Hazlitt (10 April 1778 – 18 September 1830) was an English
writer remembered for his humanistic essays and literary criticism,
often esteemed the greatest English literary critic after Samuel
Johnson. Indeed, Hazlitt's writings and remarks on Shakespeare's
plays and characters are rivaled only by those of Johnson in their
depth, insight, originality, and imagination.
came of Irish Protestant stock, and of a branch of it which moved
in the reign of George I from the county of Antrim to Tipperary.
His father went to the University of Glasgow (where he was contemporary
with Adam Smith), graduated in about 1761, became a Unitarian,
joined their ministry, and crossed over to England; being successively
pastor at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, at Marshfield in Gloucestershire,
and at Maidstone. At Wisbech he married Grace Loftus, daughter
of a farmer. Of their many children, only three survived infancy.
William, the youngest of these, was born in Mitre Lane, Maidstone.
From Maidstone the family moved in 1780 to Bandon, Co. Cork; and
from Bandon in 1783 to America, where Mr. Hazlitt preached, lectured,
and founded the First Unitarian Church at Boston. In 1786-1787
the family returned to England and took up their abode at Wem,
in Shropshire. The elder son, John, was now old enough to choose
a vocation, and became a miniature-painter. The second child,
Peggy, had begun to paint also, amateurishly in oils. William,
aged eight – a child out of whose recollection all memories
of Bandon and of America (save the taste of barberries) soon faded
– took his education at home and at a local school. His
father intended him for the Unitarian ministry, and sent him to
a seminary in London, Hackney College. He stayed there for only
a year, but shortly after returning home, he decided to become
a painter, a decision inspired somewhat by his brother's career.
He alternated between writer and painter, proving himself proficient
in both fields, until finally he decided the rewards of painting
– monetarily and mentally – were outweighed by those
of writing and he left it behind as a career.
In 1798 Hazlitt was introduced to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and
William Wordsworth. He was also interested in art, and visited
his brother John, who was now apprenticed to Sir Joshua Reynolds.
He became friendly with Charles and Mary Lamb, and in 1808 he
married Sarah Stoddart, who was a friend of Mary's, and brother
of John Stoddart, editor of The Times. They lived at Winterslow
in Salisbury, but after three years he left her and began a journalistic
career, writing for the Morning Chronicle, Edinburgh Review, The
Times, etc. He published several volumes of essays, including
The Round Table and Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, both in
1817. His best-known work is The Spirit of the Age (1825), a collection
of portraits of his contemporaries, including Lamb, Coleridge,
Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Jeremy Bentham, and Sir Walter Scott.
for never losing his revolutionary principles, Hazlitt attacked
those he saw as 'apostates' with the most rigour, seeing their
move towards conservatism as a personal betrayal. He felt admiration
for Edmund Burke and pity for Coleridge, but saved the most vitriol
for Wordsworth and the revolutionary-turned poet laureate Robert
Southey. He had an affair with Sarah Walker, a maid at his lodging
house, which caused him to have something of a breakdown and publish
all their correspondence in a pamphlet, Liber Amoris. This was
seized upon by the right-wing press and was used to destroy his
distinguished journalistic career with scandal.
put forward radical political thinking which was proto-socialist
and well ahead of his time and was a strong supporter of Napoleon
Bonaparte, writing a four-volume biography of him. He had his
admirers, but was so against the institutions of the time that
he became further and further disillusioned and removed from public
life. He died in poverty on 18th September 1830 and is buried
in St. Anne’s Churchyard, Soho, London.
An Essay on the Principles of Human Action(1805)
Lectures on the Literature of the Age of Elizabeth and Characters
of Shakespear's Plays (1817)
Lectures on the English Poets (1818)
Lectures on the English Comic Writers (1819)
The Spirit of the Age (1825)