The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

II. Political Writers and Speakers

§ 13. Rural Rides

Personal ambition and public spirit had nearly equal shares in the indomitable Cobbett. Enormously and incorrigibly vain, “pragmatic, busy, bustling, bold,” he loved to be, or to think himself, the centre of the stage, to lay down the law on everything, to direct, praise or censure everybody, to point out how things ought to be done, and, best of all, to spar furiously with those who held opposite opinions. General principles were beyond the limit of his faculties; hence, he completely veered round in his politics with hardly a suspicion of the fact. His explanations of the state of things that he saw round him were hasty guesses, rapidly matured into unreasoning prejudices. It was all due to the funded debt and paper money, aggravated by progressive depopulation (in 1820!), tithes and the tardy adoption of his improvements in farming. Yet, he was a shrewd and accurate observer, and an expert and fair judge of the state of agriculture and the condition of tillers of the soil. True, he had much good sense and critical faculty to apply to other political matters; but, regarding the land, he was always at his best. Peasant-bred, with a passion for farming, and a most genuine, if quite unpoetic, love of the open country and all that it could offer eye or ear, he depicted, with Dutch honesty, the rural England that he knew how to see, its fertility and beauty, the misery that had descended on many of its inhabitants, the decent prosperity remaining to others. And he was master of a style in which to express his knowledge. It is not one of those great styles which embalm their authors’ memory; but it was serviceable. He is vigorous, plain and absolutely unaffected. The aptest words come to him with most perfect ease. His eloquence springs from vivid insight into the heart of his theme, and from a native fervour and energy that do not need art to blow them into flame. Apart from his plebeian virulence, he shows a natural good taste in writing. The flaccid elegance and pompous rotund verbiage then in vogue are, by him, left on one side. If he cannot frame a period, every sentence has its work to do, and every sentence tells. What mars his farmer’s Odyssey, Rural Rides, is, perhaps, the excess of this very disregard for fine writing. They are notes of what he saw, and notes must often be brief, formless and disconnected. Imagination and the charm it gives are, indeed, absent throughout; but his sympathetic realism has an attraction of its own. He scans the look and manners of the labourers; he calculates whether they have becon to eat; he descants on the capabilities of the soil; and he is able to impress upon his readers the strength of his interest in these things and of his enjoyment of field and woods and streams and the palatable salmon that inhabit the latter. He seems to give an unconscious demonstration how excellent a tongue English could be for a man, who saw and felt keenly, to express the facts as he saw them, and the emotions which possessed him.