Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

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

Part 4 out of 8

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.9 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

figures are often engaged in subjects that required great expression;
yet his Judith and Holofernes, the daughter of Herodias with the
Baptist's head, the Andromeda, and some even of the Mothers of the
Innocents, have little more expression than his Venus attired by the

What a censure is this passed upon Guido, and what a condemnation of his
own theory, which would reduce and level all that is truly great and
praiseworthy in art to this insipid, tasteless standard, by setting
aside as illegitimate all that does riot come within the middle, central
form! Yet Sir Joshua judges of Hogarth as he deviates from this
standard, not as he excels in individual character, which he says is
only good or tolerable as it partakes of general nature; and he might
accuse Michael Angelo and Raphael, the one for his grandeur of style,
the other for his expression; for neither are what he sets up as the
goal of perfection--I will just stop to remark here that Sir Joshua has
committed himself very strangely in speaking of the character and
expression to be found in the Greek statues. He says in one place:

'I cannot quit the Apollo without making one observation on the
character of this figure. He is supposed to have just discharged his
arrow at the Python; and by the head retreating a little towards the
right shoulder, he appears attentive to its effect. What I would
remark is the difference of this attention from that of the Discobolus,
who is engaged in the same purpose, watching the effect of his Discus.
The graceful, negligent, though animated air of the one, and the vulgar
eagerness of the other, furnish an instance of the judgment of the
ancient Sculptors _in their nice discrimination of character._ They are
both equally true to nature, and equally admirable.' After a few
observations on the limited means of the art of sculpture, and the
inattention of the ancients to almost everything but form, we meet with
the following passage:--

'Those who think Sculpture can express more than we have allowed may
ask, by what means we discover, at the first glance, the character that
is represented in a Bust, a Cameo, or Intaglio? I suspect it will be
found, on close examination, by him who is resolved not to see more
than he really does see, that the figures are distinguished by their
_insignia_ more than by any variety of form or beauty. Take from Apollo
his Lyre, from Bacchus his Thyrsus and Vine-leaves, and Meleager the
Boar's Head, and there will remain little or no difference in their
characters. In a Juno, Minerva, or Flora, the idea of the artist seems
to have gone no further than representing perfect beauty, and afterwards
adding the proper attributes, with a total indifference to which they
gave them.'

[What, then, becomes of that 'nice discrimination of character' for
which our author has just before celebrated them?]

'Thus John De Bologna, after he had finished a group of a young man
holding up a young woman in his arms, with an old man at his feet,
called his friends together, to tell him what name he should give it,
and it was agreed to call it The Rape of the Sabines; and this is the
celebrated group which now stands before the old Palace at Florence.
The figures have the same general expression which is to be found in
most of the antique Sculpture; and yet it would be no wonder if future
critics should find out delicacy of expression which was never intended,
and go so far as to see, in the old man's countenance, the exact
relation which he bore to the woman who appears to be taken from him.'

So it is that Sir Joshua's theory seems to rest on an inclined plane,
and is always glad of an excuse to slide, from the severity of truth and
nature, into the milder and more equable regions of insipidity and
inanity; I am sorry to say so, but so it appears to me.

I confess, it strikes me as a self-evident truth that variety or
contrast is as essential a principle in art and nature as uniformity,
and as necessary to make up the harmony of the universe and the
contentment of the mind. Who would destroy the shifting effects of
light and shade, the sharp, lively opposition of colours in the same or
in different objects, the streaks in a flower, the stains in a piece of
marble, to reduce all to the same neutral, dead colouring, the same
middle tint? Yet it is on this principle that Sir Joshua would get rid
of all variety, character, expression, and picturesque effect in forms,
or at least measure the worth or the spuriousness of all these according
to their reference to or departure from a given or average standard.
Surely, nature is more liberal, art is wider than Sir Joshua's theory.
Allow (for the sake of argument) that all forms are in themselves
indifferent, and that beauty or the sense of pleasure in forms can
therefore only arise from customary association, or from that middle
impression to which they all tend: yet this cannot by the same rule
apply to other things. Suppose there is no capacity in form to affect
the mind except from its corresponding to previous expectation, the same
thing cannot be said of the idea of power or grandeur. No one can say
that the idea of power does not affect the mind with the sense of awe
and sublimity. That is, power and weakness, grandeur and littleness,
are not indifferent things, the perfection of which consists in a medium
between both. Again, expression is not a thing indifferent in itself,
which derives its value or its interest solely from its conformity to a
neutral standard. Who would neutralise the expression of pleasure and
pain? or say that the passions of the human mind--pity, love, joy,
sorrow, etc.--are only interesting to the imagination and worth the
attention of the artist, as he can reduce them to an equivocal state
which is neither pleasant nor painful, neither one thing nor the other?
Or who would stop short of the utmost refinement, precision, and force
in the delineation of each? Ideal expression is not neutral expression,
but extreme expression. Again, character is a thing of peculiarity, of
striking contrast, of distinction, and not of uniformity. It is
necessarily opposed to Sir Joshua's exclusive theory, and yet it is
surely a curious and interesting field of speculation for the human
mind. Lively, spirited discrimination of character is one source of
gratification to the lover of nature and art, which it could not be if
all truth and excellence consisted in rejecting individual traits.
Ideal character is not common-place, but consistent character marked
throughout, which may take place in history or portrait. Historical
truth in a picture is the putting the different features of the face or
muscles of the body into consistent action. The picturesque altogether
depends on particular points or qualities of an object, projecting as it
were beyond the middle line of beauty, and catching the eye of the
spectator. It was less, however, my intention to hazard any
speculations of my own than to confirm the common-sense feelings on the
subject by Sir Joshua's own admissions in different places. In the
Tenth Discourse, speaking of some objections to the Apollo, he has these
remarkable words:--

'In regard to the last objection (viz. that the lower half of the figure
is longer than just proportion allows) it must be remembered that Apollo
is here in the exertion of _one of his peculiar powers,_ which is
swiftness; he has therefore that proportion which is best adapted to
that character. This is no more incorrectness than when there is given
to a Hercules an extraordinary swelling and strength of muscles.'

Strength and activity then do not depend on the middle form; and the
middle form is to be sacrificed to the representation of these positive
qualities. Character is thus allowed not only to be an integrant part
of the antique and classical style of art, but even to take precedence
of and set aside the abstract idea of beauty. Little more would be
required to justify Hogarth in his Gothic resolution, that if he were to
make a figure of Charon, he would give him bandy legs, because watermen
are generally bandy-legged. It is very well to talk of the abstract
idea of a man or of a God, but if you come to anything like an
intelligible proposition, you must either individualise and define, or
destroy the very idea you contemplate. Sir Joshua goes into this
question at considerable length in the Third Discourse:

'To the principle I have laid down, that the idea of beauty in each
species of beings is an invariable one, it may he objected,' he says,
'that in every particular species there are various central forms, which
are separate and distinct from each other, and yet are undeniably
beautiful; that in the human figure, for instance. the beauty of
Hercules is one, of the Gladiator another, of the Apollo another, which
makes so many different ideas of beauty. It is true, indeed, that these
figures are each perfect in their kind, though of different characters
and proportions; but still none of them is the representation of an
individual, but of a class. And as there is one general form, which, as
I have said, belongs to the human kind at large, so in each of these
classes there is one common idea which is the abstract of the various
individual forms belonging to that class. Thus, though the forms of
childhood and age differ exceedingly, there is a common form in
childhood, and a common form in age, which is the more perfect as it is
remote from all peculiarities. But I must add further, that though the
most perfect forms of each of the general divisions of the human figure
are ideal, and superior to any individual form of that class, yet the
highest perfection of the human figure is not to be found in any of
them. It is not in the Hercules, nor in the Gladiator, nor in the
Apollo; but in that form which is taken from all, and which partakes
equally of the activity of the Gladiator, of the delicacy of the Apollo,
and of the muscular strength of the Hercules. For perfect beauty in any
species must combine all the characters which are beautiful in that
species. It cannot consist in any one to the exclusion of the rest: no
one, therefore, must be predominant, that no one may be deficient.'

Sir Joshua here supposes the distinctions of classes and character to be
necessarily combined with the general leading idea of a middle form.
This middle form is not to confound age, sex, circumstance, under one
sweeping abstraction; but we must limit the general ideas by certain
specific differences and characteristic marks, belonging to the several
subordinate divisions and ramifications of each class. This is enough
to show that there is a principle of individuality as well as of
abstraction inseparable from works of art as well as nature. We are to
keep the human form distinct from that of other living beings, that of
men from that of women; we are to distinguish between age and infancy,
between thoughtfulness and gaiety, between strength and softness. Where
is this to stop? But Sir Joshua turns round upon himself in this very
passage, and says: 'No: we are to unite the strength of the Hercules
with the delicacy of the Apollo; for perfect beauty in any species must
combine all the characters which are beautiful in that species.' Now if
these different characters are beautiful in themselves, why not give
them for their own sakes and in their most striking appearances, instead
of qualifying and softening them down in a neutral form; which must
produce a compromise, not a union of different excellences. If all
excess of beauty, if all character is deformity, then we must try to
lose it as fast as possible in other qualities. But if strength is an
excellence, if activity is an excellence, if delicacy is an excellence,
then the perfection, i.e. the highest degree of each of these qualities,
cannot be attained but by remaining satisfied with a less degree of the
rest. But let us hear what Sir Joshua himself advances on this subject
in another part of the _Discourses:_

'Some excellences bear to be united, and are improved by union: others
are of a discordant nature, and the attempt to unite them only produces
a harsh jarring of incongruent principles. The attempt to unite
contrary excellences (of form, for instance[2]) in a single figure can
never escape degenerating into the monstrous but by sinking into the
insipid; by taking away its marked character, and weakening its

'Obvious as these remarks appear, there are many writers on our art who,
not being of the profession and consequently not knowing what can or
cannot be done, have been very liberal of absurd praises in their
description of favourite works. They always find in them what they are
resolved to find. They praise excellences that can hardly exist
together; and, above all things, are fond of describing with great
exactness the expression of a mixed passion, which more particularly
appears to me out of the reach of our art.[3]

'Such are many disquisitions which I have read on some of the Cartoons
and other pictures of Raffaelle, where the critics have described their
own imaginations; or indeed where the excellent master himself may have
attempted this expression of passions above the powers of the art, and
has, therefore, by an indistinct and imperfect marking, left room for
every imagination with equal probability to find a passion of his own.
What has been, and what can be done in the art, is sufficiently
difficult: we need not be mortified or discouraged at not being able to
execute the conceptions of a romantic imagination. Art has its
boundaries, though imagination has none. We can easily, like the
ancients, suppose a Jupiter to be possessed of all those powers and
perfections which the subordinate Deities were endowed with separately.
Yet when they employed their art to represent him, they confined his
character to majesty alone. Pliny, therefore, though we are under great
obligations to him for the information he has given us in relation to
the works of the ancient artists, is very frequently wrong when he
speaks of them, which he does very often, in the style of many of our
modern connoisseurs. He observes that in a statue of Paris, by
Euphranor, you might discover at the same time three different
characters: the dignity of a Judge of the Goddesses, the Lover of Helen,
and the Conqueror of Achilles. A statue in which you endeavour to unite
stately dignity, youthful elegance, and stern valour, must surely
possess none of these to any eminent degree.

'From hence it appears that there is much difficulty as well as danger
in an endeavour to concentrate in a single subject those various powers
which, rising from various points, naturally move in different

What real clue to the art or sound principles of judging the student can
derive from these contradictory statements, or in what manner it is
possible to reconcile them one to the other, I confess I am at a loss to
discover. As it appears to me, all the varieties of nature in the
infinite number of its qualities, combinations, characters, expressions,
incidents, etc., rise from distinct points or centres and must move in
distinct directions, as the forms of different species are to be
referred to a separate standard. It is the object of art to bring them
out in all their force, clearness, and precision, and not to blend them
into a vague, vapid, nondescript _ideal_ conception, which pretends to
unite, but in reality destroys. Sir Joshua's theory limits nature and
paralyses art. According to him, the middle form or the average of our
various impressions is the source from which all beauty, pleasure,
interest, imagination springs. I contend, on the contrary, that this
very variety is good in itself, nor do I agree with him that the whole
of nature as it exists in fact is stark naught, and that there is
nothing worthy of the contemplation of a wise man but that _ideal
perfection_ which never existed in the world nor even on canvas. There
is something fastidious and sickly in Sir Joshua's system. His code of
taste consists too much of negations, and not enough of positive,
prominent qualities. It accounts for nothing but the beauty of the
common Antique, and hardly for that. The merit of Hogarth, I grant, is
different from that of the Greek statues; but I deny that Hogarth is to
be measured by this standard or by Sir Joshua's middle forms: he has
powers of instruction and amusement that, 'rising from a different
point, naturally move in a different direction,' and completely attain
their end. It would be just as reasonable to condemn a comedy for not
having the pathos of a tragedy or the stateliness of an epic poem. If
Sir Joshua Reynolds's theory were true, Dr. Johnson's _Irene_ would be a
better tragedy than any of Shakespear's.

The reasoning of the _Discourses_ is, I think, then, deficient in the
following particulars:

1. It seems to imply that general effect in a picture is produced by
leaving out the details, whereas the largest masses and the grandest
outline are consistent with the utmost delicacy of finishing in the

2. It makes no distinction between beauty and grandeur, but refers both
to an _ideal_ or middle form, as the centre of the various forms of the
species, and yet inconsistently attributes the grandeur of Michael
Angelo's style to the superhuman appearance of his prophets and

3. It does not at any time make mention of power or magnitude in an
object as a distinct source of the sublime (though this is acknowledged
unintentionally in the case of Michael Angelo, etc.), nor of softness or
symmetry of form as a distinct source of beauty, independently of,
though still in connection with another source arising from what we are
accustomed to expect from each individual species.

4. Sir Joshua's theory does not leave room for character, but rejects it
as an anomaly.

5. It does not point out the source of expression, but considers it as
hostile to beauty; and yet, lastly, he allows that the middle form,
carried to the utmost theoretical extent, neither defined by character,
nor impregnated by passion, would produce nothing but vague, insipid,
unmeaning generality.

In a word, I cannot think that the theory here laid down is clear and
satisfactory, that it is consistent with itself, that it accounts for
the various excellences of art from a few simple principles, or that the
method which Sir Joshua has pursued in treating the subject is, as he
himself expresses it, 'a plain and honest method.' It is, I fear, more
calculated to baffle and perplex the student in his progress than to
give him clear lights as to the object he should have in view, or to
furnish him with strong motives of emulation to attain it.


[1] The Fifth Discourse.

[2] These are Sir Joshua's words.

[3] I do not know that; but I do not think the two passions could be
expressed by expressing neither or something between both.



I have been sometimes accused of a fondness for paradoxes, but I cannot
in my own mind plead guilty to the charge. I do not indeed swear by an
opinion because it is old; but neither do I fall in love with every
extravagance at first sight because it is new. I conceive that a thing
may have been repeated a thousand times without being a bit more
reasonable than it was the first time: and I also conceive that an
argument or an observation may be very just, though it may so happen
that it was never stated before: but I do not take it for granted that
every prejudice is ill-founded; nor that every paradox is self-evident,
merely because it contradicts the vulgar opinion. Sheridan once said of
some speech in his acute, sarcastic way, that 'it contained a great deal
both of what was new and what was true: but that unfortunately what was
new was not true, and what was true was not new.' This appears to me to
express the whole sense of the question. I do not see much use in
dwelling on a common-place, however fashionable or well established: nor
am I very ambitious of starting the most specious novelty, unless I
imagine I have reason on my side. Originality implies independence of
opinion; but differs as widely from mere singularity as from the tritest
truism. It consists in seeing and thinking for one's-self: whereas
singularity is only the affectation of saying something to contradict
other people, without having any real opinion of one's own upon the
matter. Mr. Burke was an original, though an extravagant writer: Mr.
Windham was a regular manufacturer of paradoxes.

The greatest number of minds seem utterly incapable of fixing on any
conclusion, except from the pressure of custom and authority: opposed to
these there is another class less numerous but pretty formidable, who in
all their opinions are equally under the influence of novelty and
restless vanity. The prejudices of the one are counterbalanced by the
paradoxes of the other; and folly, 'putting in one scale a weight of
ignorance, in that of pride,' might be said to 'smile delighted with the
eternal poise.' A sincere and manly spirit of inquiry is neither
blinded by example nor dazzled by sudden flashes of light. Nature is
always the same, the storehouse of lasting truth, and teeming with
inexhaustible variety; and he who looks at her with steady and
well-practised eyes will find enough to employ all his sagacity, whether
it has or has not been seen by others before him. Strange as it may
seem, to learn what an object is, the true philosopher looks at the
object itself, instead of turning to others to know what they think or
say or have heard of it, or instead of consulting the dictates of his
vanity, petulance, and ingenuity to see what can be said against their
opinion, and to prove himself wiser than all the rest of the world. For
want of this the real powers and resources of the mind are lost and
dissipated in a conflict of opinions and passions, of obstinacy against
levity, of bigotry against self-conceit, of notorious abuses against
rash innovations, of dull, plodding, old-fashioned stupidity against
new-fangled folly, of worldly interest against headstrong egotism, of
the incorrigible prejudices of the old and the unmanageable humours of
the young; while truth lies in the middle, and is overlooked by both
parties. Or as Luther complained long ago, 'human reason is like a
drunken man on horseback: set it up on one side, and it tumbles over on
the other.'--With one sort, example, authority, fashion, ease, interest,
rule all: with the other, singularity, the love of distinction, mere
whim, the throwing off all restraint and showing an heroic disregard of
consequences, an impatient and unsettled turn of mind, the want of
sudden and strong excitement, of some new play-thing for the
imagination, are equally 'lords of the ascendant,' and are at every step
getting the start of reason, truth, nature, common sense, and feeling.
With one party, whatever is, is right: with their antagonists, whatever
is, is wrong. These swallow every antiquated absurdity: those catch at
every new, unfledged project--and are alike enchanted with the
velocipedes or the French Revolution. One set, wrapped up in
impenetrable forms and technical traditions, are deaf to everything that
has not been dinned in their ears, and in those of their forefathers,
from time immemorial: their hearing is _thick_ with the same old saws,
the same unmeaning form of words, everlastingly repeated: the others
pique themselves on a jargon of their own, a Babylonish dialect, crude,
unconcocted, harsh, discordant, to which it is impossible for any one
else to attach either meaning or respect. These last turn away at the
mention of all usages, creeds, institutions of more than a day's
standing as a mass of bigotry, superstition, and barbarous ignorance,
whose leaden touch would petrify and benumb their quick, mercurial,
'apprehensive, forgetive' faculties. The opinion of to-day supersedes
that of yesterday: that of to-morrow supersedes, by anticipation, that
of to-day. The wisdom of the ancients, the doctrines of the learned,
the laws of nations, the common sentiments of morality, are to them like
a bundle of old almanacs. As the modern politician always asks for this
day's paper, the modern sciolist always inquires after the latest
paradox. With him instinct is a dotard, nature a changeling, and common
sense a discarded by-word. As with the man of the world, what everybody
says must be true, the citizen of the world has quite a different notion
of the matter. With the one, the majority; 'the powers that be' have
always been in the right in all ages and places, though they have been
cutting one another's throats and turning the world upside down with
their quarrels and disputes from the beginning of time: with the other,
what any two people have ever agreed in is an error on the face of it.
The credulous bigot shudders at the idea of altering anything in
'time-hallowed' institutions; and under this cant phrase can bring
himself to tolerate any knavery or any folly, the Inquisition, Holy Oil,
the Right Divine, etc.;--the more refined sceptic will laugh in your
face at the idea of retaining anything which has the damning stamp of
custom upon it, and is for abating all former precedents, 'all trivial,
fond records,' the whole frame and fabric of society as a nuisance in
the lump. Is not this a pair of wiseacres well matched? The one
stickles through thick and thin for his own religion and government: the
other scouts all religions and all governments with a smile of ineffable
disdain. The one will not move for any consideration out of the broad
and beaten path: the other is continually turning off at right angles,
and losing himself in the labyrinths of his own ignorance and
presumption. The one will not go along with any party: the other always
joins the strongest side. The one will not conform to any common
practice: the other will subscribe to any thriving system. The one is
the slave of habit: the other is the sport of caprice. The first is
like a man obstinately bed-rid: the last is troubled with St. Vitus's
dance. He cannot stand still, he cannot rest upon any conclusion. 'He
never is--but always to be _right.'_

The author of the Prometheus Unbound (to take an individual instance of
the last character) has a fire in his eye, a fever in his blood, a
maggot in his brain, a hectic flutter in his speech, which mark out the
philosophic fanatic. He is sanguine-complexioned and shrill-voiced. As
is often observable in the case of religious enthusiasts, there is a
slenderness of constitutional stamina, which renders the flesh no match
for the spirit. His bending, flexible form appears to take no strong
hold of things, does not grapple with the world about him, but slides
from it like a river--

And in its liquid texture mortal wound
Receives no more than can the fluid air.

The shock of accident, the weight of authority make no impression on his
opinions, which retire like a feather, or rise from the encounter unhurt
through their own buoyancy. He is clogged by no dull system of
realities, no earth-bound feelings, no rooted prejudices, by nothing
that belongs to the mighty trunk and hard husk of nature and habit, but
is drawn up by irresistible levity to the regions of mere speculation
and fancy, to the sphere of air and fire, where his delighted spirit
floats in 'seas of pearl and clouds of amber.' There is no _caput
mortuum_ of worn-out, threadbare experience to serve as ballast to his
mind; it is all volatile intellectual salt of tartar, that refuses to
combine its evanescent, inflammable essence with anything solid or
anything lasting. Bubbles are to him the only realities:--touch them,
and they vanish. Curiosity is the only proper category of his mind, and
though a man in knowledge, he is a child in feeling. Hence he puts
everything into a metaphysical crucible to judge of it himself and
exhibit it to others as a subject of interesting experiment, without
first making it over to the ordeal of his common sense or trying it on
his heart. This faculty of speculating at random on all questions may
in its overgrown and uninformed state do much mischief without intending
it, like an overgrown child with the power of a man. Mr. Shelley has
been accused of vanity--I think he is chargeable with extreme levity;
but this levity is so great that I do not believe he is sensible of its
consequences. He strives to overturn all established creeds and
systems; but this is in him an effect of constitution. He runs before
the most extravagant opinions; but this is because he is held back by
none of the merely mechanical checks of sympathy and habit. He tampers
with all sorts of obnoxious subjects; but it is less because he is
gratified with the rankness of the taint than captivated with the
intellectual phosphoric light they emit. It would seem that he wished
not so much to convince or inform as to shock the public by the tenor of
his productions; but I suspect he is more intent upon startling himself
with his electrical experiments in morals and philosophy; and though
they may scorch other people, they are to him harmless amusements, the
coruscations of an Aurora Borealis, that 'play round the head, but do
not reach the heart.' Still I could wish that he would put a stop to
the incessant, alarming whirl of his voltaic battery. With his zeal,
his talent, and his fancy, he would do more good and less harm if he
were to give, up his wilder theories, and if he took less pleasure in
feeling his heart flutter in unison with the panic-struck apprehensions
of his readers. Persons of this class, instead of consolidating useful
and acknowledged truths, and thus advancing the cause of science and
virtue, are never easy but in raising doubtful and disagreeable
questions, which bring the former into disgrace and discredit. They are
not contented to lead the minds of men to an eminence overlooking the
prospect of social amelioration, unless, by forcing them up slippery
paths and to the utmost verge of possibility, they can dash them down
the precipice the instant they reach the promised Pisgah. They think it
nothing to hang up a beacon to guide or warn, if they do not at the same
time frighten the community like a comet. They do not mind making their
principles odious, provided they can make themselves notorious. To win
over the public opinion by fair means is to them an insipid,
common-place mode of popularity: they would either force it by harsh
methods, or seduce it by intoxicating potions. Egotism, petulance,
licentiousness, levity of principle (whatever be the source) is a bad
thing in any one, and most of all in a philosophical reformer. Their
humanity, their wisdom, is always 'at the horizon.' Anything new,
anything remote, anything questionable, comes to them in a shape that is
sure of a cordial welcome--a welcome cordial in proportion as the object
is new, as it is apparently impracticable, as it is a doubt whether it
is at all desirable. Just after the final failure, the completion of
the last act of the French Revolution, when the legitimate wits were
crying out, 'The farce is over, now let us go to supper,' these
provoking reasoners got up a lively hypothesis about introducing the
domestic government of the Nayrs into this country as a feasible set-off
against the success of the Borough-mongers. The practical is with them
always the antipodes of the ideal; and like other visionaries of a
different stamp, they date the Millennium or New Order of Things from
the Restoration of the Bourbons. 'Fine words butter no parsnips,' says
the proverb. 'While you are talking of marrying, I am thinking of
hanging,' says Captain Macheath. Of all people the most tormenting are
those who bid you hope in the midst of despair, who, by never caring
about anything but their own sanguine, hair-brained Utopian schemes,
have at no time any particular cause for embarrassment and despondency
because they have never the least chance of success, and who by
including whatever does not hit their idle fancy, kings, priests,
religion, government, public abuses or private morals, in the same
sweeping clause of ban and anathema, do all they can to combine all
parties in a common cause against them, and to prevent every one else
from advancing one step farther in the career of practical improvement
than they do in that of imaginary and unattainable perfection.

Besides, all this untoward heat and precocity often argues rottenness
and a falling-off. I myself remember several instances of this sort of
unrestrained license of opinion and violent effervescence of sentiment
in the first period of the French Revolution. Extremes meet: and the
most furious anarchists have since become the most barefaced apostates.
Among the foremost of these I might mention the present poet-laureate
and some of his friends. The prose-writers on that side of the
question--Mr. Godwin, Mr. Bentham, etc.--have not turned round in this
extraordinary manner: they seem to have felt their ground (however
mistaken in some points), and have in general adhered to their first
principles. But 'poets (as it has been said) have _such seething
brains,_ that they are disposed to meddle with everything, and mar all.
They make bad philosophers and worse politicians.[1] They live, for the
most part, in an ideal world of their own; and it would perhaps be as
well if they were confined to it. Their flights and fancies are
delightful to themselves and to everybody else: but they make strange
work with matter of fact; and if they were allowed to act in public
affairs, would soon turn the world the wrong side out. They indulge
only their own flattering dreams or superstitious prejudices, and make
idols or bugbears of whatever they please, caring as little for history
or particular facts as for general reasoning. They are dangerous
leaders and treacherous followers. Their inordinate vanity runs them
into all sorts of extravagances; and their habitual effeminacy gets them
out of them at any price. Always pampering their own appetite for
excitement, and wishing to astonish others, their whole aim is to
produce a dramatic effect, one way or other--to shock or delight the
observers; and they are apparently as indifferent to the consequences of
what they write as if the world were merely a stage for them to play
their fantastic tricks on, and to make their admirers weep. Not less
romantic in their servility than their independence, and equally
importunate candidates for fame or infamy, they require only to be
distinguished, and are not scrupulous as to the means of distinction.
Jacobins or Anti-Jacobins--outrageous advocates for anarchy and
licentiousness, or flaming apostles of political persecution--always
violent and vulgar in their opinions, they oscillate, with a giddy and
sickening motion, from one absurdity to another, and expiate the follies
of youth by the heartless vices of advancing age. None so ready as they
to carry every paradox to its most revolting and ridiculous excess--none
so sure to caricature, in their own persons, every feature of the
prevailing philosophy! In their days of blissful innovation, indeed,
the philosophers crept at their heels like hounds, while they darted on
their distant quarry like hawks; stooping always to the lowest game;
eagerly snuffing up the most tainted and rankest scents; feeding their
vanity with a notion of the strength of their digestion of poisons, and
most ostentatiously avowing whatever would most effectually startle the
prejudices of others.[2] Preposterously seeking for the stimulus of
novelty in abstract truth, and the eclat of theatrical exhibition in
pure reason, it is no wonder that these persons at last became disgusted
with their own pursuits, and that, in consequence of the violence of the
change, the most inveterate prejudices and uncharitable sentiments have
rushed in to fill up the void produced by the previous annihilation of
common sense, wisdom, and humanity!'

I have so far been a little hard on poets and reformers. Lest I should
be thought to have taken a particular spite to them, I will try to make
them the _amende honorable_ by turning to a passage in the writings of
one who neither is nor ever pretended to be a poet or a reformer, but
the antithesis of both, an accomplished man of the world, a courtier,
and a wit, and who has endeavoured to move the previous question on all
schemes of fanciful improvement, and all plans of practical reform, by
the following declaration. It is in itself a finished _common-place;_
and may serve as a test whether that sort of smooth, verbal reasoning
which passes current because it excites no one idea in the mind, is much
freer from inherent absurdity than the wildest paradox.

'My lot,' says Mr. Canning in the conclusion of his Liverpool speech,
'is cast under the British Monarchy. Under that I have lived; under
that I have seen my country flourish;[3] under that I have seen it enjoy
as great a share of prosperity, of happiness, and of glory as I believe
any modification of human society to be capable of bestowing; and I am
not prepared to sacrifice or to hazard the fruit of centuries of
experience, of centuries of struggles, and of more than one century of
liberty, as perfect as ever blessed any country upon the earth, for
visionary schemes of ideal perfectibility, for doubtful experiments even
of possible improvement.'[4]

Such is Mr. Canning's common-place; and in giving the following answer
to it, I do not think I can be accused of falling into that extravagant
and unmitigated strain of paradoxical reasoning with which I have
already found so much fault.

The passage, then, which the gentleman here throws down as an effectual
bar to all change, to all innovation, to all improvement, contains at
every step a refutation of his favourite creed. He is not 'prepared to
sacrifice or to hazard the fruit of centuries of experience, of
centuries of struggles, and of one century of liberty, for visionary
schemes of ideal perfectibility.' So here are centuries of experience
and centuries of struggles to arrive at one century of liberty; and yet,
according to Mr. Canning's general advice, we are never to make any
experiments or to engage in any struggles either with a view to future
improvement, or to recover benefits which we have lost. Man (they
repeat in our cars, line upon line, precept upon precept) is always to
turn his back upon the future, and his face to the past. He is to
believe that nothing is possible or desirable but what he finds already
established to his hands in time-worn institutions or inveterate abuses.
His understanding is to be buried in implicit creeds, and he himself is
to be made into a political automaton, a go-cart of superstition and
prejudice, never stirring hand or foot but as he is pulled by the wires
and strings of the state-conjurers, the legitimate managers and
proprietors of the show. His powers of will, of thought, and action are
to be paralysed in him, and he is to be told and to believe that
whatever is, must be. Perhaps Mr. Canning will say that men were to
make experiments and to resolve upon struggles formerly, but that now
they are to surrender their understandings and their rights into his
keeping. But at what period of the world was the system of political
wisdom _stereotyped,_ like Mr. Cobbett's _Gold against Paper,_ so as to
admit of no farther alterations or improvements, or correction of errors
of the press? When did the experience of mankind become stationary or
retrograde, so that we must act from the obsolete inferences of past
periods, not from the living impulse of existing circumstances, and the
consolidated force of the knowledge and reflection of ages up to the
present instant, naturally projecting us forward into the future, and
not driving us back upon the past? Did Mr. Canning never hear, did he
never think, of Lord Bacon's axiom, 'That those times are the ancient
times in which we live, and not those which, counting backwards from
ourselves, _ordine retrogrado,_ we call ancient'? The latest periods
must necessarily have the advantage of the sum-total of the experience
that has gone before them, and of the sum-total of human reason exerted
upon that experience, or upon the solid foundation of nature and
history, moving on in its majestic course, not fluttering in the empty
air of fanciful speculation, nor leaving a gap of centuries between us
and the long-mouldered grounds on which we are to think and act. Mr.
Canning cannot plead with Mr. Burke that no discoveries, no improvements
have been made in political science and institutions; for he says we
have arrived through centuries of experience and of struggles at one
century of liberty. Is the world, then, at a stand? Mr. Canning knows
well enough that it is in ceaseless progress and everlasting change, but
he would have it to be the change from liberty to slavery, the progress
of corruption, not of regeneration and reform. Why, no longer ago than
the present year, the two epochs of November and January last presented
(he tells us in this very speech) as great a contrast in the state of
the country as any two periods of its history the most opposite or most
remote. Well then, are our experience and our struggles at an end? No,
he says, 'the crisis is at hand for every man to take part for or
against the institutions of the British Monarchy.' His part is taken:
'but of this be sure, to do aught good will never be his task!' He will
guard carefully against all possible improvements, and maintain all
possible abuses sacred, impassive, immortal. He will not give up the
fruit of centuries of experience, of struggles, and of one century at
least of liberty, since the Revolution of I688, for any doubtful
experiments whatever. We are arrived at the end of our experience, our
struggles, and our liberty--and are to anchor through time and eternity
in the harbour of passive obedience and non-resistance. We (the people
of England) will tell Mr. Canning frankly what we think of his
magnanimous and ulterior resolution. It is our own; and it has been the
resolution of mankind in all ages of the world. No people, no age, ever
threw away the fruits of past wisdom, or the enjoyment of present
blessings, for visionary schemes of ideal perfection. It is the
knowledge of the past, the actual infliction of the present, that has
produced all changes, all innovations, and all improvements--not (as is
pretended) the chimerical anticipation of possible advantages, but the
intolerable pressure of long-established, notorious, aggravated, and
growing abuses. It was the experience of the enormous and disgusting
abuses and corruptions of the Papal power that produced the Reformation.
It was the experience of the vexations and oppressions of the feudal
system that produced its abolition after centuries of sufferings and of
struggles. It was the experience of the caprice and tyranny of the
Monarch that extorted _Magna Charta_ at Runnymede. It was the
experience of the arbitrary and insolent abuse of the prerogative in the
reigns of the Tudors and the first Stuarts that produced the resistance
to it in the reign of Charles I. and the Grand Rebellion. It was the
experience of the incorrigible attachment of the same Stuarts to Popery
and Slavery, with their many acts of cruelty, treachery, and bigotry,
that produced the Revolution, and set the House of Brunswick on the
Throne. It was the conviction of the incurable nature of the abuse,
increasing with time and patience, and overcoming the obstinate
attachment to old habits and prejudices,--an attachment not to be rooted
out by fancy or theory, but only by repeated, lasting, and
incontrovertible proofs,--that has abated every nuisance that ever was
abated, and introduced every innovation and every example of revolution
and reform. It was the experience of the abuses, licentiousness, and
innumerable oppressions of the old Government in France that produced
the French Revolution. It was the experience of the determination of
the British Ministry to harass, insult, and plunder them, that produced
the Revolution of the United States. Away then with this miserable cant
against fanciful theories, and appeal to acknowledged experience! Men
never act against their prejudices but from the spur of their feelings,
the necessity of their situations--their theories are adapted to their
practical convictions and their varying circumstances. Nature has
ordered it so, and Mr. Canning, by showing off his rhetorical paces, by
his 'ambling and lisping and nicknaming God's creatures,' cannot invert
that order, efface the history of the past, or arrest the progress of
the future.--Public opinion is the result of public events and public
feelings; and government must be moulded by that opinion, or maintain
itself in opposition to it by the sword. Mr. Canning indeed will not
consent that the social machine should in any case receive a different
direction from what it has had, 'lest it should be hurried over the
precipice and dashed to pieces.' These warnings of national ruin and
terrific accounts of political precipices put one in mind of Edgar's
exaggerations to Gloster; they make one's hair stand on end in the
perusal but the poor old man, like poor old England, could fall no lower
than he was. Mr. Montgomery, the ingenious and amiable poet, after he
had been shut up in solitary confinement for a year and a half for
printing the Duke of Richmond's Letter on Reform, when he first walked
out into the narrow path of the adjoining field, was seized with an
apprehension that he should fall over it, as if he had trod on the brink
of an abrupt declivity. The author of the loyal Speech at the Liverpool
Dinner has been so long kept in the solitary confinement of his
prejudices, and the dark cells of his interest and vanity, that he is
afraid of being dashed to pieces if he makes a single false step, to the
right or the left, from his dangerous and crooked policy. As to
himself, his ears are no doubt closed to any advice that might here be
offered him; and as to his country, he seems bent on its destruction.
If, however, an example of the futility of all his projects and all his
reasonings on a broader scale, 'to warn and scare, be wanting,' let him
look at Spain, and take leisure to recover from his incredulity and his
surprise. Spain, as Ferdinand, as the Monarchy, has fallen from its
pernicious height, never to rise again: Spain, as Spain, as the Spanish
people, has risen from the tomb of liberty, never (it is to be hoped) to
sink again under the yoke of the bigot and the oppressor!


[1] As for politics, I think poets are _tories_ by nature, supposing
them to be by nature poets. The love of an individual person or family,
that has worn a crown for many successions, is an inclination greatly
adapted to the fanciful tribe. On the other hand, mathematicians,
abstract reasoners of no manner of attachment to persons, at least to
the visible part of them, but prodigiously devoted to the ideas of
virtue, liberty, and so forth, are generally _whigs._ It happens
agreeably enough to this maxim, that the whigs are friends to that wise,
plodding, unpoetical people, the Dutch.'--_Shenstone's Letters,_ p. 105.

[2] To give the modern reader _un petit apercu_ of the tone of literary
conversation about five or six and twenty years ago, I remember being
present in a large party composed of men, women, and children, in which
two persons of remarkable candour and ingenuity were labouring (as hard
as if they had been paid for it) to prove that all prayer was a mode of
dictating to the Almighty, and an arrogant assumption of superiority. A
gentleman present said, with great simplicity and _naivete,_ that there
was one prayer which did not strike him as coming exactly under this
description, and being asked what that was made answer, 'The
Samaritan's--"Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner!"' This appeal by no
means settled the sceptical dogmatism of the two disputants, and soon
after the proposer of the objection went away; on which one of them
observed with great marks of satisfaction and triumph--'I am afraid we
have shocked that gentleman's prejudices.' This did not appear to me at
that time quite the thing and this happened in the year I794.--Twice has
the iron entered my soul. Twice have the dastard, vaunting, venal Crew
gone over it: once as they went forth, conquering and to conquer, with
reason by their side, glittering like a falchion, trampling on
prejudices and marching fearlessly on in the work of regeneration; once
again when they returned with retrograde steps, like Cacus's oxen
dragged backward by the heels, to the den of Legitimacy, 'rout on rout,
confusion worse confounded,' with places and pensions and the _Quarterly
Review_ dangling from their pockets, and shouting, 'Deliverance for
mankind,' for 'the worst, the second fall of man.' Yet I have endured
all this marching and countermarching of poets, philosophers, and
politicians over my head as well as I could, like 'the camomile that
thrives, the more 'tis trod upon.' By Heavens, I think, I'll endure it
no longer!

[3] _Troja fuit._

[4] _Mr. Canning's Speech at the Liverpool Dinner, given in celebration
of his Re-election,_ March I8, I820. Fourth edition, revised and



Few subjects are more nearly allied than these two--vulgarity and
affectation. It may be said of them truly that 'thin partitions do
their bounds divide.' There cannot be a surer proof of a low origin or
of an innate meanness of disposition than to be always talking and
thinking of being genteel. One must feel a strong tendency to that
which one is always trying to avoid: whenever we pretend, on all
occasions, a mighty contempt for anything, it is a pretty clear sign
that we feel ourselves very nearly on a level with it. Of the two
classes of people, I hardly know which is to be regarded with most
distaste, the vulgar aping the genteel, or the genteel constantly
sneering at and endeavouring to distinguish themselves from the vulgar.
These two sets of persons are always thinking of one another; the lower
of the higher with envy, the more fortunate of their less happy
neighbours with contempt. They are habitually placed in opposition to
each other; jostle in their pretensions at every turn; and the same
objects and train of thought (only reversed by the relative situation of
either party) occupy their whole time and attention. The one are
straining every nerve, and outraging common sense, to be thought
genteel; the others have no other object or idea in their heads than not
to be thought vulgar. This is but poor spite; a very pitiful style of
ambition. To be merely not that which one heartily despises is a very
humble claim to superiority: to despise what one really is, is still
worse. Most of the characters in Miss Burney's novels--the Branghtons,
the Smiths, the Dubsters, the Cecilias, the Delvilles, etc.--are well
met in this respect, and much of a piece: the one half are trying not to
be taken for themselves, and the other half not to be taken for the
first. They neither of them have any pretensions of their own, or real
standard of worth. 'A feather will turn the scale of their
avoirdupois'; though the fair authoress was not aware of the
metaphysical identity of her principal and subordinate characters.
Affectation is the master-key to both.

Gentility is only a more select and artificial kind of vulgarity. It
cannot exist but by a sort of borrowed distinction. It plumes itself up
and revels in the homely pretensions of the mass of mankind. It judges
of the worth of everything by name, fashion, and opinion; and hence,
from the conscious absence of real qualities or sincere satisfaction in
itself, it builds its supercilious and fantastic conceit on the
wretchedness and wants of others. Violent antipathies are always
suspicious, and betray a secret affinity. The difference between the
'Great Vulgar and the Small' is mostly in outward circumstances. The
coxcomb criticises the dress of the clown, as the pedant cavils at the
bad grammar of the illiterate, or the prude is shocked at the
backslidings of her frail acquaintance. Those who have the fewest
resources in themselves naturally seek the food of their self-love
elsewhere. The most ignorant people find most to laugh at in strangers:
scandal and satire prevail most in country-places; and a propensity to
ridicule every the slightest or most palpable deviation from what we
happen to approve, ceases with the progress of common sense and
decency.[1] True worth does not exult in the faults and deficiencies of
others; as true refinement turns away from grossness and deformity,
instead of being tempted to indulge in an unmanly triumph over it.
Raphael would not faint away at the daubing of a signpost, nor Homer
hold his head the higher for being in the company of a Grub Street bard.
Real power, real excellence, does not seek for a foil in inferiority;
nor fear contamination from coming in contact with that which is coarse
and homely. It reposes on itself, and is equally free from spleen and
affectation. But the spirit of gentility is the mere essence of spleen
and affectation; of affected delight in its own would-be qualifications,
and of ineffable disdain poured out upon the involuntary blunders or
accidental disadvantages of those whom it chooses to treat as its
inferiors. Thus a fashionable Miss titters till she is ready to burst
her sides at the uncouth shape of a bonnet or the abrupt drop of a
curtsey (such as Jeanie Deans would make) in a country-girl who comes to
be hired by her Mamma as a servant; yet to show how little foundation
there is for this hysterical expression of her extreme good opinion of
herself and contempt for the untutored rustic, she would herself the
next day be delighted with the very same shaped bonnet if brought her by
a French milliner and told it was all the fashion, and in a week's time
will become quite familiar with the maid, and chatter with her (upon
equal terms) about caps and ribbons and lace by the hour together.
There is no difference between them but that of situation in the kitchen
or in the parlour: let circumstances bring them together, and they fit
like hand and glove. It is like mistress, like maid. Their talk, their
thoughts, their dreams, their likings and dislikes are the same. The
mistress's head runs continually on dress and finery, so does the
maid's: the young lady longs to ride in a coach and six, so does the
maid, if she could; Miss forms a _beau-ideal_ of a lover with black eyes
and rosy cheeks, which does not differ from that of her attendant; both
like a smart man, the one the footman and the other his master, for the
same reason; both like handsome furniture and fine houses; both apply
the terms shocking and disagreeable to the same things and persons; both
have a great notion of balls, plays, treats, song-books, and love-tales;
both like a wedding or a christening, and both would give their little
fingers to see a coronation--with this difference, that the one has a
chance of getting a seat at it, and the other is dying with envy that
she has not. Indeed, this last is a ceremony that delights equally the
greatest monarch and the meanest of his subjects--the vilest of the
rabble. Yet this which is the height of gentility and consummation of
external distinction and splendour, is, I should say, a vulgar ceremony.
For what degree of refinement, of capacity, of virtue is required in
the individual who is so distinguished, or is necessary to his enjoying
this idle and imposing parade of his person? Is he delighted with the
stage-coach and gilded panels? So is the poorest wretch that gazes at
it. Is he struck with the spirit, the beauty, and symmetry of the eight
cream-coloured horses? There is not one of the immense multitude who
flock to see the sight from town or country, St. Giles's or Whitechapel,
young or old, rich or poor, gentle or simple, who does not agree to
admire the same object. Is he delighted with the yeomen of the guard,
the military escort, the groups of ladies, the badges of sovereign
power, the kingly crown, the marshal's truncheon and the judge's robe,
the array that precedes and follows him, the crowded streets, the
windows hung with eager looks? So are the mob, for they 'have eyes and
see them!' There is no one faculty of mind or body, natural or
acquired, essential to the principal figure in this procession more than
is common to the meanest and most despised attendant on it. A waxwork
figure would answer the same purpose: a Lord Mayor of London has as much
tinsel to be proud of. I would rather have a king do something that no
one else has the power or magnanimity to do, or say something that no
one else has the wisdom to say, or look more handsome, more thoughtful,
or benign than any one else in his dominions. But I see nothing to
raise one's idea of him in his being made a show of: if the pageant
would do as well without the man, the man would do as well without the
pageant! Kings have been declared to be 'lovers of low company'; and
this maxim, besides the reason sometimes assigned for it, viz. that they
meet with less opposition to their wills from such persons, will I
suspect be found to turn at last on the consideration I am here stating,
that they also meet with more sympathy in their tastes. The most
ignorant and thoughtless have the greatest admiration of the baubles,
the outward symbols of pomp and power, the sound and show, which are the
habitual delight and mighty prerogative of kings. The stupidest slave
worships the gaudiest tyrant. The same gross motives appeal to the same
gross capacities, flatter the pride of the superior and excite the
servility of the dependant; whereas a higher reach of moral and
intellectual refinement might seek in vain for higher proofs of internal
worth and inherent majesty in the object of its idolatry, and not
finding the divinity lodged within, the unreasonable expectation raised
would probably end in mortification on both sides!--There is little to
distinguish a king from his subjects but the rabble's shout--if he loses
that and is reduced to the forlorn hope of gaining the suffrages of the
wise and good, he is of all men the most miserable.--But enough of this.

'I like it,' says Miss Branghton[2] in _Evelina_ (meaning the opera),
'because it is not vulgar.' That is, she likes it, not because there is
anything to like in it, but because other people are prevented from
liking or knowing anything about it. Janus Weathercock, Esq., laugheth
to scorn and spitefully entreateth and hugely condemneth my dramatic
criticisms in the _London,_ for a like exquisite reason. I must
therefore make an example of him _in terrorem_ to all such hypercritics.
He finds fault with me and calls my taste vulgar, because I go to
Sadler's Wells ('a place he has heard of'--0 Lord, sir!)--because I
notice the Miss Dennetts, 'great favourites with the Whitechapel
orders'--praise Miss Valancy, 'a bouncing Columbine at Ashley's and them
there places, as his barber informs him' (has he no way of establishing
himself in his own good opinion but by triumphing over his barber's bad
English?)--and finally, because I recognised the existence of the Coburg
and the Surrey theatres, at the names of which he cries 'Faugh' with
great significance, as if he had some personal disgust at them, and yet
he would be supposed never to have entered them. It is not his cue as a
well-bred critic. _C'est beau ca._ Now this appears to me a very
crude, unmeaning, indiscriminate, wholesale, and vulgar way of thinking.
It is prejudicing things in the lump, by names and places and classes,
instead of judging of them by what they are in themselves, by their real
qualities and shades of distinction. There is no selection, truth, or
delicacy in such a mode of proceeding. It is affecting ignorance, and
making it a title to wisdom. It is a vapid assumption of superiority.
It is exceeding impertinence. It is rank coxcombry. It is nothing in
the world else. To condemn because the multitude admire is as
essentially vulgar as to admire because they admire. There is no
exercise of taste or judgment in either case: both are equally repugnant
to good sense, and of the two I should prefer the good-natured side. I
would as soon agree with my barber as differ from him; and why should I
make a point of reversing the sentence of the Whitechapel orders? Or
how can it affect my opinion of the merits of an actor at the Coburg or
the Surrey theatres, that these theatres are in or out of the Bills of
Mortality? This is an easy, short-hand way of judging, as gross as it
is mechanical. It is not a difficult matter to settle questions of
taste by consulting the map of London, or to prove your liberality by
geographical distinctions. Janus jumbles things together strangely. If
he had seen Mr. Kean in a provincial theatre, at Exeter or Taunton, he
would have thought it vulgar to admire him; but when he had been stamped
in London, Janus would no doubt show his discernment and the subtlety of
his tact for the display of character and passion by not being behind
the fashion. The Miss Dennetts are 'little unformed girls,' for no
other reason than because they danced at one of the minor theatres: let
them but come out on the opera boards, and let the beauty and fashion of
the season greet them with a fairy shower of delighted applause, and
they would outshine Milanie 'with the foot of fire.' His gorge rises at
the mention of a certain quarter of the town: whatever passes current in
another, he 'swallows total grist unsifted, husks and all.' This is not
taste, but folly. At this rate, the hackney-coachman who drives him, or
his horse Contributor whom he has introduced as a select personage to
the vulgar reader, knows as much of the matter as he does.--In a word,
the answer to all this in the first instance is to say what vulgarity
is. Now its essence, I imagine, consists in taking manners, actions,
words, opinions on trust from others, without examining one's own
feelings or weighing the merits of the case. It is coarseness or
shallowness of taste arising from want of individual refinement,
together with the confidence and presumption inspired by example and
numbers. It may be defined to be a prostitution of the mind or body to
ape the more or less obvious defects of others, because by so doing we
shall secure the suffrages of those we associate with. To affect a
gesture, an opinion, a phrase, because it is the rage with a large
number of persons, or to hold it in abhorrence because another set of
persons very little, if at all, better informed cry it down to
distinguish themselves from the former, is in either case equal
vulgarity and absurdity. A thing is not vulgar merely because it is
common. 'Tis common to breathe, to see, to feel, to live. Nothing is
vulgar that is natural, spontaneous, unavoidable. Grossness is not
vulgarity, ignorance is not vulgarity, awkwardness is not vulgarity; but
all these become vulgar when they are affected and shown off on the
authority of others, or to fall in with _the fashion_ or the company we
keep. Caliban is coarse enough, but surely he is not vulgar. We might
as well spurn the clod under our feet and call it vulgar. Cobbett is
coarse enough, but he is not vulgar. He does not belong to the herd.
Nothing real, nothing original, can be vulgar; but I should think an
imitator of Cobbett a vulgar man. Emery's Yorkshireman is vulgar,
because he is a Yorkshireman. It is the cant and gibberish, the cunning
and low life of a particular district; it has 'a stamp exclusive and
provincial.' He might 'gabble most brutishly' and yet not fall under
the letter of the definition; but 'his speech bewrayeth him,' his
dialect (like the jargon of a Bond Street lounger) is the damning
circumstance. If he were a mere blockhead, it would not signify; but he
thinks himself a _knowing hand,_ according to the notions and practices
of those with whom he was brought up, and which he thinks _the go_
everywhere. In a word, this character is not the offspring of untutored
nature but of bad habits; it is made up of ignorance and conceit. It
has a mixture of _slang_ in it. All slang phrases are for the same
reason vulgar; but there is nothing vulgar in the common English idiom.
Simplicity is not vulgarity; but the looking to affectation of any sort
for distinction is. A cockney is a vulgar character, whose imagination
cannot wander beyond the suburbs of the metropolis; so is a fellow who
is always thinking of the High Street, Edinburgh. We want a name for
this last character. An opinion is vulgar that is stewed in the rank
breath of the rabble; nor is it a bit purer or more refined for having
passed through the well-cleansed teeth of a whole court. The inherent
vulgarity is in having no other feeling on any subject than the crude,
blind, headling, gregarious notion acquired by sympathy with the mixed
multitude or with a fastidious minority, who are just as insensible to
the real truth, and as indifferent to everything but their own frivolous
and vexatious pretensions. The upper are not wiser than the lower
orders because they resolve to differ from them. The fashionable have
the advantage of the unfashionable in nothing but the fashion. The true
vulgar are the _servum pecus imitatorum_--the herd of pretenders to what
they do not feel and to what is not natural to them, whether in high or
low life. To belong to any class, to move in any rank or sphere of
life, is not a very exclusive distinction or test of refinement.
Refinement will in all classes be the exception, not the rule; and the
exception may fall out in one class as well as another. A king is but
an hereditary title. A nobleman is only one of the House of Peers. To
be a knight or alderman is confessedly a vulgar thing. The king the
other day made Sir Walter Scott a baronet, but not all the power of the
Three Estates could make another Author of _Waverley_. Princes, heroes,
are often commonplace people: Hamlet was not a vulgar character, neither
was Don Quixote. To be an author, to be a painter, is nothing. It is a
trick, it is a trade.

An author! 'tis a venerable name:
How few deserve it, yet what numbers claim!

Nay, to be a Member of the Royal Academy or a Fellow of the Royal
Society is but a vulgar distinction; but to be a Virgil, a Milton, a
Raphael, a Claude, is what fell to the lot of humanity but once! I do
not think they were vulgar people; though, for anything I know to the
contrary, the first Lord of the Bedchamber may be a very vulgar man; for
anything I know to the contrary, he may not be so.--Such are pretty much
my notions of gentility and vulgarity.

There is a well-dressed and an ill-dressed mob, both which I hate. _Odi
profanum vulgus, et arceo._ The vapid affectation of the one to me is
even more intolerable than the gross insolence and brutality of the
other. If a set of low-lived fellows are noisy, rude, and boisterous to
show their disregard of the company, a set of fashionable coxcombs are,
to a nauseous degree, finical and effeminate to show their thorough
breeding. The one are governed by their feelings, however coarse and
misguided, which is something; the others consult only appearances,
which are nothing, either as a test of happiness or virtue. Hogarth in
his prints has trimmed the balance of pretension between the downright
blackguard and the _soi-disant_ fine gentleman unanswerably. It does
not appear in his moral demonstrations (whatever it may do in the
genteel letter-writing of Lord Chesterfield or the chivalrous rhapsodies
of Burke) that vice by losing all its grossness loses half its evil. It
becomes more contemptible, not less disgusting. What is there in
common, for instance, between his beaux and belles, his rakes and his
coquettes, and the men and women, the true heroic and ideal characters
in Raphael? But his people of fashion and quality are just upon a par
with the low, the selfish, the _unideal_ characters in the contrasted
view of human life, and are often the very same characters, only
changing places. If the lower ranks are actuated by envy and
uncharitableness towards the upper, the latter have scarcely any
feelings but of pride, contempt, and aversion to the lower. If the poor
would pull down the rich to get at their good things, the rich would
tread down the poor as in a wine-press, and squeeze the last shilling
out of their pockets and the last drop of blood out of their veins. If
the headstrong self-will and unruly turbulence of a common alehouse are
shocking, what shall we say to the studied insincerity, the insipid want
of common sense, the callous insensibility of the drawing-room and
boudoir? I would rather see the feelings of our common nature (for they
are the same at bottom) expressed in the most naked and unqualified way,
than see every feeling of our nature suppressed, stifled, hermetically
sealed under the smooth, cold, glittering varnish of pretended
refinement and conventional politeness. The one may be corrected by
being better informed; the other is incorrigible, wilful, heartless
depravity. I cannot describe the contempt and disgust I have felt at
the tone of what would be thought good company, when I have witnessed
the sleek, smiling, glossy, gratuitous assumption of superiority to
every feeling of humanity, honesty, or principle, as a part of the
etiquette, the mental and moral _costume_ of the table, and every
profession of toleration or favour for the lower orders, that is, for
the great mass of our fellow-creatures, treated as an indecorum and
breach of the harmony of well-regulated society. In short, I prefer a
bear-garden to the adder's den; or, to put this case in its extremest
point of view, I have more patience with men in a rude state of nature
outraging the human form than I have with apes 'making mops and mows' at
the extravagances they have first provoked. I can endure the brutality
(as it is termed) of mobs better than the inhumanity of courts. The
violence of the one rages like a fire; the insidious policy of the other
strikes like a pestilence, and is more fatal and inevitable. The slow
poison of despotism is worse than the convulsive struggles of anarchy.
'Of all evils,' says Hume, 'anarchy is the shortest lived.' The one may
'break out like a wild overthrow'; but the other from its secret, sacred
stand, operates unseen, and undermines the happiness of kingdoms for
ages, lurks in the hollow cheek, and stares you in the face in the
ghastly eye of want and agony and woe. It is dreadful to hear the noise
and uproar of an infuriated multitude stung by the sense of wrong and
maddened by sympathy; it is more appalling to think of the smile
answered by other gracious smiles, of the whisper echoed by other
assenting whispers, which doom them first to despair and then to
destruction. Popular fury finds its counterpart in courtly servility.
If every outrage is to be apprehended from the one, every iniquity is
deliberately sanctioned by the other, without regard to justice or
decency. The word of a king, 'Go thou and do likewise,' makes the
stoutest heart dumb: truth and honesty shrink before it.[3] If there
are watchwords for the rabble, have not the polite and fashionable their
hackneyed phrases, their fulsome, unmeaning jargon as well? Both are to
me anathema!

To return to the first question, as it regards individual and private
manners. There is a fine illustration of the effects of preposterous
and affected gentility in the character of Gertrude, in the old comedy
of _Eastward Hoe,_ written by Ben Jonson, Marston, and Chapman in
conjunction. This play is supposed to have given rise to Hogarth's
series of prints of the Idle and Industrious Apprentice; and there is
something exceedingly Hogarthian in the view both of vulgar and of
genteel life here displayed. The character of Gertrude, in particular,
the heroine of the piece, is inimitably drawn. The mixture of vanity
and meanness, the internal worthlessness and external pretence, the
rustic ignorance and fine lady-like airs, the intoxication of novelty
and infatuation of pride, appear like a dream or romance, rather than
anything in real life. Cinderella and her glass slipper are
common-place to it. She is not, like Millamant (a century afterwards),
the accomplished fine lady, but a pretender to all the foppery and
finery of the character. It is the honeymoon with her ladyship, and her
folly is at the full. To be a wife, and the wife of a knight, are to
her pleasures 'worn in their newest gloss,' and nothing can exceed her
raptures in the contemplation of both parts of the dilemma. It is not
familiarity, but novelty, that weds her to the court. She rises into
the air of gentility from the ground of a city life, and flutters about
there with all the fantastic delight of a butterfly that has just
changed its caterpillar state. The sound of My Lady intoxicates her
with delight, makes her giddy, and almost turns her brain. On the bare
strength of it she is ready to turn her father and mother out of doors,
and treats her brother and sister with infinite disdain and judicial
hardness of heart. With some speculators the modern philosophy has
deadened and distorted all the natural affections; and before abstract
ideas and the mischievous refinements of literature were introduced,
nothing was to be met with in the primeval state of society but
simplicity and pastoral innocence of manners--

And all was conscience and tender heart

This historical play gives the lie to the above theory pretty broadly,
yet delicately. Our heroine is as vain as she is ignorant, and as
unprincipled as she is both, and without an idea or wish of any kind but
that of adorning her person in the glass, and being called and thought a
lady, something superior to a citizen's wife.[4] She is so bent on
finery that she believes in miracles to obtain it, and expects the
fairies to bring it her.[5] She is quite above thinking of a
settlement, jointure, or pin-money. She takes the will for the deed all
through the piece, and is so besotted with this ignorant, vulgar notion
of rank and title as a real thing that cannot be counterfeited that she
is the dupe of her own fine stratagems, and marries a gull, a dolt, a
broken adventurer for an accomplished and brave gentleman. Her meanness
is equal to her folly and her pride (and nothing can be greater), yet
she holds out on the strength of her original pretensions for a long
time, and plays the upstart with decency and imposing consistency.
Indeed, her infatuation and caprices are akin to the flighty perversity
of a disordered imagination; and another turn of the wheel of good or
evil fortune would have sent her to keep company with Hogarth's
_Merveilleuses_ in Bedlam, or with Decker's group of coquettes in the
same place.--The other parts of the play are a dreary lee-shore, like
Cuckold's Point on the coast of Essex, where the preconcerted shipwreck
takes place that winds up the catastrophe of the piece. But this is
also characteristic of the age, and serves as a contrast to the airy and
factitious character which is the principal figure in the plot. We had
made but little progress from that point till Hogarth's time, if Hogarth
is to be believed in his description of city manners. How wonderfully
we have distanced it since!

Without going into this at length, there is one circumstance 1 would
mention in which I think there has been a striking improvement in the
family economy of modern times--and that is in the relation of
mistresses and servants. After visits and finery, a married woman of
the old school had nothing to do but to attend to her housewifery. She
had no other resource, no other sense of power, but to harangue and lord
it over her domestics. Modern book-education supplies the place of the
old-fashioned system of kitchen persecution and eloquence. A well-bred
woman now seldom goes into the kitchen to look after the
servants:--formerly what was called a good manager, an exemplary
mistress of a family, did nothing but hunt them from morning to night,
from one year's end to another, without leaving them a moment's rest,
peace, or comfort. Now a servant is left to do her work without this
suspicious and tormenting interference and fault-finding at every step,
and she does it all the better. The proverbs about the mistress's eye,
etc., are no longer held for current. A woman from this habit, which at
last became an uncontrollable passion, would scold her maids for fifty
years together, and nothing could stop her: now the temptation to read
the last new poem or novel, and the necessity of talking of it in the
next company she goes into, prevent her--and the benefit to all parties
is incalculable.


[1] If a European, when he has cut off his beard and put false hair on
his head, or bound up his own natural hair in regular hard knots, as
unlike nature as he could possibly make it; and after having rendered
them immovable by the help of the fat of hogs, has covered the whole
with flour, laid on by a machine with the utmost regularity; if when
thus attired he issues forth, and meets with a Cherokee Indian, who has
bestowed as much time at his toilet, and laid on with equal care and
attention his yellow and red oker on particular parts of his forehead or
cheeks, as he judges most becoming; whoever of these two despises the
other for this attention to the fashion of his country, whichever first
feels himself provoked to laugh, is the barbarian.'--Sir Joshua
Reynolds's _Discourses,_ vol. i. pp. 231, 232.

[2] This name was originally spelt Braughton in the manuscript, and was
altered to Branghton by a mistake of the printer. Branghton, however,
was thought a good name for the occasion and was suffered to stand.
'Dip it in the ocean,' as Sterne's barber says of the buckle, 'and it
will stand!'

[3] A lady of quality, in allusion to the gallantries of a reigning
prince, being told, 'I suppose it will be your turn next?' said, 'No, I
hope not; for you know it is impossible to refuse!'

[4] '_Gertrude._ For the passion of patience, look if Sir Petronel
approach. That sweet, that fine, that delicate, that--for love's sake,
tell me if he come. Oh, sister Mill, though my father be a low-capt
tradesman, yet I must be a lady, and I praise God my mother must call me
madam. Does he come? Off with this gown for shame's sake, off with
this gown! Let not my knight take me in the city cut, in any hand!
Tear't! Pox on't (does he come?), tear't off! _Thus while she sleeps,
I sorrow for her sake._ (Sings.)

_Mildred._ Lord, sister, with what an immodest impatiency and
disgraceful scorn do you put off your city-tire! I am sorry to think
you imagine to right yourself in wronging that which hath made both you
and us.

_Ger._ I tell you, I cannot endure it: I must be a lady: do you wear
your quoiff with a London licket! your stamel petticoat with two guards!
the buffin gown with the tuftafitty cap and the velvet lace! I must be
a lady, and I will be a lady. I like some humours of the city dames
well; to eat cherries only at an angel a pound; good: to dye rich
scarlet black; pretty: to line a grogram gown clean through with velvet;
tolerable: their pure linen, their smocks of three pound a smock, are to
be borne withal: but your mincing niceries, taffity pipkins, durance
petticoats, and silver bodkins--God's my life! as I shall be a lady, I
cannot endure it.

_Mil._ Well, sister, those that scorn their nest oft fly with a sick

_Ger._ Bow-bell! Alas! poor Mill, when I am a lady, I'll pray for thee
yet i'faith; nay, and I'll vouchsafe to call thee sister Mill still; for
thou art not like to be a lady as I am, yet surely thou art a creature
of God's making, and may'st peradventure be saved as soon as I (does he
come?). _And ever and anon she doubled in her song._

_Mil._ Now (lady's my comfort), what a profane ape's here!


_Ger._ Is my knight come? 0 the lord, my band! Sister, do my cheeks
look well? Give me a little box o' the ear, that I may seem to blush.
Now, now! so, there, there! here he is! 0 my dearest delight! Lord,
lord! and how does my knight?

_Touchstone._ Fie, with more modesty.

_Ger._ Modesty! why, I am no citizen now. Modesty! am I not to be
married? You're best to keep me modest, now I am to be a lady.

_Sir Petronel._ Boldness is a good fashion and court-like.

_Ger._ Aye, in, a country lady I hope it is, as I shall be. And how
chance ye came no sooner, knight?

_Sir Pet._ Faith, I was so entertained in the progress with one Count
Epernoun, a Welch knight: we had a match at baloon too with my Lord
Whackum for four crowns.

_Ger._ And when shall's be married, my knight?

_Sir Pet._ I am come now to consummate: and your father may call a poor
knight son-in-law.

_Mrs. Touchstone._ Yes, that he is a knight: I know where he had money
to pay the gentlemen ushers and heralds their fees. Aye, that he is a
knight: and so might you have been too, if you had been aught else but
an ass, as well as some of your neighbours. An I thought you would not
ha' been knighted, as I am an honest woman, I would ha' dubbed you
myself. I praise God, I have wherewithal. But as for you, daughter--

_Ger._ Aye, mother, I must be a lady to-morrow; and by your leave,
mother (I speak it not without my duty, but only in the right of my
husband), I must take place of you, mother.

_Mrs. Touch._ That you shall, lady-daughter; and have a coach as well
as I.

_Ger._ Yes, mother; but my coach-horses must take the wall of your

_Touch._ Come, come, the day grows low; 'tis supper time: and, sir,
respect my daughter; she has refused for you wealthy and honest matches,
known good men.

_Ger._ Body o' truth, citizen, citizens! Sweet knight, as soon as ever
we are married, take me to thy mercy, out of this miserable city.
Presently: carry me out of the scent of Newcastle coal and the hearing
of Bow-bell, I beseech thee; down with me, for God's sake.'-Act I. Scene

This dotage on sound and show seemed characteristic of that age (see
_New Way to Pay Old Debts,_ etc.)--as if in the grossness of sense, and
the absence of all intellectual and abstract topics of thought and
discourse (the thin, circulating medium of the present day) the mind was
attracted without the power of resistance to the tinkling sound of its
own name with a title added to it, and the image of its own person
tricked out in old-fashioned finery. The effect, no doubt, was also
more marked and striking from the contrast between the ordinary penury
and poverty of the age and the first and more extravagant demonstrations
of luxury and artificial refinement.

[5] _'Gertrude._ Good lord, that there are no fairies nowadays, Syn.

_Syndefy._ Why, Madam?

_Ger._ To do miracles, and bring ladies money. Sure, if we lay in a
cleanly house, they would haunt it, Synne? I'll sweep the chamber soon
at night, and set a dish of water o' the hearth. A fairy may come and
bring a pearl or a diamond. We do not know, Synne: or there may be a
pot of gold hid in the yard, if we had tools to dig for't. Why may not
we two rise early i' the morning, Synne, afore anybody is up, and find a
jewel i' the streets worth a hundred pounds? May not some great
court-lady, as she comes from revels at midnight, look out of her coach,
as 'tis running, and lose such a jewel, and we find it? ha!

_Syn._ They are pretty waking dreams, these.

_Ger._ Or may not some old usurer be drunk overnight with a bag of
money, and leave it behind him on a stall? For God's sake, Syn, let's
rise to-morrow by break of day, and see. I protest, la, if I had as
much money as an alderman, I would scatter some on't i' the streets for
poor ladies to find when their knights were laid up. And now I remember
my song of the Golden Shower, why may not I have such a fortune? I'll
sing it, and try what luck I shall have after it.'--Act V. Scene i.'




And blind Orion hungry for the morn.

Orion, the subject of this landscape, was the classical Nimrod; and is
called by Homer, 'a hunter of shadows, himself a shade.' He was the son
of Neptune; and having lost an eve in some affray between the Gods and
men, was told that if he would go to meet the rising sun he would
recover his sight. He is represented setting out on his journey, with
men on his shoulders to guide him, a bow in his hand, and Diana in the
clouds greeting him. He stalks along, a giant upon earth, and reels and
falters in his gait, as if just awakened out of sleep, or uncertain of
his way;--you see his blindness, though his back is turned. Mists rise
around him, and veil the sides of the green forests; earth is dank and
fresh with dews, the 'gray dawn and the Pleiades before him dance,' and
in the distance are seen the blue hills and sullen ocean. Nothing was
ever more finely conceived or done. It breathes the spirit of the
morning; its moisture, its repose, its obscurity, waiting the miracle of
light to kindle it into smiles; the whole is, like the principal figure
in it, 'a forerunner of the dawn.' The same atmosphere tinges and
imbues every object, the same dull light 'shadowy sets off' the face of
nature: one feeling of vastness, of strangeness, and of primeval forms
pervades the painter's canvas, and we are thrown back upon the first
integrity of things. This great and learned man might be said to see
nature through the glass of time; he alone has a right to be considered
as the painter of classical antiquity. Sir Joshua has done him justice
in this respect. He could give to the scenery of his heroic fables that
unimpaired look of original nature, full, solid, large, luxuriant,
teeming with life and power; or deck it with all the pomp of art, with
tempyles and towers, and mythologic groves. His pictures 'denote a
foregone conclusion.' He applies Nature to his purposes, works out her
images according to the standard of his thoughts, embodies high
fictions; and the first conception being given, all the rest seems to
grow out of and be assimilated to it, by the unfailing process of a
studious imagination. Like his own Orion, he overlooks the surrounding
scene, appears to 'take up the isles as a very little thing, and to lay
the earth in a balance.' With a laborious and mighty grasp, he puts
nature into the mould of the ideal and antique; and was among painters
(more than any one else) what Milton was among poets. There is in both
something of the same pedantry, the same stiffness, the same elevation,
the same grandeur, the same mixture of art and nature, the same richness
of borrowed materials, the same unity of character. Neither the poet
nor the painter lowered the subjects they treated, but filled up the
outline in the fancy, and added strength and reality to it; and thus not
only satisfied, but surpassed the expectations of the spectator and the
reader. This is held for the triumph and the perfection of works of
art. To give us nature, such as we see it, is well and deserving of
praise; to give us nature, such as we have never seen, but have often
wished to see it, is better, and deserving of higher praise. He who can
show the world in its first naked glory, with the hues of fancy spread
over it, or in its high and palmy state, with the gravity of history
stamped on the proud monuments of vanished empire,--who, by his 'so
potent art,' can recall time past, transport us to distant places, and
join the regions of imagination (a new conquest) to those of
reality,--who shows us not only what Nature is, but what she has been,
and is capable of,--he who does this, and does it with simplicity, with
truth, and grandeur, is lord of Nature and her powers; and his mind is
universal, and his art the master-art!

There is nothing in this 'more than natural,' if criticism could be
persuaded to think so. The historic painter does not neglect or
contravene Nature, but follows her more closely up into her fantastic
heights or hidden recesses. He demonstrates what she would be in
conceivable circumstances and under implied conditions. He 'gives to
airy nothing a local habitation,' not 'a name.' At his touch, words
start up into images, thoughts become things. He clothes a dream, a
phantom, with form and colour, and the wholesome attributes of reality.
_His_ art is a second nature; not a different one. There are those,
indeed, who think that not to copy nature is the rule for attaining
perfection. Because they cannot paint the objects which they have they
have, they fancy themselves qualified to paint the ideas which they have
not seen. But it is possible to fail in this latter and more difficult
style of imitation, as well as in the former humbler one. The
detection, it is true, is not so easy, because the objects are not so
nigh at hand to compare, and therefore there is more room both for false
pretension and for self-deceit. They take an epic motto or subject, and
conclude that the spirit is implied as a thing of course. They paint
inferior portraits, maudlin lifeless faces, without ordinary expression,
or one look, feature, or particle of nature in them, and think that this
is to rise to the truth of history. They vulgarise and degrade whatever
is interesting or sacred to the mind, and suppose that they thus add to
the dignity of their profession. They represent a face that seems as if
no thought or feeling of any kind had ever passed through it, and would
have you believe that this is the very sublime of expression, such as it
would appear in heroes, or demigods of old, when rapture or agony was
raised to its height. They show you a landscape that looks as if the
sun never shone upon it, and tell you that it is not modern--that so
earth looked when Titan first kissed it with his rays. This is not the
true ideal. It is not to fill the moulds of the imagination, but to
deface and injure them; it is not to come up to, but to fall short of
the poorest conception in the public mind. Such pictures should not be
hung in the same room with that of Orion.[1]

Poussin was, of all painters, the most poetical. He was the painter of
ideas. No one ever told a story half so well, nor so well knew what was
capable of being told by the pencil. He seized on, and struck off with
grace and precision, just that point of view which would be likely to
catch the reader's fancy. There is a significance, a consciousness in
whatever he does (sometimes a vice, but oftener a virtue) beyond any
other painter. His Giants sitting on the tops of craggy mountains, as
huge themselves, and playing idly on their Pan's-pipes, seem to have
been seated there these three thousand years, and to know the beginning
and the end of their own story. An infant Bacchus or Jupiter is big
with his future destiny. Even inanimate and dumb things speak a
language of their own. His snakes, the messengers of fate, are inspired
with human intellect. His trees grow and expand their leaves in the
air, glad of the rain, proud of the sun, awake to the winds of heaven.
In his Plague of Athens, the very buildings seem stiff with horror. His
picture of the Deluge is, perhaps, the finest historical landscape in
the world. You see a waste of waters, wide, interminable the sun is
labouring, wan and weary, up the sky the clouds, dull and leaden, lie
like a load upon the eye, and heaven and earth seem commingling into one
confused mass! His human figures are sometimes 'o'erinformed' with this
kind of feeling. Their actions have too much gesticulation, and the set
expression of the features borders too much on the mechanical and
caricatured style. In this respect they form a contrast to Raphael's,
whose figures never appear to be sitting for their pictures, or to be
conscious of a spectator, or to have come from the painter's hand. In
Nicolas Poussin, on the contrary, everything seems to have a distinct
understanding with the artist; 'the very stones prate of their
whereabout'; each object has its part and place assigned, and is in a
sort of compact with the rest of the picture. It is this conscious
keeping, and, as it were, _internal_ design, that gives their peculiar
character to the works of this artist. There was a picture of Aurora in
the British Gallery a year or two ago. It was a suffusion of golden
light. The Goddess wore her saffron-coloured robes, and appeared just
risen from the gloomy bed of old Tithonus. Her very steeds, milk-white,
were tinged with the yellow dawn. It was a personification of the
morning. Poussin succeeded better in classic than in sacred subjects.
The latter are comparatively heavy, forced, full of violent contrasts of
colour, of red, blue, and black, and without the true prophetic
inspiration of the characters. But in his pagan allegories and fables
he was quite at home. The native gravity and native levity of the
Frenchman were combined with Italian scenery and an antique gusto, and
gave even to his colouring an air of learned indifference. He wants, in
one respect, grace, form, expression; but he has everywhere sense and
meaning, perfect costume and propriety. His personages always belong to
the class and time represented, and are strictly versed in the business
in hand. His grotesque compositions in particular, his Nymphs and
Fauns, are superior (at least, as far as style is concerned) even to
those of Rubens. They are taken more immediately out of fabulous
history. Rubens' Satyrs and Bacchantes have a more jovial and
voluptuous aspect, are more drunk with pleasure, more full of animal
spirits and riotous impulses; they laugh and bound along--

Leaping like wanton kids in pleasant spring:

but those of Poussin have more of the intellectual part of the
character, and seem vicious on reflection, and of set purpose. Rubens'
are noble specimens of a class; Poussin's are allegorical abstractions
of the same class, with bodies less pampered, but with minds more
secretly depraved. The Bacchanalian groups of the Flemish painter were,
however, his masterpieces in composition. Witness those prodigies of
colour, character, and expression at Blenheim. In the more chaste and
refined delineation of classic fable, Poussin was without a rival.
Rubens, who was a match for him in the wild and picturesque, could not
pretend to vie with the elegance and purity of thought in his picture of
Apollo giving a poet a cup of water to drink, nor with the gracefulness
of design in the figure of a nymph squeezing the juice of a bunch of
grapes from her fingers (a rosy wine-press) which falls into the mouth
of a chubby infant below. But, above all, who shall celebrate, in terms
of fit praise, his picture of the shepherds in the Vale of Tempe going
out in a fine morning of the spring, and coming to a tomb with this
inscription: ET EGO IN ARCADIA VIXI! The eager curiosity of some, the
expression of others who start back with fear and surprise, the clear
breeze playing with the branches of the shadowing trees, 'the valleys
low, where the mild zephyrs use,' the distant, uninterrupted, sunny
prospect speak (and for ever will speak on) of ages past to ages yet to

Pictures are a set of chosen images, a stream of pleasant thoughts
passing through the mind. It is a luxury to have the walls of our rooms
hung round with them, and no less so to have such a gallery in the mind,
to con over the relies of ancient art bound up 'within the book and
volume of the brain, unmixed (if it were possible) with baser matter!'
A life passed among pictures, in the study and the love of art, is a
happy noiseless dream: or rather, it is to dream and to be awake at the
same time; for it has all 'the sober certainty of waking bliss,' with
the romantic voluptuousness of a visionary and abstracted being. They
are the bright consummate essences of things, and 'he who knows of these
delights to taste and interpose them oft, is not unwise!'--The Orion,
which I have here taken occasion to descant upon, is one of a collection
of excellent pictures, as this collection is itself one of a series from
the old masters, which have for some years back embrowned the walls of
the British Gallery, and enriched the public eye. What hues (those of
nature mellowed by time) breathe around as we enter! What forms are
there, woven into the memory! What looks, which only the answering
looks of the spectator can express! What intellectual stores have been
yearly poured forth from the shrine of ancient art! The works are
various, but the names the same--heaps of Rembrandts frowning from the
darkened walls, Rubens' glad gorgeous groups, Titians more rich and
rare, Claudes always exquisite, sometimes beyond compare, Guido's
endless cloying sweetness, the learning of Poussin and the Caracci, and
Raphael's princely magnificence crowning all. We read certain letters
and syllables in the Catalogue, and at the well-known magic sound a
miracle of skill and beauty starts to view. One might think that one
year's prodigal display of such perfection would exhaust the labours of
one man's life; but the next year, and the next to that, we find another
harvest reaped and gathered in to the great garner of art, by the same
immortal hands--

Old GENIUS the porter of them was;
He letteth in, he letteth out to wend.--

Their works seem endless as their reputation--to be many as they are
complete--to multiply with the desire of the mind to see more and more
of them; as if there were a living power in the breath of Fame, and in
the very names of the great heirs of glory 'there were propagation too'!
It is something to have a collection of this sort to count upon once a
year; to have one last, lingering look yet to come. Pictures are
scattered like stray gifts through the world; and while they remain,
earth has yet a little gilding left, not quite rubbed off, dishonoured,
and defaced. There are plenty of standard works still to be found in
this country, in the collections at Blenheim, at Burleigh, and in those
belonging to Mr. Angerstein, Lord Grosvenor, the Marquis of Stafford,
and others, to keep up this treat to the lovers of art for many years;
and it is the more desirable to reserve a privileged sanctuary of this
sort, where the eye may dote, and the heart take its fill of such
pictures as Poussin's Orion, since the Louvre is stripped of its
triumphant spoils, and since he who collected it, and wore it as a rich
jewel in his Iron Crown, the hunter of greatness and of glory, is
himself a shade!


[1] Everything tends to show the manner in which a great artist is
formed. If any person could claim an exemption from the careful
imitation of individual objects, it was Nicolas Poussin. He studied the
antique, but he also studied nature. 'I have often admired,' says
Vignuel do Marville, who knew him at a late period of his life, 'the
love he had for his art. Old as he was, I frequently saw him among the
ruins of ancient Rome, out in the Campagna, or along the banks of the
Tyber, sketching a scene that had pleased him; and I often met him with
his handkerchief full of stones, moss, or flowers, which he carried
home, that he might copy them exactly from nature. One day I asked him
how he had attained to such a degree of perfection as to have gained so
high a rank among the great painters of Italy? He answered, "I HAVE
NEGLECTED NOTHING."'--_See his Life lately published._ It appears from
this account that he had not fallen Into a recent error, that Nature
puts the man of genius out. As a contrast to the foregoing description,
I might mention, that I remember an old gentleman once asking Mr. West
In the British Gallery if he had ever been at Athens? To which the
President made answer, No; nor did he feel any great desire to go; for
that he thought he had as good an idea of the place from the Catalogue
as he could get by living there for any number of years. What would he
have said, if any one had told him he could get as good an idea of the
subject of one of his great works from reading the Catalogue of it, as
from seeing the picture itself? Yet the answer was characteristic of
the genius of the painter.

[2] Poussin has repeated this subject more than once, and appears to
have revelled in its witcheries. I have before alluded to it, and may
again. It is hard that we should not be allowed to dwell as often as we
please on what delights us, when things that are disagreeable recur so
often against our will.



The great object of the Sonnet seems to be, to express in musical
numbers, and as it were with undivided breath, some occasional thought
or personal feeling, 'some fee-grief due to the poet's breast.' It is a
sigh uttered from the fulness of the heart, an involuntary aspiration
born and dying in the same moment. I have always been fond of Milton's
Sonnets for this reason, that they have more of this personal and
internal character than any others; and they acquire a double value when
we consider that they come from the pen of the loftiest of our poets.
Compared with _Paradise_ Lost, they are like tender flowers that adorn
the base of some proud column or stately temple. The author in the one
could work himself up with unabated fortitude 'to the height of his
great argument'; but in the other he has shown that he could condescend
to men of low estate, and after the lightning and the thunderbolt of his
pen, lets fall some drops of natural pity over hapless infirmity,
mingling strains with the nightingale's, 'most musical, most
melancholy.' The immortal poet pours his mortal sorrows into our
breasts, and a tear falls from his sightless orbs on the friendly hand
he presses. The Sonnets are a kind of pensive record of past
achievements, loves, and friendships, and a noble exhortation to himself
to bear up with cheerful hope and confidence to the last. Some of them
are of a more quaint and humorous character; but I speak of those only
which are intended to be serious and pathetical.--I do not know indeed
but they may be said to be almost the first effusions of this sort of
natural and personal sentiment in the language. Drummond's ought
perhaps to be excepted, were they formed less closely on the model of
Petrarch's, so as to be often little more than translations of the
Italian poet. But Milton's Sonnets are truly his own in allusion,
thought, and versification. Those of Sir Philip Sydney, who was a great
transgressor in his way, turn sufficiently on himself and his own
adventures; but they are elaborately quaint and intricate, and more like
riddles than sonnets. They are 'very tolerable and not to be endured.'
Shakespear's, which some persons better informed in such matters than I
can pretend to be, profess to cry up as 'the divine, the matchless, what
you will,'--to say nothing of the want of point or a leading, prominent
idea in most of them, are I think overcharged and monotonous, and as to
their ultimate drift, as for myself, I can make neither head nor tail of
it. Yet some of them, I own, are sweet even to a sense of faintness,
luscious as the woodbine, and graceful and luxuriant like it. Here is

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dress'd in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing;
That heavy Saturn laugh'd and leap'd with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer's story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lilies white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seem'd it winter still, and you away,
As with your shadow, I with these did play.

I am not aware of any writer of Sonnets worth mentioning here till long
after Milton, that is, till the time of Warton and the revival of a
taste for Italian and for our own early literature. During the rage for
French models the Sonnet had not been much studied. It is a mode of
composition that depends entirely on _expression,_ and this the French
and artificial style gladly dispenses with, as it lays no particular
stress on anything--except vague, general common-places. Warton's
Sonnets are undoubtedly exquisite, both in style and matter; they are
poetical and philosophical effusions of very delightful sentiment; but
the thoughts, though fine and deeply felt, are not, like Milton's
subjects, identified completely with the writer, and so far want a more
individual interest. Mr. Wordsworth's are also finely conceived and
high-sounding Sonnets. They mouth it well, and are said to be sacred to
Liberty. Brutus's exclamation, 'Oh Virtue, I thought thee a substance,
but I find thee a shadow,' was not considered as a compliment, but as a
bitter sarcasm. The beauty of Milton's Sonnets is their sincerity, the
spirit of poetical patriotism which they breathe. Either Milton's or
the living bard's are defective in this respect. There is no Sonnet of
Milton's on the Restoration of Charles II. There is no Sonnet of Mr.
Wordsworth's corresponding to that of 'the poet blind and bold' 'On the
late Massacre in Piedmont.' It would be no niggard praise to Mr.
Wordsworth to grant that he was either half the man or half the poet
that Milton was. He has not his high and various imagination, nor his
deep and fixed principle. Milton did not worship the rising sun, nor
turn his back on a losing and fallen cause.

Such recantation had no charms for him!

Mr. Southey has thought proper to put the author of _Paradise Lost_ into
his late Heaven, on the understood condition that he is 'no longer to
kings and to hierarchs hostile.' In his lifetime he gave no sign of
such an alteration; and it is rather presumptuous in the poet-laureate
to pursue the deceased antagonist of Salmasius into the other world to
compliment him with his own infirmity of purpose. It is a wonder he did
not add in a note that Milton called him aside to whisper in his ear
that he preferred the new English hexameters to his own blank verse!

Our first of poets was one of our first of men. He was an eminent
instance to prove that a poet is not another name for the slave of power
and fashion, as is the case with painters and musicians--things without
an opinion--and who merely aspire to make up the pageant and show of the
day. There are persons in common life who have that eager curiosity and
restless admiration of bustle and splendour, that sooner than not be
admitted on great occasions of feasting and luxurious display, they will
go in the character of livery-servants to stand behind the chairs of the
great. There are others who can so little bear to be left for any
length of time out of the grand carnival and masquerade of pride and
folly, that they will gain admittance to it at the expense of their
characters as well as of a change of dress. Milton was not one of
these. He had too much of the _ideal_ faculty in his composition, a
lofty contemplative principle, and consciousness of inward power and
worth, to be tempted by such idle baits. We have plenty of chanting and
chiming in among some modern writers with the triumphs over their own
views and principles; but none of a patient resignation to defeat,
sustaining and nourishing itself with the thought of the justice of
their cause, and with firm-fixed rectitude. I do not pretend to defend
the tone of Milton's political writings (which was borrowed from the
style of controversial divinity), or to say that he was right in the
part he took,--I say that he was consistent in it, and did not convict
himself of error: he was consistent in it in spite of danger and
obloquy, 'on evil days though fallen, and evil tongues,' and therefore
his character has the salt of honesty about it. It does not offend in
the nostrils of posterity. He had taken his part boldly and stood to it
manfully, and submitted to the change of times with pious fortitude,
building his consolations on the resources of his own mind and the
recollection of the past, instead of endeavouring to make himself a
retreat for the time to come. As an instance of this we may take one of
the best and most admired of these Sonnets, that addressed to Cyriac
Skinner, on his own blindness:--

Cyriac, this three years' day, these eyes, though clear,
To outward view, of blemish or of spot,
Bereft of light their seeing have forgot,
Nor to their idle orbs doth sight appear
Of sun or moon or stars throughout the year,
Or man or woman. Yet I argue not
Against Heav'n's hand or will, nor bate a jot
Of heart or hope; but still bear up and steer
Right onward. What supports me, dost thou ask?
The conscience, Friend, to have lost them overply'd
In liberty's defence, my noble task,
Of which all Europe talks from side to side.
This thought might lead me through the world's vain mask,
Content though blind, had I no better guide.

Nothing can exceed the mild, subdued tone of this Sonnet, nor the
striking grandeur of the concluding thought. It is curious to remark
what seems to be a trait of character in the two first lines. From
Milton's care to inform the reader that 'his eyes wore still clear, to
outward view, of spot or blemish,' it would be thought that he had not
yet given up all regard to personal appearance; a feeling to which his
singular beauty at an earlier age might he supposed naturally enough to
lead. Of the political or (what may be called) his _State-Sonnets,_
those to Cromwell, to Fairfax, and to the younger Vane are full of
exalted praise and dignified advice. They are neither familiar nor
servile. The writer knows what is due to power and to fame. He feels
the true, unassumed equality of greatness. He pays the full tribute of
admiration for great acts achieved, and suggests becoming occasion to
deserve higher praise. That to Cromwell is a proof how completely our
poet maintained the erectness of his understanding and spirit in his
intercourse with men in power. It is such a compliment as a poet might
pay to a conqueror and head of the state without the possibility of

Cromwell, our chief of men, who through a cloud,
Not of war only, but detractions rude,
Guided by faith and matchless fortitude,
To peace and truth thy glorious way hast plough'd,
And on the neck of crowned fortune proud
Hast rear'd God's trophies and his work pursued
While Darwen stream with blood of Scots imbrued,
And Dunbar field resounds thy praises loud,
And Worcester's laureat wreath. Yet much remains
To conquer still; peace hath her victories
No less renown'd than war: new foes arise
Threatening to bind our souls with secular chains;
Help us to save free conscience from the paw
Of hireling wolves, whose gospel is their maw.

The most spirited and impassioned of them all, and the most inspired
with a sort of prophetic fury, is the one entitled, 'On the late
Massacre in Piedmont.'

Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter'd saints, whose bones
Lie scatter'd on the Alpine mountains cold;
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshipp'd stocks and stones,
Forgot not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that roll'd
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To Heav'n. Their martyr'd blood and ashes sow
O'er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundred fold, who having learn'd thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.

In the Nineteenth Sonnet, which is also 'On his blindness,' we see the
jealous watchfulness of his mind over the use of his high gifts, and the
beautiful manner in which he satisfies himself that virtuous thoughts
and intentions are not the least acceptable offering to the Almighty:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent,
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
Doth God exact day-labour, light denied,
I fondly ask: But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best; his state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Those to Mr. Henry Lawes _on his Airs,_ and to Mr. Lawrence, can never
be enough admired. They breathe the very soul of music and friendship.
Both have a tender, thoughtful grace; and for their lightness, with a
certain melancholy complaining intermixed, might be stolen from the harp
of Aeolus. The last is the picture of a day spent in social retirement
and elegant relaxation from severer studies. We sit with the poet at
table and hear his familiar sentiments from his own lips afterwards:--

Lawrence, of virtuous father virtuous son,
Now that the fields are dank and ways are mire,
Where shall we sometimes meet, and by the fire
Help waste a sullen day, what may be won
From the hard season gaining? Time will run
On smoother, till Favonius re-inspire
The frozen earth, and clothe in fresh attire
The lily and rose, that neither sow'd nor spun.
What neat repast shall feast us, light and choice,
Of Attic taste, with wine, whence we may rise
To hear the lute well-touched, or artful voice
Warble immortal notes and Tuscan air?
He who of these delights can judge, and spare
To interpose them oft, is not unwise.

In the last, 'On his deceased Wife,' the allusion to Alcestis is
beautiful, and shows how the poet's mind raised and refined his thoughts
by exquisite classical conceptions, and how these again were enriched by
a passionate reference to actual feelings and images. It is this rare
union that gives such voluptuous dignity and touching purity to Milton's
delineation of the female character:--

Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
Whom Jove's great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescued from death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom wash'd from spot of child-bed taint
Purification in the old law did save,
And such, as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heav'n without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind:
Her face was veil'd, yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness in her person shined
So clear, as in no face with more delight:
But O as to embrace me she inclined,
I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.

There could not have been a greater mistake or a more unjust piece of
criticism than to suppose that Milton only shone on great subjects, and
that on ordinary occasions and in familiar life his mind was unwieldy,
averse to the cultivation of grace and elegance, and unsusceptible of
harmless pleasures. The whole tenor of his smaller compositions
contradicts this opinion, which, however, they have been cited to
confirm. The notion first got abroad from the bitterness (or vehemence)
of his controversial writings, and has been kept up since with little
meaning and with less truth. His Letters to Donatus and others are not
more remarkable for the display of a scholastic enthusiasm than for that
of the most amiable dispositions. They are 'severe in youthful virtue
unreproved.' There is a passage in his prose-works (the Treatise on
Education) which shows, I think, his extreme openness and proneness to
pleasing outward impressions in a striking point of view. 'But to
return to our own institute,' he says, 'besides these constant exercises
at home, there is another opportunity of gaining experience to be won
from pleasure itself abroad. _In those vernal seasons of the year, when
the air is calm and pleasant, it were an injury and sullenness against
Nature not to go out and see her riches, and partake in her rejoicing
with Heaven and earth._ I should not therefore be a persuader to them
of studying much then, but to ride out in companies with prudent and
well-staid guides, to all quarters of the land,' etc. Many other
passages might be quoted, in which the poet breaks through the
groundwork of prose, as it were, by natural fecundity and a genial,
unrestrained sense of delight. To suppose that a poet is not easily
accessible to pleasure, or that he does not take an interest in
individual objects and feelings, is to suppose that he is no poet; and
proceeds on the false theory, which has been so often applied to poetry
and the Fine Arts, that the whole is not made up of the particulars. If
our author, according to Dr. Johnson s account of him, could only have
treated epic, high-sounding subjects, he would not have been what he
was, but another Sir Richard Blackmore.--I may conclude with observing,
that I have often wished that Milton had lived to see the Revolution of
1688. This would have been a triumph worthy of him, and which he would
have earned by faith and hope. He would then have been old, but would
not have lived in vain to see it, and might have celebrated the event in
one more undying strain!


No notes for this essay



One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but I
like to go by myself. I can enjoy society in a room; but out of doors,
nature is company enough for me. I am then never less alone than when

The fields his study, nature was his book.

I cannot see the wit of walking and talking at the same time. When I am
in the country I wish to vegetate like the country. I am not for
criticising hedge-rows and black cattle. I go out of town in order to
forget the town and all that is in it. There are those who for this
purpose go to watering-places, and carry the metropolis with them. I
like more elbow-room and fewer encumbrances. I like solitude, when I
give myself up to it, for the sake of solitude; nor do I ask for

a friend in my retreat,
Whom I may whisper solitude is sweet.

The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do,
just as one pleases. We go a journey chiefly to be free of all
impediments and of all inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind much
more to get rid of others. It is because I want a little
breathing-space to muse on indifferent matters, where Contemplation

May plume her feathers and let grow her wings,
That in the various bustle of resort
Were all too ruffled, and sometimes impair'd,

that I absent myself from the town for a while, without feeling at a
loss the moment I am left by myself. Instead of a friend in a
postchaise or in a Tilbury, to exchange good things with, and vary the
same stale topics over again, for once let me have a truce with
impertinence. Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green
turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours' march
to dinner--and then to thinking! It is hard if I cannot start some game
on these lone heaths. I laugh, I run, I leap, I sing for joy. From the
point of yonder rolling cloud I plunge into my past being, and revel
there, as the sun-burnt Indian plunges headlong into the wave that wafts
him to his native shore. Then long-forgotten things, like 'sunken wrack
and sumless treasuries,' burst upon my eager sight, and I begin to feel,
think, and be myself again. Instead of an awkward silence, broken by
attempts at wit or dull common-places, mine is that undisturbed silence
of the heart which alone is perfect eloquence. No one likes puns,
alliterations, antitheses, argument, and analysis better than I do; but

Book of the day:
Facebook Google Reddit StumbleUpon Twitter Pinterest