Continuing and here also ending the series on Zeitlin on Hazlitt, the
present file has the third and last part of my notes to
the last part of Zeitlin's introduction to
The third and last part of Zeitlin's text appeared
earlier today on my site, and the present file of notes is the last item of a series of thrice two
files, that start with the first of the above group of four. (The partition
in 3*2 files was made for my
convenience, and the text of it all eventually
will end up in
the Hazlitt-section on
Here then is my last series of notes to Zeitlin on
Hazlitt - and clicking on
the underlined "Back" at the end of a note leads to the beginning of
passage I annotated (if you are on line, or have downloaded the file in
the same directory as the present file).
There is a note at the end with
a list of links to books by Hazlitt available in the Project Gutenberg and
a fine appreciation of him by Thackeray.
Notes to Zeitlin on Hazlitt - 3
M1. If an understanding of
may be taken as a measure of a critic’s depth of insight, his attitude
toward Shakespeare’s fellow-dramatists will just as surely reveal his
powers of discrimination.
I don't disagree, though Mr. Zeitlin's apparent
tacit presumption that there is such a thing as "a measure of a
critic’s depth of insight", that can be learned in a university, from
a professor of English literature, seems a bit ... presumptuous.
But the fact is that Hazlitt has been given credit for
being a great literary critic, by quite a few professors of English
literature; the fact is also, it would seem to me, that one cannot
teach this, except to the few who have both a considerable
intelligence themselves, and some personal appreciation of fine prose;
while finally it seems to me - a Dutchman, with no personal interest
as a lit.crit., and who found a work of Hazlitt by chance in 1983 in a
antiquarian bookshop in Amsterdam, and is a logical philosopher rather
than anything else - that Hazlitt is not given his due
in English literary criticism, I suspect from a combination of envy
and disdain or fear to be mistaken for someone of his radical
M2. But in writing of
Dekker and of Webster, he spreads
out all his sail to make a joyous run among the beauties in his
And it is so with the rest of his
criticism—throughout the same susceptibility to all that is true, or
lofty, or refined, vigilantly controlled by a firm common sense, the
same stamp of originality unmistakably impressed on all.
Indeed - this seems a fine appreciation, to which it
must be added that Hazlitt not only had "a firm common sense",
and a very fine intelligence, but
also a fair and honest judgment of the qualities of other writers. The
last certainly is quite rare, among literary writers.
M3. “I like old
opinions with new reasons,” he once said to
Northcote, “not new
opinions without any.”
Extracted because I like it:
Reasonable men want
reasons, not faith or mere assertion, that tend to convince
M4. On Spenser or Pope, on
Richardson, he is equally happy and unimprovable. In the
opinion of Mr. Saintsbury, Hazlitt’s general lecture on
literature, his treatment of the dramatists of the Restoration, of
Pope, of the English Novelists, and of
Cobbett have never been
excelled; and who is better qualified than Mr. Saintsbury by width of
reading to express such an opinion?
This again smacks too much of lit.crit., notably as
if there is A Golden Standard that is taught by professors of Eng.
Lit. In fact, nearly all of them, whatever their academic
excellencies, are derivative, and may be fairly suspected to teach because
they can't do. Back.
M5. Of Hazlitt’s treatment of his own contemporaries an
additional word needs to be said. No charge has been repeated more
often than that of the inconsistency, perversity, and utter
unreliableness of his judgments on the writers of his day.
This indeed seems true - or at least, having read in
quite a few English introductions to English literature, that for the
most part, but not all, make their subject seem quite boring and trivial,
and certainly if they are without quotations, I was quite amazed, once
having discovered Hazlitt ca. 1983, how paltry the praise was that he
got, if any.
One reason apart from envy or a dislike of radicals
Hazlitt's Liber Amoris, which tells quite openly about his failed
love for a much younger woman. While not being pornographic in any
sense, it much irritated and scandalized many puritanical Victorians.
distinguish between the claims of living poets, particularly in an age
of new ideas and changing forms, is a task which might test the powers
of the most discerning critics, and in which perfection is hardly to
be attained. Yet one may ask whether in the entire extent of Hazlitt’s
writing a great living genius has been turned into a mockery or a
figurehead been set up for the admiration of posterity. Of his
personal and political antipathies enough has been said, but against
literary orthodoxy his only great sin is a harsh review of
I suppose this is mostly fair and true, and grant I
have never finished the poem myself - but then I do read English
literature for pleasure or ideas, and not as a lit.crit. or professor
in the subject.
In any case, Hazlitt thought it not worthy of
Coleridge's great gifts of mind, and I am inclined to believe him,
since he certainly was better able to judge them, having known and
read him in his own time, than later professors of English literature,
of whom I also can name none that I read who struck me as coming close
to Hazlitt's abilities.
M7. If in general we look at the
age through Hazlitt’s eyes, we shall see its literature dominated by
the figures of Wordsworth and
Scott, the one
regarded as the restorer of life to poetry, the other as the creator
or transcriber of a whole world of romance and humanity.
This I suppose is also fair and true, and I should
add that personally I don't care for either
Scott and do
not really understand why they have been admired so much. Here I may
be lacking in taste, though I guess not, but I am not mistaken if I
say that neither man had great intellectual abilities, as Hazlitt had,
whatever their merits as writers.
stands out prominently as the widest intellect of his age. Byron’s
poetry bulks very large, though it is not estimated as superlatively
as in the criticism of our own day. It is a pity that Hazlitt never
wrote formally of Keats, for his casual allusions indicate a deep
enjoyment of the “rich beauties and the dim obscurities” of the “Eve
of St. Agnes” and an appreciation of the perfection of the great
I agree again with Mr. Zeitlin, and have to admit
that I am not one for most poetry, especially not if it is romantic,
pastoral, educational, religious or mere verse, while I also have no taste
for poetry that doesn't rhyme at all, as was introduced by Coleridge
and Wordsworth: I can see what they aimed at, but blank verse too
easily is mere grandiloquence or posturing, with a mock poetical
format and many white lines. I liked Keats's letters, though.
M9. If he failed to give
his full dues, he did not overlook his exquisite lyrical inspiration.
He spoke of Shelley as a man of genius, but “‘all air,’ disdaining the
bars and ties of mortal mould;”
This seems to me fair enough of Shelley, who did
have a fine mind, but who was very much of a radical, whose radicalism
depended on inheritance. Personally, I think it's a pity Shelley wrote
out many of his ideas as poetry, not as prose.
M10. He has been accused of
writing a Spirit of the Age which omitted to give an account of
Shelley and Keats, but in the title of the book consists his excuse.
Yes, indeed - and Keats died at 24, and Shelley at
29, both mostly as outsiders to their own time, though
Shelley - "the
atheist" - indeed was rather an outcast because of his opinions and
style of life. Back.
M11. He is generous toward
Campbell and Moore, who were both personally hostile to him; he is
scrupulously honest toward
with whose system he had no sympathy.
Yes, indeed - and it may be mentioned in passing
that Hazlitt had rented what had been a house in which Milton lived
from Bentham, who had him evicted, and that Hazlitt did see very
clearly that Bentham's ethics were mostly bogus, and also hardly
panopticon - the schema of a
M12. ... he pricked the bubble of
popularity while it was at its pitch of highest glory.
Irving was a popular and populist preacher, and
Hazlitt wrote a fine satire on his pretensions.
M13. If he was often bitter
toward men whom he at other times eulogized, it was in the heat and
hurry of journalistic publication in a period when blows were freely
dealt and freely taken.
Yes, and I think he also had the right to be angry
with Wordsworth and Coleridge and Southey, and - speaking for myself -
not because they had given up the emancipatory ideals of the French
Revolution, but because of the dishonest ways in which they did it,
indeed quite like the philosphical and journalistic pundits of my own
quasi-leftist quasi-revolutionary generation, who nearly all turned
careerist and conservative when that suited their personal interests
best, but without any cogent moral or intellectual reasons, as indeed
they had been quasi-leftist quasi-revolutionaries in The Sixties when
that was fashionable.
he sometimes censured even Wordsworth and Scott and grew impatient
with Byron and
Coleridge, it must be remembered that these men of genius had
imperfections, and that the imperfections of men of genius are of far
greater concern to their contemporaries than to posterity.
It's a nice homily, perhaps, but I have other
standards for genius. I am willing to believe Coleridge had genius,
because Hazlitt said so, and because Coleridge's early poetry is
striking; and having read Hazlitt I am willing to believe he had
genius - but Byron was very intelligent with a gift for words rather
than a true genius, and Wordsworth and Scott were not.
Then again, I willingly grant my conception of
genius is more oriented towards science, philosophy and mathematics
than towards art - and I should add that those who seem to me to be geniuses
in philosophy or mathematics often are remarkably good writers as
well, and often great polymaths. (Galileo, Hobbes, Descartes, Newton,
Leibniz, Euler - that is a class of genius next to which most merely
literary genius pales.)
M15. Hazlitt’s performance seems
remarkable enough. No contemporary with the exception of
displayed as wide a sympathy with the writers of that time, and
Hazlitt so far surpasses Hunt in discrimination and strength, that he
deserves to be called, strange as it may sound, the best contemporary
judge of the literature of his age.
This seems true to me, but while I have read widely
in English literature, I am no specialist in it, and never wanted to
be one. Back.
M16. It has already been
suggested that much of Hazlitt’s appeal as a critic rests on the force
of his popular eloquence, so that a brief consideration of his prose
is not in this connection out of place. “We may all be fine fellows,”
“but none of us can write like Hazlitt.”
I read Stevenson before I read Hazlitt, and read
Stevenson's appraisal not long after discovering Hazlitt, and always
thought it fair, generous and just, and indeed I never have read any
English essayist as prolific and consistently good in so many respects as Hazlitt -
and I do suppose that I have read some of most English essayists who have been considered
good or great. Back.
M17. To write a style that is
easy yet incisive, lively and at the same time substantial, buoyant
without being frothy, glittering but with no tinsel frippery, a style
combining the virtues of homeliness and picturesqueness, has been
given to few mortals.
I select it because it is fair enough, if also
M18. He cannot be counted among
the masters of finished prose, he is as a matter of fact often very
but he developed the best model of an undiluted, sturdy, popular style
that is to be found in the English language.
Well... quite possibly so, but who are these
"masters of finished prose"? And where is Hazlitt "very negligent"?
I don't think he is faultless, but I do not know of
any English writer who comes close - Francis Bacon, although a fine
essayist, sounds contrived and stilted, compared with Hazlitt, as does
Dr. Johnson (whose style I hold in higher regard than Hazlitt did). In
fact the only thing in English that does come close, that I have read,
is Florio's 1608 translation of Montaigne (in Everyman's Library).
M19. His periods are of the
simplest construction and they are not methodically combined in the
artificial patterns beloved of the eighteenth century followers of the
plain style. Not that he altogether neglects the devices of
parallelism and antithesis when he wishes to give epigrammatic point
to his remarks, but he more generally develops his ideas in a series
of easily flowing sentences which are as near as writing can be to
“the tone of lively and sensible conversation.”
That seems fair enough, and if one is interested in
Hazlitt's style one should read his "On Familiar Style" in Table
Talk, that explains what he thought he was doing, which was indeed
providing a written version of "lively and sensible conversation".
M20. Those who have praised
Hazlitt’s simplicity have often given the impression that his prose is
a single-stringed instrument, and have failed to suggest the range
comprised between the simple hammer-strokes of the essay on Cobbett
and the magnificent diapason in which he unrolls the panorama of
I suppose so - but "Hazlitt’s simplicity" is a
misnomer and misconception. In fact, he fits his style to his subject,
and one thing I have not seen remarked is that it also is musical and
M21. "He is always of the
militant, not of the triumphant party: so far he bears a gallant show
of magnanimity; but his gallantry is hardly of the right stamp: it
wants principle. For though he is not servile or mercenary, he is the
victim of self-will. He must pull down and pull in pieces: it is not
in his disposition to do otherwise. It is a pity; for with his great
talents he might do great things, if he would go right forward to any
useful object, make thorough-stitch work of any question, or join hand
and heart with any principle."
This is Hazlitt on
who I discovered thanks to Hazlitt, and who is, to my way of thinking,
another writer of living English who does not get the credit he
But Hazlitt was right about Cobbett's "great
talents", and I for my part believe that, with Cobbett's prodigious
output and his journalism for the English ordinary people, he did
"great things" that very few could have done - though I also agree
that Hazlitt's assessment of his weaknesses seems just. (See:
M22. "He changes his opinions as
he does his friends, and much on the same account. He has no comfort
in fixed principles: as soon as anything is settled in his own mind,
he quarrels with it. He has no satisfaction but in the chase after
truth, runs a question down, worries and kills it, then quits it like
vermin, and starts some new game, to lead him a new dance, and give
him a fresh breathing through bog and brake, with the rabble yelping
at his heels and the leaders perpetually at fault.”
I think Cobbett would not have agreed, and neither
do I, quite, but it is true Cobbett was not consistent in his opinions
or values, except that he always was on the side of common men,
especially farmers and farm-labourers, and that he seemed to have been
easily swayed by his temperament.
M23. In the other passage the clauses and phrases follow
in their natural order, but they are united by the simplest kind of
connective device in an undistinguishable stream over which the reader
is driven with a steady swell and fall, sometimes made breathlessly
rapid by the succession of its uniformly measured word-groups, but
delicately modulated here and there to provide restful pauses in the
long onward career:
This I selected as a piece of literary criticism
that itself says nothing clearly at all, and is totally inadequate as
an introduction to part of one of Hazlitt most striking long
sentences, that is quoted in the next note, in which Hazlitt is
writing about Coleridge.
M24. "Next, he was engaged with
Hartley’s tribes of mind,
‘etherial braid, thought-woven,’—and he busied himself for a year or
two with vibrations and vibratiuncles and the great law of association
that binds all things in its mystic chain, and the doctrine of
Necessity (the mild teacher of Charity) and the Millennium,
anticipative of a life to come—and he plunged deep into the
controversy on Matter and Spirit, and, as an escape from Dr.
Priestley’s Materialism, where he felt himself imprisoned by the
logician’s spell, like Ariel in the cloven pine-tree, he became
suddenly enamoured of
Bishop Berkeley’s fairy-world, and used in all
companies to build the universe, like a brave poetical fiction, of
fine words—and he was deep-read in
Malebranche, and in
Intellectual System (a huge pile of learning, unwieldly, enormous) and
in Lord Brook’s hieroglyphic theories, and in
Bishop Butler’s Sermons,
and in the Duchess of Newcastle’s fantastic folios, and in
South and Tillotson, and all the fine thinkers and masculine reasoners
of that age—and Leibnitz’s Pre-established Harmony reared its
arch above his head, like the rainbow in the cloud, covenanting with
the hopes of man—and then he fell plump, ten thousand fathoms down
(but his wings saved him harmless) into the hortus siccus of
Although this is about
Coleridge, it is likely
Hazlitt had read much of the same - and as I have said before, I
regret it that Hazlitt could not find the money or sponsorship to
write about philosophy, as indeed he wanted himself.
M25. “He was the first poet I ever knew. His genius at
that time had angelic wings, and fed on manna. He talked on for ever;
and you wished him to talk on for ever. His thoughts did not seem to
come with labour and effort; but as if borne on the gusts of genius,
and as if the wings of his imagination lifted him from off his feet.
His voice rolled on the ear like the pealing organ, and its sound
alone was the music of thought. His mind was clothed with wings; and
raised on them, he lifted philosophy to heaven. In his descriptions,
you then saw the progress of human happiness and liberty in bright and
never-ending succession, like the steps of
Jacob’s ladder, with airy
shapes ascending and descending, and with the voice of
God at the top
of the ladder. And shall I, who heard him then, listen to him now? Not
I! That spell is broke; that time is gone for ever; that voice is
heard no more: but still the recollection comes rushing by with
thoughts of long-past years, and rings in my ears with never-dying
Hazlitt was 20 and Coleridge 26 when they first met.
Hazlitt described the meeting himself, in "My
First Acquaintance with Poets", very probably as
he remembered it, but probably with some romantic colouring, due to
his having been 20 at the time, and not having found his own voice as a writer and
Then again, he also impressed Coleridge, who invited
him to visit him, which is how Hazlitt also came to know Wordsworth.
M26. “That we should wear out
by slow stages, and dwindle at last into nothing, is not wonderful,
when even in our prime our strongest impressions leave little trace
but for the moment, and we are the creatures of petty circumstance.”
This is Hazlitt quoted, and I extracted it because
Ilike it, and indeed "we are the creatures of petty circumstance”
is quite true, as is our existence in the here and now of our own
M27. “Life is indeed a strange gift, and its privileges
are most mysterious."
More Hazlitt quoted, and indeed this also seems
true: There is very much more to know than any one man can comprehend
- which no argument for religion, but for wonder: Human beings are
very special animals.
M28. "We know our existence only by ourselves, and
confound our knowledge with the objects of it. We and nature are
therefore one. Otherwise the illusion, the ‘feast of reason and the
flow of soul,’ to which we are invited, is a mockery and a cruel
And again more Hazlitt, and it may be seen,
anachronistically, as Hazlitt's answer to the philosophical conundrum
of being a brain
in a vat (the vat being one's skull, perhaps) - the solution being that we
assumptions anyway, and can test our
experiment. Placed in such circumstances, it is more sensible to
assume we are part of a much greater natural reality than that we mere
bundles of ongoing experiences, dubiously located.
M29. "We do not go from a play till the last act is ended, and the
lights are about to be extinguished. But the fairy face of nature
still shines on: shall we be called away before the curtain falls, or
ere we have scarce had a glimpse of what is going on? Like children,
our step-mother nature holds us up to see the raree-show of the
universe, and then, as if we were a burden to her to support, lets us
fall down .
Yet what brave sublunary things does not this pageant present, like a
ball or fête of the universe!”
And yet more Hazlitt: Indeed - and it is true that
the human place in the scheme of things is quite special, precisely
because it can be consciously understood by the human animal itself, to some
extent, in spite of being a mere nearly infinitesimal speck that
exists for a very brief time.
M30. In Hazlitt’s vocabulary there is nothing striking
unless it be the scrupulousness with which he avoids the danger of
commonplaceness and of pedantry. It is easy to forget that the
transparent obviousness of his style was attained only after many
years of groping. We may well believe that “there is a research in the
choice of a plain, as well as of an ornamental or learned style; and,
in fact, a great deal more.”
Quite so, though to my mind Mr. Zeitlin does not
really make clear how special Hazlitt's "plain, familiar style" is, nor
that it is musical, and often depends on sentences that are
far longer than modern editors would accept as fit for their reading
Though he did not go in pursuit of the word to the extent of some
later refiners of style, he had a clear realization that the
appropriate word was what chiefly gave vitality to writing. For this
reason he constantly denounced
with its polysyllabic Latin words which reduced language to abstract
Indeed, and I don't quite agree with Hazlitt on
Johnson and his style, though Hazlitt did have a valid point:
Johnson's written English often sounds contrived and Latinate. It
doesn't bother me in the way it did Hazlitt, I suppose mostly because,
contrived or not, there usually is sound thinking behind Dr. Johnson's
Also, I would guess that Hazlitt judged Johnson in
part as being a Tory and a conservative, and being in the class of
Hazlitt's political opponents.
own vocabulary is concrete and vivid, and of a purity which makes one
wonder how even the Quarterly Review could have ventured to apply to
him the epithet “slang-whanger.”
Well, that is easy to answer: If you can't defeat a
man, slander him. (Rhetorics 101)
M33. In spite of all that may be said in honor of the
unadorned style of composition, writers have ever found that even in
prose ideas are most forcibly conveyed by means of imagery.
True, and it seems to me to imply some things about
how humans think:
Fantastically, by images, metaphors and
even when they do not have vivid mental imagery themselves (as I do
have, and as Hazlitt, as a painter, undoubtedly had too). See
James's Principles of Psychology, for more on the subject of
mental images (and very much else besides, also in excellent English).
M34. Hazlitt, it should be
remembered, was an ardent admirer of the picturesque qualities in the
prose of Burke, the most brilliant of the eighteenth century. In
recalling his first reading of Burke, he tells how he despaired of
emulating his felicities. But whether by dint of meditating over Burke
or by the native vigor of his fancy, Hazlitt learned to write as
boldly and as brilliantly as the great orator.
I agree, and this is both well seen and well
expressed - and also a compliment Hazlitt would have relished.
M35. As a rule his rhetorical
passages are not deliberately contrived, in the manner for example of
his esteemed contemporary
Quite so: De Quincey did have a rather good style,
but it clearly was a work of contrived art, that did not come naturally
to him. Hazlitt's style, by contrast, seems quite natural to him, and
sounds much like he might have talked in his best moments.
M36. Of his picturesque quality examples enough may be
found in the present volume, yet one cannot forbear to add a few
illustrations at this point. There is his irresistible comparison of
Cobbett in his political inconsistency to “a young and lusty
bridegroom, that divorces a favorite speculation every morning, and
marries a new one every night. He is not wedded to his notions, not
he. He has not one Mrs. Cobbett among all his opinions.”
Indeed, and this is a good example of what makes
Hazlitt special: Comparisons like this.
There is a good deal more than mere wit in the analogy between
Godwin’s mechanical laboriousness and “an eight-day clock that must be
wound up long before it can strike.”
Hazlitt was not impressed by Godwin's intellect, and
seems not to have liked him. I do not know why, if so, but I agree
there have been smarter men than Godwin, including Hazlitt.
And there is real grandeur in his description of Fame: “Fame is the
sound which the stream of high thoughts, carried down to future ages,
makes as it flows—deep, distant, murmuring evermore like the waters of
the mighty ocean. He who has ears truly touched to this music, is in a
manner deaf to the voice of popularity.”
Perhaps. The problems for those who are not popular,
and who may think they write "for posterity" are that posthumous fame
is imaginary only, for the one whose fame it is (apart from souls on
clouds in the sky) and that it is bound to be probably delusion, since
those who made a name for themselves while alive have a far better
chance to be read by posterity than those who didn't.
M39. “In turning over the pages of the best comedies, we
are almost transported to another world, and escape from this dull age
to one that was all life, and whim, and mirth, and humour. The curtain
rises, and a gayer scene presents itself, as on the canvas of
We are admitted behind the scenes like spectators at court, on a levee
or birthday; but it is the court, the gala-day of wit and pleasure, of
The first sentence - quoted from Hazlitt - also
states what art
is about and indeed as is much more that humans do, such as
role playing: to
get imaginatively "transported to another world", more ideal, and more
This is part of the art of life as long as it is
conscious, and tends to
else, where one believes what one enacts while playing a role in a
fantasy world is not play, but reality - as Bottom in "A Midnight's
M40. Sometimes, it is true, he allows his spirits to run
away with his judgment, although in such instances the manner is so
obviously exaggerated as to suggest deliberate mimicry. His account of
the tawdry sentimentality of
Moore’s poetry sounds like pure travesty:
Yes, it seems likely Hazlitt was writing in irony,
or wrote a spoof. Back.
M41. One feature of Hazlitt’s
style concerning which much has been said both in praise and in blame
is his inveterate use of quotations. His pages, particularly when he
is in a contemplative mood, are sown with snatches from the great
poets, and the effect generally is of the happiest.
I agree, and don't see the force of the objection:
What can be against quoting the best writers, if a quotation makes
sense in the course of one's argument or exposition?
M42. The fact is that quotations
were a part of Hazlitt’s vocabulary, which he used with the same
freedom as common locutions and with less scrupulous regard for the
associations which were gathered about them.
Indeed - or if not "vocabulary" (an odd word
the tributes of Schlegel and
Heine to Hazlitt’s Shakespearian
criticism were insufficient, we have the word of his own countrymen
for it that numberless readers were initiated into a proper
understanding of Shakespeare by means of his writings.
This is not precisely good writing ("his own
countrymen": pleonasm; "numberless readers": false or needlessly vague
and merely suggestive; "proper understanding": unclear), but it is true
that I have seen more enthusiasm for Hazlitt among intelligent
English readers who had not studied Eng. lit. than among those who
did, and also true that certainly Heine's tribute should carry weight
with those who doubt or belittle Hazlitt's stature.
M44. His opinions were quoted as
having the weight of authority by those who were friendly to him, the
writers in the London Magazine or in the Edinburgh Review; they were
appropriated without acknowledgement by the hostile contributors to
This seems quite usual with extra-ordinary men. Then
again, most of what I read in treatises on English literature by
professors in it was either silent about Hazlitt, or paltry in its
praise, though there also were exceptions.
And as I've noted before, his political radicalism,
his satirical abilities, and his Liber Amoris did his standing no
good, certainly not in Victorian England, where even an unconventional
mind like Stevenson's decided not to write Hazlitt's life, in spite of
greatly admiring his style and abilities, on the ground of his then
having to deal with Liber Amoris.
M45. Personal dislike of Hazlitt,
persisting after his death, for a long time prevented a proper respect
being paid to his memory without much diminishing the weight of his
Quite so, and for part of the reasons, see my last
note. Then again, having a scientific rather than a literate bend of
mind, I fail to see how one can quantify or indeed fairly measure "the
weight of his influence".
This can be done, after a fashion, with the
internet, but not in Mr. Zeitlin's time, and anyway word-counts are of
little import with an author who is so decidedly for the small
minority of intelligent persons who read essays, and who did not write
for the public at large, certainly not of today or indeed of Mr.
See also the next quote and note:
M46. .... his opinions have been
diffused through the length and breadth of English and been
incorporated into the common stock.
I am afraid Mr. Zeitlin must have judged here mainly
by personal impressions, and not by accurate and sensible scientific
Speaking for myself, I don't have any better, but I
have been somewhat amazed to find that - from what I did read, in and
about English literature, the last 30 years - an essayist of Hazlitt's
qualities seems to be so little appreciated and so little known in his own
country, and if he is known at all, then usually because of the inclusion of
his "Going to a fight" in some anthology, and not because of anything else.
My explanation for the present time and the last
century, that were not as prude or sanctimonious as Victorian England,
is mostly that he very probably is too demanding for most readers:
requires readers who think for themselves, and know quite a lot
besides literature, and such people are much more rare than most,
including the academically educated, believe and like to think.
M47. If in our own day there are
still persons who, looking upon criticism as a severe science,
occasionally sneer at him as a “facile eulogist,”
those who regard it rather as a gift have seen in him “the greatest
critic that England has yet produced.”
I am definitely of the second school of thought, and
indeed do not know of a better essayist in any of the languages I
read, bar Montaigne and Schopenhauer. (Nietzsche might have qualified,
if he had been more rational. And Schopenhauer, while a great writer
with a fine mind, does not achieve Hazlitt's or Montaigne's
liveliness, in my experience.)
Wherever the golden mean between these two extremes of opinion may
lie, there is no doubt that for introducing readers to an appreciation
of the great things in English literature, Hazlitt still remains
without an equal.
This is Zeitlin's last sentence in the text of his
essay, and while I believe he probably is right in what he wrote, I
more simply and more adequately see Hazlitt as the best English essayist I have
read, bar none, and usually also by a large margin: Very few have his
quality of mind, and very few have his excellent style, and no one
combined both, except perhaps Bacon and Dr. Johnson, who both seem artificial
and stilted and showing off when compared with Hazlitt.
M49. See also the paper in Table Talk on “Familiar Style.”
This from a footnote of Mr. Zeitlin's and indeed
the essay to read if you want to know about Hazlitt's own opinions
about his own style.
“I grant this much, that it is in vain to seek for the word we want,
or endeavour to get at it second-hand, or as a paraphrase on some
other word—it must come of itself, or arise out of an immediate
impression or lively intuition of the subject; that is, the proper
word must be suggested immediately by the thoughts, but it need not
be presented as soon as called for.... Proper expressions rise to
the surface from the heat and fermentation of the mind, like bubbles
on an agitated stream. It is this which produces a clear and
sparkling style.” “On Application to Study,” in Plain Speaker.
I agree, and no doubt it was thus for Hazlitt, but
then not all write in the same way. Hazlitt seems to have been able
to write fast and mostly spontaneously, and is said to have
seldomly needed to make corrections in his copy, but then some write
by rewriting the same many times, as did
illustration and discussion of Balzac's way of (re-)writing).