Authors: William Hazlitt

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English critic and essayist

Author Works

Nonfiction:

On the Principles of Human Action, 1805

Free Thoughts on Public Affairs, 1806

Reply to Malthus, 1807

New and Improved Grammar of the English Tongue, 1810

The Round Table, 1817 (with Leigh Hunt)

Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, 1817

A View of the English Stage, 1818

Lectures on the English Poets, 1818

Lectures on the English Comic Writers, 1819

Political Essays, 1819

Lectures Chiefly on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth, 1820

Table-Talk: Or, Original Essays, 1821-1822

Liber Amoris: Or, The New Pygmalion, 1823

The Spirit of the Age: Or, Contemporary Portraits, 1825

The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, 1828-1830 (4 volumes)

The Selected Writings of William Hazlitt, 1998 (9 volumes; Duncan Wu, editor)

Edited Texts:

Light of Nature Pursued, 1807

The Eloquence of the British Senate, 1807

Memoirs of the Late Thomas Holcroft, 1816

Biography

One of the great English critics, William Hazlitt (HAZ-luht) was also one of the first great journalistic essayists. He was a political liberal, writing eloquent defenses of the principles of the French Revolution, and he replied savagely to the attacks of the Scottish Tory reviewers, though he himself was not free from politically prejudiced literary criticism. He attacked the later work of the Lake Poets mainly because they had turned politically conservative. He wrote a positive biography of Napoleon at a time when the memory of the French emperor still rankled in the minds of many English. He advocated a plain, colloquial writing style, illuminated by the insights of common sense. All of his work is marked by a complete independence of spirit. He cannot be classed with any particular “school” of criticism; he was simply a courageous, honest, and sensitive man who brought his serious mind to bear upon literature.{$I[AN]9810000483}{$I[A]Hazlitt, William}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Hazlitt, William}{$I[tim]1778;Hazlitt, William}

Hazlitt inherited his liberalism from his father, a Unitarian minister who sympathized with the American struggle for independence. In 1783, the Reverend William Hazlitt immigrated with his family to America, but after an unsuccessful struggle he returned to England in the winter of 1786. He took a small parish in Wem, Shropshire, where young William Hazlitt attended school. In 1793, Hazlitt was sent to the Hackney Theological College to become a dissenting minister. He soon decided against that profession and returned to Wem. He heard Samuel Taylor Coleridge preach at Shrewsbury in 1798, and the poet’s influence and example after their meeting encouraged him in his study of metaphysics. The next year, Hazlitt visited Coleridge and met William Wordsworth.

In 1802 Hazlitt decided to become a portrait painter like his brother John, and he went to Paris to copy pictures at the Louvre. Four months later, he returned to London, having decided that he could never be a very good painter. He lectured for a time on contemporary philosophy, and among his first works were an answer to the population theories of Thomas Malthus and an English grammar. Later, he turned to journalism and became a parliamentary reporter and then the drama critic for the Morning Chronicle; he also contributed articles to Leigh Hunt’s Examiner. His Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays is a basic work in Shakespearean criticism, and his Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth directed attention toward some of the more neglected playwrights of that period.

Hazlitt’s marriage to Sarah Stoddart in 1808 was an unhappy match of two opposed temperaments. He became neurotically obsessed with the uneducated daughter of his landlord; he recorded the history of that attachment in Liber Amoris. He divorced his wife, but the relationship with the girl ended and Hazlitt married a wealthy widow. Toward the end of his life, his publisher suffered financial difficulties, and Hazlitt died in poverty. He came to be regarded as an important critic, a master of the familiar essay, and a distinguished prose stylist.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. William Hazlitt. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of essays on Hazlitt, representing a spectrum of opinion and intended as a starting point for students.Bromwich, David. Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic. 1983. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A classic intellectual biography, reissued with a new introduction and updated bibliography.Grayling, A. C. The Quarrel of the Age: The Life and Times of William Hazlitt. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000. An up-to-date biography, contextualizing Hazlitt’s life in his times.Jones, Stanley. Hazlitt: A Life from Winterslow to Frith Street. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.Lapp, Robert Keith. Contest for Cultural Authority: Hazlitt, Coleridge, and the Distresses of the Regency. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000. Argues that Hazlitt’s harshly satirical reviews of Coleridge constitute an attempt to place Coleridge’s work in the political arena as a conservative response to the crises of Regency England.Natarajan, Uttara. Hazlitt and the Reach of Sense: Criticism, Morals, and the Metaphysics of Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. A philosophical assessment.Uphaus, Robert W. William Hazlitt. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Contains biography and a critical overview. Bibliography of primary and secondary sources.Wu, Duncan. William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man. Oxford: Oxford University, 2009. This work reveals the ups and downs of Hazlitt’s life, from his multiple love affairs with women to his close friendships with other writers. Wu also examines how Hazlitt’s journalism and prose have been viewed by critics from his own day, up to the present. Includes thirty black and white illustrations.
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