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 37 of 38)
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lady's toilette. In proof of this, see above ' the diamond turrets of
Shadukiam,' &c. The description of Mokanna in the fight, though
it has spirit and grandeur of effect, has still a great alloy of the mock-
heroic in it. The route of blood and death, which is otherwise well
marked, is infested with a swarm of ' fire-fly ' fancies.
' In vain Mokanna, 'midst the general flight,
Stands, like the red moon, in some stormy night,
Among the fugitive clouds, that hurrying by,
Leave only her unshaken in the sky.'



This simile is fine, and would have been perfect, but that the moon
is not red, and that 3he seems to hurry by the clouds, not they by

The description of the warrior's youthful adversary,

' Whose coming seems

A light, a glory, such as breaks in dreams '

is fantastic and enervated — a field of battle has nothing to do with
dreams : — and again, the two lines immediately after,

' And every sword, true as o'er billows dim
The needle tracks the load-star, following him ' —

arc a mere piece of enigmatical ingenuity and scientific mimminee-

We cannot except the Irish Melodies from the same censure. If
these national airs do indeed express the soul of impassioned feeling
in his countrymen, the case of Ireland is hopeless. If these pretti-
nesses pass for patriotism, if a country can heave from its heart's core
only these vapid, varnished sentiments, lip-deep, and let its tears of
blood evaporate in an empty conceit, let it be governed as it has been.
There are here no tones to waken Liberty, to console Humanity.
Mr. Moore converts the wild harp of Erin into a musical snuff-box ! x
— We do except from this censure the author's political squibs, and
the 'Twopenny Post-bag.' These are essences, are 'nests of
spicery,' hitter and sweet, honey and gall together. No one can
so well describe the set speech of a dull formalist, 2 or the flowing
locks of a Dowager,

' In the manner of Ackermann's dresses for May.'

His light, agreeable, polished style pierces through the body of the
court —hits off the faded graces of ' an Adonis of fifty,' weighs
the vanity of fashion in tremulous scales, mimics the grimace of
affectation and folly, shows up the littleness of the great, and spears

1 Compare his songs with Burns's.

2 ' There was a little man, and he had a little soul,

And he said, Little soul, let us try,' &c.
Parocy on

* There was a little man, and he had a little gun.' —
One should think this exquisite ridicule of a pedantic effusion might have
silenced for ever the automaton that delivered it : but the official personage in
question at the close of the Session addressed an extra-official congratulation to the
Prince Regent on a bill that had not passed — as if to repeat and insist upon our
errors were to justify them.



a phalanx of statesmen with its glittering point as with a diamond


' In choosing songs the Regent named,
" Had I a heart for falsehood fram'd : "
While gentle Hertford begg'd and prayd
For "Young I am, and sore afraid." '

Nothing in Pope or Prior ever surpassed the delicate insinuation and
adroit satire of these lines, and hundreds more of our author's com-
position. We wish he would not take pains to make us think of
them with less pleasure than formerly. — The 'Fudge Family' is in
the same spirit, but with a little falling-ofF. There is too great
a mixture of undisguised Jacobinism and fashionable slang. The
* divine Fanny Bias ' and * the mountains a la Russe ' figure in some-
what quaintly with Buonaparte and the Bourbons. The poet also
launches the lightning of political indignation ; but it rather plays
round and illumines his own pen than reaches the devoted heads
at which it is aimed !

Mr. Moore is in private life an amiable and estimable man. The
embellished and voluptuous style of his poetry, his unpretending origin,
and his mignon figure, soon introduced him to the notice of the great,
and his gaiety, his wit, his good-humour, and many agreeable accom-
plishments fixed him there, the darling of his friends and the idol of
fashion. If he is no longer familiar with Royalty as with his garter,
the fault is not his — his adherence to his principles caused the separa-
tion — his love of his country was the cloud that intercepted the
sunshine of court-favour. This is so far well. Mr. Moore vindicates
his own dignity ; but the sense of intrinsic worth, of wide-spread
fame, and of the intimacy of the great makes him perhaps a little too
fastidious and exigeant as to the pretensions of others. He has been
so long accustomed to the society of Whig Lords, and so enchanted
with the smile of beauty and fashion, that he really fancies himself
one of the set, to which he is admitted on sufferance, and tries very
unnecessarily to keep others out of it. He talks familiarly of works
that are or are not read 'in our circle ' ; and seated smiling and at his
ease in a coronet-coach, enlivening the owner by his brisk sallies and
Attic conceits, is shocked, as he passes, to see a Peer of the realm
shake hands with a poet. There is a little indulgence of spleen and
envy, a little servility and pandering to aristocratic pride in this pro-
ceeding. Is Mr. Moore bound to advise a Noble Poet to get as fast
as possible out of a certain publication, lest he should not be able to
give an account at Holland or at Lansdown House, how his friend

Lord B had associated himself with his friend L. H ! Il

he afraid that the 'Spirit of Monarchy' will eclipse the 'Fables for



the Holy Alliance ' in virulence and plain speaking ? Or are the
members of the ' Fudge Family ' to secure a monopoly for the abuse
of the Bourbons and the doctrine of Divine Right i Because he is
genteel and sarcastic, may not others be paradoxical and argumenta-
tive ? Or must no one bark at a Minister or General, unless they
have been first dandled, like a little French pug-dog, in the lap of a
lady of quality ? Does Mr. Moore insist on the double claim of
birth and genius as a title to respectability in all advocates of the
popular side — but himself? Or is he anxious to keep the pretensions
of his patrician and plebeian friends quite separate, so as to be himself
the only point of union, a sort of double meaning, between the two ?
It is idle to think of setting bounds to the weakness and illusions of
self-love as long as it is confined to a man's own breast ; but it ought
not to be made a plea for holding back the powerful hand that is
stretched out to save another struggling with the tide of popular
prejudice, who has suffered shipwreck of health, fame, and fortune
in a common cause, and who has deserved the aid and the good
wishes of all who are (on principle) embarked in the same cause by
equal zeal and honesty, if not by equal talents to support and to
adorn it !

We shall conclude the present article with a short notice of an
individual who, in the cast of hie mind and in political principle,
bears no very remote resemblance to the patriot and wit just spoken
of, and on whose merits we should descant at greater length, but that
personal intimacy might be supposed to render us partial. It is well
when personal intimacy produces this effect ; and when the light, that
dazzled us at a distance, does not on a closer inspection turn out an
opaque substance. This is a charge that none of his friends will
bring against Mr. Leigh Hunt. He improves upon acquaintance.
The author translates admirably into the man. Indeed the very
faults of his style are virtues in the individual. His natural gaiety
and sprightliness of manner, his high animal spirits, and the vinous
quality of his mind, produce an immediate fascination and intoxication
in those who come in contact with him, and carry off in society what-
ever in his writings may to some seem flat and impertinent. From
great sanguineness of temper, from great quickness and unsuspecting
simplicity, he runs on to the public as he does at his own fireside,
and talks about himself, forgetting that he is not always among
friends. His look, his tone are required to point many things that
he says : his frank, cordial manner reconciles you instantly to a little
over-bearing, over-weening self-complacency. ' To be admired, he
needs but to be seen ' : but perhaps he ought to be seen to be fully
appreciated. No one ever sought his society who did not come away



with a more favourable opinion of him : no one was ever disappointed,
except those who had entertained idle prejudices against him. He
sometimes trifles with his readers, or tires of a subject (from not
being urged on by the stimulus of immediate sympathy) — but in con-
versation he is all life and animation, combining the vivacity of the
schoolboy with the resources of the wit and the taste of the scholar.
The personal character, the spontaneous impulses, do not appear to
excuse the author, unless you are acquainted with his situation and
habits — like some proud beauty who gives herself what we think
strange airs and graces under a mask, but who is instantly forgiven
when she shews her face. We have said that Lord Byron is a
sublime coxcomb : why should we not say that Mr. Hunt is a
delightful one ? There is certainly an exuberance of satisfaction in
his manner which is more than the strict logical premises warrant,
and which dull and phlegmatic constitutions know nothing of, and
cannot understand till they see it. He is the only poet or literary
man we ever knew who puts us in mind of Sir John Suckling or
Killigrew or Carew ; or who united rare intellectual acquirements
with outward grace and natural gentility. Mr. Hunt ought to have
been a gentleman born, and to have patronised men of letters. He
might then have played, and sung, and laughed, and talked his life
away ; have written manly prose, elegant verse ; and his Story of
Rimini would have been praised by Mr. Blackwood. As it is, there
is no man now living who at the same time writes prose and verse so
well, with the exception of Mr. Southey (an exception, we fear, that
will be little palatable to either of these gentlemen). His prose
writings, however, display more consistency of principle than the
laureate's ; his verses more taste. We will venture to oppose his
Third Canto of the Story of Rimini for classic elegance and natural
feeling to any equal number of lines from Mr. Southey's Epics or
from Mr. Moore's Lalla Rookh. In a more gay and conversational
style of writing, we think his Epistle to Lord Byron on his going
abroad, is a masterpiece ; — and the Feast of the Poets has run through
several editions. A light, familiar grace, and mild unpretending
pathos are the characteristics of his more sportive or serious writings,
whether in poetry or prose. A smile plays round the sparkling
features of the one ; a tear is ready to start from the thoughtful gaze
of the other. He perhaps takes too little pains, and indulges in too
much wayward caprice in both. A wit and a poet, Mr. Hunt is also
distinguished by fineness of tact and sterling sense : he has only been
a visionary in humanity, the fool of virtue. What then is the draw-
back to so many shining qualities, that has made them useless, or
even hurtful to their owner ? His crime is, to have been Editor of



the Examiner ten years ago, when some allusion was made in it to
the age of the present King, and though his Majesty has grown
older, our luckless politician is no wiser than he was then !


So Mr. Charles Lamb and Mr. Washington Irvine choose to designate
themselves ; and as their lucubrations under one or other of these
noms de guerre have gained considerable notice from the public, we
shall here attempt to discriminate their several styles and manner,
and to point out the beauties and defects of each in treating of
somewhat similar subjects.

Mr. Irvine is, we take it, the more popular writer of the two, or a
more general favourite : Mr. Lamb has more devoted, and perhaps
more judicious partisans. Mr. Irvine is by birth an American, and
has, as it were, skimmed the cream, and taken off patterns with great
skill and cleverness, from our best known and happiest writers, so that
their thoughts and almost their reputation are indirectly transferred
to his page, and smile upon us from another hemisphere, like • the
pale reflex of Cynthia's brow ' : he succeeds to our admiration and
our sympathy by a sort of prescriptive title and traditional privilege.
Mr. Lamb, on the contrary, being ' native to the manner here,'
though he too has borrowed from previous sources, instead of avail-
ing himself of the most popular and admired, has groped out his way,
and made his most successful researches among the more obscure and
intricate, though certainly not the least pithy or pleasant of our
writers. Mr. Washington Irvine has culled and transplanted the
flowers of modern literature, for the amusement of the general reader :
Mr. Lamb has raked among the dust and cobwebs of a more remote
period, has exhibited specimens of curious relics, and pored over
moth-eaten, decayed manuscripts, for the benefit of the more inquisitive
and discerning part of the public. Antiquity after a time has the
grace of novelty, as old fashions revived are mistaken for new ones ;
and a certain quaintness and singularity of style is an agreeable relief
to the smooth and insipid monotony of modern composition. Mr.
Lamb has succeeded not by conforming to the Spirit of the Age, but
in opposition to it. He does not march boldly along with the crowd,
but steals off the pavement to pick his way in the contrary direction.
He prefers bye-nvays to highways. When the full tide of human life
pours along to some festive show, to some pageant of a day, Elia
would stand on one side to look over an old book-stall, or stroll down
some deserted pathway in search of a pensive inscription over a



tottering doorway, or some quaint device in architecture, illustratire
of embryo art and ancient manners. Mr. Lamb has the very soul
of an antiquarian, as this implies a reflecting humanity ; the film of
the past hovers forever before him. He is shy, sensitive, the reverse
of every thing coarse, vulgar, obtrusive, and commonplace. He would
fain ' shuffle off this mortal coil,' and his spirit clothes itself in the
garb of elder time, homelier, but more durable. He is borne along
with no pompous paradoxes, shines in no glittering tinsel of a fashion-
able phraseology ; is neither fop nor sophist. He has none of the
turbulence or froth of new-fangled opinions. His style runs pure
and clear, though it may often take an underground course, or be con-
veyed through old-fashioned conduit-pipes. Mr. Lamb does not
court popularity, nor strut in gaudy plumes, but shrinks from every
kind of ostentatious and obvious pretension into the retirement of his
own mind.

'The self-applauding bird, the peacock see : —
Mark what a sumptuous pharisee is he !
Meridian sun-beams tempt him to unfold
His radiant glories, azure, green, and gold :
He treads as if, some solemn music near,
His measured step were governed by his ear-.
And seems to say — ' Ye meaner fowl, give place,
I am all splendour, dignity, and grace ! '
Not so the pheasant on his charms presumes,
Though he too has a glory in his plumes.
He, Christian-like, retreats with modest mien ^
To the close copse or far sequestered green, \
And shines without desiring to be seen.'

These lines well describe the modest and delicate beauties of
Mr. Lamb's writings, contrasted with the lofty and vain-glorious
pretensions of some of his contemporaries. This gentleman is not
one of those who pay all their homage to the prevailing idol : he
thinks that

• New-born gauds are made and moulded of things past,*

nor does he

' Give to dust that is a little gilt
More laud than gilt o'er-diisted.'

His convictions ' do not in broad rumour lie,' nor are they ' set off
to the world in the glistering foil ' of fashion ; but « live and breathe
aloft in those pure eyes, and perfect judgment of all-seeing time:
Mr. Lamb rather affects and is tenacious of the obscure and remote :
of that which rests on its own intrinsic and silent merit; which
scorns all alliance, or even the suspicion of owing any thing to noisy



clamour, to the glare of circumstances. There is a fine tone of
chiaroscuro, a moral perspective in his writings. He delights to
dwell on that which is fresh to the eye of memory ; he yearns after
and covets what soothes the frailty of human nature. That touches
him most nearly which is withdrawn to a certain distance, which
verges on the borders of oblivion : — that piques and provokes his
fancy most, which is hid from a superficial glance. That which,
though gone by, is still remembered, is in his view more genuine,
and has given more ' vital signs that it will live,' than a thing of
yesterday, that may be forgotten to-morrow. Death has in this
sense the spirit of life in it ; and the shadowy has to our author
something substantial in it. Ideas savour most of reality in his mind ;
or rather his imagination loiters on the edge of each, and a page of
his writings recals to our fancy the stranger on the grate, Muttering in
its dusky tenuity, with its idle superstition and hospitable welcome !

Mr. Lamb has a distaste to new faces, to new books, to new
buildings, to new customs. He is shy of all imposing appearances,
of all assumptions of self-importance, of all adventitious ornaments, of
all mechanical advantages, even to a nervous excess. It is not
merely that he does not rely upon, or ordinarily avail himself of
them ; he holds them in abhorrence, he utterly abjures and discards
them, and places a great gulph between him and them. He disdains
all the vulgar artifices of authorship, all the cant of criticism, and
helps to notoriety. He has no grand swelling theories to attract the
visionary and the enthusiast, no passing topics to allure the thoughtless
and the vain. He evades the present, he mocks the future. His
affections revert to, and settle on the past, but then, even this must
have something personal and local in it to interest him deeply and
thoroughly ; he pitches his tent in the suburbs of existing manners ;
brings down the account of character to the few straggling remains of
the last generation ; seldom ventures beyond the bills of mortality,
and occupies that nice point between egotism and disinterested
humanity. No one makes the tour of our southern metropolis, or
describes the manners of the last age, so well as Mr. Lamb — with so
tine, and yet so formal an air — with such vivid obscurity, with such
arch piquancy, such picturesque quaintness, such smiling pathos.
How admirably he has sketched the former inmates of the South-Sea
House ; what ' fine fretwork he makes of their double and single
entries ! ' With what a firm, yet subtle pencil he has embodied
Mrs. Battle s Opinions on Whist ! How notably he embalms a
battered beau ; how delightfully an amour, that was cold forty years
ago, revives in his pages ! With what well-disguised humour, he
introduces us to his relations, and how freely he serves up his friends!


Certainly, some of his portraits are fixtures, and will do to hang up as
lasting and lively emblems of human infirmity. Then there is no one
who has so sure an ear for 'the chimes at midnight,' not even
excepting Mr. Justice Shallow; nor could Master Silence himself
take his 'cheese and pippins' with a more significant and satisfactory
air. With what a gusto Mr. Lamb describes the inns and courts of
law, the Temple and Gray's-Inn, as if he had been a student there
for the last two hundred years, and had been as well acquainted with
the person of Sir Francis Bacon as he is with his portrait or writings !
It is hard to say whether St. John's Gate is connected with more
intense and authentic associations in his mind, as a part of old London
Wall, or as the frontispiece (time out of mind) of the Gentleman's
Magazine. He haunts Wading- street like a gentle spirit; the
avenues to the play-houses are thick with panting recollections, and
Christ's-Hospital still breathes the balmy breath of infancy in his
description of it ! Whittington and his Cat are a fine hallucination
for Mr. Lamb's historic Muse, and we believe he never heartily
forgave a certain writer who took the subject of Guy Faux out of
his hands. The streets of London are his fairy-land, teeming with
wonder, with life and interest to his retrospective glance, as it did to
the eager eye of childhood ; he has contrived to weave its tritest
traditions into a bright and endless romance !

Mr. Lamb's taste in books is also fine, and it is peculiar. It is
not the worse for a little idiosyncrasy. He does not go deep into the
Scotch novels, but he is at home in Smollet or Fielding. He is
little read in Junius or Gibbon, but no man can give a better account
of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, or Sir Thomas Brown's Urn-
Burial, or Fuller's Worthies, or John Bunyan's Holy War. No
one is more unimpressible to a specious declamation ; no one relishes
a recondite beauty more. His admiration of Shakespear and Milton
does not make him despise Pope; and he can read Parnell with
patience, and Gay with delight. His taste in French and German
literature is somewhat defective ; nor has he made much progress in
the science of Political Economy or other abstruse studies, thou h he
has read vast folios of controversial divinity, merely for the sake of
the intricacy of style, and to save himself the pain of thinking.
Mr. Lamb is a good judge of prints and pictures. His admiration
of Hogarth does credit to both, particularly when it is considered
that Leonardo da Vinci is his next greatest favourite, and that his
love of the actual does not proceed from a want of taste for the ideal.
His worst fault is an over-eagerness of enthusiasm, which occasionally
makes him take a surfeit of his highest favourites.— Mr. Lamb excels
in familiar conversation almost as much as in writing, when his



modesty does not overpower his self-possession. He is as little of
a proser as possible ; but he blurts out the finest wit and sense in the
world. He keeps a good deal in the back-ground at first, till some
excellent conceit pushes him forward, and then he abounds in whim
and pleasantry. There is a primitive simplicity and self-denial about
his manners ; and a Quakerism in his personal appearance, which is,
however, relieved by a fine Titian head, full of dumb eloquence!
Mr. Lamb is a general favourite with those who know him. His
character is equally singular and amiable. He is endeared to his
friends not less by his foibles than his virtues ; he insures their esteem
by the one, and does not wound their self-love by the other. He
gains ground in the opinion of others, by making no advances in his
own. We easily admire genius where the diffidence of the possessor
makes our acknowledgment of merit seem like a sort of patronage, or
act of condescension, as we willingly extend our good offices where
they are not exacted as obligations, or repaid with sullen indifference.
— The style of the Essays of Elia is liable to the charge of a certain
mannerism. His sentences are cast in the mould of old authors ; his
expressions are borrowed from them ; but his feelings and observations
are genuine and original, taken from actual life, or from his own
breast; and he may be said (if any one can) 'to have coined his
heart for jests,' and to have split his brain for fine distinctions !
Mr. Lamb, from the peculiarity of his exterior and address as an
author, would probably never have made his way by detached and
independent efforts ; but, fortunately for himself and others, he has
taken advantage of the Periodical Press, where he has been stuck
into notice, and the texture of his compositions is assuredly fine
enough to bear the broadest glare of popularity that has hitherto
shone upon them. Mr. Lamb's literary efforts have procured him
civic honours (a thing unheard of in our times), and he has been
invited, in his character of Elia, to dine at a select party with the
Lord Mayor. We should prefer this distinction to that of being
poet-laureat. We would recommend to Mr. Waithman's perusal
(if Mr. Lamb has not anticipated us) the Rosamond Gray and the
John Woodvil of the same author, as an agreeable relief to the noise

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 37 of 38)