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Memoirs of William Hazlitt

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
‣ Ch. XXII
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HAZLITTIANA, Part the Second—Literary Reminiscences.

The greatest pleasure in life is that of reading, while we are young. I have had as much of this pleasure as perhaps any one. As I grow older, it fades; or else the stronger stimulus of writing takes off the edge of it.

“At present I have neither time nor inclination for it; yet I should like to devote a year’s entire leisure to a course of the English novelists; and perhaps clap on that old sly knave, Sir Walter, to the end of the list.

“It is astonishing how I used formerly to relish the style of certain authors, at a time when I myself despaired of ever writing a single line. Probably this was the reason. . . . . My three favourite writers about the time I speak of were Burke, Junius, and Rousseau. I was never weary of admiring and wondering at the felicities of the style, the turns of expression, the refinements of thought and sentiment. I laid the book down to find out the secret of so much strength and beauty, and took it up again in despair, to read on and admire.

“So I passed whole days, months, and I may add, years.


“For my own part I started in life with the French Revolution, and I have lived, alas! to see the end of it. But I did not foresee this result. My sun arose with the first dawn of liberty, and I did not think how soon both must set. The new impulse to ardour given to men’s minds imparted a congenial warmth and glow to mine; we were strong to run a race together, and I little dreamed that long before mine was set, the sun of liberty would turn to blood, or set once more in the night of despotism. Since then, I confess, I have no longer felt myself young, for with that my hopes fell.

“I have since turned my thoughts to gathering up some of the fragments of my early recollections, and putting them into a form to which I might occasionally revert. The future was barred to my progress, and I turned for consolation and encouragement to the past. It is thus that while we find our personal and substantial identity vanishing from us, we strive to gain a reflected and vicarious one in our thoughts: we do not like to perish wholly, and wish to bequeath our names, at least, to posterity. As long as we can make our cherished thoughts and nearest interests live in the minds of others, we do not appear to have retired altogether from the stage.

“Many people are wretched, because they have not money to buy a fine horse, or to hire a fine house, or to keep a carriage, or to purchase a diamond necklace, or to go to a race-ball, or to give their servants new liveries. I cannot myself enter into all this. If I can live to think, and think to live, I am satisfied. Some want to
possess pictures, others to collect libraries. All I wish is, sometimes to see the one and read the other.

“I happen to have Edwards’sInquiry Concerning Free-will’ and Dr. Priestley’sIllustrations of Philosophical Necessity’ bound up in the same volume; and I confess that the difference in the manner of these two writers is rather striking. The plodding, persevering, scrupulous accuracy of the one, and the easy, cavalier, verbal fluency of the other, form a complete contrast. Dr. Priestley’s whole aim seems to be to evade the difficulties of his subject, Edwards’s to answer them. The one is employed, according to Berkeley’s allegory, in flinging dust in the eyes of his adversaries, while the other is taking true pains in digging into the mine of knowledge. All Dr. Priestley’s arguments on this subject are mere hackneyed commonplaces. He had in reality no opinions of his own, and truth, I conceive, never takes very deep root in those minds on which it is merely engrafted.

“I was much surprised at Lord Byron’s haste to return a volume of Spenser, which was lent him by Mr. Hunt, and at his apparent indifference to the progress and (if he pleased) advancement of poetry up to the present day.

“I many years ago looked into the Duke of Newcastle’sTreatise on Horsemanship:’ all I remember of it is some quaint cuts of the Duke and his riding-master introduced to illustrate the lessons. Had I myself possessed a stud of Arabian coursers, with grooms and a master of the horse to assist me in reducing these
precepts to practice, they would have made a stronger impression on my mind; and what interested myself from vanity or habit I could have made interesting to others. I am sure that I could have learnt to ride the Great Horse, and do twenty other things, in the time I have employed in endeavouring to make something out of nothing, or in conning the same problem fifty times over, as monks count over their beads. I have occasionally in my life bought a few prints, and hung them up in my room with great satisfaction.

“Each person should do that, not which is best in itself, even supposing this could be known, but that which he can do best, which he will find out, if left to himself. Spenser could not have written ‘Paradise Lost,’ nor MiltonThe Faerie Queene.’

“It always struck me as a singular proof of good taste, good sense, and liberal thinking in an old friend,* who had Paine’sRights of Man’ and Burke’sReflections on the French Revolution’ bound up in one volume; and who said that, both together, they made a very good book.

“Some years ago a periodical paper was published in London under the title of the ‘Pic-Nic.’ It was got up under the auspices of a Mr. Fulke Greville, and several writers of that day contributed to it, among whom were Mr. Horace Smith, Mr. Dubois, Mr. Prince

* The Rev. Joseph Fawcett.

Mr. Cumberland, and others. On some question arising between the proprietor and the gentlemen contributors on the subject of an advance in the remuneration for articles, Mr. Fulke Greville grew heroic, and said: ‘I have got a young fellow just come from Ireland, who will undertake to do the whole, verse and prose, politics and scandal, for two guineas a week; and if you will come and sup with me to-morrow night you shall see him, and judge whether I am not right in closing with him.’ Accordingly, they met the next evening, and the Writer of all Work was introduced. He began to make a display of his native ignorance and impudence on all subjects immediately, and no one else had occasion to say anything. When he was gone Mr. Cumberland exclaimed, ‘A talking potato, by God!’ The talking potato was Mr. Croker of the Admiralty.

“When I told Jeffrey that I had composed a work in which I had ‘in some sort handled’ about a score of leading characters,* he said, ‘Then you will have one man against you and the remaining nineteen for you.’ I have not found it so.

“Poets do not approve of what I have said (in the ‘Essay on the Prose Style of Poets’) of their turning prose-writers; nor do the politicians approve of my tolerating the fooleries of the fanciful tribe at all; so they make common cause to damn me between them. . . . . Mr. Wordsworth is not satisfied with the praise

* This was the ‘Spirit of the Age,’ published in 1825, 8vo. A third edition was printed in 1858.

I have heaped on himself, and still less, that I have allowed
Mr. Moore to be a poet at all. I do not think that I have ever set my face against the popular idols of the day. I have been foremost in crying up Mrs. Siddons, Kean, Sir Walter Scott, Madame Pasta, and others. . . . . I have been more to blame in trying to push certain Illustrious Obscure into notice: they have not forgiven the obligation, nor the world the tacit reproach.

“I remember Mr. Wordsworth saying that he thought we had pleasanter days in the outset of life, but that our years glid on pretty even one with another; as we gained in variety and richness what we lost in intensity.

“I remember my old friend Peter Finnerty laughing very heartily at something I had written about the Scotch; but it was followed up by a sketch of the Irish, on which he closed the book, looked grave, and said he disapproved entirely of all national reflections.

“I had done something (more than any one except Schlegel) to vindicate the ‘Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays’ from the stigma of French criticism; but our Anti-Jacobin and Anti-Gallican writers soon found out that I had said and written that Frenchmen, Englishmen, men, were not slaves by birthright.

“This was enough to damn the work. Such has been the head and front of my offending.

“While my friend Leigh Hunt was writing the ‘Descent of Liberty,’ and strewing the march of the allied sovereigns with flowers, I sat by the waters of
Babylon, and hung my harp upon the willows. I knew all along there was but one alternative—the cause of kings or of mankind. This I foresaw, this I feared; the world see it now, when it is too late. . . . . There is but one question in the hearts of monarchs, whether mankind are their property or not. There was but this one question in mine.

“I had made an abstract metaphysical principle of this question. I was not the dupe of the voice of the charmers. By my hatred of tyrants I knew what their hatred of the freeborn spirit of man must be, of the semblance of the very name of Liberty and Humanity. . . . .

“Two half-friends of mine, who would not make a whole one between them, agreed the other day that the indiscriminate, incessant abuse of what I write, was mere prejudice and party-spirit; and that what I do in periodicals without a name does well, pays well, and is ‘cried out upon in the top of the compass.’

“It is this, indeed, that has saved my shallow skiff from quite foundering on Tory spite and rancour; for when people have been reading and approving an article in a miscellaneous journal, it does not do to say, when they discover the author afterwards (whatever might have been the case before), it is written by a blockhead; and even Mr. Jerdan recommends the volume of ‘Characteristics’ as an excellent little work, because there is no cabalistic name in the title-page; and swears ‘there is a first-rate article of forty pages in the last number
of the “
Edinburgh,” from Jeffrey’s own hand;’ though when he learns, against his will, that it is mine, he devotes three successive numbers of the ‘Literary Gazette’ to abuse ‘that strange article in the last number of the ‘Edinburgh Review.’ . . . . .’

“I happened, in 1815, to be suggesting a new translation of ‘Don Quixote’ to an enterprising bookseller, and his answer was, ‘We want new “Don Quixotes.“‘I believe that I deprived the same active-minded person of a night’s rest by telling him there was the beginning of a new novel by Goldsmith in existence.

“I know an admirer of ‘Don Quixote’ who can see no merit in ‘Gil Blas,’ and an admirer of ‘Gil Blas’ who could never get through ‘Don Quixote.’ I myself have great pleasure in reading both these works, and in that respect think I have an advantage over both these critics.

“We begin to measure Shakespeare’s height from the superstructure of passion and fancy he has raised out of his subject and story, on which, too, rests the triumphal arch of his fame. If we were to take away the subject and story, the portrait and history from the ‘Scotch Novels,’ no great deal would be left worth talking about. No one admires or delights in the ‘Scotch Novels’ more than I do; but at the same time, when I hear it asserted that his mind is of the same class with Shakespeare’s, or that he imitates nature in the same way, I confess I cannot assent to it. No two things appear to me more different. Sir Walter is an imitator of nature,
and nothing more; but I think Shakespeare is infinitely more than this.

“Have I not seen a household where love was not?” says the author of the ‘Betrothed;’ “where, although there was worth and good-will, and enough of the means of life, all was embittered by regrets, which were not only vain, but criminal? I would take the Ghost’s word for a thousand pound, or in preference to that of any man living, though I was told in the streets of Edinburgh that Dr. Jamieson, the author of the ‘Dictionary,’ was quite as great a man.

“It is Gray who cries out: ‘Be mine to read eternal new romances of Marivaux and Crebillon!’ I could say the same of those of Madame la Fayette and the Duke de la Rochefoucauld. ‘The Princess of Cleves’ is a most charming work of this kind; and ‘The Duke de Nemours’ is a great favourite with me. . . . . I prefer him, I own, vastly to Richardson’sSir Charles Grandison,’ whom I look upon as the prince of coxcombs.

Mr. Lamb has lately taken it into his head to read St. Evremont, and works of that stamp. I neither praise nor blame him for it. He observed that St. Evremont was a writer half way between Montaigne and Voltaire, with a spice of the wit of the one and the sense of the other. I said I was always of opinion that there had been a great many clever people in the world, both in France and England, but I had been sometimes rebuked for it. Lamb took this as a slight reproach, for he has been a little exclusive and national in his tastes. He
said that
Coleridge had lately given up all his opinions respecting German literature; that all their high-flown pretensions were in his present estimate sheer cant and affectation; and that none of their works were worth anything but Schiller’s and the early ones of Goethe. ‘What!’ I said; ‘my old friend “Werter?” How many battles have I had in my own mind, and compunctious visitings of criticism to stick to my old favourite, because Coleridge thought nothing of it. It is hard to find one’s self right at last.’

“For myself, I should like to browse on folios, and have to deal chiefly with authors that I have scarcely strength to lift, that are as solid as they are heavy, and if dull, are full of matter. It is delightful to repose on the wisdom of the ancients; to have some great name at hand, besides one’s own initials always staring one in the face; to travel out of one’s self into the Chaldee, Hebrew, and Egyptian characters; to have the palm-trees waving mystically in the margin of the page, and the camels moving slowly on in the distance of three thousand years.

“It is a good remark in ‘Vivian Grey,’ that a bankrupt walks the streets the day before his name is in the ‘Gazette’ with the same erect and confident brow as ever, and only feels the mortification of his situation after it becomes known to others.

Mr. Britton* once offered me 2l. 2s. for a ‘Life and

* The late Mr. John Britton, co-author of the ‘History of Surrey,’ and writer or editor of many other publications.

Character of Shakespeare,’ with an admission to his conversazioni. I went once. There was a collection of antiquaries, lexicographers, and other illustrious Obscure, and I had given up the day for lost, when in dropped
Jack Taylor of the Sun, and I had nothing now to do but to hear and laugh. Mr. T. knows most of the good things that have been said in the metropolis for the last thirty years, and is in particular an excellent retailer of the humours and extravagances of his old friend Peter Pindar.”

He admired Burke, whose speeches and pamphlets were among his earliest studies, but neither trusted nor liked him. He thought him a mere brilliant sophist, a “half-bred reasoner,” and a dishonest man.

“It so happens that I myself,” he observes, referring to the great influence of this writer’s voice and pen, “have played all my life with his forked shafts unhurt; because I had a metaphysical clue to carry off the noxious particles, and let them sink into the earth like drops of water.”

He complained of the style of criticism adopted in the ‘Monthly Review,’ of which Mr. Rose and Dr. Kippis were the chief supporters for many years. Mrs. Rose, as Mr. H. was told by his father, contributed the monthly catalogue. It was in this publication that Gray’sElegy’* was spoken of as “a little poem, however humble its pretensions,” which was “not without elegance or merit.”

He said of Bulwer’sPaul Clifford’ that “it had the
singular advantage of being written by a gentleman, and not about his own class.”

Mr. Barry Cornwall was once pleased to say of his ‘Effigies Poeticae’ that the best thing he knew of them was, that they had been spoken well of by Mr. Hazlitt.

Mr. Hazlitt thought a periodical might be started to be called ‘The Bystander,’ with this motto: Bystanders see most of the game.