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William Hazlitt.

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

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of a City feast, and the heat of City elections. A friend, a short
time ago, quoted some lines * from the last-mentioned of these works,
which meeting Mr. Godwin's eye, he was so struck with the beauty
of the passage, and with a consciousness of having seen it before, that he
was uneasy till he could recollect where, and after hunting in vain for
1 The description of sports in the forest :

'To see the sun to bed and to arise,
Like some hot amourist with glowing eyes,' Sec.

348



ELIA— GEOFFREY CRAYON

it in Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and other not unlikely places,
sent to Mr. Lamb to know if he could help him to the author !

Mr. Washington Irvine's acquaintance with English literature
begins almost where Mr. Lamb's ends, — with the Spectator, Tom
Brown's works and the wits of Queen Anne. He is not bottomed
in our elder writers, nor do we think, that he has tasked his own
faculties much, at least on English ground. Of the merit of his
Knicker-bocker, and New York stories, we cannot pretend to judge.
But in his Sketch-look and Bracebridge-Hall he gives us very good
American copies of our British Essayists and Novelists, which may
be very well on the other side of the water, or as proofs ot the
capabilities of the national genius, but which might be dispensed with
here, where we have to boast of the originals. Not only Mr.
Irvine's language is with great taste and felicity modelled on that of
Addison, Goldsmith, Sterne, or Mackenzie ; but the thoughts and
sentiments are taken at the rebound, and as they are brought forward
at the present period, want both freshness and probability. Mr.
Irvine's writings are literary anachronisms. He comes to England
for the first time ; and being on the spot, fancies himself in the
midst of those characters and manners which he had read of in the
Spectator and other approved authors, and which were the only
idea he had hitherto formed of the parent country. Instead of
looking round to see what tve are, he sets to work to describe us as
we were — a t second hand. He has Parson Adams, or Sir Roger de
Coverley in his 'mind's eye* \ and he makes a village curate or a
country 'squire in Yorkshire or Hampshire sit to these admired
models for their portraits in the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Whatever the ingenious author has been most delighted with in the
representations of books, he transfers to his port-folio, and
•■hat he has found it actually existing in the course of his observation
and travels through Great Britain. Instead of tracing the changes
that have taken place in society since Addison or Fielding wrote, he
transcribes their account in a different hand-writing, and thus keeps
us stationary, at least in our most attractive and praise-worthy quaht.es
of simplicity, honesty, modesty, hospitality, and good-nature. 1 his is
a very flattering mode of turning fiction into history, or histoi
fiction ; and we should scarcely know ourselves again in the »
and altered likeness, but that it bears the date of 1820, and issues
from the press in Albemarle-street. This is one way of compliment-
ing our national and Tory prejudices ; and coupled with htera or
exagaerated portraits of Tankce peculiarities, could hardly tail to
please. The first Essay in the Sketch-book, that on national A-v.
pathies, is the best; but after that, the sterling ore of wit or leek
v 349



THE SPIRIT OF THE AGE

is gradually spun thinner and thinner, till it fades to the shadow
of a shade. Mr. Irvine is himself, we believe, a most agreeable and
deserving man, and has been led into the natural and pardonable
error we speak of, by the tempting bait of European popularity, in
which he thought there was no more likely method of succeeding
than by imitating the style of our standard authors, and giving us
credit for the virtues of our forefathers.



We should not feel that we had discharged our obligations to
truth or friendship, if we were to let this volume go without in-
troducing into it the name of the author of Virginius. This is the
more proper, inasmuch as he is a character by himself, and the only
poet now living that is a mere poet. If we were asked what sort of
man Mr. Knowles is, we could only say, * he is the writer of
Virginius.' His most intimate friends see nothing in him, by which
they could trace the work to the author. The seeds of dramatic
genius are contained and fostered in the warmth of the blood that
flows in his veins ; his heart dictates to his head. The most un-
conscious, the most unpretending, the most artless of mortals, he
instinctively obeys the impulses of natural feeling, and produces a
perfect work of art. He has hardly read a poem or a play or seen
any thing of the world, but he hears the anxious beatings of his own
heart, and makes others feel them by the force of sympathy. Igno-
rant alike of rules, regardless of models, he follows the steps of truth
and simplicity ; and strength, proportion, and delicacy are the infallible
results. By thinking of nothing but his subject, he rivets the atten-
tion of the audience to it. All his dialogue tends to action, all his
situations form classic groups. There is no doubt that Virginius is
the best acting tragedy that has been produced on the modern stage.
Mr. Knowles himself was a player at one time, and this circumstance
has probably enabled him to judge of the picturesque and dramatic
effect of his lines, as we think it might have assisted Shakespear.
There is no impertinent display, no Jaunting poetry ; the writer
immediately conceives how a thought would tell if he had to speak it
himself. Mr. Knowles is the first tragic writer of the age ; in other
respects he is a common man ; and divides his time and his affections
between his plots and his fishing-tackle, between the Muses' spring,
and those mountain-streams which sparkle like his own eye, that gush
out like his own voice at the sight of an old friend. We have known
him almost from a child, and we must say he appears to us the same
boy-poet that he ever was. He has been cradled in song, and rocked
in it as in a dream, forgetful of himself and of the world !

The End of The Spirit of the Age.



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