Fiery Participles

D.A.N. Jones

  • Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic by David Bromwich
    Oxford, 450 pp, £19.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 19 503343 4
  • William Godwin: Philosopher, Novelist, Revolutionary by Peter Marshall
    Yale, 496 pp, £14.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 521 24386 6
  • Burke, Paine, Godwin and the Revolution Controversy edited by Marilyn Butler
    Cambridge, 280 pp, £25.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 521 24386 6

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).

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