1902 Encyclopedia > William Hazlitt

William Hazlitt
English essayist and critic
(1778-1830)




WILLIAM HAZLITT (1778-1830), one of the most eminent of English critics, was born April 10, 1778, at Maidstone, where his father was minister of the Presby. terian congregation. He was educated privately, and afterwards at the Unitarian College at Hackney, where he first began to speculate upon metaphysical subjects. Feeling disinclined to enter the dissenting ministry, he returned to Wem in Shropshire, where his father had in the meantime settled, and there led an idle and desultory life until, about 1802, he determined upon becoming a painter. Metaphysics and art continued his joint passion throughout his life. It was his singular lot to be animated, by an equal enthusiasm for two of the most dissimilar fields of human effort, in neither of which was he capable of achieving eminence, and yet, by a combination of the qualities proper to both, to obtain the most distinguished success in another sphere which he only entered by accident. The secret of his distinction as a critic is the union in him of the metaphysician's acuteness with the painter's eye for colour and substance. Nowhere else is abstract thought so picturesquely bodied forth by concrete illustration. He commenced the practice of painting in London, where his elder brother had already acquired some reputation as an artist, and soon found his way into literary and artistic circles, becoming especially intimate with Lamb, Hunt, and Godwin. Previously to this he had (January 1798) been powerfully influenced by Coleridge, who had come to preach in his father's neighbourhood, and of whose conversation and general demeanour he has left a most vivid picture. His professional painting did not prosper, and little remains of it except a few portraits; but in 1805 he published his Essay on the Principles of Human Action, which had occupied him at intervals for six or seven years. This work, further defined by the author as an argument in favour of the natural disinterestedness of the human mind, was preferred by him to all his other writings, but never attracted any attention from the public. In 1807 appeared a most useful abridgment of Abraham Tucker's Light of Nature Pursued, and a clever but fallacious attempt to invalidate the natural law established in Malthus's Essay mi Population. In the following year he married Sarah, sister of Dr Stoddart, well known for his connexion with the journalism of the day, a woman of literary tastes and great strength of character, but cold, formal, and utterly uncongenial to him. No man indeed could well be less adapted for domestic life than Hazlitt, whose habits, notwithstanding his exemplary sobriety, were most irregular, whose temper was fitful and moody, and the intensity of whose passions rendered him for the time insensible to the feelings and rightful claims of those who might stand in the way of their gratification. The dissolution of the ill-assorted union was nevertheless deferred for fourteen years, during which much of his best literary work had been produced. After three or four years, during which he almost disappears from observation, he came forward prominently as a writer in the Examiner and as a lecturer at the Surrey Institution, bringing out in rapid succession his Round Table, a collection of essays on literature, men, and manners, his View of the contemporary English stage, and his lectures on the poets, the English comic writers, and the dramatic literature of the age of Elizabeth. By these works, together with his Characters of Shakesp>eare's Plays (1817), and his Table Talk (1821), his reputation as a critic and essayist will mainly be sustained. Next to Coleridge, Hazlitt was perhaps the most powerful exponent of the dawning perception that Shakespeare's art was no less marvellous than his genius ; and Hazlitt's criticism did not, like Coleridge's, remain in the condition of a series of brilliant but fitful glimpses of insight, but was elaborated with steady care. His lectures on the Elizabethan dramatists performed a similar service for the earlier, sweeter, and simpler among them, such as Dekker, till then unduly eclipsed by later writers like Massinger, better playwrights but worse poets. Treating of the contemporary drama, he successfully vindicated for Edmund Kean (whom, however, he had at first disparaged) the high place which he has retained as an actor; while his criticisms on the English comic writers and men of letters in general are masterpieces of ingenious and felicitous exposition, though rarely, like Coleridge's, penetrating to the inmost core of the subject. As an essayist Hazlitt is even more effective than as a critic, for this style of composition allows more scope to the striking individuality of his character. Being enabled to select his own subjects, he escapes dependence upon others either for his matter or his illustrations, and presents himself by turns as a metaphysician, a moralist, a humorist, a painter of manners and characteristics, but always, whatever his ostensible theme, deriving the essence of his commentary from his own bosom. This combination of intense subjectivity with strict adherence to his subject is one of Hazlitt's most distinctive and creditable traits. Intellectual truthfulness is a passion with him. He steeps his topic in the hues of his own individuality, but never uses it as a means of self-display. The first reception of these admirable essays was by no means in accordance with their deserts. Hazlitt's political sympathies and antipathies were vehement, and he had taken the unfashionable side. The Quarterly attacked him with deliberate malignity, stopped the sale of his writings for a time, and blighted his credit with publishers. He had become estranged from his early friends, the Lake poets, by what he uncharitably but not unnaturally regarded as their political apostasy; as well as by an escapade of his own, obscurely related, but apparently not creditable. His inequalities of temper separated him for a time even from Leigh Hunt and Charles Lamb, and on the whole the period of his most brilliant literary success was that when he was moat soured and broken. Domestic troubles supervened; his marriage, long little more than nominal, was dissolved in consequence of the infatuated passion he had conceived for a servant girl, a most ordinary person in the eyes of every one else. It is impossible to regard Hazlitt as a responsible agent while he continued subject to this influence. His own record of the transaction, published by himself under the title of Liber Amoris, or the New Pygmalion (1823), is a most remarkable psychological curiosity, and one of the most signal examples extant of thie power of genuine passion, not merely to palliate what is wrong, but to dignify what is ridiculous. " His idolatry," says Mrs Jameson, " in its intense earnestness and reality assumes something of the sublimity of an act of faith." The business-like dissolution of his marriage under the law of Scotland is related with amazing naivete by the family biographer. Rid of his wife and cured of his mistress, he shortly afterwards astonished his friends by marrying a widow. "All I know," says his grandson, "is that Mrs Bridgewater became Mrs Hazlitt." They travelled on the I Continent for a year, and then parted never to meet again. Hazlitt's study of the Italian masters during this tour, described in a series of letters contributed to the Morning Chronicle, had a deep effect upon him, and perhaps conduced to that intimacy with the cynical old painter Northcote which, shortly after his return, engendered a curious but eminently readable volume of conversations with him. The respective shares of author and artist are not always easy to determine. .During the recent agitations of his life he had been writing essays, collected in 1826 under the title of The Plain Speaker; others subsequently written were published after his death. They are in no respect inferior to his earlier performances. The Spirit of the Age (1825), a series of criticisms on the leading intellectual characters of the day, reveals that he was less qualified to assign their true place to contemporaries than to revise the verdicts of the past, but is in point of style perhaps the most splendid and copious of his compositions. It is eager and animated to impetuosity, with no trace of carelessness or disorder. He now undertook a work which was to have crowned his literary reputation, but which can hardly be said to have even enhanced it—The Life of Napoleon (1828-30). The undertaking was at best premature, and was inevitably disfigured by partiality to Napoleon as the representative of the popular cause, excusable and even becoming in a Liberal politician writing in the clays of the Holy Alliance, but preposterous now that the true tendencies of French imperialism are recognized. Owing to the failure of his publishers Hazlitt received no recompense for this laborious work. Pecuniary anxieties and disappointments may have contributed to hasten his death, which took place on September 18, 1830. Charles Lamb was with him to the last.

With many serious defects both on the intellectual and the moral side, Hazlitt's character in both had at least the merit of sincerity and consistency. He was a compound of intellect and passion, and the refinement of his critical analysis is associated with vehement eloquence and glowing imagery. He was essentially a critic, a dissector, and, as Bulwer justly remarks, a much better judge of men of thought than of men of action. But he also possessed many gifts in no way essential to the critical character, and transcending the critic's ordinary sphere. These, while giving him rank as an independent writer, frequently perturbed the natural clearness of his critical judgment, and seduced him into the paradoxes with which his works abound. These paradoxes, however, never spring from affectation; they are in general the sallies of a mind so agile and ardent as to overrun its own goal. His style is perfectly natural, and yet admirably calculated for effect. His diction, always rich and masculine, seems to kindle as he proceeds; and when thoroughly animated by his subject, he advances with a succession of energetic, hard-hitting sentences, each carrying his argument a step further, like a champion dealing out blows as he presses upon the enemy. Although, however, his grasp upon his subject is strenuous, his insight into it is rarely profound. He can amply satisfy men of taste and culture; he cannot, like Coleridge or Burke, dissatisfy them with themselves by showing them how much they would have missed without him. He belongs to the class of critics that exhibits the beauties of an author, rather than to the class that reveals them. He was somewhat backward in appreciating contemporary merit; he venerated Coleridge's intellect, but his estimate of his poetry is ridiculously low; his review of Shelley's posthumous poems, though rhetorically fine, is critically poor ; and he did little to vindicate the fame of Keats. As a moralist and observer of manners his chief merit consists in the extreme felicity of his occasional observations. But all shortcomings are forgotten in the genuineness and fervour of the writer's self-portraiture, and the bold relief in which he stands out from the crowd of mankind. The intensity of his personal convictions causes all he wrote to appear in a manner autobiographic. Other men have been said to speak like books, Hazlitt's books speak like men. To read his works in connexion with Leigh Hunt's and Charles Lamb's is to be introduced into one of the most attractive of English literary circles, and this alone will long preserve them from oblivion.

The most copious source of information respecting Hazlitt is the biography by his grandson (1867), a medley rather than a memoir, yet full of interest. A slight but appropriate sketch had previously been prefixed by his son to the posthumous essays published in 1836, accompanied by elegant but partial estimates of his intellectual character by Bulwer and Talfourd. Valuable biographical particulars have been preserved in Barry Cornwall's memoirs of Lamb, and in the reminiscences of Mr P. G. Patmore, Hazlitt's most intimate associate in his latter years. A full bibliographical list of his writings, with a collection of the most remarkable critical judgments upon them from all quarters, has been tastefully and industriously prepared by Mr Alexander Ireland (1868). (B. G.)







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