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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.”

  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.

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