Monday, December 27, 2010

Hazlitt as an Essayist

"Though we are mighty fine fellows now-a-days we cannot write like Hazlitt," thus spoke R. L. Stevenson who himself aped Hazlitt most sedulously...with advantage to himself. Hazlitt's place among English essayists is very high, though few critics have placed him above Lamb. In some respect in fact, Hazlitt easily beats Lamb into the second place. His catholicity, zest for life, and vivid and copious expression full of glowing images are his assets.
Whereas Lamb has certainly a more romantic imagination, Hazlitt combines his imagination with a searching intellect. As Hugh Walker points out, "for wealth of intellect and imagination and for nervous English he [Hazlitt] is the rival of the greatest."
The Variety of His Interests:
However hard may we avoid it, a comparison between Lamb and Hazlitt becomes inevitable on numerous occasions. Take the variety of their interests. David Daiches observes in this context: "The range of subjects in Hazlitt's essays is greater than in Lamb's: he could write on painting as well as literature, on a prize fight, on natural landscape, on going a journey, on 'coffee-house politician' as well as on more formal topics such as Milton's sonnets, Sir Joshua Reynold's Discourses, and the fear of death." Like a bee he sucks playfully the nectar of all the flowers that nature proffers him. He is full of gusto and thejoie de vivre as no other writer is. Books, nature, society and the affairs of men-all enchant him. Lamb also loves to live and be merry (in spite of the stark tragedy of his life), but Hazlitt, like Chaucer's Franklin, is "Epicurus' own son." He loves books as a connoisseur, but he refuses to pour all his love and attention upon them. Towards his last years he, in fact, grew extremely critical of all books and the bookish attitude which they often give rise to. At a place he remarks that "he must be a poor creature indeed whose practical convictions do not in almost all cases outrun his deliberate understanding."
Though Hazlitt has an abundant zest for life and what it has to offer him yet by no means can he be considered as devoid of a keen sense of discrimination. He has no patience with the mediocre and the middling but has an almost instinctive judgment to choose the best from the second-best. His literary criticism is nothing but the product of the practical application of this sense of judgment to the field of literature. He has strong likes and dislikes, and though he often offends against taste and is swayed by prejudices and personal convictions yet, on the whole, his basic sanity and perception as a critic of life and literature cannot be gainsaid. For once he showed bad taste-when he fell in love with a travern jilt whose trickery led him to pour out his heart in Liber Amoris, which was rightly condemned by his contemporaries as "kitchen stuff." Well did he sum up the activity of his life and the variety of his interests in these words: "So have I loitered my life away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to play, hearing thinking, or writing on what pleased me best. I have wanted only one thing to make me happy; but wanting that have wanted everything."
Hazlitt's Philosopbic Bent:
The inclusion of "thinking" among the activities ofhis life by Hazlitt, as we find in the words just quoted, is quite apt He was a thinker as Lamb was not. Lamb made essays mostly out of his own reminiscences, of "emotions recollected in tranquility." But Hazlitt, in spite of his occasional extravagant verbal sprees, thought hard like a philosopher. He himself once observed: "I endeavour to recollect all I have ever observed or thought upon a subject and to express it as nearly as I can." If not a philosopher, Lamb at least was not a fool, though often he pretended to be one. "But," as a critic puts it, "though Lamb frequently donned the cap and the bells, he was more than a jester; even his jokes had kernels of wisdom." Embedded in Lamb's whim-whams and capricious buffoonery lay a very sound core of wisdom. Even then, Lamb was not given to philosophical speculation. On the other hand,Hazlitt's essays, to quote Ian Jack, "are the work of a man trained in philosophical speculation." Hazlitt was well read in all 1he important philosophers such as Bacon, Locke and Hume, all of whom influenced his thought quite considerably. Ian Jack maintains: "He moves among abstract ideas with an ease and familiarity that contrast oddly with Lamb. Lamb wrote on chimney-sweepers, the South Sea House, weddings, and whist: Hazlitt wrote 'On Reason and Imagination, 'On Egotism,' 'On the Past and Future.' His essays are more serious than Lamb's or serious in a different sense. Interested as he is in the essay as a form he is more interested in the truth which he is pursuing. He was a man of letters in the comprehensive sense in which Johnson and Coleridge were men of letters." With his philosophical bent of mind Hazlitt is to Lamb as Shelley is to Keats.
As an essayist Hazlitt is not of the school of Addison or Dr. Johnson but of such writers as Montaigne ("the father of the essay") and his own contemporary Lamb who used the essay as a vehicle for self-revelation. It is said that the perfect egotist is the perfect essayist. After reading an essay our knowledge about the life and personality of the writer is expected to increase. What Montaigne said about the collection of his essays could be justly said by Lamb or Hazlitt about his-"I myself am the subject of my book." In the history of English literature the strongly personal note was struck by Wordsworth whose magnum opus, The Prelude, offered to the reader the story of the development of his own mind. It can be said that Wordsworth made himself the hero of his epic-like poem. Hazlitt indeed learnt a lot from Wordsworth and his French idol Rousseau who in his Confessions came out with the story of his own life with rank sentimentalism combined with aggressive garrulousness of self assertiveness. It is really paradoxical that a peremptory egotist like Hazlitt should criticise Wordsworth and Byron for their egotism! His own Liber Amoris is a tasteless record of his erotomania, something worse than is conceivable.
But in his essay his indulgence in autobiography is always for the better, as it adds to them an intimate colour. "His habit," says a critic, "of introducing personal matter into his essays gives frequently a pleasant and intimate flavour to his writing, and the reader's interest in the written matter is nonetheless because of the interesting glimpses afforded of the writer's personality." Many of Hazlitt's essays-like Lamb's-are so many bits of autobiography by piecing which together we can arrive at a fairly authentic and fairly complete picture of his life and personality. Even as a literary critic he reveals himself. Such essays as "My First Acquaintance with Poets," "On the Pleasures of Painting," "On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth," "On a Sun Dial", "Of Persons One would Wish to have Seen," and "Farewell to Essay-Writing" are like so many chapters from his unwritten autobiography. He stands fully revealed in his essays. He tells us frankly about his father, his love of painting, his enjoyment of walking, his literary taste, his appreciation of nature, his political affiliations, and his epicureanism. No facet of his personality remains obscure. He does not mystify the reader like Lamb nor does he wear any impenetrable mask. What he puts forward in his essays is his real self, for whatever it is worth.
Quite a few of his essays are built around reminiscences not, however, without the mortar of hard philosophic thinking. As a typical romantic he casts a wistful glance on the realm of the past and illuminates many of its demesnes with the glow of his restrospective imagination. "Like Lamb", maintains Samuel C. Chew, "he relied upon the impressions of former years. Passionate retrospection is prevalent note in his essays." Hazlitt himself observes in his essay "On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth " that he has "turned for consolation to the past, gathering up the fragments of my early recollections and putting them into a form that might live."
It is interesting to see how Hazlitt makes every subject a peg to hang his personality on. Consider his essay "Indian Jugglers." He starts, as expected, with a vivid description of some of the juggler's usual feats, such as swallowing a sword and keeping six wooden balls in the air at the same time. But that is all. After it Hazlitt himself occupies the stage, shoving the juggler aside. He compares his own intellectual dexterity with the juggler's physical one and awards him the palm. It is all self-examination. We do not find the juggler anywhere near the conclusion which is smothered in self-pity and despair.
Self-pity and Bitterness:
This recurrent note of self-pity is a feature which distinguishes Lamb from Hazlitt. Lamb's life was as pathetic jeremiad as Hazlitt's. Frustrated ambitions and an unenviable emotional career marked Lamb's life as they did Hazlitt's. But Hazlitt grew coarse, peevish, and bitter, as Lamb never did. Hazlitt is, according to Moody and Lovett, "indeed in many ways quite the opposite of Charles Lamb, being somewhat coarse and boisterous where Lamb is refined and subtle : often harsh and repellent where Lamb is gentle and winning." One after another Hazlitt quarrelled and broke with all his intimates including Lamb himself. In his essay "Pleasure of Hating" he truly remarks : "I have quarrelled with almost all of my old friends." Presumably owing to his suspicious and touchy temperament he could not get along with either of the women he married. His last words are, however, quite unlike him-"Well, I've had a happy life." He was not a Spartan or a Stoic, nor like Lamb did he smile away his blues. He was quite often in tantrums. Comparing Lamb and Hazlitt in this respect, Joseph Warren Beach observes in A History of English Literature edited by Hardin Craig: "Lamb is a writer for old and young; Hazlitt for those whom life has saddened, and sobered, and who do not mind a touch of cynicism."
In considering the style of Hazlitt's essays, once again a reference to Lamb will be_rewarding. Whereas Lamb's style is individual, Hazlitt's is representative. Hazlitt has a manner but no mannerisms. Lamb, on the other hand, had his idiosyncrasies the chief of which was to mystify the reader. Lamb wrote a deliberately archaic English reminiscent of the seventeenth-century prose writers like Fuller and Sir Thomas Browne. We, of course, agree with Compton-Rickettthat Lamb's style was not a physical but a chemical mixture, and that though he took the elements of his style from others yet the "blending" was his own. Even then it has to be admitted that Lamb as a stylist is no model. His English falls outside the natural tradition of English prose. Lamb, as Ian Jack puts it, "is the worst of models," whereas Hazlitt "is an admirable model." Hazlitt himself was critical of Lamb's archaisms and frequent lack of lucidity. Of all the essays of Lamb he quite characteristically singled out "Mrs. Battle's Opinions on Whist" as the best, because, as he, put it, it was "the most free from obsolete allusions and turns of expression." His own style is a real model of what is often called the "familiar style." He is seldom sublime or high-strung, but he is as seldom vulgar or commonplace. Naturalness, gusto, vividness, and a certain copiousness are the hallmarks of his style. He hates padding and circumlocution, but quite often in his characteristic way he indulges in repeating over and over again the same idea by constantly varying the figure. All the blows strike the same spot, but the last blow goes home. Describing this tendency a critic says: "for a time the thought seems not to move. It is thrown into the air like balls by a juggler, and we watch reflections of it, and are thrilled and excited to pleasure in watching."
According to Samuel C. Chew, Hazlitt stands between the eighteenth century (for "terse clarity") and Macaulay (for "force and conciseness"). "Yet," says the same critic, "as a stylist he commands a wider range. My First Acquaintance with Poets is as lyrically reminiscent as anything of Lamb's; On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth is imposingly ornate without dependence upon archaisms; On Going to a Fight, a theme which invited the use of slang, is loyal .to pure English, yet nonetheless virile for its purity, the Farewell to Essay Writing is charged with romantic emotionality Whatever the style or subject, it is Hazlitt's own. Like his favourite Montaigne he could assure the reader that his was un livre de bonne foi." Ian Jack also points out that Hazlitt "varied his style (like any writer worth his salt) according to the demands of the subject and the occasion." The same critic observes: "Sometimes he reminds us of the 'character writers' of the seventeenth century, sometimes of Locke, sometimes of Burke. Even within a single essay there may be a marked contrast of style as there is between the matter-of-fact opening and the lyrical climax of 'On My First Acquaintance with Poets."
A word in the end about Hazlitt's plethoric use of quotations. Lamb is also very fond of quoting snatches from writers (mostly poets), but Hazlitt outdoes Lamb many times over. We cannot say that he was in the habit of "thinking within inverted commas," but certainly his over use of quotations cannot be defended. For one tiling, most of his quotations are misquotations. He quotes generally from memory, and quite often wrenches what he quotes off its context. Some of these quotations are happy no doubt, but as many or even more, strike one as standing out too much. We may conclude with a quotation ourselves-the last sentence of Ian Jack's very admirable discussion of Hazlitt in English Literature 1815-1832 (Oxford History of English Literature) -"One of his few faults is that he makes rather too much use of quotation."

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