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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

The best known parody of Cobbett


confined space, because they

are intimately connected with his singular character and his remarkable works. These latter are enormous in bulk and of the most widely diversified character. _Peter Porcupine_ fills twelve not small volumes; the mere selections from the _Register_, which are all that has been republished of it, six very bulky ones; with a wilderness of separate works besides--_Rural Rides_, a _History of the Reformation_, books on husbandry, gardening, and rural economy generally, some on the currency, an _English Grammar_, and dozens of others. Of these the _Rural Rides_ is the most interesting in matter and the most picturesque in style, while it affords a fair panorama of its author's rugged but wonderfully varied and picturesque mind and character; the _History of the Reformation_ is the most wrong-headed and unfair; the currency writings the most singular example of the delusion that strong prejudices and a good deal of mother-wit will enable a man to write, without any knowledge, about the most abstruse and complicated subjects; the agricultural books and the _English Grammar_ the best instances of genial humours, shrewdness, and (when crotchets do not come in too much) sound sense. But hardly anything that Cobbett writes is contemptible in form, however weak he may often be in argument, knowledge, and taste. He was the last, and he was not far below the greatest, of the line of vernacular English writers of whom Latimer in the sixteenth, Bunyan in the seventeenth, and Defoe in the eighteenth,
are the other emerging personalities. To a great extent Cobbett's style was based on Swift; but the character of his education, which was not in the very least degree academic, and still more the idiosyncrasy of his genius, imposed on it almost from the first, but with ever-increasing clearness, a manner quite different from Swift's, and, though often imitated since, never reproduced. The "Letter to Jack Harrow," the "Letter to the People of Botley," the "Letters to Old George Rose," and that to "Alexander Baring, Loan Monger," to take examples almost at random from the _Register_, are quite unlike anything before them or anything after them. The best-known parody of Cobbett, that in _Rejected Addresses_, gives rather a poor idea of his style; exhibiting no doubt his intense egotism, his habit of half trivial divagation, and his use of strong language, but quite failing to give the immense force, the vivid clearness, and the sterling though not precisely scholarly English which characterise his good work. The best imitation to be found is in some of the anonymous pamphlets in which, in his later days, government writers replied to his powerful and mischievous political diatribes, and which in some cases, if internal evidence may be trusted, must have been by no mean hands.

Irrational as Cobbett's views were,--he would have adjusted the entire concerns of the nation with a view to the sole benefit of the agricultural interest, would have done away with the standing army, wiped out the national debt, and effected a few other trifling changes with a perfectly light heart, while in minor matters his crotchets were not only wild but simply irreconcilable with each other,--his intense if narrow earnestness, his undoubting belief in himself, and a certain geniality which could co-exist with very rough language towards his opponents, would give his books a certain attraction even if their mere style were less remarkable than it is. But it is in itself, if the most plebeian, not the least virile, nor even the least finished on its own scheme of the great styles in English. For the irony of Swift, of which, except in its very roughest and most rudimentary forms, Cobbett had no command or indeed conception, it substitutes a slogging directness nowhere else to be found equalled for combination of strength and, in the pugilistic sense, "science"; while its powers of description, within certain limits, are amazing. Although Cobbett's newspaper was itself as much of an Ishmaelite and an outsider as its director, it is almost impossible to exaggerate the effect which it had in developing newspapers generally, by the popularity which it acquired, and the example of hammer-and-tongs treatment of political and economic subjects which it set. The faint academic far-off-ness of the eighteenth century handling, which is visible even in the much-praised _Letters of Junius_, which is visible in the very ferocity of Smollett's _Adventures of an Atom_, which put up with "Debates of the Senate of Lilliput" and so forth, has been blown away to limbo, and the newspaper (at first at some risk) takes men and measures, politics and policies, directly and in their own names, to be its province and its prey.


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