"On the Aristocracy of Letters" 1
Ha! here's three of us are sophisticated: -- off, you lendings.
There is such a thing as an aristocracy or privileged order in letters which has sometimes excited my wonder, and sometimes my spleen. We meet with authors who have never done anything, but who have a vast reputation for what they could have done. Their names stand high, and are in everybody's mouth, but their works are never heard of, or had better remain undiscovered for the sake of their admirers. -- Stat nominis umbra -- their pretensions are lofty and unlimited, as they have nothing to rest upon, or because it is impossible to confront them with the proofs of their deficiency. If you inquire farther, and insist upon some act of authorship to establish the claims of these Epicurean votaries of the Muses, you find that they had a great reputation at Cambridge, that they were senior wranglers or successful prize-essayists, that they visit at Holland House, and, to support that honour, must be supposed, of course, to occupy the first rank in the world of letters.2 It is possible, however, that they have some manuscript work in hand, which is of too much importance (and the writer has too much at stake in publishing it) hastily to see the light: or perhaps they once had an article in the Edinburgh Review, which was much admired at the time, and is kept by them ever since as a kind of diploma and unquestionable testimonial of merit. They are not like Grub Street authors, who write for bread, and are paid by the sheet. Like misers who hoard their wealth, they are supposed to be masters of all the wit and sense they do not impart to the public. 'Continents have most of what they contain,' says a considerable philosopher; and these persons, it must be confessed, have a prodigious command over themselves in the expenditure of light and learning. The Oriental curse, '0 that mine enemy had written a book!' hangs suspended over them. By never committing themselves, they neither give a handle to the malice of the world, nor excite the jealousy of friends; and keep all the reputation they have got, not by discreetly blotting, but by never writing a line. Some one told Sheridan, who was always busy about some new work and never advancing any farther in it, that he would not write because he was afraid of the author of the School for Scandal. So these idle pretenders are afraid of undergoing a comparison with themselves in something they have never done, but have had credit for doing. They do not acquire celebrity, they assume it; and escape detection by never venturing out of their imposing and mysterious incognito. They do not let themselves down by everyday work: for them to appear in print is a work of supererogation as much as in lords and kings; and like gentlemen with a large landed estate, they live on their established character, and do nothing (or as little as possible) to increase or lose it. There is not a more deliberate piece of grave imposture going. I know a person of this description who has been employed many years (by implication) in a translation of Thucydides, of which no one ever saw a word, but it does not answer the purpose of bolstering up a factitious reputation the less on that account. The longer it is delayed and kept sacred from the vulgar gaze, the more it swells into imaginary consequence; the labour and care required for a work of this kind being immense; -- and then there are no faults in an unexecuted translation. The only impeccable writers are those that never wrote. Another is an oracle on subjects of taste and classical erudition, because (he says at least) he reads Cicero once a year to keep up the purity of his Latinity. A third makes the indecency pass for the depth of his researches and for a high gusto in virtù, till, from his seeing nothing in the finest remains of ancient art, the world by the merest accident find out that there is nothing in him. There is scarcely anything that a grave face with an impenetrable manner will not accomplish, and whoever is weak enough to impose upon himself will have wit enough to impose upon the public -- particularly if he can make it their interest to be deceived by shallow boasting, and contrives not to hurt their self-love by sterling acquirements. Do you suppose that the understood translation of Thucydides costs its supposed author nothing? A select party of friends and admirers dine with him once a week at a magnificent town mansion, or a more elegant and picturesque retreat in the country. They broach their Horace and their old hock, and sometimes allude with a considerable degree of candour to the defects of works which are brought out by contemporary writers -- the ephemeral offspring of haste and necessity!
Among other things, the learned languages are a ready passport to this sort of unmeaning, unanalysed reputation. They presently lift a man up among the celestial constellations, the signs of the zodiac (as it were) and third heaven of inspiration, from whence he looks down on those who are toiling on in this lower sphere, and earning their bread by the sweat of their brain, at leisure and in scorn. If the graduates in this way condescend to express their thoughts in English, it is understood to be infra dignitatem -- such light and unaccustomed essays do not fit the ponderous gravity of their pen -- they only draw to advantage and with full justice to themselves in the bow of the ancients. Their native tongue is to them strange, inelegant, unapt, and crude. They 'cannot command it to any utterance of harmony. They have not the skill.' This is true enough; but you must not say so, under a heavy penalty -- the displeasure of pedants and blockheads. It would be sacrilege against the privileged classes, the Aristocracy of Letters. What! will you affirm that a profound Latin scholar, a perfect Grecian, cannot write a page of common sense or grammar? Is it not to be presumed, by all the charters of the Universities and the foundations of grammar-schools, that he who can speak a dead language must be à fortiori conversant with his own? Surely the greater implies the less. He who knows every science and every art cannot be ignorant of the most familiar forms of speech. Or if this plea is found not to hold water, then our scholastic bungler is said to be above this vulgar trial of skill, 'something must be excused to want of practice -- but did you not observe the elegance of the Latinity, how well that period would become a classical and studied dress?' Thus defects are 'monster'd' into excellences, and they screen their idol, and require you, at your peril, to pay prescriptive homage to false concords and inconsequential criticisms, because the writer of them has the character of the first or second Greek or Latin scholar in the kingdom. If you do not swear to the truth of these spurious credentials, you are ignorant and malicious, a quack and a scribbler -- flagranti delicto! Thus the man who can merely read and construe some old author is of a class superior to any living one, and, by parity of reasoning, to those old authors themselves: the poet or prose-writer of true and original genius, by the courtesy of custom, 'ducks to the learned fool'; or, as the author of Hudibras has so well stated the same thing --
There are whole families who are born classical, and are entered in the heralds' college of reputation by the right of consanguinity. Literature, like nobility, runs in the blood. There is the Burney family. There is no end of it or its pretensions. It produces wits, scholars, novelists, musicians, artists in 'numbers numberless.' The name is alone a passport to the Temple of Fame. Those who bear it are free of Parnassus by birthright. The founder of it was himself an historian and a musician, but more of a courtier and man of the world than either. The secret of his success may perhaps be discovered in the following passage, where, in alluding to three eminent performers on different instruments, he says: 'These three illustrious personages were introduced at the Emperor's court,' etc.; speaking of them as if they were foreign ambassadors or princes of the blood, and thus magnifying himself and his profession. This overshadowing manner carries nearly everything before it, and mystifies a great many. There is nothing like putting the best face upon things, and leaving others to find out the difference. He who could call three musicians 'personages' would himself play a personage through life, and succeed in his leading object. Sir Joshua Reynolds, remarking on this passage, said: 'No one had a greater respect than he had for his profession, but that he should never think of applying to it epithets that were appropriated merely to external rank and distinction.' Madame d'Arblay, it must be owned, had cleverness enough to stock a whole family, and to set up her cousin-germans, male and female, for wits and virtuosos to the third and fourth generation. The rest have done nothing, that I know of, but keep up the name.
The most celebrated author in modern times has written without a name, and has been knighted for anonymous productions. Lord Byron complains that Horace Walpole was not properly appreciated, 'first, because he was a gentleman; and secondly, because he was a nobleman.' His Lordship stands in one, at least, of the predicaments here mentioned, and yet he has had justice, or somewhat more, done him. He towers above his fellows by all the height of the peerage. If the poet lends a grace to the nobleman, the nobleman pays it back to the poet with interest. What a fine addition is ten thousand a year and a title to the flaunting pretensions of a modern rhapsodist! His name so accompanied becomes the mouth well: it is repeated thousands of times, instead of hundreds, because the reader in being familiar with the Poet's works seems to claim acquaintance with the Lord.
There is not a more helpless or more despised animal than a mere author, without any extrinsic advantages of birth, breeding, or fortune to set him off. The real ore of talents or learning must be stamped before it will pass current. To be at all looked upon as an author, a man must be something more or less than an author -- a rich merchant, a banker, a lord, or a ploughman. He is admired for something foreign to himself, that acts as a bribe to the servility or a set-off to the envy of the community. 'What should such fellows as we do, crawling betwixt heaven and earth'; -- 'coining our hearts for drachmas'; now scorched in the sun, now shivering in the breeze, now coming out in our newest gloss and best attire, like swallows in the spring, now 'sent back like hollowmas or shortest day'? The best wits, like the handsomest faces upon the town, lead a harassing, precarious life -- are taken up for the bud and promise of talent, which they no sooner fulfil than they are thrown aside like an old fashion -- are caressed without reason, and insulted with impunity -- are subject to all the caprice, the malice, and fulsome advances of that great keeper, the Public -- and in the end come to no good, like all those who lavish their favours on mankind at large, and look to the gratitude of the world for their reward. Instead of this set of Grub Street authors, the mere canaille of letters, this corporation of Mendicity, this ragged regiment of genius suing at the corners of streets in forma pauperis, give me the gentleman and scholar, with a good house over his head and a handsome table 'with wine of Attic taste' to ask his friends to, and where want and sorrow never come. Fill up the sparkling bowl; heap high the dessert with roses crowned; bring out the hot-pressed poem, the vellum manuscripts, the medals, the portfolios, the intaglios -- this is the true model of the life of a man of taste and virtù -- the possessors, not the inventors of these things, are the true benefactors of mankind and ornaments of letters. Look in, and there, amidst silver services and shining chandeliers, you will see the man of genius at his proper post, picking his teeth and mincing an opinion, sheltered by rank, bowing to wealth -- a poet framed, glazed, and hung in a striking light; not a straggling weed, torn and trampled on; not a poor Kit-run-the-street, but a powdered beau, a sycophant plant, an exotic reared in a glass case, hermetically sealed,
We find a class of persons who labour under an obvious natural inaptitude for whatever they aspire to. Their manner of setting about it is a virtual disqualification. The simple affirmation, 'What this man has said, I will do,' is not always considered as the proper test of capacity. On the contrary, there are people whose bare pretensions are as good or better than the actual performance of others. What I myself have done, for instance, I never find admitted as proof of what I shall be able to do: whereas I observe others who bring as proof of their competence to any task (and are taken at their word) what they have never done, and who gravely assure those who are inclined to trust them that their talents are exactly fitted for some post because they are just the reverse of what they have ever shown them to be. One man has the air of an Editor as much as another has that of a butler or porter in a gentleman's family. ----- is the model of this character, with a prodigious look of business, an air of suspicion which passes for sagacity, and an air of deliberation which passes for judgment. If his own talents are no ways prominent, it is inferred he will be more impartial and in earnest in making use of those of others. There is Britton, the responsible conductor of several works of taste and erudition, yet (God knows) without an idea in his head relating to any one of them. He is learned by proxy, and successful from sheer imbecility. If he were to get the smallest smattering of the departments which are under his control, he would betray himself from his desire to shine; but as it is, he leaves others to do all the drudgery for him. He signs his name in the title-page or at the bottom of a vignette, and nobody suspects any mistake. This contractor for useful and ornamental literature once offered me two guineas for a Life and Character of Shakespear, with an admission to his converzationi. I went once. There was a collection of learned lumber, of antiquaries, lexicographers, and other 'illustrious obscure,' and I had given up the day for lost, when in dropped Jack Taylor of the Sun -- (who would dare to deny that he was 'the Sun of our table'?) -- and I had nothing now to do but hear and laugh. Mr. Taylor knows most of the good things that have been said in the metropolis for the last thirty years, and is in particular an excellent retailer of the humours and extravagances of his old friend Peter Pindar. He had recounted a series of them, each rising above the other in a sort of magnificent burlesque and want of literal preciseness, to a medley of laughing and sour faces, when on his proceeding to state a joke of a practical nature by the said Peter, a Mr. ----- (I forget the name) objected to the moral of the story, and to the whole texture of Mr. Taylor's facetiae -- upon which our host, who had till now supposed that all was going on swimmingly, thought it time to interfere and give a turn to the conversation by saying, 'Why, yes, gentlemen, what we have hitherto heard fall from the lips of our friend has been no doubt entertaining and highly agreeable in its way; but perhaps we have had enough of what is altogether delightful and pleasant and light and laughable in conduct. Suppose, therefore, we were to shift the subject, and talk of what is serious and moral and industrious and laudable in character -- Let us talk of Mr. Tomkins the Penman!' -- This staggered the gravest of us, broke up our dinner-party, and we went upstairs to tea. So much for the didactic vein of one of our principal guides in the embellished walks of modern taste, and master manufacturers of letters. He had found that gravity had been a never-failing resource when taken at a pinch -- for once the joke miscarried -- and Mr. Tomkins the Penman figures to this day nowhere but in Sir Joshua's picture of him!
To complete the natural Aristocracy of Letters, we only want a Royal Society of Authors!
1 Hazlitt's "On the Aristocracy of Letters" is to be found in Table Talk, Essays on Men and Manners (1822).
2 [Original note.] Lord Holland had made a diary (in the manner of Boswell) of the conversation held at his house, and read it at the end of a week pro bono publico. Sir James Mackintosh made a considerable figure in it, and a celebrated poet none at all, merely answering Yes and No. With this result he was by no means satisfied, and talked incessantly from that day forward. At the end of the week he asked, with some anxiety and triumph, If his Lordship had continued his diary, expecting himself to shine in 'the first row of the rubric.' To which his Noble Patron answered in the negative, with an intimation that it had not appeared to him worth while. Our poet was thus thrown again into the background, and Sir James remained master of the field!