« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »
be tolerated even in inquiries, where there was little hazard of error from the vague use of words.
Next to want of precision, the most striking peculiarity of his style is the odd expressions with which it is diversified, from popular poets, especially from Shakspeare. If a trifling thing is to be told, he will not mention it in common language: he must give it, if possible, in words which the bard of Avon has somewhere used. Were the beauty of the applications conspicuous, we might forget, or at least forgive, the deformity produced by the constant stitching in of these patches; unfortunately, however, the phrases thus obtruded upon us seem to be selected, not on account of any intrinsic beauty, but merely because they are fantastic and unlike what would naturally occur to an ordinary writer.
The most important of Mr. Hazlitt's general reasonings are contained in the first lecture. As a specimen of the work we shall extract the commencement, which bears evident marks of elaborate composition, and in which the intellect of the writer, fresh and unfatigued, may be expected to put forth its utmost vigour. He sets out with a definition of poetry.
"The best general notion,' he says, which I can give of poetry, is that it is the natural impression of any object or circumstance, by its vividness exciting an involuntary movement of imagination and passion, and producing, by sympathy, a certain modulation of the voice, or sounds, expressing it.'
This is not a definition of poetry-it neither is nor can be a definition of any thing, because it is completely unintelligible. The impression, of which Mr. Hazlitt talks, is an impression producing by sympathy a certain modulation of sounds. The tern sympathy has two significations. In a physiological sense it is used to denote the fact, that the disorder of one organ produces disorder in the functions of certain other parts of the system. Does Mr. Hazlitt mean, that the impression produces the modulation of sound essential to poetry, in a mode analogous to that in which diseases of the brain affect the digestive powers? Sympathy, again, in its application to the moral part of our constitution, denotes that law of our nature by which we share in the feelings that agitate the bosoms of our fellow creatures. This signification obviously will not suit Mr. Hazlitt's purpose. His meaning therefore must be left to himself to divine. One thing is clear, that the modulation of verse is the result of great labour, consummate art, and long practice; and that his words, therefore, can admit no interpretation, conformable to truth, till sympathy becomes synonimous with skill and labour.
The passage which immediately follows the definition, and is devoted to the illustration of it, can scarcely be equalled, in the whole compass of English prose, for rapid transitions from idea to
idea, while not one gleam of light is thrown upon the subject; for the accumulation of incoherent notions; and for the extravagance of the sentiments, or rather of the combinations of words.
Poetry is the language of the imagination and the passions. It relates to whatever gives immediate pleasure or pain to the human mind. It comes home to the bosoms and businesses of men; for nothing but what so comes home to them in the most general and intelligible shape can be a subject for poetry. Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself. He who has a contempt for poetry cannot have much respect for himself, or for any thing else. It is not a mere frivolous accomplishment, (as some persons have been led to imagine,) the trifling amusement of a few idle readers or leisure hours-it has been the study and delight of mankind in all ages. Many people suppose that poetry is something to be found only in books, contained in lines of ten syllables, with like endings: but wherever there is a sense of beauty, or power, or harmony, as in the motion of a wave of the sea, in the growth of a flower that "spreads its sweet leaves to the air, and dedicates its beauty to the sun," there is poetry in its birth. If history is a grave study, poetry may be said to be a graver: its materials lie deeper, and are spread wider. History treats, for the most part, of the cumbrous and unwieldy masses of things, the empty cases in which the affairs of the world are packed, under the heads of intrigue or war, in different states, and from century to century: but there is no thought or feeling that can have entered into the mind of man, which he would be eager to communicate to others, or which they would listen to with delight, that is not a fit subject for poetry. It is not a branch of authorship: it is "the stuff of which our life is made." The rest is "mere oblivion," a dead letter; for all that is worth remembering in life is the poetry of it. Fear is poetry, hope is poetry, love is poetry, hatred is poetry, contempt, jealousy, remorse, admiration, wonder, pity, despair, or madness, are all poetry. Poetry is that fine particle within us, that expands, rarifies, refines, raises our whole being: without it "man's life is poor as beast's." Man is a poetical animal: and those of us who do not study the principles of poetry, act upon them all our lives, like Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme, who had always spoken prose without knowing it. The child is a poet, in fact, when he first plays at hide-and-seek, or repeats the story of Jack the Giant-killer; the shepherd-boy is a poet when he first crowns his mistress with a garland of flowers; the countryman, when he stops to look at the rainbow; the city-apprentice, when he gazes after the Lord-Mayor's show; the miser, when he hugs his gold; the courtier, who builds his hopes upon a smile; the savage, who paints his idol with blood; the slave, who worships a tyrant, or the tyrant, who fancies himself a god.'-pp. 2-4.
Thus there is nothing which is not poetry, and poetry is every thing. It is a particular kind of language; it is a fine particle which produces certain chemical and mechanical effects; it is the stuff of our lives; it is the important part of business; it is not a thing contained in books; it is fear, hope, jealousy, and twenty
other things besides; in short it is the characteristical quality of our nature, for man is a poetical animal, and there is nobody who is not a poet; the miser, the slave, the tyrant, the child playing at hide and seek, the city apprentice-all, in Mr. Hazlitt's eye, are poets. The means, by which he arrives at these extravagant propositions, are sufficiently simple and common: the misapplication of words is the whole of his art. He employs the term poetry in three distinct meanings, and his legerdemain consists in substituting one of these for the other. Sometimes it is the general appellation of a certain class of compositions, as when he says that poetry is graver than history. Secondly, it denotes the talent by which these compositions are produced; and it is in this sense that he calls poetry that fine particle within us, which produces in our being rarefaction, expansion, elevation, and purification. Thirdly, it denotes the subjects of which these compositions treat. It is in this meaning that he uses the term, when he says, that all that is worth remembering in life is the poetry of it; that fear is poet that hope is poetry, that love is poetry; and in the very same sense he might assert that fear is sculpture and painting and music, that the crimes of Verres are the eloquence of Cicero, and the poetry of Milton the criticism of Mr. Hazlitt. When he tells us, that though we have never studied the principles of poetry, we have acted upon them all our lives, like the man who talked prose without knowing it, we suspect that the common-place allusion at the end of the sentence has tempted him into nonsense at the beginning. The principles of poetry a reader would naturally imagine to be the chief rules of the art; but by that phrase Mr. Hazlitt means the principal subjects of which poetry treats. These are the passions and affections of mankind; we are all under the influence of our passions and affections; that is, in Mr. Hazlitt's new language, we all act on the principles of poetry, and are, in truth, poets. We all exert our muscles and limbs, therefore we are anatomists and surgeons; we have teeth which we employ in chewing, therefore we are dentists; we use our eyes to look at objects, therefore we are oculists; we eat beef and mutton, therefore we are all deeply versed in the sciences of breeding and fattening sheep and oxen. Mr. Hazlitt will forgive us for anticipating these brilliant conclusions, which he no doubt intends to promulgate in a course of lectures at some future day; we claim no merit for announcing them; the praise, we admit, is exclusively his own, for they are merely legitimate inferences from his peculiar mode of abusing English.
As another specimen of his definitions we may take the following. Poetry does not define the limits of sense, or analyse the distinctions of the understanding, but signifies the excess of the
imagination beyond the actual or ordinary impression of any object or feeling.' Poetry was at the beginning of the book asserted to be an impression; it is now the excess of the imagination beyond an impression: what this excess is we cannot tell, but at least it must be something very unlike an impression. Though the total want of meaning is the weightiest objection to such writing; yet the abuse which it involves of particular words is very remarkable, and will not be overlooked by those who are aware of the inseparable connection between justness of thought and precision of language. What, in strict reasoning, can be meant by the impression of a feeling? How can actual and ordinary be used as synonymous? Every impression must be an actual impression; and the use of that epithet annihilates the limitations, with which Mr. Hazlitt meant to guard his proposition. In another part of his work he asserts, that' words are the voluntary signs of certain ideas.' By voluntary we suppose he means that there is no natural connection between the sign and the thing signified, though this is an acceptation which the term never bore before. In a passage already quoted, he says that wherever there is a sense of beauty, or power, or harmony, as in the motion of a wave of the sea, or in the growth of a flower, there is poetry in its birth.' Can the motion of a wave, or the growth of a flower have any sense of beauty, or power, or harmony; or can either form a convenient cradle for newly born poetry? If he meant to place the beauty, and not the sense of beauty, in the wave and the flower, he ought to have expressed himself very differently.
One of the secrets of Mr. Hazlitt's composition is to introduce as many words as possible, which he has at any time seen or heard used in connection with that term which makes, for the moment, the principal figure before his imagination. Is he speaking, for instance, of the heavenly bodies-He recollects that the phrase square of the distance often recurs in astronomy, and that in Dr. Chalmers's Discourses a great deal is said about the sun and stars. Dr. Chalmers's Discourses, and the square of the distance, must, therefore, be impressed into his service, without caring whether they are or are not likely to be of the least use. There can never be another Jacob's dream. Since that time the heavens have gone farther off and grown astronomical. They have become averse to the imagination; nor will they return to us on the squares of the distances, or in Dr. Chalmers's Discourses.' We really have not a variety of language adequate to do justice to the variety of shapes, in which unmeaning jargon is perpetually coming upon us in this performance. We can therefore only say, what we have said of so many other passages, that we have not the faintest conception of what is meant by the heavenly bodies returning on the squares of
the distances, or in Dr. Chalmers's Discourses. As to the assertion that there can never be another Jacob's dream, we see no reason why dreams should be scientific; particularly as Mr. Hazlitt's work is a convincing proof, that even the waking thoughts of some men are safe from the encroachments of reason and philosophy.
The passages, which we have quoted hitherto, are all taken from the Lecture on Poetry. But Mr. Hazlitt is a metaphysician; and in his criticisms upon individual poets, loves to soar into general remarks. Thus he tells us, that when a person walks from Oxford Street to Temple Bar, every man he meets is a blow to his personal identity.' Much puzzling matter has been written concerning personal identity, but nothing that surpasses this. There is nothing more likely to drive a man mad, than the being unable to get rid of the idea of the distinction between right and wrong, and an obstinate constitutional preference of the true to the agreeable.' The loss of all idea of the distinction between right and wrong is the very essence of madness, and not to prefer the true to the agreeable, where they are inconsistent, is folly. Mr. Hazlitt's doctrine therefore is, that the inability to become mad is very likely to drive a man mad.
Mr. Hazlitt is fond of running parallels between great poets; and his parallels have only two faults-the first, that it is generally impossible to comprehend them-the second, that they are in no degree characteristical of the poets to whom they are applied. In Homer the principle of action or life is predominant; in the Bible, the principle of faith and the idea of providence; Dante is a personification of blind will; and in Ossian we see the decay of life, and the lag end of the world.'
The following extract is still more exquisite. Chaucer excels as the poet of manners or of real life; Spenser as the poet of romance; Shakspeare as the poet of nature (in the largest use of the term); and Milton, as the poet of morality. Chaucer most frequently describes things as they are; Spenser as we wish them to be; Shakspeare as they would be; and Milton as they ought to be. The characteristic of Chaucer is intensity; of Spenser, remoteness; of Milton, elevation; of Shakspeare, everything.' The whole passage is characteristical of nothing but Mr. Hazlitt.
We occasionally discover a faint semblance of connected thinking in Mr. Hazlitt's pages; but wherever this is the case, his reasoning is for the most part incorrect. He maintains, for instance, that poetical enthusiasm has sustained a check from the progress of experimental philosophy:-a doctrine which may be regarded as a sprout from a principle very popular among certain critics, that the progress of science is unfavourable to the culture of the imagination. It is no doubt true, that the individual who devotes his labour