Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Of the Feeling of Immortality in Youth by William Hazlitt / Two Versions Compared

I read in a biography of William Hazlitt that his practice, once fortified with stewed tea, was to take so many sheets of paper, fold them into a booklet that filled would be of essay length for whatever periodical he had in mind and setting to would write steadily without emendation until the job was done. Geoffrey Keynes in Selected Essays (pub.1930) follows Hazlitt’s final editing as the definitive version and I became aware of variants purely by chance as I looked up the famous essay On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth. The difference between the essay as given in Twenty-Two Essays of Wm. Hazlitt (selected by Arthur Beatty) pub.1920 and that of Keynes’ collection published to mark the centenary of his death is quite marked. Gutenberg Project has this final version in the collection of Hazlitt’s son Winterslow -Essays and Characters written there (pub.1850).

New improved Hazlitt seems ironic scoffing but in an observation about the willingness of youth to pore over what fascinates, his method is clarified.

A wrinkle in Rembrandt or in Nature takes whole days to resolve itself into its component parts, its softenings and its sharpnesses; we refine upon our perfections, and unfold the intricacies of nature. What a prospect for the future! What a task have we not begun! And shall we be arrested in the middle of it? We do not count our time thus employed lost, or our pains thrown away; we do not flag or grow tired, but gain new vigour at our endless task. 

You start with a detail, some characteristic quirk and from that a cosmos grows under your hand. You are always in the middle of it.

In the earlier version
though still excellent of course discursive diffusion predominates:

I remember to have looked at a print of Rembrandt for hours together, without being conscious of the flight of time, trying to resolve it into its component parts, to connect its strong and sharp gradations, to learn the secret of its reflected lights, and found neither satiety nor pause in the prosecution of my studies. The print over which I was poring would last long enough; why should the idea in my mind, which was finer, more impalpable, perish before it? At this, I redoubled the ardour of my pursuit, and by the very subtlety and refinement of my inquiries, seemed to bespeak for them an exemption from corruption and the rude grasp of Death.

His hopes for a general 'French Revolution’:
For my part, I started in life with the French Revolution, and I have lived, alas! to see the end of it. But I did not foresee this result. My sun arose with the first dawn of liberty, and I did not think how soon both must set. The new impulse to ardour given to men’s minds imparted a congenial warmth and glow to mine; we were strong to run a race together, and I little dreamed that long before mine was set, the sun of liberty would turn to blood, or set once more in the night of despotism. Since then, I confess, I have no longer felt myself young, for with that my hopes fell.

For my part, I set out in life with the French Revolution, and that event had considerable influence on my early feelings, as on those of others. Youth was then doubly such. It was the dawn of a new era, a new impulse had been given to men's minds, and the sun of Liberty rose upon the sun of Life in the same day, and both were proud to run their race together. Little did I dream, while my first hopes and wishes went hand in hand with those of the human race, that long before my eyes should close, that dawn would be overcast, and set once more in the night of despotism--"total eclipse!" Happy that I did not. I felt for years, and during the best part of my existence, heart-whole in that cause, and triumphed in the triumphs over the enemies of man! At that time, while the fairest aspirations of the human mind seemed about to be realized, ere the image of man was defaced and his breast mangled in scorn, philosophy took a higher, poetry could afford a deeper range.

I get the feeling there of a Times leader, ‘considerable influence’, ‘dawn of a new era’, dawn overcast/night of despotism - total eclipse’. Could do better, did do better. Even if we count the number of jumpers that Madame Dafarge knitted this was his feeling. The one is as brisk as the descent of the skewed blade, the other hacks.

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