1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Gibson Lockhart

John Gibson Lockhart, "Mr. L" Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk (1819) 3:134-37.



It was on this occasion that I had an opportunity of seeing and conversing with Mr. L— who, as well as Mr. W—n, is supposed to be one of the principal supporters of this Magazine, and so of judging for myself concerning an individual who seems to have cared very little how many enemies he raised up among those who were not personally acquainted with him. Owing to the satirical vein of some of the writings ascribed to his pen, most persons whom I have heard speak of him, seemed to have been impressed with the notion that the bias of his character inclined towards an unrelenting subversion of the pretensions of others. But I soon perceived that here was another instance of the incompetency of the crowd to form any rational opinion about persons of whom they see only partial glimpses, and hear only distorted representations. I was not long in his company ere I was convinced that those elements which form the basis of his mind could never find their satisfaction in mere satire, and that if the exercise of penetration had afforded no higher pleasure nor led to any more desireable result than that of detecting error, or exposing absurdity, there is no person who would sooner have felt an inclination to abandon it in despondency and disgust. At the same times a strong and ever-wakeful perception of the ludicrous, is certainly a prominent feature in his composition, and his flow of animal spirits enables him to enjoy it keenly, and invent it with success. I have seen, however, very few persons whose minds are so much alive and awake throughout every corner, and who are so much in the habit of trying and judging every thing by the united tact of so many qualities and feelings all at once. But one meets with abundance of individuals every day, who shew in conversation a greater facility of expression, and a more constant activity of speculative acuteness. I never saw Mr. L— very much engrossed with the desire of finding language to convey any relation of ideas that had occurred to him, or so enthusiastically engaged in tracing its consequences, as to forget every thing else. In regard to facility of expression, I do not know whether the study of languages, which is a favourite one with him — (indeed I am told he understands a good deal of almost all the modern languages, and is well skilled in the ancient ones) — I know not whether this study has any tendency to increase such facility, although there is no question it must help to improve the mind in many important particulars, by varying our modes of perception.

His features are regular, and quite definite in their outlines; his forehead is well advanced, and largest, I think, in the region of observation and perception; but the general expression is rather pensive than otherwise. Although an Oxonian, and early imbued with an admiration for the works of the Stagyrite, he seems rather to incline, in philosophy, to the high Platonic side of the question, and to lay a great deal of stress on the investigation and cultivation of the impersonal sentiments of the human mind — ideas which his acquaintance with German literature and philosophy has probably much contributed to strengthen. Under the influence of that mode of thinking, a turn for pleasantry rather inclines to exercise itself in a light and good-humoured play of fancy, upon the incongruities and absurd relations which are so continually presenting themselves in the external aspect of the world, than to gratify a sardonic bitterness in exulting over them, or to nourish a sour and atrabilious spirit in regarding them with a cherished and pampered feeling of delighted disapprobation, like that of Swift. But Mr. L— is a very young person, and I would hope may soon find that there are much better things in literature than satire, let it be as good-humoured as you will. Indeed, W— tells me he already professes himself heartily sick of it, and has begun to write, of late, in a quite opposite key.