William Hazlitt

William Hazlitt; The Spirit of the Age

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William Hazlitt, 1830

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Table on Contents

I. Background
II. The Spirit of the Age
a. Introduction
b. Purpose
c. Analysis of Essays
1. “Mr. Coleridge”
2. “Lord Byron”
3. “Mr. Wordsworth”

I. Background

William Hazlitt was born on April 10, 1778 in Kent, England. He grew up traveling around in Ireland and Northern America because his father who was a traveling preacher and big supporter of the American rebels. He was a rather lonely child who could always be found reading or writing. When he got tired of that, too, he switched to painting. This led him to Paris to work in the Louvre. Sadly, he was brought back to England shortly after because of the war between England and France. Back in England, Hazlitt sought out philosophy and published a book titled On the Principles of Human Action in 1805. Three years later, he was married to a woman named Sarah Stoddart and they moved to Salisbury Plain. This site would later be a retreat and an escape that inspired his writing.

By 1811, Hazlitt found himself extremely poor. He had accomplished numerous literary works, but none of them had become overwhelmingly successful. His next plan was to give philosophy lectures for a class in London. He also worked for the Morning Chronicle to make some more money. Here, he wound up becoming an established “critic, journalist and essayist” (“William Hazlitt”), whose, “dramatic criticism appeared as A View of the English Stage in 1818” (“William Hazlitt”). He continued to pursue lecturing and delivered a variety of brilliant lectures such as On the English Poets, published 1818, and On the English Comic Writers, published 1819. These lectures secured Hazlitt as a reputable lecturer. After publishing Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth in 1819, he committed to writing essays for journals throughout London, including London Magazine.
Hazlitt and his wife were divorced in 1822, and following this, Hazlitt went through a nasty affair with the daughter of his landlord. As difficult a time that this was for Hazlitt, critics argue that this was the time period that birthed some of his best writing. Both Table Talk (1821) and The Plain Speaker (1826) were composed of intriguing and thoughtful essays. In 1824, he published Sketches of the Principal Picture Galleries in England, which is famous for its piece about the Dulwich gallery in London.

While writing and publishing many more works, he married a woman named Bridgwater. The couple traveled abroad exploring Europe and recording their experience in Notes of a Journey in France and Italy, published in 1826. They briefly settled in France where Hazlitt developed some of his most influential work The Spirit of the Age in 1825. Hazlitt and Bridgwater divorced after three years later due to family controversy. Hazlitt’s son resented his second wife, and Hazlitt had no greater love than for his son. So the two separated and divorced, but Hazlitt remained in France. There, he developed and published Life of Napoleon, 4 vol. from 1828 to 1830. His final book was Conversations of James Northcote, which depicted his long friendship with said painter. Hazlitt published it year that he died in 1830.

II. The Spirit of the Age

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a. Introduction

b. Purpose

Born under the political regime of France, William Hazlitt developed a burning passion for freedom at an early age. His radical ideas were only fueled at school, where he was introduced to politics and art. Due to the unfortunate circumstance of moving around frequently in his life, Hazlitt had no conceptions of social interaction, and thus, struggled to maintain relationships with fellow contemporaries. “The Spirit of the Age” came towards the end of Hazlitt’s life, just years before his death. In it, he creates portraits of all the men he once had acquaintances with, critiquing their works, and assessing their progression in literacy development.

c. Analysis

Portrait of Sam Coleridge
Portrait of Sam Coleridge

1. “Mr. Coleridge”

Hazlitt closely followed the work of Coleridge, intrigued by his innate creativity, and disinterest in the triviality of fame. He watched and assessed his progress from the beginning, starting with his first published work at sixteen; “Ode on Chatterton”. His observations came to a pinnacle when he published his thoughts in “The Spirit of the Age”. From the start, Hazlitt saw a lot of potential in Coleridge, he admired the unapologetic individuality in his writing, and lack of arrogance, as Hazlitt often regarded young poets with,“Mr. Coleridge talks of himself without being an egotist; for in him the individual is always merged in the abstract and general.”(79) however faulted him numerously for his unquenchable ambition.

Hazlitt saw Coleridge’s ‘true potential’ and where his efforts need not be applied. He held quite a vehemence toward Coleridge’s dabble in logistics “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!”(79) and encouraged Coleridge to continue in his search of something beyond. It is clear Hazlitt was unable to keep his religious, and existential bias separate, it seemed he became dissatisfied with any work processed under the theory of logic and reasoning. Hazlitt was a great supporter of the Greek classics, and as such, was delighted in Coleridge’s impressions, even alluding Coleridge’s early great potential to the Greek myth of Prometheus; in which his creativity is boundless, yet Coleridge himself, is the one who ‘binds’ his abilities by the prose in which he began to write “But in writing verse, he is trying to subject the Muse to transcendental theories: in his abstract reasoning, he misses his way by strewing it with flowers” (79). To Hazlitt, Coleridge’s true calling was poetry, and poetry alone, could save him from wasting the depth of his mind, and appreciation for the parts of the world we cannot see.

Portrait of Lord Byron
Portrait of Lord Byron

2. “Lord Byron”

William Hazlitt while admiring Lord Byron, critiques his writing styles. Lord Byron wrote very erotically and wildly. There was no shortage of what Byron would talk about and while Hazlitt admired this he also thought it was out there and at times inappropriate. Hazlitt states that within Byron’s writings he would tell when he was put together or not. If Byron was not in the best state of mind it showed up in his writings and Hazlitt pointed it out. Hazlitt views Byron’s characters to be narrow and undynamic. Hazlitt critiques this in most of his writings. Although Byron wrote works that would put off people and did not align with what society approved of at the time, Hazlitt appreciates how intricate Byron’s words were and how he was able to convey a story.

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3. “Mr. Wordsworth”

When Hazlitt discusses “Mr. Wordsworth”, also known as the poet, William Wordsworth, he begins with his literary criticism of his work. Wordsworth wrote largely about the beauty and immortality of nature in the late 1800s to the early 1900s. His heavy dabble in romanticism and empirical observations of nature differed greatly from Hazlitt, who led a life of solitude, which was distinctly reflected in his work. Hazlitt comments that Wordsworth’s style of writing is to, “[take] a subject or a story merely as pegs or loops to hang thought and feeling on” (William Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age). This indicates that Hazlitt acknowledges the emotion toward and connection with nature, but compares his delivery to useful but bland everyday items. He continues his criticism of Wordsworth’s work by saying that, “No storm no shipwreck startles us by its horrors; but the rainbow lifts its head in the cloud, and the breeze sighs through the withered fern. No sad vicissitude of fate, no overwhelming catastrophe in nature deforms his page: but the dew-drop glitters on the bending flower, the tear collects in the glistening eye” (William Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age). Hazlitt’s comments imply that Wordsworth’s writing is not overwhelmingly effective, but pleasant. Wordsworth portrays emotion and the beauty of nature without divulging deep in thought or philosophy, which is more Hazlitt’s style.

Further on, Hazlitt seems to respects Wordsworth’s work, no matter how different from his own. He comments that, “The fashionable may ridicule [Wordsworth’s works]: but the author has created himself an interest in the heart of the retired and lonely student of nature, which can never die” (William Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age). A loner himself, Hazlitt recognizes the pleasant isolation Wordsworth feels as a “student of nature”. To truly commit yourself to loneliness, you must dedicate your heart to the lifestyle. Hazlitt recognizes that Wordsworth does this, and has an immortal bond with nature and his surroundings. Hazlitt continues to discuss the way Wordsworth, “has described all these objects [of nature] in a way and with an intensity of feeling that no one else had done before him, and has given a new view or aspect of nature. He is in this sense the most original poet now living, and the one whose writings could the least be spared: for they have no substitute elsewhere.” (William Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age). Hazlitt admires the uniqueness of Wordsworth’s connection to nature. His literature may not move his audience to sadness or despair, but it will portray nature in an original, beautiful and thoughtful way. Overall, Hazlitt respects the styles of Wordsworth, although different from his own. His commentary on “Mr. Wordsworth” is one of the more positive and admirable pieces in Spirit of the Age.

References

William Hazlitt, British Writer, Encyclopedia Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Hazlitt)

William Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age, Essays: Picked by Blupete (http://www.blupete.com/Literature/Essays/TableHazIII.htm)

Portrait of Coleridge

http://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/files//2018/06/220px-Samuel_Taylor_Coleridge_by_Washington_Allston_retouched.jpg

Portrait of Lord Byron;
http://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/files//2018/06/George_Gordon_Byron2C_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall_28229.jpg

Portrait of Mr. Wordsworth
http://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/files//2018/06/William_Wordsworth_by_Henry_William_Pickersgill.jpg

Portraits of Mr. Hazlitt
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