William Hazlitt.

The Spirit of the Age Contemporary Portraits online

. (page 19 of 19)
Online LibraryWilliam HazlittThe Spirit of the Age Contemporary Portraits → online text (page 19 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

from great quickness and unsuspecting simplicity, he runs on to the
public as he does at his own fire-side, and talks about himself,
forgetting that he is not always among friends. His look, his tone are
required to point many things that he says: his frank, cordial manner
reconciles you instantly to a little over-bearing, over-weening self-
complacency. "To be admired, he needs but to be seen:" but perhaps he
ought to be seen to be fully appreciated. No one ever sought his society
who did not come away with a more favourable opinion of him: no one was
ever disappointed, except those who had entertained idle prejudices
against him. He sometimes trifles with his readers, or tires of
a subject (from not being urged on by the stimulus of immediate
sympathy) - but in conversation he is all life and animation, combining
the vivacity of the school-boy with the resources of the wit and the
taste of the scholar. The personal character, the spontaneous impulses,
do not appear to excuse the author, unless you are acquainted with his
situation and habits - like some proud beauty who gives herself what
we think strange airs and graces under a mask, but who is instantly
forgiven when she shews her face. We have said that Lord Byron is a
sublime coxcomb: why should we not say that Mr. Hunt is a delightful
one? There is certainly an exuberance of satisfaction in his manner
which is more than the strict logical premises warrant, and which dull
and phlegmatic constitutions know nothing of, and cannot understand till
they see it. He is the only poet or literary man we ever knew who puts
us in mind of Sir John Suckling or Killigrew or Carew; or who united
rare intellectual acquirements with outward grace and natural gentility.
Mr. Hunt ought to have been a gentleman born, and to have patronised men
of letters. He might then have played, and sung, and laughed, and talked
his life away; have written manly prose, elegant verse; and his _Story
of Rimini_ would have been praised by Mr. Blackwood. As it is, there is
no man now living who at the same time writes prose and verse so well,
with the exception of Mr. Southey (an exception, we fear, that will be
little palatable to either of these gentlemen). His prose writings,
however, display more consistency of principle than the laureate's: his
verses more taste. We will venture to oppose his Third Canto of the
_Story of Rimini_ for classic elegance and natural feeling to any equal
number of lines from Mr. Southey's Epics or from Mr. Moore's Lalla
Rookh. In a more gay and conversational style of writing, we think his
_Epistle to Lord Byron_ on his going abroad, is a masterpiece; - and the
_Feast of the Poets_ has run through several editions. A light, familiar
grace, and mild unpretending pathos are the characteristics of his more
sportive or serious writings, whether in poetry or prose. A smile
plays round the features of the one; a tear is ready to start from the
thoughtful gaze of the other. He perhaps takes too little pains, and
indulges in too much wayward caprice in both. A wit and a poet, Mr. Hunt
is also distinguished by fineness of tact and sterling sense: he has
only been a visionary in humanity, the fool of virtue. What then is the
drawback to so many shining qualities, that has made them useless, or
even hurtful to their owner? His crime is, to have been Editor of the
_Examiner_ ten years ago, when some allusion was made in it to the age
of the present king, and that, though his Majesty has grown older, our
luckless politician is no wiser than he was then!

[Footnote A: Compare his songs with Burns's.]

[Footnote B:

"There was a little man, and he had a little soul,
And he said, Little soul, let us try," &c. -

Parody on

"There was a little man, and he had a little gun." -

One should think this exquisite ridicule of a pedantic effusion might
have silenced for ever the automaton that delivered it: but the
official personage in question at the close of the Session addressed an
extra-official congratulation to the Prince Regent on a bill that had
_not_ passed - as if to repeat and insist upon our errors were to justify

* * * * *


So Mr. Charles Lamb and Mr. Washington Irvine choose to designate
themselves; and as their lucubrations under one or other of these _noms
de guerre_ have gained considerable notice from the public, we shall
here attempt to discriminate their several styles and manner, and to
point out the beauties and defects of each in treating of somewhat
similar subjects.

Mr. Irvine is, we take it, the more popular writer of the two, or a more
general favourite: Mr. Lamb has more devoted, and perhaps more judicious
partisans. Mr. Irvine is by birth an American, and has, as it were,
_skimmed the cream_, and taken off patterns with great skill and
cleverness, from our best known and happiest writers, so that their
thoughts and almost their reputation are indirectly transferred to his
page, and smile upon us from another hemisphere, like "the pale reflex
of Cynthia's brow:" he succeeds to our admiration and our sympathy by a
sort of prescriptive title and traditional privilege. Mr. Lamb, on the
contrary, being "native to the manner here," though he too has borrowed
from previous sources, instead of availing himself of the most popular
and admired, has groped out his way, and made his most successful
researches among the more obscure and intricate, though certainly not
the least pithy or pleasant of our writers. Mr. Washington Irvine has
culled and transplanted the flowers of modern literature, for the
amusement of the general reader: Mr. Lamb has raked among the dust and
cobwebs of a more remote period, has exhibited specimens of curious
relics, and pored over moth-eaten, decayed manuscripts, for the benefit
of the more inquisitive and discerning part of the public. Antiquity
after a time has the grace of novelty, as old fashions revived are
mistaken for new ones; and a certain quaintness and singularity of style
is an agreeable relief to the smooth and insipid monotony of modern
composition. Mr. Lamb has succeeded not by conforming to the _Spirit of
the Age_, but in opposition to it. He does not march boldly along with
the crowd, but steals off the pavement to pick his way in the contrary
direction. He prefers _bye-ways_ to _highways_. When the full tide of
human life pours along to some festive shew, to some pageant of a day,
Elia would stand on one side to look over an old book-stall, or stroll
down some deserted pathway in search of a pensive inscription over a
tottering door-way, or some quaint device in architecture, illustrative
of embryo art and ancient manners. Mr. Lamb has the very soul of an
antiquarian, as this implies a reflecting humanity; the film of the past
hovers for ever before him. He is shy, sensitive, the reverse of every
thing coarse, vulgar, obtrusive, and _common-place_. He would fain
"shuffle off this mortal coil", and his spirit clothes itself in the
garb of elder time, homelier, but more durable. He is borne along with
no pompous paradoxes, shines in no glittering tinsel of a fashionable
phraseology; is neither fop nor sophist. He has none of the turbulence
or froth of new-fangled opinions. His style runs pure and clear,
though it may often take an underground course, or be conveyed through
old-fashioned conduit-pipes. Mr. Lamb does not court popularity, nor
strut in gaudy plumes, but shrinks from every kind of ostentatious and
obvious pretension into the retirement of his own mind.

"The self-applauding bird, the peacock see: -
Mark what a sumptuous pharisee is he!
Meridian sun-beams tempt him to unfold
His radiant glories, azure, green, and gold:
He treads as if, some solemn music near,
His measured step were governed by his ear:
And seems to say - Ye meaner fowl, give place,
I am all splendour, dignity, and grace!
Not so the pheasant on his charms presumes,
Though he too has a glory in his plumes.
He, christian-like, retreats with modest mien
To the close copse or far sequestered green,
And shines without desiring to be seen."

These lines well describe the modest and delicate beauties of Mr. Lamb's
writings, contrasted with the lofty and vain-glorious pretensions of
some of his contemporaries. This gentleman is not one of those who pay
all their homage to the prevailing idol: he thinks that

"New-born gauds are made and moulded of things past."

nor does he

"Give to dust that is a little gilt
More laud than gilt o'er-dusted."

His convictions "do not in broad rumour lie," nor are they "set off to
the world in the glistering foil" of fashion; but "live and breathe
aloft in those pure eyes, and perfect judgment of all-seeing _time_."
Mr. Lamb rather affects and is tenacious of the obscure and remote: of
that which rests on its own intrinsic and silent merit; which scorns all
alliance, or even the suspicion of owing any thing to noisy clamour, to
the glare of circumstances. There is a fine tone of _chiaro-scuro_, a
moral perspective in his writings. He delights to dwell on that which is
fresh to the eye of memory; he yearns after and covets what soothes the
frailty of human nature. That touches him most nearly which is withdrawn
to a certain distance, which verges on the borders of oblivion: - that
piques and provokes his fancy most, which is hid from a superficial
glance. That which, though gone by, is still remembered, is in his view
more genuine, and has given more "vital signs that it will live," than a
thing of yesterday, that may be forgotten to-morrow. Death has in this
sense the spirit of life in it; and the shadowy has to our author
something substantial in it. Ideas savour most of reality in his mind;
or rather his imagination loiters on the edge of each, and a page of his
writings recals to our fancy the _stranger_ on the grate, fluttering in
its dusky tensity, with its idle superstition and hospitable welcome!

Mr. Lamb has a distaste to new faces, to new books, to new buildings, to
new customs. He is shy of all imposing appearances, of all assumptions
of self-importance, of all adventitious ornaments, of all mechanical
advantages, even to a nervous excess. It is not merely that he does
not rely upon, or ordinarily avail himself of them; he holds them in
abhorrence, he utterly abjures and discards them, and places a great
gulph between him and them. He disdains all the vulgar artifices of
authorship, all the cant of criticism, and helps to notoriety. He has no
grand swelling theories to attract the visionary and the enthusiast, no
passing topics to allure the thoughtless and the vain. He evades the
present, he mocks the future. His affections revert to, and settle on
the past, but then, even this must have something personal and local in
it to interest him deeply and thoroughly; he pitches his tent in the
suburbs of existing manners; brings down the account of character to the
few straggling remains of the last generation; seldom ventures beyond
the bills of mortality, and occupies that nice point between egotism
and disinterested humanity. No one makes the tour of our southern
metropolis, or describes the manners of the last age, so well as Mr.
Lamb - with so fine, and yet so formal an air - with such vivid obscurity,
with such arch piquancy, such picturesque quaintness, such smiling
pathos. How admirably he has sketched the former inmates of the South-
Sea House; what "fine fretwork he makes of their double and single
entries!" With what a firm, yet subtle pencil he has embodied _Mrs.
Battle's Opinions on Whist_! How notably he embalms a battered _beau_;
how delightfully an amour, that was cold forty years ago, revives in
his pages! With what well-disguised humour he introduces us to his
relations, and how freely he serves up his friends! Certainly, some of
his portraits are _fixtures_, and will do to hang up as lasting and
lively emblems of human infirmity. Then there is no one who has so sure
an ear for "the chimes at midnight", not even excepting Mr. Justice
Shallow; nor could Master Silence himself take his "cheese and pippins"
with a more significant and satisfactory air. With what a gusto Mr. Lamb
describes the inns and courts of law, the Temple and Gray's-Inn, as if
he had been a student there for the last two hundred years, and had been
as well acquainted with the person of Sir Francis Bacon as he is with
his portrait or writings! It is hard to say whether St. John's Gate is
connected with more intense and authentic associations in his mind, as
a part of old London Wall, or as the frontispiece (time out of mind) of
the Gentleman's Magazine. He haunts Watling-street like a gentle spirit;
the avenues to the play-houses are thick with panting recollections,
and Christ's-Hospital still breathes the balmy breath of infancy in his
description of it! Whittington and his Cat are a fine hallucination for
Mr. Lamb's historic Muse, and we believe he never heartily forgave a
certain writer who took the subject of Guy Faux out of his hands. The
streets of London are his fairy-land, teeming with wonder, with life
and interest to his retrospective glance, as it did to the eager eye
of childhood; he has contrived to weave its tritest traditions into a
bright and endless romance!

Mr. Lamb's taste in books is also fine, and it is peculiar. It is not
the worse for a little _idiosyncrasy_. He does not go deep into the
Scotch novels, but he is at home in Smollett and Fielding. He is little
read in Junius or Gibbon, but no man can give a better account of
Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, or Sir Thomas Brown's Urn-Burial,
or Fuller's Worthies, or John Bunyan's Holy War. No one is more
unimpressible to a specious declamation; no one relishes a recondite
beauty more. His admiration of Shakespear and Milton does not make
him despise Pope; and he can read Parnell with patience, and Gay
with delight. His taste in French and German literature is somewhat
defective: nor has he made much progress in the science of Political
Economy or other abstruse studies, though he has read vast folios of
controversial divinity, merely for the sake of the intricacy of style,
and to save himself the pain of thinking. Mr. Lamb is a good judge of
prints and pictures. His admiration of Hogarth does credit to both,
particularly when it is considered that Leonardo da Vinci is his next
greatest favourite, and that his love of the _actual_ does not
proceed from a want of taste for the _ideal_. His worst fault is an
over-eagerness of enthusiasm, which occasionally makes him take a
surfeit of his highest favourites. - Mr. Lamb excels in familiar
conversation almost as much as in writing, when his modesty does not
overpower his self-possession. He is as little of a proser as possible;
but he _blurts_ out the finest wit and sense in the world. He keeps
a good deal in the back-ground at first, till some excellent conceit
pushes him forward, and then he abounds in whim and pleasantry. There
is a primitive simplicity and self-denial about his manners; and a
Quakerism in his personal appearance, which is, however, relieved by
a fine Titian head, full of dumb eloquence! Mr. Lamb is a general
favourite with those who know him. His character is equally singular and
amiable. He is endeared to his friends not less by his foibles than his
virtues; he insures their esteem by the one, and does not wound their
self-love by the other. He gains ground in the opinion of others,
by making no advances in his own. We easily admire genius where the
diffidence of the possessor makes our acknowledgment of merit seem like
a sort of patronage, or act of condescension, as we willingly extend our
good offices where they are not exacted as obligations, or repaid with
sullen indifference. - The style of the Essays of Elia is liable to the
charge of a certain _mannerism_. His sentences are cast in the mould of
old authors; his expressions are borrowed from them; but his feelings
and observations are genuine and original, taken from actual life, or
from his own breast; and he may be said (if any one can) "to have
coined his heart for _jests_," and to have split his brain for fine
distinctions! Mr. Lamb, from the peculiarity of his exterior and address
as an author, would probably never have made his way by detached and
independent efforts; but, fortunately for himself and others, he has
taken advantage of the Periodical Press, where he has been stuck into
notice, and the texture of his compositions is assuredly fine enough to
bear the broadest glare of popularity that has hitherto shone upon them.
Mr. Lamb's literary efforts have procured him civic honours (a thing
unheard of in our times), and he has been invited, in his character of
ELIA, to dine at a select party with the Lord Mayor. We should prefer
this distinction to that of being poet-laureat. We would recommend
to Mr. Waithman's perusal (if Mr. Lamb has not anticipated us) the
_Rosamond Gray_ and the _John Woodvil_ of the same author, as an
agreeable relief to the noise of a city feast, and the heat of city
elections. A friend, a short time ago, quoted some lines[A] from the
last-mentioned of these works, which meeting Mr. Godwin's eye, he was
so struck with the beauty of the passage, and with a consciousness of
having seen it before, that he was uneasy till he could recollect where,
and after hunting in vain for it in Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher,
and other not unlikely places, sent to Mr. Lamb to know if he could help
him to the author!

Mr. Washington Irvine's acquaintance with English literature begins
almost where Mr. Lamb's ends, - with the Spectator, Tom Brown's works,
and the wits of Queen Anne. He is not bottomed in our elder writers, nor
do we think he has tasked his own faculties much, at least on English
ground. Of the merit of his _Knicker-bocker,_ and New York stories,
we cannot pretend to judge. But in his _Sketch-book_ and
_Bracebridge-Hall_ he gives us very good American copies of our British
Essayists and Novelists, which may be very well on the other side of the
water, and as proofs of the capabilities of the national genius, but
which might be dispensed with here, where we have to boast of the
originals. Not only Mr. Irvine's language is with great taste and
felicity modelled on that of Addison, Sterne, Goldsmith, or Mackenzie;
but the thoughts and sentiments are taken at the rebound, and as they
are brought forward at the present period, want both freshness and
probability. Mr. Irvine's writings are literary _anachronisms_. He comes
to England for the first time; and being on the spot, fancies himself in
the midst of those characters and manners which he had read of in the
Spectator and other approved authors, and which were the only idea he
had hitherto formed of the parent country. Instead of looking round
to see what _we are_, he sets to work to describe us as _we were_ - at
second hand. He has Parson Adams, or Sir Roger de Coverley in his
"_mind's eye_"; and he makes a village curate, or a country 'squire in
Yorkshire or Hampshire sit to these admired models for their portraits
in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Whatever the ingenious
author has been most delighted with in the representations of books, he
transfers to his port-folio, and swears that he has found it actually
existing in the course of his observation and travels through Great
Britain. Instead of tracing the changes that have taken place in society
since Addison or Fielding wrote, he transcribes their account in a
different hand-writing, and thus keeps us stationary, at least in our
most attractive and praise-worthy qualities of simplicity, honesty,
hospitality, modesty, and good-nature. This is a very flattering mode
of turning fiction into history, or history into fiction; and we should
scarcely know ourselves again in the softened and altered likeness,
but that it bears the date of 1820, and issues from the press in
Albemarle-street. This is one way of complimenting our national and
Tory prejudices; and coupled with literal or exaggerated portraits of
_Yankee_ peculiarities, could hardly fail to please. The first Essay in
the _Sketch-book_, that on National Antipathies, is the best; but after
that, the sterling ore of wit or feeling is gradually spun thinner and
thinner, till it fades to the shadow of a shade. Mr. Irvine is himself,
we believe, a most agreeable and deserving man, and has been led into
the natural and pardonable error we speak of, by the tempting bait of
European popularity, in which he thought there was no more likely method
of succeeding than by imitating the style of our standard authors, and
giving us credit for the virtues of our forefathers.

[Footnote A: The description of sports in the forest:

"To see the sun to bed and to arise,
Like some hot amourist with glowing eyes," &c.]

* * * * *

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


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 19

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittThe Spirit of the Age Contemporary Portraits → online text (page 19 of 19)