Read CHAPTER V - HAZLITT of Essays in English Literature‚ 1780-1860 , free online book, by George Saintsbury, on

The following paper was in great part composed, when I came across some sentences on Hazlitt, written indeed before I was born, but practically unpublished until the other day.  In a review of the late Mr. Horne’s New Spirit of the Age, contributed to the Morning Chronicle in 1845 and but recently included in his collected works, Thackeray writes thus of the author of the book whose title Horne had rather rashly borrowed: 

The author of the Spirit of the Age was one of the keenest and brightest critics that ever lived.  With partialities and prejudices innumerable, he had a wit so keen, a sensibility so exquisite, an appreciation of humour, or pathos, or even of the greatest art, so lively, quick, and cultivated, that it was always good to know what were the impressions made by books or men or pictures on such a mind; and that, as there were not probably a dozen men in England with powers so varied, all the rest of the world might be rejoiced to listen to the opinions of this accomplished critic.  He was of so different a caste to the people who gave authority in his day ­the pompous big-wigs and schoolmen, who never could pardon him his familiarity of manner so unlike their own ­his popular ­too popular habits ­and sympathies so much beneath their dignity; his loose, disorderly education gathered round those bookstalls or picture galleries where he laboured a penniless student, in lonely journeys over Europe tramped on foot (and not made, after the fashion of the regular critics of the day, by the side of a young nobleman in a postchaise), in every school of knowledge from St. Peter’s at Rome to St. Giles’s in London.  In all his modes of life and thought, he was so different from the established authorities, with their degrees and white neck-cloths, that they hooted the man down with all the power of their lungs, and disdained to hear truth that came from such a ragged philosopher.

Some exceptions, no doubt, must be taken to this enthusiastic, and in the main just, verdict.  Hazlitt himself denied himself wit, yet if this was mock humility, I am inclined to think that he spoke truth unwittingly.  His appreciation of humour was fitful and anything but impartial, while, biographically speaking, the hardships of his apprenticeship are very considerably exaggerated.  It was not, for instance, in a penniless or pedestrian manner that he visited St. Peter’s at Rome; but journeying with comforts of wine, vetturini, and partridges, which his second wife’s income paid for.  But this does not matter much, and, on the whole, the estimate is as just as it is generous.  Perhaps something of its inspiration may be set down to fellow-feeling, both in politics and in the unsuccessful cultivation of the arts of design.  But as high an estimate of Hazlitt is quite compatible with the strongest political dissent from his opinions, and with a total freedom from the charge of wearing the willow for painting.

There is indeed no doubt that Hazlitt is one of the most absolutely unequal writers in English, if not in any, literature, Wilson being perhaps his only compeer.  The term absolute is used with intention and precision.  There may be others who, in different parts of their work, are more unequal than he is; but with him the inequality is pervading, and shows itself in his finest passages, in those where he is most at home, as much as in his hastiest and most uncongenial taskwork.  It could not, indeed, be otherwise, because the inequality itself is due less to an intellectual than to a moral defect.  The clear sunshine of Hazlitt’s admirably acute intellect is always there; but it is constantly obscured by driving clouds of furious prejudice.  Even as the clouds pass, the light may still be seen on distant and scattered parts of the landscape; but wherever their influence extends, there is nothing but thick darkness, gusty wind and drenching rain.  And the two phenomena, the abiding intellectual light, and the fits and squalls of moral darkness, appear to be totally independent of each other, or of any single will or cause of any kind.  It would be perfectly easy, and may perhaps be in place later, to give a brief collection of some of the most absurd and outrageous sayings that any writer, not a mere fool, can be charged with:  of sentences not representing quips and cranks of humour, or judgments temporary and one-sided, though having a certain relative validity, but containing blunders and calumnies so gross and palpable, that the man who set them down might seem to have forfeited all claim to the reputation either of an intelligent or a responsible being.  And yet, side by side with these, are other passages (and fortunately a much greater number) which justify, and more than justify, Hazlitt’s claims to be as Thackeray says, “one of the keenest and brightest critics that ever lived”; as Lamb had said earlier, “one of the wisest and finest spirits breathing.”

The only exception to be taken to the well-known panegyric of Elia is, that it bestows this eulogy on Hazlitt “in his natural and healthy state.”  Unluckily, it would seem, by a concurrence of all testimony, even the most partial, that the unhealthy state was quite as natural as the healthy one.  Lamb himself plaintively wishes that “he would not quarrel with the world at the rate he does”; and De Quincey, in his short, but very interesting, biographical notice of Hazlitt (a notice entirely free from the malignity with which De Quincey has been sometimes charged), declares with quite as much truth as point, that Hazlitt’s guiding principle was, “Whatever is, is wrong.”  He was the very ideal of a literary Ishmael; and after the fullest admission of the almost incredible virulence and unfairness of his foes, it has to be admitted, likewise, that he was quite as ready to quarrel with his friends.  He succeeded, at least once, in forcing a quarrel even upon Lamb.  His relations with Leigh Hunt (who, whatever his faults were, was not unamiable) were constantly strained, and at least once actually broken by his infernal temper.  Nor were his relations with women more fortunate or more creditable than those with men.  That the fault was entirely on his side in the rupture with his first wife is, no doubt, not the case; for Mrs. Hazlitt’s, or Miss Stoddart’s, own friends admit that she was of a peculiar and rather trying disposition.  It is indeed evident that she was the sort of person (most teasing of all others to a man of Hazlitt’s temperament) who would put her head back as he was kissing her, to ask if he would like another cup of tea, or interrupt a declaration to suggest shutting the window.  As for the famous and almost legendary episode of Sarah Walker, the lodging-house keeper’s daughter, and the Liber Amoris, the obvious and irresistible attack of something like erotic madness which it implies absolves Hazlitt partly ­but only partly, for there is a kind of shabbiness about the affair which shuts it out from all reasonable claim to be regarded as a new act of the endless drama of All for Love, or The World Well Lost! Of his second marriage, the only persons who might be expected to give us some information either can or will say next to nothing.  But when a man with such antecedents marries a woman of whom no one has anything bad to say, lives with her for a year, chiefly on her money, and is then quitted by her with the information that she will have nothing more to do with him, it is not, I think, uncharitable to conjecture that most of the fault is his.

It is not, however, only of Hazlitt’s rather imperfectly known life, or of his pretty generally acknowledged character, that I wish to speak here.  His strange mixture of manly common-sense and childish prejudice, the dislike of foreigners which accompanied his Liberalism and his Bonapartism, and other traits, are very much more English than Irish.  But Irish, at least on the father’s side, his family was, and had been for generations.  He was himself the son of a Unitarian minister, was born at Maidstone in 1778, accompanied his parents as a very little boy to America, but passed the greater part of his youth at Wem in Shropshire, where the interview with Coleridge, which decided his fate, took place.  Yet for some time after that, he was mainly occupied with studies, not of literature, but of art.  He had been intended for his father’s profession, but had early taken a disgust to it.  At such schools as he had been able to frequent, he had gained the character of a boy rather insusceptible of ordinary teaching; and his letters (they are rare throughout his life) show him to us as something very like a juvenile prig.  According to his own account, he “thought for at least eight years” without being able to pen a line, or at least a page; and the worst accusation that can truly be brought against him is that, by his own confession, he left off reading when he began to write.  Those who (for their sins or for their good) are condemned to a life of writing for the press know that such an abstinence as this is almost fatal.  Perhaps no man ever did good work in periodical writing, unless he had previously had a more or less prolonged period of reading, with no view to writing.  Certainly no one ever did other than very faulty work if, not having such a store to draw on, when he began writing he left off reading.

The first really important event in Hazlitt’s life, except the visit from Coleridge in 1798, was his own visit to Paris after the Peace of Amiens in 1802 ­a visit authorised and defrayed by certain commissions to copy pictures at the Louvre, which was then, in consequence of French conquests, the picture-gallery of Europe.  The chief of these commissioners was a Mr. Railton, a person of some fortune at Liverpool, and the father of a daughter who, if she was anything like her portrait, had one of the most beautiful faces of modern times.  Miss Railton was one of Hazlitt’s many loves:  it was, perhaps, fortunate for her that the course of the love did not run smooth.  Almost immediately on his return, he made acquaintance with the Lambs, and, as Mr. W. C. Hazlitt, his grandson and biographer, thinks, with Miss Stoddart, his future wife.  Miss Stoddart, there is no doubt, was an elderly coquette, though perfectly “proper.”  Besides the “William” of her early correspondence with Mary Lamb, we hear of three or four other lovers of hers between 1803 and 1808, when she married Hazlitt.  It so happens that one, and only one, letter of his to her has been preserved.  His biographer seems to think it in another sense unique; but it is, in effect, a very typical letter from a literary lover of a rather passionate temperament.  The two were married, in defiance of superstition, on Sunday, the first of May; and certainly the superstition had not the worst of it.

At first, however, no evil results seemed likely.  Miss Stoddart had a certain property settled on her at Winterslow, on the south-eastern border of Salisbury Plain, and for nearly four years the couple seem to have dwelt there (once, at least, entertaining the Lambs), and producing children, of whom only one lived.  It was not till 1812 that they removed to London, and that Hazlitt engaged in writing for the newspapers.  From this time till the end of his life, some eighteen years, he was never at a loss for employment ­a succession of daily and weekly papers, with occasional employment on the Edinburgh Review, providing him, it would seem, with sufficiently abundant opportunities for copy.  The London, the New Monthly (where Campbell’s dislike did him no harm), and other magazines also employed him.  For a time, he seems to have joined “the gallery,” and written ordinary press-work.  During this time, which was very short, and this time only, his friends admit a certain indulgence in drinking, which he gave up completely, but which was used against him with as much pitilessness as indecency in Blackwood; though heaven only knows how the most Tory soul alive could see fitness of things in the accusation of gin-drinking brought against Hazlitt by the whiskey-drinkers of the Noctes.  For the greater part of his literary life he seems to have been almost a total abstainer, indulging only in the very strongest of tea.  He soon gave up miscellaneous press-work, as far as politics went; but his passion for the theatre retained him as a theatrical critic almost to the end of his life.  He gradually drifted into the business really best suited to him, that of essay-writing, and occasionally lecturing on literary and miscellaneous subjects.  During the greatest part of his early London life, he was resident in a famous house, now destroyed, in York Street, Westminster, next door to Bentham and reputed to have once been tenanted by Milton; and he was a constant attendant on Lamb’s Wednesday evenings.  The details of his life, it has been said, are not much known.  The chief of them, besides the breaking out of his lifelong war with Blackwood and the Quarterly, was, perhaps, his unlucky participation in the duel which proved fatal to Scott, the editor of the London.  It is impossible to imagine a more deplorable muddle than this affair.  Scott, after refusing the challenge of Lockhart, with whom he had, according to the customs of those days, a sufficient ground of quarrel, accepted that of Christie, Lockhart’s second, with whom he had no quarrel at all.  Moreover, when his adversary had deliberately spared him in the first fire, he insisted (it is said owing to the stupid conduct of his own second) on another, and was mortally wounded.  Hazlitt, who was more than indirectly concerned in the affair, had a professed objection to duelling, which would have been more creditable to him if he had not been avowedly of a timid temper.  But, most unfortunately, he was said, and believed, to have spurred Scott on to the acceptance of the challenge, nor do his own champions deny it.  The scandal is long bygone, but is, unluckily, a fair sample of the ugly stories which cluster round Hazlitt’s name, and which have hitherto prevented that justice being done to him which his abilities deserve and demand.

This wretched affair occurred in February 1821, and, shortly afterwards, the crowning complications of Hazlitt’s own life, the business of the Liber Amoris and the divorce with his first wife, took place.  The first could only be properly described by an abundance of extracts, for which there is here no room.  Of the second, which, it must be remembered, went on simultaneously with the first, it is sufficient to say that the circumstances are nearly incredible.  It was conducted under the Scotch law with a blessed indifference to collusion:  the direct means taken to effect it were, if report may be trusted, scandalous; and the parties met during the whole time, and placidly wrangled over money matters, with a callousness which is ineffably disgusting.  I have hinted, in reference to Sarah Walker, that the tyranny of “Love unconquered in battle” may be taken by a very charitable person to be a sufficient excuse.  In this other affair there is no such palliation; unless the very charitable person should hold that a wife, who could so forget her own dignity, justified any forgetfulness on the part of her husband; and that a husband, who could haggle and chaffer about the terms on which he should be disgracefully separated from his wife, justified any forgetfulness of dignity on the wife’s part.

Little has to be said about the rest of Hazlitt’s life.  Miss Sarah Walker would have nothing to say to him; and it has been already mentioned that the lady whom he afterwards married, a Mrs. Bridgewater, had enough of him after a year’s experience.  He did not outlive this last shock more than five years; and unfortunately his death was preceded by a complete financial break-down, though he was more industrious during these later years than at any other time, and though he had abundance of well-paid work.  The failure of the publishers, who were to have paid him five hundred pounds for his magnum opus, the partisan and almost valueless Life of Napoleon, had something to do with this, and the dishonesty of an agent is said to have had more, but details are not forthcoming.  He died on the eighteenth of September 1830, saying, “Well, I have had a happy life”; and despite his son’s assertion that, like Goldsmith, he had something on his mind, I believe this to have been not ironical but quite sincere.  He was only fifty-two, so that the infirmities of age had not begun to press on him.  Although, except during the brief duration of his second marriage, he had always lived by his wits, it does not appear that he was ever in any want, or that he had at any time to deny himself his favourite pleasures of wandering about and being idle when he chose.  If he had not been completely happy in his life, he had lived it; if he had not seen the triumph of his opinions, he had been able always to hold to them.  He was one of those men, such as an extreme devotion to literature now and then breeds, who, by the intensity of their enjoyment of quite commonplace delights ­a face passed in the street, a sunset, a quiet hour of reflection, even a well-cooked meal ­make up for the suffering of not wholly commonplace woes.  I do not know whether even the joy of literary battle did not overweigh the pain of the dishonest wounds which he received from illiberal adversaries.  I think that he had a happy life, and I am glad that he had.  For he was in literature a great man.  I am myself disposed to hold that, for all his accesses of hopelessly uncritical prejudice, he was the greatest critic that England has yet produced; and there are some who hold (though I do not agree with them) that he was even greater as a miscellaneous essayist than as a critic.  It is certainly upon his essays, critical and other, that his fame must rest; not on the frenzied outpourings of the Liber Amoris (full as these are of flashes of genius), or upon the one-sided and ill-planned Life of Napoleon; still less on his clever-boy essay on the Principles of Human Action, or on his attempts in grammar, in literary compilation and abridgment, and the like.  Seven volumes of Bonn’s Standard Library, with another published elsewhere containing his writings on Art, contain nearly all the documents of Hazlitt’s fame:  a few do not seem to have been yet collected from his Remains and from the publications in which they originally appeared.

These books ­the Spirit of the Age, Table Talk, The Plain Speaker, The Round Table (including the Conversations with Northcote and Characteristics), Lectures on the English Poets and Comic Writers, Elizabethan Literature and Characters of Shakespeare, Sketches and Essays (including Winterslow) ­represent the work, roughly speaking, of the last twenty years of Hazlitt’s life; for in the earlier and longer period he wrote very little, and, indeed, declares that for a long time he had a difficulty in writing at all.  They are all singularly homogeneous in general character, the lectures written as lectures differing very little from the essays written as essays, and even the frantic diatribes of the “Letter to Gifford” bearing a strong family likeness to the good-humoured reportage of “On going to a Fight,” or the singularly picturesque and pathetic egotism of the “Farewell to Essay-writing.”  This family resemblance is the more curious because, independently of the diversity of subject, Hazlitt can hardly be said to possess a style or, at least, a manner ­indeed, he somewhere or other distinctly disclaims the possession.  Yet, irregular as he is in his fashion of writing, no less than in the merit of it, the germs of some of the most famous styles of this century may be discovered in his casual and haphazard work.  Everybody knows Jeffrey’s question to Macaulay, “Where the devil did you get that style?” If any one will read Hazlitt (who, be it remembered, was a contributor to the Edinburgh) carefully, he will see where Macaulay got that style, or at least the beginning of it, much as he improved on it afterwards.  Nor is there any doubt that, in a very different way, Hazlitt served as a model to Thackeray, to Dickens, and to many not merely of the most popular, but of the greatest, writers of the middle of the century.  Indeed, in the Spirit of the Age there are distinct anticipations of Carlyle.  He had the not uncommon fate of producing work which, little noted by the public, struck very strongly those of his juniors who had any literary faculty.  If he had been, just by a little, a greater man than he was, he would, no doubt, have elaborated an individual manner, and not have contented himself with the hints and germs of manners.  As it was, he had more of seed than of fruit.  And the secret of this is, undoubtedly, to be found in the obstinate individuality of thought which characterised him all through.  Hazlitt may sometimes have adopted an opinion partly because other people did not hold it, but he never adopted an opinion because other people did hold it.  And all his opinions, even those which seem to have been adopted simply to quarrel with the world, were genuine opinions.  He has himself drawn a striking contrast in this point, between himself and Lamb, in one of the very best of all his essays, the beautiful “Farewell to Essay-writing” reprinted in Winterslow.  The contrast is a remarkable one, and most men, probably, who take great interest in literature or politics, or indeed in any subject admitting of principles, will be able to furnish similar contrasts from their own experience.

In matters of taste and feeling, one proof that my conclusions have not been quite shallow and hasty, is the circumstance of their having been lasting.  I have the same favourite books, pictures, passages that I ever had; I may therefore presume that they will last me my life ­nay, I may indulge a hope that my thoughts will survive me.  This continuity of impression is the only thing on which I pride myself.  Even Lamb, whose relish of certain things is as keen and earnest as possible, takes a surfeit of admiration, and I should be afraid to ask about his select authors or particular friends after a lapse of ten years.  As for myself, any one knows where to have me.  What I have once made up my mind to, I abide by to the end of the chapter.

This is quite true if we add a proviso to it ­a proviso, to be sure, of no small importance.  Hazlitt is always the same when he is not different, when his political or personal ails and angers do not obscure his critical judgment.  His uniformity of principle extends only to the two subjects of literature and of art; unless a third may be added, to wit, the various good things of this life, as they are commonly called.  He was not so great a metaphysician as he thought himself.  He “shows to the utmost of his knowledge, and that not deep”; a want of depth not surprising when we find him confessing that he had to go to Taylor, the Platonist, to tell him something of Platonic ideas.  It may be more than suspected that he had read little but the French and English philosophers of the eighteenth century; a very interesting class of persons, but, except Condillac, Hume, and Berkeley, scarcely metaphysicians.  As for his politics, Hazlitt seems to me to have had no clear political creed at all.  He hated something called “the hag legitimacy,” but for the hag despotism, in the person of Bonaparte, he had nothing but love.  How any one possessed of brains could combine Liberty and the first Napoleon in one common worship is, I confess, a mystery too great for me; and I fear that any one who could call “Jupiter Scapin” “the greatest man who ever lived,” must be entirely blind to such constituents of greatness as justice, mercy, chivalry, and all that makes a gentleman.  Indeed, I am afraid that “gentleman” is exactly what cannot be predicated of Hazlitt.  No gentleman could have published the Liber Amoris, not at all because of its so-called voluptuousness, but because of its shameless kissing and telling.  But the most curious example of Hazlitt’s weaknesses is the language he uses in regard to those men with whom he had both political and literary differences.  That he had provocation in some cases (he had absolutely none from Sir Walter Scott) is perfectly true.  But what provocation will excuse such things as the following, all taken from one book, the Spirit of the Age?  He speaks of Scott’s “zeal to restore the spirit of loyalty, of passive obedience, and of non-resistance,” as an acknowledgment for his having been “created a baronet by a prince of the House of Brunswick.”  Alas for dates and circumstances, for times and seasons, when they stand in the way of a fling of Hazlitt’s!  In the character of Scott himself an entire page and a half is devoted to an elaborate peroration in one huge sentence, denouncing him in such terms as “pettifogging,” “littleness,” “pique,” “secret and envenomed blows,” “slime of rankling malice and mercenary scorn,” “trammels of servility,” “lies,” “garbage,” etc. etc.  The Duke of Wellington he always speaks of as a brainless noodle, forgetting apparently that the description does not make his idol’s defeat more creditable to the vanquished.  As for the character of Gifford, and the earlier “Letter to Gifford,” I should have to print them entire to show the state of Hazlitt’s mind in regard to this notorious, and certainly not very amiable person.  His own words, “the dotage of age and the fury of a woman,” form the best short description of both.  He screams, he foams at the mouth, he gnashes and tears and kicks, rather than fights.  Nor is it only on living authors and living persons (as some of his unfavourable critics have said) that he exercises his spleen.  His remarks on Burke (Round Table, suggest temporary insanity.  Sir Philip Sidney (as Lamb, a perfectly impartial person who had no politics at all, pointed out) was a kind of representative of the courtly monarchist school in literature.  So down must Sir Philip go; and not only the Arcadia, that “vain and amatorious poem” which Milton condemned, but the sonnets which one would have thought such a lover of poetry as Hazlitt must have spared, go down also before his remorseless bludgeon.

But there is no need to say any more of these faults of his, and there is no need to say much of another and more purely literary fault with which he has been charged ­the fault of excessive quotation.  In him the error lies rather in the constant repetition of the same, than in a too great multitude of different borrowings.  Almost priding himself on limited study, and (as he tells us) very rarely reading his own work after it was printed, he has certainly abused his right of press most damnably in some cases.  “Dry as a remainder biscuit,” and “of no mark or likelihood,” occur to me as the most constantly recurrent tags; but there are many others.

These various drawbacks, however, only set off the merits which almost every lover of literature must perceive in him.  In most writers, in all save the very greatest, we look for one or two, or for a few special faculties and capacities, and we know perfectly well that other (generally many other) capacities and faculties will not be found in them at all.  We do not dream of finding rollicking mirth in Milton, or gorgeous embroidery of style in Swift, or unadorned simplicity in Browne.  But in Hazlitt you may find something of almost everything, except the finer kinds of wit and humour; to which last, however, he makes a certain side-approach by dint of his appreciation of the irony of Nature and Fate.  Almost every other grace of matter and form that can be found in prose may be found at times in his.  He is generally thought of as, and for the most part is, a rather plain and straightforward writer, with few tricks and frounces of phrase and style.  Yet most of the fine writing of these latter days is but as crumpled tarlatan to brocaded satin beside the passage on Coleridge in the English Poets, or the description of Winterslow and its neighbourhood in the “Farewell to Essay-writing,” or “On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin” in the Table-Talk.  Read these pieces and nothing else, and an excusable impression might be given that the writer was nothing if not florid.  But turn over a dozen pages, and the most admirable examples of the grave and simple manner occur.  He is an inveterate quoter, yet few men are more original.  No man is his superior in lively, gossiping description, yet he could, within his limits, reason closely and expound admirably.  It is, indeed, almost always necessary, when he condemns anything, to inquire very carefully as to the reasons of the condemnation.  But nothing that he likes (except Napoleon) is ever bad:  everything that he praises will repay the right man who, at the right time, examines it to see for what Hazlitt likes it.  I have, for my part, no doubt that Miss Sarah Walker was a very engaging young woman; but (though the witness is the same) I have the gravest doubts as to Hazlitt’s charges against her.

We shall find this same curious difference everywhere in Hazlitt.  He has been talking, for instance, with keen relish of the “Conversation of Authors” (it is he, be it remembered, who has handed down to us the immortal debate at one of Lamb’s Wednesdays on “People one would Like to have Seen"), and saying excellent things about it.  Then he changes the key, and tells us that the conversation of “Gentlemen and Men of Fashion” will not do.  Perhaps not; but the wicked critic stops and asks himself whether Hazlitt had known much of the conversation of “Gentlemen and Men of Fashion”?  We can find no record of any such experiences of his.  In his youth he had no opportunity:  in his middle age he was notoriously recalcitrant to all the usages of society, would not dress, and scarcely ever dined out except with a few cronies.  This does not seem to be the best qualification for a pronouncement on the question.  Yet this same essay is full of admirable things, the most admirable being, perhaps, the description of the man who “had you at an advantage by never understanding you.”  I find, indeed, in looking through my copies of his books, re-read for the purpose of this paper, an innumerable and bewildering multitude of essays, of passages, and of short phrases, marked for reference.  In the seven volumes above referred to (to which, as has been said, not a little has to be added) there must be hundreds of separate articles and conversations; not counting as separate the short maxims and thoughts of the Characteristics, and one or two other similar collections, in which, indeed, several passages are duplicated from the Essays.  At least two out of every three are characteristic of Hazlitt:  not one in any twenty is not well worth reading and, if occasion served, commenting on.  They are, indeed, as far from being consecutive as (according to the Yankee) was the conversation of Edgar Poe; and the multitude and diversity of their subjects fit them better for occasional than for continuous reading. Perhaps, if any single volume deserves to be recommended to a beginner in Hazlitt it had better be The Plain Speaker, where there is the greatest range of subject, and where the author is seen in an almost complete repertory of his numerous parts.  But there is not much to choose between it and The Round Table (where, however, the papers are shorter as a rule), Table-Talk, and the volume called, though not by the author, Sketches and Essays.  I myself care considerably less for the Conversations with Northcote, the personal element in which has often attracted readers; and the attempts referred to above as Characteristics, avowedly in the manner of La Rochefoucauld, are sometimes merely extracts from the essays, and rarely have the self-containedness, the exact and chiselled proportion, which distinguishes the true pensee as La Rochefoucauld and some other Frenchmen, and as Hobbes perhaps alone of Englishmen, wrote it.  But to criticise these numerous papers is like sifting a cluster of motes, and the mere enumeration of their titles would fill up more than half the room which I have to spare.  They must be criticised or characterised in two groups only, the strictly critical and the miscellaneous, the latter excluding politics.  As for art, I do not pretend to be more than a connoisseur according to Blake’s definition, that is to say, one who refuses to let himself be connoisseured out of his senses.  I shall only, in reference to this last subject, observe that the singularly germinal character of Hazlitt’s work is noticeable here also; for no one who reads the essay on Nicolas Poussin will fail to add Mr. Ruskin to Hazlitt’s fair herd of literary children.

His criticism is scattered through all the volumes of general essays; but is found by itself in the series of lectures, or essays (they are rather the latter than the former), on the characters of Shakespeare, on Elizabethan Literature, on the English Poets, and on the English Comic Writers.  I cannot myself help thinking that in these four Hazlitt is at his best; though there may be nothing so attractive to the general, and few such brilliant passages as may be found in the “Farewell to Essay-writing,” in the paper on Poussin, in “Going to a Fight,” in “Going a Journey,” and others of the same class.  The reason of the preference is by no means a greater interest in the subject of one class, than in the subject of another.  It is that, from the very nature of the case, Hazlitt’s unlucky prejudices interfere much more seldom with his literary work.  They interfere sometimes, as in the case of Sidney, as in some remarks about Coleridge and Wordsworth, and elsewhere; but these instances are rare indeed compared with those that occur in the other division.  On the other hand, there are always present Hazlitt’s enthusiastic appreciation of what is good in letters, his combination of gusto with sound theory as to what is excellent in prose and verse, his felicitous method of expression, and the acuteness that kept him from that excessive and paradoxical admiration which both Lamb and Coleridge affected, and which has gained many more pupils than his own moderation.  Nothing better has ever been written as a general view of the subject than his introduction to his Lectures on Elizabethan Literature; and almost all the faults to be found in it are due merely to occasional deficiency of information, not to error of judgment.  He is a little paradoxical on Jonson; but not many critics could furnish a happier contrast than his enthusiastic praise of certain passages of Beaumont and Fletcher, and his cool toning down of Lamb’s extravagant eulogy on Ford.  He is a little unfair to the Caroline poets; but here the great disturbing influence comes in.  If his comparison of ancient and modern literature is rather weak, that is because Hazlitt was anything but widely acquainted with either; and, indeed, it may be said in general that wherever he goes wrong, it is not because he judges wrongly on known facts, but because he either does not know the facts, or is prevented from seeing them by distractions of prejudice.  To go through his Characters of Shakespeare would be impossible, and besides, it is a point of honour for one student of Shakespeare to differ with all others.  I can only say that I know no critic with whom on this point I differ so seldom as with Hazlitt.  Even better, perhaps, are the two sets of lectures on the Poets and Comic Writers.  The generalisations are not always sound, for, as must be constantly repeated, Hazlitt was not widely read in literatures other than his own, and his standpoint for comparison is therefore rather insufficient.  But take him where his information is sufficient, and how good he is!  Of the famous four treatments of the dramatists of the Restoration ­Lamb’s, Hazlitt’s, Leigh Hunt’s, and Macaulay’s ­his seems to me by far the best.  In regard to Butler, his critical sense has for once triumphed over his political prejudice; unless some very unkind devil’s advocate should suggest that the supposed ingratitude of the King to Butler reconciled Hazlitt to him.  He is admirable on Burns; and nothing can be more unjust or sillier than to pretend, as has been pretended, that Burns’s loose morality engaged Hazlitt on his side.  De Quincey was often a very acute critic, but anything more uncritical than his attack on Hazlitt’s comparison of Burns and Wordsworth in relation to passion, it would be difficult to find.  Hazlitt “could forgive Swift for being a Tory,” he tells us ­which is at any rate more than some other people, who have a better reputation for impartiality than his, seem to have been able to do.  No one has written better than he on Pope, who still seems to have the faculty of distorting some critical judgments.  His chapter on the English novelists (that is to say, those of the last century) is perhaps the best thing ever written on the subject; and is particularly valuable nowadays when there is a certain tendency to undervalue Smollett in order to exalt Fielding, who certainly needs no such illegitimate and uncritical leverage.  I do not think that he is, on the whole, unjust to Campbell; though his Gallican, or rather Napoleonic mania made him commit the literary crime of slighting “The Battle of the Baltic.”  But in all his criticism of English literature (and he has attempted little else, except by way of digression) he is, for the critic, a study never to be wearied of, always to be profited by.  His very aberrations are often more instructive than other men’s right-goings; and if he sometimes fails to detect or acknowledge a beauty, he never praises a defect.

It is less easy to sum up the merits of the miscellaneous pieces, for the very obvious reason that they can hardly be brought under any general form or illustrated by any small number of typical instances.  Perhaps the best way of “sampling” this undisciplined multitude is to select a few papers by name, so as to show the variety of Hazlitt’s interests.  The one already mentioned, “On Going to a Fight,” which shocked some proprieties even in its own day, ranks almost first; but the reader should take care to accompany it with the official record of that celebrated contest between Neate and the Gasman.  All fights are good reading; but this particular effort of Hazlitt’s makes one sigh for a Boxiana or Pugilistica edited by him.  Next, I think, must be ranked “On Going a Journey,” with its fine appreciation of solitary travelling which does not exclude reminiscences of pleasant journeys in company.  But these two, with the article on Poussin and the “Farewell to Essay-writing,” have been so often mentioned that it may seem as if Hazlitt’s store were otherwise poor.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  The “Character of Cobbett” is the best thing the writer ever did of the kind, and the best thing known to me on Cobbett.  “Of the Past and the Future” is perhaps the height of the popular metaphysical style ­the style from which, as was noted, Hazlitt may never have got free as far as philosophising is concerned, but of which he is a master.  “On the Indian Jugglers” is a capital example of what may be called improving a text; and it contains some of the most interesting and genial examples of Hazlitt’s honest delight in games such as rackets and fives, a delight which (heaven help his critics) was frequently regarded at the time as “low.”  “On Paradox and Commonplace” is less remarkable for its contribution to the discussion of the subject, than as exhibiting one of Hazlitt’s most curious critical megrims ­his dislike of Shelley.  I wish I could think that he had any better reason for this than the fact that Shelley was a gentleman by birth and his own contemporary.  Most disappointing of all, perhaps, is “On Criticism,” which the reader (as his prophetic soul, if he is a sensible reader, has probably warned him beforehand) soon finds to be little but an open or covert diatribe against the contemporary critics whom Hazlitt did not like, or who did not like Hazlitt.  The apparently promising “On the Knowledge of Character” chiefly yields the remark that Hazlitt could not have admired Cæsar if he had resembled (in face) the Duke of Wellington.  But “My first Acquaintance with Poets” is again a masterpiece; and to me, at least, “Merry England” is perfect.  Hazlitt is almost the only person up to his own day who dared to vindicate the claims of nonsense, though he seems to have talked and written as little of it as most men.  The chapter “On Editors” is very amusing, though perhaps not entirely in the way in which Hazlitt meant it; but I cannot think him happy “On Footmen,” or on “The Conversation of Lords,” for reasons already sufficiently stated.  A sun-dial is a much more promising subject than a broomstick, yet many essays might be written on sun-dials without there being any fear of Hazlitt’s being surpassed.  Better still is “On Taste,” which, if the twenty or thirty best papers in Hazlitt were collected (and a most charming volume they would make), would rank among the very best.  “On Reading New Books” contains excellent sense, but perhaps is, as Hazlitt not seldom is, a little deficient in humour; while the absence of any necessity for humour makes the discussion “Whether Belief is Voluntary” a capital one.  Hazlitt is not wholly of the opinion of that Ebrew Jew who said to M. Renan, “On fait ce qu’on veut maïs on croit ce qu’on peut.

The shorter papers of the Round Table yield perhaps a little less freely in the way of specially notable examples.  They come closer to a certain kind of Addisonian essay, a short lay-sermon, without the charming divagation of the longer articles.  To see how nearly Hazlitt can reach the level of a rather older and cleverer George Osborne, turn to the paper here on Classical Education.  He is quite orthodox for a wonder:  perhaps because opinion was beginning to veer a little to the side of Useful Knowledge; but he is as dry as his own favourite biscuit, and as guiltless of freshness.  He is best in this volume where he notes particular points such as Kean’s Iago, Milton’s versification (here, however, he does not get quite to the heart of the matter), “John Buncle,” and “The Excursion.”  In this last he far outsteps the scanty confines of the earlier papers of the Round Table, and allows himself that score of pages which seems to be with so many men the normal limit of a good essay.  Of his shortest style one sample from “Trifles light as Air” is so characteristic, in more ways than one, that it must be quoted whole.

I am by education and conviction inclined to Republicanism and Puritanism.  In America they have both.  But I confess I feel a little staggered as to the practical efficacy and saving grace of first principles, when I ask myself, Can they throughout the United States from Boston to Baltimore, produce a single head like one of Titian’s Venetian Nobles, nurtured in all the pride of aristocracy and all the blindness of popery?  Of all the branches of political economy the human face is perhaps the best criterion of value.

If I were editing Hazlitt’s works I should put these sentences on the title-page of every volume; for, dogmatist as he thought himself, it is certain that he was in reality purely aesthetic, though, I need hardly say, not in the absurd sense, or no-sense, which modern misuse of language has chosen to fix on the word.  Therefore he is very good (where few are good at all) on Dreams; and, being a great observer of himself, singularly instructive on Application to Study.  “On Londoners and Country People” is one of his liveliest efforts; and the pique at his own inclusion in the Cockney School fortunately evaporates in some delightful reminiscences, including one of the few classic passages on the great game of marbles.  His remarks on the company at the Southampton coffee-house, which have been often and much praised, please me less:  they are too much like attempts in the manner of the Queen Anne men, and Hazlitt is always best when he imitates nobody.  “Hot and Cold” (which might have been more intelligibly called “North and South”) is distinctly curious, bringing out again what may be called Hazlitt’s fanciful observation; and it may generally be said that, however alarming and however suggestive of commonplace the titles “On Respectable People,” “On People of Sense,” “On Novelty and Familiarity,” may be, Hazlitt may almost invariably be trusted to produce something that is not commonplace, that is not laboured paradox, that is eminently literature.

I know that a haphazard catalogue of the titles of essays (for it is little more) such as fills the last paragraph or two may not seem very succulent.  But within moderate space there is really no other means of indicating the author’s extraordinary range of subject, and at the same time the pervading excellence of his treatment.  To exemplify a difference which has sometimes been thought to require explanation, his work as regards system, connection with anything else, immediate occasion (which with him was generally what his friend, Mr. Skimpole, would have called “pounds”) is always Journalism:  in result, it is almost always Literature.  Its staple subjects, as far as there can be said to be any staple where the thread is so various, are very much those which the average newspaper-writer since his time has had to deal with ­politics, book-reviewing, criticism on plays and pictures, social etceteras, the minor morals, the miscellaneous incidents of daily life.  It is true that Hazlitt was only for a short time in the straitest shafts, the most galling traces, of periodical hack-work.  His practice was rather that of George Warrington, who worked till he had filled his purse, and then lay idle till he had emptied it.  He used (an indulgence agreeable in the mouth, but bitter in the belly) very frequently to receive money beforehand for work which was not yet done.  Although anything but careful, he was never an extravagant man, his tastes being for the most part simple; and he never, even during his first married life, seems to have been burdened by an expensive household.  Moreover, he got rid of Mrs. Hazlitt on very easy terms.  Still he must constantly have had on him the sensation that he lived by his work, and by that only.  It seems to be (as far as one can make it out) this sensation which more than anything else jades and tires what some very metaphorical men of letters are pleased to call their Pegasus.  But Hazlitt, though he served in the shafts, shows little trace of the harness.  He has frequent small carelessnesses of style, but he would probably have had as many or more if he had been the easiest and gentlest of easy-writing gentlemen.  He never seems to have allowed himself to be cramped in his choice of his subjects, and wrote for the editors, of whom he speaks so amusingly, with almost as much freedom of speech as if he had had a private press of his own, and had issued dainty little tractates on Dutch paper to be fought for by bibliophiles.  His prejudices, his desultoriness, his occasional lack of correctness of fact (he speaks of “Fontaine’s Translation” of AEsop, and makes use of the extraordinary phrase, “The whole Council of Trent with Father Paul at their head,” than which a more curious blunder is hardly conceivable), his wayward inconsistencies, his freaks of bad taste, would in all probability have been aggravated rather than alleviated by the greater freedom and less responsibility of an independent or an endowed student.  The fact is that he was a born man of letters, and that he could not help turning whatsoever he touched into literature, whether it was criticism on books or on pictures, a fight or a supper, a game at marbles, a political diatribe, or the report of a literary conversation.  He doubtless had favourite subjects; but I do not know that it can be said that he treated one class of subjects better than another, with the exception that I must hold him to have been first of all a literary critic.  He certainly could not write a work of great length; for the faults of his Life of Napoleon are grave even when its view of the subject is taken as undisputed, and it holds among his productions about the same place (that of longest and worst) which the book it was designed to counterwork holds among Scott’s.  Nor was he, as it seems to me, quite at home in very short papers ­in papers of the length of the average newspaper article.  What he could do, as hardly any other man has ever done it in England, was a causerie of about the same length as Sainte-Beuve’s or a little shorter, less limited in range, but also less artfully proportioned than the great Frenchman’s literary and historical studies, giving scope for considerable digression, but coming to an end before the author was wearied of his subject, or had exhausted the fresh thoughts and the happy borrowings and analogies which he had ready for it.  Of what is rather affectedly called “architectonic,” Hazlitt has nothing.  No essay of his is ever an exhaustive or even a symmetrical treatment of its nominal, or of any, theme.  He somewhere speaks of himself as finding it easy to go on stringing pearls when he has once got the string; but, for my part, I should say that the string was much more doubtful than the pearls.  Except in a very few set pieces, his whole charm consists in the succession of irregular, half-connected, but unending and infinitely variegated thoughts, fancies, phrases, quotations, which he pours forth not merely at a particular “Open Sesame,” but at “Open barley,” “Open rye,” or any other grain in the corn-chandler’s list.  No doubt the charm of these is increased by the fact that they are never quite haphazard, never absolutely promiscuous, despite their desultory arrangement; no doubt also a certain additional interest arises from the constant revelation which they make of Hazlitt’s curious personality, his enthusiastic appreciation flecked with spots of grudging spite, his clear intellect clouded with prejudice, his admiration of greatness and nobility of character co-existing with the faculty of doing very mean and even disgraceful things, his abundant relish of life contrasted with almost constant repining.  He must have been one of the most uncomfortable of all English men of letters, who can be called great, to know as a friend.  He is certainly, to those who know him only as readers, one of the most fruitful both in instruction and in delight.