Wednesday, August 16, 2017

`Well-Headed & Well-Feathered Thoughts'

I admire the art of deft portraiture, the ability to economically render appearance and character in stories, poems and nonfiction. In writers this corresponds to a gift for caricature among visual artists, like the guy at the county fair with a sketch pad and chalk, minus the Hogarthian exaggeration. I mean a fairly realistic portrait. V.S. Pritchett is a master of this, as are A.J. Liebling and Saul Bellow. I’ve come across another, unexpected example in Coleridge. Here he is in a Sept. 16, 1803 letter to his friend and patron Thomas Wedgwood:

“. . . William Hazlitt, is a thinking, observant, original man, of great power as a Painter of Character Portraits, & far more in the manner of the old Painters, than any living Artist, but the Object must be before him / he has no imaginative memory. So much for his intellectuals [roughly, mental powers].”

What’s most interesting about Coleridge’s letter is the way he gives and takes, without contradiction. Hazlitt is an extraordinary fellow, a genius, and he’s a nasty little git. In perfect comfort, Coleridge swings back and forth. Most of us would compartmentalize our conclusions, first giving the good and concluding with the bad, or vice versa. I think Coleridge’s method is appropriate when describing so eminently complicated a creature as Hazlitt:      

“His manners are 99 in 100 singularly repulsive--: brow-hanging, shoe-contemplative, strange / [Richard, whose nickname was “Conversation”] Sharp[e] seemed to like him / but Sharp[e] saw him only for half an hour, & that walking--he is, I verily believe, kindly-natured--is very fond of, attentive to, & patient with children / but he is jealous, gloomy, & of an irritable Pride—addicted to women, as objects of sexual Indulgence. With all this there is much good in him.”

I don’t sense a struggle in Coleridge or any effort to draw definitive conclusions. He’s at ease with Hazlitt’s contraries, as he was not with his own. Who among us, of course, ever is? “Shoe-contemplative” is priceless. The remarks about Hazlitt and children, coming from Coleridge, not the most dutiful of fathers, read like wishful envy. Nor was Coleridge any better balanced in the female department. He continues:

“. . .--he is disinterested; an enthusiastic Lover of the great men, who have been before us--he says things that are his own in a way of his own--& tho’ from habitual Shyness & the Outside & bearskin at least of misanthropy, he is strangely confused & dark in his conversation & delivers himself of almost all his conceptions with a Forceps, yet he says more than any man, I ever knew, yourself only excepted, that is his own in a way of his own--& oftentimes when he has warmed his mind & the synovial juice [the fluid secreted by the body’s joints for lubrication] has come out & spread over his joints he will gallop for half an hour together, with real Eloquence. He sends well-headed & well-feathered Thoughts straight forwards to the mark with a Twang of the Bow-string.--If you could recommend him, as a Portrait painter, I should be glad. To be your Companion he is, in my opinion utterly unfit. His own health is fitful.”

Please keep in mind that the author of “Frost at Midnight” was an Olympic-class, dope-fueled gasbag, a talker of rare volubility, and not always ideal company. He peers at Hazlitt and sees Coleridge. But his words are amusing, piquant and insightful. He renders Hazlitt and something of himself. Of course, Hazlitt had plenty to say about Coleridge, as in “Samuel Taylor Coleridge” (The Spirit of the Age: or Contemporary Portraits, 1825):

“If Mr. Coleridge had not been the most impressive talker of his age, he would probably have been the finest writer; but he lays down his pen to make sure of an auditor, and mortgages the admiration of posterity for the stare of an idler.”

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