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From the Archives: Brummelliana by William Hazlitt (1828)

We look upon Beau Brummell as the greatest of small wits. Indeed, he may in this respect be considered, as Cowley says of Pindar as “a species alone,” and as forming a class by himself. He has arrived at the very minimum of wit, and reduced it, “by happiness or pains,” to an almost invisible point. All his bons-mots turn upon a single circumstance, the exaggerating of the merest trifles into matters of importance, or treating everything else with the utmost nonchalance and indifference, as if whatever pretended to pass beyond those limits was a bore, and disturbed the serene air of high life. We have heard of

A sound so fine,
That nothing lived ‘twixt it and silence.

So we many say of Mr Brummell’s jests, that they are of a meaning so attenuated that “nothing lives ‘twixt them and nonsense”: — they hover on the very brink of vacancy, and are in their shadowy composition next of kin to nonentities. It is impossible for anyone to go beyond him without falling flat into insignificance and insipidity: he has touched the ne plus ultra that divides the dandy from the dunce. But what a fine eye to discriminate: what a sure hand to hit this last and thinnest of all intellectual partitions! Exempli gratia — for in so new a species, the theory is unintelligible without furnishing the proofs: —

Thus, in the question addressed to a noble person (which we quoted the other day), “Do you call that thing a coat?” a distinction is taken as nice as it is startling. It seems all at once a vulgar prejudice to suppose that a coat is a coat, the commonest of all common things, — it is here lifted into an ineffable essence, so that a coat is no longer a thing; or that it would take infinite gradations of fashion, taste, and refinement, for a thing to aspire to the undefined privileges, and mysterious attributes of a coat. Finer “fooling” than this cannot be imagined. What a cut upon the Duke! The beau becomes an emperor among such insects!

The first anecdote in which Mr Brummell’s wit dawned upon us — and it really rises with almost every new instance — was the following: A friend one day called upon him, and found him confined to his room from a lameness in one foot, upon which he expressed his concern at the accident. “I am sorry for it too,” answered Brummell very gravely, “particularly as it’s my favourite leg!” Is this as if a man of fashion had nothing else to do than to sit and think of which of his legs he liked best; and in the plenitude of his satisfaction, and the absence of all real wants, to pamper this fanciful distinction into a serious sort of pet preference? Upon the whole, among so many beauties — ubi tot nitent, I am inclined to give my contemporary’s jeux d’esprit — there is an Horatian ease and elegance about it — a slippered negligence, a cushioned effeminacy — it would take years of careless study and languid enjoyment to strike out so quaint and ingenious a conceit —

A subtler web Arachne cannot spin;
Nor the fine nets which oft we woven see
Of scorched dew, so not in the air more lightly flee!

It is truly the art of making something out of nothing.

We shall not go deeply into the common story of Mr Brummell’s asking his servant, as he was going out for the evening, “Where do I dine to-day, John?” This is little more than the common cant of a multiplicity of engagements, so as to make it impossible to bear them all in mind, and of an utter disinclination to all attention to one’s own affairs; but the following is brilliant and original. Sitting one day at table between two other persons, Mr Brummell said to his servant, who stood behind his chair — “John!” “Yes, sir.” “Who is this at my right hand?” “If you please sir, it’s the Marquis of Headfort,” “And who is this at my left hand?” “It’s my Lord Yarmouth.” “Oh, very well!” and the Beau then proceeded to address himself to the persons who were thus announced to him. Now this is surely superb, and “high fantastical.” No, the smallest fold of that nicely adjusted cravat was not to be deranged, the least deviation from that select posture was not to be supposed possible. Had his head been fastened in a vice, it could not have been more immovably fixed than by the “great idea in his mind,” and how a coxcomb should sit: the air of fashion and affectation “bound him with Styx nine times round him,” and the Beau preserved the perfection of an attitude — like a piece of incomprehensible still-life — the whole of dinner-time. The ideal is everything, even in frivolity and folly.

It is not one of the least characteristic of our hero’s answers to a lady, who asked him if he never tasted vegetables — “Madam, I once ate a pea!” This was reducing the quantity of offensive grossness to the smallest assignable fraction: anything beyond that his imagination was oppressed with; and even this he seemed to confess to, with a kind of remorse, and to hasten from the subject from the subject with a certain monosyllabic brevity of style.

I do not like the mere impudence (Mr Theodore Hook, with his extempore dullness, might do the same thing) of forcing himself into a lady’s rout, who had not invited him to her parties, and the gabble about Hopkinses and Tomkinses, but there is something piquant enough in his answer to a city-fashionable, who asked him if he would dine with him on a certain day – “Yes, if you won’t mention it to anyone;” and in an altercation with the same person afterwards, about obligations, the assumption of superiority implied in the appeal — “Do you count my having borrowed a thousand pounds of you for nothing?” soars immediately above commonplace.

On one occasion, Mr Brummell falling ill, accounted for it by saying, “They put me to bed a damp ____!” From what slight causes direst issues spring! So sensitive and apprehensive a constitution makes one sympathise with its delicate possessor, as much as if he had been shut up in the steam of a laundry, or “his lodging had been on the cold ground,” Mr Brummell having been interrogated as to the choice of his present place of residence (Calais) as somewhat dull replied, “He thought it hard if a gentleman could not pass his time agreeably between London and Paris.”

Some of Brummell’s bons-mots have been attributed to Sir Lumley Skeffington, who is even said to have been the first in this minute and tender walk of wit. It is, for instance, reported of him that, being at table and talking of daisies, he should turn round to his valet, and say with sentimental niavete and trivial fondness — “On what day of the month did I first see a daisy, Matthew?” “On the 1st of February, sir.” There is here a kindred vein; but whoever was the inventor, Brummell has borne away the prize, as Pope eclipsed his master Dryden, and Titian surpassed Giorgione’s fame. In fine, it was said, with equal truth and spirit by one of the parties concerned, that “the year 1815 was fatal to three great men — Byron, Buonaparte, and Brummell!”

Beau Brummell by Dighton

This post was written by:

- who has written 38 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.

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