There was no Nederlog yesterday, but I did upload corrections and links
to my On Zeitlin on
Hazlitt - 1 (notes)
I have also remarked that I am aware Hazlitt is
of interest to few, and indeed in the last link explained why, but then
I write as I please, and not as others do.
So today there is more of the same, and to
start with I reproduce the second part of Jacob Zeitlin's introduction
to Hazlitt in his 1913
I gave the link before, and it is to the text
of the whole book as edited in Project Gutenberg in html, that is quite
well done, and consists, apart from Zeitlin's introduction, of a good
selection from Hazlitt's essays.
My reproduction is on the same lines as in part
and indeed is the second part of three, so I
will not bother to repeat them, except by saying that Zeitlin's notes
are on the pattern of "" and appear below his text, in the present
file, while my notes are on the pattern of "[M1]" and will be inserted
later, and in another file, all as with the first part.
Here then is more Zeitlin, indeed part 2 of his
introduction. I have inserted the links, that are nearly all to Wikipedia,
to provide background. I decided to follow the format of the first part,
and will insert my notes later and in a separate file. So apart from a
remark of mine at the end, what follows is Zeitlin's text. Clicking on the
title will lead you to the previous part.
Hazlitt gave himself freely and without reserve to his
reader. By his side Leigh Hunt
appears affected, De
Quincey theatrical, Lamb—let us say
discreet. Affectation and discretion were equally alien to Hazlitt’s
nature, as they concerned either his personal conduct or his literary
exercises. In regard to every impression, every prejudice, every stray
thought that struggled into consciousness, his practice was, to use his
own favorite quotation,
out all as plain
As downright Shippen or as old Montaigne.”
He has drifted far from the tradition of Addison and Steele with
contemporaries sought to associate him. There was nothing in him of the
courtier-like grace employed in the good-humored reproof of unimportant
vices, of the indulgent, condescending admonition to the “gentle
particularly of the fair sex. [M2]
M3. In Hazlitt’s hands the essay was an
instrument for the expression of serious thought and virile passion.
lacked indeed the temperamental balance of Lamb. His insight into human
nature was intellectual rather than sympathetic.
[M4] Though as a
he understood that the web of life is of a mingled yarn, he has given
none of those rare glimpses of laughter ending in tears or of tears
subsiding in a tender smile which are the sources of Lamb’s depth and
charm. The same thing is true of his humor. He relished heartily its
appearance in others and had a most wholesome laugh; but in himself
is no real merriment, only an ironic realization of the contrasts of
When he writes, the smile which sometimes seeks to overpower the grim
fixity of his features, is frozen before it can emerge to the surface.
lacks all the ingratiating arts which make a writer
beloved. But if one
enjoys a keen student of the intricacies of character, a bold and
critic of human imperfections, a stimulating companion full of original
ideas and deep feelings, he will find in Hazlitt an inexhaustible
of instruction and delight. [M5]
Hazlitt has long appealed to men of
character and acute intellect, men like Landor,
Froude, Walter Bagehot, Robert
Louis Stevenson, and Ernest Henley, who have either proclaimed
praise or flattered him with imitation. By the friend who knew him
and was better qualified than any other to speak of him, he has been
pronounced as “in his natural and healthy state, one of the wisest and
finest spirits breathing.”
The discovery in the seventeenth century of the Greek
treatise “On the Sublime,”
with its inspired appreciation of the
great passages in Greek literature so different from the analytic
gave a decided impulse to English criticism. It was at
same time that English prose, under the influence of French models, was
developing a more familiar tone than it had hitherto been acquainted
The union of the enthusiasm of Longinus with this moderated French
resulted in the graceful prefaces of Dryden, which
more than a century. The Longinian fire, breathed upon too by the
of Shakespeare, preserved the eighteenth century from congealing into
utter formalism of pseudo-Aristotelian authority. Though they did not
produce an even warmth over the whole surface, the flames are observed
darting through the crust even where the crust seems thickest. It is
significant that Dr.
Johnson should exclaim with
admiration at the
criticism of Dryden, not because Dryden judged according to rules but
because his was the criticism of a poet. And he singles out as the best
example of such criticism the well-known appreciation of Shakespeare,
very passage which Hazlitt later quoted as “the best character of
Shakespeare that has ever been written.”
The high-priest of classicism
wavered frequently in his allegiance to some of the sacred fetishes of
cult, and had enough grace, once at least, to speak with scorn of the
“cant of those who judged by principles rather than by perception.”
But to judge by perception is a comparatively rare
accomplishment, and so
most critics continued to employ the foot-rule as if they were
flat surfaces, while occasionally going so far as to recognize the
existence of certain mountain-peaks as “irregular beauties.” In a more
less conscious distinction from the criticism of external rules there
developed also during the eighteenth century what its representatives
pleased to call metaphysical criticism, to which we should now probably
apply the term psychological. This consisted in explaining poetic
by reference to strictly mental processes in a tone of calm analysis
eminently suited to the rationalistic temper of the age. It
traced the sources of grandeur or of pathos or of humor, and then
illustrated its generalization by the practice of the poets. It could
thereby pride itself on going back of the rules to the fundamental laws
human nature. Kames’s
Elements of Criticism, written in 1761, became a
work of standard reference, though it did not impose on the great
In commending it Dr. Johnson was careful to remark, “I do not mean that
has taught us anything; but he has told us old things in
But in general Kames was considered a safer guide than the enthusiastic
Longinus, who throughout the century was looked upon with distrust.
“Instead of shewing for what reason a sentiment or image is sublime,
discovering the secret power by which they affect a reader with
he is ever intent on producing something sublime himself, and
his own eloquence.” So runs the complaint of Joseph Warton. The
distrust was not without ground. The danger that the method of Longinus
the hands of ungifted writers would become a cloak for critical
and degenerate into empty bluster was already apparent.
[M8] Only rarely
was there a reader who could distinguish between the false and the true
application of the method. Gibbon did it in
a passage which impressed
itself upon the younger critics of Hazlitt’s generation. “I was
only with two ways of criticising a beautiful passage: the one, to
by an exact anatomy of it, the distinct beauties of it, and whence they
sprung; the other, an idle exclamation, or a general encomium, which
leaves nothing behind it. Longinus has shewn me that there is a third.
tells me his own feelings upon reading it; and tells them with such
energy, that he communicates them.” That vital element, the
commentator’s power of communicating his own feelings, constituting as
does the difference between phrase-making and valuable criticism, did
become prominent in English literature before the nineteenth century.[M9]
The official criticism of the early nineteenth century
as represented by the
Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews, derives its
descent directly from
the eighteenth. Whatever the Government might have thought of the
of the Edinburgh, its literary outlook remained unexceptionably
is a direct copy of Adison’s “Essay on
Much as Dr. Johnson in the preceding age, Jeffrey prided himself on the
moral tendency of his criticism—a morality which consisted in censuring
the life of Burns
and in exalting the virtuous insipidities of Maria
Edgeworth’s tales as it might have been done by any faithful minister
the gospel. [M10] To be sure he cannot be said to have held tenaciously to
old set of canons. Though he stanchly withstood the new-fangled poetic
practices of Wordsworth
and of Southey,
popularity of Scott
and Byron, even at
the cost of some of his favorite
maxims. In his writings the solvents of the older criticism are best
at work. Jeffrey both by instinct and training was a lawyer, and his
position at the head of the most respected periodical formed a natural
temptation to a dictatorial manner. He was a judge who tried to uphold
literary constitution but wavered in the face of a strong popular
opposition. When the support of precedent failed him, he remained
any firm conviction of his own. While his poetic taste was quite
to the appreciation of a Samuel Rogers or a Barry Cornwall,
incomparably futile in the perception of a Wordsworth or a Shelley.
In a passage composed at the end of his long editorial career in 1829, he
unconsciously announced his own extinction as a critic:
“Since the beginning of our critical career, we have
seen a vast deal of
beautiful poetry pass into oblivion, in spite of our feeble efforts to
recall or retain it in remembrance. The tuneful quartos of Southey are
already little better than lumber:—and the rich melodies of Keats and
Shelley,—and the fantastical emphasis of Wordsworth,—and the plebeian
pathos of Crabbe, are melting fast from the field of our vision. The
novels of Scott have put out his poetry. Even the splendid strains of
Moore are fading into distance and dimness, except where they have been
married to immortal music; and the blazing star of Byron himself is
receding from its place of pride. We need say nothing of Milman, and
Croly, and Atherstone, and Hood, and a legion of others, who, with no
ordinary gifts of taste and fancy, have not so properly survived their
fame, as been excluded by some hard fatality, from what seemed their
inheritance. The two who have the longest withstood this rapid
of the laurel, and with the least marks of decay on their branches, are
Rogers and Campbell; neither of them, it may be remarked, voluminous
writers, and both distinguished rather for the fine taste and
elegance of their writings, than for that fiery passion, and disdainful
vehemence, which seemed for a time to be so much more in favour with
But the authority of Jeffrey did not long remain
unfortunate “This will never do” became a by-word among the younger
writers who were gradually awaking to the realization of a new spirit
criticism. The protest against the methods of the dictatorial
found expression in the two brilliant monthly periodicals, Blackwood’s
the London Magazine, founded respectively in 1817 and 1820. In these no
opportunity was neglected to thrust at the inflated pretensions of the
established reviews, and, though the animus of rivalry might be
of playing its part, the blows usually struck home. There is an air of
absolute finality about Lockhart’s
of England,” and his characterization of Jeffrey in
this article is a bold
anticipation of the judgment of posterity.
The editor of the London
writes with equal
assurance, “We must protest against
considering the present taste as the standard of excellence, or the
criticisms on poetry in the Edinburgh Review as the voice even of the
present taste.” The test of critical eligibility in this age is an
appreciation of Wordsworth and a proper understanding of Coleridge
prophet, [M12] and it is by virtue of what inspiration they drew from these
oracles that John Lockhart and John Scott became better qualified than
Jeffrey or Gifford
to form the literary opinions of the public.
Coleridge more than any other person was responsible
for bringing about a
change in the attitude of literature toward criticism. As Hazlitt puts
with his inimitable vividness, he “threw a great stone into the
pool of criticism, which splashed some persons with the mud, but which
gave a motion to the surface and a reverberation to the neighbouring
echoes, which has not since subsided.”
Whether his ideas were borrowed
from the Germans or evolved in his own brain, their importance for
literature remains the same. Coleridge’s service lay in asserting and
reasserting such fundamental principles as that a critical standard is
something quite distinct from a set of external rules; that the
traditional opposition between genius and laws was based on a
misconception as to the function of the critic; that all great genius
necessarily worked in accordance with certain laws which it was the
function of the critic to determine by a study of each particular work
art; that art, being vital and organic, assumed different shapes at
different epochs of human culture; that only
the spirit of poetry
remained constant, while its form was molded anew by each age in
accordance with the demands of its own life; that it was no more
reasonable to judge Shakespeare’s plays by the practice of Sophocles
to judge sculpture by the rules of painting. “O! few have there been
critics, who have followed with the eye of their imagination the
imperishable yet ever wandering spirit of poetry through its various
metempsychoses; or who have rejoiced with the light of clear perception
beholding with each new birth, with each rare avatar, the human
frame to itself a new body, by assimilating materials of nourishment
of its new circumstances, and work for itself new organs of power
appropriate to the new sphere of its motion and activity.” This rare
grasp of general principles was combined in Coleridge with poetic
and a declamatory eloquence which enabled him to seize on the more
and open-minded men of letters and to determine their critical
William Hazlitt was among the earliest to fall under
Just how much he owed to Coleridge beyond the initial impulse it is
impossible to prove, because so much of the latter’s criticism was
expressed during improvised monologues at the informal meetings of
friends, or in lectures of which only fragmentary notes remain.
[M13] At any
rate, while Coleridge’s chief distinction lay in the enunciation of
general principles, Hazlitt’s practice, in so far as it took account of
these general principles at all, assumed their existence, and displayed
its strength in concrete judgments of individual literary works. His
criticism may be said to imply at every step the existence of
or to rise like an elegant superstructure on the solid foundation which
the other had laid. Hazlitt communicated to the general public
and appreciation of great literature which Coleridge inspired only in
few elect. The latter, even more distinctly than a poet for poets, was
a critic for critics,
and three generations have not succeeded in
absorbing all his doctrines.
But Hazlitt, with a delicate sensitiveness to the impressions of
genius, with a boundless zest of poetic enjoyment, with a firm common
sense to control his taste, and with a gift of original expression
unequalled in his day, arrested the attention of the ordinary reader and
made effective the principles which Coleridge with some vagueness had
[M15] To analyze in cold blood
such living criticism as Hazlitt’s may expose one to unflattering
imputations, but the attempt may serve to bring to light what is so often
overlooked, that Hazlitt’s criticism is no random, irresponsible discharge
of his sensibilities, but has an implicit basis of sound theory.[M16]
In his History of Criticism, Mr. Saintsbury takes as
his motto for the
section on the early nineteenth century a sentence from Sainte-Beuve to
the effect that nearly the whole art of the critic consists in knowing
to read a book with judgment and without ceasing to relish it.
[M17] We are
almost ready to believe that the French critic, in the significant
of the words judgment
and relish, is consciously summarizing the method
Hazlitt, the more so as he elsewhere explicitly confesses a sympathy
the English critic.
Hazlitt has indeed himself characterized his art
in some such terms. In one of his lectures he modestly describes his
undertaking “merely to read over a set of authors with the audience, as
would do with a friend, to point out a favorite
passage, to explain an
objection; or if a remark or a theory occurs, to state it in
of the subject, but neither to tire him nor puzzle myself with
rules and pragmatical formulas of criticism that can do no good
dangerously like dilettantism. It suggests the
method of what in our day is called impressionism, one of the most
delightful forms of literary entertainment when practiced by a master
literature. The impressionist’s aim is to record whatever impinges on
brain, and though with a writer of fine discernment it is sure to be
productive of exquisite results, as criticism it is undermined by the
impressionist’s assumption that every appreciation is made valid by the
very fact of its existence. But this was scarcely Hazlitt’s idea of
criticism. Against universal suffrage in matters literary he would have
been among the first to protest. We might almost imagine we were
to some orthodox theorist of the eighteenth century when we hear him
declaring that the object of taste “must be that, not which does,
would please universally, supposing all men to have paid
attention to any subject and to have an equal relish for it, which can
only be guessed at by the imperfect and yet more than casual agreement
among those who have done so from choice and feeling.”
[M19] Though not the
surest kind of clue, this indicates at least that Hazlitt’s rejection
“pedantical rules and pragmatical formulas” was not equivalent to a
declaration of anarchy.
For Hazlitt the assertion of individual taste meant
arbitrary codes and an opportunity to embrace a compass as wide as the
range of literary excellence. Realizing that every reader, even the
professed critic, is hemmed in by certain prejudices
arising from his
temperament, his education, his environment, he was unwilling to pledge
his trust to any school or fashion of criticism.
[M20] The favorite
of his generation—Shakespeare and Pope, Fielding and Richardson,
poetry and French—had no meaning for him. He was glad to enjoy each in
its kind. “The language of taste and moderation is, I prefer this,
because it is best to me; the language of dogmatism and intolerance
is, Because I prefer it, it is best in itself, and I will allow no
to be of a different opinion.” [M21]
This passage, in connection with the
one last quoted, may be considered as fixing the limits within which
Hazlitt gave scope to personal preference. The sum of his literary
judgments reveals a taste for a greater variety of the works of genius
than is displayed by any contemporary, and the absence of “a catholic
is one of the last imputations that should have
been brought against him. His criticism has limitations, but not such
are due to a narrowness of literary perception.
Even Hazlitt’s shortcomings may frequently be turned to
his glory as a critic.
thing about his violent political
is the success with which he dissociated his literary estimates from
Such a serious limitation in a critic as deficiency of reading in his
only raises our astonishment at the sureness of instinct which enabled
to pronounce unerringly on the scantest information.
[M23] Never was there a
critic of nearly equal pretensions who had as little of the scholar’s
equipment. If, as he tells us, he applied himself too closely to his
studies at a certain period in his youth, he atoned for it by his neglect
education had left him
without that intimacy with the classics which belonged of right to
[M24] His allusions to the Greek and Latin writers are
the most general terms, but with a note of reverence which did not
into his speech concerning even Shakespeare. “I would have you learn
(he is writing to his son) because there is an atmosphere round this
of classical ground, to which that of actual life is gross and
knowledge of Italian was no more thorough, though here he
was more nearly on a level with his contemporaries. For Boccaccio
he showed an intense affection, and he could write intelligently, if
deeply, concerning Dante
and Ariosto and Tasso.
[M25] With French he
naturally had a wider acquaintance, but still nothing beyond the reach
the very general reader. The notable point is that he refrains from
passing judgment on the entire body of French poetry because it is
English poetry. He is not infected with the wilful provincialism of
nor with the spirit of John Bullishness which seriously proclaims in
rivals “equally a want of books and men.” “We may be sure of this,”
says Hazlitt, “that when we see nothing but grossness and barbarism, or
insipidity and verbiage in a writer that is the God of a nation’s
idolatry, it is we and not they who want true taste and feeling.”
[M26] Having this wholesome counsel ever before him, he can be more
appreciative of the genius of Molière, more justly discerning in his
analysis of the spirit of Rousseau, and more free of
clatter against Voltaire than any of his fellow-critics. With German
literature his familiarity was bounded on the one hand by Schiller’s
“Robbers,” on the other by the first part of “Faust,” the entire gap
between these being filled by the popular versions of Kotzebue’s plays
and Mme. de
Staël’s book on Germany. Yet he dared to write a character of
German people which is almost worth quoting.
In English his range of reading was correspondingly
narrow. [M28] Such a piece
of waywardness as his enthusiasm for John Buncle, derived no doubt
from Lamb, is unique. Broadly speaking, he prefers to accept the
established canon and approaches new discoveries with a deep distrust.
is very little concerned with writers of the second order, and in his
Lecture on the Living Poets he shocked his audience unspeakably, when
came to the name of Hannah More, by merely remarking, “She has written
great deal which I have never read.” He looked upon most living writers
through the eyes of the somewhat jaded reviewer, who, though
to a romantic thrill from one or the other, is usually on his guard
against spurious blandishments and reluctant to admit the claims of new
pretenders. Even in poets of the first rank he slurred over a great
but what he loved he dwelt on with a kind of rapt inspiration until it
became his second nature, its spirit and its language fused intimately
with his own. This revolutionist in politics was a
jealous aristocrat in
the domains of art, and this admission does not impair our earlier
assertion of his openness to a greater variety of impressions than any
his contemporaries in criticism.[M29]
Hazlitt’s professed indifference to system is probably
due as much to lack
of deep reading as to romantic impatience of restraint. When he
that it was beyond his powers “to condense and combine all the facts
relating to a subject” or
that “he had
no head for arrangement,”
it was only because he did not happen to be a master of the facts which
required combination or arrangement. For he did have an unusual gift
penetrating to the core of a subject and tearing out the heart of its
mystery; in fact, his power of concrete literary generalization was in
age unmatched. To reveal the distinctive virtue of a literary form, to
characterize the sources of weakness or of strength in a new or a
fashion of poetry, to analyze accurately the forces impelling a whole
mighty age—these things, requiring a deep and steady concentration of
mind, are among his most solid achievements.
[M30a] In a paragraph he distils
us the essence of what is picturesque and worth dwelling on in the
of the Restoration. In a page he triumphantly establishes the
boundary-line between the poetry of art and nature—Pope and
Shakespeare—which to the present day remains as a clear guide, while at
the same time Campbell and Byron and Bowles are filling the periodicals
with protracted and often irrelevant arguments on one side or the other
which only the critically curious now venture to look into. In the
of a single lecture he takes a sweeping view of all the great movements
which gave vitality and grandeur to the Elizabethan spirit and found a
voice in its literature, so that in spite of his little learning
nothing for his followers but to fill in his outline.
same keenness of discernment he applied casually in dissecting the
of his own time. He associated the absence of drama with the French
Revolution, its tendency to deal in abstractions and to regard
in relation to man and not men—a tendency irreconcilable with
literature, which is essentially individual and concrete. [M32] To be sure
the eighteenth century before the Revolution was as void of drama as
Hazlitt’s generation, but what is true of the period which produced Political Justice
and the Edinburgh
Review would hold equally of the
which produced the “Essay
Man” and the deistic controversy. He
sometimes harshly exposes the weaker side of contemporary lyricism as a
“mere effusion of natural sensibility,” and he regrets the absence of
“imaginary splendor and human passion” as of a glory departed. But
with all this he had the true historical sense. It breaks out most
unmistakably when he says, “If literature in our day has taken this
decided turn into a critical channel, is it not a presumptive proof
it ought to do so?”
Of the actual application of historical principles,
which were just beginning to be realized in the study of literature, we
find only a few faint traces in Hazlitt. Some remarks on the influence
climate and of religious and political institutions occur in his
contributions to the Edinburgh, but occasionally their perfunctory
suggests the editorial pen of Jeffrey. Doubtless Hazlitt’s
judgment would have enabled him to excel in this field, had he been
equipped with the necessary learning.
It may also be a serious limitation of Hazlitt’s that
questions of structure and design. Doubtless he was reacting against
jargon of the older criticism with its lifeless and monotonous
about invention and fable and unity, giving nothing but the
plan and elevation, as if a poem were a piece of formal architecture.”
In avoiding the study of the design of “Paradise Lost”
or of the
Queene” he may have brought his criticism nearer to the popular
he deliberately shut himself off from a vision of some of the higher
reaches of poetic art, perhaps betraying thereby that lack of
with which he has sometimes been charged. His
interpretation of an author is therefore occasionally in danger of
becoming an appreciation of isolated characters, or scenes, or
as if he were actually reading him over with his audience. But this is
limitation which Hazlitt shares with all the finer critics of his day.
After all these shortcomings have been acknowledged,
the permanence of
Hazlitt’s achievement appears only the more remarkable. It is clear
the gods made him critical. The two essential qualities of judgment and
taste he seems to have possessed from the very beginning. It is
to trace in him any development of taste; his growth is but the
of his literary experiences. [M36]
One looks in vain for any of those errors
youth such as are met even in a Coleridge enamored of Bowles. What
extravagance of tone Hazlitt displayed in his early criticism he
with him to his last day. If any change is to be noted, it is in the
growing keenness of his appreciation. The early maturity of his
powers is attested by the political and metaphysical tendency of his
youthful studies. His birth as a full-fledged critic awaited
stirring of the springs of his eloquence, as is evident from the
excellence of what is practically his first literary essay, the
No critic has approached books with so intense a
passion as Hazlitt. That
sentimental fondness for the volumes themselves, especially when
by the fragrance of antiquity, which gives so delicious a savor to the
bookishness of Lamb, was in him conspicuously absent.
[M37] For him books
only a more vivid aspect of life itself. “Tom
Jones,” he tells us, was
novel that first broke the spell of his daily tasks and made of the
“a dance through life, a perpetual gala-day.” Keats could not have
romped through the “Faerie Queene” with more spirit than did Hazlitt
through the length and breadth of eighteenth century romance, and the
young poet’s awe before the majesty of Homer was hardly greater
of the future critic when a Milton or a Wordsworth swam into his ken.
hot and eager interest, deprived of its outlet in the form of direct
emulation, sought a vent in communicating itself to others and in
converts to its faith. So intimately did Hazlitt feel the spell of a
of genius, that its life-blood was transfused into his own almost
his will. “I wish,” he exclaims, “I had never read the Emilius
better have formed myself on the model of Sir Fopling
entered into the poet’s creation with a sympathy amounting almost to
poetic vision, and the ever-present sense of the reality of the
world led him to interpret literature primarily in relation to life.
poetry of character and passion is what he regards of most essential
point of view unintentionally converts his familiar
essays on life into a literary discourse, and
gives to his formal
criticism the tone of a study of life at its sources, raising it at
to the same level with creative literature. Though he nowhere employs
now familiar formula of “literature and life,” the lecture “On Poetry
General” is largely an exposition of this outlook.
Life in its entire compass is regarded as the rough
material of literature,
not become literature until the artist’s
imagination, as with a divine ray, has penetrated the mass and inspired
with an ideal existence. [M39]
Among the numerous attempts of his
to define the creative faculty of the poet, this comparatively simple
of Hazlitt’s is worth noting. “This intuitive perception of the hidden analogies of things,
or, as it may be called, this instinct of
imagination, is perhaps what stamps the character of genius on the
productions of art more than any other circumstance: for it works
unconsciously, like nature, and receives its impressions from a kind of
[M40] It is
this power that he has in mind when he says
“Poetry is infusing the same spirit in a number of things, or bathing
all as it were, in the same overflowing sense of delight.” It shows
Hazlitt to have fully apprehended the guiding principle of the new
of criticism which, looking upon the work of art as an act of original
creation and not of mechanical composition, based its judgment on a
sympathy with the artist’s mind instead of resorting to a general rule.
the light of this principle he is enabled to avoid the pitfalls of a
moralistic interpretation of literature and to decide the question as
the relative importance of substance and treatment with a certainty
seems to preclude the possibility of any other answer.
It is not the dignity of the theme which constitutes
great work of
art, for in that case a prose summary of the “Divine Comedy”
exalted as the original, and it would be necessary merely to know the
subject of a poem in order to pass judgment upon it. A low or a trivial
subject may be raised by the imagination of the artist who recognizes
it the elements of beauty or power. No definition of poetry can be
anything which would exclude “The Rape of
the Lock”; and Murillo’s
Beggar Boys” is as much worth having “as almost
picture in the world.”
“Yet it is not true that execution is
everything, and the class or subject nothing. The highest subjects,
equally well-executed (which, however, rarely happens), are the best.” Though each is
perfect in its kind, there can be no
difficulty in deciding
the question of greatness between “King Lear” and “The Comedy of
“The greatest strength of genius is shewn in describing the strongest
passions: for the power of imagination, in works of invention, must be
proportion to the force of the natural impressions, which are the
One also finds a test of relative values in the measure of
fulness with which the work of art reflects the complex elements of
If we estimate a tragedy of Shakespeare above one of Lillo or Moore, it
because “impassioned poetry is an emanation of the moral and
part of our nature, as well as of the sensitive—of the desire to know,
the will to act, and the power to feel; and ought to appeal to these
different parts of the constitution, in order to be perfect.”
In treating of the specific distinction of poetry
the usual difficulties. Taking his point of departure from Milton’s
“thoughts that voluntary move harmonious numbers,” he defines poetry in
passage that satisfactorily anticipates the familiar one of Carlyle, as
“the music of language answering to the music of the mind.... Wherever
object takes such a hold of the mind as to make us dwell upon it, and
brood over it, melting the heart in tenderness, or kindling it to a
sentiment of enthusiasm;—wherever a movement of imagination or passion
impressed on the mind, by which it seeks to prolong or repeat the
to bring all other objects into accord with it, and to give the same
movement of harmony, sustained and continuous, or gradually varied
according to the occasion, to the sounds that express it—this is
The musical in sound is the sustained and continuous; the musical in
thought is the sustained and continuous also. There is a near
between music and deep-rooted passion.”
In this mystical direction a
definition could go no further, but like nearly all writers and
Hazlitt is inclined to use the word poetry in a variety of more or less
ordinarily legitimate enough, but somewhat
embarrassing when it is a question of definition.
which lifts the
spirit above the earth, which draws the soul out of itself with
indescribable longings, is,” he says, “poetry in kind, and generally
to become so in name, by ‘being married to immortal verse.’” If it is
true that Pilgrim’s
Progress and Robinson
Crusoe possess the “essence
the power of poetry” and require only the
addition of verse to become
absolutely so, then
only a factitious
ornament, to be added or removed at the caprice of the writer. But
is careful to declare that verse does not make the whole difference
between poetry and prose, leaving the whole question as vaguely
Bare theorizing, according to his own confession, was
no favorite pursuit
with Hazlitt. He enjoyed himself much more in the analysis of an
individual author or his work. His aversion to literary cant, his love
“saying things that are his own in a way of his own,” were here most in
evidence. [M43] What he says of Milton might appropriately be applied to
himself, that he formed the most intense conception of things and then
embodied them by a single stroke of his pen. In a phrase or in a
he stamped the character of an author indelibly, and, enemy to
though he was, became a cause of commonplace in others. No matter how
might already have been written on a subject (and Hazlitt did not make
practice of celebrating neglected obscurity) his own view stood out
and clear, and yet his judgments were never eccentric. He wrestled with
writer’s thoughts, absorbed his most passionate feelings, and mirrored
back his most exquisite perceptions with “all the color, the light and
shade.” His fertility is more amazing than his intensity, for no critic
nearly equal rank has enriched English literature with so many valuable
and enduring judgments on so great a variety of subjects.
[M44] Dr. Johnson
by common consent the spokesman of the eighteenth century, or of its
dominant class; Coleridge and Lamb are entitled to the glory of
the literature between Spenser and Milton to English readers, and the
former rendered the additional service of acting as the interpreter of
Wordsworth. But to give an idea of Hazlitt’s scope would require a
of opinions embracing poetry from Chaucer and Spenser to
Byron, prose sacred and profane from Bacon and Jeremy Taylor to Burke
Edward Irving, the drama in its two flourishing periods, the familiar
essay from Steele and Addison to Lamb and Leigh Hunt, the novel from Defoe
to Sir Walter Scott. This does not begin to suggest Hazlitt’s
versatility. [M45] His own modest though somewhat over-alliterative words are that he has
least glanced over a number of subjects—painting, poetry, prose, plays,
politics, parliamentary speakers, metaphysical lore, books, men, and
The importance of Hazlitt’s Shakespearian criticism is
no longer open to
question. Though Coleridge alluded to them slightingly as out-and-out
imitations of Lamb,
dicta on the greatest English genius are
equal in depth to Lamb’s and far more numerous; and while in
and subtlety they fall short of the remarks of Coleridge himself, they
surpass them in intensity and carrying power.
To both of these men
owed a great deal in his appreciation of Shakespeare, and perhaps even
more to August
Schlegel, whose Lectures on Dramatic Literature
reviewed in 1815.
His allusions to Schlegel border on enthusiasm and
he makes it a proud claim that he has done “more than any one except
Schlegel to vindicate the Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays from
his obligation, there
was some point in the compliment of the German critic when he declared
that Hazlitt had gone beyond him (l’avoit dépassé) in his Shakespearian
few years later Heine
maintained that the only significant
commentator of Shakespeare produced by England was William Hazlitt.
it is to be remembered, were not at that
time generally accessible.
Hazlitt’s attitude toward Shakespeare was wholesomely
on this side of
idolatry. He did not make it an article of faith to admire everything
Shakespeare had written, and refused his praise to the poems and most
the sonnets. Even Schlegel and Coleridge could not persuade him to see
beauties in what appeared to be blemishes, but in a general estimate of
Shakespeare’s all-embracing genius he conceived his faults to be “of
as much consequence as his bad spelling.” He saw in him a genius who
comprehended all humanity, who represented it poetically in all its
and varieties. [M51]
He examined all the fine distinctions of character, he
studied Shakespeare’s manner of combining and contrasting them so as to
produce a unity of tone above even the art of the classic unities. From
the irresponsible comedy of Falstaff to the deepest tragic notes of
the whole gamut of human emotions encounters responsive chords in the
critic’s mind—the young love of Romeo and Juliet
or the voluptuous
abandonment of Antony and
Cleopatra, the intellect of Iago irresistibly
impelled to malignant activity or Hamlet entangled in the coils of a
introspection. To the sheer poetry of Shakespeare
he is also acutely
sensitive, to the soft moonlit atmosphere of the “Midsummernight’s
to the tender gloom of “Cymbeline,”
poetry” of “As
Like It.” Some of his interpretations of isolated passages are
be surpassed. He comments minutely and exquisitely on what he considers
be a touchstone of poetic feeling,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty.”
And with what complete insight he translates a speech
of Antony’s: [M52]
“This precarious state and the approaching dissolution
of his greatness
are strikingly displayed in the dialogue of Antony with Eros:
‘Antony. Eros, thou yet behold’st
Eros. Ay, noble lord.
Antony. Sometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime, like a bear or lion,
A towered citadel, a pendant rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world
And mock our eyes with air. Thou hast seen these signs,
They are black vesper’s pageants.
Eros. Ay, my lord.
Antony. That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct
As water is in water.
Eros. It does, my lord.
Antony. My good knave, Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body,’ etc.
“This is, without doubt, one of the finest pieces of
poetry in Shakspeare.
The splendour of the imagery, the semblance of reality, the lofty range
picturesque objects hanging over the world, their
evanescent nature, the
total uncertainty of what is left behind,
[M53] are just like the mouldering
schemes of human greatness. It is finer than Cleopatra’s passionate
lamentation over his fallen grandeur, because it is more dim, unstable,
 “Letter of Elia to Robert Southey,” Lamb’s Works, ed. Lucas,
 “On Criticism,” in Table Talk.
 Life of Pope, Johnson’s Lives, ed. Birkbeck Hill, IV, 248.
 Boswell’s Johnson, ed. Birkbeck Hill, II, 89.
 Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, I, 170.
 See an essay by John Foster on “Poetical Criticism,” in Critical
Essays, ed. Bohn, I, 144.
 Gibbon’s Journal, October 3, 1762. Miscellaneous Works, ed.
1814, V, 263.
 Review of Mrs. Hemans’s Poems, Edinburgh Review,
October, 1829. Jeffrey’s Works, III, 296.
 Blackwood’s Magazine, II, 670-79.
 I, 281 (March, 1820).
 Spirit of the Age, “William Godwin.”
 Works, ed. Shedd, IV, 35.
 Mr. Saintsbury has applied this phrase to Hazlitt himself,
but we prefer to transfer the honor.
 “Savoir bien lire un livre en le jugeant chemin faisant, et
sans cesser de le goûter, c’est presque tout l’art du critique.”
Chateaubriand et son Groupe Littéraire, I, 234.
 Portraits Contemporains, “Sonnet d’Hazlitt,” II, 515.
 Age of Elizabeth, “On Miscellaneous Poems,” V, 301.
 “Thoughts on Taste,” XI, 460.
 Conversations of Northcote, VI, 457.
 Cf. Herford: Age of Wordsworth, p. 51.
 “On the Conduct of Life,” XII, 427.
 Patmore: My Friends and Acquaintances, III, 122.
 “On the Conduct of Life,” XII, 428. See also the paper “On
the Study of the Classics,” in the Round Table.
 See a note to p. 329.
 See Wordsworth’s sonnet, “Great men have been among us.”
 “On Criticism,” in Table Talk.
 “He is the most illuminating and the most thoughtful of all
Rousseau’s early English critics.... His essay ‘On the Character of
Rousseau’ was not surpassed, or approached, as a study of the great
writer until the appearance of Lord Morley’s monograph nearly sixty
years afterwards.” E. Gosse: Fortnightly Review, July, 1912, p.
 In the review of Schlegel’s Lectures on the Drama,
Works, X, 78.
 See the paper on “John Buncle,” in the Round Table.
 Correspondence of Macvey Napier, p. 21.
 “On the Pleasure of Painting,” in Table Talk.
 Dramatic Essays, VIII, 415.
 “On Shakespeare and Milton,” p. 44.
 “The Periodical Press,” X, 203.
 “On Criticism,” in Table Talk.
 Cf. “On Reading Old Books,” pp. 338-9, where this charge is
curiously echoed by Hazlitt himself.
 Ibid., p. 337.
 Ibid., p. 340.
 “On Shakespeare and Milton,” p. 109.
 “The English Novelists,” VIII, 109.
 “Thoughts on Taste,” XI, 463.
 “On Criticism,” in Table Talk.
 Characters of Shakespeare, “Lear.”
 “On Poetry in General,” p. 258.
 “On Poetry in General,” p. 266.
 Hazlitt defends himself on the ground that “the word has
these three distinct meanings in the English language, that is,
it signifies the composition produced, the state of mind or faculty
producing it, and, in certain cases, the subject-matter proper to call
forth that state of mind.” Letter to Gifford, I, 396.
 “On Poetry in General,” pp. 268-9.
 Ibid., p. 268.
 Those interested in the perennial discussion of the relation
of poetry to verse or metre would do well to read the recent
interesting contribution to the subject by Professor Mackail in his Lectures
Poetry (Longmans, 1912).
 “On the Causes of Popular Opinion,” XII, 320.
 Coleridge: Table Talk, Aug. 6, 1832.
 Edinburgh Review, Feb., 1816. The nature of
Hazlitt’s debt to Coleridge, Lamb and Schlegel is to some extent
illustrated in the notes to the present text.
 “Whether Genius is Conscious of its Powers,” in Plain
 Moore’s Letters and Journals, May 21, 1821, III, 235.
 Shakespeare’s Mädchen und Frauen.
 Review of Schlegel’s Lectures, Works, X, III.
 “Poetry,” XII, 339.
 Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, “Antony and
As it happens, I can repeat my ending to the first part:
As it is, you got today a part of a well-written essay
about Hazlitt, in decent html, with links to Wikipedia for most of the
background most people who did not specialize academically on Hazlitt
or Hazlitt's time will probably not know, but which are quite
interesting, and indeed many of the literary characters I provided
links for, like Hazlitt, wrote a lot better English than was written in
the 20th Century, possibly with one or two exceptions, even though no
one then or in the 20th Century wrote as well as Hazlitt did - which is
one important reason for me to know a lot about English literature
between 1700 and 1830, and to like Hazlitt so much.
But judge for yourself: I cannot do it for you.