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Byron and Wordsworth, by William Hazlitt. In The Selected Writings of William Hazlitt, Vol. 9: Uncollected Essays. (London, England: Pickering & Chatto, 1998) pp.175-176
Author: Hazlitt, William H., 1778-1830
Author Alternative Name: William H. Hazlitt
Author Nationality: United Kingdom
Author Birth Place: England; Europe; Maidstone, England; United Kingdom
Author Gender: Male
Author Ethnicity: English
Editor/Translator: Wu, Duncan, 1961-
Editor/Translator Alternative Name: Duncan Wu
Primary/Secondary: Primary
First Published Date: 1828
Document Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: Literary Criticism

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Byron and Wordsworth

[p. 175] | [Page Image]

I am much surprised at Lord Byron's haste to return a volume of Spenser, which was lent him by Mr Hunt, and at his apparent indifference to the progress and (if he pleased) advancement of poetry up to the present day.[note]

I am much surprised . . . up to the present day] Hazlitt refers to Leigh Hunt, Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries (London, 1828):

I lent him a volume of the 'Fairy Queen,' and he said he would try to like it. Next day he brought it to my study-window, and said, 'Here, Hunt, is your Spenser. I cannot see any thing in him:' and he seemed anxious that I should take it out of his hands, as if afraid of being accused of copying so poor a writer. That he saw nothing in Spenser is not very likely; but I really do not think that he saw much. (pp. 45-6)

Extracts from Hunt's book (as yet unpublished) appeared in The Athenaeum, 1 (2 January 1828), pp. 6-8, immediately before an extract from Hazlitt's yet unpublished Life of Napoleon. Hazlitt refers to this marketing ploy in his letter to Henry Hunt of 16 January 1828 (Letters, p. 355).

Did he really think that all genius was concentrated in his own time, or in his own bosom? With his pride of ancestry, had he no curiosity to explore the heraldry of intellect? or did he regard the Muse as an upstart - a mere modern blue-stocking and fine lady? I am afraid that high-birth and station, instead of being (as Mr Burke predicates,) 'a cure for a narrow and selfish mind,'[note] only make a man more full of himself, and instead of enlarging and refining his views, impatient of any but the most inordinate and immediate stimulus. I do not recollect, in all Lord Byron's writings, a single recurrence to a feeling or object that had ever excited an interest before: there is no display of natural affection - no twining of the heart round any object: all is the restless and disjointed effect of first impressions, of novelty, contrast, surprise, grotesque costume, or sullen grandeur. His beauties are the houris of Paradise, the favourites of a seraglio, the changing visions of a feverish dream. His poetry, it is true, is stately and dazzling, arched like the rainbow, of bright and lovely hues, painted on the cloud of his own gloomy temper - perhaps to disappear as soon! It is easy to account for the antipathy between him and Mr Wordsworth. Mr Wordsworth's poetical mistress is a Pamela; Lord Byron's, an Eastern princess or a Moorish maid. It is the extrinsic, the uncommon that captivates him, and all the rest he holds in sovereign contempt. This is the obvious result of pampered luxury and high-born sentiments. The mind, like the palace in which it has been brought up, admits none but new and costly furniture. From a scorn for homely simplicity, and a surfeit of the artificial, it has but one resource left in exotic manners and preternatural effect. So we see in novels, written by ladies of quality, all the marvellous allurements of a fairy-tale, jewels, quarries of diamonds, giants, magicians, condors and ogres.[note] The author of the Lyrical Ballads describes the lichen on the rock, the withered fern, with some peculiar feeling that he has about them: the author of Childe Harold describes the stately cypress, or the fallen

[p. 176] | [Page Image]

column, with the feeling that every schoolboy has about them. The world is a grown school-boy, and relishes the latter most. When Rousseau called out - 'Ah! voila de la pervenche!'[note] in a transport of joy at sight of the periwinkle, because he had first seen this little blue flower in company with Madame Warens thirty years before, I cannot help thinking, that any astonishment expressed at the sight of a palm-tree, or even of Pompey's Pillar,[note] is vulgar compared to this! Lord Byron, when he does not saunter down Bond-street, goes into the East: when he is not occupied with the passing topic, he goes back two thousand years, at one poetic, gigantic stride! But instead of the sweeping mutations of empire, and the vast lapses of duration, shrunk up into an antithesis, commend me to the 'slow and creeping foot of time,'[note] in the commencement of Ivanhoe, where the jester and the swineherd watch the sun going down behind the low-stunted trees of the forest, and their loitering and impatience make the summer's day seem so long, that we wonder how we have ever got to the end of the six hundred years that have passed since! That where the face of nature has changed, time should have rolled on its course, is but a common-place discovery; but that where all seems the same (the long rank grass, and the stunted oaks, and the innocent pastoral landscape,) all should have changed - this is to me the burthen and the mystery.[note] The ruined pile is a memento and a monument to him that reared it - oblivion has here done but half its work; but what yearnings, what vain conflicts with its fate come over the soul in the other case, which makes man seem like a grasshopper - an insect of the hour, and all that he is, or that others have been - nothing!