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

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Is it that we despise little things; that we are not prepared for them;
that they take us in our careless, unguarded moments, and tease us out
of our ordinary patience by their petty, incessant, insect warfare,
buzzing about us and stinging us like gnats, so that we can neither get
rid of nor grapple with them; whereas we collect all our fortitude and
resolution to meet evils of greater magnitude? Or is it that there is a
certain stream of irritability that is continually fretting upon the
wheels of life, which finds sufficient food to play with in straws and
feathers, while great objects are too much for it, either choke it up,
or divert its course into serious and thoughtful interest? Some attempt
might be made to explain this in the following manner.

One is always more vexed at losing a game of any sort by a single hole
or ace than if one has never had a chance of winning it. This is no
doubt in part or chiefly because the prospect of success irritates the
subsequent disappointment. But people have been known to pine and fall
sick from holding the next number to the twenty thousand pound prize in
the lottery. Now this could only arise from their being so near winning
in fancy, from there seeming to be so thin a partition between them and
success. When they were within one of the right number, why could they
not have taken the next--it was so easy: this haunts their minds and
will not let them rest, notwithstanding the absurdity of the reasoning.
It is that the will here has a slight imaginary obstacle to surmount to
attain its end; it should appear it had only an exceedingly trifling
effort to make for this purpose, that it was absolutely in its power
(had it known) to seize the envied prize, and it is continually
harassing itself by making the obvious transition from one number to the
other, when it is too late. That is to say, the will acts in proportion
to its fancied power, to its superiority over immediate obstacles. Now
in little or indifferent matters there seems no reason why it should not
have its own way, and therefore a disappointment vexes it the more. It
grows angry according to the insignificance of the occasion, and frets
itself to death about an object, merely because from its very futility
there can be supposed to be no real difficulty in the way of its
attainment, nor anything more required for this purpose than a
determination of the will. The being baulked of this throws the mind
off its balance, or puts it into what is called _a passion;_ and as
nothing but an act of voluntary power still seems necessary to get rid
of every impediment, we indulge our violence more and more, and heighten
our impatience by degrees into a sort of frenzy. The object is the same
as it was, but we are no longer as we were. The blood is heated, the
muscles are strained. The feelings are wound up to a pitch of agony
with the vain strife. The temper is tried to the utmost it will bear.
The more contemptible the object or the obstructions in the way to it,
the more are we provoked at being hindered by them. It looks like
witchcraft. We fancy there is a spell upon us, so that we are hampered
by straws and entangled in cobwebs. We believe that there is a fatality
about our affairs. It is evidently done on purpose to plague us. A
demon is at our elbow to torment and defeat us in everything, even in
the smallest things. We see him sitting and mocking us, and we rave and
gnash our teeth at him in return, It is particularly hard that we cannot
succeed in any one point, however trifling. that we set our hearts on.
We are the sport of imbecility and mischance. We make another desperate
effort, and fly out into all the extravagance of impotent rage once
more. Our anger runs away with our reason, because, as there is little
to give it birth, there is nothing to cheek it or recall us to our
senses in the prospect of consequences. We take up and rend in pieces
the mere toys of humour, as the gusts of wind take up and whirl about
chaff and stubble. Passion plays the tyrant, in a grand tragi-comic
style, over the Lilliputian difficulties and petty disappointments it
has to encounter, gives way to all the fretfulness of grief and all the
turbulence of resentment, makes a fuss about nothing because there is
nothing to make a fuss about--when an impending calamity, an
irretrievable loss, would instantly bring it to its recollection, and
tame it in its preposterous career. A man may be in a great passion and
give himself strange airs at so simple a thing as a game at ball, for
instance; may rage like a wild beast, and be ready to dash his head
against the wall about nothing, or about that which he will laugh at the
next minute, and think no more of ten minutes after, at the same time
that a good smart blow from the ball, the effects of which he might feel
as a serious inconvenience for a month, would calm him directly--

Anon as patient as the female dove,
His silence will sit drooping.

The truth is, we pamper little griefs into great ones, and bear great
ones as well as we can. We can afford to dally and play tricks with the
one, but the others we have enough to do with, without any of the
wantonness and bombast of passion--without the swaggering of Pistol or
the insolence of King Cambyses' vein. To great evils we submit; we
resent little provocations. I have before now been disappointed of a
hundred pound job and lost half a crown at rackets on the same day, and
been more mortified at the latter than the former. That which is
lasting we share with the future, we defer the consideration of till
to-morrow: that which belongs to the moment we drink up in all its
bitterness, before the spirit evaporates. We probe minute mischiefs to
the quick; we lacerate, tear, and mangle our bosoms with misfortune's
finest, brittlest point, and wreak our vengeance on ourselves and it for
good and all. Small pains are more manageable, ore within our reach; we
can fret and worry ourselves about them, can turn them into any shape,
can twist and torture them how we please:--a grain of sand in the eye, a
thorn in the flesh, only irritates the part, and leaves us strength
enough to quarrel and get out of all patience with it: a heavy blow
stuns and takes away all power of sense as well as of resistance. The
great and mighty reverses of fortune, like the revolutions of nature,
may be said to carry their own weight and reason along with them: they
seem unavoidable and remediless, and we submit to them without murmuring
as to a fatal necessity. The magnitude of the events in which we may
happen to be concerned fills the mind, and carries it out of itself, as
it were, into the page of history. Our thoughts are expanded with the
scene on which we have to act, and lend us strength to disregard our own
personal share in it. Some men are indifferent to the stroke of fate,
as before and after earthquakes there is a calm in the air. From the
commanding situation whence they have been accustomed to view things,
they look down at themselves as only a part of the whole, and can
abstract their minds from the pressure of misfortune, by the aid of its
very violence. They are projected, in the explosion of events, into a
different sphere, far from their former thoughts, purposes, and
passions. The greatness of the change anticipates the slow effects of
time and reflection:--they at once contemplate themselves from an
immense distance, and look up with speculative wonder at the height on
which they stood. Had the downfall been less complete, it would have
been more galling and borne with less resignation, because there might
still be a chance of remedying it by farther efforts and farther
endurance--but past cure, past hope. It is chiefly this cause (together
with something of constitutional character) which has enabled the
greatest man in modern history to bear his reverses of fortune with gay
magnanimity, and to submit to the loss of the empire of the world with
as little discomposure as if he had been playing a game at chess.[1]
This does not prove by our theory that he did not use to fly into
violent passions with Talleyrand for plaguing him with bad news when
things went wrong. He was mad at uncertain forebodings of disaster, but
resigned to its consummation. A man may dislike impertinence, yet have
no quarrel with necessity!

There is another consideration that may take off our wonder at the
firmness with which the principals in great vicissitudes of fortune bear
their fate, which is, that they are in the secret of its operations, and
know that what to others appears chance-medley was unavoidable. The
clearness of their perception of all the circumstances converts the
uneasiness of doubt into certainty: they have not the qualms of
conscience which their admirers have, who cannot tell how much of the
event is to be attributed to the leaders, and how much to unforeseen
accidents: they are aware either that the result was not to be helped,
or that they did all they could to prevent it.

Si Pergarna dextra
Defendi possent, etiam hac defensa fuissent.

It is the mist and obscurity through which we view objects that makes us
fancy they might have been or might still be otherwise, The precise
knowledge of antecedents and consequents makes men practical as well as
philosophical Necessarians.--It is the want of this knowledge which is
the principle and soul of gambling, and of all games of chance or
partial skill. The supposition is, that the issue is uncertain, and
that there is no positive means of ascertaining it. It is dependent on
the turn of a die, on the tossing up of a halfpenny: to be fair it must
be a lottery; there is no knowing but by the event; and it is this which
keeps the interest alive, and works up the passion little short of
madness. There is all the agitation of suspense, all the alternation of
hope and fear, of good and bad success, all the eagerness of desire,
without the possibility of reducing this to calculation, that is, of
subjecting the increased action of the will to a known rule, or
restraining the excesses of passion within the bounds of reason. We see
no cause beforehand why the run of the cards should not be in our
favour: we will hear of none afterwards why it should not have been so.
As in the absence of all data to judge by, we wantonly fill up the blank
with the most extravagant expectations, so, when all is over, we
obstinately recur to the chance we had previously. There is nothing to
tame us down to the event, nothing to reconcile us to our hard luck, for
so we think it. We see no reason why we failed (and there was none, any
more than why we should succeed)--we think that, reason apart, our will
is the next best thing; we still try to have it our own way, and fret,
torment, and harrow ourselves up with vain imaginations to effect
impossibilities.[2] We play the game over again: we wonder how it was
possible for us to fail. We turn our brain with straining at
contradictions, and striving to make things what they are not, or, in
other words, to subject the course of nature to our fastastical wishes.
_'If it had been so--if we had done such and such a thing'_--we try it
in a thousand different ways, and are just as far off the mark as ever.
We appealed to chance in the first instance, and yet, when it has
decided against us, we will not give in, and sit down contented with our
loss, but refuse to submit to anything but reason, which has nothing to
do with the matter. In drawing two straws, for example, to see which is
the longest, there was no apparent necessity we should fix upon the
wrong one, it was so easy to have fixed upon the other, nay, at one time
we were going to do it--if we had,--the mind thus runs back to what was
so possible and feasible at one time, while the thing was pending, and
would fain give a bias to causes so slender and insignificant, as the
skittle-player bends his body to give a bias to the bowl he has already
delivered from his hand, not considering that what is once determined,
be the causes ever so trivial or evanescent, is in the individual
instance unalterable. Indeed, to be a great philosopher, in the
practical and most important sense of the term, little more seems
necessary than to be convinced of the truth of the maxim which the wise
man repeated to the daughter of King Cophetua, _That if a thing is, it
is,_ and there is an end of it!

We often make life unhappy in wishing things to have turned out
otherwise than they did, merely because that is possible to the
imagination, which is impossible in fact. I remember, when Lamb's farce
was damned (for damned it was, that's certain), I used to dream every
night for a month after (and then I vowed I would plague myself no more
about it) that it was revived at one of the minor or provincial theatres
with great success, that such and such retrenchments and alterations had
been made in it, and that it was thought _it might do at the other
House._ I had heard indeed (this was told in confidence to Lamb) that
_Gentleman_ Lewis was present on the night of its performance, and said
that if he had had it he would have made it, by a few judicious
curtailments, 'the most popular little thing that had been brought out
for some time.' How often did I conjure up in recollection the full
diapason of applause at the end of the _Prologue,_ and hear my ingenious
friend in the first row of the pit roar with laughter at his own wit!
Then I dwelt with forced complacency on some part in which it had been
doing well: then we would consider (in concert) whether the long tedious
opera of the _Travellers,_ which preceded it, had not tired people
beforehand, so that they had not spirits left for the quaint and
sparkling 'wit skirmishes' of the dialogue; and we all agreed it might
have gone down after a tragedy, except Lamb himself, who swore he had no
hopes of it from the beginning, and that he knew the name of the hero
when it came to be discovered could not be got over. Mr. _H----,_ thou
wert damned! Bright shone the morning on the play-bills that announced
thy appearance, and the streets were filled with the buzz of persons
asking one another if they would go to see _Mr. H----,_ and answering
that they would certainly; but before night the gaiety, not of the
author, but of his friends and the town. was eclipsed, for thou were
damned! Hadst thou been anonymous thou haply mightst have lived. But
thou didst come to an untimely end for thy tricks, and for want of a
better name to pass them off!

In this manner we go back to the critical minutes on which the turn of
our fate, or that of any one else in whom we are interested; depended;
try them over again with new knowledge and sharpened sensibility; and
thus think to alter what is irrevocable, and ease for a moment the pang
of lasting regret. So in a game at rackets[3] (to compare small things
with great), I think if at such a point I had followed up my success, if
I had not been too secure or over-anxious in another part, if I had
played for such an opening--in short, if I had done anything but what I
did and what has proved unfortunate in the result, the chances were all
in my favour. But it is merely because I do not know what would have
happened in the other case that I interpret it so readily to my own
advantage. I have sometimes lain awake a whole night, trying to serve
out the last ball of an interesting game in a particular corner of the
court, which I had missed from a nervous feeling. Rackets (I might
observe, for the sake of the uninformed reader) is, like any other
athletic game, very much a thing of skill and practice; but it is also a
thing of opinion, 'subject to all the skyey influences.' If you think
you can win, you can win. Faith is necessary to victory. If you
hesitate in striking at the ball, it is ten to one but you miss it. If
you are apprehensive of committing some particular error (such as
striking the ball _foul_) you will be nearly sure to do it. While
thinking of that which you are so earnestly bent upon avoiding, your
hand mechanically follows the strongest idea, and obeys the imagination
rather than the intention of the striker. A run of luck is a forerunner
of success, and courage is as much wanted as skill. No one is, however,
free from nervous sensations at times. A good player may not be able to
strike a single stroke if another comes into the court that he has a
particular dread of; and it frequently so happens that a player cannot
beat another, even though he can give half the game to an equal player,
because he has some associations of jealousy or personal pique against
the first which he has not towards the last. _Sed haec hactenus._
Chess is a game I do not understand, and have not comprehension enough
to play at. But I believe, though it is so much less a thing of chance
than science or skill, eager players pass whole nights in marching and
countermarching their men and checkmating a successful adversary,
supposing that at a certain point of the game they had determined upon
making a particular move instead of the one which they actually did
make. I have heard a story of two persons playing at backgammon, one of
whom was so enraged at losing his match at a particular point of the
game that he took the board and threw it out of the window. It fell
upon the head of one of the passengers in the street, who came up to
demand instant satisfaction for the affront and injury he had sustained.
The losing gamester only asked him if he understood backgammon, and
finding that he did, said, that if upon seeing the state of the game he
did not excuse the extravagance of his conduct, he would give him any
other satisfaction he wished for. The tables were accordingly brought,
and the situation of the two contending parties being explained, the
gentleman put up his sword and went away perfectly satisfied. To return
from this, which to some will seem a digression, and to others will
serve as a confirmation of the doctrine I am insisting on.

It is not, then, the value of the object, but the time and pains
bestowed upon it, that determines the sense and degree of our loss.
Many men set their minds only on trifles, and have not a compass of soul
to take an interest in anything truly great and important beyond forms
and minutiae. Such persons are really men of little minds, or may be
complimented with the title of great children,

Pleased with a feather, tickled with a straw.

Larger objects elude their grasp, while they fasten eagerly on the light
and insignificant. They fidget themselves and others to death with
incessant anxiety about nothing. A part of their dress that is awry
keeps them in a fever of restlessness and impatience; they sit picking
their teeth, or paring their nails, or stirring the fire, or brushing a
speck of dirt off their coats, while the house or the world tumbling
about their ears would not rouse them from their morbid insensibility.
They cannot sit still on their chairs for their lives, though if there
were anything for them to do they would become immovable. Their nerves
are as irritable as their imaginations are callous and inert. They are
addicted to an inveterate habit of littleness and perversity, which
rejects every other motive to action or object of contemplation but the
daily, teasing, contemptible, familiar, favourite sources of uneasiness
and dissatisfaction. When they are of a sanguine instead of a morbid
temperament, they become _quid-nuncs_ and virtuosos--collectors of
caterpillars and odd volumes, makers of fishing-rods and curious in
watch-chains. Will Wimble dabbled in this way, to his immortal honour.
But many others have been less successful. There are those who build
their fame on epigrams or epitaphs, and others who devote their lives to
writing the Lord's Prayer in little. Some poets compose and sing their
own verses. Which character would they have us think most highly
of--the poet or the musician? The Great is One. Some there are who
feel more pride in sealing a letter with a head of Homer than ever that
old blind bard did in reciting his _Iliad._ These raise a huge opinion
of themselves out of nothing, as there are those who shrink from their
own merits into the shade of unconquerable humility. I know one person
at least, who would rather be the author of an unsuccessful farce than
of a successful tragedy. Repeated mortification has produced an
inverted ambition in his mind, and made failure the bitter test of
desert. He cannot lift his drooping head to gaze on the gaudy crown of
popularity placed within his reach, but casts a pensive, riveted look
downwards to the modest flowers which the multitude trample under their
feet. If he had a piece likely to succeed, coming out under all
advantages, he would damn it by some ill-timed, wilful jest, and lose
the favour of the public, to preserve the sense of his personal
identity. 'Misfortune,' Shakespear says, 'brings a man acquainted with
strange bedfellows'; and it makes our thoughts traitors to
ourselves.--It is a maxim with many--_'Take care of the pence, and the
pounds will take care of themselves.'_ Those only put it in practice
successfully who think more of the pence than of the pounds. To such, a
large sum is less than a small one. Great speculations, great returns
are to them extravagant or imaginary: a few hundreds a year are
something snug and comfortable. Persons who have been used to a petty,
huckstering way of life cannot enlarge their apprehensions to a notion
of anything better. Instead of launching out into greater expense and
liberality with the tide of fortune, they draw back with the fear of
consequences, and think to succeed on a broader scale by dint of
meanness and parsimony. My uncle Toby frequently caught Trim standing
up behind his chair, when he had told him to be seated. What the
corporal did out of respect, others would do out of servility. The
menial character does not wear out in three or four generations. You
cannot keep some people out of the kitchen, merely because their
grandfathers or grandmothers came out of it. A poor man and his wife
walking along in the neighbourhood of Portland Place, he said to her
peevishly, 'What is the use of walking along these fine streets and
squares? Let us turn down some alley!' He felt he should be more at
home there. Lamb said of an old acquaintance of his, that when he was
young he wanted to be a tailor, but had not spirit! This is the misery
of unequal matches. The woman cannot easily forget, or think that
others forget, her origin; and, with perhaps superior sense and beauty,
keeps painfully in the background. It is worse when she braves this
conscious feeling, and displays all the insolence of the upstart and
affected fine lady. But shouldst thou ever, my Infelice, grace my home
with thy loved presence, as thou hast cheered my hopes with thy smile,
thou wilt conquer all hearts with thy prevailing gentleness, and I will
show the world what Shakespear's women were!--Some gallants set their
hearts on princesses; others descend in imagination to women of quality;
others are mad after opera-singers. For my part, I am shy even of
actresses, and should not think of leaving my card with Madame Vestris.
I am for none of these _bonnes fortunes;_ but for a list of humble
beauties, servant-maids and shepherd-girls, with their red elbows, hard
hands, black stockings and mob-caps, I could furnish out a gallery equal
to Cowley's, and paint them half as well. Oh! might I but attempt a
description of some of them in poetic prose, Don Juan would forget his
Julia, and Mr. Davison might both print and publish this volume. I
agree so far with Horace, and differ with Montaigne. I admire the
Clementinas and Clarissas at a distance: the Pamelas and Fannys of
Richardson and Fielding make my blood tingle. I have written
love-letters to such in my time, _d'un pathetique a faire fendre les
rochers,_ and with about as much effect as if they had been addressed to
stone. The simpletons only laughed, and said that 'those were not the
sort of things to gain the affections.' I wish I had kept copies in my
own justification. What is worse, I have an utter aversion to
blue-stockings. I do not care a fig for any woman that knows even what
an author means. If I know that she has read anything I have written, I
cut her acquaintance immediately. This sort of literary intercourse
with me passes for nothing. Her critical and scientific acquirements
are _carrying coals to Newcastle._ I do not want to be told that I have
published such or such a work. I knew all this before. It makes no
addition to my sense of power. I do not wish the affair to be brought
about in that way. I would have her read my soul: she should understand
the language of the heart: she should know what I am, as if she were
another self! She should love me for myself alone. I like myself
without any reason: I would have her do so too. This is not very
reasonable. I abstract from my temptations to admire all the
circumstances of dress, birth, breeding, fortune; and I would not
willingly put forward my own pretensions, whatever they may be. The
image of some fair creature is engraven on my inmost soul; it is on that
I build my claim to her regard, and expect her to see into my heart, as
I see her form always before me. Wherever she treads, pale primroses,
like her face, vernal hyacinths, like her brow, spring up beneath her
feet, and music hangs on every bough; but all is cold, barren, and
desolate without her. Thus I feel, and thus I think. But have I over
told her so? No. Or if I did, would she understand it? No. I 'hunt
the wind, I worship a statue, cry aloud to the desert.' To see beauty
is not to be beautiful, to pine in love is not to be loved again--I
always was inclined to raise and magnify the power of Love. I thought
that his sweet power should only be exerted to join together the
loveliest forms and fondest hearts; that none but those in whom his
godhead shone outwardly, and was inly felt, should ever partake of his
triumphs; and I stood and gazed at a distance, as unworthy to mingle in
so bright a throng, and did not (even for a moment) wish to tarnish the
glory of so fair a vision by being myself admitted into it. I say this
was my notion once, but God knows it was one of the errors of my youth.
For coming nearer to look, I saw the maimed, the blind, and the halt
enter in, the crooked and the dwarf, the ugly, the old and impotent, the
man of pleasure and the man of the world, the dapper and the pert, the
vain and shallow boaster, the fool and the pedant, the ignorant and
brutal, and all that is farthest removed from earth's fairest-born, and
the pride of human life. Seeing all these enter the courts of Love, and
thinking that I also might venture in under favour of the crowd, but
finding myself rejected, I fancied (I might be wrong) that it was not so
much because I was below, as above the common standard. I did feel, but
I was ashamed to feel, mortified at my repulse, when I saw the meanest
of mankind, the very scum and refuse, all creeping things and every
obscene creature, enter in before me. I seemed a species by myself, I
took a pride even in my disgrace; and concluded I had elsewhere my
inheritance! The only thing I ever piqued myself upon was the writing
the _Essay on the Principles of Human Action_--a work that no woman ever
read, or would ever comprehend the meaning of. But if I do not build my
claim to regard on the pretensions I have, how can I build it on those I
am totally without? Or why do I complain and expect to gather grapes of
thorns, or figs of thistles? Thought has in me cancelled pleasure; and
this dark forehead, bent upon truth, is the rock on which all affection
has split. And thus I waste my life in one long sigh; nor ever (till
too late) beheld a gentle face turned gently upon mine! . . . But no!
not too late, if that face, pure, modest, downcast, tender, with angel
sweetness, not only gladdens the prospect of the future, but sheds its
radiance on the past, smiling in tears. A purple light hovers round my
head. The air of love is in the room. As I look at my long-neglected
copy of the Death of Clorinda, golden gleams play upon the canvas, as
they used when I painted it. The flowers of Hope and Joy springing up
in my mind, recall the time when they first bloomed there. The years
that are fled knock at the door and enter. I am in the Louvre once
more. The sun of Austerlitz has not set. It still shines here--in my
heart; and he, the son of glory, is not dead, nor ever shall, to me. I
am as when my life began. The rainbow is in the sky again. I see the
skirts of the departed years. All that I have thought and felt has not
been in vain. I am not utterly worthless, unregarded; nor shall I die
and wither of pure scorn. Now could I sit on the tomb of Liberty, and
write a Hymn to Love. Oh! if I am deceived, let me be deceived still.
Let me live in the Elysium of those soft looks; poison me with kisses,
kill me with smiles; but still mock me with thy love![4]

Poets choose mistresses who have the fewest charms, that they may make
something out of nothing. They succeed best in fiction, and they apply
this rule to love. They make a goddess of any dowdy. As Don Quixote
said, in answer to the matter-of-fact remonstrances of Sancho, that
Dulcinea del Toboso answered the purpose of signalising his valour just
as well as the 'fairest princess under sky,' so any of the fair sex will
serve them to write about just as well as another. They take some
awkward thing and dress her up in fine words, as children dress up a
wooden doll in fine clothes. Perhaps a fine head of hair, a taper
waist, or some other circumstance strikes them, and they make the rest
out according to their fancies. They have a wonderful knack of
supplying deficiencies in the subjects of their idolatry out of the
storehouse of their imaginations. They presently translate their
favourites to the skies, where they figure with Berenice's locks and
Ariadne's crown. This predilection for the unprepossessing and
insignificant, I take to arise not merely from a desire in poets to have
some subject to exercise their inventive talents upon, but from their
jealousy of any pretensions (even those of beauty in the other sex) that
might interfere with the continual incense offered to their personal

Cardinal Mazarine never thought anything of Cardinal de Retz after he
told him that he had written for the last thirty years of his life with
the same pen. Some Italian poet going to present a copy of verses to
the Pope, and finding, as he was looking them over in the coach as he
went, a mistake of a single letter in the printing, broke his heart of
vexation and chagrin. A still more remarkable case of literary
disappointment occurs in the history of a countryman of his, which I
cannot refrain from giving here, as I find it related. 'Anthony Codrus
Urceus, a most learned and unfortunate Italian, born near Modena, 1446,
was a striking instance,' says his biographer, 'of the miseries men
bring upon themselves by setting their affections unreasonably on
trifles. This learned man lived at Forli, and had an apartment in the
palace. His room was so very dark that he was forced to use a candle in
the daytime; and one day, going abroad without putting it out, his
library was set on fire, and some papers which he had prepared for the
press were burned. The instant he was informed of this ill news he was
affected even to madness. He ran furiously to the palace, and stopping
at the door of his apartment, he cried aloud, Christ Jesus! what mighty
crime have I committed! whom of your followers have I ever injured, that
you thus rage with inexpiable hatred against me?" Then turning himself
to an image of the Virgin Mary near at hand, "Virgin (says he), hear
what I have to say, for I speak in earnest, and with a composed spirit:
if I shall happen to address you in my dying moments, I humbly entreat
you not to hear me, nor receive me into Heaven, for I am determined to
spend all eternity in Hell!" Those who heard these blasphemous
expressions endeavoured to comfort him; but all to no purpose: for, the
society of mankind being no longer supportable to him, he left the city,
and retired, like savage, to the deep solitude of a wood. Some say that
he was murdered there by ruffians: others, that he died at Bologna in
1500, after much contrition and penitence.'

Perhaps the censure passed at the outset of the anecdote on this
unfortunate person is unfounded and severe, when it is said that he
brought his miseries on himself 'by having set his affections
unreasonably on trifles.' To others it might appear so; but to himself
the labour of a whole life was hardly a trifle. His passion was not a
causeless one, though carried to such frantic excess. The story of Sir
Isaac Newton presents a strong contrast to the last-mentioned one, who,
on going into his study and finding that his dog Tray had thrown down a
candle on the table, and burnt some papers of great value, contented
himself with exclaiming, 'Ah! Tray, you don't know the mischief you have
done!' Many persons would not forgive the overturning a cup of
chocolate so soon.

I remember hearing an instance some years ago of a man of character and
property, who through unexpected losses had been condemned to a long and
heartbreaking imprisonment, which he bore with exemplary fortitude. At
the end of four years, by the interest and exertions of friends, he
obtained his discharge, with every prospect of beginning the world
afresh, and had made his arrangements for leaving his irksome abode, and
meeting his wife and family at a distance of two hundred miles by a
certain day. Owing to the miscarriage of a letter, some signature
necessary to the completion of the business did not arrive in time, and
on account of the informality which had thus arisen, he could not set
out home till the return of the post, which was four days longer. His
spirit could not brook the delay. He had wound himself up to the last
pitch of expectation; he had, as it were, calculated his patience to
hold out to a certain point, and then to throw down his load for ever,
and he could not find resolution to resume it for a few hours beyond
this. He put an end to the intolerable conflict of hope and
disappointment in a fit of excruciating anguish. Woes that we have time
to foresee and leisure to contemplate break their force by being spread
over a larger surface and borne at intervals; but those that come upon
us suddenly, for however short a time, seem to insult us by their
unnecessary and uncalled-for intrusion; and the very prospect of relief,
when held out and then withdrawn from us, to however small a distance,
only frets impatience into agony by tantalising our hopes and wishes;
and to rend asunder the thin partition that separates us from our
favourite object, we are ready to burst even the fetters of life itself!

I am not aware that any one has demonstrated how it is that a stronger
capacity is required for the conduct of great affairs than of small
ones. The organs of the mind, like the pupil of the eye, may be
contracted or dilated to view a broader or a narrower surface, and yet
find sufficient variety to occupy its attention in each. The material
universe is infinitely divisible, and so is the texture of human
affairs. We take things in the gross or in the detail, according to the
occasion. I think I could as soon get up the budget of Ways and Means
for the current year, as be sure of making both ends meet, and paying my
rent at quarter-day in a paltry huckster's shop. Great objects move on
by their own weight and impulse; great power turns aside petty
obstacles; and he who wields it is often but the puppet of
circumstances, like the fly on the wheel that said, 'What a dust we
raise!' It is easier to ruin a kingdom and aggrandise one's own pride
and prejudices than to set up a greengrocer's stall. An idiot or a
madman may do this at any time, whose word is law, and whose nod is
fate. Nay, he whose look is obedience, and who understands the silent
wishes of the great, may easily trample on the necks and tread out the
liberties of a mighty nation, deriding their strength, and hating it the
more from a consciousness of his own meanness. Power is not wisdom, it
is true; but it equally ensures its own objects. It does not exact, but
dispenses with talent. When a man creates this power, or new-moulds the
state by sage counsels and bold enterprises, it is a different thing
from overturning it with the levers that are put into his baby hands.
In general, however, it may be argued that great transactions and
complicated concerns ask more genius to conduct them than smaller ones,
for this reason, viz. that the mind must be able either to embrace a
greater variety of details in a more extensive range of objects, or must
have a greater faculty of generalising, or a greater depth of insight
into ruling principles, and so come at true results in that way.
Buonaparte knew everything, even to the names of our cadets in the East
India service; but he failed in this, that he did not calculate the
resistance which barbarism makes to refinement. He thought that the
Russians could not burn Moscow, because the Parisians could not burn
Paris. The French think everything must be French. The Cossacks, alas!
do not conform to etiquette: the rudeness of the seasons knows no rules
of politeness! Some artists think it a test of genius to paint a large
picture; and I grant the truth of this position, if the large picture
contains more than a small one. It is not the size of the canvas, but
the quantity of truth and nature put into it, that settles the point.
It is a mistake, common enough on this subject, to suppose that a
miniature is more finished than an oil-picture. The miniature is
inferior to the oil-picture only because it is less finished, because it
cannot follow nature into so many individual and exact particulars. The
proof of which is, that the copy of a good portrait will always make a
highly finished miniature (see for example Mr. Bone's enamels), whereas
the copy of a good miniature, if enlarged to the size of life, will make
but a very sorry portrait. Several of our best artists, who are fond of
painting large figures, invert this reasoning. They make the whole
figure gigantic, not that they may have room for nature, but for the
motion of their brush (as if they were painting the side of a house),
regarding the extent of canvas they have to cover as an excuse for their
slovenly and hasty manner of getting over it; and thus, in fact, leave
their pictures nothing at last but overgrown miniatures, but huge
caricatures. It is not necessary in any case (either in a larger or a
smaller compass) to go into the details, so as to lose sight of the
effect, and decompound the face into porous and transparent molecules,
in the manner of Denner, who painted what he saw through a
magnifying-glass. The painter's eye need not be a microscope, but I
contend that it should be a looking-glass, bright, clear, lucid. The
_little_ in art begins with insignificant parts, with what does not tell
in connection with other parts. The true artist will paint not material
points, but _moral qualities._ In a word, wherever there is feeling or
expression in a muscle or a vein, there is grandeur and refinement
too.--I will conclude these remarks with an account of the manner in
which the ancient sculptors combined great and little things in such
matters. 'That the name of Phidias,' says Pliny, 'is illustrious among
all the nations that have heard of the fame of the Olympian Jupiter, no
one doubts; but in order that those may know that he is deservedly
praised who have not even seen his works, we shall offer a few
arguments, and those of his genius only: nor to this purpose shall we
insist on the beauty of the Olympian Jupiter, nor on the magnitude of
the Minerva at Athens, though it is twenty-six cubits in height (about
thirty-five feet), and is made of ivory and gold; but we shall refer to
the shield, on which the battle of the Amazons is carved on the outer
side; on the inside of the same is the fight of the Gods and Giants; and
on the sandals, that between the Centaurs and Lapithae; so well did
every part of that work display the powers of the art. Again, the
sculptures on the pedestal he called the birth of Pandora: there are to
be seen in number thirty gods, the figure of Victory being particularly
admirable: the learned also admire the figures of the serpent and the
brazen sphinx, writhing under the spear. These things are mentioned, in
passing, of an artist never enough to be commended, that it may be seen
that he showed the same magnificence even in small things."[5]


[1] This Essay was written in January 1821.

[2] Losing gamesters thus become desperate, because the continued and
violent irritation of the will against a run of ill luck drives it to
extremity, and makes it bid defiance to common sense and every
consideration of prudence or self-interest.

[3] Some of the poets in the beginning of the last century would often
set out on a simile by observing, 'So in Arabia have I seen a Phoenix!'
I confess my illustrations are of a more homely and humble nature.

[4] I beg the reader to consider this passage merely as a specimen of
the mock-heroic style, and as having nothing to do with any real facts
or feelings.

[5] Pliny's _Natural History,_ Book 36.



It is not easy to write a familiar style. Many people mistake a
familiar for a vulgar style, and suppose that to write without
affectation is to write at random. On the contrary, there is nothing
that requires more precision, and, if I may so say, purity of
expression, than the style I am speaking of. It utterly rejects not
only all unmeaning pomp, but all low, cant phrases, and loose,
unconnected, _slipshod_ allusions. It is not to take the first word
that offers, but the best word in common use; it is not to throw words
together in any combinations we please, but to follow and avail
ourselves of the true idiom of the language. To write a genuine
familiar or truly English style is to write as any one would speak in
common conversation who had a thorough command and choice of words, or
who could discourse with ease, force, and perspicuity, setting aside all
pedantic and oratorical flourishes. Or, to give another illustration,
to write naturally is the same thing in regard to common conversation as
to read naturally is in regard to common speech. It does not follow
that it is an easy thing to give the true accent and inflection to the
words you utter, because you do not attempt to rise above the level of
ordinary life and colloquial speaking. You do not assume, indeed, the
solemnity of the pulpit, or the tone of stage-declamation; neither are
you at liberty to gabble on at a venture, without emphasis or
discretion, or to resort to vulgar dialect or clownish pronunciation.
You must steer a middle course. You are tied down to a given and
appropriate articulation, which is determined by the habitual
associations between sense and sound, and which you can only hit by
entering into the author's meaning, as you must find the proper words
and style to express yourself by fixing your thoughts on the subject you
have to write about. Any one may mouth out a passage with a theatrical
cadence, or get upon stilts to tell his thoughts; but to write or speak
with propriety and simplicity is a more difficult task. Thus it is easy
to affect a pompous style, to use a word twice as big as the thing you
want to express: it is not so easy to pitch upon the very word that
exactly fits it. Out of eight or ten words equally common, equally
intelligible, with nearly equal pretensions, it is a matter of some
nicety and discrimination to pick out the very one the preferableness of
which is scarcely perceptible, but decisive. The reason why I object to
Dr. Johnson's style is that there is no discrimination, no selection, no
variety in it. He uses none but 'tall, opaque words,' taken from the
'first row of the rubric'--words with the greatest number of syllables,
or Latin phrases with merely English terminations. If a fine style
depended on this sort of arbitrary pretension, it would be fair to judge
of an author's elegance by the measurement of his words and the
substitution of foreign circumlocutions (with no precise associations)
for the mother-tongue.[1] How simple is it to be dignified without
case, to be pompous without meaning! Surely it is but a mechanical rule
for avoiding what is low, to be always pedantic and affected. It is
clear you cannot use a vulgar English word if you never use a common
English word at all. A fine tact is shown in adhering to those which
are perfectly common, and yet never falling into any expressions which
are debased by disgusting circumstances, or which owe their
signification and point to technical or professional allusions. A truly
natural or familiar style can never be quaint or vulgar, for this
reason, that it is of universal force and applicability, and that
quaintness and vulgarity arise out of the immediate connection of
certain words with coarse and disagreeable or with confined ideas. The
last form what we understand by _cant_ or _slang_ phrases.--To give an
example of what is not very clear in the general statement, I should say
that the phrase _To cut with a knife,_ or _To cut a piece of wood,_ is
perfectly free from vulgarity, because it is perfectly common; but _to
cut an acquaintance_ is not quite unexceptionable, because it is not
perfectly common or intelligible, and has hardly yet escaped out of the
limits of slang phraseology. I should hardly, therefore, use the word
in this sense without putting it in italics as a license of expression,
to be received _cum grano salis._ All provincial or bye-phrases come
under the same mark of reprobation--all such as the writer transfers to
the page from his fireside or a particular _coterie,_ or that he invents
for his own sole use and convenience. I conceive that words are like
money, not the worse for being common, but that it is the stamp of
custom alone that gives them circulation or value. I am fastidious in
this respect, and would almost as soon coin the currency of the realm as
counterfeit the King's English. I never invented or gave a new and
unauthorised meaning to any word but one single one (the term
_impersonal_ applied to feelings), and that was in an abstruse
metaphysical discussion to express a very difficult distinction. I have
been (I know) loudly accused of revelling in vulgarisms and broken
English. I cannot speak to that point; but so far I plead guilty to the
determined use of acknowledged idioms and common elliptical expressions.
I am not sure that the critics in question know the one from the other,
that is, can distinguish any medium between formal pedantry and the most
barbarous solecism. As an author I endeavour to employ plain words and
popular modes of construction, as, were I a chapman and dealer, I should
common weights and measures.

The proper force of words lies not in the words themselves, but in their
application. A word may be a fine-sounding word, of an unusual length,
and very imposing from its learning and novelty, and yet in the
connection in which it is introduced may be quite pointless and
irrelevant. It is not pomp or pretension, but the adaptation of the
expression to the idea, that clenches a writer's meaning:--as it is not
the size or glossiness of the materials, but their being fitted each to
its place, that gives strength to the arch; or as the pegs and nails are
as necessary to the support of the building as the larger timbers, and
more so than the mere showy, unsubstantial ornaments. I hate anything
that occupies more space than it is worth. I hate to see a load of
bandboxes go along the street, and I hate to see a parcel of big words
without anything in them. A person who does not deliberately dispose of
all his thoughts alike in cumbrous draperies and flimsy disguises may
strike out twenty varieties of familiar everyday language, each coming
somewhat nearer to the feeling he wants to convey, and at last not hit
upon that particular and only one which may be said to be identical with
the exact impression in his mind. This would seem to show that Mr.
Cobbett is hardly right in saying that the first word that occurs is
always the best. It may be a very good one; and yet a better may
present itself on reflection or from time to time. It should be
suggested naturally, however, and spontaneously, from a fresh and lively
conception of the subject. We seldom succeed by trying at improvement,
or by merely substituting one word for another that we are not satisfied
with, as we cannot recollect the name of a place or person by merely
plaguing ourselves about it. We wander farther from the point by
persisting in a wrong scent; but it starts up accidentally in the memory
when we least expected it, by touching some link in the chain of
previous association.

There are those who hoard up and make a cautious display of nothing but
rich and rare phraseology--ancient medals, obscure coins, and Spanish
pieces of eight. They are very curious to inspect, but I myself would
neither offer nor take them in the course of exchange. A sprinkling of
archaisms is not amiss, but a tissue of obsolete expressions is more fit
_for keep than wear._ I do not say I would not use any phrase that had
been brought into fashion before the middle or the end of the last
century, but I should be shy of using any that had not been employed by
any approved author during the whole of that time. Words, like clothes,
get old-fashioned, or mean and ridiculous, when they have been for some
time laid aside. Mr. Lamb is the only imitator of old English style I
can read with pleasure; and he is so thoroughly imbued with the spirit
of his authors that the idea of imitation is almost done away. There is
an inward unction, a marrowy vein, both in the thought and feeling, an
intuition, deep and lively, of his subject, that carries off any
quaintness or awkwardness arising from an antiquated style and dress.
The matter is completely his own, though the manner is assumed. Perhaps
his ideas are altogether so marked and individual as to require their
point and pungency to be neutralised by the affectation of a singular
but traditional form of conveyance. Tricked out in the prevailing
costume, they would probably seem more startling and out of the way.
The old English authors, Burton, Fuller, Coryate, Sir Thomas Browne, are
a kind of mediators between us and the more eccentric and whimsical
modern, reconciling us to his peculiarities. I do not, however, know
how far this is the case or not, till he condescends to write like one
of us. I must confess that what I like best of his papers under the
signature of Elia (still I do not presume, amidst such excellence, to
decide what is most excellent) is the account of 'Mrs. Battle's Opinions
on Whist,' which is also the most free from obsolete allusions and turns
of expression--

A well of native English undefiled.

To those acquainted with his admired prototypes, these _Essays_ of the
ingenious and highly gifted author have the same sort of charm and
relish that Erasmus's _Colloquies_ or a fine piece of modern Latin have
to the classical scholar. Certainly, I do not know any borrowed pencil
that has more power or felicity of execution than the one of which I
have here been speaking.

It is as easy to write a gaudy style without ideas as it is to spread a
pallet of showy colours or to smear in a flaunting transparency. 'What
do you read?' 'Words, words, words.'--'What is the matter?' '
_Nothing_,' it might be answered. The florid style is the reverse of
the familiar. The last is employed as an unvarnished medium to convey
ideas; the first is resorted to as a spangled veil to conceal the want
of them. When there is nothing to be set down but words, it costs
little to have them fine. Look through the dictionary, and cull out a
_florilegium_, rival the _tulippomania_. _Rouge_ high enough, and never
mind the natural complexion. The vulgar, who are not in the secret,
will admire the look of preternatural health and vigour; and the
fashionable, who regard only appearances, will be delighted with the
imposition. Keep to your sounding generalities, your tinkling phrases,
and all will be well. Swell out an unmeaning truism to a perfect
tympany of style. A thought, a distinction is the rock on which all
this brittle cargo of verbiage splits at once. Such writers have merely
_verbal_ imaginations, that retain nothing but words. Or their puny
thoughts have dragon-wings, all green and gold. They soar far above the
vulgar failing of the _Sermo humi obrepens_--their most ordinary speech
is never short of an hyperbole, splendid, imposing, vague,
incomprehensible, magniloquent, a cento of sounding common-places. If
some of us, whose 'ambition is more lowly,' pry a little too narrowly
into nooks and corners to pick up a number of 'unconsidered trifles,'
they never once direct their eyes or lift their hands to seize on any
but the most gorgeous, tarnished, threadbare, patchwork set of phrases,
the left-off finery of poetic extravagance, transmitted down through
successive generations of barren pretenders. If they criticise actors
and actresses, a huddled phantasmagoria of feathers, spangles, floods of
light, and oceans of sound float before their morbid sense, which they
paint in the style of Ancient Pistol. Not a glimpse can you get of the
merits or defects of the performers: they are hidden in a profusion of
barbarous epithets and wilful rhodomontade. Our hypercritics are not
thinking of these little fantoccini beings--

That strut and fret their hour upon the stage--

but of tall phantoms of words, abstractions, _genera_ and _species_,
sweeping clauses, periods that unite the Poles, forced alliterations,
astounding antitheses--

And on their pens _Fustian_ sits plumed.

If they describe kings and queens, it is an Eastern pageant. The
Coronation at either House is nothing to it. We get at four repeated
images--a curtain, a throne, a sceptre, and a footstool. These are with
them the wardrobe of a lofty imagination; and they turn their servile
strains to servile uses. Do we read a description of pictures? It is
not a reflection of tones and hues which 'nature's own sweet and cunning
hand laid on,' but piles of precious stones, rubies, pearls, emeralds,
Golconda's mines, and all the blazonry of art. Such persons are in fact
besotted with words, and their brains are turned with the glittering but
empty and sterile phantoms of things. Personifications, capital
letters, seas of sunbeams, visions of glory, shining inscriptions, the
figures of a transparency, Britannia with her shield, or Hope leaning on
an anchor, make up their stock-in-trade. They may be considered as
_hieroglyphical_ writers. Images stand out in their minds isolated and
important merely in themselves, without any groundwork of feeling--there
is no context in their imaginations. Words affect them in the same way,
by the mere sound, that is, by their possible, not by their actual
application to the subject in hand. They are fascinated by first
appearances, and have no sense of consequences. Nothing more is meant
by them than meets the ear: they understand or feel nothing more than
meets their eye. The web and texture of the universe, and of the heart
of man, is a mystery to them: they have no faculty that strikes a chord
in unison with it. They cannot get beyond the daubings of fancy, the
varnish of sentiment. Objects are not linked to feelings, words to
things, but images revolve in splendid mockery, words represent
themselves in their strange rhapsodies. The categories of such a mind
are pride and ignorance--pride in outside show, to which they sacrifice
everything, and ignorance of the true worth and hidden structure both of
words and things. With a sovereign contempt for what is familiar and
natural, they are the slaves of vulgar affectation--of a routine of
high-flown phrases. Scorning to imitate realities, they are unable to
invent anything, to strike out one original idea. They are not copyists
of nature, it is true; but they are the poorest of all plagiarists, the
plagiarists of words. All is far-fetched, dear bought, artificial,
oriental in subject and allusion; all is mechanical, conventional,
vapid, formal, pedantic in style and execution. They startle and
confound the understanding of the reader by the remoteness and obscurity
of their illustrations; they soothe the ear by the monotony of the same
everlasting round of circuitous metaphors. They are the mock-school in
poetry and prose. They flounder about between fustian in expression and
bathos in sentiment. They tantalise the fancy, but never reach the head
nor touch the heart. Their Temple of Fame is like a shadowy structure
raised by Dulness to Vanity, or like Cowper's description of the Empress
of Russia's palace of ice, 'as worthless as in show 'twas glittering'--

It smiled, and it was cold!


[1] I have heard of such a thing as an author who makes it a rule never
to admit a monosyllable into his vapid verse. Yet the charm and
sweetness of Marlowe's lines depended often on their being made up
almost entirely of monosyllables.



Effeminacy of character arises from a prevalence of the sensibility over
the will; or it consists in a want of fortitude to bear pain or to
undergo fatigue, however urgent the occasion. We meet with instances of
people who cannot lift up a little finger to save themselves from ruin,
nor give up the smallest indulgence for the sake of any other person.
They cannot put themselves out of their way on any account. No one
makes a greater outcry when the day of reckoning comes, or affects
greater compassion for the mischiefs they have occasioned; but till the
time comes, they feel nothing, they care for nothing. They live in the
present moment, are the creatures of the present impulse (whatever it
may be)--and beyond that, the universe is nothing to them. The
slightest toy countervails the empire of the world; they will not forego
the smallest inclination they feel, for any object that can be proposed
to them, or any reasons that can be urged for it. You might as well ask
of the gossamer not to wanton in the idle summer air, or of the moth not
to play with the flame that scorches it, as ask of these persons to put
off any enjoyment for a single instant, or to gird themselves up to any
enterprise of pith or moment. They have been so used to a studied
succession of agreeable sensations that the shortest pause is a
privation which they can by no means endure--it is like tearing them
from their very existence--they have been so inured to ease and
indolence, that the most trifling effort is like one of the tasks of
Hercules, a thing of impossibility, at which they shudder. They lie on
beds of roses, and spread their gauze wings to the sun and summer gale,
and cannot bear to put their tender feet to the ground, much less to
encounter the thorns and briars of the world. Life for them

Rolls o'er Elysian flowers its amber stream,

and they have no fancy for fishing in troubled waters. The ordinary
state of existence they regard as something importunate and vain, and
out of nature. What must they think of its trials and sharp
vicissitudes? Instead of voluntarily embracing pain, or labour, or
danger, or death, every sensation must be wound up to the highest pitch
of voluptuous refinement, every motion must be grace and elegance; they
live in a luxurious, endless dream, or

Die of a rose in aromatic pain!

Siren sounds must float around them; smiling forms must everywhere meet
their sight; they must tread a soft measure on painted carpets or
smooth-shaven lawns; books, arts, jests, laughter occupy every thought
and hour--what have they to do with the drudgery, the struggles, the
poverty, the disease or anguish which are the common lot of humanity?
These things are intolerable to them, even in imagination. They disturb
the enchantment in which they are lapt. They cause a wrinkle in the
clear and polished surface of their existence. They exclaim with
impatience and in agony, 'Oh, leave me to my repose!' How 'they shall
discourse the freezing hours away, when wind and rain beat dark December
down,' or 'bide the pelting of the pitiless storm,' gives them no
concern, it never once enters their heads. They close the shutters,
draw the curtains, and enjoy or shut out the whistling of the
approaching tempest 'They take no thought for the morrow,' not they.
They do not anticipate evils. Let them come when they will come, they
will not run to meet them. Nay more, they will not move one step to
prevent them, nor let any one else. The mention of such things is
shocking; the very supposition is a nuisance that must not be tolerated.
The idea of the trouble, the precautions, the negotiations necessary to
obviate disagreeable consequences oppresses them to death, is an
exertion too great for their enervated imaginations. They are not like
Master Barnardine in _Measure for Measure_, who would not 'get up to be
hanged'--they would not get up to avoid being hanged. They are
completely wrapped up in themselves; but then all their self-love is
concentrated in the present minute. They have worked up their
effeminate and fastidious appetite of enjoyment to such a pitch that the
whole of their existence, every moment of it, must be made up of these
exquisite indulgences; or they will fling it all away, with indifference
and scorn. They stake their entire welfare on the gratification of the
passing instant. Their senses, their vanity, their thoughtless gaiety
have been pampered till they ache at the smallest suspension of their
perpetual dose of excitement, and they will purchase the hollow
happiness of the next five minutes by a mortgage on the independence and
comfort of years. They must have their will in everything, or they grow
sullen and peevish like spoiled children. Whatever they set their eyes
on, or make up their minds to, they must have that instant. They may
pay for it hereafter. But that is no matter. They snatch a joy beyond
the reach of fate, and consider the present time sacred, inviolable,
unaccountable to that hard, churlish, niggard, inexorable taskmaster,
the future. _Now or never_ is their motto. They are madly devoted to
the plaything, the ruling passion of the moment. What is to happen to
them a week hence is as if it were to happen to them a thousand years
hence. They put off the consideration for another day, and their
heedless unconcern laughs at it as a fable. Their life is 'a cell of
ignorance, travelling a-bed'; their existence is ephemeral; their
thoughts are insect-winged; their identity expires with the whim, the
folly, the passion of the hour.

Nothing but a miracle can rouse such people from their lethargy. It is
not to be expected, nor is it even possible in the natural course of
things. Pope's striking exclamation,

Oh! blindness to the future kindly given,
That each may fill the circuit mark'd by Heaven!

hardly applies here; namely, to evils that stare us in the face, and
that might be averted with the least prudence or resolution. But
nothing can be done. How should it? A slight evil, a distant danger,
will not move them; and a more imminent one only makes them turn away
from it in greater precipitation and alarm. The more desperate their
affairs grow, the more averse they are to look into them; and the
greater the effort required to retrieve them, the more incapable they
are of it. At first, they will not do anything; and afterwards, it is
too late. The very motives that imperiously urge them to
self-reflection and amendment, combine with their natural disposition to
prevent it. This amounts pretty nearly to a mathematical demonstration.
Ease, vanity, pleasure are the ruling passions in such cases. How will
you conquer these, or wean their infatuated votaries from them? By the
dread of hardship, disgrace, pain? They turn from them, and you who
point them out as the alternative, with sickly disgust; and instead of a
stronger effort of courage or self-denial to avert the crisis, hasten it
by a wilful determination to pamper the disease in every way, and arm
themselves, not with fortitude to bear or to repel the consequences, but
with judicial blindness to their approach. Will you rouse the indolent
procrastinator to an irksome but necessary effort, by showing him how
much he has to do? He will only draw back the more for all your
entreaties and representations. If of a sanguine turn, he will make a
slight attempt at a new plan of life. be satisfied with the first
appearance of reform, and relapse into indolence again. If timid and
undecided, the hopelessness of the undertaking will put him out of heart
with it, and he will stand still in despair. Will you save a vain man
from ruin, by pointing out the obloquy and ridicule that await him in
his present career? He smiles at your forebodings as fantastical; or
the more they are realised around him, the more he is impelled to keep
out the galling conviction, and the more fondly he clings to flattery
and death. He will not make a bold and resolute attempt to recover his
reputation, because that would imply that it was capable of being soiled
or injured; or he no sooner meditates some desultory project, than he
takes credit to himself for the execution, and is delighted to wear his
unearned laurels while the thing is barely talked of. The chance of
success relieves the uneasiness of his apprehensions; so that he makes
use of the interval only to flatter his favourite infirmity again.
Would you wean a man from sensual excesses by the inevitable
consequences to which they lead?--What holds more antipathy to pleasure
than pain? The mind given up to self-indulgence revolts at suffering,
and throws it from it as an unaccountable anomaly, as a piece of
injustice when it comes. Much less will it acknowledge any affinity
with or subjection to it as a mere threat. If the prediction does not
immediately come true, we laugh at the prophet of ill: if it is
verified, we hate our adviser proportionably, hug our vices the closer,
and hold them dearer and more precious the more they cost us. We resent
wholesome counsel as an impertinence, and consider those who warn us of
impending mischief as if they had brought it on our heads. We cry out
with the poetical enthusiast--

And let us nurse the fond deceit;
And what if we must die in sorrow?
Who would not cherish dreams so sweet,
Though grief and pain should come to-morrow?

But oh thou! who didst lend me speech when I was dumb, to whom I owe it
that I have not crept on my belly all the days of my life like the
serpent, but sometimes lift my forked crest or tread the empyrean, wake
thou out of thy mid-day slumbers! Shake off the heavy honeydew of thy
soul, no longer lulled with that Circean cup, drinking thy own thoughts
with thy own ears, but start up in thy promised likeness, and shake the
pillared rottenness of the world! Leave not thy sounding words in air,
write them in marble, and teach the coming age heroic truths! Up, and
wake the echoes of Time! Rich in deepest lore, die not the bed-rid
churl of knowledge, leaving the survivors unblest! Set, set as thou
didst rise in pomp and gladness! Dart like the sunflower one broad,
golden flash of light; and ere thou ascendest thy native sky, show us
the steps by which thou didst scale the Heaven of philosophy, with Truth
and Fancy for thy equal guides, that we may catch thy mantle,
rainbow-dipped, and still read thy words dear to Memory, dearer to Fame!

There is another branch of this character, which is the trifling or
dilatory character. Such persons are always creating difficulties, and
unable or unwilling to remove them. They cannot brush aside a cobweb,
and are stopped by an insect's wing. Their character is imbecility,
rather than effeminacy. The want of energy and resolution in the
persons last described arises from the habitual and inveterate
predominance of other feelings and motives; in these it is a mere want
of energy and resolution, that is, an inherent natural defect of vigour
of nerve and voluntary power. There is a specific levity about such
persons, so that you cannot propel them to any object, or give them a
decided _momentum_ in any direction or pursuit. They turn back, as it
were, on the occasion that should project them forward with manly force
and vehemence. They shrink from intrepidity of purpose, and are alarmed
at the idea of attaining their end too soon. They will not act with
steadiness or spirit, either for themselves or you. If you chalk out a
line of conduct for them, or commission them to execute a certain task,
they are sure to conjure up some insignificant objection or fanciful
impediment in the way, and are withheld from striking an effectual blow
by mere feebleness of character. They may be officious, good-natured,
friendly, generous in disposition, but they are of no use to any one.
They will put themselves to twice the trouble you desire, not to carry
your point, but to defeat it; and in obviating needless objections,
neglect the main business. If they do what you want, it is neither at
the time nor in the manner that you wish. This timidity amounts to
treachery; for by always anticipating some misfortune or disgrace, they
realise their unmeaning apprehensions. The little bears sway in their
minds over the great: a small inconvenience outweighs a solid and
indispensable advantage; and their strongest bias is uniformly derived
from the weakest motive. They hesitate about the best way of beginning
a thing till the opportunity for action is lost, and are less anxious
about its being done than the precise manner of doing it. They will
destroy a passage sooner than let an objectionable word pass; and are
much less concerned about the truth or the beauty of an image than about
the reception it will meet with from the critics. They alter what they
write, not because it is, but because it may possibly be wrong; and in
their tremulous solicitude to avoid imaginary blunders, run into real
ones. What is curious enough is, that with all this caution and
delicacy, they are continually liable to extraordinary oversights. They
are, in fact, so full of all sorts of idle apprehensions, that they do
not know how to distinguish real from imaginary grounds of apprehension;
and they often give some unaccountable offence, either from assuming a
sudden boldness half in sport, or while they are secretly pluming
themselves on their dexterity in avoiding everything exceptionable; and
the same distraction of motive and shortsightedness which gets them into
scrapes hinders them from seeing their way out of them. Such persons
(often of ingenious and susceptible minds) are constantly at
cross-purposes with themselves and others; will neither do things nor
let others do them; and whether they succeed or fail, never feel
confident or at their case. They spoil the freshness and originality of
their own thoughts by asking contradictory advice; and in befriending
others, while they are _about it and about it,_ you might have done the
thing yourself a dozen times over.

There is nothing more to be esteemed than a manly firmness and decision
of character. I like a person who knows his own mind and sticks to it;
who sees at once what is to be done in given circumstances and does it.
He does not beat about the bush for difficulties or excuses, but goes
the shortest and most effectual way to work to attain his own ends or to
accomplish a useful object. If he can serve you, he will do so; if he
cannot, he will say so without keeping you in needless suspense, or
laying you under pretended obligations. The applying to him in any
laudable undertaking is not like stirring 'a dish of skimmed milk.'
There is stuff in him, and it is of the right practicable sort. He is
not all his life at hawk-and-buzzard whether he shall be a Whig or a
Tory, a friend or a foe, a knave or a fool; but thinks that life is
short, and that there is no time to play fantastic tricks in it, to
tamper with principles, or trifle with individual feelings. If he gives
you a character, he does not add a damning clause to it: he does not
pick holes in you lest others should, or anticipate objections lest he
should be thought to be blinded by a childish partiality. His object is
to serve you; and not to play the game into your enemies' hands.

A generous friendship no cold medium knows,
Burns with one love, with one resentment glows.

I should be sorry for any one to say what he did not think of me; but I
should not be pleased to see him slink out of his acknowledged opinion,
lest it should not be confirmed by malice or stupidity. He who is well
acquainted and well inclined to you ought to give the tone, not to
receive it from others, and may set it to what key he pleases in certain

There are those of whom it has been said, that to them an obligation is
a reason for not doing anything, and there are others who are invariably
led to do the reverse of what they should. The last are perverse, the
first impracticable people. Opposed to the effeminate in disposition
and manners are the coarse and brutal. As those were all softness and
smoothness, these affect or are naturally attracted to whatever is
vulgar and violent, harsh and repulsive in tone, in modes of speech, in
forms of address, in gesture and behaviour. Thus there are some who ape
the lisping of the fine lady, the drawling of the fine gentleman, and
others who all their life delight in and catch the uncouth dialect, the
manners and expressions of clowns and hoydens. The last are governed by
an instinct of the disagreeable, by an appetite and headlong rage for
violating decorum and hurting other people's feelings, their own being
excited and enlivened by the shock. They deal in home truths,
unpleasant reflections, and unwelcome matters of fact; as the others are
all compliment and complaisance, insincerity and insipidity.

We may observe an effeminacy of style, in some degree corresponding to
effeminacy of character. Writers of this stamp are great interliners of
what they indite, alterers of indifferent phrases, and the plague of
printers' devils. By an effeminate style I would be understood to mean
one that is all florid, all fine; that cloys by its sweetness, and tires
by its sameness. Such are what Dryden calls 'calm, peaceable writers.'
They only aim to please, and never offend by truth or disturb by
singularity. Every thought must be beautiful _per se_, every expression
equally fine. They do not delight in vulgarisms, but in common-places,
and dress out unmeaning forms in all the colours of the rainbow. They
do not go out of their way to think--that would startle the indolence of
the reader: they cannot express a trite thought in common words--that
would be a sacrifice of their own vanity. They are not sparing of
tinsel, for it costs nothing. Their works should be printed, as they
generally are, on hot-pressed paper, with vignette margins. The Della
Cruscan school comes under this description, which is now nearly
exploded. Lord Byron is a pampered and aristocratic writer, but he is
not effeminate, or we should not have his works with only the printer's
name to them! I cannot help thinking that the fault of Mr. Keats's
poems was a deficiency in masculine energy of style. He had beauty,
tenderness, delicacy, in an uncommon degree, but there was a want of
strength and substance. His _Endymion_ is a very delightful description
of the illusions of a youthful imagination given up to airy dreams--we
have flowers, clouds, rainbows, moonlight, all sweet sounds and smells,
and Oreads and Dryads flitting by--but there is nothing tangible in it,
nothing marked or palpable--we have none of the hardy spirit or rigid
forms of antiquity. He painted his own thoughts and character, and did
not transport himself into the fabulous and heroic ages. There is a
want of action, of character, and so far of imagination, but there is
exquisite fancy. All is soft and fleshy, without bone or muscle. We
see in him the youth without the manhood of poetry. His genius breathed
'vernal delight and joy.' 'Like Maia's son he stood and shook his
plumes,' with fragrance filled. His mind was redolent of spring. He
had not the fierceness of summer, nor the richness of autumn, and winter
he seemed not to have known till he felt the icy hand of death!


No notes for this essay.



Distant objects please, because, in the first place, they imply an idea
of space and magnitude, and because, not being obtruded too close upon
the eye, we clothe them with the indistinct and airy colours of fancy.
In looking at the misty mountain-tops that bound the horizon, the mind
is as it were conscious of all the conceivable objects and interests
that lie between; we imagine all sorts of adventures in the interim;
strain our hopes and wishes to reach the air-drawn circle, or to 'descry
new lands, rivers, and mountains,' stretching far beyond it: our
feelings, carried out of themselves, lose their grossness and their
husk, are rarefied, expanded, melt into softness and brighten into
beauty, turning to ethereal mould, sky-tinctured. We drink the air
before us, and borrow a more refined existence from objects that hover
on the brink of nothing. Where the landscape fades from the dull sight,
we fill the thin, viewless space with shapes of unknown good, and tinge
the hazy prospect with hopes and wishes and more charming fears.

But thou, oh Hope! with eyes so fair,
What was thy delighted measure?
Still it whisper'd promised pleasure,
And bade the lovely scenes at distance hail!

Whatever is placed beyond the reach of sense and knowledge, whatever is
imperfectly discerned, the fancy pieces out at its leisure; and all but
the present moment, but the present spot, passion claims for its own,
and brooding over it with wings outspread, stamps it with an image of
itself. Passion is lord of infinite space, and distant objects please
because they border on its confines and are moulded by its touch. When
I was a boy, I lived within sight of a range of lofty hills, whose blue
tops blending with the setting sun had often tempted my longing eyes and
wandering feet. At last I put my project in execution, and on a nearer
approach, instead of glimmering air woven into fantastic shapes, found
them huge lumpish heaps of discoloured earth. I learnt from this (in
part) to leave 'Yarrow unvisited,' and not idly to disturb a dream of

Distance of time has much the same effect as distance of place. It is
not surprising that fancy colours the prospect of the future as it
thinks good, when it even effaces the forms of memory. Time takes out
the sting of pain; our sorrows after a certain period have been so often
steeped in a medium of thought and passion that they 'unmould their
essence'; and all that remains of our original impressions is what we
would wish them to have been. Not only the untried steep ascent before
us, but the rude, unsightly masses of our past experience presently
resume their power of deception over the eye: the golden cloud soon
rests upon their heads, and the purple light of fancy clothes their
barren sides! Thus we pass on, while both ends of our existence touch
upon Heaven! There is (so to speak) 'a mighty stream of tendency' to
good in the human mind, upon which all objects float and are
imperceptibly borne along; and though in the voyage of life we meet with
strong rebuffs, with rocks and quicksands, yet there is 'a tide in the
affairs of men,' a heaving and a restless aspiration of the soul, by
means of which, 'with sails and tackle torn,' the wreck and scattered
fragments of our entire being drift into the port and haven of our
desires! In all that relates to the affections, we put the will for the
deed; so that the instant the pressure of unwelcome circumstances is
removed, the mind recoils from their hold, recovers its elasticity, and
reunites itself to that image of good which is but a reflection and
configuration of its own nature. Seen in the distance, in the long
perspective of waning years, the meanest incidents, enlarged and
enriched by countless recollections, become interesting; the most
painful, broken and softened by time, soothe. How any object that
unexpectedly brings back to us old scenes and associations startles the
mind! What a yearning it creates within us; what a longing to leap the
intermediate space! How fondly we cling to, and try to revive the
impression of all that we then were!

Such tricks hath strong imagination!

In truth we impose upon ourselves, and know not what we wish. It is a
cunning artifice, a quaint delusion, by which, in pretending to be what
we were at a particular moment of time, we would fain be all that we
have since been, and have our lives to come over again. It is not the
little, glimmering, almost annihilated speck in the distance that rivets
our attention and 'hangs upon the beatings of our hearts': it is the
interval that separates us from it, and of which it is the trembling
boundary, that excites all this coil and mighty pudder in the breast.
Into that great gap in our being 'come thronging soft desires' and
infinite regrets. It is the contrast, the change from what we then
were, that arms the half-extinguished recollection with its giant
strength, and lifts the fabric of the affections from its shadowy base.
In contemplating its utmost verge, we overlook the map of our existence,
and re-tread, in apprehension, the journey of life. So it is that in
early youth we strain our eager sight after the pursuits of manhood;
and, as we are sliding off the stage, strive to gather up the toys and
flowers that pleased our thoughtless childhood.

When I was quite a boy my father used to take me to the Montpelier Tea
Gardens at Walworth. Do I go there now? No; the place is deserted, and
its borders and its beds o'erturned. Is there, then, nothing that can

Bring back the hour
Of glory in the grass, of splendour in the flower?

Oh! yes. I unlock the casket of memory, and draw back the warders of
the brain; and there this scene of my infant wanderings still lives
unfaded, or with fresher dyes. A new sense comes upon me, as in a
dream; a richer perfume, brighter colours start out; my eyes dazzle; my
heart heaves with its new load of bliss, and I am a child again. My
sensations are all glossy, spruce, voluptuous, and fine: they wear a
candied coat, and are in holiday trim. I see the beds of larkspur with
purple eyes; tall hollyhocks, red or yellow; the broad sunflowers, caked
in gold, with bees buzzing round them; wildernesses of pinks, and hot
glowing peonies; poppies run to seed; the sugared lily, and faint
mignonette, all ranged in order, and as thick as they can grow; the
box-tree borders, the gravel-walks, the painted alcove, the
confectionery, the clotted cream:--I think I see them now with sparkling
looks; or have they vanished while I have been writing this description
of them? No matter; they will return again when I least think of them.
All that I have observed since, of flowers and plants, and grass-plots,
and of suburb delights, seems to me borrowed from 'that first garden of
my innocence'--to be slips and scions stolen from that bed of memory.
In this manner the darlings of our childhood burnish out in the eye of
after years, and derive their sweetest perfume from the first heartfelt
sigh of pleasure breathed upon them,

Like the sweet south,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour!

If I have pleasure in a flower-garden, I have in a kitchen-garden too,
and for the same reason. If I see a row of cabbage-plants, or of peas
or beans coming up, I immediately think of those which I used so
carefully to water of an evening at Wem, when my day's tasks were done,
and of the pain with which I saw them droop and hang down their leaves
in the morning's sun. Again, I never see a child's kite in the air but
it seems to pull at my heart. It is to me 'a thing of life.' I feel
the twinge at my elbow, the flutter and palpitation, with which I used
to let go the string of my own, as it rose in the air, and towered among
the clouds. My little cargo of hopes and fears ascended with it; and as
it made a part of my own consciousness then, it does so still, and
appears 'like some gay creature of the element,' my playmate when life
was young, and twin-born with my earliest recollections. I could
enlarge on this subject of childish amusements, but Mr. Leigh Hunt has
treated it so well, in a paper in the _Indicator,_ on the productions of
the toy-shops of the metropolis, that if I were to insist more on it I
should only pass for an imitator of that ingenious and agreeable writer,
_and for an indifferent one into the bargain._

Sounds, smells, and sometimes tastes, are remembered longer than visible
objects, and serve, perhaps, better for links in the chain of
association. The reason seems to be this: they are in their nature
intermittent, and comparatively rare; whereas objects of sight are
always before us, and, by their continuous succession, drive one another
out. The eye is always open; and between any given impression and its
recurrence a second time, fifty thousand other impressions have, in all
likelihood, been stamped upon the sense and on the brain. The other
senses are not so active or vigilant. They are but seldom called into
play. The ear, for example, is oftener courted by silence than noise;
and the sounds that break that silence sink deeper and more durably into
the mind. I have a more present and lively recollection of certain
scents, tastes, and sounds, for this reason, than I have of mere visible
images, because they are more original, and less worn by frequent
repetition. Where there is nothing interposed between any two
impressions, whatever the distance of time that parts them, they
naturally seem to touch; and the renewed impression recalls the former
one in full force, without distraction or competitor. The taste of
barberries, which have hung out in the snow during the severity of a
North American winter, I have in my mouth still, after an interval of
thirty years; for I have met with no other taste in all that time at all
like it. It remains by itself, almost like the impression of a sixth
sense. But the colour is mixed up indiscriminately with the colours of
many other berries, nor should I be able to distinguish it among them.
The smell of a brick-kiln carries the evidence of its own identity with
it: neither is it to me (from peculiar associations) unpleasant. The
colour of brickdust, on the contrary, is more common, and easily
confounded with other colours. Raphael did not keep it quite distinct
from his flesh colour. I will not say that we have a more perfect
recollection of the human voice than of that complex picture the human
face, but I think the sudden hearing of a well-known voice has something
in it more affecting and striking than the sudden meeting with the face:
perhaps, indeed, this may be because we have a more familiar remembrance
of the one than the other, and the voice takes us more by surprise on
that account. I am by no means certain (generally speaking) that we
have the ideas of the other senses so accurate and well made out as
those of visible form: what I chiefly mean is, that the feelings
belonging to the sensations of our other organs, when accidentally
recalled, are kept more separate and pure. Musical sounds, probably,
owe a good deal of their interest and romantic effect to the principle
here spoken of. Were they constant, they would become indifferent, as
we may find with respect to disagreeable noises, which we do not hear
after a time. I know no situation more pitiable than that of a blind
fiddler who has but one sense left (if we except the sense of
snuff-taking[1]) and who has that stunned or deafened by his own
villainous noises. Shakespear says.

How silver-sweet sound lovers' tongues by night!

It has been observed in explanation of this passage, that it is because
in the day-time lovers are occupied with one another's faces, but that
at night they can only distinguish the sound of each other's voices. I
know not how this may be; but I have, ere now, heard a voice break so
upon the silence,

To angels' 'twas most like,

and charm the moonlight air with its balmy essence, that the budding
leaves trembled to its accents. Would I might have heard it once more
whisper peace and hope (as erst when it was mingled with the breath of
spring), and with its soft pulsations lift winged fancy to heaven. But
it has ceased, or turned where I no more shall hear it!--Hence, also, we
see what is the charm of the shepherd's pastoral reed; and why we hear
him, as it were, piping to his flock, even in a picture. Our ears are
fancy stung! I remember once strolling along the margin of a stream,
skirted with willows and plashy sedges, in one of those low sheltered
valleys on Salisbury Plain, where the monks of former ages had planted
chapels and built hermits' cells. There was a little parish church
near, but tall elms and quivering alders hid it from my sight, when, all
of a sudden, I was startled by the sound of the full organ pealing on
the ear, accompanied by rustic voices and the willing choir of village
maids and children. It rose, indeed, 'like an exhalation of rich
distilled perfumes.' The dew from a thousand pastures was gathered in
its softness; the silence of a thousand years spoke in it. It came upon
the heart like the calm beauty of death; fancy caught the sound, and
faith mounted on it to the skies. It filled the valley like a mist, and
still poured out its endless chant, and still it swells upon the ear,
and wraps me in a golden trance, drowning the noisy tumult of the world!

There is a curious and interesting discussion on the comparative
distinctness of our visual and other external impressions, in Mr.
Fearn's _Essay on Consciousness_, with which I shall try to descend from
this rhapsody to the ground of common sense and plain reasoning again.
After observing, a little before, that 'nothing is more untrue than that
sensations of vision do necessarily leave more vivid and durable ideas
than those of grosser senses,' he proceeds to give a number of
illustrations in support of this position. 'Notwithstanding,' he says,
'the advantages here enumerated in favour of sight, I think there is no
doubt that a man will come to forget acquaintance, and many other
visible objects, noticed in mature age, before he will in the least
forget taste and smells, of only moderate interest, encountered either
in his childhood or at any time since.

'In the course of voyaging to various distant regions, it has several
times happened that I have eaten once or twice of different things that
never came in my way before nor since. Some of these have been
pleasant, and some scarce better than insipid; but I have no reason to
think I have forgot, or much altered the ideas left by those single
impulses of taste; though here the memory of them certainly has not been
preserved by repetition. It is clear I must have seen as well as tasted
those things; and I am decided that I remember the tastes with more
precision than I do the visual sensations.

'I remember having once, and only once, eat Kangaroo in New Holland; and
having once smelled a baker's shop having a peculiar odour in the city
of Bassorah. Now both these gross ideas remain with me quite as vivid
as any visual ideas of those places; and this could not be from
repetition, but really from interest in the sensation.

'Twenty-eight years ago, in the island of Jamaica, I partook (perhaps
twice) of a certain fruit, of the taste of which I have now a very fresh
idea; and I could add other instances of that period.

'I have had repeated proofs of having lost retention of visual objects,
at various distances of time, though they had once been familiar. I
have not, during thirty years, forgot the delicate, and in itself most
trifling sensation that the palm of my hand used to convey, when I was a
boy, trying the different effects of what boys call _light_ and _heavy_
tops; but I cannot remember within several shades of the brown coat
which I left off a week ago. If any man thinks he can do better, let
him take an ideal survey of his wardrobe, and then actually refer to it
for proof.

'After retention of such ideas, it certainly would be very difficult to
persuade me that feeling, taste, and smell can scarce be said to leave
ideas, unless indistinct and obscure ones. . . .

'Show a Londoner correct models of twenty London churches, and, at the
same time, a model of each, which differs, in several considerable
features, from the truth, and I venture to say he shall not tell you, in
any instance, which is the correct one, except by mere chance.

'If he is an architect he may be much more correct than any ordinary
person: and this obviously is because he has felt an interest in viewing
these structures, which an ordinary person does not feel: and here
interest is the sole reason of his remembering more correctly than his

'I once heard a person quaintly ask another, How many trees there are in
St. Paul's churchyard? The question itself indicates that many cannot
answer it; and this is found to be the case with those who have passed
the church a hundred times: whilst the cause is, that every individual
in the busy stream which glides past St. Paul's is engrossed in various
other interests.

'How often does it happen that we enter a well-known apartment, or meet
a well-known friend, and receive some vague idea of visible difference,
but cannot possibly find out _what_ it is; until at length we come to
perceive (or perhaps must be told) that some ornament or furniture is
removed, altered, or added in the apartment; or that our friend has cut
his hair, taken a wig, or has made any of twenty considerable
alterations in his appearance. At other times we have no perception of
alteration whatever, though the like has taken place.

'It is, however, certain that sight, apposited with interest, can retain
tolerably exact copies of sensations, especially if not too complex,
such as of the human countenance and figure: yet the voice will convince
us when the countenance will not; and he is reckoned an excellent
painter, and no ordinary genius, who can make a tolerable likeness from
memory. Nay, more, it is a conspicuous proof of the inaccuracy of
visual ideas, that it is an effort of consummate art, attained by many
years' practice, to take a strict likeness of the human countenance,
even when the object is present; and among those cases where the wilful
cheat of flattery has been avoided, we still find in how very few
instances the best painters produce a likeness up to the life, though
practice and interest join in the attempt.

'I imagine an ordinary person would find it very difficult, supposing he
had some knowledge of drawing, to afford from memory a tolerable sketch
of such a familiar object as his curtain, his carpet, or his
dressing-gown, if the pattern of either be at all various or irregular;
yet he will instantly tell, with precision, either if his snuff or his
wine has not the same character it had yesterday, though both these are

'Beyond all this I may observe, that a draper who is in the daily habit
of such comparisons cannot carry in his mind the particular shade of a
colour during a second of time; and has no certainty of tolerably
matching two simple colours, except by placing the patterns in

I will conclude the subject of this Essay with observing that (as it
appears to me) a nearer and more familiar acquaintance with persons has
a different and more favourable effect than that with places or things.
The latter improve (as an almost universal rule) by being removed to a
distance: the former, generally at least, gain by being brought nearer
and more home to us. Report or imagination seldom raises any individual
so high in our estimation as to disappoint us greatly when we are
introduced to him: prejudice and malice constantly exaggerate defects
beyond the reality. Ignorance alone makes monsters or bugbears: our
actual acquaintances are all very commonplace people. The thing is,
that as a matter of hearsay or conjecture, we make abstractions of
particular vices, and irritate ourselves against some particular quality
or action of the person we dislike: whereas individuals are concrete
existences, not arbitrary denominations or nicknames; and have
innumerable other qualities, good, bad, and indifferent, besides the
damning feature with which we fill up the portrait or caricature in our
previous fancies. We can scarcely hate any one that we know. An acute
observer complained, that if there was any one to whom he had a
particular spite, and a wish to let him see it, the moment he came to
sit down with him his enmity was disarmed by some unforeseen
circumstance. If it was a Quarterly Reviewer, he was in other respects
like any other man. Suppose, again, your adversary turns out a very
ugly man, or wants an eye, you are baulked in that way: he is not what
you expected, the object of your abstract hatred and implacable disgust.
He may be a very disagreeable person, but he is no longer the same. If
you come into a room where a man is, you find, in general, that he has a
nose upon his face. 'There's sympathy!' This alone is a diversion to
your unqualified contempt. He is stupid, and says nothing, but he seems
to have something in him when he laughs. You had conceived of him as a
rank Whig or Tory--yet he talks upon other subjects. You knew that he
was a virulent party-writer; but you find that the man himself is a tame
sort of animal enough. He does not bite. That's something. In short,
you can make nothing of it. Even opposite vices balance one another. A
man may be pert in company, but he is also dull; so that you cannot,
though you try, hate him cordially, merely for the wish to be offensive.
He is a knave. Granted. You learn, on a nearer acquaintance, what you
did not know before--that he is a fool as well; so you forgive him. On
the other hand, he may be a profligate public character, and may make no
secret of it; but he gives you a hearty shake by the hand, speaks kindly
to servants, and supports an aged father and mother. Politics apart, he
is a very honest fellow. You are told that a person has carbuncles on
his face; but you have ocular proofs that he is sallow, and pale as a
ghost. This does not much mend the matter; but it blunts the edge of
the ridicule, and turns your indignation against the inventor of the
lie; but he is -----, the editor of a Scotch magazine; so you are just
where you were. I am not very fond of anonymous criticism; I want to
know who the author can be: but the moment I learn this, I am satisfied.
Even ----- would do well to come out of his disguise. It is the mask
only that we dread and hate: the man may have something human about him!
The notions, in short, which we entertain of people at a distance, or
from partial representations, or from guess-work, are simple
uncompounded ideas, which answer to nothing in reality: those which we
derive from experience are mixed modes, the only true, and, in general,
the most favourable ones. Instead of naked deformity, or abstract

Those faultless monsters which the world ne'er saw--

'the web of our lives is of mingled yarn, good and ill together: our
virtues would be proud, if our faults whipt them not; and our vices
would despair, if they were not encouraged by our virtues.' This was
truly and finely said long ago, by one who knew the strong and weak
points of human nature; but it is what sects, and parties, and those
philosophers whose pride and boast it is to classify by nicknames, have
yet to know the meaning of!


[1] See Wilkie's Blind Fiddler.

[2] _Essay on Consciousness, p. 303.



Corporate bodies have no soul.

Corporate bodies are more corrupt and profligate than individuals,
because they have more power to do mischief, and are less amenable to
disgrace or punishment. They feel neither shame, remorse, gratitude,
nor goodwill. The principle of private or natural conscience is
extinguished in each individual (we have no moral sense in the breasts
of others), and nothing is considered but how the united efforts of the
whole (released from idle scruples) may be best directed to the
obtaining of political advantages and privileges to be shared as common
spoil. Each member reaps the benefit, and lays the blame, if there is
any, upon the rest. The _esprit de corps_ becomes the ruling passion of
every corporate body, compared with which the motives of delicacy or
decorum towards others are looked upon as being both impertinent and
improper. If any person sets up a plea of this sort in opposition to
the rest, he is overruled, he gets ill-blood, and does no good: he is
regarded as an interloper, a _black sheep_ in the flock, and is either
_sent to Coventry_ or obliged to acquiesce in the notions and wishes of
those he associates and is expected to co-operate with. The refinements
of private judgment are referred to and negatived in a committee of the
whole body, while the projects and interests of the Corporation meet
with a secret but powerful support in the self-love of the different
members. Remonstrance, opposition, is fruitless, troublesome,
invidious; it answers no one end; and a conformity to the sense of the
company is found to be no less necessary to a reputation for
good-fellowship than to a quiet life. Self-love and social here look
like the same; and in consulting the interests of a particular class,
which are also your own, there is even a show of public virtue. He who
is a captious, impracticable, dissatisfied member of his little club or
_coterie_ is immediately set down as a bad member of the community in
general, as no friend to regularity and order, as 'a pestilent fellow,'
and one who is incapable of sympathy, attachment, or cordial
co-operation in any department or undertaking. Thus the most refractory
novice in such matters becomes weaned from his obligations to the larger
society, which only breed him inconvenience without any adequate
recompense, and wedded to a nearer and dearer one, where he finds every
kind of comfort and consolation. He contracts the vague and unmeaning
character of Man into the more emphatic title of Freeman and Alderman.
The claims of an undefined humanity sit looser and looser upon him, at
the same time that he draws the bands of his new engagements closer and
tighter about him. He loses sight, by degrees, of all common sense and
feeling in the petty squabbles, intrigues, feuds, and airs of affected
importance to which he has made himself an accessory. He is quite an
altered man. 'Really the society were under considerable obligations to
him in that last business'; that is to say, in some paltry job or
underhand attempt to encroach upon the rights or dictate to the
understandings of the neighbourhood. In the meantime they eat, drink,
and carouse together. They wash down all minor animosities and
unavoidable differences of opinion in pint bumpers; and the complaints
of the multitude are lost in the clatter of plates and the roaring of
loyal catches at every quarter's meeting or mayor's feast. The
town-hall reels with an unwieldy sense of self-importance; 'the very
stones prate' of processions; the common pump creaks in concert with the
uncorking of bottles and tapping of beer-barrels: the market-cross looks
big with authority. Everything has an ambiguous, upstart, repulsive
air. Circle within circle is formed, an _imperium in imperio_: and the
business is to exclude from the first circle all the notions, opinions,
ideas, interests, and pretensions of the second. Hence there arises not
only an antipathy to common sense and decency in those things where
there is a real opposition of interest or clashing of prejudice, but it
becomes a habit and a favourite amusement in those who are 'dressed in a
little brief authority,' to thwart, annoy, insult, and harass others on
all occasions where the least opportunity or pretext for it occurs.
Spite, bickerings, back-biting, insinuations, lies, jealousies,
nicknames are the order of the day, and nobody knows what it's all
about. One would think that the mayor, aldermen, and liverymen were a
higher and more select species of animals than their townsmen; though
there is no difference whatever but in their gowns and staff of office!
This is the essence of the _esprit de corps_. It is certainly not a
very delectable source of contemplation or subject to treat of.

Public bodies are so far worse than the individuals composing them,
because the _official_ takes place of the _moral sense._ The nerves
that in themselves were soft and pliable enough, and responded naturally
to the touch of pity, when fastened into a machine of that sort become
callous and rigid, and throw off every extraneous application that can
be made to them with perfect apathy. An appeal is made to the ties of
individual friendship: the body in general know nothing of them. A case
has occurred which strongly called forth the compassion of the person
who was witness of it; but the body (or any special deputation of them)
were not present when it happened. These little weaknesses and
'compunctious visitings of nature' are effectually guarded against,
indeed, by the very rules and regulations of the society, as well as by
its spirit. The individual is the creature of his feelings of all
sorts, the sport of his vices and his virtues--like the fool in
Shakespear, 'motley's his proper wear':--corporate bodies are dressed in
a moral uniform; mixed motives do not operate there, frailty is made
into a system, 'diseases are turned into commodities.' Only so much of
any one's natural or genuine impulses can influence him in his
artificial capacity as formally comes home to the aggregate conscience
of those with whom he acts, or bears upon the interests (real or
pretended), the importance, respectability, and professed objects of the
society. Beyond that point the nerve is bound up, the conscience is
seared, and the torpedo-touch of so much inert matter operates to deaden
the best feelings and harden the heart. Laughter and tears are said to
be the characteristic signs of humanity. Laughter is common enough in
such places as a set-off to the mock-gravity; but who ever saw a public
body in tears? Nothing but a job or some knavery can keep them serious
for ten minutes together.[1]

Such are the qualifications and the apprenticeship necessary to make a
man tolerated, to enable him to pass as a cypher, or be admitted as a
mere numerical unit, in any corporate body: to be a leader and dictator
he must be diplomatic in impertinence, and officious in every dirty
work. He must not merely conform to established prejudices; he must
flatter them. He must not merely be insensible to the demands of
moderation and equity; he must be loud against them. He must not simply
fall in with all sorts of contemptible cabals and intrigues; he must be
indefatigable in fomenting them, and setting everybody together by the
ears. He must not only repeat, but invent lies. He must make speeches
and write handbills; he must be devoted to the wishes and objects of the
society, its creature, its jackal, its busybody, its mouthpiece, its
prompter; he must deal in law cases, in demurrers, in charters, in
traditions, in common-places, in logic and rhetoric--in everything but
common sense and honesty. He must (in Mr. Burke's phrase) 'disembowel
himself of his natural entrails, and be stuffed with paltry, blurred
sheets of parchment about the rights' of the privileged few. He must be
a concentrated essence, a varnished, powdered representative of the
vices, absurdities, hypocrisy, jealousy, pride, and pragmaticalness of
his party. Such a one, by bustle and self-importance and puffing, by
flattering one to his face and abusing another behind his back, by
lending himself to the weaknesses of some, and pampering the mischievous
propensities of others, will pass for a great man in a little society.

Age does not improve the morality of public bodies. They grow more and
more tenacious of their idle privileges and senseless self-consequence.
They get weak and obstinate at the same time. Those who belong to them
have all the upstart pride and pettifogging spirit of their present
character ingrafted on the venerableness and superstitious sanctity of
ancient institutions. They are naturally at issue, first with their
neighbours, and next with their contemporaries, on all matters of common
propriety and judgment. They become more attached to forms, the more
obsolete they are; and the defence of every absurd and invidious
distinction is a debt which (by implication) they owe to the dead as
well as the living. What might once have been of serious practical
utility they turn to farce, by retaining the letter when the spirit is
gone: and they do this the more, the more glaring the inconsistency and
want of sound reasoning; for they think they thus give proof of their
zeal and attachment to the abstract principle on which old
establishments exist, the ground of prescription and authority. _The
greater the wrong, the greater the right,_ in all such cases. The
_esprit de corps_ does not take much merit to itself for upholding what
is justifiable in any system, or the proceedings of any party, but for
adhering to what is palpably injurious. You may exact the first from an
enemy: the last is the province of a friend. It has been made a subject
of complaint, that the champions of the Church, for example, who are
advanced to dignities and honours, are hardly ever those who defend the
common principles of Christianity, but those who volunteer to man the
out-works, and set up ingenious excuses for the questionable points, the
ticklish places in the established form of worship, that is, for those
which are attacked from without, and are supposed in danger of being
undermined by stratagem, or carried by assault!

The great resorts and seats of learning often outlive in this way the
intention of the founders as the world outgrows them. They may be said
to resemble antiquated coquettes of the last age, who think everything
ridiculous and intolerable but what was in fashion when they were young,
and yet are standing proofs of the progress of taste and the vanity of
human pretensions. Our universities are, in a great measure, become
cisterns to hold, not conduits to disperse knowledge. The age has the
start of them; that is, other sources of knowledge have been opened
since their formation, to which the world have had access, and have
drunk plentifully at those living fountains, but from which they are
debarred by the tenor of their charter, and as a matter of dignity and
privilege. They have grown poor, like the old grandees in some
countries, by subsisting on the inheritance of learning, while the
people have grown rich by trade. They are too much in the nature of
_fixtures_ in intellect: they stop the way in the road to truth; or at
any rate (for they do not themselves advance) they can only be of
service as a check-weight on the too hasty and rapid career of
innovation. All that has been invented or thought in the last two
hundred years they take no cognizance of, or as little as possible; they
are above it; they stand upon the ancient landmarks, and will not budge;
whatever was not known when they were first endowed, they are still in
profound and lofty ignorance of. Yet in that period how much has been
done in literature, arts, and science, of which (with the exception of
mathematical knowledge, the hardest to gainsay or subject to the
trammels of prejudice and barbarous _ipse dixits_) scarce any trace is
to be found in the authentic modes of study and legitimate inquiry which
prevail at either of our Universities! The unavoidable aim of all
corporate bodies of learning is not to grow wise, or teach others
wisdom, but to prevent any one else from being or seeming wiser than
themselves; in other words, their infallible tendency is in the end to
suppress inquiry and darken knowledge, by setting limits to the mind of
man, and saying to his proud spirit, _Hitherto shalt thou come, and no
farther!_ It would not be an unedifying experiment to make a collection
of the titles of works published in the course of the year by Members of
the Universities. If any attempt is to be made to patch up an idle
system in policy or legislation, or church government, it is by a member
of the University: if any hashed-up speculation on an old exploded
argument is to be brought forward 'in spite of _shame,_ in erring
reason's spite,' it is by a Member of the University: if a paltry
project is ushered into the world for combining ancient prejudices with
modern time-serving, it is by a Member of the University. Thus we get
at a stated supply of the annual Defences of the Sinking Fund, Thoughts
on the Evils of Education, Treatises on Predestination, and Eulogies on
Mr. Malthus, all from the same source, and through the same vent. If
they came from any other quarter nobody would look at them; but they
have an _Imprimatur_ from dulness and authority: we know that there is
no offence in them; and they are stuck in the shop windows, and read (in
the intervals of Lord Byron's works, or the Scotch novels) in cathedral
towns and close boroughs!

It is, I understand and believe, pretty much the same in more modern
institutions for the encouragement of the Fine Arts. The end is lost in
the means: rules take place of nature and genius; cabal and bustle, and
struggle for rank and precedence, supersede the study and the love of
art. A Royal Academy is a kind of hospital and infirmary for the
obliquities of taste and ingenuity--a receptacle where enthusiasm and
originality stop and stagnate, and spread their influence no farther,
instead of being a school founded for genius, or a temple built to fame.
The generality of those who wriggle, or fawn, or beg their way to a
seat there, live on their certificate of merit to a good old age, and
are seldom heard of afterwards. If a man of sterling capacity gets
among them, and minds his own business he is nobody; he makes no figure
in council, in voting, in resolutions or speeches. If he comes forward
with plans and views for the good of the Academy and the advancement of
art, he is immediately set upon as a visionary, a fanatic, with notions
hostile to the interest and credit of the existing members of the
society. If he directs the ambition of the scholars to the study of
History, this strikes at once at the emoluments of the profession, who
are most of them (by God's will) portrait painters. If he eulogises the
Antique, and speaks highly of the Old Masters, he is supposed to be
actuated by envy to living painters and native talent. If, again, he
insists on a knowledge of anatomy as essential to correct drawing, this
would seem to imply a want of it in our most eminent designers. Every
plan, suggestion, argument, that has the general purposes and principles
of art for its object, is thwarted, scouted, ridiculed, slandered, as
having a malignant aspect towards the profits and pretensions of the
great mass of flourishing and respectable artists in the country. This
leads to irritation and ill-will on all sides. The obstinacy of the
constituted authorities keeps pace with the violence and extravagance
opposed to it; and they lay all the blame on the folly and mistakes they
have themselves occasioned or increased. It is considered as a personal
quarrel, not a public question; by which means the dignity of the body
is implicated in resenting the slips and inadvertencies of its members,
not in promoting their common and declared objects. In this sort of
wretched _tracasserie_ the Barrys and H----s stand no chance with the
Catons, the Tubbs, and F----s. Sir Joshua even was obliged to hold
himself aloof from them, and Fuseli passes as a kind of nondescript, or
one of his own grotesques. The air of an academy, in short, is not the
air of genius and immortality; it is too close and heated, and
impregnated with the notions of the common sort. A man steeped in a
corrupt atmosphere of this description is no longer open to the genial
impulses of nature and truth, nor sees visions of ideal beauty, nor
dreams of antique grace and grandeur, nor has the finest works of art
continually hovering and floating through his uplifted fancy; but the
images that haunt it are rules of the academy, charters, inaugural
speeches, resolutions passed or rescinded, cards of invitation to a
council-meeting, or the annual dinner, prize medals, and the king's
diploma, constituting him a gentleman and esquire. He 'wipes out all
trivial, fond records'; all romantic aspirations; 'the Raphael grace,
the Guido air'; and the commands of the academy alone 'must live within
the book and volume of his brain, unmixed with baser matter.' It may be
doubted whether any work of lasting reputation and universal interest
can spring up in this soil, or ever has done in that of any academy.
The last question is a matter of fact and history, not of mere opinion
or prejudice; and may be ascertained as such accordingly. The mighty
names of former times rose before the existence of academies; and the
three greatest painters, undoubtedly, that this country has produced,
Reynolds, Wilson, and Hogarth, were not 'dandled and swaddled' into
artists in any institution for the fine arts. I do not apprehend that
the names of Chantrey or Wilkie (great as one, and considerable as the
other of them is) can be made use of in any way to impugn the jet of
this argument. We may find a considerable improvement in some of our
artists, when they get out of the vortex for a time. Sir Thomas
Lawrence is all the better for having been abstracted for a year or two
from Somerset House; and Mr. Dawe, they say, has been doing wonders in
the North. When will he return, and once more 'bid Britannia rival

Mr. Canning somewhere lays it down as a rule, that corporate bodies are
necessarily correct and pure in their conduct, from the knowledge which
the individuals composing them have of one another, and the jealous
vigilance they exercise over each other's motives and characters;
whereas people collected into mobs are disorderly and unprincipled from
being utterly unknown and unaccountable to each other. This is a
curious _pass_ of wit. I differ with him in both parts of the dilemma.
To begin with the first, and to handle it somewhat cavalierly, according
to the model before us; we know, for instance, there is said to be
honour among thieves, but very little honesty towards others. Their
honour consists in the division of the booty, not in the mode of
acquiring it: they do not (often) betray one another, but they will
waylay a stranger, or knock out a traveller's brains: they may be
depended on in giving the alarm when any of their posts are in danger of
being surprised; and they will stand together for their ill-gotten gains
to the last drop of their blood. Yet they form a distinct society, and
are strictly responsible for their behaviour to one another and to their
leader. They are not a mob, but a _gang,_ completely in one another's
power and secrets. Their familiarity, however, with the proceedings of
the _corps_ does not lead them to expect or to exact from it a very high
standard of moral honesty; that is out of the question; but they are
sure to gain the good opinion of their fellows by committing all sorts
of depredations, fraud, and violence against the community at large. So
(not to speak it profanely) some of Mr. Croker's friends may be very
respectable people in their way--'all honourable men'--but their
respectability is confined within party limits; every one does not
sympathise in the integrity of their views; the understanding between
them and the public is not well defined or reciprocal. Or, suppose a
gang of pickpockets hustle a passenger in the street, and the mob set
upon them, and proceed to execute summary justice upon such as they can
lay hands on, am I to conclude that the rogues are in the right, because
theirs is a system of well-organised knavery, which they settled in the
morning, with their eyes one upon the other, and which they regularly
review at night, with a due estimate of each other's motives, character,
and conduct in the business; and that the honest men are in the wrong,
because they are a casual collection of unprejudiced, disinterested
individuals, taken at a venture from the mass of the people, acting
without concert or responsibility, on the spur of the occasion, and
giving way to their instantaneous impulses and honest anger? Mobs, in
fact, then, are almost always right in their feelings, and often in
their judgments, on this very account--that being utterly unknown to and
disconnected with each other, they have no point of union or principle
of co-operation between them, but the natural sense of justice
recognised by all persons in common. They appeal, at the first meeting,
not to certain symbols and watchwords privately agreed upon, like
Freemasons, but to the maxims and instincts proper to all the world.
They have no other clue to guide them to their object but either the
dictates of the heart or the universally understood sentiments of
society, neither of which are likely to be in the wrong. The flame
which bursts out and blazes from popular sympathy is made of honest but
homely materials. It is not kindled by sparks of wit or sophistry, nor
damped by the cold calculations of self-interest. The multitude may be
wantonly set on by others, as is too often the case, or be carried too
far in the impulse of rage and disappointment; but their resentment,
when they are left to themselves, is almost uniformly, in the first
instance, excited by some evident abuse and wrong; and the excesses into
which they run arise from that very want of foresight and regular system
which is a pledge of the uprightness and heartiness of their intentions.
In short, the only class of persons to whom the above courtly charge of
sinister and corrupt motives is not applicable is that body of
individuals which usually goes by the name of the _People!_


[1] We sometimes see a whole playhouse in tears. But the audience at a
theatre, though a public assembly, are not a public body. They are not
Incorporated into a framework of exclusive, narrow-minded interests of
their own. Each individual looks out of his own insignificance at a
scene, _ideal_ perhaps, and foreign to himself, but true to nature;
friends, strangers, meet on the common ground of humanity, and the tears
that spring from their breasts are those which 'sacred pity has
engendered.' They are a mixed multitude melted Into sympathy by remote,
imaginary events, not a combination cemented by petty views, and sordid,
selfish prejudices.



I think not; and that for the following reasons, as well as I can give

Actors belong to the public: their persons are not their own property.
They exhibit themselves on the stage: that is enough, without displaying
themselves in the boxes of the theatre. I conceive that an actor, on
account of the very circumstances of his profession, ought to keep
himself as much incognito as possible. He plays a number of parts
disguised, transformed into them as much as he can 'by his so potent
art,' and he should not disturb this borrowed impression by unmasking
before company more than he can help. Let him go into the pit, if he
pleases, to see--not into the first circle, to be seen. He is seen
enough without that: he is the centre of an illusion that he is bound to
support, both, as it appears to me, by a certain self-respect which
should repel idle curiosity, and by a certain deference to the public,
in whom he has inspired certain prejudices which he is covenanted not to
break. He represents the majesty of successive kings; he takes the
responsibility of heroes and lovers on himself; the mantle of genius and
nature falls on his shoulders; we 'pile millions' of associations on
him, under which he should be 'buried quick,' and not perk out an
inauspicious face upon us, with a plain-cut coat, to say, 'What fools
you all were!--I am not Hamlet the Dane!'

It is very well and in strict propriety for Mr. Mathews, in his AT HOME,
after he has been imitating his inimitable Scotchwoman, to slip out as
quick as lightning, and appear in the side-box shaking hands with our

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