4. A Reviled Critic
William Hazlitt by J.B. Priestley

Alongside that failure of the French Revolution, which seemed to him to quench the promise and joy of youth, must be set his own failure with women. He was a deeply susceptible man and one capable of establishing on all levels a satisfying relationship with the right woman, but he never found her (or was always defeated in an early stage by his company manner). He made one marriage, with Sarah Stoddart, that was unfortunate; another, with Mrs Bridge-water, that was ridiculous; was crazily infatuated (a fine example of 'anima' projection, Jungians please note) for almost half his forties with his landlady's daughter, Sarah Walker, a sly minx, and had to content himself as best he could with easily outraged village maidens or later with Covent Garden whores.

This long frustration threw into high relief those intense moments of pleasure and joy—and he has an unusual capacity for both—that he celebrates in his essays. He may be writing on a subject far removed from such a moment, but suddenly his remembrance of it will be there, glowing like some great jewel. He is at once the essayist of inspired common sense, the shrewdest insight, and of remembered impassioned enjoyment.

So, sketching and painting, brooding and inwardly philosophising, Hazlitt roamed about that wonderful England of which we still catch a glimpse in the work of the old water-colourists. He wanted no more education:

'. . . Anyone who has passed through the regular gradations of a classical education and is not made a fool by it, may consider himself as having had a very narrow escape....'

Though capable at times of great bouts of reading, he was never a bookish man, and was most unlike that early Establishment figure, Sir James Mackintosh, of whom Hazlitt wrote:

'Sir James in one of those who see nature through the spectacle of books. He might like to read an account of India; but India itself with its burning, shining face would be a mere blank, an endless waste to him. To persons of this class of mind things must be translated into words, visible images into abstract propositions, to meet their refined apprehensions; and they have no more to say to a matter-of-fact staring them in the face without a label on its mouth, than they would to a hippopotamus...'('Sir James Mackintosh in The Spirit of the Age.')

Hazlitt was not of this class of mind; he liked to see things for himself But, as we saw, he discovered that this life of wandering, sketching, and metaphysics 'meant taking a short cut to starvation'. After a few years divided between writing and painting, in 1812 he became Parliamentary Reporter for the Morning Chronicle and, a year later, its dramatic critic.

He had a great love of the theatre and a high opinion of its value. 'Wherever there is a play house', he wrote in 1817,

'the world will go on not amiss. The stage not only refines the manners, but it is the best teacher of morals, for it is the truest and most intelligible picture of life. It stamps the image of virtue on the mind by first softening the rude materials of which it is composed, by a sense of pleasure. It regulates the passions by giving a loose to the imagination. It points out the selfish and depraved to our detestation; the amiable and generous to our admiration; and if it clothes the more seductive vices with the borrowed graces of wit and fancy, even those graces operate as a diversion to the coarser poison of experience and bad example, and often prevent or carry off the infection by inoculating the mind with a certain taste and elegance...('On Actors and Acting.')

When he began writing about the theatre, Hazlitt was just in time to salute the genius of Edmund Kean, who owed much to his enthusiastic notices. Years later, when Kean was being hooted off the stage, Hazlitt made a one-man cavalry charge at the mob:

'Let a great man but "fall into misfortunes" and then you discover the real dispositions of the loving public towards their pretended idol. See how they set upon him the moment he is down, how they watch for the smallest slip, the first pretext to pick a quarrel with him, how slow they are to acknowledge any worth, how quick to exaggerate an error, how ready to trample upon and tear "to tatters, to very rags" the frailties which being flesh and blood he has in common with all men, while yet they overlook or malign the incomparable excellence which they can neither reach nor find a substitute for.... It was not the adulterer they pelted with stones—as to that, which of them that was not a lying knave and a hypocrite could lay hand to heart and claim the right to pick up the first stone?—but the man who bore on his brow the mark of the fire from Heaven....'

But this was written when Hazlitt was fifty, only two years before his death, and by that time he could look back not only on so much work wonderfully well done, on the friendship of Lamb and Keats (who greatly admired him), but also on an unceasing torrent of abuse. The Establishment of the period may not have employed as many hacks as it has since acquired, but their virulence was appalling. He was 'the pimpled Hazlitt' (though he had in fact a clear, pale face), 'an angry buffoon', 'an unprincipled blunderer', and Blackwood's Magazine announced that 'the day is perhaps not far distant when the Charlatan shall be stripped to the naked skin, and made to swallow his own vile prescriptions'. Over many years that same magazine conducted against Hazlitt a campaign of fearful vilification. In one issue Wilson spoke of

'that wild, blackbill Hazlitt. You do not, I perceive, know what a paltry creature this is, otherwise you would either have said more or less about him than you have done.... He is a mere quack, Mr Editor, and a mere book-maker; one of the sort that lounge in third-rate bookshops, and write third-rate books.'

On one occasion he figured as 'a small fetid, blear-eyed pug'; on another (referring to the Liber Doris) as 'an acknowledged scamp of the lowest order—a scamp by his own confession steeped in ignorance and malice to his very ribald lips'. This relentless and bitterly personal campaign ended only with his death, which Blackwood's saw fit to pass without noticing. A critic in 1854 summarized it thus,

'Wilson and Lockhart bent all their young power against a writer whom both in their hearts admired, and from whom both had learned much. The first twenty-five volumes of Blackwood's Magazine are disgraced by incessant, furious, and scurrilous attacks upon the person, private character, talents, and moral and religious principles of Hazlitt, which future ages shall regard with wonder and disgust.'

Later critics like Leslie Stephen, Saintsbury, Birrell, while admitting the force and brilliance of Hazlitt's writing, were inclined to shake their heads over his passionate prejudices and truculence; but they had never had to suffer this kind of abuse while writing against the clock and the bailiff. That Hazlitt was an awkward, difficult fellow must be admitted. But he held unpopular opinions, believing that the poor were undeservedly wretched, that the triumph of reaction after 1815 was a disaster, that many glittering public figures were windbags and humbugs; he detested and unmasked stupidity and hypocrisy; he insisted upon telling the truth as he saw it; and this was no way then, just as it is not now, to win friends and influence people. No sinecures, no pensions, came his way. On his deathbed he asked Jeffrey, for whom he had often written in the Edinburgh Review, to send him ten pounds. Jeffrey, so Carlyle records, sent him fifty.

Most of his contemporaries he alienated, and most of them attacked him either in the public press or in private communications. Wordsworth, for example, whom Hazlitt so deeply admired in his youth, froze at once in any company that also contained Hazlitt. And he could write, as he did to Haydon in 1817:

'The miscreant Hazlitt continues, I have heard, his abuse of Southey, Coleridge and myself, in the Examiner. I hope that you do not associate with the fellow; he is not a proper person to be admitted into respectable society.'

And Coleridge remained so unforgiving as to produce the following epitaph:

Obiit Saturday, Sept 18, 1930
W. H. Eyed!
Beneath this stone does William Hazlitt lie,
thankless of all that God or man could give,
He lived like one who never thought to die,
He died like one who dared not hope to live.

The reasons for such unappeasable hostility may be found in Hazlitt's frequent sidelights on himself in the Essays. In one of the most important he wrote:

'Many people boast of being masters in their own house. I pretend to be master of my own mind. I should be sorry to have an ejectment served upon me for any notions I may choose to entertain there. Within that little circle I would fain be an absolute monarch.... I am not to be browbeat or wheedled out of any of my settled convictions. Opinion to opinion, I will face any man. Prejudice, fashion, the cant of the moment, go for nothing; and as for the reason of the thing, it can only be supposed to rest with me or another, in proportion to the pains we have taken to ascertain it. Where the pursuit of truth has been the habitual study of any man's life, the love of truth will be his ruling passion.... If "to be wise were to be obstinate", I might set up for as great a philosopher as the best of them; for some of my conclusions are as fixed and as incorrigible to proof as need be. I am attached to them in consequence of the pains, and anxiety, and the waste of time they have cost me. In fact, I should not well know what to do without them at this time of day; nor how to get others to supply their place. I would quarrel with the best friend I have sooner than acknowledge the absolute right of the Bourbons....'

Few people have the strength to tolerate such firm refusal to compromise. As a contemporary very fairly stated the case in the Edinburgh Review:

'If Mr Hazlitt has not generally met with impartial justice from his contemporaries, we must say that he has himself partly to blame. Some of the attacks of which he has been the object, have no doubt been purely brutal and malignant; but others have, in a great measure, arisen from feeling of which he has unwisely set the example. His seeming carelessness of that public opinion which he would influence—his love of startling paradoxes—and his intrusion of political virulence, at seasons when the mind is prepared only for the delicate investigations of taste, have naturally provoked a good deal of asperity, and prevented the due appreciation of his powers.'

Quarrels even cast a shadow over his relations with Lamb, perhaps his staunchest friend. In 1816 Lamb described a piece which Hazlitt had written about him as

'a pretty compendium of observation, which the author has collected in my disparagement, from some hundreds of social evenings which we had spent together—however in spite of all, there is something tough in my attachment to H., which these violent strainings cannot quite dislocate or sever asunder. I get no conversation in London that is absolutely worth attending to but his.'

And Hazlitt himself conveys the delight of those hundreds of social evenings in his essay On the Conversation of Authors:

'. . . When a set of adepts, of illuminati, get about a question, it is worth while to hear them talk. They may snarl and quarrel over it, like dogs; but they pick it bare to the bone, they masticate it thoroughly.... This was the case formerly at Lamb's— where we used to have many lively skirmishes at their Thursday evening parties.... There was Lamb himself, the most delightful, the most provoking, the most witty and sensible of men. He always made the best pun, and the best remark in the course of the evening. His serious conversation, like his serious writing, is the best. No one ever stammered out such fine, piquant, deep, eloquent things in half a dozen half sentences as he does. His jests scald like tears: and he probes a question with a play upon words. What a keen, laughing, hair-brained vein of home-felt truth! What choice venom! How often did we cut into the haunch of letters, while we discussed the haunch of mutton on the table! How we skimmed the cream of criticism! How we got into the heart of controversy! How we picked out the marrow of authors!....'
« NEXT »« Hazlitt » « Literary Criticism » « Biographies » « Library » « Home »