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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
should have lacked some admirable pages in the Political Essays and The Spirit of the Age, nor should we now be privileged to rejoice in the dignified and splendid savagery of the Letter to William Gifford. And, if I do not regret them for myself and the many who think with me, still less can I wish them wanting for Hazlitt's sake; for if they had been, who shall say how dull and how profitless, how weary and flat and stale, some years of what he described, in his last words to his kind, as “a happy life'-how mean and beggarly may not some days in these years have seemed? But there is, after all, a reason for being rather sorry than not that Hazlitt's polemic was so brilliant, his young conviction so unalterably constant, his example so detestable as it seemed to the magnificent ruffian in Blackwood and the infinitely spiteful underling in The Quarterly. The British Public of those days was a good, hard-hitting, hard-drinking, hardliving lot; and, in the matter of letters, there was no guile in it.
It read its Campbell, its Rogers, its Moore, its Hook and Egan and Jon Bee; it accepted its convinced and pedantic sycophant in Southey, its gay, light-hearted protestant in Leigh Hunt; it nibbled at its Wordsworth, knew not what to make of its Coleridge, swallowed its Cobbett (that prince of pugilists) as its morning rasher and toast; it made much of Hone, yet was far from contemptuous of Westmacott; it laid itself open to its Scott and its Byron, Michael and Satan, the Angel of Acceptance and the Angel of Revolt. Withal it was essentially a Tory Public: a public long practised in fearing God and honouring the King; with half an ear for Major Cartwright and his like, and a whole mind for the story of Randal and Cribb; honestly and jovially proud of Nelson and The Duke,' but neither loving the Emperor nor seeking to understand him. Now, to Hazlitt the Revolution was humanity in excelsis, while the Emperor, being democracy incarnate, and so a complete expression of character and human genius, was as his god. Gifford, then, and Wilson, had small difficulty in blasting Hazlitt's fame, and in so far ruining Hazlitt's chance that 'tis but now, after some seventy years, that he takes his place in literary history as the hero of a Complete Edition. In the meanwhile he has had praise, and praise again. But it has come ever from the few, and he has yet to be considered of the general as a critic of many elements in human activity, a
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, 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.'