1877 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Hazlitt

Bryan Waller Procter, in Procter: An Autobiographical Fragment (1877) 167-82.



Justice has never been done, I think, to the great and varied talents of William Hazlitt. The opinion of the dominant party ("public opinion," as it is called) was directed against him during his life, and that opinion has continued to prevail, amongst the unthinking and easy multitude, ever since.

But public opinion is the opinion of the temporary majority. It is sometimes in favour of Whigs, sometimes of Tories, and is a heap of unexamined notions. It is continually swerving, from right to wrong. It is continually abandoning its own uncertain eminence. In times of Catholic and Protestant persecutions, public opinion was guided by its passions and prejudices (its weaknesses) alone. Sometimes it burned individuals of one sect, sometimes of the other. In matters of mere taste, perhaps, the sincere opinion of an independent, accomplished critic might be sufficient for his own and for future generations; but not otherwise.

Hazlitt himself had strong passions, and a few prejudices; and his free manifestation of these were adduced as an excuse for the slander and animosity with which he was perpetually assailed. He attacked others indeed (a few only), and of these he expressed his dislike in terms sometimes too violent perhaps, and at no time to be mistaken. Yet, when an opportunity arose to require from him an unbiased opinion, he was always just. He did not carry poisoned arrows into civil conflict.

Hazlitt held those extreme radical opinions which, fifty years since, were upheld by many others; and the warmth of his temper led him to denounce things and systems to which he had a strong aversion. Subject to the faults arising out of this his warm temperament, he possessed qualities worthy of affection and respect. He was a simple, unselfish man, void of all deception and pretence; and he had a clear, acute intellect, when not traversed by some temporary passion or confused by a strong prejudice. Almost all men come to the consideration of a subject (not mathematical) with some prejudice or predilection. And even a prejudice, as Burke says, has its kernel (which should be preserved) as well as its husk (which should be cast aside). Like many others, he was sometimes swayed by his affections. He loved the worker better than the idler. He hated pretensions supported merely by rank or wealth or repute, or by the clamour of factions. And he felt love and hatred in an intense degree. But he was never dishonest. He never struck down the weak, nor trod on the prostrate. He was never treacherous, never tyrannical, never cruel.

The history of Hazlitt is like that of some of the scholars of former times, who were always face to face with misfortune. Merit (especially without prudence) is of insufficient strength to oppose injustice, which is always without pity. It seems to be a hopeless task to be always toiling up an ascent, where power and malignity united stand armed at the top. Then at one time he had ill-health, which added its weight to the constant obloquy with which he was assailed. To oppose this, were the strength arising from a sense of injustice, and the native vigour of his own soul. He had a grand masculine intellect, which conquered details as well as entireties, and rejected nothing which helped the understanding.

The decisions of a hostile majority pressed down (as I have said) the reputation of William Hazlitt, and no one has taken the trouble to elevate it to its proper position since. How seldom do we determine a question by our own reason! We adopt the opinions of others, or we imperfectly discuss the problem itself. What subject (except a mathematical proposition) has been unsparingly discussed; penetrated to its depths? Have moral and religious, questions ever been thoroughly scrutinised? In newspaper's and reviews I read occasionally that the "essays" or "works" of Mr. A— or Mr. B— are in their "third edition." These books contain the dry and meagre thoughts of individuals, couched in sterile language; well advertised, indeed, and well puffed, — but which elevate no one, which suggest nothing; whilst Hazlitt's sterling sentences remain immured, to be dug up, I hope, by some future explorer.

Hazlitt's range of thought was very extensive. He wrote on books and men, on politics and manners. Metaphysics were not too remote from him, nor was the stage too trivial or too near. In his pages you may read of Berkeley and Hume, of Jeremy Taylor and Sir Thomas Browne. You may recreate yourself with Shakespeare and Milton; with Wordsworth, with Pope, and Lord Byron. He has commented on philosophers and divines, on tragedy and comedy, on poetry and politics, on morals, on manners, on style, on reasoning.

In astronomy and mechanics, in physiology, in chemistry and general science, there have, I know, been wonderful discoveries; but these, however important, require in each case the possession of only one particular talent, whilst Hazlitt's books touch upon many subjects which lie beyond the pale of science. To use his own words, "I have at least glanced over a number of subjects — painting, poetry, prose, plays, politics, parliamentary speakers, metaphysical lore, books, men and things." This list, although extensive, does, not designate all the subjects on which he wrote.

His talk (when not political) was principally on books and on such anecdotes as brought out the characters of individual men. In these last he always allowed small facts and involuntary actions to have their full share of weight. He himself had no books, and he never borrowed them, except for temporary reference. All his works were made out of "the carver's brain." There was nothing that he refused to discuss. Although encumbered by some prejudices (which he knew and admitted), he would argue all subjects, candidly. In a Dialogue on Envy, between Northcote and himself, Northcote is, made to say — "Why do you so constantly let your temper get the better of your reason?" To which Hazlitt replies — "Because I hate a hypocrite, a time-server, and a slave!" This dialogue, it is to be remembered, was written by Hazlitt himself! Northcote's accusation is not denied; but an excuse is offered for what the other impliedly admits. Hazlitt must however not at all times be held accountable for his arguments, for some of them appear to be mere pieces of ingenuity; as where he insists on the past being of equal importance with the future, and on the disadvantage of intellectual superiority.

Hazlitt's critical style, in all cases where he does not overwhelm it by elaborate eulogy, is strong, picturesque, and expressive. As a piece of eloquent writing, few passages in literature surpass his "Introduction to the Literature of Elizabeth." Leigh Hunt said, cleverly, that his "criticisms on art threw a light on the subject as from a painted window."

He had a very quick perception of the beauties and defects of books. When he was about to write his "Lectures on the Age of Elizabeth," he knew little or nothing of the dramatists of that time, with the exception of Shakespeare. He spoke to Charles Lamb, and to myself, who were supposed by many to be well acquainted with those ancient writers. I lent him about a dozen volumes, comprehending the finest of the old plays; and he then went down to Winterslow Hut, in Wiltshire, and after a stay of six weeks came back to London, fully impregnated with the subject, with his thoughts fully made up upon it, and with all his lectures written. And he then appeared to comprehend the character and merits of the old writers more thoroughly than any other person, although he had so lately entered upon the subject.

No man was competent to write upon Hazlitt who did not know him personally. Some things of which he has been accused were referable merely to temporary humour or irritability, which was not frequent, and which was laid aside in an hour. At other times (by far the greater portion of his life) he was a candid and reasonable man. He felt the injuries and slanders, however, which were spit forth upon him, acutely; and resented them. He was not one of those easy, comfortable, and so-called "good-natured" men, who are simply inaccessible to strong emotions, and from whom the minor ills of life fall off, without disturbing them, like rain from a pent-house top.

His essays are full of thought; full of delicate perceptions. They do not speak of matters which he has merely seen or remembered, but enter into the rights and wrongs of persons; into the meaning and logic of things; into causes and results; into motives and indications of character. He is, in short, not a raconteur but a reasoner. This will be observed in almost all his numerous essays. If he is often ostentatious, that is to say, if he accumulates image upon image, reason upon reason, it is simply that he is more in earnest than other writers.

In addition to these general qualities, how felicitous are many of his obiter remarks! They deserve to be enshrined by some abler workman than myself.

In his criticism on Antony and Cleopatra, what can be truly finer than his oriental conclusion: "Shakespeare's genius has spread over the whole play a richness like the overflowing of the Nile."

Of George Dyer, who passed his life amongst old books, without entering into the spirit of the authors, he says — "He hangs like a film and cobweb upon letters, or like the dust on the outside of knowledge, which should not too rudely be brushed aside."

Of Charles Lamb he says — "He always made the best pun and the best remark in the course of the evening. No one ever stammered out such fine piquant, deep, eloquent things in half-a-dozen sentences as he does. His jests scald like tears, and he probes a question with a play upon words."

Of Lord Byron he says — "He towers above his fellows by all the height of the peerage."

"Leigh Hunt," he says, "has a fine vinous spirit about him, and tropical blood in his veins. But he requires a select circle of admirers to feel himself quite at home. His hits do not tell like Lamb's: you cannot repeat them the next day."

"Modesty is the lowest, of the virtues, and is a real confession of the deficiency which it indicates. He who undervalues himself is justly undervalued by others."

"If you marry, marry the woman you like. Nothing will atone for, or overcome an original distaste."

"A spider, my dear, the meanest thing that crawls or lives, has its mate or fellow; but a scholar has no mate or fellow."

"Our universities have become, in a great measure, cisterns to hold, not conduits to disperse, knowledge. The age has the start of them."

These few are picked up carelessly; but there are hundreds of others.

My first meeting with Mr. Hazlitt took place at the house of Leigh Hunt, where I met him at supper. I expected to see a severe, defiant-looking being. I met a grave man, diffident, almost awkward in manner, whose appearance did not impress me with much respect. He had a quick, restless eye, however, which opened eagerly when any good or bright observation was made; and I found at the conclusion of the evening, that when any question arose, the most sensible reply always came from him. Although the process was not too obvious, he always seemed to have reasoned with himself before he uttered a sentence. And the reader of his essays will recollect that the same process is observable there. There is less of what he sees or hears or remembers, than what seems to arise from some logical or internal movement. Sometimes, indeed, he carries his habit of reasoning too far — and hence arises something that excites a doubt; but this may be called the excess of truth.

I saw a great deal of Hazlitt during the last twelve or thirteen years of his stormy, anxious, uncomfortable life. And in offering my estimate of him, I need only adopt the words of his, defender, Charles Lamb, viz: — "Protesting against things that he has written, and some things which he chooses to do, I should belie my conscience if I said less than that I think W. H—, in his natural and healthy state, one of the finest and wisest spirits breathing." In 1819 he resided in a small house in York Street, Westminster, where I visited him, and where Milton had formerly dwelt; afterwards, he moved from lodging to lodging, and finally went to live at No. 6, Frith Street, Soho, where he fell ill and died. I went to visit him very often during his late breakfasts (when he drank tea of an astounding strength), not infrequently also at the Fives Court, and at other persons' houses; and once I dined with him. This (an unparalleled occurrence) was in York Street, when some friend had sent him a couple of Dorking fowls, of which he suddenly invited me to partake. I went, expecting the usual sort of dinner; but it was limited solely to the fowls and bread. He drank nothing but water, and there was nothing but water to drink. He offered to send for some porter for me, but being out of health at the time, I declined, and escaped soon after dinner to a coffee-house, where I strengthened myself with a few glasses of wine.

Do I mention this spare entertainment as a charge against Hazlitt? Oh no, I do not; on the contrary, I was sure that the matter had never entered into his mind. He drank water only, and lived plainly, and not unreasonably assumed that what sufficed for himself was sufficient for others. He had nothing that was parsimonious or mean in his character, and I believe that he never thought of eating or drinking, except when hunger or thirst reminded him of these wants. With the exception of a very rare dinner or supper with a friend or intimate, his time was generally spent alone. After a late breakfast he took his quire of foolscap paper, and commenced writing (in a large hand almost as large as text) his day's work. I never saw any rough draft or copy. He wrote readily — not very swiftly, perhaps, but easily, as if he had made up his mind — the manuscript that I believe went to the printer. In his latter years he dined generally at the Southampton Coffee-house, in Southampton Buildings, and was much interested by the sayings of people whom he met there; and would often repeat and comment on them when they served to develop character.

Hazlitt was of the middle size, with eager, expressive eyes; near which his black hair, sprinkled sparely with grey, curled round in a wiry, resolute manner. His grey eyes, not remarkable in colour, expanded into great expression when occasion demanded it. Being very shy, however, they often evaded your steadfast look. They never (as has been asserted by some one) had a sinister expression; but they sometimes flamed with indignant glances, when their owner was moved to anger; like the eyes of other angry men. At home, his style of dress, (or undress) was perhaps slovenly, because there was no one to please; but he always presented a very clean and neat appearance when he went abroad. His mode of walking was loose, weak and unsteady; although his arms displayed strength, which he used to put forth when he played at racquets with Martin Burney and others. He played in the old Fives Court (now pulled down) in St. Martin's Street; and occasionally exhibited impatience when the game went against him. It was here that he witnessed the play at fives of the celebrated John Cavanagh, of whom he has written so delightfully.

He lived mainly alone — the life of a solitary thinker. This gave originality to some of his essays; sometimes it deprived him of the advantage of comparing his opinions with those of others.

There is no doubt that his strong passions and determined likings often interfered with his better reason. His admiration of Napoleon would not allow of any qualification. And in the case of the heroine of the Liber Amoris (Sarah Walker), his intellect was completely subdued by an insane passion. He was, for a time, unable to think or talk of anything else. He abandoned criticism and books as idle matters; and fatigued every person whom he met by expressions of his love, of her deceit, and of his own vehement disappointment. This was when he lived in Southampton Buildings, Holborn. Upon one occasion I know that he told the story of his attachment to five different persons in the same day, and at each time entered into minute details of his love story. "I am a cursed fool, " said he to me. "I saw J— going into Wills' Coffee-house yesterday morning; he spoke to me. I followed him into the house; and whilst he lunched, I told him the whole story. Then" (said he) "I wandered into the Regent's Park, where I met one of M—'s sons. I walked with him some time, and on his using some civil expression, by God! sir, I told him the whole story." (Here he mentioned another instance, which I forget.) "Well, sir" (he went on), "I then went and called on Haydon; but he was out. There was only his man, Salmon, there; but, by God! I could not help myself. It all came out; the whole cursed story! Afterwards I went to look at some lodgings at Pimlico. The landlady at one place, after some explanations as to rent, etc., said to me very kindly, 'I am afraid you are not well, sir?' — 'No, ma'am,' said I, 'I am not well,' and on inquiring further, the devil take me if I did not let out the whole story, from beginning to end!"

I used to see this girl (S. W.) at his lodgings in Southampton Buildings, and could not account for the extravagant passion of her admirer. She was the daughter of the lodging-house keeper. Her face was round and small, and her eyes were motionless, glassy, and without any speculation (apparently) in them. Her movements in walking were very remarkable, for I never observed her to make a step. She went onwards in a sort of wavy, sinuous manner, like the movement of a snake. She was silent, or uttered monosyllables only, and was very demure. Her steady, unmoving gaze upon the person whom she was addressing was exceedingly unpleasant. The Germans would have extracted a romance from her, endowing her perhaps with some diabolic attribute.

To this girl he gave all his valuable time, all his wealthy thoughts, and all the loving frenzy of his heart. For a time, I think, that on this point he was substantially insane; certainly beyond self-control. To him she was a being full of witchery, full of grace, with all the capacity of tenderness. The retiring coquetry, which had also brought others to her, invested her in his sight with the attractions of a divinity, — of a divinity, indeed, like, those of old, when the goddesses lowered themselves for a while only to the entreaties of mortals, but reserved their permanent affection for the gods, themselves.