Birthplace: Maidstone, Kent, England
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, St. Anne Churchyard, Soho, London, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Essayist, Critic
Executive summary: English literary critic, essayist
British literary critic and essayist, born on the 10th of April 1778 at Maidstone, where his father, William Hazlitt, was minister of a Unitarian congregation. The father took the side of the Americans in their struggle with the mother country, and during a residence at Bandon, Co. Cork, interested himself in the welfare of some American prisoners at Kinsale. In 1783 he migrated with his family to America, but in the winter of 1786-87 returned to England, and settled at Wem in Shropshire, where he ministered to a small congregation. There his son William went to school, until in 1793 he was sent to the Hackney theological college in the hope that he would become a dissenting minister. For this career, however, he had no inclination, and returned, probably in 1794, to Wem, where he led a desultory life until 1802, and then decided to become a portrait painter. His elder brother John was already established as a miniature painter in London. The monotony of life at Wem was broken in January 1798 by the visit of Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Shrewsbury, where young Hazlitt went to hear him preach. Coleridge encouraged William Hazlitt's interest in metaphysics, and in the spring of the next year Hazlitt visited Coleridge at Nether Stowey and made the acquaintance of William Wordsworth. The circumstances of this early intercourse with Coleridge are related with inimitable skill in a paper in Hazlitt's Literary Remains (1839). On visits to his brother in London he made many acquaintances, the most important being a friendship with Charles Lamb, said to have been founded on a remark of Lamb's interpolated in a discussion between Coleridge, Godwin and Holcroft, "Give me man as he is not to be." He also formed an acquaintance with John Stoddart, whose sister Sarah he married in 1808. In October 1802 he went to Paris to copy portraits in the Louvre, and spent four happy months in Paris. When he returned to London he undertook commissions for portraits. but soon found he was not likely to excel in his art; his last portrait, one of Charles Lamb as a Venetian senator (now in the National Portrait Gallery), was executed in 1805. In that year he published his first book, An Essay on the Principles of human Action: being an argument in favor of the Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind, which had occupied him at intervals for six or seven years. It attracted little attention, but remained a favorite with its author. Other works belonging to this period are: Free Thoughts on Public Affairs (1806); An Abridgment of the Light of Nature Revealed, by Abraham Tucker... (1807); The Eloquence of the British Senate... (2 vols., 1807); A Reply to Maithus, on his Essay on Population (1807); A New and Improved Grammar of the English Tongue... (1810).
Hazlitt married in 1808. His domestic life was unhappy. His wife was an unromantic, business-like woman, while he himself was fitful and moody, and impatient of restraint. The dissolution of the ill-assorted union was nevertheless deferred for fourteen years, during which much of Hazlitt's best literary work had been produced. Mrs. Hazlitt had inherited a small estate at Winterslow near Salisbury, and here the Hazlitts lived until 1812, when they removed to 19 York Street, Westminster, a house that was once John Milton's. Hazlitt delivered in 1812 a course of lectures at the Russell Institution on the Rise and Progress of Modern Philosophy. He soon abandoned philosophy, however, to give his whole attention to journalism. He was parliamentary reporter and subsequently dramatic critic for the Morning Chronicle; he also contributed to the Champion and The Times; but his closest connection was with the Examiner, owned by John and Leigh Hunt. In conjunction with Leigh Hunt he undertook the series of articles called The Round Table, a collection of essays on literature, men and manners which were originally contributed to the Examiner. To this time belong his View of the English Stage (1818), and Lectures on the English Poets (1818), on the English Comic Writers (1819), and on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth (1821). By these works, together with his Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817), and his Table Talk; or Original Essays on Men and Manners (1821-22), his reputation as a critic and essayist was established. Next to Coleridge, Hazlitt was perhaps the most powerful exponent of the dawning perception that Shakespeare's art was no less marvellous than his genius; and Hazlitt's criticism did not, like Coleridge's, remain in the condition of a series of brilliant but fitful glimpses of insight, but was elaborated with steady care. His lectures on the Elizabethan dramatists performed a similar service for the earlier, sweeter and simpler among them, such as Thomas Dekker, until then unduly eclipsed by later writers like Philip Massinger, better playwrights but worse poets. Treating of the contemporary drama, he successfully vindicated for Edmund Kean, whose genius he recognized from the first, the high place which he has retained as an actor, and his enthusiasm for Sarah Siddons knew no bounds. His criticisms on the English comic writers and men of letters in general are masterpieces of ingenious and felicitous exposition, though rarely, like Coleridge's, penetrating to the inmost core of the subject. Moreover, at the time when the lectures were written, Hazlitt's views, orthodox as they may seem now, were novel enough.
As an essayist Hazlitt is even more effective than as a critic. Being enabled to select his own subjects, he escapes dependence upon others either for his matter or his illustrations, and presents himself by turns as a metaphysician, a moralist, a humorist, a painter of manners and characteristics, but always, whatever his ostensible theme, deriving the essence of his commentary from himself. This combination of intense subjectivity with strict adherence to his subject is one of Hazlitt's most distinctive and creditable traits. Intellectual truthfulness is a passion with him. He steeps his topic in the hues of his own individuality, but never uses it as a means of self-display. The first reception of his admirable essays was by no means in accordance with their deserts. Hazlitt's political sympathies and antipathies were vehement, and he had taken the unfashionable side. The Quarterly Review attacked him with deliberate malignity, stopped the sale of his writings for a time and blighted his credit with publishers. Hazlitt retaliated by his Letter to William Gifford (1819), accusing the editor of deliberate misrepresentation. In downright abuse and hard-hitting, Hazlitt proved himself more than a match even for Gifford. By the writers in Blackwood's Magazine Hazlitt was also scurrilously treated. He had become estranged from his early friends, the Lake poets, by what he uncharitably but not unnaturally regarded as their political apostasy; and he had no scruples about recording his often very unfavorabie opinions of his contemporaries. He displayed, moreover, an exasperating facility in grounding his criticisms on facts that his victims were unable to deny. His inequalities of temper separated him for a time even from Leigh Hunt and Charles Lamb, and on the whole the period of his most brilliant literary success was that when he was most soured and broken. Domestic troubles supervened; he had gone to live in Southampton Buildings in September 1819, and his marriage, long little more than nominal, was dissolved in consequence of the infatuated passion he had conceived for his landlord's daughter, Sarah Walker, a most ordinary person in the eyes of everyone else. It is impossible to regard Hazlitt as a responsible agent while he continued subject to this influence. His own record of the transaction, published by himself under the title of Liber Amoris, or the New Pygmalion (1823), is an unpleasant but remarkable psychological document. It consists of conversations between Hazlitt and Sarah Walker, drawn up in the spring of 1822, of a correspondence between Hazlitt and his friend P. G. Patmore between March and July, and an account of the rupture of his relations with Sarah. The business-like dissolution of his marriage under the law of Scotland is related with amazing naiveté by the family biographer. Rid of his wife and cured of his mistress, he shortly afterwards astonished his friends by marrying a widow. "All I know", says his grandson, "is that Mrs. Bridgewater became Mrs Hazlitt." They travelled on the continent for a year and then parted finally. Hazlitt's study of the Italian masters during this tour, described in a series of letters contributed to the Morning Chronicle, had a deep effect upon him, and perhaps conduced to that intimacy with the cynical old painter Northcote which, shortly after his return, engendered a curious but eminently readable volume of The Conversations of James Northcote, R.A. (1830). The respective shares of author and artist are not always easy to determine. During the recent agitations of his life he had been writing essays, collected in 1826 under the title of The Plain Speaker: opinions on Books, Men and Things (1826). The Spirit of the Age; or Contemporary Portraits (1825), a series of criticisms on the leading intellectual characters of the day, is in point of style perhaps the most splendid and copious of his compositions. It is eager and animated to impetuosity, though without any trace of carelessness or disorder. He now undertook a work which was to have crowned his literary reputation, but which can hardly be said to have even enhanced it -- The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte (4 vols., 1828-30). The undertaking was at best premature, and was inevitably disfigured by partiality to Napoleon as the representative of the popular cause, excusable in a Liberal politician writing in the days of the Holy Alliance. Owing to the failure of his publishers Hazlitt received no recompense for this laborious work. Pecuniary anxieties and disappointments may have contributed to hasten his death, which took place on the 18th of September 1830. Charles Lamb was with him to the last.
Hazlitt had many serious defects of temper. His consistency was gained at the expense of refusing to revise his early impressions and prejudices. His estimate of a man's work was too apt to be decided by sympathy or the reverse with his politics. For Sir Walter Scott, however, he had a great admiration, although they were far enough apart in politics. He was a compound of intellect and passion, and the refinement of his critical analysis is associated with vehement eloquence and glowing imagery. He was essentially a critic, a dissector and, as Bulwer justly remarks, a much better judge of men of thought than of men of action. The paradoxes with which his works abound never spring from affectation; they are in general the sallies of a mind so agile and ardent as to overrun its own goal. His style is perfectly natural, and yet admirably calculated for effect. His diction, always rich and masculine, seems to kindle as he proceeds; and when thoroughly animated by his subject, he advances with a succession of energetic, hard-hitting sentences, each carrying his argument a step further, like a champion dealing out blows as he presses upon the enemy. Although, however, his grasp upon his subject is strenuous, his insight into it is rarely profound. He can amply satisfy men of taste and culture; he cannot, like Coleridge or Edmund Burke, dissatisfy them with themselves by showing them how much they would have missed without him. He is a critic who exhibits, rather than reveals, the beauties of an author. But all shortcomings are forgotten in the genuineness and fervor of the writer's self-portraiture. The intensity of his personal convictions causes all he wrote to appear in a manner autobiographic. Other men have been said to speak like books; Hazlitt's books speak like men. To read his works in connection with Leigh Hunt's and Charles Lamb's is to be introduced into one of the most attractive of English literary circles, and this alone will long preserve them from oblivion.
The list of the first Hazlitt's works also includes: Political Essays, with Sketches of Public Characters (1819); Sketches of the Principal Picture Galleries in England... (1824); Characteristics; in the Manner of Rochefoucauld's Maxims (1823); Select Poets of Great Britain: to which are prefixed Critical Notices of each Author (1825); Notes of a Journey through France and Italy... (1826); The Life of Titian; with Anecdotes of the Distinguished Persons of his Time (1830), nominally by James Northcote; an article on the "Fine Arts" contributed to the seventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica; and posthumous collections made by his son.
Father: William Hazlitt (Unitarian minister)
Girlfriend: Sarah Walker (together c. 1823)
Wife: Isabella Bridgewater (widow, m. 1824)
Author of books:
An Essay on the Principles of Human Action (1805)
The Round Table (1817, essays)
Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817)
Lectures on the English Poets (1818)
English Comic Writers (1819, lectures)
Political Essays (1820)
The Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth (1820, lectures)
Liber Amoris (1823)
Notes of a Journey Through France and Italy (1825)
Life of Napoleon (1826)
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