« AnteriorContinuar »
for him also. In the January of 1798, Coleridge, that embodied Inspiration, visited the elder Hazlitt at Wem, and preached his last (Unitarian) sermon in the chapel there. He was at his best, his freshest, his most copious, his most expressive and persuasive; he had the poet's eye, the poet's mouth, the poet's voice, impulse, authority, style; he had already • fed on honey-dew, and drunk the milk of Paradise'; and he carried Hazlitt clean off his legs. To the sombre, personal, scarce lettered but very thoughtful youth this voluble and affecting Apparition was the bearer of a revelation. He listened to Coleridge as to a John Baptist. He dared to talk metaphysics, and was so far rewarded for his valour as to be encouraged to persevere. What was of vastly greater importance, he was asked to Stowey in the spring of the same year : an event from which he dated the true beginnings of his intellectual life.
In that centre of enchantment he stayed three weeks. It was a Golden Year. Hazlitt was drunk throughout with what I should like to call Neophytism. Coleridge was magnificent — elusive, archimagian, irresistible; Wordsworth was opinionated but sublime ; at intervals, as in Sir Richard Burton's Thousand Nights and a Night, they repeated the following verses.' It was a time—0, but it was a time! A time of ecstasy : “When proud-pied April was in all his trim,' and even 'heavy Saturn' must have laughed, if only to keep his yoke-fellow, Wordsworth, in company; Wordsworth with his thick airs, and his luminous Belt, and his dull but steady-going group of Moons! A time of gold, I say ; yet had it a most strange outcome. In 1798 Coleridge and Wordsworth were Revolutionaries in everything: they looked to France for liberty, for change, for a shining and enduring example. Hazlitt was with them now and here: his also was a revolutionary soul, he also was of a mind with Danton, he also looked to France for leading and light, he also held
1 In 1805 he produced his essay on the Principles of Human Action. Being no metaphysician, I have never read this work; but Mr. Leslie Stephen, who is a very competent person in these matters, I am told, assures me (D. N. B.) that it is scrupulously dry,' though showing great acuteness.' This, I take leave to say --this is Hazlitt all over. None has written of the workaday elements in life and time with a rarer taste, a finer relish, a stronger confidence in himself and them. Yet, in dealing with absolutes in life and time, he is scrupulously dry.' This, I take it, is to be a man of letters.
the assault delivered upon France for an assault against Freedom. But Coleridge and Wordsworth changed their minds, and readjusted their points of view; and he did not. They loved not Bonaparte; and he did. And the end of it was that, so far as I know, he never wrote with so ripe and sensual a gust : not even, to my mind, when he was merely annihilating Gifford : as when, long years after NetherStowey, he broke in upon the strong, solid hold of Wordsworth's egotism, and tore to tatters—tatters which he flung upon the wind — the old, greasy prophet's mantle, which Coleridge had sported to so little purpose for so many years. To Hazlitt, the dissenter born, the deeply brooding, the inflexible-to Hazlitt, I say, these TwinStars of the Romantic Movement were common turn-coats; and he dealt with them on occasion as he thought fit. But he never lost his interest in them; and when it comes to a comparison between Wordsworth, the renegade, and Byron, the leader of storming-parties, the captain of forlorn-hopes, then is his idiosyncrasy revealed. He hacks and stabs, he jibes and sneers and denies, till there is no Byron left, and the sole poet of the century is the 'gentlemanly creature—reads nothing but his own poetry, I believe,'—whose best passages, in a moment of supreme geniality, he once likened, not to their advantage, to those of the classic Akenside.'
It was from Nether-Stowey that Hazlitt dated his regard for poetry. But if literature came late to him, as (his father's office and his own metaphysical inklings aiding) it did, he ever cherished a pure and ardent passion for it, once it had come. Yet he was by no means widely read, and in his last years seldom finished a new book. First and last, indeed, he was a man of few books and fewer authors. Shakespeare, Burke, Cervantes, Rabelais, Milton, the Decameron, the Nouvelle Héloïse and the Confessions, Richardson's epics of the parlour and Fielding's epics of the road—these things and their kind he read intensely; and, when it pleased him to speak of them, it was ever in the terms of understanding and regard. Yet it was long ere he had any thought of writing ; and it was necessity alone that made him a 1 Or rather bedgown : unction-soiled and laudanum-stained.
man of letters. In the beginning, the Pulpit proving impossible, he turned to painting for a career, and, after certain studies, presumably under his elder brother John, and possibly under Northcote, he went to the Paris of the First Consul, and painted there for some four months in a Louvre which the thrift of Bonaparte had stored with the choicest plunder in Italian Art. I know not whether or no he could ever have been a painter. Haydon, who neither loved nor understood him, and was, besides, a man who could greatly dare and toil terribly'-Haydon says that he was at once too lazy and too timid ever to succeed in painting: an art in which, as Haydon showed, and as Millet was presently to say, 'You must flay yourself alive, and give your skin.'? I do not think that Hazlitt was daunted by what may be called the painfulness of painting ; for in letters he was soon enough to prove that he had in him to face world in arms, and to tincture his writings, if need were, with the best blood of his heart. In any case, after divers essays at copying in the Louvre,3 and certain attempts at portraiture on his return to England, 4 he found that he could not excel ; that, in fact, he was neither Titian nor Rembrandt, nor could he even be Sir Joshua. So he painted no more, but went on reading certain painters : very much, I assume, as he went on taking certain authors; because he loved them for themselves, and found emotions—and not only emotions, but sensations 5_in them.
John Hazlitt had been a pupil of Reynolds, and his miniatures were welcome at the Academy.
2 Dans l'art il faut donner sa peau.
3 He had a painter in him, whether imperfectly developed or not ; for he would condescend upon none but Guido, Raphael, Titian.
* One was a likeness of his father, of which he has written in eloquent and engaging terms ; another, a Wordsworth, which he destroyed ; a third, the picture of Elia, “as a Venetian senator,' now in the National Portrait Gallery ; yet another, the presentment of an Old Woman, which is likened to a Rembrandt. Having seen none of these things, all I can say about them is that Hazlitt seems to have been passionately interested in colour ; that he loved a picture because it was a piece of painting ; and, if he knew not always bad (or rather third and fourth rate) work when he saw it, was as contemptuous of it, when he realised its status, as Fuseli himself.
5 There is an immense, even an insuperable difference between the two sorts of sensualists. To take an immediate instance : Lamb loved Hogarth, and found
His ideals are Claude, Rembrandt, Raphael, Poussin, Titian ; he gives you very gentlemanly and intelligent estimates of Watteau and Velasquez ; he has an eye-a right one—for Rubens and Van Dyck; he exults in Jan Steen, has words of worth for Ruysdael and Hobbima, and gives Turner as neat a croc-en-jambe as you could wish to see. But, despite his training and his gift, he is no more in advance of his age than the best of us here and now. To him the Carraccis and Salvator are sommités of a kind ; if, so far as I remember, he will have nought to do with Carlo Dolci, he will not do without his Guido; I have read no word of his on Lawrence, no word of his on Constable, none on Morland; on Hogarth he is chiefly literary, on Turner not much more than diabolically ingenious. Wisely or not, he took pictures as he took books: they might be few, but they must be good; and, not only good but, of (as he believed) the best. If they were not, or if they were new, he drew them not to his heart, nor adorned the chambers of his mind with them. Those chambers were filled with good things long since done. To him, then, what were the best things doing? It was his habit to take the good thing on; savour its excellences to their last sucket; meditate it strictly, jealously, privily, longingly; say, if it must be so, a few last words about it—some for the painter, more for the man of letters ; 1 and then ...? Well, then he accepted the situation. I do not know that he cared much for Keats; I do know that he found Shelley impossible, that he was never exalted Wordsworthian, and that he hesitated-(ever so little, but he hesitated !)—even at Charles Lamb. Politics and all, in truth, he was a prophet who adored the past, and had but an infidel
emotions in him, because he (Hogarth) was a novelist in paint; while Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne touched his sense of letters, and, as Mr. Ainger has noted, suggested to him so much literature, or, at all events, so many literary possibilities, that Titian could not but be an arch-painter. Hazlitt felt his painter first, and thought not of the man-of-letters in his painter till his interest in his painter's painting was—I won't say extinguished but—allayed.
1 The point in debate,' he says, 'the worth or the bad quality of the painting ... I am as well able to decide upon as any who ever brandished a pallette.' I doubt not that he spoke the truth ; yet the residuum of his criticisms of pictures, their after-taste, is mostly literary. And, as he was finally a man of letters, what else could one expect ?
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. 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 placesBurleigh 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 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,