Essay on Poetic Theory

from “On Poetry in General” (1818)

by William Hazlitt

Introduction

It would not be an exaggeration to call William Hazlitt, poet, painter, historian, and critic a renaissance man. By fifty-two, Hazlitt had exhibited a painting of his father at the Royal Academy, written and published a history of Napoleon, and had befriended some of the most important poets of his time: Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shelley.

Hazlitt delivered lectures on Shakespeare, wrote about figures of high society, and reviewed not only theatrical performances but also boxing matches. He praised little-known painters of the period, like the great J.W. Turner, calling him “the ablest landscape painter now living,” and considered his own writing “the thoughts of a metaphysician expressed by a painter.” It is perhaps not surprising then, given his background in painting, that Hazlitt viewed poetry with an artist’s eye, defining poetry as a light to illuminate still objects. He writes, “The light of poetry is not only a direct but also a reflected light, that, while it shows us the object, throws a sparkling radiance on all around it.”

Hazlitt had great respect for the imagination, which he knew could change the way we see everyday things. As he says: “The imagination is the faculty which represents objects, not as they are in themselves, but as they are moulded by other thoughts and feelings, into an infinite variety of shapes and combinations of power.”

Poetry, then, is an imitation of nature, but the imagination and the passions are a part of man’s nature. We shape things according to our wishes and fancies, without poetry; but poetry is the most emphatical language that can be found for those creations of the mind “which ecstasy is very cunning in.” Neither a mere description of natural objects, nor a mere delineation of natural feelings, however distinct or forcible, constitutes the ultimate end and aim of poetry, without the heightenings of the imagination. The light of poetry is not only a direct but also a reflected light, that, while it shows us the object, throws a sparkling radiance on all around it: the flame of the passions, communicated to the imagination, reveals to us, as with a flash of lightning, the inmost recesses of thought, and penetrates our whole being. Poetry represents forms chiefly as they suggest other forms; feelings, as they suggest forms or other feelings. Poetry puts a spirit of life and motion into the universe. It describes the flowing, not the fixed. It does not define the limits of sense, or analyze the distinctions of the understanding, but signifies the excess of the imagination beyond the actual or ordinary impression of any object or feeling. The poetical impression of any object is that uneasy, exquisite sense of beauty or power that cannot be contained within itself; that is impatient of all limit; that (as flame bends to flame) strives to link itself to some other image of kindred beauty or grandeur; to enshrine itself, as it were, in the highest forms of fancy, and to relieve the aching sense of pleasure by expressing it in the boldest manner, and by the most striking examples of the same quality in other instances. Poetry, according to Lord Bacon, for this reason, “has something divine in it, because it raises the mind and hurries it into sublimity, by conforming the shows of things to the desires of the soul, instead of subjecting the soul to external things, as reason and history do.” It is strictly the language of the imagination; and the imagination is that faculty which represents objects, not as they are in themselves, but as they are moulded by other thoughts and feelings, into an infinite variety of shapes and combinations of power. This language is not the less true to nature, because if is false in point of fact; but so much the more true and natural, if it conveys the impression which the object under the influence of passion makes on the mind. Let an object, for instance, be presented to the senses in a state of agitation or fear—and the imagination will distort or magnify the object, and convert it into the likeness of whatever is most proper to encourage the fear “Our eyes are made the fools” of our other faculties. This is the universal law of the imagination,

That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush suppos’d a bear!

When Iachimo says of Imogen,

The flame o’ th’ taper
Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids
To see the enclosed lights,

this passionate interpretation of the motion of the flame to accord with the speaker’s own feelings, is true poetry. The lover, equally with the poet, speaks of the auburn tresses of his mistress as locks of shining gold. We compare a man of gigantic stature to a tower: not that he is anything like so large, but because the excess of his size beyond what we are accustomed to expect, or the usual size of things of the same class, produces by contrast a greater feeling of magnitude and ponderous strength than another object of ten times the same dimensions. The intensity of the feeling makes up for the disproportion of the objects. Things are equal, to the imagination, which have the power of affecting the mind with an equal degree of terror, admiration, delight, or love. When Lear calls upon the heavens to avenge his cause, “for they are old like him,” there is nothing extravagant or impious in this sublime identification of his age with theirs; for there is no other image which could do justice to the agonizing sense of his wrongs and his despair!

Originally Published: October 13, 2009

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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