The history of essays on the essay—with Bacon, Addison and Steele, and Montaigne among those cited as Founding Fathers—reveals the genre’s amazing diversity and the consequent difficulty of formulating any kind of completely satisfactory definition. In A Glossary of Literary Terms (1981), M.H.Abrams sets down interesting guidelines to facilitate discussion. He defines it generally as “any brief composition in prose that undertakes to discuss a matter, express a point of view, or persuade us to accept a thesis on any subject whatever.” He is quick to distinguish the personal or familiar essay in which the author assumes “a tone of intimacy with his audience” and is “concerned with everyday things,” writing in “a relaxed, self-revelatory, and often whimsical fashion,” from the formal essay in which the writer takes on the role of “authority, or at least as highly knowledgeable, and expounds the subject in an orderly way.” Whether writing informally or formally, William Hazlitt is a master in both.
Walter Jackson Bate (1970), an important critic in the 20th– century revival of Hazlitt studies, catches a key dimension of the essayist’s attractiveness in his engaging comment that “There is an appearance of hastiness in almost everything Hazlitt wrote, as though the printer’s boy were at the door awaiting the sheets as they came from his pen.” Yet this “appearance,” while the clear result of the sheer busy-ness of Hazlitt’s life and career as essayist, critic, reviewer, biographer, and social and political commentator, can as easily and justly be associated with his own favorite quality, gusto: the lively, immediate mode of his expression, the quickness of his mind, the range of his ideas, the forceful commitment to the cause of freedom in almost every area of human activity.
Jacob Zeitlin (1913), one of the earliest of the modern commentators on Hazlitt, finds a “triple ancestry” for the essayist: Montaigne’s “original observation of humanity,” Rousseau’s “high-strung susceptibility to emotions, sentiments, and ideas,” and La Rochefoucauld’s “cynicism.” Hazlitt is consistently cited in histories of the essay as part of a great tradition, and indeed he does conform to certain general norms associated with the genre wherever it is discussed, but he also pushes the boundaries beyond what many would regard as its defining limits, standing back to play the role of psychologist, lecturer, and teacher of both canonical and noncanonical classics.
Hazlitt’s career as reviewer began as early as 1813 when he was appointed drama critic for the Morning Chronicle. In 1814 he began writing art and drama criticism for the Champion as well as for the Edinburgh Review and Leigh Hunt’s Examiner. His career continued with his celebrated “Round Table” essays and theatrical criticism for the Examiner, which he published as The Round Table (1817), and in 1817 he became drama critic for the Times. The 1820s saw more “Table Talks” for London Magazine and the publication of two volumes of Table-Talk (1821–22). He contributed to Hunt’s radical journal the Liberal in 1823, and from 1828 to 1830 he was associated with the weekly Atlas and again as drama critic with the Examiner. So prodigious was his essay writing of all kinds—there are thousands of items in his oeuvre—that any elaborate system of classification fails.
Hazlitt’s lengthy but influential An Essay on the Principles of Human Action (1805) advances his favorite subject, “the natural disinterestedness of the human mind,” a subject that greatly influenced Keats’ ideas on Negative Capability. Essays such as “On Genius and Originality” (1814), “On Reason and Imagination” (1826), “On Poetry in General” (1818), “On Imitation” (1816), “On the Character of Rousseau” (1816), and “On Shakespeare and Milton” (1818) represent the barest sample of his work as critic/essayist; there are also hundreds of reviews of almost every kind of artistic performance as well as a large number of biographical sketches.
But he may be best remembered for the short familiar essays on a remarkable variety of topics: “On Consistency of Opinion” (1821), “The Character of Country People” (1819), “On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth” (1827), “On Reading New Books” (1827), “On Going a Journey” (182,2), “On the Pleasure of Painting” (1820).
There is also his tour de force account of “The Fight” (1822) of 10 December 182,1 between Tom Hickman the Gas-man and Bill Neate.
It is his own term “gusto” that best captures the approach in Hazlitt’s essays. The way he musters language and imagery to catch the difficult-to-describe subject, the verve and energy of the speaking voice, the power of entering into a subject, and the range of artistic allusion even now gives the essays the ring of truth. Stanley Chase (1924) describes the overall approach as classic impressionism, “the interpretation of works of art by reference to the emotions which they excite in the individual breast.” Herschel Baker (1962) sees the essays as seldom following a “linear pattern,” tracing “not the sharp contour of points in ordered exposition but the undulating sequence of his moods.”
His range of literary allusion or quotation is remarkable—from the Bible to the Book of Common Prayer, from Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton to Shakespeare, from Sterne’s Tristram Shandy to Scott’s Waverley, from Dryden’s The Hind and the Panther to Gray’s Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, to Young’s Night-Thoughts, to Cowper’s The Task, to Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey.
The personal is almost always his strongest suit. As John Nabholtz says in his introduction to Hazlitt’s Selected Essays (1970), “his style transmits the voice of a man passionately involved with his experience and communicating that involvement through all the devices of sound and structure.” “One of the pleasantest things in the world,” Hazlitt writes in “On Going a Journey,” “is going a journey; but I like to go by myself. I can enjoy society in a room; but out of doors, nature is company enough for me… The soul of a journey is liberty; perfect liberty to think, feel, do just as one pleases.” Or, with his lifelong trust in feeling as guide to action, he describes himself as “one of those who do not think that mankind are exactly governed by reason or a cool calculation of consequences” (“The Main Chance,” 1828).
In “The Fight” Hazlitt draws his audience into the ring with his vivid sportswriter-like journalism. “Reader,” he writes at the beginning, “have you ever seen a fight? If not, you have a pleasure to come, at least if it is a fight like that between the Gas-Man and Bill Neate… In the first round every one thought it was all over. After making play a short time, the Gas-man flew at his adversary like a tiger, struck five blows in as many seconds, three first, and then following him as he staggered back, two more, right and left, and down he fell, a mighty ruin.”
Hazlitt’s keen interest in the psychological reveals itself not only in An Essay on the Principles of Human Action, but throughout his more formal essays and essay-reviews of literature, painting, and other arts. For him “Poetry is the language of the imagination and the passions” (“On Poetry in General”). He expects the same gusto from the work of art that he brings to his own experience: “power or passion defining any object.” The color in Titian’s painting has this power: “Not only do his heads seem to think—his bodies seem to feel.” So do Michelangelo’s forms, which “everywhere obtrude the sense of power upon the eye” (“On Gusto,” 1816). The power of Milton’s mind can be found almost everywhere in his work: “The fervour of his imagination melts down and renders malleable, as in a furnace, the most contradictory materials” (“On Shakespeare and Milton”). The pleasure of tragic poetry is not an anomaly of the imagination, “but has its source in the common love of strong excitement” (“On Poetry in General”). It is the sympathetic quality of the imagination—its power to enter into the reality beyond the self—which attracts Hazlitt most. Imagination “is an associating principle, and has an instinctive perception when a thing belongs to a system, or is only an exception to it” (“On Reason and Imagination”). And genius, far from self-centeredness or display, “is, for the most part, some strong quality in the mind answering to and bringing out some new and striking quality in nature” (“On Genius and Common Sense,” 1821).
Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, as well as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and his Romantic contemporaries, loom large in Hazlitt’s lecture-essays. But Shakespeare conquers all; he is “the least of an egotist it was possible to be.” “The striking peculiarity” of his mind and genius “was its generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds…and had no peculiar bias, or exclusive excellence more than another. He was just like any other man, but that he was like all other men” (“On Shakespeare and Milton”).
Hazlitt’s splendid “A Farewell to Essay Writing” (1828) combines all the elements of the successful essay, and specifically his own special qualities. The intensely personal tone, the engaging style, the keen sensitivity to persons and places, the wide range of literary reference—these and indeed more mark his farewell. “Food, warmth, sleep, and a book; these are all at present I ask—the ultima thule of my wandering desires.” A walk in nature is a vital necessity in his life. Sipping his morning tea, he loves to watch “the clouds sailing from the west.” Metaphor quickly becomes his mode: “We walk through life, as through a narrow path, with a thin curtain drawn around it; behind it are ranged rich portraits, airy harps are strung.” But we must “lift aside the veil” to see the beauty and play the music. Memory recalls another time and place 18 years earlier, which in turn evokes a memory of the Theodore-Honora story in Boccaccio’s Decameron when the lovers return from Hell. Hazlitt resolves to return home, take up Dryden’s translation, and “drawing my chair to the fire, and holding a small print close to my eyes, launch into the full tide of Dryden’s couplets (a stream of sound).”
At his best—and as a somewhat overburdened journalist and reviewer he often falls short—William Hazlitt is the master essayist of the English Romantic period, a writer who inherits one tradition and sets a high standard for a new one. He is an essayist with the rare gift of capturing the vitality of his own experience of life and art and of making his readers richer for sharing that experience.
Born 10 April 1778 in Maidstone, Kent. Family moved to Ireland, 1780, the United States, 1783–87, then to Wem, Shropshire, from 1787. Studied privately; Hackney Theological College, London, 1793–94; studied painting with his brother in Paris, 1802– 03. Associated with Coleridge, Lamb, Godwin, and Wordsworth. Lived in Wem and London, 1805–08, Winterslow, near Salisbury, 1808–11, returning to London, 1812.
Married Sarah Stoddart, 1808 (divorced, 1822): one son (two others died in infancy). Parliamentary reporter, 1812–13, and dramatic critic, 1813–14, Morning Chronicle, and for the Times, 1817, and the Examiner, 1828–30; contributor to various other journals and newspapers, including the Edinburgh Review, the Champion, the Liberal, London Magazine, Atlas, and the New Monthly. Arrested for debt, 1823. Married Isabella Bridgewater, 1824 (separated, 1827). Traveled in France and Italy, 1824–25. Died (of stomach cancer) in London, 18 September 1830.
Essays and Related Prose
An Essay on the Principles of Human Action, Being an Argument in Favour of the Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind, 1805
Free Thoughts on Public Affairs; or, Advice to a Patriot, 1806
A Reply to the Essay on Population by Malthus, in a Series of Letters, 1807
The Round Table: A Collection of Essays on Literature, Men, and Manners, with Leigh Hunt, 2 vols., 1817; facsimile reprint, 1991
Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, 1817
A View of the English Stage; or, A Series of Dramatic Criticisms, 1818
Lectures on the English Poets, 1818
Lectures on the English Comic Writers, 1819; edited by A.Johnson, 1965
Political Essays, with Sketches of Public Characters, 1819
Lectures, Chiefly on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth, 1820
Table-Talk; or, Original Essays, 2 vols., 1821–22
Characteristics, in the Manner of Rochefoucault’s Maxims, 1823
Sketches of the Principal Picture Galleries in England with a Criticism on “Marriage a la Mode”, 1824
The Spirit of the Age; or, Contemporary Portraits, 1825; edited by E.D.Mackerness, 1969
Notes of a Journey Through France and Italy, 1826
The Plain Speaker: Opinions on Books, Men, and Things, 2 vols., 1826
Literary Remains, 2 vols., 1836
Sketches and Essays, edited by William Hazlitt, Jr., 1839; as Men and Manners, 1852
Criticisms on Art and Sketches of the Picture Galleries of England, edited by William Hazlitt, Jr., 2 vols., 1843–44; as Essays on the Fine Arts, 1873
Winterslow: Essays and Characters Written There, edited by William Hazlitt, Jr., 1850
New Writings, edited by P.P.Howe, 2 vols., 1925–27
Selected Essays, edited by Geoffrey Keynes, 1930
Hazlitt on Theatre, edited by William Archer and Robert Lowe, 1957
Selected Writings, edited by Ronald Blythe, 1970
Selected Essays, edited by John R.Nabholtz, 1970
Selected Writings, edited by Jon Cook, 1991
Other writings: a four-volume life of Napoleon (1828–30), an autobiographical account of a doomed love affair, Liber Amoris (1823), an English grammar book, and correspondence (collected in The Letters, edited by Herschel Moreland Sikes, 1978).
Collected works edition: Complete Works (Centenary Edition) edited by P.P.Howe, 21 vols., 1930–34.
Houck, James A., William Hazlitt: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1977
Keynes, Geoffrey, Bibliography of William Hazlitt, Godalming, Surrey: St. Paul’s Bibliographies, revised edition, 1981 (original edition, 1931)
Albrecht, W.P., Hazlitt and the Creative Imagination, Lawrence: University of Kansas
Press, 1965 (original edition, 1953) Baker, Herschel, William Hazlitt, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1962
Bate, Walter Jackson, “William Hazlitt,” in Criticism: The Major Texts, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1970
Bromwich, David, Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983
Bullitt, John M., “Hazlitt and the Romantic Conception of the Imagination,” Philological Quarterly 24 (1945):343–61
Chase, Stanley P., “Hazlitt as a Critic of Art,” PMLA 39 (1924): 179–202
Good, Graham, “Hazlitt: Ventures of the Self,” in his The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay, London and New York: Routledge, 1988:71–89
Ireland, Alexander, William Hazlitt, Essayist and Critic: Selections from His Writings with a Memoir, Biographical and Critical, London and New York: Warne, 1889
Kinnaird, John, William Hazlitt: Critic of Power, New York: Columbia University Press, 1978
Mahoney, John L., The Logic of Passion: The Literary Criticism of William Hazlitt, New York: Fordham University Press, revised edition, 1981
Nabholtz, John R., editor, “My Reader My Fellow-Labourer”: A Study of English Romantic Prose, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986
O’Hara, J.D., “Hazlitt and the Function of Imagination,” PMLA 81 (1956):552–62
Park, Roy, Hazlitt and the Spirit of the Age: Abstraction and Critical Theory, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971
Schneider, Elisabeth, The Aesthetics of William Hazlitt: A Study of the Philosophical Basis of His Criticism, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933
Zeitlin, Jacob, Hazlitt on English Literature: An Introduction to the Appreciation of Literature, New York: Oxford University Press, 1913
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