An Essay Picked by blupete

"Public Opinion" 1

NORTHCOTE2-- I ought to cross myself like the Catholics, when I see you. You terrify me by repeating what I say. But I see you have regulated yourself. There is nothing personally offensive, except what relates to Sir Walter. You make him swear too, which he did not do. He would never use the expression Egad. These little things mark the gentleman. I am afraid, if he sees it, he'll say I am a babbler. That is what they dread so at court, that the lest word should transpire.

HAZLITT-- They may have their reasons for caution. At least, they can gain nothing, and might possibly lose equally by truth or falsehood, as it must be difficult to convey an adequate idea of royalty. But authors are glad to be talked about. If Sir W. Scott has an objection to having his name mentioned, he is singularly unlucky. Enough was said in his praise; and I do not believe he is captious. I fancy he takes the rough with the smooth. I did not well know what to do. You seemed to express a wish that the conversations should proceed, and yet you are startled at particular phrases, or I would have brought you what I had done to show you. I thought it best to take my chance of the general impression.

N.-- Why, if kept to be published as a diary after my death, they might do: nobody could then come to ask me questions about them But I cannot say they appear very striking to me. One reason may be, what I observe myself cannot be very new to me. If others are pleased, they are the best judges. It seems very odd that you who are acquainted with some of the greatest authors of the day cannot find anything of theirs worth setting down.

H.---That by no means pleases them. I understand G-------is angry at the liberty I take with you. He is quite safe in this respect. I might answer him much in the manner of the fellow in the Country Girl when his friend introduces his mistress and he salutes her,---"Why, I suppose if I were to introduce my grandmother to you--------" "Sir," replies the other, "I should treat her with the utmost respect." So I shall never think of repeating any of G------'s conversations. My indifference may arise in part, as you say, from their not being very new to me. G------ might, I dare say, argue very well on the doctrine of philosophical necessity or many other questions; but then I have read all this before in Hume or other writers, and I am very little edified, because I have myself had access to the same sources that he has drawn from. But you, as an artist have been pushed into an intercourse with the world as well as an observation of nature; and combine a sufficient knowledge of general subjects with living illustrations of them. I do not like the conversation of mere men of the world or anecdote-mongers, for there is nothing to bind it together, and the other sort is pedantic and tiresome from repetition, so that there is nobody but you I can come to.

N.-- You do not go enough into society, or you would be cured of what I cannot help regarding as a whim. You would there find many people of sense and information whose names you never heard of. It is not those who have made most noise in the world who are persons of the greatest general capacity. It is the making the most of a little, or the being determined to get before others in some one thing (perhaps for want of other recommendations) that brings men into notice. Individuals gain a reputation as they make a fortune, by application and by having set their minds upon it. But you have set out (like other people brought up among books) with such exclusive notions of authors and literary fame, that if you find the least glimmering of common sense out of this pale, you think it is a prodigy, and run into the opposite extreme. I do not say that you have not a perception of character, or have not thought as far as you have observed; but you have not had the opportunities. You turn your back on the world, and fancy that they turn their backs on you. This is a very dangerous principle. You become reckless of consequences. It leads to an abandonment of character. By setting the opinion of others at defiance, you lose your self-respect. It is of no use that you still say, that you will do what is right; your passions usurp the place of reason and whisper you, that whatever you are bent upon doing is right. You cannot put this deception on the public however, false or prejudiced their standard may be; and the opinion of the world, therefore, acts as a seasonable check upon wilfulness and eccentricity.

H.-- What you have stated is the best excuse I could make for my own faults or blunders. When one is found fault with for nothing, or for doing one's best, one is apt to give the world their revenge. All the former part of my life I was treated as a cipher; and since I have got into notice, I have been set upon as a wild beast. When this is the case, and you can expect as little justice as candour, you naturally in self-defence take refuge in a sort of misanthropy and cynical contempt for mankind. One is disposed to humour them, and to furnish them with some ground for their idle and malevolent censures.

N.---But you should not. If you do nothing to confirm them in their first prejudices, they will come round in time. They are slow to admit claims, because they are not sure of their validity; and they thwart and cross-examine you to try what temper you are made of. Without some such ordeal or difficulty thrown in the way, every upstart and pretender must be swallowed whole. That would never do. But if you have patience to stand the test, justice is rendered at last, and you are stamped for as much as you are worth. You certainly have not spared others: why should you expect nothing but "the milk of human kindness?" Look to those men behind you (a collection of portraits on the same frame) -- there is Pope and Dryden -- did they fare better than living authors? Had not Dryden his Shadwell3, and Pope his Dennis4, who fretted him to a shadow, and galled him almost to death? There was Dr Johnson, who in his writings was a pattern of wisdom and morality -- he declared that he had been hunted down as if he had been the great enemy of mankind. But he had strength of mind to look down upon it. Not to do this, is either infirmity of temper, or shows a conscious want of any claims that are worth carrying up to a higher tribunal than the cabal and clamour of the moment. Sir Joshua5 always despised malicious reports; he knew they would blow over; at the same time, he as little regarded exaggerated praise. Nothing you could say had any effect, if he was not satisfied with himself. He had a great game to play, and only looked to the result. He has studied himself thoroughly; and, besides, had great equanimity of temper, which, to be sure, it is difficult to acquire, if it is not natural. You have two faults; one is a feud or quarrel with the world, which makes you despair, and prevents you taking all the pains you might: the other is a carelessness and mismanagement, which makes you throw away the little you actually do, and brings you into difficulties that way. Sir Joshua used to say it was as wrong for a man to think too little as too much of himself: if the one ran him into extravagance and presumption, the other sank him in sloth and insignificance. You see the same thing in horses: if they cannot stir a load at the first effort, they give it up as a hopeless task; and nothing can rouse them from their sluggish obstinacy but blows and ill-treatment.

H.---I confess all this, but I hardly know how to remedy it: nor do I feel any strong inducement. Taking one thing with another, I have no great cause to complain. If I had been a merchant, a bookseller, or the proprietor of a newspaper, instead of what I am, I might have had more money or possessed a town and country-house, instead of lodging in a first or second floor, as it may happen. But what then? I see how the man of business and fortune passes his time. He is up and in the city by eight, swallows his breakfast in haste, attends a meeting of creditors, must read Lloyd's lists, consult the price of consols, study the markets, look into his accounts, pay his workmen and superintend his clerks; he has hardly a minute in the day to himself, and perhaps in the four-and-twenty hours does not do a single thing that he would do if he could help it. Surely, this sacrifice of time and inclination requires some compensation, which it meets with. But how am I entitled to make my fortune (which cannot be done without all this anxiety and drudgery) who do hardly anything at all, and never anything but what I like to do? I rise when I please, breakfast at length, write what comes into my head, and after taking a mutton-chop and a dish of strong tea, go to the play, and thus my time passes. Mr----has no time to go to the play. It was but the other day that I had to get up a little earlier than usual to go into the city about some money transaction, which appeared to me a prodigious hardship: if so, it was plain that I must lead a tolerably easy life: nor should I object to passing mine over again. Till I was twenty, I had no idea of anything but books, and thought everything else was worthless and mechanical. The having to study painting about this time, and finding the difficulties and beauties it unfolded, opened a new field to me, and I began to conclude that there might be a number of "other things between heaven and earth that were never dreamt of in my philosophy." Ask G-------, or any other literary man who has never been taken out of the leading-strings of learning , and you will perceive that they hold for a settled truth that the universe is built of words. G------has no interest but in literary fame, if which he is a worshipper; he cannot believe that any one is clever or has even commons sense, who has not written a book. If you talk to him of Italian cities, where great poets and patriots lived, he heaves a sigh, and if I were possessed of a fortune, he should go and visit the house where Galileo lived, or the tower where Ugolino was imprisoned. He can see with the eyes of his mind. To all else he is marble. He is like speaking to him of the objects of a sixth sense; every other language seems dumb and inarticulate.

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NOTES:

1 Hazlitt's "Public Opinion" (Conversations of Northcote) was written about 1821-1822 and can be found reproduced in: Winterslow, Essays and Characters Written There (Oxford University Press, 1906); Selected Essays as edited by Geoffrey Keynes (London: Nonsuch Press, 1930); and, William Hazlitt, Selected Writings (Oxford University Press, 1991).

2 Northcote is James Northcote (1746-1831) was an English painter.

3 Thomas Shadwell (1642-92) was an English dramatist which Dryden assailed, "Shadwell never deviates into sense." (See Chambers.) Shadwell, incidently, was to succeed Dryden as the poet laureate in 1689.

4 John Dennis (1657-1734) was a wit and a man of fashion in his day. In Pope's "Essay on Criticism" (1711), Pope made reference, in a less than a complimentary fashion, to one Dennis' plays he had written. The very next month, Dennis, in "Reflections Critical and Satirical," shot back; and, there then commenced a long feud between the two.

5 Sir Joshua Reynolds (1732-92), the English portrait painter, and, painter to the king.

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Peter Landry