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 8 of 38)
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Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspcare, and Milton, were of the natural ; and
though this artificial style is generally and very justly acknowledged
to be inferior to the other, yet those who stand at the head of that
class, ought, perhaps, to rank higher than those who occupy an
inferior place in a superior class. They have a clear and independent
claim upon our gratitude, as having produced a kind and degree of
>ence which existed equally nowhere else. What has been done
well by some later writers of the highest style of poetry, is included
in, and obscured by a greater degree of power and genius in those
before them : what has been done best by poets of an entirely distinct
turn of mind, stands by itself, and tells for its whole amount.
Young, for instance, Gray, or Akenside, only follow in the train of
Milton and Shakspeare : Pope and Dryden walk by their side,
though of an unequal stature, and are entitled to a first place in the


lists of fame. This seems to be not only the reason of the thing, but
the common sense of mankind, who, without any regular process of
reflection, judge of the merit of a work, not more by its inherent and
absolute worth, than by its originality and capacity of gratifying a
different faculty of the mind, or a different class of readers ; for it
should be recollected, that there may be readers (as well as poets)
not of the highest class, though very good sort of people, and not
altogether to be despised.

The question, whether Pope was a poet, has hardly yet been
settled, and is hardly worth settling ; for if he was not a great poet,
he must have been a great prose-writer, that is, he was a great writer
of some sort. He was a man of exquisite faculties, and of the most
refined taste ; and as he chose verse (the most obvious distinction of
poetry) as the vehicle to express his ideas, he has generally passed
for a poet, and a good one. If, indeed, by a great poet, we mean
one who gives the utmost grandeur to our conceptions of nature, or
the utmost force to the passions of the heart, Pope was not in this
sense a great poet ; for the bent, the characteristic power of his mind,
lay the clean contrary way ; namely, in representing things as they
appear to the indifferent observer, stripped of prejudice and passion,
as in his Critical Essays ; or in representing them in the most con-
temptible and insignificant point of view, as in his Satires ; or in
clothing the little with mock-dignity, as in his poems of Fancy ; or
in adorning the trivial incidents and familiar relations of life with the
utmost elegance of expression, and all the flattering illusions of friend-
ship or self-love, as in his Epistles. He was not then distinguished
as a poet of lofty enthusiasm, of strong imagination, with a passionate
sense of the beauties of nature, or a deep insight into the workings of
the heart ; but he was a wit, and a critic, a man of sense, of observa-
tion, and the world, with a keen relish for the elegances of art, or of
nature when embellished by art, a quick tact for propriety of thought
and manners as established by the forms and customs of society, a
refined sympathy with the sentiments and habitudes of human life, as
he felt them within the little circle of his family and friends. He
was, in a word, the poet, not of nature, but of art ; and the distinc-
tion between the two, as well as I can make it out, is this — The poet
of nature is one who, from the elements of beauty, of power, and of
passion in his own breast, sympathises with whatever is beautiful, and
grand, and impassioned in nature, in its simple majesty, in its
immediate appeal to the senses, to the thoughts and hearts of all
men ; so that the poet of nature, by the truth, and depth, and harmony
of his mind, may be said to hold communion with the very soul of
nature ; to be identified with and to foreknow and to record the



feelings of all men at all times and places, as they are liable to the
same impressions ; and to exert the same power over the minds of
his readers, that nature does. He sees things in their eternal beauty,
for he sees them as they are ; he feels them in their universal interest,
for he feels them as they affect the first principles of his and our
common nature. Such was Homer, such was Shakspeare, whose
works will last as long as nature, because they are a copy of the
indestructible forms and everlasting impulses of nature, welling out
from the bosom as from a perennial spring, or stamped upon the
senses by the hand of their maker. The power of the imagination in
them, is the representative power of all nature. It has its centre
in the human soul, and makes the circuit of the universe.

Pope was not assuredly a poet of this class, or in the first rank of
it. He saw nature only dressed by art; he judged of beauty by
fashion ; he sought for truth in the opinions of the world ; he judged
of the feelings of others by his own. The capacious soul of Shak-
speare had an intuitive and mighty sympathy with whatever could
enter into the heart of man in all possible circumstances : Pope had
an exact knowledge of all that he himself loved or hated, wished or
wanted. Milton has winged his daring flight from heaven to earth,
through Chaos and old Night. Pope's Muse never wandered with
safety, but from his library to his grotto, or from his grotto into his
lilirary back again. His mind dwelt with greater pleasure on his own
garden, than on the garden of Eden ; he could describe the faultless
whole-length mirror that reflected his own person, better than the
smooth surface of the lake that reflects the face of heaven — a piece of
cut glass or a pair of paste buckles with more brilliance and effect,
than a thousand dew-drops glittering in the sun. He would be more
delighted with a patent lamp, than with ' the pale reflex of Cynthia's
brow,' that fills the skies with its soft silent lustre, that trembles
through the cottage window, and cheers the watchful mariner on the
lonely wave. In short, he was the poet of personality and of polished
life. That which was nearest to him, was the greatest ; the fashion
of the day bore sway in his mind over the immutable laws of nature.
He preferred the artificial to the natural in external objects, because
he had a stronger fellow-feeling with the self-love of the maker or
proprietor of a gewgaw, than admiration of that which was interesting
to all mankind. He preferred the artificial to the natural in passion,
because the involuntary and uncalculating impulres of the one hurried
him away with a force and vehemence with which he could not
grapple ; while he could trifle with the conventional and superficial
modifications of mere sentiment at will, laugh at or admire, put them
on or off like a masquerade-dress, make much or little of them,


indulge them for a longer or a shorter time, as he pleased ; and
because while they amused his fancy and exercised his ingenuity,
they never once disturbed his vanity, his levity, or indifference. His
mind was the antithesis of strength and grandeur ; its power was the
power of indifference. He had none of the enthusiasm of poetry ;
he was in poetry what the sceptic is in religion.

It cannot be denied, that his chief excellence lay more in diminish-
ing, than in aggrandizing objects ; in checking, not in encouraging
our enthusiasm ; in sneering at the extravagances of fancy or passion,
instead of giving a loose to them ; in describing a row of pins and
needles, rather than the embattled spears of Greeks and Trojans ;
in penning a lampoon or a compliment, and in praising Martha

Shakspeare says,

' In Fortune's ray and brightness

The herd hath more annoyance by the brize
Than by the tyger : but when the splitting wind
Makes flexible the knees of knotted oaks.
And flies fled under shade, why then
The thing of courage,

As roused with rage, with rage doth sympathise ;
And with an accent tuned in the self-same key,
Replies to chiding Fortune.'

There is none of this rough work in Pope. His Muse was on a
peace-establishment, and grew somewhat effeminate by long ease and
indulgence. He lived in the smiles of fortune, and basked in the
favour of the great. In his smooth and polished verse we meet with
no prodigies of nature, but with miracles of wit ; the thunders of his
pen are whispered flatteries ; its forked lightnings pointed sarcasms ;
for * the gnarled oak,' he gives us * the soft myrtle ' : for rocks, and
seas, and mountains, artificial grass-plats, gravel-walks, and tinkling
rills ; for earthquakes and tempests, the breaking of a flower-pot, or
the fall of a china jar ; for the tug and war of the elements, or the
deadly strife of the passions, we have

' Calm contemplation and poetic ease."

Yet within this retired and narrow circle how much, and that how
exquisite, was contained ! What discrimination, what wit, what
delicacy, what fancy, what lurking spleen, what elegance of thought,
what pampered refinement of sentiment ! It is like looking at the
world through a microscope, where every thing assumes a new
character and a new consequence, where things are seen in their



minutest circumstances and slightest shades of difference ; where the
little becomes gigantic, the deformed beautiiul, and the beautiful
deformed. The wrong end of the magnifier is, to be sure, held to
every thing, but still the exhibition is highly curious, and we know
not whether to be most pleased or surprised. Such, at least, is the
best account I am able to give of this extraordinary man, without
doing injustice to him or others. It is time to refer to particular
instances in his works. — The Rape of the Lock is the best or most
ingenious of these. It is the most exquisite specimen of filagree
work ever invented. It is admirable in proportion as it is made of

' More subtle web Arachne cannot spin,
Nor the tine nets, which oft we woven see
Of scorched dew, do not in th' air more lightly flee.'

It is made of gauze and silver spangles. The most glittering appear-
ance is given to every thing, to paste, pomatum, billet-doux, and
patches. Airs, languid airs, breathe around ; — the atmosphere is
perfumed with affectation. A toilette is described with the solemnity
of an altar raised to the Goddess of vanity, and the history of a silver
bodkin is given with all the pomp of heraldry. No pains are spared,
no profusion of ornament, no splendour of poetic diction, to set off
the meanest things. The balance between the concealed irony and
the assumed gravity, is as nicely trimmed as the balance of power in
hurope. The little is made great, and the great little. You hardly
know whether to laugh or weep. It is the triumph of insignificance,
the apotheosis of foppery and folly. It is the perfection of the mock-
heroic ! I will give only the two following passages in illustration of
these remarks. Can any thing be more elegant and graceful than the
description of Belinda, in the beginning of the second canto?

'Not with more glories, in the ethereal plain,
The sun first rises o'er the purpled main,
Than, issuing forth, the rival of his beams
Launch'd on the bosom of the silver Thames.
Fair nymphs, and well-drest youths around her shone,
But ev'ry eye was fix'd on her alone.
< >:. her white breast a sparkling cross she wore,
Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore.
Her lively looks a sprightly mind disclose,
1,'uick as her eyes, and as unfix'd as those:
Favours to none, to all she smiles extends;
"It she rejects, but never once offends.
Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike ;
And like the sun, they shine on all alike.


Yet graceful ease, and sweetness void of pride,
Might hide her faults, if belles had faults to hide :
If to her share some female errors fall,
Look on her face, and you '11 forget 'em all.

This nymph, to the destruction of mankind,
Nourish'd two locks, which graceful hung behind
In equal curls, and well conspir'd to deck
With shining ringlets the smooth iv'ry neck.'

The following is the introduction to the account of Belinda's
assault upon the baron bold, who had dissevered one of these locks
'from her fair head for ever and for ever.'

'Now meet thy fate, incens'd Belinda cry'd,
And drew a deadly bodkin from her side.
(The same his ancient personage to deck,
Her great, great grandsire wore about his neck,
In three seal-rings; which after, melted down,
Form'd a vast buckle for his widow's gown :
Her infant grandame's whistle next it grew,
The bells she jingled, and the whistle blew;
Then in a bodkin graced her mother's hairs,
Which long she wore, and now Belinda wears).'

I do not know how far Pope was indebted for the original idea,
or the delightful execution of this poem, to the Lutrin of

The Rape of the Lock is a double-refined essence of wit and
fancy, as the Essay on Criticism is of wit and sense. The quantity
of thought and observation in this work, for so young a man as Pope
was when he wrote it, is wonderful : unless we adopt the supposition,
that most men of genius spend the rest of their lives in teaching others
what they themselves have learned under twenty. The conciseness
and felicity of the expression are equally remarkable. Thus in reason-
ing on the variety of men's opinion, he says —

' 'Tis with our judgments, as our watches ; none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.'

Nothing can be more original and happy than the general remarks
and illustrations in the Essay : the critical rules laid down are too
much those of a school, and of a confined one. There is one passage
in the Essay on Criticism in which the author speaks with that
eloquent enthusiasm of the fame of ancient writers, which those
will always feel who have themselves any hope or chance of



immortality. I have quoted the passage elsewhere, but I will repeat
it here.

' Still green with bays each ancient altar stands,

Above the reach of sacrilegious hands;

Secure from flames, from envy's fiercer rag.-,

Destructive war, and all-involving age.

Hail, bards triumphant, born in happier days,

Immortal heirs of universal praise!

Whose honours with increase of ages grow,

As streams roll down, enlarging as they flow,'

These lines come with double force and beauty on the reader, as
they were dictated by the writer's despair of ever attaining that
lasting glory which he celebrates with such disinterested enthusiasm
in others, from the lateness of the age in which he lived, and from
his writing in a tongue, not understood by other nations, and that
grows obsolete and unintelligible to ourselves at the end of every
second century. But he needed not have thus antedated his own
poetical doom — the loss and entire oblivion of that which can never
die. If he had known, he might have boasted that ' his little bark '
wafted down the stream of time,

' With theirs should sail,

Pursue the triumph and partake the gale * —

if those who know how to set a due value on the blessing, were not
the last to decide confidently on their own pretensions to it.

There is a cant in the present day about genius, as every thing in
poetry : there was a cant in the time of Pope about sense, as per-
forming all sorts of wonders. It was a kind of watchword, the
shibboleth of a critical party of the day. As a proof of the exclusive
attention which it occupied in their minds, it is remarkable that in
the Essay on Criticism (not a very long poem) there are no less than
half a score successive couplets rhyming to the word sense. This
appears almost incredible without giving the instances, and no less so
when they are given.

' But of the two, less dangerous is the offence,
To tire our patience than mislead our sense.' — lines 3, 4..

1 In search of wit these lose their common sense,
And then turn critics in their own defence.' — /. 28, 29.

' Pride, where wit fails, steps in to our defence,
And fills up all the mighty void of sense.' — /. 209, 10.

1 Some by old words to fame have made pretence,
Ancients in phrase, mere moderns in their sense.' — /. 324, 5


' 'Tis not enough no harshness gives offence;
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.' — /. 364, 5.

' At every trifle scorn to take offence ;
That always shews great pride, or little sense.'' — /. 386, 7.

* Be silent always, when you doubt your sense,

And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence.' — I. 366, 7.

• Be niggards of advice on no pretence,

For the worst avarice is that of sense.' — /. 578, 9.

' Strain out the last dull dropping of their sense,
And rhyme with all the rage of impotence.' — /. 608. 9,

' Horace still charms with graceful negligence,
And without method talks us into sense.' — /. 653, 4.

I have mentioned this the more for the sake of those critics who
are bigotted idolisers of our author, chiefly on the score of his correct-
ness. These persons seem to be of opinion that ' there is but one
perfect writer, even Pope.' This is, however, a mistake : his excel-
lence is by no means faultlessness. If he had no great faults, he is
full of little errors. His grammatical construction is often lame and
imperfect. In the Abelard and Eloise, he says —

•There died the best of passions, Love and Fame.'

This is not a legitimate ellipsis. Fame is not a passion, though love
is : but his ear was evidently confused by the meeting of the sounds
' love and fame,' as if they of themselves immediately implied ' love,
and love of lame.' Pope's rhymes are constantly defective, being
rhymes to the eye instead of the ear ; and this to a greater degree,
not only than in later, but than in preceding writers. The praise
of his versification must be confined to its uniform smoothness and
harmony. In the translation of the Iliad, which has been considered
as his masterpiece in style and execution, he continually changes the
tenses in the same sentence for the purposes of the rhyme, which
shews either a want of technical resources, or great inattention to
punctilious exactness. But to have done with this.

The epistle of Eloise to Abelard is the only exception I can
think of, to the general spirit of the foregoing remarks ; and I should
be disingenuous not to acknowledge that it is an exception. The
foundation is in the letters themselves of Abelard and Eloise, which
are quite as impressive, but still in a different way. It is fine as a
poem : it is finer as a piece of high-wrought eloquence. No woman
could be supposed to write a better love-letter in verse. Besides the
richness of the historical materials, the high gusto of the original



sentiments w hicb Pope had to work upon, there were perhaps
circumstances in his own situation which made him enter into the
subject with even more than a poet's feeling. The tears shed are
drops gushing from the heart : the words are burning sighs breathed
from the soul of love. Perhaps the poem to which it bears the
greatest similarity in our language, is Dryden's Tancred and Sigis-
munda, taken from Boccaccio. Pope's Eloise will bear this com-
parison ; and after such a test, with Boccaccio for the original
author, and Dryden for the translator, it need shrink from no other.
There is something exceedingly tender and beautiful in the sound of
the concluding lines :

' If ever chance two wandering lovers brings
To Paraclete's white walls and silver springs,' Sec.

The Essay on Man is not Pope's best work. It is a theory
which Bolingbroke is supposed to have given him, and which he
expanded into verse. But ' he spins the thread of his verbosity
finer than the staple of his argument.' All that he says, * the very
words, and to the self-same tune,' would prove just as well that
whatever is, is wrong, as that whatever is, is right. The Dunciad
has splendid pa- ages, but in general it is dull, heavy, and mechanical.
The sarcasm already quoted on Settle, the Lord Mayor's poet, (for
at that time there was a city as well as a court poet)

' Now night descending, the proud scene is o'er,
But lives in Settle's numbers one day more ' —

is the finest inversion of immortality conceivable. It is even better
than his serious apostrophe to the great heirs of glory, the triumphant
bards of antiquity !

The finest burst of severe moral invective in all Pope, is the
prophetical conclusion of the epilogue to the Satires :

'Virtue may chuse the high or low degree,
'Tis just alike to virtue, and to me;
Dwell in a monk, or light upon a king,
She 's still the same belov'd, contented thing.
Vice is undone if she forgets her birth,
And stoops from angels to the dregs of earth.
Hut 'tis the Fall degrades her to a whore :
Let Greatness own her, and she 's mean no more.
" r birth, her beauty, crowds and courts confess,
t. haste matrons praise her, and grave bishops bless 5
In golden chains the willing world she draws,

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 8 of 38)