William Hazlitt.

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

. (page 34 of 38)
Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 34 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

power, to the will of others and to his own interest. In the whole
of his public career, and with all the goodness of his disposition, he
has not shown 'so small a drop of pity as a wren's eye.' He seems
to be on his guard against every thing liberal and humane as his weak
side. Others relax in their obsequiousness either from satiety or
disgust, or a hankering after popularity, or a wish to be thought above
narrow prejudices. The Lord Chancellor alone is fixed and immov-
able. Is it want of understanding or of principle ? No — it is want
of imagination, a phlegmatic habit, an excess of false complaisance
and. good-nature. He signs a warrant in Council, devoting ten
thousand men to an untimely death, with steady nerves — Is it that
he is cruel and unfeeling? No! — but he thinks neither of their
sufferings nor their cries; he sees only the gracious smile, the ready
hand stretched out to thank him for his compliance with the dictates
of rooted hate. He dooms a Continent to slavery. Is it that he is a
tyrant, or an enemy to the human race? No! — but he cannot find
in his heart to resist the commands or to give pain to a kind and
generous benefactor. Common sense and justice are little better than
vague terms to him : he acts upon his immediate feelings and least
irksome impulses. The King's hand is velvet to the touch — the
Woolsack is a seat of honour and profit ! That is all he knows
about the matter. As to abstract metaphysical calculations, the ox
that stands staring at the corner of the street troubles his head as much
about them as he does : yet this last is a very good sort of animal


■with no harm or malice in him, unless he is goaded on to mischief, and
then it is necessary to keep out of his way, or warn others against him !

Mr. Wilberforce is a less perfect character in his way. He acts
from mixed motives. He would willingly serve two masters, God
and Mammon. He is a person of many excellent and admirable
qualifications, but he has made a mistake in wishing to reconcile
those that are incompatible. He has a most winning eloquence,
specious, persuasive, familiar, silver-tongued, is amiable, charitable,
conscientious, pious, loyal, humane, tractable to power, acces-
sible to popularity, honouring the king, and no less charmed with
the homage of his fellow-citizens. ' What lacks he then ? ' Nothing
but an economy of good parts. By aiming at too much, he has
spoiled all, and neutralised what might have been an estimable
character, distinguished by signal services to mankind. A man must
take his choice not only between virtue and vice, but between different
virtues. Otherwise, he will not gain his own approbation, or secure
the respect of others. The graces and accomplishments of private
life mar the man of business and the statesman. There is a severity,
a sternness, a self-denial, and a painful sense of duty required in the
one, which ill-befits the softness and sweetness which should char-
acterise the other. Loyalty, patriotism, friendship, humanity, are all
virtues ; but may they not sometimes clash ? By being unwilling to
forego the praise due to any, we may forfeit the reputation of all ;
and, instead of uniting the suffrages of the whole world in our favour,
we may end in becoming a sort of by-word for affectation, cant,
hollow professions, trimming, fickleness, and effeminate imbecility.
It is best to choose and act up to some one leading character, as it is
best to have some settled profession or regular pursuit in life.

We can readily believe that Mr. Wilberforce's first object and
principle of action' is to do what he thinks right: his next (and that
we fear is of almost equal weight with the first) is to do what will be
thought so by other people. He is always at a game of bawk ana
buzzard between these two: his < conscience will not budge, unless
the world goes with it. He does not seem greatly to dread the
denunciation in Scripture, but rather to court it- « Woe unto you,
when all men shall speak well of you ! ' We suspect he is not quite
easy in his mind, because West-India planters and Guinea traders do
not join in his praise. His ears are not strongly enough tun.
drink in the execrations of the spoiler and the oppressor as the su <
music. It is not enough that one-half of the human (the
images of God carved in ebony, as old Fuller calls them) shout his
name as a champion and a saviour through vast burning zones, and
moisten their parched lips with the gush of gratitude tor deliverance

3 1 3


from chains — he must have a Prime-Minister drink his health at
a Cabinet-dinner for aiding to rivet on those of his country and of
Europe ! He goes hand and heart along with Government in all
their notions of legitimacy and political aggrandizement, in the hope
that they will leave him a sort of no-man's ground of humanity in the
Great Desert, where his reputation for benevolence and public spirit
may spring up and flourish, till its head touches the clouds, and it
stretches out its branches to the farthest part of the earth. He has
no mercy on those who claim a property in negro-slaves as so much
live-stock on their estates ; the country rings with the applause of his
wit, his eloquence, and his indignant appeals to common sense and
humanity on this subject — but not a word has he to say, not a whisper
does he breathe against rhe claim set up by the Despots of the Earth
over their Continental subjects, but does every thing in his power to
confirm and sanction it ! He must give no offence. Mr. Wilber-
force's humanity will go all lengths that it can with safety and dis-
cretion : but it is not to be supposed that it should lose him his seat
for Yorkshire, the smile of Majesty, or the countenance of the loyal
and pious. He is anxious to do all the good he can without hurting
himself or his fair fame. His conscience and his character compound
matters very amicably. He rather patronises honesty than is a martyr
to it. His patriotism, his philanthropy are not so ill-bred, as to
quarrel with his loyalty or to banish him from the first circles. He
preaches vital Christianity to untutored savages ; and tolerates its
worst abuses in civilized states. He thus shows his respect for
religion without offending the clergy, or circumscribing the sphere of
his usefulness. There is in all this an appearance of a good deal
of cant and tricking. His patriotism may be accused of being servile ;
his humanity ostentatious ; his loyalty conditional ; his religion a
mixture of fashion and fanaticism. ' Out upon such half-faced fellow-
ship ! ' Mr. Wilberforce has the pride of being familiar with the
great ; the vanity of being popular ; the conceit of an approving
conscience. He is coy in his approaches to power : his public spirit
is, in a manner, under the rose. He thus reaps the credit of inde-
pendence, without the obloquy; and secures the advantages of
servility, without incurring any obligations. He has two strings to
his bow : — he by no means neglects his worldly interests, while he
expects a bright reversion in the skies. Mr. Wilberforce is far from
being a hypocrite; but he is, we think, as fine a specimen of moral
equivocation as can well be conceived. A hypocrite is one who is the
very reverse of, or who despises the character he pretends to be :
Mr. Wilberforce would be all that he pretends to be, and he is it in
fact as far as words, plausible theories, good inclinations, and easy


services go, but not in heart and soul, or so as to give up the
appearance of any one of his pretensions to preserve the reality of any
other. He carefully chooses his ground to fight the battles of loyaltv,
religion, and humanity, and it is such as is always safe and advantage-
ous to himself! This is perhaps hardly fair, and it is of dangerous
or doubtful tendency. Lord Eldon, for instance, is known to be a
thorough-paced ministerialist : his opinion is only that of his party.
But Mr. Wilberforce is not a party-man. He is the more looked up
to on this account, but not with sufficient reason. By tampering with
different temptations and personal projects, he has all the air of the
most perfect independence, and gains a character for impartiality and
candour, when he is only striking a balance in his mind between the
eclat of differing from a Minister on some 'vantage ground, and the
risk or odium that may attend it. He carries all the weight of hit
artificial popularity over to the Government on vital points and hard-
run questions ; while they, in return, lend him a little of the gilding
of court-favour to set off his disinterested philanthropy and tramontane
enthusiasm. As a leader or a follower, he makes an odd jumble of
interests. By virtue of religious sympathy, he has brought the Saints
over to the side of the abolition of Negro slavery. This his
adversaries think hard and stealing a march upon them. What have
the Saints to do with freedom or reform of any kind ? — Mr. Wilber-
force's style of speaking is not quite parliamentary, it is halfway
between that and evangelical. He is altogether a double-entendre : the
very tone of his voice is a double-entendre. It winds, and undulates,
and glides up and down on texts of Scriptures, and scraps from Paley,
and trite sophistry, and pathetic appeals to his hearers in a faltering,
inprogressive, side-long way, like those birds of weak wing, that arc
borne from their strait-forward course

' By every little breath that under heaven is blown.'

Something of this fluctuating, time-serving principle was visibl
in the great question of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Hi- was,
at one & time, half inclined to surrender it into Mr. Pitt's dilatory
hands, and seemed to think the gloss of novelty was gone from it,
and the gaudy colouring of popularity sunk into the sable ground from
which it rose! It was, however, persisted in and carried
triumphant conclusion. Mr. Wilberforce said too little i
occasion of one, compared with whom he was but the from i
to that great chapter in the history of the world— the mask, 1
varnishing, and painting-the man that effected it by Herculean
labours of body, and equally gigantic labours of mind, was Clarkson,
the true Apostle of human Redemption on that occasion, and who, It
r 315


is remarkable, resembles in his person and lineaments more than one
of the Apostles in the Cartoons of Raphael. He deserves to be
added to the Twelve ' *


People have about as substantial an idea of Cobbett as they have of
Cribb. His blows are as hard, and he himself is as impenetrable.
One has no notion of him as making use of a fine pen, but a great
mutton-fist ; his style stuns his readers, and he ' fillips the ear of the
public with a three-man beetle.' He is too much for any single
newspaper antagonist ; * lays waste ' a city orator or Member of
Parliament, and bears hard upon the Government itself. He is
a kind of fourth estate in the politics of the country. He is not only
unquestionably the most powerful political writer of the present day,
but one of the best writers in the language. He speaks and thinks
plain, broad, downright English. He might be said to have the
clearness of Swift, the naturalness of Defoe, and the picturesque
satirical description of Mandeville; if all such comparisons were not
impertinent. A really great and original writer is like nobody but
himself. In one sense, Sterne was not a wit, nor Shakespear a poet.
It is easy to describe second-rate talents, because they fall into a class
and enlist under a standard : but first-rate powers defy calculation or
comparison, and can be defined only by themselves. They are sui
generis, and make the class to which they belong. I have tried
half-a-dozen times to describe Burke's style without ever succeeding ;
— its severe extravagance ; its literal boldness ; its matter-of-fact
hyperboles ; its running away with a subject, and from it at the same
time — but there is no making it out, for there is no example of the
same thing any where else. We have no common measure to refer
to ; and his qualities contradict even themselves.

Cobbett is not so difficult. He has been compared to Paine ; and
so far it is true there are no two writers who come more into
juxtaposition from the nature of their subjects, from the internal
resources on which they draw, and from the popular effect of their
writings and their adaptation (though that is a bad word in the
j re ent case) to the capacity of every reader. But still if we turn to
a volume of Paine's (his Common Sense or Rights of Man) we are

1 After all, the best as well as most amusing comment on the character just

• iescribeH was that made by Sheridan, who being picked up in no very creditable

pliclit by the watch, and asked rather roughly who he was, made answer — 'I am

vVilberforce !' The guardian! of the night conducted him home with all the

•*■ due to G: in-.


struck (not to say somewhat refreshed) by the difference. Paine is
a much more sententious writer than Cobbett. You cannot open
a page in any of his best and earlier works without meeting with
some maxim, some antithetical and memorable saying, which is a sort
of starting-place for the argument, and the goal to which it returns.
There is not a single Ion-mot, a single sentence in Cobbett that has
ever been quoted again. If any thing is ever quoted from him, it is
an epithet of abuse or a nickname. He is an excellent hand at
invention in that way, and has * damnable iteration in him.' What
could be better than his pestering Erskine year after year with his
second title of Baron Clackmannan : He is rather too fond of such
phrases as the Sons and Daughters of Corruption. Paine affected to
reduce things to first principles, to announce self-evident truths.
Cobbett troubles himself about little but the details and local circum-
stances. The first appeared to have made up his mind beforehand to
certain opinions, and to try to find the most compendious and pointed
expressions for them : his successor appears to have no clue, do
or leading principles, nor ever to have thought on a question till he
sits down to write about it : but then there seems no end of his
matters of fact and raw materials, which are brought out in all their
strength and sharpness from not having been squared or frittered down
or vamped up to suit a theory — he goes on with his descriptions and
illustrations as if he would never come to a stop ; they have all the
force of novelty with all the familiarity of old acquaintance ; his
knowledge grows out of the subject, and his style is that of a man
who has an absolute intuition of what he is talking about, and never
thinks of any thing else. He deals in premises and speaks to
evidence — the coming to a conclusion and summing up (which was
Paine's/or/f) lies in a smaller compass. The one could not compose
an elementary treatise on politics to become a manual for the popular
reader; nor could the other in all probability have kept up a weekly
journal for the same number of years with the same spirit, interest,
and untired perseverance. Paine's writings are a sort of introduction
to political arithmetic on a new plan : Cobbett keeps a day-book, and
makes an entry at full of all the occurrences^ and troublesome
questions that start up throughout the year. Cobbett, with vast
industry, vast information, and the utmost power of making what he
says intelligible, never seems to get at the beginning or come to the
end of any question : Paine in a few short sentences seems by DM
peremptory manner 'to clear it from all controversy, past, pi
and to come.' Paine takes a bird's-eye view of things.-^
sticks close to them, inspects the component parts, and kee]
of the smallest advantages they afford him. Or if I might hi


indulged in a pastoral allusion, Paine tries to enclose his ideas in a
fold for security and repose ; Cobbett lets his pour out upon the plain
like a flock of sheep to feed and batten. Cobbett is a pleasanter
writer for those to read who do not agree with him ; for he is less
dogmatical, goes more into the common grounds of fact and argument
to which all appeal, is more desultory and various, and appears less to
be driving at a previous conclusion than urged on by the force of
present conviction. He is therefore tolerated by all parties, though
he has made himself by turns obnoxious to all ; and even those he
abuses read him. The Reformers read him when he was a Tory,
and the Tories read him now that he is a Reformer. He must,
I think, however, be caviare to the Whigs. 1

If he is less metaphysical and poetical than his celebrated prototype,
he is more picturesque and dramatic. His episodes, which are
numerous as they are pertinent, are striking, interesting, full of life
and naivete, minute, double measure running over, but never tedious
— nunquam sufjlaminandus erat. He is one of those writers who can
never tire us — not even of himself; and the reason is, he is always
' full of matter.' He never runs to lees, never gives us the vapid
leavings of himself, is never ' weary, stale, and unprofitable,' but
always setting out afresh on his journey, clearing away some old
nuisance, and turning up new mould. His egotism is delightful,
for there is no affectation in it. He does not talk of himself for
lack of something to write about, but because some circumstance
that has happened to himself is the best possible illustration of the
subject, and he is not the man to shrink from giving the best possible
illustration of the subject from a squeamish delicacy. He likes both
himself and his subject too well. He does not put himself before it,
and say i admire me first ' ; but places us in the same situation with
himself, and makes us see all that he does. There is no blindman's
buff, no conscious hints, no awkward ventriloquism, no testimonies
of applause, no abstract, senseless self-complacency, no smuggled
admiration of his own person by proxy; it is all plain and above-
board. He writes himself plain William Cobbett, strips himself
quite as naked as any body could wish — in a word, his egotism is
full of individuality, and has room for very little vanity in it. We
feel delighted, rub our hands, and draw our chair to the fire, when
we come to a passage of this sort : we know it will be something
new and good, manly and simple, not the same insipid story of self-
over again. We sit down at table with the writer, but it is of a
Bourse of rich viands — flesh, fish, and wild fowl — and not to a

1 The late Lord Chancellor Thurlow use

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 34 of 38)