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tory and Present State of Poetry in
Anecdotes of Alexander Selkirk, the
ders in 1817. Letter III..
Farther Notice of a huge Unknown
original of Robinson Crusoe ................ 34
REMARKS ON MR HAZLITT'S LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS,
AND ON THE HISTORY AND PRESENT STATE OF POETRY IN THIS COUNTRY.
We have frequently thought that there is no department of British literature which is at the present moment in a less perfect state than that of criticism. Our periodical journals, indeed, are conducted with consummate talent, exert an unexampled influence over the public mind,—and have done more to enlighten the understandings of our countrymen, than those who have not witnessed the powers of this engine could have supposed it likely to accomplish. But although criticism might have been regarded as that department of literature on which these works would have conferred the chief advantage, we are by no means of opinion that this has actually happened. The truth is, that our most popular periodical works have chiefly in view the dissemination of knowledge on practical subjects, and the discussion of questions of present interest. The abstract doctrines of philosophical wisdom, or universal principles of criticism and taste, are hence regarded as but of subordinate importance; and provided the public mind can be well stored with the materials of reflection, or impressed with opinions which have an immediate application to the great objects of national policy, it is judged to be a matter of but little moment that
they should be habituated to a calm discussion of doctrines which can have but little effect upon actual concerns, and which an intelligent reader may safely be left to discover for himself. It must, at the same time, be allowed, that there is something in the very nature and functions of a journal which is limited by its office to recent productions, that forbids the expectation of a different exercise of critical ingenuity, and that he who is besaqualified to expound the principles of taste, and to guide the critical judg ment of a nation, will always be found to be more familiar with those standard productions which have already conferred immortality upon their authors, than with such as are still of very doubtful destiny, and which make up the stock of the literature of the day.
The author of the work we have at present chiefly in view, appears to us to have done inore than any other individual to supply the deficiency of which we have now been complaining. He is already known to the public as the author of several works of considerable reputation, and all of which are marked by the same excellencies and peculiarities of manner,—by a clear perception of the merits of the author whom he criticises, and a wonderful power of discriminating between similar characters, or of pointing out the beauties of particular passages,by a style brilliant and glancing in a very unusual degree, though probably too much overloaded with antithesis
and metaphor; and, above all, by great apparent independence in forming his opinions,-perfect fearlessness in saying what he thinks,—and a most exemplary willingness to retract his decisions when he perceives them to have been founded on erroneous observation. We could, no doubt, conceive a critic superior in many respects to Mr Hazlitt; and, as Scotchmen, and admirers, consequently, of that species of philosophy which is conversant with the faculties and operations of mind, we might probably have wished that the director of our taste had been more deeply imbued with the science we admire. Yet it may be, that Mr Hazlitt is better fitted by his endowments for disseminating his opinions among the great multitude of our population, than if he had arrayed them in all the forms of the most enlightened philosophy; and we are certain that there are few authors to whose decision we should be more disposed to bow, when any subject of literature or of taste was in discussion.
The present work, if not certainly the most difficult of accomplishment, is, however, the most hazardous which this author has yet attempted. The poetical history of Great Britain is a subject which few men are qualified to treat with even tolerable success. There is not, in fact, any country in Europe which can boast of a succes sion of more distinguished authors, or one whose poetical productions are likely to exercise a more lasting influence upon the future history of the literature of the world. Our poetry has also undergone many remarkable changes; and that critic must be possessed of no ordinary accuracy and flexibility of tact, who is able to detect its qualities, and to pronounce with precision on its peculiarities, in all the variety of flavour and perfection it has assumed. It is also to be noticed, that no period of our literary history has been more remarkable than the present for the quantity and variety of poetry it has produced. The minds of men are, accordingly, set in keen opposition respecting the merits and prospects of the contending rivals; and he surely, who undertakes to reconcile all differences, or to pronounce an opinion to which all parties shall assent, on a subject so fruitful of dissension and strife, has embarked
in an adventure in which his success must be estimated, rather by the number of cases in which he has secured himself from error, than by his entire freedom from partiality and mistake. We do not, therefore, assert that Mr Hazlitt has succeeded where every other man must, to a certain extent, have failed; but we do think that the general strain of his criticisms is manly and correct; and while, therefore, we cast a hasty glance, in the observations which follow, on the path of speculation which he has marked out for himself, we shall freely dissent from him in any particulars in which he seems to us to have deviated from sound observation.
Although there were, in fact, a considerable number of English poets before Chaucer, and in the interval between him and Spenser, yet as these two unquestionably surpassed all of their times in genius and skill, and possessed also, though separated from each other by no less than two centuries, many points of similarity, they are justly considered, in all accounts of our literature, as the fathers of our verse; and we assent, in general, to the distinction made by our author between the essential characteristics of these venerable ancients. Yet we think there is one remarkable excellence of Spenser's poetry, of which the critic does not appear to have been sufficiently aware; we mean the exquisite and peculiar flavour that belongs to his language. We may confess at once, indeed, that of all the poets in our language, Spenser has always appeared to ourselves to be unrivalled in this respect; and we have often thought to what a pitch of elevation this poet would have arisen, if his subject had been as well suited to the universal taste of mankind, as the language which he employed is appropriate and expressive. We are aware, however, that there is no office of criticism so difficult as that of giving a correct idea of those nicer peculiarities of an author's genius, which are visible rather in the general complexion of his style, or in his habitual mode of conceiving objects, than in the form and construction of particular passages or incidents; and we, therefore, willingly borrow from Mr Coleridge's Biographia Literaria the following eluci dation of what we mean. Speaking of Mr Wordsworth's idea respecting