LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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[Frederick Denison Maurice]
Sketches of Contemporary Authors. Mr. Cobbett.
The Athenaeum  Vol. 1  No. 7  (12 February 1828)  97-99.
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Literary and Critical Journal.



No. IV.—Mr. Cobbett.

There never has been an European nation in which this writer could have arisen, and have been what he is, for so long a time, except only the dominions of George IV. He has existed by nothing but the freedom of the press; and therefore England alone, or revolutionary France, could have furnished him with the necessary field. In France his talents would have placed him at the head of a party, and he would have found the shoulders of his supporters but steps to the guillotine. But it is in England, and here only, that he could have been produced,—here only, that he could become what he is, the ablest of mob writers, the least successful of public men; the opponent whose abuse is the most virulent, and at the same time the least regarded; the most vigorous adversary of the aristocracy, yet the most despised laughing-stock of the people; the most uniformly obnoxious to the general mind, yet the most strenuous friend to every time-honoured prejudice; the politician, who with the largest fertility of talent and the most unwearied industry has failed in every thing he has undertaken; and yet with a kind of blundering omnipotence, still continues to amuse, to excite, and sometimes even to terrify society. Without a great mass of democratic opinion he would have had nothing on which to act, or whereby to sustain himself; without considerable freedom of discussion, he never could have wielded his weapons; but for the general consciousness of great evils in our social system, he would have wanted objects which men would endure to hear denounced; and if we were not governed by the deeply founded predominance of an aristocracy, his abilities must at some time or other have enabled him to profit by occasion, and perhaps to raise a permanent power on a popularity, which has now long departed, and for ever.

Mr. Cobbett is the natural out-growth of our soil; and as he could not have existed in any other country, so he can scarcely be understood by any but Englishmen. In France, Italy, and Spain, the body who misgovern the nation have little power of perverting the opinions of the instructed classes, and therefore politics in these countries have been commonly studied as a science, and reduced to general principles. These are taken for granted by the persons who would now discuss such subjects, and the attempt to argue on any other grounds would only produce contempt and ridicule. But as the class by whom political power is held in this country are an aristocracy, supported partly by privileges and partly by wealth, the combined influence of these enables them to guide in a great degree the direction of public opinion, and prevent the universal reception of any determinate political maxims to which every one might at once appeal in any question of the abuse of authority. This accounts, in a great degree, for the extreme ignorance and vacillation of Mr. Cobbett’s reasonings, and also for the favourable reception which some of them have met with. But the indifference to wide and abstract truth, with regard to men’s social interests, is by no means the only cause for the occasional popularity and constant notoriety of this singular author. He is really a man of very rare and particularly applicable abilities. He knows nothing, to be sure, of metaphysics, and is not very deeply versed in the higher mathematics. We doubt whether he could write a Greek ode, or price a Raphael, or comprehend Faust. But, on ordinary political subjects, his argument is wonderfully lucid and powerful. He deduces his conclusions so shortly, that we never lose sight of their connection with the premises. He states his reasoning in such homely and energetic language, and so impregnates it with all the force of the feeling which he wishes to excite, sets it in such a variety of lights, strengthens it with so much of fresh familiar illustration, and sharpens it with such cutting sarcasm, that there probably never was a writer whose paragraphs, taken singly, are so well calculated to carry along the minds of the less instructed classes: and, besides the qualities we have mentioned, there is, through all his works, an easy and negligent superiority, which gives an imposing look of conscious power. The most characteristic of his distinctions undoubtedly is, that he never wrote a sentence which is not intelligible at the first glance. The next point which marks him out from all the other authors of the time is, the inimitable energy of his scurrility: a merit the display of which is certainly not restrained by any very scrupulous delicacy, but shows itself in so bold-faced an exuberance, that, if one were inclined to make a Dictionary of our language, divided into different classes of words, the commercial, the metaphysical, the laudatory, and so forth, a complete catalogue of the vituperative might certainly be collected from the writings of Mr. Cobbett. His third great glory is, an unparalleled impudence, an effrontery so excessive, as absolutely to have in it something of the awful. It is not the peasant trampling upon princes, nor the corporal treating the Duke of Wellington with an easy superiority; but the man of a thousand inconsistencies, and an almost universal ignorance, quietly taking for granted, as a matter settled years ago, that he himself, and he alone, is the fountain o all wisdom, that he holds in his hands the fate of England, and that he has prophesied, to the letter, every thing which was, and is still to happen, upon earth. This it is which sets our author at such an immeasurable distance above every one else, that he is undoubtedly the most amusing of mountebanks—the most sublime of quacks.

The great defect of his mind (barring common honesty) is his utter incapacity to generalize. He has a peculiar hatred to broad principles,—partly because they require the exertion of a larger intellect than his,—partly because if he ever recognized one such rule, he might find it an inconvenient restraint on his future laxity of lucubration; but chiefly, we believe, because he came upon the political stage with the formed habits of early life, which taught him to apply to every particular case, for itself, a sort of overbearing clownish shrewdness, such as is nourished among fields and farm-yards, speaks the language of the country market, and savours of crops and cattle. He never, therefore, attempts to compress into his robust and homespun sentences any guiding or standard propositions; but with the most ostentatiously simple subtlety, narrows to the uttermost the premises, or widens the conclusion, and by some bold knock-down reference to partial experience, connects the one or the other with the cause or the consequence he aims at. It is thus that the whole existing universe, God and Mammon, ploughmen and placemongers, the debts and the bishops, figure alternately in every page as the origin and result of themselves and one another: while William Cobbett, of Long Island, Botley, or Kensington, stands superior (like an oracular oak) amid this rigmarole pageantry of all created things, and announces that, if the people will but buy his pamphlet, and the King make him Prime Minister, he will finally overmaster the principle of evil, drive paper-money from the world, and re-establish the age of gold. Therefore, when any thing he wishes to prove is contrary to a commonly received political law, instead of attempting to show how and why this is erroneous, he thinks it sufficient to say, that it is put forth by ‘Scotch feelosofers,’ or that it is ‘the spawn of the beastly borough-mongering faction,’ and, therefore, utterly unworthy of his consideration. It is chiefly to this want that we must attribute the ephemeral nature of his influence, and the neglect which consigns Mr. Cobbett’s speculations about passing events to the oblivion of the last week’s play-bill and the last year’s almanac.

He is also entirely deficient in imagination. It is a faculty that can only exist as the organ and interpreter of deep feelings and much-embracing thoughts: it is denied to ribald levity and systematic dogmatism: it is like the allegories of ancient mythology, or the temple of the Lord at Jerusalem, a rich treasure-house of symbols for things infinite and invisible: it is, as was sinless Paradise, a garden built of the bright relics of former beauty, and fruitful of the types of yet unexistent perfection. It is like the Titan of old story, who framed the goodly and unblemished body that was destined to be filled with the informing breath of the Divine Being: for glorious as are its creations, they are motionless and lifeless, except when animated by the inspiration of truth. But in the author whom we are now considering, as there are none of these expansive and pregnant convictions, none of these consciousnesses of the master laws of the universe; so is there none of that power whereby they might be embodied and made palpable, and which fixes its images among mankind to be not only as spots in the desert of the brightest green and most grateful shadow, but as gushing forth the waters whereat the weary and desolate may drink in health, and strength, and comfort. He scarcely ever takes us away from those wretched and trivial tumults of the hour, in which our feelings come in contact with nothing but the follies and selfishness, the outward accidents and unhappy frivolities of our kind. He is of the earth, earthy, and would chain his readers to the clod of which his own soul is a portion. He never flings into the air those spells which would display to us the multitudinous shadows that people the waste infinite, genii and ministers to the laws of external and moral nature. Almost all his writings have, therefore, a tendency to narrow and embitter our minds; and to make the weary and bleeding world tread on and on to all eternity the same thorny round of faction.

His treatment of the ‘History of the Protestant Reformation’ is a lamentable instance of those evil propensities to which we have alluded. The men who maintain that all was wrong before the Reformation, and that in Protestant countries all has been right since,—who assert, or go near to
assert, that the great object was then accomplished and secured; that the mystical projection then took place; and that the world at that time received the stamp of those lineaments, which it must always wear, until they are destroyed by the final conflagration,—make as mere an idol of the handiwork of
Huss, Wickliffe, and Luther, as they charge upon the Roman Catholic, that he finds in the Popedom; or, as the Mohammedan erects for himself, in his idea of the Prophet’s mission. They would prevent us from struggling onto further improvement; and because we have set out upon the journey, would keep us tied to the first mile-stone. The world needs much more of reformation than it has as yet received, and will ever stand in want of reformers, while it contains a vestige of ignorance and sin. But the writer who denies the value of that great impulse; who says that we ought not to keep up the progress which it aided, but to go back to the point at which it found us; who maintains that mankind are in a less hopeful condition now,—when thousands of eager and searching minds are feeling round them on every side, to seize the hem of the garment of Truth, than when no man was permitted to do any thing but kiss the robes of the priesthood; when the world is evidently wrestling with the throes of a mighty pregnancy;—than when, in tumult and passion, it conceived, three centuries ago, the long-borne burthen of promise;—the man who, without being misled by sectarian prepossession and with an obvious party-purpose, can, at this day, profess this doctrine, is to be classed, not with the lovers of wisdom or with the reformers of their kind, but with the noisy hounds of faction. It is not in this way that the cause of Roman Catholic equalization ought to be conducted. It is not by turning back our eyes to the bigotries of the past that we are to learn charity for the future; it is not by imitating the barbarian tribes, which deified their ancestors, that we are to nourish into the image of God the generations of our descendants; it is not, in short, by vindicating the sectarianism of a sect, be it Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Hindoo, that we must teach ourselves universal toleration; but, by looking at all men, not as members of sects, but as partakers of a common humanity, whom it will be better for us, than even for them, to bind to ourselves by the cords of love.

We have dwelt upon this matter the more especially, because it stands out from the other subjects of Mr. Cobbett’s speculations, the occasion of a whole work—a separate and marvellous instance of the narrowness of his intellect, or of that from which almost all narrowness of intellect proceeds, the viciousness of his feelings. On many other points he is equally wrongheaded. He laughs at the political economists, while it is obvious that when writers give you the whole process of their thoughts, you ought only either to show errors in the reasoning, or object to the premises. We should be inclined perhaps to quarrel with some of the primary assumptions of the economists; but these are allowed by Mr. Cobbett, and built upon by himself its many of his arguments; and he scarcely ever attempts to expose any sophism or mistake in the course of their deductions. We might mention, if we had space, a variety of other matters whereupon this author is no less in error. But, in fact, Mr. Cobbett has, at different times, bestowed such exceeding pains in the attempt to refute or contradict every thing he has ever maintained, that to bring his opinions into discussion here, would be merely to inspire the slaughtered monsters with a galvanic life, for the purpose of again meeting them in combat. Since the time when it was said by the patriarch of critics, ‘Oh! that mine enemy would write a book,’ we do not believe that any one ever has written a book containing so grotesque an array of inconsistencies as ‘The Political Register.’ To compare one of its earlier, with one of its later volumes, remembering that both are written by the same hand, reminds us of those fantastic dreams wherein we fight and conquer some vague shape, which anon starts up again and engages with a shadow that wears its own former likeness.

There is one great merit in Mr. Cobbett—and one only—which is perhaps peculiar to him among the party-writers of the day. There is not a page of his that ever has come under our notice, wherein there does not breathe throughout, amid all his absurdities of violence and inconsistency, the strongest feeling for the welfare of the people. The feeling is in nine cases in ten totally misdirected; but there it is, a living and vigorous sympathy with the interests and hopes of the mass of mankind. Many persons will be ready to maintain, because he has shown himself at various times as not very scrupulous for truth, that he has no real and sincere good quality whatsoever, and that he merely writes what is calculated to be popular. But we confess we are inclined to think, from the tone and spirit of his works, that he commonly persuades himself he believes what he is saying, and feels deeply at the moment what he expresses strongly. It is obvious to us, that while he puts forth against his opponents the most unmeasured malignity, there is a true and hearty kindliness in all that he writes about, or to, the people. He seems to us to speak of the poorer classes, as if he still felt about him the atmosphere of the cottage,—not as if he were robed in ermine or lawn, or in the sable gown of a professor,—but in the smock-frock of the peasant. And it would be useful, therefore, to peers and bishops, parliamentary orators and university dogmatists, if they would now and then read the books they always rail at. They would find in them a portrait, thrilling with all the pulses of animation, of the thoughts and desires of a class, the largest and therefore the most important in society, among whom that which is universal and eternal in our nature displays itself under a totally different aspect from that which it wears among us. Mr. Cobbett’s personal consciousness of all which is concealed from our eyes by grey jackets and clouted shoes, has kept alive his sympathy with the majority of mankind; and this is indeed a merit, which can be attributed to but few political writers. And far more than this, it is a merit which belongs to no one we remember but himself and Burns, among all the persons that have raised themselves from the lowest condition of life into eminence. Take, for an instance, the late Mr. Gifford, and see with what persevering dislike he opposed the interests and hopes of the portion of society to which he himself originally belonged. He seems to have felt the necessity of vindicating his new position, by contempt for his former associates; to have proved the sincerity of his apostacy from plebeianism by tenfold hostility to all but the aristocracy; and to have made use of his elevation only to trample upon those with whom he was formerly on a level. Now we do not think that Mr. Cobbett has taken the right way to advance the well-being of the people; but we certainly do believe, and we think that but for prepossession every body would incline to think, from the character of his writings, that he does really and earnestly desire to promote the happiness of the labouring classes.

This is the bright side of his moral disposition. The one saving elegance of his tastes is a hearty relish and admiration of outward natural beauty. There are many portions of his voluminous works, in which we seem to see the tufted greenness and fresh sparkle of the country through a more lucid medium, than in any of the writings of our best novelists or travellers. This arises from the happy fact, that his way of looking at things external has never been systematized. He retains all the old glad vividness of his apprehensions, wherewith he used to look upon the fields and hedge-rows when he was a whistling plough-boy; and he puts the clouds, cows, and meadows into his pages, with the simple clearness of description that naturally results from this feeling. Men, who were more early instructed, see every thing in connection with wide and vague trains of association, which dilute and confuse the direct strength of their perception. But
‘The cowslip on the river’s brim
A yellow cowslip is to him,
And it is nothing more.’
It is nothing more to him in the way that it is any thing more to us. It is to him a little flower, which recals no poetical descriptions, and does not suggest the images of the nymphs, or Pan, or even of elfin dancers. But it appears to him with all the firmness and liveliness of impression which it gave to his boyish senses, and so he offers it to us; and, in truth, he does his spiriting gently. But we are far off from the turbulent politician. We had wandered with him into the rich cornfield, surging and gleaming to the wind, and dappled with the shadows of the clouds,—we were resting from the din of factions among the happy plenteousness and varied forms of animal enjoyment which crowd the farm-yard,—but the cock crows, and, like uneasy ghosts, we must away.

We believe we have treated Mr. Cobbett more lightly than he would have been handled by most men. But we do not think that his gross and manifold sins are such as seem likely to be particularly mischievous at present. When the people are better educated, they will be little at the mercy of the abusive violence and ludicrous inconsistencies of such writers; or rather if, as a nation, we had been better brought up,—if the Legislature and the Church Establishment had done their duty,—a person with Mr. Cobbett’s abilities, and in his original position, would not have grown up what he is. Had he been taught the easy wisdom of love, instead of the bitter lessons of hatred and ambition, he might, he must, have been an instrument of the most extensive and permanent good. He would have brought us nearer to the poor and lowly; he would have domesticated truth and religion at the fire-side of the cottager; he would have bound us all more closely, in the embrace of common sympathy and mutual improvement.

As it is, he is merely a writer of extraordinary powers; a politician of vulgar and petty objects. There is a downright and direct simplicity in his sentences, and a copiousness of unelaborate illustration, which would render him the most perfect of writers for the people at large, if there were not in his opinions a confounding together of all systems which are not philosophical, and at the bottom of his mind an indifference to truth, which have prevented him from ever doing a tithe of the good he might otherwise have accomplished. For what are his improvements in the manufacture of bonnets, his delightful ‘Cottage Economy,’ and his singular and powerful volume of sermons, when weighed against all the misapplied influence and wasted talents, which he has been burying through life under heaps of scurrility and inconsistency? It is painful to think of all that such a man would have been induced to do under a better social system, and to compare it with the little he has effected towards regenerating a bad one. He will doubtless say of the Athenæum, if he mentions our observations at all, that ‘another of time brethren of the broad-sheet, I suppose, some starving Scotch feelosofer, who has come to London to pick our pockets, and help to support the Thing, has been writing a parcel of trash about me. A pitiful rascal, who probably never saw me in his life, unless I may have given him a penny for sweeping a crossing, and pushing his greasy hat under my nose, has pretended to give the world an account of my character. He ought to be much obliged to me for mentioning his beastly slanders, as the world would otherwise never have heard of them. As it is, he need not imagine that I shall attempt to answer him. Through, I suppose, indeed, the poor devil’s only hope lay in his expectation that I never should hear of his dirty work. But my readers need not suspect that I shall condescend to notice his laughable accusations. All the world, except his
Majesty’s Ministers, have long ago acknowledged, that no man but
William Cobbett can save this country from utter ruin. And his Majesty’s Government will soon be obliged to come sneaking to my house at Kensington, to persuade me to tell them how they can get us out of the mess. But the King knows already, that I will not assist him to save England from destruction as long as he refuses to give me uncontrolled power over the Thing, by making me Prime Minister. My readers know how my predictions have been accomplished; and I now prophesy, that this will happen before Easter; we shall then have the feelosofers eating their words, (and a dirty dish they make,) and, till then, I leave them to the cheesemongers.’

Our readers see, that we write with our eyes open to the consequences of our temerity.