We may begin by stating, that our principal qualification for writing about Hazlitt is, that we have learned to love him, in spite of himself. This is no ordinary attainment. There is at first sight something repulsive about his works.
There is a fierceness and intellectual intolerance about him by no means attractive. He dashes paradoxes like putting stones in your face. He scatters firebrands, arrows, and death in all directions. He now impales a literary reputation upon an antithesis, and now sends a political character limping away, with the point of a prose epigram sticking in its side. How he did fall foul of Rogers, for instance, in a description which must live in the annals of contemptuous Criticism, — it was so excessively like. It was a painting to the life of the weaknesses of that elegant, but finical poet. Moore, too, he has embalmed — not Moore of The Twopenny Post-Bag, and The Fudge Family, the most witty and subtle of satirists — but Moore of The Loves of the Angels, and The Veiled Prophet; the same, but oh, how different! the elegant ephemeral, — the Bard of the Butterflies. How he discusses Crabbe, "describing the house of a poor man like one sent there to distrain for rent!" "giving us the petrifaction of a sigh, and carving a tear to the life in marble!" There was much injustice in all these attacks — all of them, at any rate, were provoking; but no matter; you remembered them; they stung and piqued you, though you could hardly at first love the savage hand which perpetrated such things. Yet we liked Hazlitt even in this wild work. He was honest in it. And there was a feeling of pity mingled with your admiration. You pitied power perversely and wantonly directed against popular idols, and doomed thus everlastingly to prevent its own popularity. He could denounce Moore for "changing the Harp of Erin into a musical snuff-box, and letting her tears of blood evaporate in lip-deep melodies;" but Moore, meanwhile, was singing them in drawing rooms, where poor Hazlitt was not admitted. He could describe Moore barking at kings like a "pug dog from the carriage of a lady of quality;" but Moore had his revenge in ridiculing a dear friend of Hazlitt's, — Hunt, namely, — by a wicked little poem concerning a lion and a puppy dog. Hazlitt's criticisms might be immortal, but they did not sell. "Cash, Corn, Currency, and Catholics," did. When you recollected this, you forgave the critic. The quantity of verjuice in Hazlitt's mind was indeed immense. How it breaks out perpetually upon his page, in sudden, fierce, and fantastic gushes! How spleen burns in his declarations, darts athwart the pure light of his genius, imbitters his wit into satire, tinges his eloquence with frenzy, and sprinkles his enthusiastic criticisms on poetry and painting with bitter jaundiced personalities! The effect of this upon his reputation has been most pernicious. He has taught men to imagine him a misanthrope, a modern Timon, with more bile than brains; a soured malignant cynic, who carried party and personal vindictiveness to the verge of madness. This, must we prove? — is but a segment of Hazlitt's character. He was a man, not a gall-bladder, though that needful organ was largely developed in his system. And he had deep wrongs to explain his spleen. Far are we from proposing him as a faultless or exemplary character. But will his enemies now deny that he was, for whatever reasons, made the mark of relentless and ramified persecution? and that his literary and moral sins were more than expiated, by those torrents of incessant abuse which descended on his head, till his name became identical with all that was absurd in Cockneyism, and infamous in London life? Why a man of keen warm temperament, with passions equal to his powers, and with a deep soul-rooted sense of his superiority to some, at least, of his assailants, should be exasperated by such treatment, we can understand well, upon the principle of the stag turning on his hunters, and finding in those horns which were meant only for ornament, means of defence and retaliation. Why, while others of his party were treated with comparative gentleness, he was so specially victimized, — why, while Jeffrey, for instance, was only tipped lightly with the lash, he was stripped naked and scourged to ribands, — he himself never could understand, and it is — yet a mystery to many. The explanation, perhaps, lies in the history of those unhappy times, when the foul hoof of the demon of politics was still allowed to pollute the streams of literature, and poison Castalia itself.
In the light of a better era, we approach the consideration of the character and genius of Hazlitt, as a great erring man, but one of whom it may truly be said, that he was more sinned against than sinning. And his first characteristic is that of absolute earnestness. In this respect he has few equals. Verily it is the rarest of qualities. Shreds of sincerity are common enough. Bits of truth come out every now and then from the most artificial of the mock-earnest. Those men are wrong, who think Byron always affected in his proclamations of personal misery. Often he is so palpably; but, at other times, the words bespeak their own truthfulness. They are the mere wringings of the heart. Who can doubt that his brow, the index of his soul, darkened, as he wrote that fearful curse, the burden of which is forgiveness? or that he wept when he penned the last stanzas of the Second Canto of Childe Harold, "Thou, too, art gone, thou loved and lovely one?" But, as a whole, his works are bad confessions. No one, indeed, should write confessions in rhyme. There is too strong a temptation, while employing the melody, to use the language of fiction. Not that Byron's letters are more faithful to his emotions than some of his poetry; they reflect the man in all his moods; but the "Dream" showed him in his reverie, in his trance of passion, and depth of inspiration. And that man, sitting alone, and with the warm tears falling upon the blurred and blotted pages, — that man was Byron. But while he frequently counterfeited, Hazlitt, is always in earnest. Writing in prose, he had never to sacrifice a sentiment to a sound. His works are therefore a mirror of the heart. And we pardon their egotism, their spleen, their very rancour, for the sake of that eloquence of earnestness in which their every sentence is steeped. In this respect, as well as in agreeable gossip, he reminds us of Montaigne, the fine old Gascon egotist, who possessed, however, a happier disposition, and whose lines fell in pleasanter places than the author of Table Talk.
Hazlitt's ruling faculty was unquestionably a discriminating intellect. His forte lay in fastening, by sure swift instinct, upon the differential quality of the author, book, or picture, which was the topic of his criticism. And in saying this, we intend to intimate our belief that he does not belong to the very highest order of minds, in whom imagination, or more properly, creative intellect, is ever the presiding power. Here we are aware of going in opposition to Foster, who, in his critical estimate of Robert Hall, asserts that, "except in the opinion of very young people, and second-rate poets, intellect is the first faculty in every great mind." At the risk of being included in one or other of the two classes thus contemptuously discriminated, we venture to contradict the critic. We ask, what are the very highest minds, by universal admission, which have yet appeared among men? Are they not those of Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakspere, Milton, Spenser; perhaps we should add, Sir Walter Scott, Goethe, Newton, and Lord Bacon? Now, with the exception of the two last mentioned, can any one doubt that imagination, though far from being the sole, was the presiding power, in all those majestic minds. Was it not this faculty which animated that old bard who, on the Chian strand,
Beheld the Iliad and the Odyssee,
Rise to the swelling of the voiceful sea!
Was it not imagination which prompted the golden fantasies and eloquence of Plato? Was it not the same power, in a darker and more demoniac shape, which took down the mighty Florentine through the descending circles of damnation, and up the bright steps of celestial blessedness? Did not imagination bind in, like a glorious girdle, all the varied and numberless faculties of Shakspere, the myriad-minded? Did it not show to Milton's inward eye, the secrets of eternity? Did it not pour all the "Arabian heaven" upon the nights and days of Spenser, whose pen was a limb of the rainbow? Did it not people the blank of the past with crowding forms and faces, to the exhaustless mind, and on the many coloured page of Scott? Did not its magic robe bear Goethe harmless, as he entered with Faust and Mephistopheles amid the hurry and horror of the Walpurgis night? Nay, even in reference to Newton and Bacon, we can hardly persuade ourselves that, in both their minds, it was not the ruling, as we know in the latter it was a principal faculty; that it did not attend the one in the giant leaps of his geometry, as well as assist the other in making out his map of all the provinces of science, and of all the capabilities of mind. In somewhat lower, but still lofty regions, we find the same faculty presiding over the rest: — as in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, and Burke. In those writers who had the benefit of inspiration, it is the same. Think of Isaiah, with his glowing eloquence; Ezekiel, with his stupendous visions, tinged by the "terrible crystal;" the author of Job, with his gorgeous imagery; Daniel, with his awful allegory; David, with his gusts of lyric enthusiasm, dying away into the low wailings of penitential sorrow; and him of the Apocalypse, where the events of time and the cycles of eternity are blended in one tremendous tragedy, and enacted on one obscure and visionary stage.
We grant to this critic, that imagination should be based on a superstructure of solid reason, and its flights and intuitions restrained within the banks of nature, and the limits of possibility. We grant that you never find it alone in any of the higher orders of mind; but we maintain that, as it has somewhere been shown to be, in its ordinary degrees, the real differentia between man and the lower animals, who do reason, but never imagine, — so it seems, in its higher form, to be the sovereign faculty of the loftiest natures; not perhaps of critics and logicians, but certainly of philosophers and poets. Perhaps, after all, Foster, in underrating imagination, is only committing the common error of confounding it with fancy, — confounding the faculty which supplies foliage, with that finer power which produces fruit, — the faculty which is a mere fountain of images and illustrations, with that which is the parent of thought. Imagination, in our sense of the term, is at once illustrative and creative. It sees by intuition, it illustrates by metaphor, it speaks in music. All great thought links itself instantaneously to imagery, and comes forth, like Minerva, in a panoply of glittering armour. All great thought is, in a word, poetical, and creates at once a rhythm of its own. With this explanation, we hold imagination to be the most godlike of human powers; and being neither very young persons, nor yet guilty of the sin of verse, we can afford to retain our opinion, in defiance of the anathema of the late admired and eloquent essayist.
The subject of the present sketch was far from destitute of this faculty. He had more of it than he himself would believe. But though we have heard him charged, by those who knew nothing about him, with a superabundance. of this very quality, his great strength lay neither in imagination, nor — to take the word in the German sense, — in reason, but in acute and discriminating understanding. Unable to reach the aerial heights of poetry, — to grapple with the greater passions of the human soul, or to catch, on immortal canvass, either the features of the human face, the lineaments of nature, or the eloquent passages of history, — he has become, nevertheless, through his blended discrimination and enthusiasm, one of our best critics on poetry; and, his enemies themselves being judges, a first rate, if not unrivalled connoisseur of painting. Add to this, his knowledge of human nature — his deep dissections of life, in all its varieties — his ingenious but imperfect metaphysical aspirations — his memorable points, jutting out in vigorous projection from every page, — the boldness of his paradoxes, — the allusions to his past history, which, like flowers on "murk and haggard rocks," flash on you where you expect them not, — his imagery, chiefly culled from his own experience, or from the pages of the early English dramatists, — his delicious gossip — his passionate panegyrics, bursting out so obviously from the heart, — his criticisms upon the drama, the fancy, and every department of the fine arts, — his frequent and vigorous irruptions into more abstruse regions of thought, such as the principles of human action, the Malthusian theory, legislation, pulpit eloquence, and criminal law; and his style, with its point, its terseness, its brilliance, its resistless charm of playful ease, alternating with fierce earnestness, and its rich profusion of poetical quotation, — take all this together, and we have a faint view of the sunny side of his literary character. His faults are, — an occasional, ambition to shine — to sparkle — to dazzle, — a fondness for paradox, pushed to a passion, — a lack of simplicity in his more elaborate, and of dignity in his more conversational passages, — a delight in sudden breaks, marks of admiration, and other convulsive spasms, which we hate, even in a giant, — a play of strong prejudices, too plainly interfering with the dictates of his better judgment, — a taste keen and sensitive, but capricious, — a habit of quoting favourite authors, carried so far as to interfere with the unity, freedom, and force of his own style, — occasional bursts of sheer fustian, like the bright sores of leprosy, — frequent, though petty, pilferings from other authors; and, akin to this, a sad trick of stealing from himself, by perpetually repeating the same quotation, the same image, the same thought, or even the same long and laboured passage. Many of these faults arise from his circumstances, as a victim of proscription and a writer for bread. And his excellencies are more than enough to counterbalance them, and form the tombstone of their oblivion.
William Hazlitt was the son of a dissenting minister in Wem, Shropshire. There he spent his speculative, aspiring, but uneasy youth; balancing between hope and despondency, — the dread of divinity as a study, and the love of painting, — obedience to his father, and the gratification of his own tastes. There, too, as the first era of his mental life, he met with Coleridge, whom he walked ten miles in the mud to hear preach; and who, by that sermon, — a sermon, he tells us, on peace and war, on church and state, descriptive of those who "inscribed the cross of Christ on banners dripping with human gore," — startled and aroused the young spirit of Hazlitt as from deep slumber, an effect which the conversation of the gifted man, who came the next day to see the father, and predicted the future eminence of the son, greatly deepened and confirmed. What followed thereafter — Coleridge's wonderful and flowing talk, — his appearance, with "long dark locks floating down his forehead — eyebrows light as if built of ivory, with eyes rolling beneath them like a sea with darkened lustre, — nose small, insufficient, nothing, — mouth open, eloquent, gross, voluptuous," — old Hazlitt's admiration expressed in silence, the son's in struggling sentences — his walk with the poet as he departed, in view of the Welch mountains, which skirted the prospect with their tempestuous confusion, and had heard no such mystic sounds since "Highborn Hoel's harp, and soft Llewellyn's lay," — his promised visit to Coleridge in spring, — his return from his convoy, "pensive, but much pleased," — his metaphysical and poetical studies in the interval, — his labouring in vain to express his recondite and evanescent thoughts on paper, — his shedding tears on the unfinished manuscript, the coming of that much desired spring, — his departure, his reading Paul and Virginia, for the first time, in an inn by the way, — his reception by the "noticeable man with large gray eyes," as eloquent, and to him as kind as ever — his journey with him along the shores of the Bristol Channel, sounding on his way as he went — their entering a little solitary ale-house, where Coleridge took up a well thumbed copy of Thomson's Seasons, and uttered the memorable words, "This is true fame," — their meeting with Wordsworth, his homely dress and rugged recitation and manly eloquence; all this, and more, maybe found in "My first acquaintance with Poets;" — to us the most delightful of all Hazlitt's essays, and which we can hardly read, or recall to memory, without tears, striking, as it does, upon chords, and awakening reminiscences in our own breasts, with which no stranger may intermeddle. The after incidents in his life were less pleasing. He went to London to reside with his brother. Deterred from the pursuit of painting, by the severity of his own standard, and the elevation of his own ideal, he became a professional author; in this capacity he had the usual blending of struggle and success. He became known as a critic, first, by contributing to The Morning Chronicle. He drew up various compilations for the booksellers; among others, a masterly abridgment of Tucker's Light of Nature, giving the essence of seven volumes in one. He published the result of his youthful studies in the shape of an Essay on the Principles of Human Action. He became, at an early period, intimate with Charles Lamb, who thought, and called him "one of the wisest and finest spirits breathing;" and clung to him to the last. From his early idols of the Lake school, he was gradually estranged; but, though treated by them with coldness and contempt, he never ceased to be the warm admirer of their genius, and the intrepid advocate of their fame. About the year 1816, he became connected with The Edinburgh Review, and strenuously did he draw that Ulysses bow, "heroic to all times." We have seen many of his articles quoted as Jeffrey's. About the same time he delivered several series of lectures at the Surrey Institution. Though he suffered, according to Serjeant Talfourd, from the imperfect sympathies of his audience, his lectures were very effective. His delivery reminded Keats of Kean's. Having occasion to allude to Dr. Johnson's carrying the poor victim of disease and dissipation on his back, up Fleet Street, his hearers showed their sense and taste, by bursting out into a titter, but were subdued into deep silence, when he added, in his sternest and most impressive manner, "an incident which realizes the parable of the good Samaritan." He got keenly entangled, for a time, in the Malthusian controversy, as well as in the fiercer disputes of politics. He was one of the most laborious of writers, and often cleared, by his writings, £600 a-year. His private character was neither better nor worse than that of the class to which he belonged. At one period, he had sunk so deeply into habits of intemperance, that, for "four years, he did not know the sensation of sobriety;" but, by a noble effort, he recovered himself, and for fourteen years before his death, drank nothing stronger than very potent tea. Let charity hope that his other excesses sprung from no originally debased taste, but from the sheer abandonment and desperation of an earnest mind, seeking for truth, but finding none, — yearning for, but never reaching any definite belief; — "wandering over God's verdant earth like the unblessed over burning deserts, passionately digging wells, but drawing up only the dry quicksand; and, at length, dying, and making no sign." In spite, however, of all this, and of a frightful exacerbation of temper, which hacked and hewed his countenance, rendered him preternaturally suspicious, and soured him against his kindest and oldest friends, — we concede him the possession of a noble nature. In conversation be was impetuous and eager, but wanted fluency. Yet it was fine, they tell us, to see his mind working and struggling out into expression, — to see his strong-winged thoughts beating and bloodying their pinion, against the bars of a limited and ragged verbiage!
So have I, not unmoved in mind,
Seen birds of tempest-loving kind.
Thus beating up against the wind.
He was careless in the extreme of his personal appearance, of his reputation, and of his money. His prejudices were strong, and bitter the breath of his angry speech; yet he could say, as well as do, generous things. Once, on hearing read a splendid passage in praise of Napoleon, from Blackwood, he burst out, — "That's fine, that's noble. I'll forgive the fellows all they've said of me." His face was pale, and earnest, almost to haggardness, yet finely formed; his eye eager, like that of one seeking to see, rather than seeing, into the strange mystery of being around him; his brow elevated, and worthy of Coleridge's encomium, pronounced in reference to his first interview, — "For these two hours, though he spoke not, I was conversing with his forehead;" his hair dark and abundant. Strange stories are told about his latter days and his death-bed. But we turn from this short summary of his perturbed personal existence, to glance at some of his principal works.
His first production, published anonymously, and entitled An Essay on the Principles of Human Action, sprung, as we have said, from his early and solitary studies. And this probably led its author to speak of it at all times, with parental pride, as his best. Certainly it is a shrewd and ingenious essay; but, without entering into its pretensions, as a defence of the natural benevolence of the human mind, its style, dry, stiff, and rigid, resembling rather the hard and sapless writing of Mills or Austen, than the soft flow of Dugald Stewart, or the rainbow radiance overhanging the dark metaphysic gulf of Brown, prevented altogether its popularity, but did not blind the sharp and candid eye of Sir James Mackintosh, from perceiving its merit, even amid the enervating heat of Hindostan, and testifying it in a way most gratifying to its author's feelings. As it is, not a thousand persons have probably ever seen or heard of it. It rests on the same forgotten shelf with two still more original and powerful metaphysical treatises, Sir William Drummond's Academical Questions, and John Fearn's Essay on Consciousness, first written on slips of bark, in the intervals of severe sickness, as the author sailed down the Ganges.
His next considerable work was the Characters of Shakspere's Plays; and no one ever had a better right to speak of Shakspere than Hazlitt, for no one ever understood him better, or loved him more warmly. His intention was not to exhaust the profound subject; but simply to supply short introductions to the separate plays, more worthy of Shakspere, than the wretched prefixes of Dr. Johnson. Viewed in this light, they are admirable. They not only embalm, in more choice and eloquent diction, those merits which civilized man allows, but they find out beauties which the watchful admiration of ages had not detected. And honour to him who discovers a new beauty lurking in the crevice of a great mind or work, more than to the discoverer of a new fossil or mineral. Thus had commentators and critics been talking about and about Lear, but, till Charles Lamb, no one noticed that sublime identification of the old man's age with the heavens, in the exclamation—
If ye do love old men, of your sweet sway.
Hallow obedience, if yourselves are old:
Make it your cause.
So, if Hazlitt has not stumbled upon any gem quite so precious, on what Voltaire is pleased to call the "enormous dunghill," he has, with throbbing finger, pointed out not a few modest and inestimable pearls. The willows had wept over Ophelia's watery grave for ages, but no one had observed that they were "gray" below, save the "inevitable eye" of Shakspere, and of his congenial critic. And how thoroughly does he sympathize with his hero's boundless catholicity of mind — his power of "shooting his soul" from body to body, and spirit to spirit — of now ejaculating an Ariel, that arrow of the elements-now digging out a Caliban from the raw earth, and now forging a Faulconbridge or a Hotspur — whereby he was, "not one, but all mankind's epitome!" and had he let out from under the arch of his forehead, an Eschylus and a Moliere, a Sophocles and a Sheridan, a Byron and a Burns, would have missed them not. Shakspere did not appear to Hazlitt, as to Coleridge, "a giant stripling, who had never come to his full height, else he had not been a. man but a monster." He seemed a full-grown and thoroughly expanded man, containing in him, moreover, the essence of all men; mirroring on that calm forehead and in that deep eye of his, the "great globe itself, and all which it inherit." Perhaps he is too eulogistic; and yet can the author of Lear, Timon, and Macbeth, be overpraised? Enthusiasm here is sobriety, exaggeration truth. Without going the entire length of the Germans, who hold that King Shakspere can do no wrong, as a counterpart to their creed in the infallibility of Goethe, we confess that, through hundreds of perusals, we have sought in vain to discover what are called his absurdities and his nonsense. What appears such, is either faithfully copied from the authors whom he frequently transcribes, or is necessary to the development of particular characters. We prefer the critic who, approaching Shakspere, should feel like a man gazing on Ben Nevis or Mont Blanc, capable only of silent wonder, or bursting praise, having no wish or leisure to mark petty deformities in masses so sublime. Hazlitt, elsewhere so astute and distinctive, is here peculiarly characterized by this spirit. He does not criticise, but wonder; he does not examine, but adore.
The Round Table, is a volume of Essays, not unworthy of the best days of that fine species of composition. In it he descants delightfully, as if from an arm-chair, upon a multitude of topics; such as the Love of the Country, John Buncle, Gusto, Izaak Walton, &c.; but by no means exhibits either the full force or depth of his intellect. You see him in his night-gown and slippers, in the undress of his mind; and you are pleased to find that a man who can now inveigh as fiercely and eloquently as if he had come from the tomb of Timon, and now reason as acutely as if he had inherited the mantle of Hobbes, should sink down so smoothly into the chair of Addison and Steele, prattle so pleasantly; " babble of green fields;" and merge the stern and stalwart patriot so easily in the good fellow.
Table Talk, was a continuation of the Round Table, and, while hardly less easy and gossiping, is a much more intense and vigorous production. Here, he strikes upon deeper chords, abounds more in pensive reminiscences, rises to finer bursts of eloquence, and reveals more of the strange machinery of his own mind. It is a book full of thought, of character, and of himself. Its faults are personality and egotism. Among its various essays, we prefer those on the Pleasures of Painting, — a fine theme, and finely handled; on Going a Journey; on Will-Making; and on that striking peculiarity of his mind, which led him to prefer the past to the future. Of all his works, this is the one we would prefer putting into the hands of those who are prejudiced against him. It shows him in the light of a genuine practical philosopher. It is a shield which, to borrow the allusion of Dr. Johnson about the shield of Achilles in Homer, he may hold up against all his enemies.
In a similar spirit and style, he has written The Plain Speaker, Characteristics, (a little book, containing a digest of his entire philosophy, in the form of aphorisms,) Travels Abroad, Conversations with Northcote, &c. &c. But by these he is less generally known, than by his Lectures delivered at the Surrey Institution. As a lecturer, he proved more popular than was expected by those who knew his uncompromising scorn of all those tricks and petty artifices, which are frequently employed to pump up applause. His manner was somewhat abrupt and monotonous, but earnest and energetic. Lecturing has since become fashionable among men of genius; though we doubt greatly if it tend either to their permanent credit or to the good of the public. It either seduces them into clap-trap, or presents them, unstudied in the art of oratory, in unfavourable and deteriorating lights; and, generally speaking, instead of instructing, it misleads and mystifies the public. The man stands up before his audience, half a prophet and half a play-actor; in a position intensely and almost ludicrously false. How utter burdens, to such a promiscuous audience as assembles to while away an evening hour in a lecture room! Conceive of an ancient prophet, delivered of one of his oracles through the established formula of "Ladies and gentlemen!" No; the lecture and the lecture-room are better fitted for the glib, clever, showy declaimer, who happens to have white hands and cultivated whiskers, than for the simple and fiercely-inspired sons of genius.
The Surrey Lectures, when printed, were much abused and much read. They abound in fine and startling things, in eloquent dogmatism, in the impertinence of conscious power, in rude electric shocks to popular prejudice, in passages of sounding declamation. "The savage," he says, "is a poet, when he paints his idol with blood; the countryman, when he stops to look at the rainbow." Perhaps the best of his three series is that on the "Elizabethan Period." It is not easy to see the stars at noonday; but Lamb and Hazlitt possess a telescope which enables them to descry through the burning blaze of Shakspere, his eclipsed but brilliant contemporaries, — Marston the witty; Marlowe, with his mighty line, "his lust of power," "his hunger and thirst after unrighteousness," his passionate pictures of maidens, "shadowing more beauty in their airy brows than have the white breasts of the Queen of Love," and one of whom, "Apollo courted for her hair, and offered as a dower his burning throne;" Ben Jonson, the learned and saturnine, with that slow, deep sneer sculptured upon his lip; Webster, prince of the trembling line which divides the region of the terrible from that of the horrific; Fletcher, the picturesque and romantic; the severe and masculine Massinger. But neither Lamb nor Hazlitt have brought out sufficiently the "gentle Willy's" superiority to these, not merely in intellectual qualities, but in the purity of his moral tone. Nothing about Shakspere astonishes us so much as this. Some, indeed, there are who still prate of Shakspere's immorality, of his "being at home in Falstaff," of the "gross obscenities" in which his genius indulges. We bid the talkers of this pitiful nonsense to compare Shakspere not only with his dramatic coevals — with the brutalities of Beaumont, Fletcher, and Massinger; not only with the dramatists of Charles the Second's era, but with the preachers, theologians, and philosophers of his own day — to see how vastly clearer, purer, and healthier, is the stream of his morality; how comparatively few in him the passages which can kindle a blush on the cheek of modesty; and how deep and distinct is the large moral of his principal plays — of Othello, Lear, and Macbeth, nay, of Timon, Measure for Measure, and the Winter's Tale. In the close of this series, Lord Bacon, with his wisdom, rich and mellow, as if it had been accumulating throughout antenatal ages; Jeremy Taylor, the sweet, the quaint, the genial, prodigal of beauty and splendour as Nature herself, with that waving and wondrous style of his, "untwisting all the chords which tie the hidden soul of harmony," and who, in his youth, by his "sublime and raised discourses, and his young and florid beauty, made men take him for an angel newly descended from the climes of glory, his long curls tawny with the noons of paradise;" and Sir Thomas Browne, that Plato with a twist in his brains, oddest of humorists, most delicious of egotists, most charitable of men; translating the universe into one of its quaintest versions; forcing, in the fantastic devices of The Urn Burial, a grim smile from the jaws of the grave itself; feeding his whim with every variety of learning and the rarest treasures of wisdom, till it grows gigantic and immeasurable; going to bed to the tune of "The huntsmen are up in Arabia, and they have already passed their first sleep in Persia;" and his strange thoughts in a dress of language so grotesque, yet so gorgeous, that you cry out, with the fool in Shakspere, "Motley's the only wear," and fall positively in love with the mother tongue of the Chimeras; — to this illustrious triumvirate, Hazlitt has done justice, "heaped up, pressed down, shaken together, and running over." Whenever he has occasion to speak of a cluster of genius, he rises above himself, and his words carol and curvet "like proud seas under him." And how eloquent and melting he becomes, when he couples the reading of a favourite work with some incident of his past history, when he illumines their pages with the pale moonbeam of memory, recording the inn where he first read Paul and Virginia; the era made in his existence by Schiller's Robbers, which "staggered him like a blow;" the delight with which he saw, in Goethe's page, "the enthusiast (Werter) coming up from the valley," and the "long grass waving over his sepulchre;" his first reading of Burke, of Caleb Williams, and the Man of Feeling. We like nothing better about Hazlitt than this reverting to the past. Sick of the noisy or nauseous now, he is for ever recurring to the glorious "has been." To him the past is more real, as well as dearer, than the future. The one is a cold blank, the other a warm and thickly-inscribed page. He broods incessantly upon the passages of his perished history, his early loves, hopes, fears, his raptures, and, even still dearer in the consecrating ray of recollection, his miseries and chagrins, and cries out for the revolution of the great Platonic year to bring them round again. Indeed, his love to his past self — his present he heartily hates and despises — is a kind of insanity.
The Spirit of the Age was, in many respects, the best of Hazlitt's productions. It was the "Harvest Home" of his mind. He collected into it the gathered essence of his critical thought. It contains his mature and deliberate opinion of many of his contemporaries, expressed in language "gorgeous as the sun at mid-summer." In reading it, you feel as when passing through a gallery of pictures. Here you see Jeremy Bentham, with quiet, far eye, "meditating the coming age, and regarding the people around him no more than the flies of a summer day." There, lapped in deeper meditation still, and his eye lost in a far larger vista, with misty uncertain look, and voice as the "echo of the roar of the congregated thought of ages," sits, mid the spokes of a web wide as the universe, the wizard Coleridge. Yonder is Elia, "ever turning pensive to the past." Wordsworth — Wordsworth of 1798 — with fustian jacket, "a severe worn pressure of thought about the temples, and a fire in his eye, as if he saw something more in objects than other men, stalks moodily along, or stops, startled into boyish delight by the sight of a round warm nest, in its inimitable completeness, its snug security; and with that calm look of mild confidence, which it sends up, as from an eye, to the encompassing heaven, as it hears the rustle of a brown passing leaf," as though a god rushed by." Southey passes with erect look, and "umbrella in his hand in the finest weather." Irving launches his thunderbolts. Rogers polishes his pebbles. Moore minces his pretty sentimentalisms, or transfixes titled fools on his "diamond brooch." Gifford "strikes at the crutches of Mary Robinson." Eldon yawns out his slow syllables of decision. Chalmers "mouths an idea as a dog mouths a bone." Brougham utters his "high unmitigated voice, approaching to a scream." Jeffrey creams, and bubbles, and sparkles, like his own champaign. Campbell plies his file, and Sheridan Knowles his fishing-rod on this true painter's pictured page. Many disquisitions, too. are interspersed on important topics, which met him in his way. For instance, in the course of a few pages, he exhausts the Malthusian controversy. The book, in fine, would not be Hazlitt's if it were not full of errors of judgment, exaggerations of statement, acerbities of temper, and "splendida vitia" of style.
Of The Liberal, Hazlitt was the home-editor. No one can have forgotten the history of this unfortunate periodical. It was meant for a bomb-shell, to be cast — and by such spirits! Byron, Shelley, Hazlitt, and Hunt — among the inflammable materials of England; but went off prematurely, and scorched and blistered only their own hands. Byron's proud stomach sickened of it. Poor Shelley was drowned. Hunt became dyspeptic and dull. And to Hazlitt, already a broad mark for the arrows of political and literary attack, was left the double and difficult task of bearing the brunt of its odium, and fulfilling the prestige of its fame. In fact, with the exception of The Vision of Judgment, and the fragments by Shelley from Faust, his essays are the only readable things in it; and whether we admire their sentiment or not, we are forced to admit their bold earnestness, and feel their burning vigour.
As a critic on painting, his pretensions are high. Paintings were to him real existences, each figure in his favourite pieces he loved as well as though he had known it from infancy. With no single passage equal to one or two we could produce from Fuseli, — destitute of that uniform manliness of taste and style which distinguished Allan Cunningham, — without Lamb's subtlety, or Coleridge's grand general view of the design and morale of paintings, — he has more enthusiasm, sympathies more unaffected and profound with the masters and master-pieces of the art, more discrimination and a finer tact in discerning latent beauties. Few have said such eloquent extravagances about the old masters, and yet none has more accurately analysed and painted their solid merits. The heavy dark of Rembrandt weighing down his pictures under the pressure of "chairo scuro," Claude's vivid skies, Titian's lovely landscapes, are dearer to him than even the cartoons of Raffaelle, or the frescos of Angelo, The silent splendours of that beautiful art lift him ever above himself, and touch his lips with living fire! He is the prose-poet of painting. His Life of Napoleon was the last and the largest of his books. It had loomed before his view for years, and he meant it for a proud and monumental work. He loved Napoleon as he loved all the other members of his intellectual seraglio, with idolatrous admiration. He saw him, enlarged in the haze of the hatred with which he regarded the despotisms which he overthrew — the Messiah of Democracy, the pale, yet bold pilot of that fire-ship which the French Revolution had launched amid its ocean of blood, to track through the nations its terrible path of dismay, ruin, and death! But the book, written in the decay of his mind, full of hasty and huddled narrative, breathing more the spirit of the partisan than that of the calm and dignified historian, is confessedly a failure, though redeemed by passages of paradoxical acuteness and passionate declamation, which yet display rather the convulsion of strong disease, than the sovereign energy of health; more the last throes and staggerings of a ruined mind, than the sublime composure of a spirit about to be "made perfect." One description in it, of the Reign of Terror, — a subject suited to the dark and permanent exasperation of his mind — is more like a bit of Tacitus than any thing we remember in modern history. There is in it the same gloomy concentration and massive grandeur. He paints the scene as with the torch of the Furies: one or two fierce waftures, and the thing is done. And although the work be imperfect and morbid, yet we believe that the memory of it ministered some consolation to poor Hazlitt on his premature and unhappy death-bed. On whatever misconduct and mishaps he might look back, with whatever "dimness of anguish" he may have contemplated the gloomy vast of the Future, he had, in language however rude and ragged, expressed his full idea of the idol of his soul, and so far was content.
Poor fellow, he had many things to wound him:
Let's own, since it can do no good on earth
It was a trying moment, that which found him
Standing alone, beside his desolate hearth,
While all his household gods lay shivered round him.
Well says Bulwer somewhere, that of all the mental wrecks which have occurred in our era, this was the most melancholy. Others may have been as unhappy in their domestic circumstances, and gone down steeper places of dissipation than he; but they had meanwhile the breath of popularity, if not of wealth and station, to give them a certain solace. It was so with Burns and Byron. But Hazlitt had absolutely nothing to support and cheer him. With no hope, no fortune, no status in society, no certain popularity as a writer, no domestic peace, little sympathy from kindred spirits, little support from his political party, no moral management, no definite belief; with great powers, and great passions within, and with a host of powerful enemies without, it was his to enact one of the saddest tragedies on which the sun ever shone.
Such is a faithful portraiture of an extraordinary man, whose restless intellect and stormy passions have now, for fifteen years, found that repose in the grave, which was denied them above it. Let his enemies and friends divide between them twain this lesson., expressed in the language of another hapless son of genius, "that prudent, cautious self-control, is wisdom's root." But both will readily concede now, that a subtle thinker, an eloquent writer, a lover of beauty, and poetry, and man, and truth, one of the best of critics, and not the worst of men, expired in William Hazlitt.