William Hazlitt is Tom Paulin's hero. It is his aim in The Day-Star of Liberty to make him ours. Starting with an acknowledgement of Hazlitt's secondariness, as a critic and jobbing journalist, to the great poets and politicians about whom he writes, Paulin ends by making him a founding father of the liberal and democratic society we inhabit today. In the process, he reminds us that freedoms which we take for granted depended—and still depend—on the exercise of fearless, clear and discriminating critical judgements. Hazlitt, he shows, made those judgements, and made them in a prose so subtle, elastic and resourceful that it is in itself a creative force, a vibrant embodiment of the liberated imagination that it shows freedom to rely upon. Hazlitt, in Paulin's estimation, practised what he preached, and what he preached was and is essential to the achievement of political justice.
Nothing if not urgent, Paulin reminds us that criticism should be an affair of great moral seriousness. In one sense he is deeply traditional, for he regards print, rather than other media, as the guardian of liberty and the energy for social change. Hazlitt is his hero because, vicariously, he gives today's critic of writing, obscured as s/he is by the plethora of voice and image media, a central role. Hazlitt, for Paulin, makes the book and the journal the place where the nation imagines its best self and tries out ways to live up to that self.
Paulin's critical affiliations lie with the dissenting earnestness and social radicalism of Matthew Arnold, D. H. Lawrence and F. R. Leavis. Unlike these predecessors, however, he does not dissociate literature from politics. Paulin endorses Hazlitt's radicalism and shows that imagination and judgement are exercised into muscular health by engagement in the political fray, not by a distancing retreat into a notional realm of sweetness and light. Hazlitt is a hero of a revised liberalism founded not on balance, neutrality or evenhandedness, but on a committed individual's free speech, directed as forcefully as possible at the great issues of the day.
Implicit throughout Paulin's passionate book is his own identification with the artist-turned-critic. Hazlitt is Paulin as he would like to be—a desire apparent at the level of style as well as content since Paulin strives to make his own prose as wittily and wisely metaphorical as he shows Hazlitt's to be. The book begins with a wonderful interpretation of Hazlitt's painting of his father, which is also a meditation on filial memorials, on sons rescuing their fathers' reputations from the obscurity to which time has condemned them. Paulin, of course, knows that this is exactly what he himself is doing: redeeming Hazlitt from the uncut pages of unread editions, he is also announcing himself as the true son.
The book is both strengthened and weakened by its fierce filial piety. It is strengthened because Paulin's own critical intelligence is mobilised by the prose he so admires. Imitating Hazlitt's style—his allusions, digressions and quotations, his graphic illustrations and rhetorical flights—Paulin is led to understand it with precision. He is led, too, to reanimate Hazlitt's battles with his enemies, to make his struggle with Burke and his dismissal of Southey as vital now as they were at the time. Political freedom, Paulin suggests, is a matter of style. Rhetoric vanquishes opponents and wins followers who are moved by writing's embodiment of free thought. Paulin's ideal republic is one of letters, and Hazlitt is about the nearest we have come to achieving it in the last two hundred years.
To sustain his filial portrait of Hazlitt, Paulin inevitably neglects some of the criticism which less liberal historians might make. For Marxists, Hazlitt's journalism is of limited historical importance because it did not engage the labouring classes. For E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, Cobbett, rather than Hazlitt, was the journalist who best advanced the cause of liberty by finding a style that gave labourers a political discourse of their own. Hazlitt himself admired Cobbett's power and felt his own relative confinement to a polite language. A deeper analysis of the relationship of Hazlitt's prose to other radical discourses might, then, reveal more of its limitations than appear here.
There is also the matter of Napoleon. While Paulin has a sympathetic understanding of Hazlitt's self-contradictory admiration of the self-crowned emperor who suppressed free speech, he does not explore its implications at length. Yet it could be argued that Hazlitt's admiration was the logical outcome of his failure to find a radical language capable of moving a mass readership. The frustrated man of letters, on this reading, was left supporting a man of action. Did Hazlitt, at a fundamental level, lose faith in the power of words to change things and so end up admiring a man of great but bloody deeds? If so, he is a less secure foundation for the republic of letters than Cobbett, whose ability to mobilise a mass readership kept him confident of the power of a free press. Perhaps, too, there is a lesson for today's engaged critic here—that it is more often political writing's identification with a mass reading public, rather than with the writers of the past (as in Hazlitt's and Paulin's own case), that makes it a force for change.
Paulin is, in the end, a bourgeois radical, and one much further removed from a mass readership even than Hazlitt. Yet though there is wishful thinking in the vicarious identification with Hazlitt the journalist, Paulin has things to teach the liberal intellectuals who hold sway over the public sphere today. One of his lessons concerns the culture of dissent, and of eighteenth-century Unitarianism in particular. Paulin honours the 'happiness, active energy, free rational enquiry, communication, liberty' of Unitarian discourse (p. 8). He pays tribute to its principled faith in God and shows that it was an effectively enlightening force. But he also shows that it ultimately failed, its 'humane decency' no match for the emotive rhetoric of Burkean reaction. The language of liberty, Paulin implies, had better be passionate as well as worthy. Hazlitt's was, having been forged from a Unitarianism that he knew was in itself inadequate compounded with a Burkean Gothicism used contra Burke. Here Paulin's account is persuasive: it narrates the emergence of Romanticism from the language of Unitarianism with an illuminating clarity I have rarely seen elsewhere.
There is, however, a missing (or largely absent) term: S. T. Coleridge. Here again Paulin is cramped by the filial determination to vindicate Hazlitt that elsewhere serves him so well. To be fair, he does acknowledge Coleridge's formative role in showing the young Hazlitt the previously unimagined horizons for which a Unitarian might strike out. Nevertheless, he so clearly shares the later Hazlitt's animus against Coleridge for having abandoned radicalism that he consistently underestimates the continuing influence Coleridge exerted. This is a pity, since Hazlitt's relationship with Coleridge's thought was the most important of his life, and his struggle to resolve that relationship is evident in every area of his writing.
All books have their blind-spots, and the ones I have discussed here do not prevent The Day-Star of Liberty being a profoundly impressive work. For its passionate articulacy, its seriousness of purpose and beauty of style it is in a different league to most of the academic books currently published on Romanticism. Despite—or more likely because—of his blindnesses and biases, Paulin is a major critic who reminds us that criticism can be a form of creativity, and that creativity is at its most energising when it thoroughly comprehends the world it seeks to change.