He is full of what Dr Johnson terms 'good talk.' His countenance also is extremely fine: – a sunken and melancholy face, – a forehead lined with thought and bearing a full and strange pulsation on exciting subjects, – an eye, dashed in its light with sorrow, but kindling and living at intellectual moments, – and a stream of coal–black hair dropping all around.
Introduction John Keats and his friend John Hamilton Reynolds were ardent admirers of Hazlitt.
They attended his lectures, read aloud to each other from his essays, and formulated their theories of poetry in response to his views.
In writing Hazlitt's biography the task of connecting inner and outer in this way is made easy by the fact that he is a completely autobiographical author, utterly himself in his writings. He lived a confessional existence, transposing his experience into literature, writing with stark honesty.
He is among the very few who lived and wrote without a mask.
A friend of his it was Ð a friend wishing to love him, and admiring him almost to extravagance Ð who told me, in illustration of the dark sinister gloom which sate for ever upon his countenance and gestures, that involuntarily, when Hazlitt put his hand within his waistcoat (as a mere unconscious trick of habit), he himself felt a sudden recoil of fear, as from one who was searching for a hidden dagger.' These two portraits Ð drawn from a number of either kind Ð could scarcely be more at variance.
They mark the contradictory views taken of Hazlitt in his own day and afterwards.Through their eyes Hazlitt appears at his best, because when he was with friends like them – ambitious young men of talent – he was relaxed and expansive, ready to talk endlessly about art and philosophy – not in monologue, as Coleridge did, but as a conversationalist in the same mould as his friend Charles Lamb.In a letter of April 1817 Reynolds describes entertaining Hazlitt to dinner: On Thursday last Hazlitt was with me at home, and remained with us till 3 o'clock in the morning!Reynold's portrait has an air of hyperbole, but it exactly chimes with accounts given by others who enjoyed Hazlitt's friendship.Brilliant, earnest, and always well–judging, he forgot his own existence and its torments when absorbed in discussion.'It is a book, in which one may read strange things.' He would have become the pencil of Titian, and have done justice to the soul–fed colours of that bold and matchless Italian.I fear you will be tired of this long personality, but I remember having read a few papers of this to you, and therefore imagine you are not wholly uninterested in him.For two generations following his death it was the latter depiction that prevailed.Some thought him the greatest thinker and critical writer of his age: others, even those who acknowledged his genius, saw him as a gloomy pessimistic Jacobin motivated by party spleen and personal antipathies.On those occasions he revealed the pure disinterested genius his contemporaries valued in him.A very different picture is given by Thomas De Quincey, never a friend to Hazlitt, and still less so after being detected in unacknowledged burrowings from Hazlitt's writings (from which he was uncomfortably obliged to apologize).