1846 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Hazlitt

John Dix, in "Personal Sketches of Shelley and Hazlitt" Pen and Ink Sketches of Poets, Preachers, and Politicians (1846) 147-54.



Quitting Coleridge, let the reader attend my steps to the domicile of another strong thinker — a dreamer too in his own way — a political opponent, yet warm literary friend of that poet and dreamer of dreams, whom we leave in his lofty village overlooking London and its smoky pall. But I must ask the reader to give one mental glance at the pretty, smooth-faced, beauty-conscious, loquacious-eyed, neat damsel, who admits me into that respectable lodging house at the west end of London. It is the hour of two in the afternoon, yet the object of my visit sits over a breakfast consisting simply of tea and water-cresses and bread and butter. As we passed through the hall, we noticed a boy waiting therefor "copy" — not a juvenile "devil" exactly, but one from some house in Paternoster-row, or probably the Examiner office.

In his parlour, which was well furnished, (a back room, and very still, the street being little of a thoroughfare,) sate a middle-aged man, slippered, and in a dishabille indicating recent uprising, (he had probably not retired until it was day-break.) He had rather hard but strongly-marked features, which only became expressive after much drawing out of his feeling by intercourse. He received me with what appeared shyness, or reluctance to be disturbed, but which I afterwards found to be his habit at first meeting. His tones were quite as low as those of Coleridge; when not excited, they were almost plaintive or querulous, but his placidity breathed more of unconscious pensiveness than that of his brother thinker, whose complacent meekness always rather savoured of acting, at least of a conscious attention to sage or martyr-like bearing, until his aroused enthusiasm broke through all, elevated his tones and even stature, and the man was forgotten in the inspired declaimer. Both these men were living in marital celibacy; that is, married, but separated; the lady of each could say of each, "his soul is like a star, and dwells apart." The secrets of married homes, like those of the last long home, should be let alone, for clouds and darkness always hang over them to third parties. I have only to do with the literary "star," not the frail mortal, except so far as the latter may be pleased to reveal himself. The soft-looked maiden who announced me having withdrawn, he proffered me a cup of his strong tea, seemingly without lacteal adulteration, to employ me whilst he made up his packet for the boy who was in waiting to convey it to the printing-office. I had brought him some letters from Edinburgh, — an object at that time, to those who maintained a large correspondence, for there was no penny postage in those days, and amongst them a parcel of missives from Mr. Jeffrey, at my mention of whose name his features seemed at once lit up, as a dark lake is irradiated by the flash of a sunbeam. Some thought darted from behind his rather troubled and fretful-looking phiz, which I do not agree with some persons in calling handsome, and his languor and constraint of manner, that had almost damped me into dislike, gradually wore off and ease, cordiality, warmth, and at last outbreaks of uttered feeling in unstudied eloquence, as we conversed, created, in a manner, a new being before my eyes; and then, and not till then, I could harmonize the two ideas which before clashed strangely, — the vivacious, high-spirited, rampant author, pugnacious as those who monthly and quarterly baited him, and the low-spirited, low-spoken, almost whining recluse, sitting over his solitary tea at mid-day, whom I had half disliked while I pitied. I could now imagine in the energetic speaker before me, the ill-used, insulted, belied — highly-gifted, but rather perversely given to startling paradox and literary dandyism — WILLIAM HAZLITT.

Hazlitt, in his writings, had characterized Jeffrey as the "Prince of editors and King of men;" and this laudation — somewhat extravagant, certainly — had exposed him to much ridicule from his political opponents. Nevertheless, in this instance, genius was true to genius; for what he said of Jeffrey to me, in the course of our brief conversation, evidently came from the depths of his sensitive heart; and it must have been without servility, for the praises of the great critic were not at all likely to reach his ears. One complaint he made, but exculpated his patron while making it, of the delay in inserting his contributions in the "Edinburgh;" and this, perhaps, was not merely a matter of vanity, for Hazlitt depended at that time on his pen for the means of living.

From talking about Jeffrey and the Edinburgh Review, the conversation turned upon the other great critical organ — the Quarterly. Forcing a laugh, and very evidently forcing it, too, for his lip quivered, and his fingers clenched involuntarily, Hazlitt remarked:—

"My book" (he referred to the 'Characters of Shakspere's Plays') "sold well — the first edition had gone off in six weeks — till that review came out. I had just prepared a second edition — such was called for — but then, the Quarterly told the public that I was a fool and a dunce; and more, that I was an evil-disposed person; and the public, supposing Gifford to know best, confessed it had been a great ass to be pleased where it ought not to be, and the sale completely stopped." The chord had been touched that awakened the wounded spirit of Hazlitt, and he declaimed, with almost fierce eloquence, heartfelt, and even affecting, on the heinousness of this barbaric abuse of the critical chair, — this personal assassination, under the cloak of the ermine of literary truth on the judgment-seat. The inhuman libels on Shelley, one of which libels was fulminated by Southey, under a review of Leigh Hunt's "Foliage," the wretched, degrading, wilfully-false judgment on poor Keats,all came in for his just and furious denunciation; and I sympathized, soul and speech, with him, his troubles, and his wrongs.

When this storm had blown over, and he adverted to gentler topics — to natural beauty in scenery, I found him full of feeling for the charms of nature, though a "Cockney," as his enemies delighted to call him. He expressed his pleasant recollections of some travelling adventures he met with long before, when exercising his original calling of a portrait painter. Painting was long the chosen field of his ambition. He used to spend weeks in a lone house on Salisbury Plain, and overflowed with re-awakened romantic feeling of his solitary evenings there with a few favourite authors. I well recollect his remarking on the solemn, undefined impression of romantic pleasure he felt in watching here and there, like stars on the earth, a cottage-light after nightfall, upon the huge walls of black, formed by the mountains in the background; and the sensations occasioned by his quitting some village on the borders of the vast plain, as their lights grew few, and the sounds of the rustling autumnal leaf were heard, instead of those arising from the occupations of rural life, whilst he faced the wild country and the boundless gloom, to reach some other "gathering place of man." I liked him better as the poet than the politician, which latter chased away in a few minutes the poet-painter, — better as the literary enthusiast, the night-wanderer, the musing philosopher, and the companion of the immortal dead in the cottage of the wold, among the sterile shepherd haunts and brown solitudes of Salisbury Plain, than as the bitter denouncer of parties opposed to him in political opinions.

On Hazlitt's mantel-piece there happened to be a small figure of Napoleon, and observing me eye it, he commenced a laudation of the original. We had a long combat over the remains of his hero — the "god of his idolatry;" I mean, over his fame; he contending for, I against, his right to the title of a true hero. It was useless, however, to contend, — to remind him of his own reverent regard for freedom, for the freedom of the press, as the bulwark for the liberty of man, — of Napoleon's not only utterly abolishing that freedom, but enslaving the press, and enforcing it to do his bidding. It availed nothing to appeal to the philosopher (for Hazlitt had the elements of that character within him) as "a lover of truth," properly speaking — against the grand imposture which was practised continuously upon millions of Frenchmen by the general, first consul, and emperor, throughout his whole career, — against his "enormous lying," and his systematic fraud upon the popular mind, — the political bigot would not be "convinced against his will." No; spite of all this, Napoleon was glorious to Hazlitt, as there he stood, with his folded arms, little hat, and grotesque costume, as wanting in grace and dignity as would have been, I fear, the little mind of the great hero, the fortunate creation of an era, could it have been stripped, and its "vera effigies presented in store."

It was "far into the night" when I left Hazlitt, — left him to commence his work, which it was his wont to pursue through the silent hours. After that period I never saw him again, but often, when I read some bitter attack on the secluded, suffering man, did my mind wander back to him, as he sat over his solitary tea. For a little book which he afterwards wrote, the "Liber Amoris," he was cruelly, bitterly, and unjustly attacked; and, did space and circumstances permit, I might say much on this subject, but I forbear, and will conclude by observing that a comparison between Hazlitt and Byron might be made, from which it could easily be shown that the "Liber Amoris" was a far less objectionable book than "Don Juan," although the latter was never attacked by a certain set with anything like the bitterness shown towards the former. I will but ask, where in the Quarterly Review is to be found any denunciation of that poem, couched in language the least akin to that which denounced Hazlitt for his "Liber Amoris." If nowhere, what more is to be said than "Woe unto you, ye hypocrites"? If the writer of these rambling strictures may again be allowed to speak of himself, he would say he is a "Tory," has even received literary favours and personal kindnesses from some eminent persons of that kind in politics, and of the Albemarle-street junto in letters; but he would be ashamed of himself, on that account, to shut his eyes against the monstrous injustice often done to genius, through the accursed evil influence of party spirit; and possibly what he has here ventured to pour forth may derive some weight, from the fact of his not belonging to the party of those suffering, belied, abused, and wrongfully condemned.