Page images

The various critical writings of WILLIAM Hazlitt are laden with original and striking thoughts, and indicate an intellect strong and intense, but narrowed by prejudice and personal feeling. He was an acute but somewhat bitter observer of life and manners, and satirized rather than described them. Though bold and arrogant in the expression of his opinions, and continually provoking opposition by the hardihood of his paradoxes, he does not appear to have been influenced so much by self-esteem as sensibility. He was naturally shy and despairing of his own powers, and his dogmatism was of that turbulent kind which comes from passion and self-distrust. He had little repose of mind or manner, and in his works almost always appears as if his faculties had been stung and spurred into action. His life was vexed by many troubles, which rendered him impatient and irritable, prone to opposition, and inclined to take delight in the mere exercise of power, rather than to produce the effects for which alone power is valuable. Contempt and bitterness too often vitiate his notions of men and measures; and his political writings, especially, often exhibit him as one who courts and defies opposition, and who is more desirous of making enemies than converts. He would often give the results of patient reasonings in headlong assertions, or paradoxical impertinences. In attacking ignorance and prejudice, he did not distinguish them from positive vices. If any one of his opinions was more heretical than another, he sought to enunciate startling abruptness of expression, in order that it might give the more offence. There was bad temper in this, and it made him violent enemies, and subjected his character and writings to the most unscrupulous attacks.

The element in which Hazlitt's mind was most geni

[ocr errors]

with a

ally developed was literature. If he was lacking in love for actual human nature, or viewed men in too intolerant a spirit, his affections clustered none the less intensely around the “ beings of the mind.” His best friends and companions he found in poetry and romance, and in the world of imagination he lived his most delightful days. As a critic, in spite of the acrimony and prejudice which occasionally dim his insight, he is admirable for acuteness, clearness, and force. His mind pierces and delves into his subject, rather than gracefully comprehends it; but his labors in the mine almost always bring out its riches. Where his sympathies were not perverted by personal feeling or individual association, where his mind could act uninfluenced by party spirit, his perceptions of truth and beauty were exquisite in their force and refinement. When he dogmatizes, his paradoxes evince a clear insight into one element of the truth, and serve as admirable stimulants to thought. His comments on passages of poetry or traits of character which have struck his own imagination forcibly, are unrivalled for warmth of feeling and coloring. His criticism inspires the reader with a desire to peruse the works to which it refers. It is not often coldly analytical, but glows with enthusiasm and “noble rage." His style is generally sharp and pointed, sparkling with ornament and illustration, but almost altogether deficient in movement. Though many of his opinions are unsound, their unsoundness is hardly calculated to mislead the taste of the reader, from the ease with which it is perceived, and referred to its source, in caprice, or a momentary fit of spleen. He is a critic who can give delight and instruction, and infuse into his readers some of his own vehe

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]



ment enthusiasm for letters, without making them participants of his errors and passions.

Some of the most distinguished of Hazlitt's critical writings are, “ Lectures on the Comic Writers," “Spirit of the Age,” “Characters of Shakspeare's Plays," “ Lectures on the Age of Elizabeth,” “ Lectures on the English Poets,” and “Criticisms on Art.” These cover a wide ground, and are all more or less distinguished by his characteristic merits and faults. They all startle the reader from the self-complacency of his opinions, and provoke him into thought.

LEIGH Hunt is well known as the author of a large number of agreeable essays, and for his friendly connections with many of his eminent contemporaries. He has been more a victim of criticism than a critic. It has been truly said of him by Macaulay, “ that there is no man living whose merits have been more grudgingly allowed, and whose faults have been so cruelly expiated.” In his character there is such a union of pertness and kindliness, that he is always open to attack. He made the public his confidant, poured into its ear his little frailties and fopperies, expressed his opinions on all subjects with the most artless self-conceit, and at times exhibited a kind of Richard Swiveller order of good feeling, in speaking of such men as Shelley and Byron. These follies, though most of them venial, made him a continual butt for magazine scribblers; and the fine qualities of heart and intellect, which underlie his affectations, have not, until lately, been generally acknowledged. He is, in truth, one of the pleasantest writers of his time, - easy, colloquial, genial, humane, full of

, fine fancies and verbal niceties, possessing a loving if not a

“ learned spirit,” with hardly a spice of bitterness

in his composition. He is an excellent commentator on the minute beauties of poetry. He has little grasp or acuteness of understanding, and his opinions are valueless where those qualities should be called into play; but he has a natural taste, which detects with nice accuracy what is beautiful, and a power of jaunty expression, which conveys its intuitive decisions directly to other minds. He surveys poetry almost always from a luxurious point of view, and his criticism therefore is merely a transcript of the fine and warm sensations it has awakened in himself. He is a sympathizing critic of words, sentences, and images, but has little success in explaining the grounds of his instinctive judgments, and is feeble and jejune in generalization. He broods over a dainty bit of fancy or feeling, until he overflows with affection for it. He dandles a poetic image on his knee as though it were a child, pats it lovingly on the back, and addresses to it all manner of dainty phrases; and, consequently, he has much of the baby-talk, as well as the warm appreciation, which comes from affection. This billing and cooing is often distasteful, especially if it be employed on some passages which the reader desires to keep sacred from such handling; and we cannot see him approaching a poet like Shelley without a gesture of impatience; but generally it is far from unpleasant. His "Imagination and Fancy” is a delightful book. “ The Indicator” and “ Seer” are filled with essays of peculiar excellence. Hunt's faults of style and thinking are ingrained, and cannot be weeded out by criticism; and to get at what is really valuable in his writings, considerable toleration must be exercised towards his effeminacy of manner and daintiness of sentiment. That, with all his faults, he has a mind of great delicacy and



fulness, a fluent fancy, unrivalled good-will to the whole world, a pervading sweetness of feeling, and that he occasionally displays remarkable clearness of perception, must be cheerfully acknowledged by every reader of his essays.

In these hurried remarks on some of the essayists and critics of the time, we have not noticed two, who are well entitled to an extended consideration. We refer to Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill. The influence of Carlyle on the whole tone of criticism at the present day has been powerfully felt. Mill is principally known on this side of the Atlantic by his work on Logic; but he has been for a number of years a writer for the Westminster Review, over the signature of A, and his articles, especially his masterly disquisition on Jeremy Bentham, evince uncommon solidity, fairness, penetration, and reach of thought. These are worthy of a more elaborate review than our limits will now permit; but we trust at some early period to repair the deficiency.



« PreviousContinue »