Jazzing Up Hazlitt

National Portrait Gallery, London
William Hazlitt; drawing by William Bewick, 1825

There is something secretly repellent in the prospect of an author recommended for his prose style (and nothing else). We hate the thought of an empty performance. Great prose attracts us by expressing great truths, not by the purity of its diction or the beauty and variety of its cadences. And so that place on the library shelf, or in the bookshop, that used to be reserved for the masterpieces of English prose or “belles lettres” (“literary works valued for their aesthetic qualities rather than for any informative or educational content”1) became dusty and unvisited long ago. Joseph Addison, whose essays were once the fire- side reading of cottagers throughout Britain, is obliterated. Samuel Johnson’s “Rambler” essays are reserved for the specialists. And it has been said recently that William Haz- litt too has, as it were, fallen off the shelf.

If he really is neglected, it is not for the first time, for he had to be rescued from posthumous obscurity before becoming a classic. The octogenarian Bryan Procter (1787–1874), who was part of the Hazlitt circle, wrote in his memoirs:

Even some of the best men…are gradually descending into the deep obscure. Wordsworth is no longer widely read; Hazlitt’s books have, as it were, subsided into a dead language; and the racy humour of Charles Lamb lives chiefly in the remembrance of the oldest men.

Procter, a best-selling poet in his day under the name of Barry Cornwall, is measured in his praise, but his generous conclusion has often been repeated: Hazlitt “was always just. He did not carry poisoned arrows into civil conflict.”2 Arrows, though, he certainly possessed and deployed. Coleridge, in a letter to Thomas Wedgwood, remarks that Hazlitt’s “manners are 99 in 100 singularly repulsive; brow-hanging, shoe-contemplative, strange,” but then he adds: “He sends well-headed and well-feathered Thoughts straight forwards to the mark with a Twang of the Bowstring.”3

Among many achievements (philosopher, essayist, dramatic critic, artist), Hazlitt was our first great sportswriter. In the Romantic age, the passion for boxing spread through all classes, from prince to duke to slave. Byron sparred in the Bond Street establishment of Gentleman John Jackson. Procter, a diminutive lawyer, learned the art from Tom Cribb, one of the great champions of the day. Hazlitt, who appears to have trained with the freed American slave Bill Richmond, the “Black Terror” from Staten Island, wrote one outstanding essay in the genre, earning the praise of Gene Tunney a century later. Today you will still find sportswriters who look to Hazlitt as a hero for having written “The Fight.”

It was a revolutionary piece of journalism, which disgusted the staff at the New Monthly, where it was reluctantly published in 1822. Cyrus Redding, the assistant editor, recalled more than thirty years later that he

received an article on boxing, a thoroughly blackguard subject. It was disgracing our literature in the eyes of other nations; why not a paper on American gouging, Stamford bull-baiting, or similar elegancies? It was a picture of existing manners, it was true—the more the pity—and that it could not sooner be a record only of our barbarities.4

Hazlitt himself never reprinted “The Fight,” which had to wait until after his death before gradually winning its place as a classic.

What was so shocking? Prizefighting, violent and bloody though popular, had been theoretically outlawed in Britain since 1750, and the great fights were staged at short notice, outside of London and beyond the convenient reach of the law. Hazlitt, who had never witnessed such a contest, relates the experience from start to finish: from the initial inquiry about the venue, at a chophouse in Chancery Lane, to the confusion over finding a stagecoach, to the arrival, late at night, at Newbury (some fifty miles from London), pleading for entry to an inn, sitting up through the night in conversation for want of a bed, walking the next morning to Hungerford, to the eventual bloody contest—it is this delight in recording every aspect of the occasion rather than simply the fight itself that links Hazlitt to Hemingway to Mailer and to the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s.

The essay offers a record of the boxer’s vernacular. Affecting to deplore a champion’s habit of brag- ging, Hazlitt gives us a sample:

This is the grave-digger ” (would Tom Hickman exclaim in the moments of intoxication from gin and success, showing his tremendous right hand), “this will send many of them to their long homes; I haven’t done with them yet!”

Or, quoting the same fighter:

What, are you Bill Neate? I’ll knock more blood out of that great carcase of thine, this day fortnight, than you ever knock’d out of a bullock’s!

During the journey in the mail-coach, Hazlitt expounds his theory that a boxer should be modest, civil, and silent:

A boxer was bound to beat his man, but not to thrust his fist, either actually or by implication, in every one’s face. Even a highwayman, in the way of trade, may blow out your brains, but if he uses foul language at the same time, I should say he was no gentleman. A boxer, I would infer, need not be a blackguard or a coxcomb, more than another.5

This idea that a brutal fighter could and should also in some sense be a gentleman has remained a consistent trope ever since. Throughout the essay the author shows an easy acquaintance with key members of “The Fancy” (the boxing milieu), surprising in one who claims never to have seen a big fight.

The explanation lies in Hazlitt’s regular attendance at a London establishment called the Fives Court (not far from today’s Leicester Square), a forerunner of the modern sports club, where for a small fee one could play tennis (which was invariably “real tennis”), fives (a form of handball), and rackets (Hazlitt’s favorite game, a kind of squash). It was here that Bill Richmond, “my old master,” as Hazlitt calls him, used to give demonstrations of sparring, stripped to the waist and on a raised stage (both of these innovations suggested by Richmond himself with a view to increasing the visibility of the performer).

If the world of pugilism was one in which a sensation-loving aristocracy met and mingled with a brutal underclass, that of rackets and fives had its own louche associations. The two games had grown popular in the previous century in the debtors’ prisons of London, the King’s Bench and the Fleet: of their nature, they required only a high wall and a ball—the remaining conventions could be improvised to suit the circumstances. In England we tend to think of fives and squash as upper-class sports (associated with the English “public schools”), but in Haz-litt’s time they both had much more in common with today’s American street games and with the handball played in modern prisons.

Hazlitt was obsessed with rackets, and spent long hours at the Fives Court. Afterward, as he wrote,

I have sometimes lain awake a whole night, trying to serve out the last ball of an interesting game in a particular corner of the court, which I had missed from a nervous feeling. Rackets…is, like any other athletic game, very much a thing of skill and practice: but it is also a thing of opinion, “subject to all the skyey influences.” If you think you can win, you can win. Faith is necessary to victory. If you hesitate in striking at the ball, it is ten to one but you miss it. If you are apprehensive of committing some particular error (such as striking the ball foul) you will be nearly sure to do it. While thinking of that which you are so earnestly bent upon avoiding, your hand mechanically follows the strongest idea, and obeys the imagination rather than the intention of the striker.6

Behind this analysis there is a whole philosophy of mind, for Hazlitt was a philosopher, and he did not cease to be one on reaching the Fives Court. The virtues of a thing supremely well done were the same to him in all modes of activity. It is natural for Hazlitt to say of John Cavanagh’s performances at fives that they were not “lumbering like Mr Wordsworth’s epic poetry, nor wavering like Mr Coleridge’s lyric prose.”

Modern sportswriters may reach for such extravagant comparisons as a way of varying the hyperbole.7 Hazlitt really saw a moral or artistic quality in the playing of a game. He says of Cavanagh:

He was the best up-hill player in the world; even when his adversary was fourteen, he would play on the same or better, and as he never flung away the game through carelessness and conceit, he never gave it up through laziness or want of heart.

He is talking about fives, but he is also talking about life, and it is not entirely surprising to me that one of the great Hazlitt scholars mistook the portrait of Cavanagh for a disguised piece of autobiography, remarking that “the character of Cavanagh is, of course, Hazlitt’s own.”

Hazlitt himself has been vividly portrayed in the memoirs of a forgotten artist, William Bewick (1795–1866),8 playing tennis, stripped to his shirt (a novelty) and hitching up his trousers, having removed his suspenders, and looking like a savage animal:

When a difficult ball was driven to such a distance from him, and so skilfully dropped close to the wall, that it seemed an impossibility to come near it in time, or to catch it with the racket if he did, he would run with desperate speed, make a last spring, and bending down his head to meet the concussion with the wall, crushing his hat flat over his eyes, dexterously tip the ball, sending it to its intended mark with unerring truth amid murmurs of applause. Then jerking himself upright again, his eye following the ball in its lightning speed, he would pursue it, however difficult the course…. It is impossible to give an idea of his expressions. His ejaculations were interlarded with unintentional and unmeaning oaths that cannot be repeated, but may be imagined. In this way he would stamp and rave:—“Nothing but my incapacity,—sheer want of skill, of power, of physical ability, —of the Devil knows what! There again! Ever see such play? Egad! I’d better not take hold of the racket again if I do not do better. Ah! well, that is better, but still bad enough—sheer incapacity, egad!”9

And Bewick began to find this irritability of Hazlitt’s, “if not alarming, at least not pleasant to witness,” and he wished for the game to end in his friend’s favor.

It is from Bewick also that we get a clue about when Hazlitt would have seen the Indian jugglers about whom he wrote so beautifully. The professor of anatomy at the Royal Academy, the surgeon Sir Anthony Carlisle (the codiscoverer of electrolysis), was in the habit of spicing up his lectures with, for instance, “six or eight naked Life-guardsmen going through their sword exercises, exhibiting the varied muscular action of the human body.” On a night when he was featuring a display of agility by Indian or Chinese jugglers, Hazlitt was in the audience when Carlisle passed around, on two dinner plates, a human brain and a heart. Hazlitt nearly fainted, and whispered, “Of what use can all this be to artists? Surely the bones and muscle might be sufficient.”

He himself had worked as an artist, mainly as a portraitist, and entertained ambitions in that direction until around the age of thirty. But he lacked precisely the sort of training that the study of the human figure would have given him. “Had I possessed the executive part of the arts sufficiently, and could I have drawn correctly, with facility, or to my satisfaction, the subject I feel I should have desired to realise would have been ‘Jacob’s Dream,’” he told Bewick. “I have the arrangement, the composition, and, if I may be allowed to say so, the poetry of the picture in my mind.”[] And his sister Margaret concurs:

What he was most deficient in [as an artist] was the mechanical part. Shall I say that if he had had less talent and his perception of what was beautiful in art had been more dim, he would have been more successful. But so it was, and many promising beginnings have been blotted that would satisfy many others who did not aim at perfection.10

I do not think that any of his biographers has begun to do justice to this side of his life and work. But Hazlitt’s achievements as a writer cannot be fully appreciated without some sense of his early artistic ambitions, and of the immense importance he attached to the experience of seeing the works of the great masters. His best surviving painted work is a creditable, Romantic self-portrait. His best writing about art is to be found in his 1821 essay on Poussin, which is a meditation upon a great painting now in the Metropolitan Museum, Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun. It is hard to think of any essay in the English language prior to this one that takes a single painting as its subject, or dwells on one to such effect. It heralded a new era of art criticism, and prepared the way for John Ruskin and Walter Pater.

Ruskin, who would have come across Hazlitt in his father’s library, pays tribute to Hazlitt’s last book, his Conversations of James Northcote, Esq. R.A., calling it “classical to this day” and “the best piece of existing criticism founded on the principles of Sir Joshua [Reynolds]’s school.”11 This work, in which scholars sometimes wrongly suppose that Hazlitt made up both sides of the dialogue, has never been reprinted on its own, but it is everything Ruskin says it is, as well as a record in old age of one of the most articulate painters of the Reynolds era. The aged Northcote (who was born in 1746 and lived long enough to paint the three-year-old Ruskin, in a white frock, with a blue sash and blue shoes) pretended in a letter to Ruskin’s father that the book was published “against his consent,” but he could write what he liked in October 1830. Hazlitt had died the previous month.

Although there is a good, fat, one- volume selection of Hazlitt, The Fight and Other Writings, edited by Tom Paulin and David Chandler, it is difficult, as it is with most Romantic prose writers, to build up a satisfactory Hazlitt collection without incurring considerable expense. The Complete Works, as edited in twenty-one volumes by P.P. Howe (1930–1934), now costs around $5,000, while the nine-volume Selected Writings brought out in 1998 by Duncan Wu is already scarce and sells for $1,400. And now with two volumes of New Writings, bringing together everything that he and fellow scholars have found since Howe, Wu has added around two hundred articles to the canon, many of them, but by no means all, of ephemeral or specialist interest. The case for inclusion is argued in full in each instance, and Wu displays an astonishing erudition and grasp of the issues involved.

Only at one point did I begin to wonder whether I really was reading Hazlitt. There are two anonymous reviews from The Times of 1817, discussing a revival of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, in a clearly mutilated version. “Every one who is conversant with MOZART’s operas,” says the reviewer,

knows that his pieces [that is, the arias and ensembles] are not only beautiful in themselves, but by position, by contrast with those which precede and follow them, that no one of them can be removed from the situation in which the composer placed it without injury to the general effect.

Whether this remark is true of La Clemenza or not, it implies an expertise in musical judgment. The author speaks of Mozart’s “composition only, as it exists on paper, as it passed from the mind of the author,” and claims to have “examined several foreign copies of the music.” Was Hazlitt musically educated to this degree? He was a theater critic, and this work led him to review some operas and to enthuse (or otherwise) over various singers, in a general way, but was he also a musicologist? When and how did he learn to read a score?

That worry apart, the two volumes of New Writings represent an outstanding piece of scholarship. Wu’s biography of Hazlitt is a different matter, largely because the normally exacting scholar has taken time off and allowed his fictionalizing alter ego to take over. A note on page 442 explains:

Throughout this book I have tried to base direct speech on documentary sources, rewriting principally to resolve obscurity. On occasion, it has been necessary to infer some conversations which must have taken place, but which appear nowhere in the record. Such conversations are usually flagged in a note.

The chief mystery in this slippery passage is the word “necessary”: Why is it necessary to invent conversations? There are so many wonderful sources for Hazlitt’s life, starting with his sister Margaret’s memoirs, and including a wealth of contemporary accounts, all very well known to Wu. Why invent? Why paste in? Why redistribute the parts?

Here is a small, vivid example from Margaret Hazlitt’s memoir. In 1785, Hazlitt Senior, who was seeking a parish in America, spent three weeks at Truro, on Cape Cod, but, Margaret tells us,

he could not make up his mind to settle in so desolate a place. It was a neat little town inhabited chiefly by fishermen, but nothing was to be seen but rocks and sands and the boundless ocean. He took William with him, who, child as he was, could not help but being struck with the barren and dreary look of the country and enquired if any robins or Bob Lincolns came there, and being told there were none, he said, “I suppose they do not like such an ugly place.” Stepping into the boat, he dropped his shoe into the sea, which he lamented because of his silver buckle.

Surprisingly, the touching detail of the loss of the buckle is omitted by Wu, and the child’s observation of the ugliness of Cape Cod gets redistributed to the father:

Do any robins or Bob Lincolns come here?” William asked his father.

I suppose they do not like such an ugly place,” he replied.

There is no gain, only loss, in this kind of procedure, but once the reader understands what is going on, uncertainty spreads.

A few pages earlier, one of the inhabitants of Weymouth, Mary Cranch, tells Hazlitt Senior, a proud Unitarian, that he should be “more prudent” about the way he expresses himself:

What do you mean?” he asked.

Exercise more caution, sir. Or you will never get a parish. You have built up a good reputation among those to whom you have preached. The people at Weymouth wish to hear you. But however they might like you as a preacher, I fear your outspokenness will prevent your ever settling here, be your heart and head ever so good.” This sort of advice was impossible for him to accept….

Here, the conversation has been “inferred” from something Mary Cranch wrote in 1784, not to Hazlitt’s father but to Abigail Adams. In order to discover whether she was even speaking with Hazlitt’s father in mind, we would have to consult the six-volume Adams Family Correspondence. It is very frustrating, especially as, when quoting from Haz- litt’s works, Wu normally refers us to his own edition, which, as already mentioned, is a contemporary introuvable.

If the problem, as Wu saw it, was to find enough direct speech to keep the narrative vivid, he had only to trust his sources, three of which have already been mentioned (Procter, Bewick, and Margaret Hazlitt). Another, much consulted, and in the original manuscript, by Wu is the amazingly prolific Henry Crabb Robinson, whose diary has never been published in full. Here is Crabb Robinson recalling a conversation with his sister-in-law:

Whom do you suppose I hold to be the cleverest person I know?” [he asks.] “Capel Lofft perhaps?” “No.” “Mrs. Clarkson?” “Oh, no!” “Miss Maling?” “No.” “I give it up.” “William Hazlitt.” “Oh, you are joking. Why, we all take him to be a fool.”12

This appears in the context of a dis- cussion of Hazlitt’s shyness and awkwardness with women, especially well-bred women (Crabb Robinson thinks it the mark of a “gross sensualist”—that is, a lover of prostitutes). How naturally the dialogue reads today—it could almost come out of a film.

Here is an account by Wu of the reaction to attacks that Hazlitt, once an adoring friend, had made on Coleridge:

The Christabel articles generated consternation within the Lamb circle, which included both poet and reviewer. Lamb in particular was troubled. He had been at school with Coleridge, and was the drinking companion of Hazlitt.

There’s more praise than abuse in it,” said Martin Burney one evening at Lamb’s, defending Hazlitt.

Rubbish!”, said Lamb—who hardly ever shouted anyone down. “No one will care or understand what little praise there is, and the satire will be universally felt. Such an article is like saluting a man: ‘Sir, you are the greatest man I ever saw’, and then pulling his nose!”

Now here is Crabb Robinson, the source for this scene:

We talked of Hazlitt’s late ferocious attack on Coleridge, which Lamb thought fair enough, between the parties; but he was half angry with Martin Burney for asserting the praise was greater than the abuse. Nobody, said Lamb, will care about or understand the “taking up the deep pauses of conversation between seraphs and cardinals,” but the satire will be universally felt. Such an article is like saluting a man: “Sir, you are the greatest man I ever saw,” and then pulling him by the nose.

So, Lamb turns out not to have been particularly “troubled” but to have thought the quarrel “fair enough, between the parties.” I suppose he meant that both Coleridge and Hazlitt were capable of taking care of themselves. Lamb didn’t shout anyone down, or say “Rubbish!” He spoke half in anger. What annoyed him was the pretense that Hazlitt’s attack was not damaging. Finally, to pull a man by the nose seems a grosser assault on him that merely to pull his nose. There is an awful lot of deliberate distortion here. The motive for it baffles me.

The best source for Hazlitt’s life is of course Hazlitt’s own words, but we very soon learn that Wu, in his role of biographer, is happy to jazz these up, or to alter them in ways that seem pointless. In one of his most celebrated essays, “My First Acquaintance with Poets,” Hazlitt tells of getting to know Coleridge and Wordsworth at Alfoxden and Nether Stowey, where he is allowed to read the Lyrical Ballads in manuscript and where he hears both Words- worth and Coleridge read. Somehow, what is specified by Hazlitt (and there is plenty of it) is not enough for Wu. He changes Hazlitt’s observation that Wordsworth “made havoc of the half of a Cheshire cheese on the table”[] to “cheddar cheese.”

Wu also changes the “arbour made of bark by the poet’s friend Tom Poole, sitting under two fine elm-trees, and listening to the bees humming around us, while we quaffed our flip ” to a lime tree “trained with its branches in a large circle” (to conform with Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”), under which Coleridge and Hazlitt would retire with “large tankards of flip (a mixture of hot beer and spirits sweetened with sugar, enlivened by a fresh egg).” Large tankards of flip? Tankards ? It’s a disgusting thought—Hazlitt and his preceptor quaffing liters of warm eggnog.

On the next page, Coleridge, seeming “almost apologetic,” brings out of his pocket a small leather-bound notebook, unknown to history, and proceeds to read “Kubla Khan” to Hazlitt, who appears “thunderstruck, certain he was in the presence of genius,” and who asks to hear it again…but who later forgets the incident, or fails for some other reason to include it in his essay “My First Acquaintance with Poets,” and who, indeed, as far as I know, had a low opinion of “Kubla Khan.”13 At such moments in his biography, Wu comes across as what the Germans call a Besserwisser, one who habitually knows better. One can only be thankful that Wu the magisterial editor never gets to sit in judgment on Wu the biographer. They live by entirely separate rules.

Jon Cook’s Hazlitt in Love: A Fatal Attachment tells the story which Haz-litt—with disastrous consequences for his reputation—told in the Liber Amoris, the story of his falling in love with his landlady’s daughter and his arranging of a necessarily sordid divorce from his wife. The Liber Amoris is a unique and troubling book, well ahead of its time in most respects, but still somewhat hobbled by its own obsessiveness. The part of the story that reflects worst on Hazlitt as a person is also the one that I suspect to be most false. Jilted by the girl, and smarting under the need to know whether she was indeed modest or essentially a prostitute, Hazlitt seems to have persuaded a friend (identity unknown) to pose as a lodger and see if he could seduce her.

If this is what Hazlitt did, it was a vengeful experiment to set up. I cannot, however, help thinking that there is something overly literary in this part of the story, that Hazlitt (whose mind was so full of Shakespeare) was mentally playing out Othello’s line: “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore.” Cook’s account of the affair is a nice example of the modern genre of short books (it was published in England by a firm called Short Books). This one can be read on its own, or, most usefully, as a long introduction to the Liber Amoris itself.

  1. 1

    As per the Wiktionary definition.

  2. 2

    Bryan Waller Procter (Barry Cornwall), An Autobiographical Fragment and Biographical Notes (London: George Ball and Sons, 1877), pp. 128–129, 168.

  3. 3

    P.P. Howe, The Life of William Hazlitt (1922; Penguin, 1949), pp. 75–76.

  4. 4

    Hazlitt in the Workshop: The Manuscript of The Fight, edited by Stewart C. Wilcox (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1943), p. 7.

  5. 5

    William Hazlitt, The Fight and Other Writings, edited by Tom Paulin and David Chandler (Penguin, 2000), pp. 148–149.

  6. 6

    On Great and Little Things,” in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, edited by P.P. Howe (London: Dent, 1930–1934), Vol. 8, p. 233.

  7. 7

    A classic example from Mailer’s The Fight (Little, Brown, 1975): describing the initial confusion over Ali’s triumphant knockdown, Mailer concludes that “back in America everybody was already yelling that the fight was fixed. Yes. So was The Night Watch and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

  8. 8

    Not to be confused with Thomas Bewick (1753–1828), the celebrated wood engraver, who came, however, from the same northeast of England.

  9. 9

    Life and Letters of William Bewick (Artist), edited by Thomas Landseer (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1871), Vol. 1, pp. 138–139.

  10. 10

    The Journal of Margaret Hazlitt: Recollections of England, Ireland, and America, edited and annotated by Ernest J. Moyne (University of Kansas Press, 1967), pp. 108–109.

  11. 11

    John Ruskin, Praeterita (Everyman, 2005), p. 189.

  12. 12

    Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and Their Writers, edited by Edith J. Morley (London: Dent, 1938), Vol. 1, p. 6.

  13. 13

    Reviewing Christabel: Kubla Khan, a Vision. The Pains of Sleep, in 1816, Hazlitt is laboriously sarcastic about “Kubla Khan,” remarking finally that “Upon the whole, we look upon this publication as one of the most notable pieces of impertinence of which the press has lately been guilty; and one of the boldest experiments that has yet been made on the patience or understanding of the public.” Wu asks us to believe that Hazlitt heard Coleridge read or recite “Kubla Khan” in 1798, although Hazlitt, by Wu’s admission, nowhere says that he did; but “it is almost certain he did so during the three weeks he spent in Stowey at that time. My account of this first reading, though invented, draws on the earliest MS of the poem, now in the British Library, and Coleridge’s explanatory note to it.” No explanation is given why Wu should be “almost certain” that Hazlitt heard the poem so soon after its putative composition date, or why he should have so drastically changed his mind about it.