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William Hazlitt Essay On Wordsworth The Prelude

Grasmere, the village in Cumbria where Wordworth's Dove Cottage stands, is a literary version of Mount Rushmore: it gives lasting shape to the reputations of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey and Hazlitt. They were close and devoted friends from 1798 until about 1804, when their political opinions began to diverge. Coleridge and Southey, initially extreme republicans, became Tory monarchists, followers of Edmund Burke - so did Wordsworth. Hazlitt, though never a hardline republican, stood by the French revolution and admired Napoleon all his life. His former friends spread ugly rumours about his attitude to women - rumours that damaged his reputation.

A new exhibition at Dove Cottage museum, The Spirit of the Age, celebrates William Hazlitt's 1825 collection of profiles of the leading writers and intellectuals of his day, including the three poets. The exhibition features portraits, cartoons and sketches of all the figures Hazlitt discusses in his book, as well as paintings by Hazlitt himself. The Grasmere exhibition takes its cue from this newspaper's successful campaign to restore Hazlitt's grave in St Anne's Church, Soho.

Hazlitt, the master critic, was born on this day in Maidstone in 1778, the son of an Irish Unitarian minister. Abandoning the idea of entering the clergy himself, he took up painting and later journalism. The Spirit of the Age began as a series of articles contributed to various periodicals. In it, "this democratic Plutarch", as he was described shortly after his death, creates a series of portraits, which draw on Hazlitt's own experience as a painter, and on his study of Titian and other artists. He wants to describe both how people look, and how they think, dress, walk and talk.

The exhibition uniquely brings together portraits that have been separated for many years - Hazlitt's own portrait of Lamb is here, not far from Hazlitt's famous self-portrait with its vulnerable and shrouded gaze. He was a 19-year-old apprentice artist when he painted it, and unfortunately he used a brown tarry pigment, which helped to create a Rembrandt-like chiaroscuro effect. But the paint didn't dry properly, and created a broken surface whose tiny cracks make Hazlitt look strangely damaged. There is something raw, unformed, even a shade dangerous in his late-adolescent gaze. In his white bandaging neckcloth, a patch of light on his right forehead, he looks like a prisoner. In "My First Acquaintance with Poets", Hazlitt describes himself at this age: "I was at that time dumb, inarticulate, helpless, like a worm, by the wayside, crushed, bleeding, lifeless."

He goes on to say that his soul has remained in its "original bondage, dark, obscure, with longings infinite and unsatisfied", while his heart has remained shut up in "the prison-house of this rude clay", unable to find another heart to speak to. Then, in a moment of noble and fair-minded eloquence, he says that his discovery of a language to express himself in, "I owe to Coleridge."

Coleridge is the third profile in Spirit of the Age, and Washington Allston's portrait in the exhibition at Dove Cottage shows a serious Anglican visionary, completely lacking in the mischievous irony of Hazlitt's treatment of his former friend. Hazlitt says that if Coleridge had not been the most impressive talker of his time, he would have been its finest writer. In long, tumbling, witty, dramatic sentences, Hazlitt characterises Coleridge as a voracious, intellectually misguided figure, who falls "ten thousand fathoms down", like Milton's Satan. He drops down into the dry, desiccated herb garden of Unitarianism, the faith Hazlitt was reared in and which shaped his mind.

Then Coleridge moves on, until he eventually sinks into a "torpid, uneasy repose, tantalised by useless resources, haunted by vague imaginings, his lips idly moving, but his heart forever still". As Wordsworth's biographer Stephen Gill puts it, Coleridge is a "windbag apostate". Coleridge, in Hazlitt's view, is a fallen angel, a pretender to the throne, a burnt-out case, who writes prose that is "utterly abortive".

In this devastating account of Coleridge's learning, enthusiasm and enormous gifts, Hazlitt describes his nomadic, intellectual endeavour, and suggests that his brilliance is a matter of being always on the move, continually offering provisional conclusions. All air and motion, he is eternally about to fulfil his early promise. But as a writer all he can do is to perpetually skim over the surfaces of that promise. His ideas are "like a river, flowing on for ever, and still murmuring as it flows". This continuous motion means that his wavering, vacillating prose induces nausea in the reader.

But in 1798, Coleridge inspired the young Hazlitt, who describes him delivering a sermon in the Unitarian Chapel in Shrewsbury: "Mr Coleridge rose and gave out his text, 'And he went up into the mountain to pray, HIMSELF ALONE.' As he gave out this text his voice rose like 'a steam of rich distilled perfumes', and when he came to the last two words, which he pronounced loud, deep and distinct, it seemed to me, who was then young, as if the sounds had echoed from the bottom of the human heart, and as if that prayer might have floated in the solemn silence through the universe."

It's a powerful moment, but as the scholar Grevel Lindop has pointed out, no such biblical text exists. Hazlitt may have been remembering a moment in John's gospel where Jesus departs "again into a mountain himself alone" (6.15). The sense, though, is clear: Coleridge is Hazlitt's saviour, and his beautifully modulated voice is compared in the quotation to the Lady's musical voice in Milton's "Comus". He also compares Coleridge to John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness and feeding on locusts and wild honey.

What Hazlitt wants to do in all his writing after his first philosophical work is to unite painting with journalism, so that his urgent, beautifully modulated prose has a glossy freshness and a living, active engagement, but he wants his prose portraits not to be simply static, like oil paintings, and instead to be almost like film or action paintings. The cinema had still to be invented, but Hazlitt was fascinated by magic lantern shows or "phantasmagorias", as they were called, and he drew on them and on the new science of electricity to give animation and movement to his profiles.

The exhibition, quite properly, is dominated by portraits of Wordsworth, and although Wordsworth is the 10th portrait in The Spirit of the Age, he is one of the dominating figures in the volume. As Hazlitt announces in his opening sentence, "Mr Wordsworth's genius is a pure emanation of The Spirit of the Age." Wordsworth was a treacherous former friend, and Hazlitt celebrates him in his essay, "My First Acquaintance with Poets". It was written years after Hazlitt and Wordsworth fell out, and in it he offers an energetic portrait of the young poet:

   "There was a severe, worn pressure of thought about his temples, a fire in his eye (as if he saw something in objects more than the outward appearance), an intense high narrow forehead, a Roman nose, cheeks burrowed by strong purpose and feeling, and a convulsive inclination to laughter about the mouth, a good deal at variance with the solemn, stately expression of the rest of his face".

Notice the fire in Wordsworth's eye and the slightly unsettling bony coldness of this face (Hazlitt continues the Roman theme with two quotations from Julius Caesar in the opening paragraph of his extended portrait in The Spirit of the Age). But Hazlitt's appreciation of Wordsworth is ringing and authoritative: he is "a new style and spirit in poetry". The power of his mind "preys on itself. It is as if there were nothing but himself and the universe." It was from this comment and from Hazlitt's lectures that Keats formed the concept of the "egotistical sublime", which he applied to Wordsworth.

Hazlitt visited Wordsworth in the Lake District in 1803 and, as certain scholars have noted, he was influenced by early versions of Wordsworth's epic account of his "creative sensibility" - "The Prelude". What has not been noticed is that the younger Hazlitt (he was 19 when they first met in 1798) also influenced Wordsworth. Meeting him again in 1803, when Britain renewed its war with revolutionary France, Hazlitt would have discussed British and European politics with Wordsworth and Coleridge, and noted that early in the first drafts of "The Prelude", when Wordsworth talks of the mountain creating "an impressive discipline of fear", and a "ministry of fear", he would have been thinking of the oppressive British government under the prime minister, Henry Addington. In the opening paragraph of his portrait of Wordsworth, Hazlitt praises him as a courageous experimental poet who rejects mythological figures and poetic diction:

   "His style is vernacular: he delivers household truths. He sees nothing loftier than human hopes, nothing deeper than the human heart. This he probes, this he tampers with, this he poises, with all its incalculable weight of thought and feeling, in his hands, and at the same time calms the throbbing pulses of his own heart by keeping his eye ever fixed on the face of nature".

This seems like unambiguous praise, but it is one of Hazlitt's great gifts as a critic that he can give his critical judgments an opposite or ambivalent inflection, which makes them build what William Empson terms a "structure of complex words". This means the critic is given the same freedom as the imaginative writer and isn't simply a dependent explicator of a literary text, as the energy, freedom and grace of Hazlitt's prose so magnificently proclaims. In the passage on Wordsworth's vernacular style, the key complex word is "tampers".

By using it Hazlitt is recalling an earlier essay, "On Paradox and Commonplace", where he draws on a novel that fascinated him, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, to describe her husband Percy's poetry: "He tampers with all sorts of obnoxious subjects, but it is less because he is gratified with the rankness of the taint, than captivated with the intellectual phosphoric light they emit." Here, Percy Shelley, like Frankenstein, is engaged in making monsters from what we now term "body parts".

In showing Wordsworth probing and tampering with "this" and "this", he characterises him as an extreme Jacobin intellectual who "paints" his verse in the "living colouring", which is the "life-blood" he makes "flow from the wounded breast". He has a "levelling" muse, which seeks to reduce everything to the same standard of equality. He strips away pretentious decorations "without mercy", because they are "barbarous, idle and gothic". Wordsworth's imagination is bold, violent, jacobinical: it interferes with nature like a surgeon with a scalpel. Hazlitt's prose here has a fresh tackiness like blood or oil paint.

In "The Prelude", Wordsworth praises what he calls "mountain liberty", and we can see the same republican ideology in "Tintern Abbey", the poem he composed in 1798, the year he and Hazlitt first met. He dates the poem July 13 1798. The date is significant - it is the eve of Bastille Day, and the five years that Wordsworth in the opening lines says have elapsed since he last visited the Wye Valley point to another significant date - July 13 1793 - the day the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat was assassinated by Charlotte Corday.

Walking along a mountain path above Grasmere, I remembered that early in "The Prelude", in lines Hazlitt would have read, Wordsworth says of a difficult path:

    "In its windings we shall need / The chamois' sinews and the eagle's wing."

Hazlitt picks up this image in one of his finest essays, "On the Prose Style of Poets", where he praises - disinterestedly - Edmund Burke's counter-revolutionary prose:

   "It differs from poetry, as I conceive, like the chamois from the eagle; it climbs to an almost equal height, touches upon a cloud, overlooks a precipice, is picturesque, sublime - but all the while, instead of soaring through the air, it stands upon a rocky cliff, clambers up by abrupt and intricate ways, and browses the roughest bark and crops the tender flower".

Like an extended passage from "The Prelude", this sinewy sentence celebrates the lunging, leaping deftness of Burke's style, and insists that radical writers cultivate the virtues of a subtle and authoritative prose style, instead of writing with a chipped, mechanical, and rational or - worse - ratiocinating style (so much critical prose nowadays is weightlessly arid or lumpy with specialised vocabulary).

For Wordsworth and Hazlitt, the Cumbrian mountains meant liberty, but they carried also that disciplining ministry of fear, which is such a central part of Wordsworth's subject in his epic poem. Recalling this as I followed a twisting path above Grasmere, I thought of these lines from "Tintern Abbey":

   "the tall rock,
   The mountain, and the deep and
   gloomy wood".

The mountain in French, I remembered, is "la montagne", and that was the name given to the sloping benches in the French National Assembly, where Robespierre and his fellow Jacobins sat. Wordsworth is here remembering the Jacobins, and he uses the "tall rock" not just to describe the slightly sinister cliff face he can see above the River Wye, but as a figure that associates with the Tarpeian Rock, where traitors were thrown to their deaths in ancient Rome. But it also has a contemporary reference for Wordsworth: it signifies the guillotine on which, some scholars argue, he saw a French politician he knew - Gorsas - executed.

He doesn't simply describe landscape - he projects contemporary events and ideas into it. To visit Grasmere is to recall those times, and the arguments that took place there. Hazlitt painted Wordsworth's and Coleridge's portraits, but as Michael Foot lamented in his speech, opening the exhibition at Dove Cottage, both portraits have been lost. Coleridge in his notebooks records a "most unpleasant Dispute" he had with Wordsworth and Hazlitt in which his assailants "spoke so irreverently of the Divine Wisdom". Perhaps Hazlitt's disputatious former friends destroyed their portraits?

Hazlitt was exasperated by Southey's narrow, opinionated, inflexible personality: "His impressions are accidental, immediate, personal, instead of being permanent and universal." The particular type of British idealist philosophy, which Hazlitt held to, shapes this criticism of Southey's mind, which lacks a shaping intellectual structure and can only try to grasp fugitive impressions. In this sentence, Hazlitt is also confronting one of his central anxieties: that his journalistic essays will also be deemed transitory, short-term interventions. For him, Southey is an angular, clumsy, comic figure. It is part of Hazlitt's brilliance as a prose writer that even when praising Southey, he invests his prose with a deliberately aridity that affects the praise.

Thus he says that Southey "vilifies reform, and praises the reign of George III in good set terms, in a straightforward, intelligible, practical, pointed way". This sounds like praise, but Hazlitt's ear is running on the words "petulant", "pert" and "prostitutes" elsewhere in the passage - the p and t sounds colour his sentence with a dry, sterile sound and work to undermine his disinterested praise.

He doesn't, at least in this passage, undermine his celebrated and disinterested portrait of Wordsworth:

   "He sat down and talked very naturally and freely, with a mixture of clear, gushing accents in his voice, a deep guttural intonation, and a strong tincture of the northern burr, like the crust on wine. He instantly began to make havoc of the half of a Cheshire cheese on the table".

The sensuous richness, the gusto, of Hazlitt's style shows here. He often deploys food images to communicate textures, sounds, colours, and he uses italics frequently to vocalise his utterances. It is this spontaneity and immediacy which his aesthetic of gusto embodies. Indeed, it was Virginia Woolf in her review of PP Howe's great 21-volume edition, who first noticed how Hazlitt writes the body. One of his favourite critical adjectives is "unctuous", which is not as now a pejorative, but instead a term that unites the tactile with the sacred. It also draws on the oiliness of paint.

In the closing paragraph of his portrait of Southey, he again insists on Southey's intellectual inadequacies: he cannot form original ideas, and "has hardly grasp of thought enough to arrive at any great 'leading truth'", but he is a decent human being. In John Downman's portrait, he is a thoughtful, curly-haired visionary.

In Hazlitt's treatment of Southey, we see the principle of disinterestedness at work, but it also reflects Hazlitt's lifelong quarrel with empirical philosophy. He does not believe, as Locke did, that the mind is passive in perception, and his disagreement with Southey is essentially an idealist argument about the transforming, active powers of the mind, as against those philosophers and writers who argue that the mind is like an empty room into which images and sensations come. In a recent study, the Hazlitt scholar Uttara Natarajan has examined the philosophical structure of Hazlitt's writing, and it is impossible to visit Grasmere without feeling how the great contours of the mountains influenced these philosophical and political idealists.

What Hazlitt tells us is that criticism is a creative act, and that it is also a living and enhancing part of our life as citizens. As he shows in one of his greatest essays, "The Fight", the critic has to be a pugilist, prepared to give and take blows. He also reminds us that the liberties of this country have been centrally nourished and sustained by those who held to the many and various forms of protestant dissent, which suffered much persecution over the years, and still did in Hazlitt's lifetime.

As a Unitarian, he was brought up in what was known as "rational dissent", and his work reminds us of the intellectual nobility of that particular sect. One day, perhaps, a historian will write a definitive account of that form of puritanism, and when that book appears, The Spirit of the Age will be celebrated for prose that has inspired writers such as Dickens, and in our day Ted Hughes, Edward Said and Seamus Heaney. But of all those who have written about Hazlitt, it is Foot who has most kept the flame of his reputation alive. In his 91st year, he travelled all the way from London to Grasmere to open the exhibition, talk about Hazlitt, and present the museum with a first edition of Hazlitt's Liber Amoris (1823), and a first edition of Tom Moore's verse novel The Fudge Family in Paris (1818). That volume is dedicated:

   "To William Hazlitt Esqr, as a small mark of respect for his literary talents and political principles
   from the author
   April 27th 1818".

How we need those principles affirmed and asserted today. The mountainous setting of the Spirit of the Age exhibition asserts the permanence of Hazlitt's genius and - whatever their differences - that of most of his subjects.

Spirit of the age Hazlitt on Coleridge

He who has seen a mouldering tower by the side of a crystal lake, hid by the mist, but glittering in the wave below, may conceive the dim, gleaming, uncertain intelligence of his eye: he who has marked the evening clouds uprolled (a world of vapours) has seen the picture of his mind, unearthly, unsubstantial, with gorgeous tints and ever-varying forms ...

He hailed the rising orb of liberty, since quenched in darkness and in blood, and had kindled his affections at the blaze of the French Revolution, and sang for joy, when the towers of the Bastille and the proud places of the insolent and the oppressor fell, and would have floated his bark, freighted with fondest fancies, across the Atlantic wave with Southey and others to seek for peace and freedom ...

Alas! "Frailty, thy name is Genius!" What is become of all this mighty heap of hope, of thought, of learning and humanity? It has ended in swallowing doses of oblivion and in writing paragraphs in the Courier. Such and so little is the mind of man!

He has sunk into torpid, uneasy repose, tantalized by useless resources, haunted by vain imaginings, his lips idly moving, but his heart for ever still, or, as the shattered chords vibrate of themselves, making melancholy music to the car of memory! Such is the fate of genius in an age when every man is ground to powder who is not either a born slave, or who does not willingly and at once offer up the yearnings of humanity and the dictates of reason as a welcome sacrifice to besotted prejudice and loathsome power.

The poets, the creatures of sympathy, could not stand the frowns both of king and people. They did not like to be shut out when places and pensions, when the critic's praises, and the laurel wreath were about to be distributed. They did not stomach being sent to Coventry, and Mr Coleridge sounded a retreat for them by the help of casuistry and a musical voice. "His words were hollow, but they pleased the ear" of his friends of the Lake School, who turned back disgusted and panic-struck from the dry desert of unpopularity, like Hassan the camel-driver,

   "And curs'd the hour, and curs'd the luckless day,/ When first from Shiraz'walls they bent their way."

· Tom Paulin's selection of Hazlitt's essays, The Fight and Other Writings is published by Penguin. The new edition of The Spirit of the Age is published by the Wordsworth Trust. For information about the annual Hazlitt day school organised by Uttara Natarajan, Duncan Wu and Tom Paulin on June 12 at St Catherine's College, Oxford, contact:

The Spirit of the Age (full title The Spirit of the Age: Or, Contemporary Portraits) is a collection of character sketches by the early 19th century English essayist, literary critic, and social commentatorWilliam Hazlitt, portraying 25 men, mostly British, whom he believed to represent significant trends in the thought, literature, and politics of his time. The subjects include thinkers, social reformers, politicians, poets, essayists, and novelists, many of whom Hazlitt was personally acquainted with or had encountered. Originally appearing in English periodicals, mostly The New Monthly Magazine in 1824, the essays were collected with several others written for the purpose and published in book form in 1825.

The Spirit of the Age was one of Hazlitt's most successful books.[1] It is frequently judged to be his masterpiece,[2] even "the crowning ornament of Hazlitt's career, and ... one of the lasting glories of nineteenth-century criticism."[3] Hazlitt was also a painter and an art critic, yet no artists number among the subjects of these essays. His artistic and critical sensibility, however, infused his prose style—Hazlitt was later judged to be one of the greatest of English prose stylists as well[4]—enabling his appreciation of portrait painting to help him bring his subjects to life.[5] His experience as a literary, political, and social critic contributed to Hazlitt's solid understanding of his subjects' achievements, and his judgements of his contemporaries were later often deemed to have held good after nearly two centuries.[6]

The Spirit of the Age, despite its essays' uneven quality, has been generally agreed to provide "a vivid panorama of the age".[7] Yet, missing an introductory or concluding chapter, and with few explicit references to any themes, it was for long also judged as lacking in coherence and hastily thrown together.[8] More recently, critics have found in it a unity of design, with the themes emerging gradually, by implication, in the course of the essays and even supported by their grouping and presentation.[9] Hazlitt also incorporated into the essays a vivid, detailed and personal, "in the moment" kind of portraiture that amounted to a new literary form and significantly anticipated modern journalism.[10]



Hazlitt was well prepared to write The Spirit of the Age. Hackney College, where he studied for two years, was known for fostering radical ideas,[11] immersing him in the spirit of the previous age, and a generation later helping him understand changes he had observed in British society.[12] He was befriended in his early years by the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge,[13] who at that time shared his radical thinking, and soon he entered the circle of reformist philosopher William Godwin.[14] His brother John was also responsible for helping him connect with other like-minded souls,[15] leading him to the center of London intellectual culture, where he met others who, years later, along with Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Godwin, would be brought to life in this book, particularly Charles Lamb[16] and, some time afterward, Leigh Hunt.[17]

Although Hazlitt had aimed at a career in philosophy, he was unable to make a living by it.[15] His studies and extensive thinking about the problems of the day, however, provided a basis for judging contemporary thinkers. (He had already begun, before he was thirty, with an extensive critique of Malthus's theory of population.)[18] After having practised for a while as an artist[19] (a major part of his background that entered into the making of this book not in the selection of its content but as it helped inform his critical sensibility and his writing style),[20] he found work as a political reporter, which exposed him to the major politicians and issues of the day.[21]

Hazlitt followed this by many years as a literary, art, and theatre critic, at which he enjoyed some success.[22] He was subsequently beset by numerous personal problems, including a failed marriage, illness,[23] insolvency,[24] a disastrous love entanglement that led to a mental breakdown,[25] and scurrilous attacks by political conservatives, many of them fueled by his indiscreet publication of Liber Amoris, a thinly disguised autobiographical account of his love affair.[26] English society was becoming increasingly prudish,[27] the ensuing scandal effectively destroyed his reputation, and he found it harder than ever to earn a living.[28] He married a second time. Consequently, more than ever in need of money,[29] he was forced to churn out article after article for the periodical press.

"The Spirits of the Age"[edit]

Hazlitt had always been adept at writing character sketches.[30] His first was incorporated into Free Thoughts on Public Affairs, written in 1806, when he was scarcely 28 years old.[31] Pleased with this effort, he reprinted it three times as "Character of the Late Mr. Pitt", in The Eloquence of the British Senate (1807), in The Round Table (1817), and finally in Political Essays (1819).[32]

Another favourite of his own was "Character of Mr. Cobbett", which first appeared in Table-Talk in 1821 and was later incorporated into The Spirit of the Age. Following this proclivity, toward the end of 1823 Hazlitt developed the idea of writing "a series of 'characters' of men who were typical of the age".[30] The first of these articles appeared in the January 1824 issue of The New Monthly Magazine, under the series title "The Spirits of the Age".[30]


Four more articles appeared in the series, and then Hazlitt prepared numerous others with the goal of collecting them into a book. After he had left England for a tour of the continent with his wife, that book, bearing the title The Spirit of the Age: Or Contemporary Portraits, was published in London on 11 January 1825,[33] by Henry Colburn, and printed by S. and R. Bentley. In Paris, Hazlitt arranged to have an edition, with a somewhat different selection and ordering of articles, published there by A. & W. Galignani. Unlike either English edition, this one bore his name on the title page. Finally, later in the same year, Colburn brought out the second English edition, with contents slightly augmented, revised, and rearranged but in many respects similar to the first edition. No further editions would appear in Hazlitt's lifetime.[34]


Four of the essays that made it into the first edition of The Spirit of the Age, plus part of another, had appeared, without authorial attribution, in the series "The Spirits of the Age", in the following order: "Jeremy Bentham", "Rev. Mr. Irving", "The Late Mr. Horne Tooke", "Sir Walter Scott", and "Lord Eldon", in The New Monthly Magazine for 1824 in the January, February, March, April, and July issues, respectively.[35]

In the book first published in January 1825, these essays, with much additional material, appeared as follows: "Jeremy Bentham", "William Godwin", "Mr. Coleridge", "Rev. Mr. Irving", "The Late Mr. Horne Tooke", "Sir Walter Scott", "Lord Byron", "Mr. Campbell—Mr. Crabbe", "Sir James Mackintosh", "Mr. Wordsworth", "Mr. Malthus", "Mr. Gifford", "Mr. Jeffrey", "Mr. Brougham—Sir F. Burdett", "Lord Eldon—Mr. Wilberforce", "Mr. Southey", "Mr. T. Moore—Mr. Leigh Hunt", and "Elia—Geoffrey Crayon". An untitled section characterising James Sheridan Knowles concludes the book.[34] A portion of "Mr. Campbell—Mr. Crabbe" was adapted from an essay Hazlitt contributed (on Crabbe alone) to the series "Living Authors" in The London Magazine, "No. V" in the May 1821 issue.[36]

Despite the closeness in the ordering of the contents of the first and second English editions, there are numerous differences between them, and even more between them and the Paris edition that appeared in between. The Paris edition, the only one to credit Hazlitt as the author, omitted some material and added some. The essays (in order) were as follows: "Lord Byron", "Sir Walter Scott", "Mr. Coleridge", "Mr. Southey", "Mr. Wordsworth", "Mr. Campbell and Mr. Crabbe" (the portion on Campbell was here claimed by Hazlitt to be "by a friend", though he wrote it himself),[36] "Jeremy Bentham", "William Godwin", "Rev. Mr. Irving", "The Late Mr. Horne Tooke", "Sir James Mackintosh", "Mr. Malthus", "Mr. Gifford", "Mr. Jeffrey", "Mr. Brougham—Sir F. Burdett", "Lord Eldon and Mr. Wilberforce", "Mr. Canning" (brought in from the 11 July 1824 issue of The Examiner, where it bore the title "Character of Mr. Canning", this essay appeared only in the Paris edition),[37] "Mr. Cobbett" (which had first appeared in Hazlitt's book Table-Talk in 1821),[34] and "Elia". This time the book concludes with two untitled sections, the first on "Mr. Leigh Hunt" (as shown in the page header), the second again on Knowles, with the page header reading "Mr. Knowles".[38]

Finally, later in 1825, the second English edition was brought out (again, anonymously). There, the essays were "Jeremy Bentham", "William Godwin", "Mr. Coleridge", "Rev. Mr. Irving", "The Late Mr. Horne Tooke", "Sir Walter Scott", "Lord Byron", "Mr. Southey", "Mr. Wordsworth", "Sir James Mackintosh", "Mr. Malthus", "Mr. Gifford", "Mr. Jeffrey", "Mr. Brougham—Sir F. Burdett", "Lord Eldon—Mr. Wilberforce", "Mr. Cobbett", "Mr. Campbell and Mr. Crabbe", "Mr. T. Moore—Mr. Leigh Hunt", and "Elia, and Geoffrey Crayon". Again, an account of Knowles completes the book.[34]


The order of the following accounts of the essays in the book follows that of the second English edition. (The essay on George Canning, however, appeared only in the Paris edition.)

Jeremy Bentham[edit]

See also: Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) was an English philosopher, jurist, and social and legislative reformer. He was a major proponent of Utilitarianism, based on the idea of "the greatest happiness of the greatest number", which he was the first to systematise, introducing it as the "principle of utility".[39] Hazlitt's link with Bentham was unusual, as Bentham was his landlord and lived close by.[40] Bentham would sometimes take his exercise in his garden, which was visible from Hazlitt's window; yet the two were not personally acquainted.[41] Still, what Hazlitt observed enabled him to interweave personal observations into his account of the older man.[42]

Bentham was a representative of the reformist element of the time. Yet, also symptomatic of "the spirit of the age"—and the note Hazlitt strikes on the opening of his sketch—was the fact that Bentham had only a small following in England, yet enjoyed respectful celebrity in nations half a world away. "The people of Westminster, where he lives, hardly dream of such a person ...."[43] "His name is little known in England, better in Europe, best of all in the plains of Chili and the mines of Mexico."[43]

Hazlitt notes Bentham's persistent unity of purpose, "intent only on his grand scheme of Utility .... [r]egarding the people about him no more than the flies of a summer. He meditates the coming age .... he is a beneficent spirit, prying into the universe ...."[44]

But Hazlitt soon qualifies his admiring tone. First, he cautions against mistaking Bentham for the originator of the theory of utility; rather, "his merit is, that he has brought all the objections and arguments, more distinctly labelled and ticketed, under this one head, and made a more constant and explicit reference to it at every step of his progress, than any other writer."[45]

As Bentham's thinking gained complexity, his style, unfortunately, deteriorated. "It is a barbarous philosophical jargon" even though it "has a great deal of acuteness and meaning in it, which you would be glad to pick out if you could. ... His works have been translated into French", quips Hazlitt. "They ought to be translated into English."[46]

"His works have been translated into French.
They ought to be translated into English."

—William Hazlitt, "Jeremy Bentham", The Spirit of the Age

Bentham's refined and elaborated logic fails, in Hazlitt's assessment, to take into account the complexities of human nature.[47] In his attempt to reform mankind by reasoning, "he has not allowed for the wind ". Man is far from entirely "a logical animal", Hazlitt argues.[45] Bentham bases his efforts to reform criminals on the fact that "'all men act from calculation'". Yet, Hazlitt observes, "it is of the very essence of crime to disregard consequences both to ourselves and others."[48]

Hazlitt proceeds to contrast in greater detail the realities of human nature with Bentham's benevolent attempts to manipulate it. Bentham would observe and attempt to alter the behavior of a criminal by placing him in a "Panopticon, that is, a sort of circular prison, with open cells, like a glass bee-hive."[49] When the offender is freed from its restraints, however, Hazlitt questions whether it is at all likely he will maintain the altered behavior that had seemed so amenable to change. "Will the convert to the great principle of Utility work when he was from under Mr. Bentham's eye, because he was forced to work when under it? ... Will he not steal, now that his hands are untied? ... The charm of criminal life ... consists in liberty, in hardship, in danger, and in the contempt of death, in one word, in extraordinary excitement".[49]

Further, there is a flaw in Bentham's endlessly elaborating on his single idea of utility. His "method of reasoning" is "comprehensive ..." but it "includes every thing alike. It is rather like an inventory, than a valuation of different arguments."[50] Effective argument needs more coloring. "By aiming at too much ... it loses its elasticity and vigour".[51] Hazlitt also objects to Bentham's considering "every pleasure" as "equally a good".[45] This is not so, "for all pleasure does not equally bear reflecting on." Even if we take Bentham's reasoning as presenting "the whole truth", human nature is incapable of acting solely upon such grounds, "needing helps and stages in its progress" to "bring it into a tolerable harmony with the universe."[51]

In the manner of later journalists[52] Hazlitt weaves into his criticism of the philosopher's ideas an account of Bentham the man. True to his principles, "Mr. Bentham, in private life, is an amiable and exemplary character", of regular habits, and with childlike characteristics, despite his advanced age. In appearance, he is like a cross between Charles Fox and Benjamin Franklin,[42] "a singular mixture of boyish simplicity and the venerableness of age."[53] He has no taste for poetry, but relaxes by playing the organ. "He turns wooden utensils in a lathe for exercise, and fancies he can turn men in the same manner."[54]

A century and a half later, critic Roy Park acclaimed "Hazlitt's criticism of Bentham and Utilitarianism" here and in other essays as constituting "the first sustained critique of dogmatic Utilitarianism."[55]

William Godwin[edit]

See also: William Godwin

William Godwin (1756–1836) was an English philosopher, social reformer, novelist, and miscellaneous writer. After the French Revolution had given fresh urgency to the question of the rights of man, in 1793, in response to other books written in reaction to the upheaval, and building on ideas developed by 18th-century European philosophers,[56] Godwin published An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. There he espoused (in the words of historian Crane Brinton) "the natural goodness of man, the corruptness of governments and laws, and the consequent right of the individual to obey his inner voice against all external dictates."[57]

Godwin immediately became an inspiration to Hazlitt's generation.[12] Hazlitt had known Godwin earlier, their families having been friends since before Hazlitt's birth; as he also often visited the elder man in London in later years, he was able to gather impressions over many decades.[12] While so many of his contemporaries soon abandoned Godwin's philosophy, Hazlitt never did so completely; yet he had never quite been a disciple either.[58] Eventually, although he retained respect for the man, he developed a critical distance from Godwinian philosophy.[59]

By the time Hazlitt wrote this sketch some thirty years after Godwin's glory years, the political climate had changed drastically, owing in large part to the British government's attempts to repress all thinking they deemed dangerous to the public peace.[60] Consequently, Godwin, though he had never been an advocate of reform by violent means,[61] had disappeared almost completely from the public eye. Hazlitt, at the start of his essay, focuses on this drastic change.

At the turn of the 19th century, notes Hazlitt, Godwin had been hailed as the philosopher who expounded "liberty, truth, justice".[54] His masterwork, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, "gave ... a blow to the philosophical mind of the country". To those with a penchant for thinking about the human condition, Godwin was "the very God of our idolatry" who "carried with him all the most sanguine and fearless understandings of the time" and engaged the energy of a horde of "young men of talent, of education, and of principle."[62] These included some of Hazlitt's most famous former friends, the poets Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey.[63]

Twenty-five years later, Hazlitt looks back in astonishment that, in the interval, Godwin's reputation "has sunk below the horizon, and enjoys the serene twilight of a doubtful immortality."[64] "The Spirit of the Age", he declares in the opening sentence, "was never more fully shown than in its treatment of this writer—its love of paradox and change, its dastard submission to prejudice and to the fashion of the day."[54]

Yet there are problems with Godwin's philosophy, Hazlitt concedes. "The author of the Political Justice took abstract reason for the rule of conduct, and abstract good for its end. He absolves man from the gross and narrow ties of sense, custom, authority, private and local attachment, in order that he may devote himself to the boundless pursuit of universal benevolence."[65] In its rules for determining the recipients of this benevolence, Godwin's philosophy goes further than Christianity in completely removing from consideration personal ties or anything but "the abstract merits, the pure and unbiassed justice of the case."[66]

In practice, human nature can rarely live up to this exalted standard. "Every man ... was to be a Regulus, a Codrus, a Cato, or a Brutus—every woman a Mother of the Gracchi. ... But heroes on paper might degenerate into vagabonds in practice, Corinnas into courtezans."[67] Hazlitt proceeds with several examples:

... a refined and permanent individual attachment is intended to supply the place and avoid the inconveniences of marriage; but vows of eternal constancy, without church security, are found to be fragile. ... The political as well as the religious fanatic appeals from the overweening opinion and claims of others to the highest and most impartial tribunal, namely, his own breast. ... A modest assurance was not the least indispensable virtue in the new perfectibility code; and it was hence discovered to be a scheme, like other schemes where there are all prizes and no blanks, for the accommodation of the enterprizing and cunning, at the expense of the credulous and honest. This broke up the system, and left no good odour behind it![67]

Yet the social failure of this attempt to guide our conduct by pure reason alone is no ground for discrediting reason itself. On the contrary, Hazlitt argues passionately, reason is the glue that binds civilisation together. And if reason can no longer be considered as "the sole and self-sufficient ground of morals",[68] we must thank Godwin for having shown us why, by having "taken this principle, and followed it into its remotest consequences with more keenness of eye and steadiness of hand than any other expounder of ethics."[68] By doing so, he has revealed "the weak sides and imperfections of human reason as the sole law of human action."[68]

"The Spirit of the Age was never more fully shown than in its treatment of this writer—its love of paradox and change, its dastard submission to prejudice and to the fashion of the day."

—William Hazlitt, "William Godwin", The Spirit of the Age

Hazlitt moves on to Godwin's accomplishments as a novelist. For over a century, many critics took the best of his novels, Caleb Williams, as a kind of propaganda novel, written to impress the ideas of Political Justice on the minds of the multitude who could not grasp its philosophy;[69] this was what Godwin himself had claimed in the book's preface. But Hazlitt was impressed by its strong literary qualities, and, to a lesser extent, those of St. Leon, exclaiming: "It is not merely that these novels are very well for a philosopher to have produced—they are admirable and complete in themselves, and would not lead you to suppose that the author, who is so entirely at home in human character and dramatic situation, had ever dabbled in logic or metaphysics."[70]

Next Hazlitt compares Godwin's literary method to Sir Walter Scott's in the "Waverley Novels". Hazlitt devoted considerable thought to Scott's novels over several years, somewhat modifying his views about them;[71] this is one of two discussions of them in this book, the other being in the essay on Scott. Here, it is Godwin's method that is seen as superior. Rather than, like Scott, creating novels out of "worm-eaten manuscripts ... forgotten chronicles, [or] fragments and snatches of old ballads",[72] Godwin "fills up his subject with the ardent workings of his own mind, with the teeming and audible pulses of his own heart."[72] On the other hand, the flaw in relying so intensively on one's own imagination is that one runs out of ideas. "He who draws upon his own resources, easily comes to an end of his wealth."[72]

Hazlitt then comments on Godwin's other writings and the nature of his genius. His productions are not spontaneous but rather rely on long, laboured thought. This quality also limits Godwin's powers of conversation, so he fails to appear the man of genius he is. "In common company, Mr. Godwin either goes to sleep himself, or sets others to sleep."[73] But Hazlitt closes his essay with personal recollections of the man (and, as with Bentham, a description of his appearance) that set him in a more positive light: "you perceive by your host's talk, as by the taste of seasoned wine, that he has a cellarage in his understanding."[73]

The scholar, critic, and intellectual historianBasil Willey, writing a century later, thought that Hazlitt's "essay on Godwin in The Spirit of the Age is still the fairest and most discerning summary I know of".[74]

Mr. Coleridge[edit]

See also: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) was a poet, philosopher, literary critic, and theologian who was a major force behind the Romantic movement in England. No single person had meant more to Hazlitt's development as a writer than Coleridge, who changed the course of Hazlitt's life on their meeting in 1798.[75] Afterwards at odds over politics, they became estranged, but Hazlitt continued to follow the intellectual development of one who answered more closely to his idea of a man of genius than anyone he had ever met,[76] as he continued to chastise Coleridge and other former friends for their abandonment of the radical ideals they had once shared.[77]

Unlike the accounts of Bentham and Godwin, Hazlitt's treatment of Coleridge in The Spirit of the Age presents no sketch of the man pursuing his daily life and habits. There is little about his appearance; the focus is primarily on the development of Coleridge's mind. Coleridge is a man of undoubted "genius", whose mind is "in the first class of general intellect".[78] His problem is that he has been too bewitched by the mass of learning and literature from antiquity to the present time to focus on creating any truly lasting literary or philosophical work of his own, with the exception of a few striking poems early in his career.

In an extensive account later acclaimed as brilliant,[79] even "a rhetorical summit of English prose",[80] Hazlitt surveys the astonishing range and development of Coleridge's studies and literary productions, from the poetry he wrote as a youth, to his deep and extensive knowledge of Greek dramatists, "epic poets ... philosophers ... [and] orators".[81] He notes Coleridge's profound and exhaustive exploration of more recent philosophy—including that of Hartley, Priestley, Berkeley, Leibniz, and Malebranche—and theologians such as Bishop Butler, John Huss, Socinus, Duns Scotus, Thomas Aquinas, Jeremy Taylor, and Swedenborg. He records Coleridge's fascination also with the poetry of Milton and Cowper, and the "wits of Charles the Second's days".[82] Coleridge, he goes on, also "dallied with the British Essayists and Novelists, ... and Johnson, and Goldsmith, and Junius, and Burke, and Godwin ... and ... Rousseau, and Voltaire".[82] And then, observes Hazlitt, Coleridge "lost himself in ... the Kantean philosophy, and ... Fichte and Schelling and Lessing".[83]

Having followed in its breadth and depth Coleridge's entire intellectual career, Hazlitt now pauses to ask, "What is become of all this mighty heap of hope, of thought, of learning, and humanity? It has ended in swallowing doses of oblivion and in writing paragraphs in the Courier.—Such, and so little is the mind of man!"[83]

Hazlitt treats Coleridge's failings more leniently here than he had in earlier accounts[84] (as he does others of that circle who had with him earlier "hailed the rising orb of liberty").[83] It is to be understood, he explains, that any man of intellect born in that age, with its awareness of so much that had already been accomplished, might feel incapable of adding anything to the general store of knowledge or art. Hazlitt characterises the age itself as one of "talkers, and not of doers. ... The accumulation of knowledge has been so great, that we are lost in wonder at the height it has reached, instead of attempting to climb or add to it; while the variety of objects distracts and dazzles the looker-on." And "Mr. Coleridge [is] the most impressive talker of his age ...".[85]

"What is become of all this mighty heap of hope, of thought, of learning, and humanity? It has ended in swallowing doses of oblivion and in writing paragraphs in the Courier.—Such, and so little is the mind of man!"

—William Hazlitt, "Mr. Coleridge", The Spirit of the Age

As for Coleridge's having gone over "to the unclean side"[83] in politics, however regrettable, it may be understood by looking at the power then held by government-sponsored critics of any who seemed to threaten the established order. "The flame of liberty, the light of intellect was to be extinguished with the sword—or with slander, whose edge is sharper than the sword."[86] Though Coleridge did not go as far as some of his colleagues in accepting a government office in exchange for withholding criticism of the current order, neither did he, in Hazlitt's account, align himself with such philosophers as Godwin, who, overtly steadfast in their principles, could be more resistant to "discomfiture, persecution, and disgrace."[86]

Following his typical method of explaining by antitheses,[87] Hazlitt contrasts Coleridge and Godwin. The latter, having far less general capacity, nevertheless was capable of fully utilizing his talents by focusing intently on work he was capable of; while the former, "by dissipating his [mind], and dallying with every subject by turns, has done little or nothing to justify to the world or to posterity, the high opinion which all who have ever heard him converse, or known him intimately, with one accord entertain of him."[88]

Critic David Bromwich finds in what Hazlitt does portray of Coleridge the man—metaphorically depicting the state of his mind—as rich with allusions to earlier poets and "echoes" of Coleridge's own poetry:[89]

Mr. Coleridge has a "mind reflecting ages past": his voice is like the echo of the congregated roar of the 'dark rearward and abyss' of thought. He who has seen a mouldering tower by the side of a chrystal lake, hid by the mist, but glittering in the wave below, may conceive the dim, gleaming, uncertain intelligence of his eye; he who has marked the evening clouds uprolled (a world of vapours), has seen the picture of his mind, unearthly, unsubstantial, with gorgeous tints and ever-varying forms ...[90]

Rev. Mr. Irving[edit]

See also: Edward Irving

The Reverend Edward Irving (1792–1834) was a Scottish Presbyterianminister who, beginning in 1822, created a sensation in London with his fiery sermons denouncing the manners, practices, and beliefs of the time. His sermons at the Caledonian Asylum Chapel were attended by crowds that included the rich, the powerful, and the fashionable.[91] Hazlitt was present on at least one occasion, 22 June 1823, as a reporter for The Liberal.[92]

Curious visitors to the chapel, along with some uneasy regular members of the congregation,[93] would have been faced with a man of "uncommon height, a graceful figure and action, a clear and powerful voice, a striking, if not a fine face, a bold and fiery spirit, and a most portentous obliquity of vision" with, despite this slight defect, "elegance" of "the most admirable symmetry of form and ease of gesture", as well as "sable locks", a "clear iron-grey complexion, and firm-set features".[94]

Moreover, with the sheer novelty of a combination of the traits of an actor, a preacher, an author—even a pugilist—Irving

keeps the public in awe by insulting all their favourite idols. He does not spare their politicians, their rulers, their moralists, their poets, their players, their critics, their reviewers, their magazine-writers .... He makes war upon all arts and sciences, upon the faculties and nature of man, on his vices and virtues, on all existing institutions, and all possible improvement ...[95]

Irving, with his reactionary stance, has "opposed the spirit of the age".[96] Among those subjected to Irving's brutal verbal onslaughts were "Jeremy Bentham ... [with Irving looking] over the heads of his congregation to have a hit at the Great Jurisconsult in his study", as well as "Mr. Brougham ... Mr. Canning[97] ... Mr. Coleridge ... and ... Lord Liverpool" (Prime Minister at the time).[98] Of these notable figures, only Lord Liverpool did not rate his own chapter in The Spirit of the Age.

But Irving's popularity, which Hazlitt suspected would not last,[99] was a sign of another tendency of the age: "Few circumstances show the prevailing and preposterous rage for novelty in a more striking point of view, than the success of Mr. Irving's oratory."[100]

"Few circumstances show the prevailing and preposterous rage for novelty in a more striking point of view, than the success of Mr. Irving's oratory."

—William Hazlitt, "Rev. Mr. Irving", The Spirit of the Age

Part of Irving's appeal was due to the increased influence of evangelical Christianity, notes historian Ben Wilson; the phenomenon of an Edward Irving preaching to the great and famous would have been inconceivable thirty years earlier.[101] But the novelty of such a hitherto unseen combination of talents, Wilson concurs with Hazlitt, played no small part in Irving's popularity. And the inescapable fact of Irving's dominating physical presence, Wilson also agrees, had its effect. "William Hazlitt believed that no one would have gone to hear Irving had he been five feet high, ugly and soft-spoken."[102]

As a case in point, Hazlitt brings in Irving's own mentor, the Scottish theologian, scientist, philosopher, and minister Dr. Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847), whom Hazlitt had heard preach in Glasgow.[103] Comparing the published writings of both men, Chalmers was, thought Hazlitt, much more interesting as a thinker.[96] Although he ultimately dismisses Chalmers' arguments as "sophistry",[104] Hazlitt admires the elder clergyman's "scope of intellect" and "intensity of purpose".[96] His Astronomical Discourses were engaging enough that Hazlitt had eagerly read through the entire volume at a sitting.[105] His claim to our attention must rest on his writings; his unprepossessing appearance and ungainly manner in themselves, maintains Hazlitt, drew no audience. Chalmers' follower Irving, on the other hand, gets by on the strength of his towering physique and the novelty of his performances; judging him as a writer (his For the Oracles of God, Four Orations had just gone into a third edition),[106] Hazlitt finds that "the ground work of his compositions is trashy and hackneyed, though set off by extravagant metaphors and an affected phraseology ... without the turn of his head and wave of his hand, his periods have nothing in them ... he himself is the only idea with which he has yet enriched the public mind!"[105]

John Kinnaird suggests that in this essay, Hazlitt, with his "penetration" and "characteristically ruthless regard for truth", in his reference to Irving's "portentous obliquity of vision" insinuates that "one eye of Irving's imagination ... looks up to a wrathful God cast in his own image, 'endowed with all his own ... irritable humours in an infinitely exaggerated degree' [while] the other is always squinting askew at the prestigious image of Edward Irving reflected in the gaze of his fashionable audience—and especially in the rapt admiration of the 'female part of his congregation'".[107]

Kinnaird also notes that Hazlitt's criticism of Irving anticipated the judgement of Irving's friend, the essayist, historian, and social critic Thomas Carlyle, in his account of Irving's untimely death a few years later.[108]

The Late Mr. Horne Tooke[edit]

See also: John Horne Tooke

John Horne Tooke (1736–1812) was an English reformer, grammarian, clergyman, and politician. He became especially known for his support of radical causes and involvement in debates about political reform, and was briefly a Member of the British Parliament.[109] He was also known for his ideas about English grammar, published in ἔπεα πτερόεντα, or The Diversions of Purley (1786, 1805).[110]

By the time he was profiled as the third of "The Spirits of the Age" in Hazlitt's original series, Tooke had been dead for a dozen years. He was significant to Hazlitt as a "connecting link" between the previous age and the present. Hazlitt had known Tooke personally, having attended gatherings at his home next to Wimbledon Common until about 1808.[111]

"Mr. Horne Tooke", writes Hazlitt, "was in private company, and among his friends, the finished gentleman of the last age. His manners were as fascinating as his conversation was spirited and delightful."[112] Yet "his mind, and the tone of his feelings were modern."[113] He delighted in raillery, and prided himself on his cool, even temper. "He was a man of the world, a scholar bred, and a most acute and powerful logician ... his intellect was like a bow of polished steel, from which he shot sharp-pointed poisoned arrows at his friends in private, at his enemies in public."[113] Yet his thinking was one-sided: "he had no imagination ... no delicacy of taste, no rooted prejudices or strong attachments".[113]

Tooke's greatest delight, as seen by Hazlitt, was in contradiction, in startling others with radical ideas that at the time were considered shocking: "It was curious to hear our modern sciolist advancing opinions of the most radical kind without any mixture of radical heat or violence, in a tone of fashionable nonchalance, with elegance of gesture and attitude, and with the most perfect good-humour."[112]

His mastery of the art of verbal fencing was such that many eagerly sought invitation to his private gatherings, where they could "admire" his skills "or break a lance with him."[114] With a rapier wit, Tooke excelled in situations where "a ready repartee, a shrewd cross-question, ridicule and banter, a caustic remark or an amusing anecdote, whatever set [himself] off to advantage, or gratifie[d] the curiosity or piqued the self-love of the hearers, [could] keep ... attention alive and secure[d] his triumph ...." As a "satirist" and "a sophist" he could provoke "admiration by expressing his contempt for each of his adversaries in turn, and by setting their opinion at defiance."[115]

"It was his delight to make mischief and spoil sport. He would rather be against himself than for any body else."

—William Hazlitt, "The Late Mr. Horne Tooke", The Spirit of the Age

Tooke was in Hazlitt's view much less successful in public life. In private, he could be seen at his best and afford amusement by "say[ing] the most provoking things with a laughing gaiety".[112] In public, as when he briefly served as a Member of Parliament, this attitude would not do. He did not really seem to believe in any great "public cause" or "show ... sympathy with the general and predominant feelings of mankind."[115] Hazlitt explains that "it was his delight to make mischief and spoil sport. He would rather be against himself than for any body else."[116]

Hazlitt also notes that there was more to Tooke's popular gatherings than verbal repartee. Having been involved in politics over a long life, Tooke could captivate his audience with his anecdotes, especially in his later years:

He knew all the cabals and jealousies and heart-burnings in the beginning of the late reign [of King George III], the changes of administration and the springs of secret influence, the characters of the leading men, Wilkes, Barrè, Dunning, Chatham, Burke, the Marquis of Rockingham, North, Shelburne, Fox, Pitt, and all the vacillating events of the American war:—these formed a curious back-ground to the more prominent figures that occupied the present time ...[117]

Hazlitt felt that Tooke would be longest remembered, however, for his ideas about English grammar. By far the most popular English grammar of the early 19th century was that of Lindley Murray, and, in his typical method of criticism by antitheses,[87] Hazlitt points out what he considers to be its glaring deficiencies compared to that of Tooke: "Mr. Lindley Murray's Grammar ... confounds the genius of the English language, making it periphrastic and literal, instead of elliptical and idiomatic."[118] Murray, as well as other, earlier grammarians, often provided "endless details and subdivisions"; Tooke, in his work commonly known by its alternate title of The Diversions of Purley, "clears away the rubbish of school-boy technicalities, and strikes at the root of his subject."[119] Tooke's mind was particularly suited for his task, as it was "hard, unbending, concrete, physical, half-savage ..." and he could see "language stripped of the clothing of habit or sentiment, or the disguises of doting pedantry, naked in its cradle, and in its primitive state."[119] That Murray's book should have been the grammar to have "proceeded to [its] thirtieth edition" and find a place in all the schools instead of "Horne Tooke's genuine anatomy of the English tongue" makes it seem, exclaims Hazlitt, "as if there was a patent for absurdity in the natural bias of the human mind, and that folly should be stereotyped!".[117]

A century and a half later, critic John Kinnaird saw this essay on Horne Tooke as being essential to Hazlitt's implicit development of his idea of the "spirit of the age". Not only did Tooke's thinking partake of the excessive "abstraction" that was becoming so dominant,[120] it constituted opposition for the sake of opposition, thereby becoming an impediment to any real human progress. It was this sort of contrariness, fueled by "self-love", that, according to Kinnaird, is manifested in many of the later subjects of the essays in The Spirit of the Age.[121]

Hazlitt's criticism of Tooke's grammatical work has also been singled out. Critic Tom Paulin notes the way Hazlitt's subtle choice of language hints at the broader, politically radical implications of Tooke's linguistic achievement. Paulin observes also that Hazlitt, himself the author of an English grammar influenced by Tooke, recognised the importance of Tooke's grammatical ideas in a way that presaged and accorded with the radical grammatical work of William Cobbett, whom Hazlitt sketched in a later essay in The Spirit of the Age.[122]

Sir Walter Scott[edit]

See also: Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), a Scottish lawyer and man of letters, was the most popular poet[123] and, beginning in 1814, writing novels anonymously as "The Author of Waverley ", the most popular author in the English language.[124] Hazlitt was an admirer as well as a reviewer of Scott's fiction, yet he never met the man, despite ample opportunities to do so.[125]

In Hazlitt's view, the essence of Scott's mind lay in its "brooding over antiquity."[126] The past provided nearly all his subject matter; he showed little interest in depicting modern life. This was true of his poetry as much as his prose. But, in Hazlitt's view, as a poet, his success was limited, even as a chronicler of the past. His poetry, concedes Hazlitt, has "great merit", abounding "in vivid descriptions, in spirited action, in smooth and glowing versification."[127] Yet it is wanting in "character ".[127] Though composed of "quaint, uncouth, rugged materials",[128] it is varnished over with a "smooth, glossy texture ... It is light, agreeable, effeminate, diffuse."[128] Hazlitt declares, "We would rather have written one song of Burns, or a single passage in Lord Byron's Heaven and Earth, or one of Wordsworth's 'fancies and good-nights,' than all of [Scott's] epics."[128]

The matter is altogether different with Scott the novelist.[129] The poems were read because they were fashionable. But the popularity of the novels was such that fanatically devoted readers fiercely debated the respective merits of their favourite characters and scenes.[130] Hazlitt, whose reviews had been highly favourable and appreciated these books as much as anyone, here elaborates on his own favourites, after first discussing a qualifying issue.[131] The greatest literary artists, Hazlitt had pointed out in the essay on Godwin, give shape to their creations by infusing them with imagination.[72] As creator of such works as Old Mortality, The Heart of Midlothian, and Ivanhoe, Scott, adhering closely to his sources, restricts his imaginative investment in the story, hemming himself in by the historical facts.[132] Even so, he manages to bring the past to life. He is the "amanuensis of truth and history" by means of a rich array of characters and situations.[131] Hazlitt recalls these characters in a rhapsodic passage, described by critic John Kinnaird as "a stunning pageant, two pages in length, of more than forty Scott characters, which he summons individually from his memory, citing for each some quality or act or association which makes them unforgettable."[133]

From Waverley, the first of these books, published in 1814, he recalls "the Baron of Bradwardine, stately, kind-hearted, whimsical, pedantic; and Flora MacIvor". Next, in Old Mortality, there are

that lone figure, like a figure in Scripture, of the woman sitting on the stone at the turning to the mountain, to warn Burley [of Balfour] that there is a lion in his path; and the fawning Claverhouse, beautiful as a panther, smooth-looking, blood-spotted; and the fanatics, Macbriar and Mucklewrath, crazed with zeal and sufferings; and the inflexible Morton, and the faithful Edith, who refused "to give her hand to another while her heart was with her lover in the deep and dead sea." And in The Heart of Midlothian we have Effie Deans (that sweet, faded flower) and Jeanie, her more than sister, and old David Deans, the patriarch of St. Leonard's Crags, and Butler, and Dumbiedikes, eloquent in his silence, and Mr. Bartoline Saddle-tree and his prudent helpmate, and Porteous, swinging in the wind, and Madge Wildfire, full of finery and madness, and her ghastly mother.[134]

He continues enthusiastically through dozens of others, exclaiming, "What a list of names! What a host of associations! What a thing is human life! What a power is that of genius! ... His works (taken together) are almost like a new edition of human nature. This is indeed to be an author!"[134]

Scott's "works (taken together) are almost like a new edition of human nature. This is indeed to be an author!"

—William Hazlitt, "Sir Walter Scott", The Spirit of the Age

Writing a century and a half later, critic John Kinnaird observes that Hazlitt was "Scott's greatest contemporary critic" and wrote the first important criticism of the novel, particularly in the form it was then beginning to assume.[135] Hazlitt's thinking on the new historical fiction of Scott was in the process of evolving.[136] Earlier, even to an extent in this essay, he had downplayed the novels as being little more than a transcription from old chronicles. But Hazlitt had begun to recognise the degree of imagination Scott had to apply in order to bring dry facts to life.[137]

Hazlitt also recognised that, at his best, Scott conveyed his characters' traits and beliefs impartially, setting aside his own political bias. Having faithfully and disinterestedly described "nature" in all its detail was in itself a praiseworthy accomplishment. "It is impossible", writes Hazlitt, "to say how fine his writings in consequence are, unless we could describe how fine nature is."[131] Kinnaird also notes Hazlitt's psychologically acute observation of how Scott, in taking us back to our more primitive past, recognised "the role of the repressed unconscious self in shaping modern literary imagination."[138] He sees Hazlitt, too, in The Spirit of the Age along with some other essays, as the first to recognize how Scott traced the action of historical forces through individual characters.[139]

Scott the man, laments Hazlitt, was quite different from Scott the poet and novelist. Even in his fiction, there is a notable bias, in his dramatisation of history, toward romanticising the age of chivalry and glorifying "the good old times".[140] Hazlitt sarcastically observes that Scott appeared to want to obliterate all of the achievements of centuries of civilised reform and revive the days when "witches and heretics" were burned "at slow fires", and men could be "strung up like acorns on trees without judge or jury".[141]

Scott was known to be a staunch Tory.[142] But what especially roused Hazlitt's ire was his association with the unprincipled publisher William Blackwood, the ringleader of a pack of literary thugs hired to smear the reputations of writers who expressed radical or liberal political views.[143] One of the pack was Scott's own son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart. Hazlitt grants that Scott was "amiable, frank, friendly, manly in private life" and showed "candour and comprehensiveness of view for history".[144] Yet he also "vented his littleness, pique, resentment, bigotry, and intolerance on his contemporaries". Hazlitt concludes this account by lamenting that the man who was "(by common consent) the finest, most humane and accomplished writer of his age [could have] associated himself with and encouraged the lowest panders of a venal press ... we believe that there is no other age or country of the world (but ours), in which such genius could have been so degraded!"[144]

Lord Byron[edit]

See also: Lord Byron

Lord Byron (1788–1824) was the most popular poet of his day, a major figure of the English Romantic movement, and an international celebrity.[145] Although Hazlitt never met Byron, he had been following his career for years. Besides reviewing his poetry and some of his prose, Hazlitt had contributed to The Liberal, a journal Byron helped establish but later abandoned.[146]


William Hazlitt in 1825 (engraving derived from a chalk sketch by William Bewick).
Edward Irving, ca. 1823, artist unknown
The Rev. Dr. Thomas Chalmers