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

VII. Hazlitt

§ 2. His later life

Like the careers of the other romantic essayists of the period, Hazlitt’s life presents nothing of thrilling interest. We know little about it, aside from references in his essays, in the interesting diary of Crabb Robinson and in the letters of Charles and Mary Lamb. He became a friend of the most notable people in London; above all, he was always welcome at the rooms of the Lambs. He has left us the best description of one of their Wednesday evenings. Unfortunately, he came to know a certain Sarah Stoddart, a friend of Mary Lamb. After an unromantic courtship, they were married in 1808, with Charles Lamb as one of the four witnesses. Charles wrote ominously to Southey, “I was at Hazlitt’s marriage and had like to have been turned out several times during the ceremony. Anything awful makes me laugh.” After the wedding, the Hazlitts moved to Sarah’s cottage at Winterslow, a little village about six miles from Salisbury. For about three years they lived at Winterslow, and afterwards, for brief periods, Hazlitt repaired thither to obtain some of the seclusion which contributed largely to his best writing. To neither of the two persons was the union agreeable, and they planned to go together to Scotland to obtain a divorce. A second marriage, with a Mrs. Bridgewater, proved a mere episode in his life and seemed to confirm the opinion held by his friends that at least Hazlitt’s temper was not conducive to a life of marital happiness.

Twenty-five years were allotted to Hazlitt for his life-work. In that short span, he succeeded in making his way to fame from absolute obscurity, without the prestige of family or wealth, with no formal education and no friends of influence. This he achieved at a time when there were many men of Titanic mould. He won distinction as a lecturer; his criticisms on books, pictures and plays were widely read; he became known as one of the best talkers and he was the target of the invectives of some of the cleverest, as well as the most brutal, of the reviewers in the leading magazines.

The writings of Hazlitt have recently been collected by A. R. Waller and Arnold Glover and published in twelve large, closely printed volumes, in all about six thousand pages. Not many of us would wish to read all these pages. Some of his writing is forced and superficial, notably his essays on philosophy; some is unpleasnat, for example, the sentimental record of his passion for the stupid servant girl in Liber Amoris; some is bitter and full of prejudice; but, withal, there is much, very much, that is fine, so fine that William Ernest Henley only yesterday could say, “Hazlitt is ever Hazlitt; and at his highest moments Hazlitt is hard to beat, and has not these many years been beaten.”

In whatever he did he was an enthusiast. The same gusto which, as a boy, he had shown in his discussions with his father, he displayed in his reading of philosophy and in his first attempt (Essay on the Principles of Human Action, 1805) to elucidate the systems of Hartley and Helvetius. He liked to cherish his experiences: books that he had read, plays which he had seen, pictures that he had admired. He liked to discuss abstract propositions while he walked alone in the country, trying to “forget the town and all that is in it.” He liked to tell what he liked and, above everything, he liked to try to say things in his own way. And he succeeded so well that Stevenson, who admired him ungrudgingly, once said of him, “We are all mighty fine fellows, but none of us can write like Hazlitt.” Certainly, it was, for him, better “to travel than to arrive”; else, it would be difficult to understand how a man so widely hated, so bitterly attacked, so much alone, could say on his death-bed: “Well, I have had a happy life.”

The subjects of his lectures or essays on authors and their works include almost every name worth knowing in English literature from Chaucer to Hazlitt’s own day—men of varied literary attainment of the Elizabethan era, wits of the restoration, comic writers, dramatists, poets, novelists of the eighteenth century and almost all his contemporaries.

When we consider that he did not have the guides and hand-books of to-day which tell us dogmatically what to like and how to appreciate the masterpieces of English literature, we get a better understanding of the range and variety of these criticisms. He had had almost no formal training, he knew little of ancient classical literature in the original languages; but, somehow, in his goings to and fro, he had laid hold of some of the great books of the world and he had read them well: perhaps he knew Shakespeare best, Montaigne was his model essayist and he knew something of Le Sage, Rabelais, Rousseau, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Goethe and Schiller. Among English writers, his favourites were Spenser, Milton, Congreve, Swift, Arbuthnot, Burke, Fielding, Richardson and Scott.