The Critical Essays of William Hazlitt Critical Evaluation

William Hazlitt

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

There were two pre-eminent literary critics in the second decade of the nineteenth century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlitt. While the former developed his critical principles in his early philosophical studies and in a decade of splendid poetic creation, the latter had no such period of creativity to look back on when he began his career as journalist-critic in 1813, at the age of thirty-six. His early life was a series of failures. Neither his earnest attempts to become a portraitist nor equally earnest attempts to make a reputation as a political and philosophical writer had borne fruit. In 1812, he and his family lived in London almost without funds until a series of lectures helped set the family on its feet. He then served an important apprenticeship as a journalist in Parliament and, in 1813, found the work which exactly suited him: writing dramatic criticism and essays on many topics for various periodicals.

Within a decade Hazlitt ranked with Coleridge as literary critic as a result of both spoken and written essays. His lecture series was very popular. The series LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS was given early in 1818; ENGLISH COMIC WRITERS was delivered late that year. The following year he delivered the series THE DRAMATIC LITERATURE OF THE AGE OF ELIZABETH. These lecture series were duly issued in book form. His most important written criticism includes VIEW OF THE ENGLISH STAGE, which covers the years 1813-1818, and the CHARACTERS OF SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS.

Hazlitt was one of the first professional critics to have a significant identity as a critic. In the previous century, when the monthly reviews were established, most criticism was anonymous and probably no critic was half so well known for his criticism as Hazlitt became. One reason is that earlier writers on literature, such as Tobias Smollett and Samuel Johnson, relied largely on original compositions for their livelihood and reputations, while Hazlitt, through his essays and lectures, built his reputation as an essayist-critic.

He made his critical reputation largely by reviewing contemporary drama and by lecturing, often on Elizabethan poetry and drama. Thus, like most literary critics, he had his feet planted in both past and present. He often tried to explain the difference between the contemporary and the Elizabethan, the antipodes of literary creation in Hazlitt’s mind. He admired the work of several Renaissance writers basically for their objectivity. As he wrote of Shakespeare in “On Shakespeare and Milton,” “He was the least of an egotist that it was possible to be.” Or, as the Hazlitt-inspired John Keats was to write later the same year: “the poetical Character . . . is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing.” Hazlitt admired Shakespeare for keeping his self out of his poetry and for his genius in leaving his own consciousness behind in order to enter the consciousness of his characters. It is understandable, therefore, that Hazlitt would find serious flaws in the poetry of his own age. It was for him, generally, unbearably narcissistic. In a review of CHILDE HAROLD’S PILGRIMAGE, he lashes out at the ennui and world-weariness of Byron’s self-contemplative hero. From such a position it is a small step to this assessment of Byron’s famous contemporary: “Mr. Wordsworth, to salve his own self-love, makes the merest toy of his own mind,—the most insignificant object he can meet with,—of as much importance as the universe.” It was the subjectivity or the egotism of the moderns that revolted Hazlitt, as he clearly revealed in his review of THE EXCURSION. Despite his high praise for the poem “in power of intellect, in lofty conception, in the depth of feeling, at once simple and sublime” he finds fault with both the descriptions of nature and the handling of human nature since “an intense intellectual egotism swallows up every thing.” Nevertheless, it would be wrong to conclude tat Hazlitt was unfairly prejudiced...

(The entire section is 1653 words.)