AMONG English essayists William Hazlitt is distinguished for his psychological revelations. Less companionable than Steele, less erudite than De Quincey, without Addison’s classic culture and Leigh Hunt’s bonhomie, he is more introspective than any one of these. The speculative exceeds the literary element in his equipment. To think rather than to learn was his prevalent tendency; intuition rather than acquisition was his resource. The cast of his mind, the quality of his temperament, and the nature of his experience combined to make him thoughtful, individual, and earnest; more abstract than social, more intent than discursive, more original than accomplished, he contributed ideas instead of fantasies, and vindicated opinions instead of tastes. Zest was his inspiration ; that intellectual pleasure which comes from idiosyncrasies, moods, convictions, he both felt and imparted in a rare degree ; he thirsted for truth ; he was jealous of his independence ; he was a devotee of freedom. In him the animal and intellectual were delicately fused. Few such voluminous writers have been such limited readers. Keenly alive to political abuses, bred in the atmosphere of dissent, prone to follow out his mental instincts with little regard to precedent or prosperity, there was a singular consistency of purpose in his career. Undisciplined by academic training, his mind was developed by a process of reflection, both patient and comprehensive ; and so much was it to him a kingdom, that only the pressure of necessity or the encouragement of opportunity would have won him from vagrant musing to elaborate expression. He looked within for the materials of his essays, — drawing upon reason and consciousness, outward influences being the occasions rather than the source of his discourse. So far as he was a practical writer he was a reformer, and, as a critic, he wrote from æsthetic insight, and not in accordance with any conventional standard. Accordingly, while excelled in fancy, rhetoric, and fulness of knowledge by many of his class, he is one of the most suggestive ; he may amuse less, but he makes us think more, and puts us on a track of free and acute speculation or subtle intellectual sympathy. He makes life interesting by hinting its latent significance ; he reveals the mysterious charm of character by analyzing its elemental traits ; he revives our sense of truth and defines the peculiarities of genius ; and to him progress, justice, and liberty seem more of personal concern from this very perception of the divine possibilities of free development. His defects and misfortunes confirmed these tendencies. A more complete education would probably have weakened his power as a writer; more extensive social experience, less privation and persecution, would have bred intellectual ease, and higher birth and fortune modified the emphasis of his opinions. But, thrown so early upon his own resources, left to his wayward impulses, and taught to think for himself, he garnered in solitude the thoughts which circumstances afterwards elicited, and had the time and the freedom to attain certain fixed views and realize his own special endowments by experiment. His earliest tendency was metaphysical, his most congenial aptitude artistic. The spontaneous exercise of his devouring intelligence was in the sphere of abstract truth ; the fondest desire of his youth was to be a painter; and from these two facts in the history of his mind, we can easily infer all his merits as an essayist: for while, on the one hand, he brings every subject to the test of consciousness, on the other, his sensuous love of beauty and curious delight in its study give, at once, a philosophical and a sympathetic charm to his lucubrations, in which consists their special attraction. It was disappointment in his ambition to become an artist that renewed his speculative vein, and the necessity of making this more winsome to the public that made him a popular author. The details of such a career and the traits of such a character are worthy of study; and the volume of Leigh Hunt already cited is a grateful evidence of intellectual obligation, the sources of which we shall endeavor to indicate as they are revealed in the life and writings of William Hazlitt.
Bostonians of the liberal school, who visited England in the early days of packet-ships, must have felt disappointed at the obscure and unenviable position of the scattered representatives of their faith there. Accustomed to associate superiority with everything English, from cloth and cutlery to books and scholars, and leaving a community where culture and competence were identified with Unitarianism, the small, bare chapels and isolated labors of the most intellectual class of dissenters in Britain doubtless proved a painful surprise. The contrast they offered to the luxury and ostentation of the Established Religion deepened this impression. And yet, with this despised minority originated much of the humane and independent thinking which has brightened and beautified our civilization. Political justice and religious toleration upheld and illustrated by earnest and courageous minds, whose crusade was sanctioned by rare personal worth and frugal probity, found by degrees that popular recognition which now makes principles once persecuted as dangerous the salubrious leaven in the inert mass of traditional wrong and deadening superstition. In such a school, unendowed by the state, unheralded by titles, unrecognized by the great world, William Hazlitt was born and bred.
John Hazlitt, an Irish Protestant, emigrated from the county of Antrim to the neighborhood of Tipperary, and there established himself as a flax factor ; his son William graduated at Glasgow in 1761, joined the Unitarians, and crossed over to England, where, for many years, in various rural places, he was settled over small congregations. He was a man of unimpeachable integrity, of learning and piety, but destitute of ambition ; simple in his tastes, of frugal and studious habits, and a remarkably modest and contented disposition. The aspect under which he was best remembered by his children was “ poring over old folios,” and watching with pleasure the growth of his vegetable-garden. He was a beautiful type of the English pastor as delineated by Goldsmith, with the difference that to a scholar’s habits and a good man’s peaceful benignity he added a vivid sympathy for the advancement and welfare of his race, and a keen interest in philosophic inquiries. Accordingly, despite a small salary and frequent clerical migrations, he sustained casual relations with the foremost thinkers of his day ; he was a warm friend to our country during the Revolutionary War, and of essential service to the American prisoners at Kinsale, near where he was then living. He knew Franklin, and was a friend and correspondent of Priestley and Price. He married Grace Loftus, a farmer’s daughter of decided personal charms and attractive qualities of character. He had three children, — John, who became a distinguished artist, Peggy, and William, the youngest the subject of this notice, who was born in Mitre Lane, Maidstone, April 10, 1778. Two years after the family removed to Ireland, where the elder Hazlitt took charge of a parish at Bandon in the county of Cork ; and, at the close of the war in which he had taken so deep an interest, and when his son William was five years old, they visited America.
In May, 1783, the Hazlitts arrived in New York, and soon after went to Philadelphia. The New Jersey Assembly being in session at Burlington, Mr. Hazlitt, by invitation, preached before them; and during the fifteen months he remained in Philadelphia frequently addressed congregations, and also delivered a course of lectures on the Evidences of Christianity. He then made a brief visit to Boston, where he founded the first Unitarian Church. His son, the artist, left in the New World several fruits of his pencil, in the shape of portraits ; and the earliest likeness of his brother William was executed here, and represents a handsome bright boy of six, with blue eyes, and long, curly brown hair. The latter’s recollections, however, did not extend to this early period; the memories of childhood were associated with Wem in Shropshire, where his father established himself on his return from America, in 1786-87, and remained until his death. It was here in the neighborhood of Salisbury, in a humble parsonage, that the boyhood and youth of the future essayist was passed ; and he fondly reverts to the walks, talks, reading, and musing which consecrated this region to his memory. Two or three letters written at eight and ten years of age, to his father when temporarily absent, give an inkling of the mature character of his mind, and his innate disposition to moralize and speculate. “ I shall never forget,” he writes, “ that we came to America. I think, for my part, it would have been a great deal better if the white people had not found it out.” At ten he tells his brother, in a serious epistle, “we cannot be happy without being employed. I want to learn how to measure the stars.” And again he informs his father of his manner of passing his time while on a visit to London: “ I spent a very agreeable day yesterday, as I read sixteen pages of Priestley. On Sunday we went to church, the first time I ever was in one, and I do not care if I never go into one again. The clergyman, after he had gabbled over half a dozen prayers, began his sermon, which had neither head nor tail. I was sorry so much time should be thrown away on nonsense.” Here we recognize the embryo critic and reformer; and that his spirit of free inquiry and independent faith was encouraged by the good pastor down in Shropshire is evident from the paternal replies to these frank and filial letters. “ The piety your letter displayed,” writes Hazlitt père, “was a great refreshment to me ; nothing can truly satisfy us but the acquisition of knowledge and virtue.” In 1791, at the age of thirteen, Hazlitt may be said to have begun his crusade in behalf of justice and freedom. His young heart swelled with indignation at the outrages perpetrated in Benningham upon Priestley, because of his obnoxious opinions ; and he boldly entered the field against those who attempted to excuse, if not to justify, the destruction of the liberal philosopher’s house by a mob. This juvenile protest was published in the Shrewsbury Chronicle. But Hazlitt dates his conscious mental awakening a year later; when fourteen years old, coming out of church, he heard an earnest discussion between his father and an old lady, in regard to the corporation and test acts and the limits of religious toleration. He was inspired by what he heard to “ frame a system of political rights and general jurisprudence ” ; and many years afterwards, when engaged in the advocacy of his principles of liberal reform, he alludes to this incident in the Preface to his “ Project for a New Theory of Civil and Criminal Legislation,” to show that his convictions on the subject were not accidental and recent, but instructive and long considered. “It was,” he wrote, “the first time I ever attempted to think ; it was from an original bias, a craving to be satisfied of the reason of things.”
This reminiscence gives the keynote to Hazlitt’s intellectual character. When placed at Hackney to be educated with a view to the ministry, he neglected the prescribed theme, and gave, as an excuse, that he had been occupied with another subject, namely, an Essay on Laws ; so novel a course won him encouragement to write on the Political State of Man, and to meditate a treatise on Providence ; and these youthful speculations bore fruit in after years, when his work on “Human Actions” appeared, — to the last his pride, and confessedly able and original, but never successful in the ordinary sense of the term. These abstract experiments soon received human inspiration, when Coleridge made his appearance at the Wem parsonage ; this was an epoch in Hazlitt’s life from which he dates a new relish of existence, and a revelation of the infinite possibilities of intellectual activity and enjoyment. The description he wrote, long after, of his talks and walks with Coleridge, of his visit to him at Nether Stowey, of the sermon he rose before day and plodded ten miles through the mud to hear him preach, is vital with an almost rapturous sense of sympathy, admiration, and delight. He lamented he was not a poet, in order to apostrophize the road between Wem and Shrewsbury, along which he listened to the mystic and musical utterance of the most richly endowed and eloquently suggestive being he had ever known. His gratification was complete when Coleridge recognized a metaphysical discovery in his young votary’s conversation. One would almost believe that, with the new ideas and vivid fancies imparted by this remarkable man, Hazlitt had imbibed somewhat of his procrastinating, discursive, dolce for niente tendency ; for the luxury of thinking beguiled him from active enterprise and seemed to extinguish ambition, until it took a new direction, and painting usurped the place of philosophy.
From childhood Hazlitt had been familiar with the process and principle of the painter’s art through his brother’s prosperous activity therein ; it was at his house that he lived during the frequent visits he made to London ; between that and the Wem parsonage his early years were passed ; but he does not seem to have attained any sympathetic appreciation of the art until a view of the treasures at Burleigh House, in 1795, awakened all his latent enthusiasm for the old masters. He tried his hand, from time to time, until he had such command of the pencil as to receive a commission to copy some of the famous pictures in the Louvre, just then enriched by the trophies of Napoleon’s victories in Italy. This visit to Paris was, perhaps, the most charming episode of his life, certainly of his youth. The impressions then received, the tastes then and there confirmed, became permanent. Day after day, for a few happy weeks, he worked assiduously in the peerless galleries, reproducing with rare fidelity many of the finest traits of the originals, over which he lingered with intense admiration ; he made copies of two or three masterpieces of Titian, of some of Raphael’s best heads, and several studies for his own benefit ; he developed a remarkable facility in seizing the general effect and working out the expressive details, so that his “style of getting on ” was noticed, with encouraging commendation, by French writers and his own countrymen. For the first time his application was regular and productive, his mind tranquilly occupied, his pride and pleasure earnestly identified with his vocation. He dreamed, in after years, of this heyday of his youth ; he remembered the works then on the walls of the Louvre with unabated delight ; the knowledge and love of art then acquired became thenceforth an inspiration. He cherished two or three of his copies with the attachment of an enthusiast, not so much for their merit as their associations. Returning to England, Hazlitt made a professional tour in the provinces and executed numerous portraits ; among others, those of Hartley Coleridge, Wordsworth, and his own father, — the latter a labor of love both to artist and sitter; and a likeness, said to be his last, of Charles Lamb in the costume of a Venetian orator. But his standard was high ; and he was too honest a critic not to estimate justly his own attempts in a sphere with whose grandest exemplars he was fondly intimate ; accordingly the failure to realize his ideal, the want of correspondence between his executive power and his clear and high conceptions, discouraged him profoundly. Candid friends agreed with him in recognizing certain defects in his portraits, and (with what pain we may infer from his eloquent essay on the “ Pleasures of Painting,” and “ A Portrait by Vandyke,”) he decisively relinquished the pursuit he so loved. Whether patience and perseverance would have overcome his difficulties it is impossible to say ; Northcote always declared he abandoned the experiment too soon, and would have made a great painter. But few of his works exist that are not seriously injured by magilp ; there are enough, however, in the possession of his descendants, in a sufficiently good condition to enable us to perceive how much of the true feeling and the natural skill in art he possessed, and to lament, for his own sake, that he had not awhile longer clung to the pencil and palette. It is said that he was “ very impatient when he could not produce the designed effect, and has been known to cut the canvas to ribbons.” Few Britons have shown a deeper love of art. “ If I could produce a head like Rembrandt in a year,” he says, “ it would be glory and felicity and wealth and fame enough for me.” The discipline and delight of this brief but fervent dalliance with art were, notwithstanding, of permanent advantage ; thereby he came better to understand the “ laws of a production,” the worth of beauty, the elements of character ; his perception was quickened, his insight deepened, and his powers, as observer and analyst, enlarged. It was during this vivid Paris experience that he learned to admire Napoleon the First, to have faith in his star, to believe in his mission as that of political regeneration, and to glory in his genius, — a feeling so prevalent and pervasive, that when his hero’s fortunes waned Hazlitt suffered in health and spirits, as from a personal calamity.
Reverting, after the life of a painter was denied him, to his original proclivity, he finished and published, in 1804, his essay on the “Principles of Human Action,” which, while it gained him the high opinion of a few thinkers, was profitless both to author and publisher. His next venture was a kind of digest, with comments, of a series of articles which Coleridge had contributed to the Morning Post, and which excited Hazlitt’s political vein ; the pamphlet entitled “ Free Thoughts on Public Affairs” had but a limited sale ; it was followed by a select compilation from the speeches of British statesmen, with notes,—a desirable and useful work, but one which did not add to his means ; a more congenial and elaborate literary task was an abridgment of “Tucker’s Light of Nature” ; and one which elicited his logical acuteness and was the first to impress the critics of the day with his acumen and scope as a thinker, chiefly because it related to a subject of immediate interest, is his “ Reply to Malthus.” Thus far authorship, as a resource, had proved no more satisfactory than painting ; and for some time Hazlitt appears to have reposed, not upon his laurels, which were yet to be won, but upon his sensations and ideas, wherein he found no inadequate compensation for the want of a successful career. Indeed, with a certain competence, he would have been content, as he declared, “ to live to think,” though it soon became apparent that he must “think to live.” Meantime, however, he enjoyed his immunity from stated employment ; like all genuine literary men, as distinguished from scholars and the professional tribe, he had the instinct of freedom and vagabondage, delighted in yielding to moods instead of rules, and fancies instead of formulas; he could walk about Wem in spring and autumn, he could see first-rate acting, he could observe “the harmless comedy of life,” he could solve metaphysical problems, follow, in imagination, the campaigns of the great Corsican, chat with an artist or poet, lie in bed in the morning, sup with original characters at the coffee-house, and, in short, be William Hazlitt.
A peculiar and valuable social resource had also intervened which must have insensibly attuned his mind to a more genial species of literary work, as well as given scope and impulse to his expressive faculty. He had become intimate with Charles Lamb ; with him and his few but choice friends he discussed the merits of old authors, speculated on subjects connected with the mysteries of life, and the humors of character, and the singularities of taste ; the drama was a favorite recreation, conversation an unfailing pastime. “ Charles and Hazlitt are going to Sadler’s Wells,” writes Mary Lamb, in the summer of 1806 ; and the former was Elia’s companion on the memorable occasion he has so quaintly described, when his play was damned. The same correspondence lets us into the secret that a certain liking had developed between Hazlitt and Sarah Stoddart, an intimate companion of the Lambs, who seems to have vibrated, for some time, between three or four “ followers,” — lovers they can hardly be called, as, judging from the tone of her friend’s letters, the young lady, if not exactly a coquette, was somewhat undecided and variable as to her conjugal views. It appears that she finally came back to Hazlitt, but whether the hesitation was owing to her or him is not clear. That the union was brought about by circumstances rather than passion is evident from the one half-playful and wholly tranquil letter from her future husband which has been preserved. Miss Stoddart appears to have been better read than the average of Englishwomen of her class ; she was remarkably candid and independent, wherein we imagine lay her chief attraction for Hazlitt, who was impatient of conventionalities and a lover of truth. She had an income of a hundred and fifty pounds, and owned a little house at Winterslow ; her brother was ceremonious and exacting, and perhaps his fastidiousness had interfered with her previous settlement. The pair were ill assorted, for she was not expert in household duties, and he did not find the sympathy he needed ; but things went smoothly enough at first, for he liked the domestic retirement of the country, and had time enough there to cogitate and ramble. “ I was at Hazlitt’s marriage,” Lamb writes to Southey, August 9, 1815, “and had liked to have been turned out several times. Anything awful makes me laugh,” —a reference to the event more characteristic than satisfactory. Mrs. Hazlitt, we afterwards discover, was of the “ free-and-easy ” style of woman, hated etiquette, and had no taste in dress. Evidently the withdrawal of the pair to their rural home was a privation to Lamb. He missed the companionship of Hazlitt. The delightful “ Wednesday evenings ” of which we have so many pleasant glimpses lost not a little of their charm. “ Phillips makes his jokes,” says Mary Lamb, writing to Mrs. Hazlitt, “and there is no one to applaud him ; Rickman argues, and there is no one to oppose him. The worst miss of all is that, when we are in the dismals, there is no hope of relief in any quarter. Hazlitt was most brilliant, most ornamental as a Wednesday man ; but he was a more useful one on common days, when he dropped in after a quarrel or a fit of the glooms.” After many delays and frequent disappointments, Lamb and his sister paid a visit to the Hazlitts, which was not only a rare pleasure, but became a fond reminiscence ; they walked over the country around Winterslow, when Nature was in her fairest array ; renewed their old free, fanciful, and argumentative intercourse, and gained health and spirits by the change of air, the “ mutton-feasts,” and agreeable exercise. It was during this visit that Lamb explored “ Oxford in Vacation,” of which experience he afterwards wrote so winsome an account. Soon after their return a letter from their hostess mentioned what promised to be a lucrative discovery on Hazlitt’s premises, — that of a well, where wells were much needed and seldom found ; the anticipation proved fallacious ; but while the delusion lasted, Hazlitt used to hide near the precious spring to overhear the talk of his neighbors on the subject, and “ it happened occasionally,” we are told, “ that the eavesdropping metaphysician found the germ of some subtle chain of thought in the unsophisticated chit-chat of these Arcadians.” He also read Hobbes, Berkeley, Priestley, Locke, Paley, and other philosophic writers, with deliberate zeal, and wrote the outline of an English Grammar subsequently published by Godwin. The birth of a son made it indispensable for him to increase his wife’s little income, and he went up to London to live by his pen. His equipment for this career was unique ; he had thought much, read little, and his only practice in writing had been of a kind the reverse of popular. His first place of residence was in York Street, Westminster; the house, according to tradition, had once been occupied by Milton, and was owned by, and overlooked the garden of, Jeremy Bentham. Hazlitt soon began to turn to account his favorite studies. He procured an engagement to deliver before the Russell Institution a course of lectures on the English Philosophers and Metaphysicians. He next undertook the parliamentary reports for the Morning Chronicle, and soon after was engaged in the more congenial work of theatrical critic of the Courier. Thus in 1814 he had fairly embarked in the precarious career of a writer for the London journals.
Thenceforth, as long as he lived, we find him engaged, with occasional recreative intervals and episodes of travel or illness, in contributing to reviews, weekly literary journals, and monthly magazines, and, from time to time, gathering these critical, reminiscent, and æsthetic papers into volumes. It is a method having singular advantages for a mind like his, discursive, fluctuating in glow with mood and health, active in relation to vital questions of social and civic reform, and at the same time prone to bask in the mellow light of the past and to concentrate upon themes of recondite speculation. From a prolonged and continuous task a man so constituted often shrinks ; his inspiration is not to be controlled by will ; he must write as he feels ; and in a brief but keen effort is more efficient than in prolonged labor. Gradually the animation of town-life and the encouragement of candid discussion diversified his scope and enriched his vocabulary. The habit of frequent and familiar communication with the public made his style incisive and colloquial ; he emerged betimes from the abstract into humane generalizations ; as reporter of debates and stage critic he learned to express himself with force and facility ; and when the “ Round-Table ” department of the Examiner was dedicated to essays on life, manners, and books, he and his friends Lamb and Hunt revived with fresh and individual grace and insight the kind of writing so congenial to British taste, which had been memorably initiated by Steele and Addison. He wrote on art in the “ Champion,” and was soon enlisted by Jeffrey as an Edinburgh Reviewer ; his first article was a kind of critical digest of the British novelists, à propos of a review of Dunlap’s “History of Fiction,” and Madame D’Arblay’s “ Wanderer ” ; then came papers on Sismondi’s “ Literature of the South of Europe,” and Schegel’s “ Lectures on Shakespeare.” The Examiner made him acquainted with the Hunts, for whose short-lived serial, the “ Yellow Dwarf,” he wrote fifteen articles. These labors of the pen alternated with courses of lectures delivered before the Surrey Institution, at Glasgow and elsewhere, on such subjects as the “Comic Writers,” “The English Poets,” etc.
And now ensued, or rather there had long accompanied, his literary career that base system of persecution whereby the government organs of Great Britain so disgracefully sought to baffle and mortify writers of genius in the realm whose political creed was obnoxious. If ever the history of opinion is written by a philosophical annalist, the details of this brutal interference with the natural development of free thought and honest conviction will be recorded as one of the most shameful anomalies of modern civilization. Hazlitt experienced all the reckless abuse incident then and there to an author who ventured to combine literary with political disquisition, unawed by power and unmoved by scorn. When his “ Characters of Shakespeare,” collected from the Chronicle, were published, the work was hailed by readers of critical taste and national pride with delight ; the first edition was sold in a few weeks, republished in America, and a new one printed, when the book was attacked by the Quarterly Review—a periodical “set up by the ministers,” as Southey acknowledged, established by the agents of the government for the express purpose of putting down liberal writers — in terms so unjust and malignant that the sycophantic herd ignored it, with genuine English obtuseness, as the work of a Bonapartist, a radical, an incendiary, and cockney scribbler. Hazlitt wrote an indignant letter to Gifford, “the government tool,” exposing the shameless mendacity of the statements to his discredit. His crime consisted in the fact, not that he had written one of the best critical estimates of Shakespeare that had appeared in Britain, but that he had also published a volume of Political Essays, gleaned from his contributions to the Examiner and other journals, in which he had exposed the abuses and advocated the reform of the British government, on the same principles which Bright, Mill, Goldwin Smith, and other enlightened publicists advocate progress and freedom to-day. Meantime, of the five poets who had at the beginning of the century melodiously sounded the tocsin of democracy, Byron and Shelley had become exiles, and died abroad in their youth ; and Southey and Wordsworth lapsed from their youthful ardor as reformers, and became conservative philosophers ; while William Hazlitt, who " wanted the accomplishment of verse,” continued to fight the battle in the heart of the enemy’s camp. How far the injustice he suffered embittered his soul and tainted the “calm air of delightful studies,” wherein he was so sequestered in appearance, and yet so exposed in reality to the shafts of detraction, we may infer from many a burst of indignation and stroke of irony. He met an old fellow-student on the Continent, some years later, and says of their interview : “ I had some difficulty in making him realize the full length of the malice, the lying, the hypocrisy, the sleek adulation, the meanness, and the equivocation of the Quarterly Review, the blackguardism of the Blackwood, and the obtuse drivelling prolificacy of the John Bull. Of the various periodicals for which Hazlitt wrote, none was so auspicious as the London Magazine ; he was ill-treated by the managers of the dailies ; his articles in the Edinburgh were manipulated by Jeffrey, and several of the other vehicles he adopted were, on the score of remuneration or duration, unsatisfactory. But the first editor of the London Magazine was an appreciative and sympathetic purveyor in the field of letters ; his contributors were his friends, and accordingly they were mutually efficient ; there the most exquisite papers of Elia first saw the light, and Hazlitt’s “TableTalk ” grew into the delectable and suggestive volume it became. During all these years, when his pen was so busy, he migrated from one lodging to another, made frequent rural excursions, stole away to the “ Hut ” at Winterslow to elaborate some favorite theme, was a regular attendant on Lamb’s Wednesday evenings, took his mutton occasionally with Haydon, was welcomed to Basil Montagu’s fireside, visited the picture-galleries of the kingdom, associated with Leigh Hunt and Barry Cornwall, kept a sharp eye on politics and a fond one on the stage, and was an habitué of the Southampton Coffee-House, where he had a special seat, as did Dryden of old at Wills, a favorite waiter, and a knot of originals of various callings, whose talk entertained or whose characters interested him. The “ Liberal,” started by Byron and Shelley for Hunt’s benefit, elicited something characteristic from Hazlitt during its short career ; and the Academy exhibitions, as well as the drama and its representatives, continued to afford him salient topics of discussion. He was present on the memorable night of Kean’s first success, when he played Shylock at Drury Lane, and Mrs. Siddons, Kitty Stephens, and other eminent histrionic contemporaries found critical appreciation at his hands. In the midst of this vagrant work and pastime his domestic affairs reached a climax. The only tie that bound him and Mrs. Hazlitt in mutual feeling was love for their boy. Hazlitt, in these later quarters of his, lived apart from her. And then occurred the most remarkable of the moral vicissitudes of his life. He had such a love of beauty united to a craving for truth, that women were a delicious torment to him, and at times he must have felt for them the kind of fear poor Leopardi so vividly describes. There are traces all through his life of attachments, or perhaps we should say admirations, sometimes what the Germans would call “ affinities ” ; he often eloquently alludes to faces, forms, and places associated with the tender passion; Lamb joked about a rustic idol Hazlitt met while an itinerant portrait-painter, for which love-dream the swains threatened to duck him. We have references to a Liverpool fair one, to a high-born lady, whose beauty was rather enhanced than marred, in his imagination, by the ravages of small-pox ; and even the calm, virgin figure of Miss Wordsworth has been evoked from its maidenly sequestration as a supposed “ intended ” of Hazlitt. One who inherits his name and reveres his memory says : “ I believe he was physically incapable of fixing his affections upon a single object.” There is, however, no more common fallacy than that which regards youth as the only or the chief period when the tender passion takes the deepest hold : nothing can exceed the possible intensity of feeling in a mature man who has seen the world without becoming hardened or perverted thereby, and who has escaped strong attractions, if he encounters one thus, as it were, with “ the strong necessity of loving” full upon him, and especially if, like Hazlitt, he combines passion with insight, an acute, vigilant observation with an eager heart. Therefore when Hazlitt fell in with Sarah Walker, the daughter of his tailor landlord, with her Madonna face, and to him fascinating figure, form, and “ ways,” and found her an “ exquisite witch,” he was enamored to a degree and in a manner perfectly accountable, when we consider his temperament, nature, and circumstances. His fevered wooing, his fitful distrust, his “hopes and fears that kindle hope,” his tenderness, curiosity, and despair, as recorded in the “ Liber Amoris,” are a genuine psychological revelation, — “the outpourings of an imagination always supernaturally vivid and now morbidly so.” His agony is too well described not to have originated in the most terrible conflict between perceptions singularly keen and an attraction irresistible. The writing and printing of this baffled lover record seems most indelicate and imprudent, until we remember that the retrospect of an “honest hallucination ” has for a psychologist a curious interest as a study of consciousness and observation, and accept De Quincey’s explanation,-—-“it was an explosion of frenzy ; the sole remedy was to empty his overburdened heart.” To add to the “curiosities of literature” and “ the infirmities of genius ” involved in this matter, Hazlitt carried a copy of “ Liber Amoris ” to Italy, bound in velvet, on a bridal tour with his second wife; and the first literary job he undertook after his love-sorrow was to describe a prize-fight, and that with no small zest and minuteness.
It is always difficult to distribute justly the blame in cases of divorce by mutual consent. When Hazlitt and his wife went to Scotland, and, after many delays and the usual technical forms, succeeded in effecting a legal separation, there appeared no bitterness of feeling on either side ; he was miserar ble from an unreciprocated attachment and harassed for want of money. Mrs. Hazlitt, sharing the latter difficulty, was singularly practical, self-possessed, and business-like in her conduct; both were solicitous about the immediate comfort and future prospects of their son. We often hear expressions of surprise, and not infrequently of indignation, when the widow of a gifted and renowned man forms a second alliance. But in the case of artistic or literary fame, we are apt to forget that the endowments this distinction implies, so far from being auspicious, are often detrimental to conjugal sympathy. There are, indeed, memorable exceptions, beautiful instances, where women are so constituted as to feel a deep sympathy with such pursuits, and to love as well as honor their worthy votaries ; but, on the other hand, the egotism these pursuits are apt to breed and the self-absorption they exact leave no adequate scope for the affections ; the conjugal are secondary to the professional claims ; and in such cases, however conscientious a man’s life-companion may be in wifely duty and devotion, she may, if of rich womanly instincts, find greater happiness in her more complete and less interrupted relations with a man whose vocation is comparatively incidental and whose heart is wholly hers. “ Women,” writes Hazlitt in a letter of counsel to his son, “care nothing about poets, philosophers, or politicians ; they go by a man’s looks or manners.” He told his wife she never appreciated him ; and there is an objective way of alluding to his eccentricities in her diary and letters, which shows how little affinity there was between them. Having obtained his divorce and failed to secure the “ exquisite witch ” for a wife, he seems to have overcome the immediate effects of his disappointment with marvellous celerity ; and we hear of him erelong as married to a widow named Bridgewater, who had some property as well as attractions, and with whom and his son he at once started on a Continental tour, the record of which he sent to a leading journal, and afterwards published in a volume under the title of “ Notes of a Tour to France and Italy.” This memorial of travel is eloquent of enjoyment, observation, and thought. He revelled again over what remained of his favorite pictures in the Louvre ; he lingered fondly in the Tribune and the Vatican ; hailed the scene of the Decameron and the sublimity of Chamouni ; criticised the viands by the way, and “ drank the empyrean ” amid the Alps. He had glimpses of Lucien Bonaparte and Mezzofanti, and talks with Landor ; passed a delightful summer at Vevay, loitered in the garden of the Tuileries, and felt when the air of an Italian spring fanned his worn and weary brow as if his life had begun anew. The picture-galleries were his favorite resource ; in the midst of the grandest scenery he writes, “ I swear that St. Peter Martyr is finer.” His conversation, said one who fell in with him on the journey, “ I thought better than any book on the art pictorial I had ever read.” His moods and independence are alike evident in his written impressions ; strange to say, Rome and the Correggios at Parma disappointed him ; he recognized in the Northern Italians a race that only required “ to be let alone,” to prosper and progress ; he liked the manners of the priesthood and relished the church ceremonies. “ I am,” he writes, “no admirer of pontificals, but I am slave to the picturesque.” Curiously enough, he was taken with Ferrara, then a desolate old city. “ Of all places I have seen in Italy,” he remarks, “ it is the one which I should by far most care to live in.” The reformer, however, is never lost in the art-lover. The sight of captive doves fluttering he compares to nations trying to fly from despotic sway ; and he turned aside from the highway “to lose in the roar of Velino tumbling from its rocky height, and the wild freedom of nature, his hatred of tyranny and tyrants.” He came home through Holland, which country he graphically describes, bringing his son, but leaving his wife with her relatives abroad, and she never rejoined him ; so that his second matrimonial venture does not appear to have succeeded any better than the first. He was soon at work again in London lodgings ; engaged upon his “ Conversations with Northcote,” contributions to the Weekly Review, and the “ Life of Napoleon,” — to him a labor of love, but unsuccessful as a literary enterprise. The paternal sentiment was strong in Hazlitt, and intellectual society continued to be his chosen pastime to the last. Never robust, although an expert cricket-player, and a good pedestrian, the gastric ailment to which he was liable increased with the inroads of study and disappointment, so that his health gradually failed, and on the 18th of September, 1830, be calmly expired at his lodgings in Frith Street, with his son and his old friend Lamb beside him. “ Well, I have had a happy life,” is the last audible phrase from his lips. It strikes one familiar with the vicissitudes of his career, and the sources of irritation inherent in his organization, with surprise, until the compensatory nature of intellectual resources, the relish of a keen mind and voluptuous temperament, even amid privations and baffled feeling, is remembered : to appreciate what life was to William Hazlitt, we must understand the man, and not dwell exclusively on his outward experiences.
Seldom have the idiosyncrasies and inmost experience of an author been more completely revealed ; it has been truly remarked of Hazlitt that there are “few salient points and startling passages in his life that he has omitted to look upon or glance at ” in his essays. The processes and impression of his own mind had such an interest for him, that it was a delight to record and speculate on them. In treating of a work of art or a favorite author, he brought to bear on their interpretation the sympathetic insight born of experience. We know his tastes and antipathies, his prejudices and passions, not only as a whole, but in detail. Authorship was to him a kind of confessional ; incidentally he lets us into many of the secrets of his consciousness. As to the outward man and the habits of his life, carelessness, want of method, and caprice were stamped thereon. His personal appearance, it is certain, was often neglected, notwithstanding Haydon’s sarcasm at finding him absorbed on one occasion before a mirror, and the effective figure he is said to have made when in full dress he went to dine with Curran. When fairly warmed by conversation, his manner was earnest and unconscious ; but among strangers he was shy, and his way of shaking hands and taking one’s arm was the reverse of cordial. He admitted that he had little claim to be thought a good-natured man. His landladies were annoyed because he scribbled notes for his essays on the mantel-piece. He was a wretched correspondent ; variable in his moods, partly from ill-health and more from a nervous temperament ; he was yet remarkably industrious, as the amount of his writings prove ; but it required the stimulus of necessity or the attraction of a subject to enlist his attention. His mind was naturally clear, fervid, and sensitive. “ In his natural and healthy state,” says Lamb, “ one of the wisest and finest spirits I ever knew.” “ Without the imagination of Coleridge,” says Procter, “ he had almost as much subtlety and far more steadfastness of mind.” Apparently an idler until thirty, he was, at the same time, a desultory but devoted reader and a constant thinker. He was a notable illustration of “ imperfect sympathy.” Lamb, with whom he was most consistently intimate, failed to satisfy him, because he was no partisan, — an æsthetic rather than a reformer; he was disgusted with Moore’s aristocratic proclivities; his admiration of Scott was modified by hatred of his toryism ; he almost alienated Hunt by abusing Shelley, and never forgave Southey and Coleridge for their defection from the political faith of their youth ; he recoiled from friendly Montagu, because he imagined he put on airs, and Haydon’s egotism offended as much as his art displeased him; he took De Quincey to task for repeating his antiMalthusian argument without credit: thus, at some point, he always diverged even from minds whose endowments were such as to command his respect and attract his sympathy ; and this distinct line of affinity and repulsion is equally manifest in his estimate of old authors and historical characters. As a writer he is often paradoxical and exaggerated, but usually so either to emphasize a truth, press home a conviction, or give play to a humor, and not from any indifference to truth or levity of feeling. “ I think what I please,” he used to say, “and say what I think; it has been my business all my life to get at the truth as well as I could, to satisfy my own mind.” It has been noted that even in his analysis of Shakespeare characters, — profoundly as he admired their human consistency and authentic traits, — there is a cool discrimination which indicates shortcomings or incongruities. In such essays as those on “A Portrait by Vandyke,” “ Knowledge of One’s Self,” “ The Feeling of Immortality in Youth,” and “ People we should wish to have seen,” the sincerity and refinement of his intellectual sympathy and moral sentiment are evident. His ideal was well defined and high, and he was too much in earnest not to deeply feel his own failure. What he says in reference to the disappointment of his artistic aspirations illustrates this : “ If a French artist fails, he is not discouraged ; there is something else he excels in ; it he cannot paint he can dance. If an Englishman fails in anything he thinks he can do, enraged at the mention of his ability to do anything else, and at any consolation offered him, he banishes all thought but of his disappointment, and, discarding hope from his breast, neither eats nor sleeps, — it is well if he does not cut his throat, — will not attend to anything in which he before took an interest, and is in despair till he recovers his good opinion of himself in the point in which he has been disgraced.” Although this is exactly the difference between self-esteem and vanity, and so far nationally characteristic, it is especially true of the individual Englishman who wrote it. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that Hazlitt, while a votary of art and literature, was also an enthusiastic and baffled reformer. “ He went down to the dust,” says one of his gifted contemporaries, “ without having won the crown for which he had so bravely struggled.” When thought and feeling were enlisted strongly in his work, his style is vigorous and vivid ; sometimes from the inevitable “job” — the will instead of the mood — it lapsed into what is called “mechanical description.” Judged by his legitimate utterance, his writings are what he called them, — the thoughts of a metaphysician uttered by a painter. “As for my style,” he says, “ I thought little about it. I only used the word which seemed to me to signify the ideas wanted to convey, and I did not rest till I had got it; in seeking for truth I sometimes found beauty.” George Daniel, in 1817, portrayed him, and John Hunt testified to the authenticity of the portrait; “Wan and worn, with a melancholy expression, but an eager look and a dissecting eye.” His rejoinder to the savage attacks of his opponents was : “ I am no politician, and still less can I be said to be a party man ; but I have a hatred for tyranny and a contempt for its tools, and this feeling I have expressed as often and as strongly as I could. The success of the great cause to which I had vowed myself was to me more than all the world.”
Hazlitt’s life has been described as a “ conflict between a magnificent intellect and morbid, miserly, physical influences ” ; and one of the warmest admirers of his talents accuses him of “ an amazing amount of wilful extravagance ” in the expression of his thoughts. Flow far his social defects were owing to material causes it is impossible to determine ; but that temperament had quite as much to do with his isolation as temper there is no doubt. Indeed, he admits, towards the close of his life, that he had quarrelled with almost all his friends ; and, although in an exigency like that which obliged him to write to Patmore “ off Scarborough,” when writhing under his unfortunate love affair, “ what have I suffered since I parted from you; a raging fire in my heart and brain ; the steamboat seems a prison-house,” yet his ideal of friendship was chiefly intellectual; he says, for instance, of Northcote ; “ His hand is closed, but what of that? His eye is ever open and reflects the universe. I never ate or drank in his house, but I have lived on his conversation with undiminished relish ever since I can remember.” When engaged as a reporter, and obliged to remain late at night in the gallery of the House of Commons, lie formed the baneful habit of resorting to stimulants to counteract the effects of exposure and exhaustion upon a frame naturally sensitive ; but, before this practice had made any serious inroads upon his constitution, warned by illness and medical advice, he abandoned it and maintained this voluntary abstinence heroically to the end of his life. There are several anecdotes which indicate his nervous dread of burglars and fire. Intended for a Unitarian preacher, by nature a metaphysician, and by choice a painter, he became “ a writer under protest ” ; and he explains what seems paradoxical in his essays thus : “ I have to bring out some obscure distinction, or to combat some strong prejudice, and in doing this, with all my might, I have overshot the mark.” It is remarkable how soon the art of expression came, even when first resorted to, at an age when the habits are usually formed. “ I had not,” he writes in 1812, “until then been in the habit of writing at all, or had been a long time about it, but I perceived that with the necessity the fluency came.” One of the earliest cheering circumstances of his literary career was the appearance of an American edition of his “ Character of Shakespeare,” a few weeks after it was published in England, with the Boston imprint. It was for him “ a genuine triumph.” His idea of pastime was “a little comfortable cheer and careless indolent chat ” ; he shrank from the formal routine of society, and thought that to have his own way, and do what he pleased when he pleased, even at the cost of some lack of luxury and show, was infinitely preferable to the most successful official or commercial life. A cup of strong tea and to go to the play afterwards was better to him than all the solemn magnificence of London society ; and yet no one better appreciated the freedom and opportunities of metropolitan intercourse. “ London,” he writes, “is the only place where each individual in company is treated according to his value in company and for nothing else.” He was, however, keenly alive to the indifference of the crowd as regards intellectual claims and the estimate of an author: “ They read his books, but have no clew to penetrate into the last recesses of his mind, and attribute the height of abstraction to a more than ordinary share of stupidity.” He deemed it comparatively easy to be amiable if not in earnest. “ Coleridge,” he observes, “ used to complain of my irascibility, though if he had possessed a little of my tenaciousness and jealousy of temper, the cause of liberty would have gained thereby.” By nature, indeed, Hazlitt loved the tranquil pleasures of thought ; hence partly his appreciation of art ; the sight of a noble, calm head made him resolve to be in future self-possessed and allow nothing to disturb him ; to be, in a word, the character thus delineated. “ I want,” he declared, “ to see my vague notions float, like the down of the thistle before the breeze, and not to have them entangled in the briers of controversy.” What such a man and mind could be to intimate and congenial associates we can easily imagine. The death of Hazlitt was to Lamb not only a bereavement in the ordinary sense, but his relish of life was thenceforth greatly diminished; an element of sympathetic and acute appreciation through and with which he had enjoyed and analyzed its phenomena was taken away. A poem, a play, a story, or a character needs for its complete zest a bon convive, quite as much as feasts of a material kind. It is, indeed, the redeeming charm of the literary life, where an honest and superior capacity therefor exists, that we are made as in no other way to feel how great are the native resources and how insignificant comparatively the material luxuries of life. All this world of enjoyment, this fervent communion with the genius of the past, this curious investigation of the mysteries of humanity, this benign and refreshing “division of the records of the mind,” this noble pursuit of truth and appreciation of knowledge and love of beauty and sympathy with what is magnanimous, original, and glorious, — these charming Wednesday evenings at Lamb’s, and exhilarating walks with Coleridge, and poetic readings with Wordsworth, and critical commentaries, brilliant repartees, ingenuous humors, have no dependence on or relation to the costly and artificial routine and arrangements which, to the unaspiring and the vain, constitute life ; often and chiefly, rather, are they associated with frugal households, with humble homes, limited prospects, ay, with drudgery and self-denial.
The most pleasant and perhaps the most profitable influence derived from Hazlitt is intellectual zest, the keen appreciation and magnetic enjoyment of truth and beauty in literature, character, and life. He was an epicurean in this regard, delighting to renew the vivid experience of the past by the glow of deliberate reminiscence, and to associate his best moods for work and his most genial studies with natural scenery and physical comfort: no writer ever more delicately fused sensation and sentiment; drew from sunshine, fireside, landscape, air, viands, and vagabondage more delectable adjuncts of reflection. He delighted to let his mind “ lie fallow ” and hated “ a lie, and the formal crust of circumstances, and the mechanism of society”; and, moreover, had a rare facility in escaping both. “ What a walk was that ! ” he exclaims in allusion to a favorite road at Winterslow ; “I had no need of book or companion ; the days, the hours, the thoughts of my youth are at my side and blend with the air that fans my cheek ; the future was barred to my progress, and I turned for consolation and encouragement to the past. I lived in a world of contemplation, not of action. This sort of dreamy existence is the best.” He went on a pilgrimage to Wisbeach in Cambridgeshire, to see the town where his mother was born, and the poor farm-house where she was reared, and the “gate where she told him she used to stand, when a child of ten, to look at the setting sun.” The sight of a row of cabbage-plants or beans made him, through life, think of the happy hours passed in the humble parsonage-garden at Wem, which he tended with delight when a boy ; and he never saw a kite in the air without feeling the twinge at the elbow and the flutter at the heart with which he used to let go the string of his own when a child. Every aspect of nature during his memorable first walk with Coleridge is remembered: “As we passed along between Wem and Salisbury, and I eyed the blue tops of the Welsh mountains seen through the wintry branches, or the red leaves of the sturdy oak-trees by the roadside, a sound was in my ears as of a siren’s song.” And again, returning from the town where he had heard him preach: “ The sun, still laboring pale and wan through the sky, obscured by thick mists, seemed an emblem of the good cause, and the cold, dank drops of dew that hung half melted on the beard of the thistle had something genial and refreshing in them, for there was a spirit of youth and hope in all nature.” Never, perhaps, had Madame de Staël’s maxim — “when we are much attached to our ideas we endeavor to attach everything to them” — a more striking illustration than Hazlitt’s idiosyncrasy. After parting with Coleridge and in anticipation of a visit to him, he tells us : “ I went to Llangollen vale by way of initiating myself in the mysteries of natural scenery ; that valley was to me the cradle of a new existence ; in the river that winds through it my spirit was baptized in the waters of Helicon.” And again, speaking of the folios in his father’s library, and the impression the sight of them made on his childhood, “there was not,” he writes, “one striking reflection, one sally of wit; yet we can never forget the feeling with which not only their appearance, but the names of their authors on the outside, inspired us ; we would rather have this feeling again for one half-hour, than to be possessed of all the acuteness of Boyle or the wit of Voltaire.” It is easy to imagine from such inklings of experience how completely he must have fraternized with Rousseau and why the Nouvelle Heloïse was the favorite of his youth. “ I was wet through, and stopped at an inn,” he says, describing an excursion, “ and sat up all night reading Paul and Virginia. Sweet were the showers that drenched my body and sweet the drops of pity that fell upon the book I read ” ; and what a zest is implied in this statement; “ I recollect walking out while reading the ‘Simple Story,’to escape from one of the tenderest parts, in order to return to it again with double relish. An old crazy hand-organ was playing Robin Adair, and a summer shower dropt manna on my head and slaked my feverish thirst of happiness.” Pondering a catalogue of the Louvre before he crossed the Channel, he says : “The pictures, the names of the painters, seemed to relish in the mouth.” A march of ten miles in fine weather, with a pleasant retreat and dinner in prospect at the end, was his ideal of enjoyment, and none of the genial company of English authors ever better knew the “luxury of an inn.” “ Tired out,” he writes, “between Faraham and Alton, I was shown to a room in a wayside inn, a hundred years old, overlooking an oldfashioned garden with beds of larkspur and a leaden Mercury. It was wainscoted, and had a dark-colored portrait of Charles the Second over a tiled chimney-piece. I had ‘ Love for Love ’ in my pocket and began to read ; coffee was brought in a silver coffee-pot; the cream, bread, and butter were excellent, and the flavor of Congreve’s style prevailed over all.” When travelling in Switzerland, he came upon a place that won his preference at once, and for these reasons : “ It was a kind of retreat where there is nothing to surprise, nothing to disgust, nothing to draw the attention out of itself, uniting the advantages of society and solitude, of simplicity and elegance and self-centred satisfaction.” One more illustration of this rare capacity for enjoyment derivable from personal endowment and instinct, acting on circumstances of the humblest and most familiar kind must suffice. It is a reminiscence of his provincial tour as an artist: “I once lived on coffee for a fortnight, while I was finishing the copy of a half-length portrait of a Manchester manufacturer who died worth a plum. I rather slurred over the coat, which was of a reddish-brown, of a formal cut, to receive my five guineas, with which I went to market and dined on sausages and mashed potatoes; and, while they were getting ready and I could hear them hissing in the pan, read a volume of Gil Blas containing the account of the fair Aurora. Gentle reader, do not smile ! neither Monsieur de Nevy nor Louis XVIII. over an oyster paté, nor Apicius himself, ever understood the meaning of the word luxury better than I did at that moment.” It was this zestful spirit, this association of ideas, that enabled him through intense sympathy to enter intelligently into the characters of Shakespeare, and to analyze the poets, actors, and comic writers ; while it also placed him wisely in relation with "The Spirit of the Age,” which he so eloquently illustrated, gave him that thorough appreciation of the benignity of freedom, which nerved him to battle for her triumph, identified him with the feeling of the old masters in art, and equipped and inspired him to write acutely and with the charm of independent thought of the laws, phenomena, and mysteries of human life and character.
- List of the Writings of William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt, chronologically arranged ; with Notes Descriptive, Critical, and Explanatory ; and a Selection of Opinions regarding their Genius and Character. By Alexander Ireland. London : John Russell Smith.↩