JULY 14, 2014
I ONCE HEARD poet Seamus Heaney and his wife, Marie, elaborating a droll array of distinctions between kinds of drinkers at parties. So and so — they looked cautiously around for effect — was a “large undangerous drinker.” That one, wouldn’t you know, was “small but dangerous.” And on it went. I forget the reasoning, but remember the designations, and they came back to me, the latter one especially, as I was reading Joseph Epstein’s most recent compendium, A Literary Education. I am not marking the man out as a drinker — I don’t know his habits or preferences — but the phrase arrived on figurative wings, and I have been trying to figure out just why.
Epstein is an essayist of the old school — learned, productive, and available to many occasions. A man gifted with a wit both cutting and self-deprecating, and an easy command of the many syntactic variations of the periodic sentence, he also has a fearless willingness to assert a view — and this, as any reader of the essay knows, is the drive wheel of the whole business, never mind if that view is widely shared or unpopular. In fact, the interest value of an essay often rises as the writer hews closer to the less popular. This fact ought to guarantee Epstein especially high profit, except that there also exists a law of diminishing returns that kicks in when certain flagellations are administered too routinely — when they become predictable.
Epstein was for many years the editor and keynote contributor — under the nom de plume “Aristides” — to the venerable cultural journal The American Scholar, which took its name from the celebrated essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson (referred to in this collection as “the bloated, vatic, never less than pompous”). He has published, to date, 23 collections of essays and other prose. You would think this would stamp his ticket to Valhalla, but in a literary era in which tradition and posterity have both become contested terms, who can say?
The author begins this book, the 24th, with a winsome bit of self-regard.
I have been compared to great essayists, to Michel de Montaigne, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Max Beerbohm, and H.L. Mencken. I have been […] called the best essayist writing in English […]
The winsomeness comes in when he adds:
[…] often with the word “arguably” qualifying this praise […]. I have read so often sentences that begin “Arguably Epstein is …” that I have contemplated changing my name from Joseph to Arguably Epstein.
So he swerves to save himself from the charge of self-aggrandizement, but catch the reader before his second cup and all this might come across as self-praise with only the faintest damnation.
However, the tone is set, the persona set forth: here is a writer we can possibly admire even as we roll our eyes. For he will not conceal his opinions — his regard or his more rancorous responses — and he will offer everything up in the shiniest civilized prose. “Civilized” in the sense of measured and refined — I will be quoting him in due course — but also in the sense that reminds us that civilization is not only the transformation of our primary instincts and emotions, but is also at times a finely crafted grate held up in front of them.
The eight parts of A Literary Education gather essays spanning nearly a half-century of Epstein’s literary advocacy. The earliest was published in 1969, and, as the man has published so many collections in the intervening years, we can assume that these are the ones that for one reason or another have not been included before. This is not to say that they are of a lesser caliber. One of the marks of a writer like Epstein is that he has no conspicuously “lesser” caliber. But the arrangement of the sections (“Memoir,” “The Culture,” “Language,” “Magazines,” etc.) suggests that they may not have fit the thematic constraints of the various books. To title this one A Literary Education is to be safely inclusive, and the first essay, which is on the idea of a literary education, concludes by laying out Epstein’s manifestly essayistic take on life:
A literary education teaches that human nature is best, if always incompletely, understood through the examination of individual cases […]. It provides an enhanced appreciation of the mysteries and complexities of life that reinforces the inestimable value of human liberty — liberty especially of the kind that leaves us free to pursue that reality from which we all live at a great distance and run the risk of dying without having known.
He will get no argument from me. But that he should then openly deplore Emerson remains a mystery.
The second part of the book, in personal terms the richest, is entitled “Memoir” and gives a portrait in overlapping narrations of Epstein’s coming of age in Chicago. Born in 1937, he hit his American-boy stride early, ducking out from his middle-class Jewish home-life to sample from the fringier side of things, getting himself to cathouses as soon as he could drive a car, consorting with fast-track betting types, in every way a proto-Bellow character. (Oddly he barely alludes to Bellow anywhere in these pages …) He admits he was a terrible student, showing no early signs of the refined, almost WASPy bookishness that later marked (and continues to mark) his long career. When he blundered into the University of Chicago, it was, he admits, at the time anyone could get admitted. But once he got there the transformation began.
“In the stumbling way of earnest young men from unbookish homes, I attempted to educate myself,” Epstein explains.
Allen Ginsberg may have claimed to see the best minds of his generation “destroyed by madness / starving hysterical naked” and so forth, but it seemed to me that some of the best minds of the generation before mine had been devoted to literature, and I attempted to follow them.
Where the book-life begins, however, the self-narrative fades. The rest of the collection will show us what the exposure to great books has wrought. This comes not through discussion of individual writers or works — we find plenty of that in the other collections — but in his various reflections on culture and the place of literature.
And this is where the problems — or let me say, speaking as a reviewer, “disagreements” — arise. For Epstein is completely tethered to a core narrative about our culture, and from this everything follows, including the denunciations that start to deaden in their repetitions. That narrative is the familiar conservative plaint: that the 1960s-era counterculture marked a turning point in American life, with its tilting against authority and hierarchies, its across-the-board lowering of standards, its enfranchising a “victim” culture of beseeching isms. Things went to the dogs. In intellectual and academic culture this meant the continuation of political and social upheaval in the guise of “theory.”
Theory and, of course, its concomitant: political correctness. Once hierarchies have been leveled — so the argument runs — the doors are thrown open. On a lecture visit to Denison University, for instance, Epstein notes “an altogether too tidy distribution of English department personnel: two blacks, one feminist, a homosexual, a Jew, and a bedraggled woman who was described to me as being ‘from the sixties,’ as if the decade were a country, like the Ukraine.” I can’t quite tell whether this is an aspersion upon Ukrainians, but I want to caution the writer to avoid indefensible generalizations.
Get him going on any of these linked subjects and he’s hard to stop. He’s like one of those killers in the movies who keep shooting long after it’s clear that the victim is dead. “I do not know what sound lemmings make,” he quips, at one point, invoking Harold Bloom’s denunciation of literary theory, “but you could almost hear the gurgle of delight that this newer criticism — which now began to go under the generic name of ‘theory’ — gave to refugee professors from the land of the sixties.”
He goes on like this throughout the book. Reviewing The Cambridge History of the American Novel, Epstein asserts:
A stranger, freshly arrived from another planet, if offered as his introduction to the United States only this book, would come away with a picture of a country founded on violence and expropriation, stoked through its history by every kind of prejudice and class domination, and populated chiefly by one or another kind of victim, with time out only for the mental sloth and apathy brought on by life lived in the suburbs and the characterless glut of American late capitalism.
Exaggerations of this scale hardly serve the truth. Indeed, they accomplish the opposite: the heat of the underlying animus starts to call into question the essayist’s credibility.
I don’t disagree with all parts of Epstein’s argument. Most of the literature spawned by theory or the theory spawned by literature was a dreary sort of hammering — the counterpoint to his own hammering — but what’s the point of reprising (by reprinting) polarized assertions that were tired decades ago? Though the prose exhibits at times a stylish sort of vituperation, it is not so good as to warrant inclusion on grounds of stylishness alone. Nor are there finally any ideas with shelf life here. Epstein is a reactor, a counter-puncher, not (like Emerson, say) a generator of thought. In place of ideas he has his point of view — and this, if we look at it more closely, resembles a long roster of bones to pick.
“The academics who wish to change the canon and hence the curriculum,” he ventures, “have a political program, however inchoate it may be in the minds of some of them.”
It is an intellectual version of the Whole Earth Catalog — a pallid, boiled-down, warmed-over, unisexual, blandified Woodstockian vision of heaven on earth. Heaven for them, as I see it, hell for the rest of us.
Whence such spleen? I kept wondering. These were the moments that had me recalling Heaney’s “small dangerous drinker.” What the poet was pointing to, I think, was the person who finds his store of negativity inflamed by the permission of alcohol — though I would vary the formulation slightly, substituting “prose” for the sauce.
I complain about Epstein picking at bones and here I am doing the same. I can’t help myself. In his early essay “My 1950s” — the possessive identification of the title says it all — Epstein writes:
The fate of the past — all pasts — is to be regularly twisted into different, sometimes quite grotesque, shapes by people with their own, frequently sentimental, often ideological, reasons for doing so.
Voila! Say what you will about the muddled opacities of “theory,” it did offer, as one of its contributions, the insight that texts are often blind to what they are saying; that they not infrequently undermine their own assertions. It’s as if in setting out to defend his ’50s, Epstein is simultaneously mapping the flaw of his later assessment of the ’60s (which, I admit, I found myself thinking of as “my ’60s”). Insofar as this assessment forms the basis of most of his cultural polemicizing, this is not a negligible thing.
Recall, too, Epstein’s observation about a literary education, that it “teaches that human nature is best, if always incompletely, understood through the examination of individual cases […].” What applies to human nature must certainly apply to history. It is nothing if not the impossibly rich meshing of one particular with another. Of course, there are decisive waves of Zeitgeist, eruptions of tendency, all that. But is it not the critic’s — the literary essayist’s — one job to direct attention at distinctions, to separate out the gradations of seeming, to parse the complexity of motivations? We do not believe that human nature went suddenly native in the Vietnam War era. No, it’s more likely that the verities that Epstein claimed as his guiding principles found fewer and fewer adherents — for the simple reason that they did not seem to address the kinds of suspicion, fear, rancor, and uncertainty that were, to adopt James Joyce, general all over the land.
It’s hard to weigh the sentence-level satisfactions offered by a collection like this against its blindnesses and deliberate provocations. We are trading in apples and oranges. Auden, in his well-known elegy for W. B. Yeats, had Time pardoning Kipling for his views, along with those of right-winger Paul Claudel — he pardoned both “for writing well.” I would not pull rank on Time, or Auden, but I would take things down a few pegs, allow instead that while the prose is an instrument skillfully played, the tune feels familiar, trite in its changes, seeming much in need of a jazzed-up cover.
Sven Birkerts is the editor of the journal AGNI.
This article is about the English literary critic and essayist. For other persons named Hazlitt, see Hazlitt (name). For other persons named William Hazlitt, see William Hazlitt (disambiguation).
A self-portrait from about 1802
|Born||(1778-04-10)10 April 1778|
Maidstone, Kent, England
|Died||18 September 1830(1830-09-18) (aged 52)|
Soho, London, England
|Occupation||Essayist, literary critic, painter, philosopher|
|Notable works||Characters of Shakespear's Plays, Table-Talk, Liber Amoris, The Spirit of the Age, Notes of a Journey Through France and Italy, The Plain Speaker|
William Hazlitt (10 April 1778 – 18 September 1830) was an English writer, drama and literary critic, painter, social commentator, and philosopher. He is now considered one of the greatest critics and essayists in the history of the English language, placed in the company of Samuel Johnson and George Orwell. He is also acknowledged as the finest art critic of his age. Despite his high standing among historians of literature and art, his work is currently little read and mostly out of print.
During his lifetime he befriended many people who are now part of the 19th-century literary canon, including Charles and Mary Lamb, Stendhal, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and John Keats.
- 1Life and works
- 1.2Childhood, education, young philosopher (1778–1797)
- 1.3Poetry, painting and marriage (1798–1812)
- 1.4Journalist, essayist, and Liber Amoris (1812–1823)
- 1.5Return to philosophy, second marriage, and tour of Europe (1823–1825)
- 1.6Return to London, trip to Paris, and last years (1825–1830)
- 2Posthumous reputation
- 4See also
- 7Further reading
- 8External links
Life and works
The family of Hazlitt's father were Irish Protestants who moved from the county of Antrim to Tipperary in the early 18th century. Also named William Hazlitt, Hazlitt's father attended the University of Glasgow (where he was taught by Adam Smith), receiving a master's degree in 1760. Not entirely satisfied with his Presbyterian faith, he became a Unitarian minister in England. In 1764 he became pastor at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, where in 1766 he married Grace Loftus, daughter of a recently deceased ironmonger. Of their many children, only three survived infancy. The first of these, John (later known as a portrait painter), was born in 1767 at Marshfield in Gloucestershire, where the Reverend William Hazlitt had accepted a new pastorate after his marriage. In 1770, the elder Hazlitt accepted yet another position and moved with his family to Maidstone, Kent, where his first and only surviving daughter, Margaret (usually known as "Peggy"), was born that same year.
Childhood, education, young philosopher (1778–1797)
William, the youngest of the surviving Hazlitt children, was born in Mitre Lane, Maidstone, in 1778. In 1780, when he was two, his family began a nomadic lifestyle that was to last several years. From Maidstone his father took them to Bandon, County Cork, Ireland; and from Bandon in 1783 to the United States, where the elder Hazlitt preached, lectured, and sought a ministerial call to a liberal congregation. His efforts to obtain a post did not meet with success, although he did exert a certain influence on the founding of the first Unitarian church in Boston. In 1786–87 the family returned to England and settled in Wem, in Shropshire. Hazlitt would remember little of his years in America, save the taste of barberries.
Hazlitt was educated at home and at a local school. At age 13 he had the satisfaction of seeing his writing appear in print for the first time, when the Shrewsbury Chronicle published his letter (July 1791) condemning the riots in Birmingham over Joseph Priestley's support for the French Revolution. In 1793 his father sent him to a Unitarian seminary on what was then the outskirts of London, the New College at Hackney (commonly referred to as Hackney College). The schooling he received there, though relatively brief, approximately two years, made a deep and abiding impression on Hazlitt.
The curriculum at Hackney was very broad, including a grounding in the Greek and Latinclassics, mathematics, history, government, science, and, of course, religion. Much of his education there was along traditional lines; however, the tutelage having been strongly influenced by eminent Dissenting thinkers of the day like Richard Price and Joseph Priestley, there was also much that was nonconformist. Priestley, whom Hazlitt had read and who was also one of his teachers, was an impassioned commentator on political issues of the day. This, along with the turmoil in the wake of the French Revolution, sparked in Hazlitt and his classmates lively debates on these issues, as they saw their world being transformed around them.
Changes were taking place within the young Hazlitt as well. While, out of respect for his father, Hazlitt never openly broke with his religion, he suffered a loss of faith, and left Hackney before completing his preparation for the ministry.
Although Hazlitt rejected the Unitarian theology, his time at Hackney left him with much more than religious scepticism. He had read widely and formed habits of independent thought and respect for the truth that would remain with him for life. He had thoroughly absorbed a belief in liberty and the rights of man, and confidence in the idea that the mind was an active force which, by disseminating knowledge in both the sciences and the arts, could reinforce the natural tendency in humanity towards good. The school had impressed upon him the importance of the individual's ability, working both alone and within a mutually supportive community, to effect beneficial change by adhering to strongly held principles. The belief of many Unitarian thinkers in the natural disinterestedness of the human mind had also laid a foundation for the young Hazlitt's own philosophical explorations along those lines. And, though harsh experience and disillusionment later compelled him to qualify some of his early ideas about human nature, he was left with a hatred of tyranny and persecution that he retained to his dying days, as expressed a quarter-century afterward in the retrospective summing up of his political stance in his 1819 collection of Political Essays: "I have a hatred of tyranny, and a contempt for its tools ... I cannot sit quietly down under the claims of barefaced power, and I have tried to expose the little arts of sophistry by which they are defended." 
The young philosopher
Returning home, around 1795, his thoughts were directed into more secular channels, encompassing not only politics but, increasingly, modern philosophy, which he had begun to read with fascination at Hackney. In September 1794, he had met William Godwin, the reformist thinker whose recently published Political Justice had taken English intellectual circles by storm. Hazlitt was never to feel entirely in sympathy with Godwin's philosophy, but it gave him much food for thought. He spent much of his time at home in an intensive study of English, Scottish, and Irish thinkers like John Locke, David Hartley, George Berkeley, and David Hume, together with French thinkers like Claude Adrien Helvétius, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, the Marquis de Condorcet, and Baron d'Holbach. From this point onwards, Hazlitt's goal was to become a philosopher. His intense studies focused on man as a social and political animal, and, in particular, on the philosophy of mind, a discipline that would later be called psychology.
It was in this period also that he came across Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who became one of the most important influences on the budding philosopher's thinking. He also familiarized himself with the works of Edmund Burke, whose writing style impressed him enormously. Hazlitt then set about working out a treatise, in painstaking detail, on the "natural disinterestedness of the human mind". It was Hazlitt's intention to disprove the notion that man is naturally selfish (benevolent actions being rationally modified selfishness, ideally made habitual), a premise fundamental to much of the moral philosophy of Hazlitt's day. The treatise was finally published only in 1805. In the meantime the scope of his reading had broadened and new circumstances had altered the course of his career. Yet, to the end of his life, he would consider himself a philosopher.
Around 1796, Hazlitt found new inspiration and encouragement from Joseph Fawcett, a retired clergyman and prominent reformer, whose enormous breadth of taste left the young thinker awestruck. From Fawcett, in the words of biographer Ralph Wardle, he imbibed a love for "good fiction and impassioned writing", Fawcett being "a man of keen intelligence who did not scorn the products of the imagination or apologize for his tastes". With him, Hazlitt not only discussed the radical thinkers of their day, but ranged comprehensively over all kinds of literature, from John Milton's Paradise Lost to Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. This background is important for understanding the breadth and depth of Hazlitt's own taste in his later critical writings.
Aside from residing with his father as he strove to find his own voice and work out his philosophical ideas, Hazlitt also stayed over with his older brother John, who had studied under Joshua Reynolds and was following a career as a portrait painter. He also spent evenings with delight in London's theatrical world, an aesthetic experience that would prove, somewhat later, of seminal importance to his mature critical work. In large part, however, Hazlitt was then living a decidedly contemplative existence, one somewhat frustrated by his failure to express on paper the thoughts and feelings that were churning within him. It was at this juncture that Hazlitt met Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This encounter, a life-changing event, was subsequently to exercise a profound influence on his writing career that, in retrospect, Hazlitt regarded as greater than any other.
Poetry, painting and marriage (1798–1812)
"First Acquaintance with Poets"
On 14 January 1798, Hazlitt, in what was to prove a turning point in his life, encountered Coleridge as the latter preached at the Unitarian chapel in Shrewsbury. A minister at the time, Coleridge had as yet none of the fame that would later accrue to him as a poet, critic, and philosopher. Hazlitt, like Thomas de Quincey and many others afterwards, was swept off his feet by Coleridge's dazzlingly erudite eloquence. "I could not have been more delighted if I had heard the music of the spheres", he wrote years later in his essay "My First Acquaintance with Poets". It was, he added, as if "Poetry and Philosophy had met together. Truth and Genius had embraced, under the eye and with the sanction of Religion." Long after they had parted ways, Hazlitt would speak of Coleridge as "the only person I ever knew who answered to the idea of a man of genius". That Hazlitt learned to express his thoughts "in motley imagery or quaint allusion", that his understanding "ever found a language to express itself," was, he openly acknowledged, something he owed to Coleridge. For his part, Coleridge showed an interest in the younger man's germinating philosophical ideas, and offered encouragement.
In April Hazlitt jumped at Coleridge's invitation to visit him at his residence in Nether Stowey, and that same day was taken to call in on William Wordsworth at his house in Alfoxton. Again, Hazlitt was enraptured. While he was not immediately struck by Wordsworth's appearance, in observing the cast of Wordsworth's eyes as they contemplated a sunset, he reflected, "With what eyes these poets see nature!" Given the opportunity to read the Lyrical Ballads in manuscript, Hazlitt saw that Wordsworth had the mind of a true poet, and "the sense of a new style and a new spirit in poetry came over me."
All three were fired by the ideals of liberty and the rights of man. Rambling across the countryside, they talked of poetry, philosophy, and the political movements that were shaking up the old order. This unity of spirit was not to last: Hazlitt himself would recall disagreeing with Wordsworth on the philosophical underpinnings of his projected poem The Recluse, just as he had earlier been amazed that Coleridge could dismiss David Hume, regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of that century, as a charlatan. Nonetheless, the experience impressed on the young Hazlitt, at 20, the sense that not only philosophy, to which he had devoted himself, but also poetry warranted appreciation for what it could teach, and the three-week visit stimulated him to pursue his own thinking and writing. Coleridge, on his part, using an archery metaphor, later revealed that he had been highly impressed by Hazlitt's promise as a thinker: "He sends well-headed and well-feathered Thoughts straight forwards to the mark with a Twang of the Bow-string."
The itinerant painter
Meanwhile, the fact remained that Hazlitt had chosen not to follow a pastoral vocation. Although he never abandoned his goal of writing a philosophical treatise on the disinterestedness of the human mind, it had to be put aside indefinitely. Still dependent on his father, he was now obliged to earn his own living. Artistic talent seemed to run in the family on his mother's side and, starting in 1798, he became increasingly fascinated by painting. His brother, John, had by now become a successful painter of miniature portraits. So it occurred to William that he might earn a living similarly, and he began to take lessons from John.
Hazlitt also visited various picture galleries, and he began to get work doing portraits, painting somewhat in the style of Rembrandt. In this fashion, he managed to make something of a living for a time, travelling back and forth between London and the country, wherever he could get work. By 1802, his work was considered good enough that a portrait he had recently painted of his father was accepted for exhibition by the Royal Academy.
Later in 1802, Hazlitt was commissioned to travel to Paris and copy several works of the Old Masters hanging in the Louvre. This was one of the great opportunities of his life. Over a period of three months, he spent long hours rapturously studying the gallery's collections, and hard thinking and close analysis would later inform a considerable body of his art criticism. He also happened to catch sight of Napoleon, a man he idolised as the rescuer of the common man from the oppression of royal "Legitimacy".
Back in England, Hazlitt again travelled up into the country, having obtained several commissions to paint portraits. One commission again proved fortunate, as it brought him back in touch with Coleridge and Wordsworth, both of whose portraits he painted, as well as one of Coleridge's son Hartley. Hazlitt aimed to create the best pictures he could, whether they flattered their subjects or not, and neither poet was satisfied with his result, though Wordsworth and their mutual friend Robert Southey considered his portrait of Coleridge a better likeness than one by the celebrated James Northcote.
Recourse to prostitutes was unexceptional among literary—and other—men of that period, and if Hazlitt was to differ from his contemporaries, the difference lay in his unabashed candour about such arrangements. Personally, he was rarely comfortable in middle- and upper-class female society, and, tormented by desires he later branded as "a perpetual clog and dead-weight upon the reason," he made an overture to a local woman while visiting the Lake District with Coleridge. He had however grossly misread her intentions and an altercation broke out which led to his precipitous retreat from the town under cover of darkness. This public blunder placed a further strain on his relations with both Coleridge and Wordsworth, which were already fraying for other reasons.
Marriage, family, and friends
On 22 March 1803, at a London dinner party held by William Godwin, Hazlitt met Charles Lamb and his sister Mary. A mutual sympathy sprang up immediately between William and Charles, and they became fast friends. Their friendship, though sometimes strained by Hazlitt's difficult ways, lasted until the end of Hazlitt's life. He was fond of Mary as well, and—ironically in view of her intermittent fits of insanity—he considered her the most reasonable woman he had ever met, no small compliment coming from a man whose view of women at times took a misogynistic turn. Hazlitt frequented the society of the Lambs for the next several years, from 1806 often attending their famous "Wednesdays" and later "Thursdays" literary salons.
With few commissions for painting, Hazlitt seized the opportunity to ready for publication his philosophical treatise, which, according to his son, he had completed by 1803. Godwin intervened to help him find a publisher, and the work, An Essay on the Principles of Human Action: Being an Argument in favour of the Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind, was printed in a limited edition of 250 copies by Joseph Johnson on 19 July 1805. This gained him little notice as an original thinker, and no money. Although the treatise he valued above anything else he wrote was never, at least in his own lifetime, recognised for what he believed was its true worth, it brought him attention as one who had a grasp of contemporary philosophy. He therefore was commissioned to abridge and write a preface to a now obscure work of mental philosophy, The Light of Nature Pursued by Abraham Tucker (originally published in seven volumes from 1765 to 1777), which appeared in 1807 and may have had some influence on his own later thinking.
Slowly Hazlitt began to find enough work to eke out a bare living. His outrage at events then taking place in English politics in reaction to Napoleon's wars led to his writing and publishing, at his own expense (though he had almost no money), a political pamphlet, Free Thoughts on Public Affairs (1806), an attempt to mediate between private economic interests and a national application of the thesis of his Essay that human motivation is not, inherently, entirely selfish.
Hazlitt also contributed three letters to William Cobbett's Weekly Political Register at this time, all scathing critiques of Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population (1798 and later editions). Here he replaced the dense, abstruse manner of his philosophical work with the trenchant prose style that was to be the hallmark of his later essays. Hazlitt's philippic, dismissing Malthus's argument on population limits as sycophantic rhetoric to flatter the rich, since large swathes of uncultivated land lay all round England, has been hailed as "the most substantial, comprehensive, and brilliant of the Romantic ripostes to Malthus". Also in 1807 Hazlitt undertook a compilation of parliamentary speeches, published that year as The Eloquence of the British Senate. In the prefaces to the speeches, he began to show a skill he would later develop to perfection, the art of the pithy character sketch. He was able to find more work as a portrait painter as well.
In 1808, Hazlitt married Sarah Stoddart, a friend of Mary Lamb and sister of John Stoddart, a journalist who became editor of The Times newspaper in 1814. Shortly before the wedding, John Stoddart established a trust into which he began paying £100 per year, for the benefit of Hazlitt and his wife—this was a very generous gesture, but Hazlitt detested being supported by his brother-in-law, whose political beliefs he despised. This union was not a love match, and incompatibilities would later drive the couple apart; yet, for a while, it seemed to work well enough, and their initial behavior was both playful and affectionate. Miss Stoddart, an unconventional woman, accepted Hazlitt and tolerated his eccentricities just as he, with his own somewhat offbeat individualism, accepted her. Together they made an agreeable social foursome with the Lambs, who visited them when they set up a household in Winterslow, a village a few miles from Salisbury, Wiltshire, in southern England. The couple had three sons over the next few years, Only one of their children, William, born in 1811, survived infancy. (He in turn fathered William Carew Hazlitt.)
As the head of a family, Hazlitt was now more than ever in need of money. Through William Godwin, with whom he was frequently in touch, he obtained a commission to write an English grammar, published on 11 November 1809 as A New and Improved Grammar of the English Tongue. Another project that came his way was the work that was published as Memoirs of the Late Thomas Holcroft, a compilation of autobiographical writing by the recently deceased playwright, novelist, and radical political activist, together with additional material by Hazlitt himself. Though completed in 1810, this work did not see the light of day until 1816, and so provided no financial gain to satisfy the needs of a young husband and father. Hazlitt in the meantime had not forsaken his painterly ambitions. His environs at Winterslow afforded him opportunities for landscape painting, and he spent considerable time in London procuring commissions for portraits.
In January 1812 Hazlitt embarked on a sometime career as a lecturer, in this first instance by delivering a series of talks on the British philosophers at the Russell Institution in London. A central thesis of the talks was that Thomas Hobbes, rather than John Locke, had laid the foundations of modern philosophy. After a shaky beginning, Hazlitt attracted some attention—and some much-needed money—by these lectures, and they provided him with an opportunity to expound some of his own ideas.
The year 1812 seems to have been the last in which Hazlitt persisted seriously in his ambition to make a career as a painter. Although he had demonstrated some talent, the results of his most impassioned efforts always fell far short of the very standards he had set by comparing his own work with the productions of such masters as Rembrandt, Titian, and Raphael. It did not help that, when painting commissioned portraits, he refused to sacrifice his artistic integrity to the temptation to flatter his subjects for remunerative gain. The results, not infrequently, failed to please their subjects, and he consequently failed to build a clientele.
But other opportunities awaited him.
Journalist, essayist, and Liber Amoris (1812–1823)
In October 1812, Hazlitt was hired by The Morning Chronicle as a parliamentary reporter. Soon he met John Hunt, publisher of The Examiner, and his younger brother Leigh Hunt, the poet and essayist, who edited the weekly paper. Hazlitt admired both as champions of liberty, and befriended especially the younger Hunt, who found work for him. He began to contribute miscellaneous essays to The Examiner in 1813, and the scope of his work for the Chronicle was expanded to include drama criticism, literary criticism, and political essays. In 1814 The Champion was added to the list of periodicals that accepted Hazlitt's by-now profuse output of literary and political criticism. A critique of Joshua Reynolds' theories about art appeared there as well, one of Hazlitt's major forays into art criticism.
Having by 1814 become established as a journalist, Hazlitt had begun to earn a satisfactory living. A year earlier, with the prospect of a steady income, he had moved his family to a house at 19 York Street, Westminster, which had been occupied by the poet John Milton, whom Hazlitt admired above all English poets except Shakespeare. As it happened, Hazlitt's landlord was the philosopher and social reformerJeremy Bentham. Hazlitt was to write extensively about both Milton and Bentham over the next few years.
His circle of friends expanded, though he never seems to have been particularly close with any but the Lambs and to an extent Leigh Hunt and the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon. His low tolerance for any who, he thought, had abandoned the cause of liberty, along with his frequent outspokenness, even tactlessness, in social situations made it difficult for many to feel close to him, and at times he tried the patience of even Charles Lamb. In The Examiner in late 1814, Hazlitt was the first to provide a critique of Wordsworth's poem The Excursion (Hazlitt's review appeared weeks before Francis Jeffrey's notorious dismissal of the poem with the words "This will never do"). He lavished extreme praise on the poet—and equally extreme censure. While praising the poem's sublimity and intellectual power, he took to task the intrusive egotism of its author. Clothing landscape and incident with the poet's personal thoughts and feelings suited this new sort of poetry very well; but his abstract philosophical musing too often steered the poem into didacticism, a leaden counterweight to its more imaginative flights. Wordsworth, who seems to have been unable to tolerate anything less than unqualified praise, was enraged, and relations between the two became cooler than ever.
Though Hazlitt continued to think of himself as a "metaphysician", he began to feel comfortable in the role of journalist. His self-esteem received an added boost when he was invited to contribute to the quarterly The Edinburgh Review (his contributions, beginning in early 1815, were frequent and regular for some years), the most distinguished periodical on the Whig side of the political fence (its rival The Quarterly Review occupied the Tory side). Writing for so highly respected a publication was considered a major step up from writing for weekly papers, and Hazlitt was proud of this connection.
On 18 June 1815, Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. Having idolised Napoleon for years, Hazlitt took it as a personal blow. The event seemed to him to mark the end of hope for the common man against the oppression of "legitimate" monarchy. Profoundly depressed, he took up heavy drinking and was reported to have walked around unshaven and unwashed for weeks. He idolised and spoiled his son, William Jr., but in most respects his household grew increasingly disordered over the following year: his marriage deteriorated, and he spent more and more time away from home. His part-time work as a drama critic provided him with an excuse to spend his evenings at the theatre. Afterwards he would then tarry with those friends who could tolerate his irascibility, the number of whom dwindled as a result of his occasionally outrageous behaviour.
Hazlitt continued to produce articles on miscellaneous topics for The Examiner and other periodicals, including political diatribes against any who he felt ignored or minimised the needs and rights of the common man. Defection from the cause of liberty had become easier in light of the oppressive political atmosphere in England at that time, in reaction to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The Hunts were his primary allies in opposing this tendency. Lamb, who tried to remain uninvolved politically, tolerated his abrasiveness, and that friendship managed to survive, if only just barely in the face of Hazlitt's growing bitterness, short temper, and propensity for hurling invective at friends and foes alike.
For relief from all that weighed on his mind, Hazlitt became a passionate player at a kind of racquet ball similar to the game of Fives (a type of handball of which he was a fan) in that it was played against a wall. He competed with savage intensity, dashing around the court like a madman, drenched in sweat, and was accounted a good player. More than just a distraction from his woes, his devotion to this pastime led to musings on the value of competitive sports and on human skill in general, expressed in writings like his notice of the "Death of John Cavanagh" (a celebrated Fives player) in The Examiner on 9 February 1817, and the essay "The Indian Jugglers" in Table-Talk (1821).
Early in 1817, forty of Hazlitt's essays that had appeared in The Examiner in a regular column called "The Round Table", along with a dozen pieces by Leigh Hunt in the same series, was collected in book form. Hazlitt's contributions to The Round Table were written somewhat in the manner of the periodical essays of the day, a genre defined by such eighteenth-century magazines as The Tatler and The Spectator.
The far-ranging eclectic variety of the topics treated would typify his output in succeeding years: Shakespeare ("On the Midsummer Night's Dream"), Milton ("On Milton's Lycidas"), art criticism ("On Hogarth's Marriage a-la-mode"), aesthetics ("On Beauty"), drama criticism ("On Mr. Kean's Iago"; Hazlitt was the first critic to champion the acting talent of Edmund Kean), social criticism ("On the Tendency of Sects", "On the Causes of Methodism", "On Different Sorts of Fame").
There was an article on The Tatler itself. Mostly his political commentary was reserved for other vehicles, but included was a "Character of the Late Mr. Pitt", a scathing characterisation of the recently deceased former Prime Minister. Written in 1806, Hazlitt liked it well enough to have already had it printed twice before (and it would appear again in a collection of political essays in 1819).
Some essays blend Hazlitt's social and psychological observations in a calculatedly thought-provoking way, presenting to the reader the "paradoxes" of human nature. The first of the collected essays, "On the Love of Life", explains, "It is our intention, in the course of these papers, occasionally to expose certain vulgar errors, which have crept into our reasonings on men and manners.... The love of life is ... in general, the effect not of our enjoyments, but of our passions".
Again, in "On Pedantry", Hazlitt declares that "The power of attaching an interest to the most trifling or painful pursuits ... is one of the greatest happinesses of our nature". In "On Different Sorts of Fame", "In proportion as men can command the immediate and vulgar applause of others, they become indifferent to that which is remote and difficult of attainment". And in "On Good-Nature", "Good nature, or what is often considered as such, is the most selfish of all the virtues...."
Many of the components of Hazlitt's style begin to take shape in these Round Table essays. Some of his "paradoxes" are so hyperbolic as to shock when encountered out of context: "All country people hate each other", for example, from the second part of "On Mr. Wordsworth's Excursion". He interweaves quotations from literature old and new, helping drive his points home with concentrated allusiveness and wielded extraordinarily efficiently as a critical instrument. Yet, although his use of quotations is (as many critics have felt) as fine as any author's has ever been, all too often he gets the quotes wrong. In one of his essays on Wordsworth he misquotes Wordsworth himself:
- Though nothing can bring back the hour
- Of glory in the grass, of splendour in the flower....
- (See Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.)
Though Hazlitt was still following the model of the older periodical essayists, these quirks, together with his keen social and psychological insights, began here to coalesce into a style very much his own.
In the meantime, Hazlitt's marriage continued its downward spiral; he was writing furiously for several periodicals to make ends meet; waiting so far in vain for the collection The Round Table to be issued as a book (which it finally was in February 1817); suffering bouts of illness; and making enemies by his venomous political diatribes. He found relief by a change of course, shifting the focus of his analysis from the acting of Shakespeare's plays to the substance of the works themselves. The result was a collection of critical essays entitled Characters of Shakespear's Plays (1817).
His approach was something new. There had been criticisms of Shakespeare before, but either they were not comprehensive or they were not aimed at the general reading public. As Ralph Wardle put it, before Hazlitt wrote this book, "no one had ever attempted a comprehensive study of all of Shakespeare, play by play, that readers could read and reread with pleasure as a guide to their understanding and appreciation". Somewhat loosely organised, and even rambling, the studies offer personal appreciations of the plays that are unashamedly enthusiastic. Hazlitt does not present a measured account of the plays' strengths and weaknesses, as did Dr. Johnson, or view them in terms of a "mystical" theory, as Hazlitt thought his contemporary A.W. Schlegel did (though he approves of many of Schlegel's judgements and quotes him liberally). Without apology, he addresses his readers as fellow lovers of Shakespeare and shares with them the beauties of what he thought the finest passages of the plays he liked best.
Readers took to it, the first edition selling out in six weeks. It received favourable reviews as well, not only by Leigh Hunt, whose bias as a close friend might be questioned, but also by Francis Jeffrey, the editor of The Edinburgh Review, a notice that Hazlitt greatly appreciated. Though he contributed to that quarterly, and corresponded with its editor on business, he had never met Jeffrey, and the two were in no sense personal friends. For Jeffrey, the book was not so much a learned study of Shakespeare's plays as much as a loving and eloquent appreciation, full of insight, which displayed "considerable originality and genius".
This critical and popular acclaim offered Hazlitt the prospect of getting out of debt, and allowed him to relax and bask in the light of his growing fame. In literary circles however, his reputation had been tarnished in the meantime: he had openly taken both Wordsworth and Coleridge to task on personal grounds and for failing to fulfill the promise of their earlier accomplishments, and both were apparently responsible for retaliatory rumours which seriously damaged Hazlitt's repute. And the worst was yet to come.
Nonetheless Hazlitt's satisfaction at the relief he gained from his financial woes was supplemented by the positive response his return to the lecture hall received. In early 1818 he delivered a series of talks on "the English Poets", from Chaucer to his own time. Though somewhat uneven in quality, his lectures were ultimately judged a success. In making arrangements for the lectures, he had met Peter George Patmore, Assistant Secretary of the Surrey Institution where the lectures were presented. Patmore soon became a friend as well as Hazlitt's confidant in the most troubled period of the latter's life.
The Surrey Institution lectures were printed in book form, followed by a collection of his drama criticism, A View of the English Stage, and the second edition of Characters of Shakespear's Plays. Hazlitt's career as a lecturer gained some momentum, and his growing popularity allowed him to get a collection of his political writings published as well, Political Essays, with Sketches of Public Characters. Lectures on "the English Comic Writers" soon followed, and these as well were published in book form. He then delivered lectures on dramatists contemporary with Shakespeare, which were published as Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth. This series of talks did not receive the public acclaim that his earlier lectures had, but were reviewed enthusiastically after they were published.
More trouble was brewing, however. Hazlitt was attacked brutally in The Quarterly Review and Blackwood's Magazine, both Tory publications. One Blackwood's article mocked him as "pimpled Hazlitt", accused him of ignorance, dishonesty, and obscenity, and incorporated vague physical threats. Though Hazlitt was rattled by these attacks, he sought legal advice and sued. The lawsuit against Blackwood's was finally settled out of court in his favour. Yet the attacks did not entirely cease. The Quarterly Review issued a review of Hazlitt's published lectures in which he was condemned as ignorant and his writing as unintelligible. Such partisan onslaughts brought spirited responses. One, unlike an earlier response to the Blackwood's attack that never saw the light of day, was published, as A Letter to William Gifford, Esq. (1819; Gifford was the editor of the Quarterly). The pamphlet, notable also for deploying the term ultracrepidarian, which Hazlitt himself may have coined, amounts to an apologia for his life and work thus far and showed he was well able to defend himself. Yet Hazlitt's attackers had done their damage. Not only was he personally shaken, he found it more difficult to have his works published, and once more he had to struggle for a living.
Solitude and infatuation
His lecturing in particular had drawn to Hazlitt a small group of admirers. Best known today is the poet John Keats, who not only attended the lectures but became Hazlitt's friend in this period. The two met in November 1816 through their mutual friend, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, and were last seen together in May 1820 at a dinner given by Haydon. In those few years before the poet's untimely death, the two read and admired each other's work, and Keats, as a younger man seeking guidance, solicited Hazlitt's advice on a course of reading and direction in his career. Some of Keats's writing, particularly his key idea of "negative capability", was influenced by the concept of "disinterested sympathy" he discovered in Hazlitt, whose work the poet devoured. Hazlitt, on his part, later wrote that of all the younger generation of poets, Keats showed the most promise, and he became Keats's first anthologist when he included several of Keats's poems in a collection of British poetry he compiled in 1824, three years after Keats's death.
Less well known today than Keats were others who loyally attended his lectures and constituted a small circle of admirers, such as the diarist and chronicler Henry Crabb Robinson and the novelist Mary Russell Mitford. But the rumours that had been spread demonising Hazlitt, along with the vilifications of the Tory press, not only hurt his pride but seriously obstructed his ability to earn a living. Income from his lectures had also proved insufficient to keep him afloat.
His thoughts drifted to gloom and misanthropy. His mood was not improved by the fact that by now there was no pretence of keeping up appearances: his marriage had failed. Years earlier he had grown resigned to the lack of love between him and Sarah. He had been visiting prostitutes and displayed more idealised amorous inclinations toward a number of women whose names are lost to history. Now in 1819, he was unable to pay the rent on their rooms at 19 York Street and his family were evicted. That was the last straw for Sarah, who moved into rooms with their son and broke with Hazlitt for good, forcing him to find his own accommodation. He would sometimes see his son and even his wife, with whom he remained on speaking terms, but they were effectively separated.
At this time Hazlitt would frequently retreat for long periods to the countryside he had grown to love since his marriage, staying at "The Hut", an inn at Winterslow, near a property his wife owned. This was both for solace and to concentrate on his writing. He explained his motivation as one of not wanting to withdraw completely but rather to become an invisible observer of society, "to become a silent spectator of the mighty scene of things ... to take a thoughtful, anxious interest in what is passing in the world, but not to feel the slightest inclination to make or meddle with it." Thus, for days on end, he would shut himself away and write for periodicals, including the recently reestablished (1820) London Magazine, to which he contributed drama criticism and miscellaneous essays.
One idea that particularly bore fruit was that of a series of articles called "Table-Talk". (Many were written expressly for inclusion in the book of the same name, Table-Talk; or, Original Essays, which appeared in different editions and forms over the next few years.) These essays, structured in the loose manner of table talk, were written in the "familiar style" of the sort devised two centuries earlier by Montaigne, whom Hazlitt greatly admired. The personal "I" was now substituted for the editorial "we" in a careful remodulation of style that carried the spirit of these essays far from that of the typical eighteenth-century periodical essay, to which he had more closely adhered in The Round Table. In a preface to a later edition of Table-Talk, Hazlitt explained that in these essays he eschewed scholarly precision in favour of a combination of the "literary and the conversational". As in conversation among friends, the discussion would often branch off into topics related only in a general way to the main theme, "but which often threw a curious and striking light upon it, or upon human life in general".
In these essays, many of which have been acclaimed as among the finest in the language, Hazlitt weaves personal material into more general reflections on life, frequently bringing in long recollections of happy days of his years as an apprentice painter (as in "On the Pleasure of Painting", written in December 1820) as well as other pleasurable recollections of earlier years, "hours ... sacred to silence and to musing, to be treasured up in the memory, and to feed the source of smiling thoughts thereafter" ("On Going a Journey", written January 1822).
Hazlitt also had to spend time in London in these years. In another violent contrast, a London lodging house was the stage on which the worst crisis of his life was to play itself out.
In August 1820, a month after his father's death at 83, he rented a couple of rooms in 9 Southampton Buildings in London from a tailor named Micaiah Walker. Walker's 19-year-old daughter Sarah, who helped with the housekeeping, would bring the new lodger his breakfast. Immediately, Hazlitt became infatuated with Miss Walker, more than 22 years his junior. (Before much longer, this "infatuation" turned into a protracted obsession.) His brief conversations with Walker cheered him and alleviated the loneliness that he felt from his failed marriage and the recent death of his father. He dreamed of marrying her, but that would require a divorce from Sarah Hazlitt—no easy matter. Finally, his wife agreed to grant him a Scottish divorce, which would allow him to remarry (as he could not had he been divorced in England).
Sarah Walker was, as some of Hazlitt's friends could see, a fairly ordinary girl. She had aspirations to better herself, and a famous author seemed like a prize catch, but she never really understood Hazlitt. When another lodger named Tomkins came along, she entered into a romantic entanglement with him as well, leading each of her suitors to believe he was the sole object of her affection. With vague words, she evaded absolute commitment until she could decide which she liked better or was the more advantageous catch.
Hazlitt discovered the truth about Tomkins, and from then on his jealousy and suspicions of Sarah Walker's real character afforded him little rest. For months, during the preparations for the divorce and as he tried to earn a living, he alternated between rage and despair, on the one hand, and the comforting if unrealistic thought that she was really "a good girl" and would accept him at last. The divorce was finalised on 17 July 1822, and Hazlitt returned to London to see his beloved—only to find her cold and resistant. They then become involved in angry altercations of jealousy and recrimination. And it was over, though Hazlitt could not for some time persuade himself to believe so. His mind nearly snapped. At his emotional nadir, he contemplated suicide.
It was with some difficulty that he eventually recovered his equilibrium. In order to ascertain Sarah's true character, he persuaded an acquaintance to take lodgings in the Walkers' building and attempt to seduce Sarah. Hazlitt's friend reported that the attempt seemed to be about to succeed, but she prevented him from taking the ultimate liberty. Her behaviour was as it had been with several other male lodgers, not only Hazlitt, who now concluded that he had been dealing with, rather than an "angel", an "impudent whore", an ordinary "lodging house decoy". Eventually, though Hazlitt could not know this, she had a child by Tomkins and moved in with him.
By pouring out his tale of woe to anyone he happened to meet (including his friends Peter George Patmore and James Sheridan Knowles), he was able to find a cathartic outlet for his misery. But catharsis was also provided by his recording the course of his love in a thinly disguised fictional account, published anonymously in May 1823 as Liber Amoris; or, The New Pygmalion. (Enough clues were present so that the identity of the writer did not remain hidden for long.)
Critics have been divided as to the literary merits of Liber Amoris, a deeply personal account of frustrated love that is quite unlike anything else Hazlitt ever wrote. Wardle suggests that it was compelling but marred by sickly sentimentality, and also proposes that Hazlitt might even have been anticipating some of the experiments in chronology made by later novelists.
One or two positive reviews appeared, such as the one in the Globe, 7 June 1823: "The Liber Amoris is unique in the English language; and as, possibly, the first book in its fervour, its vehemency, and its careless exposure of passion and weakness—of sentiments and sensations which the common race of mankind seek most studiously to mystify or conceal—that exhibits a portion of the most distinguishing characteristics of Rousseau, it ought to be generally praised".
However, such complimentary assessments were the rare exception. Whatever its ultimate merits, Liber Amoris provided ample ammunition for Hazlitt's detractors, and even some of his closest friends were scandalised. For months he did not even have contact with the Lambs. And the strait-laced Robinson found the book "disgusting", "nauseous and revolting", "low and gross and tedious and very offensive", believing that "it ought to exclude the author from all decent society". As ever, peace of mind proved elusive for William Hazlitt.
Return to philosophy, second marriage, and tour of Europe (1823–1825)
The philosopher, again
Unsurprisingly, there were times in this turbulent period when Hazlitt could not focus on his work. But often, as in his self-imposed seclusion at Winterslow, he was able to achieve a "philosophic detachment", and he continued to turn out essays of remarkable variety and literary merit, most of them making up the two volumes of Table-Talk. (A number were saved for later publication in The Plain Speaker in 1826, while others remained uncollected.)
Some of these essays were in large part retrospectives on the author's own life ("On Reading Old Books" , for example, along with others mentioned above). In others, he invites his readers to join him in gazing at the spectacle of human folly and perversity ("On Will-making" , or "On Great and Little Things" , for example). At times he scrutinises the subtle workings of the individual mind (as in "On Dreams" ); or he invites us to laugh at harmless eccentricities of human nature ("On People with One Idea" ).
Other essays bring into perspective the scope and limitations of the mind, as measured against the vastness of the universe and the extent of human history ("Why Distant Objects Please" [1821/2] and "On Antiquity"  are only two of many). Several others scrutinise the manners and morals of the age (such as "On Vulgarity and Affectation", "On Patronage and Puffing", and "On Corporate Bodies" [all 1821]).
Many of these "Table-Talk" essays display Hazlitt's interest in genius and artistic creativity. There are specific instances of literary or art criticism (for example "On a Landscape of Nicholas Poussin"  and "On Milton's Sonnets" ) but also numerous investigations of the psychology of creativity and genius ("On Genius and Common Sense" , "Whether Genius Is Conscious of Its Powers" , and others). In his manner of exploring an idea by antitheses (for example, "On the Past and the Future" , "On the Picturesque and Ideal" ), he contrasts the utmost achievements of human mechanical skill with the nature of artistic creativity in "The Indian Jugglers" .
Hazlitt's fascination with the extremes of human capability in any field led to his writing "The Fight" (published in the February 1822 New Monthly Magazine). This essay never appeared in the Table-Talk series or anywhere else in the author's lifetime. This direct, personal account of a prize fight, commingling refined literary allusions with popular slang, was controversial in its time as depicting too "low" a subject. Written at a dismal time in his life—Hazlitt's divorce was pending, and he was far from sure of being able to marry Sarah Walker—the article shows scarcely a trace of his agony. Not quite like any other essay by Hazlitt, it proved to be one of his most popular, was frequently reprinted after his death, and nearly two centuries later was judged to be "one of the most passionately written pieces of prose in the late Romantic period".
Another article written in this period, "On the Pleasure of Hating" (1823; included in The Plain Speaker), is on one level a pure outpouring of spleen, a distillation of all the bitterness of his life to that point. He links his own vitriol, however, to a strain of malignity at the core of human nature:
The pleasure of hating, like a poisonous mineral, eats into the heart of religion, and turns it to rankling spleen and bigotry; it makes patriotism an excuse for carrying fire, pestilence, and famine into other lands: it leaves to virtue nothing but the spirit of censoriousness, and a narrow, jealous, inquisitorial watchfulness over the actions and motives of others.
To one twentieth-century critic, Gregory Dart, this self-diagnosis by Hazlitt of his own misanthropic enmities was the sour and surreptitiously preserved offspring of Jacobinism. Hazlitt concludes his diatribe by refocusing on himself: "...have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough".
Not only do the "Table-Talk" essays frequently display "trenchant insights into human nature", they at times reflect on the vehicle of those insights and of the literary and art criticism that constitute some of the essays. "On Criticism" (1821) delves into the history and purposes of criticism itself; and "On Familiar Style" (1821 or 1822) reflexively explores at some length the principles behind its own composition, along with that of other essays of this kind by Hazlitt and some of his contemporaries, like Lamb and Cobbett.
In Table-Talk, Hazlitt had found the most congenial format for this thoughts and observations. A broad panorama of the triumphs and follies of humanity, an exploration of the quirks of the mind, of the nobility but more often the meanness and sheer malevolence of human nature, the collection was knit together by a web of self-consistent thinking, a skein of ideas woven from a lifetime of close reasoning on life, art, and literature. He illustrated his points with bright imagery and pointed analogies, among which were woven pithy quotations drawn from the history of English literature, primarily the poets, from Chaucer to his contemporaries Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats. Most often, he quoted his beloved Shakespeare and to a lesser extent Milton. As he explained in "On Familiar Style", he strove to fit the exact words to the things he wanted to express and often succeeded—in a way that would bring home his meaning to any literate person of some education and intelligence.
These essays were not quite like anything ever done before. They attracted some admiration during Hazlitt's lifetime, but it was only long after his death that their reputation achieved full stature, increasingly often considered among the best essays ever written in English. Nearly two centuries after they were written, for example, biographer Stanley Jones deemed Hazlitt's Table-Talk and The Plain Speaker together to constitute "the major work of his life", and critic David Bromwich called many of these essays "more observing, original, and keen-witted than any others in the language".
In 1823 Hazlitt also published anonymously Characteristics: In the Manner of Rochefoucault's Maxims, a collection of aphorisms modelled explicitly, as Hazlitt noted in his preface, on the Maximes (1665–1693) of the Duc de La Rochefoucauld. Never quite as cynical as La Rochefoucauld's, many, however, reflect his attitude of disillusionment at this stage of his life. Primarily, these 434 maxims took to an extreme his method of arguing by paradoxes and acute contrasts. For example, maxim "CCCCXXVIII":
There are some persons who never succeed, from being too indolent to undertake anything; and others who regularly fail, because the instant they find success in their power, they grow indifferent, and give over the attempt.
But they also lacked the benefit of Hazlitt's extended reasoning and lucid imagery, and were never included among his greatest works.
Recovery and second marriage
At the beginning of 1824, though worn out by thwarted passion and the venomous attacks on his character following Liber Amoris, Hazlitt was beginning to recover his equilibrium. Pressed for money as always, he continued to write for various periodicals, including The Edinburgh Review. To The New Monthly Magazine he supplied more essays in the "Table-Talk" manner, and he produced some art criticism, published in that year as Sketches of the Principal Picture Galleries of England.
He also found relief, finally, from the Sarah Walker imbroglio. In 1823, Hazlitt had met Isabella Bridgwater (née Shaw), who married him in March or April 1824, of necessity in Scotland, as Hazlitt's divorce was not recognised in England. Little is known about this Scottish-born widow of the Chief Justice of Grenada, or about her interaction with Hazlitt. She may have been attracted to the idea of marrying a well-known author. For Hazlitt, she offered an escape from loneliness and to an extent from financial worries, as she possessed an independent income of £300 per annum. The arrangement seems to have had a strong element of convenience for both of them. Certainly Hazlitt nowhere in his writings suggests that this marriage was the love match he had been seeking, nor does he mention his new wife at all. In fact, after three and half years, tensions likely resulting from (as Stanley Jones put it) Hazlitt's "improvidence", his son's dislike of her, and neglect of his wife due to his obsessive absorption in preparing an immense biography of Napoleon, resulted in her abrupt departure, and they never lived together again.
For now, in any case, the union afforded the two of them the opportunity to travel. First, they toured parts of Scotland, then, later in 1824, began a European tour lasting over a year.
The Spirit of the Age
Main article: The Spirit of the Age