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Miller's Inquiry into the present State of the Civil Law of
For MAY, 1825.
ART. I. The Spirit of the Age; or, Contemporary Portraits. 8vo. pp. 424. Colburn. 1825,
would be austere criticism to denounce the figurative and epigrammatic style with which a few of our modern authors are striving to enrich, as they imagine, the prose diction of our nation. To restrain the fancy by rigid ordinance, to pass sumptuary laws against the lavish expen-. diture of metaphor and illustration, would be legislating very idly and ineffectually. Ardent and habitually unrestrained thinkers, like Mr. Hazlitt, (the acknowleged author of the work before us,) would laugh at the edict. It is a little too late to erect a standard of language. The teeming and redundant imaginations of our writers would soon overflow the embankments which a severe taste and a correct judgment might throw up. The authority of academies to fix the speech of a country would be exerted to enslave it. Words, or the ideas which they nominally (for the most part nominally only) represent, are by far too ungovernable a rabble, as they rush from the minds of gifted and imaginative men, to bow either to the lawgiver or his law.
Allowing thus much, might it not be wisely suggested to writers of this elevated cast, that imagination itself, volatile and etherial as it is, must not be absolutely an outlaw; that taste has certain fixed principles, not indeed narrowed into a code, nor deduced from a few precedents, but drawn from the wide fields of observation and reason; and, that both taste and imagination are affected according to certain and invariable laws? Good sense is, on these occasions, a sound oracle; and good sense must admonish all rational beings that in every art, whether of poetry, or painting, or discourse, nothing exaggerated or overdone is decorous or pleasing. It is in the overlaying of their meaning, by a superfluous phraseology; the heaping layer upon layer of illustration and embellishment; the unintermitted effort to give increased force to an expression by instantly following up with another which resembles it, and which not unVOL. CVII.
frequently is less vigorous than the preceding one; -in highly wrought and embroidered diction, this it is which chiefly offends us. Writers of this description are apt, Pygmalionlike, to fall in love with what they have struck out, and to reproduce it in another form. By such injudicious procedure, the idea is weakened rather than expanded; and the illustrations, instead of being "sister-graces," conspiring harmoniously to the general effect, are all striving for mastery, while the unity of the composition is lost, or refracted and split into shining fragments. It is, besides, a most reprehensible fault in writing, to make it too uniformly gay and luxuriant; by overlooking all just proportion, to carve a florid Corinthian capital at the expence of the shaft and the pediment. Rousseau is chargeable, to a certain degree, with this fault: yet, liable as he is to exception' for a manner too uniformly sustained, for sentences too equally poised, and for laboring and expanding too much alike all the members of his composition, without due selection or subordination of parts, Rousseau is never culpably profuse of ornaments; nor are those ornaments at any time false or meretricious. When this happens, it has the worst possible effect, and betrays "a mean and pitiful ambition." The sense aches at accumulated fragrance; the eye is injured by excessive brightness.
Mr. Hazlitt will, we are sure, take in good part our comments upon the peculiar qualities of his eloquence. Besides, he who is so free in his animadversions upon the style of others, must endure occasionally a few strictures upon his own. He has considerable power, but it requires much discipline and regulation. It is his standing fault that he takes his pen with a strong determination, a malice prepense, to be impressive; and becomes, for that sole reason, obscure. Every thing shines as through a prismatic medium. The result is, that we retain nothing distinctly of what he says. It is a sort of confused memory of sounds, like the clashing of musical instruments. With his quaintness alone, we do not quarrel. Let him, if he will, enjoy the complacency of expressing himself differently from others. Neither do we strongly object to his occasional engraftings of the thoughts and words of the old writers. We would observe only, that in this kind of mosaic work there is some danger of making centos, patchworks of the expressions of those fascinating models. It is impossible to dig in more copious mines than those of Jeremy Taylor and Mr. Burke: yet we must also observe, that theirs are beauties which, when transplanted, must necessarily be less vivid than in their native soil. It is
the want of moderation in the use of the privilege that we object to. Surely the transposition of a whole sentence, unless, as it sometimes happens, the memory commits a kind of fraud upon the invention, is not altogether fair or ingenuous. We ask, for example, whether our author is sincerely conscious that the following sentence emanated from his own mind? We are hardly so formed, as to sympathize at the same time with the assassin and his victim.' There are, it is true, two or three verbal changes in the passage thus transferred (" the wise," as Pistol says, "it call convey") from Burke: but is the property changed also?
Tiresome as repetitions of this sort are, it is when Mr. Hazlitt makes a cento from himself, that is, when in several consecutive passages, he echoes and repeats what has been said already, and assembles a long cluster of words round an idea which has been expressed, or a proposition which has been announced, it is then that he most fatigues us. There has been a quarrel of some standing betwixt the patrons of the simple and those of the adorned diction. Real eloquence belongs to neither. Intent only upon its object, it hastens onwards, in its athletic race, and rejects as useless incumbrances the trappings and embroideries of rhetoric. Not that we exact from the writers of the day the impracticable simplicity," redolent of nothing," which Cicero, however at variance with his own habits, seems to commend, when he extols the style of Atticus, and illustrates it by that most happy and significant of allusions: "Ut mulieres bene olere dicuntur, quia nil olent."
In a country peopled with authors, the miscellaneous laborers, who deal only in topics of light and popular dalliance, would be thrown out of employ but for the tricks and ornaments of rhetoric. All that in our preceding remarks we have required of Mr. Hazlitt is a little more parsimony in the use of his figures, that he would now and then, if only for the sake of variety, condescend, especially if the thought be common and homely, to be a little more natural and easy. The continual straining to say something that is striking, and to bring forth that which, after all, is often not worth the throe and agony of the parturition; this it is which makes it impossible to read him with pleasure, and difficult to read him with instruction.
If, from mere literary animadversion, we proceed to the spirit and temper of the book before us, there is much to condemn and to lament. Mr. Hazlitt's portrait of Mr. Gifford is the concentrated essence of hatred. The poor Editor of the Quarterly Review comes out of his pages as from a Fleet
Fleet-ditch, some " omnium purgamentorum receptaculum." * Readily we concede to Mr. Hazlitt, that he is not the aggressor, and that all he has written is in strict retaliation for something written by Mr. Gifford: but, can any provocation excuse this uncivilized and unchristian warfare? Is it honorable- is it in unison with the manners of the age or with the softer spirit which literature ought to infuse into the bosom? These are the poisoned weapons of controversy, from which men of decent, upright feelings will religiously abstain. We say not a word in justification of the tone and the spirit with which Mr. Hazlitt was assailed in the Journal alluded to. We will even admit it to have been coarse, splenetic, and satirical, far beyond the fair limits of the province and privilege of a reviewer: yet it must be borne in mind, that the attack (unquestionably offensive) was not an attack upon the obscurity of Mr. Hazlitt's birth, nor upon the misfortunes of his early life, nor upon his moral character. Mr. Hazlitt, on the other hand, begins his portrait of Mr. Gifford by an allusion to the circumstances of his humble origin, which is grossly indelicate; and much beneath the dignity of a man of letters. For ourselves, we have never read (and we often recur to it) the short and unaffected memoir, prefixed to the translation of Juvenal, without admiration and delight. To be the architect of our own fame and fortune can never be a legitimate subject of reproach. He who rises by honest means and laudable aspirings from a lowly condition of life has achieved a victory which makes him equal to the proudest of those children of prosperity, whose path from its outset has been warmed by the sun, and scattered with flowers. We close these strictures, observing only, that if our contemporary memoirs must be necessarily tinctured with the animosity and virulence of the following passage, we hold it our duty to discountenance a kind of writing from which every considerate and feeling man would disdain to form his estimate of the character and feelings of others.
Mr. Gifford was originally bred to some handicraft: he after wards contrived to learn Latin, and was for some time an usher in a school, till he became a tutor in a nobleman's family. The lowbred, self-taught man, the pedant, and the dependant on the great, contribute to form the Editor of the Quarterly Review. He is admirably qualified for this situation, which he has held for some years, by a happy combination of defects, natural and acquired; and in the event of his death, it will be difficult to provide him a suitable successor.'
* Livy of the Cloaca Maxima.