Books: The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's radical style by Tom Paulin Faber & Faber, pounds 22.: Love and revolution

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The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's radical style

by Tom Paulin

Faber & Faber, pounds 22.50

He is the Shakespearean prose writer of our glorious country; he outdoes all in truth, style, and originality." So wrote the painter William Bewick upon hearing Hazlitt lecture on the English poets. "Though we are mighty fine fellows nowadays," remarked Robert Louis Stevenson 60 years later, "we cannot write like Hazlitt." Who was the man who inspired such admiration and affection?

Born in 1778, William Hazlitt was the son of a Unitarian minister. Religious and political radicalism were closely intertwined at this time, so young William's education at the Hackney New College for dissenters brought him into contact with many of the leading intellectuals who welcomed the French Revolution. In 1798, he met Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Their poetry, he believed, stormed the Bastille of entrenched literary taste and brought a new democracy to English literature. He remained committed to revolutionary ideals throughout his life, despairing at Wordsworth and Coleridge's lurch to the right during the Regency period.

Hazlitt's brother was a painter and he himself undertook a noble portrait of his friend Charles Lamb. But it was as a writer that he made his career. He developed a unique art of sketching in prose the "character" of a new actor, a new book, a political figure, a Shakespearean play, a place, a journey. He is seen at his best in his collection of pen portraits of the great men of his time, The Spirit of the Age.

Usually paid by the page, he was always writing to the moment, writing to a deadline, scraping a living. He died in poverty, in Frith Street, Soho, in 1830. His last letter, dictated from his deathbed, was to Francis Jeffrey, the pre-eminent magazine editor of the day: "Dear Sir, I am dying; can you send me pounds 10, and so consummate your many kindnesses to me? W. Hazlitt."

With the possible exception of Coleridge, Hazlitt was the greatest critic of his age. With the possible exception of George Bernard Shaw, he was the greatest theatre reviewer in the English language. He is the father of that tradition of literary passion mingled with political activism that, in our time, is best represented by Michael Foot. Yet to many modern readers his name is unknown - or known only as the risibly arcane specialism of that second-rate academic, Philip Swallow, in David Lodge's comic novel Small World. How could such a great writer have fallen into such disrepute?

Enter T S Eliot and F R Leavis. In the 1930s, a century after his death, Hazlitt became a victim of his associations. He had been a friend of Charles Lamb, who wrote essays in a whimsical style regarded by Eliot and his acolytes as the quintessence of that "belle-lettrism" that they made it their business to exterminate. Worse still, Hazlitt was a journalist - a word that only ever passed the lips of Leavisites when accompanied by a venomous sneer.

And, horror of horrors, he was committed to popular culture. He brought to his essays on prizefighters, buskers and racquet-ball players the same vitality that animated his praise of Edmund Burke's prose, Edmund Kean's Shakespearean acting and Wordsworth's best poetry. For the puritanical Leavisites, this would never do. They were busy building a high wall between "mass civilisation" (ugh) and "minority culture" (hurrah). Hazlitt was boxed up with Lamb and left to gather dust on the shelf.

Now at last he has found a worthy apologist. If Hazlitt were alive today he would be writing for the London Review of Books and appearing on Late Review - spiky, opinionated, always alive, a good hater but magnanimous in his advocacies. Sounds familiar? In The Day-Star of Liberty, Tom Paulin has reinvented William Hazlitt in the image of Tom Paulin while remaining gloriously true to the man's life and work.

The Paulinisation of Hazlitt begins from his father's Irishness, which previous biographers have glossed over. By means of some fascinating research, Paulin links Hazlitt Senior to a whole network of Irish Unitarian radicals vociferous in their support for the American revolution and later linked with the United Irish uprising of 1798. The notion that one can be simultaneously a Protestant and a United Irishman establishes an historical pedigree for Paulin himself - and it gives timeliness to the publication of this book in the days immediately after the referendums on the Good Friday agreement.

The second key feature of Paulin's recuperation is also political, but more abstrusely so. Hazlitt's first published book was a philosophical treatise. Entitled An Essay on the Principles of Human Action, it argued - against the grain of that Hobbesian and Malthusian tradition that linked the survival instinct to capitalist competition - that the mind is naturally "disinterested".

Paulin traces this idea back to the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Francis Hutcheson, who argued that the power of appreciating beauty is antecedent to the principles of self-love and self-advancement. In the tradition that runs from Hutcheson to Hazlitt, "disinterestedness" is a form of empathy that yokes the aesthetic sense to the unselfish politics of "rational dissent".

For Hazlitt, then, "disinterested" did not mean "detached" or "impartial". As Paulin puts it, "the disinterested imagination is capable of an empathy with a position it does not share - indeed, which it opposes". Hazlitt abhorred Burke's conservative politics but adored his prose. He admired Joseph Fawcett, a key radical figure on whom Paulin has some excellent pages, for taking his copies of Burke's attack on the French Revolution and Paine's defence of it, and binding them up together in one volume.

Building on the work of the American scholar David Bromwich, Paulin argues that English criticism took a wrong turn when Matthew Arnold redefined "disinterestedness" as impartiality. The Arnoldian tradition, inherited by Eliot and Leavis, basks in pseudo-objectivity. Paulin wants us to return to the Hazlittian principle that "the disinterested imagination takes a position, but it is not entrenched, obdurate, or rigid; rather, it is based on an active and flexible way of knowing that is essentially dialogic. It doesn't talk to itself."

Most literary critics now are academics who talk only among themselves in a technocratic, jargon-ridden language resembling that of the mechanically- minded Benthamites whom Hazlitt scorned. Paulin's book, then, is not just about Hazlitt, it is a counterblast to modern theory, a defence of "public" literary discourse, a plea for the "human voice" of good prose.

The humane critic has to be vulnerable. Paulin says of Hazlitt: "Deep down he knows that the critic who is afraid of looking like a fool is bound to shirk the mission to be honest which energises the critical act." Curiously, though, this sentence comes in the one section of Paulin's book where there is a failure in his own sympathy with Hazlitt.

In the early 1820s, Hazlitt made himself look a fool. He fell crazily in love with a girl called Sarah Walker, his landlady's daughter. He divorced his wife, but then discovered that Sarah was flirting round all the lodgers in the house, apparently at her mother's behest - a little sexual attention being an incentive for the gentlemen to prolong their stay. Deeply disillusioned, Hazlitt was driven to the edge of a nervous breakdown. He purged himself of Sarah by writing a confessional narrative entitled Liber Amoris, for which he was unmercifully mocked in the right-wing press.

Paulin regards the Liber Amoris as "an exploration of imaginative extremity which never in all its sequence of dead surprises achieves an authentic image or cadence even for a moment". Such a description is a travesty. Embarrassing and cliched the book sometimes is - but then that is the condition of the besotted lover. Elsewhere there are images and cadences of an aching beauty that make it, with Stendhal's De L'Amour, one of the great accounts of infatuation.

Hazlitt committed himself to what he called "the logic of passion". If we are to appreciate fully that logic, we will have to accept that the passion for Sarah Walker came from the same source as the passion for political liberty and great literature. Paulin makes an impassioned case for the importance of Hazlitt's last collection of essays, The Plain Speaker. But what Hazlitt himself would ask us to do is bind that book up together with his Liber Amoris.