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Table-Talk, Essays on Men and Manners by William Hazlitt

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Neither is this privilege allowed to prose-writers in our time any more
than to poets formerly.

It is not then acuteness of organs or extent of capacity that
constitutes rare genius or produces the most exquisite models of art,
but an intense sympathy with some one beauty or distinguishing
characteristic in nature. Irritability alone, or the interest taken in
certain things, may supply the place of genius in weak and otherwise
ordinary minds. As there are certain instruments fitted to perform
certain kinds of labour, there are certain minds so framed as to produce
certain _chef-d'oeuvres_ in art and literature, which is surely the best
use they can be put to. If a man had all sorts of instruments in his
shop and wanted one, he would rather have that one than be supplied with
a double set of all the others. If he had them twice over, he could
only do what he can do as it is, whereas without that one he perhaps
cannot finish any one work he has in hand. So if a man can do one thing
better than anybody else, the value of this one thing is what he must
stand or fall by, and his being able to do a hundred other things merely
_as well_ as anybody else would not alter the sentence or add to his
respectability; on the contrary, his being able to do so many other
things well would probably interfere with and encumber him in the
execution of the only thing that others cannot do as well as he, and so
far be a drawback and a disadvantage. More people, in fact, fail from a
multiplicity of talents and pretensions than from an absolute poverty of
resources. I have given instances of this elsewhere. Perhaps
Shakespear's tragedies would in some respects have been better if he had
never written comedies at all; and in that case his comedies might well
have been spared, though they must have cost us some regret. Racine, it
is said, might have rivalled Moliere in comedy; but he gave up the
cultivation of his comic talents to devote himself wholly to the tragic
Muse. If, as the French tell us, he in consequence attained to the
perfection of tragic composition, this was better than writing comedies
as well as Moliere and tragedies as well as Crebillon. Yet I count
those persons fools who think it a pity Hogarth did not succeed better
in serious subjects. The division of labour is an excellent principle
in taste as well as in mechanics. Without this, I find from Adam Smith,
we could not have a pin made to the degree of perfection it is. We do
not, on any rational scheme of criticism, inquire into the variety of a
man's excellences, or the number of his works, or his facility of
production. _Venice Preserved_ is sufficient for Otway's fame. I hate
all those nonsensical stories about Lope de Vega and his writing a play
in a morning before breakfast. He had time enough to do it after. If a
man leaves behind him any work which is a model in its kind, we have no
right to ask whether he could do anything else, or how he did it, or how
long he was about it. All that talent which is not necessary to the
actual quantity of excellence existing in the world, loses its object,
is so much waste talent or _talent to let_. I heard a sensible man say
he should like to do some one thing better than all the rest of the
world, and in everything else to be like all the rest of the world. Why
should a man do more than his part? The rest is vanity and vexation of
spirit. We look with jealous and grudging eyes at all those
qualifications which are not essential; first, because they are
superfluous, and next, because we suspect they will be prejudicial. Why
does Mr. Kean play all those harlequin tricks of singing, dancing,
fencing, etc.? They say, 'It is for his benefit.' It is not for his
reputation. Garrick indeed shone equally in comedy and tragedy. But he
was first, not second-rate in both. There is not a greater impertinence
than to ask, if a man is clever out of his profession. I have heard of
people trying to cross-examine Mrs. Siddons. I would as soon try to
entrap one of the Elgin Marbles into an argument. Good nature and
common sense are required from all people; but one proud distinction is
enough for any one individual to possess or to aspire to.


[1] I do not here speak of the figurative or fanciful exercise of the
imagination, which consists in finding out some striking object or image
to illustrate another.

[2] Mr. Wordsworth himself should not say this, and yet I am not sure he
would not.

[3] The only good thing I have ever heard come of this man's singular
faculty of memory was the following. A gentleman was mentioning his
having been sent up to London from the place where he lived to see
Garrick act. When he went back into the country he was asked what he
thought of the player and the play. 'Oh!' he said, 'he did not know: he
had only seen a little man strut about the stage and repeat 7956 words.'
We all laughed at this; but a person in one corner of the room, holding
one hand to his forehead, and seeming mightily delighted, called out,
'Ay, indeed! And pray, was he found to be correct?' This was the
supererogation of literal matter-of-fact curiosity. Jedediah Buxton's
counting the number of words was idle enough; but here was a fellow who
wanted some one to count them over again to see if he was correct.

The force of _dulness_ could no farther go!

[4] Sir Joshua Reynolds, being asked how long it had taken him to do a
certain picture, made answer, 'All my life!.'



People have about as substantial an idea of Cobbett as they have of
Cribb. His blows are as hard, and he himself is as impenetrable. One
has no notion of him as making use of a fine pen, but a great
mutton-fist; his style stuns his readers, and he 'fillips the ear of the
public with a three-man beetle.' He is too much for any single
newspaper antagonist; 'lays waste' a city orator or Member of
Parliament, and bears hard upon the Government itself. He is a kind of
_fourth estate_ in the politics of the country. He is not only
unquestionably the most powerful political writer of the present day,
but one of the best writers in the language. He speaks and thinks
plain, broad, downright English. He might be said to have the clearness
of Swift, the naturalness of Defoe, and the picturesque satirical
description of Mandeville; if all such comparisons were not impertinent.
A really great and original writer is like nobody but himself. In one
sense, Sterne was not a wit, nor Shakespear a poet. It is easy to
describe second-rate talents, because they fall into a class and enlist
under a standard; but first-rate powers defy calculation or comparison,
and can be defined only by themselves. They are _sui generis_, and make
the class to which they belong. I have tried half a dozen times to
describe Burke's style without ever succeeding,--its severe
extravagance; its literal boldness; its matter-of-fact hyperboles; its
running away with a subject, and from it at the same time,--but there is
no making it out, for there is no example of the same thing anywhere
else. We have no common measure to refer to; and his qualities
contradict even themselves.

Cobbett is not so difficult. He has been compared to Paine; and so far
it is true there are no two writers who come more into juxtaposition
from the nature of their subjects, from the internal resources on which
they draw, and from the popular effect of their writings and their
adaptation (though that is a bad word in the present case) to the
capacity of every reader. But still if we turn to a volume of Paine's
(his _Common Sense_ or _Rights of Man_) we are struck (not to say
somewhat refreshed) by the difference. Paine is a much more sententious
writer than Cobbett. You cannot open a page in any of his best and
earlier works without meeting with some maxim, some antithetical and
memorable saying, which is a sort of starting-place for the argument,
and the goal to which it returns. There is not a single _bon mot_, a
single sentence in Cobbett that has ever been quoted again. If anything
is ever quoted from him, it is an epithet of abuse or a nickname. He is
an excellent hand at invention in that way, and has 'damnable iteration'
in him. What could be better than his pestering Erskine year after year
with his second title of Baron Clackmannan? He is rather too fond of
_the Sons and Daughters of Corruption_. Paine affected to reduce things
to first principles, to announce self-evident truths. Cobbett troubles
himself about little but the details and local circumstances. The first
appeared to have made up his mind beforehand to certain opinions, and to
try to find the most compendious and pointed expressions for them: his
successor appears to have no clue, no fixed or leading principles, nor
ever to have thought on a question till he sits down to write about it;
but then there seems no end of his matters of fact and raw materials,
which are brought out in all their strength and sharpness from not
having been squared or frittered down or vamped up to suit a theory--he
goes on with his descriptions and illustrations as if he would never
come to a stop; they have all the force of novelty with all the
familiarity of old acquaintance; his knowledge grows out of the subject,
and his style is that of a man who has an absolute intuition of what he
is talking about, and never thinks of anything else. He deals in
premises and speaks to evidence--the coming to a conclusion and summing
up (which was Paine's _forte_) lies in a smaller compass. The one could
not compose an elementary treatise on politics to become a manual for
the popular reader, nor could the other in all probability have kept up
a weekly journal for the same number of years with the same spirit,
interest, and untired perseverance. Paine's writings are a sort of
introduction to political arithmetic on a new plan: Cobbett keeps a
day-book, and makes an entry at full of all the occurrences and
troublesome questions that start up throughout the year. Cobbett, with
vast industry, vast information, and the utmost power of making what he
says intelligible, never seems to get at the beginning or come to the
end of any question: Paine in a few short sentences seems by his
peremptory manner 'to clear it from all controversy, past, present, and
to come.' Paine takes a bird's-eye view of things. Cobbett sticks
close to them, inspects the component parts, and keeps fast hold of the
smallest advantages they afford him. Or, if I might here be indulged in
a pastoral allusion, Paine tries to enclose his ideas in a fold for
security and repose; Cobbett lets _his_ pour out upon the plain like a
flock of sheep to feed and batten. Cobbett is a pleasanter writer for
those to read who do not agree with him; for he is less dogmatical, goes
more into the common grounds of fact and argument to which all appeal,
is more desultory and various, and appears less to be driving at a
present conclusion than urged on by the force of present conviction. He
is therefore tolerated by all parties, though he has made himself by
turns obnoxious to all; and even those he abuses read him. The
Reformers read him when he was a Tory, and the Tories read him now that
he is a Reformer. He must, I think, however, be _caviare_ to the

If he is less metaphysical and poetical than his celebrated prototype,
he is more picturesque and dramatic. His episodes, which are numerous
as they are pertinent, are striking, interesting, full of life and
_naivete_, minute, double measure running over, but never
tedious--_nunquam sufflaminandus erat_. He is one of those writers who
can never tire us, not even of himself; and the reason is, he is always
'full of matter.' He never runs to lees, never gives us the vapid
leavings of himself, is never 'weary, stale, and unprofitable,' but
always setting out afresh on his journey, clearing away some old
nuisance, and turning up new mould. His egotism is delightful, for
there is no affectation in it. He does not talk of himself for lack of
something to write about, but because some circumstance that has
happened to himself is the best possible illustration of the subject,
and he is not the man to shrink from giving the best possible
illustration of the subject from a squeamish delicacy. He likes both
himself and his subject too well. He does not put himself before it,
and say, 'Admire me first,' but places us in the same situation with
himself, and makes us see all that he does. There is no
blindman's-buff, no conscious hints, no awkward ventriloquism, no
testimonies of applause, no abstract, senseless self-complacency, no
smuggled admiration of his own person by proxy: it is all plain and
above- board. He writes himself plain William Cobbett, strips himself
quite as naked as anybody would wish--in a word, his egotism is full of
individuality, and has room for very little vanity in it. We feel
delighted, rub our hands, and draw our chair to the fire, when we come
to a passage of this sort: we know it will be something new and good,
manly and simple, not the same insipid story of self over again. We sit
down at table with the writer, but it is to a course of rich viands,
flesh, fish, and wild-fowl, and not to a nominal entertainment, like
that given by the Barmecide in the _Arabian Nights_, who put off his
visitors with calling for a number of exquisite things that never
appeared, and with the honour of his company. Mr. Cobbett is not a
_make-believe_ writer: his worst enemy cannot say that of him. Still
less is he a vulgar one: he must be a puny, common-place critic indeed
who thinks him so. How fine were the graphical descriptions he sent us
from America: what a Transatlantic flavour, what a native gusto, what a
fine _sauce piquante_ of contempt they were seasoned with! If he had
sat down to look at himself in the glass, instead of looking about him
like Adam in Paradise, he would not have got up these articles in so
capital a style. What a noble account of his first breakfast after his
arrival in America! It might serve for a month. There is no scene on
the stage more amusing. How well he paints the gold and scarlet plumage
of the American birds, only to lament more pathetically the want of the
wild wood-notes of his native land! The groves of the Ohio that had
just fallen beneath the axe's stroke 'live in his description,' and the
turnips that he transplanted from Botley 'look green' in prose! How
well at another time he describes the poor sheep that had got the tick
and had bled down in the agonies of death! It is a portrait in the
manner of Bewick, with the strength, the simplicity, and feeling of that
great naturalist. What havoc be makes, when he pleases, of the curls of
Dr. Parr's wig and of the Whig consistency of Mr. [Coleridge?]! His
_Grammar_, too, is as entertaining as a story-book. He is too hard upon
the style of others, and not enough (sometimes) on his own.

As a political partisan no one can stand against him. With his
brandished club, like Giant Despair in the _Pilgrim's Progress_, he
knocks out their brains; and not only no individual but no corrupt
system could hold out against his powerful and repeated attacks, but
with the same weapon, swung round like a flail, that he levels his
antagonists, he lays his friends low, and puts his own party _hors de
combat_. This is a bad propensity., and a worse principle in political
tactics, though a common one. If his blows were straightforward and
steadily directed to the same object, no unpopular minister could live
before him; instead of which he lays about right and left, impartially
and remorselessly, makes a clear stage, has all the ring to himself, and
then runs out of it, just when he should stand his ground. He throws
his head into his adversary's stomach, and takes away from him all
inclination for the fight, hits fair or foul, strikes at everything, and
as you come up to his aid or stand ready to pursue his advantage, trips
up your heels or lays you sprawling, and pummels you when down as much
to his heart's content as ever the Yanguesian carriers belaboured
Rosinante with their pack-staves. 'He has the back-trick simply the
best of any man in Illyria.' He pays off both scores of old friendship
and new-acquired enmity in a breath, in one perpetual volley, one raking
fire of 'arrowy sleet' shot from his pen. However his own reputation or
the cause may suffer in consequence, he cares not one pin about that, so
that he disables all who oppose, or who pretend to help him. In fact,
he cannot bear success of any kind, not even of his own views or party;
and if any principle were likely to become popular, would turn round
against it to show his power in shouldering it on one side. In short,
wherever power is, there he is against it: he naturally butts at all
obstacles, as unicorns are attracted to oak trees, and feels his own
strength only by resistance to the opinions and wishes of the rest of
the world. To sail with the stream, to agree with the company, is not
his humour. If he could bring about a Reform in Parliament, the odds
are that he would instantly fall foul of and try to mar his own
handiwork; and he quarrels with his own creatures as soon as he has
written them into a little vogue--and a prison. I do not think this is
vanity or fickleness so much as a pugnacious disposition, that must have
an antagonistic power to contend with, and only finds itself at ease in
systematic opposition. If it were not for this, the high towers and
rotten places of the world would fall before the battering-ram of his
hard-headed reasoning; but if he once found them tottering, he would
apply his strength to prop them up, and disappoint the expectations of
his followers. He cannot agree to anything established, nor to set up
anything else in its stead. While it is established, he presses hard
against it, because it presses upon him, at least in imagination. Let
it crumble under his grasp, and the motive to resistance is gone. He
then requires some other grievance to set his face against. His
principle is repulsion, his nature contradiction: he is made up of mere
antipathies, an Ishmaelite indeed without a fellow. He is always
playing at hunt-the-slipper in politics. He turns round upon whoever is
next him. The way to wean him from any opinion, and make him conceive
an intolerable hatred against it, would be to place somebody near him
who was perpetually dinning it in his ears. When he is in England he
does nothing but abuse the Boroughmongers and laugh at the whole system;
when he is in America he grows impatient of freedom and a republic. If
he had stayed there a little longer he would have become a loyal and a
loving subject of His Majesty King George IV. He lampooned the French
Revolution when it was hailed as the dawn of liberty by millions: by the
time it was brought into almost universal ill-odour by some means or
other (partly no doubt by himself), he had turned, with one or two or
three others, staunch Buonapartist. He is always of the militant, not
of the triumphant party: so far he bears a gallant show of magnanimity.
But his gallantry is hardly of the right stamp. It wants principle; for
though he is not servile or mercenary, he is the victim of self-will.
He must pull down and pull in pieces: it is not in his disposition to do
otherwise. It is a pity; for with his great talents he might do great
things, if he would go right forward to any useful object, make thorough
stitch-work of any question, or join hand and heart with any principle.
He changes his opinions as he does his friends, and much on the same
account. He has no comfort in fixed principles; as soon as anything is
settled in his own mind, he quarrels with it. He has no satisfaction
but the chase after truth, runs a question down, worries and kills it,
then quits it like a vermin, and starts some new game, to lead him a new
dance, and give him a fresh breathing through bog and brake, with the
rabble yelping at his heels and the leaders perpetually at fault. This
he calls sport-royal. He thinks it as good as cudgel-playing or
single-stick, or anything else that has life in it. He likes the cut
and thrust, the falls, bruises, and dry blows of an argument: as to any
good or useful results that may come of the amicable settling of it, any
one is welcome to them for him. The amusement is over when the matter
is once fairly decided.

There is another point of view in which this may be put. I might say
that Mr. Cobbett is a very honest man with a total want of principle,
and I might explain this paradox thus:--I mean that he is, I think, in
downright earnest in what he says, in the part he takes at the time; but
in taking that part, he is led entirely by headstrong obstinacy,
caprice, novelty 'pique, or personal motive of some sort, and not by a
steadfast regard for truth or habitual anxiety for what is right
uppermost in his mind. He is not a fee'd, time-serving, shuffling
advocate (no man could write as he does who did not believe himself
sincere); but his understanding is the dupe and slave of his momentary,
violent, and irritable humours. He does not adopt an opinion
'deliberately or for money,' yet his conscience is at the mercy of the
first provocation he receives, of the first whim he takes in his head:
he sees things through the medium of heat and passion, not with
reference to any general principles, and his whole system of thinking is
deranged by the first object that strikes his fancy or sours his temper.
One cause of this phenomenon is perhaps his want of a regular
education. He is a self-taught man, and has the faults as well as
excellences of that class of persons in their most striking and glaring
excess. It must be acknowledged that the editor of the _Political
Register_ (the _twopenny trash_, as it was called, till a bill passed
the House to raise the price to sixpence) is not 'the gentleman and
scholar,' though he has qualities that, with a little better management,
would be worth (to the public) both those titles. For want of knowing
what has been discovered before him, he has not certain general
landmarks to refer to, or a general standard of thought to apply to
individual cases. He relies on his own acuteness and the immediate
evidence, without being acquainted with the comparative anatomy or
philosophical structure of opinion. He does not view things on a large
scale or at the horizon (dim and airy enough, perhaps)--but as they
affect himself, close, palpable, tangible. Whatever he finds out is his
own, and he only knows what he finds out. He is in the constant hurry
and fever of gestation; his brain teems incessantly with some fresh
project. Every new light is the birth of a new system, the dawn of a
new world outstripping and overreaching himself. The last opinion is
the only true one. He is wiser to-day than he was yesterday. Why
should he not be wiser to-morrow than he was to-day?--Men of a learned
education are not so sharp-witted as clever men without it; but they
know the balance of the human intellect better; if they are more stupid,
they are more steady, and are less liable to be led astray by their own
sagacity and the overweening petulance of hard-earned and late-acquired
wisdom. They do not fall in love with every meretricious extravagance
at first sight, or mistake an old battered hypothesis for a vestal,
because they are new to the ways of this old world. They do not seize
upon it as a prize, but are safe from gross imposition by being as wise
and no wiser than those who went before them.

Paine said on some occasion, 'What I have written, I have written'--as
rendering any further declaration of his principles unnecessary. Not so
Mr. Cobbett. What he has written is no rule to him what he is to write.
He learns something every day, and every week he takes the field to
maintain the opinions of the last six days against friend or foe. I
doubt whether this outrageous inconsistency, this headstrong fickleness,
this understood want of all rule and method, does not enable him to go
on with the spirit, vigour, and variety that he does. He is not pledged
to repeat himself. Every new _Register_ is a kind of new Prospectus.
He blesses himself from all ties and shackles on his understanding; he
has no mortgages on his brain; his notions are free and unencumbered.
If he was put in trammels, he might become a vile hack like so many
more. But he gives himself 'ample scope and verge enough.' He takes
both sides of a question, and maintains one as sturdily as the other.
If nobody else can argue against him, he is a very good match for
himself. He writes better in favour of Reform than anybody else; he
used to write better against it. Wherever he is, there is the tug of
war, the weight of the argument, the strength of abuse. He is not like
a man in danger of being _bed-rid_ in his faculties--he tosses and
tumbles about his unwieldy bulk, and when he is tired of lying on one
side, relieves himself by turning on the other. His shifting his point
of view from time to time not merely adds variety and greater compass to
his topics (so that the _Political Register_ is an armoury and magazine
for all the materials and weapons of political warfare), but it gives a
greater zest and liveliness to his manner of treating them. Mr. Cobbett
takes nothing for granted as what he has proved before; he does not
write a book of reference. We see his ideas in their first concoction,
fermenting and overflowing with the ebullitions of a lively conception.
We look on at the actual process, and are put in immediate possession of
the grounds and materials on which he forms his sanguine, unsettled
conclusions. He does not give us samples of reasoning, but the whole
solid mass, refuse and all.

He pours out all as plain
As downright Shippen or as old Montaigne.

This is one cause of the clearness and force of his writings. An
argument does not stop to stagnate and muddle in his brain, but passes
at once to his paper. His ideas are served up, like pancakes, hot and
hot. Fresh theories give him fresh courage. He is like a young and
lusty bridegroom that divorces a favourite speculation every morning,
and marries a new one every night. He is not wedded to his notions, not
he. He has not one Mrs. Cobbett among all his opinions. He makes the
most of the last thought that has come in his way, seizes fast hold of
it, rumbles it about in all directions with rough strong hands, has his
wicked will of it, takes a surfeit, and throws it away.--Our author's
changing his opinions for new ones is not so wonderful; what is more
remarkable is his facility in forgetting his old ones. He does not
pretend to consistency (like Mr. Coleridge); he frankly disavows all
connection with himself. He feels no personal responsibility in this
way, and cuts a friend or principle with the same decided indifference
that Antipholis of Ephesus cuts AEgeon of Syracuse. It is a hollow
thing. The only time he ever grew romantic was in bringing over the
relics of Mr. Thomas Paine with him from America to go a progress with
them through the disaffected districts. Scarce had he landed in
Liverpool when he left the bones of a great man to shift for themselves;
and no sooner did he arrive in London than he made a speech to disclaim
all participation in the political and theological sentiments of his
late idol, and to place the whole stock of his admiration and enthusiasm
towards him to the account of his financial speculations, and of his
having predicted the fate of paper-money. If he had erected a little
gold statue to him, it might have proved the sincerity of this
assertion; but to make a martyr and a patron saint of a man, and to dig
up 'his canonised bones' in order to expose them as objects of devotion
to the rabble's gaze, asks something that has more life and spirit in
it, more mind and vivifying soul, than has to do with any calculation of
pounds, shillings, and pence! The fact is, he _ratted_ from his own
project. He found the thing not so ripe as he had expected. His heart
failed him; his enthusiasm fled, and he made his retractation. His
admiration is short-lived; his contempt only is rooted, and his
resentment lasting.--The above was only one instance of his building too
much on practical _data_. He has an ill habit of prophesying, and goes
on, though still decieved. The art of prophesying does not suit Mr.
Cobbett's style. He has a knack of fixing names and times and places.
According to him, the Reformed Parliament was to meet in March 1818--it
did not, and we heard no more of the matter. When his predictions fail,
he takes no further notice of them, but applies himself to new
ones--like the country people who turn to see what weather there is in
the almanac for the next week, though it has been out in its reckoning
every day of the last.

Mr. Cobbett is great in attack, not in defence; be cannot fight an
up-hill battle. He will not bear the least punishing. If any one turns
upon him (which few people like to do) he immediately turns tail. Like
an overgrown schoolboy, he is so used to have it all his own way, that
he cannot submit to anything like competition or a struggle for the
mastery; he must lay on all the blows, and take none. He is bullying
and cowardly; a Big Ben in politics, who will fall upon others and crush
them by his weight, but is not prepared for resistance, and is soon
staggered by a few smart blows. Whenever he has been set upon, he has
slunk out of the controversy. The _Edinburgh Review_ made (what is
called) a dead set at him some years ago, to which he only retorted by
an eulogy on the superior neatness of an English kitchen-garden to a
Scotch one. I remember going one day into a bookseller's shop in Fleet
Street to ask for the _Review_, and on my expressing my opinion to a
young Scotchman, who stood behind the counter, that Mr. Cobbett might
hit as hard in his reply, the North Briton said with some alarm, 'But
you don't think, sir, Mr. Cobbett will be able to injure the Scottish
nation?' I said I could not speak to that point, but I thought he was
very well able to defend himself. He, however, did not, but has borne a
grudge to the _Edinburgh Review_ ever since, which he hates worse than
the _Quarterly_. I cannot say I do.[2]


[1] The late Lord Thurlow used to say that Cobbett was the only writer
that deserved the name of a political reasoner.

[2] Mr. Cobbett speaks almost as well as he writes. The only time l
ever saw him he seemed to me a very pleasant man--easy of access,
affable, clear-headed, simple and mild in his manner, deliberate and
unruffled in his speech, though some of his expressions were not very
qualified. His figure is tall and portly. He has a good, sensible
face--rather full, with little grey eyes, a hard, square forehead, a
ruddy complexion, with hair grey or powdered; and had on a scarlet
broadcloth waistcoat with the flaps of the pockets hanging down, as was
the custom for gentlemen-farmers in the last century, or as we see it in
the pictures of Members of Parliament in the reign of George I. I
certainly did not think less favourably of him for seeing him.



There are people who have but one idea: at least, if they have more,
they keep it a secret, for they never talk but of one subject.

There is Major Cartwright: he has but one idea or subject of discourse,
Parliamentary Reform. Now Parliamentary Reform is (as far as I know) a
very good subject to talk about; but why should it be the only one? To
hear the worthy and gallant Major resume his favourite topic, is like
law-business, or a person who has a suit in Chancery going on. Nothing
can be attended to, nothing can be talked of but that. Now it is
getting on, now again it is standing still; at one time the Master has
promised to pass judgment by a certain day, at another he has put it off
again and called for more papers, and both are equally reasons for
speaking of it. Like the piece of packthread in the barrister's hands,
he turns and twists it all ways, and cannot proceed a step without it.
Some schoolboys cannot read but in their own book; and the man of one
idea cannot converse out of his own subject. Conversation it is not;
but a sort of recital of the preamble of a bill, or a collection of
grave arguments for a man's being of opinion with himself. It would be
well if there was anything of character, of eccentricity in all this;
but that is not the case. It is a political homily personified, a
walking common-place we have to encounter and listen to. It is just as
if a man was to insist on your hearing him go through the fifth chapter
of the Book of Judges every time you meet, or like the story of the
Cosmogony in the _Vicar of Wakefield._ It is a tine played on a
barrel-organ. It is a common vehicle of discourse into which they get
and are set down when they please, without any pain or trouble to
themselves. Neither is it professional pedantry or trading quackery: it
has no excuse. The man has no more to do with the question which he
saddles on all his hearers than you have. This is what makes the matter
hopeless. If a farmer talks to you about his pigs or his poultry, or a
physician about his patients, or a lawyer about his briefs, or a
merchant about stock, or an author about himself, you know how to
account for this, it is a common infirmity, you have a laugh at his
expense and there is no more to be said. But here is a man who goes out
of his way to be absurd, and is troublesome by a romantic effort of
generosity. You cannot say to him, 'All this may be interesting to you,
but I have no concern in it': you cannot put him off in that way. He
retorts the Latin adage upon you-_Nihil humani a me alienum puto._ He
has got possession of a subject which is of universal and paramount
interest (not 'a fee-grief, due to some single breast'), and on that
plea may hold you by the button as long as be chooses. His delight is
to harangue on what nowise regards himself: how then can you refuse to
listen to what as little amuses you? Time and tide wait for no man.
The business of the state admits of no delay. The question of Universal
Suffrage and Annual Parliaments stands first on the order of the
day--takes precedence in its own right of every other question. Any
other topic, grave or gay, is looked upon in the light of impertinence,
and sent _to Coventry._ Business is an interruption; pleasure a
digression from it. It is the question before every company where the
Major comes, which immediately resolves itself into a committee of the
whole upon it, is carried on by means of a perpetual virtual
adjournment, and it is presumed that no other is entertained while this
is pending--a determination which gives its persevering advocate a fair
prospect of expatiating on it to his dying day. As Cicero says of
study, it follows him into the country, it stays with him at home: it
sits with him at breakfast, and goes out with him to dinner. It is like
a part of his dress, of the costume of his person, without which he
would be at a loss what to do. If he meets you in the street, he
accosts you with it as a form of salutation: if you see him at his own
house, it is supposed you come upon that. If you happen to remark, 'It
is a fine day,' or 'The town is full,' it is considered as a temporary
compromise of the question; you are suspected of not going the whole
length of the principle. As Sancho, when reprimanded for mentioning his
homely favourite in the Duke's kitchen, defended himself by saying,
'There I thought of Dapple, and there I spoke of him,' so the true
stickler for Reform neglects no opportunity of introducing the subject
wherever he is. Place its veteran champion under the frozen north, and
he will celebrate sweet smiling Reform; place him under the mid-day
Afric suns, and he will talk of nothing but Reform--Reform so sweetly
smiling and so sweetly promising for the last forty years--

Dulce ridentem Lalagen,
Dulce loquentem!

A topic of this sort of which the person himself may be considered as
almost sole proprietor and patentee is an estate for life, free from all
encumbrance of wit, thought, or study, you live upon it as a settled
income; and others might as well think to eject you out of a capital
freehold house and estate as think to drive you out of it into the wide
world of common sense and argument. Every man's house is his castle;
and every man's common-place is his stronghold, from which he looks out
and smiles at the dust and heat of controversy, raised by a number of
frivolous and vexatious questions--'Rings the world with the vain stir!'
A cure for this and every other evil would be a Parliamentary Reform;
and so we return in a perpetual circle to the point from which we set
out. Is not this a species of sober madness more provoking than the
real? Has not the theoretical enthusiast his mind as much warped, as
much enslaved by one idea as the acknowledged lunatic, only that the
former has no lucid intervals? If you see a visionary of this class
going along the street, you can tell as well what he is thinking of and
will say next as the man that fancies himself a teapot or the Czar of
Muscovy. The one is as inaccessible to reason as the other: if the one
raves, the other dotes!

There are some who fancy the Corn Bill the root of all evil, and others
who trace all the miseries of life to the practice of muffling up
children in night-clothes when they sleep or travel. They will declaim
by the hour together on the first, and argue themselves black in the
face on the last. It is in vain that you give up the point. They
persist in the debate, and begin again--'But don't you see--?' These
sort of partial obliquities, as they are more entertaining and original,
are also by their nature intermittent. They hold a man but for a
season. He may have one a year or every two years; and though, while he
is in the heat of any new discovery, he will let you hear of nothing
else, he varies from himself, and is amusing undesignedly. He is not
like the chimes at midnight.

People of the character here spoken of, that is, who tease you to death
with some one idea, generally differ in their favourite notion from the
rest of the world; and indeed it is the love of distinction which is
mostly at the bottom of this peculiarity. Thus one person is remarkable
for living on a vegetable diet, and never fails to entertain you all
dinner-time with an invective against animal food. One of this
self-denying class, who adds to the primitive simplicity of this sort of
food the recommendation of having it in a raw state, lamenting the death
of a patient whom he had augured to be in a good way as a convert to his
system, at last accounted for his disappointment in a whisper--'But she
ate meat privately, depend upon it.' It is not pleasant, though it is
what one submits to willingly from some people, to be asked every time
you meet, whether you have quite left off drinking wine, and to be
complimented or condoled with on your looks according as you answer in
the negative or affirmative. Abernethy thinks his pill an infallible
cure for all disorders. A person once complaining to his physician that
he thought his mode of treatment had not answered, he assured him it was
the best in the world,--'and as a proof of it,' says he, 'I have had one
gentleman, a patient with your disorder, under the same regimen for the
last sixteen years!'--l have known persons whose minds were entirely
taken up at all times and on all occasions with such questions as the
Abolition of the Slave Trade, the Restoration of the Jews, or the
progress of Unitarianism. I myself at one period took a pretty strong
turn to inveighing against the doctrine of Divine Right, and am not yet
cured of my prejudice on that subject. How many projectors have gone
mad in good earnest from incessantly harping on one idea: the discovery
of the philosopher's stone, the finding out the longitude, or paying off
the national debt! The disorder at length comes to a fatal crisis; but
long before this, and while they were walking about and talking as
usual, the derangement of the fancy, the loss of all voluntary power to
control or alienate their ideas from the single subject that occupied
them, was gradually taking place, and overturning the fabric of the
understanding by wrenching it all on one side. Alderman Wood has, I
should suppose, talked of nothing but the Queen in all companies for the
last six months. Happy Alderman Wood! Some persons have got a
definition of the verb, others a system of short-hand, others a cure for
typhus fever, others a method for preventing the counterfeiting of
bank-notes, which they think the best possible, and indeed the only one.
Others insist there have been only three great men in the world,
leaving you to add a fourth. A man who has been in Germany will
sometimes talk of nothing but what is German: a Scotchman always leads
the discourse to his own country. Some descant on the Kantean
philosophy. There is a conceited fellow about town who talks always and
everywhere on this subject. He wears the Categories round his neck like
a pearl-chain: he plays off the names of the primary and transcendental
qualities like rings on his fingers. He talks of the Kantean system
while he dances; he talks of it while he dines; he talks of it to his
children, to his apprentices, to his customers. He called on me to
convince me of it, and said I was only prevented from becoming a
complete convert by one or two prejudices. He knows no more about it
than a pikestaff. Why then does he make so much ridiculous fuss about
it? It is not that he has got this one idea in his head, but that he
has got no other. A dunce may talk on the subject of the Kantean
philosophy with great impunity: if he opened his lips on any other he
might be found out. A French lady who had married an Englishman who
said little, excused him by saying, 'He is always thinking of Locke and
Newton.' This is one way of passing muster by following in the suite of
great names!--A friend of mine, whom I met one day in the street,
accosted me with more than usual vivacity, and said, 'Well, we're
selling, we're selling!' I thought he meant a house. 'No,' he said,
'haven't you seen the advertisement in the newspapers? I mean five and
twenty copies of the Essay.' This work, a comely, capacious quarto on
the most abstruse metaphysics, had occupied his sole thoughts for
several years, and he concluded that I must be thinking of what he was.
I believe, however, I may say I am nearly the only person that ever
read, certainly that ever pretended to understand it. It is an original
and most ingenious work, nearly as incomprehensible as it is original,
and as quaint as it is ingenious. If the author is taken up with the
ideas in his own head and no others, he has a right; for he has ideas
there that are to be met with nowhere else, and which occasionally would
not disgrace a Berkeley. A dextrous plagiarist might get himself an
immense reputation by putting them in a popular dress. Oh! how little
do they know, who have never done anything but repeat after others by
rote, the pangs, the labour, the yearnings and misgivings of mind it
costs to get at the germ of an original idea--to dig it out of the
hidden recesses of thought and nature, and bring it half-ashamed,
struggling, and deformed into the day--to give words and intelligible
symbols to that which was never imagined or expressed before! It is as
if the dumb should speak for the first time, as if things should stammer
out their own meaning through the imperfect organs of mere sense. I
wish that some of our fluent, plausible declaimers, who have such store
of words to cover the want of ideas, could lend their art to this
writer. If he, 'poor, unfledged' in this respect, 'who has scarce
winged from view o' th' nest,' could find a language for his ideas,
truth would find a language for some of her secrets. Mr. Fearn was
buried in the woods of Indostan. In his leisure from business and from
tiger-shooting, he took it into his head to look into his own mind. A
whim or two, an odd fancy, like a film before the eye, now and then
crossed it: it struck him as something curious, but the impression at
first disappeared like breath upon glass. He thought no more of it; yet
still the same conscious feelings returned, and what at first was chance
or instinct became a habit. Several notions had taken possession of his
brain relating to mental processes which he had never heard alluded to
in conversation, but not being well versed in such matters, he did not
know whether they were to be found in learned authors or not. He took a
journey to the capital of the Peninsula on purpose, bout Locke, Reid,
Stewart, and Berkeley, whom he consulted with eager curiosity when he
got home, but did not find what he looked for. He set to work himself,
and in a few weeks sketched out a rough draft of his thoughts and
observations on bamboo paper. The eagerness of his new pursuit,
together with the diseases of the climate, proved too much for his
constitution, and he was forced to return to this country. He put his
metaphysics, his bamboo manuscript, into the boat with him, and as he
floated down the Ganges, said to himself, 'If I live, this will live; if
I die, it will not be heard of.' What is fame to this feeling? The
babbling of an idiot! He brought the work home with him and twice had
it stereotyped. The first sketch he allowed was obscure, but the
improved copy he thought could not fail to strike. It did not succeed.
The world, as Goldsmith said of himself, made a point of taking no
notice of it. Ever since he has had nothing but disappointment and
vexation,--the greatest and most heart-breaking of all others--that of
not being able to make yourself understood. Mr. Fearn tells me there is
a sensible writer in the _Monthly Review_ who sees the thing in its
proper light, and says so. But I have heard of no other instance.
There are, notwithstanding, ideas in this work, neglected and
ill-treated as it has been, that lead to more curious and subtle
speculations on some of the most disputed and difficult points of the
philosophy of the human mind (such as _relation_, _abstraction_, etc.)
than have been thrown out in any work for the last sixty years, I mean
since Hume; for since his time there has been no metaphysician in this
country worth the name. Yet his _Treatise on Human Nature_, he tells
us, 'fell still-born from the press.' So it is that knowledge works its
way, and reputation lingers far behind it. But truth is better than
opinion, I maintain it; and as to the two stereotyped and unsold
editions of the Essay on Consciousness, I say, _Honi soit qui mal y
pense!'[1]--My Uncle Toby had one idea in his head, that of his
bowling-green, and another, that of the Widow Wadman. Oh, spare them
both! I will only add one more anecdote in illustration of this theory
of the mind's being occupied with one idea, which is most frequently of
a man's self. A celebrated lyrical writer happened to drop into a small
party where they had just got the novel of _Rob Roy,_ by the author of
_Waverley_. The motto in the title-page was taken from a poem of his.
This was a hint sufficient, a word to the wise. He instantly went to
the book-shelf in the next room, took down the volume of his own poems,
read the whole of that in question aloud with manifest complacency,
replaced it on the shelf, and walked away, taking no more notice of Rob
Roy than if there had been no such person, nor of the new novel than if
it had not been written by its renowned author. There was no
reciprocity in this. But the writer in question does not admit of any
merit second to his own.[2]

Mr. Owen is a man remarkable for one idea. It is that of himself and
the Lanark cotton-mills. He carries this idea backwards and forwards
with him from Glasgow to London, without allowing anything for
attrition, and expects to find it in the same state of purity and
perfection in the latter place as at the former. He acquires a
wonderful velocity and impenetrability in his undaunted transit.
Resistance to him is vain, while the whirling motion of the mail-coach
remains in his head.

Nor Alps nor Apennines can keep him out,
Nor fortified redoubt.

He even got possession, in the suddenness of his onset, of the
steam-engine of the _Times_ newspaper, and struck off ten thousand
woodcuts of the Projected Villages, which afforded an ocular
demonstration to all who saw them of the practicability of Mr. Owen's
whole scheme. He comes into a room with one of these documents in his
hand, with the air of a schoolmaster and a quack doctor mixed, asks very
kindly how you do, and on hearing you are still in an indifferent state
of health owing to bad digestion, instantly turns round and observes
that 'All that will be remedied in his plan; that indeed he thinks too
much attention has been paid to the mind, and not enough to the body;
that in his system, which he has now perfected and which will shortly be
generally adopted, he has provided effectually for both; that he has
been long of opinion that the mind depends altogether on the physical
organisation, and where the latter is neglected or disordered the former
must languish and want its due vigour; that exercise is therefore a part
of his system, with full liberty to develop every faculty of mind and
body; that two Objections had been made to his _New View of Society_,
viz. its want of relaxation from labour, and its want of variety; but
the first of these, the too great restraint, he trusted he had already
answered, for where the powers of mind and body were freely exercised
and brought out, surely liberty must be allowed to exist in the highest
degree; and as to the second, the monotony which would be produced by a
regular and general plan of co-operation, he conceived he had proved in
his _New View_ and _Addresses to the Higher Classes_, that the
co-operation he had recommended was necessarily conducive to the most
extensive improvement of the ideas and faculties, and where this was the
case there must be the greatest possible variety instead of a want of
it.' And having said this, this expert and sweeping orator takes up his
hat and walks downstairs after reading his lecture of truisms like a
playbill or an apothecary's advertisement; and should you stop him at
the door to say, by way of putting in a word in common, that Mr. Southey
seems somewhat favourable to his plan in his late Letter to Mr. William
Smith, he looks at you with a smile of pity at the futility of all
opposition and the idleness of all encouragement. People who thus swell
out some vapid scheme of their own into undue importance seem to me to
labour under water in the head--to exhibit a huge hydrocephalus! They
may be very worthy people for all that, but they are bad companions and
very indifferent reasoners. Tom Moore says of some one somewhere, 'that
he puts his hand in his breeches pocket like a crocodile.' The phrase
is hieroglyphical; but Mr. Owen and others might be said to put their
foot in the question of social improvement and reform much in the same
unaccountable manner.

I hate to be surfeited with anything, however sweet. I do not want to
be always tied to the same question, as if there were no other in the
world. I like a mind more Catholic.

I love to talk with mariners,
That come from a far countree.

I am not for 'a collusion' but 'an exchange' of ideas. It is well to
hear what other people have to say on a number of subjects. I do not
wish to be always respiring the same confined atmosphere, but to vary
the scene, and get a little relief and fresh air out of doors. Do all
we can to shake it off, there is always enough pedantry, egotism, and
self-conceit left lurking behind; we need not seal ourselves up
hermetically in these precious qualities, so as to think of nothing but
our own wonderful discoveries, and hear nothing but the sound of our own
voice. Scholars, like princes, may learn something by being incognito.
Yet we see those who cannot go into a bookseller's shop, or bear to be
five minutes in a stage-coach, without letting you know who they are.
They carry their reputation about with them as the snail does its shell,
and sit under its canopy, like the lady in the lobster. I cannot
understand this at all. What is the use of a man's always revolving
round his own little circle? He must, one should think, be tired of it
himself, as well as tire other people. A well-known writer says with
much boldness, both in the thought and expression, that 'a Lord is
imprisoned in the Bastille of a name, and cannot enlarge himself into
man'; and I have known men of genius in the same predicament. Why must
a man be for ever mouthing out his own poetry, comparing himself with
Milton, passage by passage, and weighing every line in a balance of
posthumous fame which he holds in his own hands? It argues a want of
imagination as well as common sense. Has he no ideas but what he has
put into verse; or none in common with his hearers? Why should he think
it the only scholar-like thing, the only 'virtue extant,' to see the
merit of his writings, and that 'men were brutes without them'? Why
should he bear a grudge to all art, to all beauty, to all wisdom, that
does not spring from his own brain? Or why should he fondly imagine
that there is but one fine thing in the world, namely, poetry, and that
he is the only poet in it? It will never do. Poetry is a very fine
thing; but there are other things besides it. Everything must have its
turn. Does a wise man think to enlarge his comprehension by turning his
eyes only on himself, or hope to conciliate the admiration of others by
scouting, proscribing, and loathing all that they delight in? He must
either have a disproportionate idea of himself, or be ignorant of the
world in which he lives. It is quite enough to have one class of people
born to think the universe made for them!--It seems also to argue a want
of repose, of confidence, and firm faith in a man's real pretensions, to
be always dragging them forward into the foreground, as if the proverb
held here--_Out of sight out of mind._ Does he, for instance, conceive
that no one would ever think of his poetry unless he forced it upon them
by repeating it himself? Does he believe all competition, all allowance
of another's merit, fatal to him? Must he, like Moody in the _Country
Girl_, lock up the faculties of his admirers in ignorance of all other
fine things, painting, music, the antique, lest they should play truant
to him? Methinks such a proceeding implies no good opinion of his own
genius or their taste: it is deficient in dignity and in decorum.
Surely if any one is convinced of the reality of an acquisition, he can
bear not to have it spoken of every minute. If he knows he has an
undoubted superiority in any respect, he will not be uneasy because
every one he meets is not in the secret, nor staggered by the report of
rival excellence. One of the first mathematicians and classical
scholars of the day was mentioning it as a compliment to himself that a
cousin of his, a girl from school, had said to him, 'You know [Manning]
is a very plain good sort of a young man, but he is not anything at all
out of the common.' Leigh Hunt once said to me, 'I wonder I never heard
you speak upon this subject before, which you seem to have studied a
good deal.' I answered, 'Why, we were not reduced to that, that I know

There are persons who, without being chargeable with the vice here
spoken of, yet 'stand accountant for as great a sin'; though not dull
and monotonous, they are vivacious mannerists in their conversation, and
excessive egotists. Though they run over a thousand subjects in mere
gaiety of heart, their delight still flows from one idea, namely,
themselves. Open the book in what page you will, there is a
frontispiece of themselves staring you in the face. They are a sort of
Jacks o' the Green, with a sprig of laurel, a little tinsel, and a
little smut, but still playing antics and keeping in incessant motion,
to attract attention and extort your pittance of approbation. Whether
they talk of the town or the country, poetry or politics, it comes to
much the same thing. If they talk to you of the town, its diversions,
'its palaces, its ladies, and its streets,' they are the delight, the
grace, and ornament of it. If they are describing the charms of the
country, they give no account of any individual spot or object or source
of pleasure but the circumstance of their being there. 'With them
conversing, we forget all place, all seasons, and their change.' They
perhaps pluck a leaf or a flower, patronise it, and hand it you to
admire, but select no one feature of beauty or grandeur to dispute the
palm of perfection with their own persons. Their rural descriptions are
mere landscape backgrounds with their own portraits in an engaging
attitude in front. They are not observing or enjoying the scene, but
doing the honours as masters of the ceremonies to nature, and arbiters
of elegance to all humanity. If they tell a love-tale of enamoured
princesses, it is plain they fancy themselves the hero of the piece. If
they discuss poetry, their encomiums still turn on something genial
and unsophisticated, meaning their own style. If they enter into
politics, it is understood that a hint from them to the potentates of
Europe is sufficient. In short, as a lover (talk of what you will)
brings in his mistress at every turn, so these persons contrive to
divert your attention to the same darling object--they are, in fact, in
love with themselves, and, like lovers, should be left to keep their own


[1] Quarto poetry, as well as quarto metaphysics, does not always sell.
Going one day into a shop in Paternoster Row to see for some lines in
Mr. Wordsworth's _Excursion_ to interlard some prose with, I applied to
the constituted authorities, and asked if I could look at a copy of the
_Excursion?_ The answer was, 'Into which country, sir?'

[2] These fantastic poets are like a foolish ringer at Plymouth that
Northcote tells the story of. He was proud of his ringing, and the boys
who made a jest of his foible used to get him in the belfry and ask him,
'Well now, John, how many good ringers are there in Plymouth?' 'Two,'
he would say, without any hesitation. 'Ay, indeed! and who are they?'
'Why, first, there's myself, that's one; and-- and--' 'Well, and who's
the other?' 'Why, there's-- there's-- Ecod, I can't think of any other
but myself.' _Talk we of one Master Launcelot._ The story is of
ringers: it will do for any vain, shallow, self-satisfied egotist of
them all.



For the more languages a man can speak,
His talent has but sprung the greater leak:
And, for the industry he has spent upon't,
Must full as much some other way discount.
The Hebrew, Chaldee, and the Syriac
Do, like their letters, set men's reason back,
And turn their wits that strive to understand It
(Like those that write the characters) left-handed.
Yet he that is but able to express
No sense at all in several languages
Will pass for learneder than he that's known
To speak the strongest reason in his own. --BUTLER.

The description of persons who have the fewest ideas of all others are
mere authors and readers. It is better to be able neither to read nor
write than to be able to do nothing else. A lounger who is ordinarily
seen with a book in his hand is (we may be almost sure) equally without
the power or inclination to attend either to what passes around him or
in his own mind. Such a one may be said to carry his understanding
about with him in his pocket, or to leave it at home on his library
shelves. He is afraid of venturing on any train of reasoning, or of
striking out any observation that is not mechanically suggested to him
by parsing his eyes over certain legible characters; shrinks from the
fatigue of thought, which, for want of practice, becomes insupportable
to him; and sits down contented with an endless, wearisome succession of
words and half-formed images, which fill the void of the mind, and
continually efface one another. Learning is, in too many cases, but a
foil to common sense; a substitute for true knowledge. Books are less
often made use of as 'spectacles' to look at nature with, than as blinds
to keep out its strong light and shifting scenery from weak eyes and
indolent dispositions. The book-worm wraps himself up in his web of
verbal generalities, and sees only the glimmering shadows of things
reflected from the minds of others. Nature _puts him out._ The
impressions of real objects, stripped of the disguises of words and
voluminous roundabout descriptions, are blows that stagger him; their
variety distracts, their rapidity exhausts him; and he turns from the
bustle, the noise, and glare, and whirling motion of the world about him
(which he has not an eye to follow in its fantastic changes, nor an
understanding to reduce to fixed principles), to the quiet monotony of
the dead languages, and the less startling and more intelligible
combinations of the letters of the alphabet. It is well, it is
perfectly well. 'Leave me to my repose,' is the motto of the sleeping
and the dead. You might as well ask the paralytic to leap from his
chair and throw away his crutch, or, without a miracle, to 'take up his
bed and walk,' as expect the learned reader to throw down his book and
think for himself. He clings to it for his intellectual support; and
his dread of being left to himself is like the horror of a vacuum. He
can only breathe a learned atmosphere, as other men breathe common air.
He is a borrower of sense. He has no ideas of his own, and must live on
those of other people. The habit of supplying our ideas from foreign
sources 'enfeebles all internal strength of thought,' as a course of
dram-drinking destroys the tone of the stomach. The faculties of the
mind, when not exerted, or when cramped by custom and authority, become
listless, torpid, and unfit for the purposes of thought or action. Can
we wonder at the languor and lassitude which is thus produced by a life
of learned sloth and ignorance; by poring over lines and syllables that
excite little more idea or interest than if they were the characters of
an unknown tongue, till the eye closes on vacancy, and the book drops
from the feeble hand! I would rather be a wood-cutter, or the meanest
hind, that all day 'sweats in the eye of Phoebus, and at night sleeps in
Elysium,' than wear out my life so, 'twixt dreaming and awake.' The
learned author differs from the learned student in this, that the one
transcribes what the other reads. The learned are mere literary
drudges. If you set them upon original composition, their heads turn,
they don't know where they are. The indefatigable readers of books are
like the everlasting copiers of pictures, who, when they attempt to do
anything of their own, find they want an eye quick enough, a hand steady
enough, and colours bright enough, to trace the living forms of nature.

Any one who has passed through the regular gradations of a classical
education, and is not made a fool by it, may consider himself as having
had a very narrow escape. It is an old remark, that boys who shine at
school do not make the greatest figure when they grow up and come out
into the world. The things, in fact, which a boy is set to learn at
school, and on which his success depends, are things which do not
require the exercise either of the highest or the most useful faculties
of the mind. Memory (and that of the lowest kind) is the chief faculty
called into play in conning over and repeating lessons by rote in
grammar, in languages, in geography, arithmetic, etc., so that he who
has the most of this technical memory, with the least turn for other
things, which have a stronger and more natural claim upon his childish
attention, will make the most forward school-boy. The jargon containing
the definitions of the parts of speech, the rules for casting up an
account, or the inflections of a Greek verb, can have no attraction to
the tyro of ten years old, except as they are imposed as a task upon him
by others, or from his feeling the want of sufficient relish of
amusement in other things. A lad with a sickly constitution and no very
active mind, who can just retain what is pointed out to him, and has
neither sagacity to distinguish nor spirit to enjoy for himself, will
generally be at the head of his form. An idler at school, on the other
hand, is one who has high health and spirits, who has the free use of
his limbs, with all his wits about him, who feels the circulation of his
blood and the motion of his heart, who is ready to laugh and cry in a
breath, and who had rather chase a ball or a butterfly, feel the open
air in his face, look at the fields or the sky, follow a winding path,
or enter with eagerness into all the little conflicts and interests of
his acquaintances and friends, than doze over a musty spelling-book,
repeat barbarous distichs after his master, sit so many hours pinioned
to a writing-desk, and receive his reward for the loss of time and
pleasure in paltry prize-medals at Christmas and Midsummer. There is
indeed a degree of stupidity which prevents children from learning the
usual lessons, or ever arriving at these puny academic honours. But
what passes for stupidity is much oftener a want of interest, of a
sufficient motive to fix the attention and force a reluctant application
to the dry and unmeaning pursuits of school-learning. The best
capacities are as much above this drudgery as the dullest are beneath
it. Our men of the greatest genius have not been most distinguished for
their acquirements at school or at the university.

Th' enthusiast Fancy was a truant ever.

Gray and Collins were among the instances of this wayward disposition.
Such persons do not think so highly of the advantages, nor can they
submit their imaginations so servilely to the trammels of strict
scholastic discipline. There is a certain kind and degree of intellect
in which words take root, but into which things have not power to
penetrate. A mediocrity of talent, with a certain slenderness of moral
constitution, is the soil that produces the most brilliant specimens of
successful prize-essayists and Greek epigrammatists. It should not be
forgotten that the least respectable character among modern politicians
was the cleverest boy at Eton.

Learning is the knowledge of that which is not generally known to
others, and which we can only derive at second-hand from books or other
artificial sources. The knowledge of that which is before us, or about
us, which appeals to our experience, passions, and pursuits, to the
bosoms and businesses of men, is not learning. Learning is the
knowledge of that which none but the learned know. He is the most
learned man who knows the most of what is farthest removed from common
life and actual observation, that is of the least practical utility, and
least liable to be brought to the test of experience, and that, having
been handed down through the greatest number of intermediate stages, is
the most full of uncertainty, difficulties, and contradictions. It is
seeing with the eyes of others, hearing with their ears, and pinning our
faith on their understandings. The learned man prides himself in the
knowledge of names and dates, not of men or things. He thinks and cares
nothing about his next-door neighbours, but he is deeply read in the
tribes and castes of the Hindoos and Calmue Tartars. He can hardly find
his way into the next street, though he is acquainted with the exact
dimensions of Constantinople and Pekin. He does not know whether his
oldest acquaintance is a knave or a fool, but he can pronounce a pompous
lecture on all the principal characters in history. He cannot tell
whether an object is black or white, round or square, and yet he is a
professed master of the laws of optics and the rules of perspective. He
knows as much of what he talks about as a blind man does of colours. He
cannot give a satisfactory answer to the plainest question, nor is he
ever in the right in any one of his opinions upon any one matter of fact
that really comes before him, and yet he gives himself out for an
infallible judge on all these points, of which it is impossible that he
or any other person living should know anything but by conjecture. He
is expert in all the dead and in most of the living languages; but he
can neither speak his own fluently, nor write it correctly. A person of
this class, the second Greek scholar of his day, undertook to point out
several solecisms in Milton's Latin style; and in his own performance
there is hardly a sentence of common English. Such was Dr. ----. Such
is Dr. ----. Such was not Porson. He was an exception that confirmed
the general rule, a man that, by uniting talents and knowledge with
learning, made the distinction between them more striking and palpable.

A mere scholar, who knows nothing but books, must be ignorant even of
them. 'Books do not teach the use of books.' How should he know
anything of a work who knows nothing of the subject of it? The learned
pedant is conversant with books only as they are made of other books,
and those again of others, without end. He parrots those who have
parroted others. He can translate the same word into ten different
languages, but he knows nothing of the _thing_ which it means in any one
of them. He stuffs his head with authorities built on authorities, with
quotations quoted from quotations, while he locks up his senses, his
understanding, and his heart. He is unacquainted with the maxims and
manners of the world; he is to seek in the characters of individuals.
He sees no beauty in the face of nature or of art. To him 'the mighty
world of eye and ear' is hid; and 'knowledge,' except at one entrance,
'quite shut out.' His pride takes part with his ignorance; and his
self-importance rises with the number of things of which be does not
know the value, and which he therefore despises as unworthy of his
notice. He knows nothing of pictures,--'Of the colouring of Titian, the
grace of Raphael, the purity of Domenichino, the _corregioscity_ of
Correggio, the learning of Poussin, the airs of Guido, the taste of the
Caracci, or the grand contour of Michael Angelo,'--of all those glories
of the Italian and miracles of the Flemish school, which have filled the
eyes of mankind with delight, and to the study and imitation of which
thousands have in vain devoted their lives. These are to him as if they
had never been, a mere dead letter, a by-word; and no wonder, for he
neither sees nor understands their prototypes in nature. A print of
Rubens' Watering-place or Claude's Enchanted Castle may be hanging on
the walls of his room for months without his once perceiving them; and
if you point them out to him he will turn away from them. The language
of nature, or of art (which is another nature), is one that he does not
understand. He repeats indeed the names of Apelles and Phidias, because
they are to be found in classic authors, and boasts of their works as
prodigies, because they no longer exist; or when he sees the finest
remains of Grecian art actually before him in the Elgin Marbles, takes
no other interest in them than as they lead to a learned dispute, and
(which is the same thing) a quarrel about the meaning of a Greek
particle. He is equally ignorant of music; he 'knows no touch of it,'
from the strains of the all-accomplished Mozart to the shepherd's pipe
upon the mountain. His ears are nailed to his books; and deadened with
the sound of the Greek and Latin tongues, and the din and smithery of
school-learning. Does he know anything more of poetry? He knows the
number of feet in a verse, and of acts in a play; but of the soul or
spirit he knows nothing. He can turn a Greek ode into English, or a
Latin epigram into Greek verse; but whether either is worth the trouble
he leaves to the critics. Does he understand 'the act and practique
part of life' better than 'the theorique'? No. He knows no liberal or
mechanic art, no trade or occupation, no game of skill or chance.
Learning 'has no skill in surgery,' in agriculture, in building, in
working in wood or in iron; it cannot make any instrument of labour, or
use it when made; it cannot handle the plough or the spade, or the
chisel or the hammer; it knows nothing of hunting or hawking, fishing or
shooting, of horses or dogs, of fencing or dancing, or cudgel-playing,
or bowls, or cards, or tennis, or anything else. The learned professor
of all arts and sciences cannot reduce any one of them to practice,
though he may contribute an account of them to an Encyclopedia. He has
not the use of his hands nor of his feet; he can neither run, nor walk,
nor swim; and he considers all those who actually understand and can
exercise any of these arts of body or mind as vulgar and mechanical
men,--though to know almost any one of them in perfection requires long
time and practice, with powers originally fitted, and a turn of mind
particularly devoted to them. It does not require more than this to
enable the learned candidate to arrive, by painful study, at a doctor's
degree and a fellowship, and to eat, drink, and sleep the rest of his

The thing is plain. All that men really understand is confined to a
very small compass; to their daily affairs and experience; to what they
have an opportunity to know, and motives to study or practise. The rest
is affectation and imposture. The common people have the use of their
limbs; for they live by their labour or skill. They understand their
own business and the characters of those they have to deal with; for it
is necessary that they should. They have eloquence to express their
passions, and wit at will to express their contempt and provoke
laughter. Their natural use of speech is not hung up in monumental
mockery, in an obsolete language; nor is their sense of what is
ludicrous, or readiness at finding out allusions to express it, buried
in collections of _Anas_. You will hear more good things on the outside
of a stage-coach from London to Oxford than if you were to pass a
twelvemonth with the undergraduates, or heads of colleges, of that
famous university; and more _home_ truths are to be learnt from
listening to a noisy debate in an alehouse than from attending a formal
one in the House of Commons. An elderly country gentlewoman will often
know more of character, and be able to illustrate it by more amusing
anecdotes taken from the history of what has been said, done, and
gossiped in a country town for the last fifty years, than the best
bluestocking of the age will be able to glean from that sort of learning
which consists in an acquaintance with all the novels and satirical
poems published in the same period. People in towns, indeed, are
woefully deficient in a knowledge of character, which they see only _in
the bust_, not as a whole-length. People in the country not only know
all that has happened to a man, but trace his virtues or vices, as they
do his features, in their descent through several generations, and solve
some contradiction in his behaviour by a cross in the breed half a
century ago. The learned know nothing of the matter, either in town or
country. Above all, the mass of society have common sense, which the
learned in all ages want. The vulgar are in the right when they judge
for themselves; they are wrong when they trust to their blind guides.
The celebrated nonconformist divine, Baxter, was almost stoned to death
by the good women of Kidderminster, for asserting from the pulpit that
'hell was paved with infants' skulls'; but, by the force of argument,
and of learned quotations from the Fathers, the reverend preacher at
length prevailed over the scruples of his congregation, and over reason
and humanity.

Such is the use which has been made of human learning. The labourers in
this vineyard seem as if it was their object to confound all common
sense, and the distinctions of good and evil, by means of traditional
maxims and preconceived notions taken upon trust, and increasing in
absurdity with increase of age. They pile hypothesis on hypothesis,
mountain high, till it is impossible to come at the plain truth on any
question. They see things, not as they are, but as they find them in
books, and 'wink and shut their apprehensions up,' in order that they
may discover nothing to interfere with their prejudices or convince them
of their absurdity. It might be supposed that the height of human
wisdom consisted in maintaining contradictions and rendering nonsense
sacred. There is no dogma, however fierce or foolish, to which these
persons have not set their seals, and tried to impose on the
understandings of their followers as the will of Heaven, clothed with
all the terrors and sanctions of religion. How little has the human
understanding been directed to find out the true and useful! How much
ingenuity has been thrown away in the defence of creeds and systems!
How much time and talents have been wasted in theological controversy,
in law, in politics, in verbal criticism, in judicial astrology, and in
finding out the art of making gold! What actual benefit do we reap from
the writings of a Laud or a Whitgift, or of Bishop Bull or Bishop
Waterland, or Prideaux' Connections, or Beausobre, or Calmet, or St.
Augustine, or Puffendord, or Vattel, or from the more literal but
equally learned and unprofitable labours of Scaliger, Cardan, and
Scioppius? How many grains of sense are there in their thousand folio
or quarto volumes? What would the world lose if they were committed to
the flames to-morrow? Or are they not already 'gone to the vault of all
the Capulets'? Yet all these were oracles in their time, and would have
scoffed at you or me, at common sense and human nature, for differing
with them. It is our turn to laugh now.

To conclude this subject. The most sensible people to be met with in
society are men of business and of the world, who argue from what they
see and know, instead of spinning cobweb distinctions of what things
ought to be. Women have often more of what is called _good sense_ than
men. They have fewer pretensions; are less implicated in theories; and
judge of objects more from their immediate and involuntary impression on
the mind, and, therefore, more truly and naturally. They cannot reason
wrong; for they do not reason at all. They do not think or speak by
rule; and they have in general more eloquence and wit, as well as sense,
on that account. By their wit, sense, and eloquence together, they
generally contrive to govern their husbands. Their style, when they
write to their friends (not for the booksellers), is better than that of
most authors.--Uneducated people have most exuberance of invention and
the greatest freedom from prejudice. Shakespear's was evidently an
uneducated mind, both in the freshness of his imagination and in the
variety of his views; as Milton's was scholastic, in the texture both of
his thoughts and feelings. Shakespear had not been accustomed to write
themes at school in favour of virtue or against vice. To this we owe
the unaffected but healthy tone of his dramatic morality. If we wish to
know the force of human genius we should read Shakespear. If we wish to
see the insignificance of human learning we may study his commentators.


No notes for this essay.



Coming forward and seating himself on the ground in his white dress and
tightened turban, the chief of the Indian Jugglers begins with tossing
up two brass balls, which is what any of us could do, and concludes with
keeping up four at the same time, which is what none of us could do to
save our lives, nor if we were to take our whole lives to do it in. Is
it then a trifling power we see at work, or is it not something next to
miraculous? It is the utmost stretch of human ingenuity, which nothing
but the bending the faculties of body and mind to it from the tenderest
infancy with incessant, ever anxious application up to manhood can
accomplish or make even a slight approach to. Man, thou art a wonderful
animal, and thy ways past finding out! Thou canst do strange things,
but thou turnest them to little account!--To conceive of this effort of
extraordinary dexterity distracts the imagination and makes admiration
breathless. Yet it costs nothing to the performer, any more than if it
were a mere mechanical deception with which he had nothing to do but to
watch and laugh at the astonishment of the spectators. A single error
of a hairsbreadth, of the smallest conceivable portion of time, would be
fatal: the precision of the movements must be like a mathematical truth,
their rapidity is like lightning. To catch four balls in succession in
less than a second of time, and deliver them back so as to return with
seeming consciousness to the hand again; to make them revolve round him
at certain intervals like the planets in their spheres; to make them
chase one another like sparkles of fire, or shoot up like flowers or
meteors; to throw them behind his back and twine them round his neck
like ribbons or like serpents; to do what appears an impossibility, and
to do if with all the ease, the grace, the carelessness imaginable; to
laugh at, to play with the glittering mockeries; to follow them with his
eye as if he could fascinate them with its lambent fire, or as if he had
only to see that they kept time with the music on the stage,--there is
something in all this which he who does not admire may be quite sure he
never really admired anything in the whole course of his life. It is
skill surmounting difficulty, and beauty triumphing over skill. It
seems as if the difficulty once mastered naturally resolved itself into
ease and grace, and as if to be overcome at all, it must be overcome
without an effort. The smallest awkwardness or want of pliancy or
self-possession would stop the whole process. It is the work of
witchcraft, and yet sport for children. Some of the other feats are
quite as curious and wonderful, such as the balancing the artificial
tree and shooting a bird from each branch through a quill; though none
of them have the elegance or facility of the keeping up of the brass
balls. You are in pain for the result, and glad when the experiment is
over; they are not accompanied with the same unmixed, unchecked delight
as the former; and I would not give much to be merely astonished without
being pleased at the game time. As to the swallowing of the sword, the
police ought to interfere to prevent it. When I saw the Indian Juggler
do the same things before, his feet were bare, and he had large rings on
the toes, which kept turning round all the time of the performance, as
if they moved of themselves.--The hearing a speech in Parliament drawled
or stammered out by the Honourable Member or the Noble Lord; the ringing
the changes on their common-places, which any one could repeat after
them as well as they, stirs me not a jot, shakes not my good opinion of
myself; but the seeing the Indian Jugglers does. It makes me ashamed of
myself. I ask what there is that I can do as well as this? Nothing.
What have I been doing all my life? Have I been idle, or have I nothing
to show for all my labour and pains? Or have I passed my time in
pouring words like water into empty sieves, rolling a stone up a hill
and then down again, trying to prove an argument in the teeth of facts,
and looking for causes in the dark and not finding them? Is there no
one thing in which I can challenge competition, that I can bring as an
instance of exact perfection in which others cannot find a flaw? The
utmost I can pretend to is to write a description of what this fellow
can do. I can write a book: so can many others who have not even
learned to spell. What abortions are these Essays! What errors, what
ill-pieced transitions, what crooked reasons, what lame conclusions!
How little is made out, and that little how ill! Yet they are the best
I can do. I endeavour to recollect all I have ever observed or thought
upon a subject, and to express it as nearly as I can. Instead of
writing on four subjects at a time, it is as much as I can manage to
keep the thread of one discourse clear and unentangled. I have also
time on my hands to correct my opinions, and polish my periods; but the
one I cannot, and the other I will not do. I am fond of arguing: yet
with a good deal of pains and practice it is often as much as I can do
to beat my man; though he may be an indifferent hand. A common fencer
would disarm his adversary in the twinkling of an eye, unless he were a
professor like himself. A stroke of wit will sometimes produce this
effect, but there is no such power or superiority in sense or reasoning.
There is no complete mastery of execution to be shown there; and you
hardly know the professor from the impudent pretender or the mere

I have always had this feeling of the inefficacy and slow progress of
intellectual compared to mechanical excellence, and it has always made
me somewhat dissatisfied. It is a great many years since I saw Richer,
the famous rope-dancer, perform at Sadler's Wells. He was matchless in
his art, and added to his extraordinary skill exquisite ease, and
unaffected, natural grace. I was at that time employed in copying a
half-length picture of Sir Joshua Reynolds's; and it put me out of
conceit with it. How ill this part was made out in the drawing! How
heavy, how slovenly this other was painted! I could not help saying to
myself, 'If the rope-dancer had performed his task in this manner,
leaving so many gaps and botches in his work, he would have broken his
neck long ago; I should never have seen that vigorous elasticity of
nerve and precision of movement!'--Is it, then, so easy an undertaking
(comparatively) to dance on a tight-rope? Let any one who thinks so get
up and try. There is the thing. It is that which at first we cannot do
at all which in the end is done to such perfection. To account for this
in some degree, I might observe that mechanical dexterity is confined to
doing some one particular thing, which you can repeat as often as you
please, in which you know whether you succeed or fail, and where the
point of perfection consists in succeeding in a given undertaking.--In
mechanical efforts you improve by perpetual practice, and you do so
infallibly, because the object to be attained is not a matter of taste
or fancy or opinion, but of actual experiment, in which you must either
do the thing or not do it. If a man is put to aim at a mark with a bow
and arrow, he must hit it or miss it, that's certain. He cannot deceive
himself, and go on shooting wide or falling short, and still fancy that
he is making progress. No distinction between right and wrong, between
true and false, is here palpable; and he must either correct his aim or
persevere in his error with his eyes open, for which there is neither
excuse nor temptation. If a man is learning to dance on a rope, if he
does not mind what he is about he will break his neck. After that it
will be in vain for him to argue that he did not make a false step. His
situation is not like that of Goldsmith's pedagogue:-

In argument they own'd his wondrous skill,
And e'en though vanquish'd, he could argue still.

Danger is a good teacher, and makes apt scholars. So are disgrace,
defeat, exposure to immediate scorn and laughter. There is no
opportunity in such cases for self-delusion, no idling time away, no
being off your guard (or you must take the consequences)--neither is
there any room for humour or caprice or prejudice. If the Indian
Juggler were to play tricks in throwing up the three case-knives, which
keep their positions like the leaves of a crocus in the air, he would
cut his fingers. I can make a very bad antithesis without cutting my
fingers. The tact of style is more ambiguous than that of double-edged
instruments. If the Juggler were told that by flinging himself under
the wheels of the Juggernaut, when the idol issues forth on a gaudy day,
he would immediately be transported into Paradise, he might believe it,
and nobody could disprove it. So the Brahmins may say what they please
on that subject, may build up dogmas and mysteries without end, and not
be detected; but their ingenious countryman cannot persuade the
frequenters of the Olympic Theatre that he performs a number of
astonishing feats without actually giving proofs of what he says.--There
is, then, in this sort of manual dexterity, first a gradual aptitude
acquired to a given exertion of muscular power, from constant
repetition, and in the next place, an exact knowledge how much is still
wanting and necessary to be supplied. The obvious test is to increase
the effort or nicety of the operation, and still to find it come true.
The muscles ply instinctively to the dictates of habit. Certain
movements and impressions of the hand and eye, having been repeated
together an infinite number of times, are unconsciously but unavoidable
cemented into closer and closer union; the limbs require little more
than to be put in motion for them to follow a regular track with ease
and certainty; so that the mere intention of the will acts
mathematically like touching the spring of a machine, and you come with
Locksley in _Ivanhoe_, in shooting at a mark, 'to allow for the wind.'

Further, what is meant by perfection in mechanical exercises is the
performing certain feats to a uniform nicety, that is, in fact,
undertaking no more than you can perform. You task yourself, the limit
you fix is optional, and no more than human industry and skill can
attain to; but you have no abstract, independent standard of difficulty
or excellence (other than the extent of your own powers). Thus he who
can keep up four brass balls does this _to perfection_; but he cannot
keep up five at the same instant, and would fail every time he attempted
it. That is, the mechanical performer undertakes to emulate himself,
not to equal another.[2] But the artist undertakes to imitate another,
or to do what Nature has done, and this it appears is more difficult,
viz. to copy what she has set before us in the face of nature or 'human
face divine,' entire and without a blemish, than to keep up four brass
balls at the same instant, for the one is done by the power of human
skill and industry, and the other never was nor will be. Upon the
whole, therefore, I have more respect for Reynolds than I have for
Richer; for, happen how it will, there have been more people in the
world who could dance on a rope like the one than who could paint like
Sir Joshua. The latter was but a bungler in his profession to the
other, it is true; but then be had a harder taskmaster to obey, whose
will was more wayward and obscure, and whose instructions it was more
difficult to practise. You can put a child apprentice to a tumbler or
rope-dancer with a comfortable prospect of success, if they are but
sound of wind and limb; but you cannot do the same thing in painting.
The odds are a million to one. You may make indeed as many Haydons and
H----s as you put into that sort of machine, but not one Reynolds
amongst them all, with his grace, his grandeur, his blandness of gusto,
'in tones and gestures hit,' unless you could make the man over again.
To snatch this grace beyond the reach of art is then the height of
art--where fine art begins, and where mechanical skill ends. The soft
suffusion of the soul, the speechless breathing eloquence, the looks
'commercing with the skies,' the ever-shifting forms of an eternal
principle, that which is seen but for a moment, but dwells in the heart
always, and is only seized as it passes by strong and secret sympathy,
must be taught by nature and genius, not by rules or study. It is
suggested by feeling, not by laborious microscopic inspection; in
seeking for it without, we lose the harmonious clue to it within; and in
aiming to grasp the substance, we let the very spirit of art evaporate.
In a word, the objects of fine art are not the objects of sight, but as
these last are the objects of taste and imagination, that is, as they
appeal to the sense of beauty, of pleasure, and of power in the human
breast, and are explained by that finer sense, and revealed in their
inner structure to the eye in return. Nature is also a language.
Objects, like words, have a meaning; and the true artist is the
interpreter of this language, which he can only do by knowing its
application to a thousand other objects in a thousand other situations.
Thus the eye is too blind a guide of itself to distinguish between the
warm or cold tone of a deep-blue sky; but another sense acts as a
monitor to it and does not err. The colour of the leaves in autumn
would be nothing without the feeling that accompanies it; but it is that
feeling that stamps them on the canvas, faded, seared, blighted,
shrinking from the winter's flaw, and makes the sight as true as touch--

And visions, as poetic eyes avow,
Cling to each leaf and hang on every bough.

The more ethereal, evanescent, more refined and sublime part of art is
the seeing nature through the medium of sentiment and passion, as each
object is a symbol of the affections and a link in the chain of our
endless being. But the unravelling this mysterious web of thought and
feeling is alone in the Muse's gift, namely, in the power of that
trembling sensibility which is awake to every change and every
modification of its ever-varying impressions, that

Thrills in each nerve, and lives along the line.

This power is indifferently called genius, imagination, feeling, taste;
but the manner in which it acts upon the mind can neither be defined by
abstract rules, as is the case in science, nor verified by continual,
unvarying experiments, as is the case in mechanical performances. The
mechanical excellence of the Dutch painters in colouring and handling is
that which comes the nearest in fine art to the perfection of certain
manual exhibitions of skill. The truth of the effect and the facility
with which it is produced are equally admirable. Up to a certain point
everything is faultless. The hand and eye have done their part. There
is only a want of taste and genius. It is after we enter upon that
enchanted ground that the human mind begins to droop and flag as in a
strange road, or in a thick mist, benighted and making little way with
many attempts and many failures, and that the best of us only escape
with half a triumph. The undefined and the imaginary are the regions
that we must pass like Satan, difficult and doubtful, 'half flying, half
on foot.' The object in sense is a positive thing, and execution comes
with practice.

Cleverness is a certain _knack_ or aptitude at doing certain things,
which depend more on a particular adroitness and off-hand readiness than
on force or perseverance, such as making puns, making epigrams, making
extempore verses, mimicking the company, mimicking a style, etc.
Cleverness is either liveliness and smartness, or something answering to
_sleight of hand_, like letting a glass fall sideways off a table, or
else a trick, like knowing the secret spring of a watch.
Accomplishments are certain external graces, which are to be learned
from others, and which are easily displayed to the admiration of the
beholder, viz. dancing, riding, fencing, music, and so on. These
ornamental acquirements are only proper to those who are at ease in mind
and fortune. I know an individual who, if he had been born to an estate
of five thousand a year, would have been the most accomplished gentleman
of the age. He would have been the delight and envy of the circle in
which he moved--would have graced by his manners the liberality flowing
from the openness of his heart, would have laughed with the women, have
argued with the men, have said good things and written agreeable ones,
have taken a hand at piquet or the lead at the harpsichord, and have set
and sung his own verses--nugae canorae--with tenderness and spirit; a
Rochester without the vice, a modern Surrey! As it is, all these
capabilities of excellence stand in his way. He is too versatile for a
professional man, not dull enough for a political drudge, too gay to be
happy, too thoughtless to be rich. He wants the enthusiasm of the poet,
the severity of the prose-writer, and the application of the man of
business. Talent differs from genius as voluntary differs from
involuntary power. Ingenuity is genius in trifles; greatness is genius
in undertakings of much pith and moment. A clever or ingenious man is
one who can do anything well, whether it is worth doing or not; a great
man is one who can do that which when done is of the highest importance.
Themistocles said he could not play on the flute, but that he could
make of a small city a great one. This gives one a pretty good idea of
the distinction in question.

Greatness is great power, producing great effects. It is not enough
that a man has great power in himself; he must show it to all the world
in a way that cannot be hid or gainsaid. He must fill up a certain idea
in the public mind. I have no other notion of greatness than this
twofold definition, great results springing from great inherent energy.
The great in visible objects has relation to that which extends over
space; the great in mental ones has to do with space and time. No man
is truly great who is great only in his lifetime. The test of greatness
is the page of history. Nothing can be said to be great that has a
distinct limit, or that borders on something evidently greater than
itself. Besides, what is short-lived and pampered into mere notoriety
is of a gross and vulgar quality in itself. A Lord Mayor is hardly a
great man. A city orator or patriot of the day only show, by reaching
the height of their wishes, the distance they are at from any true
ambition. Popularity is neither fame nor greatness. A king (as such)
is not a great man. He has great power, but it is not his own. He
merely wields the lever of the state, which a child, an idiot, or a
madman can do. It is the office, not the man we gaze at. Any one else
in the same situation would be just as much an object of abject
curiosity. We laugh at the country girl who having seen a king
expressed her disappointment by saying, 'Why, he is only a man!' Yet,
knowing this, we run to see a king as if he was something more than a
man.--To display the greatest powers, unless they are applied to great
purposes, makes nothing for the character of greatness. To throw a
barleycorn through the eye of a needle, to multiply nine figures by nine
in the memory, argues definite dexterity of body and capacity of mind,
but nothing comes of either. There is a surprising power at work, but
the effects are not proportionate, or such as take hold of the
imagination. To impress the idea of power on others, they must be made
in some way to feel it. It must be communicated to their understandings
in the shape of an increase of knowledge, or it must subdue and overawe
them by subjecting their wills. Admiration to be solid and lasting must
be founded on proofs from which we have no means of escaping; it is
neither a slight nor a voluntary gift. A mathematician who solves a
profound problem, a poet who creates an image of beauty in the mind that
was not there before, imparts knowledge and power to others, in which
his greatness and his fame consists, and on which it reposes. Jedediah
Buxton will be forgotten; but Napier's bones will live. Lawgivers,
philosophers, founders of religion, conquerors and heroes, inventors and
great geniuses in arts and sciences, are great men, for they are great
public benefactors, or formidable scourges to mankind. Among ourselves,
Shakespear, Newton, Bacon, Milton, Cromwell, were great men, for they
showed great power by acts and thoughts, that have not yet been
consigned to oblivion. They must needs be men of lofty stature, whose
shadows lengthen out to remote posterity. A great farce-writer may be a
great man; for Moliere was but a great farce-writer. In my mind, the
author of _Don Quixote_ was a great man. So have there been many
others. A great chess-player is not a great man, for he leaves the
world as he found it. No act terminating in itself constitutes
greatness. This will apply to all displays of power or trials of skill
which are confined to the momentary, individual effort, and construct no
permanent image or trophy of themselves without them. Is not an actor
then a great man, because 'he dies and leaves the world no copy'? I
must make an exception for Mrs. Siddons, or else give up my definition
of greatness for her sake. A man at the top of his profession is not
therefore a great man. He is great in his way, but that is all, unless
he shows the marks of a great moving intellect, so that we trace the
master-mind, and can sympathise with the springs that urge him on. The
rest is but a craft or _mystery_. John Hunter was a great man--_that_
any one might see without the smallest skill in surgery. His style and
manner showed the man. He would set about cutting up the carcass of a
whale with the same greatness of gusto that Michael Angelo would have
hewn a block of marble. Lord Nelson was a great naval commander; but
for myself, I have not much opinion of a seafaring life. Sir Humphry
Davy is a great chemist, but I am not sure that he is a great man. I am
not a bit the wiser for any of his discoveries, nor I never met with any
one that was. But it is in the nature of greatness to propagate an idea
of itself, as wave impels wave, circle without circle. It is a
contradiction in terms for a coxcomb to be a great man. A really great
man has always an idea of something greater than himself. I have
observed that certain sectaries and polemical writers have no higher
compliment to pay their most shining lights than to say that "Such a one
was a considerable man in his day." Some new elucidation of a text sets
aside the authority of the old interpretation, and a "great scholar's
memory outlives him half a century," at the utmost. A rich man is not a
great man, except to his dependents and his steward. A lord is a great
man in the idea we have of his ancestry, and probably of himself, if we
know nothing of him but his title. I have heard a story of two bishops,
one of whom said (speaking of St. Peter's at Rome) that when he first
entered it, he was rather awe-struck, but that as he walked up it, his
mind seemed to swell and dilate with it, and at last to fill the whole
building: the other said that as he saw more of it, he appeared to
himself to grow less and less every step he took, and in the end to
dwindle into nothing. This was in some respects a striking picture of a
great and little mind; for greatness sympathises with greatness, and
littleness shrinks into itself. The one might have become a Wolsey; the
other was only fit to become a Mendicant Friar--or there might have been
court reasons for making him a bishop. The French have to me a
character of littleness in all about them; but they have produced three
great men that belong to every country, Moliere, Rabelais, and

To return from this digression, and conclude Essay. A singular instance
of manual dexterity was shown in the person of the late John Cavanaugh,
whom I have several times seen. His death was celebrated at the time in
an article in the _Examiner_ newspaper (Feb. 7, 1819), written
apparently between jest and earnest; but as it is _pat_ to our purpose,
and falls in with my own way of considering such subjects, I shall here
take leave to quote it:--

'Died at his house in Burbage Street, St. Giles's, John Cavanagh, the
famous hand fives-player. When a person dies who does any one thing
better than any one else in the world, which so many others are trying
to do well, it leaves a gap in society. It is not likely that any one
will now see the game of fives played in its perfection for many years
to come--for Cavanagh is dead, and has not left his peer behind him. It
may be said that there are things of more importance than striking a
ball against a wall--there are things, indeed, that make more noise and
do as little good, such as making war and peace, making speeches and
answering them, making verses and blotting them, making money and
throwing it away. But the game of fives is what no one despises who has
ever played at it. It is the finest exercise for the body, and the best
relaxation for the mind. The Roman poet said that "Care mounted behind
the horseman and stuck to his skirts." But this remark would not have
applied to the fives-player. He who takes to playing at fives is twice
young. He feels neither the past nor future "in the instant." Debts,
taxes, "domestic treason, foreign levy, nothing can touch him further."
He has no other wish, no other thought, from the moment the game begins,
but that of striking the ball, of placing it, of _making_ it! This
Cavanagh was sure to do. Whenever he touched the ball there was an end
of the chase. His eye was certain, his hand fatal, his presence of mind
complete. He could do what he pleased, and he always knew exactly what
to do. He saw the whole game, and played it; took instant advantage of
his adversary's weakness, and recovered balls, as if by a miracle and
from sudden thought, that every one gave for lost. He had equal power
and skill, quickness and judgment. He could either outwit his
antagonist by finesse, or beat him by main strength. Sometimes, when he
seemed preparing to send the ball with the full swing of his arm, he
would by a slight turn of his wrist drop it within an inch of the line.
In general, the ball came from his hand, as if from a racket, in a
straight, horizontal line; so that it was in vain to attempt to overtake
or stop it. As it was said of a great orator that he never was at a
loss for a word, and for the properest word, so Cavanagh always could
tell the degree of force necessary to be given to a ball, and the
precise direction in which it should be sent. He did his work with the
greatest ease; never took more pains than was necessary; and while
others were fagging themselves to death, was as cool and collected as if
he had just entered the court. His style of play was as remarkable as
his power of execution. He had no affectation, no trifling. He did not
throw away the game to show off an attitude or try an experiment. He
was a fine, sensible, manly player, who did what he could, but that was
more than any one else could even affect to do. His blows were not
undecided and ineffectual--lumbering like Mr. Wordsworth's epic poetry,
nor wavering like Mr. Coleridge's lyric prose, nor short of the mark
like Mr. Brougham's speeches, nor wide of it like Mr. Canning's wit, nor
foul like the _Quarterly_, nor _let_ balls like the _Edinburgh Review_.
Cobbett and Junius together would have made a Cavanagh. He was the best
_up-hill_ player in the world; even when his adversary was fourteen, he
would play on the same or better, and as he never flung away the game
through carelessness and conceit, he never gave it through laziness or
want of heart. The only peculiarity of his play was that he never
_volleyed_, but let the balls hop; but if they rose an inch from the
ground he never missed having them. There was not only nobody equal,
but nobody second to him. It is supposed that he could give any other
player half the game, or beat him with his left hand. His service was
tremendous. He once played Woodward and Meredith together (two of the
best players in England) in the Fives-court, St. Martin's street, and
made seven and twenty aces following by services alone--a thing unheard
of. He another time played Peru, who was considered a first-rate
fives-player, a match of the best out of five games, and in the three
first games, which of course decided the match, Peru got only one ace.
Cavanagh was an Irishman by birth, and a house-painter by profession.
He had once laid aside his working-dress, and walked up, in his smartest
clothes, to the Rosemary Branch to have an afternoon's pleasure. A
person accosted him, and asked him if he would have a game. So they
agreed to play for half a crown a game and a bottle of cider. The first
game began--it was seven, eight, ten, thirteen, fourteen, all. Cavanagh
won it. The next was the same. They played on, and each game was
hardly contested. "There," said the unconscious fives-player, "there
was a stroke that Cavanagh could not take: I never played better in my
life, and yet I can't win a game. I don't know how it is!" However,
they played on, Cavanagh winning every game, and the bystanders drinking
the cider and laughing all the time. In the twelfth game, when Cavanagh
was only four, and the stranger thirteen, a person came in and said,
"What! are you here, Cavanagh?" The words were no sooner pronounced
than the astonished player let the hall drop from his hand, and saying,
"What! have I been breaking my heart all this time to beat Cavanagh?"
refused to make another effort. "And yet, I give you my word," said
Cavanagh, telling the story with some triumph, "I played all the while
with my clenched fist."--He used frequently to ploy matches at
Copenhagen House for wagers and dinners. The wall against which they
play is the same that supports the kitchen-chimney, and when the wall
resounded louder than usual, the cooks exclaimed, "Those are the
Irishman's balls," and the joints trembled on the spit!--Goldsmith
consoled himself that there were places where he too was admired: and
Cavanagh was the admiration of all the fives-courts where he ever
played. Mr. Powell, when he played matches in the Court in St.
Martin's Street, used to fill his gallery at half a crown a head with
amateurs and admirers of talent in whatever department it is shown. He
could not have shown himself in any ground in England but he would have
been immediately surrounded with inquisitive gazers, trying to find out
in what part of his frame his unrivalled skill lay, as politicians
wonder to see the balance of Europe suspended in Lord Castlereagh's
face, and admire the trophies of the British Navy lurking under Mr.
Croker's hanging brow. Now Cavanagh was as good-looking a man as the
Noble Lord, and much better looking than the Right Hon. Secretary. He
had a clear, open countenance, and did not look sideways or down, like
Mr. Murray the bookseller. He was a young fellow of sense, humour, and
courage. He once had a quarrel with a waterman at Hungerford Stairs,
and, they say, served him out in great style. In a word, there are
hundreds at this day who cannot mention his name without admiration, as
the best fives-player that perhaps ever lived (the greatest excellence
of which they have any notion); and the noisy shout of the ring happily
stood him in stead of the unheard voice of posterity!--The only person
who seems to have excelled as much in another way as Cavanagh did in his
was the late John Davies, the racket-player. It was remarked of him
that he did not seem to follow the ball, but the ball seemed to follow
him. Give him a foot of wall, and he was sure to make the ball. The
four best racket-players of that day were Jack Spines, Jem Harding,
Armitage, and Church. Davies could give any one of these two hands a
time, that is, half the game, and each of these, at their best, could
give the best player now in London the same odds. Such are the
gradations in all exertions of human skill and art. He once played four
capital players together, and beat them. He was also a first-rate
tennis-player and an excellent fives-player. In the Fleet or King's
Bench he would have stood against Powell, who was reckoned the best
open-ground player of his time. This last-mentioned player is at
present the keeper of the Fives-court, and we might recommend to him for
a motto over his door, "Who enters here, forgets himself, his country,
and his friends." And the best of it is, that by the calculation of the
odds, none of the three are worth remembering!--Cavanagh died from the
bursting of a blood-vessel, which prevented him from playing for the
last two or three years. This, he was often heard to say, he thought
hard upon him. He was fast recovering, however, when he was suddenly
carried off, to the regret of all who knew him. As Mr. Peel made it a
qualification of the present Speaker, Mr. Manners Sutton, that he was an
excellent moral character, so Jack Cavanagh was a zealous Catholic, and
could not be persuaded to eat meat on a Friday, the day on which he
died. We have paid this willing tribute to his memory.

Let no rude hand deface it,
And his forlorn "_Hic Jacet_."'


[1] The celebrated Peter Pindar (Dr. Wolcot) first discovered and
brought out the talents of the late Mr. Opie the painter. He was a poor
Cornish boy, and was out at work in the fields when the poet went in
search of him. 'Well, my lad, can you go and bring me your very best
picture?' The other flew like lightning, and soon came back with what
he considered as his masterpiece. The stranger looked at it, and the
young artist, after waiting for some time without his giving any
opinion, at length exclaimed eagerly, 'Well, what do you think of it?'
'Think of it?' said Wolcot; 'Why, I think you ought to be ashamed of
it--that you, who might do so well, do no better!' The same answer
would have applied to this artist's latest performances, that had been
suggested by one of his earliest efforts.

[2] If two persons play against each other at any game, one of them
necessarily fails.



Remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow,
Or by the lazy Scheldt or wandering Po.

I never was in a better place or humour than I am at present for writing
on this subject. I have a partridge getting ready for my supper, my
fire is blazing on the hearth, the air is mild for the season of the
year, I have had but a slight fit of indigestion to-day (the only thing
that makes me abhor myself), I have three hours good before me, and
therefore I will attempt it. It is as well to do it at once as to have
it to do for a week to come.

If the writing on this subject is no easy task, the thing itself is a
harder one. It asks a troublesome effort to ensure the admiration of
others: it is a still greater one to be satisfied with one's own
thoughts. As I look from the window at the wide bare heath before me,
and through the misty moonlight air see the woods that wave over the top
of Winterslow,

While Heav'n's chancel-vault is blind with sleet,

my mind takes its flight through too long a series of years, supported
only by the patience of thought and secret yearnings after truth and
good, for me to be at a loss to understand the feeling I intend to write
about; but I do not know that this will enable me to convey it more
agreeably to the reader.

Lady Grandison, in a letter to Miss Harriet Byron, assures her that 'her
brother Sir Charles lived to-himself'; and Lady L. soon after (for
Richardson was never tired of a good thing) repeats the same
observation; to which Miss Byron frequently returns in her answers to
both sisters, 'For you know Sir Charles lives to himself,' till at
length it passes into a proverb among the fair correspondents. This is
not, however, an example of what I understand by _living to one's-self_,
for Sir Charles Grandison was indeed always thinking of himself; but by
this phrase I mean never thinking at all about one's-self, any more than
if there was no such person in existence. The character I speak of is
as little of an egotist as possible: Richardson's great favourite was as
much of one as possible. Some satirical critic has represented him in
Elysium 'bowing over the _faded_ hand of Lady Grandison' (Miss Byron
that was)--he ought to have been represented bowing over his own hand,
for he never admired any one but himself, and was the God of his own
idolatry.--Neither do I call it living to one's-self to retire into a
desert (like the saints and martyrs of old) to be devoured by wild
beasts nor to descend into a cave to be considered as a hermit, nor to
got to the top of a pillar or rock to do fanatic penance and be seen of
all men. What I mean by living to one's-self is living in the world, as
in it, not of it: it is as if no one know there was such a person, and
you wished no one to know it: it is to be a silent spectator of the
mighty scene of things, not an object of attention or curiosity in it;
to take a thoughtful, anxious interest in what is passing in the world,
but not to feel the slightest inclination to make or meddle with it. It
is such a life as a pure spirit might be supposed to lead, and such an
interest as it might take in the affairs of men, calm, contemplative,
passive, distant, touched with pity for their sorrows, smiling at their
follies without bitterness, sharing their affections, but not troubled
by their passions, not seeking their notice, nor once dreamt of by them.
He who lives wisely to himself and to his own heart looks at the busy
world through the loop-holes of retreat, and does not want to mingle in
the fray. 'He hears the tumult, and is still.' He is not able to mend
it, nor willing to mar it. He sees enough in the universe to interest
him without putting himself forward to try what he can do to fix the
eyes of the universe upon him. Vain the attempt! He reads the clouds,
he looks at the stars, he watches the return of the seasons, the falling
leaves of autumn, the perfumed breath of spring, starts with delight at
the note of a thrush in a copse near him, sits by the fire, listens to
the moaning of the wind, pores upon a book, or discourses the freezing
hours away, or melts down hours to minutes in pleasing thought. All
this while he is taken up with other things, forgetting himself. He
relishes an author's style without thinking of turning author. He is
fond of looking at a print from an old picture in the room, without
teasing himself to copy it. He does not fret himself to death with
trying to be what he is not, or to do what he cannot. He hardly knows
what he is capable of, and is not in the least concerned whether he
shall ever make a figure in the world. He feels the truth of the

The man whose eye is ever on himself,
Doth look one, the least of nature's works;
One who might move the wise man to that scorn
Which wisdom holds unlawful ever.

He looks out of himself at the wide, extended prospect of nature, and
takes an interest beyond his narrow pretensions in general humanity. He
is free as air, and independent as the wind. Woe be to him when he
first begins to think what others say of him. While a man is contented
with himself and his own resources, all is well. When he undertakes to
play a part on the stage, and to persuade the world to think more about
him than they do about themselves, he is got into a track where he will
find nothing but briars and thorns, vexation and disappointment. I can
speak a little to this point. For many years of my life I did nothing
but think. I had nothing else to do but solve some knotty point, or dip
in some abstruse author, or look at the sky, or wander by the pebbled

To see the children sporting on the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore

I cared for nothing, I wanted nothing. I took my time to consider
whatever occurred to me, and was in no hurry to give a sophistical
answer to a question--there was no printer's devil waiting for me. I
used to write a page or two perhaps in half a year; and remember
laughing heartily at the celebrated experimentalist Nicholson, who told
me that in twenty years he had written as much as would make three
hundred octavo volumes. If I was not a great author, I could read with
ever fresh delight, 'never ending, still beginning,' and had no occasion
to write a criticism when I had done. If I could not paint like Claude,
I could admire 'the witchery of the soft blue sky' as I walked out, and
was satisfied with the pleasure it gave me. If I was dull, it gave me
little concern: if I was lively, I indulged my spirits. I wished well
to the world, and believed as favourably of it as I could. I was like a
stranger in a foreign land, at which I looked with wonder, curiosity,
and delight, without expecting to be an object of attention in return.
I had no relations to the state, no duty to perform, no ties to bind me
to others: I had neither friend nor mistress, wife nor child. I lived
in a world of contemplation, and not of action.

This sort of dreaming existence is the best. He who quits it to go in
search of realities generally barters repose for repeated
disappointments and vain regrets. His time, thoughts, and feelings are
no longer at his own disposal. From that instant he does not survey the
objects of nature as they are in themselves, but looks asquint at them
to see whether he cannot make them the instruments of his ambition,
interest, or pleasure; for a candid, undesigning, undisguised simplicity
of character, his views become jaundiced, sinister, and double: he takes
no farther interest in the great changes of the world but as he has a
paltry share in producing them: instead of opening his senses, his
understanding, and his heart to the resplendent fabric of the universe,
he holds a crooked mirror before his face, in which he may admire his
own person and pretensions, and just glance his eye aside to see whether
others are not admiring him too. He no more exists in the impression
which 'the fair variety of things' makes upon him, softened and subdued
by habitual contemplation, but in the feverish sense of his own upstart
self-importance. By aiming to fix, he is become the slave of opinion.
He is a tool, a part of a machine that never stands still, and is sick
and giddy with the ceaseless motion. He has no satisfaction but in the
reflection of his own image in the public gaze--but in the repetition of
his own name in the public ear. He himself is mixed up with and spoils
everything. I wonder Buonaparte was not tired of the N. N.'s stuck all
over the Louvre and throughout France. Goldsmith (as we all know) when
in Holland went out into a balcony with some handsome Englishwomen, and
on their being applauded by the spectators, turned round and said
peevishly, 'There are places where I also am admired.' He could not
give the craving appetite of an author's vanity one day's respite. I
have seen a celebrated talker of our own time turn pale and go out of
the room when a showy-looking girl has come into it who for a moment
divided the attention of his hearers.--Infinite are the mortifications
of the bare attempt to emerge from obscurity; numberless the failures;
and greater and more galling still the vicissitudes and tormenting
accompaniments of success--

Whose top to climb
Is certain falling, or so slippery, that
The fear's as bad as falling.

'Would to God,' exclaimed Oliver Cromwell, when he was at any time
thwarted by the Parliament, 'that I had remained by my woodside to tend
a flock of sheep, rather than have been thrust on such a government as
this!' When Buonaparte got into his carriage to proceed on his Russian
expedition, carelessly twirling his glove, and singing the air,
'Malbrook to the war is going,' he did not think of the tumble he has
got since, the shock of which no one could have stood but himself. We
see and hear chiefly of the favourites of Fortune and the Muse, of great
generals, of first-rate actors, of celebrated poets. These are at the
head; we are struck with the glittering eminence on which they stand,
and long to set out on the same tempting career,--not thinking how many
discontented half-pay lieutenants are in vain seeking promotion all
their lives, and obliged to put up with 'the insolence of office, and
the spurns which patient merit of the unworthy takes'; how many
half-starved strolling players are doomed to penury and tattered robes
in country places, dreaming to the last of a London engagement; how many
wretched daubers shiver and shake in the ague-fit of alternate hopes and
fears, waste and pine away in the atrophy of genius, or else turn
drawing-masters, picture-cleaners, or newspaper-critics; how many
hapless poets have sighed out their souls to the Muse in vain, without
ever getting their effusions farther known than the Poet's Corner of a
country newspaper, and looked and looked with grudging, wistful eyes at
the envious horizon that bounded their provincial fame!--Suppose an
actor, for instance, 'after the heart-aches and the thousand natural
pangs that flesh is heir to,' _does_ get at the top of his profession,
he can no longer bear a rival near the throne; to be second or only
equal to another is to be nothing: he starts at the prospect of a
successor, and retains the mimic sceptre with a convulsive grasp:
perhaps as he is about to seize the first place which he has long had in
his eye, an unsuspected competitor steps in before him, and carries off
the prize, leaving him to commence his irksome toil again. He is in a
state of alarm at every appearance or rumour of the appearance of a new
actor: 'a mouse that takes up its lodgings in a cat's ear'[2] has a
mansion of peace to him: he dreads every hint of an objection, and least
of all, can forgive praise mingled with censure: to doubt is to insult;
to discriminate is to degrade: he dare hardly look into a criticism
unless some one has tasted it for him, to see that there is no offence
in it: if he does not draw crowded houses every night, he can neither
eat nor sleep; or if all these terrible inflections are removed, and he
can 'eat his meal in peace,' he then becomes surfeited with applause and
dissatisfied with his profession: he wants to be something else, to be
distinguished as an author, a collector, a classical scholar, a man of
sense and information, and weighs every word he utters, and half
retracts it before he utters it, lest if he were to make the smallest
slip of the tongue it should get buzzed abroad that _Mr. ---- was only
clever as an actor!_ If ever there was a man who did not derive more
pain than pleasure from his vanity, that man, says Rousseau, was no
other than a fool. A country gentleman near Taunton spent his whole
life in making some hundreds of wretched copies of second-rate pictures,
which were bought up at his death by a neighbouring baronet, to whom

Some Demon whisper'd, L----, have a taste!

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