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

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A little Wilson in an obscure corner escaped the man of _virtu_, and was
carried off by a Bristol picture-dealer for three guineas, while the
muddled copies of the owner of the mansion (with the frames) fetched
thirty, forty, sixty, a hundred ducats a piece. A friend of mine found
a very fine Canaletti in a state of strange disfigurement, with the
upper part of the sky smeared over and fantastically variegated with
English clouds; and on inquiring of the person to whom it belonged
whether something had not been done to it, received for answer 'that a
gentleman, a great artist in the neighbourhood, had retouched some parts
of it.' What infatuation! Yet this candidate for the honours of the
pencil might probably have made a jovial fox-hunter or respectable
justice of the peace it he could only have stuck to what nature and
fortune intended him for. Miss ---- can by no means be persuaded to
quit the boards of the theatre at ----, a little country town in the
West of England. Her salary has been abridged, her person ridiculed,
her acting laughed at; nothing will serve--she is determined to be an
actress, and scorns to return to her former business as a milliner.
Shall I go on? An actor in the same company was visited by the
apothecary of the place in an ague-fit, who, on asking his landlady as
to his way of life, was told that the poor gentleman was very quiet and
gave little trouble, that he generally had a plate of mashed potatoes
for his dinner, and lay in bed most of his time, repeating his part. A
young couple, every way amiable and deserving, were to have been
married, and a benefit-play was bespoke by the officers of the regiment
quartered there, to defray the expense of a license and of the
wedding-ring, but the profits of the night did not amount to the
necessary sum, and they have, I fear, 'virgined it e'er since'! Oh, for
the pencil of Hogarth or Wilkie to give a view of the comic strength of
the company at ----, drawn up in battle-array in the _Clandestine
Marriage,_ with a _coup d'oeil_ of the pit, boxes, and gallery, to cure
for ever the love of the _ideal_, and the desire to shine and make
holiday in the eyes of others, instead of retiring within ourselves and
keeping our wishes and our thoughts at home!--Even in the common affairs
of life, in love, friendship, and marriage, how little security have we
when we trust our happiness in the hands of others! Most of the friends
I have seen have turned out the bitterest enemies, or cold,
uncomfortable acquaintance. Old companions are like meats served up too
often, that lose their relish and their wholesomeness. He who looks at
beauty to admire, to adore it, who reads of its wondrous power in
novels, in poems, or in plays, is not unwise; but let no man fall in
love, for from that moment he is 'the baby of a girl.' I like very well
to repeat such lines as these in the play of _Mirandola_--

With what a waving air she goes
Along the corridor! How like a fawn!
Yet statelier. Hark! No sound, however soft,
Nor gentlest echo telleth when she treads,
But every motion of her shape doth seem
Hallowed by silence.

But however beautiful the description, defend me from meeting with the

The fly that sips treacle
Is lost in the sweets;
So he that tastes woman
Ruin meets.

The song is Gay's, not mine, and a bitter-sweet it is. How few out of
the infinite number of those that marry and are given in marriage wed
with those they would prefer to all the world! nay, how far the greater
proportion are joined together by mere motives of convenience, accident,
recommendation of friends, or indeed not unfrequently by the very fear
of the event, by repugnance and a sort of fatal fascination! yet the tie
is for life, not to be shaken off but with disgrace or death: a man no
longer lives to himself, but is a body (as well as mind) chained to
another, in spite of himself--

Like life and death in disproportion met.

So Milton (perhaps from his own experience) makes Adam exclaim in the
vehemence of his despair,

For either
He never shall find out fit mate, but such
As some misfortune brings him or mistake
Or whom he wishes most shall seldom gain
Through her perverseness, but shall sea her gain'd
By a far worse; or it she love, withheld
By parents; or his happiest choice too late
Shall meet, already link'd and wedlock-bound
To a fell adversary, his hate and shame;
Which infinite calamity shall cause
To human life, and household peace confound.

If love at first sight were mutual, or to be conciliated by kind
offices; if the fondest affection were not so often repaid and chilled
by indifference and scorn; if so many lovers both before and since the
madman in Don Quixote had not 'worshipped a statue, hunted the wind,
cried aloud to the desert'; if friendship were lasting; if merit were
renown, and renown were health, riches, and long life; or if the homage
of the world were paid to conscious worth and the true aspirations after
excellence, instead of its gaudy signs and outward trappings, then
indeed I might be of opinion that it is better to live to others than
one's-self; but as the case stands, I incline to the negative side of
the question.[3]

I have not loved the world, nor the world me;
I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bow'd
To its idolatries a patient knee--
Nor coin'd my cheek to smiles--nor cried aloud
In worship of an echo; in the crowd
They could not deem me one of such; I stood
Among them, but not of them; in a shroud
Of thoughts which were not their thoughts, and still could,
Had I not filled my mind which thus itself subdued.

I have not loved the world, nor the world me--
But let us part fair foes; I do believe,
Though I have found them not, that there may be
Words which are things--hopes which will not deceive,
And virtues which are merciful nor weave
Snares for the failing: I would also deem
O'er others' griefs that some sincerely grieve;
That two, or one, are almost what they seem--
That goodness is no name, and happiness no dream.

Sweet verse embalms the spirit of sour misanthropy; but woe betide the
ignoble prose-writer who should thus dare to compare notes with the
world, or tax it roundly with imposture.

If I had sufficient provocation to rail at the public, as Ben Jonson did
at the audience in the Prologues to his plays, I think I should do it in
good set terms, nearly as follows:--There is not a more mean, stupid,
dastardly, pitiful, selfish, spiteful, envious, ungrateful animal than
the Public. It is the greatest of cowards, for it is afraid of itself.
From its unwieldy, overgrown dimensions, it dreads the least opposition
to it, and shakes like isinglass at the touch of a finger. It starts at
its own shadow, like the man in the Hartz mountains, and trembles at the
mention of its own name. It has a lion's mouth, the heart of a hare,
with ears erect and sleepless eyes. It stands 'listening its fears.'
It is so in awe of its own opinion that it never dares to form any, but
catches up the first idle rumour, lest it should be behindhand in its
judgment, and echoes it till it is deafened with the sound of its own
voice. The idea of what the public will think prevents the public from
ever thinking at all, and acts as a spell on the exercise of private
judgment, so that, in short, the public ear is at the mercy of the first
impudent pretender who chooses to fill it with noisy assertions, or
false surmises, or secret whispers. What is said by one is heard by
all; the supposition that a thing is known to all the world makes all
the world believe it, and the hollow repetition of a vague report drowns
the 'still, small voice' of reason. We may believe or know that what is
said is not true; but we know or fancy that others believe it,--we dare
not contradict or are too indolent to dispute with them, and therefore
give up our internal, and, as we think, our solitary conviction to a
sound without substance, without proof, and often without meaning. Nay
more, we may believe and know not only that a thing is false, but that
others believe and know it to be so, that they are quite as much in the
secret of the imposture as we are, that they see the puppets at work,
the nature of the machinery, and yet if any one has the art or power to
get the management of it, he shall keep possession of the public ear by
virtue of a cant phrase or nickname, and by dint of effrontery and
perseverance make all the world believe and repeat what all the world
know to be false. The ear is quicker than the judgment. We know that
certain things are said; by that circumstance alone, we know that they
produce a certain effect on the imagination of others, and we conform to
their prejudices by mechanical sympathy, and for want of sufficient
spirit to differ with them. So far then is public opinion from resting
on a broad and solid basis, as the aggregate of thought and feeling in a
community, that it is slight and shallow and variable to the last
degree--the bubble of the moment; so that we may safely say the public
is the dupe of public opinion, not its parent. The public is
pusillanimous and cowardly, because it is weak. It knows itself to be a
great dunce, and that it has no opinions but upon suggestion. Yet it is
unwilling to appear in leading-strings, and would have it thought that
its decisions are as wise as they are weighty. It is hasty in taking up
its favourites, more hasty in laying them aside, lest it should be
supposed deficient in sagacity in either case. It is generally divided
into two strong parties, each of which will allow neither common sense
nor common honesty to the other side. It reads the _Edinburgh_ and
_Quarterly Reviews_, and believes them both--or if there is a doubt,
malice turns the scale. Taylor and Hessey told me that they had sold
nearly two editions of the _Characters of Shakespear's Plays_ in about
three months, but that after the _Quarterly Review_ of them came out
they never sold another copy. The public, enlightened as they are, must
have known the meaning of that attack as well as those who made it. It
was not ignorance then, but cowardice, that led them to give up their
own opinion. A crew of mischievous critics at Edinburgh having affixed
the epithet of the _Cockney School_ to one or two writers born in the
metropolis, all the people in London became afraid of looking into their
works, lest they too should be convicted of cockneyism. Oh, brave
public! This epithet proved too much for one of the writers in
question, and stuck like a barbed arrow in his heart. Poor Keats! What
was sport to the town was death to him. Young, sensitive, delicate, he
was like

A bud bit by an envious worm,
Ere he could spread his sweet leaves to the air
Or dedicate his beauty to the sun;

and unable to endure the miscreant cry and idiot laugh, withdrew to sigh
his last breath in foreign climes. The public is as envious and
ungrateful as it is ignorant, stupid, and pigeon-livered--

A huge-sized monster of ingratitudes.

It reads, it admires, it extols, only because it is the fashion, not
from any love of the subject or the man. It cries you up or runs you
down out of mere caprice and levity. If you have pleased it, it is
jealous of its own involuntary acknowledgment of merit, and seizes the
first opportunity, the first shabby pretext, to pick a quarrel with you
and be quits once more. Every petty caviller is erected into a judge,
every tale-bearer is implicitly believed. Every little, low, paltry
creature that gaped and wondered, only because others did so, is glad to
find you (as he thinks) on a level with himself. An author is not then,
after all, a being of another order. Public admiration is forced, and
goes against the grain. Public obloquy is cordial and sincere: every
individual feels his own importance in it. They give you up bound hand
and foot into the power of your accusers. To attempt to defend yourself
is a high crime and misdemeanor, a contempt of court, an extreme piece
of impertinence. Or if you prove every charge unfounded, they never
think of retracing their error or making you amends. It would be a
compromise of their dignity; they consider themselves as the party
injured, and resent your innocence as an imputation on their judgment.
The celebrated Bub Doddington, when out of favour at court, said 'he
would not _justify_ before his sovereign: it was for Majesty to be
displeased, and for him to believe himself in the wrong!' The public
are not quite so modest. People already begin to talk of the Scotch
Novels as overrated. How then can common authors be supposed to keep
their heads long above water? As a general rule, all those who live by
the public starve, and are made a by-word and a standing jest into the
bargain. Posterity is no better (not a bit more enlightened or more
liberal), except that you are no longer in their power, and that the
voice of common fame saves them the trouble of deciding on your claims.
The public now are the posterity of Milton and Shakespear. Our
posterity will be the living public of a future generation. When a man
is dead, they put money in his coffin, erect monuments to his memory,
and celebrate the anniversary of his birthday in set speeches. Would
they take any notice of him if he were living? No!--I was complaining
of this to a Scotchman who had been attending a dinner and a
subscription to raise a monument to Burns. He replied he would sooner
subscribe twenty pounds to his monument than have given it him while
living; so that if the poet were to come to life again, he would treat
him just as he was treated in fact. This was an honest Scotchman. What
_he_ said, the rest would do.

Enough: my soul, turn from them, and let me try to regain the obscurity
and quiet that I love, 'far from the madding strife,' in some
sequestered corner of my own, or in some far-distant land! In the
latter case, I might carry with me as a consolation the passage in
Bolinbroke's _Reflections on Exile,_ in which he describes in glowing
colours the resources which a man may always find within himself, and of
which the world cannot deprive him:--

'Believe me, the providence of God has established such an order in the
world, that of all which belongs to us the least valuable parts can
alone fall under the will of others. Whatever is best is safest; lies
out of the reach of human power; can neither be given nor taken away.
Such is this great and beautiful work of nature, the world. Such is the
mind of man, which contemplates and admires the world, whereof it makes
the noblest part. These are inseparably ours, and as long as we remain
in one we shall enjoy the other. Let us march therefore intrepidly
wherever we are led by the course of human accidents. Wherever they
lead us, on what coast soever we are thrown by them, we shall not find
ourselves absolutely strangers. We shall feel the same revolution of
seasons, and the same sun and moon[4] will guide the course of our year.
The same azure vault, bespangled with stars, will be everywhere spread
over our heads. There is no part of the world from whence we may not
admire those planets which roll, like ours, in different orbits round
the same central sun; from whence we may not discover an object still
more stupendous, that army of fixed stars hung up in the immense space
of the universe, innumerable suns whose beams enlighten and cherish the
unknown worlds which roll around them: and whilst I am ravished by such
contemplations as these, whilst my soul is thus raised up to heaven, it
imports me little what ground I tread-upon.'


[1] Written at Winterslow Hut, January 18-19, 1821.

[2] Webster's _Duchess of Malfy._

[3] Shenstone and Gray were two men, one of whom pretended live to
himself, and the other really did so. Gray shrunk from the public gaze
(he did not even like his portrait to be prefixed to his works) into his
own thoughts and indolent musings; Shenstone affected privacy that he
might be sought out by the world; the one courted retirement in order to
enjoy leisure and repose, as the other coquetted with it merely to be
interrupted with the importunity of visitors and the flatteries of
absent friends.

[4] Plut. of Banishment. He compares those who cannot live out of their
own country to the simple people who fancied the moon of Athens was a
finer moon than that of Corinth,

Labentem coelo quae ducitis annum. --VIRG. _Georg._



Those persons who are much accustomed to abstract contemplation are
generally unfitted for active pursuits, and _vice versa_. I myself am
sufficiently decided and dogmatical in my opinions, and yet in action I
am as imbecile as a woman or a child. I cannot set about the most
indifferent thing without twenty efforts, and had rather write one of
these Essays than have to seal a letter. In trying to throw a hat or a
book upon a table, I miss it; it just reaches the edge and falls back
again, and instead of doing what I mean to perform, I do what I intend
to avoid. Thought depends on the habitual exercise of the speculative
faculties; action, on the determination of the will. The one assigns
reasons for things, the other puts causes into act. Abraham Tucker
relates of a friend of his, an old special pleader, that once coming out
of his chambers in the Temple with him to take a walk, he hesitated at
the bottom of the stairs which way to go--proposed different directions,
to Charing Cross, to St. Paul's--found some objection to them all, and
at last turned back for want of a casting motive to incline the scale.
Tucker gives this as an instance of professional indecision, or of that
temper of mind which having been long used to weigh the reasons for
things with scrupulous exactness, could not come to any conclusion at
all on the spur of the occasion, or without some grave distinction to
justify its choice. Louvet in his Narrative tells us, that when several
of the Brisotin party were collected at the house of Barbaroux (I think
it was) ready to effect their escape from the power of Robespierre, one
of them going to the window and finding a shower of rain coming on,
seriously advised their stopping till the next morning, for that the
emissaries of government would not think of coming in search of them in
such bad weather. Some of them deliberated on this wise proposal, and
were nearly taken. Such is the effeminacy of the speculative and
philosophical temperament, compared with the promptness and vigour of
the practical! It is on such unequal terms that the refined and
romantic speculators on possible good and evil contend with their
strong-nerved, remorseless adversaries, and we see the result.
Reasoners in general are undecided, wavering, and sceptical, or yield at
last to the weakest motive as most congenial to their feeble habit of

Some men are mere machines. They are put in a go-cart of business, and
are harnessed to a profession--yoked to Fortune's wheels. They plod on,
and succeed. Their affairs conduct them, not they their affairs. All
they have to do is to let things take their course, and not go out of
the beaten road. A man may carry on the business of farming on the same
spot and principle that his ancestors have done for many generations
before him without any extraordinary share of capacity: the proof is, it
is done every day, in every county and parish in the kingdom. All that
is necessary is that he should not pretend to be wiser than his
neighbours. If he has a grain more wit or penetration than they, if his
vanity gets the start of his avarice only half a neck, if he has ever
thought or read anything upon the subject, it will most probably be the
ruin of him. He will turn theoretical or experimental farmer, and no
more need be said. Mr. Cobbett, who is a sufficiently shrewd and
practical man, with an eye also to the main chance, had got some notions
in his head (from Tull's _Husbandry_) about the method of sowing
turnips, to which he would have sacrificed not only his estate at
Botley, but his native county of Hampshire itself, sooner than give up
an inch of his argument. 'Tut! will you baulk a man in the career of
his humour?' Therefore, that a man may not be ruined by his humours, he
should be too dull and phlegmatic to have any: he must have 'no figures
nor no fantasies which busy thought draws in the brains of men.' The
fact is, that the ingenuity or judgment of no one man is equal to that
of the world at large, which is the fruit of the experience and ability
of all mankind. Even where a man is right in a particular notion, he
will be apt to overrate the importance of his discovery, to the
detriment of his affairs. Action requires co-operation, but in general
if you set your face against custom, people will set their faces against
you. They cannot tell whether you are right or wrong, but they know
that you are guilty of a pragmatical assumption of superiority over them
which they do not like. There is no doubt that if a person two hundred
years ago had foreseen and attempted to put in practice the most
approved and successful methods of cultivation now in use, it would have
been a death-blow to his credit and fortune. So that though the
experiments and improvements of private individuals from time to time
gradually go to enrich the public stock of information and reform the
general practice, they are mostly the ruin of the person who makes them,
because he takes a part for the whole, and lays more stress upon the
single point in which he has found others in the wrong than on all the
rest in which they are substantially and prescriptively in the right.
The great requisite, it should appear, then, for the prosperous
management of ordinary business is the want of imagination, or of any
ideas but those of custom and interest on the narrowest scale; and as
the affairs of the world are necessarily carried on by the common run of
its inhabitants, it seems a wise dispensation of Providence that it
should be so. If no one could rent a piece of glebe-land without a
genius for mechanical inventions, or stand behind a counter without a
large benevolence of soul, what would become of the commercial and
agricultural interests of this great (and once flourishing) country?--I
would not be understood as saying that there is not what may be called a
genius for business, an extraordinary capacity for affairs, quickness
and comprehension united, an insight into character, an acquaintance
with a number of particular circumstances, a variety of expedients, a
tact for finding out what will do: I grant all this (in Liverpool and
Manchester they would persuade you that your merchant and manufacturer
is your only gentleman and scholar)--but still, making every allowance
for the difference between the liberal trader and the sneaking
shopkeeper, I doubt whether the most surprising success is to be
accounted for from any such unusual attainments, or whether a man's
making half a million of money is a proof of his capacity for thought in
general. It is much oftener owing to views and wishes bounded but
constantly directed to one particular object. To succeed, a man should
aim only at success. The child of Fortune should resign himself into
the hands of Fortune. A plotting head frequently overreaches itself: a
mind confident of its resources and calculating powers enters on
critical speculations, which in a game depending so much on chance and
unforeseen events, and not entirely on intellectual skill, turn the odds
greatly against any one in the long run. The rule of business is to
take what you can get, and keep what you have got; or an eagerness in
seizing every opportunity that offers for promoting your own interest,
and a plodding, persevering industry in making the most of the
advantages you have already obtained, are the most effectual as well as
the safest ingredients in the composition of the mercantile character.
The world is a book in which the _Chapter of Accidents_ is none of the
least considerable; or it is a machine that must be left, in a great
measure, to turn itself. The most that a worldly-minded man can do is
to stand at the receipt of custom, and be constantly on the lookout for
windfalls. The true devotee in this way waits for the revelations of
Fortune as the poet waits for the inspiration of the Muse, and does not
rashly anticipate her favours. He must be neither capricious nor
wilful. I have known people untrammelled in the ways of business, but
with so intense an apprehension of their own interest, that they would
grasp at the slightest possibility of gain as a certainty, and were led
into as many mistakes by an overgriping, usurious disposition as they
could have been by the most thoughtless extravagance.--We hear a great
outcry about the want of judgment in men of genius. It is not a want of
judgment, but an excess of other things. They err knowingly, and are
wilfully blind. The understanding is out of the question. The profound
judgment which soberer people pique themselves upon is in truth a want
of passion and imagination. Give them an interest in anything, a sudden
fancy, a bait for their favourite foible, and who so besotted as they?
Stir their feelings, and farewell to their prudence! The understanding
operates as a motive to action only in the silence of the passions. I
have heard people of a sanguine temperament reproached with betting
according to their wishes, instead of their opinion who should win; and
I have seen those who reproached them do the very same thing the instant
their own vanity or prejudices are concerned. The most mechanical
people, once thrown off their balance, are the most extravagant and
fantastical. What passion is there so unmeaning and irrational as
avarice itself? The Dutch went mad for tulips, and ---- ---- for love!
To return to what was said a little way back, a question might be
started, whether as thought relates to the whole circumference of things
and interests, and business is confined to a very small part of them,
viz. to a knowledge of a man's own affairs and the making of his own
fortune, whether a talent for the latter will not generally exist in
proportion to the narrowness and grossness of his ideas, nothing drawing
his attention out of his own sphere, or giving him an interest except in
those things which he can realise and bring home to himself in the most
undoubted shape? To the man of business all the world is a fable but
the Stock Exchange: to the money-getter nothing has a real existence
that he cannot convert into a tangible feeling, that he does not
recognise as property, that he cannot 'measure with a two-foot rule or
count upon ten fingers.' The want of thought, of imagination, drives
the practical man upon immediate realities: to the poet or philosopher
all is real and interesting that is true or possible, that can reach in
its consequences to others, or be made a subject of curious speculation
to himself!

But is it right, then, to judge of action by the quantity of thought
implied in it, any more than it would be to condemn a life of
contemplation for being inactive? Or has not everything a source and
principle of its own, to which we should refer it, and not to the
principles of other things? He who succeeds in any pursuit in which
others fail may be presumed to have qualities of some sort or other
which they are without. If he has not brilliant wit, he may have solid
sense; if he has not subtlety of understanding, he may have energy and
firmness of purpose; if he has only a few advantages, he may have
modesty and prudence to make the most of what he possesses. Propriety
is one great matter in the conduct of life; which, though, like a
graceful carriage of the body, it is neither definable nor striking at
first sight, is the result of finely balanced feelings, and lends a
secret strength and charm to the whole character.

Quicquid agit, quoquo vestigia vertit,
Componit furtim, subsequiturque decor.

There are more ways than one in which the various faculties of the mind
may unfold themselves. Neither words nor ideas reducible to words
constitute the utmost limit of human capacity. Man is not a merely
talking nor a merely reasoning animal. Let us then take him as he is,
instead of 'curtailing him of nature's fair proportions' to suit our
previous notions. Doubtless, there are great characters both in active
and contemplative life. There have been heroes as well as sages,
legislators and founders of religion, historians and able statesmen and
generals, inventors of useful arts and instruments and explorers of
undiscovered countries, as well as writers and readers of books. It
will not do to set all these aside under any fastidious or pedantic
distinction. Comparisons are odious, because they are impertinent, and
lead only to the discovery of defects by making one thing the standard
of another which has no relation to it. If, as some one proposed, we
were to institute an inquiry, 'Which was the greatest man, Milton or
Cromwell, Buonaparte or Rubens?' we should have all the authors and
artists on one side, and all the military men and the whole diplomatic
body on the other, who would set to work with all their might to pull in
pieces the idol of the other party, and the longer the dispute
continued, the more would each grow dissatisfied with his favourite,
though determined to allow no merit to any one else. The mind is not
well competent to take in the full impression of more than one style of
excellence or one extraordinary character at once; contradictory claims
puzzle and stupefy it; and however admirable any individual may be in
himself and unrivalled in his particular way, yet if we try him by
others in a totally opposite class, that is, if we consider not what he
was but what he was not, he will be found to be nothing. We do not
reckon up the excellences on either side, for then these would satisfy
the mind and put an end to the comparison: we have no way of exclusively
setting up our favourite but by running down his supposed rival; and for
the gorgeous hues of Rubens, the lofty conceptions of Milton, the deep
policy and cautious daring of Cromwell, or the dazzling exploits and
fatal ambition of the modern chieftain, the poet is transformed into a
pedant, the artist sinks into a mechanic, the politician turns out no
better than a knave, and the hero is exalted into a madman. It is as
easy to get the start of our antagonist in argument by frivolous and
vexatious objections to one side of the question as it is difficult to
do full and heaped justice to the other. If I am asked which is the
greatest of those who have been the greatest in different ways, I
answer, the one that we happen to be thinking of at the time; for while
that is the case, we can conceive of nothing higher. If there is a
propensity in the vulgar to admire the achievements of personal prowess
or instances of fortunate enterprise too much, it cannot be denied that
those who have to weigh out and dispense the meed of fame in books have
been too much disposed, by a natural bias, to confine all merit and
talent to the productions of the pen, or at least to those works which,
being artificial or abstract representations of things, are transmitted
to posterity, and cried up as models in their kind. This, though
unavoidable, is hardly just. Actions pass away and are forgotten, or
are only discernible in their effects; conquerors, statesmen, and kings
live but by their names stamped on the page of history. Hume says
rightly that more people think about Virgil and Homer (and that
continually) than ever trouble their heads about Caesar or Alexander.
In fact, poets are a longer-lived race than heroes: they breathe more of
the air of immortality. They survive more entire in their thoughts and
acts. We have all that Virgil or Homer did, as much as if we had lived
at the same time with them: we can hold their works in our hands, or lay
them on our pillows, or put them to our lips. Scarcely a trace of what
the others did is left upon the earth, so as to be visible to common
eyes. The one, the dead authors, are living men, still breathing and
moving in their writings. The others, the conquerors of the world, are
but the ashes in an urn. The sympathy (so to speak) between thought and
thought is more intimate and vital than that between thought and action.
Thought is linked to thought as flame kindles into flame: the tribute
of admiration to the manes of departed heroism is like burning incense
in a marble monument. Words, ideas, feelings, with the progress of time
harden into substances: things, bodies, actions, moulder away, or melt
into a sound, into thin air!--Yet though the Schoolmen in the Middle
Ages disputed more about the texts of Aristotle than the battle of
Arbela, perhaps Alexander's Generals in his lifetime admired his pupil
as much and liked him better. For not only a man's actions are effaced
and vanish with him; his virtues and generous qualities die with him
also: his intellect only is immortal and bequeathed unimpaired to
posterity. Words are the only things that last for ever.

If, however, the empire of words and general knowledge is more durable
in proportion as it is abstracted and attenuated, it is less immediate
and dazzling: if authors are as good after they are dead as when they
were living, while living they might as well be dead: and moreover with
respect to actual ability, to write a book is not the only proof of
taste, sense, or spirit, as pedants would have us suppose. To do
anything well, to paint a picture, to fight a battle, to make a plough
or a threshing-machine, requires, one would think, as much skill and
judgment as to talk about or write a description of it when done. Words
are universal, intelligible signs, but they are not the only real,
existing things. Did not Julius Caesar show himself as much of a man in
conducting his campaigns as in composing his Commentaries? Or was the
Retreat of the Ten Thousand under Xenophon, or his work of that name,
the most consummate performance? Or would not Lovelace, supposing him
to have existed and to have conceived and executed all his fine
stratagems on the spur of the occasion, have been as clever a fellow as
Richardson, who invented them in cold blood? If to conceive and
describe an heroic character is the height of a literary ambition, we
can hardly make it out that to be and to do all that the wit of man can
feign is nothing. To use means to ends; to set causes in motion; to
wield the machine of society; to subject the wills of others to your
own; to manage abler men than yourself by means of that which is
stronger in them than their wisdom, viz. their weakness and their folly;
to calculate the resistance of ignorance and prejudice to your designs,
and by obviating, to turn them to account; to foresee a long, obscure,
and complicated train of events, of chances and openings of success; to
unwind the web of others' policy and weave your own out of it; to judge
of the effects of things, not in the abstract, but with reference to all
their bearings, ramifications, and impediments; to understand character
thoroughly; to see latent talent or lurking treachery; to know mankind
for what they are, and use them as they deserve; to have a purpose
steadily in view, and to effect it after removing every obstacle; to
master others and be true to yourself,--asks power and knowledge, both
nerves and brain.

Such is the sort of talent that that may be shown and that has been
possessed by the great leaders on the stage of the world. To accomplish
great things argues, I imagine, great resolution: to design great things
implies no common mind. Ambition is in some sort genius. Though I
would rather wear out my life in arguing a broad speculative question
than in caballing for the election to a wardmote, or canvassing for
votes in a rotten borough, yet I should think that the loftiest
Epicurean philosopher might descend from his punctilio to identify
himself with the support of a great principle, or to prop a falling
state. This is what the legislators and founders of empire did of old;
and the permanence of their institutions showed the depth of the
principles from which they emanated. A tragic poem is not the worse for
acting well: if it will not bear this test it savours of effeminacy.
Well-digested schemes will stand the touchstone of experience. Great
thoughts reduced to practice become great acts. Again, great acts grow
out of great occasions, and great occasions spring from great
principles, working changes in society, and tearing it up by the roots.
But I still conceive that a genius for actions depends essentially on
the strength of the will rather than on that of the understanding; that
the long-headed calculation of causes and consequences arises from the
energy of the first cause, which is the will setting others in motion
and prepared to anticipate the results; that its sagacity is activity
delighting in meeting difficulties and adventures more than half-way,
and its wisdom courage not to shrink from danger, but to redouble its
efforts with opposition. Its humanity, if it has much, is magnanimity
to spare the vanquished, exulting in power but not prone to mischief,
with good sense enough to be aware of the instability of fortune, and
with some regard to reputation. What may serve as a criterion to try
this question by is the following consideration, that we sometimes find
as remarkable a deficiency of the speculative faculty coupled with great
strength of will and consequent success in active life as we do a want
of voluntary power and total incapacity for business frequently joined
to the highest mental qualifications. In some cases it will happen that
'to be wise is to be obstinate.' If you are deaf to reason but stick to
your own purposes, you will tire others out, and bring them over to your
way of thinking. Self-will and blind prejudice are the best defence of
actual power and exclusive advantages. The forehead of the late king
was not remarkable for the character of intellect, but the lower part of
his face was expressive of strong passions and fixed resolution.
Charles Fox had an animated, intelligent eye, and brilliant, elastic
forehead (with a nose indicating fine taste), but the lower features
were weak, unsettled, fluctuating, and without _purchase_--it was in
them the Whigs were defeated. What a fine iron binding Buonaparte had
round his face, as if it bad been cased in steel! What sensibility
about the mouth! What watchful penetration in the eye! What a smooth,
unruffled forehead! Mr. Pitt, with little sunken eyes, had a high,
retreating forehead, and a nose expressing pride and aspiring
self-opinion: it was on that (with submission) that he suspended the
decisions of the House of Commons and dangled the Opposition as he
pleased. Lord Castlereagh is a man rather deficient than redundant in
words and topics. He is not (any more than St. Augustine was, in the
opinion of La Fontaine) so great a wit as Rabelais, nor is he so great a
philosopher as Aristotle; but he has that in him which is not to be
trifled with. He has a noble mask of a face (not well filled up in the
expression, which is relaxed and dormant) with a fine person and manner.
On the strength of these he hazards his speeches in the House. He has
also a knowledge of mankind, and of the composition of the House. He
takes a thrust which he cannot parry on his shield--is 'all tranquillity
and smiles' under a volley of abuse, sees when to pay a compliment to a
wavering antagonist, soothes the melting mood of his hearers, or gets up
a speech full of indignation, and knows how to bestow his attentions on
that great public body, whether he wheedles or bullies, so as to bring
it to compliance. With a long reach of undefined purposes (the result
of a temper too indolent for thought, too violent for repose) he has
equal perseverance and pliancy in bringing his objects to pass. I would
rather be Lord Castlereagh, as far as a sense of power is concerned
(principle is out of the question), than such a man as Mr. Canning, who
is a mere fluent sophist, and never knows the limit of discretion, or
the effect which will be produced by what he says, except as far as
florid common-places may be depended on. Buonaparte is referred by Mr.
Coleridge to the class of active rather than of intellectual characters;
and Cowley has left an invidious but splendid eulogy on Oliver Cromwell,
which sets out on much the same principle. 'What,' he says, 'can be
more extraordinary than that a person of mean birth, no fortune, no
eminent qualities of body, which have sometimes, or of mind, which have
often, raised men to the highest dignities, should have the courage to
attempt, and the happiness to succeed in, so improbable a design as the
destruction of one of the most ancient and most solidly-founded
monarchies upon the earth? That he should have the power or boldness to
put his prince and master to an open and infamous death; to banish that
numerous and strongly-allied family; to do all this under the name and
wages of a Parliament; to trample upon them too as he pleased, and spurn
them out of doors when he grow weary of them; to raise up a new and
unheard-of monster out of their ashes; to stifle that in the very
infancy, and set up himself above all things that ever were called
sovereign in England; to oppress all his enemies by arms, and all his
friends afterwards by artifice; to serve all parties patiently for a
while, and to command them victoriously at last; to overrun each corner
of the three nations, and overcome with equal facility both the riches
of the south and the poverty of the north; to be feared and courted by
all foreign princes, and adopted a brother to the Gods of the earth; to
call together Parliaments with a word of his pen, and scatter them again
with the breath of his mouth; to be humbly and daily petitioned that be
would please to be hired, at the rate of two millions a year, to be the
master of those who had hired him before to be their servant; to have
the estates and lives of three kingdoms as much at his disposal as was
the little inheritance of his father, and to be as noble and liberal in
the spending of them; and lastly (for there is no end of all the
particulars of his glory), to bequeath all this with one word to his
posterity; to die with peace at home, and triumph abroad; to be buried
among kings, and with more than regal solemnity; and to leave a name
behind him, not to be extinguished but with the whole world; which as it
is now too little for his praises, so might have been too for his
conquests, if the short line of his human life could have been stretched
out to the extent of his immortal designs!'

Cromwell was a bad speaker and a worse writer. Milton wrote his
despatches for him in elegant and erudite Latin; and the pen of the one,
like the sword of the other, was 'sharp and sweet.' We have not that
union in modern times of the heroic and literary character which was
common among the ancients. Julius Caesar and Xenophon recorded their
own acts with equal clearness of style and modesty of temper. The Duke
of Wellington (worse off than Cromwell) is obliged to get Mr. Mudford to
write the History of his Life. Sophocles, AEschylus, and Socrates were
distinguished for their military prowess among their contemporaries,
though now only remembered for what they did in poetry and philosophy.
Cicero and Demosthenes, the two greatest orators of antiquity, appear to
have been cowards: nor does Horace seem to give a very favourable
picture of his martial achievements. But in general there was not that
division in the labours of the mind and body among the Greeks and Romans
that has been introduced among us either by the progress of civilisation
or by a greater slowness and inaptitude of parts. The French, for
instance, appear to unite a number of accomplishments, the literary
character and the man of the world, better than we do. Among us, a
scholar is almost another name for a pedant or a clown: it is not so
with them. Their philosophers and wits went into the world and mingled
in the society of the fair. Of this there needs no other proof than the
spirited print of most of the great names in French literature, to whom
Moliere is reading a comedy in the presence of the celebrated Ninon de
l'Enclos. D'Alembert, one of the first mathematicians of his age, was a
wit, a man of gallantry and letters. With us a learned man is absorbed
in himself and some particular study, and minds nothing else. There is
something ascetic and impracticable in his very constitution, and he
answers to the description of the Monk in Spenser--

From every work he challenged essoin
For contemplation's sake.

Perhaps the superior importance attached to the institutions of
religion, as well as the more abstracted and visionary nature of its
objects, has led (as a general result) to a wider separation between
thought and action in modern times.

Ambition is of a higher and more heroic strain than avarice. Its
objects are nobler, and the means by which it attains its ends less

Better be lord of them that riches have,
Than riches have myself, and be their servile slave.

The incentive to ambition is the love of power; the spur to avarice is
either the fear of poverty or a strong desire of self-indulgence. The
amassers of fortunes seem divided into two opposite classes--lean,
penurious-looking mortals, or jolly fellows who are determined to get
possession of, because they want to enjoy, the good things of the world.
The one have famine and a workhouse always before their eyes; the
others, in the fulness of their persons and the robustness of their
constitutions, seem to bespeak the reversion of a landed estate, rich
acres, fat beeves, a substantial mansion, costly clothing, a chine and
curkey, choice wines, and all other good things consonant to the wants
and full-fed desires of their bodies. Such men charm fortune by the
sleekness of their aspects and the goodly rotundity of their honest
faces, as the others scare away poverty by their wan, meagre looks. The
last starve themselves into riches by care and carking; the first eat,
drink, and sleep their way into the good things of this life. The
greatest number of _warm_ men in the city are good, jolly follows. Look
at Sir William -----. Callipash and callipee are written in his face:
he rolls about his unwieldy bulk in a sea of turtle-soup. How many
haunches of venison does he carry on his back! He is larded with jobs
and contracts: he is stuffed and swelled out with layers of bank-notes
and invitations to dinner! His face hangs out a flag of defiance to
mischance: the roguish twinkle in his eye with which he lures half the
city and beats Alderman ----- hollow, is a smile reflected from heaps of
unsunned gold! Nature and Fortune are not so much at variance as to
differ about this fellow. To enjoy the good the Gods provide us is to
deserve it. Nature meant him for a Knight, Alderman, and City Member;
and Fortune laughed to see the goodly person and prospects of the
man![2] I am not, from certain early prejudices, much to admire the
ostentatious marks of wealth (there are persons enough to admire them
without me)--but I confess, there is something in the look of the old
banking-houses in Lombard Street, the posterns covered with mud, the
doors opening sullenly and silently, the absence of all pretence, the
darkness and the gloom within, the gleaming of lamps in the day-time,

Like a faint shadow of uncertain light,

that almost realises the poetical conception of the cave of Mammon in
Spenser, where dust and cobwebs concealed the roofs and pillars of solid
gold, and lifts the mind quite off its ordinary hinges. The account of
the manner in which the founder of Guy's Hospital accumulated his
immense wealth has always to me something romantic in it, from the same
force of contrast. He was a little shop-keeper, and out of his savings
bought Bibles and purchased seamen's tickets in Queen Anne's wars, by
which he left a fortune of two hundred thousand pounds. The story
suggests the idea of a magician; nor is there anything in the _Arabian
Nights_ that looks more like a fiction.


[1] When Buonaparte left the Chamber of Deputies to go and fight his
last fatal battle, he advised them not to be debating the forms of
Constitutions when the enemy was at their gates. Benjamin Constant
thought otherwise. He wanted to play a game at _cat's-cradle_ between
the Republicans and Royalists, and lost his match. He did not care, so
that he hampered a more efficient man than himself.

[2] A thorough fitness for any end implies the means. Where there is a
will, there is a way. A real passion, an entire devotion to any object,
always succeeds. The strong sympathy with what we wish and imagine
realises it, dissipates all obstacles, and removes all scruples. The
disappointed lover may complain as much as he pleases. He was himself
to blame. He was a half-witted, _wishy-washy_ fellow. His love might
be as great as he makes it out; but it was not his ruling passion. His
fear, his pride, his vanity was greater. Let any one's whole soul be
steeped in this passion; let him think and care for nothing else; let
nothing divert, cool, or intimidate him; let the _ideal_ feeling become
an actual one and take possession of his whole faculties, looks, and
manner; let the same voluptuous hopes and wishes govern his actions in
the presence of his mistress that haunt his fancy in her absence, and I
will answer for his success. But I will not answer for the success of
'a dish of skimmed milk' in such a case.--I could always get to see a
fine collection of pictures myself. The fact is, I was set upon it.
Neither the surliness of porters nor the impertinence of footmen could
keep me back. I had a portrait of Titian in my eye, and nothing could
put me out in my determination. If that had not (as it were) been
looking on me all the time I was battling my way, I should have been
irritated or disconcerted, and gone away. But my liking to the end
conquered my scruples or aversion to the means. I never understood the
Scotch character but on these occasions. I would not take 'No' for an
answer. If I had wanted a place under government or a writership to
India, I could have got it from the same importunity, and on the same



Few things show the human character in a more ridiculous light than the
circumstance of will-making. It is the latest opportunity we have of
exercising the natural perversity of the disposition, and we take care
to make a good use of it. We husband it with jealousy, put it off as
long as we can, and then use every precaution that the world shall be no
gainer by our deaths. This last act of our lives seldom belies the
former tenor of them for stupidity, caprice, and unmeaning spite. All
that we seem to think of is to manage matters so (in settling accounts
with those who are so unmannerly as to survive us) as to do as little
good, and to plague and disappoint as many people, as possible.

Many persons have a superstition on the subject of making their last
will and testament, and think that when everything is ready signed and
sealed, there is nothing further left to delay their departure. I have
heard of an instance of one person who, having a feeling of this kind on
his mind, and being teased into making his will by those about him,
actually fell ill with pure apprehension, and thought he was going to
die in good earnest, but having executed the deed over-night, awoke, to
his great surprise, the next morning, and found himself as well as ever
he was.[1]

An elderly gentleman possessed of a good estate and the same idle
notion, and who found himself in a dangerous way, was anxious to do this
piece of justice to those who remained behind him, but when it came to
the point, his heart failed him, and his nervous fancies returned in
full force. Even on his death-bed he still held back and was averse to
sign what he looked upon as his own death-warrant, and just at the last
gasp, amidst the anxious looks and silent upbraidings of friends and
relatives that surrounded him, be summoned resolution to hold out his
feeble hand, which was guided by others, to trace his name, and he fell
back--a corpse! If there is any pressing reason for it, that is, if any
particular person would be relieved from a state of harassing
uncertainty or materially benefited by their making a will, the old and
infirm (who do not like to be put out of their way) generally make this
an excuse to themselves for putting it off to the very last moment,
probably till it is too late; or where this is sure to make the greatest
number of blank faces, contrive to give their friends the slip, without
signifying their final determination in their favour. Where some
unfortunate individual has been kept long in suspense, who has been
perhaps sought out for that very purpose, and who may be in a great
measure dependent on this as a last resource, it is nearly a certainty
that there will be no will to be found; no trace, no sign to discover
whether the person dying thus intestate ever had any intention of the
sort, or why they relinquished it. This is to bespeak the thoughts and
imaginations of others for victims after we are dead, as well as their
persons and expectations for hangers-on while we are living. A
celebrated beauty of the middle of the last century, towards its close,
sought out a female relative, the friend and companion of her youth, who
had lived during the forty years of their separation in rather
straitened circumstances, and in a situation which admitted of some
alleviations. Twice they met after that long lapse of time--once her
relation visited her in the splendour of a rich old family mansion, and
once she crossed the country to become an inmate of the humble dwelling
of her early and only remaining friend. What was this for? Was it to
revive the image of her youth in the pale and careworn face of her
friend? Or was it to display the decay of her charms and recall her
long-forgotten triumphs to the memory of the only person who could bear
witness to them? Was it to show the proud remains of herself to those
who remembered or had often heard what she was--her skin like shrivelled
alabaster, her emaciated features chiselled by Nature's finest hand, her
eyes that, when a smile lighted them up, still shone like diamonds, the
vermilion hues that still bloomed among wrinkles? Was it to talk of
bone-lace, of the flounces and brocades of the last century, of
race-balls in the year '62, and of the scores of lovers that had died at
her feet, and to set whole counties in a flame again, only with a dream
of faded beauty? Whether it was for this, or whether she meant to leave
her friend anything (as was indeed expected, all things considered, not
without reason), nobody knows--for she never breathed a syllable on the
subject herself, and died without a will. The accomplished coquette of
twenty, who had pampered hopes only to kill them, who had kindled
rapture with a look and extinguished it with a breath, could find no
better employment at seventy than to revive the fond recollections and
raise up the drooping hopes of her kinswoman only to let them fall--to
rise no more. Such is the delight we have in trifling with and
tantalising the feelings of others by the exquisite refinements, the
studied sleights of love or friendship!

Where a property is actually bequeathed, supposing the circumstances of
the case and the usages of society to leave a practical discretion to
the testator, it is most frequently in such portions as can be of the
least service. Where there is much already, much is given; where much
is wanted, little or nothing. Poverty invites a sort of pity, a
miserable dole of assistance; necessity, neglect and scorn; wealth
attracts and allures to itself more wealth by natural association of
ideas or by that innate love of inequality and injustice which is the
favourite principle of the imagination. Men like to collect money into
large heaps in their lifetime; they like to leave it in large heaps
after they are dead. They grasp it into their own hands, not to use it
for their own good, but to hoard, to lock it up, to make an object, an
idol, and a wonder of it. Do you expect them to distribute it so as to
do others good; that they will like those who come after them better
than themselves; that if they were willing to pinch and starve
themselves, they will not deliberately defraud their sworn friends and
nearest kindred of what would be of the utmost use to them? No, they
will thrust their heaps of gold and silver into the hands of others (as
their proxies) to keep for them untouched, still increasing, still of no
use to any one, but to pamper pride and avarice, to glitter in the huge,
watchful, insatiable eye of fancy, to be deposited as a new offering at
the shrine of Mammon, their God,--this is with them to put it to its
intelligible and proper use; this is fulfilling a sacred, indispensable
duty; this cheers them in the solitude of the grave, and throws a gleam
of satisfaction across the stony eye of death. But to think of
frittering it down, of sinking it in charity, of throwing it away on the
idle claims of humanity, where it would no longer peer in monumental
pomp over their heads,--and that, too, when on the point of death
themselves, _in articulo mortis,_ oh! it would be madness, waste,
extravagance, impiety!--Thus worldlings feel and argue without knowing
it; and while they fancy they are studying their own interest or that of
some booby successor, their _alter idem,_ are but the dupes and puppets
of a favourite idea, a phantom, a prejudice, that must be kept up
somewhere (no matter where), if it still plays before and haunts their
imagination, while they have sense or understanding left to cling to
their darling follies.

There was a remarkable instance of this tendency _to the heap,_ this
desire to cultivate an abstract passion for wealth, in a will of one of
the Thelussons some time back. This will went to keep the greater part
of a large property from the use of the natural heirs and next-of-kin
for a length of time, and to let it accumulate at compound interest in
such a way and so long, that it would at last mount up in value to the
purchase-money of a whole county. The interest accruing from the funded
property or the rent of the lands at certain periods was to be employed
to purchase other estates, other parks and manors in the neighbourhood
or farther off, so that the prospect of the future demesne that was to
devolve at some distant time to the unborn lord of acres swelled and
enlarged itself, like a sea, circle without circle, vista beyond vista,
till the imagination was staggered and the mind exhausted. Now here was
a scheme for the accumulation of wealth and for laying the foundation of
family aggrandisement purely imaginary, romantic--one might almost say,
disinterested. The vagueness, the magnitude, the remoteness of the
object, the resolute sacrifice of all immediate and gross advantages,
clothe it with the privileges of an abstract idea, so that the project
has the air of a fiction or of a story in a novel. It was an instance
of what might be called posthumous avarice, like the love of posthumous
fame. It had little more to do with selfishness than if the testator
had appropriated the same sums in the same way to build a pyramid, to
construct an aqueduct, to endow a hospital, or effect any other
patriotic or merely fantastic purpose. He wished to heap up a pile of
wealth (millions of acres) in the dim horizon of future years, that
could be of no use to him or to those with whom he was connected by
positive and personal ties, but as a crotchet of the brain, a gewgaw of
the fancy.[2] Yet to enable himself to put this scheme in execution, he
had perhaps toiled and watched all his life, denied himself rest, food,
pleasure, liberty, society, and persevered with the patience and
self-denial of a martyr. I have insisted on this point the more, to
show how much of the imaginary and speculative there is interfused even
in those passions and purposes which have not the good of others for
their object, and how little reason this honest citizen and builder of
castles in the air would have had to treat those who devoted themselves
to the pursuit of fame, to obloquy and persecution for the sake of truth
and liberty, or who sacrificed their lives for their country in a just
cause, as visionaries and enthusiasts, who did not understand what was
properly due to their own interest and the securing of the main chance.
Man is not the creature of sense and selfishness, even in those pursuits
which grow out of that origin, so much as of imagination, custom,
passion, whim, and humour.

I have heard of a singular instance of a will made by a person who was
addicted to a habit of lying. He was so notorious for this propensity
(not out of spite or cunning, but as a gratuitous exercise of invention)
that from a child no one could ever believe a syllable he uttered. From
the want of any dependence to be placed on him, he became the jest and
by-word of the school where he was brought up. The last act of his life
did not disgrace him; for, having gone abroad, and falling into a
dangerous decline, he was advised to return home. He paid all that he
was worth for his passage, went on ship-board, and employed a few
remaining days be had to live in making and executing his will; in which
he bequeathed large estates in different parts of England, money in the
funds, rich jewels, rings, and all kinds of valuables to his old friends
and acquaintance, who, not knowing how far the force of nature could go,
were not for some time convinced that all this fairy wealth had never
had an existence anywhere but in the idle coinage of his brain, whose
whims and projects were no more!--The extreme keeping in this character
is only to be accounted for by supposing such an original constitutional
levity as made truth entirely indifferent to him, and the serious
importance attached to it by others an object of perpetual sport and

The art of will-making chiefly consists in baffling the importunity of
expectation. I do not so much find fault with this when it is done as a
punishment and oblique satire on servility and selfishness. It is in
that case _Diamond cut Diamond_--a trial of skill between the
legacy-hunter and the legacy-maker, which shall fool the other. The
cringing toad-eater, the officious tale-bearer, is perhaps well paid for
years of obsequious attendance with a bare mention and a mourning-ring;
nor can I think that Gil Blas' library was not quite as much as the
coxcombry of his pretensions deserved. There are some admirable scenes
in Ben Jonson's _Volpone,_ showing the humours of a legacy-hunter, and
the different ways of fobbing him off with excuses and assurances of not
being forgotten. Yet it is hardly right, after all, to encourage this
kind of pitiful, barefaced intercourse without meaning to pay for it, as
the coquette has no right to jilt the lovers she has trifled with.
Flattery and submission are marketable commodities like any other, have
their price, and ought scarcely to be obtained under false pretences.
If we see through and despise the wretched creature that attempts to
impose on our credulity, we can at any time dispense with his services:
if we are soothed by this mockery of respect and friendship, why not pay
him like any other drudge, or as we satisfy the actor who performs a
part in a play by our particular desire? But often these premeditated
disappointments are as unjust as they are cruel, and are marked with
circumstances of indignity, in proportion to the worth of the object.
The suspecting, the taking it for granted that your name is down in the
will, is sufficient provocation to have it struck out: the hinting at an
obligation, the consciousness of it on the part of the testator, will
make him determined to avoid the formal acknowledgment of it at any
expense. The disinheriting of relations is mostly for venial offences,
not for base actions: we punish out of pique, to revenge some case in
which we been disappointed of our wills, some act of disobedience to
what had no reasonable ground to go upon; and we are obstinate in
adhering to our resolution, as it was sudden and rash, and doubly bent
on asserting our authority in what we have least right to interfere in.
It is the wound inflicted upon our self-love, not the stain upon the
character of the thoughtless offender, that calls for condign
punishment. Crimes, vices may go unchecked or unnoticed; but it is the
laughing at our weaknesses, or thwarting our humours, that is never to
be forgotten. It is not the errors of others, but our own
miscalculations, on which we wreak our lasting vengeance. It is
ourselves that we cannot forgive. In the will of Nicholas Gimcrack the
virtuoso, recorded in the _Tatler,_ we learn, among other items, that
his eldest son is cut off with a single cockleshell for his undutiful
behaviour in laughing at his little sister whom his father kept
preserved in spirits of wine. Another of his relations has a collection
of grasshoppers bequeathed him, as in the testator's opinion an adequate
reward and acknowledgment due to his merit. The whole will of the said
Nicholas Gimcrack, Esq., is a curious document and exact picture of the
mind of the worthy virtuoso defunct, where his various follies,
littlenesses, and quaint humours are set forth as orderly and distinct
as his butterflies' wings and cockle-shells and skeletons of fleas in
glass cases.[3] We often successfully try, in this way, to give the
finishing stroke to our pictures, hang up our weaknesses in perpetuity,
and embalm our mistakes in the memories of others.

Even from the tomb the voice of nature cries,
Even in our ashes live their wonted fires.

I shall not speak here of unwarrantable commands imposed upon survivors,
by which they were to carry into effect the sullen and revengeful
purposes of unprincipled men, after they had breathed their last; but we
meet with continual examples of the desire to keep up the farce (if not
the tragedy) of life after we, the performers in it, have quitted the
stage, and to have our parts rehearsed by proxy. We thus make a caprice
immortal, a peculiarity proverbial. Hence we see the number of legacies
and fortunes left on condition that the legatee shall take the name and
style of the testator, by which device we provide for the continuance of
the sounds that formed our names, and endow them with an estate, that
they may be repeated with proper respect. In the _Memoirs of an
Heiress_ all the difficulties of the plot turn on the necessity imposed
by a clause in her uncle's will that her future husband should take the
family name of Beverley. Poor Cecilia! What delicate perplexities she
was thrown into by this improvident provision; and with what minute,
endless, intricate distresses has the fair authoress been enabled to
harrow up the reader on this account! There was a Sir Thomas Dyot in
the reign of Charles II. who left the whole range of property which
forms Dyot Street, in St. Giles's, and the neighbourhood, on the sole
and express condition that it should be appropriated entirely to that
sort of buildings, and to the reception of that sort of population,
which still keeps undisputed, undivided possession of it. The name was
changed the other day to George Street as a more genteel appellation.
which, I should think, is an indirect forfeiture of the estate. This
Sir Thomas Dyot I should be disposed to put upon the list of old English
worthies--as humane, liberal, and no flincher from what he took in his
head. He was no common-place man in his line. He was the best
commentator on that old-fashioned text--'The foxes have holes, and the
birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay
his head.' We find some that are curious in the mode in which they
shall be buried, and others in the place. Lord Camelford had his
remains buried under an ash tree that grew on one of the mountains in
Switzerland; and Sir Francis Bourgeois had a little mausoleum built for
him in the college at Dulwich, where he once spent a pleasant, jovial
day with the masters and wardens.[4] It is, no doubt, proper to attend,
except for strong reasons to the contrary, to these sort of requests;
for by breaking faith with the dead we loosen the confidence of the
living. Besides, there is a stronger argument: we sympathise with the
dead as well as with the living, and are bound to them by the most
sacred of all ties, our own involuntary follow-feeling with others!

Thieves, as a last donation, leave advice to their friends, physicians a
nostrum, authors a manuscript work, rakes a confession of their faith in
the virtue of the sex--all, the last drivellings of their egotism and
impertinence. One might suppose that if anything could, the approach
and contemplation of death might bring men to a sense of reason and
self-knowledge. On the contrary, it seems only to deprive them of the
little wit they had, and to make them even more the sport of their
wilfulness and shortsightedness. Some men think that because they are
going to be hanged, they are fully authorised to declare a future state
of rewards and punishments. All either indulge their caprices or cling
to their prejudices. They make a desperate attempt to escape from
reflection by taking hold of any whim or fancy that crosses their minds,
or by throwing themselves implicitly on old habits and attachments.

An old man is twice a child: the dying man becomes the property of his
family. He has no choice left, and his voluntary power is merged in old
saws and prescriptive usages. The property we have derived from our
kindred reverts tacitly to them; and not to let it take its course is a
sort of violence done to nature as well as custom. The idea of
property, of something in common, does not mix cordially with
friendship, but is inseparable from near relationship. We owe a return
in kind, where we feel no obligation for a favour; and consign our
possessions to our next-of-kin as mechanically as we lean our heads on
the pillow, and go out of the world in the same state of stupid
amazement that we came into it!. . ._Caetera desunt._


[1] A poor woman at Plymouth who did not like the formality, or could
not afford the expense of a will, thought to leave what little property
she had in wearing apparel and household moveables to her friends and
relations, _viva voce_, and before Death stopped her breath. She gave
and willed away (of her proper authority) her chair and table to one,
her bed to another, an old cloak to a third, a night-cap and petticoat
to a fourth, and so on. The old crones sat weeping round, and soon
after carried off all they could lay their hands upon, and left their
benefactress to her fate. They were no sooner gone than she
unexpectedly recovered, and sent to have her things back again; but not
one of them could she get, and she was left without a rag to her back,
or a friend to condole with her.

[2] The law of primogeniture has its origin in the principle here
stated, the desire of perpetuating some one palpable and prominent proof
of wealth and power.

[3] It is as follows:

'The Will of a Virtuoso.

I, Nicholas Gimcrack, being in sound Health of Mind, but in great
Weakness of Body, do by this my Last Will and Testament bequeath my
worldly Goods and Chattels in Manner following:--

Imprimis, To my dear Wife,
One Box of Butterflies,
One Drawer of Shells,
A Female Skeleton,
A Dried Cockatrice.

Item, To my Daughter Elizabeth,
My Receipt for preserving dead Caterpillars,
As also my Preparations of Winter May-Dew, and Embrio Pickle.

Item, to my little Daughter Fanny,
Three Crocodiles' Eggs.

And upon the Birth of her first Child, if she marries with her Mother's
The Nest of a Humming Bird.

Item, To my eldest Brother, as an acknowledgment for the Lands he has
vested in my Son Charles, I bequeath
My last Year's Collection of Grasshoppers.

Item, To his Daughter Susanna, being his only Child, I bequeath my
English Weeds pasted on Royal Paper,
With my large Folio of Indian Cabbage.

Having fully provided for my Nephew Isaac, by making over to him some
years since
A horned Searaboeus,
The Skin of a Rattle-Snake, and
The Mummy of an Egyptian King,
I make no further Provision for him in this my Will.

I My eldest Son John having spoken disrespectfully of his little Sister,
whom I keep by me in Spirits of Wine, and in many other Instances
behaved himself undutifully towards me, I do disinherit, and wholly cut
off from any Part of this my Personal Estate, by giving him a single

To my Second Son Charles, I give and bequeath all my Flowers, Plants,
Minerals, Mosses, Shells, Pebbles, Fossils, Beetles, Butterflies,
Caterpillars, Grasshoppers, and Vermin, not above specified : As also my
Monsters, both wet and dry, making the said Charles whole and sole
Executor of this my Last Will and Testament, he paying or causing to be
paid the aforesaid Legacies within the Space of Six Months after my
Decease. And I do hereby revoke all other Wills whatsoever by me
formerly made.'--_Tatler,_ vol. iv. No. 216.

[4] Kellerman lately left his heart to be buried in the field of Valmy,
where the first great battle was fought in the year 1792, in which the
Allies were repulsed. Oh! might that heart prove the root from which
the tree of Liberty may spring up and flourish once more, as the basil
tree grew and grew from the cherished head of Isabella's lover!



The two chief points which Sir Joshua aims at in his _Discourses_ are to
show that excellence in the Fine Arts is the result of pains and study
rather than of genius, and that all beauty, grace, and grandeur are to
be found, not in actual nature, but in an idea existing in the mind. On
both these points he appears to have fallen into considerable
inconsistencies or very great latitude of expression, so as to make it
difficult to know what conclusion to draw from his various reasonings.
I shall attempt little more in this Essay than to bring together several
passages that, from their contradictory import, seem to imply some
radical defect in Sir Joshua's theory, and a doubt as to the possibility
of placing an implicit reliance on his authority.

To begin with the first of these subjects, the question of original
genius. In the Second Discourse, 'On the Method of Study,' Sir Joshua
observes towards the end:

'There is one precept, however, in which I shall only be opposed by the
vain, the ignorant, and the idle. I am not afraid that I shall repeat
it too often. You must have no dependence on your own genius. If you
have great talents, industry will improve them: if you have but moderate
abilities, industry will supply their deficiency. Nothing is denied to
well-directed labour; nothing is to be obtained without it. Not to
enter into metaphysical discussions on the nature or essence of genius,
I will venture to assert that assiduity unabated by difficulty, and a
disposition eagerly directed to the object of its pursuit, will produce
effects similar to those which some call the result of _natural

The only tendency of the maxim here laid down seems to be to lure those
students on with the hopes of excellence who have no chance of
succeeding, and to deter those who have from relying on the only prop
and source of real excellence--the strong bent and impulse of their
natural powers. Industry alone can only produce mediocrity; but
mediocrity in art is not worth the trouble of industry. Genius, great
natural powers, will give industry and ardour in the pursuit of their
proper object, but not if you divert them from that object into the
trammels of common-place mechanical labour. By this method you
neutralise all distinction of character--make a pedant of the blockhead
and a drudge of the man of genius. What, for instance, would have been
the effect of persuading Hogarth or Rembrandt to place no dependence on
their own genius, and to apply themselves to the general study of the
different branches of the art and of every sort of excellence, with a
confidence of success proportioned to their misguided efforts, but to
destroy both those great artists? 'You take my house when you do take
the prop that doth sustain my house!' You undermine the superstructure
of art when you strike at its main pillar and support, confidence and
faith in nature. We might as well advise a person who had discovered a
silver or a lead mine on his estate to close it up, or the common farmer
to plough up every acre he rents in the hope of discovering hidden
treasure, as advise the man of original genius to neglect his particular
vein for the study of rules and the imitation of others, or try to
persuade the man of no strong natural powers that he can supply their
deficiency by laborious application. Sir Joshua soon after, in the
Third Discourse, alluding to the terms, _inspiration, genius, gusto,_
applied by critics and orators to painting, proceeds:

'Such is the warmth with which both the Ancients and Moderns speak of
this divine principle of the art; but, as I have formerly observed,
enthusiastic admiration seldom promotes knowledge. Though a student by
such praise may have his attention roused and a desire excited of
running in this great career, yet it is possible that what has been said
to excite may only serve to deter him. He examines his own mind, and
perceives there nothing of that divine inspiration with which, he is
told, so many others have been favoured. He never travelled to heaven
to gather new ideas; and he finds himself possessed of no other
qualifications than what mere common observation and a plain
understanding can confer. Thus he becomes gloomy amidst the splendour
of figurative declamation, and thinks it hopeless to pursue an object
which he supposes out of the reach of human industry.'

Yet presently after he adds:

'It is not easy to define in what this great style consists; nor to
describe by words the proper means of acquiring it, _if the mind of the
student should be at all capable of such an acquisition._ Could we
teach taste or genius by rules, they would be no longer taste and

Here, then, Sir Joshua admits that it is a question whether the student
is likely _to be at all capable of such an acquisition_ as the higher
excellencies of art, though he had said in the passage just quoted above
that it is within the reach of constant assiduity and of a disposition
eagerly directed to the object of its pursuit to effect all that is
usually considered as the result of natural powers. Is the theory which
our author means to inculcate a mere delusion, a mere arbitrary
assumption? At one moment Sir Joshua attributes the hopelessness of the
student to attain perfection to the discouraging influence of certain
figurative and overstrained expressions, and in the next doubts his
capacity for such an acquisition under any circumstances. Would he have
him hope against hope, then? If he 'examines his own mind and finds
nothing there of that divine inspiration with which he is told so many
others have been favoured,' but which he has never felt himself; if 'he
finds himself possessed of no other qualifications' for the highest
efforts of genius and imagination 'than what mere common observation and
a plain understanding can confer,' be may as well desist at once from
'ascending the brightest heaven of invention':--if the very idea of the
divinity of art deters instead of animating him, if the enthusiasm with
which others speak of it damps the flame in his own breast, he had
better not enter into a competition where he wants the first principle
of success, the daring to aspire and the hope to excel. He may be
assured he is not the man. Sir Joshua himself was not struck at first
by the sight of the masterpieces of the great style of art, and he seems
unconsciously to have adopted this theory to show that he might still
have succeeded in it but for want of due application. His hypothesis
goes to this--to make the common run of his readers fancy they can do
all that can be done by genius, and to make the mail of genius believe
he can only do what is to be done by mechanical rules and systematic
industry. This is not a very feasible scheme; nor is Sir Joshua
sufficiently clear and explicit in his reasoning in support of it.

In speaking of Carlo Maratti, he confesses the inefficiency of this
doctrine in a very remarkable manner:--

'Carlo Maratti succeeded better than those I have first named, and I
think owes his superiority to the extension of his views: besides his
master Andrea Sacchi, he imitated Raffaelle, Guido, and the Caraccis.
It is true, there is nothing very captivating in Carlo Maratti; but this
proceeded from a want which cannot be completely supplied; that is, want
of strength of parts. _In this certainly men are not equal;_ and a man
can bring home wares only in proportion with the capital with which he
goes to market. Carlo, by diligence, made the most of what he had; but
there was undoubtedly a heaviness about him, which extended itself
uniformly to his invention, expression, his drawing, colouring, and the
general effect of his pictures. The truth is, he never equalled any of
his patterns in any one thing, and he added little of his own.'

Here, then, Reynolds, we see, fairly gives up the argument. Carlo,
after all, was a heavy hand; nor could all his diligence and his making
the most of what he had make up for the want of 'natural powers.' Sir
Joshua's good sense pointed out to him the truth in the individual
instance, though he might be led astray by a vague general theory.
Such, however, is the effect of a false principle that there is an
evident bias in the artist's mind to make genius lean upon others for
support, instead of trusting to itself and developing its own
incommunicable resources. So in treating in the Twelfth Discourse of
the way in which great artists are formed, Sir Joshua reverts very
nearly to his first position:

'The daily food and nourishment of the mind of an Artist is found in the
great works of his predecessors. There is no other way for him to
become great himself. _Serpens, nigi serpentem comederit, non fit
draco._ Raffaelle, as appears from what has been said, had carefully
studied the works of Masaccio, and indeed there was no other, if we
except Michael Angelo (whom he likewise imitated),[1] so worthy of his
attention; and though his manner was dry and hard, his compositions
formal, and not enough diversified, according to the custom of Painters
in that early period, yet his works possess that grandeur and simplicity
which accompany, and even sometimes proceed from, regularity and
hardness of manner. We must consider the barbarous state of the arts
before his time, when skill in drawing was so little understood, that
the best of the painters could not even foreshorten the foot, but every
figure appeared to stand upon his toes, and what served for drapery had,
from the hardness and smallness of the folds, too much the appearance of
cords clinging round the body. He first introduced large drapery,
flowing in an easy and natural manner; indeed, he appears to be the
first who discovered the path that leads to every excellence to which
the art afterwards arrived, and may therefore be justly considered as
one of the Great Fathers of Modern Art.

'Though I have been led on to a longer digression respecting this great
painter than I intended, yet I cannot avoid mentioning another
excellence which he possessed in a very eminent degree: he was as much
distinguished among his contemporaries for his diligence and industry
_as he was for the natural faculties of his mind._ We are told that his
whole attention was absorbed in the pursuit of his art, and that he
acquired the name of Masaccio from his total disregard to his dress, his
person, and all the common concerns of life. He is indeed _a signal
instance of what well-directed diligence_ will do in a short time: he
lived but twenty-seven years, yet in that short space carried the art so
far beyond what it had before reached, that he appears to stand alone as
a model for his successors. Vasari gives a long catalogue of painters
and sculptors who formed their taste and learned their art by studying
his works; among those, he names Michael Angelo, Leonardo da Vinci,
Pietro Perugino, Raffaelle, Bartholomeo, Andrea del Sarto, Il Rosso, and
Pierino del Vaga.'

Sir Joshua here again halts between two opinions. He tells us the names
of the painters who formed themselves upon Masaccio's style: he does not
tell us on whom he formed himself. At one time the natural faculties of
his mind were as remarkable as his industry; at another he was only a
signal instance of what well-directed diligence will do in a short time.
Then again, 'he appears to have been the first who discovered the path
that leads to every excellence to which the Art afterwards arrived,'
though he is introduced in an argument to show that 'the daily food and
nourishment of the mind of the Artist must be found in the works of his
predecessors.' There is something surely very wavering and
unsatisfactory in all this.

Sir Joshua, in another part of his work, endeavours to reconcile and
prop up these contradictions by a paradoxical sophism which I think
turns upon himself. He says: 'I am on the contrary persuaded, that by
imitation only' (by which he has just explained himself to mean the
study of other masters), 'variety, and even originality of invention is
produced. I will go further: even genius, at least, what is so called,
is the child of imitation. But as this appears to be contrary to the
general opinion, I must explain my position before I enforce it.

'Genius is supposed to be a power of producing excellencies which are
out of the reach of the rules of art: a power which no precepts can
teach, and which no industry can acquire.

'This opinion of the impossibility of acquiring those beauties which
stamp the work with the character of genius, supposes that it is
something more fixed than in reality it is, and that we always do and
ever did agree in opinion with respect to what should be considered as
the characteristic of genius. But the truth is, that the _degree_ of
excellence which proclaims _Genius_ is different in different times and
different places; and what shows it to be so is, that mankind have often
changed their opinion upon this matter.

'When the Arts were in their infancy, the power of merely drawing the
likeness of any object was considered as one of its greatest efforts.
The common people, ignorant of the principles of art, talk the same
language even to this day. But when it was found that every man could
be taught to do this, and a great deal more, merely by the observance of
certain precepts, the name of Genius then shifted its application, and
was given only to him who added the peculiar character of the object he
represented--to him who had invention, expression, grace, or dignity; in
short, those qualities or excellencies, the power of producing which
could not _then_ be taught by any known and promulgated rules.

'We are very sure that the beauty of form, the expression of the
passions, the art of composition, even the power of giving a general air
of grandeur to a work, is at present very much under the dominion of
rules. These excellencies were heretofore considered merely as the
effects of genius; and justly, if genius is not taken for inspiration,
but as the effect of close observation and experience.'

Sir Joshua began with undertaking to show that 'genius was the child of
the imitation of others, and now it turns out not to be inspiration
indeed, but the effect of close observation and experience.' The whole
drift of this argument appears to be contrary to what the writer
intended, for the obvious inference is that the essence of genius
consists entirely, both in kind and degree, in the single circumstance
of originality. The very same things are or are not genius, according
as they proceed from invention or from mere imitation. In so far as a
thing is original, as it has never been done before, it acquires and it
deserves the appellation of genius: in so far as it is not original, and
is borrowed from others or taught by rule, it is not, neither is it
called, genius. This does not make much for the supposition that genius
is a traditional and second-hand quality. Because, for example, a man
without much genius can copy a picture of Michael Angelo's, does it
follow that there was no genius in the original design, or that the
inventor and copyist are equal? If indeed, as Sir Joshua labours to
prove, mere imitation of existing models and attention to established
rules could produce results exactly similar to those of natural powers,
if the progress of art as a learned profession were a gradual but
continual accumulation of individual excellence, instead of being a
sudden and almost miraculous start to the highest beauty and grandeur
nearly at first, and a regular declension to mediocrity ever after, then
indeed the distinction between genius and imitation would be little
worth contending for; the causes might be different, the effects would
be the same, or rather skill to avail ourselves of external advantages
would be of more importance and efficacy than the most powerful internal
resources. But as the case stands, all the great works of art have been
the offspring of individual genius, either projecting itself before the
general advances of society or striking out a separate path for itself;
all the rest is but labour in vain. For every purpose of emulation or
instruction we go back to the original inventors, not to those who
imitated, and, as it is falsely pretended, improved upon their models:
or if those who followed have at any time attained as high a rank or
surpassed their predecessors, it was not from borrowing their
excellencies, but by unfolding new and exquisite powers of their own, of
which the moving principle lay in the individual mind, and not in the
stimulus afforded by previous example and general knowledge. Great
faults, it is true, may be avoided, but great excellencies can never be
attained in this way. If Sir Joshua's hypothesis of progressive
refinement in art was anything more than a verbal fallacy, why does he
go back to Michael Angelo as the God of his idolatry? Why does he find
fault with Carlo Maratti for being heavy? Or why does he declare as
explicitly as truly, that 'the judgment, after it has been long passive,
by degrees loses its power of becoming active when exertion is
necessary'?--Once more to point out the fluctuation in Sir Joshua's
notions on this subject of the advantages of natural genius and
artificial study, he says, when recommending the proper objects of
ambition to the young artist:

'My advice in a word is this: keep your principal attention fixed upon
the higher excellencies. If you compass them, and compass nothing more,
you are still in the first class. We may regret the innumerable
beauties which you may want; you may be very imperfect, but still you
are an imperfect artist of the highest order.'

This is the Fifth Discourse. In the Seventh our artist seems to waver,
and flings a doubt on his former decision, whereby 'it loses some

'Indeed perfection in an inferior style may be reasonably preferred to
mediocrity in the highest walks of art. A landscape of Claude Lorraine
_may_[2] be preferred to a history by Luca Giordano: but hence appears
the necessity of the connoisseur's knowing in what consists the
excellency of each class, in order to judge how near it approaches to

As he advances, however, he grows bolder, and altogether discards his
theory of judging of the artist by the class to which he belongs--'But
we have the sanction of all mankind,' he says, 'in preferring genius in
a lower rank of art to feebleness and insipidity in the highest.' This
is in speaking of Gainsborough. The whole passage is excellent, and, I
should think, conclusive against the general and factitious style of art
on which he insists so much at other times.

'On this ground, however unsafe, I will venture to prophesy, that two of
the last distinguished painters of that country, I mean Pompeio Battoni
and Rafaelle Mengs, however great their names may at present sound in
our ears,[3] will very soon fall into the rank of Imperiale, Sebastian
Concha, Placido Constanza, Musaccio, and the rest of their immediate
predecessors; whose names, though equally renowned in their lifetime,
are now fallen into what is little short of total oblivion. I do not
say that those painters were not superior to the artist I allude to,[4]
and whose loss we lament, in a certain routine of practice, which, to
the eyes of common observers, has the air of a learned composition, and
bears a sort of superficial resemblance to the manner of the great men
who went before them. I know this perfectly well; but I know likewise,
that a man looking for real and lasting reputation must unlearn much of
the common-place method so observable in the works of the artists whom I
have named. For my own part, I confess, I take more interest in and am
more captivated with the powerful impression of nature, which
Gainsborough exhibited in his portraits and in his landscapes, and the
interesting simplicity and elegance of his little ordinary
beggar-children, than with any of the works of that school, since the
time of Andrea Sacchi, or perhaps we may say Carlo Maratti: two painters
who may truly be said to be ULTIMI ROMANORUM.

'I am well aware how much I lay myself open to the censure and ridicule
of the academical professors of other nations in preferring the humble
attempts of Gainsborough to the works of those regular graduates in the
great historical style. _But we have the sanction of all mankind in
preferring genius in a lower rank of art to feebleness and insipidity in
the highest.'_

Yet this excellent artist and critic had said but a few pages before
when working upon his theory--'For this reason I shall beg leave to lay
before you a few thoughts on the subject; to throw out some hints that
may lead your minds to an opinion (which I take to be the true one) that
Painting is not only not to be considered as an imitation operating by
deception, but that it is, and ought to be, in many points of view and
strictly speaking, no imitation at all of external nature. Perhaps it
ought to be as far removed from the vulgar idea of imitation as the
refined, civilised state in which we live is removed from a gross state
of nature; and those who have not cultivated their imaginations, which
the majority of mankind certainly have not, may be said, in regard to
arts, to continue in this state of nature. Such men will always prefer
imitation' (the imitation of nature) 'to that excellence which is
addressed to another faculty that they do not possess; but these are not
the persons to whom a painter is to look, any more than a judge of
morals and manners ought to refer controverted points upon those
subjects to the opinions of people taken from the banks of the Ohio or
from New Holland.'

In opposition to the sentiment here expressed that 'Painting is and
ought to be, in many points of view and strictly speaking, no imitation
at all of external nature,' it is emphatically said in another place:
'Nature is and must be the fountain which alone is inexhaustible, and
from which all excellences must originally flow.'

I cannot undertake to reconcile so many contradictions, nor do I think
it an easy task for the student to derive any simple or intelligible
clue from these conflicting authorities and broken hints in the
prosecution of his art. Sir Joshua appears to have imbibed from others
(Burke or Johnson) a spurious metaphysical notion that art was to be
preferred to nature, and learning to genius, with which his own good
sense and practical observation were continually at war, but from which
he only emancipates himself for a moment to relapse into the same error
again shortly after.[5] The conclusion of the Twelfth Discourse is, I
think, however, a triumphant and unanswerable denunciation of his own
favourite paradox on the objects and study of art.

'Those artists' (he says with a strain of eloquent truth) 'who have
quitted the service of nature (whose service, when well understood, is
perfect freedom) and have put themselves under the direction of I know
not what capricious fantastical mistress, who fascinates and overpowers
their whole mind, and from whose dominion there are no hopes of their
being ever reclaimed (since they appear perfectly satisfied, and not at
all conscious of their forlorn situation), like the transformed
followers of Comus,

Not once perceive their foul disfigurement;
But boast themselves more comely than before.

'Methinks such men who have found out so short a path have no reason to
complain of the shortness of life and the extent of art; since life is
so much longer than is wanted for their improvement, or is indeed
necessary for the accomplishment of their idea of perfection.[6] On the
contrary, he who recurs to nature, at every recurrence renews his
strength. The rules of art he is never likely to forget; they are few
and simple: but Nature is refined, subtle, and infinitely various,
beyond the power and retention of memory; it is necessary therefore to
have continual recourse to her. In this intercourse there is no end of
his improvement: the longer he lives, the nearer he approaches to the
true and perfect idea of Art.'


[1] How careful is Sir Joshua, even in a parenthesis, to insinuate the
obligations of this great genius to others, as if he would have been
nothing without them.

[2] If Sir Joshua had an offer to exchange a Luca Giordano in his
collection for a Claude Lorraine, he would not have hesitated long about
the preference.

[3] Written in 1788.

[4] Gainsborough.

[5] Sir Joshua himself wanted academic skill and patience In the details
of his profession. From these defects he seems to have been alternately
repelled by each theory and style of art, the simply natural and
elaborately scientific, as it came before him; and in his impatience of
each, to have been betrayed into a tissue of inconsistencies somewhat
difficult to unravel.

[6] He had been before speaking of Boucher, Director of the French
Academy, who told him that 'when he was young, studying his art, he
found it necessary to use models, but that he had left them off for many



The first inquiry which runs through Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses is
whether the student ought to look at nature with his own eyes or with
the eyes of others, and on the whole, he apparently inclines to the
latter. The second question is what is to be understood by nature;
whether it is a general and abstract idea, or an aggregate of
particulars; and he strenuously maintains the former of these positions.
Yet it is not easy always to determine how far or with what precise
limitations he does so.

The first germ of his speculations on this subject is to be found in two
papers in the _Idler._ In the last paragraph of the second of these, he

'If it has been proved that the painter, by attending to the invariable
and general ideas of nature, produces beauty, he must, by regarding
minute particularities and accidental discrimination, deviate from the
universal rule, and pollute his canvas with deformity.'

In answer to this, I would say that deformity is not the being varied in
the particulars, in which all things differ (for on this principle all
nature, which is made up of individuals, would be a heap of deformity),
but in violating general rules, in which they all or almost all agree.
Thus there are no two noses in the world exactly alike, or without a
great variety of subordinate parts, which may still be handsome, but a
face without any nose at all, or a nose (like that of a mask) without
any particularity in the details, would be a great deformity in art or
nature. Sir Joshua seems to have been led into his notions on this
subject either by an ambiguity of terms, or by taking only one view of
nature. He supposes grandeur, or the general effect of the whole, to
consist in leaving out the particular details, because these details are
sometimes found without any grandeur of effect, and he therefore
conceives the two things to be irreconcilable and the alternatives of
each other. This is very imperfect reasoning. If the mere leaving out
the detail constituted grandeur, any one could do this: the greatest
dauber would at that rate be the greatest artist. A house or sign
painter might instantly enter the lists with Michael Angelo, and might
look down on the little, dry, hard manner of Raphael. But grandeur
depends on a distinct principle of its own, not on a negation of the
parts; and as it does not arise from their omission, so neither is it
incompatible with their insertion or the highest finishing. In fact, an
artist may give the minute particulars of any object one by one and with
the utmost care, and totally neglect the proportions, arrangement, and
general masses, on which the effect of the whole more immediately
depends; or he may give the latter, viz. the proportions and arrangement
of the larger parts and the general masses of light and shade, and leave
all the minuter parts of which those parts are composed a mere blotch,
one general smear, like the first crude and hasty getting in of the
groundwork of a picture: he may do either of these, or he may combine
both, that is, finish the parts, but put them in their right places, and
keep them in due subordination to the general effect and massing of the
whole. If the exclusion of the parts were necessary to the grandeur of
the whole composition, if the more entire this exclusion, if the more
like a _tabula rasa,_ a vague, undefined, shadowy and abstracted
representation the picture was, the greater the grandeur, there could
be no danger of pushing this principle too far, and going the full
length of Sir Joshua's theory without any restrictions or mental
reservations. But neither of these suppositions is true. The greatest
grandeur may coexist with the most perfect, nay with a microscopic
accuracy of detail, as we see it does often in nature: the greatest
looseness and slovenliness of execution may be displayed without any
grandeur at all either in the outline or distribution of the masses of
colour. To explain more particularly what I mean. I have seen and
copied portraits by Titian, in which the eyebrows were marked with a
number of small strokes, like hairlines (indeed, the hairs of which they
were composed were in a great measure given)--but did this destroy the
grandeur of expression, the truth of outline, arising from the
arrangement of these hair-lines in a given form? The grandeur, the
character, the expression remained, for the general form or arched and
expanded outline remained, just as much as if it had been daubed in with
a blacking-brush: the introduction of the internal parts and texture
only added delicacy and truth to the general and striking effect of the
whole. Surely a number of small dots or lines may be arranged into the
form of a square or a circle indiscriminately; the square or circle,
that is, the larger figure, remains the same, whether the line of which
it consists is broken or continuous; as we may see in prints where the
outlines, features, and masses remain the same in all the varieties of
mezzotinto, dotted and lined engraving. If Titian in marking the
appearance of the hairs had deranged the general shape and contour of
the eyebrows, he would have destroyed the look of nature; but as he did
not, but kept both in view, he proportionably improved his copy of it.
So, in what regards the masses of light and shade, the variety, the
delicate transparency and broken transitions of the tints is not
inconsistent with the greatest breadth or boldest contrasts. If the
light, for instance, is thrown strongly on one side of a face, and the
other is cast into deep shade, let the individual and various parts of
the surface be finished with the most scrupulous exactness both in the
drawing and in the colours, provided nature is not exceeded, this will
not nor cannot destroy the force and harmony of the composition. One
side of the face will still have that great and leading distinction of
being seen in shadow, and the other of being seen in the light, let the
subordinate differences be as many and as precise as they will. Suppose
a panther is painted in the sun: will it be necessary to leave out the
spots to produce breadth and the great style, or will not this be done
more effectually by painting the spots of one side of his shaggy coat as
they are seen in the light, and those of the other as they really appear
in natural shadow? The two masses are thus preserved completely, and no
offence is done to truth and nature. Otherwise we resolve the
distribution of light and shade into _local colouring._ The masses, the
grandeur exist equally in external nature with the local differences of
different colours. Yet Sir Joshua seems to argue that the grandeur, the
effect of the whole object, is confined to the general idea in the mind,
and that all the littleness and individuality is in nature. This is an
essentially false view of the subject. This grandeur, this general
effect, is indeed always combined with the details, or what our
theoretical reasoner would designate as _littleness_ in nature: and so
it ought to be in art, as far as art can follow nature with prudence and
profit. What is the fault of Denner's style?--It is, that he does _not_
give this combination of properties: that he gives only one view of
nature; that he abstracts the details, the finishing, the curiosities of
natural appearances from the general result, truth, and character of the
whole, and in finishing every part with elaborate care, totally loses
sight of the more important and striking appearance of the object as it
presents itself to us in nature. He gives every part of a face; but the
shape, the expression, the light and shade of the whole is wrong, and as
far as can be from what is natural. He gives an infinite variety of
tints of the human face, nor are they subjected to any principle of
light and shade. He is different from Rembrandt or Titian. The English
schools, formed on Sir Joshua's theory, give neither the finishing of
the parts nor the effect of the whole, but an inexplicable dumb mass
without distinction or meaning. They do not do as Denner did, and think
that not to do as he did is to do as Titian and Rembrandt did; I do not
know whether they would take it as a compliment to be supposed to
imitate nature. Some few artists, it must be said, have 'of late
reformed this indifferently among us! Oh! let them reform it
altogether!' I have no doubt they would if they could; but I have some
doubts whether they can or not.--Before I proceed to consider the
question of beauty and grandeur as it relates to the selection of form,
I will quote a few passages from Sir Joshua with reference to what has
been said on the imitation of particular objects. In the Third
Discourse he observes: 'I will now add that nature herself is not to be
too closely copied. . . . A mere copier of nature _can never produce
anything great; can never raise and enlarge the conceptions, or warm the
heart of the spectator._ The wish of the genuine painter must be more
extensive: instead of endeavouring to amuse mankind with the minute
neatness of his imitations, he must endeavour to improve them by the
grandeur of his ideas; instead of seeking praise by deceiving the
superficial sense of the spectator, he must strive for fame by
captivating the imagination.'

From this passage it would surely seem that there was nothing in nature
but minute neatness and superficial effect: nothing great in _her_
style, for an imitator of it can produce nothing great; nothing 'to
enlarge the conceptions or warm the heart of the spectator.'

What word hath passed thy lips, Adam severe!

All that is truly grand or excellent is a figment of the imagination, a
vapid creation out of nothing, a pure effect of overlooking and scorning
the minute neatness of natural objects. This will not do. Again, Sir
Joshua lays it down without any qualification that--

'The whole beauty and grandeur of the art consists in being able to get
above all singular forms, local customs, peculiarities, and _details_ of
every kind.'

Yet we find him acknowledging a different opinion.

'I am very ready to allow' (he says, in speaking of history-painting)
'that _some_ circumstances of minuteness and particularity _frequently_
tend to give an air of truth to a piece, and _to interest the spectator
in an extraordinary manner._ Such circumstances therefore cannot wholly
be rejected; but if there be anything in the Art which requires peculiar
nicety of discernment, it is the disposition of these minute,
circumstantial parts, which, according to the judgment employed in the
choice, become so useful to truth or so injurious to grandeur.'

That's true; but the sweeping clause against 'all particularities and
details of every kind' is clearly got rid of. The undecided state of
Sir Joshua's feelings on this subject of the incompatibility between the
whole and the details is strikingly manifested in two short passages
which follow each other in the space of two pages. Speaking of some
pictures of Paul Veronese and Rubens as distinguished by the dexterity
and the unity of style displayed in them, he adds:

'It is by this, and this alone, that the mechanical power is ennobled,
and raised much above its natural rank. And it appears to me that with
propriety it acquires this character, as an instance of that superiority
with which mind predominates over matter, by contracting into one whole
what nature has made multifarious.'

This would imply that the principle of unity and integrity is only in
the mind, and that nature is a heap of disjointed, disconnected
particulars, a chaos of points and atoms. In the very next page the
following sentence occurs:

'As painting is an art, they' (the ignorant) 'think they ought to be
pleased in proportion as they see that art ostentatiously displayed;
they will from this supposition prefer neatness, high finishing, and
gaudy corlouring, to the truth, simplicity, and unity of nature.'

Before, neatness and high finishing were supposed to belong exclusively
to the littleness of nature, but here truth, simplicity, and unity are
her characteristics. Soon after, Sir Joshua says: 'I should be sorry if
what has been said should be understood to have any tendency to
encourage that carelessness which leaves work in an unfinished state. I
commend nothing for the want of exactness; I mean to point out that kind
of exactness which is the best, and which is alone truly to be so
esteemed.' This Sir Joshua has already told us consists in getting
above 'all particularities and details of every kind.' Once more we
find it stated that--

'It is in vain to attend to the variation of tints, if in that attention
the general hue of flesh is lost; or to finish ever so minutely the
parts, if the masses are not observed, or the whole not well put

Nothing can be truer; but why always suppose the two things at variance
with each other?

'Titian's manner was then new to the world, but that unshaken truth on
which it is founded has fixed it as a model to all succeeding painters;
and those who will examine into the artifice will find it to consist in
the power of generalising, and in the shortness and simplicity of the
means employed.'

Titian's real excellence consisted in the power of generalising and of
_individualising_ at the same time: if it wore merely the former, it
would be difficult to account for the error immediately after pointed
out by Sir Joshua. He says in the very next paragraph:

'Many artists, as Vasari likewise observes, have ignorantly imagined
they are imitating the manner of Titian when they leave their colours
rough and neglect the detail; but not possessing the principles on which
he wrought, they have produced what he calls _goffe pitture_--absurd,
foolish pictures.'

Many artists have also imagined they were following the directions of
Sir Joshua when they did the same thing, that is, neglected the detail,
and produced the same results--vapid generalities, absurd, foolish

I will only give two short passages more, and have done with this part
of the subject. I am anxious to confront Sir Joshua with his own

'The advantage of this method of considering objects (as a whole) is
what I wish now more particularly to enforce. At the same time I do not
forget that a painter must have the power of contracting as well as
dilating his sight; because he that does not at all express particulars
expresses nothing; yet it is certain that a nice discrimination of
minute circumstances and a punctilious delineation of them, whatever
excellence it may have (and I do not mean to detract from it), never did
confer on the artist the character of Genius.'

At page 53 we find the following words:

'Whether it is the human figure, an animal, or even inanimate objects,
there is nothing, however unpromising in appearance. but may be raised
into dignity, convey sentiment. and produce emotion, in the hands of a
Painter of genius. What was said of Virgil, that he threw even the dung
about the ground with an air of dignity, may be applied to Titian;
whatever he touched, however naturally mean, and habitually familiar, by
a kind of magic he invested with grandeur and importance.'--No, not by
magic, but by seeking and finding in individual nature, and combined
with details of every kind, that grace and grandeur and unity of effect
which Sir Joshua supposes to be a mere creation of the artist's brain!
Titian's practice was, I conceive, to give general appearances with
individual forms and circumstances: Sir Joshua's theory goes too often,
and in its prevailing bias, to separate the two things as inconsistent
with each other, and thereby to destroy or bring into question that
union of striking effect with accuracy of resemblance in which the
essence of sound art (as far as relates to imitation) consists.

Farther, as Sir Joshua is inclined to merge the details of individual
objects in general effect, so he is resolved to reduce all beauty or
grandeur in natural objects to a central form or abstract idea of a
certain class, so as to exclude all peculiarities or deviations from
this ideal standard as unfit subjects for the artist's pencil, and as
polluting his canvas with deformity. As the former principle went to
destroy all exactness and solidity in particular things, this goes to
confound all variety, distinctness, and characteristic force in the
broader scale of nature. There is a principle of conformity in nature
or of something in common between a number of individuals of the same
class, but there is also a principle of contrast, of discrimination and
identity, which is equally essential in the system of the universe and
in the structure of our ideas both of art and nature. Sir Joshua would
hardly neutralise the tints of the rainbow to produce a dingy grey, as a
medium or central colour; why, then, should he neutralise all features,
forms, etc., to produce an insipid monotony? He does not indeed
consider his theory of beauty as applicable to colour, which he well
understood, but insists upon and literally enforces it as to form and
ideal conceptions, of which he knew comparatively little, and where his
authority is more questionable. I will not in this place undertake to
show that his theory of a middle form (as the standard of taste and
beauty) is not true of the outline of the human face and figure or other
organic bodies, though I think that even there it is only one principle
or condition of beauty; but I do say that it has little or nothing to do
with those other capital parts of painting, colour, character,
expression, and grandeur of conception. Sir Joshua himself contends
that 'beauty in creatures of the same species is the medium or centre of
all its various forms'; and he maintains that grandeur is the same
abstraction of the species in the individual. Therefore beauty and
grandeur must be the same thing, which they are not; so that this
definition must be faulty. Grandeur I should suppose to imply something
that elevates and expands the mind, which is chiefly power or magnitude.
Beauty is that which soothes and melts it; and its source, I apprehend,
is a certain harmony, softness, and gradation of form, within the limits
of our customary associations, no doubt, or of what we expect of certain
species, but not independent of every other consideration. Our critic
himself confesses of Michael Angelo, whom he regards as the pattern of
the great or sublime style, that 'his people are a superior order of
beings: there is nothing about them, nothing in the air of their actions
or their attitudes, or the style or cast of their limbs or features,
that reminds us of their belonging to our own species. Raffaelle's
imagination is not so elevated; his figures are not so much disjoined
from our own diminutive race of beings, though his ideas are chaste,
noble, and of great conformity to their subjects. Michael Angelo's
works have a strong, peculiar, and marked character: they seem to
proceed from his own mind entirely, and that mind so rich and abundant
that he never needed, or seemed to disdain to look abroad for foreign
help. Raffaelle's materials are generally borrowed, though the noble
structure is his own."[1] How does all this accord with the same
writer's favourite theory that all beauty, all grandeur, and all
excellence consist in an approximation to that central form or habitual
idea of mediocrity, from which every deviation is so much deformity and
littleness? Michael Angelo's figures are raised above our diminutive
race of beings, yet they are confessedly the standard of sublimity in
what regards the human form. Grandeur, then, admits of an exaggeration
of our habitual impressions; and 'the strong, marked, and peculiar
character which Michael Angelo has at the same time given to his works'
does not take away from it. This is fact against argument. I would
take Sir Joshua's word for the goodness of a picture, and for its
distinguishing properties, sooner than I would for an abstract
metaphysical theory. Our artist also speaks continually of high and low
subjects. There can be no distinction of this kind upon his principle,
that the standard of taste is the adhering to the central form of each
species, and that every species is in itself equally beautiful. The
painter of flowers, of shells, or of anything else, is equally elevated
with Raphael or Michael, if he adheres to the generic or established
form of what he paints: the rest, according to this definition, is a
matter of indifference. There must therefore be something besides the
central or customary form to account for the difference of dignity, for
the high and low style in nature or in art. Michael Angelo's figures,
we are
told, are more than ordinarily grand; why, by the same rule, may not
Raphael's be more than ordinarily beautiful, have more than ordinary
softness, symmetry, and grace?--Character and expression are still less
included in the present theory. All character is a departure from the
common-place form; and Sir Joshua makes no scruple to declare that
expression destroys beauty. Thus he says:

'If you mean to preserve the most perfect beauty _in its most perfect
state,_ you cannot express the passions, all of which produce distortion
and deformity, more or less, in the most beautiful faces.'

He goes on: 'Guido, from want of choice in adapting his subject to his
ideas and his powers, or from attempting to preserve beauty where it
could not be preserved, has in this respect succeeded very ill. His

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