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 36 of 38)
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relies for the effect of novelty on the microscopic minuteness with
which he dissects the most trivial objects — and for the interest he
excites, on the unshrinking determination with which he handles the
most painful. His poetry has an official and professional air. He is
called in to cases of difficult births, of fractured limbs, or breaches of
the peace ; and makes out a parochial list of accidents and offences.
He takes the most trite, the most gross and obvious and revolting part
of nature, for the subject of his elaborate descriptions ; but it is Nature
still, and Nature is a great and mighty Goddess ! It is well for the
Reverend Author that it is so. Individuality is, in his theory, the
only definition of poetry. Whatever is, he hitches into rhyme.
Whoever makes an exact image of any thing on the earth, however
deformed or insignificant, according to him, must succeed — and he
himself has succeeded. Mr. Crabbe is one of the most popular and
admired of our living authors. That he is so, can be accounted for
on no other principle than the strong ties that bind us to the world
about us, and our involuntary yearnings after whatever in any manner
powerfully and directly reminds us of it. His Muse is not one of the
Daughters of Memory, but the old toothless, mumbling, dame herself,
doling out the gossip and scandal of the neighbourhood, recounting
totidem verbis et Uteris, what happens in every place of the kingdom
every hour in the year, and fastening always on the worst as the most


palatable morsels. But she is a circumstantial old lady, communi-
cative, scrupulous, leaving nothing to the imagination, harping on the
smallest grievances, a village oracle and critic, most veritable, most
identical, bringing us acquainted with persons and things just as they
chanced to exist, and giving us a local interest in all she knows and
tells. Mr. Crabbe's Helicon is choked up with weeds and corruption;
it reflects nc light from heaven, it emits no cheerful sound : no flowers
of love, of hope, or joy spring up near it, or they bloom only to
wither in a moment. Our poet's verse does not put a spirit of youth
in every thing, but a spirit of fear, despondency, and decay : it is not
an electric spark to kindle or expand, but acts like the torpedo's touch
to deaden or contract. It lends no dazzling tints to fancy, it aids no
soothing feelings in the heart, it gladdens no prospect, it stirs no wish ;
in its view the current of life runs slow, dull, cold, dispirited, half
under ground, muddy, and clogged with all creeping things. The
world is one vast infirmary ; the hill of Parnassus is a penitentiary, of
which our author is the overseer : to read him is a penance, yet we
read on ! Mr. Crabbe, it must be confessed, is a repulsive writer.
He contrives to ' turn diseases to commodities,' and makes a virtue of
necessity. He puts us out of conceit with this world, which perhaps
a severe divine should do ; yet does not, as a charitable divine ought,
point to another. His morbid feelings droop and cling to the earth,
grovel where they should soar ; and throw a dead weight on every
aspiration of the soul after the good or beautiful. By degrees we
submit, and are reconciled to our fate, like patients to the physician,
or prisoners in the condemned cell. We can only explain this by
saying, as we said before, that Mr. Crabbe gives us one part of nature,
the mean, the little, the disgusting, the distressing ; that he does this
thoroughly and like a master, and we forgive all the rest.

Mr. Crabbe's first poems were published so long ago as the year
1782, and received the approbation of Dr. Johnson only a little before
he died. This was a testimony from an enemy ; for Dr. Johnson
was not an admirer of the simple in style or minute in description.
Still he was an acute, strong-minded man, and could see truth when it
was presented to him, even through the mist of his prejudices and his
foibles. There was something in Mr. Crabbe's intricate points that
did not, after all, so ill accord with the Doctor's purblind v.sion ; and
he knew quite enough of the petty ills of life to judge of the merit of
our poet's descriptions, though he himself chose to slur them over ,n
high-sounding dogmas or general invectives. Mr. Crabbe s earliest
poem of the Village was recommended to the notice of Dr. Johnson
by Sir Joshua Reynolds; and we cannot help thinking that * taste for
that sort of poetry, which leans for support on the truth and fidelity


of its imitations of nature, began to display itself much about that time,
and, in a good measure, in consequence of the direction of the public
taste to the subject of painting. Book-learning, the accumulation of
wordy common-places, the gaudy pretensions of poetical fiction, had
enfeebled and perverted our eye for nature. The study of the fine
arts, which came into fashion about forty years ago, and was then
first considered as a polite accomplishment, would tend imperceptibly
to restore it. Painting is essentially an imitative art ; it cannot
subsist for a moment on empty generalities : the critic, therefore, who
had been used to this sort of substantial entertainment, would be
disposed to read poetry with the eye of a connoisseur, would be
little captivated with smooth, polished, unmeaning periods, and would
turn with double eagerness and relish to the force and precision of
individual details, transferred, as it were, to the page from the canvas.
Thus an admirer of Teniers or Hobbima might think little of the
pastoral sketches of Pope or Goldsmith ; even Thomson describes
not so much the naked object as what he sees in his mind's eye,
surrounded and glowing with the mild, bland, genial vapours of his
brain : — but the adept in Dutch interiors, hovels, and pig-styes must
find in Mr. Crabbe a man after his own heart. He is the very thing
itself; he paints in words, instead of colours: there is no other
difference. As Mr. Crabbe is not a painter, only because he does not
use a brush and colours, so he is for the most part a poet, only
because he writes in lines of ten syllables. All the rest might be
found in a newspaper, an old magazine, or a county-register. Our
author is himself a little jealous of the prudish fidelity of his homely
Muse, and tries to justify himself by precedents. He brings as a
parallel instance of merely literal description, Pope's lines on the gay
Duke of Buckingham, beginning ' In the worst inn's worst room see
Villiers lies ! ' But surely nothing can be more dissimilar. Pope
describes what is striking, Crabbe would have described merely what
was there. The objects in Pope stand out to the fancy from the
mixture of the mean with the gaudy, from the contrast of the scene and
the character. There is an appeal to the imagination ; you see what
is passing in a poetical point of view. In Crabbe there is no foil, no
contrast, no impulse given to the mind. It is all on a level and of a
piece. In fact, there is so little connection between the subject-
matter of Mr. Crabbe's lines and the ornament of rhyme which is
tacked to them, that many of his verses read like serious burlesque,
and the parodies which have been made upon them are hardly so
quaint as the originals.

Mr. Crabbe's great fault is certainly that he is a sickly, a querulous,
a uniformly dissatisfied poet. He sings the country ; and he sings

" 2


it in a pitiful tone. He chooses this subject only to take the charm
out of it, and to dispel the illusion, the glory, and the dream, which
had hovered over it in golden verse from Theocritus to Cowper.
He sets out with professing to overturn the theory which had
hallowed a shepherd's life, and made the names of grove and valley
music to our ears, in order to give us truth in its stead ; but why
not lay aside the fool's cap and bells at once ? Why not insist on
the unwelcome reality in plain prose ? If our author is a poet, why
trouble himself with statistics? If he is a statistic writer, why set
his ill news to harsh and grating verse? The philosopher in
ing the dark side of human nature may have reason on his side, and
a moral lesson or remedy in view. The tragic poet, who shows
the sad vicissitudes of things and the disappointments of the passions,
at least strengthens our yearnings after imaginary good, and lends
wings to our desires, by which we, 'at one bound, high overleap all
bound ' of actual suffering. But Mr. Crabbe does neither. He
gives us discoloured paintings of life ; helpless, repining, unprovable,
unedifying distress. He is not a philosopher, but a sophist, a
misanthrope in verse ; a namby-pamby Mandeville, a Malthus turned
metrical romancer. He professes historical fidelity; but his vein
is not dramatic ; nor does he give us the pros and cons of that
versatile gipsey, Nature. He does not indulge his fancy or
sympathise with us, or tell us how the poor feel ; but how he should
feel in their situation, which we do not want to know. He does
not weave the web of their lives of a mingled yarn, good and ill
together, but clothes them all in the same dingy linsey-woolsey, or
tinges them with a green and yellow melancholy. He blocks out
all possibility of good, cancels the hope, or even the wish for it as
a weakness ; checkmates Tityrus and Virgil at the game of
pastoral cross-purposes, disables all his adversary's white pieces, and
leaves none but black ones on the board. The situation of a
country clergyman is not necessarily favourable to the cultivation of
the Muse. He is set down, perhaps, as he thinks, in a small
curacy for life, and he takes his revenge by imprisoning the reader's
imagination in luckless verse. Shut out from sorial converse, from
learned colleges and halls, where he passed his youth, he has no
cordial fellow-feeling with the unlettered manners of the Village or
the Borough ; and he describes his neighbours as more uncomfortable
and discontented than himself. All this while he dedicates
successive volumes to rising generations of noble patrons; and
while he desolates a line of coast with sterile, blighting lines, the
only leaf of his books where honour, beauty, worth, or pleasure
bloom, is that inscribed to the Rutland family ! We might adduce



instances of what we have said from every page of his works : let
one suffice —

' Thus by himself compelled to live each day,
To wait for certain hours the tide's delay ;
At the same times the same dull views to see,
The bounding marsh-bank and the blighted tree ;
The water only when the tides were high,
When low, the mud half-covered and half dry;
The sun-burnt tar that blisters on the planks,
And bank-side stakes in their uneven ranks ;
Heaps of entangled weeds that slowly float,
As the tide rolls by the impeded boat.
When tides were neap, and in the sultry day,
Through the tall bounding mud-banks made their way,
Which on each side rose swelling, and below
The dark warm flood ran silently and slow ;
There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,
There hang his head, and view the lazy tide
In its hot slimy channel slowly glide ;
Where the small eels, that left the deeper way
For the warm shore, within the shallows play ;
Where gaping muscles, left upon the mud,
Slope their slow passage to the fall'n flood :
Here dull and hopeless he "d lie down and trace
How side-long crabs had crawled their crooked race;
Or sadly listen to the tuneless cry
Of fishing gull or clanging golden-eye ;
What time the sea-birds to the marsh would come,
And the loud bittern, from the bull-rush home,
Gave from the salt-ditch-side the bellowing boom :
He nursed the feelings these dull scenes produce
And loved to stop beside the opening sluice ;
Where the small stream, confined in narrow bound,
Ran with a dull, unvaried, saddening sound;
Where all, presented to the eye or ear,
Oppressed the soul with misery, grief, and fear."

This is an exact facsimile of some of the most unlovely parts of
the creation. Indeed the whole of Mr. Crabbe's Borough, from
which the above passage is taken, is done so to the life, that it seems
almost like some sea-monster, crawled out of the neighbouring slime,
and harbouring a breed of strange vermin, with a strong local scent
of tar and bulge-water. Mr. Crabbe's Tales are more readable than
his Poems ; but in proportion as the interest increases, they become
more oppressive. They turn, one and all, upon the same sort of
teazing, helpless, mechanical, unimaginative distress; — and though



it is not easy to lay them down, you never wish to take them up
again. Still in this way, they are highly finished, striking, and
original portraits, worked out with an eye to nature, and an intimate
knowledge of the small and intricate folds of the human heart.
Some of the best are the Confidant, the story of Silly Shore, the
Young Poet, the Painter. The episode of Phabe Dawson in the
Village, is one of the most tender and pensive ; and the character
of the methodist parson who persecutes the sailor's widow with his
godly, selfish love is one of the most profound. In a word, if
Mr. Crabbe's writings do not add greatly to the store of entertaining
and delightful fiction, yet they will remain, « as a thorn in the side
of poetry,' perhaps for a century to come !


' Or winglet of the fairy humming-bird,
Like atoms of the rainbow fluttering round.*


The lines placed at the head of this sketch, from a contemporary
writer, appear to us very descriptive of Mr. Moore's poetry. His
verse is like a shower of beauty ; a dance of images ; a stream of
music ; or like the spray of the water-fall, tinged by the morning-
beam with rosy light. The characteristic distinction of our author's
style is this continuous and incessant flow of voluptuous thoughts and
shining allusions. He ought to write with a crystal pen on silver
paper. His subject is set off by a dazzling veil of poetic diction,
like a wreath of flowers gemmed with innumerous dew-drops, that
weep, tremble, and glitter in liquid softness and pearly light, while
the song of birds ravishes the ear, and languid odours breathe around,
and Aurora opens Heaven's smiling portals, Peris and nymphs peep
through the golden glades, and an Angel's wing glances over the
glossy scene.

' No dainty flower or herb that grows on ground,
No arboret with painted blossoms drest,
And smelling sweet, but there it might be found
To bud out fair, and its sweet smells throw all around.

'No tree, whose branches did not bravely spring j
No branch, whereon a fine bird did not sit ;
No bird, but did her shrill notes sweetly sing ;
No song, but did contain a lovely dit :
Trees, branches, birds, and songs were framed fit
For to allure frail minds to careless ease.' . .


Mr. Campbell's imagination is fastidious and select ; and hence,
though we meet with more exquisite beauties in his writings, we
meet with them more rarely : there is comparatively a dearth of
ornament. But Mr. Moore's strictest economy is « wasteful and
superfluous excess ' : he is always liberal, and never at a loss ; for
sooner than not stimulate and delight the reader, he is willing to be
tawdry, or superficial, or common-place. His Muse must be fine
at any rate, though she should paint, and wear cast-off decorations.
Rather than have any lack of excitement, he repeats himself; and
' Eden, and Eblis, and cherub-smiles ' fill up the pauses of the
sentiment with a sickly monotony. — It has been too much our
author's object to pander to the artificial taste of the age ; and his
productions, however brilliant and agreeable, are in consequence some-
what meretricious and effeminate. It was thought formerly enough to
have an occasionally fine passage in the progress of a story or a poem,
and an occasionally striking image or expression in a fine passage or
description. But this style, it seems, was to be exploded as rude,
Gothic, meagre, and dry. Now all must be raised to the same
tantalising and preposterous level. There must be no pause, no
interval, no repose, no gradation. Simplicity and truth yield up
the palm to affectation and grimace. The craving of the public
mind after novelty and effect is a false and uneasy appetite that must
be pampered with fine words at every step — we must be tickled
with sound, startled with show, and relieved by the importunate,
uninterrupted display of fancy and verbal tinsel as much as possible
from the fatigue of thought or shock of feeling. A poem is to
resemble an exhibition of fire-works, with a continual explosion of
quaint figures and devices, flash after flash, that surprise for the
moment, and leave no trace of light or warmth behind them. Or
modern poetry in its retrograde progress comes at last to be con-
structed on the principles of the modern Opera, where an attempt
is made to gratify every sense at every instant, and where the
understanding alone is insulted and the heart mocked. It is in this
view only that we can discover that Mr. Moore's poetry is vitiated
or immoral, — it seduces the taste and enervates the imagination. It
creates a false standard of reference, and inverts or decompounds the
natural order of association, in which objects strike the thoughts and
feelings. His is the poetry of the bath, of the toilette, of the saloon,
of the fashionable world ; not the poetry of nature, of the heart, or
of human life. He stunts and enfeebles equally the growth of the
imagination and the affections, by not taking the seed of poetry and
sowing it in the ground of truth, and letting it expand in the dew
and rain, and shoot up to heaven,



'And spread its sweet leaves to the air,
Or dedicate its beauty to the sun,'—

instead of which he anticipates and defeats his own object, bv
plucking flowers and blossoms from the stem, and setting them in
the ground of idleness and folly — or in the cap of his own vanity,
where they ;oon wither and disappear, ' dying or ere they sicken ! '
This is but a sort of child's play, a short-sighted ambition. In
Milton we meet with many prosaic lines, either because the subject
does not require raising or because they are necessary to connect the
story, or sene as a relief to other passages — there is not such a
thing to be fcund in all Mr. Moore's writings. His volumes present
us with ' a pe-petual feast of nectar'd sweets ' — but we cannot add —
4 where no crade surfeit reigns.' He indeed cloys with sweetness ;
he obscures with splendour ; he fatigues with gaiety. We are
stifled on beds of roses — we literally lie ' on the rack of restless
ecstacy.' His flowery fancy 'looks so fair and smells so sweet,
that the sense aches at it.' His verse droops and languishes under a
load of beauty, like a bough laden with fruit. His gorgeous style is
like 'another morn risen on mid-noon.' There is no passage that
is not made up of blushing lines, no line that is not enriched with a
sparkling metaphor, no image that is left unadorned with a double
epithet — all his verbs, nouns, adjectives, are equally glossy, smooth,
and beautiful. Every stanza is transparent with light, perfumed with
odours, floating in liquid harmony, melting in luxurious, evanescent
delights. His Muse is never contented with an offering from one
sense alone, but brings another rifled charm to match it, and revels in
a fairy round of pleasure. The interest is not dramatic, but melo-
dramatic — it is a mixture of painting, poetry, and music, of the
natural and preternatural, of obvious sentiment and romantic costume.
A rose is a Gul, a nightingale a Bullul. We might fancy ourselves
in an eastern harem, amidst Ottomans, and otto of roses, and veils
and spangles, and marble pillars, and cool fountains, and Arab maids
and Genii, and magicians, and Peris, and cherubs, and what not ?
Mr. Moore has a little mistaken the art of poetry for the cosmetic art.
He does not compose an historic group, or work out a single figi
but throws a variety of elementary sensations, of vivid impressions
together, and calls it a description. He makes out an inventory of
beauty— the smile on the lips, the dimple on the cheeks, item, golden
locks, item, a pair of blue wings, item, a silver sound, with breathing
fragrance and radiant light, and thinks it a character or a story. He
gets together a number of fine things and fine names, and thinks that,
flung on heaps, they make up a fine poem. This dissipated, fulsome,


painted, patch-work style may succeed in the levity and languor of
the boudoir, or might have been adapted to the Pavilions of royalty,
but it is not the style of Parnassus, nor a passport to Immortality.

It is not the taste of the ancients, • 'tis not classical lore ' nor the

fashion of Tibullus, or Theocritus, or Anacreon, or Virgil, or Ariosto,
or Pope, or Byron, or any great writer among the living or the dead,
but it is the style of our English Anacreon, and it is (or was) the
fashion of the day! Let one example (and that an admired one),
taken from Lalla Roohh, suffice to explain the mystery aid soften the
harshness of the foregoing criticism.

' Now, upon Syria's land of roses
Softly the light of eve reposes,
And, like a glory, the broad sun
Hangs over sainted Lebanon ;
Whose head in wintry grandeur towers,

And whitens with eternal sleet,
While summer, in a vale of flowers,

Is sleeping rosy at his feet.

' To one who look'd from upper air
O'er all the enchanted regions there,
How beauteous must have been the glow,
The life, the sparkling from below !
Fair gardens, shining streams, with ranks
Of golden melons on their banks,
More golden where the sun-light falls; —
Gay lizards, glittering on the walls
Of ruin'd shrines, busy and bright
As they were all alive with light ; —
And, yet more splendid, numerous flocks
Of pigeons, settling on the rocks,
With their rich restless wings, that gleam
Variously in the crimson beam
Of the warm west, — as if inlaid
With brilliants from the mine, or made
Of tearless rainbows, such as span
The' unclouded skies of Peristan !
And then, the mingling sounds that come,
Of shepherd's ancient reed, with hum
Of the wild bees of Palestine,

Banquetting through the flowery vales ; —
And, Jordan, those sweet banks of thine,

And woods, so full of nightingales ! '

The following lines are the very perfection of Delia Cruscan
sentiment, and affected orientalism of style. The Peri exclaims on


finding that old talisman and hackneyed poetical machine, « a penitent
tear ' —

' J°y. joy for ever ! my task is done —
The gates are pass'd, and Heaven is won !
Oh ! am I not happy ? I am, I am —

To thee, sweet Eden ! how dark and sad
Are the diamond turrets of Shadukiam,
And the fragrant bowers of Amberabad.'

There is in all this a play of fancy, a glitter of words, a shallowness
of thought, and a want of truth and solidity that is wonderful, and
that nothing but the heedless, rapid glide of the verse could render
tolerable : it seems that the poet, as well as the lover,

' May bestride the Gossamer,
That wantons in the idle, summer air,
And yet not fall, so light is vanity ! '

Mr. Moore ought not to contend with serious difficulties or with
entire subjects. He can write verses, not a poem. There is no
principle of massing or of continuity in his productions — neither
height nor breadth nor depth of capacity. There is no truth of
representation, no strong internal feeling — but a continual flutter and
display of affected airs and graces, like a finished coquette, who hides
the want of symmetry by extravagance of dress, and the want of
passion by flippant forwardness and unmeaning sentimentality. Ail
is flimsy, all is florid to excess. His imagination may dally with
insect beauties, with Rosicrucian spells; may describe a butterfly's
wing, a flower-pot, a fan : but it should not attempt to span the great
outlines of nature, or keep pace with the sounding march of events,
or grapple with the strong fibres of the human heart. The great
becomes turgid in his hands, the pathetic insipid. If Mr. Moore were
to describe the heights of Chimboraco, instead of the loneliness, the
vastness and the shadowy might, he would only think of adorning it
with roseate tints, like a strawberry-ice, and would transform a
magician's fortress in the Himmalaya (stripped of its mysterious
gloom and frowning horrors) into a jeweller's toy, to be set upon a

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 36 of 38)