Графични страници
PDF файл
ePub

adversity; but entire affection mingling with the current of the blood, and pervading the moral and intellectual being.* Nothing less than this strong attachment, at once personal and refined, would have enabled him to encounter the toil of collecting and arranging facts and dates for four volumes of narrative;—a drudgery too abhorrent to his habits of mind as a thinker, to be sustained by any stimulus which the prospect of wealth or reputation could supply. It is not so much in the ingenious excuses which he discovers for the worst acts of his hero, even for the midnight execution of the Duke d'Enghein, and the invasion of Spain, that the stamp of personal devotion is obvious, as in the graphic force with which he has delineated the short-lived splendours of the Imperial Court, and "the trivial fond records" he has gathered of every vestige of human feeling by which he could reconcile the Emperor to his mind. The first two volumes of the "Life of Napoleon," although redeemed by scattered thoughts of true originality and depth, are often confused and spiritless; the characters of the principal revolutionists are drawn too much in the style of caricatures; but when the hero throws all his rivals into the distance, erects himself the individual enemy of England, consecrates his power by religious ceremonies, and defines it by the circle of a crown, the author's strength becomes concentrated, his narrative assumes an epic dignity and fervour, and glows with "the long-resounding march and energy divine." How happy and proud is he to picture the meeting of Napoleon with the

* Proofs of the singular fascination which the idea of Bonaparte created on Mr. Hazlitt's mind abound in his writings. One example of which suffices to show how it mingled with his most passionate thoughts—his earliest aspirations, and his latest sympathies. Having referred to some association which revived the memory of his happiest days, he breathes out into this rhapsody:—" As I look on the long-neglected copy of the Death of Clorinda, golden dreams play upon the canvass 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 shines here, in my heart; and he the Son of Glory is not dead, nor ever shall be to me. I am as when my life began."—See the Essay on "Great and Little Things:" Table Talk, vol. ii., p. 171.

Pope and the grandeurs of the coronation! How he grows wanton in celebrating the fietes of the Tuileries, as " presenting all the elegance of enchanted pageants," and laments them as "gone like a fairy revel!" How he "lives along the line" of Austerlitz, and rejoices in its thunder, and hails its setting sun, and exults in the minutest details of the subsequent meeting of the conquered sovereigns with the conqueror! How he expatiates on the fatal marriage with " the deadly Austrian," (as Mr. Cobbett justly called that most heartless of her sex) as though it were a chapter in romance, and added the grace of beauty to the imperial picture! How he kindles with martial ardour as he describes the preparations for the expedition against Russia; musters the myriads of barbarians with a show of dramatic justice; and fondly lingers among the brief triumphs of Moskwa on the verge of the terrible catastrophe! The narrative of that disastrous expedition is, indeed, written with a master's hand; we see the "Grand Army" marching to its destruction through the immense perspective; the wild hordes flying before the terrour of its "coming;" the barbaric magnificence of Moscow towering in the far distance; and when we gaze upon the sacrificial conflagration of the Kremlin, we feel that it is the funeral pile of the conqueror's glories. It is well for the readers of this splendid work, that there is more in it of the painter than of the metaphysician; that its style glows with the fervour of batttle, or stiffens with the spoils of victory; yet we wonder that this monument to imperial grandeur should be raised from the dead level of Jacobinism by an honest and profound thinker. The solution is, that although he was this, he was also more—that, in opinion, he was devoted to the cause of the people; but that, in feeling, he required some individual object of worship; that he selected Napoleon as one in whose origin and career he might impersonate his principles and gratify his affections; and that he adhered to his own idea with heroic obstinacy when the "child and champion of the republic" openly sought to repress all feeling and thought, but sueh as he could cast in his own iron moulds, and scoffed at popular enthusiasm even while it bore him to the accomplishment of his loftiest desires.

If the experiences and the sympathies which acted so powerfully on the mind of Hazlitt, detract somewhat from his authority as a reasoner, they give an unprecedented interest and value to his essays on character and books. The excellence of these works differ not so much in degree as in kind from that of all others of their class. There is a weight and substance about them, which makes us feel that amidst all their nice and dexterous analysis, they are, in no small measure, creations. The quantity of thought which is accumulated upon his favourite subjects; the variety and richness of the illustrations; and the strong sense of beauty and pleasure which pervades and animates the composition, give them a place, if not above, yet apart from the writings of all other essayists. They have not, indeed, the dramatic charm of the old "Spectator" and "Tattler," nor the airy touch with which Addison and Steele skimmed along the surface of many-coloured life; but they disclose the subtle essences of character, and trace the secret springs of the affections with a more learned and penetrating spirit of human dealing than either. The intense interest which he takes in his theme, and which prompts him to adorn it lavishly with the spoils of many an intellectual struggle, commends it to the feelings as well as the understanding, and makes the thread of his argument seem to us like a fibre of our own moral being. Thus his essay on " Pedantry," seems, within its few pages, to condense not only all that can be said, but all that can befell, on the happiness which we derive from the force of habit, on the softening influences of blameless vanity, and on the moral and picturesque effect of those peculiarities of manner, arising from professional associations, which diversify and emboss the plain ground-work of modern life. Thus, his character of Rousseau is not merely a just estimate of the extraordinary person to whom it relates, but is so imbued with the predominant feeling of his works that they seem to glide in review before us, and we rise from the essayist as if we had perused the " Confessions" anew with him, and had partaken in the strong sympathy which they excited within him during the happiest summers of his youth. Thus, his paper on "Actors and Acting," breathes the very soul of abandonment to impulse and heedless enjoyment, affording glimpses of those brief triumphs which make a stroller's career " less forlorn," and presenting mirrors to the stage in which its grand and affecting images, themselves reflected from nature, are yet farther prolonged and multiplied. His

s

individual portraits of friends and enemies are hit off with all the strength of hatred or affection, neither mitigated by courtesy nor mistrust:—partial, as they embrace, at most, only one aspect of the character, but startling in their vividness, and productive of infinite amusement to those who are acquainted with the originals. It must be conceded that these personal references were sometimes made with unjustifiable freedom; but they were more rarely prompted by malice prepense, than by his strong consciousness of the eccentricities of mankind, which pressed upon him for expression, and irritated his pen into satiric picture. And when this keen observance was exerted on scenes in which he delighted—as the Wednesday evening parties of Mr. Lamb's—how fine, how genial, how happy his delineations! How he gathers up the precious moments, when poets and artists known to fame, and men of fancy and wit yet unexhausted by publication, met in careless pleasure; and distils their finest essence. And if sometimes the temptation of making a spiteful hit at one of his friends was too urgent for resistance, what amends he made by some oblique compliment, at once as hearty and as refined as those by which Pope has made those whom he loved immortal. But these essays, in which the spirit of personality sometimes runs riot, are inferior, in our apprehension, to those in which it warms and peoples more abstracted views of humanity—not purely metaphysical reasonings, which it tended to disturb,* nor political disquisitions

* Of the writers since Hume, who have written on metaphysics with the severity proper to the subject, are Mr. Fearne, the author of the Essay on "Consciousness," and Lady Mary Shepherd, whose works on "Cause and Effect" are amongst the most remarkable productions of the age. Beattie, Dugald Stewart, Dr. Brown, and his imitators, turned what should have been abstract reasoning " to favour and to prettiness." Mr. Hazlitt obscured it by thickly clustered associations; and Coleridge presented it in the masquerade of a gorgeous fancy. Lady Mary Shepherd, on the other hand, is a thinker of as much honesty as courage; her speculations are colourless, and leave nothing on the mind but the fine-drawn lines of thought. Coleridge addressing the Duchess of Devonshire, on a spirited verse she had written on the heroism of Tell, asks—

"O lady, nursed in pomp and pleasure. Where got ye that heroic measure?" The poet might have found in the reasonings of Lady Mary Shepherd a worthier object of admiration than in the little stanza which seemed so extraordinary an effort for a lady of fashion.

which it checked and turned from their aim; but estimates of the high condition and solemn incidents of our nature. Of this class, his papers on the "Love of Life," on the " Fear of Death," on the " Reasons why Distant Objects Please," on "Antiquity," on the "Love of the Country," and on " Living to Oneself," are choice specimens, written with equal earnestness and ingenuity, and full of noble pieces of retrospection on his own past being. Beyond their immediate objects of contemplation, there is always opened a moral perspective; and the tender hues of memory gleam and tremble over them.

"Books," says Mr. Wordsworth, "are a substantial world," and surely those on which Hazlitt has expatiated with true regard, have assumed, to our apprehensions, a stouter reality since we surveyed them through the medium of his mind. In general, the effect of criticism, even when fairly and tenderly applied, is the reverse of this; for the very process of subjecting the creations of the poet and the novelist to examination as works of art, and of estimating the force of passion or of habit, as exemplified in them, so necessarily implies that they are but the shadows of thought, as insensibly to dissipate the illusion which our dreamy youth had perchance cast around them. But in all that Hazlitt has written on old English authors, he is seldom merely critical. His masterly exposition of that huge book of fantastical fallacies, the vaunted "Arcadia" of Sir Philip Sidney,* stands almost alone in his works as a specimen of the mere power of unerring dissection and impartial judgment. In the laboratory of his intellect, analysis was turned to the sweet uses of alchemy. While he discourses of characters he has known the longest, he sheds over them the light of his own boyhood, and makes us partakers of that realizing power by which they become creatures of flesh and blood, with whom we may eat, drink, and be merry. He bids us enjoy all that he has enjoyed in their society; invites us to gaze, as he did first, on that setting sun which Schiller's heroic Robber watched in his sadness, and makes us feel that to us "that sun will never set;" or introduces us to honest old Deckar on the borders of Salisbury Plain, when he struck a bargain

* Lectures on the Age of Elizabeth.—Lecture VI.

« ПредишнаНапред »