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COMIC GENIUS OF ENGLAND.
MR HAZLITT'S LECTURES ON THE Shakespeare has not become obseured
from the pains with which feeble and
foolish hands have seribbled their poLECTURE first.-On Wit and Hue things over it. His productions have LECTURE SECOND.-On the Comic when exposed publicly for amend
suffered, as the painter's picture did Characters of Shakespeare and Ben
ment; every idle observer has swel. Jonson.
led into a critic, and suggested an imMr Hazlitt is, we believe, pretty provement. The original is hardly generally allowed to be one of the most discernible for the annotations. Mr vigorous and spirited writers of the Hazlitt is not a commentator: he is present age. His style is, for the too much a man of genius to be such. inost part, stern and decisive, -which He writes enthusiastically and forcimay, perhaps, have arisen from the bly,—the only way in which a critic critical turn which all, or nearly all, on Shakespeare ought to write ; and his works have taken ; but it has, at he trusts to his feelings for a just lantimes, breaks of lightness and gaiety, guage, and does not turn to his ingeand occasional passages of tenderness nuity for sagacious and original conand delicate feeling, which are made ceits, or conjectural improvements. He doubly beautiful from their contrast shews us what he loves in those deathwith what is abrupt and determined less plays -and all that is worthy of around them. His language now and our love; and we are spared the petty then starts away from its rigid and la- suggestions of verbal corrections, and borious solidity, and passes at once the precious betrayals of anachronisins with the utmost ease and pleasantry and errors in natural history. Mr into a free, airy, and beautiful enthu- Hazlitt, very wisely we think, has siasm, which has immediate control sunk the critic in the eulogist, and over all hearts, even as with a spell, has been delighted to expatiate on and which leaves a feeling of music what is beautiful, instead of seeking on the mind, of the most exquisite and to expose the trifles in wbich Shake internal kind. If any thing, perhaps speare hath erred. Of the Lectures Mr Hazlitt's prose occasionally ap on the English Poets, which were deproaches too closely to the limits of livered last winter at the Surrey Inpoetry. There is too much of passion, stitution, we think very highly: they -too much of deep, internal senti are written with admirable spirit and ment,—too much of the ethereal spi- ability, and abound in passages of rit of romance, to admit of Mr Ház- singular feeling and sweetness of exlitt's prose holding on in an even and pression. Mr Hazlitt is more at home regular course. We state this objec- with the old poets than with those of tion, however, merely as critics :-if a later date ; and with them his enwe could assert our own private feel- thusiasm is of a higher spirit, and his ings on the subject, we should aban- style is of a more free and undaunted don ourselves to the lawless beauty nature. He speaks of Chaucer, and which we have just opposed. None Shakespeare, and Milton, and Spenof our readers, we take it for granted, ser, and Dante, as though they were can be unacquainted with Mr Haz- of old fellowship. Even his remarks litt's work on the characters of Shake on Collins, and Gray, and Burns, are speare's Plays; which, for a keen, in more unconstrained than those which tense feeling of beauty, -and a felici- follow upon the modern living poets. ty and spirit of expression, has seldom The dead have become blended with, been equalled. It has been the lot of and spiritualized in, their poetry Shakespeare, more than any other and they are no longer mortal men. author, to have suffered from the They have passed into fame, and we “ damn'd good nature of friends.” can only hear their names echoing aCommentators on commentators have bout the air-clad world, day after day, piled their cumbrous loads of dull re
and for ever. The living poets are mark and heavy conjecture on his im- men, and we see them sitting wellmortal plays to a most colossal height; dressed the theatre, or encounter and nothing but the buoyancy and them in the Park, or at a panorama, excessive life of the poetry could bear or we jostle with them in Fleet Street, it up against such leaden and pitiful and the Strand. We meet them at oppressions. It is really a matter of dinners, and see them eat good things, some marvel, that the name even of and hear them utter bad ones with
an equal alacrity.
creates fresh objects out of its own and converse, and occupation, are creations ; it can start upon nothing, continually at variance with their fan- and work that nothing up into a thing, ciful or misanthropical poetry; and huge as the leviathan;" it can make we cannot judge them as the spirits a mountain of a mole hill, -and call of the mind, because we see them e- spirits from the vasty deep, and make ternally as men of a good bodily sub- them come when it calls. Wit can stance. If Mr Hazlitt had written as govern the ventages of ever so small cleverly of the modern writers as of a pipe,-give it "breath,—and make the olelen onés,—wbo are become, and it discourse most eloquent music. must ever remain to us, “a faith and It is in leed “ apprehensive, quick, a religion,” we should have thought foretive, full of nimble, fiery, and dehis Lectures heartless, poor, and me- lectable shapes." It is the dance and chanical, and should have put no faith banquet of the mind; the tipsy joy in his opinions. He has, however, and jollity of the imagination ;-the fallen off where he ought to fall off'; mad wag of the heart. Wit and huand we have therefore a right to trust are like Don Quixote and to his voice when it is loud in praise, Sancho,--and the world could as soon or when it “ cries havoc, and lets slip do without the one as the other. The the dogs of war.” We have repeat- very attempt at describing, what is so edly read these Lectures on the poets instantaneous and imaginative, -of of our country, and liave found a fresh settling what so luxuriously, revels delight in every reperusal. We now and finely exists in evasion,—is of itcome to the subject immediately be- self enough to sober the mind, and fore us.
make its efforts feeble, laboured, and Mr Hazlitt is at this very time de- inanimate. We should laugh at that livering a course of lectures on the man as a fool, even though he were a comic genius of England, and, for the critic, who should think of chaining sake of our readers, and we may say down and dissecting Ariel, and yet of ourselves, we have made a point the task of securing and anatomizing of attending them, and we propose wit is hardly a less idle endleavour. in this number anil in our succeeding Mr Hazlitt seems to have felt the ones, to give as full a review of thein difficulties of his labour,--but he has as the time and our limited means set about mastering them in a way, will admit. The lectures, which have which none but a man of real genius as yet been delivered, are three in could discover ; he works his passage number ;--and of two of these we shall through this strait of Scylla and speak in the present article. The first Charybdis with infinite skill and fais an introductory one on Wit and Hu- cility. Dangers were about, and on mour; it is full of very sound obser- the watch for him, but he seems pretvation, and is more successful in its ty easily to have evaded them; he definitions, than works of a similar treats his subject admirably ; be ata nature are generally found to be. tributes much to the effect of conExplanation is commonly a painful trast, and this is true. He says, and serious business ; and on the “ The principle of contrast is, howsubjects of which this lecture treats, ever, the same in all the stages, in the nothing could be worse than anything simply laughable, the ludicrous, the like severe and laborious disquisition; ridiculous; and the effect is only the wit suffers in description, and what more complete, the more durably can a lecture on wit be, but a de- and pointedly this principle opescription of it? The great difficulty, rates.' therefore, attendant on the task, ap He then proceeds to enumerate pears to be that of keeping up the in- some of the objects, which, by their terest of the subject in the history violence and contrariety, furnish exand anatomy of it. Mr Hazlitt seems amples in these different kinds. This to us to have succeeded very admir- passage we think is very pleasant and ably in this, and to have told us what ingenious. wit and humour are in a language We laugh at absurdity,-we very nearly allied to them; he has laugh at deformity. We laugh at a caught the spirit of his subject, in the bottle-nose in a caricature ; at a stufcourse of talking upon it,--and be- fed figure of an alderman in a pantogets an inspiration as he goes on. mime; and at the tale of SlankenberThis is the true trick of wit ; wit gius. A giant standing by a dwarf,
makes a contemptible figure enough. the very perfection of all its kinda : - It Rosinante and Dapple are laughable is only a determined passion for and from contrast, as their masters, on the attention to absurdity. Of this Mr same principle, make two for a pair. Hazlitt thus speaks.-" There is We laugh at the dress of foreigners, nothing more powerfully humorous. and they at ours. Three chimney- than what is called keeping in comic sweepers meeting three Chinese in character, as we see in Sancho Panza Lincoln's Inn Fields,-they laughed and Don Quixote in a state of the at one another till they were ready to finest preservation. The proverbial drop down. Country people laugh phlegm and the romantic gravity of at a person because they never saw these two celebrated personages, may him before. Any one dressed in the be regarded as the height of this kind height of the fashion, or quite out of of excellence. The deep feeling of it, is equally an object of ridicule. character here strengthens the sense One chief source of the ludicrous is of the ludicrous. Keeping in conuic distress, with wliich we cannot sym- character is consistency in absurdity; pathise, from its absurdity or insig- a determined and laudable systematic nificance. Women laugh at their attachment to the incongruous andsinlovers. We laugh at a damned au- gular. The regularity completes the . thor, in spite of our teeth, and though contradiction : for the number of inhe may be our friend. « There is stances deviating from the right line, something in the misfortunes of even branching out in all directions, shew's our best friends that pleases us.' We the inveteracy of the original bias to laugh at people on the top of a stage- any extravagance or folly, the natural coach, or in it, if they seem in great improbability, as it were, increasing distress. It is hard to binder chil- every time with the multiplication of dren from laughing at a stammerer,–
chatices for a return to common sense, at a negro,-at a drunken man,—or and in the end mounting up to an ineven at a madman. We laugh at credible and unaccountably ridiculous. mischief. We laugh at what we do height, by seeing our expectations as not believe. We say that an argu- invariably bafiled. The most curious ment or an assertion which is very ab- problem of all is this truth of absurdi. surd, is quite ludicrous. We laughty to itself. That reason and good to shew our satisfaction with our sense should be consistent, is not selves, or our contempt for those wonderful : but that caprice, and about us; or to conceal our envy whim, and fantastical prejudice should or ignorance. We laugh at fools, be unitorm and infallible in their res and at those who pretend to be sults, is the surprising thing. But wise,-at extreme simplicity, awk. while this accompanying characteristic wardness, hypocrisy, and affectation. clue to absurdity helps on the ridi• They were talking of me,' says cule, it also softens and harmonizes Scrub, for they laughed consumedly. its excesses; and the ludicrous is here Lord Foppington's insensibility to ri- blended with a certain beauty and dedicule and airs of ineffable self-con- corum, from this very truth of habit ceit, are no less admirable ; and Jo- and sentiment, or from the principle seph Surface's cant maxinis of morali- of similitude in dissimilitude. The ty, when once disarmed of their power devotion to nonsense and enthusiasm to do hurt, become sufficiently ludi- about trifles, is highly affecting as a
We laugh at that in others moral lesson. It is one of the strika which is a serious matter to ourselves: ing weaknesses and greatest happibecause our self-love is stronger than nesses of our nature.' our sympathy,-sooner takes the a Mr Hazlitt gives the following inlarm, and instantly turns our heedless stances of comic character. We bring mirth into gravity, which only en- them forward because of the pleasant hances the jest to others. Some one associations which they cannot fail to is generally sure to be the sufferer by awaken in the reader's mind, a joke. What is sport in one, is
“Malvolio's punishment and appredeath to another."
hensions are as comic from our knowThere is a sort of inveterate attach- ing that they are not real, as Christoment to what is odd and opposite in pher Sly's drunken transformation and high wrought wit or humour, that short-lived dream of happiness is for maintains a perverse propriety, and is the like reason. Parson Adams's fall
into the tub at the Squire's, or his be- as to lower the tone of intense and ing discovered in bed with Mrs Slip- high wrought sentiment by the introslop, though pitiable, are laughable duction of burlesque anil familiar accidents : or do we read with much circumstance.” gravity of the loss of his Æschylus, There are some amirable illustraserious as it was to him at the time?” tions of this definition given from
Who does not know Maivolio ? - Butler's Hudibras, -a poem which is That smiling, pampered, cross-gar- so much an essence of wit, that to be tereil, vain man! Are not his soli- properly relished, it can only be taken loquies the finest egotisms in the in quotations. It is not possible to world? Who could have faith in read Hudibras through,-or a book letters after his beguiling and allur- of it at a time, and not be perplexed ing sheet of deceit! He knew her with the excess of wit and sense. The O's and her A's, but he was a line is sure to stagger us,-its fellow dreamer! His love was ideal, and his is as sure to repeat the blow before punishment was such. He was only we have in any way recovered, and a little more glaring in his conceits the rhyme comes in at the end, and than other lovers,—but he does not never fails in seliling the business. forsake the tribe, or throw aside a sin- Hudibras is, perhaps, the happiest gle absurdity or point by which that book of reference, for those who are tribe is recognized. Women have fashioning an essay on wit, that can led men into richer follies than those be found in the English language. of Malvolio; only it has been their We cannot dwell longer on this lecs, luck to escape his violent exposure. ture, though we have by no means Parson Allams is the man of men : said so much as we had at first inthe first of men, and of parsons. He tended, or exactly pointed out the has all the perversity and folly of hu- passages which we had set down as manity, but he has ten times more worthy of notice : But our observas than its common share of innocence tions on the remaining lectures would and honesty. How simple he is, but be unjustly curtailed, if we were to then how affectionate! "We knew a linger over the arst so long as we little boy who once protested, that he could wish. Some ingenious stories hall met this worthy curate in a street are told, which greatly enliven the of Shrewsbury,-and nothing could descriptions. We ought, however, do away this childish idea. We can not to think of turning to the second rea:lily imagine this to have occurred. lecture, without first giving the folHe would not, perhaps, be met with at lowing spirited passage on the differCambridge or Oxford; but he is as ence between wit and humour. real as lite can be.
I ought, I believe, to have noWe give another defining passage ticed before, in speaking of the difon wit, which appears to get nearer ference between wit and humour, that the bull's eye than what we have al- wit is often pretended absurdity, ready extracted.
where the person overacts or exagge“ Wit is, in fact, the eloquence of rates a certain character, with a conindifference; or an ingenious and scious design to expose it, as if it were striking exposition of those evanescent, another person; as when Mandrake, in and glancing impressions of things the Twin Rivals, says, " This gliss is which aifect us more from surprise or too big, carry it away; I'll drink out contrast to the train of our ordinary of the bottle.' On the contrary, when and literal preconceptions, than from Sir Hugh Evans says, very innocently, any thing in the things themselves, Od's plessed, I will not be absence exciting our necessary sympathy or at the grace,' though there is liere lasting hatred. The favourite em a great deal of humour, there is no ployment of wit is to add littleness to wit. Wit is, in fact, a voluntary eflittleness, and heap contempt on in- fort of the mind or exercise of the insignificance, by all the arts of petty vention, shewing the absurd and luand incessant warfare. Or iť it ever dicrous consciously, whether in our, affects to aggrandize and use the lan- selves or another. Cross-realings, guage of hyperbole, it is only to be- where the blunders are designed, are tray its derision by a fatal comparison, wit, but if any one were to light upon as in the mock heroic; or if it treats them through ignorance or accident, of serious passion, it must do it so it would be merely ludicrouş. This
kind of wit of the humourist, where in the propriety. Sorrow with him the person makes a butt of himself every now and then relapses into a purposely, and with his eyes open, heedless and luxurious gaiety, and the and exhibits his own absurdities or bitterest severity suddenly danes off foibles purposely in the most pointed into the most light whimsicality and and glaring lights, runs through the joyous folly; and “ thus runs the whole of the flagrant character of Fal- world away. It would be idle to staff, and is, in truth, the principle on say, that the height of the comic at all which it is founded. It is an irony equals the height of the tragic, but directed against himself.”
we do say, that Shakespeare has reachThe second lecture is on the Comic ed the heights of both. After speake Characters of Shakespeare and Ben ing in inost eloquent terms of the traJonson. Here Mr Hazlitt gets into gic plays, Mr Hazlitt thus proceeds: his own element. The plays of Shake “ Whereas I think, on the other speare seem, indeed, to be his natural hand, that in comedy, though his tą home, and his genius returns to it lents there too were as wonderful with that affectionate and unconstrain- they were delightful, yet that there ed delight, which a man feels on step- were some before him, others on a les ping over his own threshold, after vel with him, and many close behind the irksomeness and fatigue of travel him. I cannot help thinking, for ikthrough dull roads or a dreary coun- stance, that Moliere was as great or at try. Mr Hazlitt starts, however, on greater comic genius than Shake this part of his subject with opinions, speare, though assuredly I do not which we cannot by any means assent think that Racine was as great ar a to; and we will state, as well as we greater tragic genius. I think, that can, the reasons which lead us to dif- both Rabelais and Cervantes, the one fer with one of whose judgment we in the power of ludicrous descriptiou, in general think so highly. He deems the other in the invention and perfect the comedies of Shakespeare very in- keeping of comic character, excelled ferior to his tragedies. There is little Shakespeare, that is, they would have doubt, we think, but that Mr Hazlitt been greater men, if they had had has been led into this belief from his equal power with him over the strongalmost idolatrous passion for the tra er passions. For my own reading, gic works of Shakespeare:-a perfect I like Vanburgh's City Wires Contelove of which, like the perfect love for deracy as well, or not to speak it one woman, would exclude a passion- profanely) better than the Merry ate affection for every other object. Wives of Windsor, and Congrere's He has wandered through the enthu- Way of the World, as well as the Cosiastic raptures and fancies of Romeo, medy of Errors, or Love's Labour -the philosophical dallying and bit- Lost. But I cannot say that I know ter melancholy of Hamlet,—the of any tragedies in the world that gloomy ambition, lonely fears, and make even a tolerable approach to brave death of Macbeth,—the east- Hamlet, or Lear, or Othello, or some ern pomp, pride, and circumstance others, either in the sum total of their of Othello,--the staggering passion of effect, or in their complete distinctLear,-till he can see nothing intense, «ness from every thing else, by which nothing real, nothing exuberant, in they take not only entire, but unliany other works, as compared with vided possession of the mind, and these. Shakespeare and Nature went form a class, a world by themselves, hand in hand through all things,– mingling with all our thoughts like a and we should, therefore, infer, that second being. Other tragedies tell he stood no chance of falling oft in for more or less, are good, bad, or inhis comic creations. He has even in different, as they have more or less his tragic works introduced passages excellence, of a kind common to them of the most exquisite lightness and with others; but these stand alone by pleasantry, for he well knew that thenselves, they havenothing common* the web of our lives is of a mingled place in them; they are a new power yarn,"—that in the world of reality in the imagination; they tell for their joy and sorrow take turns in being whole amount ; they measure from the uppermost. He has joined passion ground. There is not only nothing with mirth, and revelry with auste- so good (in my judgment) as Hamlet, rity ;-and the world bears him out or Leat, or Othollo, or Macbeth: 4