The Quarrel Of The Age: The Life and Times of William Hazlitt

Written by AC Grayling.


John Keats and his friend John Hamilton Reynolds were ardent admirers of Hazlitt. They attended his lectures, read aloud to each other from his essays, and formulated their theories of poetry in response to his views. Through their eyes Hazlitt appears at his best, because when he was with friends like them – ambitious young men of talent – he was relaxed and expansive, ready to talk endlessly about art and philosophy – not in monologue, as Coleridge did, but as a conversationalist in the same mould as his friend Charles Lamb.
In a letter of April 1817 Reynolds describes entertaining Hazlitt to dinner:

On Thursday last Hazlitt was with me at home, and remained with us till 3 o'clock in the morning! – full of eloquence, – warm, lofty , and communicative on everything imaginative and intelligent, – breathing out with us the peculiar and favourite beauties of our best bards, – passing from grand and commanding argument to gaieties and graces of wit and humour, – and the elegant and higher beauties of Poetry. He is indeed great company, and leaves a weight on the mind, which 'it can hardly bear'. He is full of what Dr Johnson terms 'good talk.' His countenance also is extremely fine: – a sunken and melancholy face, – a forehead lined with thought and bearing a full and strange pulsation on exciting subjects, – an eye, dashed in its light with sorrow, but kindling and living at intellectual moments, – and a stream of coal–black hair dropping all around. Such a face, so silent and sol sensitive, is indeed the banner of the mind. 'It is a book, in which one may read strange things.' He would have become the pencil of Titian, and have done justice to the soul–fed colours of that bold and matchless Italian. I fear you will be tired of this long personality, but I remember having read a few papers of this to you, and therefore imagine you are not wholly uninterested in him.

Reynold's portrait has an air of hyperbole, but it exactly chimes with accounts given by others who enjoyed Hazlitt's friendship. Brilliant, earnest, and always well–judging, he forgot his own existence and its torments when absorbed in discussion. On those occasions he revealed the pure disinterested genius his contemporaries valued in him.

A very different picture is given by Thomas De Quincey, never a friend to Hazlitt, and still less so after being detected in unacknowledged burrowings from Hazlitt's writings (from which he was uncomfortably obliged to apologize). 'His inveterate misanthropy was constitutional,' De Quincey wrote. 'Exasperated it certainly had been by accidents of life, by disappointments, by mortifications, by insults, and still more by having wilfully placed himself in collision from the first with all the interests that were in the sunshine of the world, and of all the persons that were then powerful in England...A friend of his it was Ð a friend wishing to love him, and admiring him almost to extravagance Ð who told me, in illustration of the dark sinister gloom which sate for ever upon his countenance and gestures, that involuntarily, when Hazlitt put his hand within his waistcoat (as a mere unconscious trick of habit), he himself felt a sudden recoil of fear, as from one who was searching for a hidden dagger.'

These two portraits Ð drawn from a number of either kind Ð could scarcely be more at variance. They mark the contradictory views taken of Hazlitt in his own day and afterwards. For two generations following his death it was the latter depiction that prevailed. Some thought him the greatest thinker and critical writer of his age: others, even those who acknowledged his genius, saw him as a gloomy pessimistic Jacobin motivated by party spleen and personal antipathies. Leaving aside the melodramatic reference to a dagger, chose to allegorise Hazlitt's fearsome powers as a polemicist and debater in print, there is some truth in De Quincey's picture, for Hazlitt was indeed at loggerheads with the vested interests of his time, he indeed never courted favour with those 'in the sunshine of the world' because he suspected that most of them had got there by dishonest or despicable means, and he indeed suffered much from disappointments in his personal life and insults were connected, for this was an age of violent polemic and party strife, of which Hazlitt was the subject of constant attack by the Tory press, of a kind we could not now tolerate and therefore do not now see. He returned their attacks with interest, but his enemies made ammunition out of his private sufferings, thereby doubling them.

Understanding this shows how to reconcile the two foregoing portraits. The painter James Smetham, commenting on De Qunicey's pen–sketch, wrote: 'It is said in books we have read since then, that Hazlitt was a gloomy and rather dangerous–looking man, who seemed as if he were feeling for a dagger. We won't believe it. We will allow him to have been dark and solemn and quiet and Dantesque: but what was taken for sinister and malignant was only a knitting the sober brow of Il Penseroso frowning away 'the brood of folly without father bred'. '3 Most who knew Hazlitt knew that this was so. Coleridge said he could be 'brow–hanging, shoe contemplative, strange' others that he was 'lean, slouching, splenetic'; but Charles Lamb, Hazlitt's life–long friend, wrote in defending him against an attack by Southey: 'I should belie my own conscience, if I said less than that I think William Hazlitt to be, in his natural state, one of the wisest and finest spirits breathing. So far from being ashamed of that intimacy which was betwixt us, it is my boast that I was able for so many years to have preserved it entire; and I think I shall go to my grave without finding, or expecting to find, such another companion.'

A man who could inspire such different responses, and who could think and write as Hazlitt did – 'we think we are very fine fellows nowadays,' Robert Louis Stevenson told his contemporaries, 'but none of us can write like Hazlitt' – deserves explanation. The explanation is his life, from which all that he felt and thought sprang, so to explain him is to tell his story.

According to Virginia Woolf, the aim of biography should be to connect hidden areas of its subject's personality – what she called the 'soul' – with external forces of society and history. A mere list of someone's doings would miss the point of our principal reason for reading biography, which is to gain insight into the motivations and meanings of a human life. In writing Hazlitt's biography the task of connecting inner and outer in this way is made easy by the fact that he is a completely autobiographical author, utterly himself in his writings. With Hazlitt, inner and outer are one. He lived a confessional existence, transposing his experience into literature, writing with stark honesty. He is among the very few who lived and wrote without a mask. This is not to say that he wrote without artistry and even artifice, but his material was his own thought and feeling, his own dealings with lifes' intractabilities, and he used that material unsparingly.

The autobiographical richness of Hazlitt's writings might itself seem a problem. Autobiography tends to be apologia, a self–serving exercise at best creative with truth and at worst – and too often – evasive, distorting, or dishonest. But Hazlitt was not a self–server, and he was incapable of lying. He did not care to conceal what he thought or felt about matters that stirred him. When he desired privacy for himself or others, he remained silent. To the mortification of his friends it was a desire he rarely felt.

In one good sense, then, to meet Hazlitt almost in the flesh, one need only open his works and read'. 'Hazlitt was not one of those non–committal writers who shuffle off in a mist and die of their own insignificance,' Virginia Woolf wrote. 'His essays are emphatically himself ... So thin is the veil of the essay as Hazlitt wore it, his very look comes before us.'

Because Hazlitt is so autobiographical an author, his work has, for all its diversity and range, an intensely personal character, as if it constitutes a single long anecdote about a man responding to his world – to art, literature and drama, to politics and ideas – with nerves naked to their pressure. Some of the usual resources of biographers are in Hazlitt's case lacking: few letters to or from him survive, and he kept no diary. There are may contemporary records of him in the form of others' diaries and letters, and also in the great quarrel of the press, which involved him as a principal combatant; but the fact that he was a controversial figure, defended and attacked with equal violence by his peers, obliges a biographer to treat contemporary claims about him with caution.

Hazlitt was born in 1778, just two years after the American declaration of independence, and died in 1830, lingering long enough in his last illness to hear with pleasure that the Bourbons had again been driven from Paris. His life therefore spans a vivid epoch. Its core event is the French Revolution, which was Hazlitt's inspiration and guiding star. He witnessed the rise of Napoleon, whom he admired and whose biography he later wrote. He witnessed – literally so, reading the manuscript of the Lyrical Ballads before publication – the birth of a new world in poetry at the hands of Coleridge and Wordsworth, who were first his friends and later his enemies because they betrayed the cause of liberty – and in Coleridge's case, in Hazlitt's view, because he betrayed his talent too. He was an inspiration to Keats, whom he befriended. He influenced Stendhal long before the two of them met in person. Throughout his life Hazlitt opposed the repressive conservative politics of England, prompted by its fear of France's revolutionary example into quashing the reform movement that had been growing during the eighteenth century, and which briefly seemed about to catch fire from the conflagration in Paris.

Hazlitt thought and wrote always as an independent. He was trebly an alien in his own land and time: because of his inexorable personality, because he was of Dissenting stock, and because he was a radical in politics. It gives one pause to reflect that he was a contemporary of Jane Austen, whose delicately nuanced social world, with its pointillistic graduations of snobbery and rank in country house and vicarage settings, seems a world away from the middle–class intellectual community of London to which Hazlitt belonged, where professional writers chose their allegiances for themselves. But both their worlds are real parts of the history of their time, and Hazlitt's writings were read in both.

Mention of the 'middle–class intellectual community of London' reminds one that Hazlitt was, in fact, born into aristocracy which, had the history of the late eighteenth century been different, even only a little different, might have inherited much of the world. It was not an aristocracy of title or land, but of intellect. In eighteenth–century England the best educated, most thoughtful and independent–minded people were to be found among the Dissenters, so called because they refused to subscribe to the Established church – the Church of England, headed by the currently reigning monarch – on the grounds that no secular authority is entitled to place itself higher that scripture, and that no test of faith and truth can be higher than scripture, and that no test of faith and truth can be higher than an individual's own conscience. Dissenters were therefore disqualified from full participation in public life and the privileges of citizenship. In particular, they were disbarred from standing for Parliment or attending either of the ancient universities. Their response was to campaign with intelligence and persuasiveness for reform, and to found their own academies. These academies were the cutting edge of education in their day; while the old universities dozed on their rich endowments, sated on College feasts and soaked in port, at best and at most requiring their junior members to read a few classical texts, the new independent academies of Warrington, Hoxton and elsewhere taught science and mathematics, history and geography, philosophy, political economy and modern languages. Hazlitt was in no way a religious man – as a precocious boy he was given to sententious pronouncements of a religiose and moral sort, but as soon as he began to think seriously he turned agnostic – but the fiercely explains much about his independence of mind and adherence to principle, traits which he shared with his father and which, in the usual way of the world, did no good to either of them in the material respects of life.

Hazlitt's father is a key figure in this regard. Square–jawed, square–shouldered, stubborn, uncompromising, sometimes unimaginative, but always kind, William Hazlitt senior was a paradigm – in the end, almost a caricature – of the Dissenting outlook. He was a fundamentalist, but a fundamentalist of reason, not of scripture or mysticism. He had the zeal and purity, the blindness and obtuseness of the typical fundamentalist, and the fact that the idols he worshipped were the Enlightenment values of rationality and autonomy did not save him from the marginalization that all fundamentalists ultimately suffer. After all, success even of the most ordinary kind in life requires compromises; like all true fundamentalists, William senior did not know the meaning of the word.

William senior's Unitarianism was an adult choice, and a disappointment to his own parents. He belonged to a branch of the Hazlitts which figured among the English Protestant colonists who flooded into Ireland after the conquests of the seventeenth century. His father sent him at the age of nineteen to prepare for the Presbyterian ministry at Glasgow University, where he was taught by Adam Smith among others. While an undergraduate there he concluded that he was a Unitarian. Unitarians were so independent in thought – at least, in William senior's day – that they scarcely agreed among themselves, and certainly did not accept dictation from one another on what to believe or say. Some Unitarians even rejected the label 'Christian' on the ground that Jesus, whom they regarded as a mere man, perhaps even a sinful and fallible one, is no more than a teacher and, at best, an exemplar. Scripture has to submit to reason and conscience, which form a higher tribunal. There is only one God; the term 'Unitarian' registers rejection of the Trinitarianism of orthodox forms of Christianity. There are, oddly, even atheist and agnostic sections of the Unitarian community.

Into this bulldog mould, fiercely rational, devoted to study, opposed to authority in any sphere but especially the religious, and apt to subject the most mundane matters to hard questioning, William Hazlitt senior fitted as if it had been tailored for him. The result was predictable: he lived thereafter a practically outcast life of penury and insignificance. But it might not have been so if the great reforming sweep of Dissent in the eighteenth century had been successful. If the Church of England had been disestablished, Parliament reformed, the universities opened to all, and religious and civil tests and disabilities abolished – if, in short, pigs had suddenly begun to fly – William senior might have found more appreciation of his virtues, at least in the form of a congregation both amenable to his stubbornly liberal views and rich enough to support him and his family in a decent manner of life. As it was, the French Revolution provoked strong political reaction in England, crushing hopes of reform. When the hopes revived decades later they were no longer of that ambitious, clear, hopeful vintage of the Age of Enlightenment; they had become the piecemeal and tip–toeing reform of compromise and pragmatism. Those who were leading lights in the Dissenting firmament, such as Richard Price and Joseph Priestley, suffered; much more so did their less celebrated colleagues like William senior.

As it happens, William senior's career began rather well. After adopting Unitarianism he took temporary charge of a congregation in Wisbech, Norfolk, and there met a mild mannered, elfinly beautiful girl, Grace Loftus, daughter of a flourishing ironmonger and friend of another local family destined for fame and notoriety, the Godwins. Grace and her siblings were habituŽs of the Godwin household. She used to push the juvenile William Godwin in a go–cart round his family's garden, and the link thus established was inherited by her son the essayist, who maintained the acquaintance throughout his life, benefiting considerably from Godwin's help and friendship.

After William senior and Grace Loftus married they had a pleasant spell tending a small Unitarian flock at Marshfield in Gloucstershire, and then moved to the thriving and handsome town of Maidstone, county capital of Kent, which boasted a large well–built Unitarian chapel at its centre, whose well–heeled congregation provided a house in the next street for the preacher to accommodate his growing family. Today a plaque on the chapel's front commemorates William senior's ministry there, not for its own sake but because Hazlitt the essayist was born there on 10 April 1778, giving Maidstone its chief claim to literary fame.

William senior had good neighbours in Kent; he enjoyed the friendship of men who were leading names in Dissent and eighteenth–century reform, such as Dr Andrew Kippis, the celebrated Dr Price, and the even more celebrated Dr Priestley. At the house of his friend and fellow–preacher Mr Viny of nearby Tenterden he made the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin. Under the pen names 'Rationalis' and 'Philalethes' he contributed articles to Priestley's Theological Repository, published two sermons on the subject of human authority in matters of faith (1774), and a book called An Essay on the Justice of God (1773).

These were promising beginnings among the Dissenting elite, and in other respects too (apart from suffering a common hazard of the time, the death of an infant son) the Hazlitt's time in Maidstone was happy – until a combination of the American War of Independence and William senior's dogged espousal of principle brought the idyll to an end.

After a decade of incompetent and increasingly provocative efforts by the British government to tax its America colonists, the latter had risen in rebellion in 1775. With much to occupy it at home and elsewhere in the world, the British government's endeavours to quash the revolt were halfhearted and badly organised. Nearly thirty thousand German mercenaries were hired to fight the Crown's war against Briton – but the contempt of the home government so alienated the colonists that, through their experience of revolt, they forged a new and wholly independent identity.

Almost all liberal opinion at home in Britain was on the side of the colonists. William senior naturally supported them too. Some of the congregation sided with him, the rest did not. The dispute grew increasingly bitter as the years of war passed. Tensions eventually became such that one half of the congregation refused to attend chapel while the other half was present. By 1780 William senior's position had become untenable. He had no choice but to resign his ministry and quit Maidstone.

It was an unlucky move, the first of many such. Malign stars now seemed to take charge of William senior's affairs. He had to go where he could command a living, and the best he could find was in Ireland, at Bandon in County Cork. There was a camp for American prisoners – of – war at nearby Kinsale, and William senior befriended them, the more earnestly because of their ill–treatment by the soldiers of the 14th Dragoons who were guarding them. He visited the hapless Americans in prison, published letters in the local newspaper to protest at their treatment, and when three of them escaped he hid them from the authorities. His stance made him very unpopular with the troops' 'haughty officers'. He was barged into in the street, and threats were made. Undaunted, he wrote in complaint to the government in London, and through the medium of Dr Price had his representations heard at the highest level – by the Prime Minister himself, Lord Shelburne. An inquiry ensued; several officers were disciplined, and a new regiment was sent to Kinsale to relieve the 14th Dragoons o fits duties.

This affair was the last straw for William senior. His championing of the American cause had cost him Maidstone and made him and his family wretched in Bandon. Perhaps, he thought, since his troubles stemmed from his friendship towards America, he would be welcomed there as a friend, and rewarded for his help by finding a home and opportunities among the erstwhile colonists. He resolved therefore – against the strenuous advice of his friends, including Dr Price – to emigrate to the New World with his family, and to embrace for his sake and theirs its promise of liberty and a fresh start.

But Dr Price and his other friends were right. William senior had three and a half thankless years of labour in America. Despite Herculean efforts he could not find a satisfactory post, and was dismayed to discover that the puritanical Calvinists who dominated religious life in the new Republic were bitterly hostile to his brand of liberal Unitarianism. Defeated and dejected, and regretting the hardships to which he had fruitlessly subjected his family, he decided that he had no choice but to return to England. He sailed from Boston in November 1786, going alone so that he could find a job and a home for his wife and children to come back to. They followed him nine months later, reaching England in August 1787.