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Duncan Wu, ed. The Selected Writings of William Hazlitt. 9 vols. London: Pickering & Chatto (Publishers) Limited, 1998. ISBN: 1-85196-369-3. Price: £650 (US$1050).Tom Paulin and David Chandler, eds. William Hazlitt's The Fight and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 2000. ISBN: 1-357910-864-2. Price: £9.99.

  • Michael Eberle-Sinatra

…plus d’informations

  • Michael Eberle-Sinatra
    Northrop Frye Centre, Victoria University

Editor's Note

For more information on Wu's edition, The Selected Writings of William Hazlitt, and order the set, please visit Pickering & Chatto's webpage.

Corps de l’article

Duncan Wu's nine-volume edition, The Selected Writings of William Hazlitt, is another important set in Pickering & Chatto's ongoing series of new editions of Romantic authors. However, unlike previous and forthcoming sets from this press, where the need for a complete or selected edition was called forth by the absence of a twentieth-century scholarly annotated edition, Hazlitt's works have already appeared in the 21-volume P. P. Howe centenary edition in 1930-4. The need for a new edition, especially a selected one, might therefore not seem evident, except for the fact that Howe's edition has been long out-of-print and is hard to find on the second-hand market. Wu's 'Editor's Introduction' answers in great and convincing detail any queries one might have regarding the motivation behind this new edition. 'The central aim of this edition', Wu states, 'is to establish reliable texts of Hazlitt's major book-length works, and most important uncollected essays' (vol. 1, p. xxxv). Access to reliable texts is indeed crucial to a proper understanding of Hazlitt's works and their reception during the Romantic period. Although Wu acknowledges the importance of Howe's scholarship for Hazlitt studies, his observation of editorial inconsistency and inaccuracies in quotations and references in the Howe edition serves as a persuasive argument for a new edition. Howe's notes derive largely from Waller and Glover's 1902-6 edition, include many references to outdated editions (whereas Wu's set uses standard scholarly editions throughout), and are often inaccurate (Wu offers a long list of inexact annotations to sustain his argument). Howe also makes repeated use of cross-references to other volumes in his edition (and not always accurately), whereas Wu chose to reprint notes rather to refer the reader elsewhere, which is a great practical improvement on Howe's edition.

Each volume begins with an introductory note which presents the work under consideration, the publication history of the text, any information on surviving manuscripts, and the reception history. The latter section always contains a wealth of information and is most helpful in conveying a proper sense of the contemporary reception of Hazlitt's works. Wu's judicious remarks on the style and content of each work reflect the editor's acute sensitivity to Hazlitt's prose. Wu also includes a very useful directory of selected personages, which consists of brief biographical information on figures mentioned or referred to by Hazlitt in the volume. Wu's notes are a model of accuracy and, though concise, identify quotations and elucidate allusions, as well as provide some contextual information at times.

Tom Paulin's general introduction in volume 1 is an useful introduction to the edition, particularly in his treatment of Hazlitt's religious background; Paulin's discussion of Unitarianism illuminates Hazlitt's writings and T. S. Eliot's views of the Romantic writer. Paulin is also very good at discussing Hazlitt's prose style, and he quotes extensively from various essays to illustrate his points. Paulin also touches on Hazlitt's wide range of interests, from opera and theatre to politics and art, and his introduction certainly entices the reader to begin perusing this edition immediately, and to read not only the familiar Hazlitt—the Hazlitt of Characters of Shakespear's Plays or The Spirit of the Age—but also Hazlitt the ultimate prose stylist and theorist of style of his final collection of essays, The Plain Speaker.  [1]

Volume 1 contains An Essay on the Principles of Human Action, Hazlitt's first book-length work published in 1805, and Characters of Shakespear's Plays. This series of short essays, alongside the theatrical criticism reprinted in A View of the English Stage (available in volume 3), constitutes the corpus of Hazlitt's dramatic criticism, probably one of his most important contributions to Romantic literature. Indeed, whereas Paulin sees Hazlitt as 'the first art critic in English' (vol. 1, p. xii), I consider him to be primarily one of the best readers of Shakespeare's plays, as exemplified in Characters of Shakespear's Plays, and specifically with the serious dramas, and also the most perceptive interpreter of Edmund Kean's performances, as several essays in A View of the English Stage repeatedly make clear.

Volume 2 reprints Hazlitt's Round Table essays, which began their life, as is well known, in the pages of The Examiner. My only serious criticism of this edition emerges from Wu's choice not to include the twelve essays that Hunt wrote and which Hazlitt published alongside his thirty pieces in the first edition of The Round Table in 1817. I expect this was most likely a decision encouraged by the publisher in order to save space (a crucial aspect of such a publishing endeavour), but I would argue that the reader will miss being able to contrast these two authors' styles and subject matter, and to appreciate the extent of their collaboration on this project. Furthermore, as Wu notes in his introduction, John Russell's review in the Quarterly Review attacks Hazlitt for one of Hunt's essays, ' On Washerwomen'. Yet, the reader cannot turn to this specific essay in the present edition. Nevertheless, volume 2 contains many witty, engaging essays, as well as important work on drama and poetry. One is grateful to Wu for including in an appendix to this volume the full text of Hazlitt's review of Wordsworth's The Excursion (first published in three parts in The Examiner) since the version Hazlitt included in The Round Table was in revised and reduced form. Volume 2 also includes Hazlitt's Lectures of the English Poets. The series of lectures had been extremely successful, with, among others, Keats, Crabb Robinson, Talfourd, and Procter in the audience, and it is easy to see why. Hazlitt's strong opinion and personality come through in these eight lectures and he engages his audience throughout. Hazlitt was probably the only lecturer to rival Coleridge in presentation and content, and this volume makes clear how significant Hazlitt's views are for a proper understanding of Romantic views on poetry, from Chaucer to contemporary authors.

Volume 3 contains A View of the English Stage, and the volume opens with Hazlitt's review of Kean's London debut as Shylock at Drury Lane on Wednesday 26 January 1814 (Hazlitt's review appeared in the Morning Chronicle on the following day). Of the 124 reviews Hazlitt collected in A View of the English Stage, 19 address Kean's performances specifically. These reviews also illustrate Hazlitt's critical dilemma in discussing performances of Shakespeare's plays versus arguing for a reading of these plays as the only way to appreciate Shakespeare's works. Hazlitt's take on the debate on reading vs. performing obviously echoes a similar preoccupation expressed by Leigh Hunt as early as 1805, and then also by Charles Lamb, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge over the following decade. Hazlitt's review of Bertram is worth comparing to chapter 23 of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, as it contains a distinctly more positive commentary on the play and its success. As a whole, Hazlitt's reviews survive very well the ephemeral aspect of their subjects, whether these be long-forgotten plays or little-remembered actors. His lively and evocative prose style constantly enlivens the play or actor under consideration, and his reviews regularly combine pragmatic and theoretical criticism.

Volume 3 also reprints 16 reviews of operas that Hazlitt attended between 16 October 1813 and 25 May 1817. As a whole, Hazlitt did not look in favour upon the opera genre, particularly because of his view, shared with Coleridge, that in an opera everything is subordinate to the music.  [2] Nevertheless, as Tom Paulin remarks in his General Introduction,

As a critic, he likes to indulge in occasional, huge, page-long, single-sentence arias, so he has more in common with opera than his conscious mind likes to admit. And as a writer whose subject is almost entirely art or the social world of politics, he is bound to the artificial and manufactured, just like opera.

vol. I, p. xxvi

Opera is also the subject of Hazlitt's essay of the same title, published in the Yellow Dwarf on 23 May 1818, which Wu includes in volume 9. This later essay contains Hazlitt's negative comments on the artificiality of opera, such as 'It is an illusion and a mockery' (vol. 9, p. 41), and 'It is not only art, but ostentatious, unambiguous, exclusive art. It does not subsist as an imitation of nature' (vol. 9, p. 42).

Hazlitt's 1819 Political Essays, reproduced in volume 4, is a great selection of essays and articles which presents Hazlitt's views as political commentator between 1807 and 1818. As Wu indicates, 'besides his thoughts on the Napoleonic Wars, the Vienna Congress, Napoleon himself, and political personalities of the day, political apostasy looms large in the shape of repeated attacks on Southey and Coleridge' (vol. 4, p. xiii). Southey, the subject of renewed interest in Romantic scholarship these last few years, is the subject of severe criticism in various pieces, such as 'Mr Southey, Poet Laureat' or 'The Lay of the Laureate, Carmen Nuptiale, by Robert Southey'. Wu provides in the appendices a chronological listing of political articles to which Hazlitt responded in his own writing, and Hazlitt's essay 'The Stripling Bard', published in the Morning Chronicle on 22 March 1817, his earliest response to Coleridge's defence of Southey in the Courier.

Volume 5, the largest volume of the set, contains the text of Hazlitt's third and fourth series of public lectures, and A Letter to William Gifford, Esq. From William Hazlitt, Esq. Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Comic Writers was published on 26 March 1819, and his Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth on 3 February 1820. The eight lectures in each book offer Hazlitt's opinionated views on the subject of wit and humour in authors ranging from Shakespeare to Sheridan, and on Elizabethan literature (informed by Lamb's 1808 Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, who lived about the Time of Shakspear). A Letter to William Gifford, Esq. is Hazlitt's famous 'masterpiece of invective' (vol. 5, p. xxiii), published on 1 March 1819 at the author's expense. Hunt's review in The Examiner was obviously very positive, since he rejoiced in Hazlitt's sharp and sarcastic prose and the numerous attacks on the character of Gifford, a critic who had made more than his share of personal attacks.

The first volume of Hazlitt's Table Talk appeared on 6 April 1821, followed by the second volume on 15 June 1822. Reviews were mixed, if weighted to the negative, with the usual attacks in the Quarterly and Blackwood's, and approving comments in The Monthly Magazine and the London Magazine. In the introductory note to volume 6, which reprints the thirty-three essays which constitute the two volumes of Table Talk, Wu accurately asserts that this work 'must rank as a classic of non-fiction prose' (vol. 6, p. x). To mention but two essays, 'Whether Actors ought to sit in the Boxes?' contains several of the kind of witty remarks present in most of the Table Talk essays:

Spare me this insight into secrets I am not bound to know. The stage is not a mistress that we are sworn to undress. Why should we look behind the glass of fashion? Why should we prick the bubble that reflects the world, and turn it to a little soap and water?

vol. 6, p. 250

Reflecting Hazlitt's lifetime interest in the theatrical world, this essay complements his essay 'On Patronage and Puffing', in which he asserts that 'an actor is judged by his peers, the play-going public, and must or fall by his own merits or defects' (vol. 6, p. 263). Hazlitt's comments on Kean expand into a discussion of reputation which provides an accurate description of the practice of puffing during the Romantic period.

Volume 7 offers probably the most well-known of Hazlitt's works, since it contains his 1823 semi-autobiographical novel Liber Amoris, and his 1825 collection of essays The Spirit of the Age. Wu's useful discussion of the reception of these two works is particularly detailed. Wu also includes in the appendices to the volume Hazlitt's essay 'Mr Canning' (published in the Paris edition of 1825); a cancelled passage from the manuscript of 'The Fight' (which, as Wu duly notes, 'contains parts of a cancelled passage which later contributed to parts of Liber Amoris' [vol. 7, p. 249]); two extracts from Hazlitt's letter to Patmore (again related to Liber Amoris); the content lists for the Paris and second London edition of The Spirit of the Age (the changes are intriguing for what they imply concerning Hazlitt's views of the original ordering); and a postscript to The Spirit of the Age entitled 'A Half-length' (Wu, in agreement with Stanley Jones, assigns the authorship of this essay, first published anonymously in The Examiner, 1 August 1824, to Hazlitt. The essay is a portrait of John Wilson Croker, and contains a reprisal for Croker's 'alleged involvement in the attack on Liber Amoris in John Bull' [vol. 7, p. 259]).

Hazlitt published The Plain Speaker in 1826 and, although a large run was printed, the volume was not well reviewed and did not sell. Leigh Hunt offers the most extensive contemporary criticism of Hazlitt's work in his 1828 periodical, The Companion, under the title 'Remarks Suggested by the Perusal of Mr Hazlitt's "Plain Speaker: Opinions on Books, Men, and Things"'. As Wu points out, Hunt's piece is 'not so much a review as an essay itself, in which the issues raided by Hazlitt are taken up, disputed, or further analysed' (vol. 8, p. xv). Other contemporaries had been much more unsympathetic and the volume, although published anonymously, had been quickly ascribed to Hazlitt; recurring negative references to his political opinions and his Cockney association abound. This is really unfortunate as The Plain Speaker contains some of Hazlitt's most accomplished essays on topics ranging from prose style (always a favourite of his) to literary figures, politics, opera, and social studies (both Hunt and Hazlitt had a particular talent for describing the life around them, and they wrote many engaging essays which are simultaneously self-reflexive and rich in details on people's habits and occupations).Volume 8 allows for a renewed appreciation of Hazlitt's perceptive and thought-provoking comments on philosophy ('On Reason and Imagination') and on the stylistic differences between a prose writer and a poet ('On the Prose-Style of Poets'). All in all, this is probably the one volume a reader will be inclined to read through in one sitting, as Hazlitt's prose flows effortlessly and the topics of the essays are all engaging. Yet, more than one sitting will be required to understand properly the subtlety of Hazlitt's style, the persuasiveness of his argument, and the richness of his comments.

Volume 9 offers a sample of Hazlitt's writings that Wu rightly describes as 'the best of his uncollected work' (vol. 9, p. xi). This includes 'The Fight', 'On the Elgin Marbles', 'My first acquaintance with Poets', 'On Reading new Books', as well as Hazlitt's important reviews of Coleridge's Christabel and Byron's Childe Harold. Hazlitt's 'On the Question whether Pope was a Poet' is part of a larger debate on Pope's virtues as a poet, a debate that began with the preface to the Lyrical Ballads and continued with Hunt's notes to The Feast of the Poets and his preface to The Story of Rimini. Hazlitt's essay, published in the Edinburgh Magazine for February 1818, is his first response to this debate (another would follow in The Spirit of the Age, and then in 'On Envy', published in The Plain Speaker). Volume 9 also offers two manuscript texts which appear in print for the first time: 'To the Monthly Reviewers' (circa 1084) and 'On the Punishment of Death' (circa 1812). The former responds to the notice of Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population, published in the Monthly Review in December 1803 and January 1804. The latter is an alternative version to the 1831 version of Hazlitt's essay, published in Fraser's Magazine (also available in the same volume). Hazlitt's essay 'On Sun-Dial' also includes the sentence: 'I do not wonder that Mrs Shelley did not succeed with her LAST MAN'. As Wu indicates in his notes, this line is missing from the printed text of the essay in the New Monthly, although it was not deleted in the manuscript. Wu's volume thus contains a sentence that 'is essential to make sense of Hazlitt's ensuing remarks' (vol. 9, p. 247), which read 'We care no more about the world in the year 2300 than we do about one of the planets' (vol. 9, p. 157). This is yet another example of the value of Wu's edition for Hazlitt scholarship: the texts of Hazlitt's works are presented in their original form, with all the quotations properly referenced in the notes, and all the relevant manuscript variances noted.

Wu's edition is aimed at libraries, and I strongly encourage every one of them to order their set, even if the P. P. Howe edition already graces their shelves. Indeed, Wu's edition offers a clear improvement over Howe for the copy-texts chosen for each volume, as well as for the annotations and headnotes Wu provides. Although this edition is limited to selected works, as opposed to Howe's complete edition, it clearly contains the best of Hazlitt, with all his major publications and a good selection of uncollected essays. Wu's edition should contribute to a general revaluation of Hazlitt's work and his importance not only as a theatre critic, but also as one of the best essayists of the Romantic period, a figure very much involved in contemporary politics, and the author of a most unique novel.

It is fortunate for all academic scholars who wish to bring Hazlitt back into their classrooms that Penguin has recently released a new paperback edition of his works. Edited by Tom Paulin (who has certainly been promoting this author for many years now) and David Chandler, the new Penguin, entitled The Fight and Other Writings, is by far the best selected Hazlitt yet to appear in paperback. The editors not only provide a wide range of Hazlitt's essays, from full essays to shorter extracts of longer works, but also complement this selection with a lucid, well-written and engaging introduction (perfect for an undergraduate and graduate audience), written by Paulin.

The edition comprises 57 pieces, including Hazlitt's well-known essays 'Mr Kean's Shylock', 'On Gusto', 'The Fight', 'My First Acquaintance with Poets', and 'Mr Coleridge'. It also offers less familiar essays and extracts such as 'On the Spirit of Monarchy' (from The Liberal), 'Jack Tars' and 'Venice' (from Notes of a Journey through France and Italy), and uncollected essays, such as 'Poetry', ''On the Elgin Marbles: The Ilissus', and 'On the Present State of Parliamentary Eloquence'. The editors have chosen a sample of Hazlitt's works which offers numerous instances of the elegance and eloquence of his prose style. This 552-page edition will also underscores Hazlitt's many and varied interests, with his publications on subjects ranging from art, literature, and politics to travel writing. The editors are to be praised for their judicious selection. Chandler has performed an impressive labour with the annotations to the essays included in this volume. He provides references to Hazlitt's many quotations, and elucidates nearly of all Hazlitt's allusions. There is one technical problem that impair one's use of this edition: in the 55 pages of meticulous and useful notes included at the end of the volume, there are no references to page numbers, so orienting oneself between text and notes can be unnecessarily challenging. (I suspect Penguin is to blame for this arrangement.) I found but one factual error in the wealth of notes: John Murray did not publish Byron's 'Vision of Judgment', since it appeared in the first issue of The Liberal, published by John Hunt. These notes are of superior quality, and they are well complemented by a 25-page biographical index of all the important persons mentioned by Hazlitt. Like Wu's edition, this selection constitutes a vital contribution to the revaluation of Hazlitt's importance for Romantic studies, and it should remain in print for many years.

Parties annexes