On the essays shelf:
On the Pleasure of Hating, by William Hazlitt
William Hazlitt is not as well known as he should be; much of this is because most of his work is now out of print. But if you can find second-hand copies of his stuff, he is so worth your time. What a fascinating individual! And what a great writer!
He was born in Kent, in 1778, in the wake of the opening salvos of the American Revolution and right as the French Revolution was starting to explode, two seismic events which would help form his mind and his philosophy. His father was a Unitarian minister, and it was expected that he would go into the clergy as well. That was not meant to be, but in the hopes of it he was sent to a Unitarian seminary which would change Hazlitt’s life. He only went for two years but it was enough to launch him as a thinker and a philosopher, at least. The writers he was introduced to, the dissenting thoughts (the Unitarians had a long history of dissent), and the overriding idea that man was an individual, and that the rights of man were paramount in the field of human life, were thoughts that he would ponder for the rest of his life. He became a fierce believer in human liberty (one of the hottest topics of his day, and our day as well, but the late 1770s were a time of global revolution, of men throwing off their chains, etc. etc.) He read John Locke, David Hume, he discovered Rousseau, which was huge for him. He believed that man was inherently good, and that if his mind was activated, if he was learned enough in the sciences and the arts, his worst tendencies would be fought against naturally. (Hazlitt had a difficult life, with much hardship, and his philosophy would develop and change over the years – another reason why I love him: he was flexible, he changed, he really was thinking.) His studies were so rigorous and in-depth that he basically lost his faith in the process, one of the reasons for him leaving the school. His belief was in Man, not God. In this way, he was very much of his day and age as well.
But what was a budding philosopher to do? How would you make a living? Hazlitt never had an easy time of it. He had so many interests, and so many talents. His brother was a portrait painter, and Hazlitt had some aptitude in that area as well. He began to spend a lot of time in galleries, studying, and hiring himself out as a portrait painter. He got intermittent work in this way for years. His stuff is dark and moody, and he was known for not flattering his subjects (this would cause him some trouble when he painted some famous folks). He spent a lot of time going to the theatre and going to lectures. He was still a young man, still being supported by his father. He needed to get on the stick and start making a real living. One night, he went to hear Samuel Taylor Coleridge speak, and this, too, was one of those life-changing events. He felt that Coleridge was a genius. He felt that he was close to the source of something essential when listening to him speak. They met. Coleridge invited him to come visit, which Hazlitt did (he was only around 20 at the time). While visiting Coleridge, he met Wordsworth, and the three would take long walks together. Hazlitt was obviously very impressionable (this is not necessarily a bad trait), and was lost in awe when in the company of these two gentlemen. He began to think of writing. He had been immersed in philosophy since a young man, and now he saw that poetry was just as vibrant a force. Not just in terms of literature but in terms of liberating the human mind. Coleridge and Wordsworth were both very impressed by their young protege.
Hazlitt continued his career as a painter, traveling around. He had ideas, things he wanted to write about. He wanted to write about the “natural disinteredness of the human mind”: this was a topic that haunted him for years, he felt it would be his great work when he finally got it done.
In the early 1800s, he met Charles Lamb (and Lamb’s mentally ill sister Mary) and this would become a lifelong friendship. He painted a gorgeous portrait of Charles Lamb.
At this time, politics began to really interest him. He admired Napoleon tremendously, and saw him as the liberator of France from a savage tyranny. You can see the influence of Edmund Burke in some of his stuff, another writer he had read closely and loved. He began to publish pamphlets on some of the philosophical and political ideas he had been turning over in his head for years. None of these gained much traction. He was still trying to paint portraits. He got married (the marriage was not a happy one: Hazlitt preferred prostitutes, really, and had a pretty low opinion of women, in general).
Hazlitt struggled to make ends meet. He was a problematic friend, difficult, and there are huge flame-outs with many of his supporters. He had fallings out with Coleridge and Wordsworth. Only Lamb seemed to tolerate him (and Lamb is one of the most humanist writers out there, so this is no surprise. Here’s an amusing quote about Hazlitt in a letter Lamb wrote to Wordsworth). Hazlitt began to get jobs as a political journalist. He was hired by The Examiner to be a parliamentary reporter. His stuff was impressive. He branched out. He did literary criticism, theatre criticism, and is really one of the best models of a well-rounded journalist that we have. It’s a pity he isn’t more well known.
He wrote a book of criticism on the characters in Shakespeare’s plays. He contributed to literary magazines, not just in London, but elsewhere. His reputation began to grow. He had many fascinations, which show up in his essays. (He also was ahead of his time: he began to write personal essays, featuring an “I” narrator, which was revolutionary at the time.) He was fascinated by competitive sports (today’s essay has to do with a fight he saw in a country field). He thought that man was seen at his clearest when he was fighting for something. He didn’t care if the topic was seen as low-brow, it was what interested him. He loved to play sports as well. His essays could be controversial for this reason (today’s essay was certainly sniffed at in some circles: it seemed to lack class, it was not a topic that many people wanted to hear about). Hazlitt didn’t care.
He had a regular column at The Examiner called “The Round Table”, and many of these essays were brought out in book-form. Even today, it is heartening to see the breadth and width of his interests. He wrote about Shakespeare, Milton. He wrote about acting, analyzing the performances he had seen. He wrote about Hogarth, he wrote about Methodists. He wrote about religion and politics. All of the essays begin with the word “On”. He wrote philosophical essays as well: “On the Love of Life”, “On Good Nature”. These things should be read more widely. He is a great thinker. He is a great writer. I get so much from reading his stuff. Muscular, often funny prose, with a talent for memorable epigrams, he is fearless in his own opinions, one of the best qualities of a really good writer. No hemming and hawing, no giving room to the “other side”, unless it is to destroy it completely. You have to be a really good writer to pull that off.
He had a career as a lecturer as well, and would give talks on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and anything else. Meanwhile, his life fell apart. His marriage deteriorated. He lost many of his friends. His behavior was often erratic. He drank to excess. He could be embarrassing in public. He was difficult. His association with the Whig party became problematic for him, and he often found himself attacked by Tory publications. He sued sometimes, if he felt the attack was too vicious, and in one case they settled out of court in his favor. But it was an example of the tide turning. He began to find it difficult to get his work published. Doors began to close on him. He had his defenders, John Keats being one of them (and including the always-loyal Charles Lamb). But he had lost much. He began to think of writing a four-volume biography of Napoleon.
He continued to contribute to the periodicals that would have him, and his “late” essays are some of his best. They are contemplative, ruminative, nostalgic. He looks through old books and writes about them. He writes about Milton’s sonnets. He writes an essay about the future. He writes about the art of criticism. He writes a couple of essays which would become his most famous, although a couple were not even published during his lifetime.
These essays, on the whole, are magnificent. They display a magnificent curious mind, filtered through a man with the gift of the pen, won through hard work. Hazlitt was a man made by his influences: Rousseau, Coleridge, Burke, Wordsworth … He took from all of these people, it was as though they shined the torch to light his way. Eventually, though, Hazlitt’s voice is all his own.
He is one of the few writers where I feel I could recognize his prose in a blind sample. It’s that distinct.
He died at 52. His final years were pretty chaotic, with a new marriage (he finally got a divorce from his first wife), and a trip through Europe, and friends turning on him, and all kinds of craziness. He died in 1830. His essays and books fell out of print and so of course his reputation did not survive the ages. He was not, say, Thomas Paine, a man who has never been out of print, not for one solitary moment since he first hit the world stage. Hazlitt’s writing is subtler than Paine’s, and takes on a broader aspect. It is harder to pin down. His political writing is some of the best I have ever read (brutal, scathing), and yet I love his writing on writers the best. He is a passionate advocate for those writers he loves best. He reminds me of Christopher Hitchens in that regard. Things have been looking up, however. A couple of Hazlitt biographies were printed in the late 1990s, and, with the advent of the Internet, and things like Amazon second-hand booksellers – you can actually track his stuff down. I was so happy when Penguin issued a small book of six of Hazlitt’s essays in their “Great Ideas” series, and this is the book I excerpt from today.
Today’s excerpt is from one of Hazlitt’s most famous essays, called ‘The Fight’, published in 1822. It was hugely popular in its day, although, as I said, it got a lot of criticism from certain quarters for being too low-brow a topic. Whatevs.
‘The Fight’, which describes Hazlitt traveling out to a country town where there is going to be a boxing match in the middle of a field, shows the turn Hazlitt’s work had taken: he was moving into a more personal tone. He was writing about an experience HE had had, his trip to the country, the people he met, the conversations he had. This was just not the style of the day, but the fact that people loved this essay so much says that the public was ready for this more personal style.
It takes him 6 or 7 pages to even GET to the fight itself. In the middle of his humorous story-telling comes the startling lines of sudden philosophy that marks the best of Hazlitt’s writing.
We are cold to others only when we are dull in ourselves, and have neither thoughts nor feelings to impart to them. Give a man a topic in his head, a throb of pleasure in his heart, and he will be glad to share it with the first person he meets.
That is very very fine.
(His paragraphs are notoriously long, and may be difficult to get through on a web page. But I refuse to break the paragraph up. This is how he wrote.) He has a lot to say here about sportsmanship, too, about how to be a proper victor. I love it.
On the Pleasure of Hating, ‘The Fight’, by William Hazlitt
Our present business was to get beds and a supper at an inn; but this was no easy task. The public-houses were full, and where you saw a light at a private house, and people poking their heads out of the casement to see what was going on, they instantly put them in and shut the window, the moment you seemed advancing with a suspicious overture for accommodation. Our guard and coachman thundered away at the outer gate of the “Crown” for some time without effect – such was the greater noise within; – and when the doors were unbarred, and we got admittance, we found a party assembled in the kitchen round a good hospitable fire, some sleeping, others drinking, others talking on politics and on the fight. A tall English yeoman (something like Matthews in the face, and quite as great a wag) –
A lusty man to ben an abbot able, –
was making such a prodigious noise about rent and taxes, and the price of corn now and formerly, that he had prevented us from being heard at the gate. The first thing I heard him say was to a shuffling fellow who wanted to be off a bet for a shilling glass of brandy and water – “Confound it, man, don’t be insipid!” Thinks I, that is a good phrase. It was a good omen. He kept it up so all night, nor flinched with the approach of morning. He was a fine fellow, with sense, wit, and spirit, a hearty body and a joyous mind, free-spoken, frank, convivial – one of that true English breed that went with Harry the Fifth to the siege of Harfleur – “standing like greyhounds in the slips,” etc. We ordered tea and eggs (beds were soon found to be out of the question) and this fellow’s conversation was sauce piquante. It did one’s heart good to see him brandish his oaken towel and to hear him talk. He made mince-meat of a drunken, stupid, red-faced, quarrelsome, frowsy farmer, whose nose “he moralised into a thousand similes,” making it out a firebrand like Bardolph’s. “I’ll tell you what my friend,” says he, “the landlady has only to keep you here to save fire and candle. If one was to touch your nose, it would go off like a piece of charcoal.” At this the other only grinned like an idiot, the sole variety in his purple face being his little peering grey eyes and yellow teeth; called for another glass, swore he would not stand it; and after many attempts to provoke his humorous antagonist to singe combat, which the other turned off (after working him up to a ludicrous pitch of choler) with great adroitness, he fell quietly asleep with a glass of liquor in his hand, which he could not lift to his head. His laughing persecutor made a speech over him, and turning to the opposite side of the room, where they were all sleeping in the midst of this “loud and furious sun,” said, “There’s a scene, by G-d, for Hogarth to paint. I think he and Shakespeare were our two best men at copying life.” This confirmed me in my good opinion of him. Hogarth, Shakespeare, and Nature, were just enough for him (indeed for any man) to know. I said, “You read Cobbett, don’t you? At least,” says I, “you talk just as well as he writes.” He seemed to doubt this. But I said, “We have an hour to spare; if you’ll get pen, ink, and paper, and keep on talking, I’ll write down what you say; and if it doesn’t make a capital ‘Political Register,’ I’ll forfeit my head. You have kept me alive to-night, however. I don’t know what I should have done without you. He did not dislike this view of the thing, nor my asking if he was not about the size of Jem Belcher; and told me soon afterwards, in the confidence of friendship, that “the circumstance which had given him nearly the greatest concern in his life, was Cribb’s beating Jem after he had lost his eye by racket-playing.” – The morning dawns; that dim but yet clear light appears, which weighs like solid bars of metal on the sleepless eyelids; the guests drop down from their chambers one by one – but it was too late to think of going to bed now (the clock was on the stroke of seven), we had nothing for it but to find a barber’s (the pole that glittered in the morning sun lighted us to his shop), and then a nine miles’ march to Hungerford. The day was fine, the sky was blue, the mists were retiring from the marshy ground, the path was tolerably dry, the sitting-up all night had not done us much harm – at least the cause was good; we talked of this and that with amicable difference, roving and sipping of many subjects, but still invariably we returned to the fight. At length, a mile to the left of Hungerford, on a gentle eminence, we saw the ring surrounded by covered carts, gigs, and carriages, of which hundreds had passed us on the road; Toms gave a youthful shout, and we hastened down a narrow lane to the scene of action.
Reader, have you ever seen a fight? If not, you have a pleasure to come, at least if it is a fight like that between the Gas-man and Bill Neate. The crowd was very great when we arrived on the spot; open carriages were coming up, with streamers flying and music playing, and the country-people were pouring in over hedge and ditch in all directions, to see their hero beat or be beaten. The odds were still on Gas, but only about five to four. Gully had been down to try Neate, and had backed him considerably, which was a damper to the sanguine confidence of the adverse party. About two hundred thousand pounds were pending. The Gas say, he has lost 3,000 which were promised him by different gentlemen if he had won. He had presumed too much on himself, which had made others presume on him. This spirited and formidable young fellow seems to have taken for his motto the old maxim, that “there are three things necessary to success in life – Impudence! Impudence! Impudence!” It is so in matters of opinion, but not in the FANCY, which is the most practical of all things, though even here confidence is half the battle, but only half. Our friend had vapoured and swaggered too much, as if he wanted to grin and bully his adversary out of the fight. “Alas! the Bristol man was not so tamed!” – “This is the grave digger” (would Tom Hickman exclaim in the moments of intoxication from gin and success, showing his tremendous right hand), “this will send many of them to their long homes; I haven’t done with them yet!” Why should he – though he had licked four of the best men within the hour, yet why should he threaten to inflict dishonourable chastisement on my old master Richmond, a veteran going off the stage, and who has borne his sable honours meekly? Magnanimity, my dear Tom, and bravery, should be inseparable. Or why should he go up to his antagonist, the first time he ever saw him at the Fives Court, and measuring him from head to foot with a glance of contempt, as Achilles surveyed Hector, say to him, “What, are you Bill Neate? I’ll knock more blood out of that great carcase of thine, this day fortnight, than you ever knock’d out of a bullock’s!” It was not manly, ’twas not fighter- like. If he was sure of the victory (as he was not), the less said about it the better. Modesty should accompany the FANCY as its shadow. The best men were always the best behaved. Jem Belcher, the Game Chicken (before whom the Gas-man could not have lived) were civil, silent men. So is Cribb, so is Tom Belcher, the most elegant of sparrers, and not a man for every one to take by the nose. I enlarged on this topic in the mail (while Turtle was asleep), and said very wisely (as I thought) that impertinence was a part of no profession. A boxer was bound to beat his man, but not to thrust his fist, either actually or by implication, in every one’s face. Even a highwayman, in the way of trade, may blow out your brains, but if he uses foul language at the same time, I should say he was no gentleman. A boxer, I would infer, need not be a blackguard or a coxcomb, more than another.