Table Talk : Essays on Men and Manners, by William Hazlitt

Essay v.

On the Aristocracy of Letters

Ha! here’s three of us are sophisticated:— off, you lendings.

There is such a thing as an aristocracy or privileged order in letters which has sometimes excited my wonder, and sometimes my spleen. We meet with authors who have never done anything, but who have a vast reputation for what they could have done. Their names stand high, and are in everybody’s mouth, but their works are never heard of, or had better remain undiscovered for the sake of their admirers. —Stat nominis umbra— their pretensions are lofty and unlimited, as they have nothing to rest upon, or because it is impossible to confront them with the proofs of their deficiency. If you inquire farther, and insist upon some act of authorship to establish the claims of these Epicurean votaries of the Muses, you find that they had a great reputation at Cambridge, that they were senior wranglers or successful prize-essayists, that they visit at Holland House, and, to support that honour, must be supposed, of course, to occupy the first rank in the world of letters.65 It is possible, however, that they have some manuscript work in hand, which is of too much importance (and the writer has too much at stake in publishing it) hastily to see the light: or perhaps they once had an article in the Edinburgh Review, which was much admired at the time, and is kept by them ever since as a kind of diploma and unquestionable testimonial of merit. They are not like Grub Street authors, who write for bread, and are paid by the sheet. Like misers who hoard their wealth, they are supposed to be masters of all the wit and sense they do not impart to the public. ‘Continents have most of what they contain,’ says a considerable philosopher; and these persons, it must be confessed, have a prodigious command over themselves in the expenditure of light and learning. The Oriental curse, ‘0 that mine enemy had written a book!’ hangs suspended over them. By never committing themselves, they neither give a handle to the malice of the world, nor excite the jealousy of friends; and keep all the reputation they have got, not by discreetly blotting, but by never writing a line. Some one told Sheridan, who was always busy about some new work and never advancing any farther in it, that he would not write because he was afraid of the author of the School for Scandal. So these idle pretenders are afraid of undergoing a comparison with themselves in something they have never done, but have had credit for doing. They do not acquire celebrity, they assume it; and escape detection by never venturing out of their imposing and mysterious incognito. They do not let themselves down by everyday work: for them to appear in print is a work of supererogation as much as in lords and kings; and like gentlemen with a large landed estate, they live on their established character, and do nothing (or as little as possible) to increase or lose it. There is not a more deliberate piece of grave imposture going. I know a person of this description who has been employed many years (by implication) in a translation of Thucydides, of which no one ever saw a word, but it does not answer the purpose of bolstering up a factitious reputation the less on that account. The longer it is delayed and kept sacred from the vulgar gaze, the more it swells into imaginary consequence; the labour and care required for a work of this kind being immense; — and then there are no faults in an unexecuted translation. The only impeccable writers are those that never wrote. Another is an oracle on subjects of taste and classical erudition, because (he says at least) he reads Cicero once a year to keep up the purity of his Latinity. A third makes the indecency pass for the depth of his researches and for a high gusto in virtu, till, from his seeing nothing in the finest remains of ancient art, the world by the merest accident find out that there is nothing in him. There is scarcely anything that a grave face with an impenetrable manner will not accomplish, and whoever is weak enough to impose upon himself will have wit enough to impose upon the public — particularly if he can make it their interest to be deceived by shallow boasting, and contrives not to hurt their self-love by sterling acquirements. Do you suppose that the understood translation of Thucydides costs its supposed author nothing? A select party of friends and admirers dine with him once a week at a magnificent town mansion, or a more elegant and picturesque retreat in the country. They broach their Horace and their old hock, and sometimes allude with a considerable degree of candour to the defects of works which are brought out by contemporary writers — the ephemeral offspring of haste and necessity!

Among other things, the learned languages are a ready passport to this sort of unmeaning, unanalysed reputation. They presently lift a man up among the celestial constellations, the signs of the zodiac (as it were) and third heaven of inspiration, from whence he looks down on those who are toiling on in this lower sphere, and earning their bread by the sweat of their brain, at leisure and in scorn. If the graduates in this way condescend to express their thoughts in English, it is understood to be infra dignitatem— such light and unaccustomed essays do not fit the ponderous gravity of their pen — they only draw to advantage and with full justice to themselves in the bow of the ancients. Their native tongue is to them strange, inelegant, unapt, and crude. They ‘cannot command it to any utterance of harmony. They have not the skill.’ This is true enough; but you must not say so, under a heavy penalty — the displeasure of pedants and blockheads. It would be sacrilege against the privileged classes, the Aristocracy of Letters. What! will you affirm that a profound Latin scholar, a perfect Grecian, cannot write a page of common sense or grammar? Is it not to be presumed, by all the charters of the Universities and the foundations of grammar-schools, that he who can speak a dead language must be a fortiori conversant with his own? Surely the greater implies the less. He who knows every science and every art cannot be ignorant of the most familiar forms of speech. Or if this plea is found not to hold water, then our scholastic bungler is said to be above this vulgar trial of skill, ‘something must be excused to want of practice — but did you not observe the elegance of the Latinity, how well that period would become a classical and studied dress?’ Thus defects are ‘monster’d’ into excellences, and they screen their idol, and require you, at your peril, to pay prescriptive homage to false concords and inconsequential criticisms, because the writer of them has the character of the first or second Greek or Latin scholar in the kingdom. If you do not swear to the truth of these spurious credentials, you are ignorant and malicious, a quack and a scribbler —flagranti delicto! Thus the man who can merely read and construe some old author is of a class superior to any living one, and, by parity of reasoning, to those old authors themselves: the poet or prose-writer of true and original genius, by the courtesy of custom, ‘ducks to the learned fool’; or, as the author of Hudibras has so well stated the same thing  —

  He that is but able to express

No sense at all in several languages,

Will pass for learneder than he that’s known

To speak the strongest reason in his own.

These preposterous and unfounded claims of mere scholars to precedence in the commonwealth of letters which they set up so formally themselves and which others so readily bow to, are partly owing to traditional prejudice: there was a time when learning was the only distinction from ignorance, and when there was no such thing as popular English literature. Again, there is something more palpable and positive in this kind of acquired knowledge, like acquired wealth, which the vulgar easily recognise. That others know the meaning of signs which they are confessedly and altogether ignorant of is to them both a matter of fact and a subject of endless wonder. The languages are worn like a dress by a man, and distinguish him sooner than his natural figure; and we are, from motives of self-love, inclined to give others credit for the ideas they have borrowed or have come into indirect possession of, rather than for those that originally belong to them and are exclusively their own. The merit in them and the implied inferiority in ourselves is less. Learning is a kind of external appendage or transferable property  —

’Twas mine, ’tis his, and may be any man’s.

Genius and understanding are a man’s self, an integrant part of his personal identity; and the title to these last, as it is the most difficult to be ascertained, is also the most grudgingly acknowledged. Few persons would pretend to deny that Porson had more Greek than they; it was a question of fact which might be put to the immediate proof, and could not be gainsaid; but the meanest frequenter of the Cider Cellar or the Hole in the Wall would be inclined, in his own conceit, to dispute the palm of wit or sense with him, and indemnify his self-complacency for the admiration paid to living learning by significant hints to friends and casual droppers-in, that the greatest men, when you came to know them, were not without their weak sides as well as others. Pedants, I will add here, talk to the vulgar as pedagogues talk to schoolboys, on an understood principle of condescension and superiority, and therefore make little progress in the knowledge of men or things. While they fancy they are accommodating themselves to, or else assuming airs of importance over, inferior capacities, these inferior capacities are really laughing at them. There can be no true superiority but what arises out of the presupposed ground of equality: there can be no improvement but from the free communication and comparing of ideas. Kings and nobles, for this reason, receive little benefit from society — where all is submission on one side, and condescension on the other. The mind strikes out truth by collision, as steel strikes fire from the flint!

There are whole families who are born classical, and are entered in the heralds’ college of reputation by the right of consanguinity. Literature, like nobility, runs in the blood. There is the Burney family. There is no end of it or its pretensions. It produces wits, scholars, novelists, musicians, artists in ‘numbers numberless.’ The name is alone a passport to the Temple of Fame. Those who bear it are free of Parnassus by birthright. The founder of it was himself an historian and a musician, but more of a courtier and man of the world than either. The secret of his success may perhaps be discovered in the following passage, where, in alluding to three eminent performers on different instruments, he says: ‘These three illustrious personages were introduced at the Emperor’s court,’ etc.; speaking of them as if they were foreign ambassadors or princes of the blood, and thus magnifying himself and his profession. This overshadowing manner carries nearly everything before it, and mystifies a great many. There is nothing like putting the best face upon things, and leaving others to find out the difference. He who could call three musicians ‘personages’ would himself play a personage through life, and succeed in his leading object. Sir Joshua Reynolds, remarking on this passage, said: ‘No one had a greater respect than he had for his profession, but that he should never think of applying to it epithets that were appropriated merely to external rank and distinction.’ Madame d’Arblay, it must be owned, had cleverness enough to stock a whole family, and to set up her cousin-germans, male and female, for wits and virtuosos to the third and fourth generation. The rest have done nothing, that I know of, but keep up the name.

The most celebrated author in modern times has written without a name, and has been knighted for anonymous productions. Lord Byron complains that Horace Walpole was not properly appreciated, ‘first, because he was a gentleman; and secondly, because he was a nobleman.’ His Lordship stands in one, at least, of the predicaments here mentioned, and yet he has had justice, or somewhat more, done him. He towers above his fellows by all the height of the peerage. If the poet lends a grace to the nobleman, the nobleman pays it back to the poet with interest. What a fine addition is ten thousand a year and a title to the flaunting pretensions of a modern rhapsodist! His name so accompanied becomes the mouth well: it is repeated thousands of times, instead of hundreds, because the reader in being familiar with the Poet’s works seems to claim acquaintance with the Lord.

Let but a lord once own the happy lines:

How the wit brightens, and the style refines!

He smiles at the high-flown praise or petty cavils of little men. Does he make a slip in decorum, which Milton declares to be the principal thing? His proud crest and armorial bearings support him: no bend-sinister slurs his poetical escutcheon! Is he dull, or does he put of some trashy production on the public? It is not charged to his account, as a deficiency which he must make good at the peril of his admirers. His Lordship is not answerable for the negligence or extravagances of his Muse. He ‘bears a charmed reputation, which must not yield’ like one of vulgar birth. The Noble Bard is for this reason scarcely vulnerable to the critics. The double barrier of his pretensions baffles their puny, timid efforts. Strip off some of his tarnished laurels, and the coronet appears glittering beneath: restore them, and it still shines through with keener lustre. In fact, his Lordship’s blaze of reputation culminates from his rank and place in society. He sustains two lofty and imposing characters; and in order to simplify the process of our admiration, and ‘leave no rubs or botches in the way,’ we equalise his pretensions, and take it for granted that he must be as superior to other men in genius as he is in birth. Or, to give a more familiar solution of the enigma, the Poet and the Peer agree to honour each other’s acceptances on the bank of Fame, and sometimes cozen the town to some tune between them. Really, however, and with all his privileges, Lord Byron might as well not have written that strange letter about Pope. I could not afford it, poor as I am. Why does he pronounce, ex cathedra and robed, that Cowper is no poet? Cowper was a gentleman and of noble family like his critic. He was a teacher of morality as well as a describer of nature, which is more than his Lordship is. His John Gilpin will last as long as Beppo, and his verses to Mary are not less touching than the Farewell. If I had ventured upon such an assertion as this, it would have been worse for me than finding out a borrowed line in the Pleasures of Hope.

There is not a more helpless or more despised animal than a mere author, without any extrinsic advantages of birth, breeding, or fortune to set him off. The real ore of talents or learning must be stamped before it will pass current. To be at all looked upon as an author, a man must be something more or less than an author — a rich merchant, a banker, a lord, or a ploughman. He is admired for something foreign to himself, that acts as a bribe to the servility or a set-off to the envy of the community. ‘What should such fellows as we do, crawling betwixt heaven and earth’; —‘coining our hearts for drachmas’; now scorched in the sun, now shivering in the breeze, now coming out in our newest gloss and best attire, like swallows in the spring, now ‘sent back like hollowmas or shortest day’? The best wits, like the handsomest faces upon the town, lead a harassing, precarious life — are taken up for the bud and promise of talent, which they no sooner fulfil than they are thrown aside like an old fashion — are caressed without reason, and insulted with impunity — are subject to all the caprice, the malice, and fulsome advances of that great keeper, the Public — and in the end come to no good, like all those who lavish their favours on mankind at large, and look to the gratitude of the world for their reward. Instead of this set of Grub Street authors, the mere canaille of letters, this corporation of Mendicity, this ragged regiment of genius suing at the corners of streets in forma pauperis, give me the gentleman and scholar, with a good house over his head and a handsome table ‘with wine of Attic taste’ to ask his friends to, and where want and sorrow never come. Fill up the sparkling bowl; heap high the dessert with roses crowned; bring out the hot-pressed poem, the vellum manuscripts, the medals, the portfolios, the intaglios — this is the true model of the life of a man of taste and virtu— the possessors, not the inventors of these things, are the true benefactors of mankind and ornaments of letters. Look in, and there, amidst silver services and shining chandeliers, you will see the man of genius at his proper post, picking his teeth and mincing an opinion, sheltered by rank, bowing to wealth — a poet framed, glazed, and hung in a striking light; not a straggling weed, torn and trampled on; not a poor Kit-run-the-street, but a powdered beau, a sycophant plant, an exotic reared in a glass case, hermetically sealed,

Free from the Sirian star and the dread thunder-stroke

whose mealy coat no moth can corrupt nor blight can wither. The poet Keats had not this sort of protection for his person — he lay bare to weather — the serpent stung him, and the poison-tree dropped upon this little western flower: when the mercenary servile crew approached him, he had no pedigree to show them, no rent-roll to hold out in reversion for their praise: he was not in any great man’s train, nor the butt and puppet of a lord — he could only offer them ‘the fairest flowers of the season, carnations and streaked gilliflowers,’—‘rue for remembrance and pansies for thoughts,’— they recked not of his gift, but tore him with hideous shouts and laughter,

Nor could the Muse protect her son!

Unless an author has all establishment of his own, or is entered on that of some other person, he will hardly be allowed to write English or to spell his own name. To be well spoken of, he must enlist under some standard; he must belong to some coterie. He must get the esprit de corps on his side: he must have literary bail in readiness. Thus they prop up one another’s rickety heads at Murray’s shop, and a spurious reputation, like false argument, runs in a circle. Croker affirms that Gifford is sprightly, and Gifford that Croker is genteel; Disraeli that Jacob is wise, and Jacob that Disraeli is good-natured. A Member of Parliament must be answerable that you are not dangerous or dull before you can be of the entree. You must commence toad-eater to have your observations attended to; if you are independent, unconnected, you will be regarded as a poor creature. Your opinion is honest, you will say; then ten to one it is not profitable. It is at any rate your own. So much the worse; for then it is not the world’s. Tom Hill is a very tolerable barometer in this respect. He knows nothing, hears everything, and repeats just what he hears; so that you may guess pretty well from this round-faced echo what is said by others! Almost everything goes by presumption and appearances. ‘Did you not think Mr. B——‘s language very elegant?’— I thought he bowed very low. ‘Did you not think him remarkably well-behaved?’— He was unexceptionably dressed. ‘But were not Mr. C——‘s manners quite insinuating?’— He said nothing. “You will at least allow his friend to be a well-informed man.”— talked upon all subjects alike. Such would be a pretty faithful interpretation of the tone of what is called good society. The surface is everything; we do not pierce to the core. The setting is more valuable than the jewel. Is it not so in other things as well as letters? Is not an R. A. by the supposition a greater man in his profession than any one who is not so blazoned? Compared with that unrivalled list, Raphael had been illegitimate, Claude not classical, and Michael Angelo admitted by special favour. What is a physician without a diploma? An alderman without being knighted? An actor whose name does not appear in great letters? All others are counterfeits — men ‘of no mark or likelihood.’ This was what made the Jackals of the North so eager to prove that I had been turned out of the Edinburgh Review. It was not the merit of the articles which excited their spleen — but their being there. Of the style they knew nothing; for the thought they cared nothing: all that they knew was that I wrote in that powerful journal, and therefore they asserted that I did not!

We find a class of persons who labour under an obvious natural inaptitude for whatever they aspire to. Their manner of setting about it is a virtual disqualification. The simple affirmation, ‘What this man has said, I will do,’ is not always considered as the proper test of capacity. On the contrary, there are people whose bare pretensions are as good or better than the actual performance of others. What I myself have done, for instance, I never find admitted as proof of what I shall be able to do: whereas I observe others who bring as proof of their competence to any task (and are taken at their word) what they have never done, and who gravely assure those who are inclined to trust them that their talents are exactly fitted for some post because they are just the reverse of what they have ever shown them to be. One man has the air of an Editor as much as another has that of a butler or porter in a gentleman’s family. ——— is the model of this character, with a prodigious look of business, an air of suspicion which passes for sagacity, and an air of deliberation which passes for judgment. If his own talents are no ways prominent, it is inferred he will be more impartial and in earnest in making use of those of others. There is Britton, the responsible conductor of several works of taste and erudition, yet (God knows) without an idea in his head relating to any one of them. He is learned by proxy, and successful from sheer imbecility. If he were to get the smallest smattering of the departments which are under his control, he would betray himself from his desire to shine; but as it is, he leaves others to do all the drudgery for him. He signs his name in the title-page or at the bottom of a vignette, and nobody suspects any mistake. This contractor for useful and ornamental literature once offered me two guineas for a Life and Character of Shakespear, with an admission to his converzationi. I went once. There was a collection of learned lumber, of antiquaries, lexicographers, and other ‘illustrious obscure,’ and I had given up the day for lost, when in dropped Jack Taylor of the Sun—(who would dare to deny that he was ‘the Sun of our table’?)— and I had nothing now to do but hear and laugh. Mr. Taylor knows most of the good things that have been said in the metropolis for the last thirty years, and is in particular an excellent retailer of the humours and extravagances of his old friend Peter Pindar. He had recounted a series of them, each rising above the other in a sort of magnificent burlesque and want of literal preciseness, to a medley of laughing and sour faces, when on his proceeding to state a joke of a practical nature by the said Peter, a Mr. ——— (I forget the name) objected to the moral of the story, and to the whole texture of Mr. Taylor’s facetiae — upon which our host, who had till now supposed that all was going on swimmingly, thought it time to interfere and give a turn to the conversation by saying, ‘Why, yes, gentlemen, what we have hitherto heard fall from the lips of our friend has been no doubt entertaining and highly agreeable in its way; but perhaps we have had enough of what is altogether delightful and pleasant and light and laughable in conduct. Suppose, therefore, we were to shift the subject, and talk of what is serious and moral and industrious and laudable in character — Let us talk of Mr. Tomkins the Penman!’— This staggered the gravest of us, broke up our dinner-party, and we went upstairs to tea. So much for the didactic vein of one of our principal guides in the embellished walks of modern taste, and master manufacturers of letters. He had found that gravity had been a never-failing resource when taken at a pinch — for once the joke miscarried — and Mr. Tomkins the Penman figures to this day nowhere but in Sir Joshua’s picture of him!

To complete the natural Aristocracy of Letters, we only want a Royal Society of Authors!

65 Lord Holland had made a diary (in the manner of Boswell) of the conversation held at his house, and read it at the end of a week pro bono publico. Sir James Mackintosh made a considerable figure in it, and a celebrated poet none at all, merely answering Yes and No. With this result he was by no means satisfied, and talked incessantly from that day forward. At the end of the week he asked, with some anxiety and triumph, If his Lordship had continued his diary, expecting himself to shine in ‘the first row of the rubric.’ To which his Noble Patron answered in the negative, with an intimation that it had not appeared to him worth while. Our poet was thus thrown again into the background, and Sir James remained master of the field!

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Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:19