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Memoirs of William Hazlitt
Ch. XVII 1826-28

Chap. I 1778-1811
Ch. II: 1791-95
Ch. III 1795-98
Ch. IV 1798
Ch. V 1798
Ch. VI 1792-1803
Ch. VII 1803-05
Ch. VIII 1803-05
Ch. IX
Ch. X 1807
Ch. XI 1808
Ch. XII 1808
Ch. XII 1812
Ch. XIV 1814-15
Ch. XV 1814-17
Ch. XVI 1818
Ch. XVII 1820
Ch. XX 1821
Ch. I 1821
Ch. II 1821-22
Ch. III 1821-22
Ch. IV 1822
Ch. V 1822
Ch. VI 1822
Ch. VII 1822-23
Ch. VIII 1822
Ch. IX 1823
Ch. X 1824
Ch. XI 1825
Ch. XII 1825
Ch. XIII 1825
Ch. XIV 1825
Ch. XV 1825
Ch. XVI 1825-27
‣ Ch. XVII 1826-28
Ch. XVIII 1829-30
Ch. XX
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Still hard at work—The ‘Spirit of the Age’—The ‘Plain Speaker’—Contributions to periodicals—‘The Life of Napoleon’—Autobiographical passages.

During these years, the strange controversy respecting the ‘Boswell Redivivus’ was almost, I think, the sole incident which disturbed the comparatively tranquil tenor of Mr. Hazlitt’s life. His health was not very good, but he contrived to get through an astonishing quantity of “copy.” In 1825, was published ‘The Spirit of the Age, or Contemporary Portraits,’ which had originally come out in numbers in the ‘New Monthly;’ and it reached a second edition in 1826. His name was not on the title-page; but it was soon generally known whose the book was.

In 1826, Mr. Colburn published ‘The Plain Speaker; Opinions on Men, Books, and Things,’ in two volumes octavo, also anonymously; and Galignani produced a single octavo which he called ‘Table-Talk,’ this year, but which was merely a selection from the book properly bearing that title, and from the ‘Plain Speaker.’

The negotiations for the ‘Notes of a Journey through
France and Italy,’ resulted in their collective publication by Messrs.
Hunt and Clarke; in a copy before me, the author’s name is printed on the title-page, but in all others which I have examined, the book is anonymous.

He continued, though at long intervals, to write for the Examiner, and in the number for November 18, 1827, was inserted a paper entitled ‘The Dandy School,’ being a criticism on ‘Vivian Grey,’ and books of that calibre and tendency.

He also had a new channel opened to him in Mr. (since Major) D. L. Richardson’sLondon Weekly Review,’ and here, during 1826 and the two following years, he obtained the insertion of several of not the least agreeable effusions of his prolific and versatile pen. Many of these have never been reprinted, and yet are deserving of preservation in a permanent shape.

His handwriting was always welcome, too, at New Burlington Street; and besides the serial ‘Boswell Redivivus’ in Colburn’sNew Monthly,’ he had there the rather well-known essay ‘On Persons one would wish to have seen,’—founded on an incident of twenty years’ standing.

Nor were these more than collateral employments entered into to supply the necessities of the hour: for he was fully engaged, from the beginning of 1827 onward, upon the work which was to crown the edifice, and to keep his name green, when nothing else of his doing perhaps could, among Englishmen. His ‘Life of Napoleon Buonaparte’ was already on the stocks.


He seems to have had his ‘Life of Napoleon’ in view as early as the summer of 1825, when he was at Vevey. In a conversation with Captain Medwin, who called on him twice while he stayed there, he observed, “I will write a Life of Napoleon, though it is yet too early: some have a film before their eyes, some want magnifying-glasses—none see him as he is, in his true proportions.”

He worked upon this grateful task a good deal during 1827 down at Winterslow Hut. The first volume, and the greater part of the second, were ready for the printer, when he was overtaken by indisposition, and came up to London for advice. He had probably overtaxed his powers, for in the country it was frequently his custom (the evenings hanging heavily on his hands) to work what he called “double tides.”

Among the authorities which he employed were Bourrienne, Las Cases, the Abbé Sieyes, and Antommarchi. I do not think that he resorted much to the writers on the other side of the question.

There was to have been a preface, and one was actually set up, but eventually suppressed by the advice of the publishers, I believe. The proof-sheet, as the author finally revised it, is still preserved, and no more remarkable illustration could be desired or furnished of the deep root which the subject had taken in his heart, and the absorbing interest which he felt in its completion, as the one thing to be accomplished before his death, than a note in his own handwriting which accompanied the proof on its return to the publishers:—

“Dear Sir,

“I thought all the world agreed with me at present that Buonaparte was better than the Bourbons, or that a tyrant was better than tyranny. In my opinion, no one of an understanding above the rank of a lady’s waiting-maid could ever have doubted this, though I alone said it ten years ago. It might be impolicy then and now for what I know, for the world stick to an opinion in appearance long after they have given it up in reality. I should like to know whether the preface is thought impolitic by some one who agrees with me in the main point, or by some one who differs with me and makes this excuse not to have his opinion contradicted? In Paris (jubes regina renovare dolorem) the preface was thought a masterpiece, the best and only possible defence of Buonaparte, and quite new there! It would be an impertinence in me to write a Life of Buonaparte after Sir W.* without some such object as that expressed in the preface. After all, I do not care a damn about the preface. It will get me on four pages somewhere else. Shall I retract my opinion altogether, and foreswear my own book? Rayner is right to cry out: I think I have tipped him fair and foul copy, a lean rabbit and a fat one. The remainder of vol. ii. will be ready to go on with, but not the beginning of the third. The appendixes had better be at the end of second vol. Pray get them if you can: you have my Sieyes, have you not? One of them is there. I have been nearly in the other world. My regret was ‘to die and leave the world “rough” copy.’ Otherwise I had thought of an epitaph

* Sir Walter Scott.

and a good end. Hic jacent reliquiae mortales
Gulielmi Hazlitt, auctoris non intelligibilis: natus Maidstoniæ in comi[ta]tu Cantiœ, Apr. 10, 1778. Obiit Winterslowe, Dec, 1827. I think of writing an epistle to C. Lamb, Esq., to say that I have passed near the shadowy world, and have had new impressions of the vanity of this, with hopes of a better. Don’t you think this would be good policy? Don’t mention it to the severe author of the ‘Press,’ a poem,* but methinks the idea arridet Hone. He would give sixpence to see me floating, upon a pair of borrowed wings, half way between heaven and earth, and edifying the good people at my departure, whom I shall only scandalize by remaining. At present my study and contemplation is the leg of a stewed fowl. I have behaved like a saint, and been obedient to orders.

Non fit pugil, &c., I got a violent spasm by walking fifteen miles in the mud, and getting into a coach with an old lady who would have the window open. Delicacy, moderation, complaisance, the suaviter in modo, whisper it about, my dear Clarke, these are my faults and have been my ruin.

“Yours ever,
W. H.
“December 7, [1827].

“I can’t go to work before Sunday or Monday. By then the doctor says he shall have made a new man of me.

“Pray how’s your sister?”

[C. Cowden Clarke, Esq.]

* Mr. McCleery, the printer.


There are few salient points or striking passages of his life which he has omitted to touch upon, or glance at. There is even a little sketch, from his own hand, of his feelings and thoughts as he lay stretched (an unwilling prisoner) on this bed of sickness in the winter of 1827; and these are his words:—

“I see (as I awake from a short, uneasy doze) a golden light shine through my white window curtains on the opposite wall. Is it the dawn of a new day, or the departing light of evening? I do not well know, for the opium ‘they have drugged my posset with’ has made strange havoc with my brain, and I am uncertain whether time has stood still, or advanced, or gone backward.”

The second volume of the ‘Life of Napoleon’ was finished in time to enable Messrs. Hunt and Clarke, who had undertaken the publication, to issue volumes I. and II. in 1828. Volumes III. and IV. were, as the booksellers phrase it, “in active preparation;” and the author had determined to bring in the rejected preface as an ordinary paragraph at the commencement of the former.

He had gone back to Winterslow Hut, and there, in the February of 1828, “in the intervals of business,” he committed to writing these Recollections,* which are autobiography, if I err not, of a very pleasant description. But I must, by way of preface, introduce his account of the sensations he experienced on his recovery from this very serious indisposition.

“Returning back to life with half-strung nerves and

* They constitute the essay called ‘A Farewell to Essay Writing,’ printed in Winterslow, 1850, but written in February, 1828.

shattered strength, we seem as when we first entered it with uncertain purposes and faltering aims. . . . . Everything is seen through a medium of reflection and contrast. We hear the sound of merry voices in the street; and this carries us back to the recollections of some country-town or village group—
We see the children sporting on the shore,
And hear the mighty waters roaring evermore.
A cricket chirps on the hearth, and we are reminded of Christmas gambols long ago. The very cries in the street seem to be of a former date, and the dry toast eats very much as it did twenty years ago. A rose smells doubly sweet after being stifled with tinctures and essences, and we enjoy the idea of a journey and an inn the more for having been bed-rid. But a book is the secret and sure charm to bring all these implied associations to a focus. I should prefer an old one,
Mr. Lamb’s favourite, the ‘Journey to Lisbon;’ or the ‘Decameron,’ if I could get it; but if a new one, let it be ‘Paul Clifford.’

“Food, warmth, sleep, and a book: these are all I at present ask—the Ultima Thule of my wandering desires. Do you not then wish for
A friend in your retreat,
Whom you may whisper, solitude is sweet?
Expected, well enough:—gone, still better. Such attractions are strengthened by distance. Nor a mistress? ‘Beautiful mask! I know thee!’ When I can judge of the heart from the face, of the thoughts from the lips, I may again trust myself. Instead of these, give
me the robin red-breast, pecking the crumbs at the door, or warbling on the leafless spray, the same glancing form that has followed me wherever I have been and ‘done its spiriting gently:’ or the rich notes of the thrush that startle the ear of winter, and seem to have drunk up the full draught of joy from the very sense of contrast. To these I adhere, and am faithful, for they are true to me; and, dear in themselves, are dearer for the sake of what is departed, leading me back (by the hand) to that dreaming world, in the innocence of which they sat and made sweet music, waking the promise of future years, and answered by the eager throbbings of my own breast.

“But now ‘the credulous hope of mutual minds is o’er,’ and I turn back from the world that has deceived me, to nature that lent it a false beauty, and that keeps up the illusion of the past. As I quaff my libations of tea in a morning, I love to watch the clouds sailing from the west, and fancy that ‘the spring comes slowly up this way.’ In this hope, while ‘fields are dank and ways are mire,’ I follow the same direction to a neighbouring wood,* where, having gained the dry, level greensward, I can see my way for a mile before, closed in on each side by copse-wood, and ending in a point of light more or less brilliant, as the day is bright or cloudy. What a walk is this to me! I have no need of book or companion; the days, the hours, the thoughts of my youth are at my side, and blend with the air that fans my cheek.

“Here I can saunter for hours, bending my eye for-

* He must allude to Clarendon Wood, near Winterslow.

ward, stopping and turning to look back, thinking to strike off into some less trodden path, yet hesitating to quit the one I am in, afraid to snap the brittle threads of memory. I remark the shining trunks and slender branches of the birch-trees, waving in the idle breeze; or a pheasant springs up on whirring wing: or I recall the spot where I once found a wood-pigeon at the foot of a tree, weltering in its gore, and think how many seasons have flown since ‘it left its little life in air.’ Dates, names, faces, come back—to what purpose? or why think of them now? or rather, why not think of them oftener? We walk through life as through a narrow path, with a thin curtain drawn round it; behind are ranged rich portraits, airy harps are strung—yet we will not stretch forth our hands and lift aside the veil, to catch glimpses of the one, or sweep the chords of the other.

“As in a theatre, when the old-fashioned green curtain drew up, groups of figures, fantastic dresses, laughing faces, rich banquets, stately columns, gleaming vistas appeared beyond; so we have only at any time to ‘peep through the blanket of the past,’ to possess ourselves at once of all that has regaled our senses, that is stored up in our memory, that has struck our fancy, that has pierced our hearts: yet to all this we are indifferent, insensible, and seem intent only on the present vexation, the future disappointment. If there is a Titian hanging up in the room with me, I scarcely regard it; how then should I be expected to strain the mental eye so far, or to
throw down, by the magic spells of the will, the stone walls that enclose it in the Louvre?

“There is one head there of which I have often thought, when looking at it, that nothing should ever disturb me again, and I would become the character it represents—such perfect calm and self-possession reigns in it! Why do I not hang an image of this in some dusky corner of my brain, and turn an eye upon it ever and anon, as I have need of some such talisman to calm my troubled thoughts? The attempt is fruitless, if not natural; or, like that of the French, to hang garlands on the grave, and to conjure back the dead by miniature-pictures of them while living! It is only some actual coincidence, or local association, that tends, without violence, to ‘open all the cells where memory slept.’ I can easily, by stooping over the long-sprent grass and clay-cold clod, recall the tufts and primroses, or purple hyacinths, that formerly grew on the same spot, and cover the bushes with leaves and singing-birds as they were eighteen summers ago: or, prolonging my walk, and hearing the sighing gale rustle through a tall, straight wood at the end of it, can fancy that I distinguish the cry of hounds, and the fatal group issuing from it as in the tale of ‘Theodore and Honoria.’ A moaning gust of wind aids the belief; I look once more to see whether the trees before me answer to the idea of the horror-stricken grove, and an air-built city towers over their grey tops—
Of all the cities in Romanian lands,
The chief and most renown’d, Ravenna, stands.

224 AUTOBIOGRAPHY (1828).  

“I return home resolved to read the entire poem through, and, after dinner drawing my chair to the fire, and holding a small print close to my eyes, launch into the full tide of Dryden’s couplets (a stream of sound), comparing his didactic and descriptive pomp with the simple pathos and picturesque truth of Boccacio’s story, and tasting with a pleasure, which none but an habitual reader can feel, some quaint examples of pronunciation in this accomplished versifier—
Which, when Honoria viewed,
The fresh impulse her former fright renew’d.
And made th’ insult which in his grief appears,
The means to mourn thee with my pious tears.
These trifling instances of the wavering and unsettled state of the language give double effect to the firm and stately march of the verse, and make me dwell with a sort of tender interest on the difficulties and doubts of an earlier period of literature. They pronounced words then in a manner which we should laugh at now; and they wrote verse in a manner which we can do anything but laugh at. The pride of a new acquisition seems to give fresh confidence to it; to impel the rolling syllables through the moulds provided for them, and to overflow the envious bounds of rhyme into time-honoured triplets.

“What sometimes surprises me in looking back to the past is, with the exception already stated, to find myself so little changed in the time. The same images and trains of thought stick by me: I have the same tastes, likings, sentiments, and wishes that I had then.

  AUTOBIOGRAPHY (1828). 225

“One great ground of confidence and support has, indeed, been struck from under my feet; but I have made it up to myself by proportionable pertinacity of opinion. The success of the great cause, to which I had vowed myself, was to me more than all the world. I had a strength in its strength, a resource which I knew not of, till it failed me for the second time:
Fall’n was Glenartney’s stately tree!
Oh, ne’er to see Lord Ronald more!

“It was not till I saw the axe laid to the root, that I found the full extent of what I had to lose and suffer. But my conviction of the right was only established by the triumph of the wrong; and my earliest hopes will be my last regrets. One source of this unbendingness (which some may call obstinacy) is that, though living much alone, I have never worshipped the echo. I see plainly enough that black is not white, that the grass is green, that kings are not their subjects; and, in such self-evident cases, do not think it necessary to collate my opinions with the received prejudices. In subtler questions, and matters that admit of doubt, as I do not impose my opinion on others without a reason, so I will not give up mine to them without a better reason; and a person calling me names, or giving himself airs of authority, does not convince me of his having taken more pains to find out the truth than I have, but the contrary.

Mr. Gifford once said, ‘that while I was sitting over my gin and tobacco-pipes I fancied myself a Leibnitz.’
He did not so much as know that I had ever read a metaphysical book: was I, therefore, out of complaisance or deference to him, to forget whether I had or not?
Leigh Hunt is puzzled to reconcile the shyness of my pretensions with the inveteracy and sturdiness of my principles. I should have thought they were nearly the same thing. Both from disposition and habit, I can assume nothing in word, look, or manner. I cannot steal a march upon public opinion in any way. My standing upright, speaking loud, entering a room gracefully, proves nothing; therefore I neglect these ordinary means of recommending myself to the good graces and admiration of strangers, and, as it appears, even of philosophers and friends.

“Why? Because I have other resources, or, at least, am absorbed in other studies and pursuits. Suppose this absorption to be extreme, and even morbid—that I have brooded over an idea till it has become a kind of substance in my brain; that I have reasons for a thing which I have found out with much labour and pains, and to which I can scarcely do justice without the utmost violence of exertion (and that only to a few persons): is this a reason for my playing off my out-of-the-way notions in all companies, wearing a prim and self-complacent air, as if I were ‘the admired of all observers?’ or is it not rather an argument (together with a want of animal spirits) why I should retire into myself, and perhaps acquire a nervous and uneasy look, from a consciousness of the disproportion between the interest and conviction I feel on certain subjects, and my ability to
communicate what weighs upon my own mind to others? If my ideas, which I do not avouch, but suppose, lie below the surface, why am I to be always attempting to dazzle superficial people with them, or, smiling, delighted at my own want of success?

“In matters of taste and feeling, one proof that my conclusions have not been quite shallow or hasty, is the circumstance of their having been lasting. I have the same favourite books, pictures, passages, that I ever had; I may therefore presume that they will last me my life—nay, I may indulge a hope that my thoughts will survive. This continuity of impression is the only thing on which I pride myself. Even Lamb, whose relish of certain things is as keen and earnest as possible, takes a surfeit of admiration, and I should be afraid to ask about his select authors or particular friends after a lapse of ten years.

“As to myself, any one knows where to have me. What I have once made up my mind to, I abide by to the end of the chapter. One cause of my independence of opinion is, I believe, the liberty I give to others, or the very diffidence and distrust of making converts. I should be an excellent man on a jury. I might say little, but should starve ‘the other eleven obstinate fellows’ out. I remember Mr. Godwin writing to Mr. Wordsworth, that ‘his tragedy of Antonio could not fail of success.’ It was damned past all redemption. I said to Mr. Wordsworth that I thought this a natural consequence; for how could any one have a dramatic turn of mind who judged of others entirely from himself? Mr. Godwin
might be convinced of the excellence of his work; but how could he know that others would be convinced of it, unless by supposing that they were as wise as himself, and as infallible critics of dramatic poetry—so many
Aristotles sitting in judgment on Euripides!

“This shows why pride is connected with shyness and reserve: for the really proud have not so high an opinion of the generality as to suppose that they can understand them, or that there is any common measure between them. So Dryden exclaims of his opponents with bitter disdain—
Nor can I think what thoughts they can conceive.
I have not sought to make partizans, still less did I dream of making enemies; and have therefore kept my opinions myself, whether they were currently adopted or not.

“To get others to come into our way of thinking we must go over to theirs; and it is necessary to follow in order to lead. At the time I lived here formerly, I had no suspicion that I should ever become a voluminous writer; yet I had the same confidence in my feelings before I had ventured to air them in public as I have now. Neither the outcry for or against moves me a jot: I do not say that the one is not more agreeable than the other.

“Not far from the spot where I write I first read Chaucer’sFlower and Leaf,’ and was charmed with that young beauty, shrouded in her bower, and listening with ever fresh delight to the repeated song of the
nightingale close by her. The impression of the scene, the vernal landscape, the cool of the morning, the gushing notes of the songstress—
And ayen methought she sang close by mine ear—
is as vivid as if it had been of yesterday, and nothing can persuade me that that is not a fine poem. I do not find this impression conveyed in
Dryden’s version, and therefore nothing can persuade me that that is as fine. I used to walk out at this time with Mr. and Miss Lamb of an evening, to look at the Claude Lorraine skies over our heads, melting from azure into purple and gold; and to gather mushrooms, that sprung up at our feet, to throw into our hashed mutton at supper.

“I was at that time an enthusiastic admirer of Claude, and could dwell for ever on one or two of the finest prints from him hung around my little room—the fleecy flocks, the bending trees, the winding streams, the groves, the nodding temples, the air-wove hills, and distant sunny vales—and tried to translate them into their lovely living hues. People then told me that Wilson was much superior to Claude: I did not believe them. Their pictures have since been seen together at the British Institution, and all the world have come into my opinion. I have not, on that account, given it up. I will not compare our hashed mutton with Amelia’s;* but it put us in mind of it, and led to a discussion, sharply seasoned and well sustained, till midnight, the result of which appeared some years after in the ‘Edinburgh

* In Fielding’s novel. He refers to the visit which Mr. and Miss Lamb paid to Winterslow in 1809.

Review.’* Have I a better opinion of these criticisms on that account, or should I therefore maintain them with greater vehemence and tenaciousness? Oh, no; but both rather with less, now that they are before the public, and it is for them to make their election.

“It is in looking back to such scenes that I draw my best consolation for the future. Later impressions come and go, and serve to fill up the intervals; but these are my standing resource, my true classics. If I had few real pleasures or advantages, my ideas, from their sinewy texture, have been to me in the nature of realities; and if I should not be able to add to the stock, I can live by husbanding the interest. As to my speculations, there is little to admire in them but my admiration of others; and whether they have an echo in time to come or not, I have learned to set a grateful value on the past, and am content to wind up the account of what is personal only to myself and the immediate circle of objects in which I have moved, with an act of easy oblivion,
And curtain-close such, scene from every future view.

“For myself I do not complain of the greater thickness of the atmosphere as I approach the narrow house. I felt it more formerly, when the idea alone seemed to suppress a thousand rising hopes, and weighed upon the pulses of the blood. I remember once, in particular, having this feeling in reading Schiller’sDon

* In the Paper ‘On Madame D’Arblay’s Wanderer,’ in the Review for 1815.

Carlos,’ where there is a description of death, in a degree that almost stifled me. At present I rather feel a thinness and want of support; I stretch out my hand to some object, and find none; I am too much in a world of abstraction; the naked map of life is spread out before me, and in the emptiness and desolation I see Death coming to meet me.

“In my youth, I could not behold him for the crowd of objects and feelings, and Hope stood always between us, saying, ‘Never mind that old fellow!’ If I had lived, indeed, I should not care to die. But I do not like a contract of pleasure broken off unfulfilled, a marriage with joy unconsummated, a promise of happiness rescinded.

“My public and private hopes have been left a ruin, or remain only to mock me. I would wish them to be re-edified. I should like to see some prospect of good to mankind, such as my life began with. I should like to leave some sterling work behind me. I should like to have some friendly hand to consign me to the grave.

“On these conditions I am ready, if not willing, to depart. I shall then write on my tomb—Grateful and Contented.

“But I have thought and suffered too much to be willing to have thought and suffered in vain. . . . .”