Master of Regret

Hazlitt: A Life, From Winterslow to Frith Street

by Stanley Jones
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 397 pp., $59.00

Stanley Jones’s biography takes up the story of William Hazlitt’s life in 1808. There is a bad, but plausible, excuse for this. It allows Mr. Jones to begin with his hero at the age of thirty and about to be married. There is also a good, if opportunistic, excuse. Hazlitt in 1808 was poised on the brink of the greatest of journalistic careers. In the preceding decade, he had begun to publish occasional essays on politics and morality. In the decade to come, he would move from being a parliamentary reporter to working as a dramatic critic, art critic, literary critic, radical polemicist, lecturer on philosophy and literature, and finally the author of more than a hundred personal essays. The last was a form he both invented and brought to perfection. On miscellaneous topics from “The Fight” (a report of a boxing match) to “Why the Heroes of Romances are Insipid” (an inquiry into the weaker characters of Richardson, Fielding, Scott, and Fanny Burney), between 1808 and his death in 1830 he wrote some of the best prose in English. But Hazlitt’s career has an interesting background, too—both in itself and as an example of the strivings of his intellectual generation. It is unfortunate that Mr. Jones should have omitted the first half of the story.

Hazlitt was born in 1778, the son of the Reverend William Hazlitt. His father was one of the phalanx of enlightened moralists—among them, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, and William Godwin—who would help to create the moral culture of Dissent in the 1780s. When William was five, the Hazlitt family moved to Massachusetts, where William Sr. had gone to plant Unitarianism. But the American congregations were not warmly receptive, and he left in 1787 to settle in the village of Wem, in Shropshire. Although relations between father and son, both intellectually and otherwise, appear to have been cordial, Hazlitt seems never to have felt an interest in pursuing his father’s religious calling.

The great stimulus to his choice of a vocation came in the winter of 1798, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge arrived to preach a sermon in the neighboring village of Shrewsbury. Two days later, the young Hazlitt met Coleridge as a guest in the family parlor. The poet, then in his mid-twenties and at the height of his powers, talked copiously and showed interest in the young man not yet twenty who could talk back as an equal. Hazlitt had been deeply affected by Coleridge’s sermon against war with France: the threat of war was then in every mind, especially among radical dissenters like the Hazlitts, who had sympathized with the Revolution from the start.

In person, Coleridge to Hazlitt seemed quick, alert, and somewhat capricious. As Hazlitt later recalled, he seemed to decide to take an annuity from a patron and refuse the offer of the ministry while he was tying his shoes. But Coleridge’s personal as well as pastoral eloquence left its mark …

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