Exploring the Self
A Study of Hazlitt’s My First Acquaintance with Poet
D. KiruthigaII M.A English
Reg No: 17PG815
Abstrcact”My First Acquaintance with Poets” was first published in 1823 in a short-lived but a highly
significant periodical of the Romantic Age, The Liberal. If we go by the generic distinction this document is primarily an essay based on the reminiscences of the author of the experience he had almost twenty five years back when he met a “poet” for the first time in life, a moment of “baptism”, as he says, in the world of poetry and philosophy (Hazlitt, First Acquaintance). The essay can be taken as a memoir because it moves round a particular incident in the author’s life, i.e., his meeting with Coleridge, the successive interactions they had had in course of getting acquainted with each other in the next few months, the impact of this acquaintance that the author bears in his mind and the inevitable although temporal separation between the two. This whole process of “acquaintance” not only with poet in singular but “poets” took place within the most significant year in the history of English Romanticism, 1798. As a memoir is expected to be, the essay documents a very important part in the author’s life relating to a life changing event
and the author’s response to it.
Exploring the self
In the hierarchy of the genre of life writing memoir comes in the lower order, regarded as a
sub genre of autobiography since it involves a lesser degree of seriousness, as Laura Marcus puts it, “the autobiography/memoir distinction–ostensibly formal and generic–is bound up with a typological distinction between those human beings who are capable of self-reflection and those who are not” (p.21). Although if a memoir can be self-reflective or not is a matter debatable, the basic issue is that a memoir is required to be a more truthful and graphic representation of the past than autobiography is. And moreover autobiography is a developmental narrative involving a teleological progress to the end whereas a memoir puts a narrow focus on a particular incident of the author’s life, a synchronic study, “a story from a life” instead of “a story of life” Unlike the autobiography a memoir is not a self-story but a story of both self and other playing roles in it. So a memoir can be a documentation of a private o public event or sometimes even blurring the distinction between the two. What Hazlitt did in his Familier Essays as did Lamb is to use a public medium in order to convey some private emotions. And this particular document exemplifies this approach in the most remarkable way, occupying the border between public and private.
The essay opens with Coleridge, his arrival in Shropshire in order to take charge as the new Dissenting Minister of the Unitarian Church there. Hazlitt, young then with all those anxieties and expectation of a young mind eagerly awaited and crossed ten miles in the mud to listen to the young Enthusiast, Coleridge. But being a religious skeptic or going through the period. Hackney College where he had suffered the loss of faith Hazlitt could not have gone to simply hear the lecture of a Unitarian Minister but to see how “poetry and philosophy had met together. Truth and genius had embraced in his speech”.
” A poet and philosopher getting up into an Unitarian pulpit to preach the gospel, was a
romance in these degenerate days, a sort of revival of the primitive spirit of Christianity,
which was not to be resisted”.
Surprisingly, in the whole essay if we hear someone speak, it is Coleridge. Perhaps it is
Hazlitt’s strategy to establish Coleridge as a man of words only, not of action. As in another
essay on Coleridge in the collection, “The Spirit of the Age: Contemporary Portraits” Hazlitt
says, “The present age is an age of talkers, not of doers” (p.1) clearly hinting on the poet’s lack of action. In this present essay too, ‘talking’ is an interesting trope used against Coleridge; in the beginning, he first makes his appearance, “talking at a great rate to his fellow passengers” , then as a preacher in the church, again at author’s home he talked everywhere and almost everything, from Wollstonecraft to Holcroft, from Wordsworth to Burke, to Mackintosh, “he talked very familiarly…and glanced over a variety of subjects” .
things, many more than I remember” (Hazlitt, First Acquaintance). Some exclusion and inclusion is natural in a memoir though Hazlitt’s bibliographer Elizabeth Schneider has suggested: “Wherever Hazlitt’s recollections can be tested against other evidence, they show almost no distortion and very few errors”.
” He Coleridge spoke slightly of Hume. I was not very much pleased at this account of
Hume…Coleridge even denied the excellence of Hume’s general style, which I think
betrayed a want of taste or candour.”
The essay can be considered as Hazlitt’s way of writing back to Coleridge. In the beginning he has built an almost godlike image of Coleridge which by the end has completely been destroyed by him in an almost frankensteinian way. It might be taken as an act of killing the father rhetorically or getting out of the influence of a predecessor and writing a story of his own. The conflict that can be seen through the lines of the essay is not only between the two personalities as such but between two different poetics that Hazlitt and Coleridge did follow. Hazlitt’s theory of disinterestedness which anticipates Keats’s idea of “Negative Capability” is perhaps an answer to Coleridge’s extreme subjectivity or egocentricity as reflected through his poems and later propounded through his theory of Imagination
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