Lectures on the English Poets by William Hazlitt

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 all ages.

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 instances.

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 styles together.

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 recalled.

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 of them.

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, scarcely any.

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 actual observation.

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 his pencil.

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 reputation.

Robert Burns

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 great actor.

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 stock-still.

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 Mr. Wordsworth.

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.