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ART. I. The Plain Speaker: Opinions on Books, Men, and Things.
2 Vols. 8vo. 11. 49. London. Colburn. 1826. MR. HAZLITT is, we believe, the author of these volumes. Although he has not affixed his name to their title-pages, yet we hardly think that he intended any doubt to be entertained on the subject, as the matter which they contain is full of references to his personal history. The work is composed, like his “ Table-Talk," of various essays, the greater number of which seem to have been written some years ago. A few of them appear to be of more recent date, and being scattered through the others without any attention to arrangement, they tend in some degree to perplex the reader who attempts to peruse the whole consecutively. Facts are brought together which have no sort of connection with each other, and topics that have already sunk into oblivion are mixed with those which are hastening to the same bourn of repose.
If this were the only fault of the · Plain Speaker,' it might easily be passed over in an author who professes to give opinions rather than historical details of books, men, and things. But we regret, for the sake of our literature, that a deeper stain than that of mere negligence pervades too many pages of his volumes. Affecting, from motives of singularity, or rather, perhaps, from a defect in his early education, to despise the information that may be derived from the general experience of mankind, he confines his knowledge of the world, of nature, science, and the arts, within the compass of what he saw with his own eyes, or suffered in his own person. Every subject of which he treats, he combines, or endeavours to combine, with his own feelings. He seems to know little of books, and his excursion to the Continent seems to have had no effect in withdrawing his eyes from their inward glance, for he retains in its full strength his long cherished propensity to judge of all men and of all things by himself.
Now many writers might be mentioned in whom egotism is not only pardonable but eminently interesting.' Some of the most
VOL. II. NO. VII.
exquisite passages in Lord Byron's writings are those in which he figures out the genuine features of his own character. The same thing might be said of Rousseau and Gibbon ; but they united to the fascinations of style an intensity of feeling, or an elegance of philosophy, which commands our sympathies and repays our attention. But Mr. Hazlitt offers us none of these attractions to compensate for his inordinate desire to speak of himself. His breast is not warmed by a single ray of imagination, or by a single feeling in which his readers can participate. If " the genial current of his soul” has been embittered by disappointments in life, by the desertion of early friends, or by any other cause, we may feel for the man; but we cannot apologize for the writer who would therefore pollute our literature with that noxious mass of detraction which forms the leaven of these volumes. As to the style, it differs from that of the author's former works only in an increased degree of feebleness and opacity. The sentences follow one another in nearly equal length, unrelieved by variation of construction, unmarked by any felicity of diction, and scarcely bearing the sign of a presiding intelligence. If there be now and then an attempt at argument, it is founded on a paradox, or ends in a mere assertion. If there be occasionally a sparkle on the surface, it is the phosphorus light of the glow-worm, cold, imbecile, and transitory, perceptible only by means of the darkness that surrounds it.
• Opinions' are very freely given on books, men, and things ;' these, however, are judged of not with a view to the promotion of good taste in literature, of propriety in ethics, or of truth in history, but merely as they have excited the writer's feelings of admiration or hatred. He knows no medium between the two extremes, and both, according to our mode of thinking, he generally misapplies. We regret that the latter feeling, one of those upon which every society, Pagan or Christian, has set its stigma of reprobation, leads the way among the objectionable parts of this work. We hardly know whether he is a proper subject for pity or for condemnation, who could deliberately exhibit to the world the following character of himself and some of his companions :
o I have quarrelled,' says Mr. Hazlitt, with almost all my old friends, (they might say this is owing to my bad temper, but) they have also quarrelled with one another. — They are scattered, like last year's snow. Some of them are dead, — or gone to live at a distance, - or pass one another in the street like strangers; or if they stop to speak, do it as coolly, and try to cut one another as soon as possible. - Some of us have dearly earned a name in the world; whilst others remain in their original privacy. We despise the one; and envy and are glad to mortify the other. Times are changed; we cannot revive our old feel. ings; and we avoid the sight, and are uneasy in the presence of those who remind us of our infirmity, and put us upon an effort at seeming cordiality, which embarrasses ourselves, and does not impose upon our quondam associates. Old friendships are like meats served up repeat
edly, cold, comfortless, and distasteful. The stomach turns against them.' – Vol. i. pp. 314, 315.
We could not have believed, until we read this passage, that any person wearing the form of a human being could have uttered such sentiments as these. Not satisfied with the reflection, assuredly not a consoling one, that he had quarrelled with all his old friends, he seems to derive a compensation for his misfortune from knowing that they had quarrelled with each other! There is, indeed, as we are taught to believe, a spirit that rejoices in the separation of friends, in the propagation of discord, but we imagined that hitherto it loved its native darkness, and dared not to unveil and boast its unblushing front amid the paths frequented by mankind. “ Some of us,' says this scholar, “ have dearly earned a name in the world; whilst others remain in their original privacy. We despise the one; and envy and are glad to mortify the other !! Who Mr. Hazlitt's associates may be, or have been, we know not, but if he truly represents their habits and dispositions, which, for the sake of human nature, we trust is not the case, it is fortunate for the honour of our literature, if they have been indeed - scattered like the last year's snow. What must they have been, if the following account of their usual conversation be not a mere invention ?
• I don't know what it is that attaches me to H— so much, except that he and I, whenever we meet, sit in judgment on another set of old friends, and “ carve them as a dish fit for the gods.". There was LH-, John Scott, Mrs. - , whose dark raven locks make a picturesque background to our discourse, B-, who is grown fat, and is, they say, married, R— ; these had all separated long ago, and their foibles are the common link that holds us together. We do not affect to condole or whine over their follies; we enjoy, we laugh at them till we are ready to burst our sides, “sans intermission, for hours by the dial.' We serve up a course of anecdotes, traits, master-strokes of character, and cut and hack at them till we are weary. Perhaps some of them are even with us. For my own part, as I once said, I like a friend the better for having fuults that one can talk about. “ Then,” said Mrs. , “ you will never cease to be a philanthropist !" — The only intimacy I never found to finch or fade was a purely intellectual one. There was none of the cant of candour in it, none of the whine of mawkish sensi. bility. Our mutual acquaintance were considered merely as subjects of conversation and knowledge, not at all of affection. We regarded them no more in our experiments than'“ mice in an air-pump :" or like malefactors, they were regularly cut down and given over to the dissecting knife. We spared neither friend nor foe. We sacrificed human infirmities at the shrine of truth. The skeletons of character might be seen, after the juice was extracted, dangling in the air like flies in cobwebs : or they were kept for future inspection in some refined acid. The demonstration was as beautiful as it was new. There is no surfeiting on gall : nothing keeps so well as a decoction of spleen. We grow tired of every
source al possess of, Hating.ove ex
thing but turning others into ridicule, and congratulating ourselves on their defects.' - Vol.i. pp. 317–320. · The author of this passage, for the insertion of which in these pages we feel that an apology is due to our readers, was born a quarter of a century too late, and in a country not very suitable to his genius. He ought to have been a member of the French Convention. Had his destiny placed him in that situation, nothing çould have prevented him, with such a character as he declares himself to possess, from acquiring peculiar distinction in that body. Robespierre and Marat would have exulted in a colleague whose temper would have been in every respect so congenial to their own. The man who can boast of destroying the reputation of his friends as if they were malefactors,' could find little difficulty, in times of convulsion, of executing them under a similar pretence. Şuch a man can talk without remorse of cutting them down and giving them over to the dissecting knife,' of 'sparing neither friend nor foe.' If he might not be surfeited on gall," what draught could be copious or bitter enough to allay a thirst so unnatural ?
The essay from which we have made the above extracts is appropriately entitled " The Pleasure of Hating. What sort of a heart must the individual possess who can derive a sense of pleasurc from such a source? Is not this
66 to love
Vice for itself ?" Such language, we are happy to think, has no parallel in our literature, unless in that class of it which is the most worthless and degraded. It would be spurned even by an Atheist. Indeed we cannot gather from this work to what sect in politics, in letters, or in religion, Mr. Hazlitt now belongs. He tells us, at the close of the essay from which we have been just quoting, that he is
heartily sick of all his old opinions. They have, he says, deceived him sadly; and he informs us, in indirect terms, of his belief that genius is a bawd, virtue a mask, liberty a name, and that love has no seat in the human heart. (Vol. i. p. 325.) I see folly,' he adds, join with knavery, and together make up public spirit and public opinion. I see the insolent Tory, the blind Reformer, the coward Whig!' He thus closes the infuriate strain :
Seeing all this as I do, and unravelling the web of human life into its various threads of meanness, spite, cowardice, want of feeling, and want of understanding, of indifference towards others and ignorance of ourselves - seeing custom prevail over all excellence, itself giving way to infamy - mistaken as I have been in my public and private hopes, calculating others from myself, and calculating wrong ; always disappointed where I placed most reliance; the dupe of friendship, and the fool of love ; have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough.' - Vol. i. p. 327.
it and public join with knaman heart."$k, liberty
id Mr. Hazlitts which are when he
Here, then, we have the secret of all this discontent and rancour: he was mistaken in his public and private hopes;' he calculated others from himself, and he calculated wrong. So that because fortune has not raised Mr. Hazlitt to a high political station, because nature denied him the talents which are necessary to success in literature, because he mistook his vocation when he abandoned the pencil for the pen, it follows, forsooth, that he is the victim of 6 spite, cowardice, and want of feeling ;' and his singular excellence' was compelled to give way to the general infamy' of mankind! Admirable philosopher ! A second Socrates !
Yet if we are to believe Mr. Hazlitt, when writing in a less despairing, though not a less egotistical mood, he has seldom been without consolation for the injuries inflicted on him by an ungrateful world. He is particularly delighted with his style of composition, which, he says, whenever he writes at Winterslow, 'flows like a river, and overspreads its banks.' "There,' he adds, ' I have not to seek for thoughts or hunt for images : they come of themselves : I inhale them with the breeze, and the silent groves are vocal with a thousand recollections.' It seems to be a property peculiar, we apprehend, to the groves of Winterslow, that they can be silent and vocal at the same time vocal, too, of recollections,' whence, we presume, they possess the enviable faculty of memory. We must give a specimen of the eloquence which he . inhaled with the breeze' amid this sylvan scene. We quote, be it known, from an essay on the question, · Whether genius is conscious of its Powers ?' a question which Mr. Hazlitt has resolved in the affirmative, so far, at least, as he himself is concerned.
· Here (to Winterslow) I came fifteen years ago, a willing exile; and as I trod the lengthened greensward by the low wood-side, repeated the old line,
"“ My mind to me a kingdom is !"... I found it so then, before, and since; and shall I faint, now that I have poured out the spirit of that mind to the world, and treated many subjects with truth, with freedom, and power, because I have been follow ed with one cry of abuse ever since for not being a government-tool? Here I returned a few years after to finish some works I had undertaken, doubtful of the event, but determined to do my best ; and wrote that character of Millimant which was once transcribed by fingers fairer than Aurora's, but no notice was taken of it, because I was not a government-tool, and must be supposed devoid of taste and elegance by all who aspired to these qualities in their own persons. Here I sketched my account of that old honest Signior Orlando Friscobaldo, which with its fine, racy, acrid tone that old crab-apple, G*ff***d, would have relished or pretended to relish, had I been a government-tool! Here, too, I have written Table-Talks without number, and as yet without a falling-off, till now that they are nearly done, or I should not make this boast. I could swear (were they not mine) the thoughts in many of them are founded as the rock, free as air, the tone like an Italian picture. What then ? Had the style been like polished steel, as firm and