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Selected Writings (Oxford World's Classics)…

Selected Writings (Oxford World's Classics) (vuoden 2009 painos)

– tekijä: William Hazlitt (Tekijä)

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William Hazlitt (1778-1830) developed a variety of identities as a writer: essayist, philosopher, critic of literature, drama and art, biographer, political commentator, and polemicist. Praised for his eloquence, he was also reviled by conservatives for his radical politics. This edition, thematically organized for ease of access, contains some of his best-known essays, such as "The Indian Jugglers" and "The Fight," as well as more obscure pieces on politics, philosophy, and culture.… (lisätietoja)
Teoksen nimi:Selected Writings (Oxford World's Classics)
Kirjailijat:William Hazlitt (Tekijä)
Info:Oxford University Press (2009), Edition: Reissue, 480 pages
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Selected Writings (Oxford World's Classics) (tekijä: William Hazlitt)


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William Hazlitt

Selected Writings

Oxford University Press, Paperback [2009].

8vo. xlvi+423 pp. Edited with an Introduction [ix-xxxviii] and Notes [359-423] by Jon Cook, 1991. Cover: detail from A portrait of William Hazlitt (1825), chalk, by William Bewick.

First published as a World's Classics paperback, 1991.
Reissued as an Oxford World's Classics paperback, 1998.
Reissued, 2009.


Note on the Text
Select Bibliography
A Chronology of William Hazlitt

What is the People? [The Champion, 12, 19 & 26 Oct 1817**]
On Consistency of Opinion [London Magazine, Nov 1821; minor omission]
Illustrations of 'The Times' Newspaper [The Examiner, Dec 1816, excerpts from two articles]
Character of Mr Burke [Edinburgh Review, 5 Oct 1817]
Malthus [Reply to Malthus, 1807, extracts]
The French Revolution [The Life of Napoleon, vol. 1, chapters 3 & 6, excerpts]

On Modern Comedy [Morning Chronicle, 25 Sep 1813]
Modern Tragedy [London Magazine, Apr 1820, excerpt]
The Fight [New Monthly Magazine, Feb 1822]
The Indian Jugglers [Table Talk, 1821-22]
On Public Opinion [London Weekly Review, 19 Jan 1828]
On Fashion [Edinburgh Magazine, Sep 1818]
Our National Theatres [Atlas, 11 Oct 1829]
English Characteristics [Atlas, 5 July 1829]
Brummelliana [London Weekly Review, 2 Feb 1828]

The Self
Self-Love and Benevolence [New Monthly Magazine, Oct & Dec 1828]
Mind and Motive [Examiner, 26 Feb & 9 Apr 1815]
On Personal Identity [Monthly Magazine, Jan 1828]
Characteristics [Characteristics: In the Manner of Rochefoucault’s Maxims, 1823, maxims 105-6 & 159-83]

My First Acquaintances with Poets [The Liberal, No. 3, Apr 1823]
from The Life of Napoleon [1828–30, 4 vols., excerpts]
Edmund Kean [A View of the English Stage, 1821]
from Liber Amoris: Conclusion [1823]

Art and Literature
Fragments on Art. Why the Arts are not Progressive? [Morning Chronicle, 11 & 15 Jan 1814]
Whether the Fine Arts are Promoted by Academies [The Champion, Sep 1814, excerpt]
On Gusto [Examiner, 26 May 1816]
Originality [Atlas, 3 Jan 1830]
On the Elgin Marbles [London Magazine, May 1822]
Hogarth [Lectures on the English Comic Writers, 1819, abridged]
On Poetry in General [Lectures on the English Poets, 1819, 2nd edn.]
Shakespeare [Lectures on the English Poets, 1819, 2nd edn., excerpt]
Macbeth [Characters of Shakespear’s Plays,1818, 2nd edn.]
Coriolanus [Characters of Shakespear’s Plays, 1818, 2nd edn., excerpt]
Mr Wordsworth [The Spirit of the Age, 1825]

Explanatory Notes

*In square brackets: bibliographical details as given in Mr Cook’s Explanatory Notes, occasionally supplemented by the editorial work of Messrs Waller and Glover in their monumental edition of The Collected Works of William Hazlitt, 12 vols., 1902–04.

**Reprinted in The Yellow Dwarf, 7 & 14 Mar 1818.


I have formulated the first rule of reading scholarly edited selections from the oeuvre of a great essayist. It is very simple: Do Not Read the Introduction. Unless, of course, you are keen on wasting your time. I have read Mr Cook’s monumentally boring essay twice, heroically trying to find something important that Hazlitt’s essays don’t say infinitely more eloquently. I couldn’t do it. If you could, you have my admiration.

The second rule is equally simple: Do Read the Notes. For these I am grateful to Mr Cook. Hazlitt is an incredibly allusive author. He wrote for a general reading public whose education is matched today only by college professors and he seldom missed an opportunity to make fun of people he disliked. Mr Cook does his best to enlighten the reader about the poetic sources of Hazlitt’s numerous quotations, the historical background of his contemporaries (Napoleon included), or the meaning of obscure words and phrases no longer used today. He also provides accurate information on bibliographical matters and abridgements. The latter is regrettable, for Hazlitt’s rambling is an essential part of his charm, but understandable in a collection of this type.

I do have a few quibbles about Mr Cook’s selection. He has the guts to omit some of Hazlitt’s best-known essays (e.g. “On Going a Journey”, “On the Pleasure of Hating”), but I don’t see the point of this. Every writer has the right to be judged by his best, as Somerset Maugham wisely observed.[1] Nor do I think it helps Hazlitt’s meagre popularity to reprint excerpts from Liber Amoris, a thinly disguised account of his disastrous affair with one Sarah Walker, or The Life of Napoleon, which Hazlitt considered his greatest legacy but few would agree with him today. If Mr Cook’s aim was comprehensiveness, one may justly demand to know why he included nothing from Hazlitt’s travel writing. There are some very fine passages there.[2] Last but not least, any selection from Hazlitt’s Shakespearean criticism is incomplete without his tremendous description of Iago. It has never been surpassed in the last 200 years – or in the previous 200, for that matter.[3]

Let’s look in detail at the first essay in this book, incidentally the longest one in the whole volume, not so incidentally one that demonstrates all of Hazlitt’s strengths and weaknesses. “What is the People?”, he asks in the title. Immediately he answers with a provocative question and a rhetorical description:

–And who are you that ask the question? One of the people. And yet you would be something! Then you would not have the people nothing. For what is the people? Millions of men, like you, with hearts beating in their bosoms, with thoughts stirring in their minds, with the blood circulating in their veins, with wants and appetites, and passions and anxious cares, and busy purposes and affections for others and a respect for themselves, and a desire of happiness, and a right to freedom, and a will to be free.

This is the gravest danger of reading Hazlitt. He is an incorrigible rhetorician. Somerset Maugham once observed shrewdly that “Shelley of the letters” could be “unduly rhetorical; and sometimes his decoration is as fussy as Victorian Gothic.”[4] This is a just criticism from a great admirer. “What is the People?” contains an epic example of Hazlittean rhetoric right in the beginning. Having just described the people, Hazlitt launches a massive attack on “Legitimacy” that Tom Paine, a generation older than Hazlitt, would have been proud to pen. It is a single sentence a whole page long. Brace yourself, and read:

And yet you would tear out this mighty heart of a nation, and lay it bare and bleeding at the foot of despotism: you would slay the mind of a country to fill up the dreary aching void with the old, obscene, drivelling prejudices of superstition and tyranny: you would tread out the eye of Liberty (the light of nations) like ‘a vile jelly,’ that mankind may be led about darkling to its endless drudgery, like the Hebrew Sampson (shorn of his strength and blind), by his insulting taskmasters: you would make the throne every thing, and the people nothing, to be yourself less than nothing, a very slave, a reptile, a creeping, cringing sycophant, a court favourite, a pander to Legitimacy that detestable fiction, which would make you and me and all mankind its slaves or victims; which would, of right and with all the sanctions of religion and morality, sacrifice the lives of millions to the least of its caprices; which subjects the rights, the happiness, and liberty of nations, to the will of some of the lowest of the species; which rears its bloated hideous form to brave the will of a whole people; that claims mankind as its property, and allows human nature to exist only upon sufferance; that haunts the understanding like a frightful spectre, and oppresses the very air with a weight that is not to be borne; that like a witch’s spell covers the earth with a dim and envious mist, and makes us turn our eyes from the light of heaven, which we have no right to look at without its leave: robs us of ‘the unbought grace of life,’ the pure delight and conscious pride in works of art or nature; leaves us no thought or feeling that we dare call our own; makes genius its lacquey, and virtue its easy prey; sports with human happiness, and mocks at human misery; suspends the breath of liberty, and almost of life; exenterates us of our affections, blinds our understandings, debases our imaginations, converts the very hope of emancipation from its yoke into sacrilege, binds the successive countless generations of men together in its chains like a string of felons or galley-slaves, lest they should ‘resemble the flies of a summer,’ considers any remission of its absolute claims as a gracious boon, an act of royal clemency and favour, and confounds all sense of justice, reason, truth, liberty, humanity, in one low servile deathlike dread of power without limit and without remorse!

If you hate this type of writing, then Hazlitt is not your writer. If you love it, as I do, you can never have enough of his prose. Obviously, such a style presents a lot of problems. Note, for example, the number and scope of quotations and allusions: from Burke (“unbought grace of life”) to the Bible (Samson) to Shakespeare (“a vile jelly”, Lear, III.7.). The reference to Burke is the first of many which form, in Mr Cook’s words, “a texture of ironic allusion”. The reference to the Bible is a striking bit of imagery, too well-known (one hopes) to need explanation. Shakespeare’s words, or rather Cornwall’s words, are simply borrowed for their sound and meaning. Hazlitt handles this complex tissue of disparate references and original thoughts with virtuosity that must be read to be believed. In the very next paragraph, which by the way requires more than a little background in English history, he naughtily quotes Edmund’s “Fine word, Legitimate” (Lear, I.2.). The Bastard means something completely different than hereditary succession, but that doesn’t stop Hazlitt from using the phrase for his own purposes.

It is essential to recognise that Hazlitt’s rhetorical flourishes, verbose and long-winded though they are, are seldom superfluous. (The same goes for his digressions, but these are fewer and far between.) This long rant against “Legitimacy” does look irrelevant in the beginning of the essay, but, as you will see later, it is anything but that.

As a general rule, Hazlitt is far from perfect. Neither a scientist nor a scholar, he is a highly intuitive writer bent on proving his own point of view rather than seeing a certain problem from different points of view. He is not always convincing. Sometimes he is superficial, sometimes his rhetorical passion misfires, sometimes his arguments are half-baked, and sometimes he does overdo the contemporary scene. He has his limitations. He is apt to reduce “the arts” to painting and poetry, neglecting fiction in prose and completely ignoring music. (You’d never guess from his writings that he was an almost exact contemporary with the man who changed Western music forever. Hazlitt was eight years Beethoven’s junior and outlived him by three years.) But all these are tiny defects. Readers who are swayed by them and speedily dismiss Hazlitt do so at their own peril.

To get back to the title, what is the people?

The people, for Hazlitt, is the mass of the governed as opposed to the government. It is quite something to read his sustained invective against “the heroes of the Income-tax, Worthies of the Civil List, Saints of the Court calendar (compagnons du lys)”[5] and the lunacy of hereditary monarchy. Hazlitt provides a devastating list of arguments to prove that kings and courtiers are quite the wrong people to protect the interests of the people for the simple reason that their wealth depends on the exploitation of the people. He doesn’t have any patience with the once popular fiction that the masses are in any way, morally or intellectually, inferior to the aristocracy. Rather to the contrary, much of the best art and science has come from the humble ranks of the commoners.

For Hazlitt, just as much as for Paine, liberty wasn’t just a word. It was an ideal to be realised in practice as soon as possible. He believes implicitly in the people’s ability to govern themselves. “It is an absurdity to suppose”, he writes with typical zero tolerance for exploitative minorities, “that there can be any better criterion of national grievances, or the proper remedies for them, than the aggregate amount of the actual, dear-bought experience, the honest feelings, and heart-felt wishes of a whole people”. In a brilliant feat of satirical imagination, he envisions what the stage would look like if people followed “the trammels of prescriptive prejudice and hereditary pretension”:

Suppose Mr. Kean should have a son, a little crook-kneed, raven-voiced, disagreeable, mischievous, stupid urchin, with the faults of his father's acting exaggerated tenfold, and none of his fine qualities, what if Mr. Kean should take it into his head to get out letters-patents to empower him and his heirs for ever, with this hopeful commencement, to play all the chief parts in tragedy, by the grace of God and the favour of the Prince Regent! What a precious race of tragedy kings and heroes we should have!

This easily turns into a dystopian horror. Orwell could not have imagined anything scarier:

The theatres would soon be deserted, and the race of the Keans would ‘hold a barren sceptre’ over empty houses, to be ‘wrenched from them by an unlineal hand!’ – But no! For it would be necessary to uphold theatrical order, the cause of the legitimate drama, and so to levy a tax on all those who staid away from the theatre, or to drag them into it by force. Every one seeing the bayonet at the door, would be compelled to applaud the hoarse tones and lengthened pauses of the illustrious house of Kean; the newspaper critics would grow wanton in their praise, and all those would be held as rancorous enemies of their country, and of the prosperity of the stage, who did not join in the praises of the best of actors. What a falling off there would be from the present system of universal suffrage and open competition among the candidates, the frequency of rows in the pit, the noise in the gallery, the whispers in the boxes, and the lashing in the newspapers the next day!

I tend to disagree with Hazlitt’s praise of the people’s ability to choose the best representative government for themselves. It seems to me that, when election time is in the air, people are far too easily manipulated by demagogues. It’s a matter of pure luck if they choose rulers who are concerned with the public good at least as much as with their own. But Hazlitt’s views are much subtler and more complex than goofy optimism. He does recognise that education is of the utmost importance, and how easily it can be used for political or religious propaganda. He is perfectly aware that the people, as a rule, do not act until they have been wronged beyond their (usually pretty high) threshold of endurance. He knows that Vox populi vox Dei, fine as it is in theory, can easily be corrupted in practice. From this essay actually comes a famous quote:

Liberty is short and fleeting, a transient grace that lights upon the earth by stealth and at long intervals… […] But power is eternal; it is ‘enthroned in the hearts of Kings.’[6]

Much to his credit, Mr Cook points out in his notes several useful cross-references. Hazlitt is in the habit of treating the same subject very differently in different essays. This is not so much from genuine inconsistency or mischievous provocation as from the inherent complexity of his subjects. “On Public Opinion”, being the obvious companion piece of “What is the People?”, presents the sordid side of the equation. Nothing, Hazlitt argues, is so easy to manipulate as the public opinion, which “is not seldom a farce, equal to any acted upon the stage.” Especially when it comes to throwing mud at somebody, the people at large are only too eager to participate. Why do they do it? “It saves them the trouble of thinking; it gratifies their ill-humour, and keeps off ennui.” So much for the people’s unerring collective intelligence!

I’m afraid this was a poor attempt at giving some impression of Hazlitt’s genius. The first essay is certainly representative of it, as are most of the others, but this review is not. I will allow myself only a few trite remarks more.

Mr. Wordsworth's genius is a pure emanation of the Spirit of the Age. Had he lived in any other period of the world, he would never have been heard of.

This passage, the very beginning of Hazlitt’s portrait of Wordsworth in The Spirit of the Age (1825), is a fine example of the most common crime committed against Hazlitt: quoting him out of context. This should be resisted at all times. However gorgeous the phrases or striking the imagery, they make complete sense only in the context of the whole essay, sometimes only in the context of the author’s whole personality. Hazlitt’s attitude to Wordsworth was a good deal more complex than the withering quote above may suggest.

Shakespeare provides another fine example, but in the opposite direction. Hardly anyone has ever praised the Bard more fulsomely than Hazlitt. But look more closely, and his Bardolatry comes off rather more nuanced than that of other Romantics (e.g. Coleridge). In the end of his essay here, Hazlitt casually inserts a paragraph on Shakespeare’s faults. Though they are “not so many or so great as they have been represented”, the passage is not your ordinary apologia. For my money, Hazlitt’s points are very well worth considering:

The universality of his genius was, perhaps, a disadvantage to his single works; the variety of his resources, sometimes diverting him from applying them to the most effectual purposes. He might be said to combine the powers of Aeschylus and Aristophanes, of Dante and Rabelais, in his own mind. If he had been only half what he was, he would perhaps have appeared greater. The natural ease and indifference of his temper made him sometimes less scrupulous than he might have been. […] He was willing to take advantage of the ignorance of the age in many things; and if his plays pleased others, not to quarrel with them himself. His very facility of production would make him set less value on his own excellences, and not care to distinguish nicely between what he did well or ill. His blunders in chronology and geography do not amount to above half a dozen, and they are offences against chronology and geography, not against poetry. As to the unities, he was right in setting them at defiance. He was fonder of puns than became so great a man. His barbarisms were those of his age. His genius was his own.

The single most important thing about Hazlitt is much the same as the single most important thing about Shakespeare. He is consistently thought-provoking. This means exactly what it says. Every page of every essay provokes thought, even if only to exclaim what nonsense he writes, though much more often to pause, reflect carefully on his words and marvel how little human nature has changed.

It makes me sad to note that, discounting cheap reprints of original collections, this is the only extensive selection of Hazlitt’s essays currently in print. All right, you got me; this may not be quite true. There is the Penguin Classics volume The Fight and Other Writings, eds. Tom Paulin and David Chandler (2000), more or less as flippantly selected and finely annotated as Mr Cook’s. It may still be in print. Either way, what a shame! A writer of Hazlitt’s eloquence and power deserves so much more. The good news is that virtually his complete writings are available free online (see ToC above). The edition is old but gold. Don’t you believe all this crap about “modern scholarship” being so much superior to the old school. On the whole, it is not.

[1] W. Somerset Maugham, Ten Novels and Their Authors (1954), the essay on Melville and Moby-Dick.
[2] For example, the beginning of Notes of a Journey Through France and Italy (1826):
The rule for travelling abroad is to take our common sense with us, and leave our prejudices behind us. The object of travelling is to see and learn; but such is our impatience of ignorance, or the jealousy of our self-love, that we generally set up a certain preconception beforehand (in self-defence, or as a barrier against the lessons of experience,) and are surprised at or quarrel with all that does not conform to it. Let us think what we please of what we really find, but prejudge nothing.
[3] See Characters of Shakespear’s Plays, 2nd edn., 1818.
[4] W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up (1938), Chapters XII and XIV.
[5] This “compagnons du lys” is possibly the most elaborate allusion in Hazlitt’s complete works. As Mr Cook lucidly explains, it is a “sound pun between English and French.” The Compagnons du Lys was an order that supported the restoration of the Bourbons, but the French pronunciation of their name resembles “companions of Ulysses”, the men who were turned to swine as described by Homer in Book X of Odyssey. “Hazlitt is invoking,” Mr Cook concludes, “a tradition of interpretation which read the transformation of the men into swine as an allegory of moral and intellectual corruption.”
[6] I have omitted the more than appropriate quotation from Burns’ Tom O’Shanter, slightly rearranged by Hazlitt:
Like the rainbow’s lovely form,
Evanishing amid the storm;
Or like the Borealis race,
That shift ere you can point their place;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white, then melts for ever.

The other quote – “Enthroned in the hearts of Kings” – comes from The Merchant of Venice, IV.1. ( )
1 ääni Waldstein | Jun 12, 2016 |
The English liberal essayist at his best.
  Fledgist | Jun 1, 2007 |
näyttää 2/2
ei arvosteluja | lisää arvostelu

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Please note that the Oxford World Classics "Selected writings" and the Penguin edition with the same title are NOT in fact the same selection, not even largely overlapping. Please do not combine the two. Thank you.

Please also take care not to combine with any of the nine volumes, or the complete set, first published in 1998 as The Selected Writings of William Hazlitt, ed. Duncan Wu.
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William Hazlitt (1778-1830) developed a variety of identities as a writer: essayist, philosopher, critic of literature, drama and art, biographer, political commentator, and polemicist. Praised for his eloquence, he was also reviled by conservatives for his radical politics. This edition, thematically organized for ease of access, contains some of his best-known essays, such as "The Indian Jugglers" and "The Fight," as well as more obscure pieces on politics, philosophy, and culture.

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