« ПредишнаНапред »
for life with the best creation of the poet's genius. "After a long walk" with him "through unfrequented tracks—after starting the hare from the fern, or hearing the wing of the raven rustle above our heads, being greeted by the woodman's stern ' good night,' as he strikes into his narrow homeward path," we too "take our ease at our inn beside the blazing hearth, and shake hands with Signor Orlando Friscobaldo as the oldest acquaintance we have."* He has increased our personal knowledge of Don Quixote, of John Buncle, of Parson Adams, of Pamela, of Clarissa Harlowe, of Lovelace, of Sir Roger de Coverly, and a hundred other undying teachers of humanity, and placed us on nearer and dearer terms with them. His cordial warmth brings out their pleasantest and most characteristic traits as heat makes visible the writing which a lover's caution has traced in colourless liquid; and he thus attests their reality with an evidence like that of the senses. He restored the "Beggar's Opera," which had been long treated as a burlesque appendage to the "Newgate Calendar," to its proper station; showing how the depth of the design, and the brilliancy of the workmanship, had been overlooked in the palpable coarseness of the materials; and tracing instances of pathos and germs of morality amidst scenes which the world had agreed to censure and to enjoy as vulgar and immoral.! He revels in the delights of old English comedy; exhibits the soul of art in its town-born graces, and the spirit of gaiety in its mirth; detects for us a more delicate flavour in the wit of Congreve, and lights up the age of Charles the Second, "when kings and nobles led purely ornamental lives," with the airy and harmless splendour in which it streamed upon him amidst rustic manners and Presbyterian virtues. But his accounts
* Lectures on the Age of Elizabeth.—Lecture III.
t This exquisite morsel of criticism (if that name be proper) first appeared in the " Morning Chronicle," as an introduction to the account of the first appearance of Miss Stephens in " Polly Peachum" (her second character)—an occasion worthy to be no celebrated—but not exciting any hope of such an article. What a surprise it was to read it for the first time, amidst the tempered patriotism and measured praise of Mr. Perry's columns! It was afterwards printed in the " Round Table," and (being justly a favourite of its author) found fit place in his " Lectures on the English Poets."—See Lecture VI.
of many of the dramatists of Shakspeare's age are less happy; for he had no early acquaintance with these that he should receive them into his own heart, and commend them to ours; he read them, that he might lecture upon them,—and he lectures upon them for effect, not for love. With the exception of a single character, that of Sir Orlando Friscobaldo, whom he recognised at first sight as one with whose qualities he had been long familiar, they did not touch him nearly; and, therefore, his comments upon them are comparatively meager and turgid, and he gladly escapes from them into " wise saws and modern instances." The light of his own experience does not thicken about their scenes. His notices of Marlow, Heywood, Middleton, Marston, Deckar, Chapman, Webster, and Ford, do not let us half so far into the secret of these extraordinary writers as the notes which Mr. Lamb has scattered (stray gifts of beauty and wisdom) through the little volume of his "Specimens;" imbued with the very feeling which swelled and crimsoned in their intensest passages, and coming on the listening mind like strains of antique melody, breathed from the midst of that wild and solemn region in which their natural magic wrought its wonders. His regard for Beaumont and Fletcher is more hearty, and his appreciation of scattered excellencies in them as fine as can be wished; but he does not seem to apprehend the pervading spirit of their dramas,—the mere spirit of careless grace and fleeting beauty, which made the walk of tragedy a fairy land; turned passions and motives to its own sweet will; annihilated space and time; and sheds its rainbow hues with bountiful indifference on the just and the unjust; represented virtue as a happy accident, vice as a wayward fancy; and changed one for the other in the same person by sovereign caprice, as by a touch of Harlequin's wand, leaving " nothing serious in mortality," but reducing the struggle of life to an heroic game, to be played splendidly out, and left without a sigh. Nor does he pierce through the hard and knotty rind of Ben Jonson's manner, which alone, in our time, has been entirely penetrated by the author of the " Merchant of London," who, when a mere lad, grappled with this tough subject and mastered it ;* and whose long and earnest aspiration after a kin
* "Retrospective Review," vol. i, pp. 181—206.
dred force and beauty with this and other idols of his serious boyhood, is not, even now, wholly unfulfilled!
Of Shakspeare's genius Mr. Hazlitt has written largely and well; but there is more felicity in his incidental references to this great subject, than in those elaborate essays upon it, which fill the volume entitled " Characters of Shakspeare's Plays." In reading them we are fatigued by perpetual eulogy,—not because we deem it excessive, but because we observe in it a constant straining to express an admiration too vast for any style. There is so much suggested by the poet to each individual mind, which blends with, and colours its own most profound meditations and dearest feelings, without assuming a distinct form, that we resent the laborious efforts of another to body forth his own ideas of our common inheritance, unless they vindicate themselves by entire success, as intruding on the holy ground of our own thoughts. Mr. Lamb's brief glance at "Lear" is the only instance of a commentary on one of Shakspeare's four great tragedies which ever appeared to us entirely worthy of the original; and this, indeed, seems to prolong, and even to heighten, the feeling of the tremendous scenes to which it applies, and to make compensation for displacing our own dim and faint conceptions, long cherished as they were, by the huge image clearly reflected in another's mind. There is nothing approaching to this excellence in Mr. Hazlitt's account of " Lear," of "Hamlet," of "Othello," or of "Macbeth." He piles epithet on epithet in a vain attempt to reach "the height of his great argument;" or trifles with the subject, in despair of giving adequate expression to his own feelings respecting it . Nor is his essay on " Romeo and Juliet" more successful; for here, unable to find language which may breathe the sense of love and joy which the play awakens, he attacks Wordsworth's " Ode on the Intimations of Immortality in Early Childhood," because it refers the glory of our intellectual being to a season antecedent to the dawn of passion; as if there was any common standard for the most delicious of all plays of which love is the essence, and the noblest train of philosophic thought which ever " voluntary moved harmonious numbers;" as if each had not a truth of its own; or as if there was not room enough in the great world of poetry for both! When thus reduced, by conscious inability to grasp the subject, into vague declamation, he was lost; but wherever he found "jutting freeze or cornice " to lodge the store of his own reflections, as in estimating the aristocratic pride of " Coriolanus," he was excellent; still better where he could mingle the remembrances of sportive childhood with the poet's fantasies, as in describing the "Midsummer Night's Dream;" and best of all when he could vindicate his own hatred of the sickly cant of mortality, and his sense of hearty and wise enjoyment, by precept and example such as " The Twelfth Night" gave him. In these instances, his own peculiar faculty, as a commentator on the writings of others,—that of enriching his criticism by congenial associations, and, at the same time, infusing into it the spirit of his author, thus "stealing and giving odour"—had free scope, while the greatest tragedies remained beyond the reach of all earthly influence, too far withdrawn "in the highest heaven of invention," to be affected by any atmosphere of sentiment he might inhale himself, or shed around others.
The strong sense of pleasure, both intellectual and physical, naturally produced in Hazlitt a rooted attachment to the theatre, where the delights of the mind and the senses are blended; where the grandeur of the poet's conceptions is, in some degree, made palpable, and luxury is raised and refined by wit, sentiment, and fancy. His dramatic criticisms are more pregnant with fine thoughts on that bright epitome of human life than any others which ever were written; yet they are often more successful in making us forget their immediate subjects than in doing them justice. He began to write with a rich fund of theatrical recollections; and, except when Kean, or Miss Stephens, or Liston supplied new and decided impulses, he did little more than draw upon this old treasury. The theatre to him was redolent of the past: images of Siddons, of Kemble, of Bannister, of Jordan, thickened the air; imperfect recognitions of a hundred evenings, when mirth or sympathy had loosened the pressure at the heart, and set the springs of life in happier motion, thronged around him, and "more than echoes talked along the walls." He loved the theatre for these associations, and for the immediate pleasure which it gave to thousands about him, and the humanizing influences it shed among
them, and attended it with constancy to the very last ;* and to those personal feelings and universal sympathies he gave fit expression; but his habits of mind were unsuited to the ordinary duties of the critic. The players put him out . He could not, like Mr. Leigh Hunt, who gave theatrical criticism a place in modern literature, apply his graphic powers to a detail of a performance, and make it interesting by the delicacy of the touch; encrystal the cobweb intricacies of a plot with the sparkling dew of his own fancy—bid the light plume wave in the fluttering grace of his style—or " catch ere she fell the Cynthia of the minute," and fix the airy charm in lasting words. In criticism, thus just and picturesque, Mr. Hunt has never been approached; and the wonder is, that, instead of falling off with the art of acting, he even grew richer; for the articles of the "Tatler," equalling those of the "Examiner" in niceness of discrimination, are superior to them in depth and colouring. But Hazlitt required a more powerful impulse; he never wrote willingly, except on what was great in itself, or, forming a portion of his own past being, was great to him; and when both these felicities combined in the subject, he was best of all—as upon Kemble and Mrs. Siddons. Mr. Kean satisfied the first requisite only, but in the highest possible degree. His extraordinary vigour struck Hazlitt, who attended the theatre for the " Morning Chronicle," on the night of his deb&t, in the very first scene, and who, from that night, became the most devoted and efficient of his supporters. Yet if, on principle, Hazlitt preferred Kean to Kemble, and sometimes drew parallels between them disparaging to the idol of his earlier affections, there is nothing half so fine in his eloquent eulogies on the first, as in his occasional recurrences to the last, when the stately form which had realized full many a boyish dream of Roman greatness " came back upon his heart again," and seemed to reproach him for his late preference of the passionate to the ideal. He criticised new plays with a reluctant and indecisive hand, except when strong friendship supplied the place of old recollection, as in the instances
* See his article entitled "-The Free Admission," in the "New Monthly Magazine," vol. xxix^p. 33; one of his last, and one of his most characteristic effusions..