"Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen" 1
"Come the shadows -- so depart."
Lamb it was, I think, who suggested this subject, as well as the defense of Guy Faux, which I urged him to execute. As, however, he would undertake neither, I suppose I must do both, a task for which he would have been much fitter, no less from the temerity than the felicity of his pen --
On the question being started, Ayrton2 said, "I suppose the two first persons you would choose to see would be the two greatest names in English literature, Sir Isaac Newton, and Mr Locke?" In this Ayrton, as usual, reckoned without his host. Everyone burst out a laughing at the expression of Lamb's face, in which impatience was restrained by courtesy. "Yes, the greatest names," he stammered out hastily, "but they were not persons -- not persons." -- "Not persons?" said Ayrton, looking wise and foolish at the same time, afraid his triumph might be premature. "That is," rejoined Lamb, "not characters, you know. By Mr Locke and Sir Isaac Newton, you mean the Essay on the Human Understanding, and the Principia, which we have to this day. Beyond their contents there is nothing personally interesting in the men. But what we want to see any one bodily for, is when there is something peculiar, striking in the individuals, more than we can learn from their writings, and yet are curious to know. I dare say Locke and Newton were very much like Kneller's portraits of them. But who could paint Shakspeare?" -- "Ay," retorted Ayrton, "there it is; then I suppose you would prefer seeing him and Milton instead?" -- "No," said Lamb, "neither, I have seen so much of Shakspear on the stage and on book-stalls, in frontispieces and on mantel pieces, that I am quite tired of the everlasting repetition; and as to Milton's face, the impressions that have come down to us of it I do not like; it is too starched and puritanical; and I should be afraid of losing some of the manna of his poetry in the leaven of his countenance, and the precision's band and gown." -- "I shall guess no more," said Ayrton. "Who is it, then, you would like to see 'in his habit as he lived,' if you had your choice of the whole range of English literature?" Lamb then named Sir Thomas Browne and Fulke Greville, the friend of Sir Philip Sidney, as the two worthies whom he should feel the greatest pleasure to encounter on the floor of his apartment in their nightgown and slippers, and to exchange friendly greeting with them. At this Ayrton laughed outright, and conceived Lamb was jesting with him, but as no one followed his example, he thought there might be something in it, and waited for an explanation in a state of whimsical suspense. Lamb then (as well as I can remember a conversation that passed twenty years ago -- how time slips!) went on as follows. "The reason why I pitch upon these two authors is, that their writings are riddles and they themselves the most mysterious of personages. They resemble the soothsayers of old, who dealt in dark hints and doubtful oracles; and I should like to ask them the meaning of what no mortal but themselves, I should suppose, can fathom. There is Dr. Johnson: I have no curiosity, no strange uncertainty about him; he and Boswell together have pretty well let me into the secret of what passed through his mind. He and other writers like him are sufficiently explicit; my friends whose repose I should be tempted to disturb (were it in my power) are implicit, inextricable, inscrutable.
"When I look at that obscure but gorgeous prose-composition, the Urn-burial, I seem to myself to look into a deep abyss, at the bottom of which are hid pearls and rich treasure; or it is like a stately labyrinth of doubt and withering speculation, and I would invoke the spirit of the author to lead me through it. Besides, who would not be curious to see the lineaments of a man who, having himself been twice married, wished that mankind were propagated like trees! As to Fulke Greville, he is like nothing but one of his own 'Prologues spoken by the ghost of an old king of Ormus,' a truly formidable and inviting personage: his style is apocalyptical, cabalistical, a knot worthy of such an apparition to untie, and for the unravelling a passage or two, I would stand the brunt of an encounter with so portentous a commentator!" -- "I am afraid, in that case, " said Ayrton, "that if the mystery were once cleared up, the merit might be lost"; and turning to me, whispered a friendly apprehension, that while Lamb continued to admire these old crabbed authors, he would never become a popular writer. Dr Donne, was mentioned as a writer of the same period, with a very interesting countenance, whose history was singular, and whose meaning was often quite as uncomeatable, without a personal citation from the dead, as that of any of his contemporaries. The volume was produced; and while some one was expatiating on the exquisite simplicity and beauty of the portrait prefixed to the old edition, Ayrton got hold of the poetry, and exclaiming "What have we here?" read the following:
"I should like" said Mrs Reynolds, "To have seen Pope talk with Patty Blount, and I have seen Goldsmith," Every one turned round to look at Mrs Reynolds, as if by so doing they could get a sight at Goldsmith.
"Where," asked a harsh, croaking voice, "was Dr Johnson in the years 1745-6? He did not write anything that we know of, nor is there any account of him in Boswell during those two years. Was he in Scotland with the Pretender? He seems to have passed through the scenes in the Highlands in company with Boswell, many years after, 'with lack-lustre eye,' yet as if they were familiar to him, or associated in his mind with interests that he durst not explain. If so, it would be an additional reason for my liking him; and I would give something to have seen him seated in the tend with the youthful Majesty of Britain, and penning the proclamation to all true subjects and adherents of the legitimate Government."
"I thought," said Ayrton, turning short round upon Lamb, "that you of the Lake School did not like Pope?" --"Not like Pope! My dear sir, you must be under a mistake -- I can read him over and over for ever!" -- "Why, certainly, the Essay on Man must be allowed to be a masterpiece." -- "It may be so, but I seldom look into it." -- "Oh! then it's his Satires you admire?" -- "No, not his satires, but his friendly Epistles and his compliments." -- "Compliments! I did not know he ever made any." -- "The finest, " said Lamb, "that were ever paid by the wit of man. Each of them is worth an estate for life -- nay, is an immortality. There is the superb one to Lord Cornbury:
"What say you to Dryden?" -- " He rather made a show of himself, and courted popularity in that lowest temple of fame, a coffee-shop, so as in some measure to vulgarize one's idea of him. Pope, on the contrary, reached the very beau ideal of what a poet's life should be; and his fame while living seemed to be an emanation from that which was to circle his name after death. He was so far enviable (and one would feel proud to have witnessed the rare spectacle in him) that he was almost the only poet and man of genius who met with his reward on this side of the tomb, who realized in friends, fortune, the esteem of the world, the most sanguine hopes of a youthful ambition, and who found that sort of patronage from the great during his lifetime which they would be thought anxious to bestow upon him after his death. Read Gray's verse to him on his supposed return from Greece, after his translation of Homer was finished, and say if you would not gladly join the bright procession that welcomed him home, or see it once more land at Whitehall stairs," -- "Still," said Mrs Reynolds, "I would rather have seen him talking with Patty Blount or riding by in a coronet-coach with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu!"
"Erasmus Philips, who was deep in a game of piquet at the other end of the room, whispered to Martin Burney to ask if Junius would not be a fit person to invoke from the dead. "Yes," said Lamb, "provided he would agree to lay aside his mask."
We were not at a stand for a short time, when Fielding was mentioned as a candidate; only one, however seconded the proposition. "Richardson?" -- "By all means, but only to look at him through the glass-door of his back-shop, hard at work upon one of his novels (the most extraordinary contrast that ever was presented between an author and his works), but not to let him come behind his counter, lest he should want you to turn customer, nor to go upstairs with him, lest he should offer to read the first manuscript of Sir Charles Grandison, which was originally written in eight and twenty volumes octavo, or get out the letters of his female correspondents to prove that Joseph Andrews was low."
There was but one statesman in the whole of English history that anyone expressed the least desire to see -- Oliver Cromwell, with his fine, frank rough pimply face, and wily policy; and one enthusiast, John Bunyan, the immortal author of the Pilgrim's Progress. It seemed that if he came into the room, dreams would follow him, and that each person would nod under his golden cloud, "nigh-sphered in heaven," a canopy as strange and stately as any in Homer.
Of all persons near our own time, Garricks's name was received with the greatest enthusiasm, who was proposed by Barron Field. He presently superseded both Hogarth and Handle, who had been talked of, but then it was on condition that he should act in tragedy and comedy, in the play and the farce, Lear and Wildair, and Able Drugger. What a sight for sore eyes that would be! Who would not part with a year's income at least, almost with a year of his natural life, to be present at it? Besides, as he could not act alone, and recitations are unsatisfactory things, what a troop he must bring with him- -- the silver-tongued Barry, and Quin, and Shuter and Weston, and Mrs Clive and Mrs Pritchard, of whom I have heard my father speak as so great a favourite when he was young. This would indeed be a revival of the dead, the restoring of art; and so much more desirable, as such is the lurking scepticism mingled with our overstrained admiration of past excellence, that though we have the speeches of Burke, the portraits of Reynolds the writings of Goldsmith, and the conversation of Johnson, to show what people could do at that period, and to confirm the universal testimony to the merits of Garrick; yet, as it was before our time, we have our misgivings, as if he was probably, after all, little better than a Bartlemy-fair actor, dressed out to pay Macbeth in a scarlet coat and laced cocked-hat. For one, I should like to have seen and heard with my own eyes and ears. Certainly, by all accounts, if any one was ever moved by the true histrionic aestus, it was Garrick. When he followed the Ghost in Hamlet, he did not drop the sword, as most actors do, behind the scenes, but kept the point raised the whole way round, so fully was he possessed with the idea, or so anxious not to lose sight of his part for a moment. Once at a splendid dinner party at Lord------s', they suddenly missed Garrick, and could not imagine what was become of him, till they were drawn to the window by the convulsive screams and peals of laughter of a young negro boy, who was rolling on the ground in an ecstasy of delight to see Garrick mimicking a turkey-cock in the court-yard, with his coattail stuck out behind, and in a seeming flutter of feathered rage and pride. Of our party only two persons present had seen the British Roscius; and they seemed as willing as the rest to renew their acquaintance with their old favourite.
We were interrupted in the hey-day and mid-career of this fanciful speculation, by a grumbler in a corner, who declared it was a shame to make all this rout about a mere player and farce-writer to the neglect and exclusion of the fine old dramatists, the contemporaries and rivals of Shakespear. Lamb said he had anticipated this objection when he had named the author of Mustapha and Alaham; and, out of caprice insisted upon keeping him to represent the set, in preference to the wild, hare-brained enthusiast, Kit Marlow; to the sexton of St. Ann's, Webster, with his melancholy yew-trees and death's heads; to Decker, who was but a garrulous proser; to the voluminous Heywood; and even to Beaumont and Fletcher, who we might offend by complimenting the wrong author on their joint productions. Lord Brooke, on the contrary, stood quite by himself, or, in Cowley's words, was a "vast species alone." Some one hinted at the circumstances of his being a lord, which rather startled Lamb, but he said a ghost would perhaps dispense with strict etiquette, on being regularlyy addressed by his title. Ben Jonson divided our suffrages pretty equally. Some were afraid he would begin to traduce Shakspeare, who was not present to defend himself. "If he grows disagreeable," it was whispered aloud, "There is Godwin can match him" At length, his romantic visit to Drummond of Hawthornden was mentioned, and turned the scale in his favour.
Lamb inquired if there was any one that was hanged that I could choose to mention? And I answered Eugene Aram. The name of the "Admirable Crichton" was suddenly started as a splendid example of waste talents, so different from the generality of his countrymen. This choice was mightily approved by a North-Briton present, who declared himself descended from that prodigy of learning and accomplishment, and said he had family plate in his possession as vouchers for the fact, with the initials, A.C. -- Admirable Crichton! Hunt laughed, or rather roared, as heartily at this as I should think he has done for many years.
The last-named Mitre-courtier3 then wished to know whether there was any metaphysician to whom one might be tempted to apply the wizard spell? I replied, there were only six in modern times deserving the name -- Hobbes, Berkeley, Butler, Hartley, Hume, Leibnitz; and perhaps Jonathan Edwards, a Massachusetts man.4 As to the French, who talked fluently of having created this science, there was not a title in any of their writings that was not to be found literally in the authors I had mentioned. [Horne Tooke, who might have a claim to come in under the head of Grammar, was still living.] None of these names seemed to excite much interest, and I did not plead for the re-appearance of those who might be thought best fitted by the abstracted nature of their studies for the present spiritual and disembodied state, and who, even while on this living stage, were nearly divested of common flesh and blood. As Ayrton, with an uneasy, fidgety face, was about to put some question about Mr Locke and Dugald Stewart, he was prevented by Martin Burney, who observed, "If J------was here, he would undoubtedly be for having up those profound and redoubted scholiasts, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotuss" I said this might be fair enough in him who had read, or fancied he had read, the original works but I did not see how we could have any right to call up these authors to given an account of themselves in person, till we had looked into their writings.
By this time it should seem that some rumour of our whimsical deliberation had got wind, and had disturbed the irritabile genus in their shadowy abodes, for we received messages from several candidates that we had just been thinking of. Gray declined our invitation, though he had not yet been asked: Gay offered to come, and bring in his hand the Duchess of Bolton the original Polly: Steel and Addison left their cards as Captain Sentry and Sir Roger de Coverley: Swift came in and sat down without speaking a word, and quitted the room as abruptly: Otway an Chatterton were seen lingering on the opposite side of the Styx, but could not muster enough between them to pay Charon his fare: Thomson fell asleep in the boat, and was rowed back again -- and Burns sent a low fellow, one John Barleycorn, an old companion of his, who had conducted him to the other word, to say that he had during his lifetime been drawn out of his retirement as a show, only to be made an exciseman of, and that he would rather remain where he was. He desired however, to shake hands by his representative -- the hand, thus held out, was in a burning fever, and shook prodigiously.
The room was hung round with several portraits of eminent painters. While we were debating whether we should demand speech with these masters of mute eloquence, whose features were so familiar to us, it seemed all at once the glided from their frames, and seated themselves at some little distance from us. There was Leonardo, with his majestic beard and watchful eye, having a bust of Archimedes before him; next him was Raphael's graceful head turned round to the Fornaria; and on his other side was Lucretia Borgia, with calm, golden locks; Michael Angelo had placed the model of St. Peter's on the table before him; Correggio had an angel at his side; Titian was seated with his mistress between himself and Giorgione; Guido was accompanied by his own Aurora, who took a dice-box from him; Claude held a mirror in his hand; Rubens patted a beautiful panther (led in by a satyr) on the head; Vandyke appeared as his own Paris, and Rembrandt was hid under firs, gold chains, and jewels, which Sir Joshua eyed closely, holding his hand so as to shade his forehead. Not a word was spoken; and as we rose to do them homage, they still presented the same surface to the veiw. Not being bona-fide representations of living people, we got rid of the splendid apparitions by signs and dumb show. As soon as they had melted into thin air, there was a loud noise at the outer door, and we found it was Giotto, Cimabue, and Ghirlandaio, who had been raised from the dead by their earnest desire to see their illustrious successor --
"But shall we have enough to say," interrogated G. J----, " to the Legend of Good Women?" -- "Name, name, Mr J---," cried Huntin a boisterous tone of friendly exultation, "name as many as you please, without reserve or fear of molestation!" J------was perplexed between so many amiable recollections, that the name of the lady of his choice expired in a pensive whiff of his pipe; and Lamb impatiently declared for the Duchess of Newcastle. Mrs Hutchinson was no sooner mentioned, than she carried the day from the Duchess. We were the less solicitous on this subject of filling up the posthumous lists of Good Woman, as there was already one in the room as good, as sensible, and in all respects as exemplary, as the best of them could be for their lives! "I should like vastly to have seen Ninon de l'Enclos," said that incomparable person; and this immediately put us in mind that we had neglected to pay honour due to our friends on the other side of the Channel: Voltaire, the patriarch of levity, and Rousseau, the father of sentiment; Montaigne and Rabelais (great in wisdom and in wit); Moliere and that illustrious group that are collected round him (in the print of that subject) to hear him read his comedy of the Tartuffe, at the house of Ninon; Racine, La Fountain, Rochefoucault, St Evremont, etc.
"Oh! ever right, Menenius -- ever right!"
"There is only one other person I can ever think of after this," continues Hunt; but without mentioning a name that once put on a semblance of mortality. "If Shakspear was to come into the room, we should all rise up to meet him; but if that person was to come into it we should all fall down and try to kiss the hem of his garment!"
As a lady present seemed now to get uneasy at the turn the conversation had taken, we rose up to go. The morning broke with that dim, dubious light by which Gioto, Cimabue, and Ghirlandaio must have seen to paint their earliest works; and we parted to meet again and renew similar topics at night, the next night, and the night after that, till that night overspread Europe which saw no dawn. The same event, in truth, broke up our little Congress that broke up the great one. But that was to meet again; our deliberations have never been resumed.
1 Hazlitt's "Of Persons one Would Wish to Have Seen" was first published in the New Monthly Magazine, January, 1826 and can be found reproduced in Lectures on the English Comic Writers (1819) and Miscellaneous Essays (London: Dent, Everyman's Lib., 1913); Winterslow, Essays and Characters Written There (Oxford University Press, 1906); Selected Essays Geoffrey Keynes, Ed. (London: Nonsuch Press, 1930); Hazlitt's Essays Introduction by Herbert Paul (London: Cassell, nd); and, Essays & Characters (London: Nelson, nd).
2Hazlitt writes of earlier days, some 20 years earlier, during this time he was one of Lamb's circle: Captain Burney, Martin, his son; Wm. Ayrton, musician; James White, treasurer at Christ's Hospital; John Rickman, clerk to the speaker; Edward "Ned" Phillips, another clerk and Rickman's successor; Geo. Dyer; Joseph Hume; et al. One could have seen them at the residence of Charles and Mary Lamb where they met every Wednesday night; for discussion, cribbage and whist.
4 Bacon is not included in this list, nor do I know where he should come in. It is not easy to make room for him and his reputation together. This great and celebrated man in some of his works recommends it to pour a bottle of claret into the ground of a morning, and to stand over it, inhaling the perfumes. So he sometimes enriched the dry and barren soil of speculation with the fine aromatic spirit of his genius His Essays and his Advancement of Learning are works of vast depth and scope of observation. The last, though it contains no positive discoveries, is a noble chart of the human intellect, and a guide to all future inquirers.