Shoe-Contemplative

David Bromwich

  • The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt’s Radical Style by Tom Paulin
    Faber, 382 pp, £22.50, June 1998, ISBN 0 571 17421 3

How they keep trying to bury Hazlitt, and how he keeps coming back. T.S. Eliot said he was guilty of ‘crimes against taste’. David Lodge made him a twee subject of nostalgic research for the English hero of Small World, Philip Swallow, hopelessly outgunned by the vulgar but irresistible American, Morris Zapp. Lodge had got his significant detail wrong – Swallow should be a scholar of Charles Lamb (the ‘gentle-hearted’) – but the broad allusion did pretty much what was wanted, assuring the theoretically advanced that they were now top dogs. Condescension usually has an anxious motive. Eliot, as Tom Paulin is on hand to say, was working from a subtext of his own: Hazlitt’s crimes against taste would have included his unapologetic admiration for Milton, and behind that offence lay a consistent choice of affinities. Eliot was a Dissenter who grew to hate his Dissenting inheritance. Hazlitt belonged to the party of rebellion and never looked back. He went from Unitarianism to political radicalism to the new poetry of his time without a break of stride and without any sense of shifting allegiance. He claimed not to have changed his mind, in principle, after the age of 18. He added – confessing to something keener than stubbornness – that he could not trust anyone who departed much from the ideals he genuinely cherished at 18.

The Day-Star of Liberty is part of a revival this year which includes a new selected edition of Hazlitt’s Works from Pickering and Chatto. The critical study will fit the works companionably. A survey and encomium, it has the invigorating power of a good course of lectures. The subject is Hazlitt’s style, the procedure mainly illustration and commentary, but Paulin ranges widely in the 20 volumes of P.P. Howe’s complete edition, and his speculations may arm some readers for the harder climbs in Hazlitt’s work: brilliant metaphysical essays like ‘On Genius and Common Sense’ and ‘On Depth and Superficiality’’ and the demolition of the theory of self-interest and identity in the Principles of Human Action. But that is the best-kept secret about Hazlitt: he is a hard thinker, with an intricacy not imposed by the usual stratagems – officious jargon, protective suavity, the counterfeit of impeccable logic or a minute calibration of fashion. John Berryman once said to a friend: ‘Doesn ‘t reading Stendhal make you feel intelligent!’ The same is true of Hazlitt; and the justified praise of Paulin’s book is that the compliment to our amour-propre survives his exploration to a generous degree. Reading him on Hazlitt, you never feel ‘Isn ‘t he being awfully clever about somebody?’ but, with surprising steadiness: ‘Now I see why Hazlitt’s writing gave me that feeling.’

Paulin is working here in a rare genre – appreciation of an appreciative writer – with temptations known only to those who have tried it: a drift toward suasive insistence, making the author toe a line he scarcely noticed; or, by reaction to the other extreme, a superstitious trust in the healing virtue of mere quotation. A historian of criticism a generation ago used to begin his seminars: ‘We are discussing criticism of criticism – at four removes from reality. If you are not already interested in literature, this will turn you off.’ It was an honourable display of fairness in advertising; but the experiment need not be so toxic. One can think of the great critics as observers of life; and with an author like Hazlitt, who wrote books of travel, history, political commentary, biography, a grammar and a novel, the fairest approach may be to suspend one’s judgment about which field of knowledge he was contributing to. The texture of his prose has a life of its own. Its power adds something to art, as art adds something to the world. The essence of his nervous temperament was that it would not float and would not fix. The unforgettable phrases rush towards sentences, the sentences towards paragraphs that only stop when a feeling has run its course: ‘Why should one not make a sentence of a page long, out of the feelings of one’s whole life?’ Nothing is quicker than thought, he seems to say, and nothing is less settled.

Here is the start of an essay – ‘On Jealousy and Spleen of Party,’ which tells of his attempt to keep afloat a magazine, the Liberal, under the sponsorship of Lord Byron – with an opening salvo against Byron’s hanger-on Tom Moore:

I was sorry to find the other day, on coming to Vevey, and looking into some English books at a library there, that Mr Moore had taken an opportunity, in his ‘Rhymes on the Road’’ of abusing Madame Warens, Rousseau, and men of genius in general. It’s an ill bird, as the proverb says. This appears to me, I confess, to be pick-thank work, as needless as it is ill-timed, and, considering from whom it comes, particularly unpleasant. In conclusion, he thanks God with the Levite, that ‘he is not one of those,’ and would rather be any thing, a worm, the meanest thing that crawls, than numbered among those who give light and law to the world by an excess of fancy and intellect. Perhaps Posterity may take him at his word, and no more trace be found of his ‘Rhymes’ upon the onward tide of time than of

the snow-falls in the river,
A moment white, then melts for ever!

It might be some increasing consciousness of the frail tenure by which he holds his rank among the great heirs of Fame, that urged our Bard to pawn his reversion of immortality for an indulgent smile of patrician approbation, as he raised his puny arm against ‘the mighty dead’’ to lower by a flourish of his pen the aristocracy of letters nearer to the level of the aristocracy of rank – two ideas that keep up a perpetual see-saw in Mr Moore’s mind like buckets in a well, and to which he is always ready to lend a helping hand, according as he is likely to be hoisted up, or in danger of being let down with either of them.

The introductory flourish conveys a good deal more than irritation. It tags Moore the preening moralist as a panderer of village gossip, exactly on a level with people in the neighbourhood in what they say about Rousseau; it pictures Hazlitt by contrast as an intellectual flaneur who need only pick a book off a shelf to confirm his suspicions of the noisy vanity of letters. Meanwhile, without quite saying so, it asks a question about Byron’s own juggling of two kinds of greatness, and the part his lordliness may have played in the fortunes of the magazine. The impulsive manner conceals a remarkable economy.

Consider another opening, as different as possible, from the essay ‘On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin’:

Orion, the subject of this landscape, was the classical Nimrod; and is called by Homer ‘a hunter of shadows, himself a shade’. He was the son of Neptune; and having lost an eye in some affray between the gods and men, was told that if he would go to meet the rising sun, he would recover his sight. He is represented setting out on his journey, with men on his shoulders to guide him, a bow in his hand, and Diana in the clouds greeting him. He stalks along, a giant upon earth, and reels and falters in his gait, as if just awaked out of sleep, or uncertain of his way; – you see his blindness, though his back is turned. Mists rise around him, and veil the sides of the green forests; earth is dank and fresh with dews, the ‘grey dawn and the Pleiades before him dance’’ and in the distance are seen the blue hills and sullen ocean. Nothing was ever more finely conceived or done. It breathes the spirit of the morning; its moisture, its repose, its obscurity, waiting the miracle of light to kindle it into smiles: the whole is, like the principal figure in it, ‘a forerunner of the dawn’. The same atmosphere tinges and imbues every object, the same dull light ‘shadowy sets off’ the face of nature: one feeling of vastness, of strangeness, and of primeval forms pervades the painter’s canvas, and we are thrown back upon the first integrity of things.

The picture is Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun, and the description exhibits some traits of style that Paulin is especially alert to: the lightness, the strength, the immediacy of effect and rapidity of execution – an evocative aptness and allusive power that spring from a hunger for the right detail and build to an unexaggerating eloquence. It is all carried out, as Paulin reminds us, with a syncopation of jagged and continuous sentence rhythms, which no one has ever tried to imitate without looking absurd.

The essay on Poussin has broad consequences for Hazlitt’s thinking, and Paulin is right to have made it the subject of a chapter to itself. The description shows how art ‘interprets one sense by another’ – an activity of mind Hazlitt elsewhere associates with gusto in painting and poetry. Yet inspiration here has grown self-conscious: Poussin’s works ‘denote a foregone conclusion’’ he is a late classic, with the clarity of purpose of a latecomer. The sense of this discrimination is brought out by a comparison with Milton. ‘There is in both something of the same pedantry, the same stiffness, the same elevation, the same grandeur, the same mixture of art and nature, the same richness of borrowed materials, the same unity of character.’ As for the unity of the Orion, it evidently draws together many details: the shoulders bent forward with effort and resolution; the left arm outstretched for guidance, while the right carries the substantial weight of a hunter’s bow; the grave impression of the tread of a giant, his feet planted with the shortened stride of a man uncertain what spot of ground he is poised to touch upon. The shadows to the left and right foreground are also part of the effect, shrouding his path in darkness. So is the oval space of sky and cloud, lidded by the canopy of branches above and the horizon below, almost the shape of an open eye. Hazlitt suggests these materials impervious to paraphrase in a brilliant aphorism, so nested in his description that one may pass it by: you see his blindness, though his back is turned. His words there shape themselves into a blank-verse line – an effect not likely to be lost on Paulin, who in exalted admiration sometimes breaks up sentences of Hazlitt’s prose and reprints them as free verse.

A long series of such readings in the aesthetics and morality of prose brings this book very close to pure appreciation. It is like sitting through a performance beside a man whose enthusiasm is catching. But the commitment that went to make The Day-Star of Liberty is more than spectatorial: it springs from a personal identification so unreserved that justice to the subject has become inseparable from a thorough vindication. Not every celebrated writer can provoke that depth of fealty, but Hazlitt always could, to judge by his commentators; and the prose writer he most admired, Burke, has sometimes had a similar effect. If a third could fix the family resemblance, it would not be Shakespeare but a character in Shakespeare. Maybe the Hamlet aspect of Burke and Hazlitt explains a part of their enchantment. All three characters are thinking all the time, and their thoughts move at a higher ratio to experience than other people’s; but a constitutional elasticity, or muscularity, seems in them a form of worldly grace: they are so sure of themselves that they can afford to be earnest. On this score Paulin himself often rivals his subject. He says bluntly that Hazlitt as an artist ‘is both sculptor and hack, a Phidias driven by self-disgust and the knowledge that his chosen medium, prose, is common or garden’. He adds, much later, as if to complete the thought: ‘He is perhaps the only critic in English to invest his vast, complex aesthetic terminology with a Shakespearean richness.’

The selection of topics here exhibits both the occasional character of Hazlitt’s essays and the consistency of his thinking. There are chapters on empiricism and its idiom, on the relation of enlightened prose to the politics of the ‘Real Whigs’’ on Burke, Southey and Coleridge, on The Spirit of the Age and The Plain Speaker. Paulin rides just one hobbyhorse, almost conscientiously: the culture of Dissent. Hazlitt was born eight years after Wordsworth and 17 years before Keats, and Paulin would have us thank the philosophers of the ‘moral sense’ for the extent to which, in that enlightened age, facts and feelings went hand in hand once again as they did for the Elizabethans. Where did the energy of Hazlitt’s writing come from? It is a compound idiom, both tactile and intellectual, and one cannot find a prototype for it in Swift or Goldsmith, any more than in Montaigne. My feeling is that largely Hazlitt made it up. Paulin, less satisfied, weighs in with Dissent. He reminds us that for the original believers in the moral sense, both words would have been stressed. Francis Hutcheson supposed it the nature of the senses, when not warped by custom or tyranny, to grow increasingly complex and refine themselves towards an embrace of the beautiful and good. This would become the ground note of the Unitarian creed, the premise of an assured belief in the efficacy of political reform. Paulin knows that moral took the main stress in the 18th century, that sense offered chiefly a material correlative of faith, and that the idea of beauty was then applied to nature more than art. His point is that the doctrine opened up possible imaginings which could only be realised by its more adventurous disciples.

Taken as a clue to Hazlitt’s thought, and indeed to the secular meaning of Romanticism, the argument is warranted and embodies a well-earned shift of emphasis. Hazlitt would have learned this way of thinking from his father, William Hazlitt Sr, a notable sermon-writer whose work was published by Joseph Johnson, the publisher of Wordsworth and Blake. Yet the morality of Dissent always seemed to press up against a crisis of belief. The Antinomians in New England made the challenge most plain by asking how far a man or a woman endowed with individual conscience was free to think separately rather than attend to the minister’s application of a text. If the moral sense is the inalienable gift of every human being, what need is there for teachers of morality or religion? Emerson, a familiar listener to the Boston liturgy written by Hazlitt’s father, took this view of the matter in his ‘Divinity School Address’. He remembered the sensation of being cooped up in the house of worship with the faithful, while outside he could see a truer subject of inspiration: ‘A snow-storm was falling around us. The snow-storm was real, the preacher merely spectral, and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him into the beautiful meteor of the snow.’ Was Hazlitt never oppressed by the same contrast? The only sermon he describes with relish and approval is the one he heard Coleridge give in the winter of 1798 – an anti-war oration by a poet who would eventually choose not to join the Unitarians after all.

Any final inference about Hazlitt and Dissent ought to be complex. His turn from the faith was not a defection, and one only stands back, a little, at Paulin’s decision to claim him as a particular hero of that tradition. His career in art began with painting, and his affectionate portrait of his father showed him with Shaftesbury’s Characteristics in hand: a book whose argument that God is the good, and that the aesthetic is always the moral, gave a memorable turn to the supposition that benevolence works its way from individual perception to the good of society. Hazlitt wanted to believe all this, and he sympathised with those who did believe, but by the time, in his late teens, when he made his ‘metaphysical discovery’ about the active freedom of the imagination, I do not see how he could have come all the way. His discovery proved the natural disinterestedness of the mind: a principle that differs critically from that of natural benevolence. It is the difference between saying that the mind inclines towards unselfishness and saying that the mind is not fated to be selfish. Both altruism and egotism, on the argument he ventured, thrive naturally in children. The calamity of social life is that it fosters only the latter. Hazlitt makes this observation with regret, and never gives up the hope of reform, but nowhere does he write as if he agreed with Richard Price, the hero of his father’s generation, about the perfectibility of social man through sheer enlightenment. Rather, he speaks of Price and Joseph Fawcett and others with a tender veneration, as great and good men, perhaps too good for the world. The culture of Dissent remains a flexible resource for critical thinking, and not only for Hazlitt; and Paulin in this book has gone far to rescue it from Eliotic disdain and the snobbery of academic theory. But it is hard to imagine Hazlitt drawing from the gentle and mathematical confidence of Francis Hutcheson the powers of resistance he derived from the scepticism of Hume and Burke. He started from Dissent, and he went on from there.

One can feel the force of Hazlitt’s belief in natural disinterestedness throughout his writings. Its aftershine in his criticism appears in the idea of the permanence of fame – an article of faith more marked in him than in Wordsworth or Coleridge, which his Lectures on the English Poets and Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays passed on to Keats as an unshakeable conviction. There was something more than personal about fame in Hazlitt’s sense. It was a miraculous effect of mind communicating with mind, through no intervening medium except the language of art. He did not ask whether such a belief was politically tolerable. He had in any case always rejected the democratic prejudice against heroic virtues, and in answer sought to illustrate an idea of democratic valour. The code of honour among equals, he believed, was a higher and rarer thing than the gentleman’s code. One can see the results in practice in ‘The Fight’’ where his affections are not with ‘the fancy’ whose attendance at the boxing match is a kind of slumming, but rather with the coachman who says to someone trying to welsh on a bet: ‘Confound it, man, don ‘t be insipid!’ Love of democratic valour makes a large element also in Hazlitt’s appreciation of Cobbett, the prose-writer he may have felt closest to, and about whom his one complaint was that he always backed down from a fight. This invention of a new virtue for a new constituency goes a long way to explain the moral originality of his writing. It also suggests a reason why, even when defending the French Revolution, he recoiled from its idealisation of collective authority as a virtue superior to conscience. Full-scale legislation of equality seemed to him a crime against the daily life of equality.

His narrative of the Revolution in the Life of Napoleon is the most neglected part of Hazlitt’s work. But here, Paulin only partly remedies the omission of his precursors. Hazlitt wrote about Napoleon with blind love, as a champion of liberty in spite of himself and an original superior to rules; but in his great chapter on the National Convention, he passes in unfettered review the characters of Marat and Robespierre.

Others had more delight in the actual spilling of blood: no one else had the same disinterested and dauntless confidence in the theory. Marat might be placed almost at the head of a class that exist at all times, but only break out in times of violence and revolution; who, without natural sensibility or even strong animal passions, are the dupes of every perverse paradox that gratifies their desire of intellectual power; who form crime into a code, and who proclaim conclusions that make the hair of others stand on end, not only with the most perfect calmness and composure, but with the redundant zeal and spirit of proselytism belonging to saints and martyrs. There can be little doubt that Marat regarded himself as an apostle of liberty; and the more undeniably wrong he was, the more infallible he thought himself, the very violence and harshness of his opinions rivetting them the more on his conviction.

The companion portrait of Robespierre proceeds by a detached analysis of his speech at the trial of Louis XVI, which had urged that the existence of the people of France entailed the non-existence of the King.

This reasoning is not very convincing or captivating; but it is, like all Robespierre’s declamation, a disjointed tissue of rhapsodical commonplaces, forced into an abortive union by dogmatical assertion, and where, in the midst of the utter barrenness of thought or illustration, there is an appearance of coming to the point with great directness and simplicity. He was a mere party orator, and in common times and on general subjects, would have produced no effect whatever; but in a period of violent agitation when men’s passions were set afloat and driven along in the same furious current, the very destitution of natural powers was an advantage, as it gave exclusive and tyrannic scope to his intensity of purpose.

There is no sympathy in these portraits. And yet, one needs to place alongside them Hazlitt’s cultivation of a revolutionary lineage in his essay ‘What Is the People?’ with its echoes of Abbé Sieyès’s What Is the Third Estate? Where Sieyès wrote, ‘What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing. What does it want to be? Something,’ Hazlitt will reply: ‘And who are you that ask the question? One of the people. And yet you would be something! Then you would not have the People nothing.’

In the light of his allegiance to the Revolution and his wish for a democratic heroism – a chivalric idea in its way – Hazlitt’s relation to Burke may be the most interesting of his imaginative engagements. So it must have seemed to Paulin, who devotes two excellent chapters to the subject. But the attitude of these chapters is split down the middle. In half the argument, Burke is presented as a reactionary self-dramatist with a licence for ‘total verbal riot’’ seducing readers by the wiles of an indignation whose cause he has never properly examined. In the other half, he is praised as a master psychologist of politics, with an unexampled insight into the hypocrisy of the aristocratic order and the self-deceptions of the radical culture that sought to displace it. I am not sure how far Paulin was aware of the transition; the structure of the book leaves it oddly unmarked. He seems to have started by thinking of Burke from the point of view of Dissent, and ended by thinking of him from the point of view of Hazlitt. He turns at last to a single sentence as a touchstone of Burke – a levelling paradox from A Letter to a Noble Lord. Burke here accuses the young Duke of Bedford of assaulting his own status and its monarchical source by his embrace of the Revolution: ‘His ribs, his fins, his whalebone, his blubber, the very spiracles through which he spouts a torrent of brine against his origin, and covers me all over with the spray – everything of him and about him is from the Throne.’ A good sentence for an admirer of Hazlitt to admire, in its metaphorical compactness and its extravagance: but what was Hazlitt’s final attitude to Burke? In the early ‘Character of Mr Burke’’ he says in unqualified praise that ‘the only specimen of Burke is, all that he wrote.’ Yet, much as he learned from the Reflections on the Revolution in France, he thought the effect of the book had been to ‘spread havoc, dismay, and desolation through the world’. Through all its alternations, his judgment of Burke remains to a surprising degree aesthetic and personal: ‘It so happens that I myself have played all my life with his forked shafts unhurt, because I had a metaphysical clue to carry off the noxious particles, and let them sink into the earth, like drops of water.’

Probably the ambivalence of Burke’s own motives was what most recommended him to Hazlitt. No writer in the generations of Dissent would have used the idea of ‘the spirit of the age’ as dialectically as he did. It was the spirit of the age itself, he believed, that had proposed a revolution of all thought and feeling, because it stood for extremes only, in personality, in achievement, in epoch-making gestures and inventions. The same spirit put to rout all but the most fortunate strivings for an enlarged liberty. The sense of having survived an almost millennial lost chance, so noticeable in the Hazlitt of the 1820s, may have sharpened the idea many people had of him then, as essentially a satirist. Paulin quotes a passage from John Clare’s autobiography in which he is pictured as ‘a walking satire’’ and there are similar observations by Benjamin Haydon and Mary Russell Mitford. A strain of misanthropy was certainly in him, and it was in his look: ‘brow-hanging, shoe-contemplative’’ as Coleridge described it, his eyes half visible under a frown, or lit by a fugitive mischief. This hooded physiognomy suits an impression strong in his writing, too – a clenched assertion of principle crossed by an anarchic mood of play. He was interested in the commonest processes by which the mind deludes or consoles itself; saying, for example, of the novels of Walter Scott: ‘Through some odd process of servile logic, it should seem, that in restoring the claims of the Stuarts by the courtesy of romance, the House of Brunswick are more firmly seated in point of fact.’ He saw that an appetite for rebellion could be roused and quelled by fiction in the service of an existing establishment. This speculation falls in with his gloomy train of thought in the essay on Coriolanus regarding the affinity of poetry for power. Yet one of Hazlitt’s persistent thoughts is that the people are metaphysicians of common life; so that when authority touches a radical limit resistance becomes instinctive. Paulin quotes in this connection a characteristic sentence on the virtues of Jack Tarr: ‘stung with wounds, stunned with bruises, bleeding and mangled, an English sailor never finds himself so much alive as when he is flung half dead into the cockpit; for he then perceives the extreme consciousness of his existence in his conflict with external matter.’ Hazlitt knew this grappling with external matter from the conditions of his own life.

He lived at a dangerous edge, kept most of his friends but lost some through political divisions, never found or seriously tried to find a patron, and died in poverty. The least complacent of egotists, he could have been an arbiter of taste, and might have made a consummate dandy, but was too fine an athlete to settle for long in either role. He said once of Bentham: ‘His works have been translated into French: they should be translated into English.’ On that epigram and a few dozen like it a prudent man would have hung a reputation as neatly contained as that of Oscar Wilde or Francis Jeffrey. But there was something in Hazlitt more buoyant, without the pause and the turn for effect. Paulin has captured this sense of him wonderfully. Has he left out anything? He writes so well about an innovative usage of the word ‘projection’ – to mean a process of transfer that fixes, isolates and makes vivid; a meaning founded in alchemy and urban panoramas – that one wonders at the slender discussion of the related kinaesthetic word ‘gusto’. The adoption of the foreign word for tasting instead of taste has everything to do with Hazlitt’s sensibility and, a different and more awkward thing, his sensuousness. A certain hesitation at this brink may account for the only judgment in the book that does not explain itself. Having aptly described the confessional novel, Liber Amoris, as a document of ‘the autobiographer as scarecrow’’ Paulin goes on to blame it as a perverse manifestation of self-hatred. Its prose, lyrical, tormented and matter of fact, seems to him expressive of ‘a nihilistic, self-flagellating desperation, a having-it-all-ways irony’’ and he calls it ‘stilted’ and full of ‘recycled clichés’. Well, it was written to the life – the true life of an author not a sage, in his scarecrow middle years – when he fell in love for no reason and lost himself. The novel gives an impression of hurling away, as by a ritual expulsion, a knot of experience impossible to assimilate. Did Paulin here suffer an excess of chagrin on behalf of his hero? Liber Amoris is the anomaly of Hazlitt’s oeuvre; but it was not an unnatural book for him to have written. It is one of a kind, as much as Adolphe or the Confessions of a Justified Sinner. One may not know what to say about it and still one may find it unbearably true.