By Greenberg, Martin
New Criterion , Vol. 18, No. 6
The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power.
--William Hazlitt, essay on Coriolanus
William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was a democrat in his youth, along with Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, his contemporaries in England's first Romantic generation. Unlike them he was a democrat still when he died. He stood on the side of "the people and ... the people's rights," he said in the preface to his Political Essays (1819), "against those who say they have no rights, that they are the property, the goods, the chattels, the livestock on the estate of Legitimacy." Hazlitt defended the revolution in France not only in its early constitutional phase, which most Englishmen did, but also in its Jacobin and Napoleonic phases, during the long period of Britain's war with France and the fearful Tory reaction (fearful of French ideas and French invasions). His partisanship wasn't blind. He admired Napoleon, he doted on him, yet he allowed that he was a tyrant--but "he was not . . . a tyrant by right divine. Tyranny in him was not sacred: it was not eternal: it was not sanctioned by all the laws of religion and morality." Hazlitt wrote much about politics but disclaimed being a politician and still more "a partyman." Obviously he was no Tory. But neither was he a Whig:
A modern Whig is but a fag-end of a Tory. The old Whigs [who opposed the war with France] were in principle what the modern Jacobins are, anti-Jacobites, that is, opposers of the doctrine of divine right, the one in the soil of England, the other by parity of reasoning, in the soil of France.
Nor was he a reformer. "A Reformer never is--but always to be blest, in the accomplishment of his airy hopes and shifting schemes of progressive perfectibility."
If the last phrase has a Burkeian ring, it is no accident. Burke was a lifelong favorite. Hazlitt remembered a quarter of a century afterwards (in the essay "On Reading Old Books") bringing home a copy of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) --it was 1798, he was nineteen--and reading it and rereading it for months on end, reading it aloud to others, with "particular pride and pleasure." Why with pride? His answer is splendid: "To understand an adversary is some praise: to admire him is more. I thought I did both: I knew I did one."
Burke was an admired adversary. Hazlitt thought his prose style "the most perfect" to be found in English, "the most powerful, the most dazzling, the most daring, that which went the nearest to the verge of poetry, and yet never fell over"--a style "forked and playful as the lightning, crested like the serpent." His high regard for Burke raised doubts among his fellow democrats about how staunch he was in his allegiance to the people's cause. However, Hazlitt himself believed that
an abstract proposition was one thing--a masterly transition, a brilliant metaphor, another. I conceived too that he might be wrong in his main argument, and yet deliver fifty truths in arriving at a false conclusion.
Hazlitt, too, belongs among the great writers of English prose. Coleridge's comment on Hazlitt's conversation in 1803 (foreseeing the future writer, as Richard Holmes says, for Hazlitt was then trying to be a painter) was: "he sends well-headed & well-feathered Thoughts straight forwards to the mark with a Twang of the Bowstring"--Coleridge's sentence also flying straight to the mark with a twang on the word Twang, and an after-vibration on Bow-string.
Hazlitt knew the Wordsworthian bliss of living in the dawn of the new age that the French Revolution, trumpet-like, announced. For most of his life he was "heart-whole in that cause, and triumphed in the triumphs over the enemies of man!" When "the hag Legitimacy" was put back on her throne in Europe in 1815 and his hopes for the future were dashed, "he turned for consolation to the past." But his motive was not just consolatory; his mind was naturally inclined to looking backwards, in the spirit of the Romantic time. …