Hazlitt on Coriolanus: Poetry of Power

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As there is a movie staring Ralph Fiennes, or Voldemort to you youngsters, (who also directs) coming out based on Coriolanus I thought I’d share what is perhaps the greatest English essayist, William Hazlitt, on the Tragedy of Caius Martius.  Here is how the essay opens:

Shakespear [sic] has in this play shewn himself well versed in history and state-affairs. Coriolanus is a store-house of political common-places. Any one who studies it may save himself the trouble of reading Burke’s Reflections, or Paine’s Rights of Man, or the Debates in both Houses of Parliament since the French Revolution or our own. The arguments for and against aristocracy or democracy, on the privileges of the few and the claims of the many, on liberty and slavery, power and the abuse of it, peace and war, are here very ably handled with the spirit of a poet and the acuteness of a philosopher.

That seems a good enough reason to see the movie, if not read the play (though why not read the play!–it was perhaps Melville’s favorite after all) as it will afford you a college education in one sitting!

And though, should I see the film, I will likely prattle on about it here, there will be no skill or talent available in me to say any better or with more depth and genius than Hazlitt does here.  Indeed, this essay alone is an education.  Not only do we confront the “many and the one”–we also are shown the less “pure” politics of the weasel state orators and aristocrats whose clear motivation is the retention of privilege at all costs.  We are also confronted with a monstrosity of a mother who raises her child to dominate by violence.  But ultimately Hazlitt teaches us that Power is the drug imbibed by even those trampled under foot.  We sing praises to the tyrant even as the tyrant slits our throat.  We pray to power.  We do this as much in art as in life.

The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible effect to a favourite object. . . . Poetry is right-royal.

It puts the individual for the species, the one above the infinite many, might before right. A lion hunting a flock of sheep or a herd of wild asses is a more poetical object than they; and we even take part with the lordly beast, because our vanity or some other feeling makes us disposed to place ourselves in the situation of the strongest party.

So we feel some concern for the poor citizens of Rome when they meet together to compare their wants and grievances, till Coriolanus comes in and with blows and big words drives this set of ‘poor rats,’ this rascal scum, to their homes and beggary before him.

There is nothing heroical in a multitude of miserable rogues not wishing to be starved, or complaining that they are like to be so: but when a single man comes forward to brave their cries and to make them submit to the last indignities, from mere pride and self-will, our admiration of his prowess is immediately converted into contempt for their pusillanimity. The insolence of power is stronger than the plea of necessity

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The tame submission to usurped authority or even the natural resistance to it has nothing to excite or flatter the imagination: it is the assumption of a right to insult or oppress others that carries an imposing air of superiority with it. We had rather be the oppressor than the oppressed. The love of power in ourselves and the admiration of it in others are both natural to man: the one makes him a tryant, the other a slave. Wrong dressed out in pride, pomp, and circumstance has more attraction than abstract right.

And it is this poetic principle that applies to the “actors” of life in their particular roles.  Poetry does not care for the rhetoric of human welfare.

…the care of the state cannot, we here see, be safely entrusted to maternal affection or to the domestic charities of high life. The great have private feelings of their own, to which the interests of humanity and justice must courtesy. Their interests are so far from being the same as those of the community that they are in direct and necessary opposition to them; their power is at the expense of our weak- ness; their riches, of our poverty; their pride, of our degradation; their splendour, of our wretchedness; their tyranny, of our servitude.

If they had the superior knowledge ascribed to them (which they have not) it would only render them so much more formidable; and from Gods would convert them into Devils. The whole dramatic moral of Coriolanus is that those who have little shall have less, and that those who have much shall take all that others have left.

The people are poor; therefore they ought to be starved. They are slaves; therefore they ought to be treated like beasts of burden. They are ignorant; therefore they ought not to be allowed to feel that they want food, or clothing, or rest, that they are enslaved, oppressed, and miserable. This is the logic of the imagination and the passions, which seek to aggrandise what excites admiration and to heap contempt on misery, to raise power into tyranny, and to make tyranny absolute; to thrust down that which is low still lower, and to make wretches desperate; to exalt magistrates into kings, kings into gods; to degrade subjects to the rank of slaves, and slaves to the condition of brutes.

The history of mankind is a romance, a mask, a tragedy, constructed upon the principles of poetical justice; it is a noble or royal hunt, in which what is sport to the few is death to the many, and in which the spectators halloo and encourage the strong to set upon the weak, and cry havoc in the chase, though they do not share in the spoil. We may depend upon it that what men delight to read in books they will put in practice in reality.

There you have it.  A right proper diagnosis of why you and I are fucked.

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  1. focus December 18, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    well look at this! Nice follow up to our conversation today–we certainly were on the same wavelength. It has been too long since I have read the play. College years. It is time for a revisit I think. I would like to see the film also. I am curious to see Fiennes transposition of it. He and Butler are interesting actors and I wonder what they will bring to their characters.

    1. Doug December 18, 2011 at 9:30 pm

      I’ve been thinking about the play for some time–ridiculous how pertinent it is. But it’s ridiculous how pertinent everything is (insert comments from previous post about the history of errors)…Perhaps the movie will lead to more thoughts Errant thoughts.

      I do have high hopes for it.

  2. focus December 18, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    yes it is pertinent–that’s why I think it bears a revisit. I just thought it was funny that it came to mind for me today also. Happenstance, karma, call it what you will. From among all the thoughts and issues at hand we both hit on this topic today.

  3. Douglas Storm December 18, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    there is only one mind…

    1. focus December 18, 2011 at 9:38 pm

      expound please. I would disagree, as there are many minds mindlessly focusing on professional sports at the moment you and I wax profound on Coriolanus.

  4. Douglas Storm December 18, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    expounding on that would be its own post, yes? basically my feeling is that the distractions of cultural, mercantile life are a somewhat more “fallen” reality–not in the original sin sense but as in falling away from the world spirit of sorts…So, within the fallen there is still spirit–it’s just more covered by the demiurge’s illusions

    1. focus December 18, 2011 at 9:54 pm

      make it a post then!


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