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William Hazlitt Essay On

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

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

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

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

(The entire section is 1653 words.)

Biographical note

Essayist and critic, born at Maidstone, was the son of a Unitarian minister. At his father’s request he studied for the ministry at a Unitarian College at Hackney. His interests, however, were much more philosophical and political than theological. The turning point in his intellectual development was his meeting with Coleridge in 1798. Soon after this he studied art with the view of becoming a painter, and devoted himself specially to portraiture, but though so good a judge as his friend, J. Northcote, R.A., believed he had the talent requisite for success, he could not satisfy himself, and gave up the idea, though always retaining his love of art.

He then definitely turned to literature, and in 1805 published his first book, Essay on the Principles of Human Action, which was followed by various other philosophical and political essays. About 1812 he became parliamentary and dramatic reporter to the Morning Chronicle; in 1814 a contributor to the Edinburgh Review; and in 1817 he published a vol. of literary sketches, The Round Table. In the last named year appeared his Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, which was severely attacked in the Quarterly Review and Blackwood’s Magazine, to which his democratic views made him obnoxious. He defended himself in a cutting Letter to William Gifford, the ed. of the former. The best of Hazlitt’s critical work — his three courses of Lectures, On the English Poets, On the English Comic Writers, and On the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Queen Elizabeth — appeared successively in 1818, 1819, and 1820. His next works were Table Talk, in which he attacked Shelley [1821–22], and The Spirit of the Age [1825], in which he criticised some of his contemporaries. He then commenced what he intended to be his chief literary undertaking, a life of Napoleon Buonaparte, in 4 vols. [1828–30]. Though written with great literary ability, its views and sympathies were unpopular, and it failed in attaining success. His last work was a Life of Titian, in which he collaborated with Northcote.

Hazlitt is one of the most subtle and acute of English critics, though, when contemporaries came under review, he sometimes allowed himself to be unduly swayed by personal or political feeling, from which he had himself often suffered at the hands of others. His chief principle of criticism as avowed by himself was that “a genuine criticism should reflect the colour, the light and shade, the soul and body of a work.”

In his private life he was not happy. His first marriage, entered into in 1807, ended in a divorce in 1822, and was followed by an amour with his landlady’s daughter, which he celebrated in Liber Amoris, a work which exposed him to severe censure. A second marriage with a Mrs. Bridgewater ended by the lady leaving him shortly after. The fact is that Hazlitt was possessed of a peculiar temper, which led to his quarrelling with most of his friends. He was, however, a man of honest and sincere convictions.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

Works

  • An Essay on the Principles of Human Action [1805]
  • Free Thoughts on Public Affairs [1806]
  • A Reply to the Essay on Population, by the Rev. T. R. Malthus [1807]
  • The Round Table: A Collection of Essays on Literature, Men, and Manners [with Leigh Hunt; 1817]
  • Characters of Shakespeare's Plays [1817]
  • Lectures on the English Poets: delivered at the Surrey Institution [1818]
  • A View of the English Stage [1818]
  • Lectures on the English Comic Writers [1819]
  • Political essays, with sketches of public characters [1819]
  • Lectures Chiefly on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth [1820]
  • Table Talk: Essays on Men and Manners / William Hazlitt [1821]
  • "The Fight" [1822]
  • Characteristics: in the manner of Rochefoucault's maxims [1822]
  • Liber Amoris, or, The New Pygmalion [1823]
  • The Spirit of the Age: Contemporary Portraits [1825]
  • "On The Pleasure of Hating" [written 1823; published 1826]
  • "Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen". [1826]
  • The Plain Speaker: Opinions on Books, Men, and Things [1826]: Volume I and Volume II on Google Books
  • Notes of a Journey Through France and Italy [1826]
  • The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte [four volumes; 1828–1830]
  • Hazlitt on English Literature: An Introduction to the Appreciation of Literature / Jacob Zeitlin
  • Travels in Tartary, Thibet, and China during the years 1844-5-6. Volume 1 / William Hazlitt
  • Winterslow : Essays and Characters Written There / William Hazlitt
  • The collected works of William Hazlitt edited by A. R. Waller and Arnold Glover, with an introduction by W. E. Henley . . . [Dent, 1902]
    1. The Round table. Characters of Shakespear's plays. A letter to William Gifford, esq.
    2. Memoirs of Thomas Holcroft. Liber amoris. Characteristics.
    3. Free thoughts on public affairs. Political essays. Advertisement, etc., from The eloquence of the British senate.
    4. A reply to Malthus. The spirit of the age, etc.
    5. Lectures on the English poets and on the dramatic literature of the age of Elizabeth, etc.
    6. Table talk and Conversations of James Northcote, esq., R.A.
    7. The plain speaker. Essay on the principles of human action, etc.
    8. Lectures on the English comic writers. A view of the English stage. Dramatic essays from 'The London magazine.'
    9. The principal picture-galleries in England. Notes of a journey through France and Italy. Miscellaneous essays on the fine arts.
    10. Contributions to the Edinburgh review.
    11. Fugitive writings.
    12. Fugitive writings. (Cont.)