Saturday, July 12, 2008

`Anything Awful Makes Me Laugh'

William Hazlitt married his first wife, Sarah Stoddart, on May 1, 1808, at St. Andrew’s Church, Holburn. Sarah was already pregnant with their son. In attendance were Hazlitt’s friends Charles and Mary Lamb, who had helped arrange the marriage. In Characters and Their Landscapes, Ronald Blythe writes:

“Lamb, for whom Hazlitt’s sex life was the only thing about his friend he could never take seriously, laughed so much during the wedding that he was nearly turned out of church.”

Seven years later, Lamb, a lifelong bachelor, wrote in a letter to Robert Southey:

“…I am going to stand godfather; I don’t like the business; I cannot muster up decorum for these occasions; I shall certainly disgrace the font. I was at Hazlitt’s marriage, and had like to have been turned out several times during the ceremony. Anything awful makes me laugh. I misbehaved once at a funeral.”

Hazlitt is the superior writer, I suppose, though I cast a sentimental vote for Lamb, a lovable man and essayist. Speaking of Hazlitt’s friends, including Coleridge and Wordsworth, Blythe writes:

“Among these was Charles Lamb, Hazlitt’s senior by only three and a half years, but in whose (much tried) relationship there was a stable, protective element suggesting a much older man. The great difference, in fact, between Lamb and Hazlitt was that the former seemed to have received the gift of perpetual early middle-age and the latter, with his moodiness, his iconoclasm, his physical energy, his hero-worship, his passionate love and his general recklessness, appeared to have been cursed with everlasting youth. To outgrow innocence – one’s initial reflexes to important matters – was for Hazlitt a sin.”

Hazlitt was brilliant and his prose, at its best, is almost peerless, but he compromised his gifts with politics and emotional immaturity, and spent his final years writing a four-volume life of Napoleon. Better a fatherly man without children who could write “A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig” and misbehave at funerals.


Anonymous said...

Great post as always Patrick.

Since I have you to thank for introducing me to the wonderful poetry of Les Murray, I was wondering what your take on his fellow Australian Clive James is. I have been reading James' collected essays and have yet to try his poetry.

Diana said...

Wow. I was just thinking about Hazlitt today. That's a great story.

Ms Baroque said...

Hear hear! I have tried to love Hazlitt and just can't seem to. Lamb I have always loved. There are so many times in daily life when you could just quote him.

Not only that but I made myself conspicuous, with just the same syndrome, laughing through my OWN wedding. (Now if I can do that at my own funeral I really WILL be laughing.)

In fact, the current "desktop" of my mobile phone is a picture of Lamb's house, which I took as I walked past it a couple of weeks ago...

Levi Stahl said...

Oh, I have quite the soft spot for Hazlitt, if for no other reason than the energy and confidence of his prose. And I love these anecdotes--thanks for sharing them.