The Keenest Critic

William Hazlitt
William Hazlitt; drawing by David Levine

William Hazlitt at first planned to follow his father into the Unitarian ministry, became instead a painter of portraits, then turned to writing on philosophy, economics, and politics. Not until his mid-thirties did he discover his vocation as a public lecturer and prolific contributor to periodicals. In the twenty years before his death in 1830, he produced enough to fill almost twenty volumes of his collected Works, including superb criticism of English dramatists, poets, and novelists, the best commentaries on painting in the England of his day, remarkable analyses of the English theater and its actors, comments on the contemporary political scene that are of permanent interest, and more than a hundred informal essays which, as David Bromwich says, are “more observing, original, and keen-witted than any others in the language.”

In his best-known essay, “My First Acquaintance with Poets,” Hazlitt nostalgically recalls the turning point of his life, which was Coleridge’s short stay near Hazlitt’s village in Shropshire as a visiting preacher to a Unitarian congregation. “I was at that time,” Hazlitt says, “dumb, inarticulate, helpless.” It was to the example of Coleridge’s ceaseless eloquence, in conversation and from the pulpit, that Hazlitt attributes the fact that “my understanding did not remain dumb and brutish,” but “at last found a language to express itself.” The shy and tongue-tied youth accepted Coleridge’s invitation for a three weeks’ visit to his home at Nether Stowey in the Lake Country, where he met Wordsworth and heard some of the recently written Lyrical Ballads read aloud, at which time, he says, “the sense of a new style and a new spirit in poetry came over me.”

But as often occurred in Hazlitt’s stormy life, this idyll had a sequel in the form of farce. When five years later he revisited Coleridge and Wordsworth to paint their portraits, his stay created increasing friction and ended abruptly in a scandal. Hazlitt, it seems, was aggressively but awkwardly amatory toward the country girls. As Wordsworth “with great horror” told the story to the painter Benjamin Haydon twenty-one years after the event, when one young woman rebuffed his advances Hazlitt “enraged pushed her down, and because, Sir, she refused to gratify his abominable and devilish propensities, he lifted up her petticoats and smoteer on the bottom.” To escape a ducking by the enraged populace, Hazlitt ignominiously fled, assisted by gifts of money and clothes from Wordsworth.

This episode caused an estrangement of both Wordsworth and Coleridge from Hazlitt, which was exacerbated by their increasing political differences and by Hazlitt’s outspoken reviews of their opinions and writings. Bromwich treats harshly their rejection of Hazlitt. Undoubtedly, both Wordsworth and Coleridge were intolerant and behaved sanctimoniously toward the younger writer. But in extenuation one should point out that Hazlitt never managed to stay on good terms with anyone for very long. In demeanor he was often gauche, graceless, suspicious—in Coleridge’s memorable…

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