William Hazlitt.

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

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Which underneath did hide his filthiness ;
And in his hand a burning heart he bare,

Full of vain follies and new fangleness ;
For he was false and fraught with fickleness ;

And learned had to love with secret looks ;
And well could dance ; and sing with ruefulness j

And fortunes tell ; and read in loving books;
And thousand other ways to bait his fleshly hooks.

Inconstant man that loved all he saw,

And lusted after all that he did love ;
Ne would his looser life be tied to law;

But joyed weak women's hearts to tempt and prove,
If from their loyal loves he might them move.'



This is pretty plain-spoken. Mr. Southey says of Spenser :
' Yet not more sweet

Than pure was he, and not more pure than wise ;
High priest of all the Muses' mysteries ! '

On the contrarv, no one was more apt to pry into mysteries which do
not strictly belong to the Muses.

Of the same kind with the Procession of the Passions, as little
obscure, and still more beautiful, is the Mask of Cupid, with his train
of votaries :

' The first was Fancy, like a lovely boy

Of rare aspect, and beauty without peer ;

His garment neither was of silk nor say,

But painted plumes in goodly order dight,
Like as the sun-burnt Indians do array

Their tawny bodies in their proudest plight:
A- those same plumes so seem'd he vain and light,

That by his gait might easily appear ;
For still he far'd as dancing in delight,

And in his hand a windy fan did bear
That in the idle air he mov'd still here and there.

And him beside march'd amorous Desire,

Who seem'd of riper years than the other swain,
Yet was that other swain this elder's sire,

And gave him being, common to them twain :
His garment was disguised very vain,

And his embroidered bonnet sat awry ;
Twixt both his hands few sparks he close did strain,

Which still he blew, and kindled busily,
That soon they life conceiv'd and forth in flames did fly.

Next after him went Doubt, who was yclad

In a discolour" d coat of strange disguise,
That at his back a broad capuccio had,

And sleeves dependant Albanese-iuise ;
He lookt askew with his mistrustful eyes,

And nicely trod, as thorns lay in his way,
Or that the floor to shrink he did avise ;

And on a broken reed he still did stay

rceble steps, which shrunk when hard thereon he lay.

With him went Daunger, cloth 'd in ragged weed,
Made of bears skin, that him more dreadful made;

Yet his own face was dreadful!, ne did need
Strange horror to deform his grislv shade ;


A net in th' one hand, and a rusty blade

In th' other was; this Mischiefe, that Mishap;

With th' one his foes he threat'ned to invade,
With th' other he his friends meant to enwrap ;
For whom he could not kill he practiz'd to entrap.

Next him was Fear, all arm'd from top to toe,

Yet thought himselfe not safe enough thereby,
But f ear'd each shadow moving to and fro ;

And his own arms when glittering he did spy
Or clashing heard, he fast away did fly,

As ashes pale of hue, and winged-heel'd ;
And evermore on Daunger fixt his eye,

'Gainst whom he always bent a brazen shield,
Which his right hand unarmed fearfully did wield.

With him went Hope in rank, a handsome maid,

Of chearfull look and lovely to behold ;
In silken samite she was light array' d,

And her fair locks were woven up in gold ;
She always smil'd, and in her hand did hold

An holy-water sprinkle dipt in dew,
With which she sprinkled favours manifold

On whom she list, and did great liking shew,
Great liking unto many, but true love to few.

Next after them, the winged God himself

Came riding on a lion ravenous,
Taught to obey the menage of that elfe

That man and beast with power imperious
Subdueth to his kingdom tyrannous:

His blindfold eyes he bade awhile unbind,
That his proud spoil of that same dolorous

Fair dame he might behold in perfect kind ;
Which seen, he much rejoiced in his cruel mind.

Of which full proud, himself uprearing high,

He looked round about with stem disdain,
And did survey his goodly company :

And marshalling the evil-ordered train,
With that the darts which his right hand did strain,

Full dreadfully he shook, that all did quake,
And clapt on high his colour'd winges twain,

That all his many it afraid did make :
Tho, blinding him again, his way he forth did take.'

The description of Hope, in this series of historical portraits, is one
of the most beautiful in Spenser : and the triumph ot Cupid at the
mischief he has made, is worthy of the malicious urchin deity. In



ling these descriptions, one can hardly avoid being reminded of
Rubens's allegorical pictures ; but the account of Satyrane taming the
lion's whelps and lugging the bear's cubs along in his arms while yet
an infant, whom his mother so naturally advises to 'go seek some
other play-fellows,' has even more of this high picturesque character.
Nobody but Rubens could have painted the fancy of Spenser ; and he
could not have given the sentiment, the airy dream that hovers over it!
With all this, Spenser neither makes us laugh nor weep. The
only jest in his poem is an allegorical play upon words, where he
ribes Malbecco as escaping in the herd of goats, 'by the help of
iv re homes on hight.' But he has been unjustly charged with a
want of passion and of strength. He has both in an immense degree
He has not indeed the pathos of immediate action or suffering, which
is more properly the dramatic ; but he has all the pathos of sentiment
and romance — all that belongs to distant objects of terror, and
uncertain, imaginary distress. His strength, in like manner, is not
strength of will or action, of bone and muscle, nor is it coarse and
palpable — but it assumes a character of vastness and sublimity seen
through the same visionary medium, and blended with the appalling
associations of preternatural agency. We need only turn, in proof of
this, to the Cave of Despair, or the Cave of Mammon, or to the
account of the change of Malbecco into Jealousy. The following
Btanzas, in the description of the Cave of Mammon, the grisly house
of Plutus, are unrivalled for the portentous massiness of the forms, the
splendid chiaro-scuro, and shadowy horror

' That house's form within was rude and strong,
Like an huge cave hewn out of rocky clift.
From whose rough vault the ragged breaches hung,

Embossed with massy gold of glorious gift,
Aiul with rich metal loaded every rift,

That heavy ruin they did seem to threat :
And over them Arachne high did lift

Her cunning web, and spread her subtle net,
Enwrapped in foul smoke, and clouds more black than jet.

Both root and floor, and walls were all of gold,

overgrown with dust and old decay, 1
Ami hid in darkness that none could behold

1 'That all with one consent praise new-born gauds,
Tho' they arc made and moulded of things past,
And it, that is a little gilt,

M-irc laud than gold o'cr-dustcd.'

Troi/us and Cressid


The hue thereof: tor view or" cheerful da>
Did never in that house itself display,

But a faint shadow of uncertain light ;
Such as a lamp whose life doth fade away ;

Or as the moon clothed with cloudy night
Does shew to him that walks in fear and sad affright.


And over all sad Horror with grim hue

Did always soar, beating his iron wings 5
And after him owls and night-ravens flew,

The hateful messengers of heavy things,
Of death and dolour telling sad tidings ;

Whiles sad Celleno, sitting on a clift,
A song of bitter bale and sorrow sings,

That heart of flint asunder could have rift ;
Which having ended, after him she fiieth swift.'

The Cave of Despair is described with equal gloominess and power of
fancy ; and the fine moral declamation of the owner of it, on the evils
of life, almost makes one in love with death. In the story of
Malbecco, who is haunted by jealousy, and in vain strives to run away
from his own thoughts —

'High over hill and over dale he flies' —

the truth of human passion and the preternatural ending are equally
striking. — It is not fair to compare Spenser with Shakspeare, in point
of interest. A fairer comparison would be with Comus ; and the
result would not be unfavourable to Spenser. There is only one
work of the same allegorical kind, which has more interest than
Spenser (with scarcely less imagination) : and that is the Pilgrim's
Progress. The three first books of the Faery Queen are very
superior to the three last. One would think that Pope, who used to
ask if any one had ever read the Faery Queen through, had only
dipped into these last. The only things in them equal to the former,
are the account of Talus, the Iron Man, and the delightful episode of

The language of Spenser is full, and copious, to overflowing : it is
less pure and idiomatic than Chaucer's, and is enriched and adorned
with phrases borrowed from the different languages of Europe, both
ancient and modern. He was, probably, seduced into a certain
license of expression by the difficulty of filling up the moulds of his
complicated rhymed stanza from the limited resources of his native
language. This stanza, with alternate and repeatedly recurring
rhymes, is borrowed from the Italians. It was peculiarly fitted to



their language, which abounds in similar vowel terminations, and is as
little adapted to ours, from the stubborn, unaccommodating resistance
which the consonant endings of the northern languages make to this
sort of endless sing-song. — Not that I would, on that account, part
with the stanza of Spenser. We are, perhaps, indebted to this very
necessity of finding out new forms of expression, and to the occasional
faults to which it led, for a poetical language rich and varied and
magnificent beyond all former, and almost all later example. His
versification is, at once, the most smooth and the most sounding in
the language. It is a labyrinth of sweet sounds, ' in many a winding
bout of linked sweetness long drawn out' — that would cloy by their
very sweetness, but that the ear is constantly relieved and enchanted
bv their continued variety of modulation — dwelling on the pauses of
the action, or flowing on in a fuller tide of harmony with the move-
ment of the sentiment. It has not the bold dramatic transitions of
Shakspeare's blank verse, nor the high-raised tone of Milton's ; but
it is the perfection of melting harmony, dissolving the soul in pleasure,
or holding it captive in the chains of suspense. Spenser was the
poet of our waking dreams ; and he has invented not only a language,
but a music of his own for them. The undulations are infinite, like
those of the waves of the sea : but the effect is still the same, lulling
the Benses into a deep oblivion of the jarring noises of the world,
Irom which we have no wish to be ever recalled.



In looking back to the great works ot genius in former times, we are
- -imes disposed to wonder at the little progress which has since
l*.-en made in poetry, and in the arts of imitation in general. But
this is perhaps a foolish wonder. Nothing can be more contrary to
the fact, than the supposition that in what we understand by the Jine
arts, as painting, and poetry, relative perfection is only the result of
ited efforts in successive periods, and that what has been once
well done, constantly leads to something better. What is mechanical,
reducible to rule, or capable of demonstration, is progressive, and
admit, of gradual improvement: what is not mechanical, or definite,
but depends on feeling, taste, and genius, very soon becomes stationary,
or retrograde, and loses more than it gains by transfusion. The
contrary opinion is a vulgar error, which has grown up, like many


others, from transferring an analogy of one kind to something quite
distinct, without taking into the account the difference in the nature
of the things, or attending to the difference of the results. For most
persons, finding what wonderful advances have been made in biblical
criticism, in chemistry, in mechanics, in geometry, astronomy, &c.
i.e. in things depending on mere inquiry and experiment, or on
absolute demonstration, have been led hastily to conclude, that there
was a general tendency in the efforts of the human intellect to improve
by repetition, and, in all other arts and institutions, to grow perfect
and mature by time. We look back upon the theological creed of
our ancestors, and their discoveries in natural philosophy, with a
smile of pity : science, and the arts connected with it, have all had
their infancy, their youth, and manhood, and seem to contain in them
no principle of limitation or decay : and, inquiring no farther about
the matter, we infer, in the intoxication of our pride, and the height
of our self-congratulation, that the same progress has been made, and
will continue to be made, in all other things which are the work of
man. The fact, however, stares us so plainly in the face, that one
would think the smallest reflection must suggest the truth, and over-
turn our sanguine theories. The greatest poets, the ablest orators,
the best painters, and the finest sculptors that the world ever saw,
appeared soon after the birth of these arts, and lived in a state of
society which was, in other respects, comparatively barbarous. Those
arts, which depend on individual genius and incommunicable power,
have always leaped at once from infancy to manhood, from the flm
rude dawn of invention to their meridian height and dazzling lustre,
and have in general declined ever after. This is the peculiar dis-
tinction and privilege of each, of science and of art : — of the one,
never to attain its utmost limit of perfection ; and of the other, to
arrive at it almost at once. Homer, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare,
Dante, and Ariosto, (Milton alone was of a later age, and not the
worse for it) — Raphael, Titian, Michael Angelo, Correggio,
Cervantes, and Boccaccio, the Greek sculptors and tragedians, — all
lived near the beginning of their arts — perfected, and all but created
them. These giant-sons of genius stand indeed upon the earth, but
they tower above their fellows ; and the long line of their successors,
in different ages, does not interpose any object to obstruct their view,
or lessen their brightness. In strength and stature they are unrivalled ;
in grace and beauty they have not been surpassed. In after-ages, and
more refined periods, (as they are called) great men have arisen, one by
one, as it were by throes and at intervals; though in general the best of
these cultivated and artificial minds were of an inferior order; as Tasso
and Pope, among poets ; Guido and Vandyke, among painters. But



in the earlier stages of the arts, as soon as the first mechanical difficulties
had been got over, and the language was sufficiently acquired, they
rose by clusters, and in constellations, never so to rise again !

The arts of painting and poetry are conversant with the world ot
thought within us, and with the world of sense around us — with what
we know, and see, and feel intimately. They flow from the sacred
.shrine of our own breasts, and are kindled at the living lamp ot
nature. But the pulse of the passions assuredly beat as high, the
depths and soundings of the human heart were as well understood
three thousand, or three hundred years ago, as they are at present:
the face of nature, and < the human face divine ' shone as bright then
as they have ever done. But it is their light, reflected by true genius
on art, that marks out its path before it, and sheds a glory round the
Muses' feet, like that which

' Circled Una's angel face,
And made a sunshine in the shady place.'

The four greatest names in English poetry, are almost the four first
we come to — Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare, and Milton. There are
no others that can really be put in competition with these. The two
last have had justice done them by the voice of common fame. Their
names are blazoned in the very firmament of reputation ; while the
two first (though 'the fault has been more in their stars than in
themselves that they are underlings') either never emerged far above
the horizon, or were too soon involved in the obscurity of time. The
three first of these are excluded from Dr. Johnson's Lives of the
Poets (Shakspeare indeed is so from the dramatic form of his com-
positions) : and the fourth, Milton, is admitted with a reluctant and
churlish welcome.

In comparing these four writers together, it might be said that

Chaucer excels as the poet of manners, or of real life ; Spenser, as

the port of romance ; Shakspeare as the poet of nature (in the largest

use of the term) ; and Milton, as the poet of morality. Chaucer

frequently describes things as they are; Spenser, as we wish

; to be ; Shakspeare, as they would be ; and Milton as they

it to be. As poets, and as great poets, imagination, that is, the

power of feigning things according to nature, was common to them

all : but the principle or moving power, to which this faculty was

most subservient in Chaucer, was habit, or inveterate prejudice ; in

Spenser, novelty, and the love of the marvellous ; in Shakspeare, it

was the force of passion, combined with every variety of possible

circumstances; and in Milton, only with the highest. The charac-

tic of Chaucer is intensity; of Spenser, remoteness; of Milton,



elevation ; of Shakspeare, every thing. — It has been said by some
critic, that Shakspeare was distinguished from the other dramatic
writers of his day only by his wit ; that they had all his other
qualities but that ; that one writer had as much sense, another as
much fancy, another as much knowledge of character, another the
same depth of passion, and another as great a power of language.
This statement is not true ; nor is the inference from it well-founded,
even if it were. This person does not seem to have been aware that,
upon his own shewing, the great distinction of Shakspeare's genius
was its virtually including the genius of all the great men of his age,
and not his differing from them in one accidental particular. But to
have done with such minute and literal trifling.

The striking peculiarity of Shakspeare's mind was its generic
quality, its power of communication with all other minds — so that
it contained a universe of thought and feeling within itself, and had
no one peculiar bias, or exclusive excellence more than another. He
was just like any other man, but that he was like all other men. He
was the least of an egotist that it was possible to be. He was nothing
in himself; but he was all that others were, or that they could
become. He not only had in himself the germs of every faculty and
feeling, but he could follow them by anticipation, intuitively, into all
their conceivable ramifications, through every change of fortune 01
conflict of passion, or turn of thought. He had ' a mind reflecting
ages past,' and present : — all the people that ever lived are there.
There was no respect of persons with him. His genius shone
equally on the evil and on the good, on the wise and the foolish, the
monarch and the beggar : ' All corners of the earth, kings, queens,
and states, maids, matrons, nay, the secrets of the grave,' are hardly
hid from his searching glance. He was like the genius of humanity,
changing places with all of us at pleasure, and playing with our
purposes as with his own. He turned the globe round for his
amusement, and surveyed the generations of men, and the individuals
as they passed, with their different concerns, passions, follies, vices,
virtues, actions, and motives — as well those that they knew, as those
which they did not know, or acknowledge to themselves. The
dreams of childhood, the ravings of despair, were the toys of his
fancy. Airy beings waited at his call, and came at his bidding.
Harmless fairies 'nodded to him, and did him curtesies': and the
night-hag bestrode the blast at the command of 'his so potent art.'
The world of spirits lay open to him, like the world of real men and
women : and there is the same truth in his delineations of the one as
of the other ; for if the preternatural characters he describes could be
supposed to exist, they would speak, and feel, and act, as he makes



them. He had only to think of any tiling in order to become that
thino, with all the circumstances belonging to it. When he conceived
of a character, whether real or imaginary, he not only entered into
all its thoughts and feelings, but seemed instantly, and as if by
touching a secret spring, to be surrounded with all the same objects,
•subject to the same skyey influences,' the same local, outward, and
unforeseen accidents which would occur in reality. Thus the
character of Caliban not only stands before us with a language and
manners of its own, but the scenery and situation of the enchanted
island he inhabits, the traditions of the place, its strange noises, its
hi ! ien recesses, ' his frequent haunts and ancient neighbourhood,' are
given with a miraculous truth of nature, and with all the familiarity
of an old recollection. The whole ' coheres semblably together ' in
time, place, and circumstance. In reading this author, you do not
merely learn what his characters say, — you see their persons. By
something expressed or understood, you are at no loss to decypher
their peculiar physiognomy, the meaning of a look, the grouping, the
bye play, as we might see it on the stage. A word, an epithet paints
a whole scene, or throws us back whole years in the history of the
person represented. So (as it has been ingeniously remarked) when
>ero describes himself as left alone in the boat with his daughter,
'he epithet which he applies to her, ' Me and thy crying self,' flings
.he imagination instantly back from the grown woman to the helpless
condition of infancy, and places the first and most trying scene of his
misfortunes before us, with all that he must have suffered in the
interval. How well the silent anguish of Macduff is conveyed to the
ler, by the friendly expostulation of Malcolm — 'What! man,
ne'er pull your hat upon your brows ! ' Again, Hamlet, in the
scene with Rosencrans and Guildenstern, somewhat abruptly concludes
his fine soliloquy on life by saying, 'Man delights not me, nor
woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.' Which
plained by their answer — ' My lord, we had no such stuff in our
thoughts. But we smiled to think, if you delight not in man, what
lenten entertainment the players shall receive from you, whom we
met on the way ' : — as if while Hamlet was making this speech, his
two old schoolfellows from Wittenberg had been really standing by,
and he ha 1 seen them smiling by stealth, at the idea of the players
crossing their minds. It is not 'a combination and a form ' of words,
h or two, a preconcerted theory of a character, that will do
this : but all the persons concerned must have been present in the
poet's imagination, as at a kind of rehearsal; and whatever would
have pai ' I through their minds on the occasion, and have been
i ved by others, passed through his, and is made known to the


reader. — I may add in passing, that Shakspeare always gives the best
directions for the costume and carriage of his heroes. Thus to take
one example, Ophelia gives the following account of Hamlet ; and as
Ophelia had seen Hamlet, I should think her word ought to be taken
against that of any modern authority.

' Ophelia. My lord, as I was reading in my closet,
Prince Hamlet, with his doublet all unbrac'd,
No hat upon his head, his stockings loose,
Ungartred, and down-gyved to his ancle,
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous,
As if he had been sent from hell
To speak of horrors, thus he comes before me.

Polonius. Mad for thy love !

Oph. My lord, I do not know,
But truly I do fear it.

Pol. What said he ?

Oph. He took me by the wrist, and heid me hard
Then goes he to the length of all his arm ;
And with his other hand thus o'er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face,
As he would draw it : long staid he so ;
At last, a little shaking of my arm,
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He rais'd a sigh so piteous and profound,
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk,
And end his being. That done, he lets me go,

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 5 of 38)