The present is an age of talkers, and not of doers; and the reason is, that the world is growing old. We are so far advanced in the Arts and Sciences, that we live in retrospect, and doat on past atchievements. The accumulation of knowledge has been so great, that we are lost in wonder at the height it has reached, instead of attempting to climb or add to it; while the variety of objects distracts and dazzles the looker-on. What niche remains unoccupied? What path untried? What is the use of doing anything, unless we could do better than all those who have gone before us? What hope is there of this? We are like those who have been to see some noble monument of art, who are content to admire without thinking of rivalling it; or like guests after a feast, who praise the hospitality of the donor “and thank the bounteous Pan”— perhaps carrying away some trifling fragments; or like the spectators of a mighty battle, who still hear its sound afar off, and the clashing of armour and the neighing of the war-horse and the shout of victory is in their ears, like the rushing of innumerable waters!
Mr. Coleridge has “a mind reflecting ages past:” his voice is like the echo of the congregated roar of the “dark rearward and abyss” of thought. He who has seen a mouldering tower by the side of a chrystal lake, hid by the mist, but glittering in the wave below, may conceive the dim, gleaming, uncertain intelligence of his eye: he who has marked the evening clouds uprolled (a world of vapours), has seen the picture of his mind, unearthly, unsubstantial, with gorgeous tints and ever-varying forms —
“That which was now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct
As water is in water.”
Our author’s mind is (as he himself might express it) tangential. There is no subject on which he has not touched, none on which he has rested. With an understanding fertile, subtle, expansive, “quick, forgetive, apprehensive,” beyond all living precedent, few traces of it will perhaps remain. He lends himself to all impressions alike; he gives up his mind and liberty of thought to none. He is a general lover of art and science, and wedded to no one in particular. He pursues knowledge as a mistress, with outstretched hands and winged speed; but as he is about to embrace her, his Daphne turns — alas! not to a laurel! Hardly a speculation has been left on record from the earliest time, but it is loosely folded up in Mr. Coleridge’s memory, like a rich, but somewhat tattered piece of tapestry; we might add (with more seeming than real extravagance), that scarce a thought can pass through the mind of man, but its sound has at some time or other passed over his head with rustling pinions. On whatever question or author you speak, he is prepared to take up the theme with advantage — from Peter Abelard down to Thomas Moore, from the subtlest metaphysics to the politics of the Courier. There is no man of genius, in whose praise he descants, but the critic seems to stand above the author, and “what in him is weak, to strengthen, what is low, to raise and support:” nor is there any work of genius that does not come out of his hands like an Illuminated Missal, sparkling even in its defects. If Mr. Coleridge had not been the most impressive talker of his age, he would probably have been the finest writer; but he lays down his pen to make sure of an auditor, and mortgages the admiration of posterity for the stare of an idler. If he had not been a poet, he would have been a powerful logician; if he had not dipped his wing in the Unitarian controversy, he might have soared to the very summit of fancy. But in writing verse, he is trying to subject the Muse to transcendental theories: in his abstract reasoning, he misses his way by strewing it with flowers. All that he has done of moment, he had done twenty years ago: since then, he may be said to have lived on the sound of his own voice. Mr. Coleridge is too rich in intellectual wealth, to need to task himself to any drudgery: he has only to draw the sliders of his imagination, and a thousand subjects expand before him, startling him with their brilliancy, or losing themselves in endless obscurity —
“And by the force of blear illusion,
They draw him on to his confusion.”
What is the little he could add to the stock, compared with the countless stores that lie about him, that he should stoop to pick up a name, or to polish an idle fancy? He walks abroad in the majesty of an universal understanding, eyeing the “rich strond,” or golden sky above him, and “goes sounding on his way,” in eloquent accents, uncompelled and free!
Persons of the greatest capacity are often those, who for this reason do the least; for surveying themselves from the highest point of view, amidst the infinite variety of the universe, their own share in it seems trifling, and scarce worth a thought, and they prefer the contemplation of all that is, or has been, or can be, to the making a coil about doing what, when done, is no better than vanity. It is hard to concentrate all our attention and efforts on one pursuit, except from ignorance of others; and without this concentration of our faculties, no great progress can be made in any one thing. It is not merely that the mind is not capable of the effort; it does not think the effort worth making. Action is one; but thought is manifold. He whose restless eye glances through the wide compass of nature and art, will not consent to have “his own nothings monstered:” but he must do this, before he can give his whole soul to them. The mind, after “letting contemplation have its fill,” or
“Sailing with supreme dominion
Through the azure deep of air,”
sinks down on the ground, breathless, exhausted, powerless, inactive; or if it must have some vent to its feelings, seeks the most easy and obvious; is soothed by friendly flattery, lulled by the murmur of immediate applause, thinks as it were aloud, and babbles in its dreams! A scholar (so to speak) is a more disinterested and abstracted character than a mere author. The first looks at the numberless volumes of a library, and says, “All these are mine:” the other points to a single volume (perhaps it may be an immortal one) and says, “My name is written on the back of it.” This is a puny and groveling ambition, beneath the lofty amplitude of Mr. Coleridge’s mind. No, he revolves in his wayward soul, or utters to the passing wind, or discourses to his own shadow, things mightier and more various! — Let us draw the curtain, and unlock the shrine. Learning rocked him in his cradle, and, while yet a child,
“He lisped in numbers, for the numbers came.”
At sixteen he wrote his Ode on Chatterton, and he still reverts to that period with delight, not so much as it relates to himself (for that string of his own early promise of fame rather jars than otherwise) but as exemplifying the youth of a poet. Mr. Coleridge talks of himself, without being an egotist, for in him the individual is always merged in the abstract and general. He distinguished himself at school and at the University by his knowledge of the classics, and gained several prizes for Greek epigrams. How many men are there (great scholars, celebrated names in literature) who having done the same thing in their youth, have no other idea all the rest of their lives but of this achievement, of a fellowship and dinner, and who, installed in academic honours, would look down on our author as a mere strolling bard! At Christ’s Hospital, where he was brought up, he was the idol of those among his schoolfellows, who mingled with their bookish studies the music of thought and of humanity; and he was usually attended round the cloisters by a group of these (inspiring and inspired) whose hearts, even then, burnt within them as he talked, and where the sounds yet linger to mock ELIA on his way, still turning pensive to the past! One of the finest and rarest parts of Mr. Coleridge’s conversation, is when he expatiates on the Greek tragedians (not that he is not well acquainted, when he pleases, with the epic poets, or the philosophers, or orators, or historians of antiquity)— on the subtle reasonings and melting pathos of Euripides, on the harmonious gracefulness of Sophocles, tuning his love-laboured song, like sweetest warblings from a sacred grove; on the high-wrought trumpet-tongued eloquence of Aeschylus, whose Prometheus, above all, is like an Ode to Fate, and a pleading with Providence, his thoughts being let loose as his body is chained on his solitary rock, and his afflicted will (the emblem of mortality)
“Struggling in vain with ruthless destiny.”
As the impassioned critic speaks and rises in his theme, you would think you heard the voice of the Man hated by the Gods, contending with the wild winds as they roar, and his eye glitters with the spirit of Antiquity!
Next, he was engaged with Hartley’s tribes of mind, “etherial braid, thought-woven,”— and he busied himself for a year or two with vibrations and vibratiuncles and the great law of association that binds all things in its mystic chain, and the doctrine of Necessity (the mild teacher of Charity) and the Millennium, anticipative of a life to come — and he plunged deep into the controversy on Matter and Spirit, and, as an escape from Dr. Priestley’s Materialism, where he felt himself imprisoned by the logician’s spell, like Ariel in the cloven pine-tree, he became suddenly enamoured of Bishop Berkeley’s fairy-world,1 and used in all companies to build the universe, like a brave poetical fiction, of fine words — and he was deep-read in Malebranche, and in Cudworth’s Intellectual System (a huge pile of learning, unwieldy, enormous) and in Lord Brook’s hieroglyphic theories, and in Bishop Butler’s Sermons, and in the Duchess of Newcastle’s fantastic folios, and in Clarke and South and Tillotson, and all the fine thinkers and masculine reasoners of that age — and Leibnitz’s Pre-established Harmony reared its arch above his head, like the rainbow in the cloud, covenanting with the hopes of man — and then he fell plump, ten thousand fathoms down (but his wings saved him harmless) into the hortus siccus of Dissent, where he pared religion down to the standard of reason and stripped faith of mystery, and preached Christ crucified and the Unity of the Godhead, and so dwelt for a while in the spirit with John Huss and Jerome of Prague and Socinus and old John Zisca, and ran through Neal’s History of the Puritans, and Calamy’s Non–Conformists’ Memorial, having like thoughts and passions with them — but then Spinoza became his God, and he took up the vast chain of being in his hand, and the round world became the centre and the soul of all things in some shadowy sense, forlorn of meaning, and around him he beheld the living traces and the sky-pointing proportions of the mighty Pan — but poetry redeemed him from this spectral philosophy, and he bathed his heart in beauty, and gazed at the golden light of heaven, and drank of the spirit of the universe, and wandered at eve by fairy-stream or fountain,
“——— When he saw nought but beauty,
When he heard the voice of that Almighty One
In every breeze that blew, or wave that murmured”—
and wedded with truth in Plato’s shade, and in the writings of Proclus and Plotinus saw the ideas of things in the eternal mind, and unfolded all mysteries with the Schoolmen and fathomed the depths of Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas, and entered the third heaven with Jacob Behmen, and walked hand in hand with Swedenborg through the pavilions of the New Jerusalem, and sung his faith in the promise and in the word in his Religious Musings— and lowering himself from that dizzy height, poised himself on Milton’s wings, and spread out his thoughts in charity with the glad prose of Jeremy Taylor, and wept over Bowles’s Sonnets, and studied Cowper’s blankverse, and betook himself to Thomson’s Castle of Indolence, and sported with the wits of Charles the Second’s days and of Queen Anne, and relished Swift’s style and that of the John Bull (Arbuthnot’s we mean, not Mr. Croker’s) and dallied with the British Essayists and Novelists, and knew all qualities of more modern writers with a learned spirit, Johnson, and Goldsmith, and Junius, and Burke, and Godwin, and the Sorrows of Werter, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire, and Marivaux, and Crebillon, and thousands more — now “laughed with Rabelais in his easy chair” or pointed to Hogarth, or afterwards dwelt on Claude’s classic scenes or spoke with rapture of Raphael, and compared the women at Rome to figures that had walked out of his pictures, or visited the Oratory of Pisa, and described the works of Giotto and Ghirlandaio and Massaccio, and gave the moral of the picture of the Triumph of Death, where the beggars and the wretched invoke his dreadful dart, but the rich and mighty of the earth quail and shrink before it; and in that land of siren sights and sounds, saw a dance of peasant girls, and was charmed with lutes and gondolas — or wandered into Germany and lost himself in the labyrinths of the Hartz Forest and of the Kantean philosophy, and amongst the cabalistic names of Fichtè and Schelling and Lessing, and God knows who — this was long after, but all the former while, he had nerved his heart and filled his eyes with tears, as he hailed the rising orb of liberty, since quenched in darkness and in blood, and had kindled his affections at the blaze of the French Revolution, and sang for joy when the towers of the Bastile and the proud places of the insolent and the oppressor fell, and would have floated his bark, freighted with fondest fancies, across the Atlantic wave with Southey and others to seek for peace and freedom —
“In Philarmonia’s undivided dale!”
Alas! “Frailty, thy name is Genius!”— What is become of all this mighty heap of hope, of thought, of learning, and humanity? It has ended in swallowing doses of oblivion and in writing paragraphs in the Courier. — Such, and so little is the mind of man!
It was not to be supposed that Mr. Coleridge could keep on at the rate he set off; he could not realize all he knew or thought, and less could not fix his desultory ambition; other stimulants supplied the place, and kept up the intoxicating dream, the fever and the madness of his early impressions. Liberty (the philosopher’s and the poet’s bride) had fallen a victim, meanwhile, to the murderous practices of the hag, Legitimacy. Proscribed by court-hirelings, too romantic for the herd of vulgar politicians, our enthusiast stood at bay, and at last turned on the pivot of a subtle casuistry to the unclean side: but his discursive reason would not let him trammel himself into a poet-laureate or stamp-distributor, and he stopped, ere he had quite passed that well-known “bourne from whence no traveller returns”— and so has sunk into torpid, uneasy repose, tantalized by useless resources, haunted by vain imaginings, his lips idly moving, but his heart forever still, or, as the shattered chords vibrate of themselves, making melancholy music to the ear of memory! Such is the fate of genius in an age, when in the unequal contest with sovereign wrong, every man is ground to powder who is not either a born slave, or who does not willingly and at once offer up the yearnings of humanity and the dictates of reason as a welcome sacrifice to besotted prejudice and loathsome power.
Of all Mr. Coleridge’s productions, the Ancient Mariner is the only one that we could with confidence put into any person’s hands, on whom we wished to impress a favourable idea of his extraordinary powers. Let whatever other objections be made to it, it is unquestionably a work of genius — of wild, irregular, overwhelming imagination, and has that rich, varied movement in the verse, which gives a distant idea of the lofty or changeful tones of Mr. Coleridge’s voice. In the Christobel, there is one splendid passage on divided friendship. The Translation of Schiller’s Wallenstein is also a masterly production in its kind, faithful and spirited. Among his smaller pieces there are occasional bursts of pathos and fancy, equal to what we might expect from him; but these form the exception, and not the rule. Such, for instance, is his affecting Sonnet to the author of the Robbers.
Schiller! that hour I would have wish’d to die,
If through the shudd’ring midnight I had sent
From the dark dungeon of the tower time-rent,
That fearful voice, a famish’d father’s cry —
That in no after-moment aught less vast
Might stamp me mortal! A triumphant shout
Black horror scream’d, and all her goblin rout
From the more with’ring scene diminish’d pass’d.
Ah! Bard tremendous in sublimity!
Could I behold thee in thy loftier mood,
Wand’ring at eve, with finely frenzied eye,
Beneath some vast old tempest-swinging wood!
Awhile, with mute awe gazing, I would brood,
Then weep aloud in a wild ecstasy.
His Tragedy, entitled Remorse, is full of beautiful and striking passages, but it does not place the author in the first rank of dramatic writers. But if Mr. Coleridge’s works do not place him in that rank, they injure instead of conveying a just idea of the man, for he himself is certainly in the first class of general intellect.
If our author’s poetry is inferior to his conversation, his prose is utterly abortive. Hardly a gleam is to be found in it of the brilliancy and richness of those stores of thought and language that he pours out incessantly, when they are lost like drops of water in the ground. The principal work, in which he has attempted to embody his general views of things, is the FRIEND, of which, though it contains some noble passages and fine trains of thought, prolixity and obscurity are the most frequent characteristics.
No two persons can be conceived more opposite in character or genius than the subject of the present and of the preceding sketch. Mr. Godwin, with less natural capacity, and with fewer acquired advantages, by concentrating his mind on some given object, and doing what he had to do with all his might, has accomplished much, and will leave more than one monument of a powerful intellect behind him; Mr. Coleridge, by dissipating his, and dallying with every subject by turns, has done little or nothing to justify to the world or to posterity, the high opinion which all who have ever heard him converse, or known him intimately, with one accord entertain of him. Mr. Godwin’s faculties have kept house, and plied their task in the work-shop of the brain, diligently and effectually: Mr. Coleridge’s have gossipped away their time, and gadded about from house to house, as if life’s business were to melt the hours in listless talk. Mr. Godwin is intent on a subject, only as it concerns himself and his reputation; he works it out as a matter of duty, and discards from his mind whatever does not forward his main object as impertinent and vain. Mr. Coleridge, on the other hand, delights in nothing but episodes and digressions, neglects whatever he undertakes to perform, and can act only on spontaneous impulses, without object or method. “He cannot be constrained by mastery.” While he should be occupied with a given pursuit, he is thinking of a thousand other things; a thousand tastes, a thousand objects tempt him, and distract his mind, which keeps open house, and entertains all comers; and after being fatigued and amused with morning calls from idle visitors, finds the day consumed and its business unconcluded. Mr. Godwin, on the contrary, is somewhat exclusive and unsocial in his habits of mind, entertains no company but what he gives his whole time and attention to, and wisely writes over the doors of his understanding, his fancy, and his senses —“No admittance except on business.” He has none of that fastidious refinement and false delicacy, which might lead him to balance between the endless variety of modern attainments. He does not throw away his life (nor a single half-hour of it) in adjusting the claims of different accomplishments, and in choosing between them or making himself master of them all. He sets about his task, (whatever it may be) and goes through it with spirit and fortitude. He has the happiness to think an author the greatest character in the world, and himself the greatest author in it. Mr. Coleridge, in writing an harmonious stanza, would stop to consider whether there was not more grace and beauty in a Pas de trois, and would not proceed till he had resolved this question by a chain of metaphysical reasoning without end. Not so Mr. Godwin. That is best to him, which he can do best. He does not waste himself in vain aspirations and effeminate sympathies. He is blind, deaf, insensible to all but the trump of Fame. Plays, operas, painting, music, ball-rooms, wealth, fashion, titles, lords, ladies, touch him not — all these are no more to him than to the magician in his cell, and he writes on to the end of the chapter, through good report and evil report. Pingo in eternitatem— is his motto. He neither envies nor admires what others are, but is contented to be what he is, and strives to do the utmost he can. Mr. Coleridge has flirted with the Muses as with a set of mistresses: Mr. Godwin has been married twice, to Reason and to Fancy, and has to boast no short-lived progeny by each. So to speak, he has valves belonging to his mind, to regulate the quantity of gas admitted into it, so that like the bare, unsightly, but well-compacted steam-vessel, it cuts its liquid way, and arrives at its promised end: while Mr. Coleridge’s bark, “taught with the little nautilus to sail,” the sport of every breath, dancing to every wave,
“Youth at its prow, and Pleasure at its helm,”
flutters its gaudy pennons in the air, glitters in the sun, but we wait in vain to hear of its arrival in the destined harbour. Mr. Godwin, with less variety and vividness, with less subtlety and susceptibility both of thought and feeling, has had firmer nerves, a more determined purpose, a more comprehensive grasp of his subject, and the results are as we find them. Each has met with his reward: for justice has, after all, been done to the pretensions of each; and we must, in all cases, use means to ends!
"He was the fearless, the eloquent, and disinterested advocate of the rights and liberties of Man, in every cause and in every clime."- the Reverend John Johns in his memorial sermon for William Hazlitt in October 1830.
In the summer of 1830, William Hazlitt lay dying in a small upstairs bedroom at the back of a cheap Soho lodging-house. His first wife Sarah Stoddart, his son William, Charles Lamb and various friends visited him there, as stomach cancer slowly tortured him.
Like Wilde in his Paris pension, he was dying as he had lived, beyond his means; to pay for his last lodging on earth he wrote at least two essays during that tormented summer. One is called "The Sick Chamber", and in it we can glimpse the "tumbled pillows", the medicine bottles, the juleps in the "unwholesome dungeon" where he lies.
More than 12 years before, in a little-known letter, Keats's friend, John Hamilton Reynolds, described Hazlitt as "full of eloquence,- warm, lofty, & communicative on everything imaginative & intelligent,- breathing out with us the peculiar & favourite beauties of our best bards,- passing from grand & commanding argument to the gaities & graces of wit and humour,- and the elegant and higher beauties of poetry. He is indeed great company."
Keats, who attended Hazlitt's lectures, looked up to him and admired the surging, dolphin-like strength of his passionate prose, also testified to the inspiring greatness of his company. John Clare, too, met and admired him, calling him in a shocked letter written immediately after his death "a man of origional [sic] Genius," who died in the character of genius "neglected & forgotten".
For many years, the lodging-house where Hazlitt died - his landlady, eager to let his room, hid his body under the bed while she showed it to would-be tenants - has been known as Hazlitt's Hotel. It is a favourite meeting place for writers, and I remember staying there with Seamus Deane and Seamus Heaney one winter's night in the closing years of the past century. Both Deane and Heaney had studied Hazlitt at school in Derry in the 1950s - he'd been replaced by Orwell when I took the same A-level course in the 60s, and the diminution of his reputation has been fairly steady until recently.
Most of Hazlitt's work is out of print, or unavailable in paperback. He is not studied in most university English courses and those who want to read him at any length need to scour secondhand shops for old Everyman editions of his essays (gloomily each year I contemplate the tiny number of readers who buy the selection of his essays I did for Penguin a few years ago).
I often recall reading through his collected works which stand on the open shelves of the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian library, only to find that Hazlitt's three-volume Life of Napoleon had remained there for more than 60 years with its pages uncut.
During the years I spent beside those volumes I think two students came to consult them, while there were queues to read Coleridge's lavishly edited, often unreadable prose - prose that has begotten untold acres of equally unreadable academic writing. It was like being trapped inside Gissing's New Grub Street - I felt that Hazlitt's reputation was now so dimmed, so beleaguered on the margins of the cultural memory, that it would never again be celebrated.
The appeal, co-ordinated by the Guardian, for a restored monument on his grave in St Anne's Church in Soho represents one of the most heartening and ambitious attempts to put Hazlitt back where he centrally belongs, among the great Romantic writers such as his friends Keats and Shelley, and his friends, till they deserted the radical cause, Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth.
A master of English prose style, a beautifully modulated general essayist, the first great theatre critic in English, the first great art critic, a magnificent political journalist and polemicist like William Cobbett, whom he met and whom he describes affectionately in The Spirit of the Age, his greatest book, Hazlitt is both a philosopher and one of the supreme literary critics in the language.
He is the critic as artist, to use Wilde's phrase, because he makes critical prose into imaginative action, so that the critic is redeemed from being simply the servant of the poet, the novelist, the playwright. The readers who admire him come from all political spectrums - they include Michael Foot, Lord (that is, Kenneth) Baker, and Paul Johnson, who has been labouring for years on a long TLS review of Duncan Wu's epic, nine-volume edition of Hazlitt's works (the 20-volume collected works, edited by PP Howe, were published on the centenary of his death in 1930).
But how and where do we place this little-studied, scantly celebrated critic and journalist?
Hazlitt was born in Maidstone on April 10 1778. His mother, Grace Loftus, was the daughter of an English Unitarian ironmonger from Suffolk, his father, William, was from a family of northern Irish Presbyterians, who had moved to the south of Ireland, near Tipperary town.
Hazlitt is the issue of the English, the Scottish and - yes, I'm saying it - the Ulster Enlightenment. His father was influenced by the important, though at the moment little discussed, Ulster-Scots philosopher Francis Hutcheson through his studies at Glasgow University, and through Unitarianism, which he chose in rejection of the Calvinist presbyterianism of his parents.
It is from Hutcheson's aesthetic philosophy that the sensuous intellect Hazlitt embodies is derived. Unitarianism or Rational Dissent - that intellectual aristocracy in the ranks of Dissent, as historians often characterise it - is central to Hazlitt's writings, even though he was not a religious believer.
It is particularly appropriate that the Guardian should honour Hazlitt, as they belong to the same Unitarian family (the Manchester Guardian was founded in 1821 in a Unitarian chapel in Cross Street).
Unitarianism or Rational Dissent is one of the roots of modern English Culture - for Hazlitt's generation its three exemplars and heroes were Milton, Locke and Newton, all of whom doubted the divinity of Christ, the central Unitarian non serviam. From this puritan or presbyterian, essentially middle-class, dissenting culture flowed innovations in science, economics, political theory, publishing and education.
Hazlitt began as a philosopher, and his first book, An Essay on the Principles of Human Action, is an original work which has been neglected until recently, and which he described, unfairly, as a dry "chokepear". It contains this beautiful sentence:
"If from the top of a long cold barren hill I hear the distant whistle of a thrush which seems to come up from some warm woody shelter beyond the edge of the hill, this sound coming faint over the rocks with a mingled feeling of strangeness and joy, the idea of the place about me, and the imaginary one beyond will all be combined together in such a manner in my mind as to become inseparable."
This is like a moment from Wordsworth - Hazlitt continued to proclaim his admiration for his poetry long after they quarrelled about politics - and as we read Hazlitt we find a whole series of complex images like this which express philosophical ideas in the same way that Wordsworth's spots of time passages in The Prelude do.
If we read this passage with the ear, as Hazlitt insists we do, and not simply with the eye, we can perceive that he is running with a series of "ih" sounds which begin with "If" and end with "inseparable" - a word which also sums up the repeated uses of "in" within the sentence - a sentence which has what Hazlitt calls "keeping" - that is, structure, texture, developing form.
It is this firm and sensitive ear for the texture of an English sentence that makes him one of the greatest prose stylists, but in an age of often rebarbative critical prose, or of yuppie lifestyle journalism, this insistence on writing well - and on having the ability to analyse a piece of prose - has virtually disappeared.
Hazlitt's philosophical study was published in 1805 by Joseph Johnson, Mary Wollstonecraft's publisher and friend, a seminal figure who is known as the founder of the English book trade and who was a pillar of radical Dissenting culture. It was the year of Nelson's victory at Trafalgar and Napoleon's at Austerlitz.
It is that latter victory which Hazlitt memorialises in a famous essay, "On the Pleasure of Painting", where he describes painting his beloved father's portrait in the Unitarian chapel in Wem, in Shropshire (the house they lived in still stands, and has a memorial plaque on it, but the chapel is now a storage shed in the back yard of a small hotel).
Hazlitt remembers finishing his father's portrait on the same day as the news arrived of Napoleon's victory:
"I walked out in the afternoon, and, as I returned, saw the evening star set over a poor man's cottage with other thoughts and feelings than I shall ever have again. Oh, for the revolution of the great Platonic year, that those times might come again! I could sleep out the three hundred and sixty-five thousand intervening years very contentedly! - the picture is left: the table, the chair, the window where I learned to construe Livy, the chapel where my father preached, remain where they were; but he himself is gone to rest, full of years, of faith, of hope, and charity!"
Fortunately, Hazlitt's portrait of his father still survives - some years ago I examined it in the vaults of the Maidstone Museum and Art Gallery. It was cracked, dusty, dark, but to gaze at the craggy, doubly pocked face of the Reverend William Hazlitt is to see a benevolent Irish radical, who never compromised and who brought his children up to be fearless and outspoken critics of tyrannical governments. "Be Not Conformed to the World" is the text of one of his sermons. The museum also contains and displays Hazlitt's self-portrait (his portrait of Charles Lamb is in the National Portrait Gallery, where there is to be an exhibition devoted to Hazlitt in May).
In a series of polemical articles protesting at the treatment of American prisoners of war in Ireland during the American revolution, Hazlitt's father signed himself "an unchanging whig", and it is from this bold, turbulent, risk-taking, decisively intelligent and passionate radical culture that Hazlitt draws his inspiration.
His parents were closely associated with the Irish republican movement, and they looked after a niece of Robert Emmet, the Irish orator and patriot, during the last five years of her life.
We can see Hazlitt at his most passionate and assertive in Political Essays, which was published in 1819, the year of the Peterloo Massacre, and the year of a famous poem by his friend Keats - "To Autumn" - which is a subtly coded elegy for the Manchester dead.
In this angry volume, Hazlitt surveys the rottenness of Britain, after his hero Napoleon's defeat, and he lambasts hated figures such as the reactionary foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh, whose "tortured apprehensions" and languid style of speaking he savages. Hazlitt is always a critic of oratory and prose style, and he is particularly brilliant on William Pitt's mechanical and evasive manner of addressing the House of Commons.
Hazlitt was fascinated by oratory, and by the difference between speaking and writing. In an essay "On the Present State of Parliamentary Eloquence", he discusses the limitations of the Whig politician Henry Brougham, who has neither "warmth, nor sacred vehemence, nor nerve or impetuosity to carry the House before him. He is not a good hater."
For Hazlitt, the ability to hate the enemy is the central energy in oratory and prose, and he often quotes Milton's phrase "sacred vehemence" to illustrate an energy which for him is vital to all writing and speaking - Yeats called it "passionate intensity".
With this goes Hazlitt's sense of the power of the English popular will. In a contemporary Whig politician Samuel Whitbread he finds a representative of "the spontaneous, unsophisticated sense, of the English people: he spoke point-blank what he thought, and his heart was in his broad, honest, English face".
Though Hazlitt can be severely critical of English failings in philosophy, politics and aesthetics, he is centrally a patriot like Blake who affirms English liberty as forcefully as Cobbett does. He represents the master's values and spontaneity in the figure of the English yeoman in one of his most brilliant essays "The Fight", a study in what we now term "popular culture" (Hazlitt's essays on Indian jugglers, English games and pastimes, and on an Irish racket-player he admired are similar studies).
The yeoman in "The Fight" is part of the crowd staying at an inn in Berkshire before the big match: "He was a fine fellow, with sense, wit, and spirit, a hearty body and a joyous mind, free-spoken, frank, convivial - one of that English breed that went with Harry the fifth to the siege of Harfleur."
The yeoman talks as well as Cobbett writes, Hazlitt tells him, for here and throughout the essay he represents the spirit of English liberty and independence battling with a reactionary political culture, and also making fun of a drunken farmer with a blazing red nose who is staying at the inn.
It's like a moment out of Hazlitt's beloved Hogarth, as well as being an anticipation of Dickens, who was to become friendly with Hazlitt's son William, and who was influenced by his essays, as were Thackeray and Robert Louis Stevenson. The yeoman's robust, witty, unrelenting manner of talking is a central value, because Hazlitt loves and celebrates passionate, popular English speech, which he sees as the fountain of liberty in the culture. It shapes radical journalism and glories in giving as good as it gets.
In "On the Connection between Toad-Eaters and Tyrants", one of the most powerful polemics in Political Essays , Hazlitt asserts: "Man is a toad-eating animal," and then shows how the admiration of power turns many writers into intellectual pimps, hirelings of the press, defenders of the restored Bourbon Louis XVIII, worshippers of idols, lovers of kings.
Again and again, he hits out like a pugilist at "grovelling servility" and "petulant egotism". One of his persistent themes is that reason is a "slow, inert, speculative, imperfect faculty", and his aim is always to wrest imagination from the reactionaries such as Edmund Burke - whose prose style he admired hugely - in order to create a political discourse which is not abstract, academic, uninflected, foggy. Abstract reason, unassisted by passion, "is no match for power and prejudice, armed with force and cunning".
This is the source of one of the few passages in Hazlitt regularly quoted by literary critics. It is in his essay on Coriolanus , where he observes that the imagination is an "aristocratical faculty".
Poetry, he observes, is "right-royal. It puts the individual before the species, the one above the many, might before right." Poetry is a very "anti-levelling principle", unlike the understanding, which is "republican", but which is a dividing, measuring, rational, unexciting, prosy principle. There is a desperation in this essay, which Hazlitt wrote in the tormented aftermath of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.
Here, as so often, Hazlitt is trying to point radicals away from the stagnant, costive prose of Bentham and the philosophical radicals who followed him. Bentham he profiles in The Spirit of the Age , remarking "they say he has been translated into French: he ought to be translated into English".
Hazlitt wants the left to trust in and to employ an intensely passionate imagination in argument. He wants images, anger, risk-taking, eloquence, the elastic stretch of combative and confident prose - prose which is wild, lunging, rich in imagery and unfair like Burke's.
For what he terms "the friend of liberty", the love of truth is a "passion in his mind", and the love of liberty is the love of others, while "the love of power is the love of ourselves".
Here, we see the principle of disinterested benevolence Hazlitt imbibed from Unitarianism and from Hutcheson's philosophy and aesthetics. It informs everything he wrote, and in particular The Spirit of the Age , which he published anonymously in 1825, a collection of the most sophisticated newspaper profiles ever written.
Hazlitt's model is the painter he admired above all others - Titian - and he offers a series of contemporary portraits - Wordsworth, Godwin, Coleridge, Southey, Wilberforce and others, some of whom, such as the preacher the Rev. Edward Irving, are deservedly forgotten, though Irving becomes a comic turn in Hazlitt's prose, like Ian Paisley or Billy Graham let loose with Jonathan Aitken in a Kensington church.
For Hazlitt, disinterestedness is the central Dissenting and English virtue, and he based a vast anthology of parliamentary speeches, The Eloquence of the British Senate , one of his earliest books, on this principle.
Though he admired Hobbes as a philosopher and prose stylist, he disagreed vehemently with his view in Leviathan that human beings are entirely motivated by self-interest. What fascinates him are those figures who write journalism in the heat of the moment out of love for others, civic duty and a passionate identification with the liberties of the people, and a hatred of corrupt power. (Hazlitt's Irish background shows in the subject and title of his essay "On the Pleasure of Hating").
He is drawn to orators, who are prompted by what he terms "the suddenness of the emergency," and must mould the convictions and purposes of their hearers while they are under the influence of "passion and circumstances - as the glass-blower moulds the vitreous fluid with his breath".
In another lovely image he says of Cobbett "wherever power is, there is he against it: he naturally butts at all obstacles, as unicorns are attracted to oak-trees".
As Hazlitt lay dying in Frith Street, close to the churchyard he was to be buried in, he recalled his old battles, and particularly arguments with his former friends, those then committed republicans, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey.
He wrote to his friend, Francis Jeffrey, the editor of the Edinburgh Review, asking him for £10 (Jeffrey sent £50, which arrived after Hazlitt's death). He also wrote an essay "The Letter-Bell" which wasn't published until the year after his death.
The "Letter-Bell" is like a warmly confident apologia for his life, as Hazlitt remembers the beginning of his journey and, like a figure in a Jack Yeats painting, prepares for his final pilgrimage, as he takes us into the theatre of his imagination.
He begins by meditating on complaints of the vanity and shortness of human life, moves to trifling objects that assume in the eye of memory "the vividness, the delicacy, and importance of insects seen through a magnifying glass".
Then he mentions that as he writes "the Letter-Bell passes" a lively, pleasant sound not only fills the street but "rings clear through the length of many half-forgotten years". The jingling bell "strikes upon the ear, it vibrates to the brain, it wakes me from the dream of time, it flings me back upon my first entrance into life, the period of my first coming up to town".
He then recounts how he first set out on his journey through life by taking the road from Wem to Shrewsbury: the long blue line of Welsh hills, the golden sunset, the red leaves of the dwarf-oaks rustle in the breeze. It's like a moment, he suggests, out of Pilgrim's Progress , except the light of the French Revolution "circled my head like a glory, though dabbled with drops of crimson gore".
Here, he's representing what we might term the guilt of a fellow-traveller, a guilt which he was able to live with, unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, who became apologists for monarchy and reaction. Wordsworth he then quotes admiringly, but also in sadness, Southey he mocks, Coleridge he dismisses as "the sleep-walker, the dreamer, the sophist, the word-hunter, the craver after sympathy".
But he also knows that it was along the road to Shrewsbury he walked early one dark January morning in 1798 to hear Coleridge deliver an unforgettable sermon in the Unitarian Chapel there - the same chapel that the young Darwin attended with his family in the next century. This sermon and his first meeting with Coleridge and Wordsworth are celebrated in the classic essay, "On My First Acquaintance with Poets", which is Tolstoyan in its youthful clarity and vigour.
Now he recalls the "unbroken integrity" of early opinions and longs for "one burst of indignation against tyrants and sycophants". These are the hated figures who subject other countries to slavery by force and prepare their own for it "by servile sophistry, as we see the huge serpent lick over its trembling, helpless victim with its slime and poison, before it devours it!"
He rejoices then in the July Revolution which overthrew the Bourbons, and says they are no longer round Coleridge's neck like the albatross (an astute interpretation of the central meaning of Coleridge's symbol).
Hazlitt then rejoices in his own obstinate refusal to change his opinions or to duck and weave: "I have never given the lie to my own soul." He cannot recollect having ever repented giving a letter to the postman, "or wishing to retrieve it after he had once deposited it in his bag".
As he remarks in his essay "On the Pleasure of Hating", he quarrelled with all of his friends at some point. Charles Lamb, though, remained true to the end, and Lamb, like Sarah Stoddart, visited him in his last weeks. So did his devoted son, William, who was to publish and republish his writings during the decades that followed.
Hazlitt was in great pain, and in "The Sick Chamber", which was published unsigned the month before he died, he describes enduring suffocating heat, grasping the pillow in agony, walking up and down the room with hasty or feeble steps, then returning back to life "with half-strung nerves and shattered strength". Typically, in his closing paragraph he mentions Lamb.
Their friendship survived political change, and the furore that followed the publication of Liber Amoris, Hazlitt's fictional account of his obsessive love - if love it can be called - for Sarah Taylor, the daughter of a couple he rented a room from in Southampton Row.
Hazlitt was savaged by the Tory press, and is one of those writers who court disaster. The willed chaos of his personal life can be glimpsed in the sudden moments of autobiography that texture his essays. Short of money, lonely, seeking out prostitutes and unable - as he admitted - to love any woman, he walks a dangerous edge in his writings.
He is fascinated by criminality, so that at times we glimpse a figure who speaks with the voice of the man from underground, except he is a leftwing critic of progress and the enlightened values he cared so much for.
Partly, this is because he spent his life writing to deadlines, writing to the moment, writing under pressure, so that he was out there in the firing line, exposed to the spirit of the age, lacerated by it. And because he knows that what is also out there is a dark malign force, which what he terms "mitigated, enlightened belief" will never tame, he knows that the irrational and the prejudiced cannot be simply dismissed. So far as I can tell he believes in evil.
Dying in Frith Street, Hazlitt said, "Well, I've had a happy life."
A friend - probably his first wife Sarah Stoddart - raised the memorial stone over his grave in the nearby churchyard. The monument was subsequently removed but thanks to hundreds of Guardian readers and other Hazlitt enthusiasts, it has now been restored.
Born April 10, 1778, Died 18 September, 1830
He lived to see his deepest wishes gratified
as he has expressed them in his Essay,
'on the Fear of Death'.
'To see the downfall of the Bourbons.
And some prospect of good to mankind':
was driven from France 29th July, 1830).
'To leave some sterling work to the world':
(He lived to complete his 'Life of Napoleon').
That some friendly hand should consign
Him to the grave was accomplished to a
Limited but profound extent; on
These conditions he was ready to depart,
And to have inscribed on his tomb,
'Grateful and Contented'.
The first (unanswered) Metaphysician of the age.
A despiser of the merely Rich And Great:
A lover of the People, poor or oppressed:
A hater of the Pride and Power of the Few,
As opposed to the happiness of the Many;
A man of true moral courage,
Who sacrificed Profit and present Fame
And a yearning for the good of Human Nature.
Who was a burning wound to an Aristocracy,
That could not answer him before men,
And who may confront him before their maker.
He lived and died
The unconquered champion
Truth, Liberty, and Humanity,
'Dubitantes opera legite'.
Is raised by one whose heart is
With him, in his grave.
· William Hazlitt's restored monument in St Anne's churchyard, Wardour Street, Soho, London, will be unveiled by Michael Foot at 1pm on Thursday, April 10 - the 225th anniversary of Hazlitt's birth.
AC Grayling and Tom Paulin will be among those speaking immediately before Mr Foot. Two to three hundred people are expected to attend the ceremony, to which all those who subscribed to the restoration fund have been invited.
· It is still possible to contribute. Send your donation to The Hazlitt Memorial Fund, c/o Helen Hodgson, The office of the Readers' Editor, The Guardian, 119 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3ER.
Any money exceeding the sum required for the monument (about £25,000, most of which has been raised) will be passed to the Hazlitt Society for the maintenance of the monument and the promotion of an annual lecture. All subscribers will automatically become founding members of the Hazlitt Society.
· The third annual Hazlitt day school, organised by Tom Paulin, Uttara Natarjan and Duncan Wu, will be held at the Oxford English faculty on July 5. For details contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
· William Hazlitt's The Spirit of the Age: A Radical Critic's View of his Times is at the National Portrait Gallery from May 20 to October 26. Admission is free.