A memorial for Hazlitt by AC Grayling
He is one of England's greatest writers and radicals but his body lies in an obscure grave in Soho. Now, 170 years after his death, there are plans to replace his lost headstone.
William Hazlitt is one of the greatest writers of prose in the English language, and the greatest exponent of the essay - that personal, miscellaneous, free-flowing prose composition that constitutes an art form celebrated for its riches of content and style. He is also arguably the best and most important critic of the early 19th century's Romantic epoch, making original contributions to appreciation of art, theatre, literature and philosophy.
His remarkable essays fill 20 volumes, making him one of the English language's most outstanding and prolific authors. And as if that were not enough, Hazlitt was also a hard-hitting political polemicist and journalist who, at the expense of his own chances for advancement, defended a radical stance that was actively persecuted in his day. He attacked privilege and monarchy, was a lifelong partisan of the founding principles of the French Revolution, which were democratic, socialist, and based on a new conception of human rights and secular freedoms. For this reason he opposed the unjust and unnecessary war waged by the crowns of Europe against France's republican revolution, and was devastated when the Bourbon regime was restored in Paris in 1815, because it meant that absolutist monarchies had conquered the efforts of a people to cast off feudalism and to try to construct a new society based on liberty, equality and fraternity.
Given Hazlitt's resolutely independent radicalism, it is unsurprising that his many admirers include leading politicians of the left. Michael Foot is chief among them, and has often written about Hazlitt's political commitment and consistency, and the way in which Hazlitt suffered as a result of adhering to principle - for, unlike his early friends Coleridge and Wordsworth, he never traded his principles for establishment honours or government pensions.
But it is Hazlitt's power as a critic that Foot reserves for greatest praise, quoting Keats's description of him as "the Shakespeare prose writer of our glorious century". Hazlitt had, Foot says, "a poet's insight into the world and a poet's imagination, with not a trace of egotism, sublime or otherwise".
The beauty and power of Hazlitt's prose is credited with gifts more usually associated with poetry. The poet and critic Tom Paulin recognises it, too, saying that he was prompted to write his study of Hazlitt's genius by a "wish for some glimpse of the driven, fallible human being who created such ecstatically definite prose", aiming especially to understand the "poetics" of Hazlitt 's style. In his book The Day-Star of Liberty, Paulin traces the evolution of the intellectual and reformist ethos of dissent, which Hazlitt , although not a religious man, inherited from his father, and which formed his outlook.
Dissent was not just a religious tradition, it was an ideological one. In 18th-century England the besteducated, 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 reigning monarch - on the grounds that no secular authority is entitled to place itself 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 barred from standing for parliament 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, requiring no more from their undergraduates than knowledge of a few classical texts, the new, independent, dissenting academies taught science and mathematics, history and geography, philosophy, political economy and modern languages.
It was not the religious beliefs so much as the fiercely autonomous and questioning character of dissent that influenced Hazlitt. He attended the academy at Hackney in London, where he had a first-class education in the best dissenting manner. But it was so effective that he and all his fellow students became agnostics, so its dismayed financial backers withdrew their support and the academy closed down. It explains his independence of mind and adherence to principle, traits that he shared with his father - and which, in the usual way of the world, did no good to either of them in practical terms. Hazlitt's father, a Unitarian minister who was a kindly man but an uncompromising and utterly independent cleric, was regarded by his colleagues as a loose cannon, and therefore spent most of his life preaching in the rural backwater of Wem in Shropshire, shut out from the political and doctrinal controversies he longed to engage in.
Hazlitt suffered the same fate in the secular sphere, making his living as a writer and critic and never (unlike Coleridge and Wordsworth) getting help from the public purse in the form of rewards or pensions, because he was always too critical of the establishment. As a result, Hazlitt had a life of struggle and disappointment. His private life brought him much unhappiness too, not least occasioned by his famous passion for a young woman called Sarah Walker, about which he wrote a strange and extraordinary book, the Liber Amoris. This book destroyed his reputation and remains a focus of hostility for present-day feminist critics. He was a married man, yet publicly admitted to a passion for a woman half his age, who - as he carefully put it - for hours every day, for months on end, "sat in my lap, her arms around my neck, and mine twined round her in the fondest manner". He asked, "Is it not enough to make anyone frantic to have been admitted to such intimacy with so sweet a creature?"
He had divorced his first wife, Sarah Stoddart, in the hope of marrying Walker, but in the end Walker refused him, thereby breaking his heart and his health. He lived only seven years longer, under a cloud of grief and infamy. When he died he was past the greatest period of his contemporary fame, but he was still a controversial figure, feared and disliked by the establishment yet admired by younger writers and radicals.
Hazlitt died in the hot summer of 1830. The illness that killed him, either stomach cancer or ulcers, had been creeping up on him for a long time, but only began to overwhelm him in his last months. He was still writing journalism, which had always been his principal source of income at that point he was writing for a magazine called the New Monthly. His essay The Free Admission appeared in its July issue, celebrating the years of delight he had experienced as a theatre critic. For him the theatre was "a relief, a craving, a necessity".
But by August, Hazlitt was too ill even to totter to his free seat in the gallery. He was 52, gaunt and grey, and scarcely able to eat. Even the joy of the Revolution of the Three Days in Paris, which finally drove the Bourbons from France, could only cheer him briefly. From his bed he wrote that the revolution "was like a resurrection from the dead, and showed plainly that liberty too has a spirit of life in it and the hatred of oppression is 'the unquenchable flame, the worm that dies not' ". But privately he said to a friend: "Ah, I am afraid things will go back again."
His August contribution to the New Monthly was an essay very different from The Free Admission. Called The Sick Chamber, it began: "What a difference between this subject and my last . . . Yet from the crowded theatre to the sick chamber, from the noise, the glare, the keen delight, to the loneliness, the darkness, the dullness, and the pain, there is but one step."
For a while he kept on writing, sitting up in bed, but increasingly fitfully. As August passed into September it was evident to everyone, and to himself, that he was fading. As he grew weaker, his voice disappeared into a whisper and he could scarcely cope with visitors. He became anxious about money, one reason being that, trapped in his bed, he could not provide for the woman he was then in love with, a "girl of the theatre" (a prostitute) whose name has been lost to the record. His son said that his anxiety over her was worse than his illness. Hazlitt forgot that Francis Jeffrey was no longer editor of the great Edinburgh Review to which he had so long been a contributor, and with a quivering hand he wrote to him: "Dear Sir, I am dying. Can you send me pounds 10, and so consummate your many kindnesses to me?" Jeffrey sent pounds 50.
A friend described Hazlitt at the last: "He lay ghastly, shrunk, and helpless, on the bed from which he never afterwards rose. His mind seemed to have weathered all the dangers of extreme sickness, and to be safe and strong as ever. He could not lift his hand from the coverlet and his voice was changed and diminished to a hoarse whisper, resembling the faint scream that I have heard from birds. I never was so sensible of the power of death before."
On Wednesday September 15 Hazlitt's old friend and publisher James Hessey wrote to the poet John Clare, "Poor Hazlitt is very ill indeed - I fear on his death bed." On Friday he seemed a little better but by Saturday it was clear that he was dying. His son, also called William, Charles Lamb, and two other friends were with him. He could talk very little, but what he said with his shrill dying breath was remem bered by them all: that he wished to see his mother, and that he was pleased his son was soon to marry. And then, to their astonishment and that of posterity, he whispered, "Well, I've had a happy life."
Death came soon afterwards, so imperceptibly and subtly that for several moments no one was aware that his breathing had ceased, and that he was at last, and finally, beyond all passion and pain.
Hazlitt's funeral was arranged by Lamb, his best and oldest friend. It took place five days later and was sparsely attended - Lamb, Hazlitt's son, and a few others gathered to lower his coffin into the damp clay. The press was warm in its obituaries, the warmest coming from Leigh Hunt: "Mr Hazlitt was one of the profoundest writers of the day, an admirable reasoner (no one got better or sooner at the heart of a question than he did), the best general critic, the greatest critic on art that ever appeared (his writings on the subject cast a light like a painted window), exquisite in his relish of poetry, an untameable lover of liberty, and with all his humour and irritability (of which no man had more), a sincere friend and a generous enemy."
Hazlitt was buried in the churchyard of St Anne in Soho, where his grave is the only one still visible. A mystery admirer arranged for a tombstone with an elaborate inscription to be raised above his grave (see above). The author of this encomium - much of it true and just - is unknown.
Various candidates have been suggested, but the warmth and grief of the closing words hints that it might have been none other than Sarah Stoddart, the remarkable woman he had divorced 10 years earlier because of his love affair. Despite the divorce, she remained his friend and most loyal reader, keeping cuttings of his essays, and often visiting him - even helping to nurse him in his final weeks. And it was she who wrote his death notice in the Times. If it was indeed Sarah Stoddart who raised the memorial stone to Hazlitt, it is a touching fact, and does both her and him great credit.
The handsome memorial vanished long ago, and now there is only a flat gravestone marking the spot where Hazlitt lies in St Anne's churchyard. It gives the bare details of his dates of birth and death, and the literary pilgrim might not even notice it, because it lies obscured in the grass in the shade of bushes. The churchyard is now a little park, marked by the dome-topped tower which is all that remains of the original church of St Anne, destroyed in the blitz. Hazlitt would not in the least mind the company of Soho's homeless and addicts, who are chief among those who make use of the churchyard as a quiet retreat for he sympathised with the plight of such, whom he saw as victims of a harsh and selfish world.
It is not altogether odd that a man who had such emotional and intellectual struggles with himself and his world should nevertheless say, as he died, "I have had a happy life." After all, Hazlitt spent his days as he chose: "I loitered my life away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best," he wrote. But it was not an idyll. He never found the love he longed for, and which - a fact that makes things worse, not better - for a time of madness he thought he had found, or rather, narrowly missed. "I have wanted only one thing to make me happy but wanting that, have wanted everything!"
One might almost say that after the Sarah Walker debacle something in Hazlitt - some silent spiritual part of himself, broken and scattered by the emotional disaster - in effect turned its back on England, and on life. This did not, however, prevent him from adding to the corpus of his writings two great works: The Spirit of the Age and The Plain Speaker.
In his very last essay, a nostalgic valediction called The Letter-Bell, written just weeks before his death, Hazlitt recalled how his devotion to the principles of human rights had been born with the French Revolution, and how the apostasy of his early friends - Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey - had disappointed him terribly.
Unlike them he had kept the faith in his youth, he wrote, the light of the French Revolution had guided his steps, and he had never wavered from his belief in its principles. "I have never given the lie to my own soul. If I have felt the impression once, I feel it more strongly a second time and I have no wish to revile or discard my best thoughts. There is a thorough keeping in what I write - not a line that betrays a principle or disguises a feeling. If my wealth is small, it all goes to enrich the same heap and trifles in this way accumulate to a tolerable sum."
This is true Hazlitt was steadfast to his principles, which were altruistic and humane and his steadfastness cost him dear, for it meant being always excluded from the comfortable inner circles of patronage. The depth of Hazlitt's feelings explains his anger at the apostates.
As a youth he had heard Coleridge's revolutionary eloquence it appalled him to find that such beautiful and rousing sentiments were so shallowly worn and so easily betrayed. Southey and Wordsworth had likewise been eloquent in their championing of the Revolution but became bitter opponents of it later, and had likewise become placemen, pensioners of a reactionary government, which had wasted the country's resources in a laborious and bloody effort to extirpate those principles, in order to preserve the privileges that the fortunate classes in England felt were threatened by them. Hazlitt was shocked as much by what his former friends had done as by the failure of mankind's hopes, and his only way of appeasing the agony was to castigate the apostates endlessly, neither letting them forget their betrayal, nor allowing the memory of the "blissful dawn" of human rights to fade and die.
The Guardian, Saturday Review, 21st April 2001.