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 26 of 38)
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out of the poet's mind to the scenes and events recorded. They
have neither action, character, nor interest, but are a sort of gossamer
tragedies, spun out, and glittering, and spreading a flimsy veil over
the face of nature. Yet he spins them on. Of all that he has done
in this way the Heaven and Earth (the same subject as Mr. Moore's
Loves of the Angels) is the best. We prefer it even to Manfred.
Manfred is merely himself, with a fancy-drapery on : but in the
dramatic fragment published in the Liberal, the space between Heaven
and Earth, the stage on which his characters have to pass to and fro,
seems to fill his Lordship's imagination ; and the Deluge, which he
has so finely described, may be said to have drowned all his own idle

We must say we think little of our author's turn for satire. His
'English Bards and Scotch Reviewers' is dogmatical and insolent,
but without refinement or point. He calls people names, and tries to
transfix a character with an epithet, which does not stick, because it
has no other foundation than his own petulance and spite ; or he
endeavours to degrade by alluding to some circumstance of external
situation. He says of Mr. Wordsworth's poetry, that 'it is his
aversion.' That may be: but whose fault is it? This is the satire
of a lord, who is accustomed to have all his whims or dislikes taken
for gospel, and who cannot be at the pains to do more than signify
his contempt or displeasure. If a great man meets with a rebuff
which he does not like, he turns on his heel, and this passes for a
repartee. The Noble Author says of a celebrated barrister and
critic, that he was 'born in a garret sixteen stories high.' The
insinuation is not true ; or if it were, it is low. The allusion degrades
the person who makes, not him to whom it is applied. This is also
the satire of a person of birth and quality, who measures all merit by
rial rank, that is, by his own standard. So his Lordship, in a
tter to the Editor of My Grandmother's Review,' addresses him
fifty times as 'my dear Robarts' ; nor is there any other wit in the

1 ' Don Juan was my Moscow, arH Faliero

My Leipsic, and my Mont St. Jean seems Cain.*

Don yuan, Canto xi.


ar.icle. This is surely a mere assumption of superiority from his
Lordship's rank, and is the sort of quizzing he might use to a person
who came to hire himself as a valet to him at Long's — the waiters
might laugh, the public will not. In like manner, in the controversy
abcut Pope, he claps Mr. Bowles on the back with a coarse facetious
familiarity, as it he were his chaplain whom he had invited to dine
with him, or was about to present to a benefice. The reverend
divine might submit to the obligation, but he has no occasion to
subscribe to the jest. If it is a jest that Mr. Bowles should be a
parson, and Lord Byron a peer, the world knew this before; there
was no need to write a pamphlet to prove it.

The Don Juan indeed has great power ; but its power is owing to
the force of the serious writing, and to the oddity of the contrast
between that and the flashy passages with which it is interlarded.
From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step. You laugh
and are surprised that any one should turn round and travestie him-
self: the drollery is in the utter discontinuity of ideas and feelings.
He makes virtue serve as a foil to vice ; dandyism is (for want of any
other) a variety of genius. A classical intoxication is followed by
the splashing of soda-water, by frothy effusions of ordinary bile.
After the lightning and the hurricane, we are introduced to the
interior of the cabin and the contents of wash-hand basins. The
solemn hero of tragedy plays Scrub in the farce. This is ' very
tolerable and not to be endured.' The Noble Lord is almost the
only wiiter who has prostituted his talents in this way. He hallows
in order to desecrate ; takes a pleasure in defacing the images of
beauty his hands have wrought ; and raises our hopes and our belief
in goodness to Heaven only to dash them to the earth again, and
break them in pieces the more effectually from the very height they
have fallen. Our enthusiasm for genius or virtue is thus turned into
a jest by the very person who has kindled it, and who thus fatally
quenches the sparks of both. It is not that Lord Byron is sometimes
serious and sometimes trifling, sometimes profligate, and sometimes
moral — but when he is most serious and most moral, he is only pre-
paring to mortify the unsuspecting reader by nutting a pitiful hoax
upon him. This is a most unaccountable anomaly. It is as if the
eagle were to build its eyry in a common sewer, or the owl were seen
soaring to the mid-day sun. Such a sight might make one laugh, but
one would not wish or expect it to occur more than once. 1

In fact, Lord Byron is the spoiled child of fame as well as fortune.

1 This censure applies to the first Cantos of Don Juan much more than to the
last. It has been called a Tristram Shandy in rhyme : it is rather a poem
written about itself.



He has taken a surfeit of popularity, and is not contented to delight,
unless he can shock the public. He v/ould force them to admire in
spite of decency and common sense — he would have them read what
they would read in no one but himself, or he would not give a ;ush
for their applause. He is to be 'a chartered libertine,' from whom
insults are favours, whose contempt is to be a new incentive to
admiration. His Lordship is hard to please: he is equally averse to
notice or neglect, enraged at censure and scorning praise. He tries
the patience of the town to the very utmost, and when they show
signs of weariness or disgust, threatens to discard them. He says he
will write on, whether he is read or not. He would never write
another page, if it were not to court popular applause, or to affect a
superiority over it. In this respect also, Lord Byron presents a
striking contrast to Sir Walter Scott. The latter takes what part of
the public favour falls to his share, without grumbling (to be sure he
has no reason to complain) ; the former is always quarrelling with
the world about his modicum of applause, the spolia opima of vanity,
and ungraciously throwing the offerings of incense heaped on his
shrine back in the faces of his admirers. Again, there is no taint in
the writings of the Author of Waverley, all is fair and natural and
above-board: he never outrages the public mind. He introduces
no anomalous character : broaches no staggering opinion. If he goes
back to old prejudices and superstitions as a relief to the modern
reader, while Lord Byron floats on swelling paradoxes —

'Like proud seas under him ' j

if the one defers too much to the spirit of antiquity, the other panders
to the spirit of the age, goes to the very edge of extreme and licentious
speculation, and breaks his neck over it. Grossness and levity are
the playthings of his pen. It \a a ludicrous circumstance that he
should have dedicated his Cain to the worthy Baronet ! Did the
latter ever acknowledge the obligation ? We are not nice, not very
nice ; but we do not particularly approve those subjects that shine
chiefly from their rottenness : nor do we wish to see the Muses drest
out in the flounces of a false or questionable philosophy, like Portia
and Nerissa in the garb of Doctors of Law. We like metaphysics
as well as Lord Byron ; but not to see them making flowery speeches,
nor dancing a measure in the fetters of verse. We have as good as
hinted, that his Lordship's poetry consists mostly of a tissue of superb
common-places; even his paradoxes are common-place. They are
familiar in the schools : they are only new and striking in his dramas
and stan^as, by being out of place. In a word, we think that poetry
moves best within the circle of nature and received opinion : specula-


tive theory and subtle casuistry are forbidden ground to it. But
Lord Byron often wanders into this ground wantonly, wilfully, and
unwarrantably. The only apology we can conceive for the spirit of
some of Lord Byron's writings, is the spirit of some of those opposed
to him. They would provoke a man to write anything. ' Farthest
from them is best.' The extravagance and license of the one seems
a proper antidote to the bigotry and narrowness of the other. The
first Vision of Judgment was a set-off to the second, though

1 None but itself could be its parallel. 1

Perhaps the chief cause of most of Lord Byron's errors is, that he
is that anomaly in letters and in society, a Noble Poet. It is a double
privilege, almost too much for humanity. He has all the pride of
birth and genius. The strength of his imagination leads him to
indulge in fantastic opinions ; the elevation of his rank sets censure at
defiance. He becomes a pampered egotist. He has a seat in the
House of Lords, a niche in the Temple of Fame. Every-day
mortals, opinions, things are not good enough for him to touch or
think of. A mere nobleman is, in his estimation, but ' the tenth
transmitter of a foolish face ' : a mere man of genius is no better than
a worm. His Muse is also a lady of quality. The people are not
polite enough for him : the Court not sufficiently intellectual. He
hates the one and despises the other. By hating and despising
others, he does not learn to be satisfied with himself. A fastidious
man soon grows querulous and splenetic. If there is nobody but
ourselves to come up to our idea of fancied perfection, we easily get
tired of our idol. When a man is tired of what he is, by a natural
perversity he sets up for what he is not. If he is a poet, he pretends
to be a metaphysician : if he is a patrician in rank and feeling, he
would fain be one of the people. His ruling motive is not the love
of the people, but of distinction ; not of truth, but of singularity.
He patronizes men of letters out of vanity, and deserts them from
caprice, or from the advice of friends. He embarks in an obnoxious
publication to provoke censure, and leaves it to shift for itself for fear
of scandal. We do not like Sir Walter's gratuitous servility : we
like Lord Byron's preposterous liberalism little better. He may affect
the principles of equality, but he resumes his privilege of peerage,
upon occasion. His Lordship has made great offers of service to the
Greeks— money and horses. He is at present in Cephalonia, waiting

the event !


We had written thus far when news came of the death of Lord
Byron, and put an end at once to a strain of somewhat peevish



invective, which was intended to meet his eye, not to insult his
memory. Had we known that we were writing his epitaph, we oust
have done it with a different feeling. As it is, we think it better and
more like himself, to let what we had written stand, than to take up
our leaden shafts, and try to melt them into ' tears of sensibility,' or
mould them into dull praise, and an affected show of candour. We
were not silent during the author's life-time, either for his reproof or
encouragement (such as we could give, and he did not disdain to
accept) nor can we now turn undertakers' men to fix the glittering
plate upon his coffin, or fall into the procession of popular woe. —
Death cancels every thing but truth ; and strips a man of every thing
but genius and virtue. It is a sort of natural canonization. It makes
the meanest of us sacred — -it installs the poet in his immortality, and
lifts him to the skies. D*ath is the great assayer of the sterling ore
of talent. At his touch the drossy particles fall off, the irritable, the
personal, the gross, and mingle with the dust — the finer and more
ethereal part mounts with the winged spirit to watch over our latest
memory, and protect our bones from insult. We consign the least
worthy qualities to oblivion, and cherish the nobler and imperishable
nature with double pride and fondness. Nothing could show the real
superiority of genius in a more striking point of view than the idle
contests and the public indifference about the place of Lord Byron's
interment, whether in Westminster Abbey or his own family-vault.
A. king must have a coronation — a nobleman a funeral-procession. —
The man is nothing without the pageant. The poet's cemetery is the
human mind, in which he sows the seeds of never-ending thought —
his monument is to be found in his works :

' Nothing can cover his high fame but Heaven ;
No pyramids set off his memory,
But the eternal substance of his greatness.' 1

Lord Byron is dead : he also died a martyr to his zeal in the cause
•cdom, for the last, best hopes of man. Let that be his excuse
is epitaph !


SoUTHEY, as we formerly remember to have seen him, had a
hectic flush upon his cheek, a roving fire in his eye, a falcon glance,
a look at once aspiring and dejected — it was the look that had been
impressed upon his face by the events that marked the outset of his
life, it was the dawn of Liberty that still tinged his cheek, a smile
hope and sadness that still played upon his quivering lip.


Mr. Southey's mind is essentially sanguine, even to over-weeningness.
It is prophetic of good ; it cordially embraces it ; it casts a longing,
lingering look after it, even when it is gone for ever. He cannot
bear to give up the thought of happiness, his confidence in his fellow-
man, when all else despair. It is the very element, < where he must
live or have no life at all.' While he supposed it possible that a
better form of society could be introduced than any that had hitherto
existed, while the light of the French Revolution beamed into his
soul (and long after, it was seen reflected on his brow, like the light
of setting suns on the peak of some high mountain, or lonely range of
clouds, floating in purer ether ! ) while he had this hope, this faith in
man left, he cherished it with child-like simplicity, he clung to it with
the fondness of a lover, he was an enthusiast, a fanatic, a leveller ; he
stuck at nothing that he thought would banish all pain and misery
from the world — in his impatience of the smallest error or injustice,
he would have sacrificed himself and the existing generation (a
holocaust) to his devotion to the right cause. But when he once
believed after many staggering doubts and painful struggles, that this
was no longer possible, when his chimeras and golden dreams of
human perfectibility vanished from him, he turned suddenly round,
and maintained that ' whatever is, is right.' Mr. Southey has not
fortitude of mind, has not patience to think that evil is inseparable
from the nature of things. His irritable sense rejects the alternative
altogether, as a weak stomach rejects the food that is distasteful to it.
He hopes on against hope, he believes in all unbelief. He must
either repose on actual or on imaginary good. He missed his way i&
Utopia, he has found it at Old Sarum —

' His generous ardour no cold medium knows : *

his eagerness admits of no doubt or delay. He is ever in extremes,
and ever in the wrong !

The reason is, that not truth, but self-opinion is the ruling principle
of Mr. Southey's mind. The charm of novelty, the applause of the
multitude, the sanction of power, the venerableness of antiquity, pique,
resentment, the spirit of contradiction have a good deal to do with his
preferences. His inquiries are partial and hasty : his conclusions raw
and unconcocted, and with a considerable infusion of whim and humour
and a monkish spleen. His opinions are like certain wines, warm
and generous when new ; but they will not keep, and soon turn flat
or sour, for want of a stronger spirit of the understanding to give a
body to them. He wooed Liberty as a youthful lover, but it was
perhaps more as a mistress than a bride ; and he has since wedded
with an elderly and not very reputable ladv, called Legitimacy. A



wilful man, according to the Scotch proverb, must have his way. If
it were the cause to which he was sincerely attached, he would adhere
to it through good report and evil report ; but it is himself to whom
he does homage, and would have others do so ; and he therefore
changes sides, rather than submit to apparent defeat or temporary
mortification. Abstract principle has no rule but the understood
distinction between right and wrong ; the indulgence of vanity, of
caprice, or prejudice is regulated by the convenience or bias of the
moment. The temperament of our politician's mind is poetical, not
philosophical. He is more the creature of impulse, than he is of
reflection. He invents the unreal, he embellishes the false with the
glosses of fancv, but pays little attention to ' the words of truth and
soberness.' His impressions are accidental, immediate, personal,
instead of being permanent and universal. Of all mortals he is surely
the most impatient of contradiction, even when he has completely

d the tables on himself. Is not this very inconsistency the
reason ? Is he not tenacious of his opinions, in proportion as they
are brittle and hastily formed ? Is he not jealous of the grounds of
his belief, because he fears they will not bear inspection, or is con-

is he has shifted them ? Does he not confine others to the strict
line of orthodoxy, because he has himself taken every liberty ? Is
he not afraid to look to the right or the left, lest he should see the
ghosts of his former extravagances staring him in the face: Does he
nor refuse to tolerate the smallest shade of difference in others,
because he feels that he wants the utmost latitude of construction for

ring so widely from himself? Is he not captious, dogmatical,
petulant in delivering his sentiments, according as he has been incon-

.t, rash, and fanciful in adopting them ? He maintains that there
can be no possible ground for differing from him, because he looks
only at his own side of the question ! He sets up his own favourite
notions as the standard of reason and honesty, because he has changed
one extreme to another ! He treats his opponents with
contempt, because he is himself afraid of meeting with disrespect!
He says that * a Reformer is a worse character than a house-breaker,'

der to stifle the recollection that he himself once was one !
We must say that ' we relish Mr. Southey more in the Reformer '
than in his lately acquired, but by no means natural or becoming
character of poet-laureat and courtier. He may rest assured that a

ud of wild flowers suits him better than the laureat-wreath :

:1 odes and popular inscriptions were far more adapted

than his presentation-poems. He is nothing akin to

and drawing-room fopperies. « He is nothing, if not

In his figure, in his movements, in his senciments, he

2 ('.


is sharp and angular, quaint and eccentric. Mr. Southey is not of
the court, courtly. Every thing of him and about him is from the
people. He is not classical, he is not legitimate. He is not a man
cast in the mould of other men's opinions : he is not shaped on any
model : he bows to no authority : he yields only to his own wayward
peculiarities. He is wild, irregular, singular, extreme. He is no
formalist, not he ! All is crude and chaotic, self-opinionated, vain.
He wants proportion, keeping, system, standard rules. He is not
teres et rotundas. Mr. Southey walks with his chin erect throuoh
the streets of London, and with an umbrella sticking out under his
arm, in the finest weather. He has not sacrificed to the Graces,
nor studied decorum. With him every thing is projecting, starting
from its place, an episode, a digression, a poetic license. He does
not move in any given orbit, but like a falling star, shoots from his
sphere. He is pragmatical, restless, unfixed, full of experiments,
beginning every thing a-new, wiser than his betters, judging for
himself, dictating to others. He is decidedly revolutionary. He
may have given up the reform of the State : but depend upon it, he
has some other hobby of the same kind. Does he not dedicate to his
present Majesty that extraordinary poem on the death of his father,
called The Vision of Judgment, as a specimen of what might be done
in English hexameters ? In a court-poem all should be trite and on
an approved model. He might as well have presented himself at the
levee in a fancy or masquerade dress. Mr. Southey was not to try
conclusions with Majesty — still less on such an occasion. The
extreme freedoms with departed greatness, the party-petulance carried
to the Throne of Grace, the unchecked indulgence of private humour,
the assumption of infallibility and even of the voice ot Heaven in
this poem, are pointed instances of what we have said. They show
the singular state of over-excitement of Mr. Southey's mind, and the
force of old habits of independent and unbridled thinking, which
cannot be kept down even in addressing his Sovereign ! Look at
Mr. Southey's larger poems, his Kehama, his Thalaba, his Madoc,
his Roderic. Who will deny the spirit, the scope, the splendid
imagery, the hurried and startling interest that pervades them ? Who
will say that they are not sustained on fictions wilder than his own
Glendoveer, that they are not the daring creations of a mind curbed
by no law, tamed by no fear, that they are not rather like the
trances than the waking dreams of genius, that they are not the very
paradoxes of poetry ? All this is very well, very intelligible, and
very harmless, if we regard the rank excrescences of Mr. Southey's
poetry, like the red and blue flowers in corn, as the unweeded growth
of a luxuriant and wandering fancy; or if we allow the yeasty



uorkingB of an ardent spirit to ferment and boil over — the variety, the
boldness, the lively stimulus given to the mind may then atone for the
violation of rules and the offences to bed-rid authority ; but not if our
poetic libertine sets up for a law-giver and judge, or an apprehender
of vagrants in the regions either of taste or opinion. Our motley
gentleman deserves the strait-waistcoat, if he is for setting others in
the stocks of servility, or condemning them to the pillory for a new
mode of rhyme or reason. Or if a composer of sacred Dramas on
classic models, or a translator of an old Latin author (that will
hardly bear translation) or a vamper-up of vapid cantos and Odes set
to music, were to turn pander to prescription and palliater of every
dull, incorrigible abuse, it would not be much to be wondered at or
even regretted. But in Mr. Southey it was a lamentable falling-ofF.
It is indeed to be deplored, it is a stain on genius, a blow to humanity,
that the author of Joan of Arc — that work in which the love of
Liberty is exha'ed like the breath of spring, mild, balmy, heaven-
born, that is full of tears and virgin-sighs, and yearnings of affection
after truth and good, gushing warm and crimsoned from the heart —
should ever after turn to folly, or become the advocate of a rotten
cause. After giving up his heart to that subject, he ought not
(whatever others might do) ever to have set his foot within the
threshold of a court. He might be sure that he would not gain
forgiveness or favour by it, nor obtain a single cordial smile from
ness. All that Mr. Southey is or that he does best, is inde-
pendent, spontaneous, free as the vital air he draws — when he affects
the courtier or the sophist, he is obliged to put a constraint upon
himself, to hold in his breath, he loses his genius, and offers a
violence to his nature. His characteristic faults are the excess of
a lively, unguarded temperament: — oh! let them not degenerate
into cold-blooded, heartless vices! If we speak or have ever spoken
[r. Southey with severity, it is with 'the malice of old friends,'
. e count ourselves among his sincerest and heartiest well-wishers.
I',ur while he himself is anomalous, incalculable, eccentric, from
youth to age (the Wat Tyler and the Vision of Judgment are the
Alpha and Omega of his disjointed career) full of sallies of humour,
of ebullitions of spleen, making jets-a'eaux, cascades, fountains, and
r-works of his idle opinions, he would shut up the wits of
rs in leaden cisterns, to stagnate and corrupt, or bury them
ground —

' I- ar from the sun and summer gale ! '

11- woul 1 suppress the freedom of wit and humour, of which he has
set the example, and claim a privilege for playing antics. He would


introduce an uniformity of intellectual weights and measures, of
irregular metres ard settled opinions, and enforce it with a high,
hand. This has been judged hard by some, and has brought down

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 26 of 38)