The Hazlitt Society


Liberty's Brightest Star

Liberty's brightest star by Tom Paulin

We've almost forgotten William Hazlitt . Tom Paulin sets out to recover a great artist-critic.

William Hazlitt appears to have almost entirely dropped out of the literary canon. Though Hazlitt is an important - and I'd say great - Romantic writer, he is hardly studied in schools and universities. All of his work, with the exception of The Spirit of the Age, is out of print, and there are only two paperback selections from the collected works, whose 20 volumes total about 8,000 pages. He is a master of the essay form, the first major art critic in English, the first major drama critic, a devoted admirer of popular culture - boxing, racket-playing - as well as one of the outstanding political and literary journalists and polemicists the nation has ever produced. Like William Cobbett, who 'naturally butts at all obstacles, as unicorns are attracted to oak trees', his prose affirms English liberty in the sinewy pluck and stretch of every sentence he wrote. But he stands not just for English liberty, as I discovered in the course of my researches into his background.

Initially, though, I had to cope with the enormous neglect which this Shakespearean prose writer has suffered. Working through the collected edition, I began reading Hazlitt 's Life of Napoleon, but halfway through the first of its three volumes I found that the pages needed cutting. His biography of Napoleon had stood with the other volumes on the open shelves of the Bodleian library for more than 60 years and no one had read through them. At least Hazlitt is still on the open shelves, I reflected Kipling, another great neglected author, isn't.

I see Hazlitt as an epic writer - the first and best Critic as Artist - and I've tried to honour the energy and momentum of his work, its sensuous intellect, by writing a study in 12 chapters. Its subject is the tactile subtlety of his prose style, and my aim is to treat him as a leading Romantic writer, who is at least as important as Wordsworth and Keats, and who is a more important critic than Coleridge.

I can't imagine anyone in the future writing about the intricacies and beauties of F R Leavis's prose style, but Hazlitt 's prose is unique in its texture, boldness and dramatic empathy. His intellect is plenary - his first book, An Essay on the Principles of Human Action, is an original work of philosophy, and I see him as a kind of founding, in a way up-rooted, figure, like Virgil's Aeneas.

I've attempted to honour him by trying to shadow epic form, and to write a critical book which pushes at the barriers of criticism. I've never believed that the critical and the creative imaginations are separate - rather, as Oscar Wilde pointed out long ago, 'Criticism is really creative in the highest sense of the word. Criticism is, in fact, both creative and independent.' As I began writing my study, I also started to search what traces Hazlitt had left other than books of his 52 years on this earth. He was born in Maidstone on 10 April 1778 and died in a Soho rooming-house in Frith Street on 18 September 1830. The rooming-house is now known as Hazlitt 's Hotel and writers are welcomed there. I've stayed in it several times, most recently in the small back room on the third floor where Hazlitt died. But it's in Maidstone that you can glimpse Hazlitt and his family.

At the turn of the stairs in an Elizabethan manor house near the centre of Maidstone, there is a darkened, damaged self-portrait of the young William Hazlitt . To paint it the apprentice artist used a brown bituminous pigment which produced an instant Rembrandt-like effect and helped create the chiaroscuro he was seeking. Unfortunately, this type of paint never dries completely, though eventually it produces a broken surface that looks like crocodile skin. In his cream, almost clamping neckcloth, the young Hazlitt stares at us with dark eyes, a little patch of sunlight on his right forehead. The cracks make him look strangely damaged - there is something raw, unformed, even dangerous in his direct, but somehow vulnerably shrouded gaze. This is Hazlitt as he describes himself at the age of 19 - 'dumb, inarticulate, helpless, like a worm by the way-side,' and perhaps he was thinking of this early portrait when he went on to say that his soul has remained 'in its original bondage, dark, obscure, with longings infinite and unsatisfied'.

Hazlitt 's mother, Grace Loftus, was from a dissenting family in Cambridgeshire, and his father, the Rev. William Hazlitt , was an Irish Unitarian from Co. Tipperary who was minister in Maidstone from 1770 to 1780, when the controversy caused by his vocal support for the American rebels forced him to return with the family to Ireland. Though Hazlitt often beats the drum of his Britishness deliberately, we must recognise that he was half Irish and that his descendants described the family as Irish. The critic's grandson, William Carew Hazlitt, says that the Rev. Hazlitt was 'an Irishman, and my grandfather after him'.

In her journal, Hazlitt's sister Margaret suggests that had the family remained in Co. Cork, where her father was a minister at Bandon from 1780-83, he would not have survived the United Irish rebellion, which began on 23 May 1798. Hazlitt , in one of his most famous essays, 'My First Acquaintance with Poets', refers to 1798 as 'the year of Demogorgon' - borrowing an image from Milton to express the horror of that year when 30,000 republicans and loyalists lost their lives in battles in the north and south of Ireland.

Hazlitt 's father is described by his daughter as a fearless radical who inspired his children with a passionate political commitment. With the ending of the American War of Independence, the family emigrated to the new United States where they stayed for four years. The Hazlitt family's bold honesty and boisterous plainspeaking are characteristic of what we might call the Whig mentalite, for the Hazlitts were what were known as 'Real Whigs'. Intellectually, they were the descendants of the Commonwealthmen who briefly made England a republic in the middle of the 17th century. They are in a line of descent from Milton, Harrington and Algernon Sidney, and they carry proudly the scars of the battles those men fought.

Hazlitt gives an account of painting his father's portrait in his essay 'On the Pleasure of Painting'. Hazlitt says he finished his father's portrait on the same day that the news of the Battle of Austerlitz reached Wem, the remote Shropshire village the Hazlitts moved to on their return from the United States. 'I walked out in the afternoon, and, as I returned, saw the evening star set over a poor man's cottage with other thoughts and feelings than I shall ever have again.' In a moment of victory, Hazlitt 's hero Napoleon completes this elegy for his out-spoken father - an elegy that also celebrates and mourns his own youthful idealism, as well as catching the closeness father and son shared while the portrait was in progress in the chapel at Wem.

The old, benevolent, bespectacled, craggy, doubly pocked face looks down at a book he seems almost to thrust towards us. Together, the portrait and Hazlitt 's elegiac essay help to place the father who began life as 'a poor Irish lad', the child of a Calvinist, northern Irish family that had moved to Co. Tipperary. Abandoning their form of presbyterianism, he studied under Adam Smith at the University of Glasgow and became a veteran in the Unitarian cause. A forthright, argumentative, utterly unworldly man, his life was 'comparatively a dream'. His uncompromising nature and unshakeable principles meant that he didn't prosper in the church - in many ways, he appears to have been a typical Irish Protestant.

That his son the critic is so tenuously lodged in the cultural memory at the present moment is saddening. Few readers, and still fewer places, claim him. The house beside the disused chapel in Wem where his father preached has a commemorative plaque on the wall, and so has the Maidstone chapel (Unitarians still worship there). The rooming-house in Frith Street, Soho, where he died, has a blue plaque. In St Anne's churchyard nearby there is a memorial tablet to mark where he is buried. In Winterslow, the Hampshire village he kept returning to, there isn't a trace of his presence. And in Bandon, Co. Cork, where his father preached, there is no commemorative plaque on the building that used to be the Unitarian chapel there.

Perhaps it's a pious mistake to try to make memories inhere in places and objects. Yet over the years I've been studying Hazlitt , the wish for some glimpse of the driven, fallible human being who created such ecstatically definite prose has prompted me to consider how piety has to be part of the inspiration behind the attempt to write about a neglected author. During this time, the moments when I've come closest to an idea of his presence were when I looked at that self-portrait and at the portrait of his father reading. To see the Rev. William Hazlitt 's portrait I had to go into a dark storeroom in the Maidstone Museum, where I also saw Hazlitt 's death mask and a copy of the mask, both wrapped in tissue paper.

I also looked through a box of his brother John's miniatures - accomplished, rather slick works the size of large brooches: 'Mrs John Hazlitt ', 'Lady with a Muff', 'James Boswell after Joshua Reynolds', John Hazlitt 's daughter Harriet mourning over a dead starling. Then I found a miniature of Margaret Hazlitt , the sister who stayed at home to look after their parents. John's full-length portrait of Margaret hangs near Hazlitt 's self-portrait in the main part of the museum, so I recognised her thoughtful, sensitive, strong-willed, rather Irish face. This miniature had more expression, more feeling, than the other rather slick ones in the box. Maybe that was why I looked at it for a bit longer and then on a sudden impulse turned it over and found a bunch of plaited hair behind the glass back. Auburn, fresh, as though it had been newly cut, her hair looked just as it did in the portrait. For a moment, I felt in touch with the dead.

Tom Paulin's The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style is published by Faber, £22.50.

The Guardian, 6th June 1998.