There is not a lower ambition, a poorer way of thought, than that which would confine all excellence, or arrogate its final accomplishment to the present, or modern times

From ‘Introduction to Elizabethan Literature’ in the Penguin William Hazlitt sampler The Fight and Other Writings. That lecture and a series of related but more focused ones are online here. The lectures were delivered and first printed in 1820 and the below seems an appropriate bicentennial tribute:

There is not a lower ambition, a poorer way of thought, than that which would confine all excellence, or arrogate its final accomplishment to the present, or modern times. We ordinarily speak and think of those who had the misfortune to write or live before us, as labouring under very singular privations and disadvantages in not having the benefit of those improvements which we have made, as buried in the grossest ignorance, or the slaves ‘of poring pedantry’; and we make a cheap and infallible estimate of their progress in civilization upon a graduated scale of perfectibility, calculated from the meridian of our own times. If we have pretty well got rid of the narrow bigotry that would limit all sense or virtue to our own country, and have fraternized, like true cosmopolites, with our neighbours and contemporaries, we have made our self-love amends by letting the generation we live in engross nearly all our admiration and by pronouncing a sweeping sentence of barbarism and ignorance on our ancestry backwards, from the commencement (as near as can be) of the nineteenth, or the latter end of the eighteenth century. From thence we date a new era, the dawn of our own intellect and that of the world, like ‘the sacred influence of light’ glimmering on the confines of Chaos and old night; new manners rise, and all the cumbrous ‘pomp of elder days’ vanishes, and is lost in worse than Gothic darkness. Pavilioned in the glittering pride of our superficial accomplishments and upstart pretensions, we fancy that every thing beyond that magic circle is prejudice and error; and all, before the present enlightened period, but a dull and useless blank in the great map of time. We are so dazzled with the gloss and novelty of modern discoveries, that we cannot take into our mind’s eye the vast expanse, the lengthened perspective of human intellect, and a cloud hangs over and conceals its loftiest monuments, if they are removed to a little distance from us—the cloud of our own vanity and shortsightedness. The modern sciolist stultifies all understanding but his own, and that which he conceives like his own. We think, in this age of reason and consummation of philosophy, because we knew nothing twenty or thirty years ago, and began to think then for the first time in our lives, that the rest of mankind were in the same predicament, and never knew any thing till we did; that the world had grown old in sloth and ignorance, had dreamt out its long minority of five thousand years in a dozing state, and that it first began to wake out of sleep, to rouse itself, and look about it, startled by the light of our unexpected discoveries, and the noise we made about them. Strange error of our infatuated self-love!

But that is not my fault. It only proves that the characters of prophet and poet are implied in each other

A fuller edition of a quote found in the introduction of the Yale Ben Jonson edition of Sejanus His Fall, from William Hazlitt’s Lectures on the Literature of the Age of Elizabeth (online here). It was cited in relation to the unavoidability of politicizing material that is political at its core but I repeat it more for joy of Hazlitt’s style, however out of fashion it all is now.

His tragedy of’ The Fall of Sejanus,’ in particular, is an admirable piece of ancient mosaic. The principal character gives one the idea of a lofty column of solid granite, nodding to its base from its pernicious height, and dashed in pieces by a breath of air, a word of its creator-feared, not pitied, scorned, unwept, and forgotten. The depth of knowledge and gravity of expression sustain one another throughout: the poet has worked out the historian’s outline, so that the vices and passions, the ambition and servility of public men, in the heated and poisoned atmosphere of a luxurious and despotic court, were never described in fuller or more glowing colours. I am half afraid to give any extracts, lest they should be tortured into an application to other times and characters than those referred to by the poet, Some of the sounds, indeed, may bear (for what I know) an awkward construction: some of the objects may look double to squint-eyed suspicion. But that is not my fault. It only proves that the characters of prophet and poet are implied in each other; that he who describes human nature well once, describes it for good and all, as it was, is, and, I begin to fear, will ever be. Truth always was, and must always remain, a libel to the tyrant and the slave.

That thou among the wastes of time must go

From Shakespeare’s Sonnets – no. XII – but found in William Hazlitt’s On the Pleasure of Hating – with what I’m finding to be Hazlitt’s typical looseness of precision in quoting.  The beautiful origin aside, I marked this mainly for its closeness to ‘gutter of time’ – which I would not be against betting was another of Sterne’s intentionally warped echoes of Shakespeare

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
  And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
  Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.