The critic William Hazlitt (1778–1830), known best in his lifetime for his writing on Shakespeare, was a jack of all trades and a master of none too few, trying his deft hand at painting, philosophy, polemics, and criticism. A friend of the Romantic poets, Hazlitt is remembered today as one of the English language’s greatest essayists. When we read Hazlitt, we encounter a writer obsessed with the nature of power and its relation to both poetry and politics. Yet for all his deep-seated radical and liberal leanings—Hazlitt was a parliamentarian, a religious libertarian, and an abolitionist—he proudly admitted in his essay “On the Prose-Style of Poets” (collected 1826) that one of his greatest influences was Edmund Burke (1729–97), the seminal conservative thinker.
“It has always appeared to me that the most perfect prose-style, the most powerful, the most dazzling, the most daring, that which went the nearest to the verge of poetry, and yet never fell over, was Burke’s,” wrote Hazlitt. His appraisal of “the principle which guides [Burke’s] pen” is revealing: “truth, not beauty—not pleasure, but power.” Writing, in Hazlitt’s mind, is an expression of moral and ethical strength, and it draws that strength from truth.
“Truth, not beauty—not pleasure, but power.”
Hazlitt’s words echo in the poetry of his contemporary John Keats (1795–1821), who closed his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” with this familiar rejoinder, in response, possibly, to Hazlitt: “‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,’—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Keats attended Hazlitt’s 1818 lectures on poetry at the Surrey Institution in London shortly before composing the “Ode” in 1819. Keats met Hazlitt twice in his short life, to the elder critic’s mere amusement, though Hazlitt came to recognize the young poet’s genius after Keats’s death in 1822. It speaks to Hazlitt’s skill for setting people and thoughts in motion that he seems to have infiltrated the imagination of the greatest poet since Shakespeare.
The most dedicated of Hazlitt’s recent biographers, the Northern Irish poet and critic Tom Paulin (b. 1949) investigates the truth of beauty and the beauty in truth in his book The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt’s Radical Style (1998). In it, he tunes his voice to match his subject’s:
Joseph Priestly, the republican scientist who invented soda water . . . taught [Hazlitt] that an offhand directness was one of the secrets of effective prose and public speaking. Keats’s famous line “With beaded bubbles winking at the brim” may have been influenced by this imaginative pattern of effervescence in Hazlitt’s criticism.
Paulin achieves a real feat of association in comparing the iambic rise—unstressed syllables rising to stressed ones, the regular rhythm of English verse—of Keats’s line to the invention of sparkling water, doubling the creative activity of Hazlitt’s mind.
The creative life of the mind, like the social life of the mind, is diffuse; think of those bubbles in sparkling water as the people and ideas that populate a mind, bouncing at random off of one another. Hazlitt argued that language has real presence in the world—that it exists in the mind and mouths of people—and it is some surprise that prose, in Hazlitt’s thinking, must necessarily be “boring” and un-poetic. Again, borrowing Paulin: “he is identifying a kind of active, unimaginative, practical perseverance, a kind of necessary droniness . . . which is part of the actual living experience of prose writing. If you write prose, you must face up to the fact that it is a recalcitrant medium gritty with facts and references.” For Keats, “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.” For Hazlitt, the two must be separate—and, by extension, truthful prose and beautiful poetry are separate as well.
Allusion is a form of literary perseverance, of extending time. Hazlitt made an art of it. Shakespeare, Keats, and, most tellingly, John Milton, all populate the field of Hazlitt’s imagination. “Hazlitt on Milton is also Hazlitt on Hazlitt,” Paulin keenly points out, so Hazlitt’s praising of Milton’s “strong and nervous style” tells us about Hazlitt’s own. Here’s an example from a Hazlitt essay called “On Poetry in General” (1818): “the jerks, the breaks, the inequalities and harshness of prose, are fatal to the flow of a poetic imagination.” Notice how the commas enact those very “jerks” and “breaks” with plodding insistence. The passage reads “nervously,” perhaps, in the sense of neurons firing—sparkling, like bubbles—in the active mind, or perhaps less literally: anxious to get a strong point across time. Paulin establishes the serious distinction between the seventeenth-century English empiricist John Locke’s theory of the mind, with its conception of ideas as copies of sense impressions, and Hazlitt’s dynamic of the mind, where ideas “extend” beyond mere “objects of sense.” Hazlitt for his part prefers “the dancing of insects in the evening sun” as a figure for the mind’s flight from sensory observation into thought and ideas.
At the heart of everything was Hazlitt’s chief critical forefather, Burke. In Hazlitt’s mind, Burke’s sentences electrified his sometimes staid ideas; Paulin notes with praise the “visceral, primitivist urgency” that Hazlitt saw in Burke’s prose, “its imaginative, over-the-top extremity, its almost cherishing playfulness.” In his own approximation of Burke, Hazlitt wrote that “the words are not fitted to things, but the things to words.”
Revealingly, Burke also looked back to the poetry of Milton to fire his own prose polemics, identifying five passages from the early books of Paradise Lost as case studies in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Burke was fascinated by the mechanism of how, like Priestly’s bubbles, images were “raised” and “heightened” by the imagination when encountered by the sublime, something “no person seems better to have understood” than Milton.
Though the more incendiary Hazlitt never forgave Burke’s distaste for the then-recent French Revolution, Hazlitt nonetheless tensed his own prose with Burke’s highly individualistic Tory force to achieve republican aims—all while maintaining contact with the world of letters to which the younger man aspired. That world consists, to a great degree, of social material, stories about people and their things; the mind, to Hazlitt, is a social object where our “ideas are set in quarrel with one another,” a space of intellectual “free play,” as he memorably put it. Note the similarity between Burke’s “raised images” and Hazlitt’s pronouncement that “Poetry is that fine particle within us, that expands, rarefies, refines, [and] raises our whole being.” His reading of Burke shows that, though radical in his leanings, Hazlitt was a literary omnivore, using all possible resources at his disposal, from Romantic poetry to conservative polemic. The country poet John Clare (1793–1864), then, correctly identified Hazlitt as more a “scribbler than a genius”; scribbling was the whole point, a means to get ideas and people in motion—a perpetual dance of anecdotes—and more the genius therein.
A straightish line from Milton to Burke to Hazlitt to Paulin runs through time and across the minefield that lies between poetry and prose. Mapping this lineage of critics, poets, and poet-critics reveals something about our desire to speak to and of the world, and of our astonishment in the creation of words.