« AnteriorContinua »
INTRODUCTION BY WILLIAM ERNEST HENLEY
THE ROUND TABLE
CHARACTERS OF SHAKESPEAR'S PLAYS,
A LETTER TO WILLIAM GIFFORD, ESQ.,
HAZLITT's father, a minister in the Unitarian Church, was the son of an Antrim dissenter, who had removed to Tipperary; Hazlitt's mother was the daughter of a Cambridgeshire yeoman; so that there is small room for wonder if Hazlitt were all his life distinguished by a fine pugnaciousness of mind, a fiery courage, an excellent doggedness of temper, and (not to crack the wind of the poor metaphor) a brilliancy in the use of his hands unequalled in his time, and since his time, by any writing Englishman. Of course, he was very much else; or this monument to his genius would scarce be building, this draft to his credit would have been drawn for To-Morrow on To-Day. But, while he lived, his fighting talent was the sole thing in his various and splendid gift that was evident to the powers that were; and, inasmuch as he loved nothing so dearly as asserting himself to the disadvantage of certain superstitions which the said powers esteemed the very stuff of life, they did their utmost to dissemble his uncommon merits, and to present him to the world at large as a person whose morals were deplorable, whose nose was pimpled, whose mind was lewd, whose character would no more bear inspection than his English, whose heart and soul and taste were irremediable, and who, as he persisted in regarding the Corsican fiend' as a culmination of human genius and character, must for that reason especially (but there were many others)-be execrated as a public enemy, and stuck in the pillory whenever, in the black malice of his corrupt and poisonous heart, he sought, by feigning an affection for Shakespeare, or an interest in metaphysics, to recommend his vulgar, mean, pernicious personality to the attention of a loyal, God-fearing, church-going, tax-paying, Pope-and-Pretender-hating British Public. I cannot say that I regret the very scandalous attacks that were made on Hazlitt: since, if they had not been, we
the promise of the years. He was interested only in the highest achievement; and to be the highest even that must lie behind him. Thus, Fielding was good, and Rubens; Sir Joshua was good, and so were Richardson and Smollett; so, likewise, Shakespeare was good, and Raphael and Titian were good-these with Milton and Rembrandt, and Burke and Rousseau and Boccaccio; and it was well. Well with them, and well-especially well!-with him: they had achieved, and here was he, the perfect lover, to whom their achievement was as an enchanted garden, a Prospero's Island abounding in romantic and inspiring chances, unending marvels, miracles of vision and solace and pure, perennial delight. And if these, the Thrones, Dominations, Powers,' had done their work, and were venerable in it, so also in their degrees and sorts had Congreve and Watteau, Sir Thomas Browne and Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Wycherley and Jordaens; so had even Salvator and John Buncle. In dealing with painters, and with purely painters' pictures, Hazlitt generally strikes a right note.1 But the man of letters in him is inevitably first; and 'tis not insignificant that some of the 'crack passages' in his writings about pictures are rhapsodies about places— Burleigh or Oxford-or pieces of pure literature like that very human and ingenious essay On the Pleasures of Painting,' which is one of the best good things in Table Talk.
So Hazlitt the painter was gathered to his fathers, and in his stead a Hazlitt reigned about whom the world knows little worth the telling a Hazlitt who abridged philosophers, and made grammars, and compiled anthologies; a married and domesticated Hazlitt; a Hazlitt with a son and heir, and a wife who seems to have cared as little for his works and him as, in the long run, he assuredly cared for her company and her. The lady's name was Stoddart; she was a brisk, inconsequent, unsexual sort of person—a friend of Mary
1 Leigh Hunt said that he was the best art critic that ever lived that to read him was like seeing a picture through stained glass, and so forth. But Leigh Hunt knew not much more about pictures than Coleridge knew about the books he talked of, but had not read.
master of his mother-tongue, and one, and that one not the least, in an epoch illustrious in the achievement of Keats and Shelley and Wordsworth, the inimitable Cobbett, Byron and Sir Walter, Coleridge, the Arch-Potency (who, prone on the flood' of failure, ever 'lies floating many a rood'), and the thrice-beloved Lamb.
The elder Hazlitt was trained in Glasgow. A man of spirit and understanding, an active and a vigilant minister, he married Grace Loftus, the Wisbech yeoman's daughter, in 1766; and in 1778 (he being much older than she), the last of their children, their son William, was born to them at Maidstone. Five years later this son accompanied his parents to Philadelphia. There the elder Hazlitt preached and lectured for some fifteen months; but in 1786-87, having meanwhile established the earliest Unitarian church in America, he returned to England, and settled at Wem, in Shropshire, which was practically Hazlitt's first taste of native earth. A precocious youngster, well grounded by his father, himself a man of parts and reading,1 he was responsible as early as 1792 for a New Theory of Criminal and Civil Jurisprudence, and at fifteen he went to the Unitarian College at Hackney, there to study for the ministry. But his mind changed. In the meantime he learned something of literature, something of metaphysics, something of painting, something (I doubt not) of life; the Revolution blazed out, Bonaparte fell falconwise upon Austrian Italy, and approved himself the greatest captain since Marlborough; there was a strong unrest in time and the destiny of man; the ambitions of life were changed, the possibilities and conditions of life transformed. The skies thrilled with the dawn of a new day, and Hazlitt: already, it is fair to conjecture, at grips with that potent and implacable devil of sex which possessed him so vigorously for so many years; already, too, the devout and militant Radical, the fanatic of Bonaparte, he remained till the end was no longer for the pulpit. And at this moment existence was transfigured
1 Hazlitt has glanced at him in his notes on dissenters and dissent in the Political Essays, and has given a further taste of him in that very notable and gracious piece, 'My First Acquaintance with Poets.'