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ON THE INTELLECTUAL CHARACTER OF THE LATE
[FROM "THE EXAMINER" AND "THE REVIEW OF WILLIAM HAZLITT."]
As an author, Mr. Hazlitt may be contemplated principally in three aspects, as a moral and political reasoner; as an observer of character and manners; and as a critic in literature and painting. It is in the first character only, that he should be followed with caution. His metaphysical and political essays contain rich treasures, sought with years of patient toil, and poured forth with careless prodigality, -materials for thinking, a small part of which wisely employed, will enrich him who makes them his own, but the choice is not wholly unattended with perplexity and danger. He had, indeed, as passionate a desire for truth as others have for wealth, or power, or fame. The purpose of his research was always steady and pure; and no temptation from without could induce him to pervert or to conceal the faith that was in him. But, besides that love of truth, that sincerity in pursuing it, and that boldness in telling it, he had earnest aspirations after the beautiful, a strong sense of pleasure, an intense consciousness of his own individual being, which broke the current of abstract speculation into dazzling eddies, and sometimes turned it astray. The vivid sense of beauty may, indeed, have fit home in the breast of the searcher after truth,-but then he must also be endowed with the highest of all human faculties, the great mediatory and interfusing power of imagination, which presides supreme in the mind, brings all its powers and impulses into harmonious action, and becomes itself the single organ of all. At its touch, truth becomes visible in the shapes of beauty; the fairest of material things appear the living symbols of airy thought; and the mind apprehends the finest affinities of the worlds of sense and of spirit in clear dream and solemn vision." By its aid the faculties are not only balanced, but multiplied into each other; are pervaded by one feeling, and directed to one issue. But, without it, the inquirer after truth will sometimes be confounded by too intense a yearning after the grand and the lovely,-not, indeed, by an elegant taste, the indulgence of which is a graceful and harmless recreation amidst severer studies, but by that passionate regard which quickens the pulse, and tingles in the veins, and "hangs upon the beatings of the heart." Such was the power of beauty in Hazlitt's mind; and the interfusing faculty was wanting. The spirit, indeed, was willing, but the flesh was strong; and when these contend, it is not difficult to foretell which will obtain the mastery; for "the power of beauty shall sooner transform honesty from what it is into a bawd, than the power of honesty shall transform beauty into its likeness." How this some-time paradox became exemplified in the writings of one whose purpose was always
single, may be traced in the history of his mind, at which it may be well to glance before adverting to the examples.
William Hazlitt was the son of a dissenting minister, who presided over a small Unitarian congregation at Wem, in Shropshire. His father was one of those blameless enthusiasts who, taking only one view of the question between right and power, embrace it with singleness of heart, and hold it fast with inflexible purpose. He cherished in his son that attachment to truth for its own sake, and those habits of fearless investigation which are the natural defences of a creed maintaining its ground against the indolent force of a wealthy establishment, and the fervid attacks of combining sectaries, without the fascinations of mystery or terror. In the solitude of the country, his pupil learned, at an early age, to think. But that solitude was something more to him than a noiseless study, in which he might fight over the battle between Filmer and Locke; or exult on the shattered dogmas of Calvin; or rivet the links of the immortal chain of necessity, and strike with the force of ponderous understanding, on all mental fetters. A temperament of unusual ardour glowed amidst those lonely fields, and imparted to the silent objects of nature a weight of interest akin to that with which Rousseau has oppressed the picture of his early years. He had not then, nor did he find till long afterwards, power to imbody his meditations and feelings in words; the consciousness of thoughts which he could not hope adequately to express, increased his natural reserve; and he turned for relief to the art of painting, in which he might silently realize his dreams of beauty, and repay the bounties of nature. A few old prints from the old masters awakened the spirit of emulation within him; the sense of beauty became identified in his mind with that of glory and duration; while the peaceful labour calmed the tumult in his veins, and gave steadiness to his pure and distant aim. He pursued the art with an earnestness and patience which he vividly describes in his essay "On the Pleasure of Painting" and to which he frequently reverts in some of his most exquisite passages; and, although in this, his chosen pursuit, he failed, the passionate desire for success, and the long struggle to attain it, left deep traces in his mind, heightening his strong perception of external things, and mingling, with all the thoughts, shapes and hues which he had vainly striven to render immortal. A painter may acquire a fine insight into the nice distinctions of character, he may copy manners in words as he does in colours,-but it may be apprehended that his course as a severe reasoner will be somewhat "troubled with thick coming
fancies." And if the successful pursuit of art may thus disturb the process of abstract contemplation, how much more may an unsatisfied passion ruffle it, bid the dark threads of thought glitter with radiant fancies unrealized, and clothe its diagrams with the fragments of picture which the hand refused to execute! What wonder, if, in the mind of an ardent youth, thus struggling in vain to give palpable existence to the shapes of loveliness which haunted him, "the homely beauty of the good old cause" should assume the fascinations not properly its own! At this time, also, while at once laborious and listless, he became the associate of a band of young poets of power and promise such as England had not produced for two centuries, whose genius had been awakened by the rising sun of liberty, and breathed forth most eloquent music. Their political creed resembled his own; yet, for the better and more influential part, they were poets, not metaphysicians; and his intercourse with them tended yet farther to spread the noble infection of beauty through all his thoughts. That they should have partially understood him at that time was much, both for them and for him; for the faculty of expression remained imperfect and doubtful until quickened at that chosen home of genius and kindness, the fire-side of the author of “John | Woodvil." There his bashful struggles to express the fine conceptions with which his bosom laboured were met by entire sympathy; there he began to stammer out his just and original notions of Chaucer and Spenser, and old English writers, less talked of, though not less known, by their countrymen; there he was understood and cheered by one who thought after their antique mode, and wrote in their spirit, and by a lady, "sister every way" to his friend, whose fine discernment of his first efforts in conversation, he dwelt upon with gratitude even when most out of humour with the world. He wrote then slowly, and with great difficulty, being, as he himself states in his "Letter to Gifford," "eight years in writing as many pages;" in that austere labour the sense of the beautiful was rebuked, and his first work, the "Essay on the Principles of Human Action," is composed in a style as dry and hard as a mathematical demonstration. But when his pen was loosed from its long bondage, the accumulated stores of thought and observation pressed upon him; images of beauty hovered round him; deep-rooted attachments to books and works of art, which had been friends to him through silent years, glowed for expression, and a long arrear of personal resentments struggled to share in the masterdom of conscious power. The room of Imagination, which would have enabled him to command all his resources, and place his rare experiences to their true account, was supplied by a will-sufficiently sturdy by nature, and made irritable and capricious by the most inexcusable misrepresentation and abuse with which the virulence of party-spirit ever disgraced literary criticism. His works were shamelessly garbled; his person and habits slandered; and volumes, any one page of which contained thought sufficient to supply a
whole "Quarterly Review," were dismissed with affected contempt, as the drivelling of an impudent pretender, whose judgment was to be estimated by an enthusiastic expression torn from its context, and of whose English style a decisive specimen was found in an error of the press. Thus was a temperament, always fervid, stung into irregular action; the strong regard to things was matched by as vivid a dislike of persons; and the sense of injury joined with the sense of beauty to disturb the solemn musings of the philosopher and the great hatreds of the patriots.
One of the most remarkable effects of the strong sense of the personal on Hazlitt's abstract speculations, is a habit of confounding his own feelings and experiences in relation to a subject with proofs of some theory which had grown out of them, or had become associated with them. Thus, in his "Essay on the Past and the Future," he asserts the startling proposition, that the past is, at any given moment, of as much consequence to the individual as the future; that he has no more actual interest in what is to come than in what has gone by, except so far as he may think himself able to avert the future by action; that whether he was put to torture a year ago, or anticipates the rack a year hence, is of no importance, if his destiny is so fixed that no effort can alter it; and this paradox its author chiefly seeks to establish by beautiful instances of what the past, as matter of contemplation, is to thoughtful minds, and in fine glances at his individual history. The principal sophism consists in varying the aspect in which the past and future are viewed;-in one paragraph, regarding them as apart from personal identity and consciousness, as if a being, who was "not a child of time," looked down upon them; and, in another, speaking in his own person as one who feels the past as well as future in the instant. When the quarrels with a supposed disputant who would rather not have been Claude, because then all would have been over with him, and asserts that it cannot sig nify when we live, because the value of exist. ence is not altered in the course of centuries, he takes a stand apart from present consciousness and the immediate question-for the desire to have been Claude could only be gratified in the consciousness of having been Claude-which belongs to the present moment, and implies present existence in the party making the choice, though for such a moment he might be willing to die. He strays still wider from the subject when he observes a treatise on the Millennium is dull; but asks who was ever weary of reading the fables of the Golden Age for both fables essentially belong neither to past nor future, and depend for their interest, not on the time to which they are referred, but the vividness with which they are drawn. But supposing the Golden Age and the Millennium to be happy conditions of being-which to our poor, frail, shivering virtue they are not-and the proposal to be made, whether we would remember the first, or enter upon the last, surely we should "hail the coming on of time," and prefer having our store of happiness yet to expend, to the know
barren spectators, and that which is diffused through the hearts and affections of thousands, and fructifies and expands in generations yet unborn, and connects its author with far distant times, not by cold renown, but by the links of living sympathy-to be exemplified in the very essay which would decry it, and to be nobly vindicated by its author at other times, when he shows, and makes us feel, that "words are the only things which last for
utility, which were provoked by the cold extravagancies of some of its supporters, consist of noble and passionate eulogies on the graces, pleasures, and ornaments, of life, which leave the theory itself, with which all these are consistent, precisely where it was. So his "Essays on Mr. Owen's View of Society" are full of exquisite banter, well-directed against the individual: of unanswerable expositions of the falsehood of his pretensions to novelty and of the quackery by which he attempted to render them notorious; of happy satire against the aristocratic and religious patronage which he sought and obtained for schemes which were tolerated by the great because they were believed by them to be impracticable; but the truth of the principal idea itself remains almost untouched. In these instances the personal has prevailed over the abstract in the mind of the thinker; his else clear intellectual vision has been obscured by the intervention of his own recollections, loves, resentments, or fancies; and the real outlines of the subject have been overgrown by the exuberant fertility of the region which bordered upon them.
ledge that we had just spent it! When Mr. Hazlitt instances the agitation of criminals before their trial, and their composure after their conviction, as proofs that if a future event is certain, "it gives little more disturbance or emotion than if it had already taken place, or were something to happen in another state of being, or to another person," he gives an example which is perfectly fair, but which every one sees is decisive against his theory. If peace followed when hope was no longer ever."* So his attacks on the doctrine of busy; if the quiet of indifference was the same thing as the stillness of despair; if the palsy of fear did not partially anticipate the stroke of death, and whiten the devoted head with premature age; there might be some ground for this sacrifice of the future at the shrine of the past; but the poor wretch who grasps the hand of the chaplain or the under-sheriff's clerk, or a turnkey, or an alderman, in convulsive agony, as his last hold on life, and declares that he is happy, would tell a different tale! It seems strange that so profound a thinker, and so fair a reasoner, as Mr. Hazlitt, should adduce such a proof of such an hypothesis-but the mystery is solved when we regard the mass of personal feeling he has brought to bear on the subject, and which has made his own view of it unsteady. All this picturesque and affecting retrospection amounts to nothing, or rather tells against the argument; because the store of contemplation which is, will ever be while consciousness remains; nay, must increase even while we reckon it, as the present glides into the past, and turns another arch over the cave of memory. This very possession which he would The same causes diminished the immediate set against the future is the only treasure effect of Mr. Hazlitt's political writings. It which with certainty belongs to it, and of was the fashion to denounce him as a sour which no change of fortune can deprive him; Jacobin; but no description could be more unand, therefore, it is clear that the essayist mis- just. Under the influence of some bitter feeltakes a sentiment for a demonstration, when ing, he occasionally poured out a furious inhe expatiates upon it as proof of such a doc- vective against those whom he regarded as the trine. There is nothing affected in the asser- enemies of liberty, or the apostates from its tion-no desire to startle-no playing with the cause; but, in general, his force was diverted subject or the reader; for of such intellectual (unconsciously to himself) by figures and trickeries he was incapable; but an honest fantasies, by fine and quaint allusions, by mistake into which the strong power of per- quotations from his favourite authors, introsonal recollection, and the desire to secure it duced with singular felicity as respects the within the lasting fret-work of a theory, drew direct link of association, but tending by their him. So, when wearied with the injustice very beauty to unnerve the mind of the reader, done to his writings by the profligate misre- and substitute the sense of luxury for that of presentations of the government critics, and the hatred or anger. In some of his essays, when slothful acquiescence of the public, and con- the reasoning is most cogent, every other sentrasting with it the success of the sturdy play- tence contains some exquisite passage from ers at his favourite game of fives, which no one Shakspeare, or Fletcher, or Wordsworth, trailcould question, he wrote elaborate essays to ing after it a line of golden associations-or prove the superiority of physical qualifications some reference to a novel, over which we have to those of intellect-full of happy illustrations a thousand times forgotten the wrongs of and striking instances, and containing one in- mankind; till in the recurring shock of pleaimitable bit of truth and pathos “On the Death surable surprise, the main argument escapes of Cavanagh," but all beside the mark-proving us. When, for example, he compares the ponothing but that which required no proof-that corporeal strength and beauty are more speedily and more surely appreciated than the products of genius; and leaving the essential differences of the two, of the transitory and the lasting-of that which is confined to a few
"On the Indian Jugglers," and "On the Disadvantages of Intellectual Superiority,"
sition of certain political waverers to that of Clarissa Harlowe when Lovelace would repeat his outrage, and describes them as having been, like her, trepanned into a house of illfame near Pall Mall, and defending their soiled virtue with their pen-knives,-who, at the suggestion of the stupendous scene which the
*"On Thought and Action."
allusion directly revives, can think or care this strong attachment, at once personal and about the renegade of yesterday? Here, again, refined, would have enabled him to encounter is felt the want of that imagination which the toil of collecting and arranging facts and brings all things into one, tinges all our dates for four volumes of narrative;-a drudgthoughts and sympathies with one joyous or ery too abhorrent to his habits of mind as a solemn hue, and rejects every ornament which thinker, to be sustained by any stimulus which does not heighten or prolong the feeling which the prospect of wealth or reputation could is proper to the design. Even when Mr. Haz- supply. It is not so much in the ingenious litt retaliates on Mr. Southey for attacking his excuses which he discovers for the worst acts old co-patriots, the poetical associations which of his hero, even for the midnight execution bitter remembrance suggests almost neutralize of the Duke d'Enghein, and the invasion of the attack, else overpowering; he brings every Spain, that the stamp of personal devotion is "flower which sad embroidery wears to strew obvious, as in the graphic force with which the laureate hearse," where patriotism is in- he has delineated the short-lived splendours terred; and diverts our indignation and his of the Imperial Court, and "the trivial fond own by affecting references to an early friend-records " he has gathered of every vestige of ship. So little does he regard the unity of his compositions, that in his "Letter to Gifford," after a series of the most just and bitter retorts on his maligner,-"the fine link which connected literature with the police"-he takes a fancy to teach that "Ultra-crepidarian Critic" his own theory of the natural disinterestedness of the human mind, and developes it-not now in the mathematical style in which it was first enunciated, but "o'er-informed" with the glow of sentiment, and terminating in an eloquent rhapsody. This latter part of the letter is one of the noblest of his effusions, but it entirely destroys the first in the mind of the reader; for who, when thus contemplating the living wheels on which human benevolence is borne onward in its triumphant career, and the spirit with which they are instinct, can think of the poor wasp settled upon them, and who was just before transfixed with minikin arrows?
But the most signal result which "the shows of things" had over Mr. Hazlitt's mind, was his setting up the Emperor Napoleon as his idol. He strove to justify his predilection to himself by referring it to the revolutionary origin of his hero, and the contempt with which he trampled upon the claims of legitimacy, and humbled the pride of kings. But if his "only love" thus sprung " from his only hate," it was not wholly cherished by antipathies. If there had been nothing in his mind which tended to aggrandizement and glory, and which would fain reconcile the principles of liberty with the lavish accumulation of power, he might have desired the triumph of young tyranny over legitimate thrones; but he would scarcely have watched its progress "like a lover and a child." His feeling for Bonaparte was not a sentiment of respect for fallen greatness: not a desire to trace "the soul of goodness in things evil;" not a loathing of the treatment the emperor received from "his cousin kings" in the day of adversity; but entire affection mingling with the current of the blood, and pervading the moral and intellectual being. Nothing less than
*Proofs of the singular fascination which the idea of Bonaparte created on Mr. Hazlitt's mind abound in his writings. One example of which suffices to show how it mingled with his most passionate thoughts-his earliest aspirations, and his latest sympathies. Having referred to some association which revived the memory of his happiest days, he breathes out into this rhapsody: -"As I look on the long-neglected copy of the Death of Clorinda, golden dreams play upon the canvas as they used when I painted it. The flowers of Hope and Joy springing up in my mind, recall the time when they
human feeling by which he could reconcile the Emperor to his mind. The first two volumes of the "Life of Napoleon," although redeemed by scattered thoughts of true originality and depth, are often confused and spiritless; the characters of the principal revolutionists are drawn too much in the style of caricatures; but when the hero throws all his rivals into the distance, erects himself the individual enemy of England, consecrates his power by religious ceremonies, and defines it by the circle of a crown, the author's strength becomes concentrated, his narrative assumes an epic dignity and fervour, and glows with "the long-resounding march and energy divine." How happy and proud is he to picture the meeting of Napoleon with the Pope, and the grandeurs of the coronation! How he grows wanton in celebrating the fêtes of the Tuileries, as "presenting all the elegance of enchanted pageants," and laments them as gone like a fairy revel!" How he "lives along the line " of Austerlitz, and rejoices in its thunder, and hails its setting sun, and exults in the minutest details of the subsequent meeting of the conquered sovereigns with the conqueror! How he expatiates on the fatal marriage with the "deadly Austrian," (as Mr. Cobbett justly called that most heartless of her sex,) as though it were a chapter in romance, and added the grace of beauty to the imperial picture! How he kindles with martial ardour as he describes the preparations for the expedition against Russia; musters the myriads of barbarians with a show of dramatic justice; and fondly lingers among the brief triumphs of Moskwa on the verge of the terrible catastrophe! The narrative of that disastrous expedition is, indeed, written with a master's hand; we see the "Grand Army" marching to its destruction through the immense perspective; the wild hordes flying before the terror of its "coming;" the barbaric magnificence of Moscow towering in the far distance; and when we gaze upon the sacrificial confiagration of the Kremlin, we feel that it is the funeral pile of the conqueror's glories. It is well for the readers of this splendid work, that there is more in it of the painter than of
first bloomed there. The years that are fled knock at the door and enter. I am in the Louvre once more, The Sun of Austerlitz has not set. It shines here, in my heart; and he the Son of Glory is not dead, nor ever shall be to me. I am as when my life began."-See the Essay on "Great and Little Things." Table Talk, vol. ii., p. 171.
the metaphysician; that its style glows with the fervour of battle, or stiffens with the spoils of victory; yet we wonder that this monument to imperial grandeur should be raised from the dead level of Jacobinism by an honest and profound thinker. The solution is, that although he was this, he was also more-that, in opinion, he was devoted to the cause of the people; but that, in feeling, he required some individual object of worship; that he selected Napoleon as one in whose origin and career he might impersonate his principles and gratify his affections; and that he adhered to his own idea with heroic obstinacy when the "child and champion of the republic" openly sought to repress all feeling and thought, but such as he could cast in his own iron moulds, and scoffed at popular enthusiasm even while it bore him to the accomplishment of his lof
on "Actors and Acting," breathes the very soul of abandonment to impulse and heedless enjoyment, affording glimpses of those brief triumphs which make a stroller's career "less forlorn," and presenting mirrors to the stage in which its grand and affecting images, themselves reflected from nature, are yet farther prolonged and multiplied. His individual portraits of friends and enemies are hit off with all the strength of hatred or affection, neither mitigated by courtesy nor mistrust:partial, as they embrace, at most, only one aspect of the character, but startling in their vividness, and productive of infinite amusement to those who are acquainted with the originals. It must be conceded that these personal references were sometimes made with unjustifiable freedom; but they were more rarely prompted by malice prepense, than by his strong consciousness of the eccentricities of mankind, If the experiences and the sympathies which which pressed upon him for expression, and acted so powerfully on the mind of Hazlitt, irritated his pen into satiric picture. And detract somewhat from his authority as a rea- when this keen observance was exerted on soner, they give an unprecedented interest scenes in which he delighted-as the Wednesand value to his essays on character and day evening parties of Mr. Lamb's-how fine, books. The excellence of these works differ how genial, how happy his delineations! How not so much in degree as in kind from that of he gathers up the precious moments, when all others of their class. There is a weight poets and artists known to fame, and men of and substance about them, which makes us fancy and wit yet unexhausted by publication, feel that amidst all their nice and dexterous met in careless pleasure; and distils their analysis, they are, in no small measure, crea- finest essence. And if sometimes the temptations. The quantity of thought which is ac- tion of making a spiteful hit at one of his cumulated upon his favourite subjects; the friends was too urgent for resistance, what variety and richness of the illustrations; and amends he made by some oblique compliment, the strong sense of beauty and pleasure which at once as hearty and as refined as those by pervades and animates the composition, give which Pope has made those whom he loved them a place, if not above, yet apart from the immortal. But these essays, in which the writings of all other essayists. They have spirit of personality sometimes runs riot, are not, indeed, the dramatic charm of the old inferior, in our apprehension, to those in "Spectator" and "Tattler," not the airy touch which it warms and peoples more abstracted with which Addison and Steele skimmed along views of humanity-not purely metaphysical the surface of many-coloured life; but they reasonings, which it tended to disturb, nor disclose the subtle essences of character, and political disquisitions which it checked and trace the secret springs of the affections with turned from their aim; but estimates of the a more learned and penetrating spirit of hu- high condition and solemn incidents of our man dealing than either. The intense interest nature. Of this class, his papers on the "Love which he takes in his theme, and which of Life,” on the “Fear of Death," on the "Reaprompts him to adorn it lavishly with the sons why Distant Objects Please," on "Antispoils of many an intellectual struggle, com- quity," on the "Love of the Country,” and on mends it to the feelings as well as the under-Living to Oneself," are choice specimens, standing, and makes the thread of his argu- written with equal earnestness and ingenuity, ment seem to us like a fibre of our own and full of noble pieces of retrospection on moral being. Thus his essay on "Pedantry" his own past being. Beyond their immediate seems, within its few pages, to condense not only all that can be said, but all that can be felt, on the happiness which we derive from the force of habit, on the softening influences of blameless vanity, and on the moral and pic-"Cause and Effect" are amongst the most remarkable turesque effect of those peculiarities of manner, arising from professional associations, which diversify and emboss the plain groundwork of modern life. Thus, his character of Rousseau is not merely a just estimate of the extraordinary person to whom it relates, but is so imbued with the predominant feeling of his works that they seem to glide in review before us, and we rise from the essayist as if we had pursued the "Confessions" anew with him, and had partaken in the strong sympathy which they excited within him during the happiest summers of his youth. Thus, his paper
*Of the writers since Hume, who have written on metaphysics, with the severity proper to the subject, are Mr. Fearne, the author of the Essay on "Consciousness," and Lady Mary Shepherd, whose works on
productions of the age. Beattie, Dugald Stewart, Dr. Brown, and his imitators, turned what should have been abstract reasoning "to favour and to prettiness." Mr. Hazlitt obscured it by thickly clustered associations; and Coleridge presented it in the masquerade of a gorgeous fancy. Lady Mary Shepherd, on the other hand, is a thinker of as much honesty as courage; her specu lations are colourless, and leave nothing on the mind but the fine-drawn lines of thought. Coleridge, addressing the Duchess of Devonshire, on a spirited verse she had written on the heroism of Tell, asks
"O lady, nursed in pomp and pleasure, Where got ye that heroic measure?" The poet might have found in the reasonings of Lady the little stanza which seemed so extraordinary an of Mary Shepherd a worthier object of admiration than in fort for a lady of fashion.