William Hazlitt Essay - Critical Essays

Hazlitt, William


William Hazlitt 1778-1830

English essayist, critic, and biographer.

William Hazlitt was one of the leading prose writers of the Romantic period. Influenced by the concise social commentary in Joseph Addison's eighteenth-century magazine, the Spectator, and by the personal tone of the essays of Michel de Montaigne, Hazlitt was one of the most celebrated practitioners of the "familiar" essay. Characterized by conversational diction and personal opinion on topics ranging from English poets to washerwomen, the style of Hazlitt's critical and autobiographical writings has greatly influenced methods of modern writing on aesthetics. His literary criticism, particularly on the Lake poets, has also provided readers with a lens through which to view the work of his Romantic contemporaries.

Biographical Information

Hazlitt was born in Wem, Shropshire, and educated by his father, a Unitarian minister whose radical political convictions influenced the reformist principles that Hazlitt maintained throughout his life. In 1793 Hazlitt entered Hackney Theological College, a Unitarian seminary, where he studied philosophy and rhetoric and began writing the treatise on personal identity titled An Essay on the Principles of Human Action (1805). During this time Hazlitt began to question his Christian faith and, considering himself unsuited to the ministry, withdrew from the College and returned to Wem.

In 1798 Hazlitt was introduced to Samuel Taylor Coleridge whose eloquence and intellect inspired him to develop his own talents for artistic expression. Shortly afterward he followed the example of his older brother, John, and began to pursue a career as a painter. Hazlitt lived in Paris and studied the masterpieces exhibited in the Louvre, particularly portraits painted by such Italian masters as Raphael and Leonardo, whose technique he adopted. Commissioned by Coleridge and William Wordsworth to paint their portraits, Hazlitt spent the summer of 1803 at their homes in the Lake District. His political views and quarrelsome nature, however, offended the poets. Moreover, his moral conduct was suspect,

and his friendship with them ended when he was forced to leave the Lake District in fear of reprisals for his assault on a woman. As a painter, Hazlitt achieved little success. He moved to London in 1804 and began to direct his energies toward writing.

In London Hazlitt became a close friend of Charles and Mary Lamb, at whose weekly social gatherings he became acquainted with literary society. Through the Lambs he also met Sarah Stoddart, whom he married in 1808. During this time Hazlitt wrote philosophical works that were criticized for their dense prose style. In 1811 Hazlitt began working as a journalist; he held the positions of parliamentary correspondent for the Morning Chronicle, drama critic and political essayist for Leigh Hunt's Examiner, and columnist for the Edinburgh Review. The liberal political views expressed in Hazlitt's writing incurred resentment from the editors of and contributors to Tory journals such as Blackwood's Magazine and the Quarterly Review, who attacked Hazlitt's works and his character. In 1818 Hazlitt published a collection of his lectures on English literature and in 1822 John Scott of the London Magazine invited him to contribute essays to a feature entitled "Table-Talk." The reflective pieces he wrote were well received and are now among Hazlitt's most acclaimed works. During this period of success, however, Hazlitt's marriage was failing and he became involved in an unfortunate affair with the daughter of an innkeeper. He chronicled his obsession with this young woman in Liber Amoris; or, the New Pygmalion (1823). After a divorce from his wife, Hazlitt entered into a second unsuccessful marriage with a rich widow. He continued to write until his death in 1830, producing numerous essays, a series of sketches on the leading men of letters of the early nineteenth century entitled The Spirit of the Age (1825), and a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte (1826-30).

Major Works

Hazlitt's most important works are often divided into two categories: literary criticism and familiar essays. Of his literary criticism Hazlitt wrote, "I say what I think: I think what I feel. I cannot help receiving certain impressions from things; and I have sufficient courage to declare (somewhat abruptly) what they are." Representative of his critical style is Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817), which contains subjective, often panegyrical commentary on such individual characters as Macbeth, Othello, and Hamlet. This work introduces Hazlitt's concept of "gusto," a term he used to refer to qualities of passion and energy that he considered necessary to great art. In accord with his impressionistic approach to literature, Hazlitt's concept of gusto also suggests that a passionate and energetic response is the principal criterion for gauging whether or not a work achieves greatness. Hazlitt felt that Shakespeare's sonnets lacked gusto and judged them as passionless and unengaging despite the "desperate cant of modern criticism." Hazlitt was no less opinionated on the works of his contemporaries. In the final section of Lectures on the English Poets (1812) he criticized Coleridge and Wordsworth, whose emphasis on nature and the common aspects of life acknowledged, in his view, "no excellence but that which supports its own pretensions." In addition to literature, Hazlitt also focused on drama and art in his critical essays, many of which are collected in A View of the English Stage (1818) and Sketches of the Principal Picture-Galleries in England (1824).

The many and varied familiar essays that Hazlitt wrote for magazine publication and collected in the volumes of The Round Table, Table-Talk, and The Plain Speaker are usually considered his finest works. Critics differentiate between the essays of The Round Table and those in Table-Talk and The Plain Speaker: the former contain observations on "Literature, Men, and Manners" in a style that tends to imitate the essays of Addison and Montaigne, while the latter focus on Hazlitt's personal experiences in a more original, conversational style. Often beginning with an aphorism, Hazlitt's familiar essays are characterized by informal diction and an emotional tone. This informal style, in Hazlitt's words, "promises a greater variety and richness, and perhaps a greater sincerity, than could be attained by a more precise and scholastic method." Hazlitt described his essays as "experimental" rather than "dogmatical," in that he preferred to use the model of common conversation to discuss ordinary human experiences rather than to write in what he believed was the abstract and artificial style of conventional nonfiction prose. Among other things, Hazlitt's essays express discomfort with his reputation as irascible ("On Good Nature"), attack those who question his abilities as a writer ("The Indian Juggler"), extol the benefits of common sense, which, he felt, comprises "true knowledge" ("On the Ignorance of the Learned"), and otherwise defend his character.

Critical Reception

Hazlitt's critics had a wide range of reactions to the style and content of his familiar writing. Hazlitt's political opinions caused bitter antagonism with Coleridge and Wordsworth, as well as a great majority of his countrymen. Modern critics Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling, however, consider Hazlitt to be "the pre-eminent master in English" in the genre of the familiar essay. In addition, many modern critics note Hazlitt's unique ability to write on a wide range of literary subjects with a depth of taste John Keats considered one of "three things superior in the modern world."

While modern literary historians generally agree on Hazlitt's acumen as a critic and essayist, lively debate has continued since Hazlitt's death on the merit of Liber Amoris, which—for good or ill—has become Hazlitt's most puzzling legacy. An account of Hazlitt's infatuation with Sarah Walker, Liber Amoris has been considered alternatively a pathetic attempt at catharsis, a precursor of Freudian psychoanalytic method, a personal confession, an analysis of the idea of infatuation, a critique of Romanticism, and, according to Gerald Lahey, "a parable of the entire Romantic period trying to come to terms with its flawed visionary conception of reality." Recently the critical treatment of Liber Amoris has become something of a gauge for determining the relevance of Hazlitt's familiar style for contemporary readers: if this, the most personal of Hazlitt's writings, has merit beyond its autobiographical curiosity, the familiar essay may remain an effective genre in the modern period and Hazlitt's position as a forebearer of modern literary practices will be secured.

Principal Works

An Essay on the Principles of Human Action (essay) 1805

A Reply to the "Essay on Population," by the Rev. T. R. Malthus (essay) 1807

Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (criticism) 1817

The Round Table: A Collection of Essays on Literature, Men, and Manners. 2 vols, [with Leigh Hunt] (essays) 1817

Lectures on the English Poets (criticism) 1818

A View of the English Stage (criticism) 1818

Lectures on the English Comic Writers (criticism) 1819

Letter to William Gifford, Esq. (letter) 1819

Political Essays, with Sketches of Public Characters (essays) 1819

Lectures Chiefly on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth (criticism) 1820

Table-Talk. 2 vols, (essays) 1821-22

Characteristics: In the Manner of Rochefoucauld's Maxims (aphorisms) 1823

Liber Amoris; or, the New Pygmalion (dialogues and letters) 1823

Sketches on the Principal Picture-Galleries in England (essays) 1824

The Spirit of the Age (essays) 1825

Notes of a Journey through France and Italy (travel essays) 1826

The Plain Speaker: Opinions on Books, Men, and Things. 2 vols, (essays) 1826

The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte. 4 vols, (biography) 1826-30

Conversations of James Northcote, Esq., R. A. (dialogues) 1830

Literary Remains of the Late William Hazlitt. 2 vols. (essays) 1836

Sketches and Essays (essays) 1839; also published as Men and Manners, 1852

Winterslow: Essays and Characters Written There (essays) 1850

The Complete Works of William Hazlitt. 21 vols, (essays, criticism, letters, dialogues, and biography) 1930-34

The Letters of William Hazlitt (letters) 1978


Robert Ready (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "The Logic of Passion: Hazlitt's Liber Amoris," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1975, pp. 41-57.

[In the following essay, Ready evaluates Liber Amoris as a literary exploration into the nature of the sympathetic imagination.]

No matter what their attitudes toward his involvement with Sarah Walker, most readers of Hazlitt's Liber Amoris; or, The New Pygmalion (1823) have been more concerned with the book as biography than they have with the book as literature.1 Assuming that Hazlitt's only sustained narrative, and one of his longest works, can be viewed critically as well as biographically, I hope to demonstrate...

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Marilyn Butler (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Satire and the Images of Self in the Romantic Period: The Long Tradition of Hazlitt's Liber Amoris," in English Satire and the Satiric Tradition, edited by Claude Rawson, Basil Blackwell, 1984, pp. 209-25.

[In this essay, Butler examines the satirical elements that appear in some Romantic writings, as well as the extent to which Liber Amoris can be considered a satiric commentary on contemporary doctrines of the imagination.]

Satire is a mode with which we do not as a rule associate the Romantic period. Among the trees of the literary forest a few scrubs can still be picked out: minor satirical verse like Mathias's Pursuits of Literature,...

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Harold Bloom (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Introduction to William Hazlitt, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, pp. 1-13.

[In the following introduction to a collection of critical essays on Hazlitt, Bloom contends that Hazlitt 's "poetics of power" chronicles the difficult relationship between imagination and experience, oneself and others.]


David Bromwich, Hazlitt's best critic, shrewdly says of Hazlitt's key word gusto that it "accords nicely with the belief that taste adds to our nature instead of correcting it." I take it that Hazlitt's gusto is an aesthetic displacement of the Dissenting Protestant version of grace, which corrects our...

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Nancy Enright (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "William Hazlitt and His 'Familiar Style'," in Essays on the Essay: Redefining the Genre, edited by Alexander J. Butrym, University of Georgia Press, 1989, pp. 116-25.

[In the essay that follows, Enright discusses the careful balance between stiff overformality and amateurish lack of style that characterizes the ideal of Hazlitt's "Familiar Style."]

Coming forward and seating himself on the ground in his white dress and tightened turban, the chief of the Indian Jugglers begins with tossing up two brass balls, which is what any of us could do, and concludes with keeping up four at the same time, which is what none of us could do to save our...

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James Mulvihill (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "The Anatomy of Idolatry: Hazlitt's Liber Amoris," in The Charles Lamb Bulletin, n.s. No. 70, April, 1990, pp. 195-203.

[In the following essay, Mulvihill attempts to reevaluate Liber Amoris, which he contends is not an unseemly self-exposure, but an analysis of the feeling of infatuation itself.]

It has been said that we know too much about the Romantics. Certainly, we know too much about the author of Liber Amoris; or, The New Pygmalion (1823), for, preoccupied with the autobiographical origins of this, William Hazlitt's only work of fiction, readers have largely misread the book itself. In this strange, obsessive little work Hazlitt...

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James Mulvihill (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Hazlitt and 'First Principles'," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 241-55.

[In this essay, Mulvihill contends that Hazlitt's method of inferring character is not impressionistic, as has been claimed, but empiricist, using seemingly insignificant traits to discover the general principles of character.]

As Recently As 1981, Marilyn Butler termed William Hazlitt's writings "impressionistic and personal."' Thus to at least one eminent student of romanticism a response to Hazlitt premised on his apparently "idiosyncratic critical posture" (Butler 173) remains adequate even after decades of scholarship arguing the contrary. Such a view...

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John L. Mahoney (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "William Hazlitt: The Essay as Vehicle for the Romantic Critic," in The Charles Lamb Bulletin, n.s. No. 75, July, 1991, pp. 92-98.

[In the following essay, Mahoney contends that Hazlitt's essay represents a move away from the formal treatise—and toward a more familiar style of writing about aesthetics that would become popular in the nineteenth century.]

Genre is, of course, an old critical issue. As M. H. Abrams and others remind us, it is apparent in the ancient classical tendency to divide literature into epic-narrative, poetic-lyric, and dramatic, and it persists with varying degrees of emphasis throughout the history of literary theory.1 From...

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Joseph Epstein (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Hazlitt's Passions," in The New Criterion, Vol. 10, No. 3, November, 1991, pp. 33-44.

[In the following essay, Epstein places Hazlitt's writings within the context of his business and personal life.]

In The Birth of the Modern, his panoramic history of world society between 1815 and 1830, Paul Johnson refers to William Hazlitt as "a truly great writer, perhaps the first truly modern writer in England." Johnson, working an extremely crowded canvas, never gets around to saying just why he thinks Hazlitt is perhaps the first truly modern writer in England. Yet his is an assertion that gains immediate assent; it feels, somehow, right. Among Hazlitt's...

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Edward W. Bratton (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "William Hazlitt's Curious Concept of Taste," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 57, No. 2, May, 1992, pp. 1-9.

[In the essay that follows, originally published in 1991, Bratton explores some examples of Hazlitt's judgments of taste in an effort to determine the paradoxes of his overarching theory and its relevance to the twentieth century.]

John Keats praised William Hazlitt's "depth of taste" as one of "three things superior in the modern world" (Letters 1: 204-05)—even when that taste was negatively employed. "Hazlitt," Keats wrote, "is your only good damner, and if ever I am damn'd—(damn me if) I shoul'nt like him to damn me" (Letters 1: 252)....

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Raymond Martin and John Barresi (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Hazlitt on the Future of the Self," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 56, No. 3, July, 1995, pp. 463-81.

[In the following essay, Martin and Barresi examine Hazlitt's theories of personal identity, focusing particularly on how they relate to modern philosophies.]

There are moments in the life of a solitary thinker which are to him what the evening of some great victory is to the conqueror and hero … milder triumphs long remembered with truer and deeper delight. And though the shouts of multitudes do not hail his success … [yet] as time passes … [such moments] still awaken the consciousness of a spirit patient, indefatigable in...

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Jonathan Gross (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Hazlitt's Worshiping Practice in Liber Amoris" in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 35, No. 4, Autumn, 1995, pp. 707-21.

[In the following essay, Gross argues that Liber Amoris "reveals the growth of [Hazlitt's] fetishistic imagination," which both fueled his creative sensibilities and helped refine his theory of religious practice.]

[A]nd I will make a Goddess of her, and build a temple to her in my heart, and worship her on indestructible altars, and raise statues to her: and my homage shall be unblemished as her unrivalled symmetry of form.

Liber Amoris (9:133)


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Laurie Kane Lew (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: "Collection and Recollection: William Hazlitt and the Poetics of Memory," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 36, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 349-89.

[In the following essay, Lew discusses Hazlitt's essays as a series of portraits from which Lew determines his theory of memory and his understanding of artistic appreciation.]

"For my part," Hazlitt wrote in 1827, "I set out in life with the French Revolution, and that event had considerable influence on my early feelings, as on those of others."1 Mourning the loss, not just of his own, but of the universal possibilities for "Life" and "Liberty," which were entailed in the failure of the French Revolution,...

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Further Reading


Baker, Herschel. William Hazlitt. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962, 530 p.

Critical biography that places Hazlitt "in his literary, political, and philosophical milieu," and traces "the development and expression of his main ideas, relating them to the facts of his career."

Howe, P. P. The Life of William Hazlitt. London: Martin Seeker, 1928, 484 p.

Sympathetic biography that quotes extensively from Hazlitt's writings and letters.

Jones, Stanley. Hazlitt: A Life from Winterslow to Frith Street. Oxford:...

(The entire section is 993 words.)