Thursday, 24 May 2012

William Hazlitt: the First Modern Man by Duncan Wu

One of the few modern works I actually read. This biography describes the life of Romantic essayist and journalist, William Hazlitt. I first encountered his name in some Penguin book showing essays by people such as Dr Johnson. I believe it was opinions of thinkers on Shakespeare through the ages. That was years ago and I saw Hazlitt's name there, with a clear, interesting piece. I didn't read through, as I was less mature then.

Hazlitt was the son of a Unitarian minister, which meant they were radical. If you weren't an Anglican in early 19th century England, well, you were rather unfortunate. You couldn't attend Oxford and Cambridge and weren't entitled to certain privileges. The Unitarians, however were noted for being progressive and educating their daughters. A number of prosperous and liberal merchants were Unitarians and so were thinkers. Well, young William was a quick learner, and his father put a lot of pressure on him to excel, resulting in his illness. In his teens he was sent to a school meant for clever Unitarians to train them into ministers (clergymen required a good education). But the school was so progressive (it urged you to question everything, and Unitarians do not believe in a trinity) William ended up an agnostic. I rather like that. His father was disappointed as he hoped that his clever son would become a minister. Anyway somewhere in his late teens, William met a new minister in the district, a Samuel Taylor Coleridge (the poet) whom he really looked up to. At this time Coleridge was a genuis and had not collapsed to a drug-addled stupor. He had a great many ideas, far more than Wordsworth, and it was his philosophy that Wordsworth used in his poetry.  So those of you who condemn Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a melodramatic narrative and praise Wordsworth's dull pastorals as genius, recall the meanings in Coleridge, and above all, observe the power and thrill that poem sends through you - something Wordsworth never mastered. Wordsworth at his best is stately and grand, but he is not thrilling. Hazlitt used to visit Coleridge to speak to him at the height of his idolatry. It seems in his youth Hazlitt was also introduced to Wordsworth, but when he argued against Wordsworth's thinking the latter was annoyed, and even condemned Hazlitt in a poem about the latter's over-reasoning. It shows us a less benevolent side of the poet.

Eventually Hazlitt starts off as a literary critic and journalist in London, and befriends varied literary people such as Charles Lamb of Tales of Shakespeare fame, Leigh Hunt, editor of the Examiner, a radical paper, and John Hamilton Reynolds. I can't do much justice to him, but Hazlitt was a fervent radical who supported the French Revolution and revered Napoleon. For those of you accustomed to see the guy as a butcherer, let it be known that Napoleon spearheaded the aristocracy, bringing more democracy to France. Much as I deplore his intent on war, the man did do a great deal of good. Unfortunately when people like Wordsworth and Coleridge stopped supporting the Revolution Hazlitt denounced them in his articles, which led them to break up their former friendship (which wasn't much anyway). It was this fervent revolutionary instinct that led to his loss of friends.

But it was Hazlitt who wrote intelligent literary and theatrical pieces in the papers he worked for. He wrote a book on characters in Shakespeare which sold well, and for a while, was a respected critic. In the evenings, to supplement his income he gave lectures which proved to be popular.

But their is always downfall in Hazlitt's life. His acidness made him unpopular, and other critics denounced him in their articles, saying he belonged to the cockney school led by Leigh Hunt (these were not classically-educated men who had literary pretensions). It is ironic to reflect that Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge, who eventually conformed to the establishment, are now well-known, and were respected in the Victorian era. Keats, who Hazlitt praised, only became a major figure in the late 19th century, many years after the Lake Poets gained recognition. We see in here certain aspects of Wordsworth - his egotism (he hated being criticised and would break up associations based on that), and more happily, the goodness of Charles Lamb. Hazlitt used to go over to Lamb's house and drink and talk merrily, and his wife was friends with the Lambs as well. After a certain downturn they stopped seeing each other, but when a great deal of criticism was piled on Hazlitt, Lamb retorted that despite his faults, he still admired and saw him as a friend, and believed Hazlitt to be the wisest man he knew. His conversation was better than anybody else's.

What really brought him down was the publication of Liber Amoris, an account of his affair with his landlord's daughter, who seems to have been a nymphomaniac. People thought him vulgar, and after that his books would not sell. It was this obsession with this girl that made him divorce his wife (in Scotland, but the divorce would not be recognised in England) so he could marry her. She ended up betraying him for another man.

Hazlitt eventually died in poverty and by then most of his friends had left him. I can't help feeling sorry for the man, despite his sharp remarks: he was ruled by idealism all his life. I have more sympathy for the grumpy anti-hero of exalted ideals than the likeable, popular man with no strong feelings, as Jane Eyre would agree. What we have inherited from him is modern journalism - a more personal touch - and literary criticism. While many accused Hazlitt's Shakespearean venture as not academic, it is readable, even by today's standards, and when you consider the hard language of that time, it would be much easier to read compared to today's academic texts. And profounder too than today's short amateur reviews on literature. His judgements on Hamlet are acute. We must also praise Hazlitt for remarking that his favourite actor, Edmund Kean, while brilliant at Shakespearean characters, could no bring Hamlet to life, because Hamlet's character is essentially the sort you find in a book. No one could portray his essence on stage, not even the best actor. And this is very true to this day.

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