Hazlitt is usually described as an essayist and a critic. I would prefer to call him an essayist and leave it at that. He was a very fine critic of literature and the drama and acting, but he was not a diligent and systematic critic, devoting his life to the appraisal of other men's work; most of his criticism is to be found in hastily composed lectures. His main subject was not other men's world but himself, and for this reason he is best considered as an essayist. He preferred above anything else to tell us what William Hazlitt thought and felt about everything, and it is doubtful if anybody else in our literature succeeded better in this self-imposed task. After we have read him, we know Hazlitt as we know few other authors: it is as if we had sat up late with him night after night. Most of his pieces are scattered parts of some gigantic unplanned autobiography. And all this — for my money, as the Americans say — makes him an essayist.
How good an essayist? As usual, estimates differ. Thus Virginia Woolf, reluctantly compelled to admire him though not to like him (few women did: it was his chief misfortune), tells us that his essays cannot be included among the best; they lack unity, a mind in harmony with itself; Hazlitt was too much a divided man, lacking the integrated nature of the supreme essayists, their reticence, their composure. Now this is true enough, but I for one disagree sharply with the conclusion she draws from it, if only because the qualities she finds missing in Hazlitt do not seem to me essential for the best work in this form. In place of unity, harmony, reticence, composure, Hazlitt offers us variety, frankness, intensity, richness, the result of the division in his mind, the tension between the opposites, the lack of that integration always difficult for a large, broadly based, richly experiencing nature.
It is the difference between a neat packet of sandwiches and an untidily packed but splendidly luscious luncheon basket. You risk both indigestion and satiety but eat joyously and are well nourished. The very weaknesses that made Hazlitt difficult as a man, bringing disaster and anguish, are his strength as an essayist. So to many of us, not unacquainted with this form of writing, not only does he not fall short of the best, he is in fact himself the very best. If I were compelled to restrict my reading to one man's essays, that man would be William Hazlitt.
Among famous last words are the dying Hazlitt's 'Well, I have had a happy life'. His own life was hard, his death early, but there is much in the essays to explain that remark, which has seemed to many strangely pathetic and demonstrably untrue.
'The love of life', he wrote, 'is, in general, the elect not of our enjoyment, but of our passions. We are not attached to it so much for its own sake, or as it is connected with happiness, as because it is necessary to action. Without life there can be no action — no objects of pursuit — no restless desires — no tormenting passions. Hence it is that we fondly cling to it — that we dread its termination as the close, not of enjoyment, but of hope. The proof that our attachment to life is not absolutely owing to the immediate satisfaction we find in it is that those persons are commonly found most loath to part with it who have the least enjoyment of it, and who have the greatest difficulties to struggle with, as losing gamesters are the most desperate.'
In the same essay he pointed out that:
'the vehemence of our passions is irritated, not less by disappointment than by the prospect of success',('On the Love of Life.')
and of the active side of his life this was certainly true. On the passive side, in solitude, 'living to himself' as he called it, he found the enjoyments which in more superficial men the agonies of his active life might have been sufficient to quell completely. Not so with Hazlitt.
'What I mean by living to one's-self is living in the world, as in it, not of it: it is as if no one knew there was such a person, and you wished no one to know it: it is to be a silent spectator of the mighty scene of things, not an object of attention or curiosity in it; to take a thoughtful, anxious interest in what is passing in the world, but not to feel the slightest inclination to make or meddle with it. It is such a life as a pure spirit might be supposed to lead, and such an interest as it might take in the affairs of men: calm, contemplative, passive, distant, touched with pity for their sorrows, smiling at their follies without bitterness, sharing their affections, but not troubled by their passions, not seeking their notice, nor once dreamt of by them. He who lives wisely to himself and to his own heart looks at the busy world through the loopholes of retreat, and does not want to mingle in the fray.... He reads the clouds, he looks at the stars, he watches the return of the seasons, the falling leaves of autumn, the perfumed breath of spring, starts with delight at the note of a thrush in a copse near him, sits by the fire, listens to the moaning of the wind, pores upon a book, or discourses the freezing hours away, or melts down hours to minutes in pleasing thought....'(On Living to One's-Self.')
Much of his time was thus spent in private, and it was such happiness that he doubtless recalled on his deathbed in 1830, in Frith Street, Soho. He was then only fifty-two, prematurely aged and suffering from cancer of the stomach; he was penniless; his one child still living, a son, did not return his affection; both his marriages had been failures, absurd failures too, and the one great love affair of his life, which had almost made a maniac out of him, had slipped from tragedy into squalid farce; he had for years been abused, libelled and slandered without mercy; he had long lived from hand to mouth, usually in great discomfort, writing hurriedly to keep his creditors at bay, quarrelling with his friends and multiplying his enemies, all in a narrowing world that denounced and rejected the revolutionary ideas that inspired him in youth and never afterwards left him; yet he meant what he said — he always did — when he declared with his last breath that he had had a happy life.
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