The pleasure of painting

William Hazlitt, "Self-Portrait", 1802.


Presentation of the newly edited book by William Hazlitt

William Hazlitt (1778-1830) has gone down in history as one of the greatest essayists in history. Many compared him to Montaigne. The comparison is fair when one considers the length of the topics, the argumentative virtuosity, the exuberant erudition, the prose that is both direct and digressive, the unfettered frankness and the way of addressing the reader in a familiar tone, as if he were dealing with it an intimate conversation – or, in Hazlittian terms, a chat (table talk). But there are some differences between the two, which must be sought both in the historical transformations that the essay as a literary form of expression underwent from the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century and in the personality or person that they tried to print in their texts.

Montaigne is the founder of the modern essay. But it is likely that he was not aware that his book, Essay, would lay the foundations of a new literary genre. Erich Auerbach, one of Montaigne's most astute readers, says that the audience of Essay, when the work was published, did not exist, “and he could not suppose that it did”.

However, shortly after Montaigne's death, this public began to take shape across the English Channel. In 1603, John Florio translated the first edition of the Essay for english. Montaigne's popularity in England was so significant that his name became a verb, to montaignize: digress from subject to subject and familiarize the reader or listener with the great themes inherited by tradition. Montaigne's presence is visible in Shakespeare, even though the borrowings that the bard made from the essayist, from time to time, are not gestures of homage, “but of provocation”.

Francis Bacon was the first to launch the fashion in England when he published a shorter book entitled Essay (1597-1625). The essays that constitute it are also shorter, composed mainly of aphoristic phrases, which are more like epigrams in prose. But if they don't have the same confidential tone as Montaigne, there is a similar mobilization of a very rich repertoire and the presence of themes of wisdom, sarcasm and irony. The next generation of English essayists – masters of a style that came to be known as Baroque – followed Montaigne more closely, giving his lucubrations the intimate tone of personal reflection on whatever subjects came to their minds. I am referring to Abraham Cowley (1618-1667), Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) and Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), key authors for the formation of Hazlittian prose.

However, no other event had a greater impact on gender transformations than the creation of the press essay. In 1709, Richard Steele, Joseph Addison, and, to a lesser extent, Jonathan Swift released The Tatler; in sequence, The Spectator (1711-1712). With them, literature entered the press, an event that would change it forever. It would be a mistake to assume that, with this, literature lost depth and rigor, although it became more mundane, more down to earth.

Just remember that the most important work of our literature, the The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, was originally published serially in News Gazette, and that this media support interfered both in its structure and in its creative process. Lúcia Miguel Pereira, an important Machadiana and promoter of English essayists in Brazil, said about The Tatler e The Spectator: “The customs and events of the time, worldly news and poetry, fashions and sciences, everything was commented on with finesse and grace, everything provided a pretext for observations whose light tone did not cloud clairvoyance”.

Another fundamental feature of these essays is the comic note. The Tatler e The Spectator they are, above all, humorous disguises by the authors, like masks in a comedy. It was the meeting, Hazlitt observed, of philosopher and gossip; The Tatler, in fact, means "the gossip."

In this way, the authors acquired a greater license to express their particular moods and opinions and, in so doing, amuse the city. Jon Mee, one of the main scholars on the subject today, shows in a recent study how much Steele and Addison's periodical essays shaped all of the English prose of the XNUMXth and early XNUMXth centuries, which is observed not only in the periodical essays that followed, but also in novels, short stories and philosophical works. There are certainly differences between the periodical essay of the time and other literary genres, or even between the periodical essay and the philosophical essay, by David Hume, for example. One of the hallmarks of these essays is the presence of a first-person narrator, which, not infrequently, gives them a strong fictional coloring.

But let's not confuse essay with fiction, even when other characters are introduced (like the famous club of The Spectator) or when the narrator interrupts the commentary on customs, the analysis of a prominent personality or the philosophical discussion to ramble on about the feelings and opinions of a coin, in case we endow it with life. Strictly speaking, the essayist has no intention of creating worlds or transporting the reader to a reality other than the immediate reality of everyday facts and events; something not very different from what we will find in the Brazilian chronicle; It's from Essay “where would the chronicle come from”, as observed by Vinícius de Moraes.

The Tatler e The Spectator opened the gate. Throughout the eighteenth century, in Britain, periodical essays proliferated in droves. So Samuel Johnson was The Rambler, The Idler e The Adventurer; Oliver Goldsmith, The Bee; Henry Mackenzie, The Mirror; and so on. Despite the differences, in all of them the essayist, in this or that persona, presents himself as a kind of mediator between the lofty topics of philosophy or the commentary on customs and the common reader. This was more or less the profile of periodical essays until the beginning of the XNUMXth century, when an author emerged who would transform the genre forever.

Hazlitt was the son of a Unitarian minister who had been a student of Adam Smith at the University of Glasgow. From an early age, his father had prepared him for a pastoral career. However, he thwarted his father's ambitions when he abandoned his studies in theology to dedicate himself to painting alongside his older brother, John. Unitarians made up one of the numerous splinter groups from the official church whose religious beliefs bordered on heresy and whose political stance represented a threat to the British state in those years classified by Eric Hobsbawm as the “age of revolutions”.

They were also the years of the Napoleonic wars, the first world conflict, with alliances between countries and transatlantic reverberations: the popular movement for the dissolution of the slave trade and the struggles for independence in Latin America. Great Britain was the epicenter of the fight against Napoleon. Therefore, anyone who spoke in favor of him or the ideals of the French Revolution, of which the dissident groups were a part, was persecuted, “proscribed, cornered”.

This is the background to the entire Romantic movement in England, whether for or against English nationalism. Hazlitt, said Marilyn Butler, "belongs to the classic stock of the English left, the mavericks." Because of his Unitarian heritage – the studies he had received from his father, from Joseph Priestley, William Godwin, etc. – and the friendships he formed in his youth – the radical years of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth – Hazlitt remained, from beginning to end, a defender of the aspirations for a fairer world, or, in his words, of the “cause of people”, that is, those who support the State with their “tears, sweat and blood”, and this permeates every essay he wrote, even when it was about a philosophical or critical theme.

When looking at his trajectory – from theology and philosophy student to itinerant painter and, finally, columnist for some of the newspapers and magazines most highly regarded authors of the time – it does not seem that Hazlitt intended himself to be an innovator of the essay as a literary form of expression. In fact, he didn't intend to. In his youth, his two greatest ambitions were: that of a philosopher and that of a painter. Your first book, An Essay on the Principles of Human Action (1805), was written along the lines of the eighteenth-century philosophical essay, but its thesis, that all human action aims at a disinterested projection of the imagination (an attack on the claims of self-love), never reached the reach it craved.

As a painter, he produced only one memorable painting, the portrait of his friend and essayist Charles Lamb, now entrusted to National Portrait Gallery. In 1812, through Lamb himself, he got his first job in the periodical press, in the morning chronicle. His position as a writer was the same as that of many of his generation and the following generations, that is, he dedicated himself to a literary career and sought the assent of the public. This fact was perceived by Hazlitt in all its complexity, as well as the requirement to stand out, to give it its own, individual mark, so as not to drown in the ocean of publications. Because he had never abandoned, at least in fantasy, the aspirations of philosopher and painter – his essays promote the alliance of the two: “as if two minds operated at the same time”, in the accurate words of Virginia Woolf about him.

The Examiner (journal created by Leigh Hunt that brings in the title one of the constitutive traits of the genre, the the or swarm of thoughts) was where Hazlitt best trained his hand as an essayist. Hunt had the more mundane themes and the humorous touches; to Hazlitt belonged the critics and philosophers. Together they wrote The Round Table, his first miscellany of essays, published in book form in 1817. For political reasons, the project dissolved.

After Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, the Congress of Vienna and, with it, the restoration of national monarchies, under the argument of legitimacy, the attention of the British state turned to what was happening on its own soil, especially to the Corresponding Societies, defined by Hobsbawm as “the first independent political organizations of the working class”.

As James Chandler, the great critic and historian of the period, observed, never was England closer to a proletarian revolution than in the years 1815 to 1819. Of the demonstrations promoted by the workers, none had a greater impact than the concentration in St. Louis. Peter's Field, Manchester, in 1819. Led by orator Henry Hunt and encouraged by William Cobbett's periodicals, some 60 workers gathered in a public square to demand better working conditions and universal suffrage (a very dangerous flag to raise ). But hussars, many of whom were fighters at Waterloo, went on the people, killing fifteen people with swords and wounding another six hundred, among them women and children. The event became known as the Peterloo Massacre.

From Waterloo to Peterloo, Hazlitt was engaged like few others in the workers' struggle. But unlike Cobbett, Hazlitt's readership was not the popular class, "but the educated of his time," as EP Thompson observed. Hazlitt saw himself as something of an infiltrator in the middle-class newspapers and magazines, which was why he had never established himself in this or that press. Its objective was to awaken public opinion to the demands and excesses of the government, to the huge expenses with war arsenal and with the sustenance of the British monarchy and nobility, and to the hunger and misery of an extensive population devoid of any rights.

The establishment of popular government and a truly representative democracy can only be achieved when privileges are replaced by rights. England, argues Hazlitt, will never be a democratic nation as long as the king achieves arbitrary power: but what king does not achieve arbitrary power? Hazlitt never hid his anti-monarchism. He never, in fact, silenced or failed to expose to the public the most controversial opinions: the hypocrisy of the existing political parties (conservative and liberal) and the blindness of reformists and utopian socialists. But rather than directing his attacks at the Prince Regent, as Hunt and Cobbett had done (which resulted in their arrests), Hazlitt was smart enough to criticize the monarchy in abstract terms – political and moral. 1819, the year of Peterloo, coincides with one of his most important works, Political Essays, written “in the hope of making Southey squirm, give an apoplexy in the quarterly or even stop Coleridge in mid-sentence.”

By the 1820s it was clear to any Englishman that the break with the revolutionary perspective had been radical. Hazlitt saw himself abandoned, betrayed, because the romantic poets, “friends of his youth and friends of men”, stopped being defenders of the cause of the people to throw laurels to the monarchy, that is, “turned their coats”. But 1820 also corresponds to a crucial year for his career and for the historical transformations of the essay form. A mediatic innovation would mark the genre, the creation of London Magazine, by John Scott. Following in the wake of Blackwood's, London it gave its columnists freedom to write about any subject, in the tone and format they wanted and without restrictions regarding the number of pages.

London established itself as a veritable literary warehouse, hosting texts in prose and poetry (John Keats published part of his work there), fiction and non-fiction; even more, it welcomed texts that blurred these distinctions. It was the golden age of family essay, a typically English genre, and Hazlitt was in the right place at the right time. In London, Lamb created Elia, his change ditto, or quasi-fictional persona; Thomas De Quincey invented the opium eater, equally idiosyncratic, discursive and extravagant. In both cases, it was a dramatization of himself, "a new kind of literary autobiography, more grim than any other of the kind seen before."

As for Hazlitt, who was he in the London? Hazlitt was Hazlitt, a middle-aged bachelor, disillusioned in his public and private hopes, lone wanderer through the streets of the metropolis, always on the lookout for new pleasures and always aware that they would never fill his inner void, ironic observer of weakness of men and of her own; in a word, a bitter Jacobin. With regard to style, there is in these essays a peculiar, inaugural combination between poetic prose and the language of the streets, of coachmen, boxers, street vendors, tavern keepers; that is, an attempt to imprint the oscillating rhythm of the metropolis on the text. According to Phillip Lopate, this style was a liberation from the Johnsonian syntax, so influential in the 1820th century. From then on, essayists like Hazlitt were able to "capture all things, small and large, of everyday London life". The XNUMXs were the author's most productive, when he published his main hodgepodge of essays: table talk (1822) Spirit of the Age (1825) and The Plain Speaker (1826)

But – and here I make another allusion to Vinicius de Moraes – Hazlitt was the essayist, or chronicler, who in times of epidemic had the dignity of never giving in to surrender. One should not confuse the persona of the bitter Jacobin with the point of arrival of the left intellectual disillusioned with life. It is rather a change of strategy and a sharper understanding of the human nature or condition, whatever you want to call it. The essays he published in London, in others magazines of the period and in its miscellany abandoned the pedagogical character, of awareness and formation of public opinion to apply electrical discharges or flicks to the public, in the author's own terms.

The narrator of these essays is, most of the time, a brat, a boor, who believes in the decoction power of the spleen. Thus, the traditional topics of moral philosophy are seen in an inverted light. Montaigne would never say that “old friendships are like meat served again and again: cold, uncomfortable and disgusting”; that England, or France, "is a nation of foul mouths"; that a writer is someone who “knows nothing” etc. But they are not gratuitous offenses or a simple cauterization of old hurts. The question that seems to echo in the mind of the bitter Jacobin is: why did the revolution even fail? We had knife and cheese in hand; everything promised a proud openness to the truth, the common good and the realization of our most intimate yearnings. In response, Hazlitt's persona says: It failed because we chose for it to fail.

Perhaps this is not a conscious choice; anyway, it's on. Even in the face of what we know to be the best for us, of what will bring us the peace, joy and happiness so desired, we opt for its opposite. All this can be expressed in a single formula: "the love of freedom is less strong than the love of power, because the love of freedom is guided by an instinct less sure of achieving its goals".

Freedom is a continuous and joint struggle. But does it follow a linear path, so that we could, through a mathematical calculation, foresee a period of history that is truly free, just, egalitarian, with respect for others and knowledge of oneself? No. Freedom is an idea, an abstraction. We imagine that we feel it when we are on top of a mountain, when we practice a sport, when we finish a painting or any manual activity with which we are engaged. But freedom is also a will, guided by an instinct, which measures forces with the will to power.

Hazlitt never gave in to nihilism. In the last essay he wrote, he could proudly declare: “Once I feel an impression I feel it even stronger the second time; I have not the slightest intention of insulting or dismissing my best thoughts.”

Note about the translation

The pleasure of painting and other essays is Hazlitt's first book published in Portuguese. It is surprising that only now, almost two hundred years after the author's death, a volume with some of his best essays has come to light. But this is not the first time that Hazlitt has been translated into Brazilian Portuguese. In the 1950s, Jackson Classics published English essayists, translated by J. Sarmento de Beires and Jorge Costa Neves, with a preface by Lúcia Miguel Pereira, which features two essays by the author: “About the ignorance of the wise” and “About nicknames”. Roberto Acízelo de Souza translated part of “About poetry in general” for the volume he edited: A modern idea of ​​literature, in 2011. In the same year, the Serrote Magazine published “About the pleasure of hating”, translation by Alexandre Barbosa de Souza, and, in the same magazine, in 2016, “About the essayists of periodicals”, my translation. I have dedicated myself to reading and translating Hazlitt for at least a decade; that is, the texts translated here have gone through continuous attempts, beginnings and restarts.

*Daniel Lago Monteiro is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Language Studies at Unicamp.



William Hazlitt. “The pleasure of painting” and other essays. Translation, presentation and notes: Daniel Lago Monteiro. São Paulo, Unesp, 360 pages.

Bibliography of the presentation

ADDISON, Joseph; STEELE, Richard. Selections from The Tatler and The Spectator. Org. Angus Ross. London: Penguin Classics, 1982.

AUERBACH, Erich. Western Literature Essays: Philology and Criticism. Trans. Samuel Titan Jr. and José Marcos Mariani de Macedo. São Paulo:

Publisher 34, 2007.

BUTLER, Marilyn. Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830🇧🇷 Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.

CHANDLER, James. England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

DART, Gregory. “Sour Jacobinism”: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform. In: Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversityPress, 1999.

GILMARTIN, Kevin. William Hazlitt: Political Essayist🇧🇷 Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

GREENBLATT, Stephen. Shakespeare's Montaigne. Serrote Magazine,

n.20. São Paulo: Instituto Moreira Salles, 2015.

HAZLITT, William. The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, 21 v. Edit. PP Howe. London and Toronto: JM Dent and Sons, LTD, 1930.

______. The Selected Writings of William Hazlitt, 9 v.. Edit. Duncan Wu and Tom Paulin. London: Pickering & Chatto, 1998.

HOBSBAWM, Eric. The era of revolutions 1789-1848. Trans. Maria Tereza Lopes Teixeira and Marcos Penchel. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 2001.

LAMB, Charles. Review of the First Volume of Hazlitt's Table-Talk, 1821. In: Selected Prose. London: Penguin Classics, 2013.

LOPATE, Phillip. The single narrator. Serrote Magazine, n.31. Trans. Daniel Lago Monteiro. São Paulo: Instituto Moreira Salles, 2019.

MEE, Jon. Conversable Worlds: Literature, Contention, & Community 1762 to 1830🇧🇷 Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

MORAES, Vinicius de. Chronicle exercise. In: For a girl with a flower🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2013.

NATARAJAN, Uttara. Hazlitt and the Reach of Sense: Criticism, Morals, and the Metaphysics of Power🇧🇷 Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

PAULIN, Tom. The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style. London: Faber and Faber, 1998.

PEREIRA, Lucia Miguel. On English essayists. In: Twelve essays on the essay: handsaw anthology. Org. Paul Robert Pires. São Paulo:

Moreira Salles Institute, 2018.

THOMPSON, EP The Making of the English Working Class: The Strength of the Workers. Trans. Denise Bottmann. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 2012.

WOOLF, Virginia. William Hazlitt. In: The Second Common Reader. London: Harcourt, Inc., 1986.

Wu, Duncan. William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man🇧🇷 Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.


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