This major American writer dares, inspires, and cajoles us into reading and writing with renewed conviction and resistance to the meretricious.
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On 14 January , Hazlitt, in what was to prove a turning point in his life, encountered Coleridge as the latter preached at the Unitarian chapel in Shrewsbury. A minister at the time, Coleridge had as yet none of the fame that would later accrue to him as a poet, critic, and philosopher.
Hazlitt, like Thomas de Quincey and many others afterwards, was swept off his feet by Coleridge's dazzlingly erudite eloquence. Truth and Genius had embraced, under the eye and with the sanction of Religion. In April Hazlitt jumped at Coleridge's invitation to visit him at his residence in Nether Stowey , and that same day was taken to call in on William Wordsworth at his house in Alfoxton. While he was not immediately struck by Wordsworth's appearance, in observing the cast of Wordsworth's eyes as they contemplated a sunset, he reflected, "With what eyes these poets see nature!
All three were fired by the ideals of liberty and the rights of man. Rambling across the countryside, they talked of poetry, philosophy, and the political movements that were shaking up the old order. This unity of spirit was not to last: Hazlitt himself would recall disagreeing with Wordsworth on the philosophical underpinnings of his projected poem The Recluse ,  just as he had earlier been amazed that Coleridge could dismiss David Hume , regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of that century, as a charlatan.
Meanwhile, the fact remained that Hazlitt had chosen not to follow a pastoral vocation.
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Although he never abandoned his goal of writing a philosophical treatise on the disinterestedness of the human mind, it had to be put aside indefinitely. Still dependent on his father, he was now obliged to earn his own living.
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Artistic talent seemed to run in the family on his mother's side and, starting in , he became increasingly fascinated by painting. His brother, John, had by now become a successful painter of miniature portraits. So it occurred to William that he might earn a living similarly, and he began to take lessons from John.
Hazlitt also visited various picture galleries, and he began to get work doing portraits, painting somewhat in the style of Rembrandt. By , his work was considered good enough that a portrait he had recently painted of his father was accepted for exhibition by the Royal Academy. Later in , Hazlitt was commissioned to travel to Paris and copy several works of the Old Masters hanging in the Louvre. This was one of the great opportunities of his life.
Over a period of three months, he spent long hours rapturously studying the gallery's collections,  and hard thinking and close analysis would later inform a considerable body of his art criticism. He also happened to catch sight of Napoleon , a man he idolised as the rescuer of the common man from the oppression of royal " Legitimacy ".
Back in England, Hazlitt again travelled up into the country, having obtained several commissions to paint portraits. One commission again proved fortunate, as it brought him back in touch with Coleridge and Wordsworth, both of whose portraits he painted, as well as one of Coleridge's son Hartley.
Hazlitt aimed to create the best pictures he could, whether they flattered their subjects or not, and neither poet was satisfied with his result, though Wordsworth and their mutual friend Robert Southey considered his portrait of Coleridge a better likeness than one by the celebrated James Northcote.
Recourse to prostitutes was unexceptional among literary—and other—men of that period,  and if Hazlitt was to differ from his contemporaries, the difference lay in his unabashed candour about such arrangements.
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He had however grossly misread her intentions and an altercation broke out which led to his precipitous retreat from the town under cover of darkness. This public blunder placed a further strain on his relations with both Coleridge and Wordsworth, which were already fraying for other reasons. Their friendship, though sometimes strained by Hazlitt's difficult ways, lasted until the end of Hazlitt's life. With few commissions for painting, Hazlitt seized the opportunity to ready for publication his philosophical treatise, which, according to his son, he had completed by Godwin intervened to help him find a publisher, and the work, An Essay on the Principles of Human Action: Being an Argument in favour of the Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind , was printed in a limited edition of copies by Joseph Johnson on 19 July Although the treatise he valued above anything else he wrote was never, at least in his own lifetime, recognised for what he believed was its true worth,  it brought him attention as one who had a grasp of contemporary philosophy.
He therefore was commissioned to abridge and write a preface to a now obscure work of mental philosophy, The Light of Nature Pursued by Abraham Tucker originally published in seven volumes from to , which appeared in  and may have had some influence on his own later thinking. Slowly Hazlitt began to find enough work to eke out a bare living. His outrage at events then taking place in English politics in reaction to Napoleon's wars led to his writing and publishing, at his own expense though he had almost no money , a political pamphlet, Free Thoughts on Public Affairs ,  an attempt to mediate between private economic interests and a national application of the thesis of his Essay that human motivation is not, inherently, entirely selfish.
Hazlitt also contributed three letters to William Cobbett 's Weekly Political Register at this time, all scathing critiques of Thomas Malthus 's Essay on the Principle of Population and later editions. Here he replaced the dense, abstruse manner of his philosophical work with the trenchant prose style that was to be the hallmark of his later essays. Hazlitt's philippic , dismissing Malthus's argument on population limits as sycophantic rhetoric to flatter the rich, since large swathes of uncultivated land lay all round England, has been hailed as "the most substantial, comprehensive, and brilliant of the Romantic ripostes to Malthus".
In the prefaces to the speeches, he began to show a skill he would later develop to perfection, the art of the pithy character sketch. He was able to find more work as a portrait painter as well. Miss Stoddart, an unconventional woman, accepted Hazlitt and tolerated his eccentricities just as he, with his own somewhat offbeat individualism, accepted her.
Together they made an agreeable social foursome with the Lambs, who visited them when they set up a household in Winterslow , a village a few miles from Salisbury , Wiltshire, in southern England. The couple had three sons over the next few years, Only one of their children, William , born in , survived infancy.
He in turn fathered William Carew Hazlitt. As the head of a family, Hazlitt was now more than ever in need of money. Through William Godwin, with whom he was frequently in touch, he obtained a commission to write an English grammar , published on 11 November as A New and Improved Grammar of the English Tongue.
Though completed in , this work did not see the light of day until , and so provided no financial gain to satisfy the needs of a young husband and father. Hazlitt in the meantime had not forsaken his painterly ambitions. His environs at Winterslow afforded him opportunities for landscape painting, and he spent considerable time in London procuring commissions for portraits.
In January Hazlitt embarked on a sometime career as a lecturer, in this first instance by delivering a series of talks on the British philosophers at the Russell Institution in London. A central thesis of the talks was that Thomas Hobbes , rather than John Locke, had laid the foundations of modern philosophy.
After a shaky beginning, Hazlitt attracted some attention—and some much-needed money—by these lectures, and they provided him with an opportunity to expound some of his own ideas. The year seems to have been the last in which Hazlitt persisted seriously in his ambition to make a career as a painter. Although he had demonstrated some talent, the results of his most impassioned efforts always fell far short of the very standards he had set by comparing his own work with the productions of such masters as Rembrandt, Titian , and Raphael.
It did not help that, when painting commissioned portraits, he refused to sacrifice his artistic integrity to the temptation to flatter his subjects for remunerative gain. The results, not infrequently, failed to please their subjects, and he consequently failed to build a clientele.
Soon he met John Hunt , publisher of The Examiner , and his younger brother Leigh Hunt , the poet and essayist, who edited the weekly paper. Hazlitt admired both as champions of liberty, and befriended especially the younger Hunt, who found work for him. He began to contribute miscellaneous essays to The Examiner in , and the scope of his work for the Chronicle was expanded to include drama criticism , literary criticism , and political essays.
In The Champion was added to the list of periodicals that accepted Hazlitt's by-now profuse output of literary and political criticism. A critique of Joshua Reynolds ' theories about art appeared there as well, one of Hazlitt's major forays into art criticism. Having by become established as a journalist, Hazlitt had begun to earn a satisfactory living.
A year earlier, with the prospect of a steady income, he had moved his family to a house at 19 York Street , Westminster , which had been occupied by the poet John Milton , whom Hazlitt admired above all English poets except Shakespeare. As it happened, Hazlitt's landlord was the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham.
Hazlitt was to write extensively about both Milton and Bentham over the next few years. His circle of friends expanded, though he never seems to have been particularly close with any but the Lambs and to an extent Leigh Hunt and the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon.
His low tolerance for any who, he thought, had abandoned the cause of liberty, along with his frequent outspokenness, even tactlessness, in social situations made it difficult for many to feel close to him, and at times he tried the patience of even Charles Lamb. While praising the poem's sublimity and intellectual power, he took to task the intrusive egotism of its author. Clothing landscape and incident with the poet's personal thoughts and feelings suited this new sort of poetry very well; but his abstract philosophical musing too often steered the poem into didacticism, a leaden counterweight to its more imaginative flights.
Though Hazlitt continued to think of himself as a "metaphysician", he began to feel comfortable in the role of journalist. His self-esteem received an added boost when he was invited to contribute to the quarterly The Edinburgh Review his contributions, beginning in early , were frequent and regular for some years , the most distinguished periodical on the Whig side of the political fence its rival The Quarterly Review occupied the Tory side.
Writing for so highly respected a publication was considered a major step up from writing for weekly papers, and Hazlitt was proud of this connection. On 18 June , Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. Having idolised Napoleon for years, Hazlitt took it as a personal blow. The event seemed to him to mark the end of hope for the common man against the oppression of "legitimate" monarchy.
His part-time work as a drama critic provided him with an excuse to spend his evenings at the theatre. Afterwards he would then tarry with those friends who could tolerate his irascibility, the number of whom dwindled as a result of his occasionally outrageous behaviour. Hazlitt continued to produce articles on miscellaneous topics for The Examiner and other periodicals, including political diatribes against any who he felt ignored or minimised the needs and rights of the common man.
Defection from the cause of liberty had become easier in light of the oppressive political atmosphere in England at that time, in reaction to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The Hunts were his primary allies in opposing this tendency. Lamb, who tried to remain uninvolved politically, tolerated his abrasiveness, and that friendship managed to survive, if only just barely in the face of Hazlitt's growing bitterness, short temper, and propensity for hurling invective at friends and foes alike.
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