William Hazlitt.

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

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And with his head over his shoulder turn'd,
He seem'd to find his way without his eyes ;
For out of doors he went without their help,
And to the last bended their light on me.'

Act. II. Scene i.

How after this airy, fantastic idea of irregular grace and bewildered
melancholy any one can play Hamlet, as we have seen it played, with
strut, and stare, and antic right-angled sharp-pointed gestures, it is
difficult to say, unless it be that Hamlet is not bound, by the
prompter's cue, to study the part of Ophelia. The account of
Ophelia's death begins thus :

' There is a willow hanging o'er a brook,
That shows its hoary leaves in the glassy stream.' —

Now this is an instance of the same unconscious power of mind which
is as true to nature as itself. The leaves of the willow are, in fact,
white underneath, and it is this part of them which would appear



4 hoary ' in the reflection in the brook. The same sort of intuitive
power, the same faculty of bringing every object in nature, whether
present or absent, before the mind's eye, is observable in the speech
oi Cleopatra, when conjecturing what were the employments of Antony
in his absence : — 'He's speaking now, or murmuring, where 's my
serpent of old Nile ? ' How fine to make Cleopatra have this con-
sciousness of her own character, and to make her feel that it is this
for which Antony is in love with her ! She says, after the battle cf
Actium, when Antony has resolved to risk another fight, ' It is my
birth-day ; I had thought to have held it poor : but since my lord is
Antony again, I will be Cleopatra.' What other poet would have
thought of such a casual resource of the imagination, or would have
dared to avail himself of it ? The thing happens in the play as it
might have happened in fact. — That which, perhaps, more than any
thing else distinguishes the dramatic productions of Shakspeare from
all others, is* this wonderful truth and individuality of conception.
Each of his characters is as much itself, and as absolutely independent
of the rest, as well as of the author, as if they were living persons, not
fictions of the mind. The poet may be said, for the time, to identify
himself with the character he wishes to represent, and to pass from one
to another, like the same soul successively animating different bodies.
By an art like that of the ventriloquist, he throws his imagination out
of himself, and makes every word appear to proceed from the mouth
or the person in whose name it is given. His plays alone are properly
expressions of the passions, not descriptions of them. His characters
are real beings of flesh and blood ; they speak iike men, not like
authors. One might suppose that he had stood by at the time, and

heard what passed. As in our dreams we hold conversations
with ourselves, make remarks, or communicate intelligence, and have
no idea of the answer which we shall receive, and which we ourselves
make, till we hear it : so the dialogues in Shakspeare are carried on
without any consciousness of what is to follow, without any appearance

reparation or premeditation. The gusts of passion come and go
like sounds of music borne on the wind. Nothing is made out by inference and analogy, by climax and antithesis : all comes, or

Ofl to come, immediately from nature. Each object and circum-
stance exists in his mind, as it would have existed in reality : each

ral train of thought and feeling goes on of itself, without confusion
or effort. In the world of his imagination, every thing has a life,
a place, and being of its own !

Chaucer's characters are sufficiently distinct from one another, but
they are too little varied in themselves, too much like identical pro-

tions. They are consistent, but uniform ; we get no new idea of


them from first to last ; they are not placed in different lights, nor
are their subordinate traits brought out in new situations ; they are
like portraits or physiognomical studies, with the distinguishing
features marked with inconceivable truth and precision, but that
preserve the same unaltered air and attitude. Shakspeare's are
historical figures, equally true and correct, but put into action, where
every nerve and muscle is displayed in the struggle with others, with
all the effect of collision and contrast, with every variety of light and
shade. Chaucer's characters are narrative, Shakspeare's dramatic,
Milton's epic. That is, Chaucer told only as much of his story as
he pleased, as was required for a particular purpose. He answered
for his characters himself. In Shakspeare they are introduced upon
the stage, are liable to be asked all sorts of questions, and are forced
to answer for themselves. In Chaucer we perceive a fixed essence of
character. In Shakspeare there is a continual composition and de-
composition of its elements, a fermentation of every particle in the
whole mass, by its alternate affinity or antipathy to other principles
which are brought in contact with it. Till the experiment is tried,
we do not know the result, the turn which the character will take in
its new circumstances. Milton took only a few simple principles of
character, and raised them to the utmost conceivable grandeur, and
refined them from every base alloy. His imagination, ' nigh sphered
in Heaven,' claimed kindred only with what he saw from that height,
and could raise to the same elevation with itself. He sat retired and
kept his state alone, ' playing with wisdom ' ; while Shakspeare
mingled with the crowd, and played the host, * to make society the
sweeter welcome.'

The passion in Shakspeare is of the same nature as his delineation
of character. It is not some one habitual feeling or sentiment prey-
ing upon itself, growing out of itself, and moulding every thing to
itself; it is passion modified by passion, by all the other feelings
to which the individual is liable, and to which others are liable with
him ; subject to all the fluctuations of caprice and accident ; calling
into play all the resources of the understanding and all the energies of
the will ; irritated by obstacles or yielding to them ; rising from
small beginnings to its utmost height ; now drunk with hope, now
stung to madness, now sunk in despair, now blown to air with a
breath, now raging like a torrent. The human soul is made the
sport of fortune, the prey of adversity : it is stretched on the wheel
ol destiny, in restless ecstacy. The passions are in a state of pro-
jection. Years are melted down to moments, and every instant
teems with fate. We know the results, we see the process. Thus
after Iago has been boasting to himself of the effect of his poisonous

5 1


suggestions on the mind of Othello, ' which, with a little act upon
the blood, will work like mines of sulphur,' he adds —

Look where he comes ! not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the East,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou ow'dst yesterday." —

And he enters at this moment, like the crested serpent, crowned with
his wrongs and raging for revenge ! The whole depends upon the
turn of a thought. A word, a look, blows the spark of jealousy into
a flame ; and the explosion is immediate and terrible as a volcano.
The dialogues in Lear, in Macbeth, that between Brutus and Cassius,
and nearly all those in Shakspeare, where the interest is wrought up
to its highest pitch, afford examples of this dramatic fluctuation of
passion. The interest in Chaucer is quite different ; it is like the
course of a river, strong, and full, and increasing. In Shakspeare, on
the contrary, it is like the sea, agitated this way and that, and loud-
lashed by furious storms ; while in the still pauses of the blast, we
distinguish only the cries of despair, or the silence of death ! Milton,
on the other hand, takes the imaginative part of passion — that which
remains after the event, which the mind reposes on when all is over,
which looks upon circumstances from the remotest elevation of
thought and fancy, and abstracts them from the world of action to
that of contemplation. The objects of dramatic poetry affect us by
sympathy, by their nearness to ourselves, as they take us by surprise,
or force us upon action, 'while rage with rage doth sympathise' ; the
objects of epic poetry affect us through the medium of the imagina-
tion, by magnitude and distance, by their permanence and universality.
The one fill us with terror and pity, the other with admiration and
delight. There are certain objects that strike the imagination, and
inspire awe in the very idea of them, independently of any dramatic
interest, that is, of any connection with the vicissitudes of human life.
For instance, we cannot think of the pyramids of Egypt, of a Gothic
ruin, or an old Roman encampment, without a certain emotion, a
sense of power and sublimity coming over the mind. The heavenly
bodies that hung over our heads wherever we go, and 'in their
untroubled element shall shine when we are laid in dust, and all our
circs forgotten,' affect us in the same way. Thus Satan's address to
the Sun has an epic, not a dramatic interest ; for though the second
person in the dialogue makes no answer and feels no concern, yet the
eye of that vast luminary is upon him, like the eye of heaven, and
seems conscious of what he says, like an universal presence. Dramatic
poetry and epic, in their perfection, indeed, approximate to and


strengthen one another. Dramatic poetry borrows aid. from the
dignity of persons and things, as the heroic does from human passion,
but in theory they are distinct. — When Richard n. calls for the
looking-glass to contemplate his faded majesty in it, and bursts into
that affecting exclamation : ' Oh, that I were a mockery-king of
snow, to melt away before the sun of Bolingbroke,' we have here the
utmost force of human passion, combined with the ideas of regal
splendour and fallen power. When Milton says of Satan :

' His form had not yet lost

All her original brightness, nor appear'd
Less than archangel ruin'd, and th 1 excess
Of glory obscur'd ; * —

the mixture of beauty, of grandeur, and pathos, from the sense
of irreparable loss, of never-ending, unavailing regret, is perfect.

The great fault of a modern school of poetry is, that it is an
experiment to reduce poetry to a mere effusion of natural sensibility ;
or what is worse, to divest it both of imaginary splendour and human
passion, to surround the meanest objects with the morbid feelings and
devouring egotism of the writers' own minds. Milton and Shakspeare
did not so understand poetry. They gave a more liberal interpretation
both to nature and art. They did not do all they could to get rid of
the one and the other, to fill up the dreary void with the Moods of
their own Minds. They owe their power over the human mind to
their having had a deeper sense than others of what was grand in the
objects of nature, or affecting in the events of human life. But to
the men I speak of there is nothing interesting, nothing heroical,
but themselves. To them the fall of gods or of great men is the
same. They do not enter into the feeling. They cannot under-
stand the terms. They are even debarred from the last poor, paltry
consolation of an unmanly triumph over fallen greatness ; for their
minds reject, with a convulsive effort and intolerable loathing, the
very idea that there ever was, or was thought to be, any thing
superior to themselves. All that has ever excited the attention or
admiration of the world, they look upon with the most perfect
indifference; and they are surprised to find that the world repays
their indifference with scorn. « With what measure they mete, it has
been meted to them again.' —

Shakespeare's imagination is of the same plastic kind as his con-
ception of character or passion. ' It glances from heaven to earth,
from earth to heaven.' Its movement is rapid and devious. It
unites the most opposite extremes : or, as Puck says, in boasting of
his own feats, ' puts a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes.'



He seems always hurrying from his subject, even while describing it ,
but the stroke, like the lightning's, is sure as it is sudden. He takes
the widest possible range, but from that very range he has his choice
of the greatest variety and aptitude of materials. He brings together
images the most alike, but placed at the greatest distance from each
other ; that is, found in circumstances of the greatest dissimilitude
I rom the remoteness of his combinations, and the celerity with which
they are effected, they coalesce the more indissolubly together. The
more the thoughts are strangers to each other, and the longer they
have been kept asunder, the more intimate does their union seem to
become. Their felicity is equal to their force. Their likeness is
made more dazzling by their novelty. They startle, and take the
fancy prisoner in the same instant. I will mention one or two which
are very striking, and not much known, out of Troilus and Cressida
-/Eneas says to Agamemnon,

' I ask that I may waken reverence,
And on the cheek be ready with a blush
Modest as morning, when she coldly eyes
The youthful Phoebus.'

Ulysses urging Achilles to shew himself in the field, says —

• No man is the lord of anything,
Till he communicate his parts to others:
_\'or doth he of himself know them for aught,
Till he behold them formed in the applause,
Where they 're extended ! which like an arch reverberates
The voice again, or like a gate of steel,
Fronting the sun, receives and renders back
Its figure and its heat.'

Patroclus gives the indolent warrior the same advice.

1 Recuse yourself; and the weak wanton Cupid
I trom your neck unloose his amorous fold,
And like a dew-drop from the lion's mane
Be shook to air.'

Shakspeare's language and versification are like the rest of him.

He has a magic power over words : they come winged at his

mg ; and seem to know their places. They are struck out at a

heat, on the spur of the occasion, and have all the truth and vividness

which arise from an actual impression of the objects. His epithets

ingle phrases are like sparkles, thrown off from an imagination,

fired by the whirling rapidity of its own motion. His language is



hieroglyphical. It translates thoughts into visible images. It abounds
in sudden transitions and elliptical expressions. This is the source of
his mixed metaphors, which are only abbreviated forms of speech.
These, however, give no pain from long custom. They have, in
fact, become idioms in the language. They are the building, and not
the scaffolding to thought. We take the meaning and effect of a
well-known passage entire, and no more stop to scan and spell out the
particular words and phrases, than the syllables of which they are
composed. In trying to recollect any other author, one sometimes
stumbles, in case of failure, on a word as good. In Shakspeare, any
other word but the true one, is sure to be wrong. If any body, for
instance, could not recollect the words of the following description,

' Light thickens,

And the crow makes wing to the rooky wood,'

he would be greatly at a loss to substitute others for them equally
expressive of the feeling. These remarks, however, are strictly
applicable only to the impassioned parts of Shakspeare's language,
which flowed from the warmth and originality of his imagination, and
were his own. The language used for prose conversation and
ordinary business is sometimes technical, and involved in the affecta-
tion of the time. Compare, for example, Othello's apology to the
senate, relating ' his whole course of love,' with some of the preceding
parts relating to his appointment, and the official dispatches from
Cyprus. In this respect, 'the business of the state does him offence.'
His versification is no less powerful, sweet, and varied. It has
every occasional excellence, of sullen intricacy, crabbed and
perplexed, or of the smoothest and loftiest expansion— from the
ease and familiarity of measured conversation to the lyrical sounds

< Of ditties highly penned,

Sung by a fair queen in a summer's bower,
With ravishing division to her lute.'

It is the only blank verse in the language, except Milton's, that for
itself is readable. It is not stately and uniformly swelling like his,
but varied and broken by the inequalities of the ground it has to pass
over in its uncertain course,

' And so by many winding nooks it strays,
With willing sport to the wild ocean.'

It remains to speak of the faults of Shakspeare. They are not so
many or so great as they have been represented ; what there are, are
chiefly owing to the following causes : — The universality of his genius



was, perhaps, a disadvantage to his single works ; the variety of his
resources, sometimes diverting him from applying them to the most
effectual purposes. He might be said to combine the powers of
/Eschylus and Aristophanes, of Dante and Rabelais, in his own mind.
It he had been only half what he was, he would perhaps have
appeared greater. The natural ease and indifference of his temper
made him sometimes less scrupulous than he might have been. He
is relaxed and careless in critical places ; he is in earnest throughout
only in Timon, Macbeth, and Lear. Again, he had no models of
acknowledged excellence constantly in view to stimulate his efforts,
and by all that appears, no love of fame. He wrote for the • great
vulgar and the small,' in his time, not for posterity. If Queen
Elizabeth and the maids of honour laughed heartily at his worst
jokes, and the catcalls in the gallery were silent at his be:;t passages,
he went home satisfied, and slept the next night well. He did not
trouble himself about Voltaire's criticisms. He was willing to take
advantage of the ignorance of the age in many things ; and if his plays
pleased others, not to quarrel with them himself. His very facility
of production would make him set less value on his own excellences,
and not care to distinguish nicely between what he did well or
ill. His blunders in chronology and geography do not amount to
above half a dozen, and they are offences against chronology and
geography, not against poetry. As to the unities, he was right in
setting them at defiance. He was fonder of puns than became so
great a man. His barbarisms were those of his age. His genius
was his own. He had no objection to float down with the stream of
common taste and opinion : he rose above it by his own buoyancy,
and an impulse which he could not keep under, in spite of himself or
others, and « his delights did shew most dolphin-like.'

He had an equal genius for comedy and tragedy ; and his tragedies
are hotter than his comedies, because tragedy is better than comedy.
His female characters, which ha\e been found fault with as insipid,
are the finest in the world. Lastly, Shakspeare was the least of a
coxcomb of any one that ever lived, and much of a gentleman.

Shakspeare discovers in his writings little religious enthusiasm, and
an indifference to personal reputation; he had none of the bigotry of
his age, and his political prejudices were not very strong, in these
ts, as well as in every other, he formed a direct contrast to
Milton. Milton's works are a perpetual invocation to the Muses; a
hymn to Fame. He had his thoughts constantly fixed on the con-
templation oi the I h In cw theocracy, and of a perfect commonwealth;
■ m ' ith a hand just warm from the touch of the

ark of faith. His religious zeal infused its character into his im-

S 6


agination ; so that he devotes himself with the same sense of duty to
the cultivation of his genius, as he did to the exercise of virtue, or the
good of his country. The spirit of the poet, the patriot, and the
prophet, vied with each other in his breast. His mind appears to
have held equal communion with the inspired writers, and with the
bards and sages of ancient Greece and Rome ; —

' Blind Thamyris, and blind Mseonides,
And Tiresias, and Phineus, prophets old.'

He had a high standard, with which he was always comparing him-
self, nothing short of which could satisfy his jealous ambition. He
thought of nobler forms and nobler things than those he found about
him. He lived apart, in the solitude of his own thoughts, carefully
excluding from his mind whatever might distract its purposes or
alloy its purity, or damp its zeal. ' With darkness and with dangers
compassed round,' he had the mighty models of antiquity always
present to his thoughts, and determined to raise a monument of equal
height and glory, ' piling up every stone of lustre from the brook,'
for the delight and wonder of posterity. He had girded himself up,
and as it were, sanctified his genius to this service from his youth.
' For after,' he says, * I had from my first years, by the ceaseless
diligence and care of my father, been exercised to the tongues, and
some sciences as my age could suffer, by sundry masters and teachers,
it was found that whether aught was imposed upon me by them, or
betaken to of my own choice, the style by certain vital signs it had,
was likely to live ; but much latelier, in the private academies of
Italy, perceiving that some trifles which I had in memory, composed
at under twenty or thereabout, met with acceptance above what was
looked for ; I began thus far to assent both to them and divers
of my friends here at home, and not less to an inward prompting
which now grew daily upon me, that by labour and intense study
(which I take to be my portion in this life), joined with the strong
propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to
after-times as they should not willingly let it die. The accomplish-
ment of these intentions, which have lived within me ever since
I could conceive myself anything worth to my country, lies not
but in a power above man's to promise ; but that none hath by
more studious ways endeavoured, and with more unwearied spirit
that none shall, that I dare almost aver of myself, as far as life and
free leisure will extend. Neither do I think it shame to covenant
with any knowing reader, that for some few years yet, I may go on
trust with him toward the payment of what I am now indebted, as
being a work not to be raised from the heat of youth or the vapours



ot wine ; like that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar
amourist, or the trencher fury of a rhyming parasite, nor to be
obtained by the invocation of Dame Memory and her Siren daughters,
but by devout prayer to that eternal spirit who can enrich with all
utterance and knowledge, and sends out his Seraphim with the
hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he
pleases : to this must be added industrious and select reading, steady
observation, and insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs.
Although it nothing content me to have disclosed thus much before-
hand ; but that I trust hereby to make it manifest with what small
willingness I endure to interrupt the pursuit of no less hopes than
these, and leave a calm and pleasing solitariness, fed with cheerful
and confident thoughts, to embark in a troubled sea of noises and
hoarse disputes, from beholding the bright countenance of truth in the
quiet and still air of delightful studies.'
So that of Spenser :

' The noble heart that harbours virtuous thought,
And is with child of glorious great intent,
Can never rest until it forth have brought
The eternal brood of glory excellent."

Milton, therefore, did not write from casual impulse, but after a

severe examination of his own strength, and with a resolution to leave

r.jthing undone which it was in his power to do. He always labours,

and almost always succeeds. He strives hard to say the finest things

in the world, and he does say them. He adorns and dignifies his

;t to the utmost : he surrounds it with every possible association

auty or grandeur, whether moral, intellectual, or physical. He

relmes on his descriptions of beauty; loading sweets on sweets, till

the ense aches at them ; and raises his images of terror to a gigantic

; .n, that 'makes Ossa like a wart.' In Milton, there is always

an appearance of effort : in Shakespeare, scarcely any.

Milton has borrowed more than any other writer, and exhausted

every source of imitation, sacred or profane; yet he is perfectly

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 6 of 38)