Sunday, April 10, 2011

William Hazlitt

William Hazlitt, like Lord Jeffrey, wrote for the Edinburgh Review, a publication which Walter Scott initially supported, but came to consider with disdain due to its political orientation.  While a friend to the Lambs, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, Hazlitt's literary criticism was certainly not friendly to Sir Walter Scott.  Among Hazlitt's works was a biography of Napoleon which, since Bonaparte was a hero to Hazlitt, differed sharply from Scott's biography.  Hazlitt was born this day, April 10, in 1778.

Hazlitt wrote a critique of Scott published in "The Spirit of the Age".  It mixes some favorable words but with thinly veiled venom.  It begins:

'Sir Walter Scott is undoubtedly the most popular writer of the age, the 'lord of the ascendant' for the time being. He is just half what the human intellect is capable of being: if you take the universe, and divide it into two parts, he knows all that it has been; all that it is to be is nothing to him. His is a mind brooding over antiquity -- scorning 'the present ignorant time.' He is laudator temporis acti "prophesier of things past." The old world is to him a crowded map; the new one a dull, hateful blank. He dotes on all well-authenticated superstitions; he shudders at the shadow of innovation. His retentiveness of memory, his accumulated weight of interested prejudice or romantic association have overlaid his other faculties. The cells of his memory are vast, various, full even to bursting with life and motion; his speculative understanding is empty, flaccid, poor, and dead. His mind receives and treasures up every thing brought to it by tradition or custom -- it does not project itself beyond this into the World unknown, shrinks back as from the edge of a precipice. The land of pure reason is to his apprehension like Van Diemen's Land -- barren, miserable, distant, a place of exile, the dreary abode of savages, convicts, and adventurers. Sir Walter would make a bad hand of a description of the Millennium, unless he could lay the scene in Scotland five hundred years ago, and then he would want facts and worm-eaten parchments to support his drooping style. Our historical novelist firmly thinks that nothing is but what has been, that the moral world stands still, as the material one was supposed to do of old, and that we can never get beyond the point where we actually are without utter destruction, though every thing changes and will change from what it was three hundred years ago to what it is now-from what it is now to all that the bigoted admirer of the good old times most dreads and hates!...'

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