THE ART OF CRITICISM : 6 THE OPENING PARAGRAPH

TOM PAULIN'S MASTERCLASS
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"He is the father of our Sunday journalism."

(George Watson on William Hazlitt in The Literary Critics)

The essayist, like the short story writer, must catch and keep the reader's attention right at the start: it is here and now - or never. Hazlitt begins his essay with an account of Poussin's "Landscape with Orion and Diana", and shows how a critical essay depends crucially on its opening paragraph. George Watson's remark about Hazlitt recalls those days when another tribe of critics practised a form of social snobbery disguised as aesthetic judgement. These snobs - port and walnut men, in Kingsley Amis's phrase - were invariably dons who crouched behind their college walls fearful of the modern world and quite unable to appreciate that Hazlitt's essay has one of the most brilliant opening paragraphs in critical history. (The complete paragraph is at least twice the length of our quote.) Hazlitt, who also ends the similarly lengthy paragraph that begins his profile of Jeremy Bentham with an exclamation mark, has perhaps a slight problem with the finality of "and his art the master-art!" The reader may be exhausted by now, for the paragraph is a miniature essay in itself. But very deftly Hazlitt begins the next paragraph by casually dropping his voice and remarking: "There is nothing in this `more than natural', if criticism could be persuaded to think so." He has staked out a grand claim right at the start, now he can begin to introduce the subtler discriminations of praise and criticism implicit in the Shakespearean phrase "foregone conclusion", which he and Charles Lamb first adapted to general usage and which is significant as a negative value in his critical terminology.

What critical terms has George Watson left us with? Replies on a postage stamp please.

8 Next week: Timing Praise

Orion, the subject of this landscape, was the classical Nimrod; and is called by Homer, "a hunter of shadows, himself a shade". He was the son of Neptune; and having lost an eye in some affray between the Gods and men, was told that if he would go to meet the rising sun he would recover his sight. He is represented setting out on his journey, with a man on his shoulders to guide him, a bow in his hand, and Diana in the clouds greeting him. He stalks along, a giant upon earth, and reels and falters in his gait, as if just awakened out of sleep, or un- certain of his way; - you see his blindness, though his back is turned. Mists rise around him, and veil the sides of the green forests; earth is dank and fresh with dews, the "gray dawn and the Pleiades before him dance", and in the distance are seen the blue hills and sullen ocean. Nothing was ever more finely conceived or done. ... His pictures "denote a foregone conclusion". ... To give us nature, such as we see it, is well and deserving of praise; to give us nature, such as we have never seen, but have often wished to see it, is better, and deserving of higher praise. He who can show the world in its first naked glory, with the hues of fancy spread over it, or in its high and palmy state, with the gravity of history stamped on the proud monuments of vanished empire ... he who does this, and does it with simplicity, with truth, and grandeur, is Lord of Nature and her powers; and his mind is universal, and his art the master- art!

William Hazlitt: `On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin' (1821)

Comments