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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 33 of 38)
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on the patience of his hearers, and on his ability to turn every thing
to his own advantage. He accordingly goes to the full length of his
tether (in vulgar phrase) and often overshoots the mark. C'est
dommage. He has no reserve of discretion, no retentivencss of mind
or check upon himself. He needs, with so much wit,

' As much again to govern it.'

He cannot keep a good thing or a shrewd piece of information in his
possession, though the letting it out should mar a cause. It is not
that he thinks too much of himself, too little of his cause : but he is
absorbed in the pursuit of truth as an abstract inquiry, he is led away
by the headstrong and overmastering activity of his own mind. He
is borne along, almost involuntarily, and not impossibly against his
better judgment, by the throng and restlessness of his ideas as by
a crowd of people in motion. His perceptions are literal, tenacious,
epileptic — his understanding voracious of facts, and equally com-
municative of them — and he proceeds to

n different

3 30Q



THE SPIRIT OF THE AGE

persons ; but the want of passion is but another name for the want of
sympathy and imagination.

The Lord Chancellor's impartiality and conscientious exactness
are proverbial ; and is, we believe, as inflexible as it is delicate in
all cases that occur in the stated routine of legal practice. The
impatience, the irritation, the hopes, the fears, the confident tone of
the applicants move him not a jot from his intended course, he looks
at their claims with the 'lack lustre eye' of professional indifference.
Power and influence apart, his next strongest passion is to indulge in
the exercise of professional learning and skill, to amuse himself with
the dry details and intricate windings of the law of equity. He
delights to balance a straw, to see a feather turn the scale, or make it
even again ; and divides and subdivides a scruple to the smallest
fraction. He unravels the web of argument and pieces it together
again ; folds it up and lays it aside, that he may examine it more at
his leisure. He hugs indecision to his breast, and takes home a
modest doubt or a nice point to solace himself with it in protracted,
luxurious dalliance. Delay seems, in his mind, to be of the very
essence of justice. He no more hurries through a question than if
no one was waiting for the result, and he was merely a dilettanti,
fanciful judge, who played at my Lord Chancellor, and busied him-
self with quibbles and punctilios as an idle hobby and harmless
illusion. The phlegm of the Chancellor's disposition gives one
almost a surfeit of impartiality and candour : we are sick of the
eternal poise of childish dilatoriness : and would wish law and
justice to be decided at once by a cast of the dice (as they were in
Rabelais) rather than be kept in frivolous and tormenting suspense.
But there is a limit even to this extreme refinement and scrupulous-
ness of the Chancellor. The understanding acts only in the absence
of the passions. At the approach of the loadstone, the needle
trembles, and points to it. The air of a political question has a
v. < n ! rful tendency to brace and quicken the learned Lord's faculties,
breath of a court speedily oversets a thousand objections, and
scatters the cobwebs of his brain. The secret wish of power is a
thumping make-weight, where all is so nicely balanced beforehand.
In the case of a celebrated beauty and heiress, and the brother of a
Noble Lord, the Chancellor hesitated long, and went through the
forms, as usual : but who ever doubted, where all this indecision
would end ? No man in his senses, for a single instant ! We shall
not press this point, which is rather a ticklish one. Some persons
thought that from entertaining a fellow-feeling on the subject, the
Chancellor would have been ready to favour the Poet-Laureat's
application to the Court of Chancery for an injunction against Wat

310



LORD ELDON— MR. WILBERFORCE

Tyler. His Lordship's sentiments on such points arc not so
variable, he has too much at stake. He recollected the year 1794,
though Mr. Southey had forgotten it! —

The personal always prevails over the intellectual, where the
latter is not backed by strong feeling and principle. Where remote
and speculative objects do not excite a predominant interest and
passion, gross and immediate ones are sure to carry the day, even
in ingenuous and well-disposed minds. The will yields neces-
sarily to some motive or other ; and where the public good or distant
consequences excite no sympathy in the breast, either from short-
sightedness or an easiness of temperament that shrinks from any
violent effort or painful emotion, self-interest, indolence, the opinion
of others, a desire to please, the sense of personal obligation, come in
and fill up the void of public spirit, patriotism, and humanity. The
best men in the world in their own natural dispositions or in private
life (for this reason) often become the most dangerous public
characters, from their pliancy to the unruly passions or others, and
from their having no set-off in strong moral stamina to the temptations
that are held out to them, if, as is frequently the case, they are men
of versatile talent or patient industry. — Lord Eldon has one of the
best-natured faces in the world ; it is pleasant to meet him in the
street, plodding along with an umbrella under his arm, without one
trace of pride, of spleen, or discontent in his whole demeanour, void
of offence, with almost rustic simplicity and honesty of appearance — a
man that makes friends at first sight, and could hardly make enemies,



Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 33 of 38)