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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 27 of 38)
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a severity of recrimination, perhaps disproportioned to the injury
done. 'Because he is virtuous,' (it has been asked,) 'are there to
be no more cakes and ale ? ' Because he is loyal, are we to take
all our notions from the Quarterly Review : Because he is orthodox,
are we to do nothing but read the Bool- of the Church ? We declare
we think his former poetical scepticism was not only more amiable,
but had more of the spirit of religion in it, implied a more heartfelt
trust in nature and providence than his present bigotry. We are
at the same time free to declare that we think his articles in the
Quarterly Review, notwithstanding their virulence and the talent
they display, have a tendency to qualify its most pernicious effects.
They have redeeming traits in them. 'A little leaven leaveneth
the whole lump' ; and the spirit of humanity (thanks to Mr. Southey)
is not quite expelled from the Quarterly Review. At the corner of
his pen, 'there hangs a vapourous drop profound ' of independence
and liberality, which falls upon its pages, and oozes out through the
pores of the public mind. There is a fortunate difference between
writers whose hearts are naturally callous to truth, and whose under-
standings are hermetically sealed against all impressions but those of
self-interest, and a man like Mr. Southey. Once a philanthropist and
always a philanthropist. No man can entirely baulk his nature : it
breaks out in spite of him. In all those questions, where the spirit
of contradiction does not interfere, on which he is not sore from old
bruises, or sick from the extravagance of youthful intoxication, as
from a last night's debauch, our ' laureate ' is still bold, free, candid,
open to conviction, a reformist without knowing it. He does not
advocate the slave-trade, he does not arm Mr. Malthus's revolting
ratios with his authority, he does not strain hard to deluge Ireland
with blood. On such points, where humanity has not become
obnoxious, where liberty has not passed into a by-word, Mr.
Southey is still liberal and humane. The elasticity of his spirit is
unbroken : the bow recoils to its old position. He still stands
convicted of his early passion for inquiry and improvement. He
was not regularly articled as a Government-tool ! — Perhaps tin-
most pleasing and striking of all Mr. Southey's poems are not his
triumphant taunts hurled against oppression, are not his glowing
effusions to Liberty, but those in which, with a mild melancholy,
he seems conscious of his own infirmities of temper, and to feel a
wish to correct by thought and time the precocity and sharpness of
his disposition. May the quaint but affecting aspiration expressed in

249



THE SPIRIT OF THE AGE

one of these be fulfilled, that as he mellows into maturer age, all such
asperities may wear off, and he himself become

• Like the high leaves upon the holly-tree ! '

Mr. Southey's prose-style can scarcely be too much praised. It is
plain, clear, pointed, familiar, perfectly modern in its texture, but with
a I'rave and sparkling admixture of archaisms in its ornaments and
occasional phraseology. He is the best and most natural prose-
writer of any poet of the day ; we mean that he is far better than
Lord Byron, Mr. Wordsworth, or Mr. Coleridge, for instance.
The manner is perhaps superior to the matter, that is, in his Essays
and Reviews. There is rather a want of originality and even of
impetus : but there is no want of playful or biting satire, of ingenuity,
of casuistry, of learning and of information. He is ' full of wise
saws and modern ' (as well as ancient) ' instances.' Mr. Southey
may not always convince his opponents; but he seldom fails to
stagger, never to gall them. In a word, we may describe his style
by saying that it has not the body or thickness of port wine, but is
like clear sherry with kernels of old authors thrown into it! — He
also excels as an historian and prose-translator. His histories abound
in information, and exhibit proofs of the most indefatigable patience
and industry. By no uncommon process of the mind, Mr. Southey
seems willing to steady the extreme levity of his opinions and feelings
by an appeal to facts. His translations of the Spanish and French
romances are also executed con amore, and with the literal fidelity
and care of a mere linguist. That of the Cid, in particular, is a
masterpiece. Not a word could be altered for the better, in the old
scriptural style which it adopts in conformity to the original. It is no
!i-



Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 27 of 38)