Images de page
PDF
ePub

imagination beyond the actual or ordinary impressiou 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

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 doctrive 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 privciple 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

to

total ex

to the investigation of abstract truth, must acquire habits of thought very different from those which the exercise of fancy demands: the cause lies in the exclusive appropriation of his time to reasoning, and not in the logical accuracy with which he reasons. But while science is making rapid progress in the hands of some, the arts which depend upon the imagination may be cultivated with equal success by others, whose efforts will be aided, rather than impeded, by the general diffusion of new and valuable truths. We have parted with the systems of Ptolemy and Des Cartes to adopt that of Newton; the dreams of the Alchemists are superseded by the chemistry of Black, of Cavendish, of Lavoisier, of Davy; the subtle disquisitions of the schoolmen have given way to the speculations of Locke and Reid. We do not conceive that poetry has suffered any loss by the change, nor would she be a gainer by the

pation of science. Among every people, who are in a state approaching to civilization, systems of doctrines upon certain subjects must exist: they who devote their lives to the study of these systems will not be poets; but they will not be the less likely to be so, because the systems which they study have been erected cautiously on a firm foundation. The progress of true science is favourable to poetical genius in two ways: it supplies an abundant store of new materials for the poet to work upon; and there is a sublimity in its views, far superior to any thing that the framers of fanciful hypotheses cau invent, which exalts the genius and trains it to lofty contemplations.

The pleasure derived from tragedy has puzzled the most ingenious critics and metaphysicians to explain. Du Bos, Fontenelle, Hume, Campbell, have all endeavoured to account for it; and none of them perhaps with complete success. The question, which perplexed these men, occasions no perplexity to Mr. Hazlitt: from the peremptoriness of his decision, we are almost tempted to suppose that he was not aware of the existence of any difficulty. The pleasure,' he asserts, derived from tragic poetry, is not any thing peculiar to it as poetry, as a fictitious and fanciful thing. It is not an anomaly of the imagination. It has its source and groundwork in the common love of strong excitement. As Mr. Burke observes, people flock to see a tragedy, but if there were a public execution in the next street, the theatre would soon be empty.' We doubt this; at all events, those who flocked to the execution would not be the persons who derived the greatest pleasure from the tragedy. Mr. Hazlitt's explanation is in truth nothing more than a mistatement of the fact. The point to be solved is this:-What is the cause of the pleasure which we receive from the exhibition in poetry of objects and events which would in themselves be painful? Mr. Hazlitt replies,--that the poetical exhibition of them

pleases,

pleases, because the objects and events would please in real life by being the cause of strong excitement. If this were true, racks and tortures and stage-executions would be the height of dramatic poetry.

The account which we have given of the general reasonings contained in Mr. Hazlitt's book, renders it less necessary to enter into a minute examination of his criticisms on particular poets, or particular passages.

He gives many beautiful extracts, but his remarks will not guide the reader to a livelier sense of their beauties. Thus, when Iachimo says of Imogen, that the flame of the taper

would underpeep her lids, To see the enclosed lights — Mr. Hazlitt admires the quaint and quaintly-expressed conceit, and calls it a passionate interpretation of the motion of the flame! The following lines from Chaucer are very pleasing :

Emelie that fayrer was to sene
Then is the lilie upon his stalke grene,
And fresher than the May with flowres newe,
For with the rose-colour strove hire hewe;

I n'ot which was the finer of hem two.' But surely the beauty does not lie in the last line, though it is with this that Mr. Hazlitt is chiefly struck. "This scrupulousness,' he observes, about the literal preference, as if some question of matter of fact were at issue, is remarkable.'

When Mr. Hazlitt at any time deviates from his predecessors in his character of particular poets, he generally goes wrong. He, as a matter of course, bestows high praises on Pope; but they are interspersed with remarks, and modified by limitations, wbich degrade that illustrious genius far below the eminence which he must ever occupy. His mind,' says our critic, was the antithesis of strength and grandeur; its power was the power of indifference. He had none of the enthusiasm of poetry; he was in poetry .what the sceptic is in religion.' The sceptic is, in the common acceptation of language, a man who has no religion : Mr. Hazliu, therefore, if he did not write nonsense for the sake of what he thought a pretty turn upon words, must hold Pope to be no poet at all. · Pope,' he remarks in another place, describes the thing, and goes on describing his own descriptions, till he loses himself in verbal repetitions. This sentence is not in the least descriptive of Pope's poetry, but it is a very faithful description of Mr. Hazlitt's prose. The truth is that Pope's unpardonable fault, in the estimation of those who decry him at the present day, consists in his being very perspicuous; he is always intelligible; every line has its meaning; every idea which he communicates has its boundaries distinctly marked; and he is supposed to want feeling, because he abounds in sense. Were some of his finest

passages to be translated into the mystical language of the modern school, the eyes of many would be opened, who are now blind to his superlative merits.

Mr. Hazlitt's criticism affords some strange instances of presumptuous assertion. • Longinus,' says he, 'preferred the Iliad to the Odyssey on account of the greater number of battles it contains.' 'We wish be had told us where Longinus says so; for we can recollect no such passage. If he alludes to the eloquent eulogy upon Homer in the ninth section of the Treatise on the Sublime, he has totally mistaken the meaning of Longinus. The remark of the Greek critic is, *« that the Iliad was written in the prime of life and genius, so that the whole body of the poem is dramatic and vehemently energetic; but that, according to the usual peculiarity of old age, the greater part of the Odyssey is devoted to narrative.' This criticism has no reference to the multitude of battles; it relates merely to the dramatic character which pervades the Iliad, as contrasted with the narrative, highly poetical indeed, which occupies a great part of the Odyssey. If it were worth while to account for Mr. Hazlitt's mistake, we might perhaps find the source of it in the Latin translation of Longinus. Evaywrioy is there translated, absurdly enough, pugnar; and pugnax, either directly or through the medium of a French version, (for we believe Mr. Hazlitt to be completely ignorant of the learned languages,) has led to this misrepresentation of Longinus and of Homer.

* Prior's serious poetry, as his Alma, is as heavy, as his familiar style was light and agreeable.'. Unluckily for our critic, Prior's Alma is in his lightest and most familiar style, and is the most highly finished specimen of that species of versification which our language possesses. Whether Mr. Hazlitt could form a just judgment of an author whom he has read, may be a matter of considerable doubt; but there is little risk iu asserting, that he has no right to decide upon a work with which he is unacquainted, and there is no undue uncharitableness in suspecting that he who has not read Prior has not read much of our early poets.

Mr. Hazlitt asserts that Dr. Johnson condemns the versification of Paradise Lost as harsh and unequal. Johnson has devoted three papers of the Ramblert to the examination of the structure of Milton's verse, and in these has given us a most profound and elegant specimen of English metrical criticism. Let us bear bis opinion out of his own mouth. • If the poetry of Milton be examined

Της μεν Ιλιαδος γραφομενης εν ακμη πτυματος όλον το σωματιον δραματικον υπεςησατο και εναγωνιον της δε οδυσσειας το πλεον διηγηματικον, όπερ ίδιον γηρας. # Nos. LXXXVI. LXXXVIII. XC.

« PrécédentContinuer »