The Spirit of the Age/The Late Mr. Horne Tooke

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40132The Spirit of the Age — The Late Mr. Horne TookeWilliam Hazlitt


Mr. Horne Tooke was one of those who may be considered as connecting links between a former period and the existing generation. His education and accomplishments, nay, his political opinions, were of the last age; his mind, and the tone of his feelings were modern. There was a hard, dry materialism in the very texture of his understanding, varnished over by the external refinements of the old school. Mr. Tooke had great scope of attainment, and great versatility of pursuit; but the same shrewdness, quickness, cool self-possession, the same literalness of perception, and absence of passion and enthusiasm, characterised nearly all he did, said, or wrote. He was without a rival (almost) in private conversation, an expert public speaker, a keen politician, a first-rate grammarian, and the finest gentleman (to say the least) of his own party. He had no imagination (or he would not have scorned it!)—no delicacy of taste, no rooted prejudices or strong attachments: his intellect was like a bow of polished steel, from which he shot sharp-pointed poisoned arrows at his friends in private, at his enemies in public. His mind (so to speak) had no religion in it, and very little even of the moral qualities of genius; but he was a man of the world, a scholar bred, and a most acute and powerful logician. He was also a wit, and a formidable one: yet it may be questioned whether his wit was any thing more than an excess of his logical faculty: it did not consist in the play of fancy, but in close and cutting combinations of the understanding. "The law is open to every one: so," said Mr. Tooke, "is the London Tavern!" It is the previous deduction formed in the mind, and the splenetic contempt felt for a practical sophism, that beats about the bush for, and at last finds the apt illustration; not the casual, glancing coincidence of two objects, that points out an absurdity to the understanding. So, on another occasion, when Sir Allan Gardiner (who was a candidate for Westminster) had objected to Mr. Fox, that "he was always against the minister, whether right or wrong," and Mr. Fox, in his reply, had overlooked this slip of the tongue, Mr. Tooke immediately seized on it, and said, "he thought it at least an equal objection to Sir Allan, that he was always with the minister, whether right or wrong." This retort had all the effect, and produced the same surprise as the most brilliant display of wit or fancy: yet it was only the detecting a flaw in an argument, like a flaw in an indictment, by a kind of legal pertinacity, or rather by a rigid and constant habit of attending to the exact import of every word and clause in a sentence. Mr. Tooke had the mind of a lawyer; but it was applied to a vast variety of topics and general trains of speculation.

Mr. Horne Tooke was in private company, and among his friends, the finished gentleman of the last age. His manners were as fascinating as his conversation was spirited and delightful. He put one in mind of the burden of the song of "The King's Old Courtier, and an Old Courtier of the King's." He was, however, of the opposite party. It was curious to hear our modern sciolist advancing opinions of the most radical kind without any mixture of radical heat or violence, in a tone of fashionable nonchalance, with elegance of gesture and attitude, and with the most perfect good-humour. In the spirit of opposition, or in the pride of logical superiority, he too often shocked the prejudices or wounded the self-love of those about him, while he himself displayed the same unmoved indifference or equanimity. He said the most provoking things with a laughing gaiety, and a polite attention, that there was no withstanding. He threw others off their guard by thwarting their favourite theories, and then availed himself of the temperance of his own pulse to chafe them into madness. He had not one particle of deference for the opinion of others, nor of sympathy with their feelings; nor had he any obstinate convictions of his own to defend—

"Lord of himself, uncumbered with a creed!"

He took up any topic by chance, and played with it at will, like a juggler with his cups and balls. He generally ranged himself on the losing side; and had rather an ill-natured delight in contradiction, and in perplexing the understandings of others, without leaving them any clue to guide them out of the labyrinth into which he had led them. He understood, in its perfection, the great art of throwing the onus probandi on his adversary; and so could maintain almost any opinion, however absurd or fantastical, with fearless impunity. I have heard a sensible and well-informed man say, that he never was in company with Mr. Tooke without being delighted and surprised, or without feeling the conversation of every other person to be flat in the comparison; but that he did not recollect having ever heard him make a remark that struck him as a sound and true one, or that he himself appeared to think so. He used to plague Fuseli by asking him after the origin of the Teutonic dialects, and Dr. Parr, by wishing to know the meaning of the common copulative, Is. Once at G——'s, he defended Pitt from a charge of verbiage, and endeavoured to prove him superior to Fox. Some one imitated Pitt's manner, to show that it was monotonous, and he imitated him also, to show that it was not. He maintained (what would he not maintain?) that young Betty's acting was finer than John Kemble's, and recited a passage from Douglas in the manner of each, to justify the preference he gave to the former. The mentioning this will please the living; it cannot hurt the dead. He argued on the same occasion and in the same breath, that Addison's style was without modulation, and that it was physically impossible for any one to write well, who was habitually silent in company. He sat like a king at his own table, and gave law to his guests—and to the world! No man knew better how to manage his immediate circle, to foil or bring them out. A professed orator, beginning to address some observations to Mr. Tooke with a voluminous apology for his youth and inexperience, he said, "Speak up, young man!"—and by taking him at his word, cut short the flower of orations. Porson was the only person of whom he stood in some degree of awe, on account of his prodigious memory and knowledge of his favourite subject. Languages. Sheridan, it has been remarked, said more good things, but had not an equal flow of pleasantry. As an instance of Mr. Horne Tooke's extreme coolness and command of nerve, it has been mentioned that once at a public dinner when he had got on the table to return thanks for his health being drank with a glass of wine in his hand, and when there was a great clamour and opposition for some time, after it had subsided, he pointed to the glass to shew that it was still full. Mr. Holcroft (the author of the Road to Ruin) was one of the most violent and fiery-spirited of all that motley crew of persons, who attended the Sunday meeting sat Wimbledon. One day he was so enraged by some paradox or raillery of his host, that he indignantly rose from his chair, and said, "Mr. Tooke, you are a scoundrel!" His opponent without manifesting the least emotion, replied, "Mr. Holcroft, when is it that I am to dine with you? shall it be next Thursday?"—"If you please, Mr. Tooke!" answered the angry philosopher, and sat down again.—It was delightful to see him sometimes turn from these waspish or ludicrous altercations with over-weening antagonists to some old friend and veteran politician seated at his elbow; to hear him recal the time of Wilkes and Liberty, the conversation mellowing like the wine with the smack of age; assenting to all the old man said, bringing out his pleasant traits, and pampering him into childish self-importance, and sending him away thirty years younger than he came!

As a public or at least as a parliamentary speaker, Mr. Tooke did not answer the expectations that had been conceived of him, or probably that he had conceived of himself. It is natural for men who have felt a superiority over all those whom they happen to have encountered, to fancy that this superiority will continue, and that it will extend from individuals to public bodies. There is no rule in the case; or rather, the probability lies the contrary way. That which constitutes the excellence of conversation is of little use in addressing large assemblies of people; while other qualities are required that are hardly to be looked for in one and the same capacity. The way to move great masses of men is to shew that you yourself are moved. In a private circle, a ready repartee, a shrewd cross-question, ridicule and banter, a caustic remark or an amusing anecdote, whatever sets off the individual to advantage, or gratifies the curiosity or piques the self-love of the hearers, keeps attention alive, and secures the triumph of the speaker—it is a personal contest, and depends on personal and momentary advantages. But in appealing to the public, no one triumphs but in the triumph of some public cause, or by shewing a sympathy with the general and predominant feelings of mankind. In a private room, a satirist, a sophist may provoke admiration by expressing his contempt for each of his adversaries in turn, and by setting their opinion at defiance—but when men are congregated together on a great public question and for a weighty object, they must be treated with more respect; they are touched with what affects themselves or the general weal, not with what flatters the vanity of the speaker; they must be moved altogether, if they are moved at all; they are impressed with gratitude for a luminous exposition of their claims or for zeal in their cause; and the lightning of generous indignation at bad men and bad measures is followed by thunders of applause—even in the House of Commons. But a man may sneer and cavil and puzzle and fly-blow every question that comes before him—be despised and feared by others, and admired by no one but himself. He who thinks first of himself, either in the world or in a popular assembly, will be sure to turn attention away from his claims, instead of fixing it there. He must make common cause with his hearers. To lead, he must follow the general bias. Mr. Tooke did not therefore succeed as a speaker in parliament. He stood aloof, he played antics, he exhibited his peculiar talent—while he was on his legs, the question before the House stood still; the only point at issue respected Mr. Tooke himself, his personal address and adroitness of intellect Were there to be no more places and pensions, because Mr. Tooke's style was terse and epigrammatic? Were the Opposition benches to be inflamed to an unusual pitch of "sacred vehemence," because he gave them plainly to understand there was not a pin to choose between Ministers and Opposition? Would the House let him remain among them, because, if they turned him out on account of his black coat. Lord Camelford had threatened to send his black servant in his place? This was a good joke, but not a practical one. Would he gain the affections of the people out of doors, by scouting the question of reform? Would the King ever relish the old associate of Wilkes? What interest, then, what party did he represent? He represented nobody but himself. He was an example of an ingenious man, a clever talker, but he was out of his place in the House of Commons; where people did not come (as in his own house) to admire or break a lance with him, but to get through the business of the day, and so adjourn! He wanted effect and momentum. Each of his sentences told very well in itself, but they did not all together make a speech. He left off where he began. His eloquence was a succession of drops, not a stream. His arguments, though subtle and new, did not affect the main body of the question. The coldness and pettiness of his manner did not warm the hearts or expand the understandings of his hearers. Instead of encouraging, he checked the ardour of his friends; and teazed, instead of overpowering his antagonists. The only palpable hit he ever made, while he remained there, was the comparing his own situation in being rejected by the House, on account of the supposed purity of his clerical character, to the story of the girl at the Magdalen, who was told "she must turn out and qualify."[1] This met with laughter and loud applause. It was a home thrust, and the House (to do them justice) are obliged to any one who, by a smart blow, relieves them of the load of grave responsibility, which sits heavy on their shoulders.—At the hustings, or as an election-candidate, Mr. Tooke did better. There was no great question to move or carry—it was an affair of political sparring between himself and the other candidates. He took it in a very cool and leisurely manner—watched his competitors with a wary, sarcastic eye; picked up the mistakes or absurdities that fell from them, and retorted them on their heads; told a story to the mob; and smiled and took snuff with a gentlemanly and becoming air, as if he was already seated in the House. But a Court of Law was the place where Mr. Tooke made the best figure in public. He might assuredly be said to be "native and endued unto that element." He had here to stand merely on the defensive—not to advance himself, but to block up the way—not to impress others, but to be himself impenetrable. All he wanted was negative success; and to this no one was better qualified to aspire. Cross purposes, moot-points, pleas, demurrers, flaws in the indictment, double meanings, cases, inconsequentialities, these were the play-things, the darlings of Mr. Tooke's mind; and with these he baffled the Judge, dumb-founded the Counsel, and outwitted the Jury. The report of his trial before Lord Kenyon is a master-piece of acuteness, dexterity, modest assurance, and legal effect. It is much like his examination before the Commissioners of the Income-Tax—nothing could be got out of him in either case!

Mr. Tooke, as a political leader, belonged to the class of trimmers; or at most, it was his delight to make mischief and spoil sport. He would rather be against himself than for any body else. He was neither a bold nor a safe leader. He enticed others into scrapes, and kept out of them himself. Provided he could say a clever or a spiteful thing, he did not care whether it served or injured the cause. Spleen or the exercise of intellectual power was the motive of his patriotism, rather than principle. He would talk treason with a saving clause; and instil sedition into the public mind, through the medium of a third (who was to be the responsible) party. He made Sir Francis Burdett his spokesman in the House and to the country, often venting his chagrin or singularity of sentiment at the expense of his friend; but what in the first was trick or reckless vanity, was in the last plain downright English honesty and singleness of heart. In the case of the State Trials, in 1794, Mr. Tooke rather compromised his friends to screen himself. He kept repeating that "others might have gone on to Windsor, but he had stopped at Hounslow," as if to go farther might have been dangerous and unwarrantable. It was not the question how far he or others had actually gone, but how far they had a right to go, according to the law. His conduct was not the limit of the law, nor did treasonable excess begin where prudence or principle taught him to stop short, though this was the oblique inference liable to be drawn from his line of defence. Mr. Tooke was uneasy and apprehensive for the issue of the Government-prosecution while in confinement, and said, in speaking of it to a friend, with a morbid feeling and an emphasis quite unusual with him—"They want our blood—blood—blood!" It was somewhat ridiculous to implicate Mr. Tooke in a charge of High Treason (and indeed the whole charge was built on the mistaken purport of an intercepted letter relating to an engagement for a private dinner-party)—his politics were not at all revolutionary. In this respect he was a mere pettifogger, full of chicane, and captious objections, and unmeaning discontent; but he had none of the grand whirling movements of the French Revolution, nor of the tumultuous glow of rebellion in his head or in his heart. His politics were cast in a different mould, or confined to the party distinctions and court-intrigues and pittances of popular right, that made a noise in the time of Junius and Wilkes—and even if his understanding had gone along with more modern and unqualified principles, his cautious temper would have prevented his risking them in practice. Horne Tooke (though not of the same side in politics) had much of the tone of mind and more of the spirit of moral feeling of the celebrated philosopher of Malmesbury. The narrow scale and fine-drawn distinctions of his political creed made his conversation on such subjects infinitely amusing, particularly when contrasted with that of persons who dealt in the sounding common-places and sweeping clauses of abstract politics. He knew all the cabals and jealousies and heart-burnings in the beginning of the late reign, the changes of administration and the springs of secret influence, the characters of the leading men, Wilkes, Barrè, Dunning, Chatham, Burke, the Marquis of Rockingham, North, Shelburne, Fox, Pitt, and all the vacillating events of the American war:—these formed a curious back-ground to the more prominent figures that occupied the present time, and Mr. Tooke worked out the minute details and touched in the evanescent traits with the pencil of a master. His conversation resembled a political camera obscura—as quaint as it was magical. To some pompous pretenders he might seem to narrate fabellas aniles (old wives' fables)—but not to those who study human nature, and wish to know the materials of which it is composed. Mr. Tooke's faculties might appear to have ripened and acquired a finer flavour with age. In a former period of his life he was hardly the man he was latterly; or else he had greater abilities to contend against. He no where makes so poor a figure as in his controversy with Junius. He has evidently the best of the argument, yet he makes nothing out of it. He tells a long story about himself, without wit or point in it; and whines and whimpers like a school-boy under the rod of his master. Junius, after bringing a hasty charge against him, has not a single fact to adduce in support of it; but keeps his ground and fairly beats his adversary out of the field by the mere force of style. One would think that "Parson Horne" knew who Junius was, and was afraid of him. "Under him his genius is" quite "rebuked." With the best cause to defend, he comes off more shabbily from the contest than any other person in the Letters, except Sir William Draper, who is the very hero of defeat.

The great thing which Mr. Horne Tooke has done, and which he has left behind him to posterity, is his work on Grammar, oddly enough entitled The Diversions of Purley-Many people have taken it up as a description of a game—others supposing it to be a novel. It is, in truth, one of the few philosophical works on Grammar that were ever written. The essence of it (and, indeed, almost all that is really valuable in it) is contained in his Letter to Dunning, published about the year 1775. Mr. Tooke's work is truly elementary. Dr. Lowth described Mr. Harris's Hermes as "the finest specimen of analysis since the days of Aristotle"—a work in which there is no analysis at all, for analysis consists in reducing things to their principles, and not in endless details and subdivisions. Mr. Harris multiplies distinctions, and confounds his readers. Mr. Tooke clears away the rubbish of school-boy technicalities, and strikes at the root of his subject. In accomplishing his arduous task, he was, perhaps, aided not more by the strength and resources of his mind than by its limits and defects. There is a web of old associations wound round language, that is a kind of veil over its natural features; and custom puts on the mask of ignorance. But this veil, this mask the author of The Diversions of Purley threw aside and penetrated to the naked truth of things, by the literal, matter-of-fact, unimaginative nature of his understanding, and because he was not subject to prejudices or illusions of any kind. Words may be said to "bear a charmed life, that must not yield to one of woman born"—with womanish weaknesses and confused apprehensions. But this charm was broken in the case of Mr. Tooke, whose mind was the reverse of effeminate—hard, unbending, concrete, physical, half-savage—and who saw language stripped of the clothing of habit or sentiment, or the disguises of doting pedantry, naked in its cradle, and in its primitive state. Our author tells us that he found his discovery on Grammar among a number of papers on other subjects, which he had thrown aside and forgotten. Is this an idle boast? Or had he made other discoveries of equal importance, which he did not think it worth his while to communicate to the world, but chose to die the churl of knowledge? The whole of his reasoning turns upon shewing that the Conjunction That is the pronoun That, which is itself the participle of a verb, and in like manner that all the other mystical and hitherto unintelligible parts of speech are derived from the only two intelligible ones, the Verb and Noun. "I affirm that gold is yellow," that is, "I affirm that fact, or that proposition, viz. gold is yellow." The secret of the Conjunction on which so many fine heads had split, on which so many learned definitions were thrown away, as if it was its peculiar province and inborn virtue to announce oracles and formal propositions, and nothing else, like a Doctor of Laws, is here at once accounted for, inasmuch as it is clearly nothing but another part of speech, the pronoun, that, with a third part of speech, the noun, thing, understood. This is getting at a solution of words into their component parts, not glossing over one difficulty by bringing another to parallel it, nor like saying with Mr. Harris, when it is asked, "what a Conjunction is?" that there are conjunctions copulative, conjunctions disjunctive, and as many other frivolous varieties of the species as any one chooses to hunt out "with laborious foolery." Our author hit upon his parent-discovery in the course of a law-suit, while he was examining, with jealous watchfulness, the meaning of words to prevent being entrapped by them; or rather, this circumstance might itself be traced to the habit of satisfying his own mind as to the precise sense in which he himself made use of words. Mr. Tooke, though he had no objection to puzzle others, was mightily averse to being puzzled or mystified himself. All was, to his determined mind, either complete light or complete darkness. There was no hazy, doubtful chiaro-scuro in his understanding. He wanted something "palpable to feeling as to sight." "What," he would say to himself, "do I mean when I use the conjunction that? Is it an anomaly, a class by itself, a word sealed against all inquisitive attempts? Is it enough to call it a copula, a bridge, a link, a word connecting sentences? That is undoubtedly its use, but what is its origin?" Mr. Tooke thought he had answered this question satisfactorily, and loosened the Gordian knot of grammarians, "familiar as his garter," when he said, "It is the common pronoun, adjective, or participle, that, with the noun, thing or proposition, implied, and the particular example following it." So he thought, and so every reader has thought since, with the exception of teachers and writers upon grammar. Mr. Windham, indeed, who was a sophist, but not a logician, charged him with having found "a mare's-nest;" but it is not to be doubted that Mr. Tooke's etymologies will stand the test, and last longer than Mr. Windham's ingenious derivation of the practice of bull-baiting from the principles of humanity!

Having thus laid the corner-stone, he proceeded to apply the same method of reasoning to other undecyphered and impracticable terms. Thus the word. And, he explained clearly enough to be the verb add, or a corruption of the old Saxon, anandad. "Two and two make four," that is, "two add two make four." Mr. Tooke, in fact, treated words as the chemists do substances; he separated those which are compounded of others from those which are not decompoundable. He did not explain the obscure by the more obscure, but the difficult by the plain, the complex by the simple. This alone is proceeding upon the true principles of science: the rest is pedantry and petit-maitreship. Our philosophical writer distinguished all words into names of things, and directions added for joining them together, or originally into nouns and verbs. It is a pity that he has left this matter short, by omitting to define the Verb, After enumerating sixteen different definitions (all of which he dismisses with scorn and contumely) at the end of two quarto volumes, he refers the reader for the true solution to a third volume, which he did not live to finish. This extraordinary man was in the habit of tantalizing his guests on a Sunday afternoon with sundry abstruse speculations, and putting them off to the following week for a satisfaction of their doubts; but why should he treat posterity in the same scurvy manner, or leave the world without quitting scores with it? I question whether Mr. Tooke was himself in possession of his pretended nostrum, and whether, after trying hard at a definition of the verb as a distinct part of speech, as a terrier-dog mumbles a hedge-hog, he did not find it too much for him, and leave it to its fate. It is also a pity that Mr. Tooke spun out his great work with prolix and dogmatical dissertations on irrelevant matters; and after denying the old metaphysical theories of language, should attempt to found a metaphysical theory of his own on the nature and mechanism of language. The nature of words, he contended (it was the basis of his whole system) had no connection with the nature of things or the objects of thought; yet he afterwards strove to limit the nature of things and of the human mind by the technical structure of language. Thus he endeavours to shew that there are no abstract ideas, by enumerating two thousand instances of words, expressing abstract ideas, that are the past participles of certain verbs. It is difficult to know what he means by this. On the other hand, he maintains that "a complex idea is as great an absurdity as a complex star," and that words only are complex. He also makes out a triumphant list of metaphysical and moral non-entities, proved to be so on the pure principle that the names of these non-entities are participles, not nouns, or names of things. That is strange in so close a reasoner and in one who maintained that all language was a masquerade of words, and that the class to which they grammatically belonged had nothing to do with the class of ideas they represented.

It is now above twenty years since the two quarto volumes of the Diversions of Purley were published, and fifty since the same theory was promulgated in the celebrated Letter to Dunning. Yet it is a curious example of the Spirit of the Age that Mr. Lindley Murray's Grammar (a work out of which Mr. C*** helps himself to English, and Mr. M*** to style[2]) has proceeded to the thirtieth edition in complete defiance of all the facts and arguments there laid down. He defines a noun to be the name of a thing. Is quackery a thing, i. e. a substance? He defines a verb to be a word signifying to be, to do, or to suffer. Are being, action, suffering verbs? He defines an adjective to be the name of a quality. Are not wooden, golden, substantial adjectives? He maintains that there are six cases in English nouns, that is, six various terminations without any change of termination at all,[3] and that English verbs have all the moods, tenses, and persons that the Latin ones have. This is an extraordinary stretch of blindness and obstinacy. He very formally translates the Latin Grammar into English (as so many had done before him) and fancies he has written an English Grammar; and divines applaud, and school-masters usher him into the polite world, and English scholars carry on the jest, while Horne Tooke's genuine anatomy of our native tongue is laid on the shelf. Can it be that our politicians smell a rat in the Member for Old Sarum? That our clergy do not relish Parson Horne? That the world at large are alarmed at acuteness and originality greater than their own? What has all this to do with the formation of the English language or with the first conditions and necessary foundation of speech itself? Is there nothing beyond the reach of prejudice and party-spirit? It seems in this, as in so many other instances, as if there was a patent for absurdity in the natural bias of the human mind, and that folly should be stereotyped!

  1. "They receive him like a virgin at the Magdalen—Go thou and do likewise."—Junius.
  2. This work is not without merit in the details and examples of English construction. But its fault even in that part is that he confounds the genius of the English language, making it periphrastic and literal, instead of elliptical and idiomatic. According to Mr. Murray, hardly any of our best writers ever wrote a word of English.
  3. At least, with only one change in the genitive case.