Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
William Hazlitt (17781830)
[William Hazlitt was born at Maidstone on the 10th April 1778. His father was a Unitarian minister of Irish extraction. The family went to America when the essayist was five years old, but soon returned and established itself at Wem, in Shropshire. Here Hazlitt, after an experience of two years at the theological college of his fathers sect at Hackney, during which he convinced himself that he had no liking for the ministry, met Coleridge, and was much stimulated by the meeting (1798). He was at this time divided in taste between art and metaphysics; he went to Paris in 1802 (when the peace of Amiens opened the Continent) on a picture-copying errand, tried portrait-painting with little success, and next year published his essay on the Principles of Human Action, and began to live by the press. In 1808 he married Miss Stoddart, a friend of the Lambs, a lady of some little fortune and sister of the once well-known Sir John Stoddart. For some four years he lived at her property of Winterslow, on the edge of Salisbury Plain, a place which has left enduring traces on his writings. The household removed to London in 1812, Hazlitt taking to regular press-work of various kinds, and living in Miltons supposed house in York Street, Westminster. About ten years later he and his wife obtained a Scotch divorce, and he engaged in the singular love affair with a lodging-house keepers daughter, Sarah Walker, which he has recorded in Liber Amoris. In 1824 he was married a second time to a widow of some property; but she left him very shortly afterwards, and he died on 18th September 1830, having during his latest years been engaged on his only large work, an extensive but not very valuable Life of Napoleon. The essays and lectures, by which after some delay his fame is being more and more solidly established, were published and delivered in various places and forms during the last twenty years of his life, the details of which are on the whole very scantily and imperfectly recorded. Most of Hazlitts periodical writings were reprinted after his death by his son and grandson (the latter of whom has written a Life of him) and are now attainable in Bohns Library; while an excellent selection from his works has been produced by Mr. Alexander Ireland; but a complete edition with due editorial apparatus is still wanting.]
THE CHARACTER of Hazlitts literary achievements is very peculiar; and the history of his literary reputation is still more so. During his lifetime (which, as will have been noted, was comparatively short) he was the object of violent attack, which was no doubt partly due to political prejudice, but which was strengthened, as his political and personal friends defence of him was weakened, by many strange and unlovely peculiarities in his character. After his death, though his influence on a few literary persons was great, he could hardly be said to have much on the general reader; and it was something of a habit to regard him (most unjustly) as a Bohemian of some talent, who had chiefly shown the evils of Bohemianism. Of late years strenuous efforts have been made by persons who by no means agree in their general views either of literature or of politics to rehabilitate him; and these efforts have not been wholly without effect.
It is indeed not likely that Hazlitt will ever be a popular writer. Though he had a great talent for description, so that many of his fugitive pieces contain extraordinarily vivid and brilliant work, he was much more carried by his taste and temperament to criticismcriticism of art, of literature, of politics, of philosophy. And though critical writings may hold such a modest and obscure corner of the Temple of Fame as they do hold pretty securely, inasmuch as the principles which they apply are eternal and are sure to be recognised by later practitioners and enquirers in the same paths, the vogue thus secured is never likely to amount to popularity. Moreover Hazlitt, either by ill-luck or misjudgment, never gave himself a chance of attaching his apparently minor but really major works of comment and criticism to the popularity of some larger production. His Life of Napoleon, his single attempt of this kind, has been little, and never deserved to be much, read. He has also weighted himself with a positive, in addition to this negative and accidental drawback. He is, among English writers of great accomplishment, paramount for prejudice, unfairness, inequality of judgment. He was regarded in his own day by not unfriendly judges as a kind of Ishmaelan Ishmael too whose hand had been against every man long before he could complain of every mans hand being against him. As Lamb, his most familiar and most faithful friend said, he quarrelled with the world at a rate which, as Lamb could hardly say, was practically insane. He was left by both his wives. He was more or less often at daggers drawn with every friend he had. He was suspected of being the instigator of at least one fatal duel of which he himself kept clear. He attacked, sometimes without the smallest and often with very small provocation, every prominent man of letters of the day, Whig and Tory alike. In his historical appreciations remarkable insight, expressed in a style all the more original and individual for its lack of obvious mannerism, contrasts with a quantity of crass and bitter misjudgment, obviously due to political and social prejudice, or to the mere bilious whim of the moment, which is to be matched in amount and in acrimony in no other critic of the first class.
Yet Hazlitts merits so far surpass his defects that save for critical purpose and duty, these might be passed clean over without any notice at all. He has been ranked by some (with whom I desire to range myself) as, after all allowances are made, the greatest of English critics of literaturethat is to say, the critic who, when he knows what he is talking about and is not diverted from his proper business by some casual burst of rage or prejudice, can see the whole of his author most clearly, can place him in his due relation to other authors most exactly, can formulate his idiosyncrasy in the most effective manner with the fewest words. He is a very considerable critic of art, perhaps the most considerable between Sir Joshua Reynolds on the one hand, and Mr. Ruskin on the other. Although his political utterances are hopelessly distorted by prejudice, his views of society by a total ignorance of what society really was and a jaundiced dislike of supposed superiorities, and his philosophical views by an extremely limited reading of philosophy, his natural mother-wit is so strong that even in these subjects he is not to be neglected. On life in the general and proper sense, though here again large allowances have to be made, he often goes to the very foundation of things. And on the not infrequent occasions on which he allows himself to be simply observant and descriptivethe passages on the Fight on Salisbury Plain, on Rackets, and on many other thingshe displays a power of light and easy writing which outmatches Hunt or Dickens on their own ground, while it always betrays in the background a depth of thought and feeling to which neither of these can lay claim.
The style of Hazlitt is peculiar from its apparent want of peculiarity. He himself denied himself a style; and false modesty was not one of Hazlitts tolerably numerous weaknesses. In minor details he is more than careless; and the stop-watch critic might in an easy hour or so of reading compile against him a terrible list of slips. But he has everywhere force, brightness, individuality; and every now and then he rises to passages of a singularly solemn and stately music. Still oftener, in detached phrases and sentences which seem thrown off without any particular premeditation, and still less with any idea of following them up, one discerns germs and notes of other styles subsequent to his and the property of men whom it is chronologically impossible for Hazlitt ever to have read, while it is probable if not certain that all of them had read Hazlitt. In short this great critic and writer is one of those who are even greater in suggestion than they are in execution, though they are great in execution too. With the faults he has the merits of manliness; with the weakness of sometimes setting himself capriciously against the fashion, he has the saving grace of never basely or idly condescending to it. Perhaps he exemplified both in life and in letters rather too much of the popular idea of a critic as of a cross-grained person who stets verneintwho is both a grudger and a denier. But he had the merits of the critic too, and that eminently; and what is more he would have been a great writer if he had not been a critic at all.