Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 1. Hazlitt’s early years

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

VII. Hazlitt

§ 1. Hazlitt’s early years

OF the group of romantic writers whose work appeared chiefly in the magazines of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, no one led an existence more detached than William Hazlitt. By temperament, he loved isolation, delighting to go alone on his walks into the country so that he might turn over in his mind some favourite abstract proposition and try to analyse, for his own gratification, some peculiar phase of human nature. In thinking upon political affairs he had assumed a position at variance with that held by most contemporary Englishmen. “He wilfully placed himself,” writes De Quincey, “in collision with all the interests that were in the sunshine of this world and with all the persons that were then powerful in England.” That he was not popular did not, however, make him, like Swift, a cynic. He had no high social ambitions which could not be realised. No man was ever more free from the desire of political preferment. Apparently, his highest aim was to write in a manner that would satisfy himself. Disappointment came to him when he saw others treat lightly convictions to which he clung with desperate earnestness. He was embittered when he discovered a friend wavering in his loyalty to a cherished ideal or when some one spoke with derision of his idols, especially of Rousseau, Napoleon, or the principles of the French revolution. With almost everybody worth knowing in London he became acquainted, but he quarrelled with all, so that when he died, in 1830, only Charles Lamb stood at his bedside. If we really learn to understand this isolated temperament, we shall find an admirable strain of courage and honesty, a conspicuous lack of double-dealing in a time when it might have been of temporary advantage for him to have trimmed his sails to the varying winds. No less a man than Charles Lamb discovered the real heart; for he wrote to Southey:

  • I should belie my own conscience if I said less than that I think W. H. to be in his natural and healthy state one of the wisest and finest spirits breathing. So far from being ashamed of that intimacy which was betwixt us, it is my boast that I was able for so many years to have preserved it entire, and I think I shall go to my grave without finding, or expecting to find, such another companion.
  • Some light may be thrown upon Hazlitt’s temperament and upon his antagonistic attitude toward the prevailing opinions of his day by a recital of some of the incidents of his life. From his forbears, he inherited traditions of dissent. His paternal ancestors had come originally from Holland to Ireland. There, the elder William Hazlitt was born and grew to be a man of strong character, destined to impress those with whom he associated. He received the master’s degree from the university of Glasgow, where he established for himself a reputation for liberal views on religion and politics. He married the daughter of a nonconformist ironmonger and began his career as a unitarian minister. Wherever his profession took him, he attracted men of such intellectual ability as Priestley and Benjamin Franklin and achieved more than local fame on account of his powers of discussion. At Maidstone, William Hazlitt, the future essayist, was born on 10 April, 1778. From Maidstone, the family moved to Bandon, county Cork, Ireland, where the father aroused the suspicions of the townspeople by an apparently too great devotion to the cause of the American soldiers in Kinsale prison. Recognising his increasing unpopularity, he decided to try his fortunes in America. Like many a radical of his day, he believed that there his ideals of liberty would become a reality. His three years in America present shifting scenes ending in disappointment and a determination that his family should return to England. In the following winter (1787–8), the father was called to the little church at Wem, near Shrewsbury. For more than a quarter of a century, the Hazlitts lived in this remote village. Most of the years between the age of ten and twenty-two, young William spent at Wem. So far, there is little indication of what the future had in keeping for the son of the poor, obscure, dissenting minister. The diary written by his sister Margaret in America attests his delight in the long walks across country with his father in Massachusetts. Numerous references in his essays describe with enthusiasm the pleasure which he found in walking with his father in the country about Wem and in talking on metaphysical subjects.

    The other influence which seems with increasing years to have grown into a passion is the impression of nature upon him. His eye was ever turned out of the window. In his own garden at Wem, he watched with a sympathy akin to Thoreau’s “the broccoli plants and kidney beans of his own rearing.” His tramps led him into all parts of Shropshire, to Peterborough, and into Wales. Nature was “company enough” for him. Although he afterwards wrote much and well about books, he always associated everything with outdoor life—books which he had read, churches or pictures which he had seen, people whom he had met. Even the battles of Napoleon had such associations:

  • On the same day the news of the battle of Austerlitz came; I walked out in the afternoon and, as I returned, saw the evening star set over a poor man’s cottage with other thoughts and feelings than I shall ever have again.
  • He struggled long and hard to find himself and his place in the world. When he was fifteen, he was sent by his father to the nonconformist theological seminary at Hackney. There, he found a deal of metaphysics to his liking, and, also, soon discovered that the ministry was not to be his calling. Fortunately for him, his brother John was a portrait-painter in London working under the direction of Sir Joshua Reynolds. To his brother’s studio, William made frequent visits and became enamoured of the profession of painting. He was more than ever in doubt what to do. After an unsuccessful year at school, he returned to Wem. He could not preach, he would like to paint, he wished to write but could not. “I was at that time dumb, inarticulate, helpless like a worm by the wayside.” One day, in 1796, he found a copy of Burke’s Letter to a Noble Lord. For the first time, he felt what it must be to write, “to be able to convey the slightest conception of my meaning to others in words.” Then, a new light shone into his soul. He met Coleridge, heard him preach, walked and talked with him and was invited to visit him at Nether Stowey and to meet Wordsworth. What this meant for Hazlitt he has described, with the charm of a poet, in My First Acquaintance with Poets, one of the finest essays in the language. As if from a dream, the young man of twenty arose with a resolution that the greatest discouragements could not shake off. Not quite ready to give up painting, he spent a little while with his brother in London. He crossed to the Louvre, where, for several months, he made copies of the masters for friends at home and actually went about in northern England painting portraits of his father, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lamb and others. Then, his career as a painter came abruptly to a close. Nothing remained for him but to write.