Friday, July 20, 2018

'The Great Meanings of Minor Things'

“His whole intellectual stand is taken on the positive and concrete side of things. He has a fine barbaric cocksureness; he dwells not with althoughs and neverthelesses.”

These forthright assertions about forthrightness serve as a fitting epitaph for the writer they describe. In A Little English Gallery (1894), Louise Imogen Guiney (1861-1920) is eulogizing one of her models, William Hazlitt. As illustration, she quotes Hazlitt’s review of Edmund Kean’s performance as Shylock in 1814: “I am not one of those who, when they see the sun breaking from behind a cloud, stop to ask others whether it is the moon.” Then Guiney resumes her portrait of Hazlitt, who we understand ranks among her heroes:

“And he takes enormous interest in his own promulgation, because it is inevitably not only what he thinks, but what he has long thought. He delivers an opinion with the air proper to a host who is master of a vineyard, and can furnish name and date to every flagon he unseals.”

Guiney here is respectfully aping Hazlitt’s prose, with its conversational momentum and characterization-by-analogy. She lives up to Hazlitt’s own strictures in “On Familiar Style”: “To write a genuine familiar or truly English style, is to write as any one would speak in common conversation who had a thorough command and choice of words, or who could discourse with ease, force, and perspicuity, setting aside all pedantic and oratorical flourishes.”

For Guiney, it’s not all hero-worship. She recognizes that Hazlitt’s brashness sometimes turns into bullying. He can be hot-headed and dogmatic. She rightly accuses him of “pride of intellect,” an always-tempting sin, and “haughtiness.” Guiney’s prose grows more colorful and confident, as though she were channeling Hazlitt’s spirit: “He was continuously drawn into the byway, and ever in search of the accidental, the occult; he lusted, like Sir Thomas Browne, to find the great meanings of minor things.” I was already convinced of Hazlitt’s energy, what he called “gusto.” Now I see it, intermittently, in Guiney’s prose:

“His temper breaks like a rocket, in little lurid smoking stars, over every ninth page . . . Hazlitt sometimes reminds one of Burke himself gone off at half-cock. He will not step circumspectly from light to light, from security to security. Some of his very best essays, as has been noted, have either no particular subject, or fail to follow the one they have.”

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