Lectures on the English Poets, by William Hazlitt

Lecture viii.

On the Living Poets.

“No more of talk where God or Angel guest

With man, as with his friend, familiar us’d

To sit indulgent.”———

Genius is the heir of fame; but the hard condition on which the bright reversion must be earned is the loss of life. Fame is the recompense not of the living, but of the dead. The temple of fame stands upon the grave: the flame that burns upon its altars is kindled from the ashes of great men. Fame itself is immortal, but it is not begot till the breath of genius is extinguished. For fame is not popularity, the shout of the multitude, the idle buzz of fashion, the venal puff, the soothing flattery of favour or of friendship; but it is the spirit of a man surviving himself in the minds and thoughts of other men, undying and imperishable. It is the power which the intellect exercises over the intellect, and the lasting homage which is paid to it, as such, independently of time and circumstances, purified from partiality and evil-speaking. Fame is the sound which the stream of high thoughts, carried down to future ages, makes as it flows — deep, distant, murmuring evermore like the waters of the mighty ocean. He who has ears truly touched to this music, is in a manner deaf to the voice of popularity. — The love of fame differs from mere vanity in this, that the one is immediate and personal, the other ideal and abstracted. It is not the direct and gross homage paid to himself, that the lover of true fame seeks or is proud of; but the indirect and pure homage paid to the eternal forms of truth and beauty as they are reflected in his mind, that gives him confidence and hope. The love of nature is the first thing in the mind of the true poet: the admiration of himself the last. A man of genius cannot well be a coxcomb; for his mind is too full of other things to be much occupied with his own person. He who is conscious of great powers in himself, has also a high standard of excellence with which to compare his efforts: he appeals also to a test and judge of merit, which is the highest, but which is too remote, grave, and impartial, to flatter his self-love extravagantly, or puff him up with intolerable and vain conceit. This, indeed, is one test of genius and of real greatness of mind, whether a man can wait patiently and calmly for the award of posterity, satisfied with the unwearied exercise of his faculties, retired within the sanctuary of his own thoughts; or whether he is eager to forestal his own immortality, and mortgage it for a newspaper puff. He who thinks much of himself, will be in danger of being forgotten by the rest of the world: he who is always trying to lay violent hands on reputation, will not secure the best and most lasting. If the restless candidate for praise takes no pleasure, no sincere and heartfelt delight in his works, but as they are admired and applauded by others, what should others see in them to admire or applaud? They cannot be expected to admire them because they are his; but for the truth and nature contained in them, which must first be inly felt and copied with severe delight, from the love of truth and nature, before it can ever appear there. Was Raphael, think you, when he painted his pictures of the Virgin and Child in all their inconceivable truth and beauty of expression, thinking most of his subject or of himself? Do you suppose that Titian, when he painted a landscape, was pluming himself on being thought the finest colourist in the world, or making himself so by looking at nature? Do you imagine that Shakspeare, when he wrote Lear or Othello, was thinking of any thing but Lear and Othello? Or that Mr. Kean, when he plays these characters, is thinking of the audience? — No: he who would be great in the eyes of others, must first learn to be nothing in his own. The love of fame, as it enters at times into his mind, is only another name for the love of excellence; or it is the ambition to attain the highest excellence, sanctioned by the highest authority — that of time.

Those minds, then, which are the most entitled to expect it, can best put up with the postponement of their claims to lasting fame. They can afford to wait. They are not afraid that truth and nature will ever wear out; will lose their gloss with novelty, or their effect with fashion. If their works have the seeds of immortality in them, they will live; if they have not, they care little about them as theirs. They do not complain of the start which others have got of them in the race of everlasting renown, or of the impossibility of attaining the honours which time alone can give, during the term of their natural lives. They know that no applause, however loud and violent, can anticipate or over-rule the judgment of posterity; that the opinion of no one individual, nor of any one generation, can have the weight, the authority (to say nothing of the force of sympathy and prejudice), which must belong to that of successive generations. The brightest living reputation cannot be equally imposing to the imagination, with that which is covered and rendered venerable with the hoar of innumerable ages. No modern production can have the same atmosphere of sentiment around it, as the remains of classical antiquity. But then our moderns may console themselves with the reflection, that they will be old in their turn, and will either be remembered with still increasing honours, or quite forgotten!

I would speak of the living poets as I have spoken of the dead (for I think highly of many of them); but I cannot speak of them with the same reverence, because I do not feel it; with the same confidence, because I cannot have the same authority to sanction my opinion. I cannot be absolutely certain that any body, twenty years hence, will think any thing about any of them; but we may be pretty sure that Milton and Shakspeare will be remembered twenty years hence. We are, therefore, not without excuse if we husband our enthusiasm a little, and do not prematurely lay out our whole stock in untried ventures, and what may turn out to be false bottoms. I have myself out-lived one generation of favourite poets, the Darwins, the Hayleys, the Sewards. Who reads them now? — If, however, I have not the verdict of posterity to bear me out in bestowing the most unqualified praises on their immediate successors, it is also to be remembered, that neither does it warrant me in condemning them. Indeed, it was not my wish to go into this ungrateful part of the subject; but something of the sort is expected from me, and I must run the gauntlet as well as I can. Another circumstance that adds to the difficulty of doing justice to all parties is, that I happen to have had a personal acquaintance with some of these jealous votaries of the Muses; and that is not the likeliest way to imbibe a high opinion of the rest. Poets do not praise one another in the language of hyperbole. I am afraid, therefore, that I labour under a degree of prejudice against some of the most popular poets of the day, from an early habit of deference to the critical opinions of some of the least popular. I cannot say that I ever learnt much about Shakspeare or Milton, Spenser or Chaucer, from these professed guides; for I never heard them say much about them. They were always talking of themselves and one another. Nor am I certain that this sort of personal intercourse with living authors, while it takes away all real relish or freedom of opinion with regard to their contemporaries, greatly enhances our respect for themselves. Poets are not ideal beings; but have their prose-sides, like the commonest of the people. We often hear persons say, What they would have given to have seen Shakspeare! For my part, I would give a great deal not to have seen him; at least, if he was at all like any body else that I have ever seen. But why should he; for his works are not! This is, doubtless, one great advantage which the dead have over the living. It is always fortunate for ourselves and others, when we are prevented from exchanging admiration for knowledge. The splendid vision that in youth haunts our idea of the poetical character, fades, upon acquaintance, into the light of common day; as the azure tints that deck the mountain’s brow are lost on a nearer approach to them. It is well, according to the moral of one of the Lyrical Ballads — “To leave Yarrow unvisited.” But to leave this “face-making,” and begin. —

I am a great admirer of the female writers of the present day; they appear to me like so many modern Muses. I could be in love with Mrs. Inchbald, romantic with Mrs. Radcliffe, and sarcastic with Madame D’Arblay: but they are novel-writers, and, like Audrey, may “thank the Gods for not having made them poetical.” Did any one here ever read Mrs. Leicester’s School? If they have not, I wish they would; there will be just time before the next three volumes of the Tales of My Landlord come out. That is not a school of affectation, but of humanity. No one can think too highly of the work, or highly enough of the author.

The first poetess I can recollect is Mrs. Barbauld, with whose works I became acquainted before those of any other author, male or female, when I was learning to spell words of one syllable in her story-books for children. I became acquainted with her poetical works long after in Enfield’s Speaker; and remember being much divided in my opinion at that time, between her Ode to Spring and Collins’s Ode to Evening. I wish I could repay my childish debt of gratitude in terms of appropriate praise. She is a very pretty poetess; and, to my fancy, strews the flowers of poetry most agreeably round the borders of religious controversy. She is a neat and pointed prose-writer. Her “Thoughts on the Inconsistency of Human Expectations,” is one of the most ingenious and sensible essays in the language. There is the same idea in one of Barrow’s Sermons.

Mrs. Hannah More is another celebrated modern poetess, and I believe still living. She has written a great deal which I have never read.

Miss Baillie must make up this trio of female poets. Her tragedies and comedies, one of each to illustrate each of the passions, separately from the rest, are heresies in the dramatic art. She is a Unitarian in poetry. With her the passions are, like the French republic, one and indivisible: they are not so in nature, or in Shakspeare. Mr. Southey has, I believe, somewhere expressed an opinion, that the Basil of Miss Baillie is superior to Romeo and Juliet. I shall not stay to contradict him. On the other hand, I prefer her De Montfort, which was condemned on the stage, to some later tragedies, which have been more fortunate — to the Remorse, Bertram, and lastly, Fazio. There is in the chief character of that play a nerve, a continued unity of interest, a setness of purpose and precision of outline which John Kemble alone was capable of giving; and there is all the grace which women have in writing. In saying that De Montfort was a character which just suited Mr. Kemble, I mean to pay a compliment to both. He was not “a man of no mark or likelihood”: and what he could be supposed to do particularly well, must have a meaning in it. As to the other tragedies just mentioned, there is no reason why any common actor should not “make mouths in them at the invisible event,”— one as well as another. Having thus expressed my sense of the merits of this authoress, I must add, that her comedy of the Election, performed last summer at the Lyceum with indifferent success, appears to me the perfection of baby-house theatricals. Every thing in it has such a do-me-good air, is so insipid and amiable. Virtue seems such a pretty playing at make-believe, and vice is such a naughty word. It is a theory of some French author, that little girls ought not to be suffered to have dolls to play with, to call them pretty dears, to admire their black eyes and cherry cheeks, to lament and bewail over them if they fall down and hurt their faces, to praise them when they are good, and scold them when they are naughty. It is a school of affectation: Miss Baillie has profited of it. She treats her grown men and women as little girls treat their dolls — makes moral puppets of them, pulls the wires, and they talk virtue and act vice, according to their cue and the title prefixed to each comedy or tragedy, not from any real passions of their own, or love either of virtue or vice.

The transition from these to Mr. Rogers’s Pleasures of Memory, is not far: he is a very lady-like poet. He is an elegant, but feeble writer. He wraps up obvious thoughts in a glittering cover of fine words; is full of enigmas with no meaning to them; is studiously inverted, and scrupulously far-fetched; and his verses are poetry, chiefly because no particle, line, or syllable of them reads like prose. He differs from Milton in this respect, who is accused of having inserted a number of prosaic lines in Paradise Lost. This kind of poetry, which is a more minute and inoffensive species of the Della Cruscan, is like the game of asking what one’s thoughts are like. It is a tortuous, tottering, wriggling, fidgetty translation of every thing from the vulgar tongue, into all the tantalizing, teasing, tripping, lisping mimminee-pimminee of the highest brilliancy and fashion of poetical diction. You have nothing like truth of nature or simplicity of expression. The fastidious and languid reader is never shocked by meeting, from the rarest chance in the world, with a single homely phrase or intelligible idea. You cannot see the thought for the ambiguity of the language, the figure for the finery, the picture for the varnish. The whole is refined, and frittered away into an appearance of the most evanescent brilliancy and tremulous imbecility. — There is no other fault to be found with the Pleasures of Memory, than a want of taste and genius. The sentiments are amiable, and the notes at the end highly interesting, particularly the one relating to the Countess Pillar (as it is called) between Appleby and Penrith, erected (as the inscription tells the thoughtful traveller) by Anne Countess of Pembroke, in the year 1648, in memory of her last parting with her good and pious mother in the same place in the year 1616 —

“To shew that power of love, how great

Beyond all human estimate.”

This story is also told in the poem, but with so many artful innuendos and tinsel words, that it is hardly intelligible; and still less does it reach the heart.

Campbell’s Pleasures of Hope is of the same school, in which a painful attention is paid to the expression in proportion as there is little to express, and the decomposition of prose is substituted for the composition of poetry. How much the sense and keeping in the ideas are sacrificed to a jingle of words and epigrammatic turn of expression, may be seen in such lines as the following:— one of the characters, an old invalid, wishes to end his days under

“Some hamlet shade, to yield his sickly form

Health in the breeze, and shelter in the storm.”

Now the antithesis here totally fails: for it is the breeze, and not the tree, or as it is quaintly expressed, hamlet shade, that affords health, though it is the tree that affords shelter in or from the storm. Instances of the same sort of curiosa infelicitas are not rare in this author. His verses on the Battle of Hohenlinden have considerable spirit and animation. His Gertrude of Wyoming is his principal performance. It is a kind of historical paraphrase of Mr. Wordsworth’s poem of Ruth. It shews little power, or power enervated by extreme fastidiousness. It is

              “——— Of outward show

Elaborate; of inward less exact.”

There are painters who trust more to the setting of their pictures than to the truth of the likeness. Mr. Campbell always seems to me to be thinking how his poetry will look when it comes to be hot-pressed on superfine wove paper, to have a disproportionate eye to points and commas, and dread of errors of the press. He is so afraid of doing wrong, of making the smallest mistake, that he does little or nothing. Lest he should wander irretrievably from the right path, he stands still. He writes according to established etiquette. He offers the Muses no violence. If he lights upon a good thought, he immediately drops it for fear of spoiling a good thing. When he launches a sentiment that you think will float him triumphantly for once to the bottom of the stanza, he stops short at the end of the first or second line, and stands shivering on the brink of beauty, afraid to trust himself to the fathomless abyss. Tutus nimium, timidusque procellarum. His very circumspection betrays him. The poet, as well as the woman, that deliberates, is undone. He is much like a man whose heart fails him just as he is going up in a balloon, and who breaks his neck by flinging himself out of it when it is too late. Mr. Campbell too often maims and mangles his ideas before they are full formed, to fit them to the Procustes’ bed of criticism; or strangles his intellectual offspring in the birth, lest they should come to an untimely end in the Edinburgh Review. He plays the hypercritic on himself, and starves his genius to death from a needless apprehension of a plethora. No writer who thinks habitually of the critics, either to tremble at their censures or set them at defiance, can write well. It is the business of reviewers to watch poets, not of poets to watch reviewers. — There is one admirable simile in this poem, of the European child brought by the sooty Indian in his hand, “like morning brought by night.” The love-scenes in Gertrude of Wyoming breathe a balmy voluptuousness of sentiment; but they are generally broken off in the middle; they are like the scent of a bank of violets, faint and rich, which the gale suddenly conveys in a different direction. Mr. Campbell is careful of his own reputation, and economical of the pleasures of his readers. He treats them as the fox in the fable treated his guest the stork; or, to use his own expression, his fine things are

“Like angels’ visits, few, and far between.” 10

There is another fault in this poem, which is the mechanical structure of the fable. The most striking events occur in the shape of antitheses. The story is cut into the form of a parallelogram. There is the same systematic alternation of good and evil, of violence and repose, that there is of light and shade in a picture. The Indian, who is the chief agent in the interest of the poem, vanishes and returns after long intervals, like the periodical revolutions of the planets. He unexpectedly appears just in the nick of time, after years of absence, and without any known reason but the convenience of the author and the astonishment of the reader; as if nature were a machine constructed on a principle of complete contrast, to produce a theatrical effect. Nec Deus intersit, nisi dignus vindice nodus. Mr. Campbell’s savage never appears but upon great occasions, and then his punctuality is preternatural and alarming. He is the most wonderful instance on record of poetical reliability. The most dreadful mischiefs happen at the most mortifying moments; and when your expectations are wound up to the highest pitch, you are sure to have them knocked on the head by a premeditated and remorseless stroke of the poet’s pen. This is done so often for the convenience of the author, that in the end it ceases to be for the satisfaction of the reader.

10 There is the same idea in Blair’s Grave.

                    “——— Its visits,

Like those of angels, short, and far between.”

Mr. Campbell in altering the expression has spoiled it. “Few,” and “far between,” are the same thing.

Tom Moore is a poet of a quite different stamp. He is as heedless, gay, and prodigal of his poetical wealth, as the other is careful, reserved, and parsimonious. The genius of both is national. Mr. Moore’s Muse is another Ariel, as light, as tricksy, as indefatigable, and as humane a spirit. His fancy is for ever on the wing, flutters in the gale, glitters in the sun. Every thing lives, moves, and sparkles in his poetry, while over all love waves his purple light. His thoughts are as restless, as many, and as bright as the insects that people the sun’s beam. “So work the honey-bees,” extracting liquid sweets from opening buds; so the butterfly expands its wings to the idle air; so the thistle’s silver down is wafted over summer seas. An airy voyager on life’s stream, his mind inhales the fragrance of a thousand shores, and drinks of endless pleasures under halcyon skies. Wherever his footsteps tend over the enamelled ground of fairy fiction —

“Around him the bees in play flutter and cluster,

And gaudy butterflies frolic around.”

The fault of Mr. Moore is an exuberance of involuntary power. His facility of production lessens the effect of, and hangs as a dead weight upon, what he produces. His levity at last oppresses. The infinite delight he takes in such an infinite number of things, creates indifference in minds less susceptible of pleasure than his own. He exhausts attention by being inexhaustible. His variety cloys; his rapidity dazzles and distracts the sight. The graceful ease with which he lends himself to every subject, the genial spirit with which he indulges in every sentiment, prevents him from giving their full force to the masses of things, from connecting them into a whole. He wants intensity, strength, and grandeur. His mind does not brood over the great and permanent; it glances over the surfaces, the first impressions of things, instead of grappling with the deep-rooted prejudices of the mind, its inveterate habits, and that “perilous stuff that weighs upon the heart.” His pen, as it is rapid and fanciful, wants momentum and passion. It requires the same principle to make us thoroughly like poetry, that makes us like ourselves so well, the feeling of continued identity. The impressions of Mr. Moore’s poetry are detached, desultory, and physical. Its gorgeous colours brighten and fade like the rainbow’s. Its sweetness evaporates like the effluvia exhaled from beds of flowers! His gay laughing style, which relates to the immediate pleasures of love or wine, is better than his sentimental and romantic vein. His Irish melodies are not free from affectation and a certain sickliness of pretension. His serious descriptions are apt to run into flowery tenderness. His pathos sometimes melts into a mawkish sensibility, or crystallizes into all the prettinesses of allegorical language, and glittering hardness of external imagery. But he has wit at will, and of the first quality. His satirical and burlesque poetry is his best: it is first-rate. His Twopenny Post–Bag is a perfect “nest of spicery”; where the Cayenne is not spared. The politician there sharpens the poet’s pen. In this too, our bard resembles the bee — he has its honey and its sting.

Mr. Moore ought not to have written Lalla Rookh, even for three thousand guineas. His fame is worth more than that. He should have minded the advice of Fadladeen. It is not, however, a failure, so much as an evasion and a consequent disappointment of public expectation. He should have left it to others to break conventions with nations, and faith with the world. He should, at any rate, have kept his with the public. Lalla Rookh is not what people wanted to see whether Mr. Moore could do; namely, whether he could write a long epic poem. It is four short tales. The interest, however, is often high-wrought and tragic, but the execution still turns to the effeminate and voluptuous side. Fortitude of mind is the first requisite of a tragic or epic writer. Happiness of nature and felicity of genius are the pre-eminent characteristics of the bard of Erin. If he is not perfectly contented with what he is, all the world beside is. He had no temptation to risk any thing in adding to the love and admiration of his age, and more than one country.

“Therefore to be possessed with double pomp,

To guard a title that was rich before,

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,

To throw a perfume on the violet,

To smooth the ice, or add another hue

Unto the rainbow, or with taper light

To seek the beauteous eye of heav’n to garnish,

Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

The same might be said of Mr. Moore’s seeking to bind an epic crown, or the shadow of one, round his other laurels.

If Mr. Moore has not suffered enough personally, Lord Byron (judging from the tone of his writings) might be thought to have suffered too much to be a truly great poet. If Mr. Moore lays himself too open to all the various impulses of things, the outward shews of earth and sky, to every breath that blows, to every stray sentiment that crosses his fancy; Lord Byron shuts himself up too much in the impenetrable gloom of his own thoughts, and buries the natural light of things in “nook monastic.” The Giaour, the Corsair, Childe Harold, are all the same person, and they are apparently all himself. The everlasting repetition of one subject, the same dark ground of fiction, with the darker colours of the poet’s mind spread over it, the unceasing accumulation of horrors on horror’s head, steels the mind against the sense of pain, as inevitably as the unwearied Siren sounds and luxurious monotony of Mr. Moore’s poetry make it inaccessible to pleasure. Lord Byron’s poetry is as morbid as Mr. Moore’s is careless and dissipated. He has more depth of passion, more force and impetuosity, but the passion is always of the same unaccountable character, at once violent and sullen, fierce and gloomy. It is not the passion of a mind struggling with misfortune, or the hopelessness of its desires, but of a mind preying upon itself, and disgusted with, or indifferent to all other things. There is nothing less poetical than this sort of unaccommodating selfishness. There is nothing more repulsive than this sort of ideal absorption of all the interests of others, of the good and ills of life, in the ruling passion and moody abstraction of a single mind, as if it would make itself the centre of the universe, and there was nothing worth cherishing but its intellectual diseases. It is like a cancer, eating into the heart of poetry. But still there is power; and power rivets attention and forces admiration. “He hath a demon:” and that is the next thing to being full of the God. His brow collects the scattered gloom: his eye flashes livid fire that withers and consumes. But still we watch the progress of the scathing bolt with interest, and mark the ruin it leaves behind with awe. Within the contracted range of his imagination, he has great unity and truth of keeping. He chooses elements and agents congenial to his mind, the dark and glittering ocean, the frail bark hurrying before the storm, pirates and men that “house on the wild sea with wild usages.” He gives the tumultuous eagerness of action, and the fixed despair of thought. In vigour of style and force of conception, he in one sense surpasses every writer of the present day. His indignant apothegms are like oracles of misanthropy. He who wishes for “a curse to kill with,” may find it in Lord Byron’s writings. Yet he has beauty lurking underneath his strength, tenderness sometimes joined with the phrenzy of despair. A flash of golden light sometimes follows from a stroke of his pencil, like a falling meteor. The flowers that adorn his poetry bloom over charnel-houses and the grave!

There is one subject on which Lord Byron is fond of writing, on which I wish he would not write — Buonaparte. Not that I quarrel with his writing for him, or against him, but with his writing both for him and against him. What right has he to do this? Buonaparte’s character, be it what else it may, does not change every hour according to his Lordship’s varying humour. He is not a pipe for Fortune’s finger, or for his Lordship’s Muse, to play what stop she pleases on. Why should Lord Byron now laud him to the skies in the hour of his success, and then peevishly wreak his disappointment on the God of his idolatry? The man he writes of does not rise or fall with circumstances: but “looks on tempests and is never shaken.” Besides, he is a subject for history, and not for poetry.

“Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread,

    But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,

And in themselves their pride lies buried;

    For at a frown they in their glory die.

The painful warrior, famoused for fight,

    After a thousand victories once foil’d,

Is from the book of honour razed quite,

    And all the rest forgot for which he toil’d.”

If Lord Byron will write any thing more on this hazardous theme, let him take these lines of Shakspeare for his guide, and finish them in the spirit of the original — they will then be worthy of the subject.

Walter Scott is the most popular of all the poets of the present day, and deservedly so. He describes that which is most easily and generally understood with more vivacity and effect than any body else. He has no excellences, either of a lofty or recondite kind, which lie beyond the reach of the most ordinary capacity to find out; but he has all the good qualities which all the world agree to understand. His style is clear, flowing, and transparent: his sentiments, of which his style is an easy and natural medium, are common to him with his readers. He has none of Mr. Wordsworth’s idiosyncracy. He differs from his readers only in a greater range of knowledge and facility of expression. His poetry belongs to the class of improvisatori poetry. It has neither depth, height, nor breadth in it; neither uncommon strength, nor uncommon refinement of thought, sentiment, or language. It has no originality. But if this author has no research, no moving power in his own breast, he relies with the greater safety and success on the force of his subject. He selects a story such as is sure to please, full of incidents, characters, peculiar manners, costume, and scenery; and he tells it in a way that can offend no one. He never wearies or disappoints you. He is communicative and garrulous; but he is not his own hero. He never obtrudes himself on your notice to prevent your seeing the subject. What passes in the poem, passes much as it would have done in reality. The author has little or nothing to do with it. Mr. Scott has great intuitive power of fancy, great vividness of pencil in placing external objects and events before the eye. The force of his mind is picturesque, rather than moral. He gives more of the features of nature than the soul of passion. He conveys the distinct outlines and visible changes in outward objects, rather than “their mortal consequences.” He is very inferior to Lord Byron in intense passion, to Moore in delightful fancy, to Mr. Wordsworth in profound sentiment: but he has more picturesque power than any of them; that is, he places the objects themselves, about which they might feel and think, in a much more striking point of view, with greater variety of dress and attitude, and with more local truth of colouring. His imagery is Gothic and grotesque. The manners and actions have the interest and curiosity belonging to a wild country and a distant period of time. Few descriptions have a more complete reality, a more striking appearance of life and motion, than that of the warriors in the Lady of the Lake, who start up at the command of Rhoderic Dhu, from their concealment under the fern, and disappear again in an instant. The Lay of the Last Minstrel and Marmion are the first, and perhaps the best of his works. The Goblin Page, in the first of these, is a very interesting and inscrutable little personage. In reading these poems, I confess I am a little disconcerted, in turning over the page, to find Mr. Westall’s pictures, which always seem fac-similes of the persons represented, with ancient costume and a theatrical air. This may be a compliment to Mr. Westall, but it is not one to Walter Scott. The truth is, there is a modern air in the midst of the antiquarian research of Mr. Scott’s poetry. It is history or tradition in masquerade. Not only the crust of old words and images is worn off with time — the substance is grown comparatively light and worthless. The forms are old and uncouth; but the spirit is effeminate and frivolous. This is a deduction from the praise I have given to his pencil for extreme fidelity, though it has been no obstacle to its drawing-room success. He has just hit the town between the romantic and the fashionable; and between the two, secured all classes of readers on his side. In a word, I conceive that he is to the great poet, what an excellent mimic is to a great actor. There is no determinate impression left on the mind by reading his poetry. It has no results. The reader rises up from the perusal with new images and associations, but he remains the same man that he was before. A great mind is one that moulds the minds of others. Mr. Scott has put the Border Minstrelsy and scattered traditions of the country into easy, animated verse. But the Notes to his poems are just as entertaining as the poems themselves, and his poems are only entertaining.

Mr. Wordsworth is the most original poet now living. He is the reverse of Walter Scott in his defects and excellences. He has nearly all that the other wants, and wants all that the other possesses. His poetry is not external, but internal; it does not depend upon tradition, or story, or old song; he furnishes it from his own mind, and is his own subject. He is the poet of mere sentiment. Of many of the Lyrical Ballads, it is not possible to speak in terms of too high praise, such as Hart-leap Well, the Banks of the Wye, Poor Susan, parts of the Leech-gatherer, the lines to a Cuckoo, to a Daisy, the Complaint, several of the Sonnets, and a hundred others of inconceivable beauty, of perfect originality and pathos. They open a finer and deeper vein of thought and feeling than any poet in modern times has done, or attempted. He has produced a deeper impression, and on a smaller circle, than any other of his contemporaries. His powers have been mistaken by the age, nor does he exactly understand them himself. He cannot form a whole. He has not the constructive faculty. He can give only the fine tones of thought, drawn from his mind by accident or nature, like the sounds drawn from the AEolian harp by the wandering gale. — He is totally deficient in all the machinery of poetry. His Excursion, taken as a whole, notwithstanding the noble materials thrown away in it, is a proof of this. The line labours, the sentiment moves slow, but the poem stands stock-still. The reader makes no way from the first line to the last. It is more than any thing in the world like Robinson Crusoe’s boat, which would have been an excellent good boat, and would have carried him to the other side of the globe, but that he could not get it out of the sand where it stuck fast. I did what little I could to help to launch it at the time, but it would not do. I am not, however, one of those who laugh at the attempts or failures of men of genius. It is not my way to cry “Long life to the conqueror.” Success and desert are not with me synonymous terms; and the less Mr. Wordsworth’s general merits have been understood, the more necessary is it to insist upon them. This is not the place to repeat what I have already said on the subject. The reader may turn to it in the Round Table. I do not think, however, there is any thing in the larger poem equal to many of the detached pieces in the Lyrical Ballads. As Mr. Wordsworth’s poems have been little known to the public, or chiefly through garbled extracts from them, I will here give an entire poem (one that has always been a favourite with me), that the reader may know what it is that the admirers of this author find to be delighted with in his poetry. Those who do not feel the beauty and the force of it, may save themselves the trouble of inquiring farther.

HART-LEAP WELL.

The knight had ridden down from Wensley moor

    With the slow motion of a summer’s cloud;

He turned aside towards a vassal’s door,

    And, “Bring another horse!” he cried aloud.

“Another horse!”— That shout the vassal heard,

    And saddled his best steed, a comely gray;

Sir Walter mounted him; he was the third

    Which he had mounted on that glorious day.

Joy sparkled in the prancing courser’s eyes:

    The horse and horseman are a happy pair;

But, though Sir Walter like a falcon flies,

    There is a doleful silence in the air.

A rout this morning left Sir Walter’s hall,

    That as they galloped made the echoes roar;

But horse and man are vanished, one and all;

    Such race, I think, was never seen before.

Sir Walter, restless as a veering wind,

    Calls to the few tired dogs that yet remain:

Brach, Swift, and Music, noblest of their kind,

    Follow, and up the weary mountain strain.

The knight hallooed, he chid and cheered them on

    With suppliant gestures and upbraidings stern;

But breath and eye-sight fail; and, one by one,

    The dogs are stretched among the mountain fern.

Where is the throng, the tumult of the race?

    The bugles that so joyfully were blown?

    — This chase it looks not like an earthly chase;

    Sir Walter and the hart are left alone.

The poor hart toils along the mountain side;

    I will not stop to tell how far he fled,

Nor will I mention by what death he died;

    But now the knight beholds him lying dead.

Dismounting then, he leaned against a thorn;

    He had no follower, dog, nor man, nor boy:

He neither smacked his whip, nor blew his horn,

    But gazed upon the spoil with silent joy.

Close to the thorn on which Sir Walter leaned,

    Stood his dumb partner in this glorious act;

Weak as a lamb the hour that it is yeaned;

    And foaming like a mountain cataract.

Upon his side the hart was lying stretched:

    His nose half-touched a spring beneath a hill,

And with the last deep groan his breath had fetched

    The waters of the spring were trembling still.

And now, too happy for repose or rest,

    (Was never man in such a joyful case!)

Sir Walter walked all round, north, south, and west,

    And gazed, and gazed upon that darling place.

And climbing up the hill —(it was at least

    Nine roods of sheer ascent) Sir Walter found,

Three several hoof-marks which the hunted beast

    Had left imprinted on the verdant ground.

Sir Walter wiped his face and cried, “Till now

    Such sight was never seen by living eyes:

Three leaps have borne him from this lofty brow,

    Down to the very fountain where he lies.

I’ll build a pleasure-house upon this spot,

    And a small arbour, made for rural joy;

’Twill be the traveller’s shed, the pilgrim’s cot,

    A place of love for damsels that are coy.

A cunning artist will I have to frame

    A bason for that fountain in the dell;

And they, who do make mention of the same

    From this day forth, shall call it HART-LEAP WELL.

And, gallant brute! to make thy praises known,

    Another monument shall here be raised;

Three several pillars, each a rough-hewn stone,

    And planted where thy hoofs the turf have grazed.

And, in the summer-time when days are long,

    I will come hither with my paramour;

And with the dancers, and the minstrel’s song,

    We will make merry in that pleasant bower.

Till the foundations of the mountains fail,

    My mansion with its arbour shall endure —

The joy of them who till the fields of Swale,

    And them who dwell among the woods of Ure!”

Then home he went, and left the hart, stone-dead,

    With breathless nostrils stretched above the spring.

— Soon did the knight perform what he had said,

    And far and wide the fame thereof did ring.

Ere thrice the moon into her port had steered,

    A cup of stone received the living well;

Three pillars of rude stone Sir Walter reared,

    And built a house of pleasure in the dell.

And near the fountain, flowers of stature tall

    With trailing plants and trees were intertwined —

Which soon composed a little sylvan hall,

    A leafy shelter from the sun and wind.

And thither, when the summer-days were long,

    Sir Walter journeyed with his paramour;

And with the dancers and the minstrel’s song

    Made merriment within that pleasant bower.

The knight, Sir Walter, died in course of time,

    And his bones lie in his paternal vale. —

But there is matter for a second rhyme,

    And I to this would add another tale.”

PART SECOND.

“The moving accident is not my trade:

    To freeze the blood I have no ready arts:

’Tis my delight, alone in summer shade,

    To pipe a simple song for thinking hearts.

As I from Hawes to Richmond did repair,

    It chanced that I saw standing in a dell

Three aspens at three corners of a square,

    And one, not four yards distant, near a well.

What this imported I could ill divine:

    And, pulling now the rein my horse to stop,

I saw three pillars standing in a line,

    The last stone pillar on a dark hill-top.

The trees were gray, with neither arms nor head;

    Half-wasted the square mound of tawny green;

So that you just might say, as then I said,

    “Here in old time the hand of man hath been.”

I looked upon the hill both far and near,

    More doleful place did never eye survey;

It seemed as if the spring-time came not here,

    And Nature here were willing to decay.

I stood in various thoughts and fancies lost,

    When one, who was in shepherd’s garb attired,

Came up the hollow:— Him did I accost,

    And what this place might be I then inquired.

The shepherd stopped, and that same story told

    Which in my former rhyme I have rehearsed.

“A jolly place,” said he, “in times of old!

    But something ails it now; the spot is curst.

You see these lifeless stumps of aspen wood —

    Some say that they are beeches, others elms —

These were the bower; and here a mansion stood,

    The finest palace of a hundred realms!

The arbour does its own condition tell;

    You see the stones, the fountain, and the stream;

But as to the great lodge! you might as well

    Hunt half a day for a forgotten dream.

There’s neither dog nor heifer, horse nor sheep,

    Will wet his lips within that cup of stone;

And oftentimes, when all are fast asleep,

    This water doth send forth a dolorous groan.

Some say that here a murder has been done,

    And blood cries out for blood: but, for my part,

I’ve guessed, when I’ve been sitting in the sun,

    That it was all for that unhappy hart.

What thoughts must through the creature’s brain have passed!

    Even from the top-most stone, upon the steep,

Are but three bounds — and look, Sir, at this last —

    — O Master! it has been a cruel leap.

For thirteen hours he ran a desperate race;

    And in my simple mind we cannot tell

What cause the hart might have to love this place,

    And come and make his death-bed near the well.

Here on the grass perhaps asleep he sank,

    Lulled by this fountain in the summer-tide;

This water was perhaps the first he drank

    When he had wandered from his mother’s side.

In April here beneath the scented thorn

    He heard the birds their morning carols sing;

And he, perhaps, for aught we know, was born

    Not half a furlong from that self-same spring.

But now here’s neither grass nor pleasant shade;

    The sun on drearier hollow never shone;

So will it be, as I have often said,

    Till trees, and stones, and fountain all are gone.”

“Gray-headed Shepherd, thou hast spoken well;

    Small difference lies between thy creed and mine:

This beast not unobserved by Nature fell;

    His death was mourned by sympathy divine.

The Being, that is in the clouds and air,

    That is in the green leaves among the groves,

Maintains a deep, and reverential care

    For the unoffending creatures whom he loves.

The pleasure-house is dust:— behind, before,

    This is no common waste, no common gloom;

But Nature, in due course of time, once more

    Shall here put on her beauty and her bloom.

She leaves these objects to a slow decay,

    That what we are, and have been, may be known;

But at the coming of the milder day,

    These monuments shall all be overgrown.

One lesson, Shepherd, let us two divide,

    Taught both by what she shews, and what conceals,

Never to blend our pleasure or our pride

    With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels.”

Mr. Wordsworth is at the head of that which has been denominated the Lake school of poetry; a school which, with all my respect for it, I do not think sacred from criticism or exempt from faults, of some of which faults I shall speak with becoming frankness; for I do not see that the liberty of the press ought to be shackled, or freedom of speech curtailed, to screen either its revolutionary or renegado extravagances. This school of poetry had its origin in the French revolution, or rather in those sentiments and opinions which produced that revolution; and which sentiments and opinions were indirectly imported into this country in translations from the German about that period. Our poetical literature had, towards the close of the last century, degenerated into the most trite, insipid, and mechanical of all things, in the hands of the followers of Pope and the old French school of poetry. It wanted something to stir it up, and it found that some thing in the principles and events of the French revolution. From the impulse it thus received, it rose at once from the most servile imitation and tamest common-place, to the utmost pitch of singularity and paradox. The change in the belles-lettres was as complete, and to many persons as startling, as the change in politics, with which it went hand in hand. There was a mighty ferment in the heads of statesmen and poets, kings and people. According to the prevailing notions, all was to be natural and new. Nothing that was established was to be tolerated. All the common-place figures of poetry, tropes, allegories, personifications, with the whole heathen mythology, were instantly discarded; a classical allusion was considered as a piece of antiquated foppery; capital letters were no more allowed in print, than letters-patent of nobility were permitted in real life; kings and queens were dethroned from their rank and station in legitimate tragedy or epic poetry, as they were decapitated elsewhere; rhyme was looked upon as a relic of the feudal system, and regular metre was abolished along with regular government. Authority and fashion, elegance or arrangement, were hooted out of countenance, as pedantry and prejudice. Every one did that which was good in his own eyes. The object was to reduce all things to an absolute level; and a singularly affected and outrageous simplicity prevailed in dress and manners, in style and sentiment. A striking effect produced where it was least expected, something new and original, no matter whether good, bad, or indifferent, whether mean or lofty, extravagant or childish, was all that was aimed at, or considered as compatible with sound philosophy and an age of reason. The licentiousness grew extreme: Coryate’s Crudities were nothing to it. The world was to be turned topsy-turvy; and poetry, by the good will of our Adam-wits, was to share its fate and begin de novo. It was a time of promise, a renewal of the world and of letters; and the Deucalions, who were to perform this feat of regeneration, were the present poet-laureat and the two authors of the Lyrical Ballads. The Germans, who made heroes of robbers, and honest women of cast-off mistresses, had already exhausted the extravagant and marvellous in sentiment and situation: our native writers adopted a wonderful simplicity of style and matter. The paradox they set out with was, that all things are by nature equally fit subjects for poetry; or that if there is any preference to be given, those that are the meanest and most unpromising are the best, as they leave the greatest scope for the unbounded stores of thought and fancy in the writer’s own mind. Poetry had with them “neither buttress nor coigne of vantage to make its pendant bed and procreant cradle.” It was not “born so high: its aiery buildeth in the cedar’s top, and dallies with the wind, and scorns the sun.” It grew like a mushroom out of the ground; or was hidden in it like a truffle, which it required a particular sagacity and industry to find out and dig up. They founded the new school on a principle of sheer humanity, on pure nature void of art. It could not be said of these sweeping reformers and dictators in the republic of letters, that “in their train walked crowns and crownets; that realms and islands, like plates, dropt from their pockets”: but they were surrounded, in company with the Muses, by a mixed rabble of idle apprentices and Botany Bay convicts, female vagrants, gipsies, meek daughters in the family of Christ, of ideot boys and mad mothers, and after them “owls and night-ravens flew.” They scorned “degrees, priority, and place, insisture, course, proportion, season, form, office, and custom in all line of order”:— the distinctions of birth, the vicissitudes of fortune, did not enter into their abstracted, lofty, and levelling calculation of human nature. He who was more than man, with them was none. They claimed kindred only with the commonest of the people: peasants, pedlars, and village-barbers were their oracles and bosom friends. Their poetry, in the extreme to which it professedly tended, and was in effect carried, levels all distinctions of nature and society; has “no figures nor no fantasies,” which the prejudices of superstition or the customs of the world draw in the brains of men; “no trivial fond records” of all that has existed in the history of past ages; it has no adventitious pride, pomp, or circumstance, to set it off; “the marshal’s truncheon, nor the judge’s robe;” neither tradition, reverence, nor ceremony, “that to great ones ‘longs”: it breaks in pieces the golden images of poetry, and defaces its armorial bearings, to melt them down in the mould of common humanity or of its own upstart self-sufficiency. They took the same method in their new-fangled “metre ballad-mongering” scheme, which Rousseau did in his prose paradoxes — of exciting attention by reversing the established standards of opinion and estimation in the world. They were for bringing poetry back to its primitive simplicity and state of nature, as he was for bringing society back to the savage state: so that the only thing remarkable left in the world by this change, would be the persons who had produced it. A thorough adept in this school of poetry and philanthropy is jealous of all excellence but his own. He does not even like to share his reputation with his subject; for he would have it all proceed from his own power and originality of mind. Such a one is slow to admire any thing that is admirable; feels no interest in what is most interesting to others, no grandeur in any thing grand, no beauty in anything beautiful. He tolerates only what he himself creates; he sympathizes only with what can enter into no competition with him, with “the bare trees and mountains bare, and grass in the green field.” He sees nothing but himself and the universe. He hates all greatness and all pretensions to it, whether well or ill-founded. His egotism is in some respects a madness; for he scorns even the admiration of himself, thinking it a presumption in any one to suppose that he has taste or sense enough to understand him. He hates all science and all art; he hates chemistry, he hates conchology; he hates Voltaire; he hates Sir Isaac Newton; he hates wisdom; he hates wit; he hates metaphysics, which he says are unintelligible, and yet he would be thought to understand them; he hates prose; he hates all poetry but his own; he hates the dialogues in Shakespeare; he hates music, dancing, and painting; he hates Rubens, he hates Rembrandt; he hates Raphael, he hates Titian; he hates Vandyke; he hates the antique; he hates the Apollo Belvidere; he hates the Venus of Medicis. This is the reason that so few people take an interest in his writings, because he takes an interest in nothing that others do! — The effect has been perceived as something odd; but the cause or principle has never been distinctly traced to its source before, as far as I know. The proofs are to be found every where — in Mr. Southey’s Botany Bay Eclogues, in his book of Songs and Sonnets, his Odes and Inscriptions, so well parodied in the Anti–Jacobin Review, in his Joan of Arc, and last, though not least, in his Wat Tyler:

“When Adam delved, and Eve span,

Where was then the gentleman?”

(— or the poet laureat either, we may ask?)— In Mr. Coleridge’s Ode to an Ass’s Foal, in his Lines to Sarah, his Religious Musings; and in his and Mr. Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, passim.

Of Mr. Southey’s larger epics, I have but a faint recollection at this distance of time, but all that I remember of them is mechanical and extravagant, heavy and superficial. His affected, disjointed style is well imitated in the Rejected Addresses. The difference between him and Sir Richard Blackmore seems to be, that the one is heavy and the other light, the one solemn and the other pragmatical, the one phlegmatic and the other flippant; and that there is no Gay in the present time to give a Catalogue Raisonne of the performances of the living undertaker of epics. Kehama is a loose sprawling figure, such as we see cut out of wood or paper, and pulled or jerked with wire or thread, to make sudden and surprising motions, without meaning, grace, or nature in them. By far the best of his works are some of his shorter personal compositions, in which there is an ironical mixture of the quaint and serious, such as his lines on a picture of Gaspar Poussin, the fine tale of Gualberto, his Description of a Pig, and the Holly-tree, which is an affecting, beautiful, and modest retrospect on his own character. May the aspiration with which it concludes be fulfilled! 11— But the little he has done of true and sterling excellence, is overloaded by the quantity of indifferent matter which he turns out every year, “prosing or versing,” with equally mechanical and irresistible facility. His Essays, or political and moral disquisitions, are not so full of original matter as Montaigne’s. They are second or third rate compositions in that class.

11 “O reader! hast thou ever stood to see

            The Holly Tree?

The eye that contemplates it well perceives

            Its glossy leaves,

Ordered by an intelligence so wise

As might confound the Atheist’s sophistries.

Below, a circling fence, its leaves are seen

            Wrinkled and keen;

No grazing cattle through their prickly round

            Can reach to wound;

But as they grow where nothing is to fear,

Smooth and unarm’d the pointless leaves appear.

I love to view these things with curious eyes,

            And moralize;

And in the wisdom of the Holly Tree

            Can emblems see

Wherewith perchance to make a pleasant rhyme,

Such as may profit in the after time.

So, though abroad perchance I might appear

            Harsh and austere,

To those who on my leisure would intrude

            Reserved and rude,

Gentle at home amid my friends I’d be,

Like the high leaves upon the Holly Tree.

And should my youth, as youth is apt I know,

            Some harshness show,

All vain asperities I day by day

            Would wear away,

Till the smooth temper of my age should be

Like the high leaves upon the Holly Tree.

And as when all the summer trees are seen

            So bright and green,

The Holly leaves their fadeless hues display

            Less bright than they,

But when the bare and wintry woods we see,

What then so cheerful as the Holly Tree?

So serious should my youth appear among

            The thoughtless throng,

So would I seem amid the young and gay

            More grave than they,

That in my age as cheerful I might be

As the green winter of the Holly Tree.”—

It remains that I should say a few words of Mr. Coleridge; and there is no one who has a better right to say what he thinks of him than I have. “Is there here any dear friend of Caesar? To him I say, that Brutus’s love to Caesar was no less than his.” But no matter. — His Ancient Mariner is his most remarkable performance, and the only one that I could point out to any one as giving an adequate idea of his great natural powers. It is high German, however, and in it he seems to “conceive of poetry but as a drunken dream, reckless, careless, and heedless, of past, present, and to come.” His tragedies (for he has written two) are not answerable to it; they are, except a few poetical passages, drawling sentiment and metaphysical jargon. He has no genuine dramatic talent. There is one fine passage in his Christobel, that which contains the description of the quarrel between Sir Leoline and Sir Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine, who had been friends in youth.

    “Alas! they had been friends in youth,

But whispering tongues can poison truth;

And constancy lives in realms above;

And life is thorny; and youth is vain;

And to be wroth with one we love,

Doth work like madness in the brain:

And thus it chanc’d as I divine,

With Roland and Sir Leoline.

Each spake words of high disdain

And insult to his heart’s best brother,

And parted ne’er to meet again!

But neither ever found another

To free the hollow heart from paining —

    They stood aloof, the scars remaining,

Like cliffs which had been rent asunder:

A dreary sea now flows between,

But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,

Shall wholly do away I ween

The marks of that which once hath been.

    Sir Leoline a moment’s space

Stood gazing on the damsel’s face;

And the youthful lord of Tryermaine

Came back upon his heart again.”

It might seem insidious if I were to praise his ode entitled Fire, Famine, and Slaughter, as an effusion of high poetical enthusiasm, and strong political feeling. His Sonnet to Schiller conveys a fine compliment to the author of the Robbers, and an equally fine idea of the state of youthful enthusiasm in which he composed it.

“Schiller! that hour I would have wish’d to die,

    If through the shudd’ring midnight I had sent

    From the dark dungeon of the tower time-rent,

That fearful voice, a famish’d father’s cry —

That in no after moment aught less vast

    Might stamp me mortal! A triumphant shout

    Black Horror scream’d, and all her goblin rout

From the more with’ring scene diminish’d pass’d.

Ah! Bard tremendous in sublimity!

    Could I behold thee in thy loftier mood,

Wand’ring at eve, with finely frenzied eye,

    Beneath some vast old tempest-swinging wood!

    Awhile, with mute awe gazing, I would brood,

Then weep aloud in a wild ecstacy!”—

His Conciones ad Populum, Watchman, &c. are dreary trash. Of his Friend, I have spoken the truth elsewhere. But I may say of him here, that he is the only person I ever knew who answered to the idea of a man of genius. He is the only person from whom I ever learnt any thing. There is only one thing he could learn from me in return, but that he has not. He was the first poet I ever knew. His genius at that time had angelic wings, and fed on manna. He talked on for ever; and you wished him to talk on for ever. His thoughts did not seem to come with labour and effort; but as if borne on the gusts of genius, and as if the wings of his imagination lifted him from off his feet. His voice rolled on the ear like the pealing organ, and its sound alone was the music of thought. His mind was clothed with wings; and raised on them, he lifted philosophy to heaven. In his descriptions, you then saw the progress of human happiness and liberty in bright and never-ending succession, like the steps of Jacob’s ladder, with airy shapes ascending and descending, and with the voice of God at the top of the ladder. And shall I, who heard him then, listen to him now? Not I! . . . That spell is broke; that time is gone for ever; that voice is heard no more: but still the recollection comes rushing by with thoughts of long-past years, and rings in my ears with never-dying sound.

    “What though the radiance which was once so bright,

Be now for ever taken from my sight,

Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of glory in the grass, of splendour in the flow’r;

    I do not grieve, but rather find

    Strength in what remains behind;

    In the primal sympathy,

    Which having been, must ever be;

    In the soothing thoughts that spring

    Out of human suffering;

In years that bring the philosophic mind!”—

I have thus gone through the task I intended, and have come at last to the level ground. I have felt my subject gradually sinking from under me as I advanced, and have been afraid of ending in nothing. The interest has unavoidably decreased at almost every successive step of the progress, like a play that has its catastrophe in the first or second act. This, however, I could not help. I have done as well as I could.

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