Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic by David Bromwich; Oxford University Press, New York.

T.S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style by Ronald Bush; Oxford University Press, New York.

I stumbled on Hazlitt while I was still in college and have some old books of his that cost me 50 cents each-one that I won’t part with is the little green volume of The Spirit of the Age in the old Oxford World Classics. Hazlitt also wrote Lectures on the English Comic Writers and Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, which are a great introduction both to them and to his mind. David Bromwich has used the 21 volume edition of The Complete Works which was edited exactly half a century ago. It suggests that if you are going to do Hazlitt, you will have to drop most of everything else.

William Hazlitt was born in 1778 and became, in his short and argumentative life, one of the best of the Romantic critics. Coleridge was more intelligent, but did not cover nearly as great an area. Like Coleridge and Wordsworth, Hazlitt was influenced by the French Revolution. He retained (qualified) admiration for that first of all modern events and, like Stendhal and Balzac, he worshipped Napoleon, he worshiped Napoleon. He certainly knew what 1789 meant:

About the time of the French Revolution, it was agreed that the world had hitherto been in its dotage or its infancy; and that Mr. Godwin, Condorcet, and others were to begin a new race of men-a new epoch in society. Everything up to that period was to be set aside as puerile or barbarous ….The past was barren of interest-had neither thought nor object worthy to arrest our attention; and the future would be equally a senseless void, except as we projected ourselves and our theories into it.

Possibly the most remarkable thing about this passage is its ending: “There is nothing I hate more than I do this exclusive, upstart spirit.” Hazlitt’s own spirit was troubled by sex, by politics, and (in this he was one of the first modems) by the idea of culture. But his mind was uniquely open, and it led him to thoughts about writing that have lasted from his time to ours.

There is no doubt that Hazlitt has receded from our consciousness. (Coleridge is the one Romantic essayist read on campus, and no one seems to read much of him.) But a sampling of his writing copiously quoted by Bromwich reminds us of what we have missed. The book is large, complex, and highly argued. It covers Hazlitt’s relationship with Coleridge, Wordsworth, and other Romantics. It deals with Hazlitt’s art criticism, his enduring argument with the philosophy and politics of Burke, his publication, his sex life or rather his sexual problems, and his theater and cultural criticism. The book does him justice, although it is sometimes too academic for the general reader. It certainly is inspired by love for its subject, and by contempt for his adversaries.

Not many realize that Hazlitt was responsible for our own interpretation of Shakespeare: he shared with Edmund Kean a new vision of the way that Shy­ lock should be on stage and what in social life he should represent. It can be fairly said that Dickens’s Fagin and Hazlitt’s Shylock are the two great figures of their kind for the century. As Bromwich remarks, it is now impossible for us to think of Shylock as he was before Hazlitt went to work on the play. Before Hazlitt and Kean, Shylock was crude, comic, self-aggrandizing; a Punch and Judy character who danced around the stage like a dervish on hot coals. He had no dignity and deserved no sympathy. Hazlitt had the wit to see that Shylock corresponds to some deep feelings in the modern mind. His interpretation of Shylock, like Coleridge’s interpretation of Hamlet, changed our minds about Shakespeare’s plays and suggested that literary characters may be representations of social issues. What Hazlitt wrote about Shylock­––”There is a strong, quick, and deep sense of justice mixed up with the gall and bitterness of his resentment”––may be said to stand equally for Hazlitt’s sense of his own life and career, and for the condition of radical intellectuals between Napoleon and Victoria.

One can only hope that we will reac­quaint ourselves with the man who challenged Burke with equal and opposing ideas and style: “If, instead of being young, beautiful, and free of manners, Marie Antoinette had been old, ugly, and chaste, all this mischief had been prevented.” Hazlitt was a worthy adversary of Burke, although, like those “projectors” mentioned in Reflections on the Revolution in France, he certainly tried to politicize culture. In his essays on Byron and Canning he tends to treat the politician and the poet in the same way (to which does the line” he drivels, or he rages” best apply?) and to demand of both the right ideas and morality. Both poetry and politics he sees as public enterprises, a position which is both good and bad.

Eliot thought that Hazlitt was bad-in fact, that he was an ideological and stylistic calamity. The difference be­ tween the two could not be exaggerated: Ronald Bush’s book on Eliot proceeds from that great line by Verlaine so taken to heart by Eliot: “Take eloquence, andwring its neck.”

In a recent review of T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style in the NewYork Timesit was suggested that the book was inferior to Lynda Gordon’s Eliot’s Early Years: I tend to agree with the Times. Gordon’s book appeared in 1977 and gave us pretty much a new idea of Eliot. It provided accurate information about the life and demonstrated that there were personal reasons for the dreams, hallucinations, and breakdowns so often portrayed in the work. To a certain extent Bush continues this mode of criticism and does more than acceptable work. But his book is narrowly devoted to a thesis­ that Eliot was the prisoner of his New England conscience which made love, personal stability, and even writing very difficult-and it rides that thesis hard. It is relentless in reading the poetry, which it does line by line, in order to extract from the text proof of the theory. This is not what the New Criticism meant when it encouraged textual analysis: it meant discovering rather than proving. It is hard to accept everything Bush puts forth as proof of the author’s ambivalence.

The good things about this book should certainly be stated. It goes into the unknown canon of Eliot’s works. After reading this, one will know much more about things so fur uncollected. It is very helpful when discussing “sources” and “influences” on Eliot, from Dante on to the French symbolists. But it may be best to sample its method in dealing with Eliot’s most familiar work, The Waste Land.

The long and informative-and in some ways not satisfactory-chapter on this poem begins with a consideration of the woman who Eliot first married, and who was the “inspiration,” perhaps, shuddering, a scarecrow of a woman with legs like jackstraws, sallow as to face” who spent one dinner with friends throwing food on the floor, then putting it back on her plate, and who seemed to throw off and inspire laser-rays of pure hatred. Bush argues that she is the great presence in Eliot’s early poems, that it is her eyes that Prufrock sees, and her personality that the less pleasant lines of The Waste Land reflect. If Eliot was a combi­ nation, as Bush argues, of New England conscience and more or less normal sexual drives then Vivien was exactly the type to make the conscience more assured and the drives less satisfied.

The poem becomes more autobiographical than we might have thought, a kind of record of a miserable marriage, and of a state of personality never reconciled either to life, to society, or to itself.

This is good and useful to know, just asit is useful to know that “some of Eliot’s images trouvailles were drawn from actual nightmares.” But a reading of any poem ought not, I think, to rest upon what it has from the beginning looked for more or less exclusively. It becomes necessary to see the poem almost entirely as autobiography, to say that Eliot “projects himself into a rat with a human belly creeping softly and loathsomely through the vegetation.” The rat is there, and the speaker-who may or who may not be Eliot-is there, but they are not, under the pressure of actual, historical feelings and conditions identical. The argument becomes that Eliot’s poem is “self-dramatizing.” But, as Lawrence reminded us about his own work and that of anyone else, trust the book, not the writer.

This particular book—The WasteLand—is about objective, which is to say external reality. It is reflective of texts, ideas, and cultural themes. These are interpreted by the speaker, but they are not the speaker himself. Granted that for many years the poem has been suffocated by mythology, approached only through the underbrush around The Golden Bough, it still seems to be more than self-actualization. It certainly seems to be about more than a series of dreams about a nervous breakdown as the following psychiatric analysis (cited with approval by Bush) would seem to imply:

From a psychological point of view, Eliot’s achievement lay in utilizing the content of his narcissistic regressionfor creative purposes. Having experienced a failure in response from need––satisfying and narcissistically cathected self-objects, he found himself empty, fragmented, and lacking in a sense of self-cohesion…. He made narcissistic fragmentation a basis for poetic form and alienation of self legitimate poetic content.

Maybe. But in a sense all literature is the result of this kind of thing––as Yeats put it, poetry is a result of our quarrel with ourselves––as opposed to history, which is a result of our quarrel with others.

In short, the reading in this book is a reading of narrow scope. It judges the verse insofar as language reveals “psychic energy” rather than denotation. But my own sense of the matter is that The Waste Land, although informed bypersonal experience––and perhaps even by actual personalities––is pretty muchabout what it states it is about: a view of culture keenly, intellectually, and philosophically objective.