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 24 of 38)
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moral non-entities, proved to be so on the pure principle that the
Dames of these non-entities are participles, not nouns, or names of
things. That is strange in so close a reasoner, and in one who main-
tained that all language was a masquerade of words, and that the class
which they grammatically belonged had nothing to do with the

"i ideas they represented.

It is now above twenty years since the two quarto volumes of the

D'roersiom of Parley were published, and fifty since the same theory

tted in the celebrated Letter to Dunning. Yet it is a

curious example of the Spirit of the Age that Mr. Lindley Murray's


Grammar (a work out of which Mr. C*** helps himself to English,
and Mr. M*** to style 1 ) has proceeded to the thirtieth edition in
complete defiance of all the facts and arguments there laid down.
He defines a noun to be the name of a thing. Is quackery a thing,
i.e. a substance ? He defines a verb to be a word signifying to be, to
do, or to suffer. Are being, action, suffering, verbs ? He defines an
adjective to be the name of a quality. Are not wooden, golden, sub-
stantial adjectives ? He maintains that there are six cases in English
nouns, that is, six various terminations without any change of termina-
tion at all, 2 and that English verbs have all the moods, tenses, and
persons that the Latin ones have. This is an extraordinary stretch
of blindness and obstinacy. He very formally translates the Latin
Grammar into English, (as so many had done before him) and
fancies he has written an English Grammar ; and divines applaud,
and schoolmasters usher him into the polite world, and English
scholars carry on the jest, while Home Tooke's genuine anatomy
of our native tongue is laid on the shelf. Can it be that our
politicians smell a rat in the Member for Old Sarum ? That our
clergy do not relish Parson Home ? That the world at large are
alarmed at acuteness and originality greater than their own? What
has all this to do with the formation of the English language or with
the first conditions and necessary foundation of speech itself? Is
there nothing beyond the reach of prejudice and party-spirit ? It
seems in this, as in so many other instances, as if there was a patent
for absurdity in the natural bias of the human mind, and that folly
should be stereotyped \


Sir Walter Scott is undoubtedly the most popular writer of the
age— the 'lord of the ascendant' for the time being. He is just
half what the human intellect is capable of being : if you take the
universe, and divide it into two parts, he knows all that it has been ;
all that it is to be is nothing to him. His is a mind brooding over
antiquity — scorning 'the present ignorant time.' He is 'laudator
temporis acti ' — a l prophesier of things past.' The old world is to

1 This work is not without merit in the details and examples of English con-
struction. But its fault even in that part is that he confounds the genius of the
English language, making it periphrastic and literal, instead of elliptical and
idiomatic. According to Mr. Murray, hardly any of our best writers ever wrote a
word of English.

2 At least, with only one change in the genitive case.



him a crowded map ; the new one a dull, hateful blank. He dotes
on all well-authenticated superstitions ; he shudders at the shadow of
innovation. His retentiveness of memory, his accumulated weight of
interested prejudice or romantic association have overlaid his other
faculties. The cells of his memory are vast, various, full even to
bursting with life and motion ; his speculative understanding is empty,
flaccid, poor, and dead. His mind receives and treasures up every
thine brought to it by tradition or custom — it does not project itself
beyond this into the world unknown, but mechanically shrinks back
as from the edge of a precipice. The land of pure reason is to his
apprehension like Van Dieman s Land; — barren, miserable, distant,
a place of exile, the dreary abode of savages, convicts, and adventurers.
Sir Walter would make a bad hand of a description of the Millennium,
unless he could lay the scene in Scotland five hundred years ago, and
then he would want facts and worm-eaten parchments to support his
drooping style. Our historical novelist firmly thinks that nothing is
but what has been — that the moral world stands still, as the material
one was supposed to do of old — and that we can never get beyond
the point where we actually are without utter destruction, though
every thing changes and will change from what it was three hundred
ago to what it is now, — from what it is now to all that the
bigoted admirer of the good old times most dreads and hates !

It is long since we read, and long since we thought of our author's
v. It would probably have gone out of date with the immediate
occasion, even it he himself had not contrived to banish it from our
recollection. It is not to be denied that it had great merit, both of
an obvious and intrinsic kind. It abounded in vivid descriptions, in
ed action, in smooth and flowing versification. But it wanted
-. It was 'poetry of no mark or likelihood.' It slid out of
the mind as soon as read, like a river ; and would have been forgotten,
but that the public curiosity was fed with ever new supplies from the
teeming liquid source. It is not every man that can write six
in verse, that are caught up with avidity, even by
lious judges. But what a difference between their popularity and
that of the Scotch Novels ! It is true, the public read and admired
/ the List Minstrel, Marmion, and so on, and each individual
rated to read and admire because the public did so: but
with regard to the prose-works of the same (supposed) author, it is
uest sort of thing. Here every one stands forward to
ud on his own ground, would be thought to go before the public
°P mi ' ' 'o extol his favourite characters louder, to understand

in ever) body else, and has his own scale of corn-
em e for each work, supported by nothing but his own
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enthusiastic and fearless convictions. It must be amusing to the
Author of Waverley to hear his readers and admirers (and are not
these the same thing? 1 ) quarrelling which of his novels is the best,
opposing character to character, quoting passage against passage,
striving to surpass each other in the extravagance of their encomiums,
and yet unable to settle the precedence, or to do the author's writings
justice — so various, so equal, so transcendant are their merits ! His
volumes of poetry were received as fashionable and well-dressed
acquaintances : we are ready to tear the others in pieces as old
friends. There was something meretricious in Sir Walter's ballad-
rhymes; and like those who keep opera figurantes, we were willing
to have our admiration shared, and our taste confirmed by the town :
but the Novels are like the betrothed of our hearts, bone of our bone,
and flesh of our flesh, and we are jealous that any one should be as
much delighted or as thoroughly acquainted with their beauties as
ourselves. For which of his poetical heroines would the reader
break a lance so soon as for Jeanie Deans ? What Lady of the Lake
can compare with the beautiful Rebecca ? We believe the late
Mr. John Scott went to his death-bed (though a painful and premature
one) with some degree of satisfaction, inasmuch as he had penned
the most elaborate panegyric on the Scotch Novels that had as yet
appeared! — The Epics are not poems, so much as metrical romances.
There is a glittering veil of verse thrown over the features of nature
and of old romance. The deep incisions into character are ' skinned
and filmed over ' — the details are lost or shaped into flimsy and
insipid decorum ; and the truth of feeling and of circumstance is
translated into a tinkling sound, a tinsel common-place. It must be
owned, there is a power in true poetry that lifts the mind from the
ground of reality to a higher sphere, that penetrates the inert,
scattered, incoherent materials presented to it, and by a force and
inspiration of its own, melts and moulds them into sublimity and
beauty. But Sir Walter (we contend, under correction) has not this
creative impulse, this plastic power, this capacity of reacting on his
first impressions. He is a learned, a literal, a matter-of-fact expounder
of truth or fable : 2 he does not soar above and lock down upon his
subject, imparting his own lofty views and feelings to his descriptions

1 No ! For we met with a young lady who kept a circulating library and a
milliner's shop, in a watering-place in the country, who, when we inquired for the
Scotch Novels, spoke indifferently about them, said they were 'so dry she could
hardly get through them,' and recommended us to read Agnes. We never thought
of it before ; but we would venture to lay a wager that there are many other your. g
ladies in the same situation, and who think 'Old Mortality' 'dry.'

2 Just as Cobbett is a matter-of-fact reasoner.

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of nature — he relies upon it, is raised by it, is one with it, or he is
nothing. A poet is essentially a maker ; that is, he must atone for
what he loses in individuality and local resemblance by the energies
and resources of his own mind. The writer of whom we speak is
deficient in these last. He has either not the faculty or not the will
to impregnate his subject by an effort of pure invention. The
execution also is much upon a par with the more ephemeral effusions
of the press. It is light, agreeable, effeminate, diffuse. Sir Walter's
Muse is a Modern Antique. The smooth, glossy texture of his verse
contrasts happily with the quaint, uncouth, rugged materials of which
it is composed ; and takes away any appearance of heaviness or
harshness from the body of local traditions and obsolete costume.
We see grim knights and iron armour ; but then they are woven in
silk with a careless, delicate hand, and have the softness of flowers.
The poet's figures might be compared to old tapestries copied on the
finest velvet: — they are not like Raphael's Cartoons, but they are
very like Mr. Westall's drawings, which accompany, and are intended
to illustrate them. This facility and grace of execution is the more
remarkable, as a story goes that not long before the appearance of the
Lay of the Last Minstrel Sir Walter (then Mr.) Scott, having, in
the company of a friend, to cross the Frith of Forth in a ferry-boat,
they proposed to beguile the time by writing a number of verses on a
given subject, and that at the end of an hour's hard study, they found
they had produced only six lines between them. 'It is plain,' said
the unconscious author to his fellow-labourer, 'that you and I need
never think of getting our living by writing poetry ! ' In a year or
so after this, he set to work, and poured out quarto upon quarto, as if
they had been drops of water. As to the rest, and compared with
true and great poets, our Scottish Minstrel is but ' a metre ballad-
monger.' We would rather have written one song of Burns, or
a single passage in Lord Byron's Heaven and Earth, or one of
W .rdsworth's 'fancies and good-nights,' than all his epics. What
s he to Spenser, over whose immortal, ever-amiable verse beauty
hovers and trembles, and who has shed the purple light of Fancy,
irom his ambrosial wings, over all nature? What is there of the
might of Milton, whose head is canopied in the blue serene, and who
il witn him there? What is there (in his ambling
rhymes) of the deep pathos of Chaucer? Or of the o'er-informing

er ol Shakespear, whose eye, watching alike the minutest traces
characters and the strongest movements of passion, ' glances from

en to earth, from earth to heaven,' and with the lambent flame
ol genius, playing round each object, lights up the universe in a
robe of its own radiance? Sir Walter has no voluntary power of

2 2h


combination : all his associations (as we said before) are those or
habit or of tradition. He is a mere narrative and descriptive poet,
garrulous of the old time. The definition of his poetry is a pleasing

Not so of his Novels and Romances. There we turn over a new
leaf — another and the same — the same in matter, but in form, in
power how different ! The author of Waverley has got rid of the
tagging of rhymes, the eking out of syllables, the supplying of epithets,
the colours of style, the grouping of his characters, and the regular
march of events, and comes to the point at once, and strikes at the
heart of his subject, without dismay and without disguise. His
poetry was a lady's waiting-maid, dressed out in cast-off finery : his
prose is a beautiful, rustic nymph, that, like Dorothea in Don Quixote,
when she is surprised with dishevelled tresses bathing her naked feet
in the brook, looks round her, abashed at the admiration her charms
have excited ! The grand secret of the author's success in these
latter productions is that he has completely got rid of the trammels of
authorship; and torn off at one rent (as Lord Peter got rid of so
many yards of lace in the Tale of a Tub) all the ornaments of fine
writing and worn-out sentimentality. All is fresh, as from the hand
of nature : by going a century or two back and laying the scene in a
remote and uncultivated district, all becomes new and startling in the
present advanced period. — Highland manners, characters, scenery,
superstitions, Northern dialect and costume, the wars, the religion,
and politics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, give a
charming and wholesome relief to the fastidious refinement and ' over-
laboured lassitude ' of modern readers, like the effect of plunging
a nervous valetudinarian into a cold-bath. The Scotch Novels, for
this reason, are not so much admired in Scotland as in England. The
contrast, the transition is less striking. From the top of the Calton
Hill, the inhabitants of « Auld Reekie ' can descry, or fancy they
descry the peaks of Ben Lomond and the waving outline of Rob
Roy's country : we who live at the southern extremity of the island
can only catch a glimpse of the billowy scene in the descriptions of
the Author of Waverley. The mountain air is most bracing to our
languid nerves, and it is brought us in ship-loads from the neighbour-
hood of Abbot' s-Ford. There is another circumstance to be taken
into the account. In Edinburgh there is a little opposition and
something of the spirit of cabal between the partisans of works pro-
ceeding from Mr. Constable's and Mr. Blackwood's shops. Mr.
Constable gives the highest prices ; but being the Whig bookseller, it
is grudged that he should do so. An attempt is therefore made to
transfer a certain share of popularity to the second-rate Scotch novels,



♦the embryo fry, the little airy of ricketty children,' issuing through
Mr. Blackwood's shop-door. This operates a diversion, which does
not affect us here. The Author of Waverley wears the palm of
legendary lore alone. Sir Walter may, indeed, surfeit us: his
imitators make us sick ! It may be asked, it has been asked, ' Have
we no materials for romance in England ? Must we look to Scotland
for a supply of whatever is original and striking in this kind ? ' And we
answer — ' Yes ! ' Every foot of soil is with us worked up : nearly
every movement of the social machine is calculable. We have no room
left for violent catastrophes; for grotesque quaintnesses ; for wizard
spells. The last skirts of ignorance and barbarism are seen hovering
(in Sir Walter's pages) over the Border. We have, it is true,

tea in this country as well as at the Cairn of Derncleugh : but
they live under clipped hedges, and repose in camp-beds, and do not
perch on crags, like eagels, or take shelter, like sea-mews, in basaltic
subterranean caverns. We have heaths with rude heaps of stones
upon them : but no existing superstition converts them into the Geese
ot Micklestane-Moor, or sees a Black Dwarf groping among them.

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 24 of 38)