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

VII. Hazlitt

§ 6. His quotations

Hazlitt’s habit of repeated quotation has caused irritation to many readers. He used innumerable quotations, consisting of a mere phrase or of many lines, whenever he desired. If they do not serve him as they stand, he does not hesitate to change a word or phrase or to join two or more quotations together. He took supreme pleasure in an apt phrase, whether of his own coinage or whether he had picked it up long before in some source which he had taken no pains to remember. He sought justification in the manner in which he made his quotations convey his own ideas. Some of the lines which he liked best to quote are here given as he wrote them. “Our life is of mingled yarn, good and ill together,” “holds the mirror up to nature,” “web of our life,” “too much i’ the sun,” “comes home to the business of men,” “the stuff of which our life is made,” “sees into the life of things,” “ever in the haunch of winter sings,” “fate, fore-will, foreknowledge absolute,” “come like shadows, so depart,” “at one proud swoop,” “with all its giddy raptures,” “the witchery of the soft blue sky,” “it smiled and it was cold,” “sounding on his way,” “men’s minds are parcel of their fortunes.” A glance at this list will show the preponderance of quotations from Shakespeare. These he applied everywhere and in every possible connection. Next after Shakespeare, as sources, come Milton, the Bible, Spenser, Dryden, Pope, Gray, Cowper, Rousseau, Sterne, Fielding, Wordsworth. He had not the slightest reluctance to appropriate a phrase that he liked in any book which he read.

One characteristic marks his style especially, his use of the parallel construction and contrast. He liked to join his subjects in pairs; for example, Cant and Hypocrisy, Wit and Humour, Past and Future, Thought and Action, Genius and Common Sense, Patronage and Puffing, Writing and Speaking and so on ad infinitum. So, he was much accustomed to discussing his subject with the aid of contrast, as Wilkie and Hogarth, Shakespeare and Jonson, Chaucer and Spenser, Voltaire and Swift, Thomson and Cowper, Addison and Steele, Gray and Collins, Dryden and Pope. In this particular, he had an influence upon modern literary criticism, which has often used this means of defining the relative importance of English writers.

Some readers, nourished on the fare of the Victorians, have objected to Hazlitt on the ground that his writing shows mere feeling and no moral purpose. Certainly, one does not think of him as a moralist with a message like Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold, or Browning, yet he, like all great English writers, was guided by certain principles and was consistently true to certain ideals. Hazlitt was as bitter against affectation and insipidity as Carlyle or Thackeray. Not more insistently than he, did Carlyle try to get beneath mere clothes and separate the symbol from the thing. Ruskin had no more genuine love of nature and saw not more clearly than Hazlitt the relation between life and the beauty of nature. In his efforts to think clearly upon life and to express himself with classic simplicity, there is a suggestion of Matthew Arnold. In his virility of expression and the hopefulness with which he wrote in continued adversity, we find something that suggests the optimism of Browning and Stevenson. Though he was not a moralist according to the general meaning of that word, he never turned from the serious problem of life. He was no shallow optimist or railing pessimist. There is, throughout his writing, an abiding faith in human nature, a devotion to beauty and an allegiance to ideals of square-dealing, honesty and truthfulness, that made his life happy when those who looked on—all save one—called him of all men most lonely and miserable.