William Hazlitt

William Hazlitt, the son of an Irish Unitarian clergyman, was born in Maidstone, Kent, in 1778. As a result of supporting the American Revolution, the Rev. Hazlitt and his family were forced to leave Kent and live in Ireland. The family returned to England in 1787 and settled at Wem in Shropshire. At the age of fifteen William was sent to be trained for the ministry at New Unitarian College at Hackney in London. In 1797 he lost his desire to become a Unitarian minister and left the college. At first he attempted to become a portrait painter but after a lack of success he turned to writing. While in London Hazlitt became friends with a group of writers with radical political ideas. The group included Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb, William Wordsworth, Thomas Barnes, Henry Brougham, Leigh Hunt, Robert Southey and Lord Byron. He first met Coleridge in 1797, when he was 19. Coleridge had come to Shrewsbury to preach, with a view to taking up the ministry there. Hazlitt was one of the congregation and was greatly impressed with Coleridge's style. Coleridge stayed with his family for a night and walked back towards Shrewsbury with him the next day. Coleridge rambled from one side of the road to another and talked incessantly, jumping from subject to subject, and invited Hazlitt to stay with him at Nether Stowey.

Hazlitt came to stay with the Coleridges in May 1798, days after Coleridge's wife, Sara, had given birth to a boy. He and Coleridge immediately went to see the Wordsworths at nearby Alfoxden. Hazlitt was impressed by the manuscripts of their poems for Lyrical Ballads and soon was engaged in deep philosophical discussions with the poets. During the visit Joseph Cottle, their publisher, came to discuss the title and contents of the book. Hazlitt wrote about this visit in his essay: My First Acquaintance with Poets, first published in The Liberal in 1823:

"It was agreed, among other things, that we should make a jaunt down the Bristol Channel, as far as Linton. We set off together on foot, Coleridge, John Chester, and I. This Chester was a native of Nether Stowey, one of those who were attracted to Coleridge's discourse as flies are to honey, or bees in swarming-time to the sound of a brass pan. He "followed in the chace like a dog who hunts, not like one that made up the cry." He had on a brown cloth coat, boots, and corduroy breeches, was low in stature, bow-legged, had a drag on his walk like a drover, which he assisted by a hazel switch, and kept on a sort of trot by the side of Coleridge, like a running footman by a state coach, that he might not lose a syllable or sound that fell from Coleridge's lips. He told me his private opinion that Coleridge was a wonderful man. He scarcely opened his lips, much less offered an opinion the whole way: yet of the three, had I to choose during the journey, I would be John Chester. He afterwards followed Coleridge into Germany, were the Kantean philosophers were puzzled how to bring him under any of their categories. When he sat down at table with is idol, John's felicity was complete; Sir Walter Scot's or Mr Blackwood's when they sat down at the same table with the King, was not more so.We passed Dunster on our right, a small town between the brow of a hill and the sea. I remember eyeing it wistfully as it lay below us: contrasted with the woody scene around, it looked as clear, as pure, as embrowned and ideal as any landscape I have seen since, of Gaspar Poussin's or Domenichino's. We had a long day's march -- (our feet kept time to the echoes of Coleridge's tongue) -- through Minehead and by the Blue Anchor, and on to Linton, which we did not reach till near midnight, and where we had some difficulty in making a lodgment. We, however, knocked the people of the house up at last, and we were repaid for our apprehensions and fatigue by some excellent rashers of fried bacon and eggs. The view in coming along had been splended. We walked for miles and miles on dark brown heaths overlooking the Channel, with the Welsh hills beyond, and at times descended into little sheltered valleys close by the sea-side, with a smuggler's face scowling by us, and then had to ascend conical hills with a path winding up through a coppice to a barren top, like a monk's shaven crown, from one of which I pointed out to Coleridge's notice the bare masts of a vessel on the very edge of the horizon, and within the red-orbed disk of the setting sun, like his own spectre-ship in the Ancient Mariner.At Linton the character of the sea-coast becomes more marked and rugged. There is a place called the Valley of Rocks (I suspect this was only the poetical name for it) bedded among precipices overhanging the sea, with rocky caverns beneath, into which the waves dash, and where the sea-gull for ever wheels its screaming flight. On the tops of these are huge stones thrown transverse, as if an earthquake had tossed them there, and behind these is a fretwork of perpendicular rocks, something like the Giant's Causeway. A thunderstorm came on while we were at the inn, and Coleridge was running out bare-headed to enjoy the commotion of the elements in the Valley of Rocks, but as if in spite, the clouds only muttered a few angry sounds, and let fall a few refreshing drops. Coleridge told me that he and Wordsworth were to have made this place the scene of a prose-tale, which was to have been in the manner of, but far superior to, the Death of Abel, but they had relinquished the design.  

In the morning of the second day, we breakfasted luxuriously in an old-fashioned parlour on tea, toast, eggs, and honey, in the very sight of the bee-hives from which it had been taken, and a garden full of thyme and wildflowers that had produced it. On this occasion Coleridge spoke of Virgil's Georgics, but not well. I do not think he had much feeling for classical or elegant. It was in this room that we found a little worn-out copy of the Seasons, lying in a window-seat, on which Coleridge exclaimed, "That is true fame!" He said Thomson was a great poet, rather than a good one; his style was as meretricious as his thoughts were natural. He spoke of Cowper as the best modern poet. He said the Lyrical Ballads were an experiment about to be tried by him and Wordsworth, to see how far the public taste would endure poetry written in a more natural and simple style than had hitherto been attempted; totally discarding the artifices of poetical diction, and making use only of such words as had probably been common in the most ordinary language since the days of Henry II. Some comparison was introduced between Shakespeare and Milton. He said "he hardly knew which to prefer. Shakespeare appeared to him a mere stripling in the art, he was as tall and as strong, with infinitely more activity than Milton, but he never appeared to have come to man's estate; of if he had, he would not have been a man, but a monster." He spoke with contempt for Gray, and with intolerance of Pope. He did not like the versification of the latter. He observed that "the ears of these couplet-writers might be charged with having short memories that could not retain the harmony of whole passages." He though little of Junius as a writer, he had a dislike of Dr Johnson; and much higher opinion of Burke as an orator and politician, than of Fox or Pitt. He, however, thought him very inferior in richness of style and imagery to some of our elder prose-writers, particularly Jeremy Taylor. He liked Richardson, but not Fielding, nor could I get him to enter in the merits of Caleb Williams. In short, he was profound and discriminating with respect to those authors whom he liked and, where he gave his judgment fair play; capricious, perverse, and prejudiced in his antipathies and distastes.

We loitered on the "ribbed sea-sands," in such talk as this a whole morning, and, I recollect, met with a curious sea-weed, of which John Chester told us the country name! A fisherman gave Coleridge an account of a boy that had been drowned the day before, and that they had tried to save him at the risk of their own lives. He said "he did not know how it was that they ventured, but Sir, we have a nature towards one another." This expression Coleridge remarked to me was a fine illustration of that theory of disinterestedness which I (in common with Butler) had adopted. I broached to him an argument of mine to prove that likeness was not mere association of ideas. I said the mark in the sand put one in mind of a man's foot, not because it was part of a former impression of a man's foot (for it was quite new), but because it was like the shape of a man's foot. He assented to the justness of this distinction (which I have explained at length elsewhere, for the benefit of the curious) and John Chester listened; not from any interest in the subject, but because he was astonished that I should be able to suggest anything to Coleridge that he did not already know. We returned on the third morning, and Coleridge remarked the silent cottage-smoke curling up the valleys where, a few evenings before we had seen the lights gleaming through the dark."

It is not clear whether Hazlitt returned to the Quantocks to see Coleridge. He continued to admire him for his intellect, although he was often critical of his works. Charles Lamb, who was also friendly with Coleridge and visited Exmoor, introduced Hazlitt to William Godwin and other important literary figures in London. In 1805 Joseph Johnson published Hazlitt's first book, An Essay on the Principles of Human Action. Hazlitt began writing for The Times and in 1808 married the editor's sister, Sarah Stoddart. His friend, Thomas Barnes, was the newspaper's parliamentary reporter and, eventually, editor. In 1810 he published the New and Improved Grammar of the English Language. In 1813 Hazlitt was employed as the parliamentary reporter for the Morning Chronicle, the country's leading Whig newspaper. However, in his articles, Hazlitt criticized all political parties. Hazlitt also contributed to The Examiner, the Edinburgh Review, the Yellow Dwarf and theLondon Magazine. In these journals he produced a series of essays on art, drama, literature and politics.

During this period Hazlitt established himself as England's leading expert on the writings of William Shakespeare. He wrote several books on literature includingCharacters of Shakespeare (1817), A View of the English Stage (1818), English Poets (1818) and English Comic Writers (1819). In these books he urged the artists to be aware of their social and political responsibilities. Hazlitt continued to write on about politics and his most important books on this subject is Political Essays with Sketches of Public Characters (1819). In the book Hazlitt explains how the admiration of power turns many writers into "intellectual pimps and hirelings of the press." In The Spirit of the Age: Contemporary Portraits (1825) Hazlitt provides a series of contemporary portraits including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, William Cobbett, William Godwin and William Wilberforce. This was followed by The Plain Speaker (1826) and Life of Napoleon(4 volumes, 1828-30).

Hazlitt's marriage to Sarah ended in 1823 as a result of an affair with a maid, Sarah Walker. He wrote an account of this relationship in his book Liber Amoris. In 1824 He married Isabella Bridgewater but this relationship only lasted a year. He died in poverty of stomach cancer in 1830.