Hazlitt on English Literature: An Introduction to the Appreciation of Literature

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Copyright, 1913
by Oxford University Press
american branch




The present selection of Hazlitt’s critical essays has been planned to serve two important purposes. In the first place it provides the materials for an estimate of the character and scope of Hazlitt’s contributions to criticism and so acquaints students with one of the greatest of English critics. And in the second place, what is perhaps more important, such a selection, embodying a series of appreciations of the great English writers, should prove helpful in the college teaching of literature. There is no great critic who by his readableness and comprehensiveness is as well qualified as Hazlitt to aid in bringing home to students the power and the beauty of the essential things in literature. There is, in him a splendid stimulating energy which has not yet been sufficiently utilized.

The contents have been selected and arranged to present a chronological and almost continuous account of English literature from its beginning in the age of Elizabeth down to Hazlitt’s own day, the period of the romantic revival. To the more strictly critical essays there have been added a few which reveal Hazlitt’s intimate intercourse with books and also with their writers, whether he knew them in the flesh or only through the printed page. Such vivid revelations of personal contact contribute much to further the chief aim of this volume, which is to introduce the reader to a direct and spontaneous view of literature.

The editor’s introduction, in trying to fix formally Hazlitt’s position as a critic, of necessity takes account of his personality, which cannot be dissociated from his critical practice. The notes, in addition to identifying quotations and explaining allusions, indicate the nature of Hazlitt’s obligations to earlier and contemporary critics. They contain a body of detailed information, which may be used, if so desired, for disciplinary purposes. The text here employed is that of the last form published in Hazlitt’s own lifetime, namely, that of the second edition in the case of the Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, the lectures on the poets and on the age of Elizabeth, and the Spirit of the Age, and the first edition of the Comic Writers, the Plain Speaker, and the Political Essays. A slight departure from this procedure in the case of the essay on “Elia” is explained in the notes. “My First Acquaintance with Poets,” and “Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen” are taken from the periodicals in which they first appeared, as they were not republished in book-form till after Hazlitt’s death. Hazlitt’s own spellings and punctuation are retained.

To all who have contributed to the study and appreciation of Hazlitt, the present editor desires to make general acknowledgement—to Alexander Ireland, Mr. W. C. Hazlitt, Mr. Birrell, and Mr. Saintsbury. Mention should also be made of Mr. Nichol Smith’s little volume of Hazlitt’s Essays on Poetry (Blackwood’s), and of the excellent treatment of Hazlitt in Professor Oliver Elton’s Survey of English Literature from 1780 to 1830, which came to hand after this edition had been completed. A debt of special gratitude is owing to Mr. Glover and Mr. Waller for their splendid edition of Hazlitt’s Collected Works (in twelve volumes with an index, Dent 1902-1906). All of Hazlitt’s quotations have been identified with the help of this edition. References to Hazlitt’s own writings, when cited by volume and page, apply to the edition of Glover and Waller.

Finally I wish to express my sincere thanks to Professor G. P. Krapp for his friendly cooperation in the planning and carrying out of this volume, and to him and to my colleague, Professor S. P. Sherman, for helpful criticism of the introduction.

Jacob Zeitlin.

February 20, 1913.




chapter  page
 Chronology of Hazlitt’s Life and Writings ix
 Introduction xi
I.The Age of Elizabeth 1
II.Spenser 21
III.Shakspeare 34
IV.The Characters of Shakspeare’s Plays
 Cymbeline 50
 Macbeth 60
 Iago 72
 Hamlet 76
 Romeo and Juliet 84
 Midsummernight’s Dream 85
 Falstaff 88
 Twelfth Night 96
V.Milton 101
VI.Pope 118
VII.On the Periodical Essayists 133
VIII.The English Novelists 155
IX.Character of Mr. Burke 172
X.Mr. Wordsworth 191
XI.Mr. Coleridge 205
XII.Mr. Southey 216
XIII.Elia 220
XIV.Sir Walter Scott 227
XV.Lord Byron 236
XVI.On Poetry in General 251
XVII.My First Acquaintance With Poets 277
XVIII.On the Conversation of Authors 301
XIX.Of Persons One Would Wish To Have Seen 315
XX.On Reading Old Books 333
 Notes 349




1778William Hazlitt born at Maidstone in Kent, April 10.
1783-1786Residence in America.
1787 ff.Residence at Wem in Shropshire.
1793-1794Student in the Hackney Theological College.
1798Meeting with Coleridge and Wordsworth.
1798?-1805Study and practice of painting.
1802Visit to Paris.
1805Essay on the Principles of Human Action.
1806Free Thoughts on Public Affairs.
1807An Abridgment of the Light of Nature Revealed, by Abraham Tucker.
 Reply to the Essay on Population by the Rev. T. R. Malthus.
 Eloquence of the British Senate.
1808Marriage with Sarah Stoddart and settlement at Winterslow.
1810A New and Improved Grammar of the English Tongue.
1812Removal to London.—Lectures on philosophy at the Russell Institution.
1812-1814On the staff of the Morning Chronicle.
1814Begins contributing to the Champion, Examiner, and the Edinburgh Review.
1816Memoirs of the Late Thomas Holcroft.
1817The Round Table.
 The Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays.
1818A View of the English Stage.
 Lectures on the English Poets. (Delivered at the Surrey Institution.)
1819Lectures on the English Comic Writers.
(Delivered at the Surrey Institution at the close of 1818.)
 A Letter to William Gifford Esq., from William Hazlitt Esq.
 Political Essays.
1820Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth.
(Delivered at the Surrey Institution at the close of 1819.)
 Joins the staff of the London Magazine.
1821-22Table Talk, or Original Essays (2 volumes).
1822Episode of Sarah Walker.—Journey to Scotland to obtain a divorce from his wife.
1823Liber Amoris, or the New Pygmalion.
 Characteristics in the Manner of Rochefoucauld’s Maxims.
1824Sketches of the Principal Picture-Galleries in England.
 Select British Poets.
 Marriage with Mrs. Bridgewater.—Tour of the Continent.
1825The Spirit of the Age.
1826Notes of a Journey through France and Italy.
 The Plain Speaker, Opinions on Books, Men, and Things (2 volumes).
1828-1830Life of Napoleon Buonaparte (4 volumes).
1830Conversations of James Northcote.
 Death of William Hazlitt, September 18.






Hazlitt characterized the age he lived in as “critical, didactic, paradoxical, romantic.”[1] It was the age of the Edinburgh Review, of the Utilitarians, of Godwin and Shelley, of Wordsworth and Byron—in a word of the French Revolution and all that it brought in its train. Poetry in this age was impregnated with politics; ideas for social reform sprang from the ground of personal sentiment. Hazlitt was born early enough to partake of the ardent hopes which the last decade of the eighteenth century held out, but his spirit came to ripeness in years of reaction in which the battle for reform seemed a lost hope. While the changing events were bringing about corresponding changes in the ideals of such early votaries to liberty as Coleridge and Wordsworth, Hazlitt continued to cling to his enthusiastic faith, but at the same time the spectacle of a world which turned away from its brightest dreams made of him a sharp critic of human nature, and his sense of personal disappointment turned into a bitterness hardly to be distinguished from cynicism. In a passionate longing for a better order of things, in the merciless denunciation of the cant and bigotry which was enlisted in the cause of the existing order, he resembled Byron. The rare union in his nature of the analytic and the emotional gave to his writings the very qualities which he enumerated as characteristic of the age, and his consistent sincerity made his voice distinct above many others of his generation.

Hazlitt’s earlier years reveal a restless conflict of the sensitive and the intellectual. His father, a friend of Priestley’s, was a Unitarian preacher, who, in his vain search for liberty of conscience, had spent three years in America with his family. Under him the boy was accustomed to the reading of sermons and political tracts, and on this dry nourishment he seemed to thrive till he was sent to the Hackney Theological College to begin his preparation for the ministry. His dissatisfaction there was not such as could be put into words—perhaps a hunger for keener sensations and an appetite for freer inquiry than was open to a theological student even of a dissenting church. After a year at Hackney he withdrew to his father’s home, where he found nothing more definite to do than to “solve some knotty point, or dip in some abstruse author, or look at the sky, or wander by the pebbled sea-side.”[2] This was probably the period of his most extensive reading. He absorbed the English novelists and essayists; he saturated himself with the sentiment of Rousseau; he studied Bacon and Hobbes and Berkeley and Hume; he became fascinated, in Burke, by the union of a wide intellect with a brilliant fancy and consummate rhetorical skill.[3] Though he called himself at this time dumb and inarticulate, and the idea of ever making literature his profession had not suggested itself to him, he was eager to talk about the things he read, and in Joseph Fawcett, a retired minister, he found an agreeable companion. “A heartier friend or honester critic I never coped withal.”[4] “The writings of Sterne, Fielding, Cervantes, Richardson, Rousseau, Godwin, Goethe, etc. were the usual subjects of our discourse, and the pleasure I had had, in reading these authors, was more than doubled.”[5] How acutely sensitive he was to all impressions at this time is indicated by the effect upon him of the meeting with Coleridge and Wordsworth of which he has left a record in one of his most eloquent essays, “My First Acquaintance with Poets.” But his active energies were concentrated on the solution of a metaphysical problem which was destined to possess his brain for many years: in his youthful enthusiasm he was grappling with a theory concerning the natural disinterestedness of the human mind, apparently adhering to the bias which he had received from his early training.

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