William Hazlitt.

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

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staunch Bonapartist. He is always of the militant, not of the
triumphant party : so far he bears a gallant show of magnanimity ;
but his gallantry is hardly of the right stamp : it wants principle.
For though he is not servile or mercenary, he is the victim of self-
will. He must pull down and pull in pieces : it is not in his
disposition to do otherwise. If is a pity ; for with his great talents
he might do great things, if he would go right forward to any useful
object, make thorough-stitch work of any question, or join hand and
heart with any principle. He changes his opinions as he does his
friends, and much on the same account. He has no comfort in fixed
principles : as soon as any thing is settled in his own mind, he quarrels
with it. He has no satisfaction but in the chase after truth, runs
a question down, worries and kills it, then quits it like vermin, and
starts some new game, to lead him a new dance, and give him a
fresh breathing through bog and brake, with the rabble yelping at
his heels and the leaders perpetually at fault. This he calls sport-
royal. He thinks it as good as cudgel-playing or single-stick, or any
thing else that has life in it. He likes the cut and thrust, the falls,
bruises, and dry blows of an argument : as to any good or useful
results that may come of the amicable settling of it, any one is
welcome to them for him. The amusement is over, when the matter
is once fairly decided.

There is another point of view in which this may be put. I might
say that Mr. Cobbett is a very honest man, with a total want of
principle ; and I might explain this paradox thus, I mean that he
is, I think, in downright earnest in what he says, in the part he takes
at the time ; but in taking that part, he is led entirely by headstrong
obstinacy, caprice, novelty, pique or personal motive of some sort,
and not by a steadfast regard for truth or habitual anxiety for what
is right uppermost in his mind. He is not a feed, time-serving,
shuffling advocate (no man could write as he does who did not
believe himself sincere) — but his understanding is the dupe and slave
of his momentary, violent, and irritable humours. He does not
adopt an opinion « deliberately or for money ' : yet his conscience
is at the mercy of the first provocation he receives, of the first whim
he takes in his head; he sees things through the medium of 'heat
and passion, not with reference to any general principles, and his
whole system of thinking is deranged by the first object that strikes
his fancy or sours his temper.— One cause of this phenomenon is
perhaps his want of a regular education. He is a self-taught man,
and has the faults as well as excellences of that class of persons in
their most striking and glaring excess. It must be acknowledged


that the Editor of the Political Register (the tivo-penny trash, as it
was called, till a Bill passed the House to raise the price to sixpence)
is not ' the gentleman and scholar : ' though he has qualities that,
with a little better management, would be worth (to the public)
both those tirles. For want of knowing what has been discovered
before him, he has not certain general landmarks to refer to, or a
general standard of thought to apply to individual cases. He relies
on his own acuteness and the immediate evidence, without being
acquainted with the comparative anatomy or philosophical structure
of opinion. He does not view things on a large scale or at the
horizon (dim and airy enough perhaps) ; but as they affect himself,
— close, palpable, tangible. Whatever he finds out is his own, and
he only knows what he finds out. He is in the constant hurry and
fever of gestation : his brain teems incessantly with some fresh
project. Every new light is the birth of a new system, the dawn
of a new world to him. He is continually outstripping and over-
reaching himself. The last opinion is the only true one. He is
wiser to-day than he was yesterday. Why should he not be wiser
to-morrow than he was to-day ? — Men of a learned education are
not so sharp-witted as clever men without it ; but they know the
balance of the human intellect better : if they are more stupid, they
are more steady ; and are less liable to be led astray by their own
sagacity and the overweening petulance of hard-earned and late-
acquired wisdom. They do not fall in love with every meretricious
extravagance at first sight, or mistake an old battered hypothesis for
a vestal, because they are new to the ways of this old world. They
do not seize upon it as a prize, but are safe from gross imposition by
being as wise and no wiser than those who went before them.

Paine said on some occasion, ' What I have written, I have
written' — as rendering any farther declaration of his principles
unnecessary. Not so Mr. Cobbett. What he has written is no rule
to him what he is to write. He learns something every day, and
every week he takes the field to maintain the opinions of the last six
days against friend or foe. I doubt whether this outrageous incon-
sistency, this headstrong fickleness, this understood want of all rule
and method, does not enable him to go on with the spirit, vigour, and
variety that he does. He is not pledged to repeat himself. Every
new Register is a kind of new Prospectus. He blesses himself from
all ties and shackles on his understanding ; he has no mortgages on
his brain ; his notions are free and unincumbered. If he was put in
trammels, he might become a vile hack like so many more. But he
gives himself ' ample scope and verge enough.' He takes both sides
of a question, and maintains one as sturdily as the other. If nobody



else can argue against him, he is a very good match for himself. He
writes better in favour of reform than any body else ; he used to
write better against it. Wherever he is, there is the tug of war, the
weight of the argument, the strength of abuse. He is not like a man
in danger of being bed-rid in his faculties — he tosses and tumbles
about his unwieldy bulk, and when he is tired of lying on one side,
relieves himself by turning on the other. His shifting his point of
view from time to time not merely adds variety and greater comforts
to his topics (so that the Political Register is an armoury and
magazine for all the materials and weapons of political warfare), but
it gives a greater zest and liveliness to his manner of treating them.
Mr. Cobbett takes nothing for granted, as what he has proved before ;
he does not write a book of reference. We see his ideas in their
first concoction, fermenting and overflowing with the ebullitions of a
lively conception. We look on at the actual process, and are put in
immediate possession of the grounds and materials on which he forms
his sanguine, unsettled conclusions. He does not give us samples of
reasoning, but the whole solid mass, refuse and all.

' He pours out all as plain

As downright Shippen or as old Montaigne.'

This is one cause of the clearness and force of his writings. An
argument does not stop to stagnate and muddle in his brain, but passes
at once to his paper. His ideas are served i'p, like pancakes, hot and
hot. Fresh theoiies give him fresh courage. He is like a young
and lusty bridegroom, that divorces a favourite speculation every
morning, and marries a new one every night. He is not wedded to
his notions, not he. He has not one Mrs. Cobbett among all his
opinions. He makes the most of the last thought that has come in
his way, seizes fast hold of it, rumples it about in all directions with
rough strong bands, has his wicked will of it, takes a surfeit, and
throws it away. — Our author's changing his opinions for new ones is
not so wonderful : what is more remarkable is his felicity in forgetting
his old ones. He does not pretend to consistency (like Mr.
Coleridge) ; he frankly disavows all connexion with himself. He
feels no personal responsibility in this way, and cuts a friend or
principle with the same decided indifference that Antiphohs of
Ephesus cuts jEgeon of Syracuse. It is a hollow thing. The only
time he ever grew romantic was in bringing over the relics of
Mr Thomas Paine with him from America, to go a progre
them through the disaffected districts. Scarce had he la,
Liverpool, when he left the bones of a great man to shift for them
selves ; and no sooner did he arrive in London, than he made a



speech to disclaim all participation in the political and theological
sentiments of his late idol, and to place the whole stock of his
admiration and enthusiasm towards him to the account of his financial
speculations, and of his having predicted the fate of paper-money. If
he had erected a little gold statue to him, it might have proved the
sincerity of this assertion : but to make a martyr and a patron-saint of
a man, and to dig up 'his canonized bones' in order to expose them
as objects of devotion to the rabble's gaze, asks something that has
more life and spirit in it, more mind and vivifying soul, than has to do
with any calculation of pounds, shillings, and pence ! The fact is, he
ratted from his own project. He found the thing not so ripe as he
had expected. His heart failed him : his enthusiasm fled, and he
made his retraction. His admiration is short-lived: his contempt
only is rooted, and his resentment lasting. — The above was only one
instance of his building too much on practical data. He has an ill
habit of prophesying, and goes on, though still deceived. The art
of prophesying does not suit Mr. Cobbett's style. He has a knack
of fixing names and times and places. According to him, the
Reformed Parliament was to meet in March, 1818 : it did not, and
we heard no more of the matter. When his predictions fail, he takes
no farther notice of them, but applies himself to new ones — like the
country-people, who turn to see what weather there is in the almanac
for the next week, though it ha? been out in its reckoning every day
of the last.

Mr. Cobbett is great in attack, not in defence : he cannot fight an
up-hill battle. He will not bear the least punishing. If any one
turns upon him (which few people like to do), he immediately turns
tail. Like an overgrown school-boy, he is so used to have it all his
own way, that he cannot submit to any thing like competition, or a
struggle for the mastery : he must lay on all the blows, and take
none. He is bullying and cowardly ; a Big Ben in politics, who will
fall upon others and crush them by his weight, but is not prepared for
resistance, and is soon staggered by a few smart blows. Whenever
he has been set upon, he has slunk out of the controversy. The
Edinburgh Review made (what is called) a dead set at him some
years ago, to which he only retorted by an eulogy on the superior
neatness of an English kitchen-garden to a Scotch one. I remember
going one day into a bookseller's shop in Fleet-street to ask for the
Review ; and on my expressing my opinion to a young Scotchman,
who stood behind the counter, that Mr. Cobbett might hit as hard in
his reply, the North Briton said with some alarm — ' But you don't
think, Sir, Mr. Cobbett will be able to injure the Scottish nation ? '
I said I could not speak to that point, but I thought he was very well

3 2 4


able to defend himself. He however did not, but has born a grudge
to the Edinburgh Review ever since, which he hates worse than the
Quarterly. I cannot say I do. 1


Mr. Campbell may be said to hold a place (among modern poets)
between Lord Byron and Mr. Rogers. With much of the
splendour, the pointed vigour, and romantic interest of the one, he
possesses the fastidious refinement, the classic elegance of the other.
Mr. Rogers, as a writer, is too effeminate, Lord Byron too extrava-
gant : Mr. Campbell is neithei The author of the Pleasures of
Memory polishes his lines till they sparkle with the most exquisite
finish ; he attenuates them into the utmost degree of trembling
softness : but we may complain, in spite of the delicacy and brilliancy
of the execution, of a want of strength and solidity. The author of
the Pleasures of Hope, with a richer and deeper vein of thought and
imagination, works it out into figures of equal grace and dazzling
beauty, avoiding on the one hand the tinsel of flimsy affectation, and
on the other the vices of a rude and barbarous negligence. His
Pegasus is not a rough, skittish colt, running wild among the moun-
tains, covered with bur-docks and thistles, nor a tame, sleek pad,
unable to get out of the same ambling pace ; but a beauuful manege
horse, full of life and spirit in itself, and subject to the complete
controul of the rider. Mr. Campbell gives scope to his feelings and
his fancy, and embodies them in a noble and naturally inte
subject ; and he at the same time conceives himself called upon
(in these days of critical nicety) to pay the exact attention to the
expression of each thought, and to modulate each line into the most
faultless harmony. The character of his mind is a lofty and lell
scrutinising ambition, that strives to reconcile the integrity of general
design with the perfect elaboration of each component part, that jxna
at striking effect, but is jealous of the means by which this is to be

1 Mr. Cobbett speaks almost as well as he writes. The only time I I I
him he seemed to me a very pleasant man— easy of access, affable, clear-headed,
simple and mild in his manner, deliberate and unruffled in h.s speech,
of his expressions were not very qualified. His figure is tall and p ,
good sensible face— rather full, with little grey eyes, a hard, sq
a rud

of Parlia
of him for seeing him.


produced. Our poet is not averse to popularity (nay, he is tremblingly
alive to it) — but self-respect is the primary law, the indispensable
condition on which it must be obtained. We should dread to point
out (even if we could) a false concord, a mixed metaphor, an
imperfect rhyme, in any of Mr. Campbell's productions ; for we
think that all his fame would hardly compensate to him for the
discovery. He seeks for perfection, and nothing evidently short of it
can satisfy his mind. He is a high finisher in poetry, whose every
work must bear inspection, whose slightest touch is precious — not a
coarse dauber, who is contented to impose on public wonder and
credulity by some huge, ill-executed design, or who endeavours to
wear out patience and opposition together by a load of lumbering,
feeble, awkward, improgressive lines — on the contrary, Mr. Campbell
labours to lend every grace of execution to his subject, while he
borrows his ardour and inspiration from it, and to deserve the laurels
he has earned, by true genius and by true pains. There is an
apparent consciousness of this in most of his writings. He has
attained to great excellence by aiming at the greatest, by a cautious
and yet daring selection of topics, and by studiously (and with a
religious horror) avoiding all those faults which arise from grossness,
vulgarity, haste, and disregard of public opinion. He seizes on the
highest point of eminence, and strives to keep it to himself — he
* snatches a grace beyond the reach of art,' and will not let it go
— he steeps a single thought or image so deep in the Tyrian dyes
of a gorgeous imagination, that it throws its lustre over a whole page
— every where vivid ideal forms hover (in intense conception) over
the poet's verse, which ascends, like the aloe, to the clouds, with
pure flowers at its top. Or, to take an humbler comparison (the pride
of genius must sometimes stoop to the lowliness of criticism), Mr.
Campbell's poetry often reminds us of the purple gilliflower, both for
its colour and its scent, its glowing warmth, its rich, languid, sullen hue,

'Yet sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes,
Or Cytherea's breath ! *

There are those who complain of the little that Mr. Campbell has
done in poetry, and who seem to insinuate that he is deterred by his
own reputation from making any farther or higher attempts. But
after having produced two poems that have gone to the heart of a
nation, and are gifts to a world, he may surely linger out the rest of
his life in a dream of immortality. There are moments in our lives
so exquisite that all that remains of them afterwards seems useless and
barren ; and there are lines and stanzas in our author's early writings
in which he may be thought to have exhausted all the sweetness and



all the essence of poetry, so that nothing farther was left to his efforts
or his ambition. Happy is it for those few and fortunate worshippers
of the Muse (not a subject of grudging or envy to others) who
already enjoy in their life-time a foretaste of their future fame, who
see their names accompanying them, like a cloud of glory, from youth
to age,

1 And by the vision splendid,
Are on their way attended ' —

and who know that they have built a shrine for the thoughts and
feelings that were most dear to them, in the minds and memories of
other men, till the language which they lisped in childhood i
forgotten, or the human heart shall beat no more !

The Pleasures of Hope alone would not have called forth these
remarks from us ; but there are passages in the Gertrude of Wyoming
of so rare and ripe a beauty, that they challenge, as they exceed all
praise. Such, for instance, is the following peerless description of
Gertrude's childhood : —

' A loved bequest, — and I may half impart
To those that feel the strong paternal tie,
How like a new existence to his heart
That living flow'r uprose beneath his eye,
Dear as she was from cherub infancy,
From hours when she would round his garden play,
To time when as the rip'ning years went by,
Her lovely mind could culture well repay,
And more engaging grew, from pleasing day to day.

' I may not paint those thousand infant charms j
(Unconscious fascination, undesign'd ! )
The orison repeated in his arms,
For God to bless her sire and all mankind ;
The book, the bosom on his knee reclined,
Or how sweet fairy-lore he heard her con,
(The playmate ere the teacher of her mind) :
All uncompanion'd else her heart had gone
Till now, in Gertrude's eyes, their ninth blue summer shone.

' And summer was the tide, and sweet the hour,
When sire and daughter saw, with fleet descent,
An Indian from his bark approach their bow'r,
Of buskin'd limb and swarthy lineament ;
The red wild feathers on his brow were blent,
And bracelets bound the arm that help'd to light
A boy, who seem'd, as he beside him went,
Of Christian vesture and complexion bright,
Led by his dusky guide, like morning brought by night.'

3 2 7


In the foregoing stanzas we particularly admire the line —

' Till now, in Gertrude's eyes, their ninth blue summer shone.'

It appears to us like the ecstatic union of natural beauty and poetic
fancy, and in its playful sublimity resembles the azure canopy mirrored
in the smiling waters, bright, liquid, serene, heavenly ! A great
outcry, we know, has prevailed for some time past against poetic
diction and affected conceits, and, to a certain degree, we go along
with it ; but this must not prevent us from feeling the thrill of pleasure
when we see beauty linked to beauty, like kindred flame to flame, or
from applauding the voluptuous fancy that raises and adorns the fairy
fabric of thought, that nature has begun ! Pleasure is « scattered in
stray-gifts o'er the earth ' — beauty streaks the ' famouo poet's page '
in occasional lines of inconceivable brightness ; and wherever this is
the case, no splenetic censures or 'jealous leer malign,' no idle
theories or cold indifference should hinder us from greeting it with
rapture. There are other parts of this poem equally delightful, in
which there is a light startling as the red-bird's wing ; a perfume like
that of the magnolia ; a music like the murmuring of pathless woods
or of the everlasting ocean. We conceive, however, that Mr.
Campbell excels chiefly in sentiment and imagery. The story moves
slow, and is mechanically conducted, and rather resembles a Scotch
canal carried over lengthened aqueducts and with a number of locks in
it, than one of those rivers that sweep in their majestic course, broad
and full, over Transatlantic plains and lose themselves in rolling gulfs,
or thunder down lofty precipices. But in the centre, the inmost
recesses of our poet's heart, the pearly dew of sensibility is distilled
and collects, like the diamond in the mine, and the structure of his
fame rests on the crystal columns of a polished imagination. We
prefer the Gertrude to the Pleasures of Hope, because with perhaps
less brilliancy, there is more of tenderness and natural imagery in the
former. In the Pleasures of Hope Mr. Campbell had not completely
emancipated himself from the trammels of the more artificial style of
poetry — from epigram, and antithesis, and hyperbole. The best line
in it, in which earthly joys are said to be —

' Like angels' visits, few and far between ' —

is a borrowed one. 1 But in the Gertrude of Wyoming ' we perceive
a softness coming over the heart of the author, and the scales and
crust of formality, that fence in his couplets and give them a some-

Like angels' visits, short and far between ' —

Blair's Grave.



what glittering and rigid appearance, fall off,' and he has succeeded
in engrafting the wild and more expansive interest of the romantic
school of poetry on classic elegance and precision. After the poem
we have just named, Mr. Campbell's Songs are the happiest efforts of
his Muse : — breathing freshness, blushing like the morn, they seem,
like clustering roses, to weave a chaplet for love and liberty ; or their
bleeding words gush out in mournful and hurried succession, like
' ruddy drops that visit the sad heart ' of thoughtful Humanity. The
Battle of Hohenl'inden is of all modern compositions the most lyrical in
spirit and in sound. To justify this encomium, we need only recall
the lines to the reader's memory.

' On Linden, when the sun was low,
All bloodless lay th' untrodden snow,
And dark as winter was the flow
Of Iser, rolling rapidly.

' But Linden saw another sight,
When the drum beat at dead of night,
Commanding fires of death to light
The darkness of her scenery.

' By torch and trumpet fast array \i,
Each horseman drew his battle blade,
And furious every charger neigh'd,
To join the dreadful revelry.

'Then shook the hills with thunder riv'n,
Then rush'd the steed to battle driv'n,
And louder than the bolts of heav'n
Far flash'd the red artillery.

' But redder yet that light shall glow
On Linden's hills of stained snow,
And bloodier yet the torrent flow
Of Iser, rolling rapidly.

1 Tis morn, but scarce yon level sun
Can pierce the war-clouds, rolling ' dun.
Where furious Frank and fiery TU>r.
Shout in their suiph'rous canopy.

« The combat deepens. On, ye brave,
Who rush to glory, or the grave !
Wave, Munich ! all thy banners wave !
And charge with all thy chivalry !

1 Is not this word, which occurs in the last line but one, (a, well as before) an
instance of that repetition, which wc so often meet .„ the most correct an„
elegant writers ?



' Few, few shall part where many meet !
The snow shall be their winding-sheet,
And every turf beneath their feet
Shall be a soldier's sepulchre.'

Mr. Campbell's prose-criticisms on contemporary and other poets
(which have appeared in the New Monthly Magazine) are in a style
at once chaste, temperate, guarded, and just.

Mr. Crabbe presents an entire contrast to Mr. Campbell : — The
one is the most ambitious and aspiring of living poets, the other the
most humble and prosaic. If the poetry of the one is like the arch
of the rainbow, spanning and adorning the earth, that of the other is
like a dull, leaden cloud hanging over it. Mr. Crabbe's style might
be cited as an answer to Audrey's question — ' Is poetry a true thing ? '
There are here no ornaments, no flights of fancy, no illusions of
sentiment, no tinsel of words. His song is one sad reality, one
unraised, unvaried note of unavailing woe. Literal fidelity serves
him in the place of invention ; he assumes importance by a number of
petty details ; he rivets attention by being tedious. He not only
deals in incessant matters of fact, but in matters of fact of the most
familiar, the least animating, and the most unpleasant kind ; but he

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 35 of 38)