1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Hazlitt

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:693.



One of the most remarkable of the miscellaneous writers of this period was WILLIAM HAZLITT, whose bold and vigorous tone of thinking, and acute criticism on poetry, the drama, and fine arts, found many admirers, especially among young minds. He was a man of decided genius, but prone to paradox, and swayed by prejudice. He was well read in the old English authors, and had in general a just and delicate perception of their beauties. His style was strongly tinged by the peculiarities of his taste and reading; it was often sparkling, pungent, and picturesque in expression. Hazlitt was a native of Shropshire, the son of a Unitarian minister. He began life as a painter, but failed in attaining excellence in the profession, though he retained through life the most vivid and intense appreciation of its charms. His principal support was derived from the literary and political journals, to which he contributed essays, reviews, and criticisms. He wrote a metaphysical treatise on the Principles of Human Action; Characters of Shakspeare's Plays; A View of the English Stage; two volumes of Table Talk; The Spirit of the Age (containing criticisms on eminent public characters); Lectures on the English Facts, delivered at the Surrey Institution; Lectures on the Literature of the Elizabethan Age; and various sketches of the galleries of art in England. He was author also of Notes of a Journey through France and Italy, originally contributed to one of the daily journals an Essay on the Fine Arts for the Encyclopaedia Britannica; and some articles on the English novelists and other standard authors, first published in the Edinburgh Review. His most elaborate work was a Life of Napoleon, in four volumes, which evinces all the peculiarities of his mind and opinions, but is very ably and powerfully written. Shortly before his death (which took place in London on the 18th of September 1830) he had committed to the press the Conversations of James Northcote, Esq. containing remarks on arts and artists. The toils, uncertainties, and disappointments of a literary life, and the contests of bitter political warfare, soured and warped the mind of Hazlitt, and distorted his opinions of men and things; but those who trace the passionate flights of his imagination, his aspirations after ideal excellence and beauty, the brilliancy of his language while dwelling on some old poem, or picture, or dream of early days, and the undisguised freedom with which he pours out his whole soul to the reader, will readily assign to him both strength and versatility of genius, he had felt more than he had reflected or studied; and though proud of his acquirements as a metaphysician, he certainly could paint emotions better than he could unfold principles. The only son of Mr. Hazlitt has, with pious diligence and with talent, collected and edited his father's works in a series of handsome portable volumes.