Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb and the London Magazine, 1821

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb and the London Magazine, 1821

Article excerpt

William Hazlitt was editor of the London Magazine in April and May, 1821, following John Scott's death in February (Wu WH 295; 298). Following Scott's example, he tried to give the magazine a "governing principle," as lit was to call it in 1823 (Edinburgh Review 38: 371). In the two issues of the London Magazine that Hazlitt edited, his essays contrast with Charles Lamb's essays to explore two different ways of interpreting and comprehending the world.

For Lamb, the London Magazine was "chiefly pleasant." he wrote July, 1821. "because some of my friends write in it." (Lucas 2: 306). His friendship with Hazlitt facilitated a conversation between their essays. On occasion. there are striking similarities between their essays, such as Lamb's "New Year's Eve" and Hazlitt's "On the Past and Future." (1) A month after "Elia" first appeared in the magazine, Hazlitt's essay "On the Conversation of Ant ns" referred to Lamb's visit to Oxford, and how he "walked gowned" among its quadrangles--an allusion to Lamb's sonnet written at Cambridge, "I was not trained in academic bowers" (LM 2: 261). In October, the second Elia essay, "Oxford in the Vacation," offered a subtle hint to Elia's real identity.

In the April, 1821, issue of the Landon Magazine, Hazlitt essay "On People of Sense" is juxtaposed to Lamb's celebrating the kind-hearted virtues of tools. Elia invites "Mr. Hazlitt" to his April Fools' banquet. the only living named participant, but rebukes him: "I cannot indulge von in your definition. I must fine you a bumper, or a paradox. We will have nothing said or done syllogistically this day" (LM 3: 362). Elia does not say what Hazlitt's "definition" is of, but it may be his definition of the "people of sense." Hazlitt "Table-Talk" essay, "On People of Sense," begins wit Ii an allusion to Lamb's essay: he criticises the folly of dogmatic thinkers, complaining that "the greatest absurdities" are often maintained by people "who give themselves out as wiser than everybody else" (LM 3: 368). Hazlitt criticises people who possess what he describes as a mechanical and abstract kind of understanding. The prime target of his essay is Jeremy Bentham, but. he criticises Shelley too, as someone who is guided by his own speculative notions, rather than by experience. In the essay, Hazlitt suggests two opposing views of human nature--one Benthamite, one Burkean--which he develops further in his essay on Bentham in The Spirit of the Age. Hazlitt writes that,

  The modern Panoptic Chrestomathic School of reformers and
  reconstructors of society propose to do it upon entirely
  mechanical and scientific principles. Nothing short of that will
  satisfy their scrupulous pretensions to wisdom and gravity. They
  proceed by the rule and compass, by logical diagrams, and with
  none but demonstrable conclusions, and leave all the taste, fancy,
  and sentiment of the thing to the admirers of Mr. Burke's
  Reflections on the French Revolution. That Work is to them a
  very flimsy and superficial performance, because it
  is rhetorical and figurative, and they judge of solidity by
  barrenness, of depth by dryness. (LM 3: 371)

The mechanical kind of understanding that bases its judgments on calculation is contrasted with the value which Edmund Burke ascribes to the emotive power of art, imagery, and pageantry which appeal to instinctive emotions. In Hazlitt's opinion. the Benthamites and dogmatic thinkers deny a vital aspect of human nature in their attempt to make a rational and scientific reform of society.

Hazlitt's essay criticises the crushing effect of rigid dogmatism on natural affections, using an anecdote about the mothers of Kidderminster, who were crushed into resignation when they tried to argue with the minister who told them that their unbaptised infants were burning in Hell. In Hazlitt's opinion the interpretation of Scripture had provided one of the most fertile sources of fanaticism. …

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