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. Continue reading