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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By William Hazlitt (1778–1830)

THE LIFE of William Hazlitt, apart from his matrimonial infelicities, is uneventful. He was born the 10th of April, 1778, at Maidstone. England, where his father was a Unitarian minister; not a Presbyterian, as the Encyclopædia Britannica has it. Of him Hazlitt gives an interesting though pathetic picture. A learned and a kindly man, he spent sixty years of his life in petty squabbles over disputed texts of Scripture and in pleading the cause of civil and religious liberty. “What dreams of philosophy and poetry,” says his son, “were stifled in the dreary tomes over which he sacrificed fancy and imagination! For ease, half-play on words, and a supine monkish pleasantry,” he says of his letters, “I have never seen his equal.”

The boy was intended by his father for the Unitarian ministry; but though he went to a denominational college, he disliked the idea of preaching. He was about twenty when he heard the memorable sermon of Coleridge which was said to have fixed his career. Coleridge was visiting a neighboring minister, and Hazlitt walked twelve miles through the mud before daylight to hear him. The sermon set him to thinking, not of theology but of metaphysics. He gave up his studies, and having some talent for painting, devoted himself from this time forth to his two passions, art and metaphysics. And although he was destined to succeed in neither, yet to his knowledge of both he owed his pre-eminence in the career which he entered only by accident. “Nowhere,” says one of his critics, “is abstract thought so picturesquely bodied forth by concrete illustration.”

At the end of seven years, having come to the conclusion that he could not be a Titian, he published his first book, ‘An Essay on the Principles of Human Action’; a book as dry as his favorite biscuit. Thenceforth, he wrote on any subject for any employer. From the first he seems to have been fairly paid, and to have gained a hearing. He was at least sufficiently interesting to provoke the implacable hostility of Blackwood and the Quarterly. For eighteen years he was a regular contributor to the Edinburgh Review, the London Review, and the New Monthly, while various daily and weekly papers constantly employed him.

Hazlitt, like many persons of limited affections, had a capacity for sudden passions; but finally, after many love affairs, he married at the age of thirty a Miss Stoddard, with whom he lived for fourteen unhappy years. He then met the somewhat mythical Sarah Walker, the daughter of a lodging-house keeper, for whom he resolved to leave his wife. As Mrs. Hazlitt was relieved to be rid of him, they easily obtained a Scotch divorce. When, however, the mature lover was free, Miss Walker had discreetly disappeared. Three months afterwards he married a Mrs. Bridgewater, who took him on a Continental tour, but left him within the twelvemonth. Thackeray describes the journey abroad as that of “a penniless student tramping on foot, and not made after the regular fashion of the critics of the day, by the side of a young nobleman in a post-chaise”; but the fact is that the bride of this second matrimonial venture paid the bills. His other visit to the Continent was amply provided for by a commission to copy pictures in the Louvre. Hazlitt lived only five years after separating from his second wife. Pecuniary difficulties and the failure of his publishers hastened his death, which occurred in London September 18th, 1830. Only his son and his beloved friend Charles Lamb were with him when he died.

The father of Coventry Patmore gives an interesting picture of Hazlitt at thirty-five: “A pale anatomy of a man, sitting uneasily on half a chair, his anxious, highly intellectual face looking upon vacancy,—emaciate, unstrung, inanimate.” But “the poor creature,” as he used to call himself, was the launcher forth of the winged word that could shake the hearts of princes and potentates. The most unscrupulous biographer would hardly have dared to reveal Hazlitt, the most reserved of men, as he reveals himself to the reader. Every essay is autobiographical, and reflects his likes and dislikes. In that strange book ‘The New Pygmalion,’ as in ‘Liber Amoris,’ he invites the horrified British public to listen to his transports concerning the lodging-house keeper’s daughter. He abuses the Duke of Wellington, idol of that public, as he abuses whoever may chance to disagree with him on personal or impersonal subjects. The brilliant iconoclast must have been the most uncomfortable of men to live with. No wonder that Lamb used to sigh, pathetically, “I wish he would not quarrel with everybody.” For he fell out with the amiable Leigh Hunt, with the idol of his youth, Coleridge, whose poetry he began at once to undervalue, and with Wordsworth and Southey, because they took a moderate view of the French Revolution. He rated Shelley absurdly low for no better reason than that he was a gentleman, and loaded Scott with bad names because he accepted a baronetcy. De Quincey declared that “with Hazlitt, whatever is, is wrong,” and quotes an admirer of the critic who professed to shudder whenever his hand went to his breast pocket, lest he should draw out a dagger. What his politics were, except to worship the genius of the French Revolution and abhor a something which he called “the hag of legitimacy,” no one knew. His heroes were the first Napoleon and Rousseau.

Hazlitt says, with his usual indifference, that when he began to write he left off reading. Much as he admired ‘Waverley’ and the other “Scotch novels,” as they were called, he never got through more than half of any one, although it was his business to review them. He gave a series of lectures on the Elizabethan dramatists, and afterwards casually mentioned to Lamb that he had read only about a quarter of Beaumont and Fletcher. And though he prided himself on his metaphysics, he knew none of the metaphysicians but the French and English philosophers of the eighteenth century. Platonists tell us that he went to Taylor the Platonist for his ideas. He pretended to pride himself that he cared for no new book, and declared that he neither corrected his own proof sheets nor read his work in print. Of the beautiful ‘Introduction to the Elizabethan Poets’ Mr. Saintsbury says, “all Hazlitt’s faults to be found in it are due not to prejudice, or error of judgment, but to occasional deficiency of information.”

A bundle of inconsistencies, he had a sort of inexplicable constancy, holding the same ideas at the end of his life that he had at its beginning. While his egotism was as stupendous as that of Rousseau or Napoleon, he seemed to possess a double consciousness: with one breath he blesses and curses. What he says of Burke sounds like the ravings of a madman; yet he places Burke in his proper place as the greatest of English political writers. He hacks and hews the Lake School, while he discloses their choicest beauties. “Were the author of ‘Waverley’ to come into the room, I would kiss the hem of his garment,” he said; but Scott the man is to him “the greatest, wisest, meanest of mankind.” His judgment of an author depended upon two circumstances: his private associations and his sympathy with the writer.

Yet Hazlitt had something which is better than the capacity to criticize fairly, to be consistent or learned, or to exercise the cardinal virtues. He was an artist, and whatever he wrote is literature. His choice of subject is of small importance if the reader is armed against his prejudices. Some biographers rank him highest as a critic, others as an essayist; but it is not easy to classify his work. Essay or criticism, it is Hazlitt and the world that Hazlitt sees. His criticisms are scattered through the seven volumes of his writings edited by his son, but they are collected in the three volumes entitled ‘The Characters of Shakespeare,’ ‘Elizabethan Literature,’ and ‘The English Poets and the English Comic Writers.’ His essays are classed in the volumes ‘The Spirit of the Age,’ ‘The Plain Dealer,’ ‘The Round Table,’ and ‘Sketches and Essays.’ In the essays we find the famous ‘Going to a Fight,’ the beautiful and pathetic ‘Farewell to Essay-Writing,’ the ‘Going on a Journey,’ ‘My First Acquaintance with Poets,’ ‘On Taste,’ ‘On the Indian Jugglers,’ ‘On Londoners and Country People.’ These are named not because they are special efforts, for Hazlitt seldom tried himself in any direct flight, but as specimens of the range of his subjects.

His style is as varied as his themes: gay, semi-sentimental, hitting hard like his own pugilists, judicious, gossipy, richly embroidered as mediæval tapestry, grave, and chaste. It has been already said that Hazlitt is a man of letters, and that all he touched became literature. It is fair to go further, and suggest that a certain amount of literary temperament is necessary to enjoy him, and perhaps a certain maturity of taste. He is the essayist of the traveler who has reached the Delectable Mountains of middle age, from whose calm heights he takes a wide and reasonable view; the essayist for the drawn curtain and the winter fireside after the leisurely meal, when his pungent talk is the after-taste of some rare cordial.

Shakespeare scholars agree that he knows nothing of Shakespeare but the text, and that he has added nothing to the explanation of difficult passages; but they, as well as the general reader, turn to him for noble enthusiasm and calm judgment. It is of Shakespeare’s characters that he writes, not of his plays; and it is Timon, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra,—the doers, not the dreamers,—who interest him, and whom he hates and loves. Strange to say, though he rated himself so highly as a metaphysician, Hamlet is one of his least successful portraitures; his artist’s eye saw Shakespeare played, not written, and Kean, whom he first ridiculed and then praised, said that Hazlitt had taught him more than his stage manager.

What he did for the Elizabethan dramatists was to rediscover their excellences and find them an audience. He shows Congreve’s merits with a force not possible to a calmer judgment. How discriminating, on the contrary, is his praise of the sweetness of Dekker and of the beauties of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’! and though personal in its vindictiveness, what a splendid assault he makes on Sidney’s ‘Arcadia’!

Hazlitt is accused of reversing the counsel of the proverb, and speaking good only of the dead. He was certainly unlike the little members of the little mutual-admiration societies who half a century later take themselves so seriously. It was his art which he found serious. Mr. Saintsbury makes the important point that his work molded the genius of his literary juniors. In ‘The Spirit of the Age’ there are distinct intimations of Carlyle. “Where the devil did you get that style?” Jeffrey asked Macaulay. It is easy to see where, when one reads Hazlitt’s contributions to Jeffrey’s own Review. In another way, he furnished a model to Dickens and Thackeray; and no one who is familiar with the essay on ‘Nicholas Poussin’ will fail to add Ruskin to his “fair herd of literary children.”

It is almost incredible that with his spirit and temperament, Hazlitt’s last words should have been, “I have had a happy life.” But literature was to him the wife and children and friends of whom perhaps she robbed him, while becoming, as the poet promises, the solace reserved for him who loves her for herself alone.