William Hazlitt at first planned to follow his father into the Unitarian ministry, became instead a painter of portraits, then turned to writing on philosophy, economics, and politics. Not until his mid-thirties did he discover his vocation as a public lecturer and prolific contributor to periodicals. In the twenty years before his death in 1830, he produced enough to fill almost twenty volumes of his collected Works, including superb criticism of English dramatists, poets, and novelists, the best commentaries on painting in the England of his day, remarkable analyses of the English theater and its actors, comments on the contemporary political scene that are of permanent interest, and more than a hundred informal essays which, as David Bromwich says, are “more observing, original, and keen-witted than any others in the language.”
In his best-known essay, “My First Acquaintance with Poets,” Hazlitt nostalgically recalls the turning point of his life, which was Coleridge’s short stay near Hazlitt’s village in Shropshire as a visiting preacher to a Unitarian congregation. “I was at that time,” Hazlitt says, “dumb, inarticulate, helpless.” It was to the example of Coleridge’s ceaseless eloquence, in conversation and from the pulpit, that Hazlitt attributes the fact that “my understanding did not remain dumb and brutish,” but “at last found a language to express itself.” The shy and tongue-tied youth accepted Coleridge’s invitation for a three weeks’ visit to his home at Nether Stowey in the Lake Country, where he met Wordsworth and heard some of the recently written Lyrical Ballads read aloud, at which time, he says, “the sense of a new style and a new spirit in poetry came over me.”
But as often occurred in Hazlitt’s stormy life, this idyll had a sequel in the form of farce. When five years later he revisited Coleridge and Wordsworth to paint their portraits, his stay created increasing friction and ended abruptly in a scandal. Hazlitt, it seems, was aggressively but awkwardly amatory toward the country girls. As Wordsworth “with great horror” told the story to the painter Benjamin Haydon twenty-one years after the event, when one young woman rebuffed his advances Hazlitt “enraged pushed her down, and because, Sir, she refused to gratify his abominable and devilish propensities, he lifted up her petticoats and smoteer on the bottom.” To escape a ducking by the enraged populace, Hazlitt ignominiously fled, assisted by gifts of money and clothes from Wordsworth.
This episode caused an estrangement of both Wordsworth and Coleridge from Hazlitt, which was exacerbated by their increasing political differences and by Hazlitt’s outspoken reviews of their opinions and writings. Bromwich treats harshly their rejection of Hazlitt. Undoubtedly, both Wordsworth and Coleridge were intolerant and behaved sanctimoniously toward the younger writer. But in extenuation one should point out that Hazlitt never managed to stay on good terms with anyone for very long. In demeanor he was often gauche, graceless, suspicious—in Coleridge’s memorable sketch, he was “brow-hanging, shoe-contemplative, strange.” He also exhibited what Leigh Hunt called “great impartiality of assault,” in that he expressed his mind and variable moods fully, not only about his foes but his friends, and not only in conversation but in print. In the course of his combative life Hazlitt alienated everyone who was most intimate with him, including Leigh Hunt and the tolerant Charles Lamb, who nonetheless continued to praise Hazlitt’s qualities when he was at his genial best: “I think W.H. to be, in his natural and healthy state, one of the wisest and finest spirits breathing…. I think I shall go to my grave without finding, or expecting to find, such another companion.”
In a cogent opening chapter, David Bromwich tells us that his book is about another Hazlitt than the one we commonly admire as a zestful, hearty, worldly essayist; he will reveal a Hazlitt who is “fiercer and less reconciled,” the “most restless of the English romantics…and in one sense the most shocking.” In this undertaking Bromwich succeeds, though at greater length than seems strictly necessary. (The penultimate chapter of this long book, for example, is about Keats rather than Hazlitt; it explicates Keats’s odes “To a Nightingale” and “On a Grecian Urn” as incorporating critical concepts that Keats had learned from Hazlitt, and adds two more close readings to the many others that have already accumulated around those great poems.)
Bromwich claims that as a literary critic Hazlitt is grossly undervalued in our time because of the vogue for theoretical criticism; this, he writes, shows a “love of method and yearning for system” of which “the true father is Coleridge.” His complaint is a valid one. To oppose the current academic neglect of Hazlitt as a critic, however, Bromwich takes an unfortunate tack. In his account of Hazlitt’s criticism, as he puts it, his own “argument with Coleridge is audible as a persistent undertone.” In this argument Bromwich himself succumbs to the modern preference for theory over practice by claiming that, even as a theorist of poetry, Hazlitt is more rewarding than Coleridge; and he employs a seesaw method of evaluation, whereby in elevating Hazlitt he depresses Coleridge and at times comes close to caricaturing his views about poetry.
Both Coleridge and Hazlitt are great critics, but their excellence is different in kind. Coleridge is a systematic critic for whom theory precedes application, and whose theory of poetry is a part of a general philosophy of man and nature. He persistently views the works he criticizes through the perspective provided by his theory, though mediated by his sensibility and subtle awareness of his own procedures as a practicing poet. Historically, Coleridge has proved to be the most seminal and influential writer in our language, both on criticism and on poetry. Hazlitt’s special virtues, on the other hand, depend not on a systematic prior theory, but on his immediacy of response to a specific literary work or passage. If I had to make a choice between them as practical critics, I would like Bromwich, take Hazlitt’s literary commentary over Coleridge’s; it is wider ranging, less moralistic, often more interesting, even startling, in its insights, and more open to the special excellences of such unfashionable poets as Alexander Pope. Fortunately we do not have to make a choice. We can apply to criticism the pluralism that Hazlitt finely asserts for literature: “To know the best in each class infers a higher degree of taste; to reject the class is only a negation of taste; for different classes do not interfere with one another.”
Hazlitt decries what he calls the “modern or metaphysical school of criticism,” and to identify his own distinctive procedure, introduces the term “impression”: “I cannot help receiving certain impressions from things; and I have sufficient courage to declare (somewhat abruptly) what they are.” It is difficult to call Hazlitt a critical impressionist without seeming to derogate his achievement, because we tend to apply the term to critics who substitute their own reveries for qualities of the work they ostensibly discuss. Hazlitt means by “impression,” however, his direct response to a work’s particularities, as adapted, he says, to “the effect which the author has aimed at producing.” He praised Burke in a way that defines his own aim and achievement as a critic. “He loses no particle of the exact, characteristic, extreme impression of the thing he writes about…and communicates this to the reader.” Hazlitt’s firsthand responses to his subjects are of enduring value because they are directed and informed throughout by the play of a well-read, acute, honest, opinionated, and unsystematic but remarkably interesting intelligence and temperament.
The qualities of mind and temperament that distinguish Hazlitt’s criticism are revealed in the terms he repeatedly uses to define the highest literary or artistic values: especially “imagination,” “genius,” “expression,” “passion,” “character,” “gusto,” “energy,” and above all “power.” Hazlitt nowhere pins down the meaning of these words, and all attempts by his commentators to define them are baffled by the variability of Hazlitt’s own texts. As Hazlitt used them, they are interrelated and often interchangeable; they refer to qualities of the author’s mind, to the work itself, to the objects represented by the work, or to the response to the work by a reader. Sometimes Hazlitt uses them to refer to all these at once. This elusiveness and variability are not defects, but are requisite to the kind of criticism that Hazlitt inaugurated. Because these terms do not designate fixed categories, but are flexible and fluid, they are adaptable to the particular quality of whatever Hazlitt is talking about. “A thing,” Hazlitt wrote, “is not more perfect by becoming something else, but by being more itself.” The meanings of his words of praise are realized only in the reader’s own experience of those features of a work to which Hazlitt has directed his attention.
Hazlitt’s most systematic enterprise was his first published work, On the Principles of Human Action (1805). A late example of the many replies to Hobbes’s view that the sole human motive is egoistic self-interest, Hazlitt’s closely reasoned argument, as his subtitle puts it, aims to prove “the Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind.” Bromwich and other commentators are doubtless right in asserting that Hazlitt later applied the moral concept of disinterestedness to art: it underlies his claim that Shakespeare, “the least of an egotist that it was possible to be,” identified himself in imagination with each of his characters. It also underlies his distinction between the outward-looking older poets, from Homer on, and the “modern school of poetry” (by which he meant the contemporary Romantics, especially Wordsworth), who “reduce poetry to a mere effusion of natural sensibility.” These claims were widely influential and shaped the opinions of the young Keats. But here Hazlitt was largely refining views current in Germany and England, particularly after Schiller’s Naive and Sentimental Poetry, that Shakespeare was both an objective and an imaginatively self-projective poet, and that, like the ancient poets, he was naive, impersonal, and objective, while the modern poets were predominantly sentimental, self-interested, and subjective.
Much more original in Hazlitt’s essays is his emphasis on what he calls “the mixed motives” that compel all human action, including the composition of poetry, and the way that these motives involve “all the intricate folds and delicate involutions of our self-love.” The most startling aspect of Hazlitt’s criticism is his demolition of the romantic idealism of his contemporaries about the motives for writing poetry, epitomized in Shelley’s assertion that “poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.” In “On Poetry in General,” Hazlitt asserted that fear, hatred, contempt, no less than hope, love, and wonder “are all poetry.”
It is as natural to hate as to love, to despise as to admire, to express our hatred or contempt, as our love and admiration…. The imagination, by…embodying them and turning them to shape, gives an obvious relief to the indistinct and importunate cravings of the will. We do not wish the thing to be so, but we wish it to appear such as it is. For knowledge is conscious power; and the mind is no longer, in this case, the dupe, though it may be the victim of vice or folly.
As Bromwich says, Hazlitt’s criticism is especially interesting for its awareness that “literature and politics belong to one world.” He cites Hazlitt’s statement “that poetry is an interesting study, for this reason, that it relates to whatever is most interesting in human life,” and the most enlightening chapters in his book are those on Hazlitt’s political thought and writings, which as he shows belong in the same intellectual and emotional world as his critical thought and his writings on literature.
“I started in life,” Hazlitt said, “with the French Revolution, and I have lived, alas! to see the end of it…. Since then, I confess, I have no longer felt myself young, for with that my hopes fell.” The thinking and imagination of his major literary contemporaries, including Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, were also shaped by the inordinate hopes they had invested in the Revolution and by their despair at its failure; but what for them was a preoccupation was for Hazlitt an obsession.
I will never cease, nor be prevented from returning on the wings of imagination to that bright dream of our youth…. To those hopes eternal regrets are due; to those who maliciously blasted them, in the fear that they might be accomplished, we feel no less what we owe—hatred and scorn as lasting.
Within this proscenium Hazlitt viewed his own experience, as well as the political events and personages, and the writers and works of literature, of his era.
The persistent term in Hazlitt’s writings, which connects, and greatly complicates, his treatment of these matters, is “power.” There is in his works, Bromwich rightly notes, “a moral ambiguity implicit in every exertion of power to which the imagination moves us,” and the same word links “the power of poetry which Hazlitt loved, and the power of tyranny which he hated.” It should also be remarked that the moral ambiguity of power, and Hazlitt’s ambivalence toward its manifestation and effects, are evident within, as well as in the interplay between, the realms of poetry, life, and politics. Perhaps the closest we can come to establishing the range of applications in Hazlitt’s use of this term is by a negative definition: “power” encompasses essential aspects of human motivation and responsiveness that are left out of account in the moral philosophy of English empiricism, and especially of Benthamite Utilitarianism and its calculus of pleasure.
In the main line of empiricism, which largely governed Hazlitt’s early philosophical writings, elementary sense-perceptions are accompanied by, or become associated with, pleasures and pains, which give rise, respectively, to desire and aversion, and so to our judgments of good and bad. To this pleasure principle as determining our judgments and actions Hazlitt, in a way that looks forward to Nietzsche and Freud, adds a contrary compulsion, the power principle:
We are as prone to make a torment of our fears, as to luxuriate in our hopes of good. If it be asked, Why we do so? the best answer will be, Because we cannot help it. The sense of power is as strong a principle in the mind as the love of pleasure.
Hazlitt is writing here about “Poetry in General,” but the complex and equivocal role of the sense of power as motivating his own and others’ actions and achievements, as well as responses to the actions and achievements of others, is a dominant theme in his writings about morality and politics as well. He tells us in an essay, “On Depth and Superficiality,” that he once startled Coleridge—who as a Christian philosopher affirmed original sin, but interpreted the dogma in a liberal way—by asserting, in answer to Coleridge’s challenge whether he “had ever known a child of a naturally wicked disposition,” that
Yes, there was one in the house with me that cried from morning to night, for spite…. It had a positive pleasure in pain from the sense of power accompanying it…. I have no other idea of what is commonly understood by wickedness than that perversion of the will or love of mischief for its own sake…. It cried only to vent its passion and alarm the house, and I saw in its frantic screams and gestures that great baby, the world, tumbling about in its swaddling-clothes, and tormenting itself and others for the last six thousand years!
Hazlitt attributed the persistence and success of political oppression not only to the innate delight men feel in wielding power over others, but also to their propensity to identify with the power employed to oppress them. “The love of power in ourselves and the admiration of it in others are both natural to man: the one makes him a tyrant, the other a slave.” He rejected the hope that amelioration and reform would someday “complete the triumph of humanity and liberty,” because such a Utopian faith requires “several things necessary which are impossible,” including the condition that “the love of power and of change shall no longer goad man on…. Our strength lies in our weakness; our virtues are built on our vices…nor can we lift man above his nature more than above the earth he treads.”
To “virtues,” or positive qualities of which the power-drive is in diverse ways capable, Hazlitt responded in full though troubled measure. Bromwich acutely reveals the parallels, and the mingling of admiration and ambivalence, in Hazlitt’s commentaries on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Milton’s Satan, and Napoleon Bonaparte (in whose defense, vehement but qualified, Hazlitt published, at the end of his career, a four-volume Life). These are all persons of heroic will and power and of absolute self-reliance, who appeal to us in spite of—or rather, as Hazlitt recognizes, because of—their contempt for others who are less than themselves. There is a similar dividedness in his lifelong fascination with Edmund Burke, who is for Hazlitt the incomparable hero of prose, commanding “the most perfect prose-style, the most powerful, the most dazzling, the most daring.” “The principle which guides his pen is…not pleasure, but power.” “He exults in the display of power.”
To Hazlitt, Burke is the unequaled master of eloquence not because he persuades us by rational argument, but because he overwhelms us, leaving us in a state of admiration and acquiescence that is independent of our conviction. Yet by putting the power of language in the service of established political power, as Hazlitt saw it, Burke was more than any other man responsible for the success of counterrevolution and the blasting of the highest human hope. “The consequences of his writings as instruments of political power have been tremendous, fatal, such as no exertion of wit, or knowledge, or genius can ever counteract or atone for.” Nonetheless Hazlitt declares that “it has always been with me a test of the sense and candor of any one belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.”
We also find this doubleness of assertion and attitude in Hazlitt’s criticism of poetry. His highest praise is for the power of a poetic passage; yet he believed that the great poets (in our time one thinks of Yeats, Pound, Eliot), as well as the proclivities of the imagination that produce sublime poetry, naturally take the side of established hierarchy, glory, and power. “The cause of the people is indeed but little calculated as a subject for poetry…. The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty,” and as opposed to the understanding, it is also an “aristocratical” faculty. “The principle of poetry is a very anti-levelling principle…. It is everything by excess.”
Hazlitt’s insight into the complex ways in which poets and poetry are involved with the social and political realities of power underlies what seems to me one of his most remarkable achievements in literary criticism, his discussion of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads in his late and best book, The Spirit of the Age. Hazlitt recognized that a social class structure was built into the traditional hierarchy and decorums of the poetic genres, in which the highest and most serious (epic and tragedy) represented kings and aristocracy in a language appropriate to their rank, and the descending genres were apportioned to a descending social order and idiom. This inherited class consciousness permeated the taste and sensibility of the middle- as well as upper-class readers in Wordsworth’s time. In his early poetry, Wordsworth introduced the common, the lowly, the trivial, and the social outcast as subjects of serious, even tragic poetic concern, and in a language, he says, adopted from “humble and rustic life”; with the result, as Wordsworth complained, that his poems elicited “unremitting hostility,” and “the slight, the aversion, and even the contempt” of its reviewers. Hazlitt interprets Wordsworth’s originality in Lyrical Ballads as his egalitarian subversion of the implicit assumptions about class and power in poetry, and therefore as the equivalent in literature to the French Revolution in politics:
It is one of the innovations of the time. It partakes of, and is carried along with, the revolutionary movement of our age: the political changes of the day were the model on which he formed and conducted his poetical experiments. His Muse…is a levelling one. It proceeds on a principle of equality…. His popular, inartificial style gets rid (at a blow) of all the trappings of verse, of all the high places of poetry…. Kings, queens, priests, robes, the alter and the throne…are not to be found here.
In this achievement, and in giving us “a new view of nature” by elevating the “mean,” the “trivial,” and the “insignificant” in the natural scene to the highest level of interest, Hazlitt asserts, Wordsworth is “the most original poet now living, and the one whose writings could the least be spared, for they have no substitute elsewhere.”
Hazlitt, Keats remarked with admiration, “is your only good damner and if ever I am damn’d—damn me if I shouldn’t like him to damn me.” In a mood of pessimism Hazlitt wrote an essay, “On the Pleasure of Hating,” in which he represents hatred, the “perverse…delight in mischief,” as “the very spring of thought and action,” which corrupts, and will continue to corrupt, society, religion, international relations, and one’s relations to oneself. “We throw aside the trammels of civilization…. The wild beast resumes its sway within us,” and “the heart rouses itself in its native lair, and utters a wild cry of joy, at being restored once more to freedom and lawless, unrestrained impulses.” But to hate, as to power, Hazlitt gives a double interpretation and value; venting indignant hatred upon a subject that deserves it yields a proper and salutary pleasure at our verbal power both over our own feelings and over the subject that occasions them. The victim, as Hazlitt put it, “is no longer, in this case, the dupe.” Toward those who had “maliciously and wilfully blasted” the hopes vested by mankind in the French Revolution Hazlitt, consciously echoing Satan, had vowed “what we owe—hatred and scorn everlasting,” and in expressing this hatred and scorn, Hazlitt achieved his most vehement, sustained, and comprehensive eloquence.
Bromwich quotes some splendid examples. Here is another instance of such rhetoric—a single, involved, and evolving sentence in which Hazlitt equals Burke in the power of his eloquence, but directs it against the entrenched political powers in whose defense Burke had misdirected his:
But there are persons of that low and inordinate appetite for servility, that they cannot be satisfied with any thing short of that sort of tyranny that has lasted for ever, and is likely to last for ever; that is strengthened and made desperate by the superstitions and prejudices of ages; that is enshrined in traditions, in laws, in usages, in the outward symbols of power, in the very idioms of language; that has struck its roots into the human heart, and clung round the human understanding like a nightshade; that overawes the imagination, and disarms the will to resist it, by the very enormity of the evil; that is cemented with gold and blood; guarded by reverence, guarded by power; linked in endless successions to the principle by which life is transmitted to the generations of tyrants and slaves, and destroying liberty with the first breath of life; that is absolute, unceasing, unerring, fatal, unutterable, abominable, monstrous.
Hazlitt, who liked to think of himself as a member of a party of one, then goes on, in this Preface to his Political Essays, evenhandedly to demolish all the political parties of his time, the liberal Reformers and the Whigs no less than the Tories.
It is, however, Hazlitt’s familiar essays that have always been the most widely read and will doubtless continue to be the most widely read. The form of most of these essays is distinctive, “Hazlittean.” Bromwich notes, discerningly, that in his criticism Hazlitt differs from other major critics in that he does not use artistic unity as a prime criterion of literary value. In an essay on Charles Lamb, De Quincey, who was a highly conscious prose artist, depreciated Hazlitt because his thoughts are “discontinuous,” lacking in “evolution” according to “the law of succession.” Bromwich counters that the coherence of Hazlitt’s thought is “associationist,” which is true; although it should also be observed that Hazlitt’s are often very free associations. He himself tells us that in writing his essays “I seldom see my way a page or even a sentence beforehand.” His typical compositional unit is the single sentence; he piles sentence upon sentence, frequently according to no apparent principle of rhetorical order, into paragraphs three pages long; he is apt to change his topic abruptly and radically from one paragraph to the next; and often when he reaches the end, he simply stops.
Hazlitt most approximates the norm of artistic unity in essays such as “My First Acquaintance with Poets,” which have narrative sequence, but even that work ends in a conclusion in which nothing is concluded: “Enough of this for the present.” Another narrative essay, “The Fight,” however, is thoroughly ordered, and worth noting also as a reminder that, in addition to his merits as a critic of literature, oratory, painting, the theater, and politics, Hazlitt was both the originator and nonpareil of sports reporting. The essay describes the mounting excitement of the fans as they make their way to the appointed arena by stagecoach, with an overnight stop at an inn, then on foot; its central episode, the fight between the Gas-man and Bill Neate, is rendered in a tone that moves easily between the true heroic and the mockheroic, and evolves through suspense, false expectation, and reversal to the denouement; it is followed by Hazlitt’s sharing delighted reminiscences of the fight with others during the return home. It ends: “Toms called upon me the next day, to ask me if I did not think the fight was a complete thing? I said I thought it was. I hope he will relish my account of it.” The essay is itself a complete thing, and reveals the kind of formal values that Hazlitt ordinarily gives up in order to achieve his own kind of essayistic brilliance, by his mastery of what he called “plain, point-blank speaking.”
Hazlitt, himself an athlete, describes the elements and relations in his ideal of prose by a trope taken from athletic contests: “Every word should be a blow, every thought should instantly grapple with its fellow.” When he is at his best in expressing the supple energy of his mind in the power of his prose, Hazlitt makes De Quincey’s craftsmanship in the essay seem ponderous, Leigh Hunt’s lightweight, and even Lamb’s, in many instances, sequestered and quaint. There are moods of reading, in fact, in which no other essayist can give us the satisfaction that Hazlitt does. R.L. Stevenson said in one of his essays that “though we are mighty fine fellows nowadays, we cannot write like Hazlitt.” David Bromwich, in the opening paragraph of his book about the other Hazlitt, cites this comment as appropriate to the standard Hazlitt, about whom he remarks that “I never cared for him much.” I have a hunch, though, that even the other Hazlitt would have liked Stevenson’s compliment very much.
May 10, 1984