Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Hazlitt on unrequited love and vanity

William Hazlitt's Table-Talk is a series of essays on all sorts of philosophical and artistic topics, and after recently reading Maugham's praise of Hazlitt, I thought I'd give them a whirl. I just finished last night, and I think that I love nineteenth-century prose best when the authors of it don't take themselves too seriously. Hazlitt qualifies, certainly. Here are a few sentences from the essay "On Great and Little Things" (Oxford, p.317) about not loving in vain:

"A purple light hovers round my head. The air of love is in the room.... The flowers of Hope and Joy springing up in my mind, recall the time when they first bloomed there. The years that are fled knock at the door and enter.... All that I have thought and felt has not been in vain.... Let me live in the Elysium of those soft looks; poison me with kisses; kill me with smiles; but still mock me with thy love!"

This is not Hazlitt's standard prose style, don't worry! Immediately after this bit of florid effervescence is a footnote, which reads, in tiny print:

"I beg the reader to consider this passage merely as a specimen of the mock-heroic style, and as having nothing to do with any real facts or feelings."

Then there's this, from "On Intellectual Superiority" (p.383):

"I like to be pointed out in the street.... This is to me a pleasing extension of one's personal identity. Your name so repeated leaves an echo like music on the ear: it stirs the blood like the sound of a trumpet. It shows that other people are curious to see you; that they think of you; and feel an interest in you without you knowing it. This is a bolster to lean upon; a lining to your poor, shivering, threadbare opinion of yourself."

Funny, wonderful stuff, very alive and enjoyable, apart from the occasional sentence about the female mind and its weak understanding and capabilities. I wonder if Hazlitt read Jane Austen? He makes disparaging remarks somewhere in this book (I've lost the page) about lady novelists. We can forgive him for this then-common error, can't we?

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