William Hazlitt

William Hazlitt

William Hazlitt (10 April 1778 – 18 September 1830) was an English writer remembered for his humanistic essays and literary criticism. Hazlitt was a prominent English literary critic, grammarian and philosopher. He is considered one of the greatest critics and essayists in English, ["A master of English prose style, a beautifully modulated general essayist, the first great theatre critic in English, the first great art critic, a magnificent political journalist and polemicist ... Hazlitt is both a philosopher and one of the supreme literary critics in the language." [http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/apr/05/society.history Spirit of the age] , by Tom Paulin, The Guardian, April 5 2003] [Jacques Barzun praises Lionel Trilling as just behind Hazlitt, in "Lionel Trilling and the Critics" by John Rodden.] placed in the same company as Samuel Johnson and George Orwell, ["...in the tradition of the English essay, descended from Johnson, Lamb, Hazlitt, and Orwell," [http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/georgepacker/2008/07/i-came-back-fro.html Hitchens on Display] , by George Packer, in The New Yorker, July 3 2008] [Irving Howe considered Orwell "the best English essayist since Hazlitt, perhaps since Dr Johnson." "George Orwell: “As the bones know”" by Irving Howe, Harper's Magazine January 1969.] but his work is currently little-read. ["Most of Hazlitt's work is out of print, or unavailable in paperback. He is not studied in most university English courses...", Paulin.] ["Both Deane and Heaney had studied Hazlitt at school in Derry in the 1950s - he'd been replaced by Orwell when I took the same A-level course in the 60s, and the diminution of his reputation has been fairly steady until recently." Paulin.]


Hazlitt came from a branch of Irish Protestant stock that moved in the reign of George I from the county of Antrim to Tipperary. His father, also a William Hazlitt, went to the University of Glasgow (where he was contemporary with Adam Smith), from which he received a master's degree in 1760. Not entirely content with his Presbyterian faith, he became a Unitarian, joined their ministry, and crossed over to England, where he could minister to other Unitarians. In 1764 he was pastor at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, where in 1766 he married Grace Loftus, daughter of a recently deceased ironmonger. Of their many children, only three survived infancy. The first of these, John (later known as a portrait painter) was born in 1767 at Marshfield in Gloucestershire, where the Reverend William Hazlitt had accepted a new pastorate after his marriage. In 1770, the elder Hazlitt accepted yet another position and moved with his family to Maidstone, Kent, where his first and only surviving daughter, Margaret (usually known as "Peggy"), was born that year. [Wardle, p. 4.]


William, the youngest of these, was born in Mitre Lane, Maidstone, in 1778. In 1780, when he was two, his family began a migratory existence that was to last several years. From Maidstone his father took them to Bandon, County Cork, Ireland; and from Bandon in 1783 to America, where Mr. Hazlitt preached, lectured, and founded the First Unitarian Church at Boston. In 1786-1787 the family returned to England and took up their abode at Wem, in Shropshire. The elder son, John, was now old enough to choose a vocation, and became a miniature-painter. The second child, Peggy, had begun to paint also, amateurishly in oils. William, aged eight – a child out of whose recollection all memories of Bandon and of America (save the taste of barberries) soon faded – took his education at home and at a local school.


His father intended him for the Unitarian ministry, and in 1793 sent him to a seminary on what was then the outskirts of London, the Unitarian New College at Hackney (commonly referred to as Hackney College). [Wardle, p. 40, gives the name as the "New Unitarian College at Hackney" but most other reliable sources, e.g. Albrecht, p. 29, call it the "Unitarian New College at Hackney". This Hackney College was a short-lived institution (1786–1796) with no connection to the current college by that name.] He stayed there for only about two years, [Wardle, p. 45.] but during that time the young Hazlitt read widely and formed habits of independent thought and respect for the truth that remained with him for life, the tutelage at Hackney having been strongly influenced by eminent Dissenting thinkers of the day like Richard Price and Joseph Priestley. [Baker, pp. 20–25.]

The curriculum at Hackney included a grounding in the Greek and Latin classics, mathematics, and, of course, religion. Priestley, whom he had read and was also one of his teachers, was an impassioned commentator on political issues of the day. This, along with the turmoil in the wake of the French Revolution, sparked in Hazlitt and his classmates lively debates on these issues, as they saw their world being transformed around them. Hazlitt's thoughts on these political concerns stayed with him, becoming an important part of his thinking. [Wardle, pp. 43–44.]

Other changes were taking place within the young Hazlitt as well. While, out of respect for his father, Hazlitt never openly broke with his religion, he suffered a loss of faith, and was forced to leave Hackney before completing his preparation for the ministry. [Wardle, pp. 45–46. See also Maclean, p. 78.]

The Young Philosopher

Returning home, around 1795, his thoughts were directed in more secular channels, encompassing not only politics but, increasingly, modern philosophy, which he had begun to read with fascination at Hackney. He spent much of his time in intensive study of English, Scottish, and Irish thinkers like Locke, Hartley, Berkeley, and David Hume, and French thinkers like Helvétius, Condillac, Condorcet, and Baron d'Holbach. [Maclean, p. 78.] From then on Hazlitt's goal was to become a philosopher. His thoughts were focused on man as a social and political animal, and, even more intensely, on the philosophy of mind, what would later be called psychology.

In this period he discovered Rousseau, who became one of the most important influences on the budding philosopher's thought, and Edmund Burke, whose writing style impressed him enormously. [Wardle, p. 48.] He was painstakingly working out a treatise on the "natural disinterestedness of the human mind", [Published in 1805 as "An Essay on the Principles of Human Action". See Hazlitt, "Works", vol. 1.] meant to disprove the idea that man is naturally selfish, a fundamental concept in most of the philosophy of the day. [Bromwich p. 36.] Hazlitt's treatise was not to see the light of day for a number of years, after further reading, and after other changes had occurred to alter the course of his career, but to the end of his life he would think of himself as a philosopher. [Wardle, p. 243. See also "A Letter to William Gifford" (1819), in Hazlitt, "Works", vol. 9, pp. 58–59.]

Around 1796, Hazlitt was encouraged and inspired by a retired clergyman who had become a reformer of note, Joseph Fawcett. Hazlitt was awed by the enormous breadth of Fawcett's tastes. From Fawcett, in the words of biographer Ralph Wardle, he imbibed a love for "good fiction and impassioned writing," Fawcett being "a man of keen intelligence who did not scorn the products of the imagination or apologize for his tastes." They discussed the radical thinkers of their day, and, important for understanding the breadth and depth of Hazlitt's own taste in his later critical writings, everything literary from John Milton's "Paradise Lost" to Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy". [Wardle, pp. 48–49.]

Somewhat earlier, he had also met William Godwin, the reformist thinker whose "Political Justice" took the thinking world by storm at this time. Hazlitt was never to feel entirely in sympathy with Godwin's philosophy, but it gave him much food for thought. [Wardle, pp. 44–45.]

Besides residing with his father while trying to find his voice and work out his thoughts as a philosopher, he often in these years stayed with his older brother John, who had studied under Sir Joshua Reynolds and was following a career as a portrait painter. He also spent delighted evenings at the theatre in London then, [See Maclean, pp. 79–80.] but did not yet know how this too would be important to his later writing. Mostly at this time he led a contemplative existence, still feeling frustrated in being unable to express on paper the thoughts and feelings that churned within him. [Maclean, pp.96–98.] The course of this existence was now to be interrupted by the single event that, with its aftermath, had an impact on his career greater than any other.

"First Acquaintance with Poets"

In January 1798, Hazlitt encountered, preaching at the Unitarian chapel in Shrewsbury, the minister Samuel Taylor Coleridge, soon much better known as a poet, critic, and philosopher. He was dazzled. "I could not have been more delighted if I had heard the music of the spheres," he wrote years later in his essay "My First Acquaintance with Poets". ["Works", vol. 17, p. 108.] "Poetry and Philosophy had met together. Truth and Genius had embraced, under the eye and with the sanction of religion."

Later still, long after they had parted ways, Hazlitt would speak of Coleridge as "the only person I ever knew who answered to the idea of a man of genius". ["On the Living Poets", concluding his 1818 "Lectures on the English Poets", "Works", vol. 5, p. 167.] . That Hazlitt learned to express his thoughts "in motley imagery or quaint allusion", that his understanding "ever found a language to express itself, I owe to Coleridge", he later wrote. ["My First Acquaintance with Poets", "Works", vol. 17, p. 107.] In conversation afterwards, Coleridge for his part expressed interest in the younger man's germinating philosophical ideas and offered encouragement.

In April he joined Coleridge at his residence in Nether Stowey, where they both spent time with the poet William Wordsworth. Again, Hazlitt was enraptured. While he was not immediately struck by Wordsworth's appearance, when he observed the look in Wordsworth's eye as he contemplated a sunset, he reflected, "With what eyes these poets see nature!" When he read his poetry he realized that this was something entirely new, and he began to see that Wordsworth's was the mind of a true poet. At that time, the three shared a passion for the ideas of liberty and rights of man. They tramped back and forth across the countryside, talking of poetry, philosophy, and the political movements that were changing the earth. This unity of spirit was not to last, but it gave Hazlitt, just twenty years old, validation of the idea that there is much to be learned and appreciated in poetry as well as the philosophy to which he was already devoted, and the encouragement to pursue his own thinking and writing. [See Maclean, pp. 119–121. See also Wardle, pp. 50–60.]

The Itinerant Painter

Meanwhile, the fact remained that Hazlitt had chosen not to follow a pastoral career. Although he never abandoned his goal of writing a philosophical treatise on the disinterestedness of the human mind, it had to be put aside indefinitely. Still dependent on his father, he was now obliged to earn his own living. Artistic talent seemed to run on his mother's side of the family. Starting in 1798 he became increasingly fascinated by paintings. His brother, John, had by now become a successful painter of miniature portraits. So it occurred to William that he might earn a living similarly, and he began to take lessons from John. [Wardle, pp. 60–61.]

Hazlitt also visited various picture galleries, and he began to get work doing portraits, painting somewhat in the style of Rembrandt. [Wardle, p. 61.] And so he managed to make something of a living for a time, travelling back and forth between London and the country, wherever he could get work. By 1802, his work was considered good enough that a portrait he had recently painted of his father was accepted for exhibition by the Royal Academy. [Wardle, p. 67.]

Later in 1802, Hazlitt was commissioned to travel to Paris and copy several works of the old masters hanging in the Louvre. This was one of the great opportunities of his life. Over a period of three months, he spent long hours in rapture studying the paintings. He later thought long and hard about what he had seen, and this provided substance for a considerable body of art criticism some years afterward. He also had an opportunity to see Napoleon (at a distance), whom he idolized as the rescuer of the common man from the oppression of royal "Legitimacy". [Wardle, pp. 68–75.] Eighteen years later, Hazlitt reviewed nostalgically the "pleasure in painting, which none but painters know", and all the delight he found in this art, in his essay "On the Pleasure of Painting". [Hazlitt, "Works", vol. 8, pp. 5–21.]

Back in England, Hazlitt again travelled up into the country, having obtained more work painting portraits. One commission again proved fortunate, as it brought him back in touch with Coleridge and Wordsworth. He painted portraits of both, as well as of Coleridge's son Hartley. Always endeavouring to paint the best pictures he could, even if they failed to flatter their subjects, he produced results not found satisfactory by either poet. (And yet Wordsworth and their friend Robert Southey thought his portrait of Coleridge a better likeness than one by the celebrated James Northcote.) [Wardle, pp. 76–77.]

In this period also a mishap occurred that shadowed his life for many years. The young Hazlitt rarely felt comfortable in the society of women, especially those of the upper and middle classes. Tormented by sexual desires, he sought the company of prostitutes and "loose women" of lower social and economic strata. During his last stay in the Lake District with Coleridge, his actions led to a near disastrous blunder, as a misunderstanding of the intentions of one local woman led to an altercation, followed by Hazlitt's precipitous retreat from the town under cover of darkness. This strained his relationship with Coleridge and Wordsworth, which was already coming apart at the seams for other reasons. [Wardle, pp. 78–80. For another account of this contretemps, see Maclean, pp. 198–201.]

Marriage, Family, and Friends

In 1803, Hazlitt met Charles Lamb and his sister Mary. There was an immediate sympathy between William and Charles, and they became fast friends. The friendship, though sometimes strained by Hazlitt's difficult ways, lasted until the end of Hazlitt's life. [Looking back from the year 1866, Bryan Waller Procter, an acquaintance of both men, thought meeting Hazlitt was a "great acquisition" for Lamb, and, as Catherine Macdonald Maclean notes, it was as great for Hazlitt. From that time onward, the two "had for each other...the easy unstrained affection of brothers". Maclean, pp. 206–207.] He was fond of Mary as well, and—ironically in view of her intermittent fits of insanity—he considered her the most reasonable woman he had ever met. [Wardle, p. 82.] (Coming from one whose view of women at times took a misogynistic turn, [E.g., "Women have as little imagination as they have reason. The are pure egotists", "Characteristics", Hazlitt, "Works", vol. 9, p. 213.] this was high praise indeed.)

Hazlitt frequented the society of the Lambs for the next several years. He was not getting much work as a painter, but now he finally found the opportunity to complete his philosophical treatise, which was published in 1805 as "An Essay on the Principles of Human Action: Being an Argument in favour of the Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind". This gained him little notice as an original thinker, and no money. Hazlitt's outrage at events then taking place in English politics in reaction to Napoleon's wars led to his writing and publishing, at his own expense (though he had almost no money), a political pamphlet, "Free Thoughts on Public Affairs" (1806). Finally, he began to find enough work to support himself, if just barely. Although the treatise he valued above anything else he wrote was never recognized for what he believed was its true worth, it brought him attention as one who had a grasp of contemporary philosophy. He therefore was commissioned to abridge and write a preface to a now obscure work of mental philosophy, "The Light of Nature Pursued" by Abraham Tucker (originally published in seven volumes from 1768 to 1777), which appeared in 1807 [Wardle, pp. 82–87] and may have had some influence on his own later thinking. [See Bromwich, p. 45 and elsewhere.]

Hazlitt also contributed three letters to William Cobbett's "Weekly Political Register" at this time, scathing critiques of Malthus's "Essay on the Principle of Population" (1798 and later editions). Another project that came his way was a compilation of parliamentary speeches, released in 1807 as "The Eloquence of the British Senate". In the prefaces to the speeches, he began to show a skill he would later develop to perfection, the art of the pithy character sketch. He was able to get more work as a portrait painter as well. [Wardle, pp. 100–102]

In 1808, Hazlitt married Sarah Stoddart, a friend of Mary Lamb's and sister of John Stoddart. Although incompatibilities would later drive the couple apart, at first the union seemed to work well enough. Miss Stoddart was an unconventional woman who would be accepted by one as unconventional in his way as Hazlitt, and would in turn tolerate his eccentricities. It was hardly a match of love, but at first there were signs of a certain playful, affectionate behaviour between them. They made an agreeable social foursome with the Lambs, who visited them when they set up a household in Winterslow, a village a few miles from Salisbury, Wiltshire, in southern England. The couple had three sons over the next few years, but only one who survived infancy, William, born in 1810 (to be the father of William Carew Hazlitt). [Maclean covers the marriage at length, pp. 233–275; for a briefer account, see Wardle, pp. 103–121.]

Now, as the head of a family, Hazlitt was more than ever in need of money. Through William Godwin, with whom he was frequently in touch, he obtained a commission to write an English grammar, published at the end of 1809 as "A New and Improved Grammar of the English Tongue". Another project that came his way was the work that was published as "Memoirs of the Late Thomas Holcroft", a compilation of autobiographical writing by the recently deceased playwright, novelist, and radical political activist, together with additional material by Hazlitt himself. Though completed in 1810, this work did not see the light of day until 1816, and so provided no financial gain to satisfy the needs of a young husband and father. But Hazlitt had not abandoned his ambitions as a painter. He found opportunities for landscape painting in the environs of Winterslow, and he spent considerable time in London getting commissions for portraits. [Wardle, pp. 104–123]

In January 1812 Hazlitt embarked on a sometime career as a lecturer, in this first instance in a series of talks on the British philosophers, at the Russell Institution in London. A central thesis of the talks was that Thomas Hobbes, rather than John Locke, had laid the foundations of modern philosophy. After a shaky beginning, Hazlitt gained some attention (as well as much-needed money) by these lectures, and they gave him an opportunity to expound some of his own ideas. [Wardle, pp. 126–130.]

The year 1812 also seems to have been the last in which Hazlitt entertained serious ambitions to make a living as a painter. Although he had demonstrated some talent, the results of his most impassioned efforts never failed to fall far short of the standards he had set for himself by comparison with such masters as Rembrandt, Titian, and Raphael. Nor did his commissioned portraits often please their subjects, as he obstinately refused to sacrifice to flattery what he considered truth. [Wardle, pp. 130–131.]

But other opportunities awaited him.

The Journalist

In October 1812, Hazlitt was hired by "The Morning Chronicle" as a parliamentary reporter. Soon he met John Hunt, publisher of "The Examiner", and his younger brother Leigh Hunt, the poet and essayist, who edited the weekly paper. Hazlitt admired both as champions of liberty, and befriended especially the younger Hunt, who found work for him. He began to contribute miscellaneous essays to "The Examiner" in 1813, and the scope of his work for the "Chronicle" was expanded to include drama criticism, literary criticism, and political essays. In 1814 "The Champion" was added to the list of periodicals that accepted Hazlitt's by-now profuse output of literary and political criticism. A critique of Joshua Reynolds' theories about art appeared there as well, one of Hazlitt's major forays into art criticism. [Wardle, pp. 132, 144, 145.]

Having by 1814 become established as a journalist, Hazlitt had begun to earn a satisfactory living. A year earlier, with the prospect of a steady income, he had moved his family to a house at 19 York Street, Westminster, which had been occupied by the poet John Milton, whom Hazlitt admired above all other English poets except Shakespeare. As it happened, Hazlitt's landlord was the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham. Hazlitt was to write considerably about both Milton and Bentham over the next few years. [Wardle, pp. 133, 134.]

His circle of friends expanded, though he never seems to have been particularly close with any but the Lambs and to an extent Leigh Hunt and the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon. His poor tolerance for any who, he thought, had abandoned the cause of liberty, along with his frequent outspokenness, even tactlessness, in social situations made it difficult for many to feel close to him, and at times he tried the patience of even Charles Lamb. [Wardle, p. 146.] His criticism of Wordsworth's poem "The Excursion" lavished extreme praise on the poet—and equally extreme censure. Wordsworth, who seems to have been unable to tolerate anything less than unqualified praise, was enraged, and relations between the two became cooler than ever. [Wardle, pp. 146, 171, 183.]

Though Hazlitt continued to think of himself as a "metaphysician" (less often as a painter; he had by now given up his professional ambitions along those lines), he began to feel comfortable in the role of journalist. His self-esteem received an added boost when in early 1815 he began to contribute regularly to the quarterly "The Edinburgh Review", the most distinguished periodical on the Whig side of the political fence (its rival "The Quarterly Review" occupied the Tory side). Writing for so highly respected a publication was considered a major step up from writing for weekly papers, and Hazlitt was proud of this connection. [Wardle, p. 152.]

On June 18, 1815, Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. Having idolized Napoleon for years, Hazlitt took it as a personal blow. The event seemed to him to mark the end of hope for the comman man against the oppression of "legitimate" monarchy. [It was "the death of the cause of human freedom in his time", as Wardle put it, p. 157.] Profoundly depressed, he took up heavy drinking and was reported to have walked around unshaven and unwashed for weeks. [Wardle, p. 157.] He idolized and spoiled his son, William Jr., but in most respects his household grew increasingly disordered over the next year, his marriage deteriorated, and he spent more and more time away from home. As a part-time drama critic, he found an excuse to spend evening after evening at the theater. Afterwards he spent time among those friends who could tolerate his irascibility, the number of whom dwindled as a result of his sometimes outrageous behavior. [Wardle, p. 162.]

Hazlitt continued to produce articles on miscellaneous topics for "The Examiner" and other periodicals, including political diatribes against any whom he felt ignored or minimized the needs and rights of the common man. Defection from the cause of liberty had become easier in light of the oppressive political atmosphere in England at that time, in reaction to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Opposing this tendency, the Hunts were his primary allies. Lamb, who tried to remain uninvolved politically, tolerated his abrasiveness, and that friendship managed to survive, if only just barely in the face of Hazlitt's growing bitterness, short temper, and propensity for hurling invective at friends and foes alike. [Wardle, pp. 171–74.]

For relief from all that weighed on his mind, Hazlitt became a passionate player at the game of Fives, a type of handball then sometimes played, as he did, with rackets. He played with savage intensity, dashing around the court like a madman, drenched in sweat, and was accounted a good player. More than just a distraction from his woes, this devotion led to musings on the value of competitive sports and on human skill in general, expressed in writings like his notice of the "Death of John Cavanagh" (a celebrated Fives player) in "The Examiner" on February 9, 1817, and the essay "The Indian Jugglers" in "Table Talk" (1821). [Maclean, pp. 393–95; Wardle, pp. 162–64. See also Hazlitt, "Works", vol. 12, pp. 77–89.]

Early in 1817, a series of Hazlitt's essays that had appeared in "The Examiner" in a regular column called "The Round Table" was collected in book form, including a few contributions by Leigh Hunt. Hazlitt's contributions to "The Round Table" were written somewhat in the manner of the periodical essays of the day, a genre defined by such eighteenth-century magazines as "The Tatler" and "The Spectator". [Law, p. 8.]

The range of topics typified his output in succeeding years: Shakespeare ("On the Midsummer Night's Dream"), Milton ("On Milton's Lycidas"), art criticism ("On Hogarth's Marriage a-la-mode"), aesthetics ("On Beauty"), drama criticism ("On Mr. Kean's Iago"; Hazlitt was the first critic to champion the acting talent of Edmund Kean), [Maclean, p. 300.] social criticism ("On the Tendency of Sects", "On the Causes of Methodism", "On Different Sorts of Fame").

There was an article on "The Tatler" itself. Mostly his political commentary was reserved for other vehicles, but included was a "Character of the Late Mr. Pitt", a scathing characterization of the recently deceased former Prime Minister. Written in 1806, Hazlitt liked it well enough to have already had it printed twice before (and it would appear again in a collection of political essays in 1819).

Some essays blend Hazlitt's social and psychological observations in a way calculatedly thought-provoking, presenting to the reader the "paradoxes" of human nature. [Hazlitt's extreme way of making a point seemed to develop naturally. Yet it was to an extent a consciously applied device. See Gerald Lahey, "Introduction", Hazlitt, "Letters", p. 11, and Hazlitt's own letter to Macvey Napier on April 2, 1816: "I confess I am apt to be paradoxical in stating an extreme opinion when I think the prevailing one not quite correct", p. 158.] The first of the collected essays, "On the Love of Life", explains, "It is our intention, in the course of these papers, occasionally to expose certain vulgar errors, which have kept into our reasonings on men and manners.... The love of life is ... in general, the effect not of our enjoyments, but of our passions". ["Works", vol. 4, p. 1.]

Again, in "On Pedantry", Hazlitt declares that "The power of attaching an interest to the most trifling or painful pursuits ... is one of the greatest happinesses of our nature". ["Works", vol. 4, p. 80.] In "On Different Sorts of Fame", "In proportion as men can command the immediate and vulgar applause of others, they become indifferent to that which is remote and difficult of attainment". ["Works", vol. 4, p. 95.] And in "On Good-Nature", "Good nature, or what is often considered as such, is the most selfish of all the virtues...." ["Works", vol. 4, p. 100.]

Many of the components of Hazlitt's style begin to take shape in these "Round Table" essays. Some of his "paradoxes" are so hyperbolic as to shock when encountered out of context: "All country people hate each other", for example, from the second part of "On Mr. Wordsworth's Excursion". ["Works", vol. 4, p. 122.] He interweaves quotations from literature old and new. They help drive his points home, and (as some critics have felt) he used quotations as a device as well as anyone ever has, [See, for example, Law, p. 42.] yet all too often he gets the quotes wrong. In one of his essays on Wordsworth he misquotes that very poet:

:Though nothing can bring back the hour:Of glory in the grass, of splendour in the flower.... [Misquoted this way elsewhere as well; the original has "splendour in the grass ... glory in the flower". "Works", vol. 4, p. 119.] :(See .)

Though Hazlitt was still following the model of the older periodical essayists, [Notable for a certain whimsy, for frequent "characters" (sketches of typical character types), for use of fictitious or real interpolated letters, and for an informal tone—though not to the degree of the "familiar essay". Law, p.8.] these quirks, together with his keen social and psychological insights, began here to coalesce into a style very much his own. ["Regardless of subject matter, the style was consistently arresting". Wardle, p. 184.]

uccess—and Trouble

In this period, Hazlitt's marriage was deteriorating; he was writing furiously for several periodicals to make ends meet; waiting so far in vain for the collection "The Round Table" to be issued as a book (which it finally was in February 1817); suffering bouts of illness; and making enemies by his venomous political diatribes. He found relief by a change of course, shifting his critical focus from the acting of Shakespeare's plays to the substance of them. The result was "Characters of Shakespear's Plays" (1817), a collection of critical essays on the drama of William Shakespeare. [Wardle, pp. 181–197.]

His approach was something new. There had been critics of Shakespeare before, but either they were not comprehensive or they were not aimed at the general reading public. As Ralph Wardle put it, before Hazlitt wrote this book, "no one had ever attempted a comprehensive study of all of Shakespeare, play by play, that readers could read and reread with pleasure as a guide to their understanding and appreciation". [All of Shakespeare's plays, that is, if one excludes those few plays not then believed to be primarily by Shakespeare or by him at all. Wardle, p. 204.] Somewhat loosely organized, and even rambling, the studies offer personal appreciations of the plays that are unashamedly enthusiastic. Hazlitt does not present a measured account of the plays' strengths and weaknesses, as did Dr. Johnson or view them in terms of a "mystical" theory, as Hazlitt thought his contemporary A.W. Schlegel did (though he approves of many of Schlegel's judgements and quotes him liberally). Without apology, he addresses his readers as fellow lovers of Shakespeare and shares with them the beauties of what he thought the finest passages of the plays he liked best. [Wardle, pp.197–202.]

Readers took to it, the first edition selling out in six weeks. It received favourable reviews as well, not only by Leigh Hunt, a close friend who might have shown bias, but by Francis Jeffrey, the editor of "The Edinburgh Review", a notice that Hazlitt greatly appreciated. (Hazlitt had contributed to that quarterly, had exchanged business correspondence with Jeffrey, and held him in great respect, but they had never met and were in no sense personal friends.) Jeffrey saw the book not as a learned study of Shakespeare's plays but rather as a loving appreciation of them, and an insightful and eloquent one at that, "a book of considerable originality and genius". [Wardle, p. 203.]

Now looking at the prospect of being out of debt, and enjoying critical and popular acclaim, Hazlitt could relax a bit and bask in the light of his growing fame. [Wardle, p. 240.]

Meanwhile, however, Hazlitt's reputation in literary circles had become tarnished, apparently by retaliatory rumours spread by such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, whom he had continued to criticize openly for their personal failings in contrast to their earlier actual or potential accomplishments. ["By the end of 1817 Hazlitt's reputation had received almost irreparable injury." Maclean, p. 361.] And the worst was yet to come.

But Hazlitt soon found a new source of satisfaction, along with escape from his financial woes, in a return to the lecture hall. In early 1818 he delivered a series of talks on "the English Poets", from Chaucer to his own time. His presentation was uneven in quality, but ultimately the lectures were judged a success. In making the arrangements for the lectures, he also met Peter George Patmore, Secretary of the Surrey Institution, where the lectures were presented, and soon to become a friend and confidant of Hazlitt's in the most troubled period of the latter's life. [Wardle, pp. 211–222.]

The Surrey Institution lectures were printed in book form, followed by a collection of his drama criticism, "A View of the English Stage", and the second edition of "Characters of Shakespear's Plays". [Wardle, p. 224.] Hazlitt's career as a lecturer gained some momentum, and his growing popularity allowed him to get a collection of his political writings published as well, "Political Essays, with Sketches of Public Characters". [Wardle, p. 244.] Lectures on "the English Comic Writers" soon followed, and these as well were published in book form. [Wardle, pp. 236–240.] After them came lectures on dramatists who were Shakespeare's contemporaries, published as "Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth". The latter did not go over so well as lectures, but were reviewed enthusiastically after they were published. [Wardle, pp. 249–256.]

More trouble was brewing, however. Hazlitt was attacked brutally in the Tory "The Quarterly Review", and "Blackwood's Magazine". One "Blackwood's" article mocked him as "pimpled Hazlitt", accused him of ignorance, dishonesty, and obscenity, and incorporated vague physical threats. Though Hazlitt was rattled by these attacks, he sought legal advice and sued. The lawsuit against "Blackwood's" was finally settled out of court in his favour. [Wardle, pp. 229–234.] Yet the attacks did not entirely cease. The "Quarterly Review" issued a review of Hazlitt's published lectures in which he was condemned as ignorant and his writing as unintelligible. Such partisan onslaughts brought spirited responses. One, unlike an earlier response to the "Blackwood's" attack that never saw the light of day, was published, as "A Letter to William Gifford, Esq." (1819; Gifford was the editor of the "Quarterly"). In this pamphlet Hazlitt presented what amounted to an "apologia" for his life and work thus far and showed he was well able to defend himself. [Wardle, pp. 243–244.] Yet Hazlitt's attackers had done their damage. Not only was he personally shaken, he found it more difficult to have his works published, and once more he had to struggle for a living. [Wardle, pp. 231, 255, 257.]


Hazlitt had already begun contributing to "The Times", and now he became the drama critic for "The London Magazine" [Wardle, p. 257.] . Despite, and perhaps in part because of his struggles, some of his best work was yet to come. His best-known work is "The Spirit of the Age" (1825), a collection of portraits of his contemporaries, including Lamb, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Jeremy Bentham, and Sir Walter Scott.

Famous for never losing his revolutionary principles, Hazlitt attacked those he saw as 'apostates' with the most rigour, seeing their move towards conservatism as a personal betrayal. He felt admiration for Edmund Burke as a thinker and writer but deemed him to have lost all common sense when his politics turned more conservative. He admired the poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth (he continued to quote especially Wordsworth's poetry long after he had broken off friendly contact with either); but he directed some of his most vitriolic attacks against them for having replaced the humanistic and revolutionary ideas of their earlier years with staunch support of the Establishment. His harshest criticism was reserved for the revolutionary-turned-poet-laureate Robert Southey. He became romantically attached to Sarah Walker, a maid at his lodging house, which caused him to have something of a breakdown and publish details of their relationship in an 1823 book, "Liber Amoris: Or, The New Pygmalion". This was seized upon by the right-wing press and was used to destroy his distinguished journalistic career with scandal. The most vitriolic comment directed towards Hazlitt was by the essayist Thomas Love Peacock, a former supporter turned rival, who declared "Liber Amoris" to be the "incoherent musings of a sometime polemicist turned full-time libertine and whore-master."

Hazlitt is credited with having created the denomination Ultracrepidarianism to describe one who gives opinions on matters beyond one's knowledge.

Hazlitt put forward radical political thinking which was proto-socialist and well ahead of his time and was a strong supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte, writing a four-volume biography of him. He had his admirers, but was so against the institutions of the time that he became further and further disillusioned and removed from public life. He died in poverty on 18th September 1830 and is buried in St. Anne’s Churchyard, Soho, London.

Posthumous reputation

His works having fallen out of print, Hazlitt underwent a small decline, though in the late 1990s his reputation was reasserted by admirers and his works reprinted. Two major works then appeared,"The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style" by Tom Paulin in 1998 and "Quarrel of the Age: the life and times of William Hazlitt" by A. C. Grayling in 2000.

In 2003, following a lengthy appeal, Hazlitt's gravestone was restored in St. Anne's Churchyard, unveiled by Michael Foot [http://books.guardian.co.uk/news/articles/0,6109,934681,00.html] . A [http://www.williamhazlitt.org/ Hazlitt Society] was then inaugurated.

One of Soho's fashionable hotels is named after the writer. Hazlitt's hotel located on Frith Street is one of the homes William lived in and today still retains much of the interior he would have known so well.


* "An Essay on the Principles of Human Action" (1805)
* "Lectures on the Literature of the Age of Elizabeth and Characters of Shakespear's Plays" (1817)
* "Lectures on the English Poets" (1818)
* "Lectures on the English Comic Writers" (1819)
* "Liber Amoris: Or, The New Pygmalion" (1823)
* "The Spirit of the Age" (1825)
* "On The Pleasure of Hating" (c.1826)


:*The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves.

:*Prejudice is the child of ignorance.

:*The essence of poetry is will and passion.

:*Rules and models destroy genius and art.

:*Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.

:*The Tory is one who is governed by sense and habit alone. He considers not what is possible, but what is real; he gives might the preference over right. He cries long life to the conqueror, and is ever strong upon the stronger side – the side of corruption and prerogative.

::--from "Introduction to Political Essays," 1817.

:*Hazlitt writes about Samuel Taylor Coleridge

:"I had no notion then that I should ever be able to express my admiration to others in motley imagery or quaint allusion, till the light of his genius shone into my soul, like the sun's rays glittering in the puddles of the road. I was at that time dumb, inarticulate, helpless, like a worm by the way-side, crushed, bleeding lifeless; but now, bursting from the deadly bands that 'bound them,

::'With Styx nine times round them,'

:"my ideas float on winged words, and as they expand their plumes, catch the golden light of other years. My soul has indeed remained in its original bondage, dark, obscure, with longing infinite and unsatisfied; my heart, shut up in the prison-house of this rude clay, has never found, nor will it ever find, a heart to speak to; but that my understanding also did not remain dumb and brutish, or at length found a language to express itself, I owe to Coleridge."

::--from the essay "My First Acquaintance with Poets"

:"For if no man can be happy in the free exercise of his reason, no wise man can be happy without it."

::--from the essay "On the Periodical Essayists"



* Albrecht, W.P. "Hazlitt and the Creative Imagination". Lawrence: The University of Kansas Press, 1965.
* Baker, Herschel. "William Hazlitt". Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962.
* Bromwich, David. "Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic". New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983.
* Hazlitt, William. "The Complete Works of William Hazlitt". Edited by P.P. Howe. 21 vols. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1930–1934.
* Hazlitt, William. "The Letters of William Hazlitt" Edited by Herschel Moreland Sikes, with Willard Hallam Bonner and Gerald Lahey. New York: New York University Press, 1978.
* Law, Marie Hamilton. "The English Familiar Essay in the Early Nineteenth Century: The Elements Old and New Which Went into Its Making as Exemplified in the Writings of Hunt, Hazlitt and Lamb". New York: Russell & Russell, Inc, 1934 (reissued 1965).
* Maclean, Catherine Macdonald. "Born Under Saturn: A Biography of William Hazlitt". New York: The Macmillan Company, 1944.
* Wardle, Ralph M. "Hazlitt". Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971.

External links

* [http://essays.quotidiana.org/hazlitt/ Essays by William Hazlitt at Quotidiana.org]
* [http://www.williamhazlitt.org/ Hazlitt Society official site]

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