5. Criticism
William Hazlitt by J.B. Priestley

It might be said that these discursive critical evenings with Lamb served Hazlitt well later on, for though he is more an intensely personal essayist than a critic proper, his critical insights were extraordinarily keen and just, the best of his time. He might quarrel with Wordsworth and Coleridge, but in spite of his passionate prejudices he understood and praised their poetry. He regarded the former as

'the most original poet now living.... His poetry is not external, but internal; it does not depend upon tradition, or story, or old song; he furnishes it from his own mind, and is his own subject. He is the poet of mere sentiment.... His poems open a finer and deeper vein of thought and feeling than any poet in modern times has done, or attempted. He has produced a deeper impression, and on a smaller circle, than any other of his contemporaries. His powers have been mistaken by the age, nor does he exactly understand them himself He cannot form a whole. He has not the constructive faculty. He can give only the fine tones of thought, drawn from his mind by accident or nature, like the sounds drawn from the Aeolian harp by the wondering gale. He is totally deficient in all the machinery of poetry. His Excursion, taken as a whole, notwithstanding the noble materials thrown away in it, is a proof of this. The line labours, the sentiment moves slow; but the poem stands stock-still.' And again: his poetry '. . . 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 (it cannot be denied, and without this we cannot explain its character at all) is a levelling one. It proceeds on a principle of equality, and strives to reduce all things to the same standard. It is distinguished by a proud humility. It relies upon its own resources, and disdains external show and relief It takes the commonest events and objects, as a test to prove that nature is always interesting from its inherent truth and beauty, without any of the ornaments of dress or pomp of circumstances to set it of. Hence the unaccountable mixture of seeming simplicity and real abstruseness in the Lyrical Ballads. Fools have laughed at, wise men scarcely understand, them. He takes a subject or a story merely as pegs or loops to hang thought and feeling on; the incidents are trifling, in proportion to his contempt for imposing appearances; the reflections are profound, according to the gravity and aspiring pretensions of his mind.'( Mr Wordsworth in The Spirit of the Age.)

When sound gentlemanly Tories like Lockhart were dismissing the poetry of Keats as 'drivelling idiocy' and the poet himself as 'a starved apothecary', Hazlitt admired the work and befriended the man; indeed their friendship, though it lasted far too short a time, must have been a source of great solace to Hazlitt, for the poet was one of his greatest admirers. His respect was such that he could write in 1818:

'Hazlitt has damned the bigotted and blue-stockinged; how durst the Man? He is your only good damner, and if ever I am damn'd — damn me if I shouldn't like him to dam me'.

On the other hand Hazlitt did not much care for Shelley, in spite of their common republican views; but it can hardly be denied that his criticism of that poet does reveal certain enduring faults.

'He is clogged by no dull system of realities, no earth-bound feelings, no rooted prejudices, by nothing that belongs to the mighty trunk and hard husk of nature and habit, but IS drawn up by irresistible levity to the regions of mere speculation and fancy, to the sphere of air and fare, where his delighted spirit floats in "seas of pearl and clouds of amber".... Bubbles are to him the only realities — touch them and they vanish.... Though a man in knowledge, he is a child in feeling.... 'Quoted in 'The Life of William Hazlitt, by P. P. Howe. New ed 1947, pp. 227-8.)

Very often, in the course of his criticism of others, Hazlitt spoke perhaps unconsciously of himself. In his study of Coleridge there is a passage worth quoting which well describes the casual element, the lack of driving force, the absence of direction, in his life. 'Persons of the greatest capacity', he wrote

'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. It is not merely that that mind is not capable of the effort; it does not think the effort worth making. Action is one; but thought is manifold. He whose restless eye glances through the wide compass of nature and art, will not consent to have "his own nothings monstered"; but he must do this before he can give his whole soul to them. The mind, after "letting contemplation have its fill" or: "Sailing with supreme dominion, Through the azure deep of air, sinks down on the ground, breathless, exhausted, power-less, inactive"; or if it must have some vent to its feelings, seeks the most easy and obvious; is soothed by friendly flattery, lulled by the murmur of immediate applause: thinks, as it were, aloud, and babbles in its dreams! (Coleridge, in 'Lectures on the English Poets.')

The best of Hazlitt's criticism is to be found in his Lectures on the English Comic Writers, first published in 1819, and in one of his later works, an original that has since produced many inferior imitations, The Spirit of the Age, or Contemporary Portraits. When so many of his distinguished contemporaries were lashing out at Hazlitt in phrases that were to endure, it comes as a surprise to find evidence of the high esteem in which he was held as a critic appearing in the newspapers of the time. At the end of his course of lectures on the Comic Writers, the Morning Chronicle, no doubt supported by the majority of his audience, said that his reputation as a critic 'stood already high with the public; but we are mistaken if these lectures will not add to it. He displayed the same boldness and originality of thinking; the same critical acuteness, eloquence and felicity of expression for which his lectures on the Poets were so eminently distinguished....' And, we might add to this catalogue, a deep understanding of the nature not only of wit and humour but of life itself. For the Hazlitt of the warmly intimate Essays always overlapped the critical Hazlitt, and his lectures are as much about life as about literature.

In The Spirit of the Age, among many good things, may be found — a dried pressed thistle — what is left of Gifford, who with his anonymous assassins of The Quarterly Review had so often attacked Hazlitt and had almost murdered Keats:

'The Quarterly Review, besides the political tirades and denunciations of suspected writers, intended for the guidance of the heads of families, is filled up with accounts of books of Voyages and Travels for the amusement of the younger branches. The poetical department is almost a sinecure, consisting of mere summary decisions and a list of quotations. Mr Croker is understood to contribute the St Helena articles and the liberality, Mr Canning the practical good sense, Mr Disraeli the good nature, Mr Jacob the modesty, Mr Southey the consistency, and the Editor himself the chivalrous spirit and the attacks on Lady Morgan....'(Mr Gifford in The Spirit of the Age.)

As Walter Raleigh said of Hazlitt: 'He came of a tough stock, and fighting blood tingled in his veins.' It was probably this fighting blood, combined with his taste for solitude, which enabled him to enjoy such a detached view of the literary and political scene of his time. And, as an example will show, his opinions have lost nothing of their sharpness and relevance; he might be writing today when he says that

'we have lost the art of reading, or the privilege of writing, voluminously, since the days of Addison. Learning no longer weaves the interminable page with patient drudgery, nor ignorance pores over it with implicit faith. As authors multiply in number, books diminish in size; we cannot now, as formerly, swallow libraries whole in a single folio: solid quarto has given place to slender duodecimo, and the dingy letterpress contracts its dimensions, and retreats before the white, unsullied, faultless margin. Modem authorship is become a species of stenography: we contrive even to read by proxy. We skim the cream of prose without any trouble; we get at the quintessence of poetry without loss of time. The staple commodity, the coarse, heavy, dirty, unwieldy bullion of books, is driven out of the market of learning, and the intercourse of the literary world is carried on, and the credit of the great capitalists sustained, by the flimsy circulating medium of magazines and reviews. Those who are chiefly concerned in catering for the taste of others, and serving up critical opinions in a compendious, elegant, and portable form, are not forgetful of themselves: they are not scrupulously solicitous, idly inquisitive about the real merits, the bona fide contents of the works they are deputed to appraise and value, any more than the reading public who employ them. They look no farther for the contents of the work than the title-page, and pronounce a peremptory decision on its merits or defects by a glance at the name and party of the writer....'

The great essays of his maturity — 'On People With One Idea', 'The Indian Jugglers', 'The Flight', 'On Going a Journey','On the Fear of Death', and the rest — were mostly written either at Winterslow, on Salisbury Plain, which makes a frequent appearance in his essays, or in various lodgings in London. There he rose late, sat drinking his horrible strong tea (he had forsworn alcohol because he thought it bad for his stomach, but in the end the tea did him more harm) until evening, and if he had an essay to write — which usually meant that he needed the money — composed it in an incredibly short time, with hardly a correction. That he enjoyed this modest routine cannot be doubted. In his last full year of life he wrote:

'Taking one thing with another, I have no great cause to complain. If I had been a merchant, a bookseller, or the proprietor of a newspaper, instead of what I am, I might have had more money or possessed a town and country house, instead of lodging in a first or second floor, as it may happen. Rut what then ? I see how the man of business and fortune passes his time. He is up and in the city by eight, swallows his breakfast in haste, attends a meeting of creditors, must read Lloyd's lists, consult the price of consols, study the markets, look into his accounts, pay his workmen, and superintend his clerks: he has hardly a minute in the day to himself, and perhaps in the four-and-twenty hours does not do a single thing that he would do if he could help it. Surely, this sacrifice of time and inclination requires some compensation, which it meets with. But how am I entitled to make my fortune (which cannot be done without all this anxiety and drudgery) who hardly do any thing at all, and never any thing but what I like to do? I rise when I please, breakfast at length, write what comes into my head, and after taking a mutton-chop and a dish of strong tea, go to the play, and thus my time passes. Mr has no time to go to the play. It was but the other day that I had to get up a little earlier than usual to go into the city about some money transaction, which appeared to me a prodigious hardship: if so, it was plain that I must lead a tolerably easy life: nor should I object to passing mine over again.'

Hazlitt's essays are not faultless. There are too many references to the dawn of the Revolution, the apostasy or the Lake Poets, scurrilous Tory critics, and various personal matters. When the style fails to achieve a flashing poetry of phrase, it is content with an easy romantic lushness — 'The dew from a thousand pastures was gathered into its softness.'

Too often he luxuriates in his moods, abandons himself too abjectly. But the manly sense and wit return; the truth is spoken; and as his heart warms to the remembrance of pleasure, happiness, glory, the prose glows with rich imagery:

'We walk through life, as through a narrow path, with a thin curtain drawn around it; behind are ranged rich portraits, airy harps are strung — yet we will not stretch forth our hands and lift aside the veil, to catch glimpses of the one or sweep the chords of the other. As in a theatre, when the old-fashioned green curtain drew up, groups of figures, fantastic dresses. laughing faces, rich banquets, stately columns, gleaming vistas, appeared beyond, so we have only at any time to "peep through the blanket of the past" to possess ourselves at once of all that has regaled our senses, that is stored up in our memory, that has struck our fancy, that has pierced our hearts: yet to all this we are indifferent, insensible, and seem intent only on the present vexation, the future disappointment.'

So here, in 'A Farewell to Essay-writing', he seems to anticipate Proust's Time Regained.

« NEXT »« Hazlitt » « Literary Criticism » « Biographies » « Library » « Home »