Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic 
by David Bromwich.
Oxford, 450 pp., £19.50, March 1984, 0 19 503343 4
Show More
William Godwin: Philosopher, Novelist, Revolutionary 
by Peter Marshall.
Yale, 496 pp., £14.95, June 1984, 0 521 24386 6
Show More
Burke, Paine, Godwin and the Revolution Controversy 
edited by Marilyn Butler.
Cambridge, 280 pp., £25, June 1984, 0 521 24386 6
Show More
Show More

Hazlitt is sometimes rather like Walt Whitman, democratic, containing multitudes, yet happy with solitary self-communion. In a pleasant essay called ‘A Sun-Bath – Nakedness’, Whitman remarks: ‘Here I realise the meaning of that old fellow who said he was seldom less alone than when alone. Never before did I get so close to Nature ...’ Who was the old fellow? It might have been Hazlitt (who died when Whitman was an office-boy), for he once wrote: ‘Out of doors nature is company enough for me. I am then never less alone than when alone.’ Or it might have been Byron, or Byron’s favourite, Samuel Rogers, both of whom put the solitude paradox into verse. It might even have been Cicero, quoting Scipio Africanus: nec minus solus quam cum solus esset. Hazlitt and Whitman did not much care who the ‘old fellow’ was who first coined the phrase: he had contributed to the ‘common sense’, just as they did, while enjoying their sunny solitudes, rhapsodising about Nature, Liberty and the People. Their self-love, their very egotism, stimulated their disinterested sympathy with others.

It is odd to reflect that democratic Whitman was born before George III died, during our Regency period, when Hazlitt flourished, among Jacobins and Anti-Jacobins, playing the part of an anti-Anti-Jacobin (much as Conor Cruise O’Brien used to be an anti-Anti-Communist, before he found other fish to fry). To write about the works of Hazlitt, one needs a bias towards history and philosophy. David Bromwich’s study concentrates on the latter discipline, for he is appraising Hazlitt’s understanding of Abstract Ideas and his command of words to express them. But there is also a historical theme running through this excellent book, accompanying the linguistic philosophy. It is not the sort of history that is based on unverifiable anecdotes: it is about differences and choices between Monarchy and Republicanism, during the Regency period.

All the great Regency writers were aware that the throne was vacant, that constitutions at home and abroad were unsettled – and that the Prince Regent seemed a Lord of Misrule: they did not know when the Great Reform Bill would be passed, as prologue to the stable reign of Victoria. In times like these, Abstract Ideas have great power.

David Bromwich does (with proper suspicion) include one or two good anecdotes, to illustrate his points. There is the tale of Hazlitt’s fight with John Lamb, in the course of a dispute about Holbein and Vandyke. I will quote the version in Benjamin Haydon’s journal: ‘They both became so irritated, they upset the card-table, and seized each other by the throat. In the struggle that ensued, Hazlitt got a black eye; but when the two combatants were parted, Hazlitt turned to Talfourd, who was offering his aid, and said: “You need not trouble yourself, Sir. I do not mind a blow, Sir. Nothing affects me but an Abstract Idea!” ’ Is it true? Haydon claims to have got his story from Talfourd, but that proves nothing. Eye-witnesses (Aristotle observed) are inclined to embroider upon good stories, to divert the audience – that is how history and the art of fiction originated – and Talfourd or Haydon might well have inserted those ‘Sirs’ to indicate Hazlitt’s resemblance, when he was agitated, to Dr Johnson. We quote the apophthegms of Hazlitt and Johnson, too often without understanding their philosophies. But it is with Hazlitt’s handling of Abstract Ideas that Bromwich is most concerned.

The odd thing is that most writers use Hazlitt as a spokesman for the concrete, against people who try to confuse us with abstractions and generalisations, with isms and ologies. This is quite justifiable, since so many members of the ruling classes misuse ‘abstract words’ villainously. But Hazlitt had faith in Abstract Ideas and used the necessary words virtuously, skilfully – and consistently. He is always reliable: his philosophy has made him so. That is why it is so easy for writers to dip into Hazlitt’s pool and fish out a vivid observation alive and kicking. I have done it myself, as a theatre reviewer. After a good revival of some rare play – by Kotzebue or Marston, Middleton or Schiller – the easiest way to attract your readers’ interest is to look it up in Hazlitt: you are bound to get a good quote, something concrete. We use Hazlitt to advertise and illuminate other writers and artists. Peter Marshall does so in his new biography, William Godwin. Hazlitt’s vivid account of Godwin’s political importance appears on the first page of Marshall’s introduction, and his worthy book is studded with variations on ‘as Hazlitt rightly observed’. He accepts Hazlitt’s judgments as trustingly as E.P. Thompson did, in The Making of the English Working Class.

Similarly, in her collection of ‘English Prose Texts’, Burke, Paine, Godwin and the Revolution Controversy, Marilyn Butler finds it useful to quote Hazlitt when she has to introduce the dull writings of Orator Thelwall. ‘The most dashing orator I ever heard is the flattest writer I have ever read,’ Hazlitt explains. When Thelwall orated, ‘he was the model of a flashy, powerful demagogue ... he seemed to rend and tear the rotten carcase of corruption with the indecent rage of a wild beast ...’ A powerful advertisement for Thelwall (who appears as ‘Tehwall’ in Peter Marshall’s disastrously misprinted book).

But when Marilyn Butler presents her extract from Horne Tooke’s political grammar-book, she needs more of Hazlitt’s help: she quotes only a half-jesting reference to Horne Tooke, and I think she misunderstands Hazlitt’s points. She ought to have directed readers to Hazlitt’s profile of that witty old agitator, in The Spirit of the Age, to advertise the importance of his book, Epea Pteroenta, or The Diversions of Purley. She has simply reprinted a scrap of Horne Tooke’s introduction, omitting all concrete examples of his linguistic philosophy and all quotations from Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin and Greek. She then suggests that the book is ‘a polemic in favour of a plain English’ and that it was odd to bestow upon it ‘a Greek title which, when translated, left no one the wiser, along with a subtitle that also needed explaining’. Let me offer an explanation of the two titles. They are pertinent to David Bromwich’s interest in Hazlitt.

Epea Pteroenta means ‘words with feathers’. It is an expression taken from Homer and usually translated ‘wingèd words’. Did Homer mean to compare words with birds or arrows? Arrows, I think; and ‘flighted’ would be a fair translation for pteroenta. Hermes, the messenger-god, was ‘flighted’: the wings on his hat and heels were artificial, detachable, designed to speed up his communication. Many complex-seeming words are like that, declared Horne Tooke, speedy shorthand signs, referring to quite simple deeds and acts. Mysterious and pretentious nouns should be stripped down, to reveal the naked verb form beneath. The frontispiece to Epea Pteroenta depicts Hermes at rest, stripping off his wings, with a Latin motto beneath. ‘When I strive to be speedy I become obscure.’

Horne Tooke and Hazlitt were politically interested in the passive participle, used as an adjective or noun – words like ‘wingèd’ (by God), ‘flighted’ (by men), ‘employed’, ‘exploited’, ‘oppressed’, ‘Coloured’. They indicate who is doing what to whom. Why, for instance, are American rankers called ‘Enlisted Men’, whereas the British are called ‘Other Ranks’ – as if ‘excluded’ or ‘unqualified’? In this sort of political grammar, Horne Tooke was Hazlitt’s mentor when they were both offering support to the exploited, the excluded and the underprivileged. But when Horne Tooke attempted to reduce Abstract Ideas to that same passive participle he became Hazlitt’s opponent. This matter may seem dry: but such grammar is pertinent to David Bromwich’s observations about Hazlitt’s handling of Abstract Ideas. He recognises, for instance, that it is important that Matthew Arnold used the noun ‘disinterestedness’ where Hazlitt preferred the adjective.

To explain Horne Tooke’s subtitle, The Diversions of Purley, we must turn to history. The Rev. John Horne, generally known as Parson Horne, won the favour of the wealthy, left-wing Mr Tooke, who lived at Purley Lodge in Surrey, formerly the home of Bradshaw, the 17th-century regicide. John Horne added Tooke’s surname to his own and retired to Purley Lodge to lick his wounds, whenever the ruling class was making the political kitchen too hot for him. He had been taken up by the original Mr Tooke because of his spirited opposition to an enclosure bill; he began writing The Diversions of Purley during his imprisonment for getting up a subscription in support of Americans ‘barbarously murdered at Lexington by the King’s soldiers in 1775’. The book was published in two volumes in 1786 and 1805: it is written in the form of a conversation between Horne Tooke and two of his friends, diverting one another with political discussions of the passive participle, in a pleasant Surrey garden, shaded by memories of Bradshaw, the king-killer.

Between the publication years of these volumes, Horne Tooke was prosecuted for high treason, along with Orator Thelwall. As E.P. Thompson remarks, if they had been convicted, they could have been hanged, drawn and quartered (passive participles, again): but ‘a Grand Jury of London citizens had no stomach for this,’ declares Thompson, in his hopeful way, his optative mood. The left-wingers were acquitted. Horne Tooke had responded publicly to his danger in the devil-may-care spirit of the age (after all, he had lost an eye to an Eton schoolfellow with a knife) and Hazlitt seems rather blasé about the physical risks involved, surprised that Horne Tooke kept muttering in private: ‘They want our blood.’

‘It was somewhat ridiculous to implicate Mr Tooke in a charge of High Treason,’ yawns Hazlitt. ‘His politics were not at all revolutionary.’ He then makes the joke that I think Marilyn Butler misunderstood. At his trial, Tooke ‘kept repeating that “others might have gone on to Windsor, but he had stopped at Hounslow,” as if to go farther might have been dangerous and unwarrantable’. Marilyn Butler supposes that Hazlitt is charging Horne Tooke with overmuch ‘political caution’. Surely he is really complaining that Horne Tooke was disloyally claiming to be less immoderate than his friends: he is also noting (without complaint) that he was not challenging the Crown. Hazlitt remarked in another context that one cannot settle matters of taste by consulting the map of London: but in matters of political action topography has its place. There was a difference between Hounslow, a wild heath of gibbets, enclosures and a cavalry barracks, and Windsor, a seat of royal authority.

David Bromwich will take the point about Windsor, for he has an excellent discussion of Burke’s Tory eulogy of Windsor, explaining why Hazlitt liked it so much and how he borrowed Burke’s words, making the argument left-wing. But I must turn back from history to philosophy, since Marilyn Butler supposes that Horne Tooke’s philosophical arguments about language are primarily historical, that he was trying to ‘democratise’ language by tracing words back to Anglo-Saxon instead of to Latin, ‘thus heartening non-learned speakers of the vernacular’. Surely not. He used all the languages he knew. ‘Right is no other than rectum (regitum), the past participle of the Latin verb regere’ (to govern). ‘Whence in Italy you have ritto ... whence the French have their ancient droict. In the same manner our English word ‘just’ is the past participle of the verb jubere’ (to command). ‘A right and just action is such a one as is ordered and commanded.’

When his friends protested that he was himself notoriously disobedient, Parson Horne reminded them that he was in holy orders. (Very like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, he presented himself as one commanded to support the afflicted.) Horne Tooke followed ‘the laws of human nature’ (‘law’ being an Anglo-Saxon passive participle) and these ‘must proceed from God: and upon these are founded the rights of man, or what is ordered for man.’ This is where Hazlitt cannot follow him: he cannot accept that a concept like right or justice means only ‘ordered by God’ – for in that case we could not ask: ‘Is God right? Is God just?’ The parson is devaluing an Abstract Idea.

However, Hazlitt consistently follows Horne Tooke’s use of the passive participle to break down pejorative nouns, opprobrious labels and nicknames. To people who despised ‘whores’ and ‘harlots’, Horne Tooke pointed out that these ugly words only mean ‘a hired person’ – like ‘hireling’ and ‘varlet’. (Similarly, in Greek, a pornos is a bought woman; somebody else is guilty of buying her or hiring her services.) A ‘punk’, in the sense of a promiscuous woman, was not in the same case, he observed: she was no longer a virgin, because she had been ‘punctured’ (puncta, in Latin). I have myself canvassed the theory that our modern ‘punks’, with safety-pins in the ears, derived their name from ‘acupuncture’: this was facetious, but Horne Tooke was partly in earnest.

From such word-play Hazlitt derived political arguments. For instance, in 1830 he saw there was a chance of emancipating British Jews, as the admired Napoleon had done on the Continent. Hazlitt insisted that a Jew was a man who had had something done to him. If, as their opponents alleged, British Jews included many criminals, ‘it is we who have made them so ... You drive them like a pest from city to city and then call them vagabonds and aliens.’ They had been driven to it (passive participle). The verb makes the noun, the action creates the label.

Similarly Hazlitt quotes with approval an African who had said he could forgive an unprincipled slave-trader more easily than a man who had published his contempt for ‘Black people’ as a class: ‘that man injures Black people all over the world, and when he has once taken away their character, there is nothing which he may not do to Black people ever after.’ According to Tooke’s and Hazlitt’s political grammar, even words like Jew and Black represent a sort of passive participle. Jews get jewed and Blacks get blackened, we might say. The grammarians unite against racism!

David Bromwich has taken from an article of my own a label for Hazlitt – ‘Anti-Exclusionist’. It is an ugly word for a pleasing Abstract Idea, rather like Anti-Apartheid. As Bromwich says, I derived it from Hazlitt’s essay against ‘The Exclusionists in Taste’ and also from his essay against excluding prostitutes (another passive participle) from Covent Garden. Bromwich takes it further, beginning and ending his book with an appreciation of Hazlitt’s sympathy with the unjustly excluded Shylock, in The Merchant of Venice. We would not want anyone to behave like Shylock in real life, but watching the play we are at liberty to cheer Shylock on, if we wish. ‘Cut him up, Shylock! And then get that little swine, Gratiano!’ Hazlitt certainly contributed to the ‘common sense’, the spirit of the age, here. He does the same with Titus Andronicus, observing that Aaron the Moor has the only decent speech in the horrible play. But there are other Shakespearean characters, besides these minority spokesmen, who may count as the excluded, beyond the pale. The great majority, in fact, represented by Caliban, perhaps. David Bromwich finds a good interpretation of Caliban in Hazlitt’s essay ‘What is the People?’, and another in a riposte to Coleridge, published in the Yellow Dwarf.

Coleridge was one of those Tories who presented Caliban as a low-class hireling, a coarse, contemptible Jacobin struggling against their principle of legitimacy – the principle that legitimated the restoration of King Bomba to Naples or, in our own time, of the Emperor Bao Dai to Indo-China. Hazlitt observed that Caliban is ‘strictly the legitimate sovereign of the isle’, and if he was a deformed and loathsome monster, so were the restored Bourbons. More seriously, he wanted to present the justice of Caliban’s cause, as an oppressed worker and also as if he were a Red Indian struggling against white settlers – for Hazlitt had never been so uncritical as his left-wing seniors about the American republic: in fact, Bromwich shows him suspecting that the republic was built on envy, really needing a monarch. Hazlitt’s conception of monarchy is complicated and mysterious. Bromwich carefully links his almost defiant admiration for Burke’s eulogy of Windsor Keep, his critical distortion of the passage, and its relationship to his response to Napoleon’s coronation. It may be that the anti-exclusionist who wanted to bring people in from beyond the pale wanted to make sure that the pale was worth entering – and to remind Burke that life within the pale was not half so grand as he made out.

But before we reach the pleasant pages of Bromwich’s book (about Hazlitt and Burke, Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shakespeare and Wordsworth), we must work through the first two chapters on Abstract Ideas, on words like ‘nature’, ‘genius’, ‘legitimacy’, ‘common sense’ and ‘disinterestedness’ – the framework of Hazlitt’s reliability. These chapters provide the basis for a quite rigorous course of philosophy and Bromwich suspects they ‘will feel more difficult to some readers’ than the succeeding nine. He advises readers unused to philosophy to read the pleasant chapters first, before attempting the hard discussions of Hazlitt’s Essay on the Principles of Human Action and of his abridgement of Abraham Tucker’s The Light of Nature Pursued.

The ‘feeling of difficulty’ may assail the reader when attempting to follow arguments like this (against Roy Park’s book, Hazlitt and the Spirit of the Age): ‘By describing Hazlitt’s position in a vocabulary Hazlitt rejected – the vocabulary of universals and individuals, general and particular, with the first of each pair condemned as vicious – Park strains beyond intelligibility what ought to have been a routine point about the history of usage. In fact Hazlitt was able to view abstraction as a necessary stage in every inquiry, because he read the word etymologically, as a detachment or drawing away of one quality from a mass of others, for the sake of a certain emphasis and result.’ Bromwich illustrates his point with a quotation from the philosopher John Dewey (one of several Americans, from William James to Emerson, whom Bromwich has found useful), making a distinction between vicious abstractions and liberating abstractions. Bromwich continues:

Hazlitt supposed that nothing is by its nature either abstract or concrete. Our counting it as one or the other depends on whether we use it as an organising instrument to pick out traits from our experience, or as one of the traits themselves. And in every instance our choice will depend on the character of the occasion. A musical note like middle C serves at different times in both categories. So does a metaphor like ‘the seat of authority’.

At this point, Bromwich might have discussed that Tory vogue-word, ‘legitimacy’. For he goes on: ‘The difference between a “liberating” and a “vicious” abstraction is only that the former brings familiar objects into a new relation, whereas the latter mistakes the established relation for an object somehow more legitimate than others.’ This kind of argument needs and deserves to be read slowly. In quoting I have corrected the unfortunate misprints on this important page (413), noting that the book is otherwise free of such flaws.

David Bromwich is a professor of English, writing about Hazlitt’s philosophy. Peter Marshall is a tutor in Philosophy, offering a history of Godwin’s life. He advertises (with Hazlitt’s help) the political influence Godwin had over his Regency contemporaries and still has upon the international Anarchist movement: but when it comes to Godwin’s philosophy and beliefs, Marshall cannot persuade us that he has worthwhile arguments to offer us now. In fact, Marshall takes only a page to demolish, effortlessly, the three points of Godwin’s ‘Theory of the Perfectibility of Man’. He presents the history of a good-hearted writer who inspired others and, ‘as Hazlitt so memorably put it, rendered an essential service to moral science by attempting, in vain ...’

Godwin was in the habit of believing impossible things. He was bred, like Hazlitt, in the Dissenting culture – that is, the tradition of pugnacious Protestant Christians who felt themselves excluded from power by the Church of England. Godwin trained to become a Dissenting minister. Most of the other trainers and trainees (by Marshall’s account) were left-wingers, supporters of John Wilkes and Horne Tooke: but the young Godwin was a Tory. Most of the others saw the absurdity of believing in a loving God who tortured his less competent adherents after death, endlessly, though some thought the fable useful for keeping the lower classes in order: but the young Godwin really believed in this concept of Hell. Thus when he became a minister he was unpopular with his congregations, both as a Tory and as a hellfire merchant. Godwin then lost his faith, swung to the left and adopted a new set of impossible beliefs, based on a sort of Rationalism (though he swung back to Jesus whenever Rationalism failed him). Marshall’s account supports Hazlitt’s suggestion that Godwin was, however inspiring, less competent as a political philosopher than as a storyteller – rather like H.G. Wells, perhaps.

Peter Marshall’s biography is rich in interesting history, about Shelley, Godwin’s son-in-law, for instance, and about Mary Wollstonecraft, his first wife. It would have been good to read about Godwin’s first meeting with that lady if the account had not been misprinted thus: ‘When he lauded Horne Tooke, Dr Johnson and Voltaire, she declared prescription, prejudice, and the British Constitution. Like that such lavish praise disagreed on religion: Godwin was a sceptical unbeliever, while Wollstonecraft remained a Deist. As the conversation proceeded – it touched upon monarchy and pursuits – Godwin became increasingly dissatisfied with his own share.’ Sic, I assure you. How did the Yale University Press come to pass this printer’s pie?

Return to David Bromwich’s lucid pages, wherein Godwin’s conception of disinterestedness is contrasted with that of Hazlitt. Godwin supposed that ‘understanding is virtue’ and that ‘right judgment would necessarily produce virtuous conduct.’ He held that the man for whom understanding is virtue can bring no interests of his own to bear on the choice to act one way or the other: such interests are entirely separate from his moral life. That is how Bromwich summarises Godwin’s thinking: his concept of disinterestedness requires an ‘uprooting of sentiments’, as a consequence of ‘referring all moral choices to the standard of utility’. Godwin had chosen to believe in an unnatural standard of selfless benevolence. It must have been on such grounds that (according to Peter Marshall’s biography) Godwin in 1831 opposed the introduction of the secret ballot for political elections, claiming that such a system was ‘recommending to the people to vote agreeably to their consciences, but forbidding them to give publicity to the honourable conduct they had been prevailed upon to adopt’.

Hazlitt was not so fantastical. He claimed that he had made a genuine philosophical discovery: it is natural for a man to be disinterested. This does not mean that we have to uproot our sentiments, as in Godwin’s fantasy, and purge ourselves of self-love. Bromwich quotes: ‘The secret of our self-love is just the same as that of our liberality and candour ... Self-love, in a word, is sympathy with myself, that is, it is I who feel it, and I who am the object of it ... If I feel sympathy with others at all, it must be disinterested.’

He recognised, of course, that the good motives of good men are mixed motives: but so are the bad motives of bad men. Cynics persistently argue that good actions ‘all arise from one motive, viz. self-love. It would be easy,’ says Hazlitt, ‘to reverse the argument, and prove that our most selfish actions are disinterested.’ It is not all that easy, but Hazlitt puts up the case – and Bromwich helps us to understand it.

Bromwich is also good on Hazlitt’s conceptions of genius and of common sense – not at all commonsensical but nearer to the idea of the General Will. For Hazlitt, ‘common’ meant ‘shared’, rather than ‘low’. Thus he liked writing anonymously, like a newspaper leader-writer with no byline, contributing to the common sense, the general will, the public opinion. He once rebuffed those flattering readers who claim ‘by the first sentence they can always tell your style. Now I hate my style to be known; as I hate all idiosyncrasy.’ He will have to put up with it.

His review of Byron’s Sardanapalus was so heavily revised by his editor, Francis Jeffrey, that it was ‘absorbed’ into Jeffrey’s collected works. Bromwich fishes a paragraph out, recognising the style: ‘The following passage I believe to be entirely Hazlitt’s ...’ Like a star dancer Hazlitt cannot disappear into the chorus line.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences