William Hazlitt (1778-1830)
William Hazlitt and Napoleon
To him, Napoleon’s defeat represented
‘the utter extinction of human liberty from the earth.’1
It is very difficult for the British people to discern their true history and what really happened in the past if they rely solely on English history books. Many accounts of Britain during the age of Napoleon and the so-called Napoleonic Wars (sic) pretend that our noble shires were the finest repositories of liberty and freedom in Europe and the World, that the Freeborn Englishman was the luckiest chap upon the Earth. The real truth, our real history, was very different. There was no truer friend of liberty than William Hazlitt, yet throughout his life he was persecuted and oppressed by a political Establishment that treated the rights of the individual with utter contempt. Hazlitt was there, he saw and heard it all, he was a witness to what actually took place upon these supposedly enlightened shores. William was acutely sensitive to what was going on around him; his intense perception and his thorough understanding of human psychology were put to the service of his fellow man. And no one wrote quite like he did. If anyone was proof of the axiom that the pen is mightier than the sword - it was William Hazlitt.
Napoleon died on May 5th 1821. It took weeks for the news to reach England and knowledge of this momentous event coincided with the release of the arrangements for the coronation of George IV. The sublime and the ridiculous coincided. William Hazlitt had recently been visiting his friend John Hunt who had been jailed in the notorious Coldbath Fields prison. His offence? As the editor of The Examiner he had described the House of Commons as full of ‘venal boroughmongers, grasping placemen, greedy adventurers, title-hunters, or the representatives of such worthies - a body, in short, containing a far greater portion of public criminals than public guardians.’2 Hunt paid the price for free speech. The Gagging Acts meant that no one could criticize the Government without risk of being jailed or worse. The mace of this much vaunted sceptred isle was only too ready to come crashing down on the heads of its critics.
Hazlitt and Hunt discussed the coronation. William was scathing: ‘What does it all amount to? A sham - a theatrical spectacle! What does it prove? That a King is crowned, that a King is dead! What is the moral to be drawn from it, that is likely to sink into the heart of the nation? That greatness consists in finery, and that supreme merit is the dower of birth and fortune!’3 The ceremony and the banquet to follow at Westminster Hall were expected to cost the taxpayer £250,000 - tens of millions in the pounds of today.4 All for a pot-bellied political pygmy who thought he was both God’s anointed and God’s gift to women. The great George IV put into Britain consisted of his girth only.
Meanwhile, a truly great man had died on the tiny island of St. Helena.
Together, Hazlitt and Hunt produced the Memorial of Napoléon with a black border and sporting five iconic images of their hero. Hazlitt wrote:
‘He put his foot upon the neck of Kings, who would have put their yoke
upon the necks of the People: he scattered before him with fiery execution,
millions of hired slaves, who came at the bidding of their masters to deny
the right of others to be free. The monument of greatness and of glory he
erected, was raised on ground forfeited again and again to humanity - it
reared its majestic front on the ruins of the shattered hopes and broken faith
of the common enemies of mankind. If he could not secure the freedom,
peace, and happiness of his country, he made her a terror to those, who by
sowing civil dissension and exciting foreign wars, would not let her
enjoy those blessings.’ (My italics)5
What Hazlitt detested most of all were former friends and acquaintances who, having once embraced revolution and reform, went over to the other side - men like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, and his own brother-in-law Stoddart, who became tools and mouthpieces of the British Establishment. He continues:
‘They who had trampled upon Liberty could not at least triumph in her shame
and her despair, but themselves became objects of pity and derision. Their
determination to persist in extremity of wrong, only brought on themselves
repeated defeat, disaster, and dismay; the accumulated aggressions their
infuriated pride and disappointed malice meditated against others, returned
in just and aggravated punishment upon themselves… the destruction with
which they had threatened a people daring to call itself free, having suspended
Duncan Wu calls William Hazlitt the First Modern Man: ‘he hailed the coming of a new age when the French deposed their monarch, and wept when Napoleon abdicated. He foresaw a time when people would claim the right to speak on their own account, and determine the composition of their own government.’7
Hazlitt had freedom and liberty in his blood. His father William Senior believed in sticking up for the oppressed and as a devote Unitarian Christian he could not just walk by on the other side of the street. By the late C18th the Unitarians were a force to be reckoned with. William Senior’s own hero, Joseph Priestley became the ‘literary companion’ to the second earl of Shelburne, William Fitzmaurice-Petty, in 1772.8 Shelburne had supported a bill to release dissenting ministers from the straitjacket of the Thirty-Nine Articles of faith the year before. Shelburne ‘professed a warm regard to the Dissenters, as friends of liberty, and promised, if ever he came into power, to exert himself in supporting their rights, and placing them on the same footing with other Protestant subjects.’9 No wonder Priestley admired him.
William Hazlitt was born on April 10th 1778 and was brought up in a family that had a passion for religion and what, in today’s parlance, would be dubbed human rights. He was less than two when the family moved to Ireland. In Bandon, County Cork, they began a new life. Not surprisingly, when William Senior heard that American prisoners of war were being tortured in nearby Kinsale prison by British soldiers from the regiment of Colonel Fitzpatrick he decided to do something about it. He wrote to the War Office and to a newspaper highlighting the abuses and began a private action against the perpetrators. Death threats soon came his way and he appealed to Lord Shelburne, now Prime Minister. A court of inquiry was initiated and Shelburne had the regiment moved elsewhere in Ireland, indicating the power of William Senior’s words.10 As Duncan Wu states: ‘It was typical of Hazlitt Sr to stand up for the rights of the oppressed without regard to himself. His fidelity to his principles was absolute, and his son would be the same.’11 No wonder young William grew up to become the People’s Champion and he stood his ground even when the full power of the Establishment was lined up against him.
When the American War of Independence ended, the Hazlitts headed for the new beacon of liberty that was the New World. It was a time young William associated with happiness for the rest of his life. The family arrived at New York on May 26th 1783 on the Henry, the first vessel to reach the city since peace had been declared.12 The British officers in charge of the port were beside themselves with rage when they heard the news. Cursing and swearing, the soldiers wished that the conflict could have been continued. Fate had taken the bone away from the dogs of war. Added to the knowledge of the mistreatment of prisoners of war at Kinsale, which his father must have told William about, such scenes could have done little to engender respect for his own countrymen or what they appeared to stand for. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that he would later describe John Bull as someone who: ‘beats his wife, quarrels with his neighbours, damns his servants, and gets drunk to kill the time and keep up his spirits, and firmly believes himself the only exceptional, accomplished, moral and religious character in Christendom.’13 Ironically, the latter remarks aptly describe Prinny the Prince Regent and later George IV. Overweening arrogance was the jewel in the British Crown.
The widespread dismay felt by the Unitarian brotherhood at the harshness of Government policy was echoed elsewhere in the nation. Maclean says: ‘There was anger at the vicious cruelty with which the Government prosecuted many of those who opposed its policy. This was shared by all those of liberal sympathies, among them William Wordsworth, who until a short time previously had been by no means politically minded, but who now found himself in protest against the injustices which were being perpetrated in the name of justice:
“Our Shepherds… at that time
Thirsted to make the guardian crook of law
A tool of Murder;…
… in their weapons and their warfare base
As vermin working out of reach, they leagu’d
Their strength perfidiously, to undermine
Justice, and make an end of Liberty.” ’14
Thirsted to make the guardian crook of law
A tool of Murder;…
… in their weapons and their warfare base
As vermin working out of reach, they leagu’d
Their strength perfidiously, to undermine
Justice, and make an end of Liberty.” ’14
Wordsworth was amongst illustrious company. Dr Price had written his Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution that Mirabeau admired so much he had it translated into French. However, Mirabeau died in April 1791 and Price a month later. Dr Priestley preached at the latter’s funeral at Hackney. Tom Paine’s Rights of Man caused quite a stir and even Mary Wollstonecraft had spoken in favour of liberty: ‘she who had not yet learned that Woman had no rights, and Man himself very few.’15 Yet in the Government’s corner stood Burke who with his Reflections passionately argued the Cabinet line. His powerful writing and his speeches were exceptional in their impact upon public opinion: ‘Drop by drop, the passion of anger, sorrow, fear and hatred in the soul of Burke is beginning to distil itself into the souls of others. There is no resisting its sullen potency. It is getting, not only into the soul, but into the blood of his fellow-countrymen.’16
Pauline Gregg calls the Reflections: ‘the classic of conservatism. Eloquent, forceful, rich in sonorous passages of rhetoric, passionately loyal to the ideals of chivalry and aristocracy, it lamented the passage of the French nobility and denounced the French Revolution.’17 In one passage Burke recalls seeing Marie-Antoinette when he was an impressionable youth and describes her as: ‘glittering like the morning star, full of life, of splendour, and joy.’18 With such effusiveness and sense of worship, it is eerily like reading of Princess Diana two hundred years before she was born. His fluffy verbal confection and gross sentimentality did not appeal to everyone. In his Rights of Man, Paine prefers to discuss the horrors of the Bastille and he retorts: ‘It is painful to behold a man employing his talents to corrupt himself… He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird. Accustomed to kiss the aristocratical hand that hath purloined him from himself, he degenerates into a composition of art, and the genuine soul of nature forsakes him.’19
In The Conservative Party, Sheila Moore calls the Reflections: ‘Burke’s most influential work… He saw human society as organic, not mechanistic, and thus counseled change by evolution not revolution.’20 Yet she points out that even Burke: ‘warned that “the greater the power, the greater the abuse.” ’21 However she also quotes his response to the reforming programme of the French revolutionaries in which he states that: ‘Individuality is left out of their scheme of government. The state is all in all… The state has dominion and conquest for its sole objects - dominion over minds by proselytism, over bodies by arms.’22
In essence Burke is inferring that his own nation is a beacon of light and freedom in contrast with revolutionary France. As we shall see, this is little more than a sick joke. The individual had absolutely no rights in Pitt’s Britain - unless he was a rich aristocrat, and preferably a Member of Parliament as well. And Burke was an Irishman too. He obviously saw fit to ignore what happened to American prisoners of war in his version of paradise, leave alone trouble himself with the treatment of the Irish in general by the British. Burke was preaching to the converted from a pulpit of his own devising and only his Chosen People mattered - not the vast majority of ordinary men and women who knew from personal experience that ‘the state is all in all.’
On July 14th 1791, the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, Priestley’s home in Birmingham was attacked by a mob crying ‘Church and King.’23 Not only was the house burnt to the ground, his books and papers were also destroyed. Two Unitarian chapels and the homes of some of his friends also went up in flames. The Unitarians were now seen as traitors by many, but not of course by William Hazlitt.
William’s tender conscience was activated very early in his life. At the age of eight whilst in America, he had written that the Indians would have been far better off if the white man had never stepped foot in their country.24 Whilst on a visit to Liverpool as a boy he had seen the notorious press gang in action. He told his mother in a letter that: ‘the world is not perfect yet.’25 It was obviously even further from perfection by 1791 and he was moved to write a letter to The Shrewsbury Chronicle after the paper had accused Priestley of ‘impious and erroneous doctrines’: ‘Religious persecution is the bane of all religion; and the friends of persecution are the worst enemies religion has; and of all persecutions, that of calumny is the most intolerable. Any other kind of persecution can affect our outward circumstances only, our properties, our lives; but this may affect out characters for ever. And this great man has not only had his goods spoiled, his habitation burned, and his life endangered, but is also calumniated, aspersed with the most malicious reflections, and charged with every thing bad, for which a misrepresentation of the truth and prejudice can give the least pretence.’26
This was an incredibly erudite and mature response from a boy of just thirteen. Liberty’s phoenix was rising from the flames of Priestley’s house. Hazlitt’s letter: ‘is his first known act in the long warfare against prejudice and injustice which was to be his portion throughout his life, and his first assertion of the need to appeal to principle rather than to force…’27
The Unitarians were now swimming against the tide. In 1792 when they tried to have the Test and Corporation Acts repealed with Fox’s support, Burke railed against them. He was particularly stinging and aggressive in his attitude towards the brotherhood. As well as personally attacking Dr Priestley and Dr Kippis, he pointedly distinguished between the Unitarians and older religious sects: ‘His finding was that while the older sects had more or less justified their existence, the Unitarians brought not “airs from heaven” into the life of the community but rather “blasts from hell.” ’28 Such was the frenzied political backdrop to the times at home, made even worse when news of the Terror crossed the Channel.
It was becoming increasingly harder to be a loyal Englishman and a supporter of the Revolution. Wordsworth was soon assailed by the maelstrom of political events swirling all around him. He had actually been to France and witnessed the poverty of the common people: ‘He held to his faith and his convictions, yet he was almost wrenched asunder by the conflict between his universal human sympathy and his deep inalterable love for his own country, whether it was in the right or the wrong.’29
When war was declared against France on February 11th 1793, the Unitarians were even more widely seen as the enemy within. On May 11th 1792, Burke had accused them of having: ‘a zeal for propagating’ and of being violent fanatics.30 Priestley had been nicknamed Gunpowder Joe even though his pacifism was such that he had refused to allow his friends to use violence in order to prevent his own house from being burnt down. Mud sticks, and the Unitarians as a whole were tarred with ridiculous assertions and accused of having dangerous proclivities, despite their actual pacifism. Not surprisingly, the weaker members of the flock went astray, anxious to avoid the limelight that might bring death and destruction upon them. All this took place in England - not revolutionary France.
It must have been particularly galling for renowned pacifists to be accused of fomenting violence and of being haters of their own country. They were seen as: ‘strangers to Burke’s acceptance of and even admiration of “the mode of civilized war which, more than anything else, has distinguished the Christian World.” ’31 One wonders what the American prisoners of war at Kinsale would have said about that. In fact, most Nonconformists believed that self-defence was the only justification for war. But their protests fell upon deaf ears. The Empire decided to strike back.
The Rev J. Jebb of St. John’s College, Cambridge was tried for sedition as was Rev W. Frend a former fellow of Jesus College. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a young undergraduate, was present at the trial of Frend and clapped heartily at points made in his favour. The authorities expelled Coleridge on May 30th.32 He would soon learn to suck up to the great and the good to maintain his own position. William Hazlitt, however, never learnt to bend the knee.
Perhaps one of the most heinous miscarriages of justice perpetrated by the Government was at the trial of Rev Thomas Fyshe Palmer for the dastardly crime of proof reading a handbill on behalf of Society of the Friends of Liberty at Dundee. Fyshe Palmer was transported for seven years and died before his sentence was completed. No wonder Robert Aspland said that Truth itself had become seditious.33 The arbitrary cruelty of the State was doled out liberally on every side.
Young Hazlitt must have been aghast at the news of such cases and the sad accounts of the fate of Unitarian ministers that animated the conversations in his father’s presbytery in Wem. As Maclean says, he was in a particularly awkward position: ‘Yet the difficulty of the conflict must have intensified in him about this time both his passionate hatred of injustice and that passionate sympathy with the forlorn hope which to some extent had always been his, and which never deserted him.’34
Hazlitt studied Divinity at New College Hackney between 1793 and 1795 and seemed destined for the Ministry himself. Now in London, he was closer to the malign beating heart of government. His college was renowned for being liberal, so much so that Burke made a point of attacking it. To him it was ‘ “an arsenal” for the fabrication of revolutionary weapons and a breeding place for revolutionary ideas, “a volcano of sedition,” “a nursery of riot” even “a slaughter-house of Christianity,” ’35 Writing later, Southey was decidedly unimpressed: ‘The dry-rot was in the foundation and the walls, as well as in the beams and rafters, and the unfortunate pupils came away believers in blind necessity and gross materialism - and in nothing else.’36 Southey’s comments in 1817 were a personal attack upon Hazlitt as much as they were attacking Unitarians in general.
In 1794 the shameful case of Thomas Fyshe Palmer was discussed in the House of Commons and its legality questioned. Fox appealed for justice but Pitt would have none of it. He was prepared to sink as low as necessary to support the Government line: ‘in what has been called “perhaps the worst speech of his whole career,” (he) denied that there had been any miscarriage of justice, condoned any irregularities that had characterized the trials, and defended even the packing of the jury in Muir’s trial, which had been presided over by Braxfield the notorious. The sentences were upheld and Palmer and Muir were transported.’37
No wonder Hazlitt had nothing but contempt for Pitt after this. His insouciance in regard to the heartlessness and cruelty of this decision ranks with that of Castlereagh who excused the militia for butchering civilians at Peterloo in 1819. The same benighted stripe ran through the British Government year after year, decade after decade. Its colour was of the lash. Priestley emigrated that same year. This land of freedom was anything but.
In glaring contrast whilst in America: ‘The Hazlitts had seen a land in which the people had liberated themselves from the fetters of a hereditary monarch and his corrupt, unrepresentative government.’38 However, in jolly old England the reign of terror continued. The Rev Jeremiah Joyce was arrested for ‘treasonable practices’ and on May 17th he was sent to the Tower. Joyce was a member of the London Corresponding Society and the Society for Promoting Constitutional Information - hardly the equivalent of al Queda. In October he was tried with Thomas Hardy, Horne Tooke, Thelwall and Holcroft, fellow members of the two societies. Troops were on hand at the Old Bailey to keep the crowd in order. Miraculously, for once, the accused were acquitted and discharged. Like many others, the sixteen-year-old William Hazlitt must have been overjoyed.39
Hazlitt had immersed himself in books and was reading widely. Like Coleridge, he was stunned and amazed when he came across a translation of Schiller’s The Robbers. But as he tried to formulate his own political creed he was also devouring the writing of Helvétius, Condillac, Mirabaud, Baron d’Holbach, La Rochefoucault and Condorcet.40 To add to this mental stimulus came an emotional awakening when he first saw Mrs Siddons on the stage. Through his brother John he also became acquainted with many popular artists of the day. London was at the heart of the vast British Empire and in the teeming city Hazlitt could slake his cultural thirst at galleries and theatres. Later he would enjoy many of the less salubrious venues in town. At the same time he was disturbed by the realization that he could not accept the faith of his father - a position as a Unitarian minister was out of the question so he left Hackney College in the summer of 1795.
As he honed his political ideas, hoping to devise a system that was optimistic in regard to human nature, he laboured long and hard in reaction to the widespread belief that Man was basically a selfish animal devoted to the immediate gratification of his desires. With his Unitarian upbringing he felt the need for a more positive outlook - that Man was redeemable and could progress towards something better. On this journey he came to know the enjoyment and pleasure of being a writer. He later described the feeling: ‘There are moments in the life of a solitary thinker which are to him what the evening of some great victory is to the conqueror and hero - milder triumphs long remembered with truer and deeper delight… indefatigable in the search for the truth, and a hope of survival in the thoughts and minds of men.’41
If nothing else, his time at Hackney College amongst liberal minded fellows and tutors had encouraged him to think for himself and to be prepared to embrace and cultivate unconventional thoughts, particularly in the political arena. He was also in London at a time when the capital contained many other original thinkers. He met Godwin and read his Political Justice. He became acquainted with Holcroft, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Rev Joseph Fawcett: ‘He was one of those who had hoped most from the Revolution in France, who had grieved when it had been tortured to excess, who had sorrowed over the outbreak of war with a people striving for their liberties.’42 Fawcett was a great reader and he shared his literary insights with young Hazlitt who was at this time shy, tongue-tied and very reserved in public.
In 1796 Edmund Burke had decried ‘ “the revolution harpies of France, sprung from night and hell,” who “flutter over our heads, and souse down upon our tables, and leave nothing unrent, unrifled, unravaged, or unpolluted with the slime of their filthy offal.” ’43 When Hazlitt saw an extract from Burke’s A Letter to a Noble Lord in the St. James Chronicle, he soon got hold of the whole Letter. As he studied it he was overwhelmed by its power, its forcefulness and style. Even though he was totally opposed to Burke’s political views he could admire and praise him as a master of his craft - a true writer of genius. Hazlitt also discovered the writings of Rousseau and admired his insights into the human unconscious mind. Even more importantly, by now Hazlitt had met his own John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness that seemed meant for him personally, the man who would influence him more than any other - Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
William Hazlitt had felt himself to be a lost soul, set apart and different from everybody else. His acute shyness made him seem strange even weird to many of his contemporaries. He had yet to formulate his own political creed or discover his own vocation in life. He needed someone to give him focus, someone to give his life meaning and purpose - that someone was Coleridge.
Nevertheless, Hazlitt enjoyed his years of ‘becoming’. He later described 1797 and 1798 as the happiest years of his life: ‘I cared for nothing; I wanted nothing. I took my time to consider whatever occurred to me, and was in no hurry to give a sophistical answer to a question - there was no printer’s devil waiting for me… If I was not a great author, I could read with ever fresh delight, ‘never ending, still beginning,’ and had no occasion to write a criticism when I was done… I had no relations to the state, no duty to perform, no ties to bind me to others: I had neither friend nor mistress, wife or child. I lived in a world of contemplation, and not of action. This sort of dreaming existence is the best.’44
News of a wonderful poet-preacher had spread amongst the Unitarian brotherhood and by 1798 Hazlitt was aware of him. So intrigued was he that he walked ten miles just to hear Coleridge give a sermon at Shrewsbury on Sunday January 14th. The preacher’s voice was ethereal and mesmerizing - Hazlitt was hooked. He walked the ten miles back to Wem in a spiritual daze.45 A few days later Coleridge called to pay his respects to old Mr Hazlitt. Young William hung on his every word. Coleridge had a new disciple who he invited to visit him in turn. When they met again they discussed Hume, Berkeley and Butler but William found he could not express his own theories clearly or intelligently and he left Coleridge somewhat bemused.46 This further spurred William to renew his attempt to write down his essay On the Disinterestedness of the Human Mind but once again he faced writer’s bloc.47
Plunging back into his reading, he devoured Rousseau’s The New Héloise and in particular the Confessions. It was an important staging post for his own political outlook: ‘It was Rousseau who brought the feeling of irreconcilable enmity to rank and privileges, above humanity, home to the bosom of every man, - identified it with all the pride of intellect, and with the deepest yearnings of the human heart. He was the founder of Jacobinism, which declares the division of the species into two classes, the one the property of the other.’48 Maclean adds: ‘Rousseau no less than Burke at this time helped to make him a writer.’49
On April 10th, 1798, his twentieth birthday, William set off on a roundabout jaunt of nearly two hundred miles to met his soulmate Coleridge in the Vale of Llangollen. When he arrived on May 20th he also met Sara Coleridge and Berkeley their newborn son. Coleridge read out the first version of Kubla Khan to his guest and admitted that he was not sure what to make of it himself as: ‘I composed it in a sort of reverie brought on by two grains of opium taken to check a dysentery.’50 Hazlitt was convinced that it was a work of genius and asked him to read it out again. He also heard Coleridge recite The Ancient Mariner. Duncan Wu states that their meeting was: ‘the defining experience of his life.’51
When Coleridge was young his cup had overflowed with youthful enthusiasm and passionate idealism. As a sixteen-year-old he had even written an ode celebrating the fall of the Bastille.52 As Simon Schama remarks: ‘Like so many of his generation Coleridge had fervently believed - at Cambridge University and afterwards - that the cause of the French Revolution, the cause of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, opened a new age in which mankind would live according to the rules of nature.’53 Despite this, Coleridge actually enlisted briefly in the 15th Dragoons under an assumed name, indicating that despite himself he could be swept along in the flood of public enthusiasm and patriotism that accompanied the war with France. Nevertheless, he showed his idealism when, along with Robert Southey, he dreamt of establishing a new utopia in America. Nothing came of that so in 1795 and 1796 he gave lectures and edited his own paper The Watchman.54
At this stage of his life Coleridge was a fan of Charles James Fox and he did not spare the British Establishment. Schama states that: ‘Throughout this period Coleridge remained a coruscating critic of Pitt and his government, referring to the prime minister as ‘the fiend’ and to his speeches as “Mystery concealing meanness as clouds envelope a dunghill”.’55 Schama adds: ‘Above all, the ex-trooper’s lectures and articles were full of hatred for the war itself, as a misery inflicted by the rich and powerful on the poor and helpless who paid for it with their taxes and their blood.’56
By 1798 however, Coleridge was undergoing a metamorphosis of his own. In his Ode to the Departing Year written less than five years before he had prophesied that war torn Europe would avenge itself upon England for fostering foreign wars whilst enjoying peace herself. Now with the imminent prospect of a French invasion he was having a change of heart:
‘Spare us yet awhile!
Father of God! O spare us yet awhile!’
Far from blaming his own people for war he continues:
‘Sons, brothers, husbands, all…
Stand forth! Be men! Repel an impious foe,
Render them back upon the insulted ocean,
And let them toss as idly on its waves
As the vile sea-weed, which some mountain-blast
Swept from our shores!’57
But Coleridge still accepted collective guilt for the current situation:
‘We have offended, Oh! My Countrymen!
We have offended very grievously,
And been most tyrannous.’58
Coleridge was on the turn, soon he would embrace the very opposite of what he had once stood for. In Hazlitt’s eyes he would go over to the dark side and be that most contemptible of creature’s - an apostate. As Hazlitt used his hero’s Ode to the Departing Year as his lodestone, Coleridge was in the process of rejecting everything he had written in it.
The catalyst was the French invasion of Switzerland which led Coleridge to publish The Recantation in The Morning Post in which: ‘he had stormed out his repudiation of all his previously expressed sympathy with France, and implored the forgiveness of Freedom for his blindness in once having mistaken her enemies for her champions.’59 On April 20th he consolidated his new approach in Fears in Solitude which was ‘a rediscovery of love for his country and a genuine rediscovery of his own personality
... He has discovered that he is primarily an Englishman.’60
Maclean felt that Coleridge was susceptible to the feeling of the moment and the mood of the many and unlike Hazlitt was far less inclined to swim against the tide. Patriotism was on the lips of Everyman and Coleridge ‘was Conformist rather than Nonconformist in temper…’61 His own youthful enthusiasm for liberty was warping into a cynical belief that it was not a case of government being innately corrupt but the very people they governed. With that outlook it was not a long step for Coleridge to take in becoming a spokesman for the Establishment.
Hazlitt was devastated to learn that his former hero had feet of clay. He later wrote that Coleridge was: ‘The only person from whom I ever learned anything in conversation,’ ‘the only person I ever knew who answered to my idea of a man of genius.’62 However, in his The Spirit of the Age Hazlitt sums up Coleridge’s career much more thoroughly and with acute insight: ‘It was not to be supposed that Mr. Coleridge could keep on at the rate he set off; he could not realize all he knew or thought, and less could not fix his desultory ambition; other stimulants supplied the place and kept up the intoxicating dream, the fever and the madness of his early impressions. Liberty (the philosopher’s and the poet’s bride) had fallen a victim, meanwhile, to the murderous practices of the hag, Legitimacy. Proscribed by court-hirelings, too romantic for the herd of vulgar politicians, our enthusiast stood at bay, and at last turned on the pivot of a subtle casuistry to the unclean side…’63
Wordsworth was another political shape-shifter. This lover of nature and self-appointed spokesman for the poor and downtrodden first went over to France in the summer of 1790 and celebrated the fall of the Bastille in person. He was there again in 1791-1792 and later admitted: ‘I went over to Paris at the time of the Revolution - in 92 or 93 - and was pretty hot in it.’64 Fiery politics was not his only passion. He fell in love with his royalist tutor Annette Vallon and had a child by her - Caroline, born in December 1792. Having slept with his political enemy as it were, he remained unconverted to her Royalist sympathies. However, he did befriend Michel Beaupuis who, shocked by the poverty all around him, had disowned his own aristocratic origins to become a child of the Revolution. Beaupuis was eventually to die for his country.65
Wordsworth not only spoke up for the poor, he pointed a finger at where the blame lay:
‘… a benignant spirit was abroad
Which might not be withstood, that poverty
Abject as this would in a little time
Be found no more… That legalized exclusion, empty pomp
Abolished, sensual state and cruel power,
Whether by edict of the one or few,
And finally, as sum and crown of all,
Should see the people having a strong hand
In framing their own laws, whence better days,
To all mankind.’66
Yet Wordsworth would eventually embrace the ‘cruel power’ in his homeland and actually support it. Meanwhile, the seething political atmosphere in France was just too much for him and he callously abandoned his mistress and daughter. Soon he would cast aside his former political views and try and pretend that he never had them.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
Hazlitt says that: ‘Mr. Wordsworth’s genius is a pure emanation of the Spirit of the Age. Had he lived in any other period of the world, he would never have been heard of.’ But he adds that: ‘No one has shewn the same imagination in raising trifles into importance: no one has displayed the same pathos in treating the simplest feelings of the heart… to the author of the Lyrical Ballads, nature is a kind of home…’67
To a generation of city dwellers who have not known the agricultural fields and the plough for a century and whose experience of the outdoors might amount to little more than a Sunday drive in the country, it may be hard to identify with the sheer bliss felt by Hazlitt, Wordsworth and Coleridge in simply being amongst the mountains, trees and flowers of Nature’s wild beauty. We moderns live amidst a warren of concrete rat runs and suck up our daily ration of exhaust fumes and particulates, dying by the thousands yearly in cities like London. They breathed in the clean fresh air and thought nothing of a daily jaunt of twenty miles along country lanes or a hundred mile trek in a week. Every morning a living theatre greeted them and staged a banquet of natural delights. The athlete of today might get his runner’s high after extensive training when the endorphins course through his bloodstream, Hazlitt and his companions had the equivalent stimulus every day of their lives spent amongst the fields and hedgerows, with ample time to stop and stare and appreciate their surroundings. It should come as no surprise that men like Rousseau, Nietzsche, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Romantics got some of their best ideas whilst walking. That is exactly what the human animal is designed to do.
The year 1798 also saw great events taking place in Ireland, the birthplace of Hazlitt’s father. The United Irishmen had been trying to wrest control of their country from the British. One of the founders of the organization was Henry Haslett who might have been a relative. Hazlitt senior knew William Drennan who had been tried for sedition in 1794. To the Hazlitts in Britain: ‘the hereditary monarchy by which they were governed was little other than a form of institutionalized tyranny.’68 Father and son waited anxiously for news from Ireland. The rebellion started on May 23rd and its genesis is reflected in the words of Wu who states: ‘In a matter of weeks over 30,000 people were slaughtered, peasants charging British cannon armed only with pitchforks. That such a multitude thought that sacrifice worthwhile testifies to the severity of British rule.’69
Whether it was rebellious colonists in America, seditious Unitarians in Britain or revolting peasants in Ireland, the British Government response was the same - overwhelming force wherever and whenever it was deemed necessary. To Pitt and his ilk, this policy was of little more consequence than putting down a ravening dog.
In The Spirit of the Age, Hazlitt also slams the novelist Sir Walter Scott for being a tool of the government and a supporter of legitimacy. Scott: ‘… who, amiable, frank, friendly, manly in private life, was seized with the dotage of age and the fury of a woman, the instant politics were concerned - who reserved all his candour and comprehensiveness of view for history, and vented his littleness, pique, resentment, bigotry, and intolerance on is contemporaries - who took the wrong side, and defended it by unfair means… who, praised, admired by men of all parties alike, repaid the public liberality by striking a secret and envenomed blow at the reputation of everyone who was not the ready tool of power - who strewed the slime of rankling malice and mercenary scorn over the bud and promise of genius, because it was not fostered in the hot-bed of corruption, or warped by the trammels of servility - who supported the worst abuses of authority in the worst spirit - who joined a gang of desperadoes to spread calumny, contempt, infamy, wherever they were merited by honesty or talent on a different side - who officiously undertook to decide public questions by private insinuations to prop the throne by nicknames, and the altar by lies…’70
Yes, the pen is mightier than the sword.
This was Hazlitt’s take not only on the creatures of government but on their spies and agent provocateurs who seemed to be everywhere. He was always mightily unimpressed by those who were happy to partake in the trappings of power while at the same time the disenfranchised poor were abused, starving and ignored.
It was in 1798 while staying with Coleridge at Nether Stowey that Hazlitt met Wordsworth at nearby Alfoxden. Having been disappointed by mere politicians and dismayed by the French Terror, the two poets were collaborating on the Lyrical Ballads: ‘a philosophical poem by which humanity would be re-educated to understand how love of nature led irresistibly to love of mankind. It would create a new kind of society in which there was no need for money, property or social class, and universal love would reign supreme.’71 At this stage their idealism was still apparent. Furthermore, when the topic of the duel between Tierney and Pitt came up Wordsworth exclaimed: ‘I wish Tierney had shot out Pitt’s tongue and put an end to his gift of the gab.’ At this time their political leanings were much more in line with Hazlitt’s own.72
Having tried his hand at writing down his own personal philosophy and having failed, Hazlitt decided to become an artist like his older brother John. In the autumn of that year he went to London with the intention of becoming a portrait painter. As Rys said: ‘he had a true love for art as for literature.’73 What really piqued his interest was an exhibition of Italian paintings in Pall Mall in the December of 1798, items mainly from the Orleans collection in Paris. The exhibition lasted until July 1799 and Hazlitt spent countless hours there admiring the paintings.74
In 1799 he also attended a series of lectures given by Sir James Mackintosh. Once an opponent of Burke - his Vindiciae Gallicae was a reply to Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution - Mackintosh was another who recanted his earlier views: ‘It is my intention to profess publicly and unequivocally that I abhor, abjure and for ever renounce the French Revolution, with its sanguinary history, its abominable principles, and for ever execrable leaders.’75 In The Spirit of the Age, Hazlitt puts Sir James’ change of heart down to a personal interview he had with Burke: ‘Mr. Mackintosh became a convert not merely to the graces and gravity of Mr. Burke’s style, but to the liberality of his views, and the solidity of his opinions. - The Lincoln’s-Inn Lectures were the fruit of this interview: such is the influence exercised by men of genius and imaginative power…’76
Another man who listened avidly to the illustrious turncoat was John Stoddart, who would eventually become Hazlitt’s brother-in-law. Maclean says he: ‘had been one of the noisiest revolutionaries a few years before,’77 and he made copious notes which he put to good use when he later became editor of The Times of London. Stoddart, who also knew Coleridge and Wordsworth, was from humble origins himself and had once cut his hair like a true sans-culotte. He had even gone so far as to suggest that a Napoleonic invasion would be ‘of more advantage than victory.’78 But he soon eschewed his former Jacobinism and became King’s Advocate in Malta. By the turn of the century former revolutionary idealists and reformers really did seem to be falling by the wayside.
With the Peace of Amiens in 1802, Hazlitt would get the chance to visit the Louvre. Ironically, around the same time Tom Paine was in the process of leaving France. Schama remarks that he: ‘had never really recovered from the typhus he had contracted in jail, but who was suffering even more from a clinical aversion to Napoleon (“the very butcher of Liberty and the greatest monster Nature ever spewed.”)’79 Paine lived up to his name when he finally got to America, causing a rumpus when he met Washington and Adams. One suspects that after a lifetime of trials and tribulations, Paine would not have cared much even for the Second Coming.
Schama contrasts Paine’s view of Napoleon with Hazlitt’s. He: ‘had become enthralled by the Napoleonic epic and would, in fact, never free himself of it,’80 as if implying that Napoleon himself was some kind of disease. Surprisingly, in his History of Britain Volume 3, Schama makes many references to how Jews suffered in England but there is no reference whatsoever to the benefits Jews got in Napoleonic France and under the Empire. Perhaps he has not read his Heine.
Schama also over-eggs the threat of the potential French invasion: ‘In these Boneyphobic year it was Coleridge, not Hazlitt, who was in tune with the vast majority of Britons. The threat was not, after all, imaginary.’81 He says there were over 100,000 French troops at Boulogne and 2,300 vessels - although he admits that many of them were small. What he does not say was that the French really had a navy in name only, especially after the Battle of the Nile. Most aristocratic French officers emigrated or were executed during the Terror. French ports had been blockaded for years, thus preventing French sailors getting any experience of life at sea, any practice at manoeuvring their vessels or even firing their guns. At Yorktown the French navy really did make a difference and their presence led to the British losing the American War of Independence. By 1805 it was amazing that the French and the Spaniards did as well as they did at Trafalgar, but the result was never really in doubt.
Schama adds that in the Louvre Hazlitt admired the paintings: ‘while conveniently overlooking the fact that the First Consul had accumulated the contents of the museum by plundering the churches and galleries of Europe.’82 However, in the Bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807 the British Navy not only stole the whole of the Danish navy, they also murdered 2,000 civilians in the process. And Denmark was neutral at the time. Has Schama not heard of the Elgin Marbles - ‘acquired between 1801 and 1805’83 as it says on the British Museum website? And as for the Rosetta Stone - we stole that from the French…
It was not just the Unitarians who were persecuted by the Government; the common people were equally hounded if they dared to criticize their betters or threaten the status quo. The same repression faced them whether they were middle - or working -class. Stimulated by the French Revolution and despite the threat to their own liberty, people flocked to join the new radical societies that were set up throughout the country. Those who could afford two and a half guineas a year (a fortune in the late C18th) became members of The Friends of the People, a group urging political reform. The Society for Constitutional Information went further and backed the publication of a cheap edition of The Rights of Man. We have seen already what happened to some of its members - Horne Tooke, Holcroft and Thelwell. So-called corresponding societies also proliferated. The secretary of The London Corresponding Society whose members called each other citizen, was Thomas Hardy, a shoemaker. So passionate was he for reform that despite threats of physical violence from the London mob, he refused to put lights in his shop window if the French lost a battle.84
Most great English cities had their own organization. Manchester had its Constitutional Society while The Sheffield Association voiced its concern over ‘the enormous high price of provisions’ and ‘the waste… of the public property by placemen, pensioners, luxury and debauchery.’85 Hunger and unemployment were the ubiquitous catalysts for much of the public discontent. Bad harvests occurred in 1792 and 1794. Prices soared and there were bread riots. Hundreds marched through Birmingham in 1795 demanding bread. Riots took place in London and the windows of Downing Street were smashed in. That same year nearly 150,000 gathered in Copenhagen Fields for a meeting organized by the London Corresponding Society. Speakers denounced the war with France, demanding universal suffrage and annual parliaments. The King was booed on his way to the official opening of Parliament, the streets lined with angry crowds crying for peace and bread.86
Pitt responded with the Treasonable Practices Bill and the Seditious Meetings Bill that banned large public gatherings. The Corresponding Act followed in 1799 along with the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800. Pitt proved himself to be cruel, ruthless, repressive and incompetent. As Pauline Gregg remarks: ‘It is hard to excuse Pitt for repression so ruthless, so out of proportion to the moderate requests of the men he crushed. By social and political reform he could have removed the just grievances which made them rebels against his government.’87 Alluding to the actual reality of the times, she adds: ‘Nowhere and at no time during the Napoleonic wars was there a revolutionary situation; there was no protest which a moderate reform would not have converted into acclamation for the Government. At every turn it was the legislature which made the revolution out of its own fears, and which magnified the riots of hungry men into an incipient French Revolution.’88
For so many years, Pitt seemed to be at war with his own people.
Some months after the signing of the Treaty of Amiens on March 25th 1802, William got the opportunity of going to Paris to see the Old Masters in person. He intended to paint ten pictures for his patron Mr Railton for £105. There is no doubt that he enjoyed himself. To save money he walked from the port to the capital: ‘Calais was peopled with novelty and delight,’ while France itself possessed the very soil of freedom: ‘for the image of man was not cast down and chained to the foot of arbitrary thrones.’89
Almost immediately, he heard good words said about Napoleon. A fellow Englishman called Lovelace told him what happened when his nephew was presented to the First Consul. Rather than ask the usual mundane question about where the young officer had served Napoleon remarked: ‘I perceive your name, Sir, is the same as that of the hero of Richardson’s romance.’90 For Hazlitt, Napoleon was already living up to expectations, as Maclean says: ‘Hazlitt, who never could hear enough about Buonaparte, thought on hearing this: “Here was a Consul!” The story confirmed his belief which was growing in him, that Buonaparte, although a soldier by profession, was far more than a professional soldier.’91
However, he was very disappointed with the impression Paris initially made upon him. The filthy, narrow streets were hazardous to negotiate because of speeding traffic. There were no footpaths and the drivers of carriages appeared to take a perverse delight in targeting pedestrians. Hazlitt must have been very relieved when he arrived at his lodgings at the hotel Coq Heron, very near the Louvre, on October 15th 1802. The sight of beggars loitering in the capital also ended any remaining doubts he might have had about the streets being paved with gold.
This view of Parisian life from the bottom up, as it were, was not shared by all. Maclean states that: ‘for most of the English who visited France in this year were amazed by its air of prosperity, and some of them seemed almost scandalized by it.’92
When Wordsworth returned to Calais on August 1st 1802, he took a more jaundiced view of France. But that was Wordsworth - and perhaps his conscience might have been troubling him after abandoning his mistress and daughter all those years before.
When he finally got to the Louvre William was in his element. It took him a while to realize he had to bribe the doormen to be let into the galleries where the finest paintings were, but once inside those hallowed halls he existed in a state of bliss. He soon occupied himself copying pictures from 9-20 in the morning until 4 pm when the place closed. To add to his joy at seeing masterpieces by Titian, Poussin and Rubens, came a glimpse of the First Consul in the flesh. Napoleon liked to show himself to the populace as a true man of the people and Hazlitt was enraptured at the image he presented: ‘What a fine iron binding Buonaparte had round the face, as if it had been cased in steel! What sensibility around the mouth! What watchful penetration in the eye! What a smooth unruffled forehead.’93 That image of his hero would stay with him for the rest of his life.
A few years earlier, Napoleon had had the same effect on the artist David. After sketching him, David enthused to his pupils: ‘Oh my friends, what a fine head he has! It’s pure, it’s great, it’s as beautiful as the Antique! Here is a man to whom altars would have been erected in ancient times; yes, my friends, yes, my dear friends! Bonaparte is my hero!’94 The mystique of the man enabled him to conquer with a smile or a momentary glance. Jean Tulard might decry the myth of the saviour but to his contemporaries, Napoleon was truly something else - he was remarkable, he was unique.
On December 2nd 1805 Napoleon had his greatest military victory, crushing the combined Austrian and Russian armies at Austerlitz, an achievement he was unable to repeat when he faced a joint British and Prussian forces at Waterloo. Hazlitt was elated by the news for he and men like Godwin and Thelwall saw Napoleon as the Revolution personified and as democracy’s last hope. He thought that Britain would now be forced to sue for peace. The sun of Austerlitz appeared to him to be a golden dawn, heralding the rise of freedom and liberty for all.95 He recalled: ‘I walked out in the afternoon and, as I returned, saw the evening star set over a poor man’s cottage with other thoughts and feelings than I shall ever have again. Oh for the revolution of the great Platonic year, that those times might come again!’96
Having failed to make his mark as a portrait painter and been unable to earn a living as a writer, Hazlitt eventually became a political commentator. His forceful, energetic and cultured allusions, his brilliant style and perception, were unprecedented and unique. As Wu says: ‘Hazlitt invented the political sketch as we know it today.’97 Free Thoughts on Public Affairs, his first political pamphlet, condemned the late Pitt’s foreign policy and expressed a wish that Fox and his Ministry of All the Talents would make peace with Napoleon. William thought that France under Napoleon was the best chance for a proper democracy to arise in Europe. But when Fox died the same year, his hopes were again dashed.
Hazlitt’s razor sharp wit was in evidence in April 1813 after he heard a very lacklustre speech by Richard Wellesley, Wellington’s brother, in support of the East India Company’s monopoly of trade with the subcontinent. Ironically, for once, William found himself on the Government side as the official policy was to open up that trade: ‘It was curious, though somewhat painful, to see this lively Nobleman always in the full career of his argument, and never advancing one jot nearer… soaring into mediocrity with adventurous enthusiasm…’98
There was definitely no such thing as free speech in Britain in the early nineteenth century. Leigh and John Hunt found this out when they criticized the Prince Regent in The Examiner in March 1812. Having described him as an ‘exciter of desire,’ they added a coruscating verdict upon his Royal Majesty: ‘a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in debt and disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, the companion of gamblers and demireps, a man who has just closed half a century without a single claim on the gratitude of his country or the respect of posterity.’99
No matter that all this was true, there was now a new law of libel that ensured that anyone who made derogatory comments about the government or the royals could be thrown into prison. The porky and prickly Prince was mortified by the Leighs’ assessment of his character and after a rigged trial, both the brothers found themselves in jail.
Hazlitt soon found himself crossing swords with one of the chief apostates - Robert Southey. He, like the other Lake poets, did not like William dredging up the past. When Southey became Poet Laureate, William could hardly restrain himself. Initially the two of them had got on very well, Southey speaking of his sympathy with the rebels in Ireland. We have see that he even planned to set up a colony in the New World with Coleridge. But that benign and radical young man had by now metamorphosed into a heartless creature of the government: ‘Southey had undergone one of the most extreme changes of heart of the Romantic period… he now opposed Catholic emancipation and wanted to ship refractory Irish to the colonies. As far as he was concerned the poor were a constant threat to the political stability of the country, and he supported the execution of insurrectionists.’100 As Laureate, Southey had to praise the King every year upon his birthday. This was grist to Hazlitt’s mill: ‘To have been the poet of the people may not render Mr Southey a court favourite, and one of his old Sonnets to Liberty must give a particular Zest to his new Birthday Odes.’101 Southey was incensed by Hazlitt’s ridicule hence his comment quoted earlier about New College Hackney.
By 1813 the tide had turned against Napoleon and he suffered a catastrophic defeat at Leipzig, the so-called Battle of the Nations. Despite this, he remained Hazlitt’s hero. But there were many other prominent people in this country who were still rooting for him, from the flashy Byron to more sober figures like William Hamilton Reid, Lord Wycombe, John Thelwall, William Godwin, William Cobbett, Lord Melbourne and Sir John Soane. Mary Russell Mitford wrote: ‘I am a very moderate person - very moderate indeed, neither Whig, nor Tory, nor Reformer - nothing but a Buonapartiste - a simple Buonapartiste.’102
The writer Edward Sterling aka Vetus attacked Napoleon vociferously in The Times. Vetus wanted the Allies to fight on, depose Napoleon and restore the Bourbons to the French throne.103 Hazlitt favoured a dialogue with Napoleon so that the advances already made by the Revolution could be kept. However, he found he had an even more powerful enemy, none other than John Stoddart, the editor of The Times and his own brother-in-law. Stoddart was another whose opinions had turned through one hundred and eighty degrees. The former shaven headed radical who had once espoused the belief that Britain might benefit from being conquered by Napoleon was now a reactionary of the first order. In his leading articles he jeered at William for his continued support of the Revolution and savagely criticized him for being stupidly attached to a lost cause.
On January 29th 1814, Stoddart wrote: ‘The Bank, the Institute, the Legion of Honour, the Emperor’s profound policy, his matchless skill, his irresistible heroism! Thus they went on - puff! puff! puff! - and our silly Dottrels, who profess and call themselves “The True Jacobins”… are of all men the most easily fooled…’104 William responded with ‘Dottrel-Catching’, in which he painted Stoddart as a traitor to his own former views: ‘for the smallest concession, (he) is prevailed upon to give up every principle, and to surrender himself, bound hand and foot, the slave of a party, who get all they want of him…’105
Hazlitt supported Napoleon to the bitter end. On March 1st he hoped the Emperor’s fortunes might still improve writing that: ‘The march to Paris has been tried and has failed… Alas! How chop-fallen the would-be heroes who with such big words called for nothing less than perpetual war, or the utter extermination of the BONAPARTEAN dynasty.’106 A few days later on April 3rd he wrote another piece damning the French royal family and the war, little knowing that by then the Allies were already in Paris and that Louis XVIII would very soon return to the capital in their baggage train. Stoddart, who as editor of The Times was on the massive salary of £1,400 a year, was cock-a-hoop at the news.107
Most of Hazlitt’s political commentaries were written for the Morning Chronicle, but its proprietor James Perry had had enough of his outspokenness and he was sacked.108 He turned to writing for The Examiner and The Champion and he soon found another target. In July 1814 Wordsworth’s Excursion was published. It was a poetical tome and the summation of his life’s work. Once, long before, Wordsworth and Coleridge had planned on changing the world with their poetry and they were men with a mission. They had both been radical in their youth and great supporters of the Revolution. By 1814 they were both Establishment figures. Indeed, the Excursion was dedicated to a Tory Peer, William Lowther, second Lord Lonsdale. So much for the grand poetic work that would appeal to Everyman and prove that even the commonest peasant deserved a voice.109
William was determined to make Wordsworth acknowledge his own past and face up to the fact that he had turned his back on optimism and the prospect of engendering radical change in society:
‘… yet we will never cease, nor be prevented from, returning on the wings of
imagination to that bright dream of our youth; that glad-dawn of the day-star of
liberty; that spring-time of the world, in which the hopes and expectations of
the human race seemed opening in the same gay career with our own; when
France called her children to partake her equal blessings under her laughing
skies… The dawn of that day was suddenly overcast: that season of hope is
past… To those hopes eternal regrets are due: to those who maliciously and
willfully blasted them, in the fear that they might be accomplished, we feel no
less what we owe - hatred and scorn as lasting.’110
With the fall of Napoleon Hazlitt had lost all hope of a better future for mankind. Although he had Wordsworth in the crosshairs of his verbal fusillade, he also wept for what might have been, had Wordsworth and Coleridge lived up to all their earlier promise.
It is not hard to imagine his relief and joy at the news that Napoleon had escaped from Elba and he could not contain his enthusiasm:
‘Those days were jocund and jubilant - full of heart’s ease and of allegresse.
Its footsteps had an audible echo through the earth. Laughed eyes, danced
hearts, clapped hands at it. It “loosened something at the chest”; and men
listened with delight and wonder (wherever such were found) to the unbarring
and unbolting of those doors of despotism which they thought had been closed
on them forever. All that was human rejoiced; the tyrant and the slave shrunk
back aghast, as the clash of arms was drowned in the shout of the multitude…
Therefore Buonaparte seemed from his first landing to bestride the country
like a Colossus…’111
Then came Waterloo - and the dream turned into a nightmare.
Thomas Noon Talfourd found William ‘staggering under the blow of Waterloo… as if he had sustained a personal wrong’.112 The artist Benjamin Robert Haydon wrote in his memoirs: ‘As for Hazlitt, it is not to be believed how the destruction of Napoleon affected him; he seemed prostrated in mind and body; he walked about, unwashed, unshaved, hardly sober by day, and always intoxicated by night, literally, without exaggeration, for weeks; until at length wakening as it were from his stupor, he at once left off all stimulating liquors, and never touched them after.’113
To Hazlitt, the fall of Napoleon was nothing less than ‘the utter extinction of human liberty from the earth’.114
In 1816, thanks to Byron putting in a good word for him with the publisher John Murray, Coleridge’s poems Christabel and Kubla Khan were published. Hazlitt now had the opportunity to put another apostate in the stocks. Once Coleridge had seemed to presage a revolution in himself: he was an excellent preacher, a very gifted poet and a leader of men. But then came his addiction to opium, obesity and a lassitude that prevented him from achieving anything of note. In 1816 Coleridge was a fallen star, his cold talent buried deep beneath his inadequacies as a human being. He was a has-been reliant on handouts from Sir George Beaumont, a man who detested republicanism. Hazlitt crucified Christabel in the Edinburgh Review: ‘The thing now before us is utterly destitute of value. It exhibits from beginning to end not a ray of genius…’115
William felt a deep and personal affront at having been duped by Coleridge, who had promised so much and delivered so little. It was nothing less than an act of betrayal. Hence he did not spare the rapier, attacking him in several publications. As Wu states: ‘Hazlitt’s attacks were well founded. When first he met the Lakers, their declared aim was to realize the objectives of the French Revolution by non-violent means. It had been abandoned at a time when ordinary people were more oppressed than ever.’116
Hazlitt also held forthright views on the subject of the repressive Liverpool administration: ‘The war has wasted the resources of the country in foolery, which the country has now to pay for in a load of taxes on its remaining resources, its actual produce and labour,’ and adds that:
‘The tax-gatherer is a government-machine that takes sixty-five millions-a-year
from the bankrupt pockets of the nation, to give to those who have brought it
into that situation; who takes so much from the necessaries of life belonging to
the poor, to add to the superfluities of the rich; who adds so much to the hard
labour of the working part of the community, to “relieve the killing languor
and over-laboured lassitude of those who have nothing to do”; who, in short,
out of the grinding poverty and ceaseless toil of those who pay the taxes,
enables those who receive them to live in luxury and idleness.’117
William was brave to nail his colours to the mast. The Prince Regent had been booed at the State Opening of Parliament on January 28th 1817 and stones were pelted at his coach, breaking a window. This demonstration of general disapproval was used as an excuse to suspend Habeas Corpus and ban public meetings unless approved by a magistrate. And, as if to emphasize how far Southey had travelled down the road to perdition, he wrote to the Prime Minister saying: ‘No means can be effectual for checking the intolerable license of the press but that of making transportation the punishment for its abuse.’118 The vindictive Poet Laureate had become nothing but a Government stooge.
In a beautiful twist of fate, Wat Tyler, a play written by a very much younger Southey then came into the public domain. It had been written to castigate Pitt’s government and was extremely embarrassing to the older man. Despite all his efforts the play was published over and over and became his best-selling piece. As he no longer held the copyright he earned absolutely nothing from this old play.119 But Hazlitt made sure he would never forget it. Comparing Wat Tyler to one of Southey’s diatribes in the Quarterly Review he states that:
‘The author of Wat Tyler was an Ultra-Jacobin; the author of Parliamentary
Reform is an Ultra-royalist; the one was a frantic demagogue; the other is
a court-tool… the one saw nothing but the abuses of power; the other sees
nothing but the horrors of resistance to those abuses: the one did not stop
short of general anarchy; the other goes the whole length of despotism:
the one vilified kings, priests, and nobles; the other vilifies the people: the
one was for universal suffrage and perfect equality; the other is for seat-
selling, and the increasing influence of the Crown: the one admired the
preaching of John Ball; the other recommends the Suspension of Habeas
Corpus, and the putting down of the Examiner by the sword, the dagger,
or the thumb-screw; for the pen, Mr Southey tells us, is not sufficient.’120
William Smith MP followed Hazlitt’s lead in Parliament, reading from Wat Tyler and the Quarterly Review saying that: ‘what he most detested, what most filled him with disgust, was the settled, determined malignity of a renagado.’121
So there, Southey.
When the Poet Laureate replied with A Letter to William Smith, Hazlitt savaged him again: ‘Once admit that Mr Southey is always in the right, and everyone else in the wrong, and all the rest follows… He is both judge and jury in his own cause… The crime of Mr William Smith and others, against whom this high-priest of impertinence levels his anathemas, is in not being Mr Southey.’122
Another renegade was waiting in the wings to take another bow - John Stoddart. He had called Napoleon ‘a Corsican upstart’ and ‘a monster redeemed from vice by no single virtue’123 - and had constantly denounced any talk of negotiations between Britain and France. He also lambasted his opponents and especially his own brother-in-law. Hazlitt responded in kind calling him: ‘a very weak and violent man… a very stupid, senseless, vulgar person’.124 He also had the satisfaction of seeing him being forced from his position as editor of The Times in 1816 by its owner John Walter II who had tired of his fanatical anti-republican copy. It was too one-sided for a supposed independent paper. And in a fine irony, Hazlitt soon found himself writing for the illustrious Times.125
On July 28th 1817 in a cringing outpouring of verbal diarrhoea, Coleridge wrote to Lord Liverpool saying: ‘the strong feeling of respect, the inward honor, which I have been so long in the habit of connecting with your name, [and] ‘support of those principles… of the measures and means, which have at length secured the gratitude and reverence of the wise and good to your Lordship and your Lordship’s fellow-combatants in the long agonizing contest’ [i.e. the suppression of dissidents] recommending that ‘the system ends as it began in “physical force”, as the sovereign people are sure to learn, where the minority happens to consist of a ruffian at the head of an army of ruffians’.126 Despite all this affected waffle - it was obvious whose side Coleridge was now on.
Wordsworth, Coleridge, Stoddart and Southey were traitors to the republican cause and they berated their own former views with the passion and fanaticism of a convert. What they all did not like was being reminded by William Hazlitt of who they used to be, and of what they had once stood for. He was a constant mirror to their oversize egos, an ever-present reminder that they were not who they said they were, no matter how much they lied about their past.
The vile Establishment attacks upon its critics knew no bounds and many fell silent. In 1818 John Hunt published a new anti-government paper The Yellow Dwarf, which Hazlitt co-edited. On November 7th that year at Derby, three men set up by a government spy were hanged, drawn and beheaded in a hideous throwback to the Middle Ages. Was this what the British soldiers at Waterloo had been fighting for?127
William Hazlitt defended Napoleon whatever the occasion, at one time criticizing Byron for being both for and against the Emperor at the same time during his lecture On the Living Poets: ‘If my Lord Byron will do these things, he must take the consequences; the acts of Napoleon Buonaparte are subjects of history, not for the disparagement of the Muse.’128 And although William praised the artist Turner’s work - which mystified many critics - he vociferously disagreed with him when he criticized Napoleon. Meanwhile, in ‘What is the People,’ one of his essays for The Yellow Dwarf he stated that: ‘nothing rouses the people to resistance but extreme and aggravated injustice.’129 Hazlitt certainly knew the prevailing mood of the country better than most.
Hazlitt lectures helped keep his head above water financially when his newspaper copy was just too hot for the persecuted press. The architect John Soane was an admirer of them and invited William to his house in London which contained his own private museum.130 Hazlitt was especially entranced by a bust of Napoleon he saw there. Very few people, even today, realize just how popular the Emperor was in this country.
In 1819 William’s Political Essays were published by William Hone and dedicated to John Hunt. All three of them detested the reactionary government of Lord Liverpool and the addled institution of the monarchy.131 Hazlitt summed up his own political philosophy in these words:
‘I am no politician, and still less can I be said to be a party-man: but I have a
hatred of tyranny, and a contempt for its tools; and this feeling I have expressed
as often and as strongly as I could. I cannot sit quietly down under the claims
of barefaced power, and I have tried to express the little arts of sophistry by which
they are defended. I have no mind to have my person made a property of, nor
my understanding made a dupe of. I deny that liberty and slavery are convertible
terms, that right and wrong, truth and falsehood, plenty and famine, the comforts
or wretchedness of a people, are matters of perfect indifference…’132
On February 2nd 1819, the Government mouthpiece the Quarterly Review, slated Hazlitt’s Lectures on the English Poets. This was not only a personal attack upon him, it was a conscious policy designed to make it as difficult as possible for him to make a living. The editor of the Quarterly Review was William Gifford who was one of the uglier creatures of power. William was not the sort of man to take this treatment lying down. In a brilliant and coruscating attack upon Gifford he said:
‘You are a little person, but a considerable cat’s-paw; and so worthy of notice.
Your clandestine connexion with persons high in office constantly influences
your opinions, and alone gives importance to them. You are the Government
Critic, a character nicely differing from that of a government spy - the invisible
link that connects literature with the police. It is your business to keep a strict
eye over all the writers who differ in opinion with his Majesty’s Ministers, and
to measure their talents and attainments by the standard of their servility and
meanness. For this office you are well qualified.’133
In the year 1819 occurred the infamous Peterloo Massacre. On August 16th at least 60,000 people had assembled at Saint Peters Fields Manchester to listen to Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt speak on universal suffrage and reform. Manchester’s population had soared due to the Industrial Revolution but it did not have a Member of Parliament at that time. The men were dressed in their Sunday best, while the women wore their holiday clothes. The fact that there were many children present is indicative of the peaceful intentions of the crowd. There were even bands playing God Save the King. A member of the Times newspaper was also present at the meeting. Hunt had only just started speaking when a large group of riders from the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry appeared and brandished their swords. They were supported by the Cheshire Yeomanry, the 15th Hussars and over three hundred special constables. When a woman was knocked down by a horse the crowd panicked. The troops then surged forward, ploughing through the densely packed throng to get at Hunt and arrest him. The Times correspondent then heard them cry ‘Have at their flags!’ and they charged at anyone holding a banner, in the process ‘cutting most indiscriminatingly to the right and to the left in order to get at them.’ Eleven people were hacked to death and hundreds were seriously wounded.134
This act of sheer butchery was dubbed Peterloo because one of the crazed constables had shouted out: ‘This is Waterloo for you - this is Waterloo.’135 By another irony it also happened the day after Napoleon’s 50th birthday. He had been banished to Saint Helena in 1815 so for once the British authorities could not blame him personally for this tragedy. However, the savagery of the day was supported by the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, the Prince Regent and Lord Liverpool, while Southey to his eternal shame congratulated the magistrates for their decision to use the troops. The Government also used the massacre as an excuse to bring in the six Gagging Acts forbidding all such future gatherings. No wonder that on September 8th 1819 Frances Place told Thomas Hodgskin: ‘… we are really under the government of the Sword.’136
After the Emperor’s death in 1821, William Hazlitt decided to embark on the most important project of his literary career - a biography of Napoleon. He already knew that dozens of books about Napoleon had already been written since his demise and that Sir Walter Scott was planning a huge nine-volume study himself: ‘I felt pride,’ he said: ‘to think that there was one reputation in modern times equal to the ancients, and at seeing one man greater than the throne he sat upon.’137 The necessary research involved in such a mammoth undertaking gave William the chance to return to France. This time he went with his second wife Isabella. In France he discussed his great history with Marie-Henri Beyle aka Stendhal who had been part of Napoleon’s infamous 1812 invasion of Russia, the Marquis de Lafayette and Benjamin Constant.
Unfortunately for William, government stooges in the press had done their very best to blacken his name and there was also at that time a recession in the publishing business. Even Sir Walter Scott was declared bankrupt to the tune of £86,000.138 So things did not look propitious for yet another biography of Napoleon. However Scott sold 8,000 copies of his biography in June 1827, success Hazlitt could only dream of. William was also now very sickly with stomach trouble and at the same time living a hand to mouth existence. He was nearly always in debt, a situation that added yet more pressure to his lot. He began to worry that he might die before he finished his version of Napoleon’s life. Finally on February 11th 1828 the first two volumes of his Life of Napoleon Buonaparte went on sale for the not inconsiderable sum of 30 shillings.139 For all his pains and efforts it went down like a lead balloon.
In his Preface to the work he stated why he had such a high regard for Napoleon:
‘It is true, I admired the man; but what chiefly attached me to him was his
being, as he had been long ago designated, ‘the child and champion of the
Revolution.’ Of this character he could not divest himself, even though he
wished it. He was nothing, he could be nothing but what he owed to himself
and to his triumphs over those who claimed mankind as their inheritance by
divine right; and as long as he was a thorn in the side of kings and kept them
at bay, his cause rose out of the ruins and defeat of their pride and hopes of
revenge. He stood (and he alone stood) between them and their natural prey.
He kept off that last indignity and wrong offered to a whole people (and
through them to the rest of the world) of being handed over, like a herd of
cattle, to a particular family, and chained to the foot of a legitimate throne.
This was the chief point at issue - this was the great question, compared with
which all others were tame and insignificant - Whether mankind were, from
the beginning to the end of time, born slaves or not? As long as he remained,
his acts, his very existence gave a proud and full answer to this question.’140
In 1829 he found a publisher for the third and fourth volumes of his Napoleon biography. The Preface above was actually printed as part of volume three. He just managed to complete the great work before his health took a serious turn for the worst. He died on September 18th 1830, aged 52.141 In another strange twist of fate he had outlived his hero by a less than a year. His epitaph included this:
‘He lived to see... the downfall of the Bourbons,
And some prospect of good to mankind’
To leave some sterling work to the world’…
The first (unanswered) metaphysician of the age.
A despiser of the merely Rich and Great:
A lover of the People, Poor and Oppressed:
A hater of the Pride and Power of the Few,
As opposed to the happiness of the Many;
A man of true moral courage,
Who sacrificed Profit and present Fame
And a yearning for the good of Human Nature.
Who was a burning wound to an Aristocracy…’142
He was Napoleon’s greatest champion and a constant fighter for freedom and fairness for all. And few in Britain today even know his name.
© 2016 John Tarttelin
1. P.G.Patmore in Duncan Wu William Hazlitt The First Modern Man (Oxford: OUP 2008) 180
2. Ibid. 298-299
3. Ibid. 299
4. Ibid. 299
5. Ibid. 299-300
6. Ibid. 299-300
7. Ibid Preface xxiii
8. Ibid. 25
9. Ibid. 25
10. Catherine Macdonald Maclean Born Under Saturn (London and Glasgow: Collins 1943) 9-11
11. Wu op. cit. 25
12. Maclean op. cit. 9
13. Wu op.cit. 26
14. Maclean op.cit. 55
15. Ibid. 42
16. Ibid. 41-42
17. Pauline Gregg A Social and Economic History of Britain 1760-1965 (London: Harrap & Co. Ltd
18. Ibid. 80
19. Ibid. 80-81
20. Sheila Moore The Conservative Party The First 150 Years (Richmond Upon Thames: Country
Life Books 1980) 61
21. Ibid. 61
22. Ibid. 105
23. Maclean op. cit. 42
24. Wu op.cit. 36
25. Maclean op.cit. 34
26. Wu op.cit. 49
27. Maclean op.cit. 42
28. Ibid. 52
29. Ibid. 56
30. Ibid. 56
31. Ibid. 57
32. Ibid. 57
33. Ibid. 57-58
34. Ibid. 58
35. Ibid. 65
36. Ibid. 65-66
37. Ibid. 74
38. Wu op.cit. 42
39. Maclean op.cit. 74-75
40. Ibid. 78
41. Ibid. 83
42. Ibid. 88
43. Ibid. 92
44. Ibid. 96
45. Ibid. 99
46. Ibid. 102
47. Ibid. 103
48. Ibid. 104-105
49. Ibid. 106
50. Wu op.cit. 16
51. Ibid. 19
52. Simon Schama A History of Britain (London: BBC Books 2002) 99
53. Ibid. 98
54. Ibid. 99
55. Ibid. 99
56. Ibid. 100
57. Maclean op.cit. 110
58. Ibid. 110
59. Ibid. 111
60. Ibid. 111
61. Ibid. 112
62. Wu op.cit. 19
63. William Hazlitt The Spirit Of The Age (UK: Kessinger Publishing) www.kessinger.net
64. Schama op.cit 69
65. Ibid. 70
66. Ibid. 72
67. Hazlitt Spirit 94
68. Wu op.cit. 7
69. Ibid. 19
70. Hazlitt Spirit 61
71. Wu op.cit 10
72. Maclean op.cit. 121
73. Everyman’s Library Ed. Ernest Rhys Hazlitt’s Characters Of Shakespear’s Plays (London: J.M.
Dent 1921) vii
74. Maclean op.cit. 141
75. Ibid. 145
76. Hazlitt Spirit 88
77. Maclean op.cit. 145
78. Wu op.cit. 72
79. Schama op.cit. 108
80. Ibid. 108
81. Ibid. 109
82. Ibid. 108
83. See British Museum Website and The Daily Telegraph website - see article Why are the Elgin
Marbles so controversial - and everything else you need to know by Victoria Ward December
84. Gregg op.cit. 81
85. Ibid. 81-82
86. Ibid. 84-84
87. Ibid. 86
88. Ibid. 86
89. Wu op.cit. 79
90. Maclean op.cit 159
91. Ibid. 159
92. Ibid. 159
93. Wu op.cit. 82
94. Anita Bookner Jacques-Louis David (London: Chatto & Windus 1980) 142
95. Wu op.cit 105
96. Ibid. 105
97. Ibid. 150
98. Ibid. 150
99. Ibid. 155
100. Ibid. 156
101. Ibid. 156-157
102. Ibid. 159
103. Ibid. 160
104. Ibid. 160
105. Ibid. 160
106. Ibid. 163
107. Ibid. Footnote 46 Ch10 473
108. Ibid. 166
109. Ibid. 168-169
110. Ibid. 170
111. Ibid. 174
112. Ibid. 179
113. Ibid. 180
114. Ibid. 180
115. Ibid. 190
116. Ibid. 191-192
117. Ibid. 199-200
118. Ibid. 205
119. Ibid. 205
120. Ibid. 206.
121. Ibid. 206.
122. Ibid. 207
123. Ibid. 214
124. Ibid. 214
125. Ibid. 215-216
126. Ibid. 223
127. Ibid. 226
128. Ibid. 239
129. Ibid. 241
130. Ibid. 262
131. Ibid. 265
132. Ibid. 266
133. Ibid. 267
134. Maclean op.cit. 406-407
135. Ibid. 407
136. Wu op.cit. 265
137. Ibid. 386
138. Ibid. 386
139. Ibid. 404
140. Ibid. 405
141. Ibid. 431
142. Ibid. 435
Brookner Anita Jacques-Louis David (London: Chatto & Windus 1980)
Gregg Pauline A Social and Economic History of Britain (London: Harrap & Co. Ltd. 1965)
Hazlitt William The Spirit Of The Age (USA: Kessinger Publishing) www.kessinger.net
Hebron Stephen William Wordsworth (The British Library: writer’s lives)
Laws Bill Byways, Boots & Blisters (Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press 2009)
Maclean Catherine Macdonald Born Under Saturn (London: Collins 1943)
Moore Sheila The Conservative Party (Richmond upon Thames: Country Life 1980)
Rhys Ernest (Ed.) Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespear’s Plays (London: Everyman’s Library 1921)
Schama Simon A History of Britain Volume 3 The Fate of Empire 1776-2000 (London: BBC 2002)
Wu Duncan William Hazlitt The First Modern Man (Oxford: OUP 2008)
© 2016 John Tarttelin
A Souladream Production
Author of The Real Napoleon - The Untold Story
A Souladream Production
Author of The Real Napoleon - The Untold Story