William Hazlitt is considered as one of the greatest literary critics and essayists. He was also a painter, philosopher and social commentator. He is recognized as the best art critic of the Romantic period. Hazlitt was a political liberal and wrote expressive defenses of the ideas of the French Revolution. His father was a sympathizer of the American struggle for independence. Hazlitt inherited liberal views from his father. Even though he was not entirely devoid of political prejudices himself, he attacked the politically conservative works of the Lake Poets. He has left a vivid account of his meeting with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and how he taught Hazlitt the gospel of revolution. His writing style was simple, colloquial and insightful without any literary pretension. His works cannot be classified into a single school of criticism. His essays followed the trend of ‘familiar’ essays, i.e. essays which used the model of common conversation to discuss matters of human experiences. The topics of William Hazlitt’s essays ranged from such specialized topics as Milton’s sonnets or Sir Joshua Reynold’s ‘Discourses’ to his fondness for old books. His literary pieces gave the readers a lens through which the compositions of his Romantic contemporaries can be seen.
Childhood & Early Life
William Hazlitt was born on 10 April 1778 in Mitre Lane, Maidstone, England to William Hazlitt Sr., a Unitarian minister in England and Grace Loftus.
The family shifted to Wem in Shropshire when Hazlitt was two.
He was educated mainly at home and at a local school.
At 13 he debuted in writing with a letter, which was published in the ‘Shrewsbury Chronicle’.
In 1793 he was sent to the New College at Hackney, a Unitarian Seminary.
While studying at the college, Hazlitt had a loss of faith and returned home to Wem.
On 14 January 1798, Hazlitt met Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the Unitarian Chapel in Shrewsbury. While visiting him at his residence in Nether Stowey, Hazlitt also came in contact with William Wordsworth.
Artistic inclinations ran in the family and from 1798, Hazlitt took keen interest in painting.
By 1802, he had made decent progress in painting and a portrait of his father that he had recently painted was accepted for an exhibition at the Royal Academy.
Later in 1802, he travelled to Paris to copy several works of the Old Masters in the Louvre.
A fallout with Coleridge and Wordsworth happened when he allegedly assaulted a woman while visiting Lake District to paint the portraits of the two authors.
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He moved to London in 1804 in order to shape up his writing career.
On 19 July 1805, he published ‘An Essay on the Principles of Human Action’ with the help of William Godwin.
In 1807 Hazlitt’s preface to ‘The Light of Nature Pursued’ along with a compilation of parliamentary speeches:’The Eloquence of the British Senate’ were published.
In January 1812 Hazlitt began his career as a lecturer by delivering a series of talks on the British philosophers at the Russell Institution in London.
In October 1812, he was hired by ‘The Morning Chronicle’, the Whig newspaper as a parliamentary reporter.
In 1817, ‘The Round Table’ was published. It was a collection of forty essays by Hazlitt and a dozen by Leigh Hunt, the editor of ‘The Morning Chronicle’.
The same year, Hazlitt brought out ‘Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays’. This book established him as a leading Shakespearean critic of the time.
In the following years, a few of his lectures delivered in different universities came out in the form of books: ‘Lectures on the English Poets’ (1818), ‘A View of the English Stage’ (1818) and ‘Lectures on the English Comic Writers’(1819).
In 1822, ‘Table-Talk or Original Essays’ was published which were written in the ‘familiar style’ of Montaigne. .
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In May 1823 he published anonymously a fictional account of a brief, illicit affair, titled ‘Liber amoris’ or ‘The New Pygmalion’.
The same year, he also published anonymously ‘Characteristics: In the Manner of Rochefoucault's Maxims’, a collection of aphorisms.
In 1825 ‘The Spirit of the Age: or, Contemporary Portraits’ was published which was a collection of sketches of twenty-five prominent personalities of England.
Throughout the last years of his life, he continued to write articles for ‘The Atlas’, ‘The London Weekly Review’, ‘The Court Journal’ and ‘The Edinburgh Review’.
He gave his last years were given to an unsuccessful biography of Napoleon Bonaparte in four volumes (1828–1830).
The ‘Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays’ (1817) is the representative of Hazlitt’s literary criticism. The book contains subjective commentary on famous Shakespearean protagonists like Macbeth and Hamlet, and introduces his concept of ‘gusto’. ‘Table-Talk’ (1821–22) and ‘The Round Table’ (1817) are his two finest collections of essays, even though they received a lot of negative reviews at the time.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1808, Hazlitt married Sarah Stoddart, a friend of Mary Lamb and sister of John Stoddart, a journalist and the editor of ‘The Times’ newspaper.
The couple had three sons but only one of their children, William, born in 1811, survived infancy.
On 17 July 1822, the couple got divorced owing to Hazlitt’s brief extra-marital affair with Sarah Walker, a girl who was 22 years his junior.
In 1824, he married Isabella Bridwater, a Scottish widow. It was a marriage of convenience and lasted only three years.
Hazlitt was suffering from stomach cancer and died on 18 September 1830.
On 23 September 1830, he was buried in the churchyard of St Anne’s Church, Soho in London.
His last words were "Well, I've had a happy life".
‘The Plain Speaker: Opinions on Books, Men, and Things’ is a posthumous collection of essays that had not been published in a book format before. It was organized by his grandson, William Carew Hazlitt.