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Hazlitt, William

Category: Genius

William Hazlitt - self-portrait (1802), the painting shows him to be left
handed, as he will have painted this using a mirror.  A sketch below shows his
hair parting as it was - the sign of a left hander.

William Hazlitt (10 April 1778 – 18 September 1830) was an English writer, remembered for his humanistic essays and literary criticism.  He was also an art critic; a drama critic; a social commentator; a philosopher and an accomplished portrait painter with a talent for capturing the sitter's personality extremely well.

He is now considered one of the great critics and essayists of the English language, yet I suspect few will ever have heard of him. 

He was also totally eccentric.  His work is currently little read and mostly out of print.

What is intriguing about Hazlitt is that he seemed to swing from vitriolic hate, to moments of pure love and benevolence.  In effect, he appears to have had a form of manic depression.  And both extreme emotions produced inspired works.  For example:

  • On Pedantry - The power of attaching an interest to the most trifling or painful pursuits ... is one of the greatest happinesses of our nature
  • On Different Sorts of Fame - In proportion as men can command the immediate and vulgar applause of others, they become indifferent to that which is remote and difficult of attainment
  • On Good-Nature - Good nature, or what is often considered as such, is the most selfish of all the virtues....

Even if you don’t agree with these quotes, they make you think.  His style was in some respects like Nietzsche’s, with whom he shares many characteristics.  One of his articles is called "On the Pleasure of Hating" (1823; included in The Plain Speaker).  It is a pure outpouring of spleen, a distillation of all the bitterness of his life. It concludes, "...have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough" .....and we also have

When one is found fault with for nothing, or for doing one's best, one is apt to give the world their revenge. All the former part of my life I was treated as a cipher; and since I have got into notice, I have been set upon as a wild beast. When this is the case, and you can expect as little justice as candour, you naturally in self-defence take refuge in a sort of misanthropy and cynical contempt for mankind.

His life

William was the youngest of the surviving Hazlitt children.  When he was two, his family began a migratory existence that was to last several years. From Maidstone his father took them to Bandon, County Cork, Ireland; and from Bandon in 1783 to the United States, where the elder Hazlitt preached and lectured without success. In 1786–87 the family returned to England.

sketch showing his parting

During this time, Hazlitt was educated at home and then at a local school.  In 1793, [aged 15], his father sent him to a Unitarian seminary with the intention of making him into a minister.  Although Hazlitt stayed there for only about two years, it had an unexpectedly positive impact.  The school provided a grounding in most of the classic subjects of the day, but was far more open and ‘liberal’ [in its non political sense].  One of his teachers was Joseph Priestley, an ‘impassioned commentator’ on the issues of the day. This, along with the turmoil in the wake of the French Revolution, sparked lively debates  - which were encouraged - on these issues, as the pupils saw their world being transformed around them.  Out of respect for his father, Hazlitt never openly broke with his religion, but he suffered a ‘loss of faith’, in effect rejected religion and left Hackney.

The unconventional and questioning form of education he received at Hackney was to serve him for the rest of his life.  He gained the habit of independent thought.  He had also learnt that an individual, working both alone and within a mutually supportive community, can effect beneficial change by adhering to strongly held principles.  But in many ways he did not manage to apply these principles to his own work.  He abandoned diplomacy and careful argument and launched in with abandon - and although his essays may have had some effect, they had not nearly as much effect as if they had been more carefully and tactfully argued.  He was left with a sense of total frustration and a hatred of the abuse of power by others that he retained to his last days. 

Cardinal Ippolito Medici (1511–1535) 

by William Hazlitt

He spent a great deal of painstaking effort on a treatise on the "natural disinterestedness of the human mind", with the objective of showing that man is NOT naturally selfish,  a belief in contrast to the beliefs espoused by the philosophers of the day and interestingly enough, now promoted by some scientists.

In 1803, Hazlitt met Charles Lamb and his sister Mary and they became friends. The friendship, “though sometimes strained by Hazlitt's difficult ways”, lasted until the end of Hazlitt's life. 

With the Lambs' support, he finally found the opportunity to complete this philosophical treatise, which was published in 1805 as An Essay on the Principles of Human Action: Being an Argument in favour of the Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind

It became 'lost' as a consequence of his poor tolerance for any who, he thought, 'had abandoned the cause of liberty'.  Gradually even his friends drifted away, his frequent outspokenness, even tactlessness, in social situations made it difficult for many to feel close to him, and at times he tried the patience of even Charles Lamb. 

When he met the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. “He was dazzled. ‘I could not have been more delighted if I had heard the music of the spheres’, he wrote later ".  Through Coleridge Hazlitt also met William Wordsworth. Again, Hazlitt was enraptured. "With what eyes these poets see nature!" Later, he pilloried them in his critical essays and lost them too.

In this period a mishap occurred that shadowed his life for many years. The young Hazlitt rarely felt comfortable in the society of women, especially those of the upper and middle classes. Tormented by sexual desires, he sought the company of prostitutes and "loose women" of lower social and economic strata. During his last stay in the Lake District with Coleridge, his actions led to a near disastrous blunder, as a misunderstanding of the intentions of one local woman led to an altercation, followed by Hazlitt's precipitous retreat from the town under cover of darkness. This strained his relationship with Coleridge and Wordsworth, which was already coming apart at the seams for other reasons.

Hazlitt's portrait of his father

In order to earn a living, William took a cue from his brother John, who was a successful painter of miniature portraits, and became a portrait painter.  By 1802, his work was considered good enough for a portrait he had recently painted of his father to be accepted for exhibition by the Royal Academy. 

Later in 1802, Hazlitt was commissioned to travel to Paris and copy several works of the old masters hanging in the Louvre.

Over a period of three months, he spent long hours in rapture studying the paintings. This experience provided him with the material for his art criticisms some years afterward and helped him hone his painting style.


The Dandy School by William Hazlitt

Hazlitt's portraits are extremely competent, but they are also somewhat 'brutal' for their day.  The year 1812 seems to have been the last in which Hazlitt entertained serious ambitions to make a living as a painter.

Although he had demonstrated talent, the results of his most impassioned efforts always fell far short of the standards he had set for himself. Nor did his commissioned portraits please their subjects, as he obstinately refused to sacrifice to flattery what he considered 'truth'.

In 1808, Hazlitt married Sarah Stoddart, a friend of Mary Lamb. 

Although incompatibilities would later drive the couple apart, at first the union seemed to work well enough. Miss Stoddart was an unconventional woman who would be accepted by one as unconventional in his way as Hazlitt, and would in turn tolerate his eccentricities. It was hardly a match of love, but at first there were signs of a certain playful, affectionate behaviour between them”. 

Sarah’s brother John, fully recognising the inability of either his sister or new brother-in-law to manage their affairs, established a trust for them into which he began paying £100 per year, —a very generous gesture, but one Hazlitt somewhat resented.  The couple had three sons over the next few years, but only one survived infancy—William, born in 1811.

Hazlitt stumbled on, trying to find work, surviving on writing commissions and lecturing.  By 1814, his fortunes had improved, and he had begun to earn a satisfactory living as an essayist and critic, but the mental deterioration continued. 

Death of Clorinda (copy of Lodovico Lana)

by William Hazlitt

His household grew increasingly disordered over the years, his marriage deteriorated, and he spent more and more time away from home.  For relief from all that weighed on his mind, Hazlitt became a passionate player at a kind of racquet ball similar to the game of Fives in that it was played against a wall. He played with savage intensity, dashing around the court like a madman, drenched in sweat.

As the state of Hazlitt's marriage continued its downward spiral; he wrote furiously for several periodicals to make ends meet; suffering bouts of illness; and making enemies by his venomous political diatribes.   Needless to say, those he attacked fought back.  He was mocked as "pimpled Hazlitt", and accused of ignorance, dishonesty, and obscenity, he was even subject to ‘vague physical threats’. Though Hazlitt was rattled by these attacks, he sought legal advice and sued. The lawsuit was finally settled out of court in his favour.  But the attacks did not cease.  He was condemned as ignorant and his writing as unintelligible.  

Such is hate – it breeds hate.

William Hazlitt by William Bewick

The rumours that had been spread demonising him, along with the vilifications of the press, not only hurt his pride, but seriously obstructed his ability to earn a living.  Eventually, his marriage failed. He had been visiting prostitutes and displayed ‘amorous inclinations’ toward a number of women whose names are lost to history. Now in 1819, he was unable to pay the rent and his family were evicted. That was the last straw for Sarah, who moved into rooms with their son and broke with Hazlitt for good.

He retreated to the country, staying at "The Hut", an inn at Winterslow, and shut himself away like a hermit.  

And here he wrote Table Talk – a series of essays which were to prove to be one of his most memorable works.  In one of the Table-Talk essays, "On Living to One's-Self" (January 1821), he explains that he was not wanting to withdraw completely but rather to become an invisible observer of society.  He wrote in the first person, adopted a less formal style and abandoned criticism and vitriol.   "hours ... sacred to silence and to musing, to be treasured up in the memory, and to feed the source of smiling thoughts thereafter" ("On Going a Journey", written January 1822).

In Table-Talk, inspired by peace and nature, Hazlitt found the most congenial format for his thoughts and observations. A broad panorama of the triumphs and follies of humanity, an exploration of the quirks of the mind, of the nobility but also the meanness of human nature, the collection was knit together by a web of consistent thinking, a skein of ideas woven from a lifetime of close reasoning on life, art, and literature. He illustrated his points with bright imagery and pointed analogies, among which were woven pithy quotations drawn from the history of English literature, primarily the poets.

These essays were unlike anything ever done before. It was only long after his death that their reputation achieved full stature, increasingly often considered among the best essays ever written in English.

Many of the quotations that you see posted on the Internet are from these essays.

But there is another work for which he will always be remembered and this is Liber Amoris.

In August 1820, Hazlitt rented rooms from a tailor named Micaiah Walker. Walker's 19-year-old daughter Sarah, who helped with the housekeeping, would bring the new lodger his breakfast. Hazlitt became infatuated with Miss Walker, more than 22 years his junior. He dreamed of marrying her.  Sarah Walker was ‘a fairly ordinary girl’. She had aspirations to better herself, and a famous author seemed like a prize catch. When another lodger named Tomkins came along, she entered into a romantic entanglement with him as well, leading each of her suitors to believe he was the sole object of her affection. With vague words, she evaded absolute commitment until she could decide which she liked better or was the more advantageous catch.

Hazlitt discovered the truth about Tomkins, and from then on his jealousy and suspicions of Sarah Walker's real character afforded him little rest. For months, he alternated between rage and despair, on the one hand, and the comforting if unrealistic thought that she was really "a good girl" and would accept him at last.  His divorce from his wife Sarah was finalised on 17 July 1822, and Hazlitt returned to London—only to find Sarah Walker cold and resistant. They then become involved in ‘angry altercations’. And it was over, though Hazlitt could not for some time persuade himself to believe so. His mind nearly snapped. He contemplated suicide.

Catharsis was provided by his recording the course of his love in a thinly disguised fictional account, published anonymously in May 1823 as Liber Amoris.  “Critics have been divided as to the literary merits of Liber Amoris, which is quite unlike anything else Hazlitt ever wrote”.  So we can conclude from this that it is probably his masterpiece.  This is perhaps closer to the truth: 

The Globe, 7 June 1823:
The Liber Amoris is unique in the English language; and as, possibly, the first book in its fervour, its vehemency [sic], and its careless exposure of passion and weakness—of sentiments and sensations which the common race of mankind seek most studiously to mystify or conceal—that exhibits a portion of the most distinguishing characteristics of Rousseau, it ought to be generally praised.

The effects of Love and unrequited love.

And that is where I shall leave him, despite the fact that Wikipedia devotes around 16 pages more to his philosophical works and essays.  Spiritually William Hazlitt’s greatest inspiration came from Love and unrequited love, as well as communing with nature and the peace of a safe house.

Hazlitt married again, but this marriage also failed.  In 1827, his second wife left him.  She had provided him with a source of income and from then on he fought a continual battle against poverty, regularly forced to grind out a stream of articles, mostly undistinguished, just to pay expenses. He also found himself struggling against bouts of illness - physical as well as mental illness.  By September 1830, Hazlitt was confined to his bed, with his son in attendance, his pain so acute that his doctor kept him drugged on opium much of the time.  His last few days were spent in delirium, obsessed with some woman unknown.  Finally, with his son and a few others in attendance, he died on 18 September. His last words were reported to have been
"Well, I've had a happy life".


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