LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

My Friends and Acquaintance
William Hazlitt II

Vol I Contents
Charles Lamb I
Charles Lamb II
Charles Lamb III
Charles Lamb IV
Charles Lamb V
Charles Lamb VI
Charles Lamb VII
Charles Lamb VIII
Charles Lamb IX
Charles Lamb X
Thomas Campbell I
Thomas Campbell II
Thomas Campbell III
Thomas Campbell IV
Thomas Campbell V
Thomas Campbell VI
Thomas Campbell VII
Lady Blessington I
Lady Blessington II
Lady Blessington III
Lady Blessington IV
Lady Blessington V
R. Plumer Ward I
R. Plumer Ward II
R. Plumer Ward III
R. Plumer Ward IV
R. Plumer Ward V
R. Plumer Ward VI
Appendix vol I
Vol II Contents
R. Plumer Ward VII
R. Plumer Ward VIII
R. Plumer Ward IX
R. Plumer Ward X
R. Plumer Ward XI
R. Plumer Ward XII
R. Plumer Ward XIII
R. Plumer Ward XIV
R. Plumer Ward XV
R. Plumer Ward XVI
R. Plumer Ward XVII
R. Plumer Ward XVIII
R. Plumer Ward XIX
R. Plumer Ward XX
R. Plumer Ward XXI
R. Plumer Ward XXII
R. Plumer Ward XXIII
Horace & James Smith I
Horace & James Smith II
William Hazlitt I
‣ William Hazlitt II
William Hazlitt III
William Hazlitt IV
William Hazlitt V
William Hazlitt VI
William Hazlitt VII
William Hazlitt VIII
Appendix vol II
Vol III Contents
William Hazlitt IX
William Hazlitt X
William Hazlitt XI
William Hazlitt XII
William Hazlitt XIII
William Hazlitt XIV
William Hazlitt XV
William Hazlitt XVI
William Hazlitt XVII
William Hazlitt XVIII
William Hazlitt XIX
William Hazlitt XX
William Hazlitt XXI
William Hazlitt XXII
William Hazlitt XXIII
William Hazlitt XXIV
William Hazlitt XXV
William Hazlitt XXVI
Laman Blanchard I
Laman Blanchard II
Laman Blanchard III
Laman Blanchard IV
Laman Blanchard V
Laman Blanchard VI
Laman Blanchard VII
Laman Blanchard VIII
R & T Sheridan I
R & T Sheridan II
R & T Sheridan III
R & T Sheridan IV
R & T Sheridan V
R & T Sheridan VI
R & T Sheridan VII
R & T Sheridan VIII
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It is, perhaps, worth remark, that my early intercourse with William Hazlitt has left on my memory a singularly vivid impression of the local circumstances and objects connected with it. I remember every room in which I have seen him, as clearly as if I were now sitting in it, and the exact situation and attitudes in which I was accustomed to see him sit or stand when conversing with him. I make the observation, because it would not be applicable to my intercourse with any other of the distinguished men of the day. The reason probably is, that our susceptibility to external impressions at any given time, and our consequent power of retaining them, is proportioned to the interest we feel
in the immediate source of those impressions. I have not slightly or unduly appreciated and enjoyed the intercourse that has fallen to my lot with a large proportion of the remarkable men of our day, in every department of human acquirement; but I have never been induced to feel that any one of them claimed or justified that profound intellectual study which I was always (in spite of myself) called upon to apply in the case of William Hazlitt; or it may be that he alone was always susceptible of that study, by reason of the beautifully simple and natural cast of his character; in which spring and evidence of true greatness of capacity, I do not believe him to have been surpassed by any man that ever lived. If “to know a man truly were to know himself,” then was William Hazlitt’s character, though the least common in the world, so legibly written in his daily conduct and converse, that for those who saw much of him to mistake it was next to impossible. Yet no character was ever so mistaken and misrepresented.

Leaving the onus of this charge to be
divided between the wilful blindness of his friends and the wilful falsehood of his enemies, I will say, that I believe the certainty of not coming away empty-handed was the secret of the strong and unwearied interest that I always felt in his society, even at the very time when I felt an inexpressible horror and dread of his supposed personal character,—as was the case at the time I am now speaking of. From all that I had heard, both from his enemies (and even from his so-called friends) and the little I had hitherto seen for myself, I looked upon him, personally, as little better than an incarnate fiend: and those who recollect the looks that occasionally came over him (as if, against his will, to warn bystanders of their danger) will scarcely deem this an exaggerated description of the feeling. Yet my desire to see and know him was not the less strong and urgent; and hence, as I conceive, the peculiar vividness with which I retain my impressions of the local circumstances under which we met.

I went to him in York Street, in consequence of the note referred to above; and, though I have never since (until this mo-
ment) attempted to recal the scene, it lives before me now as if it were of yesterday. On knocking at the door, it was, after a long interval, opened by a sufficiently “neat-handed” domestic. The outer door led immediately from the street (down a step) into an empty apartment, indicating an uninhabited house, and I supposed I had mistaken the number; but, on asking for the object of my search, I was shown to a door which opened (a step from the ground) on to a ladder-like staircase, bare like the rest, which led to a dark bare landing-place, and thence to a large square wainscotted apartment. The great curtainless windows of this room looked upon some dingy trees; the whole of the wall, over and about the chimney-piece, was entirely covered, up to the ceiling, by names written in pencil, of all sizes and characters, and in all directions—commemorative of visits of curiosity to “the house of
Pindarus.”* There was, near to the empty fireplace, a table with breakfast things upon it

* The house had been the residence of Milton, and now belonged to Jeremy Bentham, over whose garden it looked.

(though it was two o’clock in the afternoon); three chairs and a sofa were standing about the room, and one unbound book lay on the mantelpiece. At the table sat
Hazlitt, and on the sofa a lady, whom I found to be his wife.

My reception was not very inviting; and it struck me at once (what had not occurred to me before) that in asking facilities for criticising William Hazlitt in “Blackwood’s Magazine,” I had taken a step open to the suspicion of either mischief or mystification, or both. However, I soon satisfied him that my object and design were anything but unfriendly. To be what he called “puffed” in so unlooked-for a quarter was evidently deemed a god-send; it put him in excellent humour accordingly; and the “Lake Poets” being mentioned, and finding me something of a novice in such matters (and moreover an excellent listener), he talked for a couple of hours, without intermission, on those “personal themes,” which he evidently “loved best,” and with which, in this instance, he mixed up that spice of malice which was never, or rarely, absent from his discourse about his quondam friends, Wordsworth,
Coleridge, and Southey, and which so strangely interfered with his general estimate of their pretensions—or rather (for such I believe to have been the case) with that perfect good faith with which he was accustomed to give his estimates to the world: for I believe the above-named were the only instances in which he did not say of celebrated men all the good that he thought, as well as the bad. But to put the seal of his critical fiat to the fame of men whom he believed to have treated him personally as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey were supposed by him to have done, was scarcely in human nature.

The above was my first initiation into themes of this nature; and I must confess that the way in which Hazlitt stripped off the attributes of divinity with which I had hitherto invested those idols of my boyish worship, was not so unpalatable to my taste as I should myself have expected it to be. The truth is, we are not sorry to learn that any of our fellow-beings are less immaculate or superlative in personal character than our imaginations, excited by their written works,
had led us to suppose them: nor do I know that it in the least degree interferes with the effect which their works are calculated to produce upon us afterwards, or to impair those we already possess. On the contrary, it perhaps aggrandises our impressions of them, from the seeming inadequacy of the source whence they flow, and soothes our personal feelings into the belief that we ourselves are not so immeasurably inferior to these “gods of the earth” as we had been accustomed to deem ourselves. We do not think the less of
Shakspeare for being told that he was a link-boy or a deer-stealer; and we do think very considerably less of Goethe from knowing that he was, for his worldly wisdom, deemed fit to be the privy councillor, and for his unimpeachable morals and manners the personal friend and associate, of an absolute prince. The only difference is, that after the new light has come to us, the product is thenceforth one thing, and the producer another; whereas they were before inextricably linked and blended together; and our impressions of the latter, as derived from the former, besides being altogether
gratuitous, were infinitely more likely to be the false interpretation than the true one. To which it may be added, that what the human soul instinctively yearns for and reaches after, as the hart pants for the water-brooks, is not this or that vague generality, or empty and unmeaning abstraction, but the truth. Whatever it may be, or wheresoever it may lead, truth is the goal to which the undiverted tendency of the human mind points all its affections; and it is never satisfied or at rest till this is reached. The natural and healthful condition of any given mind may, in a great degree, be estimated by the strength or weakness with which it retains and is acted upon by this bias; and the lingering love which is perpetually pointing to it, after it has been destroyed by the conventional ordinances of the world, is a proof and a measure of its original amount. We love all other things for something else not inherent in themselves; but we love the truth for itself alone. In this sense it is that “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.” We desire, first and foremost, to know what a thing is: it is time
enough afterwards to inquire the why and wherefore—the how and when. These are very well as matters of amusement and curiosity; but the truth is the only pabulum of our mental and moral existence—the only real necessity—the only veritable “staff of life.” We can live by it in health and vigour, deprived of all other things; and with all others, that wanting, we pine and pule and fret away our fruitless days, in an empty and uneasy search after that which is not to be found. Nor when the truth is once attained on any given point of inquiry, is the searcher at a moment’s loss in the recognition of it, nor does he seek to proceed another step in his pursuit. They say “marriages are made in heaven,” and that when the objects destined for each other meet, the recognition is instant and mutual. At least it is so with Truth and the Human Soul; and it is a marriage which, when once consummated, cannot know division or divorce. We may pass from the cradle to the grave without meeting with this bride of our souls; or we may meet with a thousand “false Florizels,” and
mistake each of them for the true one; but we cannot meet with the true one and mistake or reject her. It is not in the nature of things.

The reader will I hope excuse this digression, in favour of the occasion which suggested itself; for if ever there was a human mind devoted and self-sacrificed to the love of truth, it was that of William Hazlitt; and he pursued the search of it with a fearless pertinacity only equalled by the sagacity which pointed out and applied the means and materials of the discovery. This love of truth was the leading feature of his mind, and it was the key to all its weaknesses, errors, and inconsistencies, as well as to all its extraordinary powers and the successful application of them. He used to boast of being “a good hater.” If the boast and the habit were uncharitable ones, they were the offspring of that love of truth which was the passion of his soul, and that power of eliciting it which was the great characteristic of his intellect. If, while conscious of his own errors and failings, he felt and expressed too bitter a scorn for those of others, it was because others, instead of
owning and despising their frailties as he did, insist on monstering them into virtues and subjects of personal vanity, and the world abets and encourages them in the mischievous self-deception. If, instead of being content to use his great powers in calmly exposing the false pretensions of the world to that contempt which they merit, he was too apt to seize upon them with a savage fury, and tear them to pieces, as the wild beast tears and rends the cloak that is flung upon it to blind its eyes from the attacks of its enemies, it was because his self-control was less than his detestation of the debasing consequences that spring from the admission of those pretensions; it was because it drove him mad to see whole nations, generation after generation, dragged like slaves and idiots at the chariot-wheels of a few empty and vulgar idols—bound there by liliputian threads that a breath might have broken.

This first lengthened interview of mine with Hazlitt ended by his promising to let me have the MS. of his lectures, to do what I pleased with, and we parted on a better footing than we had met; though evidently
with as little prospect as before of our ever becoming intimate associates:—for the way in which he handled his quondam friends, as above described, did anything but decrease the dread I had been taught to entertain of his personal character.