Tuesday, September 21, 2021

'He Always Said What He Thought'

Like every red-blooded reader, I love a gratuitously bloody-minded critical assault, the sort of thing Randall Jarrell turned into an art and William Logan has further refined. It’s no coincidence that both men are often very funny in their criticism. If more critics were honest, we would have more such demolitions to savor. Most poets in any era are mediocre, if not worse, and yet the versifying fraternity goes on praising dreck, usually in hopes of circle-jerk reciprocity. In William Hazlitt, Jarrell and Logan had a worthy ancestor specializing in critical honesty and “savage indignation”: 

“It is a tortuous, tottering, wriggling, fidgetty translation of every thing from the vulgar tongue, into all the tantalizing, teasing, tripping, lisping mimminee-pimminee of the highest brilliancy and fashion of poetical diction. You have nothing like truth of nature or simplicity of expression.”


This is from Lecture VIII, “On the Living Poets,” from Lectures on the English Poets (1818). It is so enthusiastically overheated, I laughed out loud yet again. Hazlitt didn’t know the meaning of temperate. His target here is Samuel “Breakfast” Rogers (1763-1855) and his poem “The Pleasures of Memory” (1792). Here’s a sample, so you understand what Hazlitt is getting at:


“And, while the coot her jet-wing lov’d to lave,

Rock’d on the bosom of the sleepless wave;

The eagle rush’d from Skiddaw’s purple crest,

A cloud still brooding o’er her giant-nest.”


I haven’t read a good coot poem in a coon’s age. You may, like me, have tripped over “mimminee-pimminee,” also spelled “miminy-piminy” and “niminy-piminy.” It was a favorite term of critical opprobrium for Hazlitt, and I find he used it at least three other times. As a noun, the OED defines it as “finicky or affected writing; verbosity, prolixity,” and cites Hazlitt twice. Perhaps there’s a genetic predisposition to using the word. The great essayist’s grandson, the critic William Carew Hazlitt, wrote in Offspring of Thought in Solitude: Modern Essays (1884):


“There was no Niminy-pimininess about [Samuel] Johnson. He was a moralist of the most active and thorough-going stamp. If he did not always think what he felt, he always said what he thought.”

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