1871 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Hazlitt

S. C. Hall, in A Book of Memories: Great Men and Women of the Age, from personal Acquaintance (1871) 64-66.



There was another man of mark whom I met occasionally when it was my privilege to sit among the great, whom it is now my higher privilege to portray — WILLIAM HAZLITT. His grandson, one of the Registrars in the Court of Bankruptcy, has recently published two large volumes of his biography and correspondence. He was of Irish descent — his father was a Unitarian minister — and he was born at Maidstone in 1778. He was designed for the ministry, but "took" early to art, and painted some portraits — learning enough, at least, to give value to his artcriticisms. His profession was purely that of a man of letters, " depending on his literary earnings for subsistence to the last." He died in London in 1830, at the comparatively young age of fifty-two.

He was a reformer of the old school; more than that, indeed — he was a democrat, a hater of authorities, and anything but a lover of his native land, the very opposite of some of the friends who cheered and helped him on his way through life. His admiration of the first Napoleon amounted almost to insanity: even generous Talfourd describes him as "staggering under the blow of Waterloo, and hardly able to forgive the valour of the conquerors." He styles him, however, "the great critic and thinker." His Lectures on the Poets and his Essays on Art are full of valuable knowledge, and may he studied to-day with profit and pleasure; while his dramatic criticisms may still be read with delight, although the actors, with scarcely an exception, are all gone.

I remember him as a little, mean-looking, unprepossessing man; but I am very unwilling to accept Haydon's estimate of him — "A singular compound of malice, candour, cowardice, genius, purity, vice, democracy, and conceit." Such a man could not have obtained this testimony from Charles Lamb; and no man knew him better than did the gentle and genial essayist: — "I should belie my own conscience if I said less than that I think W. H. to be, in his natural and healthy state, one of the wisest and finest spirits breathing. So far from being ashamed of that intimacy which was betwixt us, it is my boast that I was able for so many years to have preserved it entire; and I think I shall go to my grave without finding, or expecting to find, such another companion." Yet De Quincey says of him — "He was splenetic, and more than peevish;" but "the soil in his brain was of a volcanic fertility;" "he smiled upon no man;" "his misanthropy was constitutional;" "there was a dark sinister gloom for ever upon his countenance;" "it seemed to me that he hated, even more than enemies, those whom hollow custom obliged him to call his friends."

He was of slight make — thin, indeed; but his frame was "wiry and compact." He is thus described by Gilfillan: — "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; his hair dark and abundant." He had a lonely life: few to sustain, and none to cheer him; none of the sweet amenities of home. As a professed critic he had the common lot — few friends, many foes. He had "restless and stormy passions" — so, at least, say those who knew him best — and these were neither subdued nor controlled by any Faith that nourishes and strengthens Hope and Charity.