A steadfast defender of liberty

August 1, 2001


The Quarrel of the Age: The Life and Times of William Hazlitt
By A. C. Grayling
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000
399 pages, $69.95 (hb)

"Feculent garbage of blasphemy and scurrility", "loathsome trash", "disfiguring the records of the greatness of illustrious men with the slime and filth which marks his tracks". What was it about William Hazlitt, the essayist, lecturer, theatre reviewer and literary critic, which provoked such venom from the conservative press in early 19th century Britain?

Radical in ideas, polemical in temperament and robust in style, Hazlitt was widely feared by the propagandists of British capitalism with its repression at home and aggression abroad.

A. C. Grayling's biography of Hazlitt follows the path of a great prose writer who "set out in life with the French Revolution" and never strayed from its banner of liberty. Born in 1778, Hazlitt was only 11 when the Bastille was stormed but his delight in this blow against tyranny was genuine. As a teenager, Hazlitt was a passionate reader, and pregnant with big ideas and hopes for the betterment of humanity.

After a domestic and school upbringing in religious dissent, Hazlitt turned fully agnostic, threw over a career as a minister of the cloth and turned to writing (on literature), to politics (including an 1806 pamphlet critical of England's war with post-revolutionary France as a self-serving endeavour to extend England's colonial possessions), and to portrait painting (to meet his costs of living, before he married into modest property).

Mixing with London's leading artists, poets and radicals, Hazlitt honed his writing skills in the cause of democracy and equality. In an 1808 pamphlet, Hazlitt refuted the theory of the Reverend Thomas Malthus that the cause of poverty is the lack of sexual restraint by poor people whose reproduction outstrips the food supply.

Welfare or "poor relief" should be abolished, Malthus argued, and if the poor could not support their children, they should be allowed to starve. Hazlitt's reply was vehement. Neither the poor nor sex was to blame for poverty but a system that tolerated accumulation of economic resources in the hands of a few at the expense of the many.

Hazlitt enthusiastically entered the literary fray between liberals and anti-liberals, who waged "warfare by essay". It was an age of violent writing, with personal attack at the forefront. With Hazlitt, however, his polemics engaged with his opponents' arguments on an intellectual level whereas the Tory press never rose above personal abuse.

Hazlitt's ire took a personal bent because he hated tyranny and scorned its apologists with equal measure. He was particularly infuriated by the turncoats who betrayed the cause of liberty they once professed. The three apostate poets, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, all anti-establishment radicals and supporters of the French Revolution in their youth when they were friends of Hazlitt, were his favourite "bunnies".

Hazlitt lamented Coleridge's betrayal of political radicalism, betrayal of his poetical gifts through "sloth and opium", and betrayal of reason through his "collapse into mystic humbug".

Wordsworth's abandonment of his youthful principles and acceptance of a tax-collecting sinecure from a war-mongering government, made him a target along with Southey, who became official Poet Laureate in 1813.

When a radical publisher reprinted one of Southey's youthful poems praising Wat Tyler, the leader of England's peasant revolt of 1382, Hazlitt wrote an article comparing the poem's democratic and rebel sentiments with one of Southey's more recent offerings opposing parliamentary reform, and when Coleridge rushed to Southey's defence, explaining away Southey's early political ideas as belonging to children not adults, Hazlitt could not resist some eloquent sarcasm.

Coleridge's excuse for Southey, said Hazlitt, "was that Mr Southey was a mere boy when he wrote 'Wat Tyler', and entertained Jacobin opinions; that being a child, he felt as a child, and thought slavery, superstition, war, famine, bloodshed, taxes, bribery and corruption, rotten boroughs, places and pensions, shocking things; but now he is become a man, he has put away childish things, and thinks there is nothing so delightful as superstition, war, famine, bloodshed, taxes, bribery and corruption, rotten boroughs, places and pensions, and particularly, his own".

Hazlitt never let the three renegade poets forget their past, so it was no wonder that Wordsworth, with much aggravation, wrote to a friend that "the miscreant Hazlitt continues, I have heard, his abuse of Southey, Coleridge and myself — I hope that you do not associate with that fellow, he is not a proper person to be admitted into respectable society, being the most perverse and malevolent creature that ill-luck has ever thrown my way".

In their counter-attack, Wordsworth and Coleridge attempted to discredit Hazlitt, embellishing a tale from 1803 when Hazlitt, assisted by Wordsworth and Coleridge, fled from a gang of villagers intent on giving Hazlitt a dunking in the pond after a failed seduction of a local girl. A minor incident was turned into a major smear in the retelling — in Coleridge's version, the handful of villagers became "two hundred horsemen" — and Hazlitt's ingratitude was amplified by his later attacks on Coleridge despite surviving only through Coleridge giving Hazlitt "all the money I had in the world and the very shoes off my feet" (by which Coleridge meant some pocket money and a pair of old boots).

What finally sunk Hazlitt's reputation, however, was a book (Liber Amoris) he wrote about a sadly pathetic affair of love and rejection in 1820. Separated from his wife, Hazlitt became infatuated with a young woman, sought a divorce by setting up an encounter with a prostitute, only to be rejected by his new love.

Hazlitt's book tried to make sense of the follies of romantic passion. However, it merely handed a range-finder to his sniping Tory enemies. Hostile reviews undermined with immoral taint his political credibility. The usual level of abuse ("indecent trash", "the ordure of a filthy mind", "slavering sensuality, filthy profligacy and howling idiocy") this time struck home with the more politically feeble middle-class liberals in Hazlitt's milieu.

Although some of Hazlitt's best work lay ahead of him, a defeated air hung over such great works as The Spirit of the Age. Personal and political disappointment, from the Liber Amoris affair and the tightening repression in France and England after the glory days of the French Revolution, pervaded Hazlitt's spirit. His biography of Napoleon was a clutching at straws, often sinking into special pleading for the military strongman because he inherited the legacy of the revolution and was a "a thorn in the side of kings". Hazlitt died in 1830, pessimistic but never having deviated from his principles in defence of liberty and democracy.

Hazlitt's principles, however, remained confined within the boundaries of reformism. Grayling uncritically presents Hazlitt as a praiseworthy liberal who wanted the right things but in a moderate way. He was no revolutionary "extremist". Hazlitt saw the radical poet, Percy Shelley, as a "philosophic fanatic" for wanting to demolish, through popular revolution, all the rotten structures and creeds of Church, state and economic system.

Hazlitt's agents of reform were to be found in his audience of "polite culture". He engaged with the issues affecting the labouring classes but not with their movements or activists.

Liberty has had its share of fair-weather friends, false champions, turncoat betrayers and outright opponents. It has had its steadfast defenders. Hazlitt was one of the best of the latter. His style (sustained, rolling rhythms of epic sentence length where it is easy to lose sight of the beginning long before the end comes into view) may have aged a little but Hazlitt's arguments, and his vibrant spirit of opposition to tyranny and inequality, have not.

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