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William Hazlitt by Leslie Stephen

 

There are few great books or great men that do not sadden us by a sense of incompleteness. The writer, we feel, is better than his work. His full power only reveals itself by flashes. There are blemishes in his design, due to mere oversight or indolence; his energy has flagged, or he has alloyed his pure gold to please the mob; or some burst of wayward passion has disturbed the fair proportions of his work, and the man himself is a half-finished or half-ruined fragment. The rough usage of the world leaves its mark on the spiritual constitution of even the strongest and best amongst us; and perhaps the finest natures suffer more than others in virtue of their finer sympathies. 'Hamlet' is a pretty good performance, if we make allowances; but what would it have been if Shakespeare could have been at his highest level all through, and if every element of strength in him had been purified from every weakness? What would it have been, shall we say, if he could have had the advantage of reading a few modern lectures on æsthetics? We may, perhaps, be content with Shakespeare as circumstances left him; but in reading our modern poets, the sentiment of regret is stronger. If Byron had not been driven into his wild revolt against the world; if Shelley had been judiciously treated from his youth; if Keats had had healthier lungs; if Wordsworth had not grown rusty in his solitude; if Scott had not been tempted into publisher's speculations; if Coleridge had never taken to opium—what great poems might not have opened the new era of literature, where now we have but incomplete designs, and listen to harmonies half destroyed by internal discord? The regret, however, is less when a man has succeeded in uttering the thought that was in him, though it may never have found a worthy expression. Wordsworth could have told us little more, though the 'Excursion' had been as complete a work as 'Paradise Lost;' and if Scott might have written more 'Waverleys' and 'Antiquaries' and 'Old Mortalities,' he could hardly have written better ones. But the works of some other writers suggest possibilities which never even approached fulfilment. If the opinion formed by his contemporaries of Coleridge be anywhere near the truth, we lost in him a potential philosopher of a very high order, as we more clearly lost a poet of singular fascination. Coleridge naturally suggests the name of De Quincey, whose works are as often tantalising as satisfying. And to make, it is true, a considerable drop from the greatest of these names, we often feel when we take up one of Hazlitt's glowing Essays, that here, too, was a man who might have made a far more enduring mark as a writer of English prose. At their best, his writings are admirable; they have the true stamp; the thought is masculine and the expression masterly; phrases engrave themselves on the memory; and we catch glimpses of a genuine thinker and no mere manufacturer of literary commonplace. On a more prolonged study, it is true, we become conscious of many shortcomings, and the general effect is somehow rather cloying, though hardly from an excess of sweetness. And yet he deserves the study both of the critic and the student of character.

The story of Hazlitt's life has been told by his grandson; but there is a rather curious defect of materials for so recent a biography. He kept, it seems, no letters,—a weakness, if it be a weakness, for which one is rather apt to applaud him in these days: but, on the other hand, nobody ever indulged more persistently in the habit of washing his dirty linen in public. Not even his idol Rousseau could be more demonstrative of his feelings and recollections. His Essays are autobiographical, sometimes even offensively; and after reading them we are even more familiar than his contemporaries with many points of his character. He loved to pour himself out in his Essays

                     as plain
    As downright Shippen or as old Montaigne.

He has laid bare for the most careless reader the main elements of his singular composition. Like some others of his revolutionary friends, Godwin, for example, Leigh Hunt, and Tom Paine, he represents the old dissenting spirit in a new incarnation. The grandfather a stern Calvinist, the father a Unitarian, the son a freethinker; those were the gradations through which more than one family passed during the closing years of the last century and the opening of this. One generation still clung to the old Puritan traditions and Jonathan Edwards; the next followed Priestley; and the third joined the little band of radicals who read Cobbett, scorned Southey as a deserter, and refused to be frightened by the French Revolution. The outside crust of opinion may be shed with little change to the inner man. Hazlitt was a dissenter to his backbone. He was born to be in a minority; to be a living protest against the dominant creed and constitution. He recognised and denounced, but he never shook off, the faults characteristic of small sects. A want of wide intellectual culture, and a certain sourness of temper, cramped his powers and sometimes marred his writing. But from his dissenting forefathers Hazlitt inherited something better. Beside the huge tomes of controversial divinity on his father's shelves, the 'Patres Poloni,' Pripscovius, Crellius and Cracovius, Lardner and Doddridge, and Baxter and Bates, and Howe, were the legends of the Puritan hagiology. The old dissenters, he tells us, had Neale's 'History of the Puritans' by heart, and made their children read Calamy's account of the 2,000 ejected ministers along with the stories of Daniel in the Lion's Den and Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego. Sympathy for the persecuted, unbending resistance to the oppressor, was the creed which had passed into their blood. 'This covenant they kept as the stars keep their courses; this principle they stuck by, for want of knowing better, as it sticks by them to the last. It grew with their growth, it does not wither in their decay.... It glimmers with the last feeble eyesight, smiles in the faded cheek like infancy, and lights a path before them to the grave. This'—for in Hazlitt lies a personal application in all his moralising—'This is better than the whirligig life of a court poet'—such, for example, as Robert Southey.

But Hazlitt's descent was not pure. If we could trace back the line of his ancestry we should expect to find that by some freak of fortune, one of the rigid old Puritans had married a descendant of some great Flemish or Italian painter. Love of graceful forms and bright colouring and voluptuous sensations had been transmitted to their descendants, though hitherto repressed by the stern discipline of British nonconformity. As the discipline relaxed, the Hazlitts reverted to the ancestral type. Hazlitt himself, his brother and his sister, were painters by instinct. The brother became a painter of miniatures by profession; and Hazlitt to the end of his days revered Titian almost as much as he revered his great idol Napoleon. An odd pair of idols, one thinks, for a youth brought up upon Pripscovius and his brethren! A keen delight in all artistic and natural beauty was an awkward endowment for a youth intended for the ministry. Keats was scarcely more out of place in a surgery than Hazlitt would have been in a Unitarian pulpit of those days, and yet from that pulpit, oddly enough, came the greatest impulse to Hazlitt. It came from a man who, like Hazlitt himself, though in a higher degree than Hazlitt, combined the artistic and the philosophic temperament. Coleridge, as Hazlitt somewhere says, threw a great stone into the standing pool of contemporary thought; and it was in January 1798—one of the many dates in his personal history to which he recurs with unceasing fondness—that Hazlitt rose before daylight and walked ten miles in the mud to hear Coleridge preach. He has told, in his graphic manner, how the voice of the preacher 'rose like a stream of rich distilled perfumes;' how he launched into his subject, after giving out the text, 'like an eagle dallying with the wind;' and how his young hearer seemed to be listening to the music of the spheres, to see the union of poetry and philosophy; and behold truth and genius embracing under the eye of religion. His description of the youthful Coleridge has a fit pendant in the wonderful description of the full-blown philosopher in Carlyle's 'Life of Sterling;' where, indeed, one or two touches are taken from Hazlitt's Essays. It is Hazlitt who remarked, even at this early meeting, that the dreamy poet philosopher could never decide on which side of the footpath he should walk; and Hazlitt, who struck out the epigram that Coleridge was an excellent talker if allowed to start from no premisses and come to no conclusion. The glamour of Coleridge's theosophy never seems to have fascinated Hazlitt's stubborn intellect. At this time, indeed, Coleridge had not yet been inoculated with German mysticism. In after years, the disciple, according to his custom, renounced his master and assailed him with half-regretful anger. But the intercourse and kindly encouragement of so eminent a man seem to have roused Hazlitt's ambition. His poetical and his speculative intellect were equally stirred. The youth was already longing to write a philosophical treatise. The two elements of his nature thus roused to action led him along a 'strange diagonal.' He would be at once a painter and a metaphysician. Some eight years of artistic labour convinced him that he could not be a Titian or a Raphael, and he declined to be a mere Hazlitt junior. His metaphysical studies, on the contrary, convinced him that he might be a Hume or a Berkeley; but unluckily they convinced himself alone. The tiny volume which contained their results was neglected by everybody but the author, who, to the end of his days, loved it with the love of a mother for a deformed child. It is written, to say the truth, in a painful and obscure style; it is the work of a man who has brooded over his own thoughts in solitude till he cannot appreciate the need of a clear exposition. The narrowness of his reading had left him in ignorance of the new aspects under which the eternal problems were presenting themselves to the new generation; and a metaphysical discussion in antiquated phraseology is as useless as a lady's dress in the last year's fashion. Hazlitt, in spite of this double failure, does not seem to have been much disturbed by impecuniosity; but the most determined Bohemian has to live. For some years he strayed about the purlieus of literature, drudging, translating, and doing other cobbler's work. Two of his performances, however, were characteristic; he wrote an attack upon Malthus, and he made an imprudent marriage. Even Malthusians must admit that imprudent marriages may have some accidental good consequences. When a man has fairly got his back to the wall, he is forced to fight; and Hazlitt, at the age of thirty-four, with a wife and a son, at last discovered the great secret of the literary profession, that a clever man can write when he has to write or starve. To compose had been labour and grief to him, so long as he could potter round a thought indefinitely; but with the printer's devil on one side and the demands of a family on the other, his ink began to flow freely, and during the last fifteen or seventeen years of his life he became a voluminous though fragmentary author. Several volumes of essays, lectures, and criticisms, besides his more ambitious 'Life of Napoleon,' and a great deal of anonymous writing, attest his industry. He died in 1830, at the age of fifty-two; leaving enough to show that he could have done more and a good deal of a rare, if not of the highest kind of excellence.

Hazlitt, as I have said, is everywhere autobiographical. Besides that secret, that a man can write if he must, he had discovered the further secret that the easiest of all topics is his own feelings. It is an apparent paradox, though the explanation is not far to seek, that Hazlitt, though shy with his friends, was the most unreserved of writers. Indeed he takes the public into his confidence with a facility which we cannot easily forgive. Biographers of late have been guilty of flagrant violations of the unwritten code which should protect the privacies of social life from the intrusions of public curiosity. But the most unscrupulous of biographers would hardly have dared to tear aside the veil so audaciously as Hazlitt, in one conspicuous instance at least, chose to do for himself. His idol Rousseau had indeed gone further; but when Rousseau told the story of his youth, it was at least seen through a long perspective of years, and his own personality might seem to be scarcely interested. Hazlitt chose, in the strange book called the 'New Pygmalion,' or 'Liber Amoris,' to invite the British public at large to look on at a strange tragi-comedy, of which the last scene was scarcely finished. Hazlitt had long been unhappy in his family life. His wife appears to have been a masculine woman, with no talent for domesticity; completely indifferent to her husband's pursuits, and inclined to despise him for so fruitless an employment of his energies. They had already separated, it seems, when Hazlitt fell desperately in love with Miss Sarah Walker, the daughter of his lodging-house keeper. The husband and wife agreed to obtain a divorce under the Scotch law, after which they might follow their own paths, and Sarah Walker become the second Mrs. Hazlitt. Some months had to be spent by Mr. and Mrs. Hazlitt in Edinburgh, with a view to this arrangement. The lady's journal records her impressions; which, it would seem, strongly resembled those of a tradesman getting rid of a rather flighty and imprudent partner in business. She is extremely precise as to all pecuniary and legal details; she calls upon her husband now and then, takes tea with him, makes an off-hand remark or two about some picture-gallery which he had been visiting, and tells him that he has made a fool of himself, with the calmness of a lady dismissing a troublesome servant, or a schoolmaster parting from an ill-behaved pupil. And meanwhile, in queer contrast, Hazlitt was pouring out to his friends letters which seem to be throbbing with unrestrainable passion. He is raving as Romeo at Mantua might have raved about Juliet. To hear Miss Walker called his wife will be music to his ears, such as they never heard. But it seems doubtful whether, after all, his Juliet will have him. He shrieks mere despair and suicide. Nothing is left in the world to give him a drop of comfort. The breeze does not cool him nor the blue sky delight him. He will never lie down at night nor rise up of a morning in peace, nor even behold his little boy's face with pleasure, unless he is restored to her favour. And Mrs. Hazlitt reports, after acknowledging the receipt of £10, that Mr. Hazlitt was so much 'enamoured' of one of these letters that he pulled it out of his pocket twenty times a day, wanted to read it to his companions, and ranted and gesticulated till people took him for a madman. The 'Liber Amoris' is made out of these letters—more or less altered and disguised, with some reports of conversations with the lovely Sarah. 'It was an explosion of frenzy,' says De Quincey; his reckless mode of relieving his bosom of certain perilous stuff, with little care whether it produced scorn or sympathy. A passion which urges its victim to such improprieties should be, at least, deep and genuine. One would have liked him better if he had not taken his frenzy to market. The 'Liber Amoris' tells us accordingly that the author, Hazlitt's imaginary double, died abroad, 'of disappointment preying on a sickly frame and morbid state of mind.' The hero, in short, breaks his heart when the lady marries somebody else. Hazlitt's heart was more elastic. Miss Sarah Walker married, and Hazlitt next year married a widow lady 'of some property,' made a tour with her on the Continent, and then—quarrelled with her also. It is not a pretty story. Hazlitt's biographer informs us, by way of excuse, that his grandfather was 'physically incapable'—whatever that may mean—'of fixing his affection upon a single object.' He 'comprehended,' indeed, 'the worth of constancy' and other virtues as well as most men, and could have written about them better than most men; but somehow 'a sinister influence or agency,' a periphrasis for a sensuous temperament, was perpetually present, which confined his virtues to the sphere of theory. An apology sometimes is worse than a satire. The case, however, seems to be sufficiently plain. We need not suspect that Hazlitt was consciously acting a part and nursing his 'frenzy' because he thought that it would make a startling book. He was an egotist and a man of impulse. His impressions were for the time overpowering; but they were transient. His temper was often stronger than his passions. A gust of anger would make him quarrel with his oldest friends. Every emotion justified itself for the time, because it was his. He always did well, whether it pleased him for the moment to be angry, to be in love, to be cynical, or to be furiously indignant. The end, therefore, of his life exhibits a series of short impetuous fits of passionate endeavour, rather than devotion to a single overruling purpose; and all his writings are brief outbursts of eloquent feeling, where neither the separate fragments nor the works considered as a whole obey any law of logical development. And yet, in some ways, Hazlitt boasted, and boasted plausibly enough, of his constancy. He has the same ideas to the end of his life that he had at fourteen. He would, he remarks, be an excellent man on a jury; he would say little, but would starve the eleven other obstinate fellows out. Amongst politicians he was a faithful Abdiel, when all others had deserted the cause. He loved the books of his boyhood, the fields where he had walked, the gardens where he had drunk tea, and, to a rather provoking extent, the old quotations and old stories which he had used from his first days of authorship. The explanation of the apparent paradox gives the clue to Hazlitt's singular character.

What I have called Hazlitt's egotism is more euphemistically and perhaps more accurately described by Talfourd,[3] 'an intense consciousness of his own individual being.' The word egotism in our rough estimates of character is too easily confounded with selfishness. Hazlitt might have been the person who, as one making a strange confession, assured a friend that he took a deep interest in his own concerns. He was, one would say, decidedly unselfish, if by selfishness is meant a disposition to feather one's own nest without regard for other people's wants. Still less was he selfish in the sense of preferring solid bread and butter to the higher needs of mind and spirit. His sentiments are always generous, and if scorn is too familiar a mood, it is scorn of the base and servile. But his peculiarity is that these generous feelings are always associated with some special case. He sees every abstract principle by the concrete instance. He hates insolence in the abstract, but his hatred flames into passion when it is insolence to Hazlitt. He resembles that good old lady who wrote on the margin of her 'Complete Duty of Man' the name of that neighbour who most conspicuously sinned against the precept in the opposite text. Tyranny with Hazlitt is named Pitt, party spite is Gifford, apostasy is Southey, and fidelity may be called Cobbett or Godwin; though he finds names for the vices much more easily than for the virtues. And thus, if he cannot be condemned for selfishness, one must be charitable not to put down a good many of his offences to its sister jealousy. The personal and the public sentiments are so invariably blended in his mind that neither he nor anybody else could have analysed their composition. He was apt to be the more moody and irritable because his resentments clothed themselves spontaneously in the language of some nobler emotion. If his friends are cold, he bewails the fickleness of humanity; if they are successful, it is not envy that prompts his irritation, but the rarity of the correspondence between merit and reward. Such a man is more faithful to his dead than to his living friends. The dead cannot change; they always come back to his memory in their old colours; their names recall the old tender emotion placed above all change and chance. But who can tell that our dearest living friend may not come into awkward collision with us before he has left the room? It is as well to be on our guard! It is curious how the two feelings alternate in Hazlitt's mind in regard to the friends who are at once dead and living; how fondly he dwells upon the Coleridge of Wem and Nether Stowey where he first listened to the enchanter's voice, and with what bitterness, which is yet but soured affection, he turns upon the Coleridge who defended war-taxes in the 'Friend.' He hacks and hews at Southey through several furious Essays, and ends with a groan. 'We met him unexpectedly the other day in St. Giles's,' he says, 'were sorry we had passed him without speaking to an old friend, turned and looked after him for some time as to a tale of other days—sighing, as we walked on, Alas, poor Southey!' He fancies himself to be in the mood of Brutus murdering Cæsar. It is patriotism struggling with old associations of friendship; if there is any personal element in the hostility, no one is less conscious of it than the possessor. To the whole Lake school his attitude is always the same—justice done grudgingly in spite of anger, or satire tempered by remorse. No one could say nastier things of that very different egotist, Wordsworth; nor could anyone, outside the sacred clique, pay him heartier compliments. Nobody, indeed, can dislike egotism like an egotist. 'Wordsworth,' says Hazlitt, 'sees nothing but himself and the universe; he hates all greatness and all pretensions to it but his own. His egotism is in this respect a madness, for he scorns even the admiration of himself, thinking it a presumption in anyone to suppose that he has taste or sense enough to understand him. He hates all science and all art: he hates chemistry, he hates conchology, he hates Sir Isaac Newton, he hates logic, he hates metaphysics,' and so on through a long list of hatreds, ending with the inimitable Napoleon, whom Wordsworth hates, it seems, 'to get rid of the idea of anything greater, or thought to be greater, than himself.' Hazlitt might have made out a tolerable list of his own antipathies; though, to do him justice, of antipathies balanced by ardent enthusiasm, especially for the dead or the distant.

Hazlitt, indeed, was incapable of the superlative self-esteem here attributed to Wordsworth. His egotism is a curious variety of that Protean passion, compounded as skilfully as the melancholy of Jaques. It is not the fascinating and humorous egotism of Lamb, who disarms us beforehand by a smile at his own crotchets. Hazlitt is too serious to be playful. Nor is it like the amusing egotism of Boswell, combined with a vanity which evades our contempt, because it asks so frankly for sympathy. Hazlitt is too proud and too bitter. Neither is it the misanthropic egotism of Byron, which, through all its affectation, implies a certain aristocratic contempt of the world and its laws. Hazlitt has not the sweep and continuity of Byron's passion. His egotism—be it said without offence—is dashed with something of the feeling common amongst his dissenting friends. He feels the awkwardness which prevails amongst a clique branded by a certain social stigma, and despises himself for his awkwardness. He resents neglect and scorns to ask for patronage. His egotism is a touchy and wayward feeling which takes the mask of misanthropy. He is always meditating upon his own qualities, but not in the spirit of the conceited man who plumes himself upon his virtues, nor of the ascetic who broods over his vices. He prefers the apparently self-contradictory attitude (but human nature is illogical) of meditating with remorse upon his own virtues. What in others is complacency, becomes with him, ostensibly at least, self-reproach. He affects—but it is hard to say where the affectation begins—to be annoyed by the contemplation of his own merits. He is angry with the world for preferring commonplace to genius, and rewarding stupidity by success; but in form at least, he mocks at his own folly for expecting better things. If he is vain at bottom, his vanity shows itself indirectly by depreciating his neighbours. He is too proud to dwell upon his own virtues, but he has been convinced by impartial observation that the world at large is in a conspiracy against merit. Thus he manages to transform his self-consciousness into the semblance of proud humility, and extracts a bitter and rather morbid pleasure from dwelling upon his disappointments and failures. Half-a-dozen of his best Essays give expression to this mood, which is rather bitter than querulous. He enlarges cordially on the 'disadvantages of intellectual superiority.' An author—Hazlitt, to wit—is not allowed to relax into dulness; if he is brilliant he is not understood, and if he professes an interest in common things it is assumed that then he must be a fool. And yet in the midst of these grumblings he is forced to admit a touch of weakness, and tells us how it pleases him to hear a man ask in the Fives Court, 'Which is Mr. Hazlitt?' He, the most idiosyncratic of men, and most proud of it at bottom, declares how 'he hates his style to be known, as he hates all idiosyncrasy.' At the next moment he purrs with complacency at the recollection of having been forced into an avowal of his authorship of an article in the 'Edinburgh Review.' Most generally he eschews these naïve lapses into vanity. He dilates on the old text of the 'shyness of scholars.' The learned are out of place in competition with the world. They are not and ought not to fancy themselves fitted for the vulgar arena. They can never enjoy their old privileges. 'Fool that it (learning) was, ever to forego its privileges and loosen the strong hold it had on opinion in bigotry and superstition!' The same tone of disgust pronounces itself more cynically in an Essay 'on the pleasure of hating.' Hatred is, he admits, a poisonous ingredient in all our passions, but it is that which gives reality to them. Patriotism means hatred of the French, and virtue is a hatred of other people's faults to atone for our own vices. All things turn to hatred. 'We hate old friends, we hate old books, we hate old opinions, and at last we come to hate ourselves.' Summing up all his disappointments, the broken friendships, and disappointed ambitions, and vanished illusions, he asks, in conclusion, whether he has not come to hate and despise himself? 'Indeed, I do,' he answers, 'and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough.'

This is an outbreak of temporary spleen. Nobody loved his old books and old opinions better. Hazlitt is speaking in the character of Timon, which indeed fits him rather too easily. But elsewhere the same strain of cynicism comes out in more natural and less extravagant form. Take, for example, the Essay on the 'Conduct of Life.' It is a piece of bonâ fide advice addressed to his boy at school, and gives in a sufficiently edifying form the commonplaces which elders are accustomed to address to their juniors. Honesty, independence, diligence, and temperance are commended in good set terms, though with an earnestness which, as is often the case with Hazlitt, imparts some reality to outworn formulæ. When, however, he comes to the question of marriage, the true man breaks out. Don't trust, he says, to fine sentiments: they will make no more impression on these delicate creatures than on a piece of marble. Love in women is vanity, interest, or fancy. Women care nothing about talents or virtue—about poets or philosophers or politicians. They judge by the eye. 'No true woman ever regarded anything but her lover's person and address.' The author has no chance; for he lives in a dream, he feels nothing spontaneously, his metaphysical refinements are all thrown away. 'Look up, laugh loud, talk big, keep the colour in your cheek and the fire in your eye; adorn your person; maintain your health, your beauty, and your animal spirits; for if you once lapse into poetry and philosophy you will want an eye to show you, a hand to guide you, a bosom to love—and will stagger into your grave old before your time, unloved and unlovely.' 'A spider,' he adds, 'the meanest creature that crawls or lives, has its mate or fellow, but a scholar has no mate or fellow.' Mrs. Hazlitt, Miss Sarah Walker, and several other ladies, thought Hazlitt surly and cared nothing for his treatise on human nature. Therefore (it is true Hazlittian logic) no woman cares for sentiment. The sex which despised him must be despicable. Equally characteristic is his profound belief that his failure in another line is owing to the malignity of the world at large. In one of his most characteristic Essays he asks whether genius is conscious of its powers. He writes what he declares to be a digression about his own experience, and we may believe as much as we please of his assertion that he does not quote himself as an example of genius. He has spoken, he declares, with freedom and power, and will not cease because he is abused for not being a Government tool. He wrote a charming character of Congreve's Millamant, but it was unnoticed because he was not a Government tool. Gifford would not relish his account of Dekkar's Orlando Friscobaldo—because he was not a Government tool. He wrote admirable table-talks—for once, as they are nearly finished, he will venture to praise himself. He could swear (were they not his) that the thoughts in them were 'founded as the rock, free as the air, the hue like an Italian picture.' But, had the style been like polished steel, as firm and as bright, it would have availed him nothing, for he was not a Government tool. The world hated him, we see, for his merits. It is a bad world, he says; but don't think that it is my vanity which has taken offence, for I am remarkable for modesty, and therefore I know that my virtues are faults of which I ought to be ashamed. Is this pride or vanity, or humility, or cynicism, or self-reproach for wasted talents, or an intimate blending of passions for which there is no precise name? Who can unravel the masks within masks of a cunning egotism?

To one virtue, however, that of political constancy, Hazlitt lays claim in the most emphatic terms. If he quarrels with all his friends—'most of the friends I have seen have turned out the bitterest enemies, or cold, uncomfortable acquaintance'—it is, of course, their fault. A thoroughgoing egotist must think himself the centre of gravity of the world, and all change of relations must mean that others have moved away from him. Politically, too, all who have given up his opinions are deserters, and generally from the worst of motives. He accuses Burke of turning against the Revolution from—of all motives in the world!—jealousy of Rousseau; a theory still more impossible than Mr. Buckle's hypothesis of madness. Court favour supplies in most cases a simpler explanation of the general demoralisation. Hazlitt could not give credit to men like Southey and Coleridge for sincere alarm at the French Revolution. Such a sentiment would be too unreasonable, for he had not been alarmed himself. His constancy, indeed, would be admirable if it did not suggest doubts of his wisdom. A man whose opinions at fifty are his opinions at fourteen has opinions of very little value. If his intellect has developed properly, or if he has profited by experience, he will modify, though he need not retract, his early views. To claim to have learnt nothing from 1792 to 1830 is almost to write yourself down as hopelessly impenetrable. The explanation is, that what Hazlitt called his opinions were really his feelings. He could argue very ingeniously, as appears from his remarks on Coleridge and Malthus, but his logic was the slave, not the ruler, of his emotions. His politics were simply the expression, in a generalised form, of his intense feeling of personality. They are a projection upon the modern political world of that heroic spirit of individual self-respect which animated his Puritan forefathers. One question, and only one question, he frequently tells us, is of real importance. All the rest is mere verbiage. The single dogma worth attacking or defending is the divine right of kings. Are men, in the old phrase, born saddled and bridled, and other men ready booted and spurred, or are they not? That is the single shibboleth which distinguishes true men from false. Others, he says, bowed their heads to the image of the beast. 'I spit upon it, and buffeted it, and pointed at it, and drew aside the veil that then half concealed it.' This passionate denial of the absolute right of men over their fellows is but vicarious pride, if you please to call it so, or a generous recognition of the dignity of human nature translated into political terms. Hazlitt's character did not change, however much his judgment of individuals might change; and therefore the principles which merely reflected his character remained rooted and unshaken. And yet his politics changed curiously enough in another sense. The abstract truth, in Hazlitt's mind, must always have a concrete symbol. He chose to regard Napoleon as the antithesis to the divine right of kings. That was the vital formula of Napoleon, his essence, and the true meaning of his policy. The one question in abstract politics was typified for Hazlitt by the contrast between Napoleon and the Holy Alliance. To prove that Napoleon could trample on human rights as roughly as any legitimate sovereign was for him mere waste of time. Napoleon's tyranny meant a fair war against the evil principle. Had Hazlitt lived in France, and come into collision with press laws, it is likely enough that his sentiments would have changed. But Napoleon was far enough off to serve as a mere poetical symbol; his memory had got itself entwined in those youthful associations on which Hazlitt always dwelt so fondly; and, moreover, to defend 'Boney' was to quarrel with most of his countrymen, and even of his own party. What more was wanted to make him one of Hazlitt's superstitions? No more ardent devotee of the Napoleonic legend ever existed, and Hazlitt's last years were employed in writing a book which is a political pamphlet as much as a history. He worships the eldest Napoleon with the fervour of a corporal of the Old Guard, and denounces the great conspiracy of kings and nobles with the energy of Cobbett; but he had none of the special knowledge which alone could give permanent value to such a performance. He seems to have consulted only the French authorities; and it is refreshing for once to find an Englishman telling the story of Waterloo entirely from the French side, and speaking, for example, of left and right as if he had been—as in imagination he was—by the side of Napoleon instead of Wellington. Even M. Victor Hugo can see more merit in the English army and its commander. A radical, who takes Napoleon for his polar star, must change some of his theories, though he disguises the change from himself; but a change of a different kind came over Hazlitt as he grew older.

The enthusiasm of the Southeys and Wordsworths for the French Revolution changed—whatever their motives—into enthusiasm for the established order. Hazlitt's enthusiasm remained, but became the enthusiasm of regret instead of hope. As one by one the former zealots dropped off he despised them as renegades, and clasped his old creed the more firmly to his bosom. But the change did not draw him nearer to the few who remained faithful. They perversely loved the wrong side of the right cause, or loved it for the wrong reason. He liked the Whigs no better than the Tories; the 'Edinburgh' and the 'Quarterly' were opposition coaches, making a great dust and spattering each other with mud, but travelling by the same road to the same end. A Whig, he said, was a trimmer who dared neither to be a rogue nor an honest man, but was 'a sort of whiffling, shuffling, cunning, silly, contemptible, unmeaning negation of the two.' And the true genuine radical reformers? To them, as represented by the school of Bentham, Hazlitt entertained an aversion quite as hearty as his aversion for Whigs and Tories. If, he says, the Whigs are too finical to join heartily with the popular advocates, the Reformers are too cold. They hated literature, poetry, and romance; nothing gives them pleasure that does not give others pain; utilitarianism means prosaic, hard-hearted, narrow-minded dogmatism. Indeed, his pet essay on the principles of human nature was simply an assault on what he took to be their fundamental position. He fancied that the school of Bentham regarded man as a purely selfish and calculating animal; and his whole philosophy was an attempt to prove the natural disinterestedness of man, and to indicate for the imagination and the emotions their proper place beside the calculating faculty. Few were those who did not come under one or other clause of this sweeping denunciation. He assailed Shelley, who was neither Whig, Tory, nor Utilitarian, so cuttingly as to provoke a dispute with Leigh Hunt, and had some of his sharp criticisms for his friend Godwin. His general moral, indeed, is the old congenial one. The reformer is as unfit for this world as the scholar. He is the only wise man, but, as things go, wisdom is the worst of follies. The reformer, he says, is necessarily a marplot; he does not know what he would be at; if he did, he does not much care for it; and, moreover, he is 'governed habitually by a spirit of contradiction, and is always wise beyond what is practicable.' Upon this text Hazlitt dilates with immense spirit, satirising the crotchety and impracticable race, and contrasting them with the disciplined phalanx of Toryism, brilliantly and bitterly enough to delight Gifford; and yet he is writing a preface to a volume of radical Essays. He is consoling himself for being in a minority of one by proving that two virtuous men must always disagree. Hazlitt is no genuine democrat. He hates 'both mobs,' or, in other words, the great mass of the human race. He would sympathise with Coriolanus more easily than with the Tribunes. He laughs at the perfectibility of the species, and holds that 'all things move, not in progress but in a ceaseless round.' The glorious dream is fled:

    The radiance which was once so bright
    Is now for ever taken from our sight;

and his only consolation is to live over in memory the sanguine times of his youth, before Napoleon had fallen and the Holy Alliance restored the divine right of kings; to cherish eternal regret for the hopes that have departed, and hatred and scorn equally enduring for those who blasted them. 'Give me back,' he exclaims, 'one single evening at Boxhill, after a stroll in the deep empurpled woods, before Bonaparte was yet beaten, with “wine of Attic taste,” when wit, beauty, friendship presided at the board.' The personal blends with the political regret.

Hazlitt, the politician, was soured. He fed his morbid egotism by indignantly chewing the cud of disappointment, and scornfully rejecting comfort. He quarrelled with his wife and with most of his friends, even with the gentle Lamb, till Lamb regained his affections by the brief quarrel with Southey. Certainly, he might call himself, with some plausibility, 'the king of good haters.' But, after all, Hazlitt's cynicism is the souring of a generous nature; and when we turn from the politician to the critic and the essayist, our admiration for his powers is less frequently jarred by annoyance at their wayward misuse. His egotism—for he is still an egotist—here takes a different shape. His criticism is not of the kind which is now most popular. He lived before the days of philosophers who talk about the organism and its environment, and of the connoisseurs who boast of an eclectic taste for all the delicate essences of art. He never thought of showing that a great writer was only the product of his time, race, and climate; and he had not learnt to use such terms of art as 'supreme,' 'gracious,' 'tender,' 'bitter,' and 'subtle,' in which a good deal of criticism now consists. Lamb, says Hazlitt, tried old authors 'on his palate as epicures taste olives;' and the delicacy of discrimination which makes the process enjoyable is perhaps the highest qualification of a good critic. Hazlitt's point of view was rather different, nor can we ascribe to him without qualification that exquisite appreciation of purely literary charm which is so rare and so often affected. Nobody, indeed, loved some authors more heartily or understood them better; his love is so hearty that he cannot preserve the true critical attitude. Instead of trying them on his palate, he swallows them greedily. His judgment of an author seems to depend upon two circumstances. He is determined in great measure by his private associations, and in part by his sympathy for the character of the writer. His interest in this last sense is, one may say, rather psychological than purely critical. He thinks of an author not as the exponent of a particular vein of thought or emotion, nor as an artistic performer on the instrument of language, but as a human being to be loved or hated, or both, like Napoleon or Gifford or Southey.

Hazlitt's favourite authors were, for the most part, the friends of his youth. He had pored over their pages till he knew them by heart; their phrases were as familiar to his lips as texts of Scripture to preachers who know but one book; the places where he had read them became sacred to him, and a glory of his early enthusiasm was still reflected from the old pages. Rousseau was his beloved above all writers. They had a natural affinity. What Hazlitt says of Rousseau may be partly applied to himself. Of Hazlitt it might be said almost as truly as of Rousseau, that 'he had the most intense consciousness of his own existence. No object that had once made an impression upon him was ever after effaced.' In Rousseau's 'Confessions' and 'Nouvelle Héloïse,' Hazlitt saw the reflections of his own passions. He spent, he declares, two whole years in reading these two books; and they were the happiest years of his life. He marks with a white stone the days on which he read particular passages. It was on April 10, 1798—as he tells us some twenty years later—that he sat down to a volume of the 'New Héloïse,' at the inn at Llangollen, over a bottle of sherry and a cold chicken. He tells us which passage he read and what was the view before his bodily eyes. His first reading of 'Paul and Virginia' is associated with an inn at Bridgewater; and at another old-fashioned inn he tells how the rustic fare and the quaint architecture gave additional piquancy to Congreve's wit. He remembers, too, the spot at which he first read Mrs. Inchbald's 'Simple Story;' how he walked out to escape from one of the tenderest parts, in order to return again with double relish.

'An old crazy hand-organ,' he adds, 'was playing “Robin Adair,” a summer shower dropped manna on my head, and slaked my feverish thirst of happiness.' He looks back to his first familiarity with his favourites as an old man may think of his honeymoon. The memories of his own feelings, of his author's poetry, and of the surrounding scenery, are inextricably fused together. The sight of an old volume, he says, sometimes shakes twenty years off his life; he sees his old friends alive again, the place where he read the book, the day when he got it, the feeling of the air, the fields, the sky. To these old favourites he remained faithful, except that he seems to have tired of the glitter of Junius. Burke's politics gave him some severe twinges. He says, in one place, that he always tests the sense and candour of a Liberal by his willingness to admit the greatness of Burke. He adds, as a note to the Essay in which this occurs, that it was written in a 'fit of extravagant candour,' when he thought that he could be more than just to an enemy without betraying a cause. He oscillates between these views as his humour changes. He is absurdly unjust to Burke the politician; but he does not waver in his just recognition of the marvellous power of the greatest—I should almost say the only great—political writer in the language. The first time he read a passage from Burke, he said, This is true eloquence. Johnson immediately became shelved, and Junius 'shrunk up into little antithetic points and well-tuned sentences. But Burke's style was forked and playful like the lightning, crested like the serpent.' He is never weary of Burke, as he elsewhere says; and, in fact, he is man enough to recognise genuine power when he meets it. To another great master he yields with a reluctance which is an involuntary compliment. The one author whom he admitted into his Pantheon after his youthful enthusiasm had cooled was unluckily the most consistent of Tories. Who is there, he asks, that admires the author of 'Waverley' more than I do? Who is there that despises Sir Walter Scott more? The Scotch novels, as they were then called, fairly overpowered him. The imaginative force, the geniality and the wealth of picturesque incident of the greatest of novelists, disarmed his antipathy. It is curious to see how he struggles with himself. He blesses and curses in a breath. He applies to Scott Pope's description of Bacon, 'the greatest, wisest, meanest of mankind,' and asks—

    Who would not laugh if such a man there be?
    Who would not weep if “Waverley” were he?

He crowns a torrent of abuse by declaring that Scott has encouraged the lowest panders of a venal press, 'deluging and nauseating the public mind with the offal and garbage of Billingsgate abuse and vulgar slang;' and presently he calls Scott—by way, it is true, of lowering Byron—'one of the greatest teachers of morality that ever lived.' He invents a theory, to which he returns more than once, to justify the contrast. Scott, he says, is much such a writer as the Duke of Wellington (the hated antithesis of Napoleon, whose 'foolish face' he specially detests) is a general. The one gets 100,000 men together, and 'leaves it to them to fight out the battle, for if he meddled with it he might spoil sport; the other gets an innumerable quantity of facts together, and lets them tell their story as they may. The facts are stubborn in the last instance as the men are in the first, and in neither case is the broth spoiled by the cook.' Both heroes show modesty and self-knowledge, but 'little boldness or inventiveness of genius.' On the strength of this doctrine he even compares Scott disadvantageously with Godwin and Mrs. Inchbald, who had, it seems, more invention though fewer facts. Hazlitt was not bound to understand strategy, and devoutly held that Wellington's armies succeeded because their general only looked on. But he should have understood his own trade a little better. Putting aside this grotesque theory, he feels Scott's greatness truly, and admits it generously. He enjoys the broth, to use his own phrase, though he is determined to believe that it somehow made itself.

Lamb said that Hazlitt was a greater authority when he praised than when he abused, a doctrine which may be true of others than Hazlitt. The true distinction is rather that Hazlitt, though always unsafe as a judge, is admirable as an advocate in his own cause, and poor when merely speaking from his brief. Of Mrs. Inchbald I must say what Hazlitt shocked his audience by saying of Hannah More; that she has written a good deal which I have not read, and I therefore cannot deny that her novels might have been written by Venus; but I cannot admit that Wycherley's brutal 'Plain-dealer' is as good as ten volumes of sermons. 'It is curious to see,' says Hazlitt, rather naïvely, 'how the same subject is treated by two such different authors as Shakespeare and Wycherley.' Macaulay's remark about the same coincidence is more to the point. 'Wycherley borrows Viola,' says that vigorous moralist, 'and Viola forthwith becomes a pander of the basest sort.' That is literally true. Indeed, Hazlitt's love for the dramatists of the Restoration is something of a puzzle, except so far as it is explained by early associations. Even then it is hard to explain the sympathy which Hazlitt, the lover of Rousseau and sentiment, feels for Congreve, whose speciality it is that a touch of sentiment is as rare in his painfully-witty dialogues as a drop of water in the desert. Perhaps a contempt for the prejudices of respectable people gave zest to Hazlitt's enjoyment of a literature, representative of a social atmosphere, most propitious to his best feelings. And yet, though I cannot take Hazlitt's judgment, I would frankly admit that Hazlitt's enthusiasm brings out Congreve's real merits with a force of which a calmer judge would be incapable. His warm praises of 'The Beggar's Opera,' his assault upon Sidney's 'Arcadia,' his sarcasms against Tom Moore, are all excellent in their way, whether we do or do not agree with his final result. Whenever Hazlitt writes from his own mind, in short, he writes what is well worth reading. Hazlitt learnt something in his later years from Lamb. He prefers, he says, those papers of Elia in which there is the least infusion of antiquated language; and, in fact, Lamb never inoculated him with his taste for the old English literature. Hazlitt gave a series of lectures upon the Elizabethan dramatists, and carelessly remarks some time afterwards that he has only read about a quarter of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays, and intends to read the rest when he has a chance. It is plain, indeed, that the lectures, though written at times with great spirit, are the work of a man who has got them up for the occasion. And in his more ambitious and successful essays upon Shakespeare the same want of reading appears in another way. He is more familiar with Shakespeare's text than many better scholars. His familiarity is proved by a habit of quotation of which it has been disputed whether it is a merit or a defect. What phrenologists would call the adhesiveness of Hazlitt's mind, its extreme retentiveness for any impression which has once been received, tempts him to a constant repetition of familiar phrases and illustrations. He has, too, a trick of working in patches of his old essays, which he expressly defends on the ground that a book which has not reached a second edition may be considered by its author as manuscript. This self-plagiarism sometimes worries us, as we are worried by a man whose conversation runs in ruts. But his quotations from other authors, where used in moderation, often give a pleasant richness to his style. Shakespeare, in particular, seems to be a storehouse into which he can always dip for an appropriate turn of phrase, and his love of Shakespeare is of a characteristic kind. He has not counted syllables nor weighed various readings. He does not throw a new light upon delicate indications of thought and sentiment, nor philosophise after the manner of Coleridge and the Germans, nor regard Shakespeare as the representative of his age according to the sweeping method of M. Taine. Neither does he seem to love Shakespeare himself as he loves Rousseau or Richardson. He speaks contemptuously of the Sonnets and Poems, and, though I respect his sincerity, I think that such a verdict necessarily indicates indifference to the most Shakespearian parts of Shakespeare. The calm assertion that the qualities of the Poems are the reverse of the qualities of the plays is unworthy of Hazlitt's general acuteness. That which really attracts Hazlitt is sufficiently indicated by the title of his book; he describes the characters of Shakespeare's plays. It is Iago, and Timon, and Coriolanus, and Anthony, and Cleopatra, who really interest him. He loves and hates them as if they were his own contemporaries; he gives the main outlines of their character with a spirited touch. And yet one somehow feels that Hazlitt is not at his best in Shakespearian criticism; his eulogies savour of commonplace, and are wanting in spontaneity. There is not that warm glow of personal feeling which gives light and warmth to his style whenever he touches upon his early favourites. Perhaps he is a little daunted by the greatness of his task, and perhaps there is something in the Shakespearian width of sympathy and in the Shakespearian humour which lies beyond Hazlitt's sphere. His criticism of Hamlet is feeble; he does not do justice to Mercutio or to Jaques; but he sympathises more heartily with the tremendous passion of Lear and Othello, and finds something congenial to his taste in Coriolanus and Timon of Athens. It is characteristic, too, that he evidently understands Shakespeare better on the stage than in the closet. When he can associate Iago and Shylock with the visible presence of Kean, he can introduce that personal element which is so necessary to his best writing.

The best, indeed, of Hazlitt's criticisms—if the word may be so far extended—are his criticisms of living men. The criticism of contemporary portraits called the 'Spirit of the Age' is one of the first of those series which have now become popular, as it is certainly one of the very best. The descriptions of Bentham, and Godwin, and Coleridge, and Horne Tooke are masterpieces in their way. They are, of course, unfair; but that is part of their charm. One would no more take for granted Hazlitt's valuation of Wordsworth than Timon's judgment of Alcibiades. Hazlitt sees through coloured glasses, but his vision is not the less penetrating. The vulgar satirist is such a one as Hazlitt somewhere mentioned who called Wordsworth a dunce. Hazlitt was quite incapable of such a solecism. He knew, nobody better, that a telling caricature must be a good likeness. If he darkens the shades, and here and there exaggerates an ungainly feature, we still know that the shade exists and that the feature is not symmetrical. De Quincey reports the saying of some admiring friend of Hazlitt, who confessed to a shudder whenever Hazlitt used his habitual gesture of placing his hand within his waistcoat. The hand might emerge armed with a dagger. Whenever, said the same friend (Heaven preserve us from our friends!), Hazlitt had been distracted for a moment from the general conversation, he looked round with a mingled air of suspicion and defiance, as though some objectionable phrase might have evaded his censure in the interval. The traits recur to us when we read Hazlitt's descriptions of the men he had known. We seem to see the dark sardonic man, watching the faces and gestures of his friends, ready to take sudden offence at any affront to his cherished prejudices, and yet hampered by a kind of nervous timidity which makes him unpleasantly conscious of his own awkwardness. He remains silent, till somebody unwittingly contradicts his unspoken thoughts—the most irritating kind of contradiction to some people!—and perhaps heaps indiscriminating praise on an old friend, a term nearly synonymous with an old enemy. Then the dagger suddenly flashes out, and Hazlitt strikes two or three rapid blows, aimed with unerring accuracy at the weak points of the armour which he knows so well. And then, as he strikes, a relenting comes over him; he remembers old days with a sudden gush of fondness, and puts in a touch of scorn for his allies or himself. Coleridge may deserve a blow, but the applause of Coleridge's enemies awakes his self-reproach. His invective turns into panegyric, and he warms for a time into hearty admiration, which proves that his irritation arises from an excess, not from a defect, of sensibility; but finding that he has gone a little too far, he lets his praise slide into equivocal description, and, with some parting epigram, he relapses into silence. The portraits thus drawn are never wanting in piquancy nor in fidelity. Brooding over his injuries and his desertions, Hazlitt has pondered almost with the eagerness of a lover upon the qualities of his intimates. Suspicion, unjust it may be, has given keenness to his investigation. He has interpreted in his own fashion every mood and gesture. He has watched his friends as a courtier watches a royal favourite. He has stored in his memory, as we fancy, the good retorts which his shyness or unreadiness smothered at the propitious moment, and brings them out in the shape of a personal description. When such a man sits at our tables, silent and apparently self-absorbed, and yet shrewd and sensitive, we may well be afraid of the dagger, though it may not be drawn till after our death, and may write memoirs instead of piercing flesh. And yet Hazlitt is no mean assassin of reputations; nor is his enmity as a rule more than the seamy side of friendship. Gifford, indeed, and Croker, 'the talking potato,' are treated as outside the pale of human rights.

Excellent as Hazlitt can be as a dispenser of praise and blame, he seems to me to be at his best in a different capacity. The first of his performances which attracted much attention was the Round Table, designed by Leigh Hunt (who contributed a few papers), on the old 'Spectator' model. In the essays afterwards collected in the volumes called 'Table Talk' and the 'Plain Speaker,' he is still better, because more certain of his position. It would, indeed, be difficult to name any writer, from the days of Addison to those of Lamb, who has equalled Hazlitt's best performances of this kind. Addison is too unlike to justify a comparison; and, to say the truth, though he has rather more in common with Lamb, the contrast is much more obvious than the resemblance. Each wants the other's most characteristic vein; Hazlitt has hardly a touch of humour, and Lamb is incapable of Hazlitt's caustic scorn for the world and himself. They have indeed in common, besides certain superficial tastes, a love of pathetic brooding over the past. But the sentiment exerted is radically different. Lamb forgets himself when brooding over an old author or summing up the 'old familiar faces.' His melancholy and his mirth cast delightful cross-lights upon the topics of which he converses, and we do not know, until we pause to reflect, that it is not the intrinsic merit of the objects, but Lamb's own character, which has caused our pleasure. They would be dull, that is, in other hands; but the feeling is embodied in the object described, and not made itself the source of our interest. With Hazlitt, it is the opposite. He is never more present than when he is dwelling upon the past. Even in criticising a book or a man, his favourite mode is to tell us how he came to love or to hate him; and in the non-critical Essays he is always appealing to us, directly or indirectly, for sympathy with his own personal emotions. He tells us how passionately he is yearning for the days of his youth; he is trying to escape from his pressing annoyances; wrapping himself in sacred associations against the fret and worry of surrounding cares; repaying himself for the scorn of women or Quarterly Reviewers by retreating into some imaginary hermitage; and it is the delight of dreaming upon which he dwells more than upon the beauty of the visions revealed to his inward eye. The force with which this sentiment is presented gives a curious fascination to some of his essays. Take, for example, the essay in 'Table Talk,' 'On Living to One's self,'—an essay written, as he is careful to tell us, on a mild January day in the country, whilst the fire is blazing on the hearth and a partridge getting ready for his supper. There he expatiates in happy isolation on the enjoyments of living as 'a silent spectator of the mighty scheme of things;' as being in the world, and not of it; watching the clouds and the stars, poring over a book, or gazing at a picture without a thought of becoming an author or an artist. He has drifted into a quiet little backwater, and congratulates himself in all sincerity on his escape from the turbulent stream outside. He drinks in the delight of rest at every pore; reduces himself for the time to the state of a polyp drifting on the warm ocean stream, and becomes a voluptuous hermit. He calls up the old days when he acted up to his principles, and found pleasure enough in endless meditation and quiet observation of nature. He preaches most edifyingly on the disappointments, the excitements, the rough impacts of hard facts upon sensitive natures, which haunt the world outside, and declares, in all sincerity, 'this sort of dreaming existence is the best; he who quits it to go in search of realities generally barters repose for repeated disappointments and vain regrets.' He is sincere, and therefore eloquent; and we need not, unless we please, add the remark that he enjoys rest because it is a relief from toil; and that he will curse the country as heartily as any man if doomed to entire rest. This meditation on the phenomena of his own sensations leads him often into interesting reflections of a psychological kind. He analyses his own feelings with constant eagerness, as he analyses the character of his enemies. A good specimen is the essay 'On Antiquity' in the 'Plain Speaker,' which begins with some striking remarks on the apparently arbitrary mode in which some objects and periods seem older to us than others, in defiance of chronology. The monuments of the Middle Ages seem more antique than the Greek statues and temples with their immortal youth. 'It is not the full-grown, articulated, thoroughly accomplished periods of the world that we regard with the pity or reverence due to age, so much as those imperfect, unformed, uncertain periods which seem to totter on the verge of non-existence, to shrink from the grasp of our feeble imagination, as they crawl out of, or retire into the womb of time, of which our utmost assurance is to doubt whether they ever were or not.' And then, as usual, he passes to his own experience, and meditates on the changed aspect of the world in youth and maturer life. The petty, personal emotions pass away, whilst the grand and ideal 'remains with us unimpaired in its lofty abstraction from age to age.' Therefore, though the inference is not quite clear, he can never forget the first time he saw Mrs. Siddons act, or the appearance of Burke's 'Letter to a Noble Lord.' And then, in a passage worthy of Sir Thomas Browne, he describes the change produced as our minds are stereotyped, as our most striking thoughts become truisms, and we lose the faculty of admiration. In our youth 'art woos us; science tempts us with her intricate labyrinths; each step presents unlooked-for vistas, and closes upon us our backward path. Our onward road is strange, obscure, and infinite. We are bewildered in a shadow, lost in a dream. Our perceptions have the brightness and indistinctness of a trance. Our continuity of consciousness is broken, crumbles, and falls to pieces. We go on learning and forgetting every hour. Our feelings are chaotic, confused, strange to each other and ourselves.' But in time we learn by rote the lessons which we had to spell out in our youth. 'A very short period (from 15 to 25 or 30) includes the whole map and table of contents of human life. From that time we may be said to live our lives over again, repeat ourselves—the same thoughts return at stated intervals, like the tunes of a barrel-organ; and the volume of the universe is no more than a form of words, a book of reference.'

From such musings Hazlitt can turn to describe any fresh impression which has interested him, in spite of his occasional weariness, with a freshness and vivacity which proves that his eye had not grown dim, nor his temperament incapable of enjoyment. He fell in love with Miss Sarah Wilson at the tolerably ripe age of 43; and his desire to live in the past is not to be taken more seriously than his contempt for his literary reputation. It lasts only till some vivid sensation occurs in the present. In congenial company he could take a lively share in conversation, as is proved not only by external evidence, but by his very amusing book of conversations with Northcote—an old cynic out of whom it does not seem that anybody else could strike many sparks,—or from the essay, partly historical, it is to be supposed, in which he records his celebrated discussion with Lamb, on persons whom one would wish to have seen. But perhaps some of his most characteristic performances in this line are those in which he anticipates the modern taste for muscularity. His wayward disposition to depreciate ostensibly his own department of action, leads him to write upon the 'disadvantages of intellectual superiority,' and to maintain the thesis that the glory of the Indian jugglers is more desirable than that of a statesman. And perhaps the same sentiment, mingled with sheer artistic love of the physically beautiful, prompts his eloquence upon the game of fives—in which he praises the great player Cavanagh as warmly, and describes his last moments as pathetically, as if he were talking of Rousseau—and still more his immortal essay on the fight between the Gasman and Bill Neate. Prize-fighting is fortunately fallen into hopeless decay, and we are pretty well ashamed of the last flicker of enthusiasm created by Sayers and Heenan. We may therefore enjoy without remorse the prose-poem in which Hazlitt kindles with genuine enthusiasm to describe the fearful glories of the great battle. Even to one who hates the most brutalising of amusements, the spirit of the writer is impressibly contagious. We condemn, but we applaud; we are half disposed for the moment to talk the old twaddle about British pluck; and when Hazlitt's companion on his way home pulls out of his pocket a volume of the 'Nouvelle Héloïse,' admit for a moment that 'Love of the Fancy is,' as the historian assures us, 'compatible with a cultivation of sentiment.' If Hazlitt had thrown as much into his description of the Battle of Waterloo, and had taken the English side, he would have been a popular writer. But even Hazlitt cannot quite embalm the memories of Cribb, Belcher, and Gully.

It is time, however, to stop. More might be said by a qualified writer of Hazlitt's merits as a judge of pictures or of the stage. The same literary qualities mark all his writings. De Quincey, of course, condemns Hazlitt, as he does Lamb, for a want of 'continuity.' 'No man can be eloquent,' he says, 'whose thoughts are abrupt, insulated, capricious, and nonsequacious.' But then De Quincey will hardly allow that any man is eloquent except Jeremy Taylor, Sir Thomas Browne, and Thomas De Quincey. Hazlitt certainly does not belong to their school; nor, on the other hand, has he the plain homespun force of Swift and Cobbett. And yet readers who do not insist upon measuring all prose by the same standard, will probably agree that if Hazlitt is not a great rhetorician, if he aims at no gorgeous effects of complex harmony, he has yet an eloquence of his own. It is indeed an eloquence which does not imply quick sympathy with many moods of feeling, or an intellectual vision at once penetrating and comprehensive. It is the eloquence characteristic of a proud and sensitive nature, which expresses a very keen if narrow range of feeling, and implies a powerful grasp of one, if only one side of the truth. Hazlitt harps a good deal upon one string; but that string vibrates forcibly. His best passages are generally an accumulation of short, pithy sentences, shaped in strong feeling, and coloured by picturesque association; but repeating, rather than corroborating, each other. The last blow goes home, but each falls on the same place. He varies the phrase more than the thought; and sometimes he becomes obscure, because he is so absorbed in his own feelings that he forgets the very existence of strangers who require explanation. Read through Hazlitt, and this monotony becomes a little tiresome; but dip into him at intervals, and you will often be astonished that so vigorous a writer has not left some more enduring monument of his remarkable powers.

FOOTNOTES:

[3] In the excellent Essay prefixed to 'Hazlitt's Literary Remains.'

 
 
 

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