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Mr. Hazlitt’s Letter to Mr. Gifford (Concluded).
The Examiner  No. 585  (14 March 1819)  171-73.
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No. 585. SUNDAY, MARCH 14, 1819.


No. 49.


We proceed to give a few more extracts from this quintessential salt of an epistle. The greater part of the following passage, if our memory does not deceive us, has been added to Mr. Hazlitt’s former account of the Gifford:—

In comparing yourself with others, you make a considerable mistake. You suppose the common advantages of a liberal education to be something peculiar to yourself, and calculate your progress beyond the rest of the world from the obscure point at which you first set out. Yet your overweening self-complacency is never easy but in the expression of your contempt for others; like a conceited mechanic in a village ale-house, you would set down every one who differs from you as an ignorant blockhead; and very fairly infer that any one who is beneath yourself must be nothing. You have been well called an Ultra-Crepidarian critic. From the difficulty you yourself have in constructing a sentence of common grammar, and your frequent failures, you instinctively presume that no author who comes under the lash of your pen can understand his mother-tongue: and again, you suspect every one who is not your “very good friend” of knowing nothing of the Greek or Latin, because you are surprised to think how you came by your own knowledge of them. There is an innate littleness and vulgarity in all you do. In combating an opinion, you never take a broad and liberal ground, state it fairly, allow what there is of truth or an appearance of truth, and then assert your own judgment by exposing what is deficient in it, and giving a more masterly view of the subject. No: this would be committing your powers and pretensions where you dare not trust them. You know yourself better. You deny the meaning altogether, misquote or misapply, and then please yourself on your own superiority to the absurdity you have created. Your triumph over your antagonists is the triumph of your cunning and mean-spiritedness over some nonentity of your own making; and your wary self-knowledge shrinks from a comparison with any but the most puny pretensions, as the spider retreats from the caterpillar into its web.

We cannot venture to extract Mr. Hazlitt’s triumphant exposure of the inconsistencies, partly wilful and partly ignorant, of Mr. Gifford’s criticisms on his works. They would lead us into two great a length; and besides, we
have no right to make so much use of the
Letter. We must content ourselves with one or two of the smaller specimens.—The following one shews what sort of a commentator on great poets Mr. Gifford is fitted to be,—a task by the bye, which he would never have thought of, had it not been for predecessors whom he abuses, and for those “Jacobinical” events and speculations which set the world thinking again, and made it look about it for intellectual food. It is curious too to observe to what sort of authors his inclination has led him,—to Decker (Massinger’s coadjutor) the filthiest of all the old writers, and to Ben Jonson, the most caustic and discontented:—

You assert roundly that there is no such person as the black Prince Morocchius,* in the Merchant of Venice. “He, (Mr. Hazlitt,) objects entirely to a personage of whom he never heard before, the black Prince Marocchius. With this piece of blundering ignorance, which, with a thousand similar instances of his intimate acquaintance with the poet, clearly prove that his enthusiasm for Shakespear is all affected, we conclude what we have to say of his folly: it remains to say a few words of his mischief,” Vol. xxiv. p. 463. I could not at first, Sir, comprehend your drift in this passage, and I can scarcely believe it yet. But I perceive that in Chalmers’s edition, the tawny suitor of Portia, who is called Morocchius in my common edition, goes by the style of Morocco. This important discovery proves, according to you, that my admiration for Shakespear is all affected, and that I can know nothing of the poet or his characters. So that the only title to admiration in Shakespear, not only in the Merchant of Venice, but in his other plays, all knowledge of his beauties, or proof of an intimate acquaintance with his genius, is confined to the alteration which Mr. Chalmers has adopted in the termination of the two last syllables of the name of this blackamoor, and his reading Morocco for Morocchius. Admirable grammarian, excellent critic! I do not wonder you think nothing of my Characters of Shakespear’s plays, when I see what it is that you really admire and think worth the study in them.

You observe, that “Some lines I have quoted from Chaucer, are very pleasing—

——“Emelie that fayrer was to sene
Than is the lilie upon his stalke grene,
And fresher than the May with floures newe;
For with the rose-colour strove her hewe;
I n’ot which was the finer of hem too.”

“But surely the beauty does not lie in the last line, though it is with this that Mr. Hazlitt is chiefly struck. ‘This scrupulousness‘ he observes, ‘about the literal preference, as if some question of matter of fact were at issue, is remarkable.’”

That is, I am not chiefly struck with the beauty of the last line, but with its peculiarity as characteristic of Chaucer. The beauty of the former lines might be in Spenser: the scrupulous exactness of the latter could be found no where but in Chaucer. I had said just before, that this poet “introduces a sentiment or a simile, as if it were given in upon evidence.” I bring this simile as an instance in point, and you say I have not brought it to prove something else.

Mr Hazlitt, in detecting the malignant cunning with which Gifford would confound the characters of the two writers in the Round Table, so as to make the confusion of both have a ridiculous result to each, has done the Editor of this paper the honour of noticing the wilful meanness practised by the same person towards his productions in verse. He justly quotes a passage in the Feast of the Poets as the Editor’s old original sin against this literary Regis Diabolus (Attorney-General), and says upon a note on that passage, “It is no wonder that for this note you put the author—of Rimini, in Newgate, without the Sheriff’s warrant. In order to give as favourable an impression of that poem as you could, you began your account of it by saying that it had been composed in Newgate, though you knew that it had not; but you also knew that the name of Newgate would sound more grateful to certain ears, to pour flattering poison into which is the height your abject ambition. In this courtly inuendo, which ushered in your wretched verbal criticism, (it is that more disgusting to see such gross and impudent prevarication combined with such petty captiousness) you were guided not by a regard to truth, but to your own ends; and yet you say somewhere, very oracularly, out of contradiction to me, that ‘not to prefer the true to the agreeable, where they are inconsistent, is folly.’ You have mistaken the word; it is not folly, but knavery†.” Pages 26, 27.

We must now leave the reader (and well may) to supply his own comments upon the feelings detected in the following passages. Alluding to the late Mr. Hoppner the painter, Mr. Hazlitt reminds Mr. Gifford of a confession with regard to that gentleman, and says,—“You discreetly said nothing of him while he was struggling with obscurity, lest it should be imputed to the partiality of private friendship; but you praised and dedicated to him, as soon as he became popular, to shew you disinterestedness and deference to public opinion‡.”—P.28.—The man’s friendship seems of a piece with his enmity,—both at the mercy of his native meanness and of his servility to authority.

We must add a passage to the one we quoted last Sunday, about kings and tyrants:—

Do you mean to say, (asks Mr. Hazlitt) that the circumstances of external pomp and unbridled power, which I have pointed out in “the gabble you will not answer” as determining the character of kings, do not make them what for the most part they are, feared in their own life-time, and scorned by after ages? If so, you must think Quevedo a libeller and incendiary, who makes his guide to the infernal regions, on being asked, “if there were no more kings,” answer emphatically𔄤“Here are all that ever lived!” You say that “the mention of a court or of a king always throws me into a fit of raving.” Do you then really admire those plague-despots of history, and scourges of human nature, Richard II. Richard III. King John, and Henry VIII.? Do you with Mr. Coleridge, in his late Lectures, contend that not to fall down in prostration of soul before the abstract majesty of kings as it is seen in the diminished perspective of centuries, argues an inherent littleness of mind? Or do you extend the moral of your maxim—“Speak not of the imputed weaknesses of the Great”—beyond the living to the dead, thus passing an attainder on history, and proving “truth to be a liar” from the beginning? “Speak out, Grildrig!”

This is an exquisite adaptation of a name. It was the one given to Gulliver at Brobdingnag, and occurs with great emphasis in the celebrated answer made to him by the King of that powerful people, ending with the words “most pernicious race of little odious vermin, that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”

“You should never,” says Mr. Gifford’s Monitor, “put your thoughts in Italics. If I were to attempt a character of verbal
* “You have spelt it wrong (Morocchius) on purpose for what I know.”
† In the Quarterly criticism here alluded to, (not to mention it’s bad grammar) words were actually substituted for those in the original text,—passages brought close to each other so as to make a ridiculous context,—other phrases separated from the context for the same purpose,—and a sentence put into marks of quotation, which existed no where but in the critic’s imagination, and appeared to be the only thing in it except malignity. But the whole article was a compound of malignity and meanness, almost too loathsome to touch.
‡ The passage here alluded to by Mr. Hazlitt is alone enough to account for Mr. Gifford’s sick and shuddering antipathy to all verses that have a smack of originality about them,—not to mention his hatred of seeing any friendship unlike his own.
“I too, whose voice no claims but truth’s e’er mov’d,”
(What a line! and what a truth!)
“Who long have seen thy merits, long have lov’d;”
(What a love! and what a youth!)
“Yet lov’d in silence, lest the rout should say”
(What a bashful, brazen face!)
“Too partial friendship tun’d th’ applausive lay;”
(What an exquisite common-place!)
“Now, now, that all conspire thy name to raise,”
(What prodigious friendly help!)
“May join the shout of unexpected praise.”
(What a barking, useless whelp!)
critics, I should be apt to say, that their habits of mind disqualified them for general reasoning or fair discussion: that they are factious about trifles, because they have nothing else to interest them; that they have no way of giving dignity to their insignificant discoveries, but by treating those who have missed them with contempt; that they are dogmatical and conceited, in proportion as they have little else to guide them in their quaint researches but caprice and accident; that the want of intellectual excitement gives birth to increasing personal irritability, and endless petty altercations. You, Sir, would make all this self-evident, by the help of Italics, and say, that the cause lies not in any thing in the nature of verbal criticism, but the exclusive appropriation of their time to it.”

The conclusion of the Letter is ushered in thus:—

I have done what I promised. You complain of the difficulty of remembering what I write: possibly this Letter will prove an exception. There is a train of thought in your own mind, which will connect the links together, and before you again undertake to run down a writer, for no other reason than that he is of an opposite party to yourself, you will perhaps recollect that your wilful artifices and shallow cunning, though undetected, will hardly screen you from your own contempt, nor, when once exposed, will the gratitude of your employers save you from public scorn.

Your conduct to me is no new thing: it is part of a system which has been regularly followed up for many years. Mr. Coleridge, in his Literary Life, has the following passage, to shew the treatment which he and his friends received from your predecessor, the Editor of the Anti-Jacobin Review.—“I subjoin part of a note from the Beauties of the Anti-Jacobin, in which, having previously informed the public that I had been dishonoured at Cambridge, for preaching Deism, at a time when, for my youthful ardour in defence of Christianity, I was decried as a bigot by the proselytes of French philosophy, the writer concludes with these words—‘Since this time he left his native country, commenced citizen of the world, left his poor children fatherless, and his wife destitute. Ex hoc disce his friends, Lamb and Southey.’ With severest truth,” continues Mr. Coleridge, “it may be asserted, that it would not be easy to select two men more exemplary in their domestic affections than those whose names were thus printed at full length, as in the same rank of morals with a denounced infidel and fugitive, who had left his children fatherless, and his wife destitute! Is it surprising that many good men remained longer than perhaps they otherwise would have done, adverse to a party which encouraged and openly rewarded the authors of such atrocious calumnies?

With me, I confess, the wonder does not lie there:—all I am surprised at is, that the objects of these atrocious calumnies were ever reconciled to the authors of them and their patrons. Doubtless, they had powerful arts of conversion in their hands, who could with impunity and in triumph take away, by atrocious calumnies, the characters of all who disdained to be their tools; and rewarded with honours, places, and pensions, all those who were. It is in this manner, Sir, that some of my old friends have become your new allies and associates.—They have changed sides, not I; and the proof that I have been true to the original ground of quarrel is, that I have you against me. Your consistency is the undeniable pledge of their turgiversation. The instinct of self-interest and the meanness of servility are infallible and safe; it is speculative enthusiasm and disinterested love of public good, that being the highest strain of humanity, are apt to falter, and “dying, make a swan-like end.”

Mr. Hazlitt gives us to understand, that in the persons alluded to, as having become apostates, he does not include all the persons here mentioned. In fact, Mr. Lamb, we believe, is the only one of the more well-known Lake-writers and their friends, who never meddled with politics,* and Mr. Hazlitt is the only one of all the rest, who has remained faithful to his first opinions. The reason is that he loved them.

The conclusion of the pamphlet is taken up with explaining a favourite theory of Mr. Hazlitt’s respecting the Natural Disinterestedness of Human Action,—upon which subject he wrote a masterly treatise some time ago, entitled “An Essay on the Principles of Human Action, being an Argument to show the Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind.” His ardour to establish such a position (the very mention of which will set all the conscious knaves and unconscious fools a laughing) alone shows of what good and sincere stuff his mind is made; and his insertion of a summary of the question at the end of a letter like the present is another, amounting to the romantic. Few will take the trouble, after the ready excitement afforded them by such an exposure, to explore a deep metaphysical abstract, and discover how much more ”sorrow than anger,” is at the bottom of all his invectives. As to poor, miserable Gifford, he will recoil from it, out of a double instinct, of inability to understand it, and impatience at the least notion of thinking well of the author. Yet we are far from wishing it not to be where it is. We would not have missed it for a great deal. The trenchant metaphysician, who cuts asunder the disguises of others, flimsy or coarse, is here “fairly caught in the web of his own” simplicity. But how well can he afford to commit himself!

We rise from the perusal of this letter with great contempt for Mr. Gifford, not unmixed with pity; and with increased regard for what we always believed uppermost in Mr. Hazlitt’s mind,—his zeal in behalf of his species.

* Yet this gentleman, besides being calumninated, has been plundered by the Anti-Jacobin enemy. We are much mistaken, if the opinions now prevalent respecting the merits of the old English dramatists did not almost entirely originate with his unostentatious criticisms, which reviewers and editors (though not every one) copied without acknowledgement.