WILLIAM HAZLITT, the son of a dissenting minister, who, after holding a situation in the University of Glasgow, passed nine years in America, was born at New Shropshire, about the year 1750. He was educated at the Unitarian College, at Hackney, and commenced life as an artist, but not with sufficient success to induce him to practise it as a profession; though he is said to have executed some copies from Titian and Raphael, in the very first style, and otherwise to have shewn very high powers as a painter. He, however, thought fit to throw down the pencil for the pen, and instead of painting pictures, it became his delight to criticise them; and it must be allowed, that in his critical strictures, when his strong and violent prejudices stood not in the way of justice, he was one of the most judicious, able, and powerful writers of his time. After having made various contributions to the periodical journals, he published An Essay on the Principles of Human Action, which was succeeded by two octavo volumes, entitled The Eloquence of the British Senate; being a selection of the best speeches of the most distinguished parliamentary speakers, from the beginning of the reign of Charles the First, to the present time; with notes, biographical, critical and explanatory.
He appears at this time to have been engaged as parliamentary reporter for some of the daily newspapers; and from this laborious but useful drudgery, says a writer of his life in The Literary Chronicle for 1826, "he was promoted to purveyor of literary critiques, and other occasional paragraphs." In 1810, he published A New and Improved English Grammar, for the use of schools; in which the discoveries of Mr. Horne Tooke, and other modern writers, on the formation of language, are for the first time incorporated. To which was added, A New Guide to the English Tongue, by Edward Baldwyn, who published a smaller abridgment of Mr. Hazlitt's book in 1812. His next performances appeared in a series of weekly essays, which he wrote in The Examiner, in conjunction with Mr. Leigh Hunt, and afterwards published them under the title of The Round Table, &c. They were succeeded by his Characters of Shakspeare's Plays, A View of the English Stage, and some Lectures on English Poetry, which he had delivered at the Surrey Institution in 1818. The result of his collections from various periodical works, appeared under the titles of Table Talk, The Spirit of the Age, and The Plain Speaker, which are still popular. He wrote several other works of minor importance, and was one of the writers in The Edinburgh Review, and in the Supplement to The Encyclopaedia Britannica. His largest and most famous work appeared in 1828, The Life of Napoleon, in four volumes; a production which has raised him to a very high rank among the philosophers and historians of the present age.
Mr. Hazlitt is, in his peculiar walk of literature, unrivalled; no man has produced so many miscellaneous works, with so little of common-place matter, or exhibiting such frequent marks of acute and profound thought. He has not much imagination or humour, though he can appreciate them in others; but he has the art of probing a subject to its depths, and of dealing with it in a manner that places him in the very first rank of philosophical critics. His Essays are full of wisdom, and it is almost impossible to rise from a perusal of them without the acquisition of some new and striking ideas. His style is, upon the whole, clear, firm, and eloquent; but he is sometimes too redundant of ornament.
Mr. Hazlitt, who married a sister of Dr. Stoddart, has never been able to realize, by his pen, sufficient to place him out of the reach of pecuniary difficulties, and he is, at this time, suffering both from ill health and poverty. He is said, by his friends, to be of a generous, warm-hearted, but impetuous disposition; and, with all his violent prejudices, to be candid and impartial. The attacks made upon him in Blackwood's Magazine he has sometimes mentioned with most bitter resentment; but how he could still admire an enemy, the following anecdote will show. A friend having read to him a passage in favour of Napoleon from Blackwood, he exclaimed, "That's good, by Heaven! that's fine! I forgive 'em all they've said of me." — Mr. Hazlitt's favourite amusement used to be rackets, and he would often spend more time at the Tennis Court than was consistent with his necessities. "The racket," it has been said, "was the only instrument with which he ever desired to conquer;" and it was only for his wants that he resorted to the pen. Many of his productions were composed at a small public house on the edge of Salisbury Plain, whither he would retire, and shut himself up in solitude till he had got through a volume. He is remarkably temperate, and, for the last fifteen years of his life, has drank nothing but water. In conversation no man is more sensible or entertaining; and among a variety of anecdote, he occasionally tells one of himself. The following is one of the most characteristic: Miscalculating his expenses, he, one day, found himself, at Stamford, reduced almost to his last shilling. He set off to walk to Cambridge, but having a pair of new boots on, they gave him acute pain. In this predicament, he tried at twenty different places to exchange them for a pair of shoes, or slippers, of any sort, but no one would accommodate him. He made this a charge against the English — "though they would have got treble the value by exchanging," said be, "they would not do it, because it would have been useful to me." "Perhaps," said some one, jestingly, "they did not know that you came honestly by them." — "Ah! true," said Hazlitt; "that shakes my theory in this respect, if it be true; but then it corroborates another part of it; so the fact is valuable either way, — there is always a want of liberality, either in their thoughts or actions."