Hazlitt and the real language of poetry.
Scholars of the philosophical Hazlitt have tended to characterize his theoretical position as dependent primarily on empiricist epistemology and method. It is upon this basis that Elizabeth Schneider makes her categorical distinction between Coleridge as "idealist" and Hazlitt as realist" in the 1930s, most subsequent studies have deviated hardly at all from the epistemological reading upon which that distinction is based.(3) Albrecht's view in Hazlitt and the Creative Imagination is typical. "Hazlitt retains the mind's dependence on the senses"; "Hazlitt kept the control of the Imagination within empirical limits"; "Matter remains, for Hazlitt, the cause of our sensations, and consequently the source of our ideas."(4) By contrast, I will show that in poetics and epistemology, Hazlitt's account of the imagination is informed by a concept of "power" that surpasses empirical limits.
1. The Empiricist Reading.
Hazlitt's transfiguration of empiricist epistemology may best be illustrated in the context of his great poetic "Defence" in the introduction to the Lectures on the English Poets. The lecture On Poetry in General" is the obvious starting-point for an analysis of Hazlitt's poetics, its object is definition; the determination, as Hazlitt puts it in A letter to William Gifford, of "what poetry is" (9:44). To this may be added a further qualification. the lecture undertakes so to define poetry, broadening the applicability of the term, as to vindicate the activity of the poet. By so doing, it falls into a genre of poetic "Defence" to which, following the pattern set by Aristotle's Poetics, Sidney's A Defence of Poetry, and closer to Hazlitt's own time, Shelley's Defence of Poetry belong. By generic necessity, then, the lecture is the most cogent and forceful statement of Hazlitt's poetics, conveniently drawing together the various assumptions about poetry and poetic composition that recur throughout his work.
"On Poetry in General" appears to contain an empiricist and surprisingly technical analysis of poetic composition as a physical process, surprising" in view of the antithetical relation of poetry to science that is often assumed elsewhere in Hazlitt's writings, not least in the latter part of this essay itself (5:9).(5) Nonetheless, the definition with which it begins, and which may be said, therefore, to mark the point of departure for the entire series of Lectures on the English Poets, presents a theory of stimulation and response that appears to be modelled upon Locke's quasi-scientific hypothesis -- itself akin to the corpuscular" theories of Newton -- of impulses received upon the senses by particles travelling from external objects, there is something here too, of Hume's "first principle" of human nature, that an idea (object of thought) always presupposes an impression:(6)
The best general notion which I can give of poetry is, that it is the natural impression of any object or event, by its vividness exciting an involuntary movement of imagination and passion, and producing, by sympathy a certain modulation of the voice, or sounds, expressing it. (5:1)
The postulate of musical sounds produced by sympathetic vibration contains the characteristically empirical notion of a keyboard, with the object or event" being the hammer, the imagination, the instrument itself, and poetry, the sounds produced by it. Such an account of poetry, in terms of concepts borrowed from the physics of sound, appears to offer a peculiarly material idea of the imagination, as a faculty directly responsive to the impression of an external reality ("object" or thing) that is then transferred associatively to the actual sense-organ producing the physical effect of "voice, or sounds." Harmony -- the fittedness of each sound to the other, such that together they constitute a whole -- is produced involuntarily by the excitement of the imagination. The epithet involuntary" seems to imply an instinctive or necessary reaction and so enhances the sense of an almost physiological operation of the imagination.
The domination of the physiological element in Hazlitt's account of an intellectual process provided ample room for the derision of the Quarterly's reviewers:
The impression, of which Mr. Hazlitt talks, is an impression producing by sympathy a certain modulation of sounds. The term sympathy ... [in] a physiological sense ... is used to denote the fact, that the disorder of one organ produces disorder in the functions of certain other parts of the system. Does Mr. Hazlitt mean, that the impression produces the modulation of sound essential to poetry, in a mode analogous to that in which diseases of the brain affect the digestive powers?(7)
The reviewers, sarcasm is heavy-handed, nonetheless, it highlights a characteristic of Hazlitt's description of creative language that recurs throughout in his writing. In the introductory essay to the Lectures on the English Comic Writers, the effect of wit or humour is similarly described in terms which combine intellectual stimulation with physiological effect ("On Wit and Humour"; 6:7). Again, it is a sense of the physical impact of language that must at least partially Influence Hazlitt's recourse to a scientific, often recognisably Newtonian terminology in order to describe imaginative composition; for instance, in the third of his concluding remarks to the essay on Lear:
That the greatest strength of genius is shewn in describing the strongest passions: for the power of the imagination, in works of invention, must be in proportion to the force of the natural impressions, which are the subject of them. (Characters of Shakespears Plays, 4:271)
This seems to carry an echo of Newton's second law of motion, "The rate of change of momentum is directly proportional to the impressed force...." In fact, Newton's formulation of momentum as the product of mass and velocity actually reappears in the lecture "On Poetry in General," in the analysis of the style of the Old Testament: "Things were collected more into masses, and gave a greater momentum to the imagination"(5:17).(8)
Even in the process of exposing its affinity with the corpuscular theories of contemporary science, however, Hazlitt's "keyboard" model has already begun to deviate from the prevalent empiricist epistemology in one important respect. By Locke's corpuscular hypothesis, since the real essence of things consists of "particles" which are imperceptible, the real nature of things is unknowable. The implications for language are clear:
Sure I am, that the signification of Words, in all Languages, depending very much on the Thoughts, Notions, and Ideas of him that uses them, must unavoidably be of great uncertainty, to Men of the same Language and Country ... Nor is it to be wondred, that the Will of GOD, when cloathed in Words, should be liable to that doubt and uncertainty, which unavoidably attends that sort of Conveyance.(9)
By contrast, the curiously technical aspect of Hazlitt's description of the poetic process appears to grant a substantial character to the language which seems so directly and materially to participate in the original "object or event." For Hazlitt, inspired language (which would include the Word of God) is neither empty nor uncertain, but captures the impact of the original object itself.
Hazlitt's grasp of the impact of poetry must be registered in his term "impression," imbued as it is with the weight of feeling. The "natural impression of any object" describes that object, not as it is in itself, but in terms of its effect on the mind. The use of "impression" in place of "image" adapts the notion of mimesis so as to admit the assertion that poetry is both real and natural, as well as ideal:
This language is not the less true to nature, because it is false in point of fact; but so much the more true and natural, if it conveys the impression which the object under the influence of passion makes on the mind. (5:4)
Implicitly, Locke's thesis of the unknowability of things-in-themselves is circumvented here by the location of "truth" and "nature" in objects as they are moulded by the mind's recreation of the factual world. The truth or substance of poetic language refers to an ontological reality that is independent of the factual; Independent, that is, of an external or objective material order. Imaginative creation is authenticated by the feeling which is instinct within it, and which is in turn directly proportional to the Intensity of the original impression, but it escapes, at the same time, the tyranny of conformity to fact.
Earlier, I categorized the essay "On Poetry in General" as emerging from a tradition of poetic "Defence" that began with Aristotle's Poetics. Common to all of these works is the subordination of factual narrative, history, to the imaginary narrative, poetry. Directed by the criteria of probability and necessity, and at the same time, freed from the constraints of fact, poetry surmounts the particular to offer, instead, universal truth.(10) In his observation regarding the distinction between truth and fact, Hazlitt offers his own corroboration of a standard premise of the "Defence" genre.
Hazlitt identifies inspiration with the language in which it is expressed, in the single term "poetry" applied to both.(11) As Inspiration, poetry "is substance itself, the immanent spirit within the dead letter of life: "... it is the stuff of which our life is made.' The rest is mere oblivion,' a dead letter" (5:2). The non-poetic is lifeless, but in poetic language, we find being itself, a life and a truth that does not rely on external or objective meaning. This truth originates in the imagination,
.. that faculty which represents objects, not as they are in themselves, but as they are moulded by other thoughts and feelings, into an infinite variety of shapes and combinations of power. (5:4)
According to this account, the ,Involuntary movement of imagination" must be taken to refer not to a mere passive receptivity, but to the inevitable tendency of the imagination to react upon and remould the objects that are impressed upon it. By Hazlitt's own definition, this tendency characterizes the imagination as active: "Any thing is so far active as it modifies and re-acts upon the original impulse" (Lectures on English Philosophy, 2:268). The apparent passivity of the imaginative process that might otherwise be inferred from the keyboard model is hence belied.
Hazlitt's definition of poetry, then, actually converts a standard empirical model into an emblem of non-empirical process.(12) By virtue of the instrumentality of the imagination in producing truth or substance from the external world, the stimulation and response definition or keyboard model of the lecture On Poetry in General" does not represent for Hazlitt what he himself prosecutes in Locke, "the considering the mind a physical thing," i.e., a thing purely determined by external material impulses ("On Tooke's Diversions of Purley," Lectures on English Philosophy, 2:279). The non-physical operation of the mind occupies the lacuna between the physical receptivity to sensation, and its product in the form of perception or expression. In this space, the mind displays its formative capacity,
.. that alone which by its pervading and elastic energy unfolds and expands our ideas, that gives order and consistency to them, that assigns to every part its proper place, and that constructs the idea of the whole. (2:280)
That the process may be deciphered as the response to an external physical stimulus undeniably Imparts to its product a certain tangibility that must redeem it from the charge of pure subjectivity. Most importantly, however, poetry
... does not define the limits of sense, or analyze the distinctions of the understanding, but signifies the excess of the imagination beyond the actual or ordinary impression of any object or feeling.("On Poetry in General," 5:3)
The prime mover in the process of poetry is not the object but the imagination, and it is Hazlitt's confidence that the forms of the imagination are substantial that results in his description of imaginative process in material terms. In the excess of the imagination beyond the actual or ordinary impression of any object or feeling" is embodied in its highest degree, the power of human perception. That concept of "power" -- an idealist or transcendental, as opposed to an empiricist concept -- is at the very core of Hazlitt's celebration of all intellectual activity as the vindication of an innate self-directing principle with which the mind is endowed.
2. Hazlitt's Power Principle
In order to understand the context of "power" for Hazlitt's linguistic theory, it becomes necessary to turn to his metaphysics. The concept of "power" in Hazlitt's thought originates in the mind's formative ability. Power is the identifying attribute of the mind and is innate, its characteristic is activity. Throughout his work, Hazlitt makes free and recurrent use of the term in varying contexts, but always with the basic twofold sense, of innateness and activity, constant in, and inseparable from, his usage. It will be found, in fact, that these qualities have an implication far beyond mere verbal convention. "That the idea of power is inseparable from activity" is listed by Hazlitt as one of his fundamental metaphysical principles in the Prospectus of a History of English Philosophy; also, that this idea derives from the Inmate exertion of the powerful faculty, and not, as in Locke, from the observation of external objects: "We do not get this idea from the outward changes which take place in matter, but from the exertion of i in ourselves" (2:119).(13)
"Power" comprehended in Hazlitt's twofold sense of the term is at the heart of his metaphysics. The Essay on the Principles of Human Action is governed by the notion of a mind innately active; thus, by Hazlitt's usage, an empowered mind. The argument of the Essay runs roughly as follows: to account for action at all, we must presume an object of volition. Any object of volition is always an object that we have not yet attained; it has future being only, and is therefore wholly imaginary. If every object of volition is wholly imaginary, then it cannot be directly or immediately apprehended by the senses. Sensory response, therefore, cannot account for action at all. On the contrary, since the object of action is always imaginary, every action is a product of imaginative exercise. The Essay establishes that the impulse to action is produced from within the mind, rather than stimulated from without, or that there exists an innate tendency to action within the mind Itself that is independent of its receptivity to sense-impressions. By freeing the mind from a dependence on the senses, Hazlitt releases its potential to constitute its own objects; this is "power."
The innate tendency to activity in the mind, as posited in the Essay on the Principles of Human Action, is elsewhere described by Hazlitt as "the love of power," and characterized as an independent "principle" of the mind:
The love of power or action is another independent principle of the human mind ... Our passions in general are to be traced more immediately to the active part of our nature, to the love of power. ("Mind and Motive," The Examiner, 9 April 1815, 20:47-49)
Again, "The sense of power is as strong a principle in the mind as the love of pleasure" (Lectures on the English Poets, 5:7).(14)
The principle of power is Hazlitt's answer to the Utilitarian "pleasure principle" that governs the mechanical systems based on self-love, it becomes the polemical tool by which he replaces the mind (imagination) for the senses as the seat of action. "In short, the question, whether life is accompanied with a greater quantity of pleasure or pain, may be fairly set aside as frivolous, and of no practical utility" (The Round Table, 5:3). His targets are Locke and Hartley, as well as Bentham, whose "matter-of-fact" philosophies (1:70n) carry an emphasis upon immediate sensory reaction that seems to assume a fundamental passivity in the human condition. Hazlitt's power principle, on the other hand, which is manifested in mental activity, restores emphasis to the will and the objects of volition; it raises man above the mach, by asserting his agency.
3. The Palace of Thought: Hazlitt and Berkeley
Hazlitt's doctrine of intellectual empowerment, which foregrounds the perceptual process in the construction of reality, calls also for the comparison with Berkeley. Hazlitt's admiration for Berkeley is expressed in a number of contexts, and acts as a pointer to the strong presence of the Berkeleian philosophy in the development of his critical theory." In The Principles of Human Knowledge, Berkeley undertakes to refute the unknowability of material creation implied in the Lockean account of perception, by a counter theory that actually identifies material existence with mental perception, in the argument that it is the mind's perception of external objects which gives these objects being itself. He argues, therefore, that "things," which are the objects of the sense, ought to be renamed "ideas";
If it be demanded why I make use of the word idea, and do not rather in compliance with custom, call them things, I answer ... because the term thing, in contradistinction to idea, is generally supposed to denote somewhat existing without the mind.(16)
The contention that "things" -- material objects -- are "ideas" -- conceptions of the mind -- is the logical inference to be drawn from Berkeley's basic premise that esse is percipi.(17) This philosophy of immaterialism, which treats matter (the external objective reality) as spirit (mental perception), approached from the other end provides Hazlitt with a rationale whereby spirit (the forms of the imagination) assumes a material character. One of his favourite descriptions of poetry is the famous speech of Theseus in A Midsummer Nights Dream:
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing
A local habitation and a name.
This passage is frequently invoked in Hazlitt's own accounts of literary composition, not so much to emphasize that the product of the poet's art is reducible to airy nothing, but rather that the poet has a capacity to embody or make real and specific, that nothing.(18) The characterization of imaginative creation as "substantial" is a familiar usage in his writing. Describing, for instance, his collection of Elizabethan authors in one of the Lectures on the Age of Elizabeth, he quotes from Wordsworth's "Personal Talk": " ... books, we know,/I Are a substantial world" ("On Marston, Chapman, Deckar, etc.," 6:247). Later on in the same Lectures, he laments that the characters of Beaumont and Fletcher "do not take a substantial form" ("On Beaumont and Fletcher, etc.," 6:249). Such instances, conflating the imaginary and the substantial, may be multiplied from other of Hazlitt's works. "So vivid were his impressions," he observes of Cosway, "that they Included the substances of things in them" (The Plain Speaker, 12:96). In "A Farewell to Essay-Writing," he writes, "I have brooded over an idea till it has become a kind of substance in my brain" and again, "my ideas, from their sinewy texture, have been to me in the nature of realities" (Uncollected Essays, 17:317,320).
Hazlitt's strong sense of the mind's ability to turn thought to substance unmistakably manifests the influence of an immaterialist philosophy. The mind creates that which it perceives, literally so in art -- the palace of thought" -- even if not, as according to Berkeley, in reality:
A fine gallery of pictures is a sort of illustration of Berkeley's Theory of Matter and Spirit. It is like a palace of thought -- another universe, built of air, of shadows, of colours. Everything seems "palpable to feeling as to sight." (Sketches of the Principal Picture Galleries in England, 10:19)
Art is the paradigm of Berkeley's vision of reality for Hazlitt, in whom we find not so much a theoretical concurrence with the Berkeleian hypothesis, as a deep-seated empathy with its formulation of the power with which the mind is invested.(19) In the early Essay on the Principles of Human Action, Hazlitt's strong sense of such a power feeds into the philosophical claim for the existence of a thinking or intellectual principle in the mind that is beyond the receptivity to sense-impressions. In the later expounding of his poetic theory in the lecture "On Poetry in General," it takes the form of an argument for the substantiality of the mind's creation:(20)
If poetry is a dream, the business of life is much the same. If it is a fiction, made up of what we wish things to be, and fancy that they are, because we wish them so, there is no other nor better reality. (5:3)
There is a Berkeleian awareness here, even if it is rather figurative than literal, of the immaterial character of life, whence Hazlitt puts poetry and life on the same footing and suggests that the true or "better" reality is in the mind's creation. By the same token, the ideal beauty of portraiture, in the essay "On Sitting for One's Picture," reverses the relation of nature to art. It is the portrait, the intellectual reality, that appears alive, while the live face, the material or factual reality, fades into a picture, "a mere object of sight." Similarly, in creating his art, the sculptor himself is turned Into stone (The Plain Speaker, 12:113).
Without a formal or rigorously literal adherence to Berkeley's theory, Hazlitt preserves, in his formulation of "power," Berkeley's sense of the control exercised by the mind over the objects of perception. Hence his preference for the ill-defined or partially comprehended, as offering a release from the passivity of relation to objects more inescapably defined to the senses.(21) Such a preference is articulated in different contexts in the essays: for instance, in Hazlitt's setting the Tatler over the Spectator as leaving more to the understanding of the reader (The Round Table, 4:8) as well as in his feeling for the "undefined and infinite" character of the untranslated Scriptures (The Round Table, 4:82); also in his criticism of the French tragedy's lack of the "obscure, distant, Imperfect" (Contributions to the Edinburgh Review, 16:89) and of the neo-classical drama's denial of the view of life as "a strange and romantic dream, long, obscure, and infinite" (Characters of Shakespear's Plays, 4:231). Each of these judgments is based on the knowledge that the mind's ability to constitute its own objects is strongest in that area of experience which is least governed by immediate sensation, and which therefore affords the maximum scope for mental activity:
Whatever is placed beyond the reach of sense and knowledge, whatever is imperfectly discerned, the fancy pieces out at its leisure; and all but the present moment, out the present spot, passion claims for its own, and brooding over it with wings outspread, stamps it with an image of itself. (Table-Talk, 8:255-56)(22)
The passage is an illustration of the manner in which a familiar Romantic position -- in this case, the approach to the sublime through the dimly apprehended(23) -- has a particular metaphysical significance for Hazlitt. The idea of an immaterial creation "beyond the reach of sense and knowledge" projected from within the mind, "an image of itself," shows up the Berkeleian affinity. The image of the Holy Ghost brooding dove-like over the abyss presents the imagination as spirit; consequently, its creation may be taken to be endowed with a vital principle. The present alone, in which, according to the Essay on the Principles of Human Action, we are absolutely subject to Immediate sensation, contains a factual reality; while "all but the present moment, but the present spot," which "passion claims for its own, and ... stamps ... with an Image of itself," embodies another -- the imaginative or "better" -- reality.(24)
4. TWO WORLDS
The evocation of poetry as a world apart from the workaday world of fact is a standard literary convention; Hazlitt's recourse to this convention is illuminated by his vision of the transformative power of the imagination. The notion of intellectual transformation sets up a dualism, consisting of the material and the imaginative realities, and this dualism, brought about by the imagination's tendency to idealize, persistently informs Hazlitt's sense of poetic composition.(25) According to the essay "On People of Sense,"
... grosser feelings, by passing through the strainers of ... imaginary, wide-extended experience, acquire an involuntary tendency to higher objects. (The Plain Speaker, 12:245)
These "grosser feelings" are the sensory and belong to a factual reality; their transformation is intellectual, composing the "better reality." Thus "poets see nature, veiled to the sight, but revealed to the soul in visionary grace and grandeur!" (Liber Amoris, 9:130). It is the inability to elicit the "visionary" from the factual reality that constitutes, according to Hazlitt, the limitation and defect of the art of Hogarth -- by reproducing the external world too literally, he precludes ideal existence:
He had an intense feeling and command ... of nature, as it fell within his own observation, or came within the sphere of his actual experience; but he had little power beyond that sphere, or sympathy with that which existed only in idea. He was "conformed to this world, not transformed." (Lectures on the English Comic Writers, 6:146)(26)
Mere factual observation imposes the limitation of the senses on the mind, ratifying the Lockean dichotomy of thought and thing, where the perception of the inspired eye removes it. Opposite to Hogarth, Milton frees us from the subjugation to the senses by the power of his poetic or intellectual transformation:
Milton has got rid of the horns and tail, the vulgar and physical insignia of the devil, and clothed him with other greater and intellectual terrors, reconciling beauty and sublimity, and converting the grotesque and deformed into the ideal and classical. Certainly Milton's mind rose superior to all others in this respect, on the outstretched wings of philosophic contemplation, in not confounding the depravity of the will with physical distortion, or supposing that the distinctions of good and evil were only to be subjected to the gross ordeal of the senses. (Lectures on the Age of Elizabeth, 6:36)
The imaginative ideal shows the truth that rises above the material or matter-of-fact. "In Spenser," for instance, "we wander in another world, among ideal beings" (Lectures on the English Poets, 5:35). In the essay on Scott in The Spirit of the Age, "there is a power in true poetry that lifts the mind from the ground of reality to a higher sphere" (11:59). Even when, in another and more politicized context, the validity of poetic idealisation is questioned, it remains lifted above the matter-of-fact, "dwells in a perpetual Utopia of its own" (The Round Table, 4:151); the same is the case in the essay On the Causes of Methodism" where "the ideal world" of poetry forms an escape for those who, from "poverty of spirit," suffer the want of an appetite for the real and substantial" (4:58).(27)
In the best case, however, the dualism of factual and imaginative reality contains not a dichotomy, but a transformation, of sensory into imaginative perception; the former limited and passive, the latter empowered and constitutive. The imagination's working is a manifestation of the power principle, and that which it creates constitutes an immaterial reality, fashioned after the Berkeleian vision of the immaterial forms of life itself. It is this reality that is embodied in poetic discourse, and it is to imaginative language that Hazlitt refers, when he writes,
It is words that constitute all but the present moment, but the present object ... they alone answer in any degree to the truth of things. (The Plain Speaker, 12:337)
If the province of imaginative reality, from the essay "Why Distant Objects Please," is "all but the present moment, but the present object," then, from the above, that reality -- "the truth of things" -- is embodied in "words," the language of the imagination. The substantiality of poetic language, as containing the "better reality" created by the imagination, is thus confirmed.
The understanding of Hazlitt's power principle enables us to reconcile his unequivocal rejection of the physical analogy for mental activity (Prospectus of a History of English Philosophy, 3:124), with the preponderance of the terms from Newtonian mechanics in his critical usage, where "power," "impress," "force," "momentum" etc. are applied to intellectual activity in a manner that does appear closely analogous to their operation in the physical world. I have shown that such usages do not in fact vindicate the physical analogy of material philosophy, but its opposite, termed by Hazlitt "the philosophy of consciousness" or the "intellectual" philosophy ("Preface to An Abridgement of Abraham Tucker's Light of Nature Pursued," 1:127). His habitual recourse, not only to Newtonian terms, but to an apparently sense-oriented vocabulary, a vocabulary pertaining to "feeling" of various kinds, does not imply the sensory origin of intellectual activity. Rather, it grants to the purely intellectual, a degree of actuality equal to, if not greater than, the impressions of the sense.
St. Hughs College, Oxford
(1) All quotations from Hazlitt are taken from The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols. (London and Toronto: J.M. Dent, 1930-34). References are by volume and page.
(2) "Power" has become something of a catchword for Hazlitt in recent scholarship. John Kinnaird's study is subtitled "Critic of power"; Bloom's formula for Hazlitt, in the Modern Critical Views series, is "poetics of power." See John Kinnaird, William Hazlitt: Critic of Power (Columbia U. Press, 1978); Harold Bloom, "Introduction" in Modem Critical Views: William Hazlitt, ed. Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1986) 3ff. My own study also deals with the concept of power as central to Hazlitt, but unlike Kinnaird and Bloom, my concern is with the metaphysical origin of that concept and its implications for Hazlitt's thought.
(3) E. W. Schneider, The Aesthetics of William Hazlitt: A Study of the Philosophical Basis of his Criticism (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1933), 94, 168.
(4) W. P. Albrecht, Hazlitt and the Creative Imagination (U. of Kansas Press, 1965), 2, 5, 14.
(5) The antithesis is a cornerstone of Roy Park's argument for Hazlitt. See Roy Park, Hazlitt and the Spirit of the Age: Abstraction and Critical Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), especially 13-26.
(6) John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), Bk 2, ch 8, sections 11-12, pp. 135-36; David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, 2nd ed. revised P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 6-7.
(7) E. S. Barnett and William Gifford, "Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Poets," Quarterly Review 20 (1818): 426. Countered by Hazlitt in A Letter to William Gifford, 9:45-46.
(8) See also Hazlitt's comment on Godwin's novels: "The impression made upon the reader is the exact measure of the strength of the author's genius" ("On the English Novelists," Lectures on the English Comic Writers, 6:130).
(9) Locke, Human Understanding, Book 3, ch 9, sections 22-23 pp. 489-90.
(10) "Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars." (Aristotle, Poetics, transl. I. Bywater, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes, Bollingen series no. 71.2, 2 vols. [Princeton U. Press, 1984], 2:2323.)
(11) "... the word [poetry] ... signifies the composition produced, the state of mind or faculty producing it, and, in certain cases, the subject-matter proper to call forth that state of mind ... I have endeavoured to define that common something which belongs to these several views of it" (A Letter to William Gifford, 9:44-45).
(12) Hazlitt's keyboard, then, is revealed as akin to Shelley's lyre in A Defence of Poetry, also a standard empirical image vitally transformed by its investment with an innate active attribute: "Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in a lyre and produces not melody alone but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds and motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them." (P. B. Shelley, Shelley's Prose, or, the Trumpet of a Prophecy, ed. David Lee Clark, 2nd corr. ed. [1966; rpt. London: Fourth Estate, 1988], 277.)
(13) Bromwich writes that although Hume "could discard the idea of power ... Hazlitt did find the idea of power in Locke. It is only by making power 'an original idea derived from within, like the sense of pleasure and pain, and quite distinct from the visible composition and decomposition of other objects,' that Hazlitt believes 'we can avoid being driven into an absolute scepticism with regard to cause and effect.' And this Locke had done" (David Bromwich, Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic [Oxford U. Press, 1983]. 30) On the contrary, Hazlitt's account of the origin of power is antithetical to Locke's, since it is Locke who derives the idea of power from the observation of external objects rather than from our innate intellectual operations. It is true that in his essay on Locke in the Lectures on English Philosophy, Hazlitt writes that Locke, despite himself, "seems to have been upon the point of discovering" that the mind's perception of relation, i.e., its innate active or formative tendency, "is at the bottom of all our ideas whatever" ("On Locke's 'Essay on the Human Understanding,'" 2:155). But Locke did not make this explicit: "It is thus that the inquiring mind seems to be always hovering on the brink of truth, but that timidity or indolence, or prejudice, which is both combined, makes us shrink back, unwilling to trust ourselves to the fathomless abyss" (2:155). Both here and in the essay "On Liberty and Necessity" cited by Bromwich, Hazlitt remains clearly critical of the actual account that Locke gives of the origin of our idea of power: "It were to be wished that he had given it as simple a source as possible, viz. the feeling we have of it in our own minds, which he sometimes seems half inclined to do, instead of referring it to our observation of the successive changes which take place in matter" (Lectures on English Philosophy, 2:260).
(14) See also the essay "On the Love of Life": "Our notions with respect to the importance of life, and our attachment to it, depend on a principle, which has very little to do with its happiness or its misery" (4:1).
(15) Such admiration is expressed chiefly in relation to An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision with which he appears in closest theoretical agreement (1:50n; 2:180; 17:113); however, Hazlitt's general respect for Berkeley's abilities as a metaphysician is also clearly expressed in the Lectures on English Philosophy (2:180n, 199).
(16) George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Part 1, section 39, in The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, ed. T. E. Jessop and A. A. Luce, 9 vols. (London: Nelson, 1948-57), 2:57.
(17) Part 1, section 3; ibid., p. 42.
(18) For example, in the following: The Life of Thomas Holcroft, bk. 4, ch. 1 (3:129); "Macbeth" and "The Tempest," Characters of Shakespear's Plays (4:186, 238); "On Shakspeare and Ben Jonson" and "On the Works of Hogarth: On the Grand and Familiar Style of Painting," Lectures on the English Comic Writers (6:37, 146); "On a Landscape of Nicholas Poussin," Table-Talk (8:170).
(19) So far, indeed, is Hazlitt from a literal concurrence with Berkeley, that we find him expressly discounting the philosophy of immaterialism for its inability to stand the test of common sense ("On Locke's 'Essay on the Human Understanding'," Lectures on English Philosophy, 2:181).
(20) Although, as I have observed, Hazlitt typically applies the adjective "substantial" to the imaginative or intellectual, it is also true that he occasionally opposes "substantial" to "ideal" in speaking of the ideal character of the imagination. (See, for instance "On the Causes of Methodism," The Round Table, 4:58, or A Letter to William Gifford, 9:58, to quote merely random instances.) When I call attention to his sense of the "substantially" of the forms of the imagination, I myself am referring to the extent to which Hazlitt allows then imagination actually to determine real things: in poetry, as a "better reality"; in his metaphysics, as alone producing the motives to action.
(21) Cf. The link made by Coleridge in the second chapter of Biographia Literaria between the "reliance on the immediate impressions of the sense" and a debility and dimness of the imaginative power" (S. T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of my Literary Life and Opinions, ed. W. J. Bate and J. Engell vol. 7 of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Bollingen series no. 75, 2 vols. [Princeton U. Press, 1983] 1:30).
(22) The connection between distant objects and perception which is independent of immediate sensory response may be derived also from An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision where, by establishing that the mind's apprehension of objects at a distance is an act of judgement rather than a direct sensory reaction (section 3; Berkeley, Works, 1:171), Berkeley develops this logically to apply to the immediate objects of vision as well. Thus, "distant objects" constitute the starting-point of the argument in Berkeley's essay; given Hazlitt's knowledge of the work, this phrase in itself can be taken as sufficiently suggestive of Berkeley.
(23) In his Philosophical Enquiry, Burke names obscurity as an attribute of the sublime (Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 2nd ed. (1759; rpt. Menston: The Scolar Press, 1970), Part 2, section 3, p. 99). When we are unable to perceive the bounds of an object or image, it strikes the mind with its greatness by suggesting infinity. Hence poetry, which affects us through the unrepresentable, by obscure images, is more powerful than the visual arts, which affect us by representations that are in@ their nature determinate (ibid., Part 2, section 4, p. 107).
(24) Conversely, the confinement to the present, or synonymously, the lack of perspective, always represents the unimaginative for Hazlitt; both may be read i terms of an indifference to the pleasure afforded by distant objects. This is the subtext of his description of the Cockney Londoner as "confined to one spot, and to the present moment" ("On Londoners and Country People," The Plain Speaker, 12:67), and of his account of the French, "they have no idea either of mental or aerial perspective. Every thing must be distinctly made out and in the foreground" ("Madame Pasta and Mademoiselle Mars," The Plain Speaker; 12:333).
(25) An interesting sidelight on Hazlitt's sense of poetry as an actual, if alternative world to the factual, is given in the introduction to the Lectures on the Age of Elizabeth, where he posits that the discovery of the New World and the general burgeoning of travel literature, brought a credibility to poetry by realising the visions of the imagination in the historic fact of alternative existence ("General View of the Subject," 6:187-88).
(26) In this view of Hogarth, Hazlitt expressly opposes Lamb's account in the essay "On the Genius and Character of Hogart." Here, Lamb argues against categorising. Hogarth as belonging to the familiar rather than the grand style in painting. He claims for him precisely what Hazlitt denies: a transformation of his subject by a "quantity of thought" and a "poetical and almost prophetical conception in the artist" into "permanent abiding ideas. Not the sports of nature, but her necessary eternal classes." (Charles Lamb, The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed., E. V. Lucas, 7 vols. [London: Metheun, 1903-5], 1:73, 74, 78.) It may be perceived, however, that the sense of what constitutes the distinction between the styles -- the depiction of ideal forms in which the imagination is present as a unifying principle -- as well as the language in which this distinction is expressed correspond almost perfectly, notwithstanding the difference of opinion regarding its application.
(27) On the basis of the apparent contradiction between Hazlitt's approbation and his disparagement of poetry in different contexts, Elisabeth Schneider comments, "On the subject of poetry, then, Hazlitt swings alternately between the conception of it as escape and the conception of it as knowledge or truth" (Schneider, Aesthetics, 115). I would contend instead that Hazlitt's swing reflects not so much an indeterminacy of judgement on the subject of poetry, but mirrors rather its type, changing in response to the kind of poetry or poet of which he is treating at the time.
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|Title Annotation:||William Hazlitt|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1996|
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