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. Hazlitt noticed that his father “could hardly have been more surprised or pleased, if our visitor had worn wings. Indeed, his thoughts had wings.”
Hazlitt walked with him for six miles on the first stage of his way back to Nether Stowey, while they talked of Burke; of Berkeley; of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, and Joseph Butler’s Sermons; of the ascendancy of a woman of genius like Mary Wollstonecraft over a mere man of sense like Godwin—subjects on which the young critic displayed as ready a command as the poet. Hazlitt later remembered every step of that walk because it changed his life.
As they parted, Coleridge wrote down his address in Nether Stowey and invited Hazlitt to visit in the spring. In this second and longer encounter, Hazlitt would meet Wordsworth too, and hear both poets read from the not yet published Lyrical Ballads. He took the chance to try out on them his theory of action and imagination, which was to become the subject of his first book. An action that I perform, Hazlitt thought, cannot be the result only of sensation or habit, as was supposed by the associationist psychology widely accepted at the time. For whenever I do act, I have to imagine a future that does not yet exist: a future to which my present identity bears as uncertain a relation as anyone else’s present identity. It follows that human action is imaginative—that is, arbitrary, hypothetical, outward-looking—and not necessarily selfish or egotistical. The fallacy in associationist psychology, which the young Hazlitt had discovered more clearly than anyone else, was that it failed to account for unprecedented thought, action, or cognition.
Coleridge listened to Hazlitt’s argument and gave encouragement; and six years later, in 1805, Hazlitt published his theory in An Essay on the Principles of Human Action. This difficult book found only a few readers in Hazlitt’s lifetime, but they are an interesting few: not only Coleridge but James Mackintosh, the intellectual preceptor of the Edinburgh Review, left a record of his high estimate of it, while Keats and Shelley were impressed enough with the argument to echo it almost casually—Keats in his letters, Shelley in “A Defence of Poetry.”
But The Principles of Human Action was, in fact, only a small part of Hazlitt’s creative activity during his early twenties. In these years he was also trying to follow his brother John in a career as a painter. He made copies of the old masters, particularly Rembrandt and Titian, and painted a dozen portraits on commission. Two that have survived, a self-portrait (now in the Maidstone Museum) and a painting of Charles Lamb as a Venetian senator (in the National Portrait Gallery), are strong likenesses without being strikingly original in style. Precisely because of his own imperfect achievement as a painter, Hazlitt began to reflect on the sources of originality in art. He was now interested in the imagination in practice.
In his late twenties, Hazlitt started to write “free thoughts” on politics—among others, for the radical publisher Joseph Johnson, who was also the printer of his father’s sermons. The Eloquence of the British Senate (1807), an anthology of parliamentary speeches with appended essays and notes by Hazlitt, contains sympathetic portraits of the hero of the radical Whigs, Charles James Fox, together with a notably independent appreciation of Edmund Burke, a satirical eulogy of William Pitt, and notes on many lesser speakers from the reign of Elizabeth to that of George II. In the same year Hazlitt also published in William Cobbett’s Political Register the series of articles that would become his second book, the Reply to Malthus. Admitting the plausibility of Malthus’s view that the constant growth of the population tends to exhaust the means of subsistence, Hazlitt pointed out that a crisis would not commence until all the arable lands of the earth were under active cultivation. Any political inference drawn from Malthusian theory was therefore sophistical, and the theory was nothing but “a gospel preached to the poor.”
Hazlitt’s was the first analysis to offer so severe a rebuke to a man of science widely respected for his good sense and equability. And yet in Malthus, the great conservative of the age, as in other voices that spoke for “utility” and “economy,” Hazlitt saw a threat to the single political hope he had always cherished: that the claims of individual genius and merit should outweigh those of rank and privilege. Both here and in later controversies, Hazlitt was partly advocating the old Puritan cause of liberty of conscience, but he was also expressing a new passion for equality which had come into English radicalism after 1789—owing much to the example of the French Revolution, and as much to the public outrage over the prosecution of its supporters. More than any other writer of his generation, Hazlitt remained faithful in the first decades of the nineteenth century to the radical feelings of the 1790s. “For my part,” he would remember in 1827,
I set out in life with the French Revolution, and that event had considerable influence on my early feelings, as on those of others. Youth then was doubly such. It was the dawn of a new era, a new impulse had been given to men’s minds, and the sun of Liberty rose upon the sun of Life in the same day.
When one reads Hazlitt’s Free Thoughts on Public Affairs (1806), and the later writings that he collected in Political Essays (1819), one comes to feel that liberty mattered to him even more than equality. But it is a distinction that Hazlitt seldom addressed directly and perhaps did not fully recognize for himself. The Revolution continued to represent to him the triumphant claims of individual merit. That is why he could deplore the Terror and yet could come to feel that the Revolution had been redeemed by a single man, Napoleon. His politics were democratic but not leveling. In this respect he always made a distinction between himself and the radical poets of the Nineties—Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Robert Southey—who from motives of prudence or enthusiasm had joined the party of reaction in the 1810s. The poets had begun by believing in a total revolution of property, of common beliefs and habits, indeed of human nature itself. But they turned from an overheated radicalism to a conservatism just as dogmatic. When they argued that they had changed their politics because the world had changed, Hazlitt replied: “A person who forgets all the sentiments and principles to which he was most attached at nineteen can have no sentiments ever after worth being attached to.”
More was at stake here than a dispute over loyalties or consistency of opinion. For what we now call Romanticism depended on two separate developments: a deepening of the idea of experience, to include private as well as public matters (most of which would have seemed until then incommunicable), and the shift from a belief in the all-importance of public life, where the writer spoke as one person among others, to a belief in private life, where the writer stood alone. Hazlitt, with his theory of action and imagination, had himself contributed to both sides of this new understanding of experience. At the same time, he distrusted the way in which respect for the individual was being used to justify a retreat from public commitments in favor of private life.
The difference of principle he recognized between himself and the “apostate poets” is particularly clear in his polemical exchange with Southey in 1817. Southey, then Poet Laureate, had argued for new and harsher laws to restrain the radical press; Hazlitt, in turn, pointed out just how much Southey himself might have suffered from such laws had they been in place twenty years earlier. When Coleridge tried to mediate the dispute by recalling Southey’s well-known reputation for decency and considerateness, Hazlitt saw that private and romantic virtues were being used to settle a public question, and he pounced:
The charge is that [Mr. Southey] wrote democratical nonsense in his youth; and that he has not only taken to write against democracy in his maturer age, but has abused and reviled those who adhere to his former opinions; and accepted of emoluments from the party which formerly calumniated him, for those good services. Now, what has Mr. Coleridge to oppose to this? Mr. Southey’s private character…. Some people say, that Mr. Southey had deserted the cause of liberty: Mr. Coleridge tells us, that he has not separated from his wife. They say, that he has changed his opinions: Mr. Coleridge says, that he keeps his appointments; and has even invented a new word, reliability, to express his exemplariness in this particular. It is also objected, that the worthy Laureate was as extravagant in his early writings, as he is virulent in his present ones: Mr. Coleridge answers, that he is an early riser, and not a late sitter up.
The passage comes from a review of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria in 1817. But Hazlitt’s prose was equipped for flights like this a decade earlier.
In 1808 Hazlitt married Sarah Stoddart, an independent woman a little older than himself. They had been introduced by Charles and Mary Lamb, but Charles fled from the wedding ceremony, saying later: “Anything awful makes me laugh.” William and Sarah Hazlitt seem to have liked each other, but there was no love between them, ever. Fortunately Sarah was as indifferent as her husband to the amenities of domestic life, and memoirs of the period offer some scandalized details: of the unshapely thing (“a joint of meat”) they served for dinner once; of a room half-covered with drafts of essays, which Hazlitt composed directly on the wall. The looseness of the couple’s domestic arrangements seems a casual eccentricity; but it leads Mr. Jones to speculate on Hazlitt’s interest in other women. There is a puzzle here. Both his writings and the testimony of his friends suggest that he was preternaturally shy of women. Yet we also have the testimony of more than one friend that he was “always in love.”
Mr. Jones is tantalizing. He looks hard at Hazlitt’s own remark that he was “the fool of love,” and surmises that there may have been a serious affair in 1814 and 1815, though it is not possible even to guess at the identity of the woman. It may be that the comment about Hazlitt being always in love was meant ironically. In an older and extremely discerning biography, Born Under Saturn (1943), Catherine Macdonald Maclean noticed what none of Hazlitt’s male biographers ever has, that his first acquaintance with women came during his training as an academic painter. In those years the women who posed for the students at the academy were prostitutes. This fact may help to account for the dramatic premise of Liber Amoris: Or, the New Pygmalion (1823), where Hazlitt tells of his infatuation with a woman much younger than himself. It is a condition of his interest that the heroine should appear a good deal more innocent than himself.
Hazlitt started working regularly as a parliamentary reporter in 1812. He comes across in Mr. Jones’s account as already severe, purposeful, armed with a challenge to everyone who encountered him in argument. This was also the impression Hazlitt gave of himself in “A Farewell to Essay-Writing”:
My standing upright, speaking loud, entering a room gracefully, proves nothing; therefore I neglect these ordinary means of recommending myself to the good graces and admiration of strangers (and, as appears, even of philosophers and friends). Why? Because I have other resources, or, at least, am absorbed in other studies and pursuits…. I am a close reasoner and a loose dresser. I have been (among other follies) a hard liver as well as a hard thinker; and the consequences of that will not allow me to dress as I please.
Mr. Jones is good at praising Hazlitt’s difficult virtues—his courage, his non-conformity—and he is the most sympathetic of all Hazlitt’s biographers. But a too accepting praise runs the risk of sentimentality. The hero of this Life is always “relishing” something, a painting, a person, or an experience that others were apt to pass over. He is a vigorous man of wholesome pleasures. Doubtless his contemporaries saw this side, too; but when they thought of Hazlitt, they did not see a man of eager appreciations. He looked more like someone about to strike a blow.
His style from the first was attacked as “paradoxical”—a euphemism for violently witty. Hazlitt seldom stooped to defend himself, but when he did, he gave no quarter. In his Letter to William Gifford, the editor of the powerful Tory Quarterly Review—“the invisible link,” Hazlitt called him, who “connects literature with the police”—part of the affront is to call down his antagonist in person:
You say it is impossible to remember what I write after reading it:—One remembers to have read what you write—before! In that you have the advantage of me, to be sure. You in vain endeavour to account for the popularity of some of my writings from the trick of arranging words in a variety of forms without any correspondent ideas, like the newly-invented optical toy. You have not hit upon the secret, nor will you be able to avail yourself when I tell you. It is the old story—that I think what I please, and say what I think. This accounts, Sir, for the difference between you and me in so many respects.
Reading the Letter and copying pages of it to send to his brother, Keats exclaimed: “Hazlitt hath a demon in him.”
The articles and reviews he published in the Whig Morning Chronicle gained notoriety by attacking all the idols of the day: the poetry of Rogers and Scott; the classical style of acting as exemplified by John Kemble; the historical paintings of Benjamin West and his academic followers. In their place Hazlitt set up unheard-of models of excellence: the poetry of Lyrical Ballads; the hit-or-miss genius of Kean in any of his Shakespearean roles; the paintings of Turner—with one reservation, that they were “pictures of nothing, and very like.”
The publication of strong opinions like these could not bring anyone a living; and, in 1812, Hazlitt began to give public lectures from time to time—on modern philosophy, on the English poets, on comic writers and essayists, on the Age of Elizabeth. Meanwhile he continued to work as a parliamentary reporter, and could make a sketch of a speaker in the House of Commons with a few rapid strokes. Of the anti-Jacobin wit George Canning: “His eloquence is something like a bright, sharp-pointed sword, which, owing to its not being made of very stout metal, bends and gives way, and seems ready to snap asunder at every stroke; and he is perpetually in danger of having it wrested out of his hands.” Of the radical member from Westminster, Francis Burdett: “He could not have uttered what he often did, if, besides his general respectability, he had not been a very honest, a very good-tempered, and a very good-looking man.” And, finally, of the evangelical apostle of empire William Wilberforce:
He is altogether a double-entendre; the very tone of his voice is a double-entendre. It winds, and undulates, and glides up and down on texts of Scriptures, and scraps from Paley, and trite sophistry, and pathetic appeals to his hearers in a faltering, improgressive, side-long way, like those birds of weak wing, that are borne from their strait-forward course “By every little breath that under heaven is blown.”
In 1818, Hazlitt delivered a series of lectures on English poetry at the Surrey Institution. The lecturer reserved his highest praise for Shakespeare and Milton, and closed with some unflattering sentences on the egotism of modern poetry. “I have felt my subject,” he says of the history he has traced, “gradually sinking from under me as I advanced, and have been afraid of ending in nothing. The interest has unavoidably decreased at almost every successive step of the progress, like a play that has its catastrophe in the first or second act.” Yet, curiously, Hazlitt’s message—that the dramatic power and lyric intensity of English poetry had fallen off steeply after Shakespeare and Milton—had an invigorating effect on the twenty-three-year-old Keats, who was in the audience. Keats took Hazlitt to be saying: “Your older contemporaries are not so tremendous as you suppose. They have added something to poetry, but they have added something narrow. Plenty of work is still to be done.” Mary Russell Mitford came away with a similar impression; she admired in the speaker “a certain momentary upward look full of malice French and not quite free from malice English by which he contrives to turn the grandest compliment into the bitterest sarcasm. In short the man, mind and body, has a genius for contempt and I am afraid, very much afraid, that I like him the better for it.”
Two traits of argument are unique to Hazlitt. Occasionally, he throws the weight of his experience behind the truth of a paradox and makes it seem both a deep and a common insight into human nature. In the essay “On Cant and Hypocrisy,” for example, Hazlitt at first appears to grant the truth of Rochefoucauld’s maxim: “Hypocrisy is the involuntary homage that vice pays to virtue.” But he takes the observation a step further. If this much is true, is not hypocrisy a kind of decency? And is not a state of things where vices are concealed preferable to a state where a libertine shamelessness is taken for granted? These questions prompt a further refinement of the maxim. To fail to practice what you preach is not, yet, hypocrisy, but only weakness of a common sort:
I by no means think a single bad action condemns a man, for he probably condemns it as much as you do; nor a single bad habit, for he is probably trying all his life to get rid of it. A man is only thoroughly profligate when he has lost the sense of right and wrong; or a thorough hypocrite, when he has not even the wish to be what he appears. The greatest offence against virtue is to speak ill of it. To recommend certain things is worse than to practice them.
It is worse to preach vice than to practice it; and worst of all not to believe what you preach.
But Hazlitt has another characteristic style of attack, more energetic and much less refined. His weapon here is the simple weight of “redoubled blows,” to advance a prejudice or to deepen a criticism. In reviewing Wordsworth’s poem The Excursion, he begins by praising the poet’s dedication to his chosen pastoral setting. It is an artist’s choice, and not too much should be made of it, Hazlitt concedes. But he cannot help feeling that Wordsworth offers a more than poetic endorsement of the rustic way of life he portrays; and, very politely at first, Hazlitt begs leave to differ with Wordsworth on the subject of country people. Then comes an onslaught:
All country people hate each other. They have so little comfort, that they envy their neighbors the smallest pleasure or advantage, and nearly grudge themselves the necessaries of life. From not being accustomed to enjoyment, they become hardened and averse to it—stupid, for want of thought—selfish, for want of society. There is nothing good to be had in the country, or, if there is, they will not let you have it. They had rather injure themselves than oblige any one else. You cannot get your tea and sugar without sending to the next town for it: you pay double, and have it of the worst quality. The small-beer is sure to be sour—the milk skimmed—the meat bad, or spoiled in the cooking. You cannot do a single thing you like; you cannot walk out or sit at home, or write or read, or think or look as if you did.
He continues, “Vanity and luxury are the civilisers of the world, and sweeteners of human life,” and this taunt against the primitivism of Wordsworth continues down to the final epigram: “Man left to himself soon degenerates into a very disagreeable person.” The joke, which sets Man (mankind) against man (a person), is typical of Hazlitt. He never neglects the chance to take a parting shot.
Wordsworth wrote with a gravity of purpose that any reader is constrained to admire. But Hazlitt sympathized more with the qualities—of temperament, or character—that go with a freedom from conscious purpose: grace, lightness, spontaneity. At the end of “The Indian Jugglers,” his great essay on genius, Hazlitt reprints his own newspaper obituary for Jack Cavanagh, the champion at “fives” (a game of handball on a three-sided court):
He who takes to playing at fives is twice young. He feels neither the past nor future “in the instant.” Debts, taxes, “domestic treason, foreign levy, nothing can touch him further.” He has no other wish, no other thought, from the moment the game begins, but that of striking the ball, of placing it, of making it! The Cavanagh was sure to do. Whenever he touched the ball, there was an end of the chase. His eye was certain, his hand fatal, his presence of mind complete. He could do what he pleased, and he always knew exactly what to do.
We are less likely to go wrong, Hazlitt thinks, if we compare the powers of a genuine artist with the self-forgetful “presence of mind” of an athlete, than if we take the comparison the other way around and suppose that genius requires an always purposeful design.
In 1820, Hazlitt, in his forty-second year, fell in love with the nineteen-year-old Sarah Walker—a “lodging-house decoy,” as he later resentfully called her. The full story of their relationship is told in Liber Amoris, the most anomalous of his works. Sarah Walker was the landlord’s daughter at an inn where Hazlitt had not intended to stay long. She brought tea to his room, and sat in his lap, and made him feel for the first time as if he could live for someone besides himself. The book presents her as a young woman of a distinctly humble background, and her distance in this respect helps to explain, in fiction, the hero’s baffled conjectures about her utter innocence or utter depravity of character.
Here Mr. Jones sets the record straight. In fact, Sarah Walker came from a respectable Dissenting family. On a cool estimate, a man like Hazlitt must have looked to her a good catch, but she was not so remote from his milieu as he makes her appear. Soon after their first meeting, he proposed marriage and thought himself accepted, obtained his wife’s connivance in a “Scottish divorce,” and then was rejected by Sarah Walker after all. While he was meditating marriage, she had been flirting with him, among others.
The episode broke Hazlitt’s life in two, and the narrative he made of it, to try and free himself from the memory, closes on a note of pathos without relief:
Her image seems fast “going into the wastes of time”, like a weed that the wave bears farther and farther from me. Alas! thou poor hapless weed, when I entirely lose sight of thee, and for ever, no flower will ever bloom on earth to glad my heart again!
These words are signed by the narrator, “H”; but the anonymous author of Liber Amoris (1823) was easily discovered, and the poignant realism of the book, shocking alike in its frankness and its detachment, gave Hazlitt’s enemies in the Tory press the weapon they wanted to blacken his reputation.
Yet for all the harm it did to his prospects for happiness, the obsessional interlude of 1820–1822 also made Hazlitt (in Christopher Salvesen’s fine phrase) “a master of regret.” For one can trace to this moment an extraordinary development in his prose. He was now able to move abruptly, confidingly, to a personal eloquence he had only touched before. In the essay “On the Knowledge of Character,” for example, he turns away from the abstract topic and reaches for a homely illustration:
The greatest hypocrite I ever knew was a little, demure, pretty, modest-looking girl, with eyes timidly cast upon the ground, and an air soft as enchantment; the only circumstance that could lead to a suspicion of her true character was a cold, sullen, watery, glazed look about the eyes, which she bent on vacancy, as if determined to avoid all explanation with yours. I might have spied in their glittering, motionless surface, the rocks and quicksands that awaited me below!
His writing now shows as well an unpredictable power of turning against itself; so that the following passage seems an appropriate close for a mostly impersonal essay “On Dreams”:
Yet I dream sometimes; I dream of the Louvre—Intus et in cute. I dreamt I was there a few weeks ago, and that the old scene returned—that I looked for my favourite pictures, and found them gone or erased. The dream of my youth came upon me; a glory and a vision unutterable, that comes no more but in darkness and in sleep: my heart rose up, and I fell on my knees, and lifted up my voice and wept, and I awoke. I also dreamt a little while ago, that I was reading the New Eloise to an old friend and came to the concluding passage in Julia’s farewell letter, which had much the same effect upon me.—The words are, “Trop heureuse d’acheter au prix de ma vie le droit de t’aimer toujours sans crime et de te le dire encore une fois, avant que je meurs!” I used to sob over this passage twenty years ago; and in this dream about it lately, I seemed to live these twenty years over again in one short moment! I do not dream ordinarily; and there are people who never could see anything in the New Eloise.
Eleven of his longer essays (this one among them) were written in twenty-six days of February and March 1822, in the middle of his torments over Sarah Walker. Finishing the last of the lot, he recorded the date and noted in the margin, “Well done, poor wretched creature.”
Hazlitt’s work of the early 1820s includes most of the essays that later went into two volumes, Table-Talk and The Plain Speaker. Then, in 1825, he gathered into a book the series of “contemporary portraits” he had written as separate sketches in magazines; the result was The Spirit of the Age, an immediate success and still the book that most readers associate with his name. In its aphoristic balance, its caption-like directness and quotability, The Spirit of the Age is not an altogether characteristic performance: Hazlitt was elsewhere an adept at the blunt digression, the abrupt turn, or the broken rhythm, the sly allusion that is “caviar to the general.” But his determination here to satisfy at once the reader who was well acquainted with his subjects and the reader who came to them with a reasonably informed curiosity made him able to tell a fuller truth about people he had earlier written of only briefly and allusively.
The essay on William Godwin, for example, offers the deepest praise as well as the soundest criticism Godwin would ever receive from a contemporary. The Godwinian morality of universal rational benevolence, Hazlitt observes, is only a literal rendering of the injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself; except that, to the question “Who is my neighbor?” Godwin had found the courage to reply, “He who needs my help.” Yet it had also been part of Godwin’s “moral arithmetic” that, given a choice between saving my mother’s life and saving the life of a famous “benefactor of the species,” an unclouded judgment would always require me unhesitatingly to choose the latter. Remembering this, Hazlitt goes on to say that Godwin “followed out the moral of the parable of the Good Samaritan into its most rigid and repulsive consequences with a pen of steel.”
With every figure it canvasses—above all, with Bentham, Wordsworth, and Scott—The Spirit of the Age gives the best case imaginable both for the defense and for the prosecution. Bentham of all the moderns, says Hazlitt, is the first truly principled thinker about society, but he has no understanding of the common sentiments or even the common interests of men and women. Wordsworth carries to the point of genius a conviction of the final worth of all he himself has seen and felt; and yet his self-confidence has been nourished by an egotism that is almost a disease. Scott knows, better than anyone else, exactly half of the range of human experience: everything between the past and the present.
All of these portraits are concise and memorable; but the essays on Coleridge and Byron have a different kind of complexity: they sustain a single judgment, and then challenge it by the force of afterthoughts. Byron, “the spoiled child of fame as well as fortune,” is, in spite of his liberal opinions, still a lord in all he does, not least in his rejection of all ordinary or accepted feelings. “He scorns all things, even himself,” and is an aristocratic dandy: “He hallows in order to desecrate.” And yet “dandyism is (for want of any other) a variety of genius.”
It is, on the whole, a harsh verdict, scrupulously earned by the critic. But after all this, Hazlitt comes to a sudden stop near the end with a space and a line of asterisks, after which the essay continues:
We had written thus far when news came of the death of Lord Byron, and put an end at once to a strain of somewhat peevish invective, which was intended to meet his eye, not to insult his memory
—and there follows an unrestrained tribute to Byron’s liberality and personal boldness. Similarly the essay on Coleridge, in the first edition of The Spirit of the Age, ends by regretting how little the poet has lived up to the early hopes he raised; but in a paragraph added for later editions, Hazlitt chooses a different final note: Coleridge has now become an honorable exile from the world, a wanderer “with no city or place of refuge,” quite distinct from the rabble of party hacks who count him as an ally.
It is hard to remember now, and almost unreasonable to want to remember, that in Hazlitt’s view the great project of his last decade was not The Spirit of the Age but a four-volume Life of Napoleon—written as a reply to Walter Scott’s hostile nine-volume Life, and intended by the author to stand as his one work “of permanent worth to mankind.” The Life of Napoleon is remarkable in its chapters on the Enlightenment and the Revolution, its sketches of the great Jacobin orators, and its panoramic approach to the invasion of Russia. It has throughout a genuine, if irregular, excitement, whereas the excitement of Carlyle a generation later is hectoring and deliberate. A heroic biography of Napoleon was a fatal undertaking in the England of 1828; but the failure of the book seems to have taken Hazlitt by surprise. His perverseness and lack of expediency come out nowhere more plainly than here: “I thought all the world agreed with me at present,” he wrote to his publisher Charles Cowden Clarke, “that Buonaparte was better than the Bourbons or that a tyrant was better than tyranny.”
He died two years later, in a one-room flat, with creditors at his door; and his last words are said to have been, “Well, I’ve had a happy life.”
One danger of writing appreciatively of Hazlitt—as also, perhaps, of Or-well—is that the hero can come out sounding perfect; free not only of every low motive, but of every unpleasant motive. Hazlitt was not like that; not quite: a strain of misanthropy was always there, which one can feel even in a casual sentence of a letter to William Bewick: “Why don’t you marry some girl with a small independence & let the Fine Arts go to Hell—the best place for them.” This was a rough way to talk to a young man like Bewick, a talented painter in Hazlitt’s circle of admirers. Yet the bitterness of such a passage corresponds to a tone that his friends must have known well, and that some of his essays catch from a distance—including one of his best, “On the Pleasure of Hating.”
The Hazlitt who talked like this appears in Mr. Jones’s account, but he appears without comment. The judgments that do come are apt to be of the following sort:
However doggedly he proclaimed unpalatable truths in his writings he was always the soul of watchful consideration in his dealings with those about him, and his readiness to postpone his personal claims in deference to the comfort of others was a constant threat to his own well being.
This goes too far. Other things besides watchful consideration threatened Hazlitt’s well-being—his political obduracy for example (on the eve of Waterloo he was still giving his friends miniature busts of Napoleon); and a habit of honesty that was not to be deterred by the unpleasant effects of honesty. He was a man of strong impulses who never played false with his deeper convictions. But this can go with a certain abrasiveness, a lack of consideration that is an unmixed virtue only in criticism.
Jones is a first-rate scholar, and a disciplined writer. He knows pretty well what Hazlitt did on every day of his life. Sometimes he knows more, and insists on showing more: eight pages on the previous life and genealogy of Hazlitt’s second wife, Isabella Bridgwater; three pages on a man, J.R. Bell, who on a few occasions was in Hazlitt’s company, and may have helped him with patronage. On the other hand, there is only a single page dealing with the Life of Napoleon, and scarcely more on The Spirit of the Age. Mr. Jones does not like to do anything other biographers have done already; but the curious disproportions of his book exclude much that is of great interest. The space given to J.R. Bell’s finances, or to a list of plays Hazlitt may have seen in a season at Winterslow, is space taken away from Leigh Hunt and Charles Lamb. It is likewise space taken away from Keats, from Byron, from Coleridge and Wordsworth and (an acknowledged disciple) Stendhal—personalities of great interest in themselves, without whose presence Hazlitt’s own feeling for his period cannot quite come to life. There are many smaller but not trivial facts which a biographer of Mr. Jones’s authority might also have tried to illuminate. One would like to know in what way he believes Hazlitt’s radicalism was formed out of loyalty to, and reaction against, the sages of Dissent—Godwin, Price, Priestley, and, for that matter, Hazlitt Senior. In a late work, the Conversations of James Northcote (1827), Hazlitt has a character named Hazlitt say of William Godwin: “There is another thing (which it seems harsh and presumptuous to say, but) he appears to me not always to perceive the difference between right and wrong.” What thoughts lurk behind that remarkable parenthesis?
Yet Jones has uncovered fresh documents and given a reliable and sympathetic commentary. Anyone seeking a fuller and less minute account of Hazlitt can find it in the earlier biographies of Catherine Maclean, P.P. Howe, Herschel Baker, and Ralph Wardle. The author of The Spirit of the Age and “On the Pleasure of Hating” has had a partisan following from his day to ours, with warm defenders in every generation from John Keats to Michael Foot. He still commands the kind of attention that most writers hope for but that no other has achieved so durably in the mixed intellectual and personal form he explored throughout his career. He has not been congenial to academic study, probably because he lacks the uniform ideas and the important illusions that modern literary theory is suited to explain or refute. But in the end his writing, like Montaigne’s or Emerson’s, is destined not to depend on the reception of the schools. Its attraction has too much to do with a reader’s own desire for self-knowledge.
“A militant,” C.L.R. James rightly called him, “an extreme democrat”—and yet, as James added in wonder,
He is not a divided man, he has no acute consciousness either of class or of divided culture…. He takes his whole self wherever he goes; he is ready to go everywhere; every new experience renews and expands him…. The possibility of such completeness of expression ended with him and has not yet returned.
It is an encomium many readers would gladly have written (and do in their minds while they are reading Hazlitt). His strength has to do with genius and generosity; with a certain depth of experience, but also a certain relation to experience. Impossible as a model, Hazlitt’s writing still seems a possible ideal.
April 11, 1991