William Hazlitt.

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

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is that of criticism — or to the discussion of debateable topics, and
acquits itself in both with force and spirit. This is the natural
consequence of the composition of the two Reviews. The one


appeals with confidence to its own intellectual resources, to the
variety of its topics, to its very character and existence as a literary
journal, which depend on its setting up no pretensions but those
which it can make good by the talent and ingenuity it can bring to
bear upon them — it therefore meets every question, whether of a
lighter or a graver cast, on its own grounds; the other blinks every
question, for it has no confidence but in the powers that be — Bhuts
itself up in the impregnable fastnesses of authority, or makes some
paltry cowardly attack (under cover of anonymous criticism) on
individuals, or dispenses its award of merit entirely according to the
rank or party of the writer. The faults of the Edinburgh Review
; arise out of the very consciousness of critical and logical power.
|n political questions it relies too little on the broad basis of liberty
and humanity, enters too much into mere dry formalities, deals too
often in moot-points, and descends too readily to a sort of special-
pleading in defence of home truths and natural feelings : in matters
of taste and criticism, its tone is sometimes apt to be supercilious
and cavalier from its habitual faculty of analysing defects and beauties
according to given principles, from its quickness in deciding, from
its facility in illustrating its views. In this latter department it has
been guilty of some capital oversights. The chief was in its treat-
ment of the Lyrical Ballads at their first appearance — not in its
ridicule of their puerilities, but in its denial of their beauties, because
they were included in no school, because they were reducible to no
previous standard or theory of poetical excellence. For this, however,
considerable reparation has been made by the prompt and liberal
spirit that has been shown in bringing forward other examples of
poetical genius. Its capital sin, in a doctrinal point of view, has
been (we shrewdly suspect) in the uniform and unqualified encourage-
ment it has bestowed on Mr. Malthus's system. We do not nit an
that the Edinburgh Review was to join in the general hue and cry
that was raised against this writer ; but while it asserted the sound-
ness of many of his arguments, and yielded its assent to the truths he-
has divulged, it need not have screened his errors. On this subject
alone we think the Quarterly has the advantage of it. But as the
Quarterly Review is a mere mass and tissue of prejudices on all
subjects," it is the foible of the Edinburgh Review to afreet a some-
what fastidious air of superiority over prejudices of all kinds, and a
determination not to indulge in any of the amiable weaknesses of our
nature, except as it can give a reason for the faith that is in it.
Luckily, it is seldom reduced to this alternative : ' reasons ' are with
it ' as plenty as blackberries ! '

Mr. Jeffrey is the Editor of the Edinburgh Review, and is ui



to have contributed nearly a fourth part of the articles from
its commencement. No man is better qualified for this situation ;
nor indeed so much so. He is certainly a person in advance of the
age, and yet perfectly fitted both from knowledge and habits ot
mind to put a curb upon its rash and headlong spirit. He is
thoroughly acquainted with the progress and pretensions of modern
literature and philosophy ; and to this he adds the natural acuteness
and discrimination of the logician with the habitual caution and
coolness of his profession. If the Edinburgh Review may be con-
sidered as the organ of or at all pledged to a party, that party is at
least a respectable one, and is placed in the middle between two
extremes. The Editor is bound to lend a patient hearing to the
most paradoxical opinions and extravagant theories which have
resulted in our times from the ' infinite agitation of wit,' but he is
disposed to qualify them by a number of practical objections, of
speculative doubts, of checks and drawbacks, arising out of actual
circumstances and prevailing opinions, or the frailties of human nature.
He has a great range of knowledge, an incessant activity of mind ;
but the suspension of his judgment, the well-balanced moderation of
his sentiments, is the consequence of the very discursiveness of his
reason. What may be considered as a common-place conclusion is
often the result of a comprehensive view of all the circumstances of
a case. Paradox, violence, nay even originality of conception is not
seldom owing to our dwelling long and pertinaciously on some one
part of a subject, instead of attending to the whole. Mr. Jeffrey is
neither a bigot nor an enthusiast. He is not the dupe of the
prejudices of others, nor of his own. Pie is not wedded to any
dogma, he is not long the sport of any whim ; before he can settle
in any fond or fantastic opinion, another starts up to match it, like
beads on sparkling wine. A too restless display of talent, a too
undisguised statement of all that can be said for and against a question,
is perhaps the great fault that is to be attributed to him. Where
there is so much power and prejudice to contend with in the opposite
scale, it may be thought that the balance of truth can hardly be
held with a slack or an even hand ; and that the infusion of a
little more visionary speculation, of a little more popular in-
mon into the great Whig Review would be an advantage
both to itself and to the caufe of freedom. Much of this effect
is chargeable less on an Epicurean levity of feeling or on party-
trammels, than on real sanguineness of disposition, and a certain
fineness of professional tact. Our sprightly Scotchman is not of a
nmy turn of mind. He argues well for the future
hoj es of mankind from the smallest beginnings, watches the slow,


gradual, reluctant growth of liberal views, and smiling sees the aloe
of Reform blossom at the end of a hundred years; while the
habitual subtlety of his mind makes him perceive decided advan-
tages where vulgar ignorance or passion sees only doubts and diffi-
culty ; and a flaw in an adversary's argument stands him instead of
the shout of a mob, the votes of a majority, or the fate of a pitched
battle. The Editor is satisfied with his own conclusions, and does
not make himself uneasy about the fate of mankind. The issue, he

thinks, will verify his moderate and well-founded expectations. We

believe also that late events have given a more decided turn to Mr.
Jeffrey's mind, and that he feels that as in the struggle between
liberty and slavery, the views of the one party have been laid bare
with their success, so the exertions on the other side should become
more strenuous, and a more positive stand be made against the
avowed and appalling encroachments of priestcraft and arbitrary power.

The characteristics of Mr. Jeffrey's general style as a writer
correspond, we think, with what we have here stated as the charac-
teristics of his mind. He is a master of the foils ; he makes an
exulting display of the dazzling fence of wit and argument. His
strength consists in great range of knowledge, an equal familiarity
with the principles and the details of a subject, and in a glancing
brilliancy and rapidity of style. Indeed, we doubt whether the
brilliancy of his manner does not resolve itself into the rapiditv,
the variety and aptness of his illustrations. His pen is never at a
loss, never stands still ; and would dazzle for this reason alone, like
an eye that is ever in motion. Mr. Jeffrey is far from a flowery or
affected writer ; he has few tropes or figures, still less any odd
startling thoughts or quaint innovations in expression : — but he has
a constant supply of ingenious solutions and pertinent examples ; he
never proses, never grows dull, never wears an argument to tatters ;
and by the number, the liveliness and facility of his transitions, kei
up that appearance of vivacity, of novel and sparkling effect, for which
others are too often indebted to singularity of combination or tinsel

It may be discovered, by a nice observer^ that Mr. Jeffrey's style
of composition is that of a person accustomed to public speak i
There is no pause, no meagreness, no inanimateness, but a flow, a
redundance and volubility like that of a stream or of a rolling-stone.
The language is more copious than select, and sometimes two or
three words perform the office of one. This copiousness and facility
is perhaps an advantage in extempore speaking, where no stop or break
is allowed in the discourse, and where any word or any number of
words almost is better than coming to a dead stand ; but in wri



compositions it gives an air of either too much carelessness or too
much labour. Mr. Jeffrey's excellence, as a public speaker, has
betraved him into this peculiarity. He makes fewer blots in addressing
an audience than any one we remember to have heard. There is not
a hair's-breadth space between any two of his words, nor is there a
single expression either ill-chosen or out of its place. He speaks
without stopping to take breath, with ease, with point, with elegance,
and without * spinning the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple
of his argument.' He may be said to weave words into any shapes
he pleases for use or ornament, as the glass-blower moulds the vitreous
fluid with his breath ; and his sentences shine like glass from their
polished smoothness, and are equally transparent. His style of
eloquence, indeed, is remarkable for neatness, for correctness, and
epigrammatic point ; and he has applied this as a standard to his
written compositions, where the very same degree of correctness and
precision produces, from the contrast between writing and speaking,
an agreeable diffuseness, freedom and animation. Whenever the
Scotch advocate has appeared at the bar of the English House of
Lords, he has been admired by those who were in the habit of
attending to speeches there, as having the greatest fluency of language
and the greatest subtlety of distinction of any one of the profession.
The law-reporters were as little able to follow him from the extreme
rapidity of his utterance as from the tenuity and evanescent nature of
his reasoning.

Mr. Jeffrey's conversation is equally lively, various, and instructive.
There is no subject on which he is not aufait: no company in which
he is not readv to scatter his pearls for sport. Whether it be politics,
or poetry, or science, or anecdote, or wit, or raillery, he takes up his
cue without effort, without preparation, and appears equally incapable
of tiring himself or his hearers. His only difficulty seems to be, not

• eak, but to be silent. There is a constitutional buoyancy and
deity of mind about him that cannot subside into repose, much

less sink into dulness. There may be more original talkers, persons
who occasionally surprise or interest you more; few, if any, with a
more uninterrupted flow of cheerfulness and animal spirits, with
a greater fund of information, and with fewer specimens of the
bathos in their conversation. He is never absurd, nor has he any
favourite points which he is always bringing forward. It cannot be
lenied that there is something bordering on petulance of manner, but
it is of that least offensive kind which may be accounted for from
merit and from success, and implies no exclusive pretensions nor the

• particle of ill-wili to others. On the contrary, Mr. Jeffrey is
fuse of his encomiums and admiration of others, but still with a



certain reservation of a right to differ or to blame. He cannot rest
on oneside of a question: he is obliged by a mercurial habit and
disposition to vary his point of view. If he is ever tedious, it is from
an excess of liveliness : he oppresses from a sense of airy lightness.
He is always setting out on a fresh scent : there are always relays of
topics ; the harness is put to, and he rattles away as delightfully and
as briskly as ever. New causes are called ; he holds a brief in his
hand for every possible question. This is a fault. Mr. Jeffrey is
not obtrusive, is not impatient of opposition, is not unwilling to be
interrupted ; but what is said by another, seems to make no impression
on him ; he is bound to dispute, to answer it, as if he was in Court,
or as if it were in a paltry Debating Society, where young beginners
were trying their hands. This is not to maintain a character, or for
want of good-nature — it is a thoughtless habit. He cannot help
cross-examining a witness, or stating the adverse view of the question.
He listens not to judge, but to reply. In consequence of this, you
can as little tell the impression your observations make on him as
what weight to assign to his. Mr. Jeffrey shines in mixed company;
he is not good in a tete-a-tete. You can only show your wisdom or
your wit in general society : but in private your follies or your
weaknesses are not the least interesting topics; and our critic has
neither any of his own to confess, nor does he take delight in hearing
those of others. Indeed in Scotland generally, the display of
personal character, the indulging your whims and humours in the
presence of a friend, is not much encouraged — every one there is
looked upon in the light of a machine or a collection of topics.
They turn you round like a cylinder to see what use they can make
of you, and drag you into a dispute with as little ceremony as they
would drag out an article from an Encyclopedia. They civ.
every thing, analyse every thing, argue upon every thing, dogmatise
upon every thing ; and the bundle of your habits, feelings, humours,
follies and pursuits is regarded by them no more than a bundle of old
clothes. They stop you in a sentiment by a question or a stare, and
cut you short in a narrative by the time of night. The accomplished
and ingenious person of whom we speak, has been a little infected by
the tone of his countrymen— he is too didactic, too pugnacious, too
full of electrical shocks, too much like a voltaic battery, and reposes
too little on his own excellent good sense, his own love of ease, his
cordial frankness of temper and unaffected candour. He ought to
have belonged to us !

The severest of critics (as he has been sometimes termed) is the
best-natured of men. Whatever there may be of wavering or
indecision in Mr. Jeffrey's reasoning, or of harshness in his critical



decisions, in his disposition there is nothing but simplicity and
kindness. He is a person that no one knows without esteeming, and
who both in his public connections and private friendship";, shows the
same manly uprightness and unbiassed independence of spirit. At
a distance, in his writings, or even in his manner, there may be
something to excite a little uneasiness and apprehension : in his
conduct there is nothing to except against. He is a person of strict
integrity himself, without pretence or affectation ; and knows how to
respect this quality in others, without prudery or intolerance. He
can censure a friend or a stranger, and serve him effectually at the
same time. He expresses his disapprobation, but not as an excuse
for closing up the avenues of his liberality. He is a Scotchman
without one particle of hypocrisy, of cant, of servility, or selfishness
in his composition. He has not been spoiled by fortune — has not
been tempted by power — is firm without violence, friendly without
weakness — a critic and even-tempered, a casuist and an honest man —
and amidst the toils of his profession and the distractions of the
world, retains the gaiety, the unpretending carelessness and simplicity
or youth. Mr. Jeffrey in his person is slight, with a countenance
of much expression, and a voice of great flexibility and acuteness
of tone.


There is a class of eloquence which has been described and particularly
insisted on, under the style and title of Irish Eloquence: there is
another class which it is not absolutely unfair to oppose to this, and that
is the Scotch. The first of these is entirely the offspring of impulse :
the last of mechanism. The one is as full of fancy as it is bare of
facts : the other excludes all fancy, and is weighed down with facts.
The one is all fire, the other all ice : the one nothing but enthusiasm,
extravagance, eccentricity ; the other nothing but logical deductions,
and the most approved postulates. The one without scruple, nay,
with reckless zeal, throws the reins loose on the neck of the
imagination : the other pulls up with a curb-bridle, and starts at
every casual object it meets in the way as a bug-bear. The genius
of Irish oratory stands forth in the naked majesty of untutored nature,
its eye glancing wildly round on all objects, its tongue darting forked
fire : the genius of Scottish eloquence is armed in all the panoply of
the schools; its drawling, ambiguous dialect seconds its circumspect
dialectics ; from behind the vizor that guards its mouth and shadows
its pent-up brows, it sees no visions but its own set purpose, its own


data, and its own dogmas. It * has no figures, nor no fantasies,' but
« those which busy care draws in the brains of men,' or which set off
its own superior acquirements and wisdom. It scorns to ' tread the
primrose path of dalliance' — it shrinks back from it as from a
precipice, and keeps in the iron rail-way of the understanding. Irish
oratory, on the contrary, is a sort of aeronaut : it is always goin^ up
in a balloon, and breaking its neck, or coming down in the parachute.
It is filled full with gaseous matter, with whim and fancy, with allitera-
tion and antithesis, with heated passion and bloated metaphors, that
burst the slender silken covering of sense ; and the airy pageant, that
glittered in empty space and rose in all the bliss of ignorance, flutters
and sinks down to its native bogs! If the Irish orator riots in a
studied neglect of his subject and a natural confusion of ideas, playing
with words, ranging them into all sorts of fantastic combinations,
because in the unlettered void or chaos of his mind there is no obstacle
to their coalescing into any shapes they please, it must be confessed
that the eloquence of the Scotch is encumbered with an excess of
knowledge, that it cannot get on for a crowd of difficulties, that it
staggers under a load of topics, that it is so environed in the forms of
logic and rhetoric as to be equally precluded from originality or
absurdity, from beauty or deformity : — the plea of humanity is lost
by going through the process of law, the firm and manly tone of
principle is exchanged for the wavering and pitiful cant of policy, the
living bursts of passion are reduced to a defunct common-place, and all
true imagination is buried under the dust and rubbish of learned
models and imposing authorities. If the one is a bodiless phantom,
the other is a lifeless skeleton : if the one in its feverish and hectic
extravagance resembles a sick man's dream, the other is akin to the
sleep of death — cold, stiff, unfeeling, monumental ! Upon the whole,
we despair less of the first than of the last, for the principle of life
and motion is, after all, the primary condition of all genius. The
luxuriant wildness of the one may be disciplined, and its excess
sobered down into reason ; but the dry and rigid formality of the
other can never burst the shell or husk of oratory. It is true that
the one is disfigured by the puerilities and affectation of a Phillips ;
but then it is redeemed by the manly sense and rervour of a Plunk ei,
the impassioned appeals and flashes of wit of a Curran, and by the
golden tide of wisdom, eloquence, and fancy, that flowed from the
lips of a Burke. In the other, we do not sink so low in the negative
series ; but we get no higher in the ascending scale than a Mackintosh
or a Brougham. 1 It may be suggested that the late Lord Erskine

1 Mr. Brougham is not a Scotchman literally, but by adoption.

30 J


enjoyed a higher reputation as an orator than either of these : but he
owed it to a dashing and graceful manner, to presence of mind, and
to great animation in delivering his sentiments. Stripped of these
outward and personal advantages, the matter of his speeches, like that
of his writings, is nothing, or perfectly inert and dead.

Mr. Brougham is from the North of England, but he was educated
in Edinburgh, and represents that school of politics and political
economy in the House. He differs from Sir James Mackintosh in
this, that he deals less in abstract principles, and more in individual
details. He makes less use of general topics, and more of immediate
facts. Sir James is better acquainted with the balance of an argu-
ment in old authors ; Mr. Brougham with the balance of power in
Europe. If the first is better versed in the progress of history, no
man excels the last in a knowledge of the course of exchange. He
is apprised of the exact state of our exports and imports, and scarce a
ship clears out its cargo at Liverpool or Hull, but he has notice of
the bill of lading. Our colonial policy, prison-discipline, the state
of the Hulks, agricultural distress, commerce and manufactures, the
Bullion question, the Catholic question, the Bourbons or the Inquisi-
tion, 'domestic treason, foreign levy,' nothing can come amiss to
him — he is at home in the crooked mazes of rotten boroughs, is not
baffled by Scotch law, and can follow the meaning of one of Mr.
Canning's speeches. With so many resources, with such variety and
solidity of information, Mr. Brougham is rather a powerful and
alarming, than an effectual debater. In so many details (which he
himself goes through with unwearied and unshrinking resolution) the
spirit of the question is lost to others who have not the same voluntary
power of attention or the same interest in hearing that he has in
speaking : the original impulse that urged him forward is forgotten
in so wide a field, in so interminable a career. If he can, others
cannot carry all he knows in their heads at the same time ; a rope of
circumstantial evidence does not hold well together, nor drag the
unwilling mind along with it (the willing mind hurries on before it,
and grows impatient and absent)— he moves in an unmanageable
procession of facts and proofs, instead of coming to the point at once
— and his premises (so anxious is he to proceed on sure and ample
nds) overlay and block up his conclusion, so that you cannot
nive at it, or not till the first fury and shock of the onset is over.
The ball, from the too great width of the calibre from which it is
sent, and from striking against such a number of hard, projecting
points, is almost spent before it reaches its destination. He keeps a
t or a debtor-and-creditor account between the Government and
the Country, posts so much actual crime, corruption, and injustice


against so much contingent advantage or sluggish prejudice, and at
the bottom of the page brings in the balance of indignation and con-
tempt, where it is due. But people are not to be calculated into
contempt or indignation on abstract grounds ; for however they may
submit to this process where their own interests are concerned, in
what regards the public good we believe they must see and feel
instinctively, or not at all. There is (it is to be lamented) a good
deal of froth as well as strength in the popular spirit, which will not
admit or being decanted or served out in formal driblets; nor will
spleen (the soul of Opposition) bear to be corked up in square patent
bottles, and kept for future use ! In a word, Mr. Brougham's is
ticketed and labelled eloquence, registered and in numeros (like the
successive parts of a Scotch Encyclopedia) — it is clever, knowing,
imposing, masterly, an extraordinary display of clearness of head, of"
quickness and energy of thought, of application and industry ; but it
is not the eloquence of the imagination or the heart, and will never
save a nation or an individual from perdition.

Mr. Brougham has one considerable advantage in debate : he is
overcome by no false modesty, no deference to others. But then, by
a natural consequence or parity of reasoning, he has little sympathy
with other people, and is liable to be mistaken in the effect his argu-
ments will have upon them. He relies too much, among other things,

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 32 of 38)