Hazlitt is considered a witty and perceptive prose stylist. (Every literary generation has one or two of those.) Just my cup of tea; I wondered why I had been avoiding him. There was no Hazlitt on my bookshelves, so I went to ABE Books, where there were tons of Hazlitts in “very good” condition for under ten dollars, shipping included. I ordered a copy of The Spirit of the Age.
The Spirit of the Age is eighteen character sketches, more critical than biographical, of prominent contemporaries of Hazlitt. Some deal with two personalities, so there are twenty-three subjects in all – all men, of course. Ten were familiar to me, but the rest, although some of the names rang a bell, I had to google. The most interesting of these was William Godwin. I feel it was a flaw in my education that he had not been included, along with Bentham and Malthus (also discussed by Hazlitt), as one of the era’s important social philosophers. Godwin’s main claim to fame these days is that he was the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Mary Shelley.
The book I had ordered turned out to be a large print edition, with the size and heft of a coloring book. Each page is a dense rectangle of text, with miniscule margins. It is not a pleasant book to read.
I don’t think that the ungainliness of the book tainted my judgment of Hazlitt, but you never know. Anyway, I think he’s great – sometimes. And “great – sometimes” is plenty good enough for me. Just today I tucked his Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays – in one of those nice old Everyman’s Library editions – in among my unread books, between Jeffrey Hart’s Smiling through the Cultural Catastrophe and F. H. Heinemann’s Existentialism and the Modern Predicament.
Sometimes great; but in what way great?
First of all, you’re reading Hazlitt – at least, I’m reading Hazlitt – for style as much as content, or even more for style than content. Hazlitt is a master, and can sometimes (when he is great) create exquisite verbal artifacts.
The author of Waverley might just as well get up and make a speech at a dinner at Edinburgh, abusing Mr. Mac-Adam for his improvements in the roads, on the ground that they were nearly impassable in many places "sixty years since;" or object to Mr. Peel's Police-Bill, by insisting that Hounslow-Heath was formerly a scene of greater interest and terror to highwaymen and travellers, and cut a greater figure in the Newgate-Calendar than it does at present. — Oh! Wickliff, Luther, Hampden, Sidney, Somers, mistaken Whigs, and thoughtless Reformers in religion and politics, and all ye, whether poets or philosophers, heroes or sages, inventors of arts or sciences, patriots, benefactors of the human race, enlighteners and civilisers of the world, who have (so far) reduced opinion to reason, and power to law, who are the cause that we no longer burn witches and heretics at slow fires, that the thumb-screws are no longer applied by ghastly, smiling judges, to extort confession of imputed crimes from sufferers for conscience sake; that men are no longer strung up like acorns on trees without judge or jury, or hunted like wild beasts through thickets and glens, who have abated the cruelty of priests, the pride of nobles, the divinity of kings in former times; to whom we owe it, that we no longer wear round our necks the collar of Gurth the swineherd, and of Wamba the jester; that the castles of great lords are no longer the dens of banditti, from whence they issue with fire and sword, to lay waste the land; that we no longer expire in loathsome dungeons without knowing the cause, or have our right hands struck off for raising them in self-defence against wanton insult; that we can sleep without fear of being burnt in our beds, or travel without making our wills; that no Amy Robsarts are thrown down trap-doors by Richard Varneys with impunity; that no Red Reiver of Westburn-Flat sets fire to peaceful cottages; that no Claverhouse signs cold-blooded death-warrants in sport; that we have no Tristan the Hermit, or Petit-Andre, crawling near us, like spiders, and making our flesh creep, and our hearts sicken within us at every moment of our lives — ye who have produced this change in the face of nature and society, return to earth once more, and beg pardon of Sir Walter and his patrons, who sigh at not being able to undo all that you have done!
Second of all, while Hazlitt’s ideas seldom rise above the level of clever and interesting (as in the example above), sometimes they flash with a revelatory brilliance.
Mr. Coleridge is too rich in intellectual wealth, to need to task himself to any drudgery: he has only to draw the sliders of his imagination, and a thousand subjects expand before him, startling him with their brilliancy, or losing themselves in endless obscurity--
"And by the force of blear illusion,
They draw him on to his confusion."
What is the little he could add to the stock, compared with the countless stores that lie about him, that he should stoop to pick up a name, or to polish an idle fancy? He walks abroad in the majesty of an
universal understanding, eyeing the "rich strond," or golden sky above him, and "goes sounding on his way," in eloquent accents, uncompelled and free!
Persons of the greatest capacity are often those, who for this reason do the least; for surveying themselves from the highest point of view, amidst the infinite variety of the universe, their own share in it seems trifling, and scarce worth a thought, and they prefer the contemplation of all that is, or has been, or can be, to the making a coil about doing what, when done, is no better than vanity. It is hard to concentrate
all our attention and efforts on one pursuit, except from ignorance of others; and without this concentration of our faculties, no great progress can be made in any one thing.
Hazlitt is an inventive and unconventional thinker. Unfortunately, the intellectual sphere in which he exercises his inventiveness and originality is small; it is hemmed in by a larger, denser, sphere of late Georgian prejudices and constraints of his time which, while many of his friends were probing and testing them, he takes for granted as absolutes.
For example, Hazlitt accepted the mundane notion that the proper role for a woman was to be the embodiment of an airy-fairy spiritual ideal. The Whig thinkers he admired – we would call them liberals – saw past that notion to one degree or another. To Hazlitt, it was the touchstone by which he judged the characterizations of women in the poetry and novels of his period.
More shocking is Hazlitt’s complacent acceptance of class hierarchy. One of the best pieces in The Spirit of the Age is the one on Byron. It is remarkable for combining a sharp critical acuity about Byron and his poetry with prissy, thin-lipped censure. “Perhaps the chief cause of most of Lord Byron's errors is, that he is that anomaly in letters and in society, a Noble Poet,” says Hazlitt. It is that “and in society” that gives Hazlitt away as a class-conscious snob. A fault, incidentally, of which he accuses Byron – unconvincingly. (Byron was a snob of another, familiar, neuro-poetic sort.)
Here is Hazlitt at his best and his worst, all at once:
Perhaps the chief cause of most of Lord Byron's errors is, that he is that anomaly in letters and in society, a Noble Poet. It is a double privilege, almost too much for humanity. He has all the pride of birth and genius. The strength of his imagination leads him to indulge in fantastic opinions; the elevation of his rank sets censure at defiance. He becomes a pampered egotist. He has a seat in the House of Lords, a niche in the Temple of Fame. Every-day mortals, opinions, things are not good enough for him to touch or think of. A mere nobleman is, in his estimation, but "the tenth transmitter of a foolish face:" a mere man of genius is no better than a worm. His Muse is also a lady of quality. The people are not polite enough for him: the Court not sufficiently intellectual. He hates the one and despises the other. By hating and despising others, he does not learn to be satisfied with himself. A fastidious man soon grows querulous and splenetic. If there is nobody but ourselves to come up to our idea of fancied perfection, we easily get tired of our idol. When a man is tired of what he is, by a natural perversity he sets up for what he is not. If he is a poet, he pretends to be a metaphysician: if he is a patrician in rank and feeling, he would fain be one of the people. His ruling motive is not the love of the people, but of distinction not of truth, but of singularity. He patronizes men of letters out of vanity, and deserts them from caprice, or from the advice of friends. He embarks in an obnoxious publication to
provoke censure, and leaves it to shift for itself for fear of scandal. We do not like Sir Walter's gratuitous servility: we like Lord Byron's preposterous liberalism little better. He may affect the principles of equality, but he resumes his privilege of peerage, upon occasion. His Lordship has made great offers of service to the Greeks--money and horses. He is at present in Cephalonia, waiting the event!
What comes next is Hazlitt at his very best:
We had written thus far when news came of the death of Lord Byron, and put an end at once to a strain of somewhat peevish invective, which was intended to meet his eye, not to insult his memory. Had we known that we were writing his epitaph, we must have done it with a different feeling. As it is, we think it better and more like himself, to let what we had written stand, than to take up our leaden shafts, and try to melt them into "tears of sensibility," or mould them into dull praise, and an affected shew of candour. We were not silent during the author's life-time, either for his reproof or encouragement (such us we could give, and he did not disdain to accept) nor can we now turn undertakers' men to fix the glittering plate upon his coffin, or fall into the procession of popular woe.--Death cancels every thing but truth; and strips a man of every thing but genius and virtue. It is a sort of natural canonization. It makes the meanest of us sacred—it installs the poet in his immortality, and lifts him to the skies. Death is the great assayer of the sterling ore of talent. At his touch the drossy particles fall off, the irritable, the personal, the gross, and mingle with the dust--the finer and more ethereal part mounts with the winged spirit to watch over our latest memory and protect our bones from insult. We consign the least worthy qualities to oblivion, and cherish the nobler and imperishable nature with double pride and fondness. Nothing could shew the real superiority of genius in a more striking
point of view than the idle contests and the public indifference about the place of Lord Byron's interment, whether in Westminster-Abbey or his own family-vault. A king must have a coronation--a nobleman a funeral-procession.--The man is nothing without the pageant. The poet's cemetery is the human mind, in which he sows the seeds of never ending thought--his monument is to be found in his works:
"Nothing can cover his high fame but Heaven;
No pyramids set off his memory,
But the eternal substance of his greatness."
Lord Byron is dead: he also died a martyr to his zeal in the cause of freedom, for the last, best hopes of man. Let that be his excuse and his epitaph!
Hazlitt’s essay on William Gifford is a merry diatribe – great fun to read; invective naturally lends itself to cleverness. Evidently, Hazlitt and Gifford were engaged in an ongoing verbal feud revolving around rival periodicals, the Whig Edinburgh Review, to which Hazlitt contributed regularly, and the Tory Quarterly Review, which Gifford edited. However, Hazlitt’s basis for what he obviously believes are unanswerable attacks is Gifford’s lower class origins.
Here is the start of Hazlitt’s “Mr. Gifford”:
Mr. Gifford was originally bred to some handicraft: he afterwards contrived to learn Latin, and was for some time an usher in a school, till he became a tutor in a nobleman's family. The low-bred, self-taught man, the pedant, and the dependant on the great contribute to form the Editor of the Quarterly Review. He is admirably qualified for this
situation, which he has held for some years, by a happy combination of defects, natural and acquired; and in the event of his death, it will be difficult to provide him a suitable successor.
Mr. Gifford has no pretensions to be thought a man of genius, of taste,
or even of general knowledge. He merely understands the mechanical and
instrumental part of learning. He is a critic of the last age, when
the different editions of an author, or the dates of his several
performances were all that occupied the inquiries of a profound scholar,
and the spirit of the writer or the beauties of his style were left to
shift for themselves, or exercise the fancy of the light and superficial
reader. In studying an old author, he has no notion of any thing beyond
adjusting a point, proposing a different reading, or correcting, by the
collation of various copies, an error of the press. In appreciating a
modern one, if it is an enemy, the first thing he thinks of is to charge
him with bad grammar--he scans his sentences instead of weighing his
sense; or if it is a friend, the highest compliment he conceives it
possible to pay him is, that his thoughts and expressions are moulded
on some hackneyed model. His standard of ideal perfection is what he
himself now is, a person of mediocre literary attainments: his utmost
contempt is shewn by reducing any one to what he himself once was, a
person without the ordinary advantages of education and learning.
The charge of lackeyism, of sycophancy, is Hazlitt’s favorite charge against Gifford, and he makes it over and over again in “Mr. Gifford”. It is a charge that depends on Gifford’s lower-class origins. Hazlitt and the literary figures he most admires come from middle-class backgrounds. (The fathers of Hazlitt, Coleridge and Godwin were parsons; Wordsworth’s and Lamb’s were lawyers; Southey’s, a linen draper.) A tendency in his cohorts to cultivate aristocratic connections would, in Hazlitt’s eyes, not be lackeyism and sycophancy, but honest, agreeable ambition, an effort to better themselves.
There is so much more interesting stuff woven into Hazlitt’s luscious prose – for example, the way his assessments of Crabbe’s and Wordsworth’s poeticizing of the mundane differ, because the former portrays the everyday (which Hazlitt takes for granted as “the little, the disgusting, the distressing”) as a painter would, while the latter universalizes and ennobles it. And have you ever heard of Horne Tooke? “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 could go on and on, but this thing already is much too long.