Tuesday, December 01, 2015

`Writing on What Pleased Me Best'

A stray remark by Clive James in a review of things utterly unrelated sent me back to William Hazlitt, whose prose wins me over, despite his enduring ridiculousness as a man (not as a writer, usually), every time. About women and politics he was a clown. In 1977, writing about God’s Apology: A Chronicle of Three Friends by Richard Ingrams, James says: “There is no comment left to make on Hazlitt’s foolishness. He said everything himself. It helped him to become wise. In doubting himself, he understood the world.” (James is a master of the parenthetical epiphany, real or virtual.) As a writer, Hazlitt always seems more alive than the rest of us, almost obnoxiously so. His senses are amplified, and he loves and hates with uncommon vigor. To read Hazlitt is to be reminded what a privilege it is to write and how much fun it can be. Here he is in “My First Acquaintance with Poets” (1823):

“So have I loitered my life away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best.”

“Loitered” suggests Dr. Johnson and his self-reproach for idleness. Like Johnson, Hazlitt was an industrious blockhead who wrote in order to pay the rent; unlike him, Hazlitt sometimes trembles with pleasure in his prose. “The Dunwich Gallery” (1823) begins as a long reverie on the life of school boys (“He has only to feel, in order to be happy”) and concludes:

“Come hither, thou poor little fellow, and let us change places with thee if thou wilt; here, take the pen and finish this article, and sign what name you please to it; so that we may but change our dress for yours, and sit shivering in the sun, and con over our little task, and feed poor, and lie hard, and be contented and happy, and think what a fine thing it is to be an author and dream of immortality, and sleep o’nights.”

At his best, Hazlitt banishes tedium and portentous thoughts. The volume I rely on is Selected Essays of William Hazlitt 1778-1830, edited by Geoffrey Keynes and published by the Nonesuch Press of London in 1930. Bound in light green buckram, at more than eight-hundred pages, it’s compact but has a nice heft, like a block of some dense, fine-grained wood – and like Hazlitt’s best prose. Some writers have an emblematic word, one they claim as their own and that serves to condense their spirit. For Hazlitt (and, rather unexpectedly, for Marianne Moore) it was gusto. In his essay “On Gusto” (1816), he describes it by way of Titian’s flesh tones:

“It is as different from that of other painters, as the skin is from a piece of white or red drapery thrown over it. The blood circulates here and there, the blue veins just appear, the rest is distinguished throughout only by that sort of tingling sensation to the eye, which the body feels within itself. This is gusto.”    

On the first day of Anecdotal Evidence – Feb. 5, 2006 – I chose a passage from Hazlitt’s “The Fight” to establish the tone of what I hoped would follow:

“. . . we agreed to adjourn to my lodgings to discuss measures with that cordiality which makes old friends like new, and new friends like old, on great occasions. 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.”

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