Soaring above the intellectual magpies

The Quarrel of the Age
November 16, 2001

A. C. Grayling's The Quarrel of the Age is beautifully written - as befits a biography of one of the greatest prose stylists in the language. And he has a compelling tale to tell - one embedded in the mythology of British Romanticism. The son of a Unitarian clergyman who hailed originally from Ireland, Hazlitt grew up in America and England. At the age of 19 he heard Coleridge preach at the Unitarian chapel in Shrewsbury; entranced by the visionary who had recently completed "Kubla Khan", he persuaded Coleridge to go home with him to Wem where he met Hazlitt's father. Five months later Hazlitt visited Wordsworth and Coleridge in Somerset where Lyrical Ballads was being prepared for publication. After a false start as a painter, he went on to become a prominent figure in the cultural metropolis, a political sketch writer, art critic and philosopher. His books are remarkable in different ways. It is to him we owe the most important volume written about Romantic theatre, A View of the English Stage , which includes the best account we have of Edmund Kean's stage presence. Hazlitt's Political Essays contains the shrewdest commentary on the period, including a blow-by-blow commentary on events following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. His greatest single-volume work, Spirit of the Age (1825), contains lifelike portraits of major figures of the time - the Lake Poets, Byron, Scott, Jeffrey and Charles Lamb, among others.

Hazlitt is a prime example of how fashion affects the scholarly world. A decade or two ago, there seemed little interest in him, even among Romanticists. But thanks to the researches of the late Stanley Jones, Tom Paulin, Jonathan Bate and Uttara Natarajan, Hazlitt has emerged as an indispensable source of information and opinion on the events, people and ideas of his time. As his profile has been raised, some have spoken against him - though not for the first time. Hazlitt's Liber Amoris described in brutally honest terms the course of his painful infatuation with his landlady's daughter, Sarah Walker, including an account of how he went so far as to obtain a divorce from his long-suffering wife, Sarah Stoddart, so that they could marry (a messy process that necessitated his being caught in flagrante with a one-eyed prostitute in an Edinburgh whorehouse). The entire sordid affair, and its sad outcome, when Sarah Walker decamped with another lodger, a Mr Tomkins, was recorded in detail by Hazlitt, and then published by him in 1823.

One would hope for a degree of sophistication and understanding among critics of our own day in their reading of Liber Amoris , but it has been used as evidence with which to convict him of "sexual harassment". That has led some critics and scholars to attempt to marginalise his place in the literary canon.

Grayling provides a welcome antidote to this politically correct nonsense. His account of the Walker affair and its aftermath is even-handed and thoughtful - though not all Hazlittians would agree that Liber Amoris is a "repulsive" book, as Grayling says. Grayling admits that Hazlitt "had" to write it in order to exorcise the pain of the affair, and that it gave his enemies "the right to claim that their imputations of moral irregularity were true". But it was also a courageous work; Hazlitt knew that it showed him in a bad light, but his subject, throughout his career, was the vagaries of human nature, irrational and self-destructive though they may be. How better to study it than through an honest account of one's own conduct?

Grayling's biography is an excellent review of its subject's life, though one occasionally wishes he would allow himself more room for speculation. Hazlittians continue to miss the significance of the fact that Hazlitt went to Somerset in 1798 with the manuscript of his "Essay on the principles of human action" and proceeded to have a metaphysical argument with Wordsworth - one that inspired "Expostulation and Reply" and "The Tables Turned" in Lyrical Ballads . It is hard to avoid the implication that metaphysics arose because he had been told about "The Recluse", the great epic Wordsworth was planning, that would help precipitate a millennial, benevolent, new age. Hazlitt had imbibed philosophy from his father who had tutored him privately in childhood (his father had been taught by Adam Smith at Glasgow University), and there is reason to suppose that even at the tender age of 20 he could run circles round Wordsworth and Coleridge, who by comparison were intellectual magpies. Not only would he have seen the numerous holes in the cobbled-together argument of "The Recluse", but he had a far better one in his back pocket, in the "Essay on the principles of human action".

Specialists may take exception to the assertion that the "Immortality Ode" was not in print by 1814 (it was published in 1807); conversely, Hazlitt could not have read the entire "Immortality Ode" in 1803 (as Grayling suggests), since only the first four stanzas of it then existed (in manuscript). Nor is it correct to say that by 1814 Wordsworth "had scarcely any reputation as a poet". Indeed, there is less about the literary milieu in which Hazlitt lived and breathed than might be hoped: it would have been worth noting that he must have been one of the first readers of "Kubla Khan" and "Christabel" Part I, as he was close to their author shortly after they were composed in 1798.

Such lapses are rare. Grayling's is now the best one-volume life of Hazlitt in print, and will serve as the basis for further researches into the career of this remarkable writer.

Duncan Wu is a fellow, St Catherine's College, Oxford.

The Quarrel of the Age: The Life and Times of William Hazlitt

Author - A. C. Grayling
ISBN - 0 297 64322 3
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £25.00
Pages - 399

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