We were talking about Hazlitt on the Baggini/de Botton thread, and it appears that some of you know not of him. Do not die before you have remedied this!

There is a sample of his essays online along with entire books. From The Spirit of the Age, the chapter on William Gifford, editor of the Quarterly Review:

Mr. Gifford, in short, is possessed of that sort of learning which is likely to result from an over-anxious desire to supply the want of the first rudiments of education: that sort of wit which is the offspring of ill-humour or bodily pain: that sort of sense which arises from a spirit of contradiction and a disposition to cavil at and dispute the opinions of others: and that sort of reputation which is the consequence of bowing to established authority and ministerial influence. He dedicates to some great man, and receives his compliments in return. He appeals to some great name, and the Undergraduates of the two Universities look up to him as an oracle of wisdom. He throws the weight of his verbal criticism and puny discoveries in black-letter reading into the gap, that is supposed to be making in the Constitution by Whig’s and Radicals, whom he qualifies without mercy as dunces and miscreants, and so entitles himself to the protection of the Church and State. The character of his mind is an utter want of independence and magnanimity in all that he attempts. He cannot go alone; he must have crutches, a go-cart and trammels, or he is timid, fretful and helpless as a child. He cannot conceive of anything different from what he finds it, and hates those who pretend to a greater reach of intellect or boldness of spirit than himself. He inclines, by a natural and deliberate bias, to the traditional in laws and government, to the orthodox in religion, to the safe in opinion, to the trite in imagination, to the technical in style, to whatever implies a surrender of individual judgment into the hands of authority and a subjection of individual feeling to mechanic rules.

Hazlitt. Bucket list. Really.


  1. says

    Yes, I have been meaning to check out Hazlitt since seeing him mentioned in one of the best mysteries of all time, Michael Gilbert’s Smallbone Deceased. (All of Gilbert is good to excellent, but this one is the standout.)

    One of the chapter epigraphs is this bit from The Plain Speaker:

    Cloud rolls over cloud: one train of thought suggests and is driven away by another: theory after theory is spun out of the bowels of his brain, not like the spider’s web, compact and round — a citadel and a snare, built for mischief and for use, but like the gossamer … flitting in the idle air and glittering only in the ray of fancy.

  2. sailor1031 says

    Ophelia: Thankyou for bringing this to my attention – it has been too, too long since I read his essays. Definitely bucket list.

  3. Torquil MacNeil says

    Hazlitt was an excellent stylist, but he could still be an arse. Notice that the first sentence of that extract on Gifford is just a snobbish dig at his working class background and consequent lack of a ‘proper’ education. Oh those nasty autodidacts, so chippy, so desperate to prove how clever they are! Not worth the attention of people like us! In England religion may cause many problems but it is snobbery that poisons everything.

  4. says

    Oh, Torquil, don’t be such a prat. You must know that Hazlitt wasn’t actually a snob and that he wasn’t posh himself. He was talking about education, not class. (If he’d been a snob would he have been a friend to Keats, and would Keats have loved him? No and no.) It was Gifford who was the snob, not Hazlitt. It was the Quarterly that looked down on the vulgar Cockney poets like Keats, not Hazlitt. That’s why Hazlitt was so hard on him. Don’t be so tiresome.

  5. says

    Maureen – heh – no, not really. More like the other way around, I think – contemporary Giffords remind me of those of Hazlitt’s day.

    It was great meeting you last weekend!

  6. Torquil MacNeil says

    You may need to be Engkish to hear it clearly Ophelia, but Hazlitt is saying very clearly that Gifford comes from below the salt. Hazlitt came from a social rank well above Gifford. Even today, these two social classes are very unlikely to mix in the Uk. I don’t mean that Hazlitt was an out and out snob, but he wasn’t immune to the poison and could be a terrible arse, as in this instance.

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