Introduction

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.