The Art of Criticism : 6 the Opening Paragraph
Paulin, Tom, The Independent (London, England)
"He is the father of our Sunday journalism."
(George Watson on William Hazlitt in The Literary Critics)
The essayist, like the short story writer, must catch and keep the reader's attention right at the start: it is here and now - or never. Hazlitt begins his essay with an account of Poussin's "Landscape with Orion and Diana", and shows how a critical essay depends crucially on its opening paragraph. George Watson's remark about Hazlitt recalls those days when another tribe of critics practised a form of social snobbery disguised as aesthetic judgement. These snobs - port and walnut men, in Kingsley Amis's phrase - were invariably dons who crouched behind their college walls fearful of the modern world and quite unable to appreciate that Hazlitt's essay has one of the most brilliant opening paragraphs in critical history. (The complete paragraph is at least twice the length of our quote.) Hazlitt, who also ends the similarly lengthy paragraph that begins his profile of Jeremy Bentham with an exclamation mark, has perhaps a slight problem with the finality of "and his art the master-art!" The reader may be exhausted by now, for the paragraph is a miniature essay in itself. But very deftly Hazlitt begins the next paragraph by casually dropping his voice and remarking: "There is nothing in this `more than natural', if criticism could be persuaded to think so." He has staked out a grand claim right at the start, now he can begin to introduce the subtler discriminations of praise and criticism implicit in the Shakespearean phrase "foregone conclusion", which he and Charles Lamb first adapted to general usage and which is significant as a negative value in his critical terminology. …