Yeats's triumphant, even too muscly and emphatic phrase 'monuments of unaging intellect' declares the importance and the permanence of the classic. We imagine works of art - poems and statues, say - as made of enduring physical material. We imagine them made of brass or bronze or marble. Then we remember that poems, plays, novels and essays - essays, short or long as stories - are made of ink and paper (or they were until the pc and the Web). They are made of perishable and transitory material, are more like wasps' nests than marble monuments or palaces. We begin then to form the notion of the paperback classic - the Penguin classic, produced and marketed in such a way that as many people as possible can read it. We begin to see that there is a bridge between Yeats's aristocratic affirmation of the classic and the general reading public who can buy or borrow lasting monuments of undying intellect.
This is where Hazlitt's classic essay 'The Fight' helps us to see that there has to be a bridge between the sweaty world of popular spectacle - a boxing match in the open countryside - and what we often tend to think of as the fixed, permanent, airless, platonic, perfect realm that is the classic. Hazlitt is fascinated, as Homer and Virgil were, by bodies in action - warriors fighting or athletes competing against each other. He compares the two boxers in 'The Fight' to classical gods: Hickman is Diomed, while Neate is a 'modern Ajax'. Hazlitt wants us to see that like Mohammed Ali and George Forman in that astounding film When We Were Kings, Hickman and Neate are indeed both gods and living men whose skin glistens with sweat and oil. The gods have come to earth to the delight of the English crowd that has gathered to witness their battle. The classical world doesn't simply belong in the library of a country house or an Oxford or Cambridge college, Hazlitt is saying - it can be glimpsed here and now in the overwhelming, literally in-your-face nature of popular culture.
But Hazlitt is saying more than this. He is designing a dramatic image and symbol for the fierce art of journalism he practised all his life. He wrote his last essay, 'The Sick Bed', as he lay dying in a rooming-house in Soho in September 1830. And perhaps a week or two earlier, as he lay on his death bed, he wrote 'The Letter Bell' in which he recalls the road between Wem and Shrewsbury, the road on which he set off on the journey that led him to become the greatest prose writer of the Romantic period.
But how does Hazlitt make boxing into a symbolic figure for journalism? Just as Norman Mailer, who appears in When We Were Kings where he gives an admiring critique of Ali's art, so Hazlitt appears in 'The Fight' as an engaged but disinterested spectator - the ideal critic - who can admire the silky-skinned, panther-like Hickman, and the massive, knock-kneed, not-too-brainy Neate. But if we take the phrase 'petit maître' which Hazlitt applies to Neate's blows which displayed 'none of the petit maîtreship of the art' - we can begin to see that Hazlitt is figuring Neate as one of the prose writers he most admired - Edmund Burke. Contrasting Burke with the 18th-century polemical writer Junius, Hazlitt says that Burke's style has 'the stalk of a giant', while Junius's is 'the strut of a petit-maître'.
So the boxer Neate is like the tragically anguished Burke in action. He hits hard and doesn't mess about. What Hazlitt admires in the boxers - the sinewy, the elastic - he also admires in combative, polemical prose. The political journalist, he is insisting, is like a boxer who offers hard, heavy blows. This means that writing is a spectator sport - it's therefore popular - and it also means that it resembles the conflicts in the piece - or pieces - of classical sculpture Hazlitt most admired - the Elgin Marbles. When the Marbles were first displayed to the British public in the summer of 1807, their effect was overwhelming. Keats was enthralled and wrote two sonnets in praise of them, while Hazlitt joyously responded to the sensuous, indented texture of the fighting figures on the marble panels in the British Museum. These sculptures and the separate statues that make up the Elgin Marbles are in fact monuments of distinctly aged and distressed intellect, but in Hazlitt's prose they become living bodies: art is transformed into nature by the vigour of his prose.
Out of all the masterpieces which make up the continuously growing body of texts we know as the Penguin Classics, one of the supreme novels is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, a novel which many regard as embodying that unchanging village society which appears to be permanent and monumental. Which is a way of saying that Jane Austen is either innocent of politics or that she is a particular kind of conservative writer who wholeheartedly embraces the status quo. But her portrayal of the witty, highly intelligent and plainspoken Elizabeth Bennett, with her accompanying hostility to the snobbery of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and to the craven servility of Mr Collins, makes this novel more subtle than many readers perceive. Also Elizabeth's uncle, who lives in an unfashionable part of London, is in trade, and Austen portrays him as an energetic, sensible, caring and wise person, quite unlike most of her other Bennett relatives. Repeatedly, Austen uses one of Hazlitt's favourite critical terms 'candour' to describe the plainspoken Elizabeth Bennett. The word 'candour' belongs to the radical dissenting culture which formed Hazlitt, and it is cognate with that disinterestedness - the ability to respect your opponent's point of view - which he sought to uphold in his writing.
If we take the famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, and consider it, as Hazlitt would insist we do, as an example of perfect prose style, we can begin to see how the classic designs a particular kind of ironic simplicity which is both slippery and precise: 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.' It isn't heavy-handed to observe that this is the language of the American and European Enlightenment. At the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, the great American revolutionary and founding father of the Republic of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, observes: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.' Austen's pollysyllabic phrase 'universally acknowledged' nimbly insists on a self-evident truth, and the oo-sound in 'truth' is mirrored in ''good' and 'fortune', syllables which are in turn echoed by the Declaration's 'pursuit'. But Austen plays a witty trick in the last clause of her sentence, when she arrests the smooth, even superficial, speed of the sentence by shifting into slower, blunter, more practical monosyllables. Must be in want of a wife - how incontrovertibly the two ws alliterate. It's like hearing a gun snap open - this is decisive action, a deal about to be done, a match about to be made. And how suggestive that word 'want' is - this is the language of direct desire, as in 'I want you'. Of course, this is the voice of a match-making Regency Lady Bracknell, who sounds for that run of monosyllables like a harsh accountant or bank manager. But supposing we changed 'want' to 'need'? The alliteration would be lost, something merely naff and needy would replace that desperate almost desert-like, impoverished word 'want' with its associations with genteel poverty as well as with real impoverishment and famine. Like a line of complex poetry, Jane Austen's classic sentence sets up multiple meanings while remaining a perfectly-poised, self-subsistent pattern of sounds.
This is what we seek in classic art, and here James Joyce, the author of Ulysses, that most magnificent of modern classics, can explain the nature of such art. For Joyce, the classical artist is the patient craftsman Daedalus, not his son the aspiring, Romantic overreacher Icarus. Daedalus or Joyce's artist-as-hero Stephen Dedalus belongs not to one country or nation, he is not settled or cosy or complacent, but instead is cosmopolitan and free of any ethnically exclusive identity. As Joyce says, "Classicism is a constant state of the artistic mind, a temper of security, and satisfaction and patience." Works like Ulysses, Pride and Prejudice, Emma Bovary give us access to that constant, unvarying state of mind.
Many of the works which build the living, fertile monument which is Penguin Classics are translations from other languages. For those of us who grew up in an island perplexed by one-nation and two-nation theories of identity, the Penguin list bids us follow Joyce in seeking to break free of the nets of nation, race and class. In the heaven of these classics, we can declare our independence as citizens and readers. William Hazlitt is one of the sturdiest, most plain-spoken critics and artists who uphold this form of imaginative freedom. He is, more than anyone else, the critic as artist. I hope this selection of his prose, The Fight and Other Writings, will help to restore him to his rightful place among Blake, Wordsworth and Keats, as one of the noblest geniuses of the Romantic movement. His prose does not belong to that second-order status which is usually accorded to critical prose - rather he makes the critical essay into an art form so that, in a favourite metaphor, he melts down sources, quotations from other writers, fragments of autobiography and observation into a new form. The term for this form is 'cento' - it means patchwork - and the most famous example of the cento is T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which as everyone knows is a patchwork of quotations from various texts in various languages. But, as Hazlitt pointed out, Milton's Paradise Lost is a cento, a complex fabric of allusions and borrowings from his vast reading. We need to be aware that Hazlitt is also an epic artist in prose. In his work, the era of the French Revolution and the European ways which followed it are given permanent form. The subtlety, energy, freshness and distinctness of his prose means that he belongs among the very greatest of English writers. He is a philosopher who thinks in images, a metaphysician who is also the first major art critic in English.
For several decades now, Hazlitt’s work has been neglected by scholars and by the general reader. I hope this selection will call into being a new generation of readers who will in turn celebrate his work with new studies and editions. Many of Hazlitt's works are out of print, let us hope that they reappear as bright, new paperbacks to join such immortals as Dryden's magnificent translation of Virgil's Aeneid. This translation is one of the supreme poems in English, and I remember thinking when Penguin published Frederick Kerner's edition of it, that this was a very significant moment in publishing. It made available a work which was otherwise buried in expensive hardback editions and it also proclaimed the plenary, foundational quality which Penguin Classics shares with Virgil's epic. The Penguin list takes us, to take a phrase from Douglas Dunn, into 'the dustless heaven of the classics.' There we the common reader are liberated and happy.
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