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Hazlitt was born at Maidstone in 1778. When the child was two years old, his father, a Unitarian minister, removed to Bandon, Cork, subsequently going to America. Hazlitt was about nine years of age when his father returned to England to take charge of a Unitarian congregation at Wem in Shropshire. Until his fifteenth year he was educated at a local school, but probably owed his best instruction to his father, of whose letters Hazlitt says that "for ease, half-plays on words, and a supine, monkish, indolent pleasantry, I have never seen them equalled." In accordance with his father's design that he should be a dissenting minister, Hazlitt spent four or five years at a Unitarian College at Hackney, where he was found to have "a dry and intractable understanding." The fact was that Hazlitt was resolved against entering the ministry, and at this time preferred philosophy and politics to theology. It was in 1798, the year of his return home, when he was still unsettled as to a profession, that a great influence came into his life by his meeting Coleridge, who, while preaching at Shrewsbury, paid a visit to the Hazlitts at Wem. It was from this meeting that Hazlitt dated his intellectual birth, and he has left a detailed account of it in his delightful essay, "My First Acquaintance with Poets"-the other poet being Wordsworth, to whom Coleridge speedily introduced him. Coleridge he was to live to criticise, but his obligations he expresses in the most ungrudging way. "My soul has indeed remained in its original bondage, dark, obscure, with longings infinite and unsatisfied; my heart, shut up in the prison-house of this rude clay, has never found, nor will it ever find, a heart to speak to; but that my understanding also did not remain dumb and brutish, or at length found a language that expresses itself, I owe to Coleridge."
When he was only thirteen, Hazlitt had made a precocious start as a writer in a letter defending Priestley-an interesting letter were it only for the boyish author's definition of intolerance as "the worst of devils." But it was Coleridge who first fired his determination to be a writer, and at his instigation Hazlitt completed an ambitious philosophical thesis which he had planned when he was only eighteen. The necessity of choosing a profession became more and more pressing, and Hazlitt, at the age of twenty-four, set out for London in the hope of following in the steps of his elder brother, who by this time had attained success as a miniature-painter. For some months he studied in the Louvre, and on his return went on a professional tour as a portrait-painter through the north of England. His career as an artist, though not undistinguished, was not successful, mainly, it would seem, from his own exacting standard. Northcote records the opinion that, if he had stuck to his brush, he would have made a great painter. But Hazlitt could not realise his ideals, and for him that meant impossibility to go on. His best known portrait is that of his new friend, Charles Lamb, in the dress of a Venetian Senator. As it proved, his years of art study were not thrown away. Later on he was to make brilliant use of his knowledge of painting in his literary criticism, which owes some of its most famous passages to the parallels he institutes between the sister arts.
In 1806 he definitely entered on the career of letters. His first efforts were chiefly political and philosophical, but included a considerable quantity of skilfully executed hack-work. Το this last category belongs his "Eloquence of the British Senate," interesting as containing Hazlitt's first attempts at character-sketches, in
which he was later to attain so great a mastery. His marriage in 1808 led to his settling in London, and soon he was strenuously at work as journalist, essayist and lecturer. He wrote parliamentary, and, later, dramatic reports for the "Morning Chronicle" and lectured on philosophy to the Russell Institution. From this time till his death he wrote steadily for a great variety of newspapers and magazines, and he himself collected and edited a large number of his lectures and essays in his “Table Talk," "The Round Table," "Characters of Shakespeare's Plays," "The Plain Speaker," "The Spirit of the Age," and the series of lectures on English Poets, English Comic Writers, and Elizabethan Dramatic Literature. In 1814 he became a contributor to the " Edinburgh Review," and at different times was associated with Leigh Hunt on "The Examiner” and “The Liberal," and contributed to the "London Magazine" and "Colburn's New Monthly."
It was as inevitable as it was unfortunate that Hazlitt's growing reputation should have met with bitter detraction. In one sense it was no doubt a great compliment to his contemporary standing that he became the favourite target for the artillery of "Blackwood" and "The Quarterly." The chapter is not an edifying one in the history of English literature, and it is not easy with any accuracy to allocate the blame. It is safer to refer it to that useful abstraction, the spirit of the age, for that allows us to say without fear of partiality or offence that it was a very evil spirit. Criticism degenerated into mere horse-play and ruffianism, and resembled nothing so much as a town and gown fight carried to regrettable extremes. The Tory "gownsmen" pelted the Cockney "cads," and the latter shouted death and defiance to the "Blackguards' Magazine." Perhaps there were some
hearts as well as reputations broken in the strife, but it seems a mistake to regard it too seriously. The history of the matter reminds us of some of our Indian frontier wars where the hillsmen, after seeing their wives and children in the safe custody of their enemies, proceed to enjoy a game of shooting at sight. It is an ungentle sport which costs blood and tears, but it springs from nothing worse than exuberant spirits. And some of the combatants are certain to forget that it is a game, and some will even deign to stab from behind. At least that is how we choose to regard this war of words. There was no malice certainly in Christopher North, but when he encountered a Radical writer he could no more refrain from trying to fell him with his crutch than can a schoolboy from training his catapult against the household cat. The schoolboy would probably expiate his success with repentance. Certainly the giant Christopher regretted his triumphs, and his remorse in the case of Leigh Hunt moved him to pen a sentence that of all his writings is the best remembered and the one that keeps his name "sweetest in the mention "_" The animosities are mortal, the humanities live for ever." Unfortunately Hazlitt had not the understanding or the temperament necessary for this game, and his chief enemy was not a sportsman. Gifford "sniped "at him from the secure breastwork of "The Quarterly," and at last Hazlitt was goaded into firing at him a deadly shell, called "A Letter to William Gifford, Esq. The letter told Mr Gifford that "there cannot be a greater nuisance than a dull, envious, pragmatical, low-bred man, who is placed as you are in the situation of the editor of such a work as the 'Quarterly Review."" And it ends with the drastic announcement, But you are a nuisance, and should be abated." Some writers on Hazlitt
applaud this famous letter, but probably more deplore it. It was a mistake to fight the enemy with their own weapons. A little humour would have dismayed them and disarmed them. This unfortunately was not in Hazlitt's equipment. It is the strangest enigma in his character that as a critic he could expound with rare success and apparent enjoyment qualities that his own life and conduct never reveal.
"I have loitered my life away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best. I have wanted only one thing to make me happy, but wanting that have wanted everything!" From the first Hazlitt's marriage had proved unfortunate, and it was the culmination of a long estrangement rather than an unexpected rupture that happened in 1823 when his wife and he obtained divorce under the law of Scotland. The immediate cause was Hazlitt's extraordinary infatuation infatuation for Sarah Walker, the daughter of his lodging-house-keeper, which he recorded with astonishing candour in his "Liber Amoris." After awakening from this shortlived delusion, Hazlitt married a second time, but his wife left him in less than a year. His unhappiness in marriage can be understood by the difficulty with which he retained his truest friends. There were few like Charles Lamb prepared to make generous allowance for his splenetic temper and to recognise the many fine qualities which it dimmed. Lamb's words do equal honour to Hazlitt and to himself, and they are specially interesting as having been written in Hazlitt's lifetime and at a time when their friendship had undergone temporary eclipse. "I stood well with him for fifteen years (the proudest of my life), and have ever spoken my full mind of him to some to whom his panegyric