William Hazlitt (1778—1830)

Classic Writings on Poetry - William Harmon 2003

William Hazlitt (1778—1830)

Hazlitt packed an extraordinary amount of work into his fifty-two years. He was accomplished enough as a painter to have his portrait of his father exhibited at the Royal Academy, and he later painted a portrait of Charles Lamb. Hazlitt was a gifted historian; he wrote a Life of Napoleon not long after Napoleon’s death in 1821. He was conversant with all the subtleties of political and philosophical discourse at a time when such matters were dramatically in play all across Europe. He was a brilliant reader of books and watcher of plays, and he also made it his business to meet important writers, including Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Shelley, about whom he wrote with sympathy and verve.

Hazlitt summed up much of his own writing as “the thoughts of a metaphysician expressed by a painter”—which is to say, in effect, that he took advantage of the great fashion in periodical journalism that began in the eighteenth century and continued into the early twentieth century. In Hazlitt’s day there were many more periodicals—daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly—than there are in the twenty-first century, and those periodicals had a more important function in the worlds of art and politics than any comparable publication today. Byron’s adolescent English Bards and Scotch Reviewers was provoked by an unenthusiastic notice in The Edinburgh Review; when Shelley attributed Keats’s death to the effects of a review, Byron mockingly supplied:

Who killed John Keats?

I, says the Quarterly

So savage & Tartarly

’Twas one of my feats … .

And Hazlitt was in the thick of it, producing essays, reviews, notes, biographical sketches, and features on any topic—he wrote about prizefighters and jugglers and dandies with equal fluency. Remembering his days as a painter, Hazlitt was as subtle a critic of the graphic arts as of the literary. “Some artists among ourselves,” he wrote in 1816, “have carried the same principle [technical difficulty] to a singular excess.” He added a note on J. M. W. Turner (1775—1851), who was only three years his senior and by no means widely recognized: “We here allude particularly to Turner, the ablest landscape painter now living, whose pictures are, however, too much abstractions of aerial perspective, and representations not so properly of the objects of nature as of the medium through which they are seen. They are the triumph of the knowledge of the artist, and of the power of the pencil over the barrenness of the subject. They are pictures of the elements of air, earth, and water. The artist delights to go back to the first chaos of the world, or to that state of things when the waters were separated from the dry land, and light from darkness, but as yet no living thing nor tree bearing fruit was seen upon the face of the earth. All is ’without form and void.’ Some one said of his landscapes that they were pictures of nothing, and very like.”

That account is as profound as it is humorous. And it came before Turner’s greatest period, which would have obliged Hazlitt to add Fire among the elements; it came before Ruskin was even born.


Poetry, then, is an imitation of nature, but the imagination and the passions are a part of man’s nature. We shape things according to our wishes and fancies, without poetry; but poetry is the most emphatical language that can be found for those creations of the mind “which ecstasy is very cunning in.” Neither a mere description of natural objects, nor a mere delineation of natural feelings, however distinct or forcible, constitutes the ultimate end and aim of poetry, without the heightenings of the imagination. The light of poetry is not only a direct but also a reflected light, that, while it shows us the object, throws a sparkling radiance on all around it: the flame of the passions, communicated to the imagination, reveals to us, as with a flash of lightning, the inmost recesses of thought, and penetrates our whole being. Poetry represents forms chiefly as they suggest other forms; feelings, as they suggest forms or other feelings. Poetry puts a spirit of life and motion into the universe. It describes the flowing, not the fixed. It does not define the limits of sense, or analyze the distinctions of the understanding, but signifies the excess of the imagination beyond the actual or ordinary impression of any object or feeling. The poetical impression of any object is that uneasy, exquisite sense of beauty or power that cannot be contained within itself; that is impatient of all limit; that (as flame bends to flame) strives to link itself to some other image of kindred beauty or grandeur; to enshrine itself, as it were, in the highest forms of fancy, and to relieve the aching sense of pleasure by expressing it in the boldest manner, and by the most striking examples of the same quality in other instances. Poetry, according to Lord Bacon, for this reason, “has something divine in it, because it raises the mind and hurries it into sublimity, by conforming the shows of things to the desires of the soul, instead of subjecting the soul to external things, as reason and history do.” It is strictly the language of the imagination; and the imagination is that faculty which represents objects, not as they are in themselves, but as they are moulded by other thoughts and feelings, into an infinite variety of shapes and combinations of power. This language is not the less true to nature, because it is false in point of fact; but so much the more true and natural, if it conveys the impression which the object under the influence of passion makes on the mind. Let an object, for instance, be presented to the senses in a state of agitation or fear—and the imagination will distort or magnify the object, and convert it into the likeness of whatever is most proper to encourage the fear. “Our eyes are made the fools” of our other faculties. This is the universal law of the imagination,

That if it would but apprehend some joy,

It comprehends some bringer of that joy;

Or in the night, imagining some fear,

How easy is a bush suppos’d a bear!

When Iachimo says of Imogen,

The flame o’ th’ taper

Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids

To see the enclosed lights,

this passionate interpretation of the motion of the flame to accord with the speaker’s own feelings, is true poetry. The lover, equally with the poet, speaks of the auburn tresses of his mistress as locks of shining gold. We compare a man of gigantic stature to a tower: not that he is anything like so large, but because the excess of his size beyond what we are accustomed to expect, or the usual size of things of the same class, produces by contrast a greater feeling of magnitude and ponderous strength than another object of ten times the same dimensions. The intensity of the feeling makes up for the disproportion of the objects. Things are equal, to the imagination, which have the power of affecting the mind with an equal degree of terror, admiration, delight, or love. When Lear calls upon the heavens to avenge his cause, “for they are old like him,” there is nothing extravagant or impious in this sublime identification of his age with theirs; for there is no other image which could do justice to the agonizing sense of his wrongs and his despair!