The Hazlitt Society


Poets and Principles

Poets and principles by Tom Paulin

In the mountainous setting of the Lake District, four writers, passionate republicans, met to discuss politics, poetry and philosophy. Only one, William Hazlitt , was to keep the faith with radicalism. He went on write classic profiles of his apostate former friends.

Grasmere, the village in Cumbria where Wordworth's Dove Cottage stands, is a literary version of Mount Rushmore: it gives lasting shape to the reputations of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey and Hazlitt. They were close and devoted friends from 1798 until about 1804, when their political opinions began to diverge. Coleridge and Southey, initially extreme republicans, became Tory monarchists, followers of Edmund Burke - so did Wordsworth. Hazlitt, though never a hardline republican, stood by the French revolution and admired Napoleon all his life. His former friends spread ugly rumours about his attitude to women - rumours that damaged his reputation.

A new exhibition at Dove Cottage museum, The Spirit of the Age, celebrates William Hazlitt 's 1825 collection of profiles of the leading writers and intellectuals of his day, including the three poets. The exhibition features portraits, cartoons and sketches of all the figures Hazlitt discusses in his book, as well as paintings by Hazlitt himself. The Grasmere exhibition takes its cue from this newspaper's successful campaign to restore Hazlitt 's grave in St Anne's Church, Soho.

Hazlitt, the master critic, was born on this day in Maidstone in 1778, the son of an Irish Unitarian minister. Abandoning the idea of entering the clergy himself, he took up painting and later journalism. The Spirit of the Age began as a series of articles contributed to various periodicals. In it, "this democratic Plutarch", as he was described shortly after his death, creates a series of portraits, which draw on Hazlitt's own experience as a painter, and on his study of Titian and other artists. He wants to describe both how people look, and how they think, dress, walk and talk. The exhibition uniquely brings together portraits that have been separated for many years - Hazlitt's own portrait of Lamb is here, not far from Hazlitt 's famous self-portrait with its vulnerable and shrouded gaze. He was a 19-year-old apprentice artist when he painted it, and unfortunately he used a brown tarry pigment, which helped to create a Rembrandt-like chiaroscuro effect. But the paint didn't dry properly, and created a broken surface whose tiny cracks make Hazlitt look strangely damaged. There is something raw, unformed, even a shade dangerous in his late-adolescent gaze. In his white bandaging neckcloth, a patch of light on his right forehead, he looks like a prisoner. In "My First Acquaintance with Poets", Hazlitt describes himself at this age: "I was at that time dumb, inarticulate, helpless, like a worm, by the wayside, crushed, bleeding, lifeless."

He goes on to say that his soul has remained in its "original bondage, dark, obscure, with longings infinite and unsatisfied", while his heart has remained shut up in "the prison-house of this rude clay", unable to find another heart to speak to. Then, in a moment of noble and fair-minded eloquence, he says that his discovery of a language to express himself in, "I owe to Coleridge."

Coleridge is the third profile in Spirit of the Age, and Washington Allston's portrait in the exhibition at Dove Cottage shows a serious Anglican visionary, completely lacking in the mischievous irony of Hazlitt's treatment of his former friend. Hazlitt says that if Coleridge had not been the most impressive talker of his time, he would have been its finest writer. In long, tumbling, witty, dramatic sentences, Hazlitt characterises Coleridge as a voracious, intellectually misguided figure, who falls "ten thousand fathoms down", like Milton's Satan. He drops down into the dry, desiccated herb garden of Unitarianism, the faith Hazlitt was reared in and which shaped his mind. Then Coleridge moves on, until he eventually sinks into a "torpid, uneasy repose, tantalised by useless resources, haunted by vague imaginings, his lips idly moving, but his heart forever still". As Wordsworth's biographer Stephen Gill puts it, Coleridge is a "windbag apostate". Coleridge, in Hazlitt's view, is a fallen angel, a pretender to the throne, a burnt-out case, who writes prose that is "utterly abortive".

In this devastating account of Coleridge's learning, enthusiasm and enormous gifts, Hazlitt describes his nomadic, intellectual endeavour, and suggests that his brilliance is a matter of being always on the move, continually offering provisional conclusions. All air and motion, he is eternally about to fulfil his early promise. But as a writer all he can do is to perpetually skim over the surfaces of that promise. His ideas are "like a river, flowing on for ever, and still murmuring as it flows". This continuous motion means that his wavering, vacillating prose induces nausea in the reader.

But in 1798, Coleridge inspired the young Hazlitt , who describes him delivering a sermon in the Unitarian Chapel in Shrewsbury: "Mr Coleridge rose and gave out his text, 'And he went up into the mountain to pray, HIMSELF ALONE.' As he gave out this text his voice rose like 'a steam of rich distilled perfumes', and when he came to the last two words, which he pronounced loud, deep and distinct, it seemed to me, who was then young, as if the sounds had echoed from the bottom of the human heart, and as if that prayer might have floated in the solemn silence through the universe."

It's a powerful moment, but as the scholar Grevel Lindop has pointed out, no such biblical text exists. Hazlitt may have been remembering a moment in John's gospel where Jesus departs "again into a mountain himself alone" (6.15). The sense, though, is clear: Coleridge is Hazlitt's saviour, and his beautifully modulated voice is compared in the quotation to the Lady's musical voice in Milton's "Comus". He also compares Coleridge to John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness and feeding on locusts and wild honey.

What Hazlitt wants to do in all his writing after his first philosophical work is to unite painting with journalism, so that his urgent, beautifully modulated prose has a glossy freshness and a living, active engagement, but he wants his prose portraits not to be simply static, like oil paintings, and instead to be almost like film or action paintings. The cinema had still to be invented, but Hazlitt was fascinated by magic lantern shows or "phantasmagorias", as they were called, and he drew on them and on the new science of electricity to give animation and movement to his profiles.

The exhibition, quite properly, is dominated by portraits of Wordsworth, and although Wordsworth is the 10th portrait in The Spirit of the Age, he is one of the dominating figures in the volume. As Hazlitt announces in his opening sentence, "Mr Wordsworth's genius is a pure emanation of The Spirit of the Age." Wordsworth was a treacherous former friend, and Hazlitt celebrates him in his essay, "My First Acquaintance with Poets". It was written years after Hazlitt and Wordsworth fell out, and in it he offers an energetic portrait of the young poet:

There was a severe, worn pressure of thought about his temples, a fire in his eye (as if he saw something in objects more than the outward appearance), an intense high narrow forehead, a Roman nose, cheeks burrowed by strong purpose and feeling, and a convulsive inclination to laughter about the mouth, a good deal at variance with the solemn, stately expression of the rest of his face.

Notice the fire in Wordsworth's eye and the slightly unsettling bony coldness of this face (Hazlitt continues the Roman theme with two quotations from Julius Caesar in the opening paragraph of his extended portrait in The Spirit of the Age ). But Hazlitt 's appreciation of Wordsworth is ringing and authoritative: he is "a new style and spirit in poetry". The power of his mind "preys on itself. It is as if there were nothing but himself and the universe." It was from this comment and from Hazlitt 's lectures that Keats formed the concept of the "egotistical sublime", which he applied to Wordsworth.

Hazlitt visited Wordsworth in the Lake District in 1803 and, as certain scholars have noted, he was influenced by early versions of Wordsworth's epic account of his "creative sensibility" - "The Prelude". What has not been noticed is that the younger Hazlitt (he was 19 when they first met in 1798) also influenced Wordsworth. Meeting him again in 1803, when Britain renewed its war with revolutionary France, Hazlitt would have discussed British and European politics with Wordsworth and Coleridge, and noted that early in the first drafts of "The Prelude", when Wordsworth talks of the mountain creating "an impressive discipline of fear", and a "ministry of fear", he would have been thinking of the oppressive British government under the prime minister, Henry Addington. In the opening paragraph of his portrait of Wordsworth, Hazlitt praises him as a courageous experimental poet who rejects mythological figures and poetic diction:

His style is vernacular: he delivers household truths. He sees nothing loftier than human hopes, nothing deeper than the human heart. This he probes, this he tampers with, this he poises, with all its incalculable weight of thought and feeling, in his hands, and at the same time calms the throbbing pulses of his own heart by keeping his eye ever fixed on the face of nature.

This seems like unambiguous praise, but it is one of Hazlitt 's great gifts as a critic that he can give his critical judgments an opposite or ambivalent inflection, which makes them build what William Empson terms a "structure of complex words". This means the critic is given the same freedom as the imaginative writer and isn't simply a dependent explicator of a literary text, as the energy, freedom and grace of Hazlitt 's prose so magnificently proclaims. In the passage on Wordsworth's vernacular style, the key complex word is "tampers". By using it Hazlitt is recalling an earlier essay, "On Paradox and Commonplace", where he draws on a novel that fascinated him, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, to describe her husband Percy's poetry: "He tampers with all sorts of obnoxious subjects, but it is less because he is gratified with the rankness of the taint, than captivated with the intellectual phosphoric light they emit." Here, Percy Shelley, like Frankenstein, is engaged in making monsters from what we now term "body parts". In showing Wordsworth probing and tampering with "this" and "this", he characterises him as an extreme Jacobin intellectual who "paints" his verse in the "living colouring", which is the "life-blood" he makes "flow from the wounded breast". He has a "levelling" muse, which seeks to reduce everything to the same standard of equality. He strips away pretentious decorations "without mercy", because they are "barbarous, idle and gothic". Wordsworth's imagination is bold, violent, jacobinical: it interferes with nature like a surgeon with a scalpel. Hazlitt 's prose here has a fresh tackiness like blood or oil paint.

In "The Prelude", Wordsworth praises what he calls "mountain liberty", and we can see the same republican ideology in "Tintern Abbey", the poem he composed in 1798, the year he and Hazlitt first met. He dates the poem July 13 1798. The date is significant - it is the eve of Bastille Day, and the five years that Wordsworth in the opening lines says have elapsed since he last visited the Wye Valley point to another significant date - July 13 1793 - the day the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat was assassinated by Charlotte Corday.

Walking along a mountain path above Grasmere, I remembered that early in "The Prelude", in lines Hazlitt would have read, Wordsworth says of a difficult path:In its windings we shall need / The chamois' sinews and the eagle's wing.

Hazlitt picks up this image in one of his finest essays, "On the Prose Style of Poets", where he praises - disinterestedly - Edmund Burke's counter-revolutionary prose:
It differs from poetry, as I conceive, like the chamois from the eagle it climbs to an almost equal height, touches upon a cloud, overlooks a precipice, is picturesque, sublime - but all the while, instead of soaring through the air, it stands upon a rocky cliff, clambers up by abrupt and intricate ways, and browses the roughest bark and crops the tender flower.

Like an extended passage from "The Prelude", this sinewy sentence celebrates the lunging, leaping deftness of Burke's style, and insists that radical writers cultivate the virtues of a subtle and authoritative prose style, instead of writing with a chipped, mechanical, and rational or - worse - ratiocinating style (so much critical prose nowadays is weightlessly arid or lumpy with specialised vocabulary).

For Wordsworth and Hazlitt , the Cumbrian mountains meant liberty, but they carried also that disciplining ministry of fear, which is such a central part of Wordsworth's subject in his epic poem. Recalling this as I followed a twisting path above Grasmere, I thought of these lines from "Tintern Abbey":

The tall rock,The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood.

The mountain in French, I remembered, is "la montagne", and that was the name given to the sloping benches in the French National Assembly, where Robespierre and his fellow Jacobins sat. Wordsworth is here remembering the Jacobins, and he uses the "tall rock" not just to describe the slightly sinister cliff face he can see above the River Wye, but as a figure that associates with the Tarpeian Rock, where traitors were thrown to their deaths in ancient Rome. But it also has a contemporary reference for Wordsworth: it signifies the guillotine on which, some scholars argue, he saw a French politician he knew - Gorsas - executed. He doesn't simply describe landscape - he projects contemporary events and ideas into it. To visit Grasmere is to recall those times, and the arguments that took place there. Hazlitt painted Wordsworth's and Coleridge's portraits, but as Michael Foot lamented in his speech, opening the exhibition at Dove Cottage, both portraits have been lost. Coleridge in his notebooks records a "most unpleasant Dispute" he had with Wordsworth and Hazlitt in which his assailants "spoke so irreverently of the Divine Wisdom". Perhaps Hazlitt's disputatious former friends destroyed their portraits?

Hazlitt was exasperated by Southey's narrow, opinionated, inflexible personality: "His impressions are accidental, immediate, personal, instead of being permanent and universal." The particular type of British idealist philosophy, which Hazlitt held to, shapes this criticism of Southey's mind, which lacks a shaping intellectual structure and can only try to grasp fugitive impressions. In this sentence, Hazlitt is also confronting one of his central anxieties: that his journalistic essays will also be deemed transitory, short-term interventions. For him, Southey is an angular, clumsy, comic figure. It is part of Hazlitt's brilliance as a prose writer that even when praising Southey, he invests his prose with a deliberately aridity that affects the praise. Thus he says that Southey "vilifies reform, and praises the reign of George III in good set terms, in a straightforward, intelligible, practical, pointed way". This sounds like praise, but Hazlitt's ear is running on the words "petulant", "pert" and "prostitutes" elsewhere in the passage - the p and t sounds colour his sentence with a dry, sterile sound and work to undermine his disinterested praise.

He doesn't, at least in this passage, undermine his celebrated and disinterested portrait of Wordsworth:

He sat down and talked very naturally and freely, with a mixture of clear, gushing accents in his voice, a deep guttural intonation, and a strong tincture of the northern burr, like the crust on wine. He instantly began to make havoc of the half of a Cheshire cheese on the table.

The sensuous richness, the gusto, of Hazlitt's style shows here. He often deploys food images to communicate textures, sounds, colours, and he uses italics frequently to vocalise his utterances. It is this spontaneity and immediacy which his aesthetic of gusto embodies. Indeed, it was Virginia Woolf in her review of PP Howe's great 21-volume edition, who first noticed how Hazlitt writes the body. One of his favourite critical adjectives is "unctuous", which is not as now a pejorative, but instead a term that unites the tactile with the sacred. It also draws on the oiliness of paint.

In the closing paragraph of his portrait of Southey, he again insists on Southey's intellectual inadequacies: he cannot form original ideas, and "has hardly grasp of thought enough to arrive at any great 'leading truth'", but he is a decent human being. In John Downman's portrait, he is a thoughtful, curly-haired visionary.

In Hazlitt's treatment of Southey, we see the principle of disinterestedness at work, but it also reflects Hazlitt 's lifelong quarrel with empirical philosophy. He does not believe, as Locke did, that the mind is passive in perception, and his disagreement with Southey is essentially an idealist argument about the transforming, active powers of the mind, as against those philosophers and writers who argue that the mind is like an empty room into which images and sensations come. In a recent study, the Hazlitt scholar Uttara Natarajan has examined the philosophical structure of Hazlitt 's writing, and it is impossible to visit Grasmere without feeling how the great contours of the mountains influenced these philosophical and political idealists.

What Hazlitt tells us is that criticism is a creative act, and that it is also a living and enhancing part of our life as citizens. As he shows in one of his greatest essays, "The Fight", the critic has to be a pugilist, prepared to give and take blows. He also reminds us that the liberties of this country have been centrally nourished and sustained by those who held to the many and various forms of protestant dissent, which suffered much persecution over the years, and still did in Hazlitt's lifetime. As a Unitarian, he was brought up in what was known as "rational dissent", and his work reminds us of the intellectual nobility of that particular sect. One day, perhaps, a historian will write a definitive account of that form of puritanism, and when that book appears, The Spirit of the Age will be celebrated for prose that has inspired writers such as Dickens, and in our day Ted Hughes, Edward Said and Seamus Heaney. But of all those who have written about Hazlitt, it is Foot who has most kept the flame of his reputation alive. In his 91st year, he travelled all the way from London to Grasmere to open the exhibition, talk about Hazlitt, and present the museum with a first edition of Hazlitt's Liber Amoris (1823), and a first edition of Tom Moore's verse novel The Fudge Family in Paris (1818). That volume is dedicated:

To William Hazlitt Esqr, as a small mark of respect for his literary talents and political principles from the author

April 27th 1818.

How we need those principles affirmed and asserted today. The mountainous setting of the Spirit of the Age exhibition asserts the permanence of Hazlitt 's genius and - whatever their differences - that of most of his subjects.

Spirit of the age: Hazlitt on Coleridge

He who has seen a mouldering tower by the side of a crystal lake, hid by the mist, but glittering in the wave below, may conceive the dim, gleaming, uncertain intelligence of his eye: he who has marked the evening clouds uprolled (a world of vapours) has seen the picture of his mind, unearthly, unsubstantial, with gorgeous tints and ever-varying forms . . .

He hailed the rising orb of liberty, since quenched in darkness and in blood, and had kindled his affections at the blaze of the French Revolution, and sang for joy, when the towers of the Bastille and the proud places of the insolent and the oppressor fell, and would have floated his bark, freighted with fondest fancies, across the Atlantic wave with Southey and others to seek for peace and freedom . . .

Alas! "Frailty, thy name is Genius!" What is become of all this mighty heap of hope, of thought, of learning and humanity? It has ended in swallowing doses of oblivion and in writing paragraphs in the Courier. Such and so little is the mind of man!

He has sunk into torpid, uneasy repose, tantalized by useless resources, haunted by vain imaginings, his lips idly moving, but his heart for ever still, or, as the shattered chords vibrate of themselves, making melancholy music to the car of memory! Such is the fate of genius in an age when every man is ground to powder who is not either a born slave, or who does not willingly and at once offer up the yearnings of humanity and the dictates of reason as a welcome sacrifice to besotted prejudice and loathsome power.

The poets, the creatures of sympathy, could not stand the frowns both of king and people. They did not like to be shut out when places and pensions, when the critic's praises, and the laurel wreath were about to be distributed. They did not stomach being sent to Coventry, and Mr Coleridge sounded a retreat for them by the help of casuistry and a musical voice. "His words were hollow, but they pleased the ear" of his friends of the Lake School, who turned back disgusted and panic-struck from the dry desert of unpopularity, like Hassan the camel-driver.

The Guardian, Saturday Review, 10th April 2004.