"On Coffee-House Politicians" 1
There is a set of people who fairly come under this denomination. They spend their time and their breath in coffee-houses and other places of public resort, hearing or repeating some new thing. They sit with a paper in their hands in the morning, and with a pipe in their mouths in the evening, discussing the contents of it. The Times, the Morning Chronicle, and the Herald are necessary to their existence: in them 'they live and move and have their being.' The Evening Paper is impatiently expected and called for at a certain critical minute: the news of the morning becomes stale and vapid by the dinner-hour. A fresher interest is required, an appetite for the latest-stirring information is excited with the return of their meals; and a glass of old port or humming ale hardly relishes as it ought without the infusion of some lively topic that had its birth with the day, and perishes before night. 'Then come in the sweets of the evening': -- the Queen, the coronation, the last new play, the next fight, the insurrection of the Greeks or Neapolitans, the price of stocks, or death of kings, keep them on the alert till bedtime. No question comes amiss to them that is quite new -- none is ever heard of that is at all old.
'What things,' exclaims Beaumont in his verses to Ben Jonson, 'have we not seen done at the Mermaid!
I had almost forgotten the Southampton Tavern. We for some time took C---- for a lawyer, from a certain arguteness of voice and slenderness of neck, and from his having a quibble and a laugh at himself always ready. On inquiry, however, he was found to be a patent-medicine seller, and having leisure in his apprenticeship, and a forwardness of parts, he had taken to study Blackstone and the Statutes at Large. On appealing to Mounsey for his opinion on this matter, he observed pithily, 'I don't like so much law: the gentlemen here seem fond of law, but I have law enough at chambers.' One sees a great deal of the humours and tempers of men in a place of this sort, and may almost gather their opinions from their characters. There is C----, a fellow that is always in the wrong -- who puts might for right on all occasions -- a Tory in grain -- who has no one idea but what has been instilled into him by custom and authority -- an everlasting babbler on the stronger side of the question -- querulous and dictatorial, and with a peevish whine in his voice like a beaten schoolboy. He is a great advocate for the Bourbons and for the National Debt. The former he affirms to be the choice of the French people, and the latter he insists is necessary to the salvation of these kingdoms. This last point a little inoffensive gentleman among us, of a saturnine aspect but simple conceptions, cannot comprehend. 'I will tell you, sir -- I will make my propositions so clear that you will be convinced of the truth of my observation in a moment. Consider, sir, the number of trades that would be thrown out of employ if it were done away with: what would become of the porcelain manufacture without it?' Any stranger to overhear one of these debates would swear that the English as a nation are bad logicians. Mood and figure are unknown to them. They do not argue by the book. They arrive at conclusions through the force of prejudice, and on the principles of contradiction. Mr. C---- having thus triumphed in argument, offers a flower to the notice of the company as a specimen of his flower-garden, a curious exotic, nothing like it to be found in this kingdom; talks of his carnations, of his country-house, and old English hospitality, but never invites any of his friends to come down and take their Sunday's dinner with him. He is mean and ostentatious at the same time, insolent and servile, does not know whether to treat those he converses with as if they were his porters or his customers: the prentice-boy is not yet wiped out of him, and his imagination still hovers between his mansion at ----- and the workhouse. Opposed to him and to every one else is B., a radical reformer and logician, who makes clear work of the taxes and National Debt, reconstructs the Government from the first principles of things, shatters the Holy Alliance at a blow, grinds out the future prospects of society with a machine, and is setting out afresh with the commencement of the French Revolution five and twenty years ago, as if on an untried experiment. He minds nothing but the formal agreement of his premises and his conclusions, and does not stick at obstacles in the way, nor consequences in the end. If there was but one side of a question, he would be always in the right. He casts up one column of the account to admiration, but totally forgets and rejects the other. His ideas lie like square pieces of wood in his brain, and may be said to be piled up on a stiff architectural principle, perpendicularly, and at right angles. There is no inflection, no modification, no graceful embellishment, no Corinthian capitals. I never heard him agree to two propositions together, or to more than half a one at a time. His rigid love of truth bends to nothing but his habitual love of disputation. He puts one in mind of one of those long-headed politicians and frequenters of coffee-houses mentioned in Berkeley's Minute Philosopher, who would make nothing of such old-fashioned fellows as Plato and Aristotle. He has the new light strong upon him, and he knocks other people down with its solid beams. He denies that he has got certain views out of Cobbett, though he allows that there are excellent ideas occasionally to be met with in that writer. It is a pity that this enthusiastic and unqualified regard to truth should be accompanied with an equal exactness of expenditure and unrelenting eye to the main chance. He brings a bunch of radishes with him for cheapness, and gives a band of musicians at the door a penny, observing that he likes their performance better than all the Opera squalling. This brings the severity of his political principles into question, if not into contempt. He would abolish the National Debt from motives of personal economy, and objects to Mr. Canning's pension because it perhaps takes a farthing a year out of his own pocket. A great deal of radical reasoning has its source in this feeling. -- He bestows no small quantity of his tediousness upon Mounsey, on whose mind all these formulas and diagrams fall like seed on stony ground: 'while the manna is descending,' he shakes his ears, and, in the intervals of the debate, insinuates an objection, and calls for another half-pint. I have sometimes said to him, 'Any one to come in here without knowing you, would take you for the most disputatious man alive, for you are always engaged in an argument with somebody or other.' The truth is, that Mounsey is a good-natured, gentlemanly man, who notwithstanding, if appealed to, will not let an absurd or unjust proposition pass without expressing his dissent; and therefore he is a sort of mark for all those (and we have several of that stamp) who like to tease other people's understandings as wool-combers tease wool. He is certainly the flower of the flock. He is the oldest frequenter of the place, the latest sitter-up, well-informed, inobtrusive, and that sturdy old English character, a lover of truth and justice. I never knew Mounsey approve of anything unfair or illiberal. There is a candour and uprightness about his mind which can neither be wheedled nor browbeat into unjustifiable complaisance. He looks straight forward as he sits with his glass in his hand, turning neither to the right nor the left, and I will venture to say that he has never had a sinister object in view through life. Mrs. Battle (it is recorded in her Opinions on Whist) could not make up her mind to use the word 'Go.' Mounsey, from long practice, has got over this difficulty, and uses it incessantly. It is no matter what adjunct follows in the train of this despised monosyllable, -- whatever liquid comes after this prefix is welcome. Mounsey, without being the most communicative, is the most conversible man I know. The social principle is inseparable from his person. If he has nothing to say, he drinks your health; and when you cannot, from the rapidity and carelessness of his utterance, catch what he says, you assent to it with equal confidence: you know his meaning is good. His favourite phrase is, 'We have all of us something of the coxcomb'; and yet he has none of it himself. Before I had exchanged half a dozen sentences with Mounsey, I found that he knew several of my old acquaintance (an immediate introduction of itself, for the discussing the characters and foibles of common friends is a great sweetener and cement of friendship) -- and had been intimate with most of the wits and men about town for the last twenty years. He knew Tobin, Wordsworth, Porson, Wilson, Paley, Erskine, and many others. He speaks of Paley's pleasantry and unassuming manners, and describes Porson's long potations and long quotations formerly at the Cider Cellar in a very lively way. He has doubts, however, as to that sort of learning. On my saying that I had never seen the Greek Professor but once, at the Library of the London Institution, when he was dressed in an old rusty black coat with cobwebs hanging to the skirts of it, and with a large patch of coarse brown paper covering the whole length of his nose, looking for all the world like a drunken carpenter, and talking to one of the proprietors with an air of suavity, approaching to condescension, Mounsey could not help expressing some little uneasiness for the credit of classical literature. 'I submit, sir, whether common sense is not the principal thing? What is the advantage of genius and learning if they are of no use in the conduct of life?' -- Mounsey is one who loves the hours that usher in the morn, when a select few are left in twos and threes like stars before the break of day, and when the discourse and the ale are 'aye growing better and better.' Wells, Mounsey, and myself were all that remained one evening. We had sat together several hours without being tired of one another's company. The conversation turned on the Beauties of Charles the Second's Court at Windsor, and from thence to Count Grammont, their gallant and gay historian. We took our favourite passages in turn -- one preferring that of Killigrew's country cousin, who, having been resolutely refused by Miss Warminster (one of the Maids of Honour), when he found she had been unexpectedly brought to bed, fell on his knees and thanked God that now she might take compassion on him -- another insisting that the Chevalier Hamilton's assignation with Lady Chesterfield, when she kept him all night shivering in an old out-house, was better. Jacob Hall's prowess was not forgotten, nor the story of Miss Stuart's garters. I was getting on in my way with that delicate endroit in which Miss Churchill is first introduced at court and is besieged (as a matter of course) by the Duke of York, who was gallant as well as bigoted on system. His assiduities, however, soon slackened, owing (it is said) to her having a pale, thin face: till one day, as they were riding out hunting together, she fell from her horse, and was taken up almost lifeless. The whole assembled court was thrown by this event into admiration that such a body should belong to such a face5 (so transcendent a pattern was she of the female form), and the Duke was fixed. This, I contended, was striking, affecting, and grand, the sublime of amorous biography, and said I could conceive of nothing finer than the idea of a young person in her situation, who was the object of indifference or scorn from outward appearance, with the proud suppressed consciousness of a Goddess-like symmetry, locked up by 'fear and niceness, the handmaids of all women,' from the wonder and worship of mankind. I said so then, and I think so now: my tongue grew wanton in the praise of this passage, and I believe it bore the bell from its competitors. Wells then spoke of Lucius Apuleius and his Golden Ass, which contains the story of Cupid and Psyche, with other matter rich and rare, and went on to the romance of Heliodorus, Theagenes and Chariclea. This, as he affirmed, opens with a pastoral landscape equal to Claude, and in it the presiding deities of Love and Wine appear in all their pristine strength, youth, and grace, crowned and worshipped as of yore. The night waned, but our glasses brightened, enriched with the pearls of Grecian story. Our cup-bearer slept in a corner of the room, like another Endymion, in the pale ray of a half-extinguished lamp, and starting up at a fresh summons for a further supply, he swore it was too late, and was inexorable to entreaty. Mounsey sat with his hat on and with a hectic flush in his face while any hope remained, but as soon as we rose to go, he darted out of the room as quick as lightning, determined not to be the last that went. -- I said some time after to the waiter, that 'Mr. Mounsey was no flincher.' 'Oh! sir,' says he, 'you should have known him formerly, when Mr. Hume and Mr. Ayrton used to be here. Now he is quite another man: he seldom stays later than one or two.' -- 'Why, did they keep it up much then?' 'Oh! yes; and used to sing catches and all sorts.' -- 'What, did Mr. Mounsey sing catches?' 'He joined chorus, sir, and was as merry as the best of them. He was always a pleasant gentleman!' -- This Hume and Ayrton succumbed in the fight. Ayrton was a dry Scotchman, Hume a good-natured, hearty Englishman. I do not mean that the same character applies to all Scotchmen or to all Englishmen. Hume was of the Pipe-Office (not unfitly appointed), and in his cheerfuller cups would delight to speak of a widow and a bowling-green, that ran in his head to the last. 'What is the good of talking of those things now?' said the man of utility. 'I don't know,' replied the other, quaffing another glass of sparkling ale, and with a lambent fire playing in his eye and round his bald forehead -- (he had a head that Sir Joshua would have made something bland and genial of) -- 'I don't know, but they were delightful to me at the time, and are still pleasant to talk and think of.' -- Such a one, in Touchstone's phrase, is a natural philosopher; and in nine cases out of ten that sort of philosophy is the best! I could enlarge this sketch, such as it is; but to prose on to the end of the chapter might prove less profitable than tedious.
I like very well to sit in a room where there are people talking on subjects I know nothing of, if I am only allowed to sit silent and as a spectator; but I do not much like to join in the conversation, except with people and on subjects to my taste. Sympathy is necessary to society. To look on, a variety of faces, humours, and opinions is sufficient; to mix with others, agreement as well as variety is indispensable. What makes good society? I answer, in one word, real fellowship. Without a similitude of tastes, acquirements, and pursuits (whatever may be the difference of tempers and characters) there can be no intimacy or even casual intercourse worth the having. What makes the most agreeable party? A number of people with a number of ideas in common, 'yet so as with a difference'; that is, who can put one or more subjects which they have all studied in the greatest variety of entertaining or useful lights. Or, in other words, a succession of good things said with good-humour, and addressed to the understandings of those who hear them, make the most desirable conversation. Ladies, lovers, beaux, wits, philosophers, the fashionable or the vulgar, are the fittest company for one another. The discourse at Randal's is the best for boxers; that at Long's for lords and loungers. I prefer Hunt's conversation almost to any other person's, because, with a familiar range of subjects, he colours with a totally new and sparkling light, reflected from his own character. Elia, the grave and witty, says things not to be surpassed in essence; but the manner is more painful and less a relief to my own thoughts. Some one conceived he could not be an excellent companion, because he was seen walking down the side of the Thames, passibus iniquis, after dining at Richmond. The objection was not valid. I will, however, admit that the said Elia is the worst company in the world in bad company, if it be granted me that in good company he is nearly the best that can be. He is one of those of whom it may be said, Tell me your company, and I'll tell you your manners. He is the creature of sympathy, and makes good whatever opinion you seem to entertain of him. He cannot outgo the apprehensions of the circle, and invariably acts up or down to the point of refinement or vulgarity at which they pitch him. He appears to take a pleasure in exaggerating the prejudice of strangers against him; a pride in confirming the prepossessions of friends. In whatever scale of intellect he is placed, he is as lively or as stupid as the rest can be for their lives. If you think him odd and ridiculous, he becomes more and more so every minute, à la folie, till he is a wonder gazed [at] by all -- set him against a good wit and a ready apprehension, and he brightens more and more--
I do not think there is anything deserving the name of society to be found out of London; and that for the two following reasons. First, there is neighbourhood elsewhere, accidental or unavoidable acquaintance: people are thrown together by chance or grow together like trees; but you can pick your society nowhere but in London. The very persons that of all others you would wish to associate with in almost every line of life (or at least of intellectual pursuit) are to be met with there. It is hard if out of a million of people you cannot find half a dozen to your liking. Individuals may seem lost and hid in the size of the place; but in fact, from this very circumstance, you are within two or three miles' reach of persons that, without it, you would be some hundreds apart from. Secondly, London is the only place in which each individual in company is treated according to his value in company, and to that only. In every other part of the kingdom he carries another character about with him, which supersedes the intellectual or social one. It is known in Manchester or Liverpool what every man in the room is worth in land or money; what are his connections and prospects in life -- and this gives a character of servility or arrogance, of mercenaries or impertinence to the whole of provincial intercourse. You laugh not in proportion to a man's wit, but his wealth; you have to consider not what, but whom you contradict. You speak by the pound, and are heard by the rood. In the metropolis there is neither time nor inclination for these remote calculations. Every man depends on the quantity of sense, wit, or good manners he brings into society for the reception he meets with in it. A Member of Parliament soon finds his level as a commoner: the merchant and manufacturer cannot bring his goods to market here: the great landed proprietor shrinks from being the lord of acres into a pleasant companion or a dull fellow. When a visitor enters or leaves a room, it is not inquired whether he is rich or poor, whether he lives in a garret or a palace, or comes in his own or a hackney coach, but whether he has a good expression of countenance, with an unaffected manner, and whether he is a man of understanding or a blockhead. These are the circumstances by which you make a favourable impression on the company, and by which they estimate you in the abstract. In the country, they consider whether you have a vote at the next election or a place in your gift, and measure the capacity of others to instruct or entertain them by the strength of their pockets and their credit with their banker. Personal merit is at a prodigious discount in the provinces. I like the country very well if I want to enjoy my own company; but London is the only place for equal society, or where a man can say a good thing or express an honest opinion without subjecting himself to being insulted, unless he first lays his purse on the table to back his pretensions to talent or independence of spirit. I speak from experience.6
1 Hazlitt's "On Coffee-House Politicians" is to be found in Table Talk, Essays on Men and Manners (1822).
2 [Original note.] It is not very long ago that I saw two Dissenting Ministers (the Ultima Thud of the sanguine, visionary temperament in politics) stuffing their pipes with dried currant-leaves, calling it Radical Tobacco, lighting it with a lens in the rays of the sun, and at every puff fancying that they undermined the Boroughmongers, as Trim blew up the army opposed to the Allies! They had deceived the Senate. Methinks I see them now, smiling as in scorn of Corruption.
3 [Original note.] William, our waiter, is dressed neatly in black, takes in the TICKLER (which many of the gentlemen like to look into), wears, I am told, a diamond pin in his shirt-collar, has a music-master to teach him to play on the flageolet two hours before the maids are up, complains of confinement and a delicate constitution, and is a complete Master Stephen in his way.
4 [Original note.] His account of Dr. Whittle was prodigious -- of his occult sagacity, of his eyes prominent and wild like a hare's, fugacious of followers, of the arts by which he had left the City to lure the patients that he wanted after him to the West End, of the ounce of tea that he purchased by stratagem as an unusual treat to his guest, and of the narrow winding staircase, from the height of which he contemplated in security the imaginary approach of duns. He was a large, plain, fair-faced Moravian preacher, turned physician. He was an honest man, but vain of he knew not what. He was once sitting where Sarratt was playing a game at chess without seeing the board; and after remaining for some time absorbed in silent wonder, he turned suddenly to me and said, 'Do you know, Mr. Hazlitt, that I think there is something I could do?' 'Well, what is that?' 'Why, perhaps you would not guess, but I think I could dance, I'm sure I could; ay, I could dance like Vestris!' Sarratt, who was a man of various accomplishments (among others one of the Fancy), afterwards bared his arm to convince us of his muscular strength, and Mrs. Sarratt going out of the room with another lady said, 'Do you know, Madam, the Doctor is a great jumper!' Moliere could not outdo this. Never shall I forget his pulling off his coat to eat beef-steaks on equal terms with Martin Burney. Life is short, but full of mirth and pastime, did we not so soon forget what we have laughed at, perhaps that we may not remember what we have cried at! Sarratt, the chess-player, was an extraordinary man. He had the same tenacious, epileptic faculty in other things that he had at chess, and could no more get any other ideas out of his mind than he could those of the figures on the board. He was a great reader, but had not the least taste. Indeed the violence of his memory tyrannised over and destroyed all power of selection. He could repeat [all] Ossian by heart, without knowing the best passage from the worst; and did not perceive he was tiring you to death by giving an account of the breed, education, and manners of fighting-dogs for hours together. The sense of reality quite superseded the distinction between the pleasurable and the painful. He was altogether a mechanical philosopher.
5 [Original note.] Ils ne pouvoient croire qu'un corps de cette beaute fut de quelque chose au visage de Mademoiselle Churchill.' -- Memoires de Grammont, vol. ii. p. 254.
6 [Original note.] When I was young I spent a good deal of my time at Manchester and Liverpool; and I confess I give the preference to the former. There you were oppressed only by the aristocracy of wealth; in the latter by the aristocracy of wealth and letters by turns. You could not help feeling that some of their great men were authors among merchants and merchants among authors. Their bread was buttered on both sides, and they had you at a disadvantage either way. The Manchester cotton-spinners, on the contrary, set up no pretensions beyond their looms, were hearty good fellows, and took any information or display of ingenuity on other subjects in good part. I remember well being introduced to a distinguished patron of art and rising merit at a little distance from Liverpool, and was received with every mark of attention and politeness; till, the conversation turning on ltalian literature, our host remarked that there was nothing in the English language corresponding to the severity of the Italian ode -- except perhaps Dryden's Alexander's Feast and Pope's St. Cecilia! I could no longer contain my desire to display my smattering in criticism, and began to maintain that Pope's Ode was, as it appeared to me, far from an example of severity in writing. I soon perceived what I had done, but here am I writing Table-talks in consequence. Alas! I knew as little of the world then as I do now. I never could understand anything beyond an abstract definition.