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

VII. Hazlitt

§ 3. His work as a critic

If his preparation for the task of a literary critic seems not what we should expect to-day, certainly we are surprised how well he succeeded in appraising the best English literature. Perhaps his greatest service to his time was the attention which he directed to Shakespeare. Chagrined by the lack of intelligent English criticism of Shakespeare, he praised without reserve A. W. Schlegel for his sympathetic interpretation and set to work to discuss each play with a gusto that has never been excelled. Heine stated that, up to his time, Hazlitt’s was the best comment on Shakespeare. Perhaps his criticism lacked the profoundness and philosophical insight of Coleridge and the affectionate appreciation of Lamb, but it is more inclusive than either. For the reader of to-day who wishes to read the plays of Shakespeare with unadulterated enjoyment, not deviating into dogmatic assertion or scientific research, Hazlitt is a sure guide. His series of comments on Shakespeare’s plays and characters is a challenge to the reader to turn again to the scenes where he will find something new in an old familiar passage. We can be certain that Hazlitt has not led us into a waste of philological or philosophical speculation. He does not put himself between Shakespeare and ourselves but helps us to know Shakespeare better as a poet and as a dramatist who saw life from many angles.

Likewise, the other dramatists of Shakespeare’s day and writers of prose receive most intelligent appreciation. Perhaps the best of his critical work is the clear and discriminating interpretation of the spirit of the Elizabethan age. Sifting the gold from the dross, he sets in proper place the men and forces which made the era great. In his discussion of seventeenth century writers, he sounds surprisingly modern. His regard for Milton, Bunyan, Sir Thomas Browne and Jeremy Taylor does not show the same degree of devotion as does Lamb’s quaint imitation of them, but his judgment of their work as literature is certainly more to be trusted by the reader who desires to view English literature in its true perspective. Like many of his successors, Hazlitt found the eighteenth century interesting in its virility, and his preferences are amazingly supported by the best judgment of to-day. He appreciated intelligently the forceful simplicity of eighteenth century style and inherited the best qualities of that style. He displayed genius in his ability to discern what was real beneath the formality and affectation of eighteenth century manners. His criticism of Pope, whom most of his contemporaries did not understand, shows with what intelligence he recognised Pope as the poet of art in contrast with Shakespeare the poet of nature. He extolled the eloquence of Burke and urged repeatedly that here was the finest model for the expression, in prose, of imaginative feeling.

Hazlitt’s criticism of his contemporaries in The Spirit of the Age is in accord with his courageous position on all questions. That he should sit in judgment on his own friends seemed to him as natural as that he should speak out what he thought of writers long since dead. It was inevitable that the personal estimate should play a part here; but it is remarkable how a full century accepts his verdict. To be sure, there are bits of illtemper and personal prejudice, but there is so much which is sound and genuine that it is safe to say that these essays are almost the last of Hazlitt’s writings which the student of English literature would surrender. The particular essays show the fighting qualities of a man who was animated with fiery courage, whom Gifford and the whole pack of hostile reviewers found a most worthy antagonist. What he thought most worthy we still admire, Coleridge, Cobbett, Scott, “the greatest and wisest” of the novelists, Wordsworth, “the most original poet now living.” We do not hate all that he hated, but what he loved we find is most deserving of our love.

To his envious contemporaries, who taunted him with a lack of reading which, they affirmed, was displayed by the frequent recurrence of the same quotation in his essays, he said:

  • I have been found fault with for repeating myself and for a narrow range of ideas. To a want of general reading I plead guilty and am sorry for it but perhaps if I had read more I might have thought less.
  • Perhaps that was an easy way to excuse himself; but it is true that he tried most earnestly to cultivate the habit of thinking, and detested nothing so much as servile imitation. He wished to think and feel for himself. If he did not drink deep, he was an expert taster. He wrote as he would have talked, guided by an unusually catholic sympathy. No one literary form or period, author or group of writers blinded him to the enjoyment of the long sweep of varied literary expression. He had not sworn allegiance to any school. Without historical or scientific equipment, he was possessed of a rare faculty for describing a literary movement and putting his finger on the central and impelling force. For the mere dates of an author’s life or mere linguistic details, he had little interest. His enjoyment of Hamlet, Lear, Othello, was not affected by any questions of textual uncertainty or priority of composition. To him, it was sufficient that here was poetry of a high order, that here was something that made him glad to be alive.