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

VII. Hazlitt

§ 5. His writings on art

As a boy and as a young man, Hazlitt loved pictures. To him, they were the reflection of what was beautiful in nature. It will be remembered that he tried to become a painter and turned aside from that profession only when he recognised that he could not be equal to any one of his ideal painters, Claude, Rembrandt, Titian or Raphael. He wrote once, “I am a slave to the picturesque,” and so he was. In the face of nature, he saw the charm of line and colour, and his essays abound in passages that could only have been written by one who was sensitive to those effects of landscape which the painter sees. Doubtless, he had some skill of hand, for his brother and friends encouraged him to become a painter, but he felt that, in this work, he could not succeed, and, therefore, would not try. Happily for English literature, however, he knew much about painting from his conversations with Flaxman, Haydon and Northcote and his reading of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Jonathan Richardson, and, equipped with this knowledge, he turned from painting to writing about pictures.

It is safe to say that no essayist, contemporary with him, was his equal in natural aptitude or in knowledge of what the painter was trying to achieve, although he never really fashioned his ideas into a system. As in his other criticism, he was an enthusiast depending upon the turn taken by his personal impressions. One requirement only he insisted upon: that “art must be true to nature.” By this, he meant no mere photographic reproduction, but an interpretation of nature by the artist, expressed in such a way that the picture conveyed a meaning. So, he never thought of praising mere technical excellence. The canvasses of his beloved Claude, Titian, Rembrandt were more than mere delineations, they were allied to poetry, each expressing, in its own beautiful form, the meaning of life, an emanation of the moral and intellectual part of our nature, as well as of the sensitive.

In his appreciation of painting, he tried, above everything else, to be honest with himself. He did not lack the courage to say what he honestly felt or saw. Before Ruskin was born, he wrote: “In landscape Turner has shown a knowledge of the effects of air and of powerful relief in objects which was never surpassed.” He was not less ready to praise rising young artists, such as Haydon and Wilson, than he was to join in the universal approbation of such masters as Claude, Poussin, Rembrandt or Titian. And he would as readily indicate what he regarded as faults in the masters as praise the excellence of artists hitherto unknown. If he got no further than an expression of his feelings, at any rate he said what he liked, not because it was the fashion to like a certain picture or because he found it starred in a guide-book, but because he liked it.

  • My taste in pictures is, I believe, very different from that of rich and princely collectors.… I should like to have a few pictures hung round the room that speak to me with well-known looks, that touch some string of memory, not a number of varnished, smooth, glittering gew-gaws.
  • Like some other writers of the romantic period, he contributed little or nothing to a philosophical discussion of the arts. Ever since the wonderful day when he acted as guide to Charles and Mary Lamb through the gallery of Blenheim, he has been an inspiration to the layman who has wished to cultivate a liking for good pictures. At a time when few people were allowed to see famous paintings in English galleries, Hazlitt described these pictures for his readers vividly and rapturously, before Ruskin’s sympathetic criticism, with its imaginative descriptions of pictures and buildings, made people see more in the world that lay about them. That his work had a serious result is attested by Gosse, who, in the introduction to his edition of Hazlitt’s Conversations of James Northcote, says: “He claimed for painting the identity of a branch of literature and expended on it the wealth of his ever-fervid and impassioned imagination.”

    For the majority of readers, the most interesting part of Hazlitt’s work is to be found in his miscellaneous essays. Like his most worthy contemporaries, Lamb, De Quincey, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, he set forth his personal experiences and his personal prejudices. Here, then, we come nearest to the real man Hazlitt. To repeat the lines which he frequently quoted, he liked

  • To pour out all as plain
  • As downright Shippen or as old Montaigne.
  • The best of Hazlitt, then, is to be found in such essays as My First Acquaintance with Poets, On Going a Journey, The Feeling of Immortality in Youth, On Reading Old Books, On Reading New Books, Of Persons One Would Wish to have Seen, On the Fear of Death, On Disagreeable People, On Taste, On Familiar Style, The Sick Chamber, The Fight. After everything has been sifted, Hazlitt is to be judged by these essays, and, doubtless, he would be willing to have it so.

    On one occasion, he wrote, “I have not written a line that licks the dust.” Incidents of his early life had kept burning the fires of independence and courageous expression. Born in a family known for its hearty acceptance of the views of dissent, he had grown up in close association with his father, with whom he enjoyed discussion upon the most abstract subjects. To the ideals of his youth he had clung tenaciously and he had shunned the appearance of deserting the cause of republicanism or liberty in any form. His first published composition was a letter to The Shrewsbury Chronicle (1791), in which he stood out for fair treatment of Priestley, whose house had been burned by a mob in Birmingham. He did not follow the judgments of English critics, neither was he held in thrall by the thought of Germany or France. He wished to see and feel things for himself. This spirit of independence, sometimes blinded by ill-temper or bitter resentment, was always asserting itself, whether in championing the cause of a new actor, in praising an aspiring young painter, in giving a new turn to an old definition or in holding at bay the pack of reviewers whose numbers made them bold to attack a superior antagonist. He was born not to be a coward. He was a good fighter. Although he often found himself in a minority of one, he found enjoyment in the feeling that he was right according to his abstract principles.

    For us, the most interesting result of this independence is his resolution not to be satisfied with anything short of his best in writing. Two fine examples always stood before him—Montaigne, “who may be said to have been the first to say as an author what he felt as a man,” and Burke, who “poured out his mind on paper.” He has told us, in many places, of his difficulty in learning how to write.

  • Oh, how little do they know who have never done anything but repeat after others by rote the labor, the yearnings and misgivings of mind it costs to get the germ of an original idea, to dig it out of the hidden recesses of thought and nature and to bring it half-ashamed, struggling, and deformed into the day—to give words and intelligible symbols to that which was never imagined or expressed before.
  • That he succeeded to an unusual degree in his ambition is now a matter of record. Coleridge wrote of him that “he said things in his own way.” His vigorous mind, seriously given to thinking, would not be satisfied with expression that fell short of his conception of clearness. He was not content with the homely simplicity of Defoe, or the intellectual force of Swift; he aspired to succeed, as Burke had succeeded, in conveying something of the beauty and eloquence of truth and nature. What he wrote must express all the shades of his sensitive imagination. It is not strange, then, that he knew the meaning of words and strove unceasingly to get the proper word for the proper place. The ephemeral word or phrase found no place in his style, nor was he given to coining words or to transplanting foreign words. Consequently, his diction is remarkable for its purity. How well he made the standard English vocabulary serve his purpose may be found in his description of The Fight, where he does not feel the need of adopting the slang of the ring to give a thrilling account of an exciting contest. It is interesting to contrast this passage with De Quincey’s Murder as one of the Fine Arts. Not only did he search for the right word but he strove for conciseness in so far as the language would convey all that he wished to say. “I hate to see a load of band-boxes go along the street, and I hate to see a parcel of big words without anything in them.”

    Hazlitt seems never to have been without the word which would express with directness and vividness what was in his mind. That he could parry as with a rapier, William Gifford must have learned to his discomfort while he read the celebrated Letter. De Quincey called his style “abrupt, insulated, capricious, and … non-sequacious.” There is a sense in which this is true. For a time, the thought seems not to move. It is thrown into the air like balls by a juggler, and we catch reflections of it, and are thrilled and excited to pleasure in watching. One happy phrase after another—an old quotation in a new setting, a flash of sentiment, a bit of keen perceiving, a wise observation on life—all thrown together, carry us on with a rapidity and a stateliness that are not excelled in English literature.

    The opening passage of his essay on poetry illustrates the movement of his expository writing. Here, we have Hazlitt thinking with overflowing zest upon a subject which was life to him. Because he is trying to write something on a subject which every critic or poet has discussed does not embarrass him. As a man of feeling, who cannot reduce poetry to mere formal words, he pours himself out with the richness and seriousness of the most unabashed romanticist.

    Or we may turn to his essay, The Feeling of Immortality in Youth, to the passage beginning “To see the golden sun, and the azure sky.” Observe the gusto with which he follows the thought until he is actually out of breath. Here is the elaborate stateliness of Sir Thomas Browne or Jeremy Taylor without the quaintness of the seventeenth century which allured Charles Lamb. In outline, it is formal and imposing; in meaning, it is concrete, vivid and personal.

    The virility of his enthusiasm is best shown in his delight in outdoor life. No writer of to-day, after a century given to the study and enjoyment of open-air life, writes of it with greater zest and more consistent inspiration. His essay, On Going a Journey, is a pleasure to all lovers of Stevenson and Thoreau.

    In many respects, the most memorable piece of writing of William Hazlitt is the essay to which he has given the attractive title, My First Acquaintance with Poets, one of the fine, immortal essays in our language. The young man of twenty meets in 1798 the philosopher Coleridge and the poet Wordsworth. The man of forty looks back through the glamour of the intervening years and breaks forth with lyric enthusiasm at the thought of these rich experiences.

    In these essays, we have some of the best of Hazlitt—an expression which is concrete, vivid, personal, vigorous; the voice of a manly and courageous seeker after truth, who sees nothing inconsistent in the combination of truth and sentiment, truth and beauty.