Lectures on the English Poets, by William Hazlitt

Lecture vi.

On Swift, Young, Gray, Collins, &c.

I shall in the present Lecture go back to the age of Queen Anne, and endeavour to give a cursory account of the most eminent of our poets, of whom I have not already spoken, from that period to the present.

The three principal poets among the wits of Queen Anne’s reign, next to Pope, were Prior, Swift, and Gay. Parnell, though a good-natured, easy man, and a friend to poets and the Muses, was himself little more than an occasional versifier; and Arbuthnot, who had as much wit as the best of them, chose to shew it in prose, and not in verse. He had a very notable share in the immortal History of John Bull, and the inimitable and praiseworthy Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus. There has been a great deal said and written about the plagiarisms of Sterne; but the only real plagiarism he has been guilty of (if such theft were a crime), is in taking Tristram Shandy’s father from Martin’s, the elder Scriblerus. The original idea of the character, that is, of the opinionated, captious old gentleman, who is pedantic, not from profession, but choice, belongs to Arbuthnot. — Arbuthnot’s style is distinguished from that of his contemporaries, even by a greater degree of terseness and conciseness. He leaves out every superfluous word; is sparing of connecting particles, and introductory phrases; uses always the simplest forms of construction; and is more a master of the idiomatic peculiarities and internal resources of the language than almost any other writer. There is a research in the choice of a plain, as well as of an ornamented or learned style; and, in fact, a great deal more. Among common English words, there may be ten expressing the same thing with different degrees of force and propriety, and only one of them the very word we want, because it is the only one that answers exactly with the idea we have in our minds. Each word in familiar use has a different set of associations and shades of meaning attached to it, and distinguished from each other by inveterate custom; and it is in having the whole of these at our command, and in knowing which to choose, as they are called for by the occasion, that the perfection of a pure conversational prose-style consists. But in writing a florid and artificial style, neither the same range of invention, nor the same quick sense of propriety — nothing but learning is required. If you know the words, and their general meaning, it is sufficient: it is impossible you should know the nicer inflections of signification, depending on an endless variety of application, in expressions borrowed from a foreign or dead language. They all impose upon the ear alike, because they are not familiar to it; the only distinction left is between the pompous and the plain; the sesquipedalia verba have this advantage, that they are all of one length; and any words are equally fit for a learned style, so that we have never heard them before. Themistocles thought that the same sounding epithets could not suit all subjects, as the same dress does not fit all persons. The style of our modern prose writers is very fine in itself; but it wants variety of inflection and adaptation; it hinders us from seeing the differences of the things it undertakes to describe.

What I have here insisted on will be found to be the leading distinction between the style of Swift, Arbuthnot, Steele, and the other writers of the age of Queen Anne, and the style of Dr. Johnson, which succeeded to it. The one is English, and the other is not. The writers first mentioned, in order to express their thoughts, looked about them for the properest word to convey any idea, that the language which they spoke, and which their countrymen understood, afforded: Dr. Johnson takes the first English word that offers, and by translating it at a venture into the first Greek or Latin word he can think of, only retaining the English termination, produces an extraordinary effect upon the reader, by much the same sort of mechanical process that Trim converted the old jack-boots into a pair of new mortars.

Dr. Johnson was a lazy learned man, who liked to think and talk, better than to read or write; who, however, wrote much and well, but too often by rote. His long compound Latin phrases required less thought, and took up more room than others. What shews the facilities afforded by this style of imposing generalization, is, that it was instantly adopted with success by all those who were writers by profession, or who were not; and that at present, we cannot see a lottery puff or a quack advertisement pasted against a wall, that is not perfectly Johnsonian in style. Formerly, the learned had the privilege of translating their notions into Latin; and a great privilege it was, as it confined the reputation and emoluments of learning to themselves. Dr. Johnson may be said to have naturalised this privilege, by inventing a sort of jargon translated half-way out of one language into the other, which raised the Doctor’s reputation, and confounded all ranks in literature.

In the short period above alluded to, authors professed to write as other men spoke; every body now affects to speak as authors write; and any one who retains the use of his mother tongue, either in writing or conversation, is looked upon as a very illiterate character.

Prior and Gay belong, in the characteristic excellences of their style, to the same class of writers with Suckling, Rochester, and Sedley: the former imbibed most of the licentious levity of the age of Charles II. and carried it on beyond the Revolution under King William. Prior has left no single work equal to Gay’s Fables, or the Beggar’s Opera. But in his lyrical and fugitive pieces he has shown even more genius, more playfulness, more mischievous gaiety. No one has exceeded him in the laughing grace with which he glances at a subject that will not bear examining, with which he gently hints at what cannot be directly insisted on, with which he half conceals, and half draws aside the veil from some of the Muses’ nicest mysteries. His Muse is, in fact, a giddy wanton flirt, who spends her time in playing at snap-dragon and blind-man’s buff, who tells what she should not, and knows more than she tells. She laughs at the tricks she shews us, and blushes, or would be thought to do so, at what she keeps concealed. Prior has translated several of Fontaine’s Tales from the French; and they have lost nothing in the translation, either of their wit or malice. I need not name them: but the one I like the most, is that of Cupid in search of Venus’s doves. No one could insinuate a knavish plot, a tender point, a loose moral, with such unconscious archness, and careless raillery, as if he gained new self-possession and adroitness from the perplexity and confusion into which he throws scrupulous imaginations, and knew how to seize on all the ticklish parts of his subject, from their involuntarily shrinking under his grasp. Some of his imitations of Boileau’s servile addresses to Louis XIV. which he has applied with a happy mixture of wit and patriotic enthusiasm to King William, or as he familiarly calls him, to

“Little Will, the scourge of France,

No Godhead, but the first of men,”

are excellent, and shew the same talent for double-entendre and the same gallantry of spirit, whether in the softer lyric, or the more lively heroic. Some of Prior’s bon mots are the best that are recorded. — His serious poetry, as his Solomon, is as heavy as his familiar style was light and agreeable. His moral Muse is a Magdalen, and should not have obtruded herself on public view. Henry and Emma is a paraphrase of the old ballad of the Nut-brown Maid, and not so good as the original. In short, as we often see in other cases, where men thwart their own genius, Prior’s sentimental and romantic productions are mere affectation, the result not of powerful impulse or real feeling, but of a consciousness of his deficiencies, and a wish to supply their place by labour and art.

Gay was sometimes grosser than Prior, not systematically, but inadvertently — from not being so well aware of what he was about; nor was there the same necessity for caution, for his grossness is by no means so seductive or inviting.

Gay’s Fables are certainly a work of great merit, both as to the quantity of invention implied, and as to the elegance and facility of the execution. They are, however, spun out too long; the descriptions and narrative are too diffuse and desultory; and the moral is sometimes without point. They are more like Tales than Fables. The best are, perhaps, the Hare with Many Friends, the Monkeys, and the Fox at the Point of Death. His Pastorals are pleasing and poetical. But his capital work is his Beggar’s Opera. It is indeed a masterpiece of wit and genius, not to say of morality. In composing it, he chose a very unpromising ground to work upon, and he has prided himself in adorning it with all the graces, the precision, and brilliancy of style. It is a vulgar error to call this a vulgar play. So far from it, that I do not scruple to say that it appears to me one of the most refined productions in the language. The elegance of the composition is in exact proportion to the coarseness of the materials: by “happy alchemy of mind,” the author has extracted an essence of refinement from the dregs of human life, and turns its very dross into gold. The scenes, characters, and incidents are, in themselves, of the lowest and most disgusting kind: but, by the sentiments and reflections which are put into the mouths of highwaymen, turnkeys, their mistresses, wives, or daughters, he has converted this motley group into a set of fine gentlemen and ladies, satirists and philosophers. He has also effected this transformation without once violating probability, or “o’erstepping the modesty of nature.” In fact, Gay has turned the tables on the critics; and by the assumed licence of the mock-heroic style, has enabled himself to do justice to nature, that is, to give all the force, truth, and locality of real feeling to the thoughts and expressions, without being called to the bar of false taste and affected delicacy. The extreme beauty and feeling of the song, “Woman is like the fair flower in its lustre,” are only equalled by its characteristic propriety and naivete. Polly describes her lover going to the gallows, with the same touching simplicity, and with all the natural fondness of a young girl in her circumstances, who sees in his approaching catastrophe nothing but the misfortunes and the personal accomplishments of the object of her affections. “I see him sweeter than the nosegay in his hand; the admiring crowd lament that so lovely a youth should come to an untimely end:— even butchers weep, and Jack Ketch refuses his fee rather than consent to tie the fatal knot.” The preservation of the character and costume is complete. It has been said by a great authority —“There is some soul of goodness in things evil”:— and the Beggar’s Opera is a good-natured but instructive comment on this text. The poet has thrown all the gaiety and sunshine of the imagination, all the intoxication of pleasure, and the vanity of despair, round the shortlived existence of his heroes; while Peachum and Lockitt are seen in the back-ground, parcelling out their months and weeks between them. The general view exhibited of human life is of the most subtle and abstracted kind. The author has, with great felicity, brought out the good qualities and interesting emotions almost inseparable from the lowest conditions; and with the same penetrating glance, has detected the disguises which rank and circumstances lend to exalted vice. Every line in this sterling comedy sparkles with wit, and is fraught with the keenest sarcasm. The very wit, however, takes off from the offensiveness of the satire; and I have seen great statesmen, very great statesmen, heartily enjoying the joke, laughing most immoderately at the compliments paid to them as not much worse than pickpockets and cut-throats in a different line of life, and pleased, as it were, to see themselves humanised by some sort of fellowship with their kind. Indeed, it may be said that the moral of the piece is to shew the vulgarity of vice; or that the same violations of integrity and decorum, the same habitual sophistry in palliating their want of principle, are common to the great and powerful, with the meanest and most contemptible of the species. What can be more convincing than the arguments used by these would-be politicians, to shew that in hypocrisy, selfishness, and treachery, they do not come up to many of their betters? The exclamation of Mrs. Peachum, when her daughter marries Macheath, “Hussy, hussy, you will be as ill used, and as much neglected, as if you had married a lord,” is worth all Miss Hannah More’s laboured invectives on the laxity of the manners of high life!

I shall conclude this account of Gay with his verses on Sir Richard Blackmore, which may serve at once as a specimen of his own manner, and as a character of a voluminous contemporary poet, who was admired by Mr. Locke, and knighted by King William III.

    “See who ne’er was nor will be half-read,

Who first sung Arthur, then sung Alfred;

Praised great Eliza in God’s anger,

Till all true Englishmen cried, ‘Hang her!’—

Maul’d human wit in one thick satire;

Next in three books spoil’d human nature:

Undid Creation at a jerk,

And of Redemption made damn’d work.

Then took his Muse at once, and dipt her

Full in the middle of the Scripture.

What wonders there the man, grown old, did?

Sternhold himself he out Sternholded.

Made David seem so mad and freakish,

All thought him just what thought King Achish.

No mortal read his Solomon

But judg’d Re’boam his own son.

Moses he serv’d as Moses Pharaoh,

And Deborah as she Siserah,

Made Jeremy full sore to cry,

And Job himself curse God and die.

What punishment all this must follow?

Shall Arthur use him like King Tollo?

Shall David as Uriah slay him?

Or dextrous Deborah Siserah him?

No! — none of these! Heaven spare his life!

But send him, honest Job, thy wife!”

Gay’s Trivia, or Art of Walking the Streets, is as pleasant as walking the streets must have been at the time when it was written. His ballad of Black Eyed Susan is one of the most delightful that can be imagined; nor do I see that it is a bit the worse for Mr. Jekyll’s parody on it.

Swift’s reputation as a poet has been in a manner obscured by the greater splendour, by the natural force and inventive genius of his prose writings; but if he had never written either the Tale of a Tub or Gulliver’s Travels, his name merely as a poet would have come down to us, and have gone down to posterity with well earned honours. His Imitations of Horace, and still more his Verses on his own Death, place him in the first rank of agreeable moralists in verse. There is not only a dry humour, an exquisite tone of irony, in these productions of his pen; but there is a touching, unpretending pathos, mixed up with the most whimsical and eccentric strokes of pleasantry and satire. His Description of the Morning in London, and of a City Shower, which were first published in the Tatler, are among the most delightful of the contents of that very delightful work. Swift shone as one of the most sensible of the poets; he is also distinguished as one of the most nonsensical of them. No man has written so many lack-a-daisical, slip-shod, tedious, trifling, foolish, fantastical verses as he, which are so little an imputation on the wisdom of the writer; and which, in fact, only shew his readiness to oblige others, and to forget himself. He has gone so far as to invent a new stanza of fourteen and sixteen syllable lines for Mary the cookmaid to vent her budget of nothings, and for Mrs. Harris to gossip with the deaf old housekeeper. Oh, when shall we have such another Rector of Laracor! — The Tale of a Tub is one of the most masterly compositions in the language, whether for thought, wit, or style. It is so capital and undeniable a proof of the author’s talents, that Dr. Johnson, who did not like Swift, would not allow that he wrote it. It is hard that the same performance should stand in the way of a man’s promotion to a bishopric, as wanting gravity, and at the same time be denied to be his, as having too much wit. It is a pity the Doctor did not find out some graver author, for whom he felt a critical kindness, on whom to father this splendid but unacknowledged production. Dr. Johnson could not deny that Gulliver’s Travels were his; he therefore disputed their merits, and said that after the first idea of them was conceived, they were easy to execute; all the rest followed mechanically. I do not know how that may be; but the mechanism employed is something very different from any that the author of Rasselas was in the habit of bringing to bear on such occasions. There is nothing more futile, as well as invidious, than this mode of criticising a work of original genius. Its greatest merit is supposed to be in the invention; and you say, very wisely, that it is not in the execution. You might as well take away the merit of the invention of the telescope, by saying that, after its uses were explained and understood, any ordinary eyesight could look through it. Whether the excellence of Gulliver’s Travels is in the conception or the execution, is of little consequence; the power is somewhere, and it is a power that has moved the world. The power is not that of big words and vaunting common places. Swift left these to those who wanted them; and has done what his acuteness and intensity of mind alone could enable any one to conceive or to perform. His object was to strip empty pride and grandeur of the imposing air which external circumstances throw around them; and for this purpose he has cheated the imagination of the illusions which the prejudices of sense and of the world put upon it, by reducing every thing to the abstract predicament of size. He enlarges or diminishes the scale, as he wishes to shew the insignificance or the grossness of our overweening self-love. That he has done this with mathematical precision, with complete presence of mind and perfect keeping, in a manner that comes equally home to the understanding of the man and of the child, does not take away from the merit of the work or the genius of the author. He has taken a new view of human nature, such as a being of a higher sphere might take of it; he has torn the scales from off his moral vision; he has tried an experiment upon human life, and sifted its pretensions from the alloy of circumstances; he has measured it with a rule, has weighed it in a balance, and found it, for the most part, wanting and worthless — in substance and in shew. Nothing solid, nothing valuable is left in his system but virtue and wisdom. What a libel is this upon mankind! What a convincing proof of misanthropy! What presumption and what malice prepense, to shew men what they are, and to teach them what they ought to be! What a mortifying stroke aimed at national glory, is that unlucky incident of Gulliver’s wading across the channel and carrying off the whole fleet of Blefuscu! After that, we have only to consider which of the contending parties was in the right. What a shock to personal vanity is given in the account of Gulliver’s nurse Glumdalclitch! Still, notwithstanding the disparagement to her personal charms, her good-nature remains the same amiable quality as before. I cannot see the harm, the misanthropy, the immoral and degrading tendency of this. The moral lesson is as fine as the intellectual exhibition is amusing. It is an attempt to tear off the mask of imposture from the world; and nothing but imposture has a right to complain of it. It is, indeed, the way with our quacks in morality to preach up the dignity of human nature, to pamper pride and hypocrisy with the idle mockeries of the virtues they pretend to, and which they have not: but it was not Swift’s way to cant morality, or any thing else; nor did his genius prompt him to write unmeaning panegyrics on mankind!

I do not, therefore, agree with the estimate of Swift’s moral or intellectual character, given by an eminent critic, who does not seem to have forgotten the party politics of Swift. I do not carry my political resentments so far back: I can at this time of day forgive Swift for having been a Tory. I feel little disturbance (whatever I might think of them) at his political sentiments, which died with him, considering how much else he has left behind him of a more solid and imperishable nature! If he had, indeed, (like some others) merely left behind him the lasting infamy of a destroyer of his country, or the shining example of an apostate from liberty, I might have thought the case altered.

The determination with which Swift persisted in a preconcerted theory, savoured of the morbid affection of which he died. There is nothing more likely to drive a man mad, than the being unable to get rid of the idea of the distinction between right and wrong, and an obstinate, constitutional preference of the true to the agreeable. Swift was not a Frenchman. In this respect he differed from Rabelais and Voltaire. They have been accounted the three greatest wits in modern times; but their wit was of a peculiar kind in each. They are little beholden to each other; there is some resemblance between Lord Peter in the Tale of a Tub, and Rabelais’ Friar John; but in general they are all three authors of a substantive character in themselves. Swift’s wit (particularly in his chief prose works) was serious, saturnine, and practical; Rabelais’ was fantastical and joyous; Voltaire’s was light, sportive, and verbal. Swift’s wit was the wit of sense; Rabelais’, the wit of nonsense; Voltaire’s, of indifference to both. The ludicrous in Swift arises out of his keen sense of impropriety, his soreness and impatience of the least absurdity. He separates, with a severe and caustic air, truth from falsehood, folly from wisdom, “shews vice her own image, scorn her own feature”; and it is the force, the precision, and the honest abruptness with which the separation is made, that excites our surprise, our admiration, and laughter. He sets a mark of reprobation on that which offends good sense and good manners, which cannot be mistaken, and which holds it up to our ridicule and contempt ever after. His occasional disposition to trifling (already noticed) was a relaxation from the excessive earnestness of his mind. Indignatio facit versus. His better genius was his spleen. It was the biting acrimony of his temper that sharpened his other faculties. The truth of his perceptions produced the pointed coruscations of his wit; his playful irony was the result of inward bitterness of thought; his imagination was the product of the literal, dry, incorrigible tenaciousness of his understanding. He endeavoured to escape from the persecution of realities into the regions of fancy, and invented his Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians, Yahoos, and Houynhyms, as a diversion to the more painful knowledge of the world around him: they only made him laugh, while men and women made him angry. His feverish impatience made him view the infirmities of that great baby the world, with the same scrutinizing glance and jealous irritability that a parent regards the failings of its offspring; but, as Rousseau has well observed, parents have not on this account been supposed to have more affection for other people’s children than their own. In other respects, and except from the sparkling effervescence of his gall, Swift’s brain was as “dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage.” He hated absurdity — Rabelais loved it, exaggerated it with supreme satisfaction, luxuriated in its endless varieties, rioted in nonsense, “reigned there and revelled.” He dwelt on the absurd and ludicrous for the pleasure they gave him, not for the pain. He lived upon laughter, and died laughing. He indulged his vein, and took his full swing of folly. He did not baulk his fancy or his readers. His wit was to him “as riches fineless”; he saw no end of his wealth in that way, and set no limits to his extravagance: he was communicative, prodigal, boundless, and inexhaustible. His were the Saturnalia of wit, the riches and the royalty, the health and long life. He is intoxicated with gaiety, mad with folly. His animal spirits drown him in a flood of mirth: his blood courses up and down his veins like wine. His thirst of enjoyment is as great as his thirst of drink: his appetite for good things of all sorts is unsatisfied, and there is a never-ending supply. Discourse is dry; so they moisten their words in their cups, and relish their dry jests with plenty of Botargos and dried neats’ tongues. It is like Camacho’s wedding in Don Quixote, where Sancho ladled out whole pullets and fat geese from the soup-kettles at a pull. The flagons are setting a running, their tongues wag at the same time, and their mirth flows as a river. How Friar John roars and lays about him in the vineyard! How Panurge whines in the storm, and how dexterously he contrives to throw the sheep overboard! How much Pantagruel behaves like a wise king! How Gargantua mewls, and pules [sic], and slabbers his nurse, and demeans himself most like a royal infant! what provinces he devours! what seas he drinks up! How he eats, drinks, and sleeps — sleeps, eats, and drinks! The style of Rabelais is no less prodigious than his matter. His words are of marrow, unctuous, dropping fatness. He was a mad wag, the king of good fellows, and prince of practical philosophers!

Rabelais was a Frenchman of the old school — Voltaire of the new. The wit of the one arose from an exuberance of enjoyment — of the other, from an excess of indifference, real or assumed. Voltaire had no enthusiasm for one thing or another: he made light of every thing. In his hands all things turn to chaff and dross, as the pieces of silver money in the Arabian Nights were changed by the hands of the enchanter into little dry crumbling leaves! He is a Parisian. He never exaggerates, is never violent: he treats things with the most provoking sang froid; and expresses his contempt by the most indirect hints, and in the fewest words, as if he hardly thought them worth even his contempt. He retains complete possession of himself and of his subject. He does not effect his purpose by the eagerness of his blows, but by the delicacy of his tact. The poisoned wound he inflicted was so fine, as scarcely to be felt till it rankled and festered in its “mortal consequences.” His callousness was an excellent foil for the antagonists he had mostly to deal with. He took knaves and fools on his shield well. He stole away its cloak from grave imposture. If he reduced other things below their true value, making them seem worthless and hollow, he did not degrade the pretensions of tyranny and superstition below their true value, by making them seem utterly worthless and hollow, as contemptible as they were odious. This was the service he rendered to truth and mankind! His Candide is a masterpiece of wit. It has been called “the dull product of a scoffer’s pen”; it is indeed the “product of a scoffer’s pen”; but after reading the Excursion, few people will think it dull. It is in the most perfect keeping, and without any appearance of effort. Every sentence tells, and the whole reads like one sentence. There is something sublime in Martin’s sceptical indifference to moral good and evil. It is the repose of the grave. It is better to suffer this living death, than a living martyrdom. “Nothing can touch him further.” The moral of Candide (such as it is) is the same as that of Rasselas: the execution is different. Voltaire says, “A great book is a great evil.” Dr. Johnson would have laboured this short apophthegm into a voluminous common-place. Voltaire’s traveller (in another work) being asked “whether he likes black or white mutton best,” replies that “he is indifferent, provided it is tender.” Dr. Johnson did not get at a conclusion by so short a way as this. If Voltaire’s licentiousness is objected to me, I say, let it be placed to its true account, the manners of the age and court in which he lived. The lords and ladies of the bedchamber in the reign of Louis XV. found no fault with the immoral tendency of his writings. Why then should our modern purists quarrel with them? — But to return.

Young is a gloomy epigrammatist. He has abused great powers both of thought and language. His moral reflections are sometimes excellent; but he spoils their beauty by overloading them with a religious horror, and at the same time giving them all the smart turns and quaint expression of an enigma or repartee in verse. The well-known lines on Procrastination are in his best manner:

    “Be wise to-day; ’tis madness to defer;

Next day the fatal precedent will plead;

Thus on, till wisdom is push’d out of life.

Procrastination is the thief of time;

Year after year it steals, till all are fled,

And to the mercies of a moment leaves

The vast concerns of an eternal scene.

    Of man’s miraculous mistakes, this bears

The palm, “That all men are about to live,”

For ever on the brink of being born.

All pay themselves the compliment to think

They, one day, shall not drivel; and their pride

On this reversion takes up ready praise;

At least, their own; their future selves applauds;

How excellent that life they ne’er will lead!

Time lodg’d in their own hands is Folly’s vails:

That lodg’d in Fate’s, to Wisdom they consign;

The thing they can’t but purpose, they postpone.

’Tis not in Folly, not to scorn a fool;

And scarce in human Wisdom to do more.

All Promise is poor dilatory man,

And that through every stage. When young, indeed,

In full content we, sometimes, nobly rest,

Un-anxious for ourselves; and only wish,

As duteous sons, our fathers were more wise.

At thirty man suspects himself a fool;

Knows it at forty, and reforms his plan;

At fifty chides his infamous delay,

Pushes his prudent purpose to Resolve;

In all the magnanimity of thought

Resolves, and re-resolves; then dies the same.

    And why? Because he thinks himself immortal.

All men think all men mortal, but themselves;

Themselves, when some alarming shock of fate

Strikes through their wounded hearts the sudden dread;

But their hearts wounded, like the wounded air,

Soon close; where past the shaft, no trace is found.

As from the wing no scar the sky retains;

The parted wave no furrow from the keel;

So dies in human hearts the thought of death.

Ev’n with the tender tear which nature sheds

O’er those we love, we drop it in their grave.”

His Universal Passion is a keen and powerful satire; but the effort takes from the effect, and oppresses attention by perpetual and violent demands upon it. His tragedy of the Revenge is monkish and scholastic. Zanga is a vulgar caricature of Iago. The finest lines in it are the burst of triumph at the end, when his revenge is completed:

“Let Europe and her pallid sons go weep,

Let Afric on her hundred thrones rejoice,” &c.

Collins is a writer of a very different stamp, who had perhaps less general power of mind than Young; but he had that true vivida vis, that genuine inspiration, which alone can give birth to the highest efforts of poetry. He leaves stings in the minds of his readers, certain traces of thought and feelings which never wear out, because nature had left them in his own mind. He is the only one of the minor poets of whom, if he had lived, it cannot be said that he might not have done the greatest things. The germ is there. He is sometimes affected, unmeaning, and obscure; but he also catches rich glimpses of the bowers of Paradise, and has lofty aspirations after the highest seats of the Muses. With a great deal of tinsel and splendid patch-work, he has not been able to hide the solid sterling ore of genius. In his best works there is an attic simplicity, a pathos, and fervour of imagination, which make us the more lament that the efforts of his mind were at first depressed by neglect and pecuniary embarrassment, and at length buried in the gloom of an unconquerable and fatal malady. How many poets have gone through all the horrors of poverty and contempt, and ended their days in moping melancholy or moody madness!

“We poets in our youth begin in gladness,

But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.”

Is this the fault of themselves, of nature in tempering them of too fine a clay, or of the world, that spurner of living, and patron of dead merit? Read the account of Collins — with hopes frustrated, with faculties blighted, at last, when it was too late for himself or others, receiving the deceitful favours of relenting Fortune, which served only to throw their sunshine on his decay, and to light him to an early grave. He was found sitting with every spark of imagination extinguished, and with only the faint traces of memory and reason left — with only one book in his room, the Bible; “but that,” he said, “was the best.” A melancholy damp hung like an unwholesome mildew upon his faculties — a canker had consumed the flower of his life. He produced works of genius, and the public regarded them with scorn: he aimed at excellence that should be his own, and his friends treated his efforts as the wanderings of fatuity. The proofs of his capacity are, his Ode on Evening, his Ode on the Passions (particularly the fine personification of Hope), his Ode to Fear, the Dirge in Cymbeline, the Lines on Thomson’s Grave, and his Eclogues, parts of which are admirable. But perhaps his Ode on the Poetical Character is the best of all. A rich distilled perfume emanates from it like the breath of genius; a golden cloud envelopes it; a honeyed paste of poetic diction encrusts it, like the candied coat of the auricula. His Ode to Evening shews equal genius in the images and versification. The sounds steal slowly over the ear, like the gradual coming on of evening itself:

“If aught of oaten stop or pastoral song

May hope, chaste Eve, to soothe thy modest ear,

        Like thy own solemn springs,

        Thy springs and dying gales,

O nymph reserv’d, while now the bright-haired sun

Sits on yon western tent, whose cloudy skirts

        With brede ethereal wove,

        O’erhang his wavy bed:

Now air is hush’d, save where the weak-ey’d bat,

With short shrill shriek flits by on leathern wing,

        Or where the beetle winds

        His small but sullen horn,

As oft he rises midst the twilight path,

Against the pilgrim borne in heedless hum.

        Now teach me, maid compos’d,

        To breathe some soften’d strain,

Whose numbers stealing through thy darkling vale

May not unseemly with its stillness suit,

        As musing slow, I hail

        Thy genial, lov’d return!

For when thy folding star arising shews

His paly circlet, at his warning lamp

        The fragrant Hours and Elves

        Who slept in flow’rs the day,

And many a nymph who wreathes her brows with sedge,

And sheds the fresh’ning dew, and lovelier still,

        The pensive Pleasures sweet

        Prepare thy shadowy car;

Then lead, calm Votress, where some sheety lake

Cheers the lone heath, or some time-hallow’d pile,

        Or upland fallows grey

        Reflect its last cool gleam.

But when chill blust’ring winds, or driving rain,

Forbid my willing feet, be mine the hut,

        That from the mountain’s side

        Views wilds and swelling floods,

And hamlets brown, and dim discover’d spires,

And hears their simple bell, and marks o’er all

        Thy dewy fingers draw

        The gradual dusky veil.

While Spring shall pour his show’rs, as oft he wont,

And bathe thy breathing tresses, meekest Eve!

        While Summer loves to sport

        Beneath thy lingering light;

While sallow Autumn fills thy lap with leaves;

Or Winter yelling through the troublous air,

        Affrights thy shrinking train,

        And rudely rends thy robes;

So long, sure-found beneath the sylvan shed,

Shall Fancy, Friendship, Science, rose-lipp’d Health,

        Thy gentlest influence own,

        And hymn thy favourite name.”

Hammond, whose poems are bound up with Collins’s, in Bell’s pocket edition, was a young gentleman, who appears to have fallen in love about the year 1740, and who translated Tibullus into English verse, to let his mistress and the public know of it.

I should conceive that Collins had a much greater poetical genius than Gray: he had more of that fine madness which is inseparable from it, of its turbid effervescence, of all that pushes it to the verge of agony or rapture. Gray’s Pindaric Odes are, I believe, generally given up at present: they are stately and pedantic, a kind of methodical borrowed phrenzy. But I cannot so easily give up, nor will the world be in any haste to part with his Elegy in a Country Church-yard: it is one of the most classical productions that ever was penned by a refined and thoughtful mind, moralising on human life. Mr. Coleridge (in his Literary Life) says, that his friend Mr. Wordsworth had undertaken to shew that the language of the Elegy is unintelligible: it has, however, been understood! The Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College is more mechanical and common-place; but it touches on certain strings about the heart, that vibrate in unison with it to our latest breath. No one ever passes by Windsor’s “stately heights,” or sees the distant spires of Eton College below, without thinking of Gray. He deserves that we should think of him; for he thought of others, and turned a trembling, ever-watchful ear to “the still sad music of humanity.”— His Letters are inimitably fine. If his poems are sometimes finical and pedantic, his prose is quite free from affectation. He pours his thoughts out upon paper as they arise in his mind; and they arise in his mind without pretence, or constraint, from the pure impulse of learned leisure and contemplative indolence. He is not here on stilts or in buckram; but smiles in his easy chair, as he moralises through the loopholes of retreat, on the bustle and raree-show of the world, or on “those reverend bedlams, colleges and schools!” He had nothing to do but to read and to think, and to tell his friends what he read and thought. His life was a luxurious, thoughtful dream. “Be mine,” he says in one of his Letters, “to read eternal new romances of Marivaux and Crebillon.” And in another, to shew his contempt for action and the turmoils of ambition, he says to someone, “Don’t you remember Lords ——— and ——— who are now great statesmen, little dirty boys playing at cricket? For my part, I do not feel a bit wiser, or bigger, or older than I did then.” What an equivalent for not being wise or great, to be always young! What a happiness never to lose or gain any thing in the game of human life, by being never any thing more than a looker-on!

How different from Shenstone, who only wanted to be looked at: who withdrew from the world to be followed by the crowd, and courted popularity by affecting privacy! His Letters shew him to have lived in a continual fever of petty vanity, and to have been a finished literary coquet. He seems always to say, “You will find nothing in the world so amiable as Nature and me: come, and admire us.” His poems are indifferent and tasteless, except his Pastoral Ballad, his Lines on Jemmy Dawson, and his School-mistress, which last is a perfect piece of writing.

Akenside had in him the materials of poetry, but he was hardly a great poet. He improved his Pleasures of the Imagination in the subsequent editions, by pruning away a great many redundances of style and ornament. Armstrong is better, though he has not chosen a very exhilarating subject — The Art of Preserving Health. Churchill’s Satires on the Scotch, and Characters of the Players, are as good as the subjects deserved — they are strong, coarse, and full of an air of hardened assurance. I ought not to pass over without mention Green’s Poem on the Spleen, or Dyer’s Grongar Hill.

The principal name of the period we are now come to is that of Goldsmith, than which few names stand higher or fairer in the annals of modern literature. One should have his own pen to describe him as he ought to be described — amiable, various, and bland, with careless inimitable grace touching on every kind of excellence — with manners unstudied, but a gentle heart — performing miracles of skill from pure happiness of nature, and whose greatest fault was ignorance of his own worth. As a poet, he is the most flowing and elegant of our versifiers since Pope, with traits of artless nature which Pope had not, and with a peculiar felicity in his turns upon words, which he constantly repeated with delightful effect: such as —

    “——— His lot, though small,

He sees that little lot, the lot of all.”

“And turn’d and look’d, and turn’d to look again.”

As a novelist, his Vicar of Wakefield has charmed all Europe. What reader is there in the civilised world, who is not the better for the story of the washes which the worthy Dr. Primrose demolished so deliberately with the poker — for the knowledge of the guinea which the Miss Primroses kept unchanged in their pockets — the adventure of the picture of the Vicar’s family, which could not be got into the house — and that of the Flamborough family, all painted with oranges in their hands — or for the story of the case of shagreen spectacles and the cosmogony?

As a comic writer, his Tony Lumpkin draws forth new powers from Mr. Liston’s face. That alone is praise enough for it. Poor Goldsmith! how happy he has made others! how unhappy he was in himself! He never had the pleasure of reading his own works! He had only the satisfaction of good-naturedly relieving the necessities of others, and the consolation of being harassed to death with his own! He is the most amusing and interesting person, in one of the most amusing and interesting books in the world, Boswell’s Life of Johnson. His peach-coloured coat shall always bloom in Boswell’s writings, and his fame survive in his own! — His genius was a mixture of originality and imitation: he could do nothing without some model before him, and he could copy nothing that he did not adorn with the graces of his own mind. Almost all the latter part of the Vicar of Wakefield, and a great deal of the former, is taken from Joseph Andrews; but the circumstances I have mentioned above are not.

The finest things he has left behind him in verse are his character of a country school-master, and that prophetic description of Burke in the Retaliation. His moral Essays in the Citizen of the World, are as agreeable chit-chat as can be conveyed in the form of didactic discourses.

Warton was a poet and a scholar, studious with ease, learned without affectation. He had a happiness which some have been prouder of than he, who deserved it less — he was poet-laureat.

“And that green wreath which decks the bard when dead,

That laurel garland crown’d his living head.”

But he bore his honours meekly, and performed his half-yearly task regularly. I should not have mentioned him for this distinction alone (the highest which a poet can receive from the state), but for another circumstance; I mean his being the author of some of the finest sonnets in the language — at least so they appear to me; and as this species of composition has the necessary advantage of being short (though it is also sometimes both “tedious and brief”), I will here repeat two or three of them, as treating pleasing subjects in a pleasing and philosophical way.

Written in a blank leaf of Dugdale’s Monasticon

“Deem not, devoid of elegance, the sage,

By Fancy’s genuine feelings unbeguil’d,

Of painful pedantry the poring child;

Who turns of these proud domes the historic page,

Now sunk by Time, and Henry’s fiercer rage.

Think’st thou the warbling Muses never smil’d

On his lone hours? Ingenuous views engage

His thoughts, on themes unclassic falsely styl’d,

Intent. While cloister’d piety displays

Her mouldering roll, the piercing eye explores

New manners, and the pomp of elder days,

Whence culls the pensive bard his pictur’d stores.

Not rough nor barren are the winding ways

Of hoar Antiquity, but strewn with flowers.”

Sonnet. Written at Stonehenge.

“Thou noblest monument of Albion’s isle,

Whether, by Merlin’s aid, from Scythia’s shore

To Amber’s fatal plain Pendragon bore,

Huge frame of giant hands, the mighty pile,

T’entomb his Britons slain by Hengist’s guile:

Or Druid priests, sprinkled with human gore,

Taught mid thy massy maze their mystic lore:

Or Danish chiefs, enrich’d with savage spoil,

To victory’s idol vast, an unhewn shrine,

Rear’d the rude heap, or in thy hallow’d ground

Repose the kings of Brutus’ genuine line;

Or here those kings in solemn state were crown’d;

Studious to trace thy wondrous origin,

We muse on many an ancient tale renown’d.”

Nothing can be more admirable than the learning here displayed, or the inference from it, that it is of no use but as it leads to interesting thought and reflection.

That written after seeing Wilton House is in the same style, but I prefer concluding with that to the river Lodon, which has a personal as well as poetical interest about it.

“Ah! what a weary race my feet have run,

Since first I trod thy banks with alders crown’d,

And thought my way was all through fairy ground,

Beneath the azure sky and golden sun:

When first my Muse to lisp her notes begun!

While pensive memory traces back the round

Which fills the varied interval between;

Much pleasure, more of sorrow, marks the scene. —

Sweet native stream! those skies and suns so pure

No more return, to cheer my evening road!

Yet still one joy remains, that not obscure

Nor useless, all my vacant days have flow’d

From youth’s gay dawn to manhood’s prime mature,

Nor with the Muse’s laurel unbestow’d.”

I have thus gone through all the names of this period I could think of, but I find that there are others still waiting behind that I had never thought of. Here is a list of some of them — Pattison, Tickell, Hill, Somerville, Browne, Pitt, Wilkie, Dodsley, Shaw, Smart, Langhorne, Bruce, Greame, Glover, Lovibond, Penrose, Mickle, Jago, Scott, Whitehead, Jenyns, Logan, Cotton, Cunningham, and Blacklock. — I think it will be best to let them pass and say nothing about them. It will be hard to persuade so many respectable persons that they are dull writers, and if we give them any praise, they will send others.

But here comes one whose claims cannot be so easily set aside: they have been sanctioned by learning, hailed by genius, and hallowed by misfortune — I mean Chatterton. Yet I must say what I think of him, and that is not what is generally thought. I pass over the disputes between the learned antiquaries, Dr. Mills, Herbert Croft, and Dr. Knox, whether he was to be placed after Shakspeare and Dryden, or to come after Shakspeare alone. A living poet has borne a better testimony to him —

“I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous boy,

      The sleepless soul that perished in his pride;

And him 8 who walked in glory and in joy

      Beside his plough along the mountain side.”

I am loth to put asunder whom so great an authority has joined together; but I cannot find in Chatterton’s works any thing so extraordinary as the age at which they were written. They have a facility, vigour, and knowledge, which were prodigious in a boy of sixteen, but which would not have been so in a man of twenty. He did not shew extraordinary powers of genius, but extraordinary precocity. Nor do I believe he would have written better, had he lived. He knew this himself, or he would have lived. Great geniuses, like great kings, have too much to think of to kill themselves; for their mind to them also “a kingdom is.” With an unaccountable power coming over him at an unusual age, and with the youthful confidence it inspired, he performed wonders, and was willing to set a seal on his reputation by a tragic catastrophe. He had done his best; and, like another Empedocles, threw himself into AEtna, to ensure immortality. The brazen slippers alone remain! —

8 Burns. — These lines are taken from the introduction to Mr. Wordsworth’s poem of the LEECH-GATHERER.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hazlitt/william/lectures-on-the-english-poets/chapter6.html

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