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William Hazlitt: Philosopher, Essayist, and Critic

Updated on May 4, 2012

William Hazlitt: Philosopher, Essayist, and Critic

Among the many great essayists of the Romantic era, considered one of the best is William Hazlitt. The London born actor Hazlitt was extremely trenchant essayist, and a blunt and overall carping critic known for arguing over a vast field of topics such as government and politics of England. When writing “On the Pleasure of Hating” and his other essays, William Hazlitt was influenced most prominently by his life and schooling, other great writers, and his literary experience.

Hazlitt’s father was a minister who was known for his radical political beliefs influenced Hazlitt in the sense that he grew up with the same political values and stayed faithful to those beliefs until his death (Adcock 650). These radical tendencies are also believed to be the reason for his fighting. Hazlitt was always known to argue and fight, and this was a source of happiness for him (“Hazlitt” 418). At first following in his father’s footsteps, Hazlitt went to college in London studying and learning in the field of ministry; however, the young William Hazlitt withdrew from these plans (Krueger 1). After giving up the field of ministry, Hazlitt then began to explore the fields of philosophy, politics, and literature that made him the tough critic and quintessential writer that he became known as.

Continuing his young life, Hazlitt attended Hackney College in London to study philosophy as a teenager and young adult (Adcock 650). While interested in philosophy, he wrote books and lectures on the subject, further expanding his experience and diversity of literary fields. Hazlitt then changed his interests another time by switching his focus onto politics and the French Revolution, which Hazlitt was in favor of (Krueger 1). Not only was Hazlitt a huge supporter of the French Revolution, but also supported the French ruler, Napoleon Bonaparte. Contrary to the opinions of many people, Hazlitt viewed Napoleon as a hero rather than a power-hungry emperor (Krueger 1). The reason for William Hazlitt’s opinions on Napoleon can best be supported by the fact that he was extremely radical in his politics, because many other radical politicians shared the same views of the French emperor Napoleon. Throughout Hazlitt’s younger years, he explored philosophy, politics, and literature while he grew as a writer. The diversity of his literary abilities created his convincing style.

Also playing a vital role in the development of influences in Hazlitt’s writing is the influence of great writers such as William Shakespeare and Wordsworth. For example, “the dialect of this poetics of power depends upon an interplay of Shakespearean and Wordsworthian influences upon Hazlitt (Bloom 72).” Shakespeare was an especially important influence in the sense that Hazlitt was known for writing essays on Shakespeare. William Shakespeare gave Hazlitt “an awareness that character may be fate, yet only personality bestows some measure of freedom (Bloom 72).” In addition to Shakespeare, he also exhibited great insight regarding the literary works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. By studying Coleridge, Hazlitt was able to continue developing his impressionistic criticism, including its most important trait, gusto. Gusto was the zest or hearty keen enjoyment that Hazlitt used within his essays not only to appeal to those that agree with him, but also those that may contradict his beliefs (Adcock 649). This gusto also is to be found within the essay “On the Pleasure of Hating,” where Hazlitt appeals to all audiences throughout the essay by allowing his writings to apply to everyone.

From Wordsworth, Hazlitt took “a new consciousness of how a writer could begin again despite the strength and persistence of cultural traditions (Bloom 72).” Also from Wordsworth, Hazlitt became more advanced in the originality of writing by learning to replace subject matter with subjectivity (Bloom 73). By studying writers such as Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Coleridge, and others, Hazlitt was influenced by his writing not only by gaining his gusto, which has been noted as his dominate trait, but he developed a style all his own.

Also extremely important in influencing Hazlitt’s writing is his vast and well-rounded knowledge and experience in the field of literature. When he became interested in politics, he began working for Parliament for the Morning Chronicle as a reporter. Also he began work on many essays that were collected in books such as Original Essays on Men and Manners, The Plain Speaker: Opinions on Books, Men, and Things, and Table Talk. He also wrote for many magazines including London Magazine, the Examiner, and New Monthly Magazine. As a critic andwriter, “these helped establish Hazlitt as a tough, outspoken, and independent-minded critic (Krueger 1).” Being the tough critic that he is, Hazlitt was able to earn the respect of other literary writers; however, he lost friends in the process. But this was the nature of Hazlitt’s behavior, and this is what made him the great critic that he was. He was never afraid to challenge another writer or critic, and always stood by his beliefs. Even if it meant damaging relationships with another person.

While Hazlitt gave lectures on philosophy, writings covered far more than this field. He wrote on the subjects of ethics, politics, and economics as well (Adcock 649). He further expanded his experience in literature as he began work in journalism, working for The Morning Chronicle. He worked up from a journalist all the way to becoming the drama critic. Also, he was writing essays here and there for other periodicals such as the Edinburgh Review and Leigh Hunt’s Examiner. Hazlitt continued to work while he published more works such as Liber Amoris: Or, The New Pygmalion, The Spirit of the Age: Or Contemporary Portraits, and The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, which was his final work. He also contributed essays to many volumes. The broad range of literary experience gives him the edge over others, and has him more prepared in his writings. He learned to “make them [Hazlitt’s ideas for essays] personal without reducing their vitality (Salvesen 130).” For example, in Hazlitt’s essay, “On the Pleasure of Hating”, he writes of a spider crawling across the floor where he sits:

But as I do not start up and seize upon the straggling caitiff, as he would upon a hapless fly within his toils, he takes heart, and ventures on with mingled cunning, impudence and fear. As he passes me, I lift up the matting to assist his escape, am glad to get rid of the unwelcome intruder, and shudder at the recollection after is gone . . . I bear the creature no illwill, but still I hate the very sight of it. The spirit of malevolence survives the practical exertion of it. (Hazlitt 112)

In the essay, Hazlitt makes his ideas personal by referring to his self, and stating how he feels on the subject.

From his schooling as a young man, his father’s radical beliefs, studying writers such as Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, to working for uncountable and various jobs for papers and magazines, Hazlitt grew as a writer and was greatly influenced by all of these variables when he wrote the essay “On the Pleasure of Hating” and the entirety of his other literary works. Although he never was widely known or received great fame during his lifetime, he is now one of the greatest critics and essayists of the Romantic era.


Works Cited

Adcock, Patrick. “William Hazlitt.” Critical Survey of Literary Theory. Ed. Frank N.

Mangill. Vol. 2. Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, 1986. 649-654. 3 Vols. Print.

Bloom, Harold. Essayists and Prophets. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005.

Print.

Hazlitt, William. “On the Pleasure of Hating.” The Oxford Book of Essays. Ed. John

Gross. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. 112-122. Print.

Krueger, Christine, ed. “Hazlitt, William.” Encyclopediaof British Writers, 19th Century.

New York: Facts on File, 2002. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. Web. 16 February 2010

Salvesen, Christopher. “The Plain-Speaking Intimacy of Hazlitt’s Essays.” English

Romanticism. Ed. Laura K. Egendorf. San Diego: Greenhaven Press. 130-135. Print.

“William Hazlitt.” The Outline of Literature. Ed. John Drinkwater. London: George

Newnes Ltd., 1923. 418-421. Print

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