Imagination under Pressure, 1789-1832: Aesthetics, Politics, and Utility

By John Whale | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Hazlitt and the limits of the sympathetic
imagination

I

Hazlitt's aesthetics are caught between sympathy and power, the learned and the vulgar, the body and ideas. His voluminous journalistic output in the first three decades of the nineteenth century characteristically defies system or theory, even though it contains clearly discernible preoccupations and consistent modes of thought. 1 Throughout his career Hazlitt is concerned with the capacity of sympathy to enable individuals to rise above mere selfishness and to enter a community of feeling. This is the substance of his first published and most systematic work On the Principles of Human Action (1805) and of one of his last articles, 'On Benevolence and Self-Love', published in the New Monthly Magazine in 1828. His aesthetics might thus be roughly described as celebrating the power of the sympathetic imagination. 2 But Hazlitt's writing resists such an over simplification, not least because such an overview belies the conflicts and contradictions within his kind of oppositional writing, and also because the word 'celebration' denies the unease which haunts his sense of the aesthetic.

Hazlitt's writings represent a conscientious attempt to test the efficacy of the sympathetic imagination against the negative effects of the dominant ideology. 3 In this chapter I have chosen to represent this career-long examination by focusing on his complex responses to Burke and Coleridge and on his collections of essays from 1818 to 1826, rather than the early Essay on the Principles of Human Action, his famous art criticism, or his infamous Liber Amoris – all of which contribute significantly to this issue. In the second decade of the century leading up to Peterloo, Hazlitt experiences greater difficulty in maintaining a happy coincidence of interests between his liberal radicalism and his subscription to the fine arts and literary culture more generally. His testing of the limits of the sympathetic imagination now takes the form of a fierce and concerted assault on what he terms 'Legitimacy' which culminates

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Imagination under Pressure, 1789-1832: Aesthetics, Politics, and Utility
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgements xi
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Imagination and Revolution 17
  • Chapter 1 - Burke and the Civic Imagination 19
  • Chapter 2 - Paine's Attack on Artifice 42
  • Chapter 3 - Wollstonecraft, Imagination, and Futurity 68
  • Part II - Imagination and Utility 98
  • Chapter 4 - Hazlitt and the Limits of the Sympathetic Imagination 110
  • Chapter 5 - Cobbett's Imaginary Landscape 140
  • Chapter 6 - Coleridge and the Afterlife of Imagination 166
  • Afterword 194
  • Notes 197
  • Bibliography 227
  • Index 237
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