The Hazlitt Society


Spirit of the Age

Spirit of the age by Tom Paulin

A passionate polemicist and radical Romantic, William Hazlitt was the most brilliant essayist of his day. But since his death 170 years ago, he has been largely forgotten. Now, as a monument to Hazlitt is unveiled in Soho, Tom Paulin welcomes a revival of interest in a timeless critic of pomp and power.

"He was the fearless, the eloquent, and disinterested advocate of the rights and liberties of Man, in every cause and in every clime." - the Reverend John Johns in his memorial sermon for William Hazlitt in October 1830.

In the summer of 1830, William Hazlitt lay dying in a small upstairs bedroom at the back of a cheap Soho lodging-house. His first wife Sarah Stoddart, his son William, Charles Lamb and various friends visited him there, as stomach cancer slowly tortured him. Like Wilde in his Paris pension, he was dying as he had lived, beyond his means to pay for his last lodging on earth he wrote at least two essays during that tormented summer. One is called "The Sick Chamber", and in it we can glimpse the "tumbled pillows", the medicine bottles, the juleps in the "unwholesome dungeon" where he lies.

More than 12 years before, in a little-known letter, Keats's friend, John Hamilton Reynolds, described Hazlitt as "full of eloquence, - warm, lofty, & communicative on everything imaginative & intelligent, - breathing out with us the peculiar & favourite beauties of our best bards, -passing from grand & commanding argument to the gaities & graces of wit and humour, - and the elegant and higher beauties of poetry. He is indeed great company."

Keats, who attended Hazlitt's lectures, looked up to him and admired the surging, dolphin-like strength of his passionate prose, also testified to the inspiring greatness of his company. John Clare, too, met and admired him, calling him in a shocked letter written immediately after his death "a man of origional [sic] Genius," who died in the character of genius "neglected & forgotten".

For many years, the lodging-house where Hazlitt died - his landlady, eager to let his room, hid his body under the bed while she showed it to would-be tenants - has been known as Hazlitt 's Hotel. It is a favourite meeting place for writers, and I remember staying there with Seamus Deane and Seamus Heaney one winter's night in the closing years of the past century. Both Deane and Heaney had studied Hazlitt at school in Derry in the 1950s - he'd been replaced by Orwell when I took the same A-level course in the 60s, and the diminution of his reputation has been fairly steady until recently.

Most of Hazlitt's work is out of print, or unavailable in paperback. He is not studied in most university English courses and those who want to read him at any length need to scour secondhand shops for old Everyman editions of his essays (gloomily each year I contemplate the tiny number of readers who buy the selection of his essays I did for Penguin a few years ago). I often recall reading through his collected works which stand on the open shelves of the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian library, only to find that Hazlitt's three-volume Life of Napoleon had remained there for more than 60 years with its pages uncut. During the years I spent beside those volumes I think two students came to consult them, while there were queues to read Coleridge's lavishly edited, often unreadable prose - prose that has begotten untold acres of equally unreadable academic writing. It was like being trapped inside Gissing's New Grub Street - I felt that Hazlitt's reputation was now so dimmed, so beleaguered on the margins of the cultural memory, that it would never again be celebrated.

The appeal, co-ordinated by the Guardian, for a restored monument on his grave in St Anne's Church in Soho represents one of the most heartening and ambitious attempts to put Hazlitt back where he centrally belongs, among the great Romantic writers such as his friends Keats and Shelley, and his friends, till they deserted the radical cause, Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth. A master of English prose style, a beautifully modulated general essayist, the first great theatre critic in English, the first great art critic, a magnificent political journalist and polemicist like William Cobbett, whom he met and whom he describes affectionately in The Spirit of the Age, his greatest book, Hazlitt is both a philosopher and one of the supreme literary critics in the language. He is the critic as artist, to use Wilde's phrase, because he makes critical prose into imaginative action, so that the critic is redeemed from being simply the servant of the poet, the novelist, the playwright. The readers who admire him come from all political spectrums - they include Michael Foot, Lord (that is, Kenneth) Baker, and Paul Johnson, who has been labouring for years on a long TLS review of Duncan Wu's epic, nine-volume edition of Hazlitt 's works (the 20-volume collected works, edited by PP Howe, were published on the centenary of his death in 1930).

But how and where do we place this little-studied, scantly celebrated critic and journalist?

Hazlitt was born in Maidstone on April 10 1778. His mother, Grace Loftus, was the daughter of an English Unitarian ironmonger from Suffolk, his father, William, was from a family of northern Irish Presbyterians, who had moved to the south of Ireland, near Tipperary town. Hazlitt is the issue of the English, the Scottish and - yes, I'm saying it - the Ulster Enlightenment. His father was influenced by the important, though at the moment little discussed, Ulster-Scots philosopher Francis Hutcheson through his studies at Glasgow University, and through Unitarianism, which he chose in rejection of the Calvinist presbyterianism of his parents. It is from Hutcheson's aesthetic philosophy that the sensuous intellect Hazlitt embodies is derived. Unitarianism or Rational Dissent - that intellectual aristocracy in the ranks of Dissent, as historians often characterise it - is central to Hazlitt 's writings, even though he was not a religious believer.

It is particularly appropriate that the Guardian should honour Hazlitt, as they belong to the same Unitarian family (the Manchester Guardian was founded in 1821 in a Unitarian chapel in Cross Street). Unitarianism or Rational Dissent is one of the roots of modern English Culture - for Hazlitt 's generation its three exemplars and heroes were Milton, Locke and Newton, all of whom doubted the divinity of Christ, the central Unitarian non serviam. From this puritan or presbyterian, essentially middle-class, dissenting culture flowed innovations in science, economics, political theory, publishing and education.

Hazlitt began as a philosopher, and his first book, An Essay on the Principles of Human Action, is an original work which has been neglected until recently, and which he described, unfairly, as a dry "chokepear". It contains this beautiful sentence:

"If from the top of a long cold barren hill I hear the distant whistle of a thrush which seems to come up from some warm woody shelter beyond the edge of the hill, this sound coming faint over the rocks with a mingled feeling of strangeness and joy, the idea of the place about me, and the imaginary one beyond will all be combined together in such a manner in my mind as to become inseparable."

This is like a moment from Wordsworth - Hazlitt continued to proclaim his admiration for his poetry long after they quarrelled about politics - and as we read Hazlitt we find a whole series of complex images like this which express philosophical ideas in the same way that Wordsworth's spots of time passages in The Prelude do. If we read this passage with the ear, as Hazlitt insists we do, and not simply with the eye, we can perceive that he is running with a series of "ih" sounds which begin with "If" and end with "inseparable" - a word which also sums up the repeated uses of "in" within the sentence - a sentence which has what Hazlitt calls "keeping" -that is, structure, texture, developing form. It is this firm and sensitive ear for the texture of an English sentence that makes him one of the greatest prose stylists, but in an age of often rebarbative critical prose, or of yuppie lifestyle journalism, this insistence on writing well - and on having the ability to analyse a piece of prose - has virtually disappeared.

Hazlitt 's philosophical study was published in 1805 by Joseph Johnson, Mary Wollstonecraft's publisher and friend, a seminal figure who is known as the founder of the English book trade and who was a pillar of radical Dissenting culture. It was the year of Nelson's victory at Trafalgar and Napoleon's at Austerlitz. It is that latter victory which Hazlitt memorialises in a famous essay, "On the Pleasure of Painting", where he describes painting his beloved father's portrait in the Unitarian chapel in Wem, in Shropshire (the house they lived in still stands, and has a memorial plaque on it, but the chapel is now a storage shed in the back yard of a small hotel).

Hazlitt remembers finishing his father's portrait on the same day as the news arrived of Napoleon's victory:

"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. Oh, for the revolution of the great Platonic year, that those times might come again! I could sleep out the three hundred and sixty-five thousand intervening years very contentedly! - the picture is left: the table, the chair, the window where I learned to construe Livy, the chapel where my father preached, remain where they were but he himself is gone to rest, full of years, of faith, of hope, and charity!"

Fortunately, Hazlitt 's portrait of his father still survives - some years ago I examined it in the vaults of the Maidstone Museum and Art Gallery. It was cracked, dusty, dark, but to gaze at the craggy, doubly pocked face of the Reverend William Hazlitt is to see a benevolent Irish radical, who never compromised and who brought his children up to be fearless and outspoken critics of tyrannical governments. "Be Not Conformed to the World" is the text of one of his sermons. The museum also contains and displays Hazlitt 's self-portrait (his portrait of Charles Lamb is in the National Portrait Gallery, where there is to be an exhibition devoted to Hazlitt in May).

In a series of polemical articles protesting at the treatment of American prisoners of war in Ireland during the American revolution, Hazlitt 's father signed himself "an unchanging whig", and it is from this bold, turbulent, risk-taking, decisively intelligent and passionate radical culture that Hazlitt draws his inspiration. His parents were closely associated with the Irish republican movement, and they looked after a niece of Robert Emmet, the Irish orator and patriot, during the last five years of her life.

We can see Hazlitt at his most passionate and assertive in Political Essays, which was published in 1819, the year of the Peterloo Massacre, and the year of a famous poem by his friend Keats - "To Autumn" - which is a subtly coded elegy for the Manchester dead. In this angry volume, Hazlitt surveys the rottenness of Britain, after his hero Napoleon's defeat, and he lambasts hated figures such as the reactionary foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh, whose "tortured apprehensions" and languid style of speaking he savages. Hazlitt is always a critic of oratory and prose style, and he is particularly brilliant on William Pitt's mechanical and evasive manner of addressing the House of Commons.

Hazlitt was fascinated by oratory, and by the difference between speaking and writing. In an essay "On the Present State of Parliamentary Eloquence", he discusses the limitations of the Whig politician Henry Brougham, who has neither "warmth, nor sacred vehemence, nor nerve or impetuosity to carry the House before him. He is not a good hater." For Hazlitt, the ability to hate the enemy is the central energy in oratory and prose, and he often quotes Milton's phrase "sacred vehemence" to illustrate an energy which for him is vital to all writing and speaking - Yeats called it "passionate intensity". With this goes Hazlitt's sense of the power of the English popular will. In a contemporary Whig politician Samuel Whitbread he finds a representative of "the spontaneous, unsophisticated sense, of the English people: he spoke point-blank what he thought, and his heart was in his broad, honest, English face".

Though Hazlitt can be severely critical of English failings in philosophy, politics and aesthetics, he is centrally a patriot like Blake who affirms English liberty as forcefully as Cobbett does. He represents the master's values and spontaneity in the figure of the English yeoman in one of his most brilliant essays "The Fight", a study in what we now term "popular culture" (Hazlitt 's essays on Indian jugglers, English games and pastimes, and on an Irish racket-player he admired are similar studies). The yeoman in "The Fight" is part of the crowd staying at an inn in Berkshire before the big match: "He was a fine fellow, with sense, wit, and spirit, a hearty body and a joyous mind, free-spoken, frank, convivial - one of that English breed that went with Harry the fifth to the siege of Harfleur."

The yeoman talks as well as Cobbett writes, Hazlitt tells him, for here and throughout the essay he represents the spirit of English liberty and independence battling with a reactionary political culture, and also making fun of a drunken farmer with a blazing red nose who is staying at the inn. It's like a moment out of Hazlitt's beloved Hogarth, as well as being an anticipation of Dickens, who was to become friendly with Hazlitt 's son William, and who was influenced by his essays, as were Thackeray and Robert Louis Stevenson. The yeoman's robust, witty, unrelenting manner of talking is a central value, because Hazlitt loves and celebrates passionate, popular English speech, which he sees as the fountain of liberty in the culture. It shapes radical journalism and glories in giving as good as it gets.

In "On the Connection between Toad-Eaters and Tyrants", one of the most powerful polemics in Political Essays , Hazlitt asserts: "Man is a toad-eating animal," and then shows how the admiration of power turns many writers into intellectual pimps, hirelings of the press, defenders of the restored Bourbon Louis XVIII, worshippers of idols, lovers of kings. Again and again, he hits out like a pugilist at "grovelling servility" and "petulant egotism". One of his persistent themes is that reason is a "slow, inert, speculative, imperfect faculty", and his aim is always to wrest imagination from the reactionaries such as Edmund Burke - whose prose style he admired hugely - in order to create a political discourse which is not abstract, academic, uninflected, foggy. Abstract reason, unassisted by passion, "is no match for power and prejudice, armed with force and cunning".

This is the source of one of the few passages in Hazlitt regularly quoted by literary critics. It is in his essay on Coriolanus, where he observes that the imagination is an "aristocratical faculty". Poetry, he observes, is "right-royal. It puts the individual before the species, the one above the many, might before right." Poetry is a very "anti-levelling principle", unlike the understanding, which is "republican", but which is a dividing, measuring, rational, unexciting, prosy principle. There is a desperation in this essay, which Hazlitt wrote in the tormented aftermath of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.

Here, as so often, Hazlitt is trying to point radicals away from the stagnant, costive prose of Bentham and the philosophical radicals who followed him. Bentham he profiles in The Spirit of the Age, remarking "they say he has been translated into French: he ought to be translated into English". Hazlitt wants the left to trust in and to employ an intensely passionate imagination in argument. He wants images, anger, risk-taking, eloquence, the elastic stretch of combative and confident prose - prose which is wild, lunging, rich in imagery and unfair like Burke's.

For what he terms "the friend of liberty", the love of truth is a "passion in his mind", and the love of liberty is the love of others, while "the love of power is the love of ourselves". Here, we see the principle of disinterested benevolence Hazlitt im-bibed from Unitarianism and from Hutcheson's philosophy and aesthetics. It informs everything he wrote, and in particular The Spirit of the Age, which he published anonymously in 1825, a collection of the most sophisticated newspaper profiles ever written. Hazlitt 's model is the painter he admired above all others - Titian - and he offers a series of contemporary portraits - Wordsworth, Godwin, Coleridge, Southey, Wilberforce and others, some of whom, such as the preacher the Rev. Edward Irving, are deservedly forgotten, though Irving becomes a comic turn in Hazlitt 's prose, like Ian Paisley or Billy Graham let loose with Jonathan Aitken in a Kensington church.

For Hazlitt, disinterestedness is the central Dissenting and English virtue, and he based a vast anthology of parliamentary speeches, The Eloquence of the British Senate, one of his earliest books, on this principle. Though he admired Hobbes as a philosopher and prose stylist, he disagreed vehemently with his view in Leviathan that human beings are entirely motivated by self-interest. What fascinates him are those figures who write journalism in the heat of the moment out of love for others, civic duty and a passionate identification with the liberties of the people, and a hatred of corrupt power. (Hazlitt 's Irish background shows in the subject and title of his essay "On the Pleasure of Hating"). He is drawn to orators, who are prompted by what he terms "the suddenness of the emergency," and must mould the convictions and purposes of their hearers while they are under the influence of "passion and circumstances - as the glass-blower moulds the vitreous fluid with his breath".

In another lovely image he says of Cobbett "wherever power is, there is he against it: he naturally butts at all obstacles, as unicorns are attracted to oak-trees".

As Hazlitt lay dying in Frith Street, close to the churchyard he was to be buried in, he recalled his old battles, and particularly arguments with his former friends, those then committed republicans, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey. He wrote to his friend, Francis Jeffrey, the editor of the Edinburgh Review, asking him for pounds 10 (Jeffrey sent pounds 50, which arrived after Hazlitt's death). He also wrote an essay "The Letter-Bell" which wasn't published until the year after his death.

The "Letter-Bell" is like a warmly confident apologia for his life, as Hazlitt remembers the beginning of his journey and, like a figure in a Jack Yeats painting, prepares for his final pilgrimage, as he takes us into the theatre of his imagination.

He begins by meditating on complaints of the vanity and shortness of human life, moves to trifling objects that assume in the eye of memory "the vividness, the deli-cacy, and importance of insects seen through a magnifying glass". Then he mentions that as he writes "the Letter-Bell passes" a lively, pleasant sound not only fills the street but "rings clear through the length of many half-forgotten years". The jingling bell "strikes upon the ear, it vibrates to the brain, it wakes me from the dream of time, it flings me back upon my first entrance into life, the period of my first coming up to town".

He then recounts how he first set out on his journey through life by taking the road from Wem to Shrewsbury: the long blue line of Welsh hills, the golden sunset, the red leaves of the dwarf-oaks rustle in the breeze. It's like a moment, he suggests, out of Pilgrim's Progress, except the light of the French Revolution "circled my head like a glory, though dabbled with drops of crimson gore".

Here, he's representing what we might term the guilt of a fellow-traveller, a guilt which he was able to live with, unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, who became apologists for monarchy and reaction. Wordsworth he then quotes admiringly, but also in sadness, Southey he mocks, Coleridge he dismisses as "the sleep-walker, the dreamer, the sophist, the word-hunter, the craver after sympathy".

But he also knows that it was along the road to Shrewsbury he walked early one dark January morning in 1798 to hear Coleridge deliver an unforgettable sermon in the Unitarian Chapel there - the same chapel that the young Darwin attended with his family in the next century. This sermon and his first meeting with Coleridge and Wordsworth are celebrated in the classic essay, "On My First Acquaintance with Poets", which is Tolstoyan in its youthful clarity and vigour.

Now he recalls the "unbroken integrity" of early opinions and longs for "one burst of indignation against tyrants and sycophants". These are the hated figures who subject other countries to slavery by force and prepare their own for it "by servile sophistry, as we see the huge serpent lick over its trembling, helpless victim with its slime and poison, before it devours it!"

He rejoices then in the July Revolution which overthrew the Bourbons, and says they are no longer round Coleridge's neck like the albatross (an astute interpretation of the central meaning of Coleridge's symbol). Hazlitt then rejoices in his own obstinate refusal to change his opinions or to duck and weave: "I have never given the lie to my own soul." He cannot recollect having ever repented giving a letter to the postman, "or wishing to retrieve it after he had once deposited it in his bag".

As he remarks in his essay "On the Pleasure of Hating", he quarrelled with all of his friends at some point. Charles Lamb, though, remained true to the end, and Lamb, like Sarah Stoddart, visited him in his last weeks. So did his devoted son, William, who was to publish and republish his writings during the decades that followed. Hazlitt was in great pain, and in "The Sick Chamber", which was published unsigned the month before he died, he describes enduring suffocating heat, grasping the pillow in agony, walking up and down the room with hasty or feeble steps, then returning back to life "with half-strung nerves and shattered strength". Typically, in his closing paragraph he mentions Lamb.

Their friendship survived political change, and the furore that followed the publication of Liber Amoris , Hazlitt 's fictional account of his obsessive love - if love it can be called - for Sarah Taylor, the daughter of a couple he rented a room from in Southampton Row. Hazlitt was savaged by the Tory press, and is one of those writers who court disaster. The willed chaos of his personal life can be glimpsed in the sudden moments of autobiography that texture his essays. Short of money, lonely, seeking out prostitutes and unable - as he admitted - to love any woman, he walks a dangerous edge in his writings. He is fascinated by criminality, so that at times we glimpse a figure who speaks with the voice of the man from underground, except he is a leftwing critic of progress and the enlightened values he cared so much for. Partly, this is because he spent his life writing to deadlines, writing to the moment, writing under pressure, so that he was out there in the firing line, exposed to the spirit of the age, lacerated by it. And because he knows that what is also out there is a dark malign force, which what he terms "mitigated, enlightened belief" will never tame, he knows that the irrational and the prejudiced cannot be simply dismissed. So far as I can tell he believes in evil.

Dying in Frith Street, Hazlitt said, "Well, I've had a happy life." A friend - probably his first wife Sarah Stoddart - raised the memorial stone over his grave in the nearby churchyard. The monument was subsequently removed but thanks to hundreds of Guardian readers and other Hazlitt enthusiasts, it has now been restored.

Here rests
Born April 10, 1778, Died 18 September, 1830
He lived to see his deepest wishes gratified
as he has expressed them in his Essay,
'on the Fear of Death'.

'To see the downfall of the Bourbons.
And some prospect of good to mankind':

(Charles X was driven from France 29th July, 1830).

'To leave some sterling work to the world':

(He lived to complete his 'Life of Napoleon').

His desire
That some friendly hand should consign
Him to the grave was accomplished to a
Limited but profound extent on
These conditions he was ready to depart,
And to have inscribed on his tomb,
'Grateful and Contented'.
He was
The first (unanswered) Metaphysician of the age.
A despiser of the merely Rich And Great:
A lover of the People, poor or oppressed:
A hater of the Pride and Power of the Few,
As opposed to the happiness of the Many
A man of true moral courage,
Who sacrificed Profit and present Fame
To Principle,
And a yearning for the good of Human Nature.
Who was a burning wound to an Aristocracy,
That could not answer him before men,
And who may confront him before their maker.
He lived and died
The unconquered champion
Truth, Liberty, and Humanity,

'Dubitantes opera legite'.

This stone
Is raised by one whose heart is
With him, in his grave.

The Guardian, Saturday Review, 5th April 2003.