Matthew Bevis

  • New Writings of William Hazlitt: Volume I edited by Duncan Wu
    Oxford, 507 pp, £120.00, September 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 923573 5
  • New Writings of William Hazlitt: Volume II edited by Duncan Wu
    Oxford, 553 pp, £120.00, September 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 923574 2
  • William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man by Duncan Wu
    Oxford, 557 pp, £25.00, October 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 954958 0

There is a story that Hazlitt, having just been introduced to one of his idols, ventured an opinion on a mutual acquaintance: ‘This was the first observation I ever made to Coleridge, and he said it was a very just and striking one. I remember the leg of Welsh Mutton and the turnips on the table that day had the finest flavour imaginable.’ Hazlitt’s thoughts often turned to mutton. On another occasion, he told his wife: ‘I never love you so well as when I think of sitting down with you to dinner on a scrag-end of mutton, and hot potatoes.’ And conversation with Charles Lamb was remembered with delight: ‘How often did we cut into the haunch of letters, while we discussed the haunch of mutton on the table!’

Hazlitt’s writing is frequently driven by this kind of dual appreciation; when we are told about the mutton on Coleridge’s table, for instance, it isn’t clear whether the description is a digression from the preceding sentence or an extension of it. Perhaps compliments are being paid to the chef, or perhaps the food went down particularly well because Hazlitt’s observation had just done so, or perhaps both. In the first piece in the first volume of Duncan Wu’s edition of New Writings, a letter to the Monthly Magazine in 1809, Hazlitt acknowledges the value of ‘physical analogy’ and praises thinkers who can find ways of ‘incorporating the abstract with the concrete’, yet at the same time he insists that ‘the mind has laws, powers and principles of its own, and is not a mere dependent on matter.’

Hazlitt admired Lamb because his friend’s ‘love of the actual does not proceed from a want of taste for the ideal.’ ‘Taste’ in this context is both an accomplishment and an appetite, and the tribute would have pleased Lamb, who often warmed to the idea that an essayist should be a distinctly physical kind of metaphysician. He paid his friend a similar compliment when he reviewed Table-Talk, praising Hazlitt’s ability to graft ‘the Painter on the Metaphysician’:

If he describes a feeling, he is not satisfied till he embodies it as a real sensation . . . If he enters on some distinction too subtle and recondite to be immediately understood, he relieves it by some palpable and popular illustration. In fact, he all along acts as his own interpreter, and is continually translating his thoughts out of their original metaphysical obscurity into the language of the senses and of common observation.

This view of the writer as a translator of ‘thoughts’ into ‘senses’ is fitting, because Hazlitt was mindful of what could get lost in translation, even as he relished – and risked – the journey from the conceptual to the palpable. His recourse to ‘matter’ as a form of illustration was one way he could show how his views might matter to his readers.

Hazlitt likes to give body to the abstract aesthetic notion of ‘taste’. Coleridge once said that Hazlitt had guts in his brains. He also had guts in his ‘gusto’ – a word he used when he considered the way we might translate thoughts between the senses. We learn about the character of things around us, Hazlitt explains, as we learn ‘to distinguish them by their effect on the different senses’. Gusto in art exists when ‘the impression made on one sense excites by affinity those of another.’ Claude’s landscapes lack this quality because ‘they do not interpret one sense by another . . . his eye wanted imagination; it did not strongly sympathise with his other faculties.’ The figures in Titian’s paintings do have gusto, however, for the beholding eye ‘acquires a taste or appetite for what it sees’ and his pictures bring ‘a sort of tingling sensation to the eye, which the body feels within itself’. Rembrandt’s paintings have gusto in every aspect, for ‘everything in his pictures has a tangible character.’

Hazlitt’s attraction to paradox is sometimes dizzying, but these comments seem to suggest that gusto is spurred into action by a sense of duality, a quality of mind which responds to and encourages an interplay of different perspectives. Milton has ‘great gusto’ because ‘his imagination has a double relish of its objects, an inveterate attachment to the things he describes, and to the words describing them.’ Hazlitt has this double relish in mind when he discusses Burke, whose ‘execution, like that of all good prose, savours of the texture of what he describes, and his pen glides or drags over the ground of his subject, like the painter’s pencil’. This commentary has a gusto of its own: description is rendered tactile, as the word ‘savours’ transforms texture into something you might taste. Some of Hazlitt’s early critics used similar turns of phrase when describing his prose. Leigh Hunt felt that ‘his intellectual tact is such/That it seems to feel truth, as one’s fingers do touch,’ while Mary Russell Mitford wrote of his theatre reviews: ‘I could not help reading them altogether; though so much of Hazlitt is rather dangerous to one’s taste, rather like dining on sweetmeats and supping on pickles. So poignant is he, and so rich, everything seems insipid after him.’

Hazlitt would have been pleased by Mitford’s use of the word ‘insipid’ to describe what he wasn’t. In his essay ‘The Fight’ he spots a ‘lusty man’ in an inn: ‘The first thing I heard him say was to a shuffling fellow who wanted to be off a bet for a shilling glass of brandy and water – “Confound it, man, don’t be insipid!” Thinks I, that is a good phrase.’ There is a double relish here: for the sound of the word itself, and for the contempt it expresses. It is as though a taste for the word might itself be a form of combat against those shuffling fellows who would deny us such appetites. His prose often has a visceral feel, and not just when he’s talking about the physical prowess of fives players, Indian jugglers or boxers. Wordsworth’s voice, for instance, is described as having ‘a strong tincture of the northern burr, like the crust on wine’.

Hazlitt often invites us to see voices, because gusto in his prose is primarily effected by the relation between eye and ear, by our sense of the vocal life in the printed words on the page. One of the miniature masterpieces in Wu’s new edition is the sketch of John Wilson Croker, a Tory functionary and ‘a moving nausea, with whose stomach nothing agrees’. That’s one reason Hazlitt can’t stomach him; another is that he ‘affects literature, and fancies he writes like Tacitus, by leaving out the conjunction and’. Hazlitt, in contrast, often begins essays with the word ‘and’ – ‘And pray, what right has a man to be disappointed?’, ‘And what is the public?’ – as though this were printed conversation. Here’s the first sentence of his preface to Political Essays: ‘I am no politician, and still less can I be said to be a party-man: but I have a hatred of tyranny, and a contempt for its tools; and this feeling I have expressed as often and as strongly as I could.’ The gusto here is in the piling-up of the outspoken ‘and’s. It feels like a rousing speech, yet there’s little sense of a man pontificating; the voice is both combative and conversable.

Hazlitt’s writing needs to be heard; he’s the kind of writer who enjoys saying ‘Faugh!’ in print. And yet, while the gusto of his prose owes much to his genius for talking on paper, one of the ways he tries to emulate his mentor Burke is by forging a style that is responsive to something other than acoustics. Hazlitt praised Burke’s oratory as ‘the chief boast and ornament of the English House of Commons’ largely because his speeches were ‘writings’, his ‘eloquence was that of the poet’. On another occasion, he observed that ‘Burke’s literary talents were, after all, his chief excellence. His style has all the familiarity of conversation, and all the research of the most elaborate composition.’ That’s what Hazlitt was after when writing Table-Talk (which combined ‘the advantages of two styles’, he said, ‘the literary and conversational’). This compound style is prized because it resists the seductive appeal of the ear even as it responds to it:

no style is worth a farthing that is not calculated to be read out, or that is not allied to spirit of conversation, but I at the same time think the process of modulation and inflection may be quite as complete, or more so, without the external enunciation; and that an author had better try the effect of his sentences on his stomach than on his ear.

This is Hazlitt’s way of avoiding claptrap; he’s pleased, for instance, that Shakespeare ‘did not sacrifice the truth of his own sensations to the demands of measure, or the harmony of cadences. He spoke to the heart, not to the ear.’ So although Hazlitt’s prose often has an almost audible pluck and daring, a relish for the cut and thrust of debate (he had a stint as a Parliamentary reporter), this sound is frequently counterpointed by a different rhythm: one anonymous early reviewer acutely noted ‘the many delicate remarks which are interspersed among the declamations’. In Hazlitt’s writing we often sense that an emphatic commitment is being played off against a meditative self-consciousness.

Hazlitt is a good hater, but one of the things he most hates is the man who refuses to countenance ‘the bye-play of various points of view’. Offered the choice between being full of conviction or being open-minded, he chooses both by defining himself as ‘open to conviction’. One place where this quality is evident is in his adjectival triplings. These triadic structures are, of course, the stock-in-trade of the orators who so fascinate and frustrate him, but his combinations often gain force from their ability to catch the reader off-guard. They ask us to translate their relations in unexpected ways, and to see each adjective in terms of the others. Hazlitt once noted that ‘in the hurry of composition three or four words may present themselves, one on the back of the other, and the last may be the best or right one.’ Yes, but often that is because of the energy it gains from colliding or colluding with the preceding words. His triads feel ordered yet delightfully off the cuff, as when in Liber Amoris we hear of his beloved’s ‘demure, well-composed, wheedling looks that morning’, or when we are invited in Lectures on the English Comic Writers to pause on a face in one of Hogarth’s pictures, with ‘its extravagant, noisy, unfelt distress’.

In Wu’s edition we are treated to more of these combinations, as when Hazlitt reviews Hunt’s The Story of Rimini and describes Francesca’s death as leaving ‘an impression on the imagination, icy, cold and monumental’. Such embodied verbal dramas sometimes force him to spill out of his triadic bounds, as when he bristles at the ‘cold, abstracted, gratuitous, servile malignity of the Witches’ in Macbeth. And if occasion demands, Hazlitt is all for roughing up his polished periods; as when he runs two exuberant triads together only to suggest the limited power of his enthusiasm before Titian’s paintings, which are full of ‘the voluptuous, the thoughtful, the grand, the graceful, the grave, the gay, the I know not what’. It is characteristic of Hazlitt to make the sense of being at a loss feel like something gained.

The last great Hazlitt editor, P.P. Howe, observed in his 1925 edition of the New Writings that the reader ‘should bear in mind that what he is here offered are merely crumbs from the rich man’s table’. This is true of Wu’s book too. Still, one of the many reasons to welcome this edition – which adds around two hundred new items to the canon – is that it allows us to see how the labours of the journalist helped to shape the felicities of the essayist (it seems fitting that the first recorded instance of the noun ‘newsmongering’ in the OED should be in one of Hazlitt’s essays). Wu has scoured several newspapers and journals and made some excellent finds. Hazlitt found his voice, it seems, by responding to those of others, for many of the pieces gathered here are engagements with public speakers of one kind or another: Parliamentary orators, actors and actresses, comedians, judges and lawyers. In addition, there are pieces on Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Hunt and other literary figures.

A taste for Hazlitt’s style matters a great deal in compiling an edition like this, because style is a considerable factor in arguments for attribution (pieces dug out from newspapers and journals are nearly always unsigned). But ‘turns of phrase, allusions and echoes are not enough in themselves,’ Wu explains. ‘Content and context present the strongest case, and I have not attributed anything to Hazlitt without their support.’ Wu’s detective work generally provides dividends; whether he’s chasing down Hazlitt’s interest in a term like ‘olla podrida’, or his unusual use of ‘idiotcy’, or rooting around in logbooks, receipts or letters, you usually feel convinced that the editor has got his man. Every piece has a headnote that gives a detailed argument for attribution, and Wu grades each piece with an A, B or C, depending on how far the evidence confirms Hazlitt’s authorship.

Attribution is a tricky business, however, and there are some problems along the way. The gradings, for instance, are not always consistent: the first of three articles on the trial of William Hone is graded A but the third gets a C, and we aren’t given a reason for the difference. On another occasion Wu feels that an article is ‘beyond doubt’ written by Hazlitt, yet awards it a B. Sometimes the arguments for attribution involve a special kind of pleading. In one instance, Wu claims that the most obvious stylistic clue to support attribution is Hazlitt’s predilection for the saying ‘No man is great before his valet de chambre,’ but this phrase doesn’t strike me as particularly unusual; indeed, in the article itself we are told that ‘No man is great before his valet de chambre, is an old and a trite maxim.’ Later, Wu singles out a phrase that he feels is unique to Hazlitt, claiming that ‘no other writer of the time would have conceived of a “spirit of contradiction”.’ Not so: Byron, for one, confessed to ‘a Spirit of contradiction’ in a letter to Kinnaird of 13 March 1824.

The most immediately identifiable feature of one article, it is claimed, is the series of quotations from Bunyan and Smollett, ‘reflecting his extraordinarily retentive memory and wide reading’. Fair enough, but a few pages later, when arguing for his attribution of another review, published in 1817, on the basis that some phrases in it appear in Hazlitt’s later lectures, Wu states: ‘One could argue that Hazlitt was remembering that point having done no more than read the review, but it is hard to believe that he would have done so for the best part of a year when the lectures were composed (probably autumn 1818) – unless he had been its author.’ The best part of a year doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch for someone with an ‘extraordinarily retentive memory’. This last example in turn raises the question of how we can tell – on the basis of verbal echoes and allusions – whether some pieces here are by Hazlitt, or by various admirers of his who are lifting bits and pieces of his style unannounced. Hazlitt himself was not above such things – Wu shows him recycling from Francis Jeffrey’s prose, for example – and sometimes the verbal evidence strains under the weight that Wu places on it.

There is also a pick-and-mix approach to the value of biographical clues in the articles themselves. When attributing a piece on ‘The Portraits of Sir Thomas Lawrence’, Wu observes that the most obvious clue is the writer’s claim to have ‘seen the author of Thalaba seated beneath just such a rock as disgraces the background of the picture’ painted by Lawrence. Wu then points to a notebook entry by Coleridge about a walk he went on with Hazlitt and Southey which ‘describes an occasion on which Southey might have posed in the manner here recalled’. Might have? Even if one feels inclined to allow Wu some latitude, one would want to ask why biographical fact (rather than speculation) is disregarded elsewhere. Discussing one of the most important attributions in the collection, a review of Coleridge’s works, Wu finds it ‘difficult to understand’ why previous Hazlitt scholars ‘fought shy of it’ once it had been attributed to Hazlitt by Jules Douady. One reason might be that in the review the writer says of Coleridge: ‘They who had heard him converse, think very highly of his talents for discourse. We have not had this advantage.’ Given that the author of ‘On My First Acquaintance with Poets’ often makes so much of Coleridge’s talk (indeed, I don’t recall Hazlitt anywhere else actually denying that he’d heard Coleridge talk), surely this comment casts doubt on the attribution. Hazlitt may, of course, have had reason for fibbing, but the issue should at least have been raised in Wu’s headnote. Wu himself says in his introduction that the means by which he has argued his attributions are ‘seldom decisive’, but sometimes the means don’t inspire confidence precisely because the grounds for decision change, or because the judgment stemming from them seems too decided.

Wu’s research for New Writings has clearly influenced his biography, William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man. As well as making use of readily available sources, he has also consulted rate-books, manuscript marginalia, notebooks, paper watermarks and other materials. Wherever possible, quotations from Hazlitt’s correspondence are given (whether from manuscript or printed source), and Wu has even discovered a few new letters. The result is a detailed portrait of a man who seems always to have been in the thick of things, and the biography gives us an excellent sense of the range of Hazlitt’s commitments and contacts. Wu charts his early aspirations as a painter, his stints as a lecturer and theatre critic. The story of his writing life is enriched by accounts of his dissenting background, his childhood in America, his two marriages (plus many other emotional entanglements – P.G. Patmore observed that Hazlitt was ‘always in love with somebody or other’), his travels in Italy and France, and his final days in London. Wu also has new things to say about Hazlitt’s dealings with Coleridge, Hunt, Keats, Lamb, William Godwin, Edmund Kean, Turner and Stendhal (to name just a few). The biography shows us a situated yet itinerant Hazlitt, seeking out companionship and quarrels in equal measure. Reading these pages, one often registers the force of the figure splendidly described by Robert Louis Stevenson: ‘a splenetic, eager, tasteful, unjust man, filled with gusto and revolt’.

This Hazlitt is very much the journalistic creature: the barnstorming, argufying man, working frantically to meet deadlines. Other elements of the work and personality sometimes fade from view; Wu is right to stress that Hazlitt’s early metaphysical work An Essay on the Principles of Human Action (1805) was a vital influence on everything that followed, but the argument of the book itself is given only a paragraph. One section of the biography is aptly titled ‘A Philosopher in Grub Street’, but we tend to hear more about the grub than the philosopher. This is probably partly because Wu’s focus in New Writings was on hunting down the journalist. But while the editor is driven by the need to attribute words to Hazlitt, the biographer goes one step further by putting words into his mouth. On many occasions we are given direct transcripts of conversations which – when followed up in the notes at the back – turn out to be ‘speculative’, ‘abstracted’ from journal entries, or ‘largely inferred’, involving an ‘element of guesswork’. In Wu’s account of Coleridge reading Kubla Khan to Hazlitt for the first time, ‘Hazlitt stared at his friend, thunderstruck, certain he was in the presence of genius. “Let me hear it again,” he demanded.’ Later we learn that Hazlitt, ‘out of sheer impulsiveness’, offered Dorothy Wordsworth his hand in marriage, to which she replied: ‘No. It is impossible. I am married to poetry.’ The small print tells us that the scenario and the words given here are ‘conjectural’, and that – truth be told – we can’t even be sure that Hazlitt proposed. In a note on the notes Wu claims that, ‘on occasion, it has been necessary to infer some conversations which must have taken place, but which appear nowhere in the record.’ ‘Must have’ is doing a lot of work here, and it’s not always clear why this approach is really ‘necessary’. Other comments apparently made by Hazlitt and his friends are sometimes given no footnote reference, so on occasion it becomes hard to be sure what has been inferred and what hasn’t.

Inferring conversations is one thing; asserting facts is another. Wu tells us of Hazlitt’s dealings with prostitutes, before quickly explaining that such activities would have been unexceptional to those who knew him: ‘They included Coleridge, who also visited prostitutes, as did Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats.’ In the notes, Wu observes that ‘Shelley scholars point to the tendency for Etonians to frequent brothels near the school.’ That’s Shelley dealt with. Moving to Keats and Wordsworth, Wu directs us to other biographies that ‘hint’ or ‘seem to’ confirm the accuracy of his claims. Following the references, we find that Andrew Motion speculates that ‘Keats may have gone to brothels in Oxford and London’, and that Kenneth Johnston draws attention to ‘the realities of Cambridge between 1787 and 1791’ while Wordsworth was there. So there was a lot of it about. Wu’s initial claim about these individuals – presented as fact in the main text – lacks proper scruple. Motion, after careful research, offers a fairer assessment of such matters when he refuses the temptation to turn a speculative mood into an indicative one.

More generally, there are a few moments in Wu’s book when you sense that a desire to defend or champion Hazlitt has led the biographer to raise his voice. The grandstanding subtitle hints at an attachment that is not inclined to award second prizes: ‘Among writers his judgment was second to none’; ‘no one else had the ability to see the age whole’; he had ‘an almost godlike perspective which he was alone in possessing’. Wu evidently feels that Hazlitt stands in need of this sort of thing, but surely Hazlitt is good enough without the fanfare.

All this said, both New Writings and the new biography – particularly the former – give us plenty to savour. Wu unearths more material written in the last two years of Hazlitt’s life than in any other period, and in the final pieces he once more tests out his perceptions on his taste buds. ‘English pride’, he explains, has ‘something muttonish in it; nine-tenths of it is sheepishness.’ The Englishman is so concerned with sticking to the flock that he ends up deceiving himself and others about where his tastes really lie:

It is bad enough that a man’s pride should force him to eat and drink that which he abominates; but he must do more, he must be absolutely enraptured with it, and if fashion told him to drink verjuice, he dare not for his life make wry faces at it, but smack his lips, and turn up his eyes, and simper out ‘deleecious’.

Hazlitt had always fought such simpering, and always argued for a very different kind of appetite. Wu is right to suggest that the last piece of writing published in his lifetime, an essay entitled ‘On Table Companions and the Art of Dining’, reworks his philosophical theories in more accessible terms. It is Hazlitt’s final attempt, as Lamb would have put it, ‘to act as his own interpreter’ by translating ‘metaphysical obscurity into the language of the senses’. Among other things, it mulls over how our understanding of sympathy might be enriched by a consideration of salmon and lobster sauce. The whole thing is pure Hazlitt – bracing, deft, chancy. ‘A metaphysician must not be trusted with the melted butter,’ he explains, as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.