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 28 of 38)
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was a latent meaning worth inquiring into, like a vein of ore that one
cannot exactlv hit upon at the moment, but of which there are sure
indications. His standard of poetry is high and severe, almost to
usiveness. He admits of nothing below, scarcely of any thing
re himself. It is fine to hear him talk of the way in which
in subjects should have been treated by eminent poets, according
to his notions of the art. Thus he finds fault with Dryden's descrip-
tion of Bacchus in the Alexander s Feast, as if he were a mere
•toking youth, or boon companion —

' Flushed with a purple grace,
He shows his honest face ' —

instead of representing the God returning from the conquest of India,

crowned with vine-leaves, and drawn by panthers, and followed by

•s of satyrs, of wild men and animals that he had tamed. You

would think, in hearing him speak on this subject, that you saw

Titian's picture of the meeting of Bacchus and Ariadne — so classic

were his conceptions, so glowing his style. Milton is his great idol,

and he sometimes dares to compare himself with him. His Sonnets,

indeed, have something of the same high-raised tone and prophetic

Chaucer is another prime favourite of his, and he has been

at 'he pains to modernize some of the Canterbury Tales. Those

is who look upon Mr. Wordsworth as a merely puerile writer,

■ rather at a loss to account for his strong predilection for such

geni nte and Michael Angelo. We do not think our author

cordial sympathy with Shakespear. How should he ?

ear was the least of an egotist of any body in the world.

not much relish the variety and scope of dramatic composi-

c hates those interlocutions between Lucius and Caius.'

t Mr. Wordsworth himself wrote a tragedy when he was young;

1 we have heard the following energetic lines quoted from it, as

the mouth of a person smit with remorse for some rash

crime :

' Action is momentary,

on of a muscle this way or that ;
ng is long, obscure, and infinite !'

for want of light and shade, and the unshackled spirit of the
i performance was never brought forward. Our critic has


a great dislike to Gray, and a fondness for Thomson and Collins.
It is mortifying to hear him speak of Pope and Dryden, whom,
because they have been supposed to have all the possible excellences
of poetry, he will allow to have none. Nothing, however, can be
fairer, or more amusing, than the way in which he sometimes exposes
the unmeaning verbiage of modern poetry. Thus, in the beginning
of Dr. Johnson's Vanity of Human Wishes —

' Let observation with extensive view
Survey mankind from China to Peru ' —

he says there is a total want of imagination accompanying the words,
the same idea is repeated three times under the disguise of a different
phraseology : it comes to this — ' let observation, with extensive
observation, observe mankind ' ; or take away the first line, and the

1 Survey mankind from China to Peru, 1

literally conveys the whole. Mr. Wordsworth is, we must say, a
perfect Drawcansir as to prose writers. He complains of the dry
reasoners and matter-of-fact people for their want of passion; and he
is jealous of the rhetorical declaimers and rhapsodists as trenching on
the province of poetry. He condemns all French writers (as well of
poetry as prose) in the lump. His list in this way is indeed small.
He approves of Walton's Angler, Paley, and some other writers of
an inoffensive modesty of pretension. He also likes books of voyages
and travels, and Robinson Crusoe. In art, he greatly esteems
Bewick's woodcuts, and Waterloo's sylvan etchings. But he some-
times takes a higher tone, and gives his mind fair play. We have
known him enlarge with a noble intelligence and enthusiasm on
Nicolas Poussin's fine landscape-compositions, pointing out the unity
of design that pervades them, the superintending mind, the imaginative
principle that brings all to bear on the same end ; and declaring he
would not give a rush for any landscape that did not express the time
of day, the climate, the period of the world it was meant to illustrate,
or had not this character of 'wholeness in it. His eye also does justice
to Rembrandt's fine and masterly effects. In the way in which that
artist works something out of nothing, and transforms the stump of a
tree, a common figure into an ideal object, by the gorgeous light and
shade thrown upon it, he perceives an analogy to his own mode of
investing the minute details of nature with an atmosphere of sentiment;
and in pronouncing Rembrandt to be a man of genius, feels that he
strengthens his own claim to the title. It has been said of Mr.
Wordsworth, that ' he hates conchology, that he hates the Venus of



..' But these, we hope, are mere epigrams and jeux-d' esprit,
:rom truth as they are free from malice ; a sort of running satire
ical clenches —

here one for sense and one for rhyme
Is quite sufficient at one time.'

We think, however, that if Mr. Wordsworth had been a more liberal
and candid critic, he would have been a more sterling writer. If a

• number of sources of pleasure had been open to him, he would
have communicated pleasure to the world more frequently. Had he
:>een less fastidious in pronouncing sentence on the works of others,
his own would have been received more favourably, and treated more

The current of his feelings is deep, but narrow ; the
f his understanding is lofty and aspiring rather than discursive,
rce, the originality, the absolute truth and identity with which
some things, makes him indifferent to so many others. The
•v and enthusiasm of his feelings, with respect to nature,
him bigotted and intolerant in his judgments of men and
But it happens to him, as to others, that his strength lies in
.'.ness ; and perhnps we have no right to complain. We might
get rid of the cynic and the egotist, and find in his stead a common-
place man. We should ' take the good the Gods provide us ' : a fine
and original vein of poetry is not one of their most contemptible gifts,
and the rest is scarcely worth thinking of, except as it may be a
ition to those who expect perfection from human nature ; or
who have been idle enough at some period of their lives, to deify
men of genius as possessing claims above it. But this is a chord that
. and we shall not dwell upon it.

Byron we have called, according to the old proverb, 'the

child of fortune ' : Mr. Wordsworth might plead, in mitigation

uliarities, that he is « the spoiled child of disappointment.'

re convinced, if he had been early a popular poet, he would

orne his honours meekly, and would have been a person of

rnie and frankness of disposition. But the sense of

id of undeserved ridicule sours the temper and narrows the

To have produced works of genius, and to find them

• 1 with scorn, is one of the heaviest trials of human

patience. W c- exaggerate our own merits when they are denied by

re apt to grudge and cavil at every particle of praise

e to whom we feel a conscious superiority. In mere

(re turn against the world, when it turns against us;

ndeserved slights we receive; and thus the genial

• of the soul is stopped, or vents itself in effusions of petulance


and self-conceit. Mr. Wordsworth has thought too much or" con-
temporary critics and criticism ; and less than he ought of the award
of posterity, and of the opinion, we do not say of private friends, but
of those who were made so by their admiration of his genius. He
did not court popularity by a conformity to established models, and
he ought not to have been surprised that his originality was not
understood as a matter of course. He has gnaived too much on the
bridle, and has often thrown out crusts to the critics, in mere defiance
or as a point of honour when he was challenged, which otherwise
his own good sense would have withheld. We suspect that Mr.
Wordsworth's feelings are a little morbid in this respect, or that he
resents censure more than he is gratified by praise. Otherwise, the
tide has turned much in his favour of late years — he has a large body
of determined partisans — and is at present sufficiently in request with
the public to save or relieve him from the last necessity to which
a man of genius can be reduced — that of becoming the God ol his
own idolatry !


The subject of the present article is one of the ablest and most
accomplished men of the age, both as a writer, a speaker, and a
converser. He is, in fact, master of almost every known topic,
whether of a passing or of a more recondite nature. He has lived
much in society, and is deeply conversant with books. He is a man
of the world and a scholar ; but the scholar gives the tone to all his
other acquirements and pursuits. Sir James is by education and
habit, and we were going to add, by the original turn of his mind,
a college-man ; and perhaps he would have passed his time most
happily and respectably, had he devoted himself entirely to that kind
of life. The strength of his faculties would have been best
developed, his ambition would have met its proudest reward, in the
accumulation and elaborate display of grave and useful knowledge.
As it is, it may be said, that in company he talks well, but too
much ; that in writing he overlays the original subject and spirit of
the composition, by an appeal to authorities and by too formal a
method ; that in public speaking the logician takes place of the
orator, and that he fails to give effect to a particular point or to urge
an immediate advantage home upon his adversary from the enlarged
scope of his mind, and the wide career he takes in the field of

To consider him in the last point of view, first. As a political



. he is rather the lecturer than the advocate. He is able to
act and delight an impartial and disinterested audience by the
: of his information, by his acquaintance with general principles,
the clearness and aptitude of his illustrations, by vigour and
copiousness of style ; but where he has a prejudiced or unfair
• to contend with, he is just as likely to put weapons into
cmv's hands, as to wrest them from him, and his object seems
to be rather to deserve than to obtain success. The characteristics
of his mind are retentiveness and comprehension, with facility of
production : but he is not equally remarkable for originality of view,
or warmth of feeling, or liveliness of fancy. His eloquence is a little
■rical ; his reasoning chiefly logical: he can bring down the
account of knowledge on a vast variety of subjects to the present
moment, he can embellish any cause he undertakes by the most
approved and graceful ornaments, he can support it by a host of facts
and examples, but he cannot advance it a step forward by placing
it on a new and triumphant 'vantage-ground, nor can he overwhelm
and break down the artificial fences and bulwarks of sophistry by the
irresistible tide of manly enthusiasm. Sir James Mackintosh is an
accomplished debater, rather than a powerful orator : he is dis-
tinguished more as a man of wonderful and variable talent than as a
man of commanding intellect. His mode of treating a question is
critical, and not parliamentary. It has been formed in the closet and
the schools, and is hardly fitted for scenes of active life, or the
collisions of party-spirit. Sir James reasons on the square ; while
the arguments of his opponents are loaded with iron or gold. He
makes, indeed, a respectable ally, but not a very formidable opponent.
He is as likely, however, to prevail on a neutral, as he is almost
m to be baffled on a hotly contested ground. On any question
I policy or legislative improvement, the Member for Nairn
with advantage, and his speeches are attended with effect:
be would have equal weight and influence at other times, if it
ie object of the House to hear reason, as it is his aim to speak
n subjects of peace or war, of political rights or foreign
the waves of party run high, and the liberty of
s or the fate of mankind hangs trembling in the scales, though
• plays equal talent, and does full and heaped justice
the question (abstractedly speaking, or if it were to be tried before
embly), vet we confess we have seldom heard him,
li occasions, without pain for the event. He did not slur his
dieter and pretensions, but he compromised the argument.
the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth ; but
louse of Commons (we dare aver it) is not the place where the



truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth can be spoken with
safety or with advantage. The judgment of the House is not a
balance to weigh scruples and reasons to the turn of a fraction .'
another element, besides the love of truth enters into the composition
of their decisions, the reaction of which must be calculated upon and
guarded against. If our philosophical statesman had to open the
case before a class of tyros, or a circle of grey-beards, who wished
to form or to strengthen their judgments upon fair and rational
grounds, nothing could be more satisfactory, more luminous, more
able or more decisive than the view taken of it by Sir James.
Mackintosh. But the House of Commons, as a collective body,,
have not the docility of youth, the calm wisdom of age ; and often
only want an excuse to do wrong, or to adhere to what they have
already determined upon ; and Sir James, in detailing the in-
exhaustible stores of his memory and reading, in unfolding the wide
range of his theory and practice, in laying down the rules and the
exceptions, in insisting upon the advantages and the objections with
equal explicitness, would be sure to let something drop that a
dexterous and watchful adversary would easily pick up and turn
against him, if this were found necessary ; or if with so many pros
and cons, doubts and difficulties, dilemmas and alternatives thrown
into it, the scale, with its natural bias to interest and power, did not
already fly up and kick the beam. There wanted unity of purpose,
impetuosity of feeling to break through the phalanx of hostile and
inveterate prejudice arrayed against him. He gave a handle to his
enemies ; threw stumbling-blocks in the way of his friends. He
raised so many objections for the sake of answering them, proposed
so many doubts for the sake of solving them, and made so many
concessions where none were demanded, that his reasoning had the
effect of neutralizing itself; it became a mere exercise of the under-
standing without zest or spirit left in it ; and the provident engineer
who was to shatter in pieces the strong-holds of corruption and
oppression, by a well-directed and unsparing discharge of artillery,
seemed to have brought not only his own cannon-balls, but his own
wool-packs along with him to ward off the threatened mischief.
This was a good deal the effect of his maiden speech on the transfer
of Genoa, to which Lord Castlereagh did not deign an answer, and
which another Honourable Member called ' a jinical speech.' It
was a most able, candid, closely argued, and philosophical exposure
of that unprincipled transaction ; but for this very reason it was a
solecism in the place where it was delivered. Sir James has, since
this period, and with the help of practice, lowered himself to the
tone of the House ; and has also applied himself to questions more



ia] to his habits of mind, and where the success would be
likely to be proportioned to his zeal and his exertions.

was a greater degree of power, or of dashing and splendid
effect (we wish we could add, an equally humane and liberal spirit)
in the Lectures on the La

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 28 of 38)