Hours in a Library - New Edition, with Additions. Vol. II (of 3)
by Leslie Stephen
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

The good old rule Sufficeth him, the simple plan

that each verse should consist of ten syllables, with an occasional Alexandrine to accommodate a refractory epithet, and should rhyme peaceably with its neighbour.

From all which it may be too harshly inferred that Crabbe is merely a writer in rhyming prose, and deserving of no attention from the more enlightened adherents of a later school. The inference, I say, would be hasty, for it is impossible to read Crabbe patiently without receiving a very distinct and original impression. If some pedants of aesthetic philosophy should declare that we ought not to be impressed because Crabbe breaks all their rules, we can only reply they are mistaking their trade. The true business of the critic is to discover from observation what are the conditions under which a book appeals to our sympathies, and, if he finds an apparent exception to his rules, to admit that he has made an oversight, and not to condemn the facts which persist in contradicting his theories. It may, indeed, be freely granted that Crabbe has suffered seriously by his slovenly methods and his insensibility to the more exquisite and ethereal forms of poetical excellence. But however he may be classified, he possesses the essential mark of genius, namely, that his pictures, however coarse the workmanship, stamp themselves on our minds indelibly and instantaneously. His pathos is here and there clumsy, but it goes straight to the mark. His characteristic qualities were first distinctly shown in the 'Village,' which was partly composed under Burke's eye, and was more or less touched by Johnson. It was, indeed, a work after Johnson's own heart, intended to be a pendant, or perhaps a corrective, to Goldsmith's 'Deserted Village.' It is meant to give the bare blank facts of rural life, stripped of all sentimental gloss. To read the two is something like hearing a speech from an optimist landlord and then listening to the comments of Mr. Arch. Goldsmith, indeed, was far too exquisite an artist to indulge in mere conventionalities about agricultural bliss. If his 'Auburn' is rather idealised, the most prosaic of critics cannot object to the glow thrown by the memory of the poet over the scene of now ruined happiness, and, moreover, Goldsmith's delicate humour guards him instinctively from laying on his rose-colour too thickly. Crabbe, however, will have nothing to do with rose-colour, thick or thin. There is one explicit reference in the poem to his predecessor's work, and it is significant. Everybody remembers, or ought to remember, Goldsmith's charming pastor, to whom it can only be objected that he has not the fear of political economists before his eyes. This is Crabbe's retort after describing a dying pauper in need of spiritual consolation:—

And does not he, the pious man, appear, He, 'passing rich with forty pounds a year?' Ah! no; a shepherd of a different stock, And far unlike him, feeds this little flock: A jovial youth, who thinks his Sunday's task As much as God or man can fairly ask; The rest he gives to loves and labours light, To fields the morning, and to feasts the night. None better skilled the noisy pack to guide, To urge their chase, to cheer them, or to chide; A sportsman keen, he shoots through half the day, And, skilled at whist, devotes the night to play.

This fox-hunting parson (of whom Cowper has described a duplicate) lets the pauper die as he pleases; and afterwards allows him to be buried without attending, performing the funerals, it seems, in a lump upon Sundays. Crabbe admits in a note that such negligence was uncommon, but adds that it is not unknown. The flock is, on the whole, worthy of the shepherd. The old village sports have died out in favour of smuggling and wrecking. The poor are not, as rich men fancy, healthy and well fed. Their work makes them premature victims to ague and rheumatism; their food is

Homely, not wholesome, plain, not plenteous, such As you who praise would never deign to touch.

The ultimate fate of the worn-out labourer is the poorhouse, described in lines of which it is enough to say that Scott and Wordsworth learnt them by heart, and the melancholy deathbed already noticed. Are we reading a poem or a Blue Book done into rhyme? may possibly be the question of some readers. The answer should perhaps be that a good many Blue Books contain an essence which only requires to be properly extracted and refined to become genuine poetry. If Crabbe's verses retain rather too much of the earthly elements, he is capable of transmuting his minerals into genuine gold, as well as of simply collecting them. Nothing, for example, is more characteristic than the mode in which the occasional descriptions of nature are harmoniously blended with the human life in his poetry. Crabbe is an ardent lover of a certain type of scenery, to which justice has not often been done. We are told how, after a long absence from Suffolk, he rode sixty miles from his house to have a dip in the sea. Some of his poems appear to be positively impregnated with a briny, or rather perhaps a tarry, odour. The sea which he loved was by no means a Byronic sea. It has no grandeur of storm, and still less has it the Mediterranean blue. It is the sluggish muddy element which washes the flat shores of his beloved Suffolk. He likes even the shelving beach, with fishermen's boats and decaying nets and remnants of stale fish. He loves the dreary estuary, where the slow tide sways backwards and forwards, and whence

High o'er the restless deep, above the reach Of gunner's hope, vast flocks of wildfowl stretch.

The coming generation of poets took to the mountains; but Crabbe remained faithful to the dismal and yet, in his hands, the impressive scenery of his native salt-marshes. His method of description suits the country. His verses never become melodramatic, nor does he ever seem to invest nature with the mystic life of Wordsworth's poetry. He gives the plain prosaic facts which impress us because they are in such perfect harmony with the sentiment. Here, for example, is a fragment from the 'Village,' which is simply a description of the neighbourhood of Aldborough:—

Lo! where the heath, with withering brake grown o'er, Lends the light turf that warms the neighbouring poor; From thence a length of burning sand appears, Where the thin harvest waves its withered ears; Rank weeds, that every art and care defy, Reign o'er the land, and rob the blighted rye; There thistles stretch their prickly arms afar, And to the ragged infant threaten war; There poppies nodding, mock the hope of toil; There the blue bugloss paints the sterile soil; Hardy and high, above the slender sheaf, The slimy mallow waves her silky leaf; O'er the young shoot the charlock throws a shade, And clasping tares cling round the sickly blade.

The writer is too obviously a botanist; but the picture always remains with us as the only conceivable background for the poverty-stricken population whom he is about to describe. The actors in the 'Borough' are presented to us in a similar setting; and it may be well to put a sea-piece beside this bit of barren common. Crabbe's range of descriptive power is pretty well confined within the limits so defined. He is scarcely at home beyond the tide-marks:—

Be it the summer noon; a sandy space The ebbing tide has left upon its place; Then just the hot and stony beach above, Light twinkling streams in bright confusion move;

* * * * *

There the broad bosom of the ocean keeps An equal motion; swelling as it sleeps, Then slowly sinking; curling to the strand, Faint lazy waves o'ercreep the ridgy sand, Or tap the tarry boat with gentle blow, And back return in silence, smooth and slow. Ships in the calm seem anchored: for they glide On the still sea, urged slowly by the tide: Art thou not present, this calm scene before Where all beside is pebbly length of shore, And far as eye can reach, it can discern no more?

I have omitted a couplet which verges on the scientific; for Crabbe is unpleasantly anxious to leave nothing unexplained. The effect is, in its way, perfect. Anyone who pleases may compare it with Wordsworth's calm in the verses upon Peele Castle, where the sentiment is given without the minute statement of facts, and where, too, we have the inevitable quotation about the 'light that never was on sea or land,' and is pretty nearly as rare in Crabbe's poetry. What he sees we can all see, though not so intensely, and his art consists in selecting the precise elements that tell most forcibly towards bringing us into the required frame of mind. To enjoy Crabbe fully, we ought perhaps to be acclimatised on the coast of the Eastern Counties; we should become sensitive to the plaintive music of the scenery, which is now generally drowned by the discordant sounds of modern watering-places, and would seem insipid to a generation which values excitement in scenery as in fiction. Readers, who measure the beauty of a district by its average height above the sea-level, and who cannot appreciate the charm of a 'waste enormous marsh,' may find Crabbe uncongenial.

The human character is determined, as Mr. Buckle and other philosophers have assured us, by the climate and the soil. A little ingenuity, such as those philosophers display in accommodating facts to theory, might discover a parallel between the type of Crabbe's personages and the fauna and flora of his native district. Declining a task which might lead to fanciful conclusions, I may assume that the East Anglian character is sufficiently familiar, whatever the causes by which it has been determined. To define Crabbe's poetry we have simply to imagine ourselves listening to the stories of his parishioners, told by a clergyman brought up amongst the lower rank of the middle classes, scarcely elevated above their prejudices, and not willingly leaving their circle of ideas. We must endow him with that simplicity of character which gives us frequent cause to smile at its proprietor, but which does not disqualify him from seeing a great deal further into his neighbours than they are apt to give him credit for doing. Such insight, in fact, is due not to any great subtlety of intellect, but to the possession of deep feeling and sympathy. Crabbe saw little more of Burke than would have been visible to an ordinary Suffolk farmer. When transplanted to a ducal mansion, he only drew the pretty obvious inference, embodied in a vigorous poem, that a patron is a very disagreeable and at times a very mischievous personage. The joys and griefs which really interest him are of the very tangible and solid kind which affect men and women to whom the struggle for existence is a stern reality. Here and there his good-humoured but rather clumsy ridicule may strike some lady to whom some demon has whispered 'have a taste;' and who turns up her nose at the fat bacon on Mr. Tovell's table. He pities her squeamishness, but thinks it rather unreasonable. He satirises too the heads of the rustic aristocracy; the brutal squire who bullies his nephew the clergyman for preaching against his vices, and corrupts the whole neighbourhood; or the speculative banker who cheats old maids under pretence of looking after their investments. If the squire does not generally appear in Crabbe in the familiar dramatic character of a rural Lovelace, it is chiefly because Crabbe has no great belief in the general purity of the inferior ranks of rural life. But his most powerful stories deal with the tragedies—only too life-like—of the shop and the farm. He describes the temptations which lead the small tradesman to adulterate his goods, or the parish clerk to embezzle the money subscribed in the village church, and the evil influence of dissenting families in fostering a spiritual pride which leads to more unctuous hypocrisy; for, though he says of the wicked squire that

His worship ever was a Churchman true, And held in scorn the Methodistic crew,

the scorn is only objectionable to him in so far as it is a cynical cloak for scorn of good morals. He tells how boys run away to sea, or join strolling players, and have in consequence to beg their bread at the end of their days. The almshouse or the county gaol is the natural end of his villains, and he paints to the life the evil courses which generally lead to such a climax. Nobody describes better the process of going to the dogs. And most of all, he sympathises with the village maiden who has listened too easily to the voice of the charmer, in the shape of a gay sailor or a smart London footman, and has to reap the bitter consequences of her too easy faith. Most of his stories might be paralleled by the experience of any country clergyman who has entered into the life of his parishioners. They are as commonplace and as pathetic as the things which are happening round us every day, and which fill a neglected paragraph in a country newspaper. The treatment varies from the purely humorous to the most deep and genuine pathos; though it never takes us into the regions of the loftier imagination.

The more humorous of these performances may be briefly dismissed. Crabbe possesses the faculty, but not in any eminent degree; his hand is a little heavy, and one must remember that Mr. Tovell and his like were of the race who require to have a joke driven into their heads with a sledge-hammer. Once or twice we come upon a sketch which may help to explain Miss Austen's admiration. There is an old maid devoted to Mira, and rejoicing in stuffed puppies and parrots, who might have been ridiculed by Emma Woodhouse, and a parson who would have suited the Eltons admirably:—

Fiddling and fishing were his arts; at times He altered sermons and he aimed at rhymes; And his fair friends, not yet intent on cards, Oft he amused with riddles and charades.

Such sketches are a pleasant relief to his more sombre portraiture; but it is in the tragic elements that his true power comes out. The motives of his stories may be trivial, but never the sentiment. The deep manly emotion makes us forget not only the frequent clumsiness of his style but the pettiness of the incident, and what is more difficult, the rather bread-and-butter tone of morality. If he is a little too fond of bringing his villains to the gallows, he is preoccupied less by the external consequences than by the natural working of evil passions. With him sin is not punished by being found out, but by disintegrating the character and blunting the higher sensibilities. He shows—and the moral, if not new, is that which possesses the really intellectual interest—how evil-doers are tortured by the cravings of desires that cannot be satisfied, and the lacerations inflicted by ruined self-respect. And therefore there is a truth in Crabbe's delineations which is quite independent of his more or less rigid administration of poetical justice. His critics used to accuse him of having a low opinion of human nature. It is quite true that he assigns to selfishness and brutal passion a very large part in carrying on the machinery of the world. Some readers may infer that he was unlucky in his experience, and others that he loved facts too unflinchingly. His stories sometimes remind one of Balzac's in the descriptions of selfishness triumphant over virtue. One, for example, of his deeply pathetic poems is called 'The Brothers;' and repeats the old contrast given in Fielding's Tom Jones and Blifil. The shrewd sly hypocrite has received all manner of kindnesses from the generous and simple sailor, and when, at last, the poor sailor is ruined in health and fortune, he comes home expecting to be supported by the gratitude of the brother, who has by this time made money and is living at his ease. Nothing can be more pathetic or more in the spirit of some of Balzac's stories than the way in which the rich man receives his former benefactor; his faint recognition of fraternal feelings gradually cools down under the influence of a selfish wife; till at last the poor old sailor is driven from the parlour to the kitchen, and from the kitchen to the loft, and finally deprived of his only comfort, his intercourse with a young nephew not yet broken into hardness of heart, on the plea that the lad is not to be corrupted by the coarse language of his poor old uncle. The rich brother suspects that the sailor has broken this rule, and is reviling him for his ingratitude, when suddenly he discovers that he is abusing a corpse. The old sailor's heart is broken at last; and his brother repents too late. He tries to comfort his remorse by cross-examining the boy, who was the cause of the last quarrel:—

'Did he not curse me, child?' 'He never cursed, But could not breathe, and said his heart would burst.' 'And so will mine'——'But, father, you must pray; My uncle said it took his pains away.'

Praying, however, cannot bring back the dead; and the fratricide, for such he feels himself to be, is a melancholy man to the end of his days. In Balzac's hands repentance would have had no place, and selfishness have been finally triumphant and unabashed. We need not ask which would be the most effective or the truest treatment; though I must put in a word for the superior healthiness of Crabbe's mind. There is nothing morbid about him. Still it would be absurd to push such a comparison far. Crabbe's portraits are only spirited vignettes compared with the elaborate full-lengths drawn by the intense imagination of the French novelist; and Crabbe's whole range of thought is incomparably narrower. The two writers have a real resemblance only in so far as in each case a powerful accumulation of life-like details enables them to produce a pathos, powerful by its vivid reality.

The singular power of Crabbe is in some sense more conspicuous in the stories where the incidents are almost audaciously trifling. One of them begins with this not very impressive and very ungrammatical couplet:—

With our late Vicar, and his age the same, His clerk, hight Jachin, to his office came.

Jachin is a man of oppressive respectability; so oppressive, indeed, that some of the scamps of the borough try to get him into scrapes by temptations of a very inartificial kind, which he is strong enough to resist. At last, however, it occurs to Jachin that he can easily embezzle part of the usual monthly offerings while saving his character in his own eyes by some obvious sophistry. He is detected and dismissed, and dies after coming upon the parish. These materials for a tragic poem are not very promising; and I do not mean to say that the sorrows of poor Jachin affect us as deeply as those of Gretchen or Desdemona. The parish clerk is perhaps a fit type of all that was least poetical in the old social order of the country, and virtue which succumbs to the temptation of taking two shillings out of a plate scarcely wants a Mephistopheles to overcome it. We may perhaps think that the apologetic note which the excellent Crabbe inserts at the end of his poem, to the effect that he did not mean by it to represent mankind as 'puppets of an overpowering destiny,' or 'to deny the doctrine of seducing spirits,' is a little superfluous. The fact that a parish-clerk has taken to petty pilfering can scarcely justify those heterodox conclusions. But when we have smiled at Crabbe's philosophy, we begin to wonder at the force of his sentiment. A blighted human soul is a pathetic object, however paltry the temptation to which it has succumbed. Jachin has the dignity of despair, though he is not quite a fallen archangel; and Crabbe's favourite scenery harmonises with his agony.

In each lone place, dejected and dismayed, Shrinking from view, his wasting form he laid, Or to the restless sea and roaring wind Gave the strong yearnings of a ruined mind; On the broad beach, the silent summer day, Stretched on some wreck, he wore his life away; Or where the river mingles with the sea, Or on the mud-bank by the elder tree, Or by the bounding marsh-dyke, there was he.

Nor would he have been a more pitiable object if he had betrayed a nation or sold his soul for a Garter instead of the pillage of a subscription plate. Poor old Jachin's story may seem to be borrowed from a commonplace tract; but the detected pilferer, though he has only lost the respect of the parson, the overseer, and the beadle, touches us as deeply as the Byronic hero who has fallen out with the whole system of the world.

If we refuse to sympathise with the pang due to so petty a catastrophe—though our sympathy should surely be proportioned to the keenness of the suffering rather than the absolute height of the fall—we may turn to tragedy of a deeper dye. Peter Grimes, as his name indicates, was a ruffian from his infancy. He once knocked down his poor old father, who warned him of the consequences of his brutality:—

On an inn-settle, in his maudlin grief, This he revolved, and drank for his relief.

Adopting such a remedy, he sank from bad to worse, and gradually became a thief, a smuggler, and a social outlaw. In those days, however, as is proved by the history of Mrs. Brownrigg, parish authorities practised the 'boarding-out system' after a reckless fashion. Peter was allowed to take two or three apprentices in succession, whom he bullied, starved, and maltreated, and who finally died under suspicious circumstances. The last was found dead in Peter's fishing-boat after a rough voyage: and though nothing could be proved, the Mayor told him that he should have no more slaves to belabour. Peter, pursuing his trade in solitude, gradually became morbid and depressed. The melancholy estuary became haunted by ghostly visions. He had to groan and sweat with no vent for his passion:—

Thus by himself compelled to live each day, To wait for certain hours the tide's delay; At the same time the same dull views to see, The bounding marsh-bank and the blighted tree; The water only, when the tides were high, When low, the mud half-covered and half-dry; The sun-burnt tar that blisters on the planks, And bank-side stakes in their uneven ranks; Heaps of entangled weeds that slowly float, As the tide rolls by the impeded boat.

Peter grew more sullen, and the scenery became more weird and depressing. The few who watched him remarked that there were three places where Peter seemed to be more than usually moved. For a time he hurried past them, whistling as he rowed; but gradually he seemed to be fascinated. The idle loungers in the summer saw a man and boat lingering in the tideway, apparently watching the gliding waves without casting a net or looking at the wildfowl. At last his delirium becoming stronger, he is carried to the poorhouse, and tells his story to the clergyman. Nobody has painted with greater vigour that kind of externalised conscience which may still survive in a brutalised mind. Peter Grimes, of course, sees his victims' spirits and hates them. He fancies that his father torments him out of spite, characteristically forgetting that the ghost had some excuse for his anger:—

'Twas one hot noon, all silent, still, serene, No living being had I lately seen; I paddled up and down and dipped my net, But (such his pleasure) I could nothing get— A father's pleasure, when his toil was done, To plague and torture thus an only son! And so I sat and looked upon the stream, How it ran on, and felt as in a dream; But dream it was not; no!—I fixed my eyes On the mid stream and saw the spirits rise; I saw my father on the water stand, And hold a thin pale boy in either hand; And there they glided ghastly on the top Of the salt flood, and never touched a drop; I would have struck them, but they knew the intent, And smiled upon the oar, and down they went.

Remorse in Peter's mind takes the shape of bitter hatred for his victims; and with another characteristic confusion, he partly attributes his sufferings to some evil influence intrinsic in the locality:—

There were three places, where they ever rose— The whole long river has not such as those— Places accursed, where, if a man remain, He'll see the things which strike him to the brain.

And then the malevolent ghosts forced poor Peter to lean on his oars, and showed him visions of coming horrors. Grimes dies impenitent, and fancying that his tormentors are about to seize him. Of all haunted men in fiction, it is not easy to think of a case where the horror is more terribly realised. The blood-boulter'd Banquo tortured a noble victim, but scarcely tortured him more effectually. Peter Grimes was doubtless a close relation of Peter Bell. Bell having the advantage of Wordsworth's interpretation, leads us to many thoughts which lie altogether beyond Crabbe's reach; but, looking simply at the sheer tragic force of the two characters, Grimes is to Bell what brandy is to small beer. He would never have shown the white feather like his successor, who,

After ten months' melancholy, Became a good and honest man.

If, in some sense, Peter Grimes is the most effective of Crabbe's heroes, he would, if taken alone, give a very distorted impression of the general spirit of the poetry. It is only at intervals that he introduces us to downright criminals. There is, indeed, a description of a convicted felon, which, according to Macaulay, has made 'many a rough and cynical reader cry like a child,' and which, if space were unlimited, would make a striking pendant to the agony of the burdened Grimes. But, as a rule, Crabbe can find motives enough for tenderness in sufferings which have nothing to do with the criminal law, and of which the mere framework of the story is often interesting enough. His peculiar power is best displayed in so presenting to us the sorrows of commonplace characters as to make us feel that a shabby coat and a narrow education, and the most unromantic of characters, need not cut off our sympathies with a fellow-creature; and that the dullest tradesman who treads on our toes in an omnibus may want only a power of articulate expression to bring before us some of the deepest of all problems. The parish clerk and the grocer—or whatever may be the proverbial epitome of human dulness—may swell the chorus of lamentation over the barrenness and the hardships and the wasted energies and the harsh discords of life which is always 'steaming up' from the world, and to which it is one, though perhaps not the highest, of the poet's functions to make us duly sensible. Crabbe, like all realistic writers, must be studied at full length, and therefore quotations are necessarily unjust. It will be sufficient if I refer—pretty much at random—to the short story of 'Phoebe Dawson' in the 'Parish Register,' to the more elaborate stories of 'Edward Shore' and the 'Parting Hour' in the 'Tales,' or to the story of 'Ruth' in the 'Tales of the Hall,' where again the dreary pathos is strangely heightened by Crabbe's favourite seaport scenery, to prove that he might be called as truly as Goldsmith affectuum potens, though scarcely lenis, dominator.

It is time, however, to conclude with a word or two as to Crabbe's peculiar place in the history of English literature. I said that, unlike his contemporaries, Cowper and Burns, he adhered rigidly to the form of the earlier eighteenth-century school, and partly for this reason excited the wayward admiration of Byron, who always chose to abuse the bridge which carried him to fame. But Crabbe's clumsiness of expression makes him a very inadequate successor of Pope or of Goldsmith, and his claims are really founded on the qualities which led Byron to call him 'nature's sternest painter, yet her best.' On this side he is connected with some tendencies of the school which supplanted his early models. So far as Wordsworth and his followers represented the reaction from the artificial to a love of unsophisticated nature, Crabbe is entirely at one with them. He did not share that unlucky taste for the namby-pamby by which Wordsworth annoyed his contemporaries, and spoilt some of his earlier poems. Its place was filled in Crabbe's mind by an even more unfortunate disposition for the simply humdrum and commonplace, which, it must be confessed, makes it almost as hard to read a good many of his verses as to consume large quantities of suet pudding, and has probably destroyed his popularity with the present generation. Still, Crabbe's influence was powerful as against the old conventionality. He did not, like his predecessors, write upon the topics which interested 'persons of quality,' and never gives us the impression of having composed his rhymes in a full-bottomed wig or even in a Grub Street garret. He has gone out into country fields and village lanes, and paints directly from man and nature, with almost a cynical disregard of the accepted code of propriety. But the points on which he parts company with his more distinguished contemporaries is equally obvious. Mr. Stopford Brooke has lately been telling us with great eloquence what is the theology which underlies the poetical tendencies of the last generation of poets. Of that creed, a sufficiently vague one, it must be admitted, Crabbe was by no means an apostle. Rather one would say he was as indifferent as a good old-fashioned clergyman could very well be to the existence of any new order of ideas in the world. The infidels, whom he sometimes attacks, read Bolingbroke, and Chubb, and Mandeville, and have only heard by report even of the existence of Voltaire. The Dissenters, whom he so heartily detests, have listened to Whitefield and Wesley, or perhaps to Huntington, S.S.—that is, as it may now be necessary to explain, Sinner Saved. Every newer development of thought was still far away from the quiet pews of Aldborough, and the only form of Church restoration of which he has heard is the objectionable practice of painting a new wall to represent a growth of lichens. Crabbe appreciates the charm of the picturesque, but has never yet heard of our elaborate methods of creating modern antiques. Lapped in such ignorance, and with a mind little given to speculation, it is only in character that Crabbe should be totally insensible to the various moods of thought represented by Wordsworth's pantheistic conceptions of nature, or by Shelley's dreamy idealism, or Byron's fierce revolutionary impulses. Still less, if possible, could he sympathise with that love of beauty, pure and simple, of which Keats was the first prophet. He might, indeed, be briefly described by saying that he is at the very opposite pole from Keats. The more bigoted admirers of Keats—for there are bigots in matters of taste or poetry as well as in science or theology or politics—would refuse the title of poet to Crabbe altogether on the strength of the absence of this element from his verses. Like his most obvious parallels in painting, he is too fond of boors and pothouses to be allowed the quality of artistic perception. I will not argue the point, which is, perhaps, rather a question of classification than of intrinsic merit; but I will venture to suggest a test which will, I think, give Crabbe a very firm, though, it may be, not a very lofty place. Though I should be unwilling to be reckoned as one of Macaulay's 'rough and cynical readers,' I admit that I can read the story of the convicted felon, or of Peter Grimes, without indulging in downright blubbering. Most readers, I fear, can in these days get through pathetic poems and novels without absolutely using their pocket-handkerchiefs. But though Crabbe may not prompt such outward and visible signs of emotion, I think that he produces a more distinct tendency to tears than almost any poet of his time. True, he does not appeal to emotions, accessible only through the finer intellectual perceptions, or to the thoughts which 'lie too deep for tears.' That prerogative belongs to men of more intense character, greater philosophical power, and more delicate instincts. But the power of touching readers by downright pictures of homespun griefs and sufferings is one which, to my mind, implies some poetical capacity, and which clearly belongs to Crabbe.


[2] It seems, one is sorry to add, that Murray made a very bad bargain in this case.


There are few great books or great men that do not sadden us by a sense of incompleteness. The writer, we feel, is better than his work. His full power only reveals itself by flashes. There are blemishes in his design, due to mere oversight or indolence; his energy has flagged, or he has alloyed his pure gold to please the mob; or some burst of wayward passion has disturbed the fair proportions of his work, and the man himself is a half-finished or half-ruined fragment. The rough usage of the world leaves its mark on the spiritual constitution of even the strongest and best amongst us; and perhaps the finest natures suffer more than others in virtue of their finer sympathies. 'Hamlet' is a pretty good performance, if we make allowances; but what would it have been if Shakespeare could have been at his highest level all through, and if every element of strength in him had been purified from every weakness? What would it have been, shall we say, if he could have had the advantage of reading a few modern lectures on aesthetics? We may, perhaps, be content with Shakespeare as circumstances left him; but in reading our modern poets, the sentiment of regret is stronger. If Byron had not been driven into his wild revolt against the world; if Shelley had been judiciously treated from his youth; if Keats had had healthier lungs; if Wordsworth had not grown rusty in his solitude; if Scott had not been tempted into publisher's speculations; if Coleridge had never taken to opium—what great poems might not have opened the new era of literature, where now we have but incomplete designs, and listen to harmonies half destroyed by internal discord? The regret, however, is less when a man has succeeded in uttering the thought that was in him, though it may never have found a worthy expression. Wordsworth could have told us little more, though the 'Excursion' had been as complete a work as 'Paradise Lost;' and if Scott might have written more 'Waverleys' and 'Antiquaries' and 'Old Mortalities,' he could hardly have written better ones. But the works of some other writers suggest possibilities which never even approached fulfilment. If the opinion formed by his contemporaries of Coleridge be anywhere near the truth, we lost in him a potential philosopher of a very high order, as we more clearly lost a poet of singular fascination. Coleridge naturally suggests the name of De Quincey, whose works are as often tantalising as satisfying. And to make, it is true, a considerable drop from the greatest of these names, we often feel when we take up one of Hazlitt's glowing Essays, that here, too, was a man who might have made a far more enduring mark as a writer of English prose. At their best, his writings are admirable; they have the true stamp; the thought is masculine and the expression masterly; phrases engrave themselves on the memory; and we catch glimpses of a genuine thinker and no mere manufacturer of literary commonplace. On a more prolonged study, it is true, we become conscious of many shortcomings, and the general effect is somehow rather cloying, though hardly from an excess of sweetness. And yet he deserves the study both of the critic and the student of character.

The story of Hazlitt's life has been told by his grandson; but there is a rather curious defect of materials for so recent a biography. He kept, it seems, no letters,—a weakness, if it be a weakness, for which one is rather apt to applaud him in these days: but, on the other hand, nobody ever indulged more persistently in the habit of washing his dirty linen in public. Not even his idol Rousseau could be more demonstrative of his feelings and recollections. His Essays are autobiographical, sometimes even offensively; and after reading them we are even more familiar than his contemporaries with many points of his character. He loved to pour himself out in his Essays

as plain As downright Shippen or as old Montaigne.

He has laid bare for the most careless reader the main elements of his singular composition. Like some others of his revolutionary friends, Godwin, for example, Leigh Hunt, and Tom Paine, he represents the old dissenting spirit in a new incarnation. The grandfather a stern Calvinist, the father a Unitarian, the son a freethinker; those were the gradations through which more than one family passed during the closing years of the last century and the opening of this. One generation still clung to the old Puritan traditions and Jonathan Edwards; the next followed Priestley; and the third joined the little band of radicals who read Cobbett, scorned Southey as a deserter, and refused to be frightened by the French Revolution. The outside crust of opinion may be shed with little change to the inner man. Hazlitt was a dissenter to his backbone. He was born to be in a minority; to be a living protest against the dominant creed and constitution. He recognised and denounced, but he never shook off, the faults characteristic of small sects. A want of wide intellectual culture, and a certain sourness of temper, cramped his powers and sometimes marred his writing. But from his dissenting forefathers Hazlitt inherited something better. Beside the huge tomes of controversial divinity on his father's shelves, the 'Patres Poloni,' Pripscovius, Crellius and Cracovius, Lardner and Doddridge, and Baxter and Bates, and Howe, were the legends of the Puritan hagiology. The old dissenters, he tells us, had Neale's 'History of the Puritans' by heart, and made their children read Calamy's account of the 2,000 ejected ministers along with the stories of Daniel in the Lion's Den and Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego. Sympathy for the persecuted, unbending resistance to the oppressor, was the creed which had passed into their blood. 'This covenant they kept as the stars keep their courses; this principle they stuck by, for want of knowing better, as it sticks by them to the last. It grew with their growth, it does not wither in their decay.... It glimmers with the last feeble eyesight, smiles in the faded cheek like infancy, and lights a path before them to the grave. This'—for in Hazlitt lies a personal application in all his moralising—'This is better than the whirligig life of a court poet'—such, for example, as Robert Southey.

But Hazlitt's descent was not pure. If we could trace back the line of his ancestry we should expect to find that by some freak of fortune, one of the rigid old Puritans had married a descendant of some great Flemish or Italian painter. Love of graceful forms and bright colouring and voluptuous sensations had been transmitted to their descendants, though hitherto repressed by the stern discipline of British nonconformity. As the discipline relaxed, the Hazlitts reverted to the ancestral type. Hazlitt himself, his brother and his sister, were painters by instinct. The brother became a painter of miniatures by profession; and Hazlitt to the end of his days revered Titian almost as much as he revered his great idol Napoleon. An odd pair of idols, one thinks, for a youth brought up upon Pripscovius and his brethren! A keen delight in all artistic and natural beauty was an awkward endowment for a youth intended for the ministry. Keats was scarcely more out of place in a surgery than Hazlitt would have been in a Unitarian pulpit of those days, and yet from that pulpit, oddly enough, came the greatest impulse to Hazlitt. It came from a man who, like Hazlitt himself, though in a higher degree than Hazlitt, combined the artistic and the philosophic temperament. Coleridge, as Hazlitt somewhere says, threw a great stone into the standing pool of contemporary thought; and it was in January 1798—one of the many dates in his personal history to which he recurs with unceasing fondness—that Hazlitt rose before daylight and walked ten miles in the mud to hear Coleridge preach. He has told, in his graphic manner, how the voice of the preacher 'rose like a stream of rich distilled perfumes;' how he launched into his subject, after giving out the text, 'like an eagle dallying with the wind;' and how his young hearer seemed to be listening to the music of the spheres, to see the union of poetry and philosophy; and behold truth and genius embracing under the eye of religion. His description of the youthful Coleridge has a fit pendant in the wonderful description of the full-blown philosopher in Carlyle's 'Life of Sterling;' where, indeed, one or two touches are taken from Hazlitt's Essays. It is Hazlitt who remarked, even at this early meeting, that the dreamy poet philosopher could never decide on which side of the footpath he should walk; and Hazlitt, who struck out the epigram that Coleridge was an excellent talker if allowed to start from no premisses and come to no conclusion. The glamour of Coleridge's theosophy never seems to have fascinated Hazlitt's stubborn intellect. At this time, indeed, Coleridge had not yet been inoculated with German mysticism. In after years, the disciple, according to his custom, renounced his master and assailed him with half-regretful anger. But the intercourse and kindly encouragement of so eminent a man seem to have roused Hazlitt's ambition. His poetical and his speculative intellect were equally stirred. The youth was already longing to write a philosophical treatise. The two elements of his nature thus roused to action led him along a 'strange diagonal.' He would be at once a painter and a metaphysician. Some eight years of artistic labour convinced him that he could not be a Titian or a Raphael, and he declined to be a mere Hazlitt junior. His metaphysical studies, on the contrary, convinced him that he might be a Hume or a Berkeley; but unluckily they convinced himself alone. The tiny volume which contained their results was neglected by everybody but the author, who, to the end of his days, loved it with the love of a mother for a deformed child. It is written, to say the truth, in a painful and obscure style; it is the work of a man who has brooded over his own thoughts in solitude till he cannot appreciate the need of a clear exposition. The narrowness of his reading had left him in ignorance of the new aspects under which the eternal problems were presenting themselves to the new generation; and a metaphysical discussion in antiquated phraseology is as useless as a lady's dress in the last year's fashion. Hazlitt, in spite of this double failure, does not seem to have been much disturbed by impecuniosity; but the most determined Bohemian has to live. For some years he strayed about the purlieus of literature, drudging, translating, and doing other cobbler's work. Two of his performances, however, were characteristic; he wrote an attack upon Malthus, and he made an imprudent marriage. Even Malthusians must admit that imprudent marriages may have some accidental good consequences. When a man has fairly got his back to the wall, he is forced to fight; and Hazlitt, at the age of thirty-four, with a wife and a son, at last discovered the great secret of the literary profession, that a clever man can write when he has to write or starve. To compose had been labour and grief to him, so long as he could potter round a thought indefinitely; but with the printer's devil on one side and the demands of a family on the other, his ink began to flow freely, and during the last fifteen or seventeen years of his life he became a voluminous though fragmentary author. Several volumes of essays, lectures, and criticisms, besides his more ambitious 'Life of Napoleon,' and a great deal of anonymous writing, attest his industry. He died in 1830, at the age of fifty-two; leaving enough to show that he could have done more and a good deal of a rare, if not of the highest kind of excellence.

Hazlitt, as I have said, is everywhere autobiographical. Besides that secret, that a man can write if he must, he had discovered the further secret that the easiest of all topics is his own feelings. It is an apparent paradox, though the explanation is not far to seek, that Hazlitt, though shy with his friends, was the most unreserved of writers. Indeed he takes the public into his confidence with a facility which we cannot easily forgive. Biographers of late have been guilty of flagrant violations of the unwritten code which should protect the privacies of social life from the intrusions of public curiosity. But the most unscrupulous of biographers would hardly have dared to tear aside the veil so audaciously as Hazlitt, in one conspicuous instance at least, chose to do for himself. His idol Rousseau had indeed gone further; but when Rousseau told the story of his youth, it was at least seen through a long perspective of years, and his own personality might seem to be scarcely interested. Hazlitt chose, in the strange book called the 'New Pygmalion,' or 'Liber Amoris,' to invite the British public at large to look on at a strange tragi-comedy, of which the last scene was scarcely finished. Hazlitt had long been unhappy in his family life. His wife appears to have been a masculine woman, with no talent for domesticity; completely indifferent to her husband's pursuits, and inclined to despise him for so fruitless an employment of his energies. They had already separated, it seems, when Hazlitt fell desperately in love with Miss Sarah Walker, the daughter of his lodging-house keeper. The husband and wife agreed to obtain a divorce under the Scotch law, after which they might follow their own paths, and Sarah Walker become the second Mrs. Hazlitt. Some months had to be spent by Mr. and Mrs. Hazlitt in Edinburgh, with a view to this arrangement. The lady's journal records her impressions; which, it would seem, strongly resembled those of a tradesman getting rid of a rather flighty and imprudent partner in business. She is extremely precise as to all pecuniary and legal details; she calls upon her husband now and then, takes tea with him, makes an off-hand remark or two about some picture-gallery which he had been visiting, and tells him that he has made a fool of himself, with the calmness of a lady dismissing a troublesome servant, or a schoolmaster parting from an ill-behaved pupil. And meanwhile, in queer contrast, Hazlitt was pouring out to his friends letters which seem to be throbbing with unrestrainable passion. He is raving as Romeo at Mantua might have raved about Juliet. To hear Miss Walker called his wife will be music to his ears, such as they never heard. But it seems doubtful whether, after all, his Juliet will have him. He shrieks mere despair and suicide. Nothing is left in the world to give him a drop of comfort. The breeze does not cool him nor the blue sky delight him. He will never lie down at night nor rise up of a morning in peace, nor even behold his little boy's face with pleasure, unless he is restored to her favour. And Mrs. Hazlitt reports, after acknowledging the receipt of L10, that Mr. Hazlitt was so much 'enamoured' of one of these letters that he pulled it out of his pocket twenty times a day, wanted to read it to his companions, and ranted and gesticulated till people took him for a madman. The 'Liber Amoris' is made out of these letters—more or less altered and disguised, with some reports of conversations with the lovely Sarah. 'It was an explosion of frenzy,' says De Quincey; his reckless mode of relieving his bosom of certain perilous stuff, with little care whether it produced scorn or sympathy. A passion which urges its victim to such improprieties should be, at least, deep and genuine. One would have liked him better if he had not taken his frenzy to market. The 'Liber Amoris' tells us accordingly that the author, Hazlitt's imaginary double, died abroad, 'of disappointment preying on a sickly frame and morbid state of mind.' The hero, in short, breaks his heart when the lady marries somebody else. Hazlitt's heart was more elastic. Miss Sarah Walker married, and Hazlitt next year married a widow lady 'of some property,' made a tour with her on the Continent, and then—quarrelled with her also. It is not a pretty story. Hazlitt's biographer informs us, by way of excuse, that his grandfather was 'physically incapable'—whatever that may mean—'of fixing his affection upon a single object.' He 'comprehended,' indeed, 'the worth of constancy' and other virtues as well as most men, and could have written about them better than most men; but somehow 'a sinister influence or agency,' a periphrasis for a sensuous temperament, was perpetually present, which confined his virtues to the sphere of theory. An apology sometimes is worse than a satire. The case, however, seems to be sufficiently plain. We need not suspect that Hazlitt was consciously acting a part and nursing his 'frenzy' because he thought that it would make a startling book. He was an egotist and a man of impulse. His impressions were for the time overpowering; but they were transient. His temper was often stronger than his passions. A gust of anger would make him quarrel with his oldest friends. Every emotion justified itself for the time, because it was his. He always did well, whether it pleased him for the moment to be angry, to be in love, to be cynical, or to be furiously indignant. The end, therefore, of his life exhibits a series of short impetuous fits of passionate endeavour, rather than devotion to a single overruling purpose; and all his writings are brief outbursts of eloquent feeling, where neither the separate fragments nor the works considered as a whole obey any law of logical development. And yet, in some ways, Hazlitt boasted, and boasted plausibly enough, of his constancy. He has the same ideas to the end of his life that he had at fourteen. He would, he remarks, be an excellent man on a jury; he would say little, but would starve the eleven other obstinate fellows out. Amongst politicians he was a faithful Abdiel, when all others had deserted the cause. He loved the books of his boyhood, the fields where he had walked, the gardens where he had drunk tea, and, to a rather provoking extent, the old quotations and old stories which he had used from his first days of authorship. The explanation of the apparent paradox gives the clue to Hazlitt's singular character.

What I have called Hazlitt's egotism is more euphemistically and perhaps more accurately described by Talfourd,[3] 'an intense consciousness of his own individual being.' The word egotism in our rough estimates of character is too easily confounded with selfishness. Hazlitt might have been the person who, as one making a strange confession, assured a friend that he took a deep interest in his own concerns. He was, one would say, decidedly unselfish, if by selfishness is meant a disposition to feather one's own nest without regard for other people's wants. Still less was he selfish in the sense of preferring solid bread and butter to the higher needs of mind and spirit. His sentiments are always generous, and if scorn is too familiar a mood, it is scorn of the base and servile. But his peculiarity is that these generous feelings are always associated with some special case. He sees every abstract principle by the concrete instance. He hates insolence in the abstract, but his hatred flames into passion when it is insolence to Hazlitt. He resembles that good old lady who wrote on the margin of her 'Complete Duty of Man' the name of that neighbour who most conspicuously sinned against the precept in the opposite text. Tyranny with Hazlitt is named Pitt, party spite is Gifford, apostasy is Southey, and fidelity may be called Cobbett or Godwin; though he finds names for the vices much more easily than for the virtues. And thus, if he cannot be condemned for selfishness, one must be charitable not to put down a good many of his offences to its sister jealousy. The personal and the public sentiments are so invariably blended in his mind that neither he nor anybody else could have analysed their composition. He was apt to be the more moody and irritable because his resentments clothed themselves spontaneously in the language of some nobler emotion. If his friends are cold, he bewails the fickleness of humanity; if they are successful, it is not envy that prompts his irritation, but the rarity of the correspondence between merit and reward. Such a man is more faithful to his dead than to his living friends. The dead cannot change; they always come back to his memory in their old colours; their names recall the old tender emotion placed above all change and chance. But who can tell that our dearest living friend may not come into awkward collision with us before he has left the room? It is as well to be on our guard! It is curious how the two feelings alternate in Hazlitt's mind in regard to the friends who are at once dead and living; how fondly he dwells upon the Coleridge of Wem and Nether Stowey where he first listened to the enchanter's voice, and with what bitterness, which is yet but soured affection, he turns upon the Coleridge who defended war-taxes in the 'Friend.' He hacks and hews at Southey through several furious Essays, and ends with a groan. 'We met him unexpectedly the other day in St. Giles's,' he says, 'were sorry we had passed him without speaking to an old friend, turned and looked after him for some time as to a tale of other days—sighing, as we walked on, Alas, poor Southey!' He fancies himself to be in the mood of Brutus murdering Caesar. It is patriotism struggling with old associations of friendship; if there is any personal element in the hostility, no one is less conscious of it than the possessor. To the whole Lake school his attitude is always the same—justice done grudgingly in spite of anger, or satire tempered by remorse. No one could say nastier things of that very different egotist, Wordsworth; nor could anyone, outside the sacred clique, pay him heartier compliments. Nobody, indeed, can dislike egotism like an egotist. 'Wordsworth,' says Hazlitt, 'sees nothing but himself and the universe; he hates all greatness and all pretensions to it but his own. His egotism is in this respect a madness, for he scorns even the admiration of himself, thinking it a presumption in anyone 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 Sir Isaac Newton, he hates logic, he hates metaphysics,' and so on through a long list of hatreds, ending with the inimitable Napoleon, whom Wordsworth hates, it seems, 'to get rid of the idea of anything greater, or thought to be greater, than himself.' Hazlitt might have made out a tolerable list of his own antipathies; though, to do him justice, of antipathies balanced by ardent enthusiasm, especially for the dead or the distant.

Hazlitt, indeed, was incapable of the superlative self-esteem here attributed to Wordsworth. His egotism is a curious variety of that Protean passion, compounded as skilfully as the melancholy of Jaques. It is not the fascinating and humorous egotism of Lamb, who disarms us beforehand by a smile at his own crotchets. Hazlitt is too serious to be playful. Nor is it like the amusing egotism of Boswell, combined with a vanity which evades our contempt, because it asks so frankly for sympathy. Hazlitt is too proud and too bitter. Neither is it the misanthropic egotism of Byron, which, through all its affectation, implies a certain aristocratic contempt of the world and its laws. Hazlitt has not the sweep and continuity of Byron's passion. His egotism—be it said without offence—is dashed with something of the feeling common amongst his dissenting friends. He feels the awkwardness which prevails amongst a clique branded by a certain social stigma, and despises himself for his awkwardness. He resents neglect and scorns to ask for patronage. His egotism is a touchy and wayward feeling which takes the mask of misanthropy. He is always meditating upon his own qualities, but not in the spirit of the conceited man who plumes himself upon his virtues, nor of the ascetic who broods over his vices. He prefers the apparently self-contradictory attitude (but human nature is illogical) of meditating with remorse upon his own virtues. What in others is complacency, becomes with him, ostensibly at least, self-reproach. He affects—but it is hard to say where the affectation begins—to be annoyed by the contemplation of his own merits. He is angry with the world for preferring commonplace to genius, and rewarding stupidity by success; but in form at least, he mocks at his own folly for expecting better things. If he is vain at bottom, his vanity shows itself indirectly by depreciating his neighbours. He is too proud to dwell upon his own virtues, but he has been convinced by impartial observation that the world at large is in a conspiracy against merit. Thus he manages to transform his self-consciousness into the semblance of proud humility, and extracts a bitter and rather morbid pleasure from dwelling upon his disappointments and failures. Half-a-dozen of his best Essays give expression to this mood, which is rather bitter than querulous. He enlarges cordially on the 'disadvantages of intellectual superiority.' An author—Hazlitt, to wit—is not allowed to relax into dulness; if he is brilliant he is not understood, and if he professes an interest in common things it is assumed that then he must be a fool. And yet in the midst of these grumblings he is forced to admit a touch of weakness, and tells us how it pleases him to hear a man ask in the Fives Court, 'Which is Mr. Hazlitt?' He, the most idiosyncratic of men, and most proud of it at bottom, declares how 'he hates his style to be known, as he hates all idiosyncrasy.' At the next moment he purrs with complacency at the recollection of having been forced into an avowal of his authorship of an article in the 'Edinburgh Review.' Most generally he eschews these naive lapses into vanity. He dilates on the old text of the 'shyness of scholars.' The learned are out of place in competition with the world. They are not and ought not to fancy themselves fitted for the vulgar arena. They can never enjoy their old privileges. 'Fool that it (learning) was, ever to forego its privileges and loosen the strong hold it had on opinion in bigotry and superstition!' The same tone of disgust pronounces itself more cynically in an Essay 'on the pleasure of hating.' Hatred is, he admits, a poisonous ingredient in all our passions, but it is that which gives reality to them. Patriotism means hatred of the French, and virtue is a hatred of other people's faults to atone for our own vices. All things turn to hatred. 'We hate old friends, we hate old books, we hate old opinions, and at last we come to hate ourselves.' Summing up all his disappointments, the broken friendships, and disappointed ambitions, and vanished illusions, he asks, in conclusion, whether he has not come to hate and despise himself? 'Indeed, I do,' he answers, 'and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough.'

This is an outbreak of temporary spleen. Nobody loved his old books and old opinions better. Hazlitt is speaking in the character of Timon, which indeed fits him rather too easily. But elsewhere the same strain of cynicism comes out in more natural and less extravagant form. Take, for example, the Essay on the 'Conduct of Life.' It is a piece of bona fide advice addressed to his boy at school, and gives in a sufficiently edifying form the commonplaces which elders are accustomed to address to their juniors. Honesty, independence, diligence, and temperance are commended in good set terms, though with an earnestness which, as is often the case with Hazlitt, imparts some reality to outworn formulae. When, however, he comes to the question of marriage, the true man breaks out. Don't trust, he says, to fine sentiments: they will make no more impression on these delicate creatures than on a piece of marble. Love in women is vanity, interest, or fancy. Women care nothing about talents or virtue—about poets or philosophers or politicians. They judge by the eye. 'No true woman ever regarded anything but her lover's person and address.' The author has no chance; for he lives in a dream, he feels nothing spontaneously, his metaphysical refinements are all thrown away. 'Look up, laugh loud, talk big, keep the colour in your cheek and the fire in your eye; adorn your person; maintain your health, your beauty, and your animal spirits; for if you once lapse into poetry and philosophy you will want an eye to show you, a hand to guide you, a bosom to love—and will stagger into your grave old before your time, unloved and unlovely.' 'A spider,' he adds, 'the meanest creature that crawls or lives, has its mate or fellow, but a scholar has no mate or fellow.' Mrs. Hazlitt, Miss Sarah Walker, and several other ladies, thought Hazlitt surly and cared nothing for his treatise on human nature. Therefore (it is true Hazlittian logic) no woman cares for sentiment. The sex which despised him must be despicable. Equally characteristic is his profound belief that his failure in another line is owing to the malignity of the world at large. In one of his most characteristic Essays he asks whether genius is conscious of its powers. He writes what he declares to be a digression about his own experience, and we may believe as much as we please of his assertion that he does not quote himself as an example of genius. He has spoken, he declares, with freedom and power, and will not cease because he is abused for not being a Government tool. He wrote a charming character of Congreve's Millamant, but it was unnoticed because he was not a Government tool. Gifford would not relish his account of Dekkar's Orlando Friscobaldo—because he was not a Government tool. He wrote admirable table-talks—for once, as they are nearly finished, he will venture to praise himself. He could swear (were they not his) that the thoughts in them were 'founded as the rock, free as the air, the hue like an Italian picture.' But, had the style been like polished steel, as firm and as bright, it would have availed him nothing, for he was not a Government tool. The world hated him, we see, for his merits. It is a bad world, he says; but don't think that it is my vanity which has taken offence, for I am remarkable for modesty, and therefore I know that my virtues are faults of which I ought to be ashamed. Is this pride or vanity, or humility, or cynicism, or self-reproach for wasted talents, or an intimate blending of passions for which there is no precise name? Who can unravel the masks within masks of a cunning egotism?

To one virtue, however, that of political constancy, Hazlitt lays claim in the most emphatic terms. If he quarrels with all his friends—'most of the friends I have seen have turned out the bitterest enemies, or cold, uncomfortable acquaintance'—it is, of course, their fault. A thoroughgoing egotist must think himself the centre of gravity of the world, and all change of relations must mean that others have moved away from him. Politically, too, all who have given up his opinions are deserters, and generally from the worst of motives. He accuses Burke of turning against the Revolution from—of all motives in the world!—jealousy of Rousseau; a theory still more impossible than Mr. Buckle's hypothesis of madness. Court favour supplies in most cases a simpler explanation of the general demoralisation. Hazlitt could not give credit to men like Southey and Coleridge for sincere alarm at the French Revolution. Such a sentiment would be too unreasonable, for he had not been alarmed himself. His constancy, indeed, would be admirable if it did not suggest doubts of his wisdom. A man whose opinions at fifty are his opinions at fourteen has opinions of very little value. If his intellect has developed properly, or if he has profited by experience, he will modify, though he need not retract, his early views. To claim to have learnt nothing from 1792 to 1830 is almost to write yourself down as hopelessly impenetrable. The explanation is, that what Hazlitt called his opinions were really his feelings. He could argue very ingeniously, as appears from his remarks on Coleridge and Malthus, but his logic was the slave, not the ruler, of his emotions. His politics were simply the expression, in a generalised form, of his intense feeling of personality. They are a projection upon the modern political world of that heroic spirit of individual self-respect which animated his Puritan forefathers. One question, and only one question, he frequently tells us, is of real importance. All the rest is mere verbiage. The single dogma worth attacking or defending is the divine right of kings. Are men, in the old phrase, born saddled and bridled, and other men ready booted and spurred, or are they not? That is the single shibboleth which distinguishes true men from false. Others, he says, bowed their heads to the image of the beast. 'I spit upon it, and buffeted it, and pointed at it, and drew aside the veil that then half concealed it.' This passionate denial of the absolute right of men over their fellows is but vicarious pride, if you please to call it so, or a generous recognition of the dignity of human nature translated into political terms. Hazlitt's character did not change, however much his judgment of individuals might change; and therefore the principles which merely reflected his character remained rooted and unshaken. And yet his politics changed curiously enough in another sense. The abstract truth, in Hazlitt's mind, must always have a concrete symbol. He chose to regard Napoleon as the antithesis to the divine right of kings. That was the vital formula of Napoleon, his essence, and the true meaning of his policy. The one question in abstract politics was typified for Hazlitt by the contrast between Napoleon and the Holy Alliance. To prove that Napoleon could trample on human rights as roughly as any legitimate sovereign was for him mere waste of time. Napoleon's tyranny meant a fair war against the evil principle. Had Hazlitt lived in France, and come into collision with press laws, it is likely enough that his sentiments would have changed. But Napoleon was far enough off to serve as a mere poetical symbol; his memory had got itself entwined in those youthful associations on which Hazlitt always dwelt so fondly; and, moreover, to defend 'Boney' was to quarrel with most of his countrymen, and even of his own party. What more was wanted to make him one of Hazlitt's superstitions? No more ardent devotee of the Napoleonic legend ever existed, and Hazlitt's last years were employed in writing a book which is a political pamphlet as much as a history. He worships the eldest Napoleon with the fervour of a corporal of the Old Guard, and denounces the great conspiracy of kings and nobles with the energy of Cobbett; but he had none of the special knowledge which alone could give permanent value to such a performance. He seems to have consulted only the French authorities; and it is refreshing for once to find an Englishman telling the story of Waterloo entirely from the French side, and speaking, for example, of left and right as if he had been—as in imagination he was—by the side of Napoleon instead of Wellington. Even M. Victor Hugo can see more merit in the English army and its commander. A radical, who takes Napoleon for his polar star, must change some of his theories, though he disguises the change from himself; but a change of a different kind came over Hazlitt as he grew older.

The enthusiasm of the Southeys and Wordsworths for the French Revolution changed—whatever their motives—into enthusiasm for the established order. Hazlitt's enthusiasm remained, but became the enthusiasm of regret instead of hope. As one by one the former zealots dropped off he despised them as renegades, and clasped his old creed the more firmly to his bosom. But the change did not draw him nearer to the few who remained faithful. They perversely loved the wrong side of the right cause, or loved it for the wrong reason. He liked the Whigs no better than the Tories; the 'Edinburgh' and the 'Quarterly' were opposition coaches, making a great dust and spattering each other with mud, but travelling by the same road to the same end. A Whig, he said, was a trimmer who dared neither to be a rogue nor an honest man, but was 'a sort of whiffling, shuffling, cunning, silly, contemptible, unmeaning negation of the two.' And the true genuine radical reformers? To them, as represented by the school of Bentham, Hazlitt entertained an aversion quite as hearty as his aversion for Whigs and Tories. If, he says, the Whigs are too finical to join heartily with the popular advocates, the Reformers are too cold. They hated literature, poetry, and romance; nothing gives them pleasure that does not give others pain; utilitarianism means prosaic, hard-hearted, narrow-minded dogmatism. Indeed, his pet essay on the principles of human nature was simply an assault on what he took to be their fundamental position. He fancied that the school of Bentham regarded man as a purely selfish and calculating animal; and his whole philosophy was an attempt to prove the natural disinterestedness of man, and to indicate for the imagination and the emotions their proper place beside the calculating faculty. Few were those who did not come under one or other clause of this sweeping denunciation. He assailed Shelley, who was neither Whig, Tory, nor Utilitarian, so cuttingly as to provoke a dispute with Leigh Hunt, and had some of his sharp criticisms for his friend Godwin. His general moral, indeed, is the old congenial one. The reformer is as unfit for this world as the scholar. He is the only wise man, but, as things go, wisdom is the worst of follies. The reformer, he says, is necessarily a marplot; he does not know what he would be at; if he did, he does not much care for it; and, moreover, he is 'governed habitually by a spirit of contradiction, and is always wise beyond what is practicable.' Upon this text Hazlitt dilates with immense spirit, satirising the crotchety and impracticable race, and contrasting them with the disciplined phalanx of Toryism, brilliantly and bitterly enough to delight Gifford; and yet he is writing a preface to a volume of radical Essays. He is consoling himself for being in a minority of one by proving that two virtuous men must always disagree. Hazlitt is no genuine democrat. He hates 'both mobs,' or, in other words, the great mass of the human race. He would sympathise with Coriolanus more easily than with the Tribunes. He laughs at the perfectibility of the species, and holds that 'all things move, not in progress but in a ceaseless round.' The glorious dream is fled:

The radiance which was once so bright Is now for ever taken from our sight;

and his only consolation is to live over in memory the sanguine times of his youth, before Napoleon had fallen and the Holy Alliance restored the divine right of kings; to cherish eternal regret for the hopes that have departed, and hatred and scorn equally enduring for those who blasted them. 'Give me back,' he exclaims, 'one single evening at Boxhill, after a stroll in the deep empurpled woods, before Bonaparte was yet beaten, with "wine of Attic taste," when wit, beauty, friendship presided at the board.' The personal blends with the political regret.

Hazlitt, the politician, was soured. He fed his morbid egotism by indignantly chewing the cud of disappointment, and scornfully rejecting comfort. He quarrelled with his wife and with most of his friends, even with the gentle Lamb, till Lamb regained his affections by the brief quarrel with Southey. Certainly, he might call himself, with some plausibility, 'the king of good haters.' But, after all, Hazlitt's cynicism is the souring of a generous nature; and when we turn from the politician to the critic and the essayist, our admiration for his powers is less frequently jarred by annoyance at their wayward misuse. His egotism—for he is still an egotist—here takes a different shape. His criticism is not of the kind which is now most popular. He lived before the days of philosophers who talk about the organism and its environment, and of the connoisseurs who boast of an eclectic taste for all the delicate essences of art. He never thought of showing that a great writer was only the product of his time, race, and climate; and he had not learnt to use such terms of art as 'supreme,' 'gracious,' 'tender,' 'bitter,' and 'subtle,' in which a good deal of criticism now consists. Lamb, says Hazlitt, tried old authors 'on his palate as epicures taste olives;' and the delicacy of discrimination which makes the process enjoyable is perhaps the highest qualification of a good critic. Hazlitt's point of view was rather different, nor can we ascribe to him without qualification that exquisite appreciation of purely literary charm which is so rare and so often affected. Nobody, indeed, loved some authors more heartily or understood them better; his love is so hearty that he cannot preserve the true critical attitude. Instead of trying them on his palate, he swallows them greedily. His judgment of an author seems to depend upon two circumstances. He is determined in great measure by his private associations, and in part by his sympathy for the character of the writer. His interest in this last sense is, one may say, rather psychological than purely critical. He thinks of an author not as the exponent of a particular vein of thought or emotion, nor as an artistic performer on the instrument of language, but as a human being to be loved or hated, or both, like Napoleon or Gifford or Southey.

Hazlitt's favourite authors were, for the most part, the friends of his youth. He had pored over their pages till he knew them by heart; their phrases were as familiar to his lips as texts of Scripture to preachers who know but one book; the places where he had read them became sacred to him, and a glory of his early enthusiasm was still reflected from the old pages. Rousseau was his beloved above all writers. They had a natural affinity. What Hazlitt says of Rousseau may be partly applied to himself. Of Hazlitt it might be said almost as truly as of Rousseau, that 'he had the most intense consciousness of his own existence. No object that had once made an impression upon him was ever after effaced.' In Rousseau's 'Confessions' and 'Nouvelle Heloise,' Hazlitt saw the reflections of his own passions. He spent, he declares, two whole years in reading these two books; and they were the happiest years of his life. He marks with a white stone the days on which he read particular passages. It was on April 10, 1798—as he tells us some twenty years later—that he sat down to a volume of the 'New Heloise,' at the inn at Llangollen, over a bottle of sherry and a cold chicken. He tells us which passage he read and what was the view before his bodily eyes. His first reading of 'Paul and Virginia' is associated with an inn at Bridgewater; and at another old-fashioned inn he tells how the rustic fare and the quaint architecture gave additional piquancy to Congreve's wit. He remembers, too, the spot at which he first read Mrs. Inchbald's 'Simple Story;' how he walked out to escape from one of the tenderest parts, in order to return again with double relish.

'An old crazy hand-organ,' he adds, 'was playing "Robin Adair," a summer shower dropped manna on my head, and slaked my feverish thirst of happiness.' He looks back to his first familiarity with his favourites as an old man may think of his honeymoon. The memories of his own feelings, of his author's poetry, and of the surrounding scenery, are inextricably fused together. The sight of an old volume, he says, sometimes shakes twenty years off his life; he sees his old friends alive again, the place where he read the book, the day when he got it, the feeling of the air, the fields, the sky. To these old favourites he remained faithful, except that he seems to have tired of the glitter of Junius. Burke's politics gave him some severe twinges. He says, in one place, that he always tests the sense and candour of a Liberal by his willingness to admit the greatness of Burke. He adds, as a note to the Essay in which this occurs, that it was written in a 'fit of extravagant candour,' when he thought that he could be more than just to an enemy without betraying a cause. He oscillates between these views as his humour changes. He is absurdly unjust to Burke the politician; but he does not waver in his just recognition of the marvellous power of the greatest—I should almost say the only great—political writer in the language. The first time he read a passage from Burke, he said, This is true eloquence. Johnson immediately became shelved, and Junius 'shrunk up into little antithetic points and well-tuned sentences. But Burke's style was forked and playful like the lightning, crested like the serpent.' He is never weary of Burke, as he elsewhere says; and, in fact, he is man enough to recognise genuine power when he meets it. To another great master he yields with a reluctance which is an involuntary compliment. The one author whom he admitted into his Pantheon after his youthful enthusiasm had cooled was unluckily the most consistent of Tories. Who is there, he asks, that admires the author of 'Waverley' more than I do? Who is there that despises Sir Walter Scott more? The Scotch novels, as they were then called, fairly overpowered him. The imaginative force, the geniality and the wealth of picturesque incident of the greatest of novelists, disarmed his antipathy. It is curious to see how he struggles with himself. He blesses and curses in a breath. He applies to Scott Pope's description of Bacon, 'the greatest, wisest, meanest of mankind,' and asks—

Who would not laugh if such a man there be? Who would not weep if "Waverley" were he?

He crowns a torrent of abuse by declaring that Scott has encouraged the lowest panders of a venal press, 'deluging and nauseating the public mind with the offal and garbage of Billingsgate abuse and vulgar slang;' and presently he calls Scott—by way, it is true, of lowering Byron—'one of the greatest teachers of morality that ever lived.' He invents a theory, to which he returns more than once, to justify the contrast. Scott, he says, is much such a writer as the Duke of Wellington (the hated antithesis of Napoleon, whose 'foolish face' he specially detests) is a general. The one gets 100,000 men together, and 'leaves it to them to fight out the battle, for if he meddled with it he might spoil sport; the other gets an innumerable quantity of facts together, and lets them tell their story as they may. The facts are stubborn in the last instance as the men are in the first, and in neither case is the broth spoiled by the cook.' Both heroes show modesty and self-knowledge, but 'little boldness or inventiveness of genius.' On the strength of this doctrine he even compares Scott disadvantageously with Godwin and Mrs. Inchbald, who had, it seems, more invention though fewer facts. Hazlitt was not bound to understand strategy, and devoutly held that Wellington's armies succeeded because their general only looked on. But he should have understood his own trade a little better. Putting aside this grotesque theory, he feels Scott's greatness truly, and admits it generously. He enjoys the broth, to use his own phrase, though he is determined to believe that it somehow made itself.

Lamb said that Hazlitt was a greater authority when he praised than when he abused, a doctrine which may be true of others than Hazlitt. The true distinction is rather that Hazlitt, though always unsafe as a judge, is admirable as an advocate in his own cause, and poor when merely speaking from his brief. Of Mrs. Inchbald I must say what Hazlitt shocked his audience by saying of Hannah More; that she has written a good deal which I have not read, and I therefore cannot deny that her novels might have been written by Venus; but I cannot admit that Wycherley's brutal 'Plain-dealer' is as good as ten volumes of sermons. 'It is curious to see,' says Hazlitt, rather naively, 'how the same subject is treated by two such different authors as Shakespeare and Wycherley.' Macaulay's remark about the same coincidence is more to the point. 'Wycherley borrows Viola,' says that vigorous moralist, 'and Viola forthwith becomes a pander of the basest sort.' That is literally true. Indeed, Hazlitt's love for the dramatists of the Restoration is something of a puzzle, except so far as it is explained by early associations. Even then it is hard to explain the sympathy which Hazlitt, the lover of Rousseau and sentiment, feels for Congreve, whose speciality it is that a touch of sentiment is as rare in his painfully-witty dialogues as a drop of water in the desert. Perhaps a contempt for the prejudices of respectable people gave zest to Hazlitt's enjoyment of a literature, representative of a social atmosphere, most propitious to his best feelings. And yet, though I cannot take Hazlitt's judgment, I would frankly admit that Hazlitt's enthusiasm brings out Congreve's real merits with a force of which a calmer judge would be incapable. His warm praises of 'The Beggar's Opera,' his assault upon Sidney's 'Arcadia,' his sarcasms against Tom Moore, are all excellent in their way, whether we do or do not agree with his final result. Whenever Hazlitt writes from his own mind, in short, he writes what is well worth reading. Hazlitt learnt something in his later years from Lamb. He prefers, he says, those papers of Elia in which there is the least infusion of antiquated language; and, in fact, Lamb never inoculated him with his taste for the old English literature. Hazlitt gave a series of lectures upon the Elizabethan dramatists, and carelessly remarks some time afterwards that he has only read about a quarter of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays, and intends to read the rest when he has a chance. It is plain, indeed, that the lectures, though written at times with great spirit, are the work of a man who has got them up for the occasion. And in his more ambitious and successful essays upon Shakespeare the same want of reading appears in another way. He is more familiar with Shakespeare's text than many better scholars. His familiarity is proved by a habit of quotation of which it has been disputed whether it is a merit or a defect. What phrenologists would call the adhesiveness of Hazlitt's mind, its extreme retentiveness for any impression which has once been received, tempts him to a constant repetition of familiar phrases and illustrations. He has, too, a trick of working in patches of his old essays, which he expressly defends on the ground that a book which has not reached a second edition may be considered by its author as manuscript. This self-plagiarism sometimes worries us, as we are worried by a man whose conversation runs in ruts. But his quotations from other authors, where used in moderation, often give a pleasant richness to his style. Shakespeare, in particular, seems to be a storehouse into which he can always dip for an appropriate turn of phrase, and his love of Shakespeare is of a characteristic kind. He has not counted syllables nor weighed various readings. He does not throw a new light upon delicate indications of thought and sentiment, nor philosophise after the manner of Coleridge and the Germans, nor regard Shakespeare as the representative of his age according to the sweeping method of M. Taine. Neither does he seem to love Shakespeare himself as he loves Rousseau or Richardson. He speaks contemptuously of the Sonnets and Poems, and, though I respect his sincerity, I think that such a verdict necessarily indicates indifference to the most Shakespearian parts of Shakespeare. The calm assertion that the qualities of the Poems are the reverse of the qualities of the plays is unworthy of Hazlitt's general acuteness. That which really attracts Hazlitt is sufficiently indicated by the title of his book; he describes the characters of Shakespeare's plays. It is Iago, and Timon, and Coriolanus, and Anthony, and Cleopatra, who really interest him. He loves and hates them as if they were his own contemporaries; he gives the main outlines of their character with a spirited touch. And yet one somehow feels that Hazlitt is not at his best in Shakespearian criticism; his eulogies savour of commonplace, and are wanting in spontaneity. There is not that warm glow of personal feeling which gives light and warmth to his style whenever he touches upon his early favourites. Perhaps he is a little daunted by the greatness of his task, and perhaps there is something in the Shakespearian width of sympathy and in the Shakespearian humour which lies beyond Hazlitt's sphere. His criticism of Hamlet is feeble; he does not do justice to Mercutio or to Jaques; but he sympathises more heartily with the tremendous passion of Lear and Othello, and finds something congenial to his taste in Coriolanus and Timon of Athens. It is characteristic, too, that he evidently understands Shakespeare better on the stage than in the closet. When he can associate Iago and Shylock with the visible presence of Kean, he can introduce that personal element which is so necessary to his best writing.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8     Next Part
Home - Random Browse