William Hazlitt.

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

. (page 30 of 38)
Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 30 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

checked only by vice and misery ; and producing, according to its
encouragement a greater quantity of vice and misery ; and this error
the author has not been at sufficient pains to do away. Another
thing, in which Mr. Malthus attempted to clench Wallace's argument,



was in giving to the disproportionate power of increase in the principle
of population and the supply of food a mathematical form, or reducing
it to the arithmetical and geometrical ratios, in which we believe Mr.
Malthus is now generally admitted, even by his friends and admirers,
to have been wrong. There is evidently no inherent difference in the
principle of increase in food or population ; since a grain of corn, for
example, will propagate and multiply itself much faster even than the
human species. A bushel of wheat will sow a field ; that field will
furnish seed for twenty others. So that the limit to the means of
subsistence is only the want of room to raise it in, or, as Wallace
expresses it, ' a limited fertility and a limited earth.' Up to the point
where the earth or any given country is fully occupied or cultivated,
the means of subsistence naturally increase in a geometrical ratio, and
will more than keep pace with the natural and unrestrained progress
of population ; and beyond that point, they do not go on increasing
even in Mr. Malthus's arithmetical ratio, but are stationary or nearly
so. So far, then, is this proportion from being universally and
mathematically true, that in no part of the world or state of society
does it hold good. But our theorist, by laying down this double
ratio as a law of nature, gains this advantage, that at all times it seems
as if, whether in new or old-peopled countries, in fertile or barren
soils, the population was pressing hard on the means of subsistence :
and again, it seems as if the evil increased with the progress of
improvement and civilization ; for if you cast your eye at the scale
which is supposed to be calculated upon true and infallible data, you
find that when the population is at 8, the means of subsistence are at
4 ; so that here there is only a deficit of one-half ; but when it is at
32, they have only got to 6, so that here there is a difference of 26
in 32, and so on in proportion ; the farther we proceed, the more
enormous is the mass of vice and misery we must undergo, as a
consequence of the natural excess of the population over the means of
subsistence and as a salutary check to its farther desolating progress.
The mathematical Table, placed at the front of the Essay, therefore
leads to a secret suspicion or a barefaced assumption, that we ought
in mere kindness and compassion to give every sort of indirect and
under-hand encouragement (to say the least) to the providential
checks of vice and misery ; as the sooner we arrest this formidable
and paramount evil in its course, the less opportunity we leave it of
doing incalculable mischief. Accordingly, whenever there is the
least talk of colonizing new countries, of extending the population, or
adding to social comforts and improvements, Mr. Malthus conjures
up his double ratios, and insists on the alarming results of advancing
them a single step forward in the series. By the same rule, it would


be better to return at once to a state of barbarism ; and to take the
benefit of acorns and scuttle-fish, as a security against the luxuries and
wants of civilized life. But it is not our ingenious author's wish to
hint at or recommend any alterations in existing institutions ; and he
is therefore silent on that unpalatable part of the subject and natural
inference from his principles.

Mr. Malthus's 'gospel is preached to the poor.' He lectures
them on economy, on morality, the regulation of their passions
(which, he says, at other times, are amenable to no restraint) and on
the ungracious topic, that 'the laws of nature, which are the laws of
God, have doomed them and their families to starve for want of a
right to the smallest portion of food beyond what their labour will
supply, or some charitable hand may hold out in compassion.' This
is illiberal, and it is not philosophical. The laws of nature or of
God, to which the author appeals, are no other than a limited fertility
and a limited earth. Within those bounds, the rest is regulated by
the laws of man. The division of the produce of the soil, the price
of labour, the relief afforded to the poor, are matters of human
arrangement : while any charitable hand can extend relief, it is a
proof that the means of subsistence are not exhausted in themselves,
that the ' tables are not full ! ' Mr. Malthus says that the laws of
nature, which are the laws of God, have rendered that relief
physically impossible; and yet he would abrogate the poor-laws by
an act of the legislature, in order to take away that impossible relief,
which the laws of God deny, and which the laws of man actually
afford. We cannot think that this view of his subject, which is
prominent and dwelt on at great length and with much pertinacity, is
dictated either by rigid logic or melting charity ! A labouring man
is not allowed to knock down a hare or a partridge that spoils his
garden : a country-squire keeps a pack of hounds : a lady of quality
rides out with a footman behind her, on two sleek, well-fed horses.
We have not a word to say against all this as exemplifying the spirit
of the English Constitution, as a part of the law of the land, or as an
artful distribution of light and shade in the social picture ; but if any
one insists at the same time that 'the laws of nature, which are the
laws of God, have doomed the poor and their families to starve,'
because the principle of population has encroached upon and swallowed
up the means of subsistence, so that not a mouthful of food is left by
the grinding law of necessity for the poor, we beg leave to deny both
fact and inference— and we put it to Mr. Malthus whether we are
not, in strictness, justified in doing so ?

We have, perhaps, said enough to explain our feeling on the
subject of Mr. Malthus's merits and defects. We think he had the



opportunity and the means in his hands of producing a great work on
the principle of population ; but we believe he has let it slip from his
having an eye to other things besides that broad and unexplored
question. He wished not merely to advance to the discovery of
certain great and valuable truths, but at the same time to overthrow
certain unfashionable paradoxes by exaggerated statements — to curry
favour with existing prejudices and interests by garbled representa-
tions. He has, in a word, as it appears to us on a candid retrospect
and without any feelings of controversial asperity rankling in our
minds, sunk the philosopher and the friend of his species (a character
to which he might have aspired) in the sophist and party-writer.
The period at which Mr. Malthus came forward teemed with answers
to Modern Philosophy, with antidotes to liberty and humanity, with
abusive Histories of the Greek and Roman republics, with fulsome
panegyrics on the Roman Emperors (at the very time when we were
reviling Buonaparte for his strides to universal empire) with the slime
and offal of desperate- servility — and we cannot but consider the
Essay as one of the poisonous ingredients thrown into the cauldron of
Legitimacy 'to make it thick and slab.' Our author has, indeed, so
far done service to the cause of truth, that he has counteracted many
capital errors formerly prevailing as to the universal and indiscriminate
encouragement of population under all circumstances ; but he has
countenanced opposite errors, which if adopted in theory and practice
would be even more mischievous, and has left it to future philosophers
to follow up the principle, that some check must be provided for the
unrestrained progress of population, into a set of wiser and more
humane consequences. Mr. Godwin has lately attempted an answer
to the Essay (thus giving Mr. Malthus a Roland for his Oliver) but
we think he has judged ill in endeavouring to invalidate the principle,
instead of confining himself to point out the misapplication of it.
There is one argument introduced in this Reply, which will, perhaps,
amuse the reader as a sort of metaphysical puzzle.

' It has sometimes occurred to me whether Mr. Malthus did not
catch the first hint of his geometrical ratio from a curious passage
of Judge Blackstone, on consanguinity, which is as follows: —

• The doctrine of lineal consanguinity is sufficiently plain and
obvious ; but it is at the first view astonishing to consider the number
of lineal ancestors which every man has within no very great number
of degrees ; and so many different bloods is a man said to contain in
his veins, as he hath lineal ancestors. Of these he hath two in the
first ascending degree, his own parents ; he hath four in the second,
the parents of his father and the parents of his mother ; he hath eight
in the third, the parents of his two grandfathers and two grand-



mothers ; and by the same rule of progression, he hath an hundred
and twenty-eight in the seventh ; a thousand and twenty-four in the
tenth ; and at the twentieth degree, or the distance of twenty
generations, every man hath above a million of ancestors, as common
arithmetic will demonstrate.

■ This will seem surprising to those who are unacquainted with the
increasing power of progressive numbers ; but is palpably evident
from the following table of a geometrical progression, in which the
first term is 2, and the denominator also 2 ; or, to speak more
intelligibly, it is evident, for that each of us has two ancestors in the
first degree ; the number of which is doubled at every remove, because
each of our ancestors had also two ancestors of his own.

Lineal Degrees. Number of Ancestors.

4 — — — — 16

6 — — — — 64

7 — — — — 128

8 — — — — 256

9 . — — — — 512

10 — — — — 1024

11 — — — 2048

12 — — — — 4096

13 — — — — 8192

14 — — — — 16,384

15 — — — 32,768

16 — — — — 65,536

17 — — — — i3 I >072
iS — — — — 262,144

19 — — — — 524,288

20 — — — 1,048,576

'This argument, however,' (proceeds Mr. Godwin) 'from Judge
Blackstone of a geometrical progression would much more naturally
apply to Montesquieu's hypothesis of the depopulation of the world,
and prove that the human species is hastening fast to extinction, than
to the purpose for which Mr. Malthus has employed it. An ingenious
sophism might be raised upon it, to show that the race of mankind
will ultimately terminate in unity. Mr. Malthus, indeed, should have
reflected, that it is much more certain that every man has had
ancestors than that he will have posterity, aad that it is still more
doubtful, whether he will have posterity to twenty or to an indefinite
number of generations.' — Enquiry concerning Population, p. 100.



Mr. Malthus's style is correct and elegant ; his tone of controversy
mild and gentlemanly ; and the care with which he has brought his
facts and documents together, deserves the highest praise. He has
lately quitted his favourite subject of population, and broke a lance
with Mr. Ricardo on the question of rent and value. The partisans
of Mr. Ricardo, who are also the admirers of Mr. Malthus, say that
the usual sagacity of the latter has here failed him, and that he has
shown himself to be a very illogical writer. To have said this of
him formerly on another ground, was accounted a heresy and a piece
of presumption not easily to be forgiven. Indeed Mr. Malthus has
always been a sorLjpf ' darling in the public eye,' whom it was unsafe
to meddle with. l_He has contrived to make himself as many friends
by his attacks on the schemes of Human Perfectibility and on the
Poor-Laws, as Mandeville formerly procured enemies by his attacks
on Human Perfections and on Charity-Schools ; and among other
instances that we might mention, Plug Pulteney, the celebrated miser,
of whom Mr. Burke said on his having a large estate left him, ' that
now it was to be hoped he would set up a pocket- handkerchief ' was so
enamoured with the saving schemes and humane economy of the
Essay, that he desired a friend to find out the author and offer him a
church living! This liberal intention was (by design or accident)
unhappily frustrated. 1


Mr. Gifford was originally bred to some handicraft : he afterwards
contrived to learn Latin, and was for some time an usher in a school,
till he became a tutor in a nobleman's family. The low-bred, self-
taught man, the pedant, and the dependant on the great contribute
to form the Editor of the Quarterly Review. He is admirably
qualified for this situation, which he has held for some years, by a
happy combination of defects, natural and acquired ; and in the
event of his death, it will be difficult to provide him a suitable

Mr. Gifford has no pretensions to be thought a man of genius,
of taste, or even of general knowledge. He merely understands
the mechanical and instrumental part of learning. He is a critic
of the last age, when the different editions of an author, or the
dates of his several performances were all that occupied the inquiries
of a profound scholar, and the spirit of the writer or the beauties of
his style were left to shift for themselves, or exercise the fancy
of the light and superficial reader. In studying an old author, he



has no notion of any thing beyond adjusting a point, proposing a
different reading, or correcting, by the collation of various copies,
an error of the press. In appreciating a modern one, if it is an
enemy, the first thing he thinks of is to charge him with bad
grammar — he scans his sentences instead of weighing his sense ; or
if it is a friend, the highest compliment he conceives it possible to
pay him is, that his thoughts and expressions are moulded on some
hackneyed model. His standard of ideal perfection is what he
himself now is, a person of mediocre literary attainments : his utmost
contempt is shown by reducing any one to what he himself once
was, a person without the ordinary advantages of education and
learning. It is accordingly assumed, with much complacency in
his critical pages, that Tory writers are classical and courtly as a
matter of course ; as it is a standing jest and evident truism, that
Whigs and Reformers must be persons of low birth and breeding —
imputations from one of which he himself has narrowly escaped, and
both of which he holds in suitable abhorrence. He stands over a
contemporary performance with all the self-conceit and self-importance
of a country schoolmaster, tries it by technical rules, affects not to
understand the meaning, examines the hand-writing, the spelling,
shrugs up his shoulders and chuckles over a slip of the pen, and
keeps a sharp look-out for a false concord and — a flogging. There
is nothing liberal, nothing humane in his style of judging : it is
altogether petty, captious, and literal. The Editor's political sub-
serviency adds the last finishing to his ridiculous pedantry and vanity.
He has all his life been a follower in the train of wealth and power —
strives to back his pretensions on Parnassus by a place at court, and
to gild his reputation as a man of letters by the smile of greatness.
He thinks his works are stamped with additional value by having
his name in the Red-Book. He looks up to the distinctions of rank
and station as he does to those of learning, with the gross and over-
weening adulation of his early origin. All his notions are low,
upstart, servile. He thinks it the highest honour to a poet to be
patronised by a peer or by some dowager of quality. He is prouder
of a court-livery than of a laurel-wreath ; and is only sure of having
established his claims to respectability by having sacrificed those of
independence. He is a retainer to the Muses ; a door-keeper to
learning ; a lacquey in the state. He believes that modern literature
should wear the fetters of classical antiquity ; that truth is to be
weighed in the scales of opinion and prejudice ; that power is
equivalent to right ; that genius is dependent on rules ; that taste
and refinement of language consist in ivord-catcking. Many persons
suppose that Mr. Gifford knows better than he pretends ; and that



he is shrewd, artful, and designing. But perhaps it may be nearei
the mark to suppose that his dulness is guarantee for his sincerity ;
or that before he is the tool of the profligacy of others, he is the
dupe of his own jaundiced feelings, and narrow, hood-winked per

'Destroy his fib or sophistry : in vain —
The creature 1 s at his dirty work again ! *

But this is less from choice or perversity, than because he cannot
help it and can do nothing else. He damns a beautiful expression
less out of spite than because he really does not understand it : any
novelty of thought or sentiment gives him a shock from which he
cannot recover for some time, and he naturally takes his revenge for
the alarm and uneasiness occasioned him, without referring to venal
or party motives. He garbles an author's meaning, not so much
wilfully, as because it is a pain to him to enlarge his microscopic view
to take in the context, when a particular sentence or passage has
struck him as quaint and out of the way : he fly-blows an author's
style, and picks out detached words and phrases for cynical re-
probation, simply because he feels himself at home, or takes a pride
and pleasure in this sort of petty warfare. He is tetchy and impatient
of contradiction ; sore with wounded pride ; angry at obvious faults,
more angry at unforeseen beauties. He has the chalk-stones in his
understanding, and from being used to long confinement, cannot
bear the slightest jostling or irregularity of motion. He may call
out with the fellow in the Tempest — * I am not Stephano, but a
cramp ! ' He would go back to the standard of opinions, style, the
faded ornaments, and insipid formalities that came into fashion about
forty years ago. Flashes of thought, flights of fancy, idiomatic
expressions, he sets down among the signs of the times — the extra-
ordinary occurrences of the age we live in. They are marks of a
restless and revolutionary spirit : they disturb his composure of mind,
and threaten (by implication) the safety of the state. His slow,
snail-paced, bed-rid habits of reasoning, cannot keep up with the
whirling, eccentric motion, the rapid, perhaps extravagant combina-
tions of modern literature. He has long been stationary himself,
and is determined that others shall remain so. The hazarding a
paradox is like letting off a pistol close to his ear : he is alarmed
and offended. The using an elliptical mode of expression (such
as he did not use to find in Guides to the English Tongue) jars him
like coming suddenly to a step in a flight of stairs that you were
not aware of. He pishes and pshaws at all this, exercises a sort of
interjectional criticism on what excites his spleen, his envy, or his


wonder, and hurls his meagre anathemas ex cathedra at all those
writers who are indifferent alike to his precepts and his example !

Mr. GifFord, in short, is possessed of that sort of learning which
is likely to result from an over-anxious desire to supply the want of
the first rudiments of education ; that sort of wit, which is the off-
spring of ill-humour or bodily pain ; that sort of sense, which arises
from a spirit of contradiction and a disposition to cavil at and dispute
the opinions of others ; and that sort of reputation, which is the
consequence of bowing to established authority and ministerial
influence. He dedicates to some great man, and receives his
compliments in return. He appeals to some great name, and the
Under-graduates of the two Universities look up to him as an oracle
of wisdom. He throws the weight of his verbal criticism and puny
discoveries in black-letter reading into the gap, that is supposed to be
making in the Constitution by Whigs and Radicals, whom he
qualifies without mercy as dunces and miscreants ; and so entitles him-
self to the protection of Church and State. The character of his mind
is an utter want of independence and magnanimity in all that he
attempts. He cannot go alone, he must have crutches, a go-cart
and trammels, or he is timid, fretful, and helpless as a child. He
cannot conceive of any thing different from what he finds it, and
hates those who pretend to a greater reach of intellect or boldness
of spirit than himself. He inclines, by a natural and deliberate bias,
to the traditional in laws and government ; to the orthodox in
religion ; to the safe in opinion ; to the trite in imagination ; to the
technical in style ; to whatever implies a surrender of individual
judgment into the hands of authority, and a subjection of individual
feeling to mechanic rules. If he finds any one flying in the face or
these, or straggling from the beaten path, he thinks he has them
at a notable disadvantage, and falls foul of them without loss ot
time, partly to soothe his own sense of mortified self-consequence,
and as an edifying spectacle to his legitimate friends. He takes
none but unfair advantages. He twits his adversaries (that is, those
who are not in the leading-strings of his school or party) with some
personal or accidental defect. If a writer has been punished for a
political libel, he is sure to hear of it in a literary criticism. If a
lady goes on crutches and is out of favour at court, she is reminded
of it in Mr. Gifford's manly satire. He sneers at people of low
birth or who have not had a college education, partly to hide his
own want of certain advantages, partly as well-timed flattery to
those who possess them. He has a right to laugh at poor, unfriended,
untitled cenius from wearing the livery of rank and letters, as foot-
men behind a coronet-coach laugh at the rabble. He keeps good



company, and forgets himself. He stands at the door of Mr.
Murray's shop, and will not let any body pass but the well-dressed
mob, or some followers of the court. To edge into the Quarterly
Temple of Fame the candidate must have a diploma from the
Universities, a passport from the Treasury. Otherwise, it is a
breach of etiquette to let him pass, an insult to the better sort who
aspire to the love of letters — and may chance to drop in to the Feast
of the Poets. Or, if he cannot manage it thus, or get rid of the
claim on the bare ground of poverty or want of school-learning, he
trumps up an excuse for the occasion, such as that • a man was
confined in Newgate a short time before ' — it is not a lie on the
part of the critic, it is only an amiable subserviency to the will of
his betters, like that of a menial who is ordered to deny his master,
a sense of propriety, a knowledge of the world, a poetical and moral
license. Such fellows (such is his cue from his employers) should
at any rate De kept out of privileged places : persons who have been
convicted of prose-libels o: T ,ht not to be suffered to write poetry —
if the fact was not exactly as it was stated, it was something of the
kind, or it ought to have been so, the assertion was a pious fraud, —
the public, the court, the prince himself might read the work, but
for this mark of opprobrium set upon it — it was not to be endured
that an insolent plebeian should aspire to elegance, taste, fancy — it
was throwing down the barriers which ought to separate the higher
and the lower classes, the loyal and the disloyal — the paraphrase of
the story of Dante was therefore to perform quarantine, it was to
seem not yet recovered from the gaol infection, there was to be a
taint upon it, as there was none in it — and all this was performed by
a single slip of Mr. Gifford's pen ! We would willingly believe (if
we could) that in this case there was as much weakness and prejudice
as there was nulice and cunning. — Again, we do not think it possible
that under any circumstances the writer of the Verses to Anna could
enter into the spirit or delicacy of Mr. Keats's poetry. The fate of
the latter somewhat resembled that of

' a bud bit by an envious worm,
Ere it could spread its sweet leaves to the air,
Or dedicate its beauty to the sun.'

Mr. Keato'a ostensible crime was that he had been praised in the

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 30 of 38)