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

HART-LEAP WELL.

The knight had ridden down from Wensley moor With the slow motion of a summer's cloud; He turned aside towards a vassal's door, And, "Bring another horse!" he cried aloud.

"Another horse!"—That shout the vassal heard, And saddled his best steed, a comely gray; Sir Walter mounted him; he was the third Which he had mounted on that glorious day.

Joy sparkled in the prancing courser's eyes: The horse and horseman are a happy pair; But, though Sir Walter like a falcon flies, There is a doleful silence in the air.

A rout this morning left Sir Walter's hall, That as they galloped made the echoes roar; But horse and man are vanished, one and all; Such race, I think, was never seen before.

Sir Walter, restless as a veering wind, Calls to the few tired dogs that yet remain: Brach, Swift, and Music, noblest of their kind, Follow, and up the weary mountain strain.

The knight hallooed, he chid and cheered them on With suppliant gestures and upbraidings stern; But breath and eye-sight fail; and, one by one, The dogs are stretched among the mountain fern.

Where is the throng, the tumult of the race? The bugles that so joyfully were blown? —This chase it looks not like an earthly chase; Sir Walter and the hart are left alone.

The poor hart toils along the mountain side; I will not stop to tell how far he fled, Nor will I mention by what death he died; But now the knight beholds him lying dead.

Dismounting then, he leaned against a thorn; He had no follower, dog, nor man, nor boy: He neither smacked his whip, nor blew his horn, But gazed upon the spoil with silent joy.

Close to the thorn on which Sir Walter leaned, Stood his dumb partner in this glorious act; Weak as a lamb the hour that it is yeaned; And foaming like a mountain cataract.

Upon his side the hart was lying stretched: His nose half-touched a spring beneath a hill, And with the last deep groan his breath had fetched The waters of the spring were trembling still.

And now, too happy for repose or rest, (Was never man in such a joyful case!) Sir Walter walked all round, north, south, and west, And gazed, and gazed upon that darling place.

And climbing up the hill—(it was at least Nine roods of sheer ascent) Sir Walter found, Three several hoof-marks which the hunted beast Had left imprinted on the verdant ground.

Sir Walter wiped his face and cried, "Till now Such sight was never seen by living eyes: Three leaps have borne him from this lofty brow, Down to the very fountain where he lies.

I'll build a pleasure-house upon this spot, And a small arbour, made for rural joy; 'Twill be the traveller's shed, the pilgrim's cot, A place of love for damsels that are coy.

A cunning artist will I have to frame A bason for that fountain in the dell; And they, who do make mention of the same From this day forth, shall call it HART-LEAP WELL.

And, gallant brute! to make thy praises known, Another monument shall here be raised; Three several pillars, each a rough-hewn stone, And planted where thy hoofs the turf have grazed.

And, in the summer-time when days are long, I will come hither with my paramour; And with the dancers, and the minstrel's song, We will make merry in that pleasant bower.

Till the foundations of the mountains fail, My mansion with its arbour shall endure;— The joy of them who till the fields of Swale, And them who dwell among the woods of Ure!"

Then home he went, and left the hart, stone-dead, With breathless nostrils stretched above the spring. —Soon did the knight perform what he had said, And far and wide the fame thereof did ring.

Ere thrice the moon into her port had steered, A cup of stone received the living well; Three pillars of rude stone Sir Walter reared, And built a house of pleasure in the dell.

And near the fountain, flowers of stature tall With trailing plants and trees were intertwined,— Which soon composed a little sylvan hall, A leafy shelter from the sun and wind.

And thither, when the summer-days were long, Sir Walter journeyed with his paramour; And with the dancers and the minstrel's song Made merriment within that pleasant bower.

The knight, Sir Walter, died in course of time, And his bones lie in his paternal vale.— But there is matter for a second rhyme, And I to this would add another tale."

PART SECOND.

"The moving accident is not my trade: To freeze the blood I have no ready arts: 'Tis my delight, alone in summer shade, To pipe a simple song for thinking hearts.

As I from Hawes to Richmond did repair, It chanced that I saw standing in a dell Three aspens at three corners of a square, And one, not four yards distant, near a well.

What this imported I could ill divine: And, pulling now the rein my horse to stop, I saw three pillars standing in a line, The last stone pillar on a dark hill-top.

The trees were gray, with neither arms nor head; Half-wasted the square mound of tawny green; So that you just might say, as then I said, "Here in old time the hand of man hath been."

I looked upon the hill both far and near, More doleful place did never eye survey; It seemed as if the spring-time came not here, And Nature here were willing to decay.

I stood in various thoughts and fancies lost, When one, who was in shepherd's garb attired, Came up the hollow:—Him did I accost, And what this place might be I then inquired.

The shepherd stopped, and that same story told Which in my former rhyme I have rehearsed. "A jolly place," said he, "in times of old! But something ails it now; the spot is curst.

You see these lifeless stumps of aspen wood— Some say that they are beeches, others elms— These were the bower; and here a mansion stood, The finest palace of a hundred realms!

The arbour does its own condition tell; You see the stones, the fountain, and the stream; But as to the great lodge! you might as well Hunt half a day for a forgotten dream.

There's neither dog nor heifer, horse nor sheep, Will wet his lips within that cup of stone; And oftentimes, when all are fast asleep, This water doth send forth a dolorous groan.

Some say that here a murder has been done, And blood cries out for blood: but, for my part, I've guessed, when I've been sitting in the sun, That it was all for that unhappy hart.

What thoughts must through the creature's brain have passed! Even from the top-most stone, upon the steep, Are but three bounds—and look, Sir, at this last— —O Master! it has been a cruel leap.

For thirteen hours he ran a desperate race; And in my simple mind we cannot tell What cause the hart might have to love this place, And come and make his death-bed near the well.

Here on the grass perhaps asleep he sank, Lulled by this fountain in the summer-tide; This water was perhaps the first he drank When he had wandered from his mother's side.

In April here beneath the scented thorn He heard the birds their morning carols sing; And he, perhaps, for aught we know, was born Not half a furlong from that self-same spring.

But now here's neither grass nor pleasant shade; The sun on drearier hollow never shone; So will it be, as I have often said, Till trees, and stones, and fountain all are gone."

"Gray-headed Shepherd, thou hast spoken well; Small difference lies between thy creed and mine: This beast not unobserved by Nature fell; His death was mourned by sympathy divine.

The Being, that is in the clouds and air, That is in the green leaves among the groves, Maintains a deep, and reverential care For the unoffending creatures whom he loves.

The pleasure-house is dust:—behind, before, This is no common waste, no common gloom; But Nature, in due course of time, once more Shall here put on her beauty and her bloom.

She leaves these objects to a slow decay, That what we are, and have been, may be known; But at the coming of the milder day, These monuments shall all be overgrown.

One lesson, Shepherd, let us two divide, Taught both by what she shews, and what conceals, Never to blend our pleasure or our pride With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels."

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

"When Adam delved, and Eve span, Where was then the gentleman?"

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

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

_ [11] "O reader! hast thou ever stood to see The Holly Tree? The eye that contemplates it well perceives Its glossy leaves, Ordered by an intelligence so wise As might confound the Atheist's sophistries.

Below, a circling fence, its leaves are seen Wrinkled and keen; No grazing cattle through their prickly round Can reach to wound; But as they grow where nothing is to fear, Smooth and unarm'd the pointless leaves appear.

I love to view these things with curious eyes, And moralize; And in the wisdom of the Holly Tree Can emblems see Wherewith perchance to make a pleasant rhyme, Such as may profit in the after time.

So, though abroad perchance I might appear Harsh and austere, To those who on my leisure would intrude Reserved and rude, Gentle at home amid my friends I'd be, Like the high leaves upon the Holly Tree.

And should my youth, as youth is apt I know, Some harshness show, All vain asperities I day by day Would wear away, Till the smooth temper of my age should be Like the high leaves upon the Holly Tree.

And as when all the summer trees are seen So bright and green, The Holly leaves their fadeless hues display Less bright than they, But when the bare and wintry woods we see, What then so cheerful as the Holly Tree?

So serious should my youth appear among The thoughtless throng, So would I seem amid the young and gay More grave than they, That in my age as cheerful I might be As the green winter of the Holly Tree."— _

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

"Alas! they had been friends in youth, But whispering tongues can poison truth; And constancy lives in realms above; And life is thorny; and youth is vain; And to be wroth with one we love, Doth work like madness in the brain: And thus it chanc'd as I divine, With Roland and Sir Leoline. Each spake words of high disdain And insult to his heart's best brother, And parted ne'er to meet again! But neither ever found another To free the hollow heart from paining—

They stood aloof, the scars remaining, Like cliffs which had been rent asunder: A dreary sea now flows between, But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder, Shall wholly do away I ween The marks of that which once hath been.

Sir Leoline a moment's space Stood gazing on the damsel's face; And the youthful lord of Tryermaine Came back upon his heart again."

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

"Schiller! that hour I would have wish'd to die, If through the shudd'ring midnight I had sent From the dark dungeon of the tower time-rent, That fearful voice, a famish'd father's cry—

That in no after moment aught less vast Might stamp me mortal! A triumphant shout Black Horror scream'd, and all her goblin rout From the more with'ring scene diminish'd pass'd.

Ah! Bard tremendous in sublimity! Could I behold thee in thy loftier mood, Wand'ring at eve, with finely frenzied eye, Beneath some vast old tempest-swinging wood! Awhile, with mute awe gazing, I would brood, Then weep aloud in a wild ecstacy!"—

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

"What though the radiance which was once so bright, Be now for ever taken from my sight, Though nothing can bring back the hour Of glory in the grass, of splendour in the flow'r; I do not grieve, but rather find Strength in what remains behind; In the primal sympathy, Which having been, must ever be; In the soothing thoughts that spring Out of human suffering; In years that bring the philosophic mind!"—

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

THE END

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