William Hazlitt.

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

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The courtly Talbot, Somers, Sheffield read j
E'en mitred Rochester would nod the head ;
And St. John's self (great Dryden's friend before)
With open arms receiv'd one poet more.
Happy my studies, when by these approv'd !
Happier their author, when by these belov'd !
From these the world will judge of men and books,
Not from the Burnets, Oldmixons, and Cooks.'

I cannot help giving also the conclusion of the Epistle to Jervas

' Oh, lasting as those colours may they shine,
Free as thy stroke, yet faultless as thy line ;
New graces yearly like thy works display,
Soft without weakness, without glaring gay:


Led by some rule, that guides, but not constrains;
And finish "d more through happiness than pains.
The kindred arts shall in their praise conspire,
One dip the pencil, and one string the lyre.
Yet should the Graces all thy figures place,
And breathe an air divine on ev'ry face ;
Yet should the Muses bid my numbers roll
Strong as their charms, and gentle as their soul ;
With Zeuxis' Helen thy Bridgewater vie,
And these be sung till Granville's Myra die :
Alas ! how little from the grave we claim !
Thou but preserv'st a face, and I a name.'

And shall we cut ourselves off from beauties like these with
a theory ? Shall we shut up our books, and seal up our senses, to
please the dull spite and inordinate vanity of those * who have eyes,
but they see not — ears, but they hear not — and understandings, but
they understand not,' — and go about asking our blind guides,
whether Pope was a poet or not ? It will never do. Such persons,
when you point out to them a fine passage in Pope, turn it off
to something of the same sort in some other writer. Thus they say
that the line, • I lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came,' is pretty,
but taken from that of Ovid— Et quum conabar scribere, versus
erat. They are safe in this mode of criticism : there is no danger
of any one's tracing their writings to the classics.

Pope's letters and prose writings neither take away from, nor add
to his poetical reputation. There is, occasionally, a littleness of
manner, and an unnecessary degree of caution. He appears anxious
to say a good thing in every word, as well as every sentence. They,
however, give a very favourable idea of his moral character in all
respects ; and his letters to Atterbury, in his disgrace and exile, do
equal honour to both. If I had to choose, there are one or two
persons, and but one or two, that I should like to have been better
than Pope !

Dryden was a better prose-writer, and a bolder and more varied
versifier than Pope. He was a more vigorous thinker, a more
correct and logical declaimer, and had more of what may be called
strength of mind than Pope ; but he had not the same refinement and
delicacy of feeling. Dryden's eloquence and spirit were possessed in
a higher degree by others, and in nearly the same degree by Pope
himself; but that by which Pope was distinguished, was an essence
which he alone possessed, and of incomparable value on that sole
account. Dryden's Epistles are excellent, but inferior to Pope's,
though they appear (particularly the admirable one to Congreve) to
have been the model on which the latter formed his. His Satires



are better than Pope's. His Absalom and Achitophel is superior,
both in force of invective and discrimination of character, to any thing
of Pope's in the same way. The character of Achitophel is very
fine ; and breathes, if not a sincere love for virtue, a strong spirit of
indignation against vice.

Mac Flecknoe is the origin of the idea of the Dunciad ; but it is
less elaborately constructed, less feeble, and less heavy. The differ-
ence between Pope's satirical portraits and Dryden's, appears to be
this in a good measure, that Dryden seems to grapple with his
antagonists, and to describe real persons ; Pope seems to refine upon
them in his own mind, and to make them out just what he pleases,
till they are not real characters, but the mere driveling effusions of
his spleen and malice. Pope describes the thing, and then goes on
describing his own description till he loses himself in verbal repetitions.
Dryden recurs to the object often, takes fresh sittings of nature, and
gives us new strokes of character as well as of his pencil. The Hind
and Panther is an allegory as well as a satire; and so far it tells less
home ; the battery is not so point-blank. But otherwise it has more
genius, vehemence, and strength of description than any other of
Dryden's works, not excepting the Absalom and Achitophel. It
also contains the finest examples of varied and sounding versification.
I will quote the following as an instance of what I mean. He is
complaining of the treatment which the Papists, under James n.
received from the church of England.

' Besides these jolly birds, whose corpse impure
Repaid their commons with their salt manure,
Another farm he had behind his house,
Not overstocked, but barely for his use ;
Wherein his poor domestic poultry fed,
And from his pious hand 'received their bread.*
Our pampered pigeons, with malignant eyes,
Beheld these inm:tes, and their nurseries;
Though hard their fare, at evening, and at mom,
(A cruise of water, and an ear of corn,)
Yet still they grudged that modicum, and thought
A sheat in every single grain was brought.
Fain would they filch that little food away,
While unrestrained those happy gluttons prey ;
And much they grieved to see so nigh their hall,
The bird that warned St. Peter of his fall ;
That he should raise his mitred crest on high,
And clap his wings, and call his family
To sacred rites ; and vex the ethereal powers
With midnight muttins at uncivil hours:


Nay more, his quiet neighbours should molest,

Just in the sweetness of their morning rest.

Bea>t or a bird ! supinely when he might

Lie snug and sleep, to rise before the light 1

What if his dull forefathers us'd that cry,

Could he not let a bad example die ?

The world was fallen into an easier way:

This age knew better than to fast and pray.

Good sense in sacred worship would appear,

So to begin as they might end the year.

Such feats in former times had wrought the falls

Of crowing chanticleers in cloister' d walls.

Expelld for this, and for their lands they fled;

And sister Partlet with her hooded head

Was hooted hence, because she would not pray a-bed.'

There is a magnanimity of abuse in some of these epithets, a fearless
choice of topics of invective, which may be considered as the heroical
in satire.

The Annus Mirab'il'is is a tedious performance ; it is a tissue of
far-fetched, heavy, lumbering conceits, and in the worst style of what
has been denominated metaphysical poetry. His Odes in general are
of the same stamp ; they are the hard-strained offspring of a meagre,
meretricious fancy. The famous Ode on St. Cecilia deserves its
reputation ; for, as piece of poetical mechanism to be set to music, or
recited in alternate strophe and antistrophe, with classical allusions,
and flowing verse, nothing can be better. It is equally fit to be said
or sung ; it is not equally good to read. It is lyrical, without being
epic or dramatic. For instance, the description of Bacchus,

'The jolly god in triumph comes,
Sound the trumpets, beat the drums j
Flush'd with a purple grace,
He shews his honest face ' —

does not answer, as it ought, to our idea of the God, returning from
the conquest of India, with satyrs and wild beasts, that he had tamed,
following in his train ; crowned with vine leaves, and riding in a
chariot drawn by leopards — such as we have seen him painted by
Titian or Rubens! Lyrical poetry, of all others, bears the nearest
resemblance to painting : it deals in hieroglyphics and passing figures,
which depend for effect, not on the working out, but on the selection.
It is the dance and pantomime of poetry. In variety and rapidity of
movement, the Alexander's Feast has all that can be required in this
respect ; it only wants loftiness and truth of character.

Dryden's plays are better than Pope could have written ; for



though he does not go out of himself by the force of imagination,
he goes out of himself by the force of common-places and rhetorical
dialogue. On the other hand, they are not so good as Shakspeare's :
but he has left the best character of Shakspeare that has ever beer
written. 1

His alterations from Chaucer and Boccaccio shew a greater
knowledge of the taste of his readers and power of pleasing them,
than acquaintance with the genius of his authors. He ekes out the
lameness of the verse in the former, and breaks the force of the
passion in both. The Tancred and Sigismunda is the only general
exception, in which, I think, he has fully retained, if not improved
upon, the impassioned declamation of the original. The Honoria
has none of the bewildered, dreary, preternatural effect of Boccaccio's
story. Nor has the Flower and the Leaf anything of the enchanting
simplicity and concentrated feeling of Chaucer's romantic fiction.
Dryden, however, sometimes seemed to indulge himself as well as
his readers, as in keeping entire that noble line in Palamon's address
to Venus :

'Thou gladder of the mount of Cithseron !'

His Tales have been, upon the whole, the most popular of his
works ; and I should think that a translation of some of the other
serious tales in Boccaccio and Chaucer, as that of Isabella, the
Falcon, of Constance, the Prioress's Tale, and others, if executed
with taste and spirit, could not fail to succeed in the present day.

It should appe::r, in tracing the history of our literature, that
poetry had, at the period of which we are speaking, in general
declined, by successive gradations, from the poetry of imagination, in
the time of Elizabeth, to the poetry of fancy (to adopt a modern
distinction) in the time of Charles i.j and again from the poetry oi
I incy to that of wit, as in the reign of Charles n. and Queen Anne.
It degenerated into the poetry of mere common places, both in style

• To begin then with Shakspeare : he was the man who of all modern, and
perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the
s of nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but
luckily : when he describes any thing, you more than see it, you feel it too.
Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commenda-
tion : he wjs naturally learned : he needed not the spectacles of books to read
nature ; he looked inwards and found her there. I cannot say, he is every where
alike ; were he so, I should do him injury to compare him with the greatest of
mankind. He is many times flat, and insipid ; his comic wit degenerating into
clenches, his serious swelling into bombast. But he is always great, when some
great occasion is presented to him. No man can say, he ever had a fit subject for
his wit, and did not then raise himself .is high above the rest of poets,

^iMinum lenta ident Inter Viburna Cupressi?


?nd thought, in the succeeding reigns : as in the latter part of the
last century, it was transformed, by means of the French Revolution,
into the poetry of paradox.

Of Donne I know nothing but some beautiful verses to his wife,
dissuading her from accompanying him on his travels abroad, and
some quaint riddles in verse, which the Sphinx could not unravel.

Waller still lives in the name of Sacharissa ; and his lines on the
death of Oliver Cromwell shew that he was a man not without genius
and strength of thought.

Marvel is a writer of nearly the same period, and worthy of a
better age. Some of his verses are harsh, as the words of Mercury ;
others musical, as is Apollo's lute. Of the latter kind are his boat-
song, his description of a fawn, and his lines to Lady Vere. His
lines prefixed to Paradise Lost are by no means the most favourable
specimen of his powers

Butler's Hudibras is a poem of more wit than any other in the
language. The rhymes have as much genius in them as the thoughts ;
but there is no story in it, and but little humour. Humour is the
making others act or talk absurdly and unconsciously : wit is the
pointing out and ridiculing that absurdity consciously, and with more
or less ill-nature. The fault of Butler's poem is not that it has too
much wit, but that it has not an equal quantity of other things.
One would suppose that the starched manners and sanctified grimace
of the times in which he lived, would of themselves have been
sufficiently rich in ludicrous incidents and characters ; but they seem
rather to have irritated his spleen, than to have drawn forth his
powers of picturesque imitation. Certainly if we compare Hudibras
with Don Quixote in this respect, it seems rather a meagre and
unsatisfactory performance.

Rochester's poetry is the poetry of wit combined with the love or
pleasure, of thought with licentiousness. His extravagant heedless
levity has a sort of passionate enthusiasm in it ; his contempt for
every thing that others respect, almost amounts to sublimity. His
poem upon Nothing is itself no trifling work. His epigrams were
the bitterest, the least laboured, and the truest, that ever were written.

Sir John Suckling was of the same mercurial stamp, but with a
greater fund of animal spirits ; as witty, but less malicious. His
Ballad on a Wedding is perfect in its kind, and has a spirit of high
enjoyment in it, of sportive fancy, a liveliness of description, and a
truth of nature, that never were surpassed. It is superior to either
Gay or Prior ; for with all their naivete and terseness, it has a
Shakspearian grace and luxuriance about it, which they could not
have reached.



Denham and Cowley belong to the same period, but were quite
distinct from each other : the one was grave and prosing, the othc
melancholy and fantastical. There are a number of good lines and
good thoughts in the Cooper's Hill. And in Cowley there is an
inexhaustible fund of sense and ingenuity, buried in inextricably
conceits, and entangled in the cobwebs of the schools. He was a
great man, not a great poet. But I shall say no more on this
subject. I never wish to meddle with names that are sacred, unless
when they stand in the way of things that are more sacred.

Withers is a name now almost forgotten, and his works seldom
read ; but his poetry is not unfrequently distinguished by a tender
and pastoral turn of thought; and there is one passage of exqui ite
feeling, describing the consolations of poetry in the following terms :

' She doth tell me where to borrow
Comfort in the midst of sorrow j
Makes the desolatest place 1
To her presence be a grace ;
And the blackest discontents
Be her fairest ornaments.
In my former days of bliss
Her divine skill taught me this,
That from every thing I saw,
I could some invention draw ;
And raise pleasure to her height,
Through the meanest object's sight,
By the murmur of a spring,
Or the least bough's rusteling,
By a daisy whose leaves spread
Shut when Titan goes to bed ;
Or a shady bush or tree,
She could more infuse in me,
Than all Nature's beauties can,
In some other wiser man.
By her help I also now
Make this churlish place allow
Some things that may sweeten gladness
In the very gall of sadness.
The dull loneness, the black shade,
That these hanging vaults have made,
The strange music of the waves.
Beating on these hollow caves,
This black den which rocks emboss,
Overgrown with eldest moss,
The rude portals that give light
More to terror than delight,

1 Written in the Fleet Prison.


This my chamber of neglect,

Wall'd about with disrespect,

From all these and this dull air,

A fit object for despair,

She hath taught me by her might

To draw comfort and delight.

Therefore, thou best earthly bliss,

I will cherish thee for this.

Poesie ; thou sweet'st content

That ere Heav'n to mortals lent :

Though they as a trifle leave thee,

Whose dull thoughts cannot conceive thee,

Though thou be to them a scorn,

That to nought but earth are born :

Let my life no longer be

Than I am in love with thee.

Though our wise ones call thee madness,

Let me never taste of sadness,

If I love not thy maddest fits,

Above all their greatest wits.

And though some too seeming holy,

Do account thy raptures folly,

Thou dost teach me to contemn

What makes knaves and fools of them."



Thomson, the kind-hearted Thomson, was the most indolent of
mortals and of poets. But he was also one of the best both of
mortals and of poets. Dr. Johnson makes it his praise that he wrote
'no line which dying he would wish to blot.' Perhaps a better
proof of his honest simplicity, and inoffensive goodness of disposition,
would be that he wrote no line which any other person living would
wish that he should blot. Indeed, he himself wished, on his death-
bed, formally to expunge his dedication of one of the Seasons to that
finished courtier, and candid biographer of his own life, Bub
Doddington. As critics, however, not as moralists, we might say
on the other hand — 'Would he had blotted a thousand!' — The
same suavity of temper and sanguine warmth of feeling which threw
such a natural grace and genial spirit of enthusiasm over his poetry,
was also the cause of its inherent vices and defects. He is affected
through carelessness : pompous from unsuspecting simplicity of



character. He is frequently pedantic and ostentatious in his style,
because he had no consciousness of these vices in himself. He
mounts upon stilts, not out of vanity, but indolence. He seldom
writes a good line, but he makes up for it by a bad one. He takes
advantage of all the most trite and mechanical common places of
imagery and diction as a kindly relief to his Muse, and as if he
thought them quite as good, and likely to be quite as acceptable to
the reader, as his own poetry. He did not think the difference
worth putting himself to the trouble of accomplishing. He had too
little art to conceal his art : or did not even seem to know that there
was any occasion for it. His art is as naked and undisguised as his
nature ; the one is as pure and genuine as the other is gross, gaudy,
and meretricious. — All that is admirable in the Seasons, is the
emanation of a fine natural genius, and sincere love of his subject,
unforced, unstudied, that comes uncalled for, and departs unbidden.
But he takes no pains, uses no self-correction ; or if he seems to
labour, it is worse than labour lost. His genius ' cannot be con-
strained by mastery.' The feeling of nature, of the changes of the
seasons, was in his mind ; and he could not help conveying this
feeling to the reader, by the mere force of spontaneous expression ;
but if the expression did not come of itself, he left the whole business
to chance ; or, willing to evade instead of encountering the difficulties
of his subject, fills up the intervals of true inspiration with the most
vapid and worthless materials, pieces out a beautiful half line with a
bombastic allusion, or overloads an exquisitely natural sentiment or
image with a cloud of painted, pompous, cumbrous phrases, like the
shower of roses, in which he represents the Spring, his own lovely,
fresh, and innocent Spring, as descending to the earth.

' Come, gentle Spring ! ethereal Mildness ! come,
And from the bosom of yon dropping cloud,
While music wakes around, veil'd in a shower
Of shadowing roses, on our plains descend '

W no, from such a flimsy, round-about, unmeaning commencement as
this, would expect the delightful, unexaggerated, home-felt descriptions
of natural scenery, which are scattered in such unconscious profusion
through this and the following cantos ? For instance, the very next
passage is crowded with a set of striking images.

' And see where surly Winter passes off"
Far to the north, and calls his rulHan blasts :
His blasts obey, and quit the howling hill,
The shatter'd forest, and the ravag'd vale ;
While softer gales succeed, at whose kind touch


Dissolving snows in livid torrents lost,
The mountains lift their green heads to the sky.
As yet the trembling year is unconfirmed,
And Winter oft at eve resumes the breeze,
Chills the pale morn, and bids his driving sleets
Deform the day delightless ; so that scarce
The bittern knows his time with bill ingulpht
To shake the sounding marsh, or from the shore
The plovers when to scatter o'er the heath,
And sing their wild notes to the listening waste.'

Thomson is the best of our descriptive poets : for he gives most
of the poetry of natural description. Others have been quite equal
to him, or have surpassed him, as Cowper for instance, in the
picturesque part of his art, in marking the peculiar features and
curious details of objects ; — no one has yet come up to him in giving
the sum total of their effects, their varying influences on the mind.
He does not go into the minutia of a landscape, but describes the
vivid impression which the whole makes upon his own imagination ;
and thus transfers the same unbroken, unimpaired impression to the
imagination of his readers. The colours with which he paints seem
yet wet and breathing, like those of the living statue in the Winter's
Tale. Nature in his descriptions is seen growing around us, fresh
and lusty as in itself. We feel the effect of the atmosphere, its
humidity or clearness, its heat or cold, the glow of summer, the
gloom of winter, the tender promise of the spring, the full over-
shadowing foliage, the declining pomp and deepening tints of autumn.
He transports us to the scorching heat of vertical suns, or plunges us
into the chilling horrors and desolation of the frozen zone. We
hear the snow drifting against the broken casement without, and see
the fire blazing on the hearth within. The first scattered drops of
a vernal shower patter on the leaves above our heads, or the coming
storm resounds through the leafless groves. In a word, he describes
not to the eye alone, but to the other senses, and to the whole man.
He puts his heart into his subject, writes as he feels, and humanises
whatever he touches. He makes all his descriptions teem with life
and vivifying soul. His faults were those of his style — of the author
and the man ; but the original genius of the poet, the pith and marrow
of his imagination, the fine natural mould in which his feelings were
bedded, were too much for him to counteract by neglect, or affectation,
or false ornaments. It is for this reason that he is, perhaps, the most
popular of all our poets, treating of a subject that all can understand,
and in a way that is interesting to all alike, to the ignorant or the
refined, because he gives back the impression which the things



themselves make upon us in nature. ' That,' said a man of genius,
seeing a little shabby soiled copy of Thomson's Seasons lying on the
window-seat of an obscure country alehouse — ' That is true fame ! '

It has been supposed by some, that the Castle of Indolence is
Thomson's best poem ; but that is not the case. He has in it,
indeed, poured out the whole soul of indolence, diffuse, relaxed,
supine, dissolved into a voluptuous dream ; and surrounded himself
with a set of objects and companions, in entire unison with the
listlessness of his own temper. Nothing can well go beyond the
descriptions of these inmates of the place, and their luxurious
pampered way of life — of him who came among them like 'a
burnished fly in month of June,' but soon left them on his heedless
way ; and him,

' For whom the merry bells had rung, I ween,
If in this nook of quiet, bells had ever been.'

The in-door quiet and cushioned ease, where ' all was one full-
swelling bed'; the out-of-door stillness, broken only by * the stock-
dove's plaint amid the forest deep/

' That drowsy rustled to the sighing gale ' —

are in the most perfect and delightful keeping. But still there are no
passages in this exquisite little production of sportive ease and fancy,
equal to the best of those in the Seasons. Warton, in his Essay on
Pope, was the first to point out and do justice to some of these ; for
instance, to the description of the effects of the contagion among our
ships at Carthagena — ' of the frequent corse heard nightly plunged
amid the sullen waves,' and to the description of the pilgrims lost in

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 9 of 38)