprehensive for the issue of the Government-prosecution
while in confinement, and said, in speaking of it to a friend, with a
morbid feeling and an emphasis quite unusual with him — ' They want
our blood — blood — blood ! ' It was somewhat ridiculous to implicate
Mr. Tooke in 1 charge of High Treason (and indeed the whole
charge was built on the mistaken purport of an intercepted letter



relating to an engagement for a private dinner-party) — his politics
were not at all revolutionary. In this respect he was a mere petti-
fogger, full of chicane, and captious objections, and unmeaning
discontent ; but he had none of the grand whirling movements of the
French Revolution, nor of the tumultuous glow of rebellion in his
head or in his heart. His politics were cast in a different mould, or
confined to the party distinctions and court intrigues and pittances of
popular right, that made a noise in the time of Junius and Wilkes —
and even if his understanding had gone along with more modern and
unqualified principles, his cautious temper would have prevented his
risking them in practice. Home Tooke (though not of the same
side in politics) had much of the tone of mind and more of the spirit
of moral feeling of the celebrated philosopher of Malmesbury. The
narrow scale and fine-drawn distinctions of his political creed made
his conversation on such subjects infinitely amusing, particularly when
contrasted with that of persons who dealt in the sounding common-
places and sweeping clauses of abstract politics. He knew all the
cabals and jealousies and heart-burnings in the beginning of the late
reign, the changes of administration and the springs of secret in-
fluence, the characters of the leading men, Wilkes, Barre, Dunning,
Chatham, Burke, the Marquis of Rockingham, North, Shelbuine,
Fox, Pitt, and all the vacillating events of the American war : —
these formed a curious back-ground to the more prominent figures
that occupied the present time, and Mr. Tooke worked out the
minute details and touched in the evanescent traits with the pencil of
a master. His conversation resembled a political camera obscura — as
quaint as it was magical. To some pompous pretenders he might
seem to narrate fabellas aniles (old wives' fables) — but not to those
who study human nature, and wish to know the materials of which
it is composed. Mr. Tooke's faculties might appear to have ripened
and acquired a finer flavour with age. In a former period of his life
he was hardly the man he was latterly ; or else he had greater
abilities to contend against. He no where makes so poor a figure as
in his controversy with Junius. He has evidently the best of the
argument, yet he makes nothing out of it. He tells a long story
about himself, without wit or point in it ; and whines and whimpers
like a school-boy under the rod of his master. Junius, after bringing
a hasty charge against him, has not a single fact to adduce in support
of it ; but keeps his ground and fairly beats his adversary out of the
field by the mere force of style. One would think that ' Parson
Home ' knew who Junius was, and was afraid of him. ' Under him
his genius is' quite 'rebuked.' With the best cause to defend, he
comes off more shabbily from the contest than any other person in



the Letters, except Sir William Draper, who is the very hero of

The great thing which Mr. Home Tooke has done, and which he
has left behind him to posterity, is his work on Grammar, oddly
enough entitled The Diversions of Purley. Many people have
taken it up as a description of a game — others supposing it to be a
novel. It is, in truth, one of the few philosophical works on
Grammar that were ever written. The essence of it (and, indeed,
almost all that is really valuable in it) is contained in his Letter to
Dunning, published about the year 1775. Mr. Tooke's work is
truly elementary. Dr. Lowth described Mr. Harris's Hermes as
' the finest specimen of analysis since the days of Aristotle ' — a work
in which there is no analysis at all, for analysis consists in reducing
things to their principles, and not in endless details and subdivisions.
Mr. Harris multiplies distinctions, and confounds his readers. Mr.
Tooke clears away the rubbish of school-boy technicalities, and
strikes at the root of his subject. In accomplishing his arduous
task, he was, perhaps, aided not more by the strength and resources of
his mind than by its limits and defects. There is a web of old
associations wound round language, that is a kind of veil over its
natural features ; and custom puts on the mask of ignorance. But
this veil, this mask the author of The Diversions of Purley threw aside
and penetrated to the naked truth of things, by the literal, matter-of-
fact, unimaginative nature of his understanding, and because he was
not subject to prejudices or illusions of any kind. Words may be
said to ' bear a charmed life, that must not yield to one of woman
born ' — with womanish weaknesses and confused apprehensions. But
this charm was broken in the case of Mr. Tooke, whose mind was
the reverse of effeminate — hard, unbending, concrete, physical, half-
savage — and who saw language stripped of the clothing of habit or
sentiment, or the disguises of doting pedantry, naked in its cradle,
and in its primitive state. Our author tells us that he found his dis-
covery on Grammar among a number of papers on other subjects,
which he had thrown aside and forgotten. Is this an idle boast?
Or had he made other discoveries of equal importance, which he did
not think it worth his while to communicate to the world, but chose
to die the churl of knowledge ? The whole of his reasoning turns
upon showing that the Conjunction That is the pronoun That, which
; itself the participle of a verb, and in like manner that all the other
mystical and hitherto unintelligible parts of speech are derived from
the only two intelligible ones, the Verb and Noun. ' I affirm that
gold is yellow,' that is, ' I affirm that fact, or that proposition, viz.
gold is yellow.' The secret of the Conjunction on which so many


fine heads had split, on which so many learned definitions were thrown
away, as if it was its peculiar province and inborn virtue to announce
oracles and formal propositions, and nothing else, like a Doctor of
Laws, is here at once accounted for, inasmuch as it is clearly nothing
but another part of speech, the pronoun, that, with a third part of
speech, the noun, thing, understood. This is getting at a solution of
words into their component parts, not glossing over one difficulty by
bringing another to parallel it, nor like saying with Mr. Harris, when
it is asked, ' what a Conjunction is ? ' that there are conjunctions
copulative, conjunctions disjunctive, and as many other frivolous
varieties of the species as any one chooses to hunt out ' with laborious
foolery.' Our author hit upon his parent-discovery in the course of
a law-suit, while he was examining, with jealous watchfulness, the
meaning of words to prevent being entrapped by them ; or rather,
this circumstance might itself be traced to the habit of satisfying his
own mind as to the precise sense in which he himself made use of
words. Mr. Tooke, though he had no objection to puzzle others,
was mightily averse to being puzzled or mystified himself. All was,
to his determined mind, either complete light or complete darkness.
There was no hazy, doubtful chiaroscuro in his understanding. He
wanted something ' palpable to feeling as to sight.' ' What,' he
would say to himself, 'do I mean when I use the conjunction that?
Is it an anomaly, a class by itself, a word sealed against all inquisitive
attempts ? Is it enough to call it a copula, a bridge, a link, a word
connecting sentences ? That is undoubtedly its use, but what is its
origin I ' Mr. Tooke thought he had answered this question satis-
factorily, and loosened the Gordian knot of grammarians, 'familiar as
his garter,' when he said, * It is the common pronoun, adjective, or
participle, that, with the noun, thing or proposition, implied, and the
particular example following it.' So he thought, and so every reader
has thought since, with the exception of teachers and writers upon
Grammar. Mr. Windham, indeed, who was a sophist, but not a
logician, charged him with having found ' a mare's-nest ' ; but it is
not to be doubted that Mr. Tooke's etymologies will stand the test,
and last longer than Mr. Windham's ingenious derivation of the
practice of bull-baiting from the principles of humanity !

Having thus laid the corner-stone, he proceeded to apply the same
method of reasoning to other undecyphered and impracticable terms.
Thus the word, Jnd, he explained clearly enough to be the verb add,
or a corruption of the old Saxon, anandad. ' Two and two make
four,' that is, • two add two make four.' Mr. Tooke, in fact, treated
words as the chemists do substances ; he separated those which are
compounded of others from those which are not decompoundable.

11 T


He did not explain the obscure by the more obscure, but the difficult
by the plain, the complex by the simple. This alone is proceeding
Qi on the true principles of science : the rest is pedantry and petit-
maitresbip. Our philosophical writer distinguished all words into
names of things, and directions added for joining them together, or
originally into nouns and verbs. It is a pity that he has left this
matter short, by omitting to define the Verb. After enumerating
sixteen different definitions (all of which he dismisses with scorn and
contumely) at the end of two quarto volumes, he refers the reader for
the true solution to a third volume, which he did not live to finish.
This extraordinary man was in the habit of tantalizing his guests on a
Sunday afternoon with sundry abstruse speculations, and putting them
off to the following week for a satisfaction of their doubts ; but why
should he treat posterity in the same scurvy manner, or leave the
world without quitting scores with it ? I question whether Mr.
Tooke was himself in possession of his pretended nostrum, and
whether, after trying hard at a definition of the verb as a distinct
part of speech, as a terrier-dog mumbles a hedge-hog, he did not find
it too much for him, and leave it to its fate. It is also a pity that
Mr. Tooke spun out his great work with prolix and dogmatical dis-
sertations on irrelevant matters ; and after denying the old meta-

ical theories of language, should attempt to found a metaphysical

I v of his own on the nature and mechanism of language. The
nature of words, he contended (it was the basis of his whole system)
had no connection with the nature of things or the objects of thought ;
yet he afterwards strove to limit the nature of things and of the human

• by the technical structure of language. Thus he endeavours to
show that there are no abstract ideas, by enumerating two thousand

uces of words, expressing abstract ideas, that are the past
participles of certain verbs. It is difficult to know what he means
by this. On the other hand, he maintains that * a complex idea is as

U an absurdity as a complex star,' and that words only are com-
plex. He also makes out a triumphant list of metaphysical and

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 23 of 38)