Of Ghee and Welsh Mutton

Studying for the GRE subject test in literature has been wonderful. The Norton Anthology (which seems to be the standard) is like a good Indian lunch buffet: you get your small portions of super-rich entrees (ie, the actual literature), you have the light, airy condiments (the historical essays and biographical sketches), and if you want palak paneer (that Browning poem you’ve already read a million times), there will always be palak paneer. Also, if you do it right, the experience is cheap and the physical plant dingy.

The best new find so far: William Hazlitt’s “My First  Acquaintance With Poets” — the story of Hazlitt, as a young man, meeting and traveling with the explosive, charismatic, and magical Samuel Coleridge. It’s not my first acquaintance with Hazlitt. I’ve read The Spirit of The Age, his collection of profiles of English notables, including Coleridge.

“My First Acquaintance,” however, is to that profile what ghee is to margarine: lighter but more grounded, tied to organic experience but perfectly clarified. Coleridge isn’t just a flighty, quasi-mystical and bombastic genius. He’s also Hazlitt’s first encounter with greatness, an experience as revolutionary in its way as the storming of the Bastille. You get the sense that all the energy running through Hazlitt’s prose (and there’s plenty) is somehow messily tied to the bounding, exclaiming figure of Coleridge.

It’s tough to excerpt — what’s most impressive is the narrative’s flow, the sense one gets of Coleridge’s overwhelming, sometimes indiscriminate energy, spilling over as if it were actual water in vigorous, joyful motion, carrying along Hazlitt like a broken stick. Still, below is a great paragraph describing a meal with his father (a dissenting minister) and Coleridge (the same, but of a rather different sort). As I’m the child and student of any number of dissenting ministers and an admirer of magicians, the description of this strange mismatch struck a special chord.

But even if you don’t share my biography, it’s still amazing writing. As was said of a certain German philosopher, Hazlitt makes dead texts (including his other profile of Coleridge, but also the section of Mill’s autobiography about Coleridge’s challenge to his rationalism) come alive. Excerpting is really a mistake (read it all!) — still, here’s the excerpt:

No two individuals were ever more unlike than were the host and his guest. A poet was to my father a sort of nondescript; yet whatever added grace to the Unitarian cause was to him welcome. He could hardly have been more surprised or pleased if our visitor had worn wings. Indeed, his thoughts had wings: and as the silken sounds rustled round our little wainscoted parlour, my father threw back his spectacles over his forehead, his white hairs mixing with its sanguine hue: and a smile of delight beamed across his rugged, cordial face, to think that Truth had found a new ally in Fancy! Besides, Coleridge seemed to take considerable notice of me, and that of itself was enough. He talked very familiarly, but agreeably, and glanced over a variety of subjects. At dinner-time he grew more animated, and dilated in a very edifying manner on Mary Wolstonecraft and Mackintosh. The last, he said, he considered (on my father’s speaking of his Vindiciae Gallicae as a capital performance) as a clever, scholastic man — a master of the topics — or, as the ready warehouseman of letters, who knew exactly where to lay his hand on what he wanted, though the goods were not his own. He thought him no match for Burke, either in style or matter. Burke was a metaphysician, Mackintosh a mere logician. Burke was an orator (almost a poet) who reasoned in figures, because he had an eye for nature: Mackintosh, on the other hand, was a rhetorician who had only an eye to commonplaces. On this I ventured to say that I had always entertained a great opinion of Burke, and that (as far as I could find) the speaking of him with contempt might be made the test of a vulgar democratical mind. This was the first observation I ever made to Coleridge, and he said it was a very just and striking one. I remember the leg of Welsh mutton and the turnips on the table that day had the finest flavour imaginable. Coleridge added that Mackintosh and Tom Wedgwood (of whom, however, he spoke highly) had expressed a very indifferent opinion of his friend Mr. Wordsworth, on which he remarked to them — “He strides on so far before you, that he dwindles in the distance!” Godwin had once boasted to him of having carried on an argument with Mackintosh for three hours with dubious success; Coleridge told him — “If there had been a man of genius in the room he would have settled the question in five minutes.” He asked me if I had ever seen Mary Wolstonecraft, and I said, I had once for a few moments, and that she seemed to me to turn off Godwin’s objections to something she advanced with quite a playful, easy air. He replied, that — “this was only one instance of the ascendency which people of imagination exercised over those of mere intellect.” He did not rate Godwin very high (this was caprice, or prejudice, real or affected), but he had a great idea of Mrs. Wolstonecraft’s powers of conversation; none at all of her talent for bookmaking. We talked a little about Holcroft. He had been asked if he was not much struck with him, and he said, he thought himself in more danger of being struck by him. I complained that he would not let me get on at all, for he required a definition of even the commonest word, exclaiming, “What do you mean by a sensation, Sir? What do you mean by an idea?” This, Coleridge said, was barricading the road to truth; it was setting up a turnpike-gate at every step we took. I forget a great number of things, many more than I remember; but the day passed off pleasantly, and the next morning Mr. Coleridge was to return to Shrewsbury…

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