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Memoirs of William Hazlitt
Ch. XX

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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Illustrations of his method of composition, and notices of the origin of some of his writings.

Speaking of his writings in 1821, the subject of these memoirs remarks as follows: “I have not much pleasure in writing these Essays, or in reading them afterwards; though I own I now and then meet with a phrase that I like, or a thought that strikes me as a true one. But after I begin them I am only anxious to get to the end of them, which I am not sure I shall do, for I seldom see my way a page or even a sentence beforehand; and when I have as by a miracle escaped, I trouble myself little more about them. I sometimes have to write them twice over; then it is necessary to read the proof, to prevent mistakes by the printer; so that by the time they appear in a tangible shape, and one can con them over with a conscious, sidelong glance to the public approbation, they have lost their gloss and relish.

“I will venture to say that no one but a pedant ever read his own works regularly through. They are not his—they are become mere words, waste-paper, and
have none of the glow, the creative enthusiasm, the vehemence, and natural spirit with which he wrote them. When we have once committed our thoughts to paper, written them fairly out, and seen that they are right in the printing, if we are in our right wits we have done with them for ever.

“I sometimes try to read an article I have written in some magazine or review—(for when they are bound up in a volume I dread the very sight of them)—but stop after a sentence or two, and never return to the task. I know pretty well what I have to say on the subject, and do not want to go to school to myself. . . .

“I can easily understand how the old divines and controversialists produced their folios. I could write folios myself if I rose early and sat up late at this kind of occupation. But I confess I should be soon tired of it.

“If what I write at present is worth nothing, at least it costs me nothing. But it cost me a good deal twenty years ago. I have added little to my stock since then, and taken little from it. I ‘unfold the book and volume of the brain,’ and transcribe the characters I see there as mechanically as any one might copy the letters in a sampler. I do not say they came there mechanically.

“If I am assured that I never wrote a sentence of common English in my life, how can I know that this is not the case? If I am told at one time that my writings are as heavy as lead, and at another that they are more light and flimsy than the gossamer—what resource have I but to choose between the two? I
could say, if this were the place, what these writings are. ‘Make it the place, and never stand upon punctilio!’

“They are not, then, so properly the works of an author by profession, as the thoughts of a metaphysician expressed by a painter. They are subtle and difficult problems translated into hieroglyphics. I thought for several years on the hardest subjects, on Fate, Freewill, Foreknowledge Absolute, without ever making use of words or images at all; and that has made them come in such throngs and confused heaps, when I burst from that void of abstraction. In proportion to the tenuity to which my ideas had been drawn, and my abstinence from ornament and sensible objects, was the tenaciousness with which actual circumstances and picturesque imagery laid hold of my mind, when I turned my attention to them, and had to look round for illustrations.

“Till I began to paint, or till I became acquainted with the author of ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ I could neither write nor speak. He encouraged me to write a book, which I did according to the original bent of my mind, making it as dry and meagre as I could, so that it fell still-born from the press; and none of those who abuse me for a shallow catch-penny writer have so much as heard of it. Yet, let me say, that work contains an important metaphysical discovery, supported by a continuous and severe train of reasoning, nearly as subtle and original as anything in Hume or Berkeley.

“I am not accustomed to speak of myself in this
manner, but impudence may provoke modesty to justify itself.

“Finding this method did not answer, I despaired for a time: but some trifle I wrote in the Morning Chronicle meeting the approbation of the editor and the town, I resolved to turn over a new leaf—to take the public at its word, to master all the tropes and figures I could lay my hands on; and, though I am a plain man, never to appear abroad but in an embroidered dress.

“Still, old habits will prevail; and I hardly ever set about a paragraph or a criticism but there was an undercurrent of thought or some generic distinction on which the whole turned. Having got my clue, I had no difficulty in stringing pearls upon it; and the more recondite the point the more I laboured to bring it out and set it off by a variety of ornaments and allusions. This puzzled the scribes whose business it was to crush me. They could not see the meaning: they would not see the colouring, for it hurt their eyes. One cried out, it was dull; another, that it was too fine by half. My friends took up this last alternative as the most favourable; and since then it has been agreed that I am a florid writer, somewhat flighty and paradoxical. Yet, when I wished to unburthen my mind in the ‘Edinburgh’ by an article on English metaphysics, the editor, who echoes this florid charge, said he preferred what I wrote for effect, and was afraid of its being thought heavy.

“I have accounted for the flowers—the paradoxes may be accounted for in the same way. All abstract reasoning is in extremes, or only takes up one view of a ques-
tion, or what is called the principle of the thing; and if you want to give this popularity and effect you are in danger of running into extravagance and hyperbole.

“I have had to bring out some obscure distinction, or to combat some strong prejudice, and in doing this with all my might may have often overshot the mark. It was easy to correct the excess of truth afterwards. . . . . The personalities I have fallen into have never been gratuitous. If I have sacrificed my friends it has always been to a theory.

“I have been found fault with for repeating myself, and for a narrow range of ideas. To a want of general reading I plead guilty, and am sorry for it; but perhaps if I had read more I should have thought less.

“As to my barrenness of invention, I have at least glanced over a number of subjects—painting, poetry, prose, plays, politics, parliamentary speakers, metaphysical lore, books, men, and things. There is some point, some fancy, some feeling, some taste, shown in treating of these. Which of my conclusions has been reversed? Is it what I said of the Bourbons, ten years ago, that raised the war-whoop against me? Surely all the world are of that opinion now. . . . . If the editor of the Atlas will do me the favour to look over my ‘Essay on the Principles of Human Action,’ will dip into any essay I ever wrote, and will take a sponge and clear the dust from the face of my ‘Old Woman,’ I hope he will, upon second thoughts, acquit me of an absolute dearth of resources and want of versatility in the direction of my studies.


“I have come to this determination in my own mind, that a work is as good as manuscript, and is invested with all the same privileges, till it appears in a second edition—a rule which leaves me at liberty to make what use I please of what I have hitherto written, with the single exception of the Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays.”

He is constantly mixing up personal matter with the matter of the essay. In his paper on the ‘Conversation of Authors’ he furnishes us with a glimpse of him writing:

“In the field opposite the window where I write this,” he says, “there is a country girl picking stones; in the one next it there are several poor women weeding the blue and red flowers from the corn; farther on are two boys tending a flock of sheep. What do they know or care about what I am writing about them, or ever will—or what would they be the better for it if they did? And though we have cried our eyes out over the ‘New Héloise,’ a poor shepherd-lad, who hardly knows how to spell his own name, may ‘tell his tale under the hawthorn in the dale,’ and prove a more thriving wooer.”

In another case the scene was different:—

“I look out of my window and see that a shower has just fallen: the fields look green after it, and a rosy cloud hangs over the brow of the hill; a lily expands its petals in the moisture, dressed in its lovely green and white; a shepherd-boy has just brought some pieces of turf, with daisies and grass, for his young mistress
to make a bed for her sky-lark, not doomed to dip his wings in the dappled dawn—my cloudy thoughts draw off—the storm of angry politics has blown over—I am alive and well. Really it is wonderful how little the worse I am for fifteen years’ wear and tear. . . .”


“There is a spider crawling along the matted floor of the room where I sit (not the one which has been so well allegorized in the admirable ‘Lines to a Spider,’ but another of the same edifying breed). He runs with heedless, hurried haste, he hobbles awkwardly towards me, he stops—he sees the giant shadow before him, and, at a loss whether to retreat or proceed, meditates his huge foe—but as I do not start up and seize upon the straggling caitiff, as he would upon a hapless fly within his toils, he takes heart, and ventures on with mingled cunning, impatience, and fear. As he passes me I lift up the matting to assist his escape, am glad to get rid of the unwelcome intruder, and shudder at the recollection after he is gone. A child, a woman, a clown, or a moralist a century ago, would have crushed the little reptile to death—my philosophy has got beyond that—I bear the creature no ill-will, but still I hate the very sight of it.”

And, once more, take this:—

“As I write this, the letter-bell passes: it has a lively, pleasant sound with it, and not only fills the street with its importunate clamour, but rings clear through the length of many half-forgotten years. It 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, when all around was strange, uncertain, adverse . . . . and when this sound alone, startling me with the recollection of a letter I had to send to the friends I had lately left, brought me as it were to myself, made me feel that I had links still connecting me with the universe, and gave me hope and patience to persevere. At that loud, tinkling, interrupted sound, the long line of blue hills near the place where I was brought up waves in the horizon; a golden sunset hovers over them, the dwarfoaks rustle their red leaves in the evening breeze, and the road from Wem to Shrewsbury, by which I first set out on my journey through life, stares me in the face as plain—but from time and change not less visionary and mysterious than the pictures in the ‘
Pilgrim’s Progress.’ Or if the letter-bell does not lead me a dance into the country, it fixes me in the thick of my town recollections, I know not how long ago. It was a kind of alarm to break off from my work when there happened to be company to dinner, or when I was going to the play. That was going to the play, indeed, when I went twice a year, and had not been more than half-a-dozen times in my life. Even the idea that any one else in the house was going was a sort of reflected enjoyment, and conjured up a lively anticipation of the scene. I remember a Miss D——, a maiden lady from Wales (who in her youth was to have been married to an earl), tantalized me greatly in this way, by talking all day of going to see Mrs. Siddons’ ‘airs and graces’ at night in
some favourite part; and when the letter-bell announced that the time was approaching, and its last receding sound lingered on the ear, or was lost in silence, how anxious and uneasy I became, lest she and her companion should not be in time to get good places—lest the curtain should draw up before they arrived—and lest I should lose one line or look in the intelligent report, which I should hear the next morning.”

He got into disfavour with some of his landladies for writing out heads of contemplated essays on ‘Men and Manners’ over the mantelpiece in lead-pencil. Every scrap of paper that came to hand was turned to a similar purpose, and backs of letters, too, if any happened to have been lately received—and kept. A sample of this rather peculiar mode of “keeping tables” is given in the endorsement of a letter from Henry Leigh Hunt to my grandfather, while in Paris, in 1824. The original address is almost lost to sight.

Much depended on the humour. It was in an excellent one that he wrote the essay ‘On Living to One’s Self,’ at Winterslow Hut, on the 18th January, 1821, finishing it the next day. According to the principle I have laid down in writing the present memoirs, I shall prefer to use his own words:

“I never was in a better place or humour than I am at present for writing on this subject. I have a partridge getting ready for supper, my fire is blazing on the hearth, the air is mild for the season of the year, I have had but a slight fit of indigestion to-day (the
only thing that makes me abhor myself). I have three hours good before me, and therefore I will attempt it. It is as well to do it at once as to have to do it for a week to come.

“If the writing on this subject is no easy task, the thing itself is a harder one. It asks a troublesome effort to ensure the admiration of others: it is a still greater one to be satisfied with one’s own thoughts. As I look from the window at the wide bare heath before me, and through the misty moonlight see the woods that wave over the top of Winterslow—
While Heaven’s chancel-vault is blind with sleet—
my mind takes its flight through too long a series of years, supported only by the patience of thought and secret yearnings after truth and good, for me to be at a loss to understand the feeling I intend to write about. . . . .”

The germs of some of Mr. Hazlitt’s later essays may be found in those conversations with Northcote. His two papers in the ‘Plain Speaker,’ 1826, ‘On the Conversation of Authors,’ seem to have arisen out of some remarks which were made one day upon the Ireland Forgeries. Mr. Hazlitt was led by what had gone before to observe that that was what made him dislike the conversation of learned and literary men. He got nothing from them but what he already knew, and hardly that; they poured the same ideas, and phrases, and cant of knowledge out of books into his ears, as
apothecaries’ apprentices made prescriptions out of the same bottles; but there were no new drugs or simples in their materia medica. In an article ‘
Upon the Ignorance of the Learned’ the same idea is developed. What we find in the ‘Seventh Conversation,’ about Lord Grosvenor’s wealth, Mr. Hazlitt has put into Northcote’s mouth: it was one of his own favourite arguments.

Somebody has said that my grandfather only looked to the price his essays would bring. True; but my grandfather, let it be borne in mind, was a thinker by liking and intellectual bent, a writer under protest. He grudged “coining his brain for drachmæ,’ and if it was to be so, if there was no escape from this taskwork, then he naturally looked with some sort of business-like keenness after what now goes under the name of honorarium.

At the back of one of his ‘Table-Talks,’ where he has come to an end—the always to him welcome Finis—he has written in his most majestic hand—“Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.”

The desire to unhinge, “to lie fallow,” was very strong upon him. He mentions being pestered at dinner once by a stranger, who wanted to know what he had written in the ‘Edinburgh Review.’ A gentleman came to him one day, and told him that a lady had objected to his use of learneder instead of more learned, and had observed what a pity it was he was not more careful in his grammar! Mr. Hazlitt showed him that Butler had the word—at least, in a motto.

One of the ‘Winterslow’ essays was that entitled
Whether Genius is Conscious of its Powers?’ The latter portion has very little to do with the ostensible subject-matter, and the reason is plainly stated by the writer:

“I am not in the humour to pursue this argument any farther at present, but to write a digression. If the reader is not already apprized of it, he will please to take notice that I write this at Winterslow. My style there is apt to be redundant and excursive. At other times it may be cramped, dry, abrupt; but here it flows like a river, and overspreads its banks. I have not to seek for thoughts or hunt for images—they come of themselves. I inhale them with the breeze, and the silent groves are vocal with a thousand recollections.

“Here I came fifteen years ago, a willing exile; and as I trod the lengthened greensward by the low woodside, repeated the old line—
My mind to me a kingdom is.
I found it so then, before, and since; and shall I faint now that I have poured out the spirit of that mind to the world, and treated many subjects with truth, with freedom, and power, because I have been followed by one cry of abuse ever since, for not being a government-tool?

“Here I returned a few years after to finish some works I had undertaken—doubtful of the event, but determined to do my best—and wrote that character of Millimant, which was once transcribed by fingers fairer than Aurora’s; but no notice was taken of it, because I
was not a government-tool, and must be supposed devoid of taste and elegance by all who aspired to these qualities in their own persons.

“Here I sketched my account of that old honest Signor Orlando Friscobaldo, which, with its fine, racy, acrid tone, that old crab-apple, Gifford, would have relished, or pretended to relish, had I been a government-tool!

“Here too I have written ‘Table Talks’ without number, and as yet without a falling off, till now that they are done, or I should not make this boast I could swear (were they not mine) the thoughts in many of them are founded as the rock, free as air, the tone like an Italian picture. What then? Had the style been like polished steel, as firm and as bright, it would have availed me nothing, for I am not a government-tool.

“I had attempted to guide the taste of the English people to the best old English writers; but I had said that English kings did not reign by right divine, and that his present Majesty was descended from an Elector of Hanover in a right line; and no loyal subject would after this look into Webster and Decker, because I had pointed them out.”

Speaking of his ‘Essay on the Beggar’s Opera,’ in the Round Table, he says:—

“We have begun this essay on a very coarse sheet of damaged foolscap, and we find that we are going to write it, whether for the sake of contrast, or from having a very fine pen, in a remarkably nice hand.”


He usually, indeed, employed foolscap paper, and wrote in what Leigh Hunt once called a majestic hand. He reckoned a page of his MS. as equal to the page of an ordinary octavo printed book, and he therefore knew at any time, to a remarkable nicety, what progress he had made in his work. It was not an uncommon thing when he saw his way clearly, and the subject was well mapped out, to get through fifteen sides of foolscap in a day; but, on the other hand, if he was in indifferent health, or, worse than that, in bad cue, he occupied two or three weeks upon a single essay. His MSS. are unequal in respect to alterations and erasures. Some are scored through and through, while in others there is not a blot, and the whole is as clear as copper-plate. The theme, and the mood in which he happened to approach it, and other surroundings, had a great deal to do with this part of the matter.

Captain Medwin says: “Hazlitt’s MSS. were the most beautiful I ever saw. He told me there was a rivalry between himself and Leigh Hunt on this score; that he would not allow of an erasure or interlineation; nor in running my eye over the MS. of the ‘Plain Speaker,’ did I perceive a single one.”

Mr. Hazlitt left extracts very commonly to his wife (the first Mrs. H.), who wrote, as has been said, a capital hand, and had an astonishing memory. She could repeat, upon invitation, a good deal of Scott’s poetry, and the same of Byron’s and of Wordsworth’s. She made a commonplace ‘Book of Extracts’ from poets and prose-writers, and among the former are Charlotte
Smith, Lord Lyttelton, Southey, Dr. Johnson, Bowles, Thomson, Akenside: among earlier writers, Cartwright and Quarles, Cotton and Ford, Chapman and Wither. Some of the prose authors to whom she resorted, and of whom her book contains specimens, are Bacon, Burton, Jeremy Taylor, and Sterne. She was a person, indeed, of extraordinary reading, and what she read, she kept.

I have before me the copy of Flaxman’sLectures,’ which Mr. Hazlitt employed for his article on the work in the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ and some of his preparatory marginalia may be worth transcribing, and printing side by side with the paragraphs of the original work to which they refer.

Flaxman’s Text.   Hazlitt’s Notes.
P. 72. “From the style of extreme antiquity in these statues [some bronzes in the Brit. Mus.], we shall find reason to believe they are copied from the above-mentioned statue [by Dædalus].”   “Faith.”
P. 75. “Dipœnis, and Scyllis the Cretan, were celebrated for their marble statues, about 776 years before Christ, still retaining much of the ancient manner in the advancing position of the legs,” &c.   “Scientific abstract.”
Pp. 80-1. “But the battles of Marathon and Salamis, which destroyed the Persian army, whose myriads, like locusts,” &c.   “The Rev. Mr. Flaxman.’
Flaxman’s Text.   Hazlitt’s Notes.
P. 83. [He is speaking of Phidias.] “the character of whose figures were stiff rather than dignified . . . the folds of drapery parallel, poor, and resembling geometrical lines,” &c.   “Mem.”
P. 91. “The Discobolus of Naucides is universally admired for its form and momentary balance.”   “‘Minutes, not hours.’”
P. 99. “From this little island [Rhodes] the Roman conquerors brought away 3000 statues!”   “Mem.”
P. 107. “The writings of Hippocrates and Galen instruct us in the science of anatomy among the Greeks, from the time of Phidias to the age of Antoninus Pius, when sculpture had sensibly declined,” &c.   “Had anatomy declined? Warped bias. Grain in wood.”
P. 111. “As a natural and certain consequence of the sculptor’s intelligence being formed on the physician’s instructions, the system was the simplest and boldest division of parts,” &c.   “Against evidence.”
—— “A line divides the front of the body from the gullet to the navel. This is intersected at right angles by curve lines,” &c.   “Is not all this visible to the eye?”
Pp. 115-6. “These comparative observations are introduced as a further confirmation that the excellence of the Grecian theory was the real foundation of excellent practice.”   “How?”
P. 138. “Their view is downwards.” [The Italic is marked by Mr. H.]   “How so? Their body is downwards.”
Flaxman’s Text.   Hazlitt’s Notes.
P. 139. “The preparation, secretion, and fermentation of the juices are chemical,” &c.   “Quackery.”
“But we must remember [the Italics are the reviewer’s] that man, even in the structure of his body,” &c.   “Orthodoxy.”
P. 155. “The character and actions of these goddesses [the Graces] have given the epithet graceful to easy, undulating motion.”   Quid pro quo.
P. 167. “The Roman compositions . . . . are the mere paragraphs of military gazettes!” &c.   “Antigallican.”
P. 179. “The sublime represents all supernatural acts and appearances,” &c.   “A gratis dictum
P. 189. “To these graces of benevolence we owe those lovely groups—the Holy Families of Raphael and Correggio,” &c.   “The cart before the horse.”
P. 190. “All those monuments of the later Italian school, in which entire figures are mingled with those of low relief,” &c.   “Good.”
P. 193. “Sentiment is the life and soul of fine art! without, it is all a dead letter!” &c.   “Now you speak like a sensible man.”
—— “But it [the scaffolding] is the workman’s indispensable help in erecting the walls which enclose the apartments, and which may afterwards be enriched with the most splendid ornaments.”   “Great, dry, good sense.”
Flaxman’s Text.   Hazlitt’s Notes.
P. 207. “We partake in the culture of their fields, and the abundance of their harvests, and the still, clear evening,” &c.   “Pretty.”
P. 288. “The study of these [compositions from the great poets of antiquity] will give the young artist the true principles of composition . . . . by carefully observing them he will accustom himself to a noble habit of thinking, and consequently choose whatever is beautiful, elegant, and grand, rejecting all that is mean and vulgar ”   ‘Query: what is mean and vulgar?”
P. 336. “Shall we not say with Dr. Young, in his ‘Essay on Composition,’ . . . . that we are properly the ancients, because these our mental riches are more abundant than have ever been enjoyed before?” &c.   “I dare say.’

There is also a copy of Milman’sFazio,’ and one of Holcroft’sRoad to Ruin,’ in both of which he has made some remarks;* and with these, and two or three other exceptions, the few books which belonged to him have completely disappeared. Where is his copy of Keats’sEndymion?’ Where is the ‘Liber Amoris’ in crimson velvet, which he took with him to Italy? Where is his ‘Essay on Human Action,’ enriched, as he left it, with his own notes in his own hand?

* The notes in the Holcroft have been printed in an edition of the drama which I have met with.