Lectures on the English Poets, by William Hazlitt

Lecture iv.

On Dryden and Pope.

Dryden and Pope are the great masters of the artificial style of poetry in our language, as the poets of whom I have already treated, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare, 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 excellence 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 contemptible 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 friendship 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 observation, 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 distinction 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 Shakspeare 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 library 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 impulses 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 diminishing, 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 Blount.

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 beautiful, 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 fillagree work ever invented. It is admirable in proportion as it is made of nothing.

“More subtle web Arachne cannot spin,

Nor the fine 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 appearance 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 Europe. 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.

On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore,

Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore.

Her lively looks a sprightly mind disclose,

Quick as her eyes, and as unfix’d as those:

Favours to none, to all she smiles extends;

Oft 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’ll 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 grac’d 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 Boileau.

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 reasoning 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 rage,

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 performing 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.

“In search of wit these lose their common sense,

And then turn critics in their own defence.”—l. 28, 29.

“Pride, where wit fails, steps in to our defence,

And fills up all the mighty void of sense.”—l. 209, 10.

“Some by old words to fame have made pretence,

Ancients in phrase, mere moderns in their sense.”—l. 324, 5.

“ ’Tis not enough no harshness gives offence;

The sound must seem an echo to the sense.”—l. 364, 5.

“At every trifle scorn to take offence;

That always shews great pride, or little sense.”—l. 386, 7.

“Be silent always, when you doubt your sense,

And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence.”—l. 366, 7.

“Be niggards of advice on no pretence,

For the worst avarice is that of sense.”—l. 578, 9.

“Strain out the last dull dropping of their sense,

And rhyme with all the rage of impotence.”—l. 608, 9.

“Horace still charms with graceful negligence,

And without method talks us into sense.”—l. 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 correctness. These persons seem to be of opinion that “there is but one perfect writer, even Pope.” This is, however, a mistake: his excellence 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 fame.” 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 which 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 Sigismunda, taken from Boccaccio. Pope’s Eloise will bear this comparison; 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,” &c.

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 passages, 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.

But ’tis the Fall degrades her to a whore:

Let Greatness own her, and she’s mean no more.

Her birth, her beauty, crowds and courts confess,

Chaste matrons praise her, and grave bishops bless;

In golden chains the willing world she draws,

And hers the gospel is, and hers the laws;

Mounts the tribunal, lifts her scarlet head,

And sees pale Virtue carted in her stead.

Lo! at the wheels of her triumphal car,

Old England’s Genius, rough with many a scar,

Dragged in the dust! his arms hang idly round,

His flag inverted trains along the ground!

Our youth, all livery’d o’er with foreign gold,

Before her dance; behind her, crawl the old!

See thronging millions to the Pagod run,

And offer country, parent, wife, or son!

Hear her black trumpet through the land proclaim,

That not to be corrupted is the shame.

In soldier, churchman, patriot, man in pow’r,

’Tis av’rice all, ambition is no more!

See all our nobles begging to be slaves!

See all our fools aspiring to be knaves!

The wit of cheats, the courage of a whore,

Are what ten thousand envy and adore;

All, all look up with reverential awe,

At crimes that ‘scape or triumph o’er the law;

While truth, worth, wisdom, daily they decry:

Nothing is sacred now but villainy.

Yet may this verse (if such a verse remain)

Show there was one who held it in disdain.”

His Satires are not in general so good as his Epistles. His enmity is effeminate and petulant from a sense of weakness, as his friendship was tender from a sense of gratitude. I do not like, for instance, his character of Chartres, or his characters of women. His delicacy often borders upon sickliness; his fastidiousness makes others fastidious. But his compliments are divine; they are equal in value to a house or an estate. Take the following. In addressing Lord Mansfield, he speaks of the grave as a scene,

“Where Murray, long enough his country’s pride,

Shall be no more than Tully, or than Hyde.”

To Bolingbroke he says —

      “Why rail they then if but one wreath of mine,

Oh all-accomplish’d St. John, deck thy shrine?”

Again, he has bequeathed this praise to Lord Cornbury —

“Despise low thoughts, low gains:

Disdain whatever Cornbury disdains;

Be virtuous and be happy for your pains.”

One would think (though there is no knowing) that a descendant of this nobleman, if there be such a person living, could hardly be guilty of a mean or paltry action.

The finest piece of personal satire in Pope (perhaps in the world) is his character of Addison; and this, it may be observed, is of a mixed kind, made up of his respect for the man, and a cutting sense of his failings. The other finest one is that of Buckingham, and the best part of that is the pleasurable.

                  “——— Alas! how changed from him,

That life of pleasure and that soul of whim:

Gallant and gay, in Cliveden’s proud alcove,

The bower of wanton Shrewsbury and love!”

Among his happiest and most inimitable effusions are the Epistles to Arbuthnot, and to Jervas the painter; amiable patterns of the delightful unconcerned life, blending ease with dignity, which poets and painters then led. Thus he says to Arbuthnot —

    “Why did I write? What sin to me unknown

Dipp’d me in ink, my parents’ or my own?

As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,

I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came.

I left no calling for this idle trade,

No duty broke, no father disobey’d:

The muse but serv’d to ease some friend, not wife;

To help me through this long disease, my life?

To second, Arbuthnot! thy art and care,

And teach the being you preserv’d to bear.

    But why then publish? Granville the polite,

And knowing Walsh, would tell me I could write;

Well-natur’d Garth inflam’d with early praise,

And Congreve lov’d, and Swift endur’d my lays;

The courtly Talbot, Somers, Sheffield read;

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 difference 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 II. 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 inmates, and their nurseries;

Though hard their fare, at evening, and at morn,

(A cruise of water, and an ear of corn,)

Yet still they grudged that modicum, and thought

A sheaf 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 mattins at uncivil hours;

Nay more, his quiet neighbours should molest,

Just in the sweetness of their morning rest.

Beast of a bird! supinely when he might

Lie snug and sleep, to rise before the light!

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.

Expell’d 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 Mirabilis 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;

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 been written. 5

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 any thing 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 Cithaeron!”

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.

5 “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 images 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 commendation: he was 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 as high above the rest of poets,

Quantum lenta solent inter Viburna Cupressi.”

It should appear, 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.; and again from the poetry of fancy to that of wit, as in the reign of Charles II. and Queen Anne. It degenerated into the poetry of mere common places, both in style and 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 of 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 other 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 inextricable 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 exquisite feeling, describing the consolations of poetry in the following terms:

    “She doth tell me where to borrow

Comfort in the midst of sorrow;

Makes the desolatest place 6

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,

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.”

6 Written in the Fleet Prison.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hazlitt/william/lectures-on-the-english-poets/chapter4.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38