He was born in 1778, the youngest son of a rather feckless Unitarian minister, to whom Hazlitt never ceased to acknowledge his debt.
'After being tossed about from congregation to congregation in the heats of the Unitarian controversy, and squabbles about the American war, he had been relegated to an obscure village, where he was to spend the last thirty years of his life far from the only converse that he loved, the talk about disputed texts of Scripture and the cause of civil and religious liberty.... My father's life was comparatively a dream; but it was a dream of infinity and eternity of death, the resurrection, and a judgement to come.'
And again, rather sadly:
'My father was one of those who mistook his talent after all. He used to be very much dissatisfied that I preferred his Letters to his Sermons. The last were forced and dry; the first came naturally from him. For ease, half-plays on words, and a supine, monkish, indolent pleasantry. I have never seen them equalled.'
Bearing in mind that Hazlitt, somewhat to his father's disappointment, never entered the priesthood, a good deal of what he said about his father may equally well be applied to himself With his father particularly in mind, he wrote of Dissenting ministers:
'We have known some such, in happier days.... Their youthful hopes and vanity had been mortified in them, even in their boyish days, by the neglect and supercilious regards of the world; and they turned to look into their own minds for some-thing else to build their hopes and confidence upon. They were true Priests. They set up an image in their own minds, it was truth: they worshipped an idol there, it was justice. They looked on man as their brother, and only bowed the knee to the Highest.' (My First Acquaintance with Poets. On Court Influence.)
In pursuit of happiness Hazlitt senior left England for Ireland, Ireland for America, where he was never in one place long, then finally returned to England, settling at Wem in Shropshire. Thus William was a much-travelled child by the age of ten; and now he began to open out into adolescence.
'When the strong spell of childhood had just been broken, and even as I cast my eyes longingly upon the blue tops of the lofty hills in the distance and realised that there was a world beyond the blissful world of my immediate experiencing I began to realise that there was a world of thought and feeling too as to which I could only conjecture dimly, and to which I could in some measure find my way through reading — I can see myself with a book in my hand, seated outside in the sun even on cold days with a sheltering wall at my back, perhaps flushing slightly as the thought awoke in me that one day I might too write a book; perhaps seeing not the actual letters, but the letters that compose the word Fame glittering on the page before me.
To these innocent years of growing awareness Hazlitt always looked back from his later unhappiness. Writing of himself as a boy, he said:
'He has only to feel, in order to be happy; pain turns smiling from him, and sorrow is only a softer kind of pleasure.... See him there, the urchin, seated in the sun, with a book in his hand, and the wall at his back. He has a thicker wall before him — the wall that parts him from the future. He sees not the archers taking aim at his peace; he knows not the hands that are to mangle his bosom. He stirs not, he still pores upon his book, and, as he reads, a slight hectic flush passes over his cheek, for he sees the letters that compose the word FAME glitter on the page, and his eyes swim, and he thinks that he will one day write a book, and have his name repeated by thousands of readers, and assume a certain signature.... Come hither, thou poor little fellow, and let us change places with thee if you wilt; here, take the pen and finish this article, and sign what name you please to it; so that we may but change our dress for yours, and sit shivering in the sun, and con over our little task, and feed poor, and lie hard, and be contented and happy, and think what a fine thing it is to be an author, and dream of immortality, and sleep o'nights.' (The Dulwich Gallery.)
In 1793 Hazlitt went to the New College, Hackney, an establishment for the sons of Dissenters; and while there he discovered the theatre and the acting of Mrs Siddons, about whom he later wrote:
'The total impression (unquestioned, unrefined upon) overwhelmed and drowned me in a flood of tears. I was stunned and torpid after seeing her in any of her great parts. I was uneasy, and hardly myself, but I felt (more than ever) that human life was something very far from being indifferent, and I seemed to have got a key to unlock the springs of joy and sorrow in the human heart.'
'To the retired and lonely student, through long years of solitude, her face has shone as if an eye had appeared from heaven....' ('on Novelty and Familiarity. A View of the English Stage.)
1793 was also the year His Majesty's Government declared war on France, giving young Hazlitt a shock from which he never really recovered. As he wrote many years later:
'It seems to me as if I had set out in life with the French Revolution, and as if all that had happened before that were but a dream. Certainly there came to me at that time an extraordinary acceleration of the pulse of being. Youth then was doubly Youth. It was the dawn of a new era; a new impulse had been given to men's minds, and the sun of Liberty rose upon the sun of life in the same day, and both were proud to run their race together. Little did I dream in those two years, while my first hopes and wishes went hand in hand with the human race, that before long the dawn would be overcast and set once more in the night of despotism . .' (On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth.)
So the enemies of the Revolution seemed to him, for the rest of his life, the enemies of the wonder and glory of his childhood and youth, the hates of happiness, so many life-destroyers.
He was so passionate about his political opinions because in fact they were more than political opinions. Even more of his heart than his mind was in them. Though capable of writing about politicians with notable acuteness, Hazlitt was not strictly a political thinker. So he felt that to reject the Revolution, as Wordsworth and Coleridge finally did, was to reject for ever the hope, wonder and glory of youth. And how he scolded them! In a study of Coleridge in The Saint of the Age, twenty years after the poet's defection, he wrote:
'He has nerved his heart and filled his eyes with tears, as he hailed the rising orb of liberty, since quenched in darkness and in blood, and has kindled his affections at the blaze of the French Revolution, and sang for joy, when the towers of the Bastille and the proud places of the insolent and the oppressor fell, and would have floated his bark, freighted with fondest fancies, across the Atlantic wave with Southey and others to seek for peace and freedom — "In Philarmonia's undivided dale!" Alas! "Frailty, they name is Genius!" What is become of all this mighty heap of hope, of thought, of learning and humanity. It has ended in swallowing doses of oblivion and in writing paragraphs in the Courier. Such and so little is the mind of man!'
Because Napoleon flashed like a thunderbolt out of the Revolution ('It awaited his appearance to triumph and to perish with him'), then he could do no wrong; so that Hazlitt's last weary years, when he was still capable of writing essays that were masterpieces, were mainly devoted to producing a huge life of Napoleon, a gigantic folly that sprang from his strong continuing belief in revolutionary principles.
'Let all the wrongs', he cries: 'Let all the wrongs public and private produced in France by arbitrary power and exclusive privileges for a thousand years be collected in a volume, and let this volume be read by all who have hearts to feel or capacity to understand, and the strong, stifling sense of oppression and kindling burst of indignation that would follow will be that impulse of public opinion that led to the French Revolution. Let all the victims that have perished under the mild, paternal sway of the ancient regime, in dungeons, and in agony, without a trial, without an accusation, without witness, be assembled together, and their chains struck off, and the shout of jubilee and exultation they would make, or that nature would make at the sight, will be the shout that was heard when the Bastille fell! The dead pause that ensued among the Gods of the earth, the rankling malice, the panic-fear, when they saw law and justice raised to an equality with their sovereign will, and mankind no longer doomed to be their sport, was that of fiends robbed of their prey: their struggles, their arts, their unyielding perseverance, and their final triumph was that of fiends when it is restored to them!' ('The French Revolution' in The Life of Napoleon.)
Having decided against entering the Unitarian ministry, Hazlitt passed his later teens and early twenties learning to paint and then doing some portraits for a living, but also wondering if he ought not to devote himself to meta-physics, a surprising alternative: as if a man could not decide whether to be Rubens or Spinoza. Here is Virginia Woolf's divided man, split between pure ideas and a deeply sensuous feeling for the world, with unity and harmony never to be achieved; but in a place somewhere between these two extremes, a place of summer storms and lightning flashes produced by the tension between them, Hazlitt's best work, his unique contributions to the Essay, were done.
But he took time. He spent years, mostly working or walking in solitude, finding himself.
'For many years of my life', he wrote, 'I did nothing but think. I had nothing else to do but solve some knotty point, or dip in some abstruse author, or look at the sky, or wander by the pebbled sea-side —
To see the children sporting on the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore
I cared for nothing, I wanted nothing. I took my time to consider whatever occurred to me, and was in no hurry to give a sophistical answer to a question — there was no printer's devil waiting for me. I used to write a page or two perhaps in half a year; and remember laughing heartily at the celebrated experimentalist Nicholson, who told me that in twenty years he had written as much as would make three hundred octavo volumes. If I was not a great author I could read with ever fresh delight, "never ending, still beginning", and had no occasion to write a criticism when I had done. If I could not paint like Claude, I could admire "the witchery of the soft blue sky" as I walked out, and was satisfied with the pleasure it gave me. If I was dull, it gave me little concern; if I was lively, I indulged my spirits. I wished well to the world, and believed as favourably of it as I could. I was like a stranger in a foreign land, at which I looked with wonder, curiosity and delight, without expecting to be an object of attention in return. I had no relations to the state, no duty to perform, no ties to bind me to others: I had neither friend nor mistress, wife nor child. I lived in a world of contemplation and not of action.'
Hazlitt then goes on to describe the ill effects of not living in this way.
'This sort of dreaming existence is the best. He who quits it to go in search of realities generally barters repose for repeated disappointments and vain regrets. His time, thoughts, and feelings are no longer at his own disposal. From that instant he does not survey the objects of nature as they are in themselves, but looks asquint at them to see whether he cannot make them the instruments of his ambition, interest, or pleasure; from a candid, undesigning, undisguised simplicity of character, his views become jaundiced, sinister, and double; he takes no further interest in the great changes of the world but as he has a paltry share in producing them; instead of opening his senses, his understanding, and his heart to the resplendent fabric of the universe, he holds a crooked mirror before his face, in which he may admire his own person and pre-tensions, and just glance his eye aside to see whether others are not admiring him too....' ('On Living to One's-Self.').
This was not the kind of existence Hazlitt wanted, and in these years of reflection he learnt to reject it utterly. As if he knew his future work would depend on this slow deepening of his experience, he occupied himself with painting, that most contemplative of arts, and he later celebrated it in a fine essay.
'In writing, you have to contend with the world; in painting, you have only to carry on a friendly strife with Nature. From the moment that you take up the pencil, and look Nature in the face, you are at peace with your own heart. No angry passions rise to disturb the silent progress of the work, to shake the hand, or dim the brow: no irritable humours are set afloat: you have no absurd opinions to combat, no point to strain, no adversary to crush, no fool to annoy — you are actuated by fear or favour to no man. There is "no juggling here", no sophistry, no intrigue, no tampering with the evidence, no attempt to make black white, or white black: but you resign yourself into the hands of greater power, that of Nature, with the simplicity of a child, and the devotion of an enthusiast — study with joy her manner, and with rapture taste her style. The mind is calm and full at the same time. The hand and eye are equally employed. In tracing the commonest object, a plant or the stump of a tree, you learn something every moment.... Patience grows out of the endless pursuit, and turns it into a luxury. A streak in a flower, a wrinkle in a leaf, a tinge in a cloud, a stain in an old wall or ruin grey, are seized with avidity as the spolia optima of this sort of mental warfare, and furnish out labour for another half-day. The hours pass away untold, without chagrin, and without weariness; nor would you ever wish to pass them otherwise.' ('On the Pleasure of Painting.')
Hazlitt was never a good painter, and when he came to take his painting more seriously, no doubt these advantages lost their power to charm him. It is interesting to compare the intensity with which he pursued this craft and the disappointment he felt at his failure, with his careless attitude to his writing; it was as though he stumbled into his late and real profession by chance and against his will.
'I have not much pleasure in writing these Essays,' he wrote, 'or in reading them afterwards; though I own I now and then meet with a phrase that I like, or a thought that strikes me as a true one. But after I begin them, I am only anxious to get to the end of them, which I am not sure I shall do, for I seldom see my way a page or even a sentence beforehand; and when I have as by a miracle escaped, I trouble myself little more about them.... I have more satisfaction in my own thoughts than in dictating them to others; words are necessary to explain the impression of certain things upon me to the reader, but they rather weaken and draw a veil over than strengthen it to myself. . . After I have once written on a subject, it goes out of my mind: my feelings about it have been melted down into words, and then I forget. I have, as it were, discharged my memory of its old habitual reckoning, and rubbed out the score of real sentiment. For the future it exists only for the sake of others — .But I cannot say, from my own experience, that the same process takes place in transferring our ideas to canvas; they gain more than they lose in the mechanical transformation. One is never tired of painting, because you have to set down not what you knew already, but what you have just discovered.' ('On the Pleasure of Painting. ')
In those same years when Hazlitt
'Still hoped to become a painter. I could not satisfy myself with what I did, yet the pain of failure had not yet stiffened into anguish'
he studied deeply. His 'grand resort' at that period of his life was 'that branch of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil' which he called metaphysical reasoning.
'The study of metaphysics has this advantage at least — it promotes a certain integrity and uprightness of understanding, which is a cure for the spirit of lying....'
And elsewhere he wrote:
'If it should be asked what use such studies are of, we might answer with Hume, perhaps of none, except that there are certain persons who find more entertainment in them than in any other.' ('Characteristics. Mind and Motive.')
He was a hermit, living mostly in the country, defending his solitude. When we have to reproach careless, unsociable and moody young men, who do not seem to know what to do with themselves, we ought to remember Hazlitt, even though it is long odds against any one of them becoming a great writer. His astonishing mastery of his art in his maturity, when he was capable of writing a brilliant essay of several thousand words at a sitting and apparently without effort, has its roots in this seemingly confused and profitless period, when he was a painter who despaired of his painting, a metaphysician who could not find the right words for his ideas.
As this was the time when his character was formed, and he changed little afterwards, now we had better consider the man. He was of medium height, not strongly built but capable of great exertion (he walked enormous distances), with thick dark hair, well-marked features, eyes that often seemed vague and shifting but that could blaze with enthusiasm or anger. He would often remain silent, almost sullen, in company, but on occasion, with people he liked, could talk brilliantly, more or less as he wrote. (Indeed, his best essays are a kind of super-brilliant talk.) He was intensely introverted, at once shy and passionate, which explains the hang-dog effect he created in many companies. Lamb's early biographer, Thomas Talfourd, knew Hazlitt quite well after 1815 and described him vividly as he was during the last fifteen years of his life.
'His countenance was then handsome, but marked by a painful expression; his black hair, which had curled stiffly over his temples, had scarcely received its first tints of gray; his gait was awkward; his dress was neglected; and, in the company of strangers, his bashfulness was almost painful, — but when, in the society of Lamb and one or two others, he talked on his favourite themes of old English books, or old Italian pictures, no one's conversation could be more delightful....When he mastered his diffidence, he did not talk for effect, to dazzle, or surprise, or annoy, but with the most simple and honest desire to make his view of the subject in hand entirely apprehended by his hearer. There was sometimes an obvious struggle to do this to his own satisfaction: he seemed labouring to drag his thought to light from its deep lurking-place; and, with timid distrust of that power of expression which he had found so late in life, he often betrayed a fear lest he had failed to make himself understood, and recurred to the subject again and again, that he might be assured he had succeeded....'
More than ten years earlier, in 1803, when Hazlitt was still struggling to find his own voice, Coleridge conveyed him even more sharply.
'William Hazlitt,' he wrote in a letter, 'is a thinking, observant, original man; . . . he has no imaginative memory. So much for his intellectuals. His manners are 99 in 100 singularly repulsive; brow-hanging, shoe-contemplative, strange.... He is, I verily believe, kindly natured; is very fond of, attentive to, and patient with children; but he is jealous, gloomy and of an irritable pride. With all this, there is much good in him. He is disinterested; an enthusiastic lover of the great men who have been before us; he says things that are his own, in a way of his own; and though from habitual shyness, and the outside and bearskin at least, of misanthropy, he is strangely confused and dark in his conversation, and delivers himself of almost all his conceptions with a Forceps, yet he says more than any man I ever knew that is his own in a way of his own; and often-times when he has warmed his mind, and the synovial juice has come out and spread over his joints, he will gallop for half an hour together with real eloquence....' ('Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Thomas Wedgewood, letter of 16 September 1803, quoted in The Life of William Hazlitt, by P. P. Howe. New ed. 1947, pp. 68-9.)
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