Lectures on the English Poets by
William Hazlitt, critic and essayist, was born on April 10,
1778, and was educated in London for the Unitarian ministry.
But his talents for painting and for writing diverted him from
that career, and soon, though he showed great promise as a
painter, he devoted himself to authorship, contributing largely
to the "Morning Chronicle," the "Examiner," and the "Edinburgh
Review." His wide, genial interests, his ardent temperament,
and his admirable style, have given Hazlitt a high place
among English critics. He is no pedant or bookworm; he is
always human, always a man of the world. His "Characters
of Shakespeare's Plays," 1817, gave him a reputation which was
confirmed by his "Lectures on the English Poets," delivered
next year at the Surrey Institute. Further lectures, on the English
comic writers and on the Elizabethan dramatists, followed.
His essays, on all kinds of subjects, are collected in volumes
under various titles. All are the best of reading. Hazlitt's later
works include "Liber Amoris," 1823; "Spirit of the Age," 1825,
consisting of character studies; and the "Life of Napoleon"
(Hazlitt's hero), 1828–30. The essayist was twice married, and
died on September 18, 1830.
What Is Poetry?
The best general notion which I can give of poetry is
that it is the natural impression of any object or event
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.
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
anything else. It is not a mere frivolous accomplishment;
it has been the study and delight of mankind in
Nor is it found only in books; wherever there is a
sense of beauty, or power, or harmony, as in a wave of
the sea, or in the growth of a flower, there is poetry in its
birth. It is not a branch of authorship; it is the "stuff
of which our life is made." The rest is "mere oblivion,"
for all that is worth remembering in life is the poetry
of it. If poetry is a dream, the business of life is much
the same. If it is a fiction, made up of what we wish
things to be, and fancy that they are because we wish
them so, there is no other or better reality.
The light of poetry is not only a direct, but also a
reflected light, that, while it shows us the object, throws
a sparkling radiance on all around it; the flame of the
passions communicated to the imagination reveals to
us, as with a flash of lightning, the inmost recesses of
thought, and penetrates our whole being. Poetry represents
forms chiefly as they suggest other forms; feelings,
as they suggest forms, or other feelings. Poetry puts a
spirit of life and motion into the universe. It describes
the flowing, not the fixed. The poetical impression of
any object is that uneasy, exquisite sense of beauty or
power that cannot be contained within itself, that is impatient
of all limit; that—as flame bends to flame—strives
to link itself to some other image of kindred beauty or
grandeur, to enshrine itself, as it were, in the highest
forms of fancy, and to relieve the aching sense of pleasure
by expressing it in the boldest manner, and by the
most striking examples of the same quality in other
As in describing natural objects poetry impregnates
sensible impressions with the forms of fancy, so it
describes the feelings of pleasure or pain by blending
them with the strongest movements of passion and the
most striking forms of Nature. Tragic poetry, which is
the most impassioned species of it, strives to carry on
the feeling to the utmost point of sublimity or pathos
by all the force of comparison or contrast, loses the sense
of present suffering in the imaginary exaggeration of it,
exhausts the terror or pity by an unlimited indulgence
of it, and lifts us from the depths of woe to the highest
contemplations of human life.
The use and end of poetry, "both at the first and now,
was and is to hold the mirror up to Nature," seen
through the medium of passion and imagination, not
divested of that medium by means of literal truth or
abstract reason. Those who would dispel the illusions of
imagination, to give us their drab-coloured creation in
their stead, are not very wise. It cannot be concealed,
however, that the progress of knowledge and refinement
has a tendency to clip the wings of poetry. The province
of the imagination is principally visionary, the unknown
and undefined; we can only fancy what we do not know.
There can never be another Jacob's dream. Since that
time the heavens have gone farther off, and grown astronomical.
Poetry combines the ordinary use of language with
musical expression. As there are certain sounds that
excite certain movements, and the song and dance go
together, so there are, no doubt, certain thoughts that
lead to certain tones of voice, or modulations of sound.
The jerks, the breaks, the inequalities and harshnesses of
prose are fatal to the flow of a poetical imagination, as
a jolting road disturbs the reverie of an absent-minded
man. But poetry makes these odds all even. The musical
in sound is the sustained and continuous; the musical
in thought is the sustained and continuous also. An
excuse may be made for rhyme in the same manner.
Chaucer and Spenser
These are two out of the four greatest English poets;
but they were both much indebted to the early poets of
Italy, and may be considered as belonging, in some
degree, to that school. Spenser delighted in luxurious
enjoyment; Chaucer in severe activity of mind. Spenser
was the most romantic and visionary of all great poets;
Chaucer the most practical, the most a man of business
and the world.
Chaucer does not affect to show his power over the
reader's mind, but the power which his subject has over
his own. The readers of Chaucer's poetry feel more
nearly what the persons he describes must have felt, than
perhaps those of any other poet. There is no artificial,
pompous display; but a strict parsimony of the poet's
materials, like the rude simplicity of the age in which
he lived. His words point as an index to the objects,
like the eye or finger. There were none of the commonplaces
of poetic diction in his time, no reflected lights of
fancy, no borrowed roseate tints; he was obliged to
inspect things narrowly for himself, so that his descriptions
produce the effect of sculpture.
His descriptions of natural scenery possess a characteristic
excellence which may be termed gusto. They
have a local truth and freshness which give the very
feeling of the air, the coolness or moisture of the ground.
Inanimate objects are thus made to have a fellow-feeling
in the interest of the story, and render the sentiment of
the speaker's mind.
It was the same trust in Nature and reliance on his
subject which enabled Chaucer to describe the grief and
patience of Griselda and the faith of Constance. Chaucer
has more of this deep, internal, sustained sentiment than
any other writer, except Boccaccio. In depth of simple
pathos and intensity of conception, never swerving from
his subject, I think no other writer comes near him, not
even the Greek tragedians.
The poetry of Chaucer has a religious sanctity about
it, connected with the manners and superstitions of the
age. It has all the spirit of martyrdom. It has also all
the extravagance and the utmost licentiousness of comic
humour, equally arising out of the manners of the time.
He excelled in both styles, and could pass at will from
the one to the other; but he never confounded the two
Of all the poets, Spenser is the most poetical. There
is an originality, richness, and variety in his allegorical
personages and fictions which almost vie with the splendours
of the ancient mythology. His poetry is all fairyland;
he paints Nature not as we find it, but as we
expected to find it, and fulfils the delightful promise of
our youth. His ideas, indeed, seem more distinct than
his perceptions. The love of beauty, however, and not
of truth, is the moving principle of his mind; and he is
guided in his fantastic delineations by no rule but the
impulse of an inexhaustible imagination.
Some people will say that Spenser's poetry may be
very fine, but that they cannot understand it, on account
of the allegory. They are afraid of the allegory. This is
very idle. If they do not meddle with the allegory, the
allegory will not meddle with them. Without minding it
at all, the whole is as plain as a pikestaff.
Spenser is the poet of our waking dreams, and he has
invented not only a language, but a music of his own for
them. The undulations are infinite, like those of the
waves of the sea; but the effect is still the same, lulling
the senses into a deep oblivion of the jarring noises of
the world, from which we have no wish ever to be
Shakespeare and Milton
Those arts which depend on individual genius and
incommunicable power have always leaped at once from
infancy to manhood, from the first rude dawn of invention
to their meridian height and dazzling lustre, and
have in general declined ever after. Homer, Chaucer,
Spenser, Shakespeare, Dante, and Ariosto—Milton alone
was of a later age, and not the worse for it—Raphael,
Titian, Michael Angelo, Correggio, Cervantes, and Boccaccio,
the Greek sculptors and tragedians, all lived near
the beginning of their arts, perfected, and all but created
them. They rose by clusters, never so to rise again.
The four greatest names in English poetry are almost
the four first we come to—Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare,
and Milton. There are no others that can really
be put into competition with these. Of these four,
Chaucer excels as the poet of manners, or of real life;
Spenser as the poet of romance; Shakespeare as the poet
of Nature, in the largest use of the term; and Milton as
the poet of morality. Chaucer describes things as they
are; Spenser, as we wish them to be; Shakespeare, as
they would be; and Milton, as they ought to be. The
characteristic of Chaucer is intensity; of Spenser, remoteness;
of Milton, elevation; of Shakespeare, everything.
The peculiarity of Shakespeare's mind was its generic
quality; its power of communication with all other minds,
so that it contained a universe of thought and feeling
within itself. He was just like any other man, but
he was like all other men. He was the least of an egotist
that it was possible to be. He was nothing in himself;
but he was all that others were, or that they could become.
His genius shone equally on the evil and on the good, on
the wise and the foolish, the monarch and the beggar.
The world of spirits lay open to him, like the world of
real men and women; and there is the same truth in his
delineations of the one as of the other. Each of his
characters is as much itself, and as absolutely independent
of the rest, as well as of the author, as if they were
living persons, not fictions of the mind. His plays alone
are properly expressions of the passions, not descriptions
Chaucer's characters are narrative; Shakespeare's,
dramatic; Milton's, epic. In Chaucer we perceive a fixed
essence of character. In Shakespeare there is a continual
composition and decomposition of its elements, a
fermentation of every particle in the whole mass, by its
alternate affinity or antipathy to other principles which
are brought in contact with it. Milton took only a few
simple principles of character, and raised them to the
utmost conceivable grandeur.
The passion in Shakespeare is full of dramatic fluctuation.
In Chaucer it is like the course of a river—strong,
full, and increasing; but in Shakespeare it is like the sea,
agitated this way and that, and loud-lashed by furious
storms. Milton, on the other hand, takes only the imaginative
part of passion, that which remains after the event,
and abstracts it from the world of action to that of contemplation.
The great fault of a modern school of poetry [the
Lake poets] is that it would reduce poetry to a mere
effusion of natural sensibility; or, what is worse, would
divest it both of imaginary splendour and human passion,
to surround the meanest objects with the morbid feelings
and devouring egotism of the writers' own minds. Milton
and Shakespeare did not so understand poetry. They
gave a more liberal interpretation both to Nature and art.
They did not do all they could to get rid of the one and
the other, to fill up the dreary void with the moods of
their own minds.
Shakespeare's imagination is of the same plastic kind
as his conception of character or passion. Its movement
is rapid and devious, and unites the most opposite
extremes. He seems always hurrying from his subject,
even while describing it; but the stroke, like the lightning's,
is as sure as it is sudden. His language and versification
are like the rest of him. He has a magic power
over words; they come winged at his bidding, and seem
to know their places. His language is hieroglyphical. It
translates thoughts into visible images. He had an equal
genius for comedy and tragedy; and his tragedies are
better than his comedies, because tragedy is better than
comedy. His female characters are the finest in the
world. Lastly, Shakespeare was the least of a coxcomb
of anyone that ever lived, and much of a gentleman.
Shakespeare discovers in his writings little religious
enthusiasm, and an indifference to personal reputation;
in these respects, as in every other, he formed a direct
contrast to Milton. Milton's works are a perpetual invocation
to the muses, a hymn to Fame. He had his
thoughts constantly fixed on the contemplation of the
Hebrew theocracy, and of a perfect commonwealth; and
he seized the pen with a hand warm from the touch of
the ark of faith. The spirit of the poet, the patriot, and
the prophet vied with each other in his breast. He
thought of nobler forms and nobler things than those he
found about him. He strives hard to say the finest
things in the world, and he does say them. In Milton
there is always an appearance of effort; in Shakespeare,
Milton has borrowed more than any other writer, and
exhausted every source of imitation; yet he is perfectly
distinct from every other writer. The power of his mind
is stamped on every line. He describes objects of which
he could only have read in books with the vividness of
Milton's blank verse is the only blank verse in the language,
except Shakespeare's, that deserves the name of
verse. The sound of his lines is moulded into the expression
of the sentiment, almost of the very image.
Dryden and Pope
These are the great masters of the artificial style of
poetry, as the four poets of whom I have already treated
were of the natural, and they have produced a kind and
degree of excellence which existed equally nowhere else.
Pope was a man of exquisite faculties and of the most
refined taste; he was a wit and critic, a man of sense,
of observation, and the world. He was the poet not of
Nature, but of art. He saw Nature only dressed by art;
he judged of beauty by fashion; he sought for truth in
the opinions of the world; he judged of the feelings of
others by his own. His muse never wandered with safety
but from his library to his grotto, or from his grotto into
his library back again. That which was the nearest to
him was the greatest; the fashion of the day bore sway
in his mind over the immutable laws of Nature. He had
none of the enthusiasm of poetry; he was in poetry what
the sceptic is in religion. Yet within this narrow circle
how much, and that how exquisite, was contained! The
wrong end of the magnifier is held to everything, but still
the exhibition is highly curious. If I had to choose, there
are one or two persons—and but one or two—that I
should like to have been better than Pope!
Dryden was a bolder and more various versifier than
Pope; he had greater strength of mind, but he had not
the same delicacy of feeling. Pope describes the thing,
and goes on describing his own descriptions, till he loses
himself in verbal repetitions; Dryden recurs to the object
often, and gives us new strokes of character as well as of
Thomson and Cowper
Thomson is the best of our descriptive poets; the
colours with which he paints still seem wet. Nature in
his descriptions is seen growing around us, fresh and
lusty as in itself. He puts his heart into his subject, and
it is for this reason that he is the most popular of all
our poets. But his verse is heavy and monotonous; it
seems always labouring uphill.
Cowper had some advantages over Thomson, particularly
in simplicity of style, in a certain precision of
graphical description, and in a more careful choice of
topics. But there is an effeminacy about him which
shrinks from and repels common and hearty sympathy.
He shakes hands with Nature with a pair of fashionable
gloves on; he is delicate to fastidiousness, and glad to
get back to the drawing-room and the ladies, the sofa,
and the tea-urn. He was a nervous man; but to be a
coward is not the way to succeed either in poetry, in war,
or in love. Still, he is a genuine poet, and deserves his
Burns was not like Shakespeare in the range of his
genius; but there is something of the same magnanimity,
directness, and unaffected character about him. He was
as much of a man, not a twentieth part as much of a
poet, as Shakespeare. He had an eye to see, a heart to
feel—no more. His pictures of good fellowship, of social
glee, of quaint humour, are equal to anything; they come
up to Nature, and they cannot go beyond it. His strength
is not greater than his weakness; his virtues were greater
than his vices. His virtues belonged to his genius; his
vices to his situation.
Nothing could surpass Burns's love-songs in beauty of
expression and in true pathos, except some of the old
Scottish ballads themselves. There is in these a still
more original cast of thought, a more romantic imagery;
a closer intimacy with Nature, a more infantine simplicity
of manners, a greater strength of affection, "thoughts
that often lie too deep for tears." The old English ballads
are of a gayer turn. They are adventurous and
romantic; but they relate chiefly to good living and good
fellowship, to drinking and hunting scenes.
Some Contemporary Poets
Tom Moore is heedless, gay, and prodigal of his poetical
wealth. Everything lives, moves, and sparkles in his
poetry, while, over all, love waves his purple light. His
levity at last oppresses; his variety cloys, his rapidity
dazzles and distracts the sight.
Lord Byron's poetry is as morbid as Moore's is careless
and dissipated. His passion is always of the same
unaccountable character, at once violent and sullen, fierce
and gloomy. It is the passion of a mind preying upon
itself, and disgusted with, or indifferent to, all other
things. There is nothing less poetical or more repulsive.
But still there is power; and power forces admiration.
In vigour of style and force of conception he surpasses
every writer of the present day.
Walter Scott is deservedly the most popular of living
poets. He differs from his readers only in a greater
range of knowledge and facility of expression. The
force of his mind is picturesque rather than moral. He
is to the great poet what an excellent mimic is to a
Mr. Wordsworth is the most original poet now living.
His poetry is not external, but internal; he furnishes it
from his own mind, and is his own subject. He is the
poet of mere sentiment. Many of the "Lyrical Ballads"
are of inconceivable beauty, of perfect originality and
pathos. But his powers have been mistaken by the age.
He cannot form a whole. He has not the constructive
faculty. His "Excursion" is a proof of this; the line
labours, the sentiment moves slowly, but the poem stands
The Lake school of poetry had its origin in the French
Revolution, or rather in the sentiments and opinions
which produced that event. The world was to be turned
topsy-turvy, and poetry was to share its fate. The paradox
they set out with was that all things are by Nature
equally fit subjects for poetry, or rather, that the meanest
and most unpromising are best. They aimed at exciting
attention by reversing the established standards of
estimation in the world. An adept in this school of
poetry is jealous of all excellence but his own. He is
slow to admire anything admirable, feels no interest in
what is most interesting to others, no grandeur in anything
grand. He sees nothing but himself and the universe.
His egotism is, in some respects, a madness. The
effect of this has been perceived as something odd; but
the cause or principle has never been traced to its source
before. The proofs are to be found throughout many
of the poems of Mr. Southey, Mr. Coleridge, and
I may say of Mr. Coleridge that he is the only person
I ever knew who answered to the idea of a man of genius.
But his "Ancient Mariner" is the only work that
gives an adequate idea of his natural powers. In it,
however, he seems to "conceive of poetry but as a
drunken dream, reckless, careless, and heedless of past,
present, and to come."
I have thus gone through my task. I have felt my
subject sinking from under me as I advanced, and have
been afraid of ending in nothing. The interest has
unavoidably decreased at almost every step of the progress,
like a play that has its catastrophe in the first or
second act. This, however, I could not help.