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.’

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