Hazlitteering

John Bayley

  • Hazlitt: A Life. From Winterslow to Frith Street by Stanley Jones
    Oxford, 397 pp, £35.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 19 812840 1
  • Shakespearean Constitutions: Politics, Theatre, Criticism 1730-1830 by Jonathan Bate
    Oxford, 234 pp, £27.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 19 811749 3

Hazlitt has a modern feel about him. Among the poets of his age, dying young or turning, like Wordsworth, into pillars of the establishment, he represents a kind of muddling through, an honesty baffled and contingent, inconsistent even; not living in the world of romantic ideals and simplifying gestures but ground in the daily mill of intrigue and accommodation. Like many unworldly men, he was drawn inexorably into the haunts of worldliness, in the same way that he was drawn as a romantic lover to the most matter-of-fact and calculating females. He needed a milieu which hardly suited him, and from which he made efforts to escape, as he did from the women. He would be a likely character in a modern novel, and were he to appear, resurrected, among the newspapers and gossip columns of today he would be excited and disgusted and upset and at home. He would recognise that things were as in his own time. He would be familiar with Private Eye, though he would miss periodicals called the Black Dwarf and the Yellow Dwarf.

The former, a radical news-sheet of 1816, succeeding Cobbett’s Political Register as the most widely read reformist journal until its demise in 1824, attacked Hazlitt as bitterly as did the reactionary press as ‘this critical minim, who has no purpose on earth but to write a smart essay’. The reason for the animus in this case was Hazlitt’s expressed regret that Jeremy Bentham had no great influence with the Establishment, and his mild criticism of the reformer Major Cartwright, who since the American Declaration of Independence had stumped about the country founding Hampden Clubs, as an example of ‘men with one idea’. Hazlitt shrewdly perceived the good Major, however much he admired him, as the kind of bore who suffers from ‘the fallacy of retrogression’ and tries to bring back an imaginary past, an epoch of freedom and justice. The phrase is not Hazlitt’s but Stanley Jones’s, and gives an idea of the crispness of Jones’s style, as the instance does of the erudition with which he has reached into every cranny of Hazlitt’s distracted polemical existence. His book is a monument of scholarship and a labour of love; he has tracked down all sorts of detail previously left in the world of lost things and unfiled newsprint. Much of Hazlitt’s life is as anonymous and ephemeral as some of the journals to which he contributed: until Jones’s researches not much was known even of Hazlitt’s second wife, a widow of Scottish family who had been out in the Caribbean, and who abandoned Hazlitt in much the same circumstances as his first wife had done.

It was characteristic of Hazlitt that the radicals should have had it in for him as much as the Lockharts and Ellenboroughs of his time. When Blackwood relaunched his scurrilous Maga in 1817 (a contributor to a later number remarked that ‘the public curiosity is always stimulated to an astonishing degree by clever blackguardism’) he hired Lockhart and Wilson, a couple of Scottish lawyers as blackguardly as they were cynical. ‘Wilson was tall, burly, fair-haired, florid-complexioned, gregarious: Lockhart small, dark, atrabilious, conspiratorial.’ What does that sentence of Stanley Jones remind one of? Shakespeare of course, for Shakespeare has penetrated his mode of presentation because of his omnipresence in Hazlitt’s own outlook and essays. ‘The Example of Hazlitt’ occupies the second part of Jonathan Bate’s book, by far its longest section, and the whole literary atmosphere of Regency London, seen through Hazlitt’s eyes and those of his two critics, is alive with Shakespearean character and quotation, with the wiles of Shylock and the arrogance of Coriolanus, the tears of Desdemona, and the outrageousness and ingratitude of Prince George as Prince Hal.

Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park remarks that ‘one gets acquainted with Shakespeare without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution.’ Shakespeare was certainly very much there in spirit, partly due to the acting of Kean and Mrs Siddons, but more to the political ferment and cultural turbulence of the age itself, with its war of competing national images and ideologies in the aftermath of victorious foreign war, its personal rivalries, fluctuating prosperity and burgeoning inequality, all of which cartoonists and newspapermen could portray on a Shakespearean canvas. Gillray and Cruikshank plundered the canon for exemplars and analogies, Macbeth and the witches being particular favourites: but more significant still was the war of ideas whose clamour can be faintly heard in the background of Austenian tranquillity, and the influence of Shakespearean archetypes in the rich romantic field of the novel. Shakespeare was instinctively interpreted: Coleridge was Hamlet, Lamb claimed that ‘we see not Lear but we are Lear – we are in his mind.’ Readers began not only to identify with his characters but to see them personified all around.

Bate makes brilliant use of this material, and the detail he accumulates is especially valuable, gathered in as it is from obscure sources and often proffered to correct a too facile assumption of the changes involved in the transition from Augustan Shakespeare to Romantic Shakespeare. Thus Hazlitt seems to revolutionise attitudes to Cymbeline, and the general condemnation of its ‘irregularity’, when he calls it a ‘dramatic romance’ that works on ‘a principle of perspective’, so that reading or watching it is ‘like going on a journey’. But by taking a close look at the six volumes of Brian Vickers’s Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, Bate shows that one John Potter had stoutly defended the play’s oddities many years earlier in the Theatrical Review. The real aficionados had always been enlightening and surprising in their championship of the Bard: what mattered in Hazlitt’s time, however, was a more general movement to explore the worlds of the plays and to naturalise them in terms of a new weltanschauung.

Bate does have his moments of over-simplistic dogma. It will hardly do to talk about the tradition of character criticism ‘that runs from Morgann to Bradley and was exploded by L.C. Knights in “How many children had Lady Macbeth?”’ Knights exploded nothing: he joined the new vogue for formalising and depersonalising Shakespeare’s world, and giving it a spatial and symbolic dimension instead of a predominantly human one. In a sense, the reason was plain. Freudian determinism seemed to have taken the point and the pleasure out of argument and speculation about Shakespeare’s characters, and made it largely irrelevant. The home life of the Macbeths, which has a very definite Shakespearean dimension, was thus ignored by the new critics, in favour of an enquiry into the dramatic and poetic forces that make up the play’s overall dynamic.

Hazlitt treated Shakespeare’s characters as his contemporaries – above all in a political sense: so that they came alive for him in a way they could not do later for Bradley, in whose eloquent pages they become counters in an elaborate game of philosophical romanticism. Here Bate is admirably perceptive. Hazlitt’s radicalisation of Shakespeare is never overdone, but Gifford and the Quarterly saw what was going on, and Gifford killed The Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, after Taylor and Hessey had twice reprinted it, far more effectively than was the case with his attack on Keats. Keats himself was enchanted by Hazlitt’s reply in the ‘Letter to William Gifford Esq.’ and copied pages of it in his journal-letter to his brother and sister-in-law in America, commenting on the ‘innate power with which it yeasts and words itself up – the feeling for the costume of society’. Gifford of course took the surveys of Coriolanus and of Henry V and VIII as instances of Hazlitt in ‘a fit of raving’, but he had to be careful, for Hazlitt had remarked that, in the former at least, Shakespeare perhaps was ‘on the minister’s side of the question’. Although he took a hint or two from Schlegel about realpolitik, Hazlitt was, in fact, the first critic to perceive and explain the imaginative equivocation with which Shakespeare presents kings and great men, making them at once picturesque and enthralling to the audience, and examples of the inherent lawlessness and ruthlessness of power. Henry V is ‘fond of war and low company’, and he manipulates both without conscience or scruple. The case of Coriolanus is disturbing because ‘the imagination, generally speaking, delights in power, in strong excitement’, and the audience is thrilled by the spectacle of Coriolanus in action. Edmund the bastard naturally appealed to Hazlitt because of his observations on legitimacy – ‘Fine word, Legitimate!’ interpolates Hazlitt, with Bourbons and Georges in mind – and above all, ‘he is not a hypocrite to himself.’ Neither was Napoleon, who remained Hazlitt’s idol to the end: like many intellectuals, Hazlitt had a relish for absolute power personified in what could be seen as the people’s choice, while excoriating that exercised by right established.

But the real interest of the ‘Letter to Gifford’ is in Hazlitt’s assumption of the latter’s position as the Government Critic, ‘the head of the literary police’. While not exercising the powers of Count Benkendorf in Russia, who was to control and paternalise the genius of Pushkin, Gifford and others like him were indeed powerful agents for the forces of reaction; and they were hypocrites too, because they never admitted what Hazlitt rightly accused them of: their committed political position in literary affairs. Hazlitt, after all, was one of the first to perceive that you cannot open a book – especially if the book is Shakespeare – and comment on it, without revealing your political stance. This alone makes him very much a modern critic, though he was not so absolute on the subject as his friend Thelwall, who in his two lectures ‘On the Political Prostitution of our Public Theatres’ carried the war, so to speak, into Shakespeare’s own camp, maintaining that the Puritans had been correct, as ‘friends of liberty’, to close the theatres, and that Shakespeare embodied the servility of a stage committed to the status quo.

The popularisation of Shakespeare in all classes was boosted enormously by the revolution in France. Between 1792 and 1805 one hundred and fifty ‘parodies’ of his most famous scenes, by the Reverend Thomas Ford, a John Bullish clergyman from Melton Mowbray, appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine. Another clergyman had founded the New Lady’s Magazine, which showed the way with genteel parodies like ‘To wed, or not to wed’, or, for the uncertain female student, ‘To learn, or not to learn’. Shakespeare was now pressed into service in the conservative interest, and radical culture was swift to follow and make its counter-claim through parodic reference. On the whole, the conservatives won, making Shakespeare into ‘a true Englishman’ and ‘a sturdy John Bull’, and Bate may well be right in speculating that Wordsworth had at the back of his mind these sorts of class parody – reflecting Henry Crawford’s complacent comment in Mansfield Park – when he deplored the notion of a self-satisfied ‘taste’ for poetry, as if for ‘Frontiniac or sherry’.

All this is crude stuff, of course, compared to the way Shakespeare insensibly entered into the minds and the style of Coleridge and Hazlitt, helped in both cases by the influence of August Schlegel. In a chapter crammed with the liveliest contemporary detail, beginning with the great frost of January 1814 and Kean’s triumph as Shylock in the glacial Drury Lane theatre, Stanley Jones notes how Hazlitt’s attitude to current affairs had become ‘peculiarly abstract, intensely personal, and almost poetic’. At the moment when Napoleon’s fortunes were in spectacular decline and the papers were gloating over his prospective downfall and the restoration of the Bourbons, Hazlitt, as champion to that heir of the revolutionary Jacobins, was writing like this: ‘He who has seen the evening star set over a poor man’s cottage, or has connected the feeling of hope with the heart of man, and who, although he may have lost the feeling, has never ceased to reverence it – he, Sir ... is the true Jacobin.’

The passage was ridiculed in the next day’s Times and by Hazlitt’s journalist brother-in-law John Stoddart, who had once been a Jacobin himself. Hazlitt echoed the passage in 1820 when writing of his father, the idealistic and unworldly Dissenting minister of Wem, whom Coleridge had known in his own brief Dissenting incumbency, when he had first met the youthful Hazlitt: ‘I think, but am not sure, that I finished this portrait (or another afterwards) on the same day that the news of the battle of Austerlitz came; I walked out in the afternoon, and, as I returned, saw the evening star set over a poor man’s cottage with other thoughts and feelings than I shall ever have again ... The picture is left: the table, the chair, the window where I learnt to construe Livy, the chapel where my father preached, remain where they were.’ What is fascinating about such a passage is the Shakespearean shorthand – comparable to the play of allusion, metaphor and symbol in Shakespeare’s verse – which he had come instinctively to employ. Austerlitz, his hero’s greatest triumph, is fused in imagination and reveries with star and poor man, the detail of domesticity and childhood, the echo and memory of paternal sermons. I doubt if Hazlitt could have written it without that long communion with Shakespeare’s poetry which enabled him to connect the public and private impulse, the worlds of polemic and of emotion, into one seamless whole. At the same time it is a part of his natural consciousness ondulant et divers, the consciousness which liked to record the physical circumstances that accompanied the reading of a particular book, the roast chicken and coffee in a silver pot which reminded him of his beloved Nouvelle Héloise. He had the imagination of a painter, and my only criticism of Jones’s fine book is that he might have given us more reproductions of Hazlitt’s pictures, in addition to the touching self-portrait of 1802 which makes his frontpiece.

The texture of Jones’s study has great delicacy as well as density, with a correspondence to the texture of Hazlitt’s own writing. He more than once mentions Proust, and the analogy is a remarkably suggestive one: the dolour of sexual experience in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu was certainly something Hazlitt would have appreciated to the full, just as he would have understood and delighted in the saving rewards of memory and art, childhood and travel. Stanley Jones quotes the verdict of Swann on his compulsive and disastrous love for Odette. ‘I’ve spoilt years of my life pour une femme qui ne me plaisait pas, qui n’était pas mon genre.’ Sarah Walker, the minx of the lodging-house who led poor Hazlitt such a dance, the details of which are poured into the doleful pages of Liber Amoris, was certainly not his genre but was equally certainly his will and his fate. Somerset Maugham is said to have copied her for his green-eyed enchantress in Of Human Bondage: but the real Sarah Walker, to whom Jones is scrupulously fair, and in whose story he has investigated much that was obscure, seems to have been a quite ordinary girl victimised by her lover, her naturally mercenary parents, and the attentions of another young man at the lodging-house to whom she seems to have been genuinely attached and to whom she afterwards bore a child. A standard female predicament: and perhaps we should sympathise with her more than with her distracted suitor.

Hazlitt longed to possess her, at which she sensibly demurred; he struggled to get a Scottish divorce, spending wretched weeks waiting in Edinburgh in order that he might be able to marry her; and when she still held him off, for she seems to have felt nothing for him but a mild dislike, he implored a friend to try to seduce her, in order that such a proof of her ‘commonness’ might finally cauterise the wound she had given and free him from his passion for her. The letter to his friend Patmore urging this course is the most repulsive and most heart-rending in the Faber Book of Letters.

All his expedients were of course useless, though he even proposed to Sarah’s parents to take all the rooms in the house at £100 a year – he was earning good money from magazines at the time – in order to free his beloved from waiting on the other lodgers. As Proust and Stendhal knew, there is no end to the absurdity and humiliation a lover will incur in the pursuit of his mistress, but this never makes him lose the friendship his reader entertains for him. He has been fortunate in the friends who came to him in posterity, as he was in many of those he knew in life, like Patmore, the journalist father of Coventry Patmore the poet, who remarked that he had never known Hazlitt when he was not in love. After his second wife left him when they were in France to go and live with her sister in Switzerland, he came back to London and settled close to his old lodgings, but the Life of Napoleon languished, and he again became entangled with someone whom he was reported as calling ‘a worthless woman by whom I was at last fascinated’. He worried about not having money to leave for her maintenance. This inveteracy in regard to the opposite sex was, as Stanley Jones observes, his ‘bias to seek affection in the disregarded, the oppressed, the outcast ... perhaps a legacy of Rousseau, perhaps imprinted in his own origins, born as he was on the margin of established society’.

The young son to whom he was passionately attached, and with whom he had imagined wandering round the country, ‘like King Lear’, was with him when he died, but neither of his wives turned up. His last words are reported to have been: ‘Well, I’ve had a happy life.’ Stanley Jones truly remarks – and it is a truth that would be enthusiastically endorsed by that other great Hazlitteer, Michael Foot – that the proof of this is to be found everywhere in the essays, for no one ‘relished more keenly the passing moments of his existence’. That sense of what life is all about is hauntingly conveyed in Hazlitt’s own words: ‘Liberty is short and fleeting ... but power is eternal.’