Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The English Comic Writers by William Hazlitt


Of Montaigne Hazlitt writes:

He did not in the abstract character of an author, undertake to say all that could be said upon a subject, but what in his capacity as an inquirer after truth he happened to know about it. He was neither a pedant nor a bigot. He neither supposed that he was bound to know all things, nor that all things were bound to conform to what he had fancied or would have them to be. In treating of men and manners, he spoke of them as he found them, not according to preconceived notions and abstract dogmas; and he began by teaching us what he himself was. 
( The Periodical Essayists from Lectures on The English Comic Writers given in 1818)

The recourse to classical ‘topoi’ in Montaigne was part of a normal education and therefore not pedantry. They are the stepping stones across the stream of his consciousness and to experience them as obstacles signifies our decline. Hazlitt in his remarks on the writers he considers favours robust and manly forthrightness over the glancing tastefulness of conventional moral attitudes. Steele’s soldierly vulgarity is preferred to the harmonious musings of Addison. As a man given to like combat Hazlitt was perhaps thinking of:

What arms the great Alexander used, is uncertain; however, the historian mentions, when he attacked Thalestris, it was only at single rapier; but the weapon soon failed; for it was always observed, that the Amazons had a sort of enchantment about them, which made the blade of the weapon, though of never so good metal, at every home push, lose its edge and grow feeble.
(from The Tatler no 31)

He impugns the Rambler essays of Johnson for the attitude evinced by him when out strolling in the streets of London with Boswell they were accosted by a bawd. ‘Girl, this will not do’ said Johnson.



His ' Letters from Correspondents,' in particular, are more pompous and unwieldly than what he writes in his own person. This want of relaxation and variety of manner has, I think, after the first effects of novelty and surprise were over, been prejudicial to the matter. It takes from the general power, not only to please, but to instruct The monotony of style produces an apparent monotony of ideas. What is really striking and valuable, is lost in the vain ostentation and circumlocution of the expression; for when we find the same pains and pomp of diction bestowed upon the most trifling as upon the most important parts of a sentence or discourse, we grow tired of distinguishing between pretension and reality, and are disposed to confound the tinsel and bombast of the phraseology with want of weight in the thoughts. Thus, from the imposing and oracular nature of the style, people are tempted at first to imagine that our author's speculations are all wisdom and profundity: till having found out their mistake in some instances, they suppose that there is nothing but common-place in them, concealed under verbiage^and pedantry; and in both they are wrong. 

The report of the correspondent Amicus may have given rise to this attack:

The anguish that I felt, left me no rest till I had, by your means, addressed myself to the publick on behalf of those forlorn creatures, the women of the town; whose misery here might satisfy the most rigorous censor, and whose participation of our common nature might surely induce us to endeavour, at least, their preservation from eternal punishment.
These were all once, if not virtuous, at least innocent; and might still have continued blameless and easy, but for the arts and insinuations of those whose rank, fortune, or education, furnished them with means to corrupt or to delude them. Let the libertine reflect a moment on the situation of that woman, who, being forsaken by her betrayer, is reduced to the necessity of turning prostitute for bread, and judge of the enormity of his guilt by the evils which it produces.
It cannot be doubted but that numbers follow this dreadful course of life, with shame, horrour, and regret; but where can they hope for refuge: "The world is not their friend, nor the world's law." Their sighs, and tears, and groans, are criminal in the eye of their tyrants, the bully and the bawd, who fatten on their misery, and threaten them with want or a gaol, if they show the least design of escaping from their bondage.
"To wipe all tears from off all faces," is a task too hard for mortals; but to alleviate misfortunes is often within the most limited power: yet the opportunities which every day affords of relieving the most wretched of human beings are overlooked and neglected, with equal disregard of policy and goodness.
( from The Rambler of Tuesday March 26th. 1751)

Hazlitt used prostitutes himself to relieve an appetite he experienced as a burden. Married love eluded him.


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