LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

My Friends and Acquaintance
William Hazlitt XXI

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
Creative Commons License

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH

With the exception of those living writers, and, indeed, of those particular passages in their works which touched him privately and individually, Hazlitt scarcely ever referred to a contemporary work unless as a matter of business, or opened its pages except as a task; and of no one of those writers, except Scott, had he (as I have said) read a tithe of their productions. Yet he has written elaborate critical estimates of about twenty of the most distinguished, in his “Spirit of the Age.” And if you take those estimates only for what they are worth, and with that degree of qualification with which all his critical writings must be taken, it will be found that they are, at the very least, as complete and satisfactory as any others that are to be met with elsewhere, touching the same writers.


But the truth is, that in no case whatever could Hazlitt’s estimates of persons be taken implicitly; because it was impossible for him to prevent—and he never for a moment tried to prevent—his own intense personal feelings from blending with and giving a colour to such estimates. And of living persons—of those who came, as it were, into hourly intellectual contact with him, by breathing the same air and treading on the same earth—he could not even form, much less set forth, a fair and unbiassed opinion. What I have to say, therefore, as to his personal opinions of his contemporaries is offered purely for what it is worth, and as illustrative of his own personal character, not of theirs—as a thing curious and interesting to know, but not to be brought against the reputations to which it refers, as a set-off from the just award they have received at the hands of the most enlightened public opinion that any age has boasted within the compass of human annals—at least in literary matters.

Having, in justice to others no less than to Hazlitt himself, premised thus much, I shall state a few of his personal opinions, or rather
feelings, about the most conspicuous among his contemporaries, whether personal acquaintances of his own or not; and this without inquiring how far those opinions may agree with or differ from his published ones on the same subject respectively.

Hazlitt looked upon Lord Byron as—a lord!—a clever and accomplished one—but nothing more. He considered that Byron occupied the throne of Poetry by the same sort of “divine right” by which “legitimate” kings occupy their thrones. His poetry he regarded, for the most part, as a sort of exaggerated common-place—the result of a mixture of personal anger and egotism, powerful and effective only from the excess of passion it embodied—of passion in the vulgar sense of that word. He was “in a passion” with himself, and with everything, and everybody about him; and being under no personal or moral restraints of any kind, the exhibition of this emotion became sufficiently striking and interesting to amount to the poetical.

I remember having occasionally played at whist with a person who, on any occurrence
of extraordinary ill-luck, used to lay his cards down deliberately, and bite a piece out of the back of his hand! This person was, under ordinary circumstances, the very ideal of a “gentleman”—bland, polished, courteous, forbearing, kind, and self-possessed to an extraordinary degree; and his personal appearance in every respect corresponded with his manners and bearing; so that the occasional exhibitions of passion that I have alluded to were perfectly awful.
Hazlitt’s own passions sometimes produced similar results. I have seen him more than once, at the Fives Court in St. Martin’s Street, on making a bad stroke or missing his ball at some critical point of the game, fling his racket to the other end of the court, walk deliberately to the centre, with uplifted hands imprecate the most fearful curses on his head for his stupidity, and then rush to the side wall and literally dash his head against it! The sight in both these cases was terrific; but, then, anybody could have produced it by using the same bodily action.

Now, Hazlitt seemed to think that Lord Byron’s poetry was something on a par with
these merely physical exhibitions of bodily passion. He was in one habitual passion—with his poverty, with his lameness, with his loss of caste in society, and, above all, with the
Edinburgh Review, for having told him the truth about his boyish verses; and, accordingly, his whole life and conversation were one continuous “unpacking of his heart with words,” for want of daring or being able to use sharper weapons against himself and his fellow-beings. Anybody might have written his poetry (so Hazlitt thought and said) if they could only have worked themselves up to an equal amount of personal rage and hatred against himself and all mankind.

Such was Hazlitt’s general opinion of Byron; and there is no denying that it is true of a certain part of his poetry—of the bad part of it—in other words, of that part which is not poetry at all;—of the blasphemy, the profligacy, the indecency, the utter and elaborate wickedness, the “malice prepense” against all the human race,—all of which are so painfully conspicuous in almost every part of that shame and scandal of the age—“Don Juan.” And it is not very
far from the truth of much of that portion of his works which embody (however blended with other things) his own individual character. But it is scarcely needful to say how utterly false and unfair it is when applied to his poetry as a general proposition—how ridiculously inapplicable it is to the lofty grandeur and severe beauty of his Tragedies (hitherto wholly unappreciated); to the profound and subtle philosophy, and the burning passion (using the word in its poetical sense), of the “
Manfred;” to the sublime imaginations and beatific visions of many parts of the supernatural Dramas; to the unequalled descriptions and imagery of the “Childe Harold;” to the soul-melting pathos and perfect purity of the “Stanzas to Thirza,” the “Dream,” &c. It is in virtue of these, and in spite of the mere personal egotism and vulgar malice of much of his writings, that Byron enjoys and deserves his high reputation, and will continue to enjoy it while Milton and Shakspeare maintain theirs.