My father was a Dissenting Minister, at Wem, in Shropshire; and in the year the figures that compose the date are to me like the "dreaded name of Demogorgon". He did not come till late on the Saturday afternoon before he was to preach; and Mr Rowe, who himself went down to the coach, in a state of anxiety and expectation, to look for the arrival of his successor, could find no one at all answering the description but a round-faced man, in a short black coat like a shooting-jacket which hardly seemed to have been made for him, but who seemed to be talking at a great rate to his fellow-passengers. Mr Rowe had scarce returned to give an account of his disappointment when the round-faced man in black entered, and dissipated all doubts on the subject by beginning to talk. He did not cease while he stayed; nor has he since, that I know of.
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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. 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.
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 Not entirely satisfied with his Presbyterian faith, he became a Unitarian minister in England.
In he became pastor at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, where in 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 at Marshfield in Gloucestershire, where the Reverend William Hazlitt had accepted a new pastorate after his marriage. In , 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.
William, the youngest of the surviving Hazlitt children, was born in Mitre Lane, Maidstone, in In , 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 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. 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 condemning the riots in Birmingham over Joseph Priestley 's support for the French Revolution. The curriculum at Hackney was very broad, including a grounding in the Greek and Latin classics , mathematics , history, government, science, and, of course, religion.
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. 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 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.
Returning home, around , 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 , 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. 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. 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 , 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.
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. On 14 January , 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. Truth and Genius had embraced, under the eye and with the sanction of Religion. 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.
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! 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.
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 , 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. By , 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 , 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. 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. Their friendship, though sometimes strained by Hazlitt's difficult ways, lasted until the end of Hazlitt's life. 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 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 copies by Joseph Johnson on 19 July 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 to , which appeared in  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 ,  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 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". 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. 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 , 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 as A New and Improved Grammar of the English Tongue. Though completed in , this work did not see the light of day until , 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 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 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. Soon he met John Hunt , publisher of The Examiner , and his younger brother Leigh Hunt , the poet and essayist, who edited the weekly paper.
The Idea of the Personal: “My First Acquaintance with Poets”
Welcome sign in sign up. William Hazlitt; drawing by David Levine William Hazlitt at first planned to follow his father into the Unitarian ministry, became instead a painter of portraits, then turned to writing on philosophy, economics, and politics. Not until his mid-thirties did he discover his vocation as a public lecturer and prolific contributor to periodicals. When five years later he revisited Coleridge and Wordsworth to paint their portraits, his stay created increasing friction and ended abruptly in a scandal.
My First Acquaintance with Poets
William Hazlitt, born in England on April 10, , had a diverse and storied career in the arts: he was an essayist, a philosopher, an art critic, a literary critic, a drama critic, a cultural critic, and—just to even things out—a painter. Despite their age, his essays remain surprisingly readable. Hazlitt also chose his acquaintances wisely, at least insofar as many of them wound up ascending into the canon: Wordsworth, Stendhal, Charles and Mary Lamb. His landlord was Jeremy Bentham. But then there was Coleridge, ah, Coleridge! I was at that time dumb, inarticulate, helpless, like a worm by the way-side, crushed, bleeding, lifeless … that my understanding also did not remain dumb and brutish, or at length found a language to express itself, I owe to Coleridge … I could not have been more delighted if I had heard the music of the spheres. I was called down into the room where he was, and went half-hoping, half-afraid.