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William Hazlitt Post by :a70maverick Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :November 2011 Read :1448

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William Hazlitt

For an author to fare better dead than alive is good proof of his literary vivacity and charm. The rare merit of Hazlitt's writing was recognised in his lifetime by good judges, but his fame was obscured by the unpopularity of many of his opinions, and the venom he was too apt to instil into his personal reminiscences. He was not a safe man to confide in. He had a forked crest which he sometimes lifted. Because they both wrote essays and were fond of the Elizabethans, it became the fashion to link Hazlitt's name with Lamb's. To be compared with the incomparable is hard fortune. Hazlitt suffered by the comparison, and consequently his admirers, usually in those early days men of keen wits and sharp tongues, grew angry, and infused into their just eulogiums too much of Hazlitt's personal bitterness, and too little of his wide literary sympathies.

But this period of obscurity is now over. No really good thing once come into existence and remaining so is ever lost to the world. This is most comfortable doctrine, and true, besides. In the long run the world's taste is infallible. All it requires is time. How easy it is to give it that! Is substantial injustice at this moment done to a single English writer of prose or verse who died prior to the 1st of January, 1801? Is there a single bad author of this same class who is now read? Both questions may be truthfully answered by a joyful shout of, No! This fact ought to make the most unpopular of living authors the sweetest-tempered of men. The sight of your rival clinging to the cob he has purchased and maintains out of the profits of the trashiest of novels should be pleasant owing to the reflection that both rival and cob are trotting to the same pit of oblivion.

But humorous as is the prospect of the coming occultation of personally disagreeable authors, the final establishment of the fame of a dead one is a nobler spectacle.

William Hazlitt had to take a thrashing from life. He took it standing up like a man, not lying down like a cur; but take it he had to do. He died on September 18, 1830, tired out, discomfited, defeated. Nobody reviewing the facts of his life can say that it was well spent. There is nothing in it of encouragement. He reaped what he sowed, and it proved a sorry harvest. When he lay dying he wanted his mother brought to his side, but she was at a great distance, and eighty-four years of age, and could not come. Carlyle in his old age, grim, worn, and scornful, said once, sorrowfully enough, 'What I want is a mother.' It is indeed an excellent relationship.

But though Hazlitt got the worst of it in his personal encounter with the universe, he nevertheless managed to fling down before he died what will suffice to keep his name alive. You cannot kill merit. We are all too busily engaged struggling with dulness, our own and other people's, and with ennui; we are far too much surrounded by would-be wits and abortive thinkers, ever to forget what a weapon against weariness lies to our hand in the works of Hazlitt, who is as refreshing as cold water, as grateful as shade.

His great charm consists in his hearty reality. Life may be a game, and all its enjoyments counters, but Hazlitt, as we find him in his writings--and there is now no need to look for him anywhere else--played the game and dealt out the counters like a man bent on winning. He cared greatly about many things. His admiration was not extravagant, but his force is great; in fact, one may say of him as he said of John Cavanagh, the famous fives player, 'His service was tremendous.' Indeed, Hazlitt's whole description of Cavanagh's play reminds one of his own literary method:

'His style of play was as remarkable as his power of execution. He had no affectation, no trifling. He did not throw away the game to show off an attitude or try an experiment. He was a fine, sensible, manly player, who did what he could, but that was more than anyone else could even affect to do. His blows were not undecided and ineffectual, lumbering like Mr. Wordsworth's epic poetry, nor wavering like Mr. Coleridge's lyric prose, nor short of the mark like Mr. Brougham's speeches, nor wide of it like Mr. Canning's wit, nor foul like the Quarterly, nor let balls like the Edinburgh Review.'

Wordsworth, Coleridge, Brougham, Canning! was ever a fives player so described before? What splendid reading it makes! but we quote it for the purpose of applying its sense to Hazlitt himself. As Cavanagh played, so Hazlitt wrote.

He is always interesting, and always writes about really interesting things. His talk is of poets and players, of Shakespeare and Kean, of Fielding and Scott, of Burke and Cobbett, of prize fights and Indian jugglers. When he condescends to the abstract, his subjects bring an appetite with them. The Shyness of Scholars, the Fear of Death, the Identity of an Author with his Books, Effeminacy of Character, the Conversation of Lords, On Reading New Books: the very titles make you lick your lips.

Hazlitt may have been an unhappy man, but he was above the vile affectation of pretending to see nothing in life. Had he not seen Mrs. Siddons, had he not read Rousseau, had he not worshipped Titian in the Louvre?

No English writer better pays the debt of gratitude always owing to great poets, painters, and authors than Hazlitt; but his is a manly, not a maudlin, gratitude. No other writer has such gusto as he. The glowing passage in which he describes Titian's St. Peter Martyr almost recalls the canvas uninjured from the flames which have since destroyed it. We seem to see the landscape background, 'with that cold convent spire rising in the distance amidst the blue sapphire mountains and the golden sky.' His essay on Sir Walter Scott and the Waverley Novels is the very best that has ever been written on that magnificent subject.

As a companion at the Feast of Wits commend us to Hazlitt, and as a companion for a fortnight's holiday commend us to the admirable selection recently made from his works, which are numerous--some twenty volumes--by Mr. Ireland, and published at a cheap price by Messrs. F. Warne and Co. The task of selection is usually a thankless one. It involves of necessity omission and frequently curtailment. It is annoying to look in vain for some favourite passage, and your annoyance prompts the criticism that a really sound judgment would have made room for what you miss. We lodge no complaint against Mr. Ireland. Like a wise man, he has allowed to himself ample space, and he has compiled a volume of 510 closely though well-printed pages, which has only to be read in order to make the reader well acquainted with an author whom not to know is a severe mental deprivation.

Mr. Ireland's book is a library in itself, and a marvellous tribute to the genius of his author. It seems almost incredible that one man should have said so many good things. It is true he does not go very deep as a critic, he does not see into the soul of the matter as Lamb and Coleridge occasionally do--but he holds you very tight--he grasps the subject, he enjoys it himself and makes you do so. Perhaps he does say too many good things. His sparkling sentences follow so quickly one upon another that the reader's appreciation soon becomes a breathless appreciation. There is something almost uncanny in such sustained cleverness. This impression, however, must not be allowed to remain as a final impression. In Hazlitt the reader will find trains of sober thought pursued with deep feeling and melancholy. Turn to the essays, On Living to One's Self, On Going a Journey, On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth, and read them over again. When you have done so you will be indisposed to consider their author as a mere sayer of good things. He was much more than that. One smiles when, on reading the first Lord Lytton's Thoughts on the Genius of Hazlitt, the author of Eugene Aram, is found declaring that Hazlitt 'had a keen sense of the Beautiful and the Subtle; and what is more, he was deeply imbued with sympathies for the Humane'; but when Lord Lytton proceeds, 'Posterity will do him justice,' we cease to smile, and handling Mr. Ireland's book, observe with deep satisfaction, 'It has.'


(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: William Hazlitt

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