William Hazlitt – On Poetry

William Hazlitt

William Hazlitt’s ‘Lectures on the English Poets’ from 1818 is one of the best descriptions, defenses and demonstrations of poetry that I’ve read. He writes beautifully, with strong, illuminating metaphors, and his love of poetry shines out. When writing about flow and rhyme in poetry, he shows all of these things. Poetry, he writes: “is to common language, what springs are to a carriage.”

He explains: “The jerks, the breaks, the inequalities, and harshnesses of prose, are fatal to the flow of a poetical imagination, as a jolting road or a stumbling horse disturbs the reverie of an absent man.”

What an analogy! And what of the place of poetry; what is it’s use? For Hazlitt poetry is a necessary reaction to human life and consciousness, paraphrasing Aristotle (I imagine) he says: “Man is a poetical animal.”

And what does the poet do?: “the poet does no more than describe what all the others think and act.”  Which includes…”the rich depths of the human soul: the whole of our existence, the sum total of our passions and pursuits, of that which we desire and that which we dread.”

For Hazlitt, it is the human condition to be: “as prone to make a torment of our fears, as to luxuriate in our hopes of good.”  And therefore, we love to read of the passions, tragedies and loves of others.

He is also very clear on the power and place of imagination in life, and the place of poetry in an age of scientific advancement. This is a beautiful passage that contrasts two ways of looking at the world.

“We can no more take away the faculty of the imagination, than we can see all objects without light or shade. Some things must dazzle us by their preternatural light; others must hold us in suspense, and tempt our curiosity to explore their obscurity. Those who would dispel these various illusions, to give us their drab-coloured creation in their stead, are not very wise. Let the naturalist, if he will, catch the glow-worm, carry it home with him in a box, and find it next morning nothing but a little grey worm; let the poet or the lover of poetry visit it at evening, when beneath the scented hawthorn and the crescent moon it has built itself a palace of emerald light.”

Although his phrases may seem high-brow or old-fashioned, I found his writing clear and unpretentious. Indeed, he writes of those who talk about what they don’t know, brilliantly.

“When artists or connoisseurs talk on stilts about the poetry of painting, they shew that they know little about poetry, and have little love for the art.”

To ‘talk on stilts’: what a good picture! Most of these quotes come from the first section of his ‘Lectures’ which is a fascinating introduction to poetry in general. Most of the essay, however, is taken up with a description and interpretation of English poets from Chaucer to poets of his day, like Wordsworth. He quotes each at length, bringing out their most striking features. I’m certain that a general reader will get more out of this paragraph than out of one hundred pages of modern poetic criticism:

“Chaucer excels as the poet of manners, or of real life; Spenser, as the poet of romance; Shakspeare as the poet of nature (in the largest use of the term); and Milton, as the poet of morality. Chaucer most frequently describes things as they are; Spenser, as we wish them to be; Shakspeare, as they would be; and Milton as they ought to be. As poets, and as great poets, imagination, that is, the power of feigning things according to nature, was common to them all: but the principle or moving power, to which this faculty was most subservient in Chaucer, was habit, or inveterate prejudice; in Spenser, novelty, and the love of the marvellous; in Shakspeare, it was the force of passion, combined with every variety of possible circumstances; and in Milton, only with the highest. The characteristic of Chaucer is intensity; of Spenser, remoteness; of Milton, elevation; of Shakspeare, every thing.”

His description of Chaucer as “the most practical of all the great poets, the most a man of business and the world”, inspired me to read the Canterbury Tales (in Coghill’s modern English version) which entertained and delighted me. I’m sure if either author was read more widely they would entertain and delight many more.

Hazlitt’s ‘Lectures on the English Poets’ at Project Gutenberg:
Hazlitt’s wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Hazlitt


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