William Hazlitt - Life and Works - The Philosopher, Again

The Philosopher, Again

Unsurprisingly, there were times in this turbulent period when Hazlitt could not focus on his work. But often, as in his self-imposed seclusion at Winterslow, he was able to achieve a "philosophic detachment", and he continued to turn out essays of remarkable variety and literary merit, most of them making up the two volumes of Table-Talk. (A number were saved for later publication in The Plain Speaker in 1826, while others remained uncollected.)

Some of these essays were in large part retrospectives on the author's own life ("On Reading Old Books", for example, along with others mentioned above). In others, he invites his readers to join him in gazing at the spectacle of human folly and perversity ("On Will-making", or "On Great and Little Things", for example). At times he scrutinises the subtle workings of the individual mind (as in "On Dreams" ); or he invites us to laugh at harmless eccentricities of human nature ("On People with One Idea" ).

Other essays bring into perspective the scope and limitations of the mind, as measured against the vastness of the universe and the extent of human history ("Why Distant Objects Please" and "On Antiquity" are only two of many). Several others scrutinise the manners and morals of the age (such as "On Vulgarity and Affectation", "On Patronage and Puffing", and "On Corporate Bodies" ).

Many of these "Table-Talk" essays display Hazlitt's interest in genius and artistic creativity. There are specific instances of literary or art criticism (for example "On a Landscape of Nicholas Poussin" and "On Milton's Sonnets" ) but also numerous investigations of the psychology of creativity and genius ("On Genius and Common Sense", "Whether Genius Is Conscious of Its Powers", and others). In his manner of exploring an idea by antitheses (for example, "On the Past and the Future", "On the Picturesque and Ideal" ), he contrasts the utmost achievements of human mechanical skill with the nature of artistic creativity in "The Indian Jugglers" .

Hazlitt's fascination with the extremes of human capability in any field led to his writing "The Fight" (published in the February 1822 New Monthly Magazine). This essay never appeared in the Table-Talk series or anywhere else in the author's lifetime. A direct, personal account of a prize fight, it was controversial in its time as depicting too "low" a subject. Written at a dismal time in his life—Hazlitt's divorce was pending, and he was far from sure of being able to marry Sarah Walker—the article shows scarcely a trace of his agony. Not quite like any other essay by Hazlitt, it proved to be one of his most popular and was frequently reprinted after his death.

Another article written in this period, "On the Pleasure of Hating" (1823; included in The Plain Speaker), is a pure outpouring of spleen, a distillation of all the bitterness of his life to that point. It concludes, "...have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough".

Not only do the "Table-Talk" essays frequently display "trenchant insights into human nature", they at times reflect on the vehicle of those insights and of the literary and art criticism that constitute some of the essays. "On Criticism" (1821) delves into the history and purposes of criticism itself; and "On Familiar Style" (1821 or 1822) reflexively explores at some length the principles behind its own composition, along with that of other essays of this kind by Hazlitt and some of his contemporaries, like Lamb and Cobbett.

In Table-Talk, Hazlitt had found the most congenial format for this thoughts and observations. A broad panorama of the triumphs and follies of humanity, an exploration of the quirks of the mind, of the nobility but more often the meanness and sheer malevolence of human nature, the collection was knit together by a web of self-consistent thinking, a skein of ideas woven from a lifetime of close reasoning on life, art, and literature. He illustrated his points with bright imagery and pointed analogies, among which were woven pithy quotations drawn from the history of English literature, primarily the poets, from Chaucer to his contemporaries Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats. Most often, he quoted his beloved Shakespeare and to a lesser extent Milton. As he explained in "On Familiar Style", he strove to fit the exact words to the things he wanted to express and often succeeded—in a way that would bring home his meaning to any literate person of some education and intelligence.

These essays were not quite like anything ever done before. They attracted some admiration during Hazlitt's lifetime, but it was only long after his death that their reputation achieved full stature, increasingly often considered among the best essays ever written in English. Nearly two centuries after they were written, for example, biographer Stanley Jones deemed Hazlitt's Table-Talk and The Plain Speaker together to constitute "the major work of his life", and critic David Bromwich called many of these essays "more observing, original, and keen-witted than any others in the language".

In 1823 Hazlitt also published anonymously Characteristics: In the Manner of Rochefoucault's Maxims, a collection of aphorisms modelled explicitly, as Hazlitt noted in his preface, on the Maximes (1665–1693) of the Duc de La Rochefoucauld. Never quite as cynical as La Rochefoucauld's, many, however, reflect his attitude of disillusionment at this stage of his life. Primarily, these 434 maxims took to an extreme his method of arguing by paradoxes and acute contrasts. For example, maxim "CCCCXXVIII":

There are some persons who never succeed, from being too indolent to undertake anything; and others who regularly fail, because the instant they find success in their power, they grow indifferent, and give over the attempt.

But they also lacked the benefit of Hazlitt's extended reasoning and lucid imagery, and were never included among his greatest works.

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