Michael Dirda on 'William Hazlitt'

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 11, 2009


The First Modern Man

By Duncan Wu

Oxford Univ. 557 pp. $45

This is a distinctly eye-opening biography for anyone who knows William Hazlitt principally as an essayist, moralist and master of English prose. In such anthology favorites as "On Reading Old Books," "On Going a Journey," "On Wit and Humour" and "On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth," Hazlitt (1778-1830) comes across as a genial observer of the passing scene, full of insight into the perplexities of the human heart, and pithy and wise enough to earn comparison with Montaigne. Just consider the spirited lead sentences from the four essays just mentioned:

"I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire to read at all."

"One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey, but I like to go by myself."

"Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be."

"No young man believes he shall ever die."

Hazlitt always speaks from the page with this mix of intimacy and epigrammatic punch, no matter what the topic. And his topics are legion: the pleasures of hating; "Hot and Cold"; bare-knuckle boxing (see that early classic of sports reporting "The Fight"); reflections on acting (and beautiful actresses); what it's like to sit for one's portrait; the prose style of Edmund Burke; "Persons one would wish to have seen"; the want of money ("It is hard to go without one's dinner through sheer distress, but harder still to go without one's breakfast"); and myriad short profiles of the great figures of the day, including Coleridge and Wordsworth. Hazlitt's 20-page "My First Acquaintance with Poets" is probably the finest short memoir in English.

Still, the essayist's signature theme must be the gloomy one of a disappointed life. In "On the Fear of Dying," he writes that when young "we eye the farthest verge of the horizon, and think what a way we shall have to look back upon, ere we arrive at our journey's end; and without our in the least suspecting it, the mists are at our feet, and the shadows of age encompass us." In one of his lectures, from a series mainly devoted to Elizabethan drama, he describes the writer's lot:

"An author wastes his time in painful study and obscure researches, to gain a little breath of popularity, meets with nothing but vexation and disappointment in ninety-nine instances out of a hundred; or when he thinks to grasp the luckless prize, finds it not worth the trouble -- the perfume of a minute, fleeting as a shadow, hollow as a sound. . . . He thinks that the attainment of acknowledged excellence will secure him the expression of those feelings in others, which the image and hope of it had excited in his own breast, but instead of that, he meets with nothing (or scarcely nothing) but squint-eyed suspicion, idiot wonder, and grinning scorn. -- It seems hardly worth while to have taken all the pains he has been at for this!"

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