Слике страница
PDF
ePub

sentiment was inseparable from worthy conceptions of truth and nature, that he regarded that old Epicurean philosophy which, brought down to the drawing-room by Rochefoucauld and Helvetius, had of late been familiarized to the counter and adapted to the hustings by the utilitarianism, positive and political, of Jeremy Bentham. Hazlitt's work on the Principles of Human Action is intended to prove the natural disinterestedness of the human mind. Weapons in plenty against the Epicurean system may be taken from antique armouries, repolished, and whetted anew; and we may observe, in passing, that perhaps no arguments in confutation of the philosophy of self-interest are more popularly adapted to a plain understanding than those to be found in Seneca. But Hazlitt was little acquainted with the labours of predecessors in the same cause; he conducted his argument as if it had been untouched. Where he says something that has been said before it is in his own way, and ideas which, taken singly, had occurred to other minds, form themselves, when conceived by his, into original combinations. The fundamental principle in his metaphysical creed, that we are naturally interested in the welfare of others, through the same way, the same motives, the same mental operations by which we naturally pursue our own;' that, in a word, benevolence is as elementary as self-love in the principles of human action, is certainly a noble and generous doctrine, and enforced by Hazlitt with all the earnestness of his vigorous and fervid nature. And it was his faith in this doctrine that not only kept him aloof from those democratic reformers who exercised prevailing influence over the more educated members of the movement party, viz., the disciples of Mill and Bentham, but directed against their school of philosophy the instincts of his heart and the bias of his tastes, as well as the convictions of his reason.

We must notice, as briefly as possible, the most ambitious of Hazlitt's numerous writings, and the one upon which he and some of his admirers most counted for enduring fame—“The Life of Napoleon.' 'He lived,' says the writer of the preface to that history, to complete the “Life of Napoleon,” and then laid down his own.'

We can say little or nothing to redeem this work from the oblivion into which it has already passed. It was altogether a mistake. Whatever intellectual qualities Hazlitt possessed, they were not those of a historian. He was naturally impatient of details ; neither had he the temper nor the discipline of mind essential to comprehensive generalization. Even his proper beauties of style, when happiest, are but brilliant impertinences in historical composition. He sentimentalizes, digresses, declaims, in the wrong spirit and in the wrong place. He lacks the simplicity of a narrator. He lacks still more the impartiality of a judge. But were his History far better than it is, it could not have stood its ground against histories of the same stormy epoch and the same marvellous man written since Hazlitt's time.

It is, then, as a critic of Art in painting and in poetry that Hazlitt principally demands our admiration-demands and generally deserves, not indeed when he censures, but when he praises; when on those beauties which had so long elevated his thoughts and vivified his fancies he expatiates with all the enthusiasm of reverential love :-it is then that he deserves the eulogy bestowed on him by Leigh Hunt, and throws a light on art as from a painted window.'

Still more than as a critic Hazlitt excels as a writer of the Essay of Sentiment; when, in the spirit of his favourite Montaigne, he abandons himself fairly to self-commune and selfconfession, when he unfolds to us, with a frankness at once melancholy and genial, the record of his early impressions, and makes us partners in the joys and the griefs of genius. For in essays of this kind the self-obtrusion to which we give the name of egotism is not a fault ; it is the essential quality, infusing into desultory reveries the distinct vitality of individualised being. It is in this portion of his works that the most striking instances of Hazlitt's eloquence are to be found : an eloquence which though retaining the form of prose approaches near enough to poetry to bring before the reader's eye 'fantastic heights or hidden recesses' in the enchanted border land. Then, worthy of the praise he bestows on his favourite Poussin, 'words start up into images, thoughts become things. He clothes a dream, a phantom with form and colour, and the wholesome attribute of reality' (Hazlitt's Table-Talk,' vol. ii. On a Landscape by Nicholas Poussin).

Hazlitt's style, when at the best, is not that of a rhetorician, but in much that of an orator. It is spontaneous, varied, and glowing, full of illustrations that are rarely superfluous embellishments of fancy, but rather arguments lighted up. For between the rhetorical and the oratorical style there is the distinction which Mr. Pugin makes in architecture between constructed ornament and ornamental construction. The first (as recently observed in this Journal*) is merely for show, and does not affect the substance of the framework if removed; but the last, as in the columns and entablature of a Grecian temple, is

* Quarterly Review' for October, 1866, p. 413.

part

can

part and parcel of the building itself, and to remove it, would be to destroy the fabric.

In taking leave, not, we trust, ungenerously, of the most truculent assailant of the political opinions held in this journal, and of the honoured contributors by whom it has been adorned, we would venture to suggest to the son who has so piously fulfilled the duties of executor to Hazlitt's literary remains, that one of his father's favourite assertions was that a part is greater than the whole. Hazlitt's fame is not sufficiently solid to bear the weight of the many volumes that are heaped upon it. Better for his reputation, and his chance of favour with coming generations, if this load were lightened. Year by year upon the collectors of books increases the difficulty of finding places in unelastic shelves for new comers, who only be admitted by the ejection of old friends. We pause long before we make way for an essayist who carries in his train a Valetaille of some thirty volumes. Two-thirds of his suite are, at the best, costly and idle hangers-on. We have no room to spare for a company so numerous, and of which some are of very doubtful worth— Lives of Napoleon, essays on subjects of party politics ; morbid outpourings of personal spites and grudges; all these have done their work, Home have gone and ta'en their wages.' Peace to them, provided they rest in peace.

Now that their bones are marrowless, we desire not to disturb our peaceful hearths with their irascible goblins. But gladly would we welcome among the choicer prose works

and land some three or four volumes devoted to the more felicitous specimens of Hazlitt's genius. He needs but an abstract of his title-deeds to secure a fair allotment in the ground, already overcrowded, which has been quaintly described by a Scandinavian poet as the garden-land lying south between Walhalla and the sea.

To pass from Hazlitt to Leigh Hunt is like passing from a rough landscape sketch by Salvator, in which, according to Coleridge, the rocks take vague likeness of the human figure, to a garden scene by Lancret, with a group seated round a fountain engaged in dining off peaches and listening to a gentle shepherd who is playing a guitar or telling a pleasant story. Leigh Hunt is as constitutionally gay as Hazlitt is constitutionally saturnine. He has a sprightly sense of enjoyment, which he communicates to readers who will give themselves up to him, take him for what he is, and not frown or pish because he is not something else. He has a feminine love for pretty ornaments, and gets together quaint little trinkets, arranged so

neatly

of our age

on

neatly and paraded with so amiable an air that he wins our good nature to his side. We admire as curiosities in his collection what might seem trifles in that of a ruder man. The neatness and prettiness of his style are not achieved without some apparent affectation; but the affectation is only apparent. To no writer can be more truly applied the saying attributed to Buffon—the style is the man.' A certain gracefulness in his plastic temperament made him love to associate his actual existence with small elegancies, which cheered his eye and gladdened his heart. He covers the walls of his prison room with a trellis paper, and can imagine that he is with Ariosto in Tuscan bowers. He goes into the poetic heaven at sight of an old looking saucer with a handle to it.' •Its little shallow circle overflows for him with the milk and honey of a thousand pleasant associations.' "This,' he exclaims, 'is one of the uses of having mantle-pieces ! You may often see no very rich mantle-piece a representative body of all elements, physical and intellectual, a shell for the sea, a stuffed bird or some feathers for the air, a curious piece of mineral for the earth, a glass of water with some flowers in it for the visible process of creation, and underneath all is the bright and everspringing fire running up through them heavenwards, like Hope through materiality. We like to have any little curiosity of the mantle-piece kind within our reach and inspection. A reader who feels himself inclined to scorn the amiable idiosyncrasy of mind which not only delights in these small adornments of our work-day life, but calls us off from our anxious cares or our vaulting aspirations to share in its harmless delight, is not a reader fitted to appreciate the genius of Leigh Hunt. Since trifles make the sum of human things,' Hunt, with no irrational philosophy, seeks to make trifles pleasant, and with no profitless poetry to extract from them an ideal happiness. Like the butterfly described by Spenser

• He pastures on the pleasures of each place,

Now sucking of the sap of herbe most meet,
Or of the dew which yet on them does lie,

Now in the same bathing his tender feet,
And then he percheth on some branch thereby,

To weather him and his moist wings to dry.' With a writer of so sunny a temperament it would be but a crabbed philosophy to provoke cause of serious quarrel. We cannot bring ourselves to look on Leigh Hunt in his character of rabid politician. His are not the wings that ride on the whirlwind and direct the storm

Now this, now that he tasteth tenderly,
Yet none of them he rudely doth disorder.'

Nor,

Nor, in recognising the general kindliness of disposition which characterised the man, are we unwilling to regard with lenity, as an exceptional aberration from his better nature, the ill-advised work on Lord Byron. And we are reconciled to this forbearance with a quieter conscience because we have reason to believe that Leigh Hunt himself sincerely regretted that he had been ever galled by a skin-deep wound to too sensitive a self-love into a breach of those hospitable laws which involve obligations upon personal honour. Of all Leigh Hunt's writings we like best his prose essays, and of these we like best the light and varied lucubrations contained in the • Indicator.' Than this we do not know a more agreeable book in its own way, nor one that can be read more often with renewed pleasure in reperusal. Hunt wanted breadth of colour and strength of hand for the filling up of any large canvas, and in such attempts he lost his own peculiar merits, which consist in smoothness of tone and delicacy of finish. He tells a short story of mingled fancy and sentiment with much grace and animation. “The Hamadryad,' in the • Indicator,' is beautifully conceived and composed. He can illustrate with a light not indeed very large nor searching, but of‘ray serene, many little nooks and corners in the mind and heart of man, many minor beauties of form and expression in the authors he loved to study. But when he attempts a five-act drama or a prose fiction in three volumes, we become aware of his deficiencies. He has neither the art of constructing a sustained fable, nor the power of creating new characters of life-like size; above all, he wants passion, perhaps because he abounds in fancy. This last defect is transparent in Rimini,' a poem which has nevertheless many striking detached beauties, and, in spite of its disagreeable subject, is the best of his more ambitious works. In the same way, as a critic, he is worthy not only of praise but of study in detached observations upon what by the German Aristarchus are called particulars,' but he seems to us somewhat feeble in his grasp of 'generals. He feels sensitively, and explains with lucid eloquence the poetry which lurks in a form of expression, in an artful cadence, in a combination of melodious liquids. But we cannot grant that he has adequate comprehension of that highest form of imperial poetry' which retains its imperishable substance even when stripped of its felicitous expressions and defrauded of its original music; that whiclı, though subjected to the baldest translation, can never be reduced to prose, but, passing from land to land, varies its (singing robes' in each, and secures its privilege of royalty in all. In

one of his most delightful essays, entitled My Books,' Hunt, speaking of the great writers who were book-lovers like

himself,

« ПретходнаНастави »