LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

My Friends and Acquaintance
William Hazlitt XXIII

Vol I Contents
Charles Lamb I
Charles Lamb II
Charles Lamb III
Charles Lamb IV
Charles Lamb V
Charles Lamb VI
Charles Lamb VII
Charles Lamb VIII
Charles Lamb IX
Charles Lamb X
Thomas Campbell I
Thomas Campbell II
Thomas Campbell III
Thomas Campbell IV
Thomas Campbell V
Thomas Campbell VI
Thomas Campbell VII
Lady Blessington I
Lady Blessington II
Lady Blessington III
Lady Blessington IV
Lady Blessington V
R. Plumer Ward I
R. Plumer Ward II
R. Plumer Ward III
R. Plumer Ward IV
R. Plumer Ward V
R. Plumer Ward VI
Appendix vol I
Vol II Contents
R. Plumer Ward VII
R. Plumer Ward VIII
R. Plumer Ward IX
R. Plumer Ward X
R. Plumer Ward XI
R. Plumer Ward XII
R. Plumer Ward XIII
R. Plumer Ward XIV
R. Plumer Ward XV
R. Plumer Ward XVI
R. Plumer Ward XVII
R. Plumer Ward XVIII
R. Plumer Ward XIX
R. Plumer Ward XX
R. Plumer Ward XXI
R. Plumer Ward XXII
R. Plumer Ward XXIII
Horace & James Smith I
Horace & James Smith II
William Hazlitt I
William Hazlitt II
William Hazlitt III
William Hazlitt IV
William Hazlitt V
William Hazlitt VI
William Hazlitt VII
William Hazlitt VIII
Appendix vol II
Vol III Contents
William Hazlitt IX
William Hazlitt X
William Hazlitt XI
William Hazlitt XII
William Hazlitt XIII
William Hazlitt XIV
William Hazlitt XV
William Hazlitt XVI
William Hazlitt XVII
William Hazlitt XVIII
William Hazlitt XIX
William Hazlitt XX
William Hazlitt XXI
William Hazlitt XXII
‣ William Hazlitt XXIII
William Hazlitt XXIV
William Hazlitt XXV
William Hazlitt XXVI
Laman Blanchard I
Laman Blanchard II
Laman Blanchard III
Laman Blanchard IV
Laman Blanchard V
Laman Blanchard VI
Laman Blanchard VII
Laman Blanchard VIII
R & T Sheridan I
R & T Sheridan II
R & T Sheridan III
R & T Sheridan IV
R & T Sheridan V
R & T Sheridan VI
R & T Sheridan VII
R & T Sheridan VIII
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It is very painful to me to put on record the personal opinions and feelings of Hazlitt respecting his early friends and associates, Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth, particularly the two latter, men from whose writings I have received more delight and instruction than from those of any other two living men, or indeed from all others united, Hazlitt alone excepted; men also for whose personal characters I have ever cherished a degree of respect amounting to reverence. But I must not shrink from my purpose nevertheless. And I need not fear that its execution will in the smallest degree affect either the literary or the personal estimation of the distinguished men to whom it refers, even in the eyes of those who are disposed to treat Hazlitt’s decisions as oracles; because the reasons for the disparaging opinions I am about to
record of them will accompany and explain those opinions, and throw the odium of them (if any there be) where it really ought to rest.

But my task is not the less painful on this account, but rather the more so, since its faithful execution must necessarily expose the miserable weaknesses and errors of a man of whose intellectual powers I thought no less highly than I do of the men they were employed to disparage, and with a view to the redemption of whose personal character from the unmerited odium which has been heaped upon it, these pages have partly if not chiefly been written.

The truth is that, in the case of Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth alone, Hazlitt seemed to have wilfully repudiated that guiding and pervading spirit of his personal character, the love of truth and justice for themselves alone. And what made the matter in appearance worse was, that he had seemed to do this from a personal feeling alone; so, at least, the case was represented by those who made it part of the business of their lives to misrepresent the motives, feel-
ings, and actions of this much-maligned and ill-appreciated man. Many extravagant and ridiculous stories were related, or rather whispered about vaguely, all of them more or less discreditable to the personal character of Hazlitt, as the immediate cause of his alienation from the distinguished friends of his early life: and in the most discreditable of them all there was, I have been led to believe, some truth. I allude to a story relating to Hazlitt’s alleged treatment of some pretty village jilt, who, when he was on a visit to Wordsworth, had led him (Hazlitt) to believe that she was not insensible to his attentions; and then, having induced him to “commit” himself to her in some ridiculous manner, turned round upon him, and made him the laughing-stock of the village. There is, I believe, too much truth in the statement of his enemies, that the mingled disappointment and rage of Hazlitt on this occasion led him, during the madness of the moment (for it must have been nothing less), to acts which nothing but the supposition of insanity could account for, much less excuse. And his conduct on this occasion is understood to have been the
immediate cause of that breach between him and his friends above-named (at least Wordsworth and Southey), which was never afterwards healed.

But I am bound to declare that their treatment of him on this occasion was not the cause of his subsequent feelings towards these distinguished men, or of his treatment of them as arising out of those feelings. It was not the petty anger arising out of a sense of some trifling personal injustice (even if he entertained any such feeling, which he scarcely could in the case in question), that could make Hazlitt either blindly insensible to the claims of such men as Wordsworth and Southey, or wilfully unjust to those claims, whether personal or intellectual.

But there was one offence—call it a crime—for such it was in his estimation—which could make him both blindly insensible and almost deliberately unjust to the claims, whatever they might be, of those whom he deemed guilty of it. He felt an almost boundless sympathy with the weaknesses of our nature, and an equally unlimited toleration for almost all their natural re-
sults. But there was one of those results for which, believing it to be in some unnatural, he entertained a hatred that can scarcely be conceived by those who have not been accustomed to witness and watch the consequences of violent passions, when habituated from earliest youth to work their own will, without a touch of restraint or self-assistance. Against the man who could steal from his fellow-man to preserve his own life, or even to gratify his passing desires,
Hazlitt could feel little, if any, of that anger and resentment which honest men are expected, and for the most part accustomed, to look upon almost as one of their social duties. But against the man who could deliberately set himself to assist in robbing The Human Race of its birthright, merely in consideration of the “mess of pottage” that he was to get for his pains—against the individual who could (reversing the deed of the immortal Roman) plunge his country into the gulf to preserve or benefit himself—in a word, against the political apostate, Hazlitt cherished a hatred so bitter and intense, that it blended with the very springs
of his life, and coloured every movement and affection of his mind. And such men he considered
Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth to have been, when they deserted the principles of the French Revolution, and set themselves, heart and soul, to oppose its “child and champion,” Napoleon Buonaparte. But when they showed themselves (as the two former did in an especial manner) the most powerful, persevering, and effective of all the literary opponents of that idol of Hazlitt’s hopes and admiration, his anger and resentment against them amounted to a degree of rage, that made him reckless of all justice, and of all consequences—a fanaticism of hatred, which can only be compared to, and has, perhaps, only been paralleled by, that odium theologicum which has at intervals desolated the nations with flame and bloodshed, in behalf of a religion of peace.

In Coleridge,—on whom, from the very dawning of his intellectual faculties, Hazlitt had been accustomed to look almost as the heaven-appointed apostle of human liberty, sent forth to preach its doctrines and pro-
mulgate its beauties and virtues in words of more than mortal eloquence,—he suddenly beheld the
Pitt-appointed editor of the “Morning Post” newspaper—the writer of daily diatribes, which not merely advocated and advised, but at last actually caused and created,* that Tory crusade against freedom which ultimately consigned it to twenty years more of outrage and violence, and ended by debauching and debasing its noblest champion into its deadliest foe.

This was bad enough for Hazlitt: though the peculiar character of Coleridge’s intellect, and the “transcendental” changes to which it was liable, might have prepared him for the possibility at least of something of this kind,—especially when it is borne in mind that Coleridge had already abandoned (on a point of conscience) the profession to which he had been bred—the church,—and had no means but his pen of escaping from absolute

* Such, at least, was the deliberate opinion of one of the greatest statesmen of his day, Charles Fox, who declared in his place in the House of Commons, that the war against France had been caused by the “Morning Post,”—the dictum being exclusively directed to Coleridge’s writings there.

destitution. But when Hazlitt saw the severe, the single-hearted, the simple-minded
Southey—a man whose almost ascetic habits preserved him from the possibility of want, and, on the other hand, whose varied and available talents and acquirements, and his singular industry, gave him the certain means of satisfying wants tenfold beyond any that he could even comprehend as such—when he saw this man suddenly, from the minstrel of Joan of Arc and the immortaliser of Wat Tyler, emerge into the most fertile, the most ingenious, the most persevering, and the most efficient of all the literary supporters, advocates, and apologists (as the case might be) of those recognised abuses on which corrupt power at that time rested its sole hope of continuance and perpetuation; in short, when he beheld, in the late fanatic to liberty, the furious denouncer of Reformers as “worse than housebreakers,”—when he saw the late scorner of all Kings, and despiser and maligner of Courts, changed into the special-pleading advocate of divine right and legitimacy, the bower-down at levees, and the poet laureate and panegyrist
George the Fourth, it half unseated his reason, and rendered him, on these topics, scarcely accountable for what he wrote or said.

But it must be especially stated, that even under these circumstances, and inflamed as he was against Southey with a feeling of something like personal revenge, for his desertion of a cause, for his (Hazlitt’s) consistent devotion to which he was suffering a daily martyrdom of mingled obloquy and privation, he never once, to the best of my recollection, either in print or otherwise, treated Southey as a dishonest man, but only as a weak, a vain, a self-willed, and a mistaken one. He sometimes wrote and oftener spoke of Southey with a degree of contempt and disparagement that amounted to the ridiculous, when compared with his great natural powers, his noble acquirements, and the vast literary results which have proceeded from them. But if pressed (though not otherwise I confess) he admitted a saving clause in favour of his sincerity and love of truth. Whereas, in the case of Coleridge, his feelings carried him to the opposite ex-
treme; for while he exaggerated his estimate of the intellectual powers of that extraordinary man to an almost superhuman pitch, he treated the chief public uses which he made of those powers as the results of the most shameless hypocrisy and the most despicable cant.

With respect to Wordsworth, Hazlitt’s estimate of him, both as a writer and a man, was much nearer to the truth than in either of the other two cases; for the worst that Wordsworth had done in the way of political apostacy was, to accept an obligation from a party he despised, and thus cut himself off from the will as well as the power to use his pen against them. He never used it for that party; nor did Hazlitt accuse him of having ever gone a single step from the pure, even, and dignified tenor of his way, either to gain or to keep the good that he chose to accept from evil hands. On the contrary, the worst that Hazlitt had to say of Wordsworth was, that he was a poet and nothing more; meaning thereby that he was incapable of taking any personal interest in the
actual wants, desires, enjoyments, sufferings, and sentiments of his fellow-men; and that, so long as he could be permitted to wander in peace and personal comfort among his favourite scenes of external nature, and chant his lyrical ballads to an admiring friend, and make his lonely excursions into the mystic realms of imagination, and enjoy unmolested the moods of his own mind, the human race and its rights and interests might lie bound for ever to the footstools of kings, or be half exterminated in seeking to escape thence, for anything that he cared, or any step that he would take to the contrary,—unless it were to write an ode or a sonnet on the question, and keep it in his desk till the point had settled itself. In short, Hazlitt seemed to look upon Wordsworth as a man purged and etherealised, by his mental constitution and habits, from all the everyday interests and sentiments with which ordinary men regard their fellow-men, and incognizant of any claims upon his human nature but such as have reference to man in the abstract; and that, while he could secure leisure to
dream and dogmatise and poetise on this latter theme, the living world and its ways were matters wholly beneath his notice.

The pertinacity with which Hazlitt used to insist on this pretended selfism of Wordsworth—this alleged repudiation, and even hatred, of all interests and sympathies external from those engendered by his own contemplation of his own mind,—and the malicious pleasure with which he used to dwell on and recur to anecdotes which he deemed illustrative of this characteristic, were very remarkable. One anecdote, in particular, I remember to have heard him repeat many times, and always with a feeling of bitterness and achanenèment which was evidently the result of a strong and cherished personal dislike. It merely related to some disparaging observation which Wordsworth was said to have made (for Hazlitt did not pretend to have heard it himself—so that the whole story was probably a fabrication or a blunder of the relator) on somebody’s admiring and pointing Wordsworth’s attention to a cast from some beautiful Greek statue in Haydon’s painting-room;—the ridiculous and
wholly gratuitous inference being, that Wordsworth hated to look on anything beautiful or admirable that did not bear the impress of his own mind, and that he desired everybody else should do the same;—in short, that he hated everything in the world but his own poetry, and that he never enjoyed a moment of personal satisfaction but when he was (as Hazlitt used disparagingly to phrase it) “mouthing it out” to the gaping ears of ignorant worshippers, and fancying that all the human race would soon be doing the same.

It may seem something more than superfluous—almost impertinent—for me to deprecate the idea that my own impressions regarding the illustrious man above-named were in the smallest degree affected by what I have now related. But I cannot help doing so nevertheless. Had my debt of personal gratitude to Wordsworth as a poet been less deep than it is, I might perhaps have been in some degree influenced by Hazlitt’s disparaging notions of him as a man; for I knew nothing of Wordsworth myself; and we are but too apt to take a
malicious pleasure in seeing reduced nearer to our own level the general character of those whom we admit to soar above us in some particular. Even had Wordsworth been only the greatest of modern poets, I might perhaps have yielded my belief to Hazlitt’s pertinacious exhibitions of him as anything but great as a man. But, happily, the beauty, the charm, and the virtue of Wordsworth’s poetry is, that it for the most part affects the reason as a personal thing—that it touches us as if it were a matter between the poet and ourselves, and thus engenders a feeling little, if at all, differing in spirit and effect from that individual gratitude which even the worst of mankind are proud and pleased to owe and to pay, in return for personal benefits and obligations. Almost all other poets may be appreciated and enjoyed without any other benefit than that appreciation and enjoyment; but it is impossible to appreciate and enjoy Wordsworth without being wiser, better, and happier after the enjoyment has ceased. And the man who makes us permanently happier than we could have been without his aid, has our personal gra-
titude as much as if he had effected the object by a personal boon. The man whom Wordsworth’s poetry has lifted from the debasement and despondency of spirit in which it may have found him, and endowed him with the “riches fineless” of a heart and mind capable of creating their own wealth by the happy alchemy of a purified and purifying imagination (and there are many such men living), feels himself as much bound to the poet by personal ties of gratitude and love, as if he had lifted him from actual poverty, and given him the means of worldly competence and comfort. And that the poet who has done this in innumerable instances could be the man Hazlitt believed and sought to represent Wordsworth, is not to be conceived on any recognised principle of the human mind, or any experience that we possess of its qualities and operations.

Moreover, I do not recollect a single instance in which Hazlitt’s depreciating stories of Wordsworth were drawn from his own personal experience. They were founded on the mere idle or malicious gossip of people who could see nothing in Wordsworth but
his reputation, and who gathered their notions of that from the early pages of the
Edinburgh Review; and they were turned, by Hazlitt’s perverse ingenuity, to those self-tormenting purposes to which he was so prone, whenever his personal feelings took part against his better knowledge and judgment.