An Essay Picked by blupete

From William Hazlitt's The Spirit of the Age (TOC)

The Right Hon. George Canning

MR. CANNING was the cleverest boy at Eton: he is, perhaps, the cleverest man in the House of Commons. It is, however, in the sense in which, according to Mr. Wordsworth, 'the child is father to the man.' He has grown up entirely out of what he then was. He has merely engrafted a set of Parliamentary phrases and the technicalities of debate on the themes and school-exercises he was set to compose when a boy. Nor has he ever escaped from the trammels imposed on youthful genius; he has never assumed a manly independence of mind. He has been all his life in the habit of getting up a speech at the nod of a Minister, as he used to get up a thesis under the direction of his schoolmaster. The matter is nothing; the only question is, how he shall express himself. The consequence has been as might be expected. Not being at liberty to choose his own side of the question, nor to look abroad into the world for original (but perhaps unwelcome) observations, nor to follow up a strict chain of reasoning into its unavoidable consequences, the whole force of his mind has been exhausted in an attention to the ornaments of style and to an agreeable and imposing selection of topics. It is his business and his inclination to embellish what is trite, to gloss over what is true, to vamp up some feeble sophism, to spread the colours of a meretricious fancy over the unexpected exposure of some dark intrigue, some glaring iniquity --
'Like as the sun-burnt Indians do array
Their tawny bodies in their proudest plight
With painted plumes in goodly order dight:
As those same plumes, so seemed he vain and light,
That by his gait might easily appear;
For still he fared as dancing in delight,
And in his hands a windy fan did bear,
That in the idle air he moved still here and there.'

His reasoning is a tissue of glistering sophistry; his language is a cento of florid common-places. The smooth monotony of his style is indeed as much borrowed, is as little his own, as the courtly and often fulsome strain of his sentiments. He has no steady principles, no strong passions, nothing original, masculine, or striking in thought or expression. There is a feeble, diffuse, showy, Asiatic redundancy in all his speeches-something vapid, something second-hand in the whole cast of his mind. The light that proceeds from it gleams from the mouldering materials of corruption: the flowers that are seen there, gay and flaunting, bloom over the grave of humanity! -- Mr. Canning never, by any chance, reminds one of the poet or the philosopher, of the admirer of nature, or even the man of the world -- he is a mere House-of-Commons man, and since he was transferred there from College, appears never to have seen or thought of any other place. He may be said to have passed his life in making and learning to make speeches. All other objects and pursuits seem to have been quite lost upon him. He has overlooked the ordinary objects of nature, the familiar interests of human life, as beneath his notice.1 There is no allusion in any of his speeches to anything passing out of the House, or not to be found in the classics. Their tone is quite Parliamentary -- his is the Delphin edition of Nature. Not an image has struck his eye, not an incident has touched his heart, any farther than it could be got up for rhetorical and stage effect. This has an ill effect upon his speeches: -- it gives them that shining and bloated appearance which is the result of the confined and heated atmosphere of the House. They have the look of exotics, of artificial, hot-house plants. Their glossiness, their luxuriance, and gorgeousness of colour are greater than their strength or stamina: they are forced not lasting, nor will they bear transplanting from the ran and noxious soil in which they grow. Or rather, perhaps, they bear the same relation to eloquence that artificial flowers do to real ones -- alike, yet not the same, without vital heat or the power of reproduction; painted, passionless, specious mockeries. They are, in fact, not the growth of truth, of nature, and feeling, but of state policy, of art, and practice. To deny that Mr. Canning has arrived to a great perfection (perhaps the greatest) in the manufacture of these sort of common-places, elegant, but somewhat tarnished, imposing, but not solid, would, we think, show a want of candour: to affirm that he has ever done any thing more (in his serious attempts) would, we think, show an equal want of taste and understanding.2

The way in which Mr. Canning gets up the staple-commodity of his speeches appears to be this. He hears an observation on the excellence of the English Constitution, or on the dangers of Reform and the fickleness and headstrong humours of the people, dropped by some Member of the House, or he meets with it in an old Debate in the time of Sir Robert Walpole, or in Paley's Moral and Political Philosophy, which our accomplished scholar read, of course, as the established text-book at the University. He turns it in his mind: by dint of memory and ingenuity he illustrates it by the application of some well-known and well-authenticated simile at hand, such as 'the vessel of the state,' 'the torrent of popular fury,' 'the precipice of reform,' 'the thunderbolt of war,' 'the smile of peace,' etc. He improves the hint by the help of a little play upon words and upon an idle fancy into an allegory, he hooks this on to a verbal inference, which takes you by surprise, equally from the novelty of the premises and the flatness of the conclusion, refers to a passage in Cicero in support of his argument, quotes his authority, relieves exhausted attention by a sounding passage from Virgil, 'like the morn risen on mid-noon,' and launches the whole freight of wisdom, wit, learning, and fancy, on the floor of St. Stephen's Chapel, where it floats and glitters amidst the mingled curiosity and admiration of both sides of the House --
'Scylla heard,
And fell Charybdis murmur'd soft applause.'

Beneath the broad and gilded chandelier that throws its light upon 'the nation's Great Divan,' Mr. Canning piles the lofty harangue, high over-arched with metaphor, dazzling with epithets, sparkling with jests -- take it out of doors, or examine it by the light of common sense, and it is no more than a paltry string of sophisms, of trite truisms, and sorry buffooneries. There is also a House-of-Commons jargon as well as a scholastic pedantry in this gentleman's style of oratory, which is very displeasing to all but professional ears. 'The Honourable and Learned Gentleman,' and 'his Honourable and Gallant Friend,' are trolled over the tongue of the Honourable Speaker, 'loud as a trumpet with a silver sound,' and fill up the pauses of the sense or the gaps in the logic with a degree of burlesque self-complacency and pompous inanity. Mr. Canning speaks by rote; and if the words he utters become the mouth and round a period well, he cares little how cheaply he comes by them, or how dear they cost the country ! Such mechanic helps to style and technical flourishes and trappings of upstart self-importance are, however, unworthy of the meanest underling of office.

There is, notwithstanding, a facility, a brilliancy, and an elegance in Mr. Canning's general style: always graceful, never abrupt, never meagre, never dry, copious without confusion, dignified without stiffness, perspicuous yet remote from common life, that must excite surprise in an extempore speaker. Mr. Canning, we apprehend, is not an extempore speaker. He only makes set speeches on set occasions. He indeed hooks them in as answers to some one that has gone before him in the debate, by taking up and commenting on a single sentence or so; but he immediately recurs to some old and favourite topic, launches into the middle of the stream, or mounts upon the high horse, and rides it to the end of the chapter. He never (that we are aware of) grappled with a powerful antagonist, overthrew him on the spot, or contested the point with him foot to foot. Mr. Canning's replies are evasions. He indeed made capital and very deservedly-admired reply to Sir Coxe Hippesley; but Sir John had given notice all his motions a month beforehand, and Mr. Canning had only to lie in ambush for him with a whole magazine of facts, arguments, alliterations, quotations, jests, and squibs prepared ready to explode and blow him up into the air in an instant. In this manner he contrives to slip into the debate and speak to the question, as if he had lately entered the House and heard the arguments on the other side stated for the first time in his life. He has conned his speeches over for a week or a month previously; but he gives these premeditated effusions the effect of witty impromptus -- the spontaneous ebullitions of the laughter or indignation or lofty enthusiasm of the moment. His manner tells this. It is that of a person trying to recollect a speech, and reciting it from beginning to end with studied gesture, and in an emphatic but monotonous and somewhat affected tone of voice, rather than of a person uttering words and thoughts that have occurred to him for the first time, and hurried away by an involuntary impulse, speaking with more or less hesitation, faster or slower, and with more or less passion, according as the occasion requires.

Mr. Canning is a conventional speaker; he is an optional politician. He has a ready and splendid assortment of arguments upon all ordinary questions: he takes that side or view of a question that is dictated by his vanity, his interest, or his habits, and endeavours to make the best he can of it. Truth, liberty, justice, humanity, war or peace, civilization or barbarism, are things of little consequence, except for him to make speeches upon them. He thinks 'the worse the better reason,' if he can only make it appear so to others; and in the attempt to confound an mislead, he is greatly assisted by really perceiving no difference himself. It is not what a thing is, but what he can say about it, that is ever uppermost in his mind; and why should he be squeamish or have any particular choice, since his words are all equally fine, and delivered with equal volubility of tongue? His balanced periods are the scale 'that makes these odds all even.' Our Orator does not confine himself to any one view of a subject. He does not blind himself by any dull prejudice: he does not tie himself down to any pedantic rules or abstract principle. He does not listen implicitly to common sense, nor does he follow the independent dictates of his own judgment. No, he picks and chooses among all these, as best suits his purpose. He plucks out the grey hairs of a question, and then again the black. He shifts his position; it is a ride-and-tie system with him. He mounts sometimes behind prejudice, and sometimes behind reason. He is now with the wise, and then again with the vulgar. He drivels, or he rages. He is now wedded to antiquity: anon there is no innovation too startling for him. At one time he is literal, at another visionary and romantic. At one time the honour of the country sways him, at another its interest. One moment he is all for liberty, and the next for slavery. First we are hold the balance of Europe, and to dictate and domineer over the whole world; and then we are to creep into our shells and draw in our horns; one moment resembling Don Quixote, and the next playing the part of Sancho Panza! And why not? All these are topics, are cues used in the game of politics, are colours in the changeable coat of party, are dilemmas in casuistry, are pretexts in diplomacy; and Mr. Canning has them all at his fingers' ends. What is there then to prevent his using any of them as he pleases? Nothing in the world but feeling or principle and as Mr. Canning is not withheld by these from running his heedless career, the application of his ingenuity and eloquence in all such cases is perfectly arbitrary, 'quite optional,' as Mr. Liston expresses it. A wise man would have some settled opinion, a good man would wish well to some cause, a modest man would be afraid to act without feeling sure of his ground, or to show an utter disregard of right or wrong. Mr. Canning has the luckless ambition to play off the tricks of a political rope-dancer, and he chooses to do it on the nerves of humanity! He has called out for war during thirty years without ceasing, 'like importunate Guinea fowls, one note day and night'; he has made the House and the country ring with his vain clamour, and now for the first time he is silent, 'quite chopfallen.' Like Bottom in the play, 'he aggravates his voice like a sucking dove'; 'he roars you an 'twere any nightingale!' After the failure of Buonaparte's Russian expedition, Mr. Canning exclaimed exultingly, and with a daring enthusiasm that seemed to come from the heart, that he rejoiced that barbarism had been the first to resist invasion, since it showed that the love of nation independence was an instinctive principle in every country, superior even to the love of liberty.' This plea served its turn at the time, and we heard more of it last year when the French invaded Spain. In the war to restore Ferdinand, Mr. Canning echoed with lungs of brass the roar of 'the universal Spanish nation,' and the words Liberty and Humanity hung like music on his tongue; but when the feeble Monarch was restored, and trod upon the necks those who had restored him, and threw down mock-scaffold of the Constitution that had raised once more to the throne, we heard no more of 'the universal Spanish nation,' of Liberty and Humanity. When the speeches of Mr. Canning and the Manifestos of his friends had raised the power of France to, a gigantic height that hung like a precipice over our heads, we were to go on, and fight out the battle of liberty and independence, though 'we buried ourselves under the ruins of the civilized world.' When a monstrous claim that threatens the liberty and existence of the civilized world is openly set up and acted upon, and a word from Mr. Canning would arrest its progress in the direction in which it is moving with obscene, ghastly, blood-stained strides, he courteously and with great condescension reminds his hearers of 'the inimitable satire of Cervantes,' and that there is a proverbial expression borrowed from it, and that the epithet Quixotic would be eminently applicable to the conduct of Great Britain if she interfered in the affairs of the continent at the present juncture. And yet there are persons who persist in believing that Mr. Canning is anything more than a pivot an whose oily hinges state policy turns easily at this moment, unheard, unseen, and that he has views and feelings of his own that are a pledge for his integrity. If all this were fickleness, caprice, forgetfulness, accident, folly, it would be well or would not much signify; we should stand a chance of sometimes being right, sometimes wrong; or if the ostensible motives were the real ones, they would balance one another. At one time we should be giving a lift to liberty, at another we should be advancing our own interests: now we should be generous to others, then we should be just to ourselves, but always we should be doing something or other fit to be done and to be named, and acting up to one or other of Mr. Canning's fine pleas of religion, morality, or social order. Is that the case? Nothing was said for twenty years about the restoration of the Bourbons as the object of the war. Who doubts it now? This cause skulked behind the throne, and was not let out in any of Mr. Canning's speeches. The cloven foot was concealed by so much flaunting oratory, by so many different facings and piebald patchwork liveries of ruinous policy or perfidious principle, as not to be suspected. This is what makes such persons as Mr. Canning dangerous. Clever men are the tools with which bad men work. The march of sophistry is devious: the march of power is one. Its means, its tools, its pretexts are various, and borrowed like the hues of the chameleon from any object that happens to be at hand: its object is ever the same, and deadly as the serpent's fang. It moves on to its end with crested majesty: erect, silent, with eyes sunk and fixed, undiverted by fear, unabashed by shame; and puny orators and patriot mountebanks play tricks before it to amuse the crowd, till it crushes the world in its monstrous folds. There is one word about which nothing has been said all this while in accounting for Mr. Canning's versatility of mind and vast resources in reasoning -- it is the word Legitimacy. It is the key with which you 'pluck out the heart of his mystery.' It is the touchstone by which all his other eloquence is to be tried, and made good' or found wanting. It is the casting-weight in the scale of sound policy, or that makes humanity and liberty kick the beam. It is the secret of the Ayes and Noes: it accounts for the Majorities and Minorities. It weighs down all other considerations, hides all, flaws, makes up for all deficiencies, removes all obstacles, is the crown of success, and makes defeat glorious. It has all the power of the Crown on its side and all the madness of the people. All Mr. Canning' speeches are but so many different periphrases for this one word -- Legitimacy. It is the foundation of his magnanimity and the source of his pusillanimity. It is the watchword equally of his oratory or his silence. It is the principle of his interference and of his forbearance. It makes him move forward, or retreat, or stand still. With this word rounded closely in his ear, and with fifty evasions for it in his mouth, he advances boldly to 'the deliverance of mankind' -- into the hands of legitimate kings, but can do nothing to deliver them out of their power. When the liberty and independence of mankind can be construed to mean the cause of kings and the doctrine of divine right, Mr. Canning is a virago on the side of humanity -- when they mean the cause of the people and the reducing of arbitrary power within the limits of constitutional law, his patriotism and humanity flag, and he is
'Of his port as meek as is a maid!'

This word makes his tropes and figures expand and blaze out like phosphorus, or 'freezes his spirits up like fish in a pond.' It smites with its petrific mace, it deadens with its torpedo touch, the Minister, the Parliament, the people, and makes this vast, free, enlightened, and enterprising country a body without a soul, an inert mass, like the hulks of our men of war, which Mr. Canning saw and described so well at Plymouth. It is the same word that, announcing the profanation of 'the golden rounds that bind the hollow temples of a king' by unhallowed hands, would fill their sails, and hurl their thunders on rebel shores. It denounces war: it whispers peace. It is echoed by the groans of the nations, is sanctified by their blood, bought by their treasure. It is this that fills the time-rent towers of the Inquisition with tears and piercing cries; and owing to this Manzotti shrieks in Italian dungeons, while Mr. Canning soothes the House of Commons with the soft accents of liberty and peace! In fine, Mr. Canning's success as an orator, and the space he occupies in the public mind, are strong indications of the Genius of the Age, in which words have obtained a mastery over things, and 'to call evil good and good evil,' is thought the mark of a superior and happy spirit. An accomplished statesman, in our day, is one who extols the Constitution and violates it -- who talks about religion and social order, and means slavery and superstition. The Whigs are always reminding the reigning family of the principles that raised them to the throne -- the Tories labour as hard to substitute those that will keep them there. There is a dilemma here, which is not easily got over; and to solve the difficulty and reconcile the contradiction, was the great problem of the late King's reign. The doubtful lubricity of Mr. Canning's style was one of the rollers by which the transition was effected, and Legitimacy shown to be a middle term between divine right and the choice of the people, compatible with both, and convertible into either, at the discretion of the Crown or pleasure of the speaker. Mr. Canning does not disgrace his pretensions on other questions. He is a sophist by profession, a palliator of every powerful and profitable abuse. His shuffling, trifling speeches on Reform are well-known. He sometimes adds the petulance of the school-boy to his stock of worn-out invention; though his unfeeling taunt on the 'revered and ruptured Ogden' met with a reception which will make him cautious how he tampers again with human infirmity and individual suffering, as the subject of ribald jests and profligate alliteration.

The thing in which Mr. Canning excels most is wit; and his wit is confined to parody. The Rejected Addresses have been much and deservedly admired; but we do not think the parodies in them, however ingenious or ludicrous, are to be compared with those in the Poetry of the Anti-Jacobin, and some of the very best of these are by Mr. Canning. Among others are, we believe, the German Play and the imitation of Mr. Southey's Sapphics. Much as we admire, we do not wonder at Mr. Canning's excellence in this department. Real, original wit he has none; for that implies sense and feeling, and an insight into the real differences of things; but from a want of sympathy with anything but forms and common-places, he can easily let down the sense of others so as to make nonsense of it. He has no enthusiasm or sensibility to make him overlook the meanness of a subject, or a little irregularity in the treatment of it, from the interest it excites: to a mind like his, the serious and affecting is a kind of natural burlesque. It is a matter of course for him to be struck with the absurdity of the romantic or singular in any way, to whom everything out of the beaten track is absurd, and 'to turn what is serious into farce' by transferring the same expressions to perfectly indifferent and therefore contemptible subjects. To make any description or sentiment ludicrous, it is only necessary to take away all feeling from it: the ludicrous is ready-made to Mr. Canning's hands. The poetry, the heart-felt interest of everything escapes through his apprehension, like a snake out of its skin, and leaves the slough of parody behind it. Anything more light or worthless cannot well be imagined.3



1 Mr. Canning, when on a tour to the Lakes, did Mr. Wordsworth the honour of paying him a visit. The favour was duly acknowledged, but quite unexpected. Really we do not know any one so little capable of appreciating the Lyrical Ballads. [Original note.]

2 We once heard it said, that 'Mr. Canning had the most elegant since Virgil.' But we could not assent to this remark, as we just happened to think of Claude Lorraine. [Original note.]

3 We have said nothing of the impiety of Mr. Canning's parodies, a great deal has been said of the impiety of Mr. Hone's, which unfortunately happen to be on the other side of the question. It is true that 'one man may steal a horse sooner than another can look over a hedge.' Mr. Hone is not a Cabinet Minister, and therefore is not allowed to take liberties with the Liturgy. It is to no purpose to urge that Mr. Hone is a very good-natured man, that he is mild and inoffensive in his manners, that he is utterly void of guile, with a great deal of sincere piety, and that his greatest vice is that he is fond of a joke, and given to black-letter reading. The answer is -- 'But he has written parodies' -- and it is to no purpose to reply -- So has Mr. Canning! He is a Cabinet Minister, and therefore incapable of any thing vulgar or profane. One would think that the triumphant question put by Mr. Hone to his jury, 'Whether Mr. Jekyll's Parody on Black-eyed Susan was meant to ridicule Sir William Curtis or the ballad of Black-eyed Susan?' would have put an end for ever to the cant of this subject, if reason could put an end to cant on any subject. The fate of different men is curious. Mr. Canning, who has all his life been defending the most odious and mischievous men and measures, passes, on that very account, for a most amiable character and an accomplished statesman. Mr. Hone, who defended himself against a charge of blasphemy for a parody on the Church Service, of which Mr. Canning had furnished him with a precedent, rose from the attack by the force of good-nature, and by that noble spirit of freedom and honesty, in which to be unjustly accused is to be superior to all fear, and to speak truth is to be eloquent -- but that he did not suffer himself to he crushed to atoms, and made a willing sacrifice to the prejudice, talent, and authority arrayed against him, is a resistance to the opinions of the world and the insolence of power, that can never be overlooked or forgiven.
'A wit's a feather, and a chief's a rod:
An honest man's the noblest work of God!'. [Original note.]


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Peter Landry