Tom Paulin, The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style. London: Faber and Faber, 1998. ISBN: 0571 174213. Price: £22.50 (US$30).[Notice]

  • Tim Fulford

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  • Tim Fulford
    Nottingham Trent University

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 …