In my own research, I have come across many instances of Romantic writers attempting to qualify, mask, or obscure their participation in certain genres and media. One medium that is gaining increasing and worthwhile attention is the public lecture. Spheres of Action: Speech and Performance in Romantic Culture (2009), a collection of worthwhile and timely essays edited by Alexander Dick and Angela Esterhammer, opens with a provocative claim by Judith Thompson: “Romanticism has come down to us as an imaginative rather than a performative movement, a movement of mind rather than mouth, as it were; and, like other Romantic ideologies, this bias against speech has coloured not only literary history but the study of language” (1). This claim functions as a type of mission statement for the volume.
In this post, I will attempt to respond to this call and build on the insightful pieces in the collection, most notably Judith Thompson’s essay, by examining William Hazlitt’s attempt to distance himself from his own career as a lecturer.
In his essay, “On the Difference between Writing and Speaking,” which was first published in London Magazine in July 1820 and then again in 1826 in a collection of essays titled The Plain Speaker, Hazlitt claims that “different faculties are required for, and different objects attained by” writing and speaking (140). Hazlitt associates writing with time, re-reading, completion, and comprehensiveness. Speaking, in contrast, demands “bustle,” “animation,” and “a lively flow of animal spirits” (142). The effects of each are different as well. For Hazlitt, speaking “must be done offhand” and its impact is “a single blow” (141). Writing allows the author more time to prepare his work and the reader the chance to return to and “go over the page again, whenever anything new or questionable ‘gives us pause’” (146). Therefore, according to Hazlitt, it should come as no surprise that good orators are not good writers. With the Jacobin orator John Thelwall being the likely target, Hazlitt writes, “The most dashing orator I ever heard is the flattest writer I ever read. In speaking, he was like a volcano vomiting out lava; in writing, he is like a volcano burnt out” (142). Although he is critical of the “dashing orator,” Hazlitt admits to engaging with his work as a listener and a reader.
Unlike the allusion to Thelwall in the “dashing orator” passage, Hazlitt addresses him by name when he discusses “Mr Thelwall’s Tribune” (143). Thelwall started The Tribune in 1795 and it lasted less than a year. There, as Hazlitt points out, Thelwall published many of his speeches. According to Hazlitt, what the “dashing orator” hands “over to the compositor is tame, trite, and tedious” (143). Without the “bustle” and animation of the orator behind them, the speeches, which “appeared so fine,” are seen for what they really are: “worthless” (143). After linking Thelwall with his radical past, Hazlitt addresses, implicitly at least, Thelwall’s elocutionary theories. Immediately after mentioning Thelwall’s Tribune, Hazlitt claims, “What we read is the same: what we hear and see is different – ‘the self-same words, but not to the self-same tune’” (143). For Hazlitt, writing allows for a certain uniformity, a sameness that speaking cannot. Hazlitt makes his case by modifying the exchange between Banquo and Macbeth after the witches’ prophesy that Macbeth will become king. Macbeth asks Banquo whether he heard the same prophecy and Banquo replies, “To the selfsame tune and words” (I.iii.89). Hazlitt, then, claims that through the “vehemence of gesture” and “loudness of voice,” speakers like Thelwall are able to change the “tune” of the words they speak (143). Hazlitt draws Shakespearean comparisons throughout his essay and even compares orators and actors. According to Hazlitt, for speakers like Thelwall, “an impassioned theatrical disclaimer” takes “the place of argument and wit” (143-4). Ultimately, for Hazlitt, “A popular speaker (such as I have been here describing) is like a vulgar actor off the stage – take away his cue, and he has nothing to say for himself” (144). Without the trappings of delivery and the “intoxication of popular applause,” the orator is “fairly cleared out” (144).
“On the Difference Between Writing and Speaking” reveals Hazlitt’s strong preference for writing, reading, and print. As Thompson points out, Hazlitt associates speech with “bombastic superficiality, immediate but transient gratification, and expedient mob sympathy, in stark contrast to the intellectual depth” and “permanent truth” of writing (22). His comments are especially interesting in light of his own career as a public lecturer. Hazlitt was, arguably, known primarily as a lecturer. An anecdote from his first lecture proves especially illuminating. Unable to find a publisher for his History of English Philosophy, Hazlitt turned to public speaking to reach an audience. In January of 1812, Hazlitt began his speaking career with a series of lectures on English philosophy at the Russel Institution in Great Coran Street, Bloomsbury. Hazlitt lectured on Tuesdays and, although Coleridge was speaking on Mondays and Thursdays, had to compete with the poet’s lectures on Shakespeare and Milton at the London Philosophical Society. Competing with Coleridge for an audience and in dire need of money only added to the pressure Hazlitt felt. Furthermore, right before he was about to begin his first lecture, Hazlitt was given a firm time limit. George Hack, the secretary of the Russel Institution, told his speaker, “You will limit yourself to an hour, won’t you? There’s a good chap. Our lectures never go on longer” (Wu 141). With Charles Lamb and Thelwall in attendance, a nervous Hazlitt quickly read through his prepared notes for what he thought would be a three hour lecture. Many in the audience were unable to hear him at all and wondered whether the lecture series would continue next Tuesday as scheduled.
Therefore, Hazlitt learned much of what he would later claim in “The Difference Between Writing and Speaking” firsthand. Lectures required a different type of skill set than writing and had to be given within time limits dictated by someone else. In a journal entry, his friend Thomas Robinson draws attention to the fact that Hazlitt initially did not understand these differences: “He [Hazlitt] read ill a very sensible book, and, as he seems to have no conception of the difference between a lecture and a book, his lectures cannot possibly be popular, hardly tolerable” (Wu 141). Disappointed by his first performance and aware of the validity of criticisms such as Robinson’s, Hazlitt edited his second lecture and, in the words of Duncan Wu, held a “dress rehearsal” at his friend Basil Montagu’s home (142). Those who attended his second lecture were greeted by a new, confident, and lively speaker. A reviewer for The Times claims the new Hazlitt was “audible, distinct and animated; and the felicity of his expressions very frequently excited applause” (Wu 142). Furthermore, the young Hazlitt cut quite the figure. Handsome and well-dressed, Hazlitt was much “easier on the eyes” than his fellow lecturer Coleridge, who was struggling with an opium addiction and had gained a considerable amount of weight (Wu 237).
Although he was never a showman and considered himself, as a title of a collection of essays suggests, a plain speaker, Hazlitt the lecturer was not as far removed from the “dashing” and animated Thelwall as he claims. Furthermore, shortly after his lecture series concluded, Hazlitt accepted a job as a reporter of parliamentary speeches for the Morning Chronicle. He transcribed speeches in shorthand for publication later the same day. In other words, Hazlitt assumed the very “compositor” role he mentions when discussing Thelwall’s Tribune. Thompson rightly points out that “By distancing good (that is, written) language from the tawdry and turbulent, politicized and commercialized culture of public speech,” Hazlitt and Coleridge “mask their own investment in that culture” and “obscure English Romanticism’s” participation in it (22). As the anecdote and Hazlitt’s own lecture career show, despite this attempt at “distancing,” both he and Coleridge become part of the “culture of public speech.” In fact, the success of Hazlitt’s written works was directly connected to his career as a lecturer. Towards the end of his lectures on philosophy, Hazlitt, with the help of Basil Montagu, printed a “Table of Philosophical Opinions” and distributed them to his lecture subscribers. The short document served both to gauge and ignite interest in the possible publication of the lectures in the form of his History of English Philosophy. Even though he did not find a willing publisher, Hazlitt had learned public lectures could be “a good publicity vehicle” for subsequent publications (Wu 138).
This account of Hazlitt’s lecturing career is far from exhaustive but it does begin to show that scholars should not follow Hazlitt’s lead and attempt to separate his writing and speaking careers.
Hazlitt, William. “The Difference Between Writing and Speaking.” The Plain Speaker. Ed. Duncan Wu. London: Pickering & Chatto, 1998. 140-160. Print.
Thompson, Judith. “John Thelwall and the Science and Practice of Elocution.” Spheres of Action:Speech and Performance in Romantic Culture. Ed. Alexander Dick and Angela Esterhammer. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2009. 21-45. Print.
Wu, Duncan. William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.Print.
Yours in Romanticism,