It is a fortunate spider who resides in the first paragraph of William Hazlitt’s essay “On the Pleasure of Hating” (1826). Its cantilevered body stands initially rigid. Its wide-set eyes observe the monster seated before it. It plods on, seemingly all too aware of an excess of legs. It stops, plods on again and then, adopting a more urgent and less confused gait, it scurries across the floor’s matting. A lowering shadow belongs to him who watches. He lifts the edge of the matting and this allows the creature to escape.
Hazlitt’s rooms were normally bleak, usually empty save perhaps for a table and a chair. The painter William Bewick tells of being captivated by a vacant space above the chimney mantelpiece in one such room. Here where normally a mirror or picture might hang were scribbled:
all manner of odd conceits … abbreviations —words—names—enigmatical exclamations—strange and weird sentences, quotations—snatches of rhyme—bits of arithmetical calculations—scraps of Latin—French expressions—words or signs by which the author might spin a chapter, or weave an elaborate essay. The chimneypiece seemed to be his table of mnemonics—his sacred hieroglyphics—all jotted down without line, or form of any kind, some horizontal, some running up to the right, some down to the left, and some obliquely.
It seemed to Bewick that Hazlitt, who Samuel Taylor Coleridge had described as “brow hanging” and “shoe contemplative, strange”, had somehow turned his modest living room into a sort of notepad.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
Be that as it may, Hazlitt informs us that the reason he did not kill the spider is because his philosophy has come to a point where it might transcend such things. This is not to say that he does not hate the spider; he does: and the mere thought of it can still send a shiver through him and remind him that it will be a long time before we humans can collectively dispose of such essentially irrational fears. It intrigues him that, while he remembers no ill-will directed towards the spider as it clumsily made its way, “the spirit of malevolence” has survived its exit. It appears a truism, Hazlitt believes, that we are quite able to perform the social niceties, even amongst those we do not like, despite the only possible outcome of such an experience being that we will come to like them the less.
Hazlitt once asked fellow essayist Leigh Hunt, with the sort of bluntness that made him so singularly unpopular, “Why is it that I am universally disliked?”
Perhaps an inkling may be surmised by his response after a bout of fisticuffs with John Lamb, brother of Charles. This had somewhat ludicrously been prompted by Hazlitt’s over-reaction to comments made regarding the respective merits of Holbein and Van Dyke as colourists. Despite wearing a well-deserved blackened eye, he declared, “I do not mind a blow, sir; nothing affects me but an abstract idea!” Dorothy Wordsworth in an 1814 letter to Catherine Clarkson had offered: “for all his disagreeable qualities, he is a very clever fellow”, while her brother William in a letter to the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon in 1817 had warned, “the miscreant … is not a person to be admitted into respectable society, being the most perverse and malevolent Creature that ill luck has ever thrown my way”.
This piece of unfortunate luck was down to Hazlitt’s acquaintance with Coleridge. Hazlitt’s My First Acquaintance with Poets (1823) recalls the year 1798. He is nineteen and intent on traipsing the ten miles, through early morning frost, to Shrewsbury so as to be part of that town’s Unitarian congregation, eager to hear their newly appointed preacher deliver his first sermon. Such was Coleridge’s effect on the younger man that, later in the year and after Coleridge had received an annuity from Thomas Wedgwood that drew him to the village of Stowey, Hazlitt would walk the two hundred miles (twenty-five miles per day for eight days) so as to maintain contact. The visit was full of excitement for a young man eager to make his mark: Coleridge would read to him from the unpublished “Kubla Khan” and admit that he himself had no idea what it was about, since it had been “composed in a sort of reverie brought on by two grains of opium taken to check dysentery”. He would also recite his soon-to-be-published Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and the two enjoyed entering into spirited disagreements about such things as the merits of the Arabian Nights, Hazlitt’s dismissal of them being, according to Coleridge, due to his inability to dream. The two and Wordsworth walk together mile after mile and Hazlitt becomes familiar enough with the two poets to note the differences in the way each appears to think and compose. He cites Coleridge’s preference for working his mind while “walking over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood”, whereas the writing of the more reserved Wordsworth took its shape while he paced “up and down a straight gravel-walk, or in some spot where the continuity of his verse met with no collateral interruption”.
The “miscreant” fell from favour, not as one might suppose from Hazlitt’s brief infatuation with Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy, nor with her rejection of a proposal of marriage, since she claimed to be wedded to her brother’s poetry—but rather as a result of the abrupt termination of a Hazlitt stay with the Coleridge family at Greta Hall in Keswick in 1803. The poet had recently returned from an aborted tour of Scotland. He had intended (and had already failed) to deny himself the opium to which he was by now hopelessly addicted. Consequently, Hazlitt’s stay had not been without its tensions. For one thing, Coleridge had become prone to overblown reactions to their intellectual disagreements—the existence of God being one—and Hazlitt was by now well known for, and moreover, proud to boot of a refusal to take a backward step. Jottings in Coleridge’s notebooks of the time relay comments such as, “A most unpleasant Dispute” and “Hazlitt how easily roused to Rage & Hatred”. As well as this, it had become Coleridge’s habit to retire early, having succumbed to the plentiful quantities of brandy and opiates on which he depended, only to wake some hours later screaming and howling with a terror that upset the entire household. While this occurred, the visitor had taken to slipping out most evenings to the local tavern.
During what will become Hazlitt’s final evening in the Lakes District, he interprets that one of the young local women is playing up to him. When he responds in his typically socially awkward manner—and salaciously according to the woman—she takes it upon herself to inform the entire establishment that she has been insulted. Having suffered a barrage of belittling and lewd remarks that make him the night’s laughing stock, Hazlitt inexplicably reacts by putting the raucous woman over his knee, raising her petticoats and slapping her behind. One easily imagines the village yeomanry taking umbrage at this, and as expected the “miscreant” is roughly ejected from the establishment. Spurred on by the abuse being hurled from the tavern door, he is last seen, much to the delight of all present, an ever-diminishing figure hightailing it, with an air of panic, on the road back to Greta Hall. Here a dazed, but awake enough to be dutifully paranoid Coleridge, tells Hazlitt that there is no doubt that a lynching party will be being assembled as they speak—later he would claim two hundred men—and that it is imperative he make an escape over the mountains with the utmost haste. By midnight a bedraggled and filthy Hazlitt has reached the Wordsworth household, Dove Cottage, at the edge of the village of Grasmere and while William, on hearing of Hazlitt’s plight, has misgivings about harbouring a fugitive, the fact of the matter is that the man is exhausted to the point where he can travel no further. He is trundled off early the next morning.
The event proved diabolical for Hazlitt. It was inevitable that the story would grow wings and provide wonderful ammunition for a legion of detractors. Its exaggerated form, it must be said, was ably fostered by Coleridge and Wordsworth. As time wore on, Hazlitt’s “depravity” was considered a given and at the very least became a standard joke. Coleridge, being Coleridge, would claim to have saved the young essayist from the gallows or, if he had been lucky, transportation. He avoided actual discussion of Hazlitt’s actions, preferring to assure eager ears that he had practised “vices too disgusting to be named”.
Always willing to grind an axe, Hazlitt would write of country people:
All country people hate each other. They have so little comfort, that they envy their neighbours the smallest pleasure or advantage, and nearly grudge themselves the necessaries of life. From not being accustomed to enjoyment, they become hardened and averse to it—stupid, for want of thought—selfish, for want of society. There is nothing good to be had in the country, or, if there is, they will not let you have it.
This tirade, which is contained in “On Mr Wordsworth’s Excursion” (1817) continues for several pages. The poem in question, The Excursion (1814), is elaborated upon further in “On the Living Poets” (1818) and is described as “stillborn from the press”, for unfortunately:
There was something abortive, and clumsy, and ill-judged in the attempt … long and laboured. The personages, for the most part, were low, the fare rustic: the plan raised expectations which were not fulfilled, and the effect was like being ushered into a stately hall … with nothing but successive courses of apple-dumplings …
A bitter personal portrait of Wordsworth follows: “If he is become verbose and oracular of late years, he was not so in his better days.” And then:
… if Mr Wordsworth had been a more liberal and candid critic, he would have been a more sterling writer … had he been less fastidious in pronouncing sentence on the works of others, his own would have been received more favourably …
Hazlitt regrets a simplicity of feeling in Wordsworth, since it “renders him bigoted and intolerant in his judgements of men and things”. After all:
We exaggerate our own merits when they are denied by others, and are apt to grudge and cavil at every particle of praise bestowed on those to whom we feel a conscious superiority. In mere self-defence we turn against the world, when it turns against us; brood over slights we receive; and thus the genial current of the soul is stopped, or vents itself in effusions of petulance and self-conceit.
In a later piece that addresses Coleridge, Hazlitt paints a picture of a talker rather than a doer. Indeed, says Hazlitt, “He may be said to have lived on the sound of his own voice”, after having been reduced to “swallowing doses of oblivion”—a clear reference to his addiction—and that this leads him to “delight in … digressions and … spontaneous impulses, without object or method”. Furthermore, the Rime is the only work by Coleridge that “we could with any confidence put into any person’s hands, on whom we wished to impress a favourable idea …”
Coleridge could prove an easy catch:
I understand that when one of his [Hazlitt’s] Faction had declared in a pamphlet (“Hypocrisy Unveiled”) the Christabel “the most obscene poem in the English Language”, he [Hazlitt] shrugged himself up with a sort of sensual orgasm of enjoyment, and exclaimed, How he’ll stare! (i.e. meaning me) Curse him! I hate him!
So much hate! Why?
In the essay devoted to its pleasures, Hazlitt is adamant that “without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action”: and that there is “a hankering after evil in the human mind, and that it takes a perverse, but a fortunate delight in mischief, since it is a never-failing source of satisfaction”.
No news captivates us more than the bad news that might afflict others, Hazlitt says, and we read it with gusto daily in newspapers; crowds assemble in the streets, their sole intention the disagreement with other crowds, and we are, each of us, all the more self-congratulatory when we share our perceptions of the defects in others. And of course, it is a fundamental truth that none can hate with the vigour of the zealot, be they religious, patriotic or otherwise. Hazlitt relates that it has been his experience of humanity to see the various combinations of “hypocrisy, servility, selfishness, folly and impudence” celebrated, and at the expense of “modesty and merit”. Yet he admits that perhaps it is he has who has been in error in both public and private life—perhaps he was wrong in judging others as he would choose to judge himself.
The essay concludes with the question, “mistaken as I have been … have I not reason to hate and to despise myself?” He provides his own answer: “Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough.”
My interest in William Hazlitt’s essays began at a local book fair with the purchase of a group of volumes that had once belonged to a G.D. Richardson. Curiosity regarding their previous owner led to the knowledge, via an obituary notice in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2012, that Gordon Dalyell Richardson—who had died in Canberra at the age of ninety-four—had been at one time the Chief Librarian and Archivist for the State of New South Wales as well as a judge for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. I also came upon a reference to an appearance he had made on the television show A Current Affair, at the age of almost ninety-two, and in which, if initially reluctantly, he shared his experiences of the Second World War and in particular his memories of the infamous Singapore prison camp at Changi. That 21-minute interview is below.
The newspaper obituary made mention that, in civilian life, Richardson “never lost his military bearing and manner” and that this was imbued in his running of the State Library of New South Wales. The stiffness implied in this, even if perhaps inadvertent, is not apparent when we watch the recording of the interview. Rather, we see a wholly compassionate man, who having experienced the degradation of unalloyed hatred has risen above it. He speaks of the vicissitudes of battle; of seeing individuals for whom he had felt a great fondness having been “cut up like the lumps of meat one sees in a butcher shop”. He also speaks of the “uncomfortable condition” of not being free; and of the brutality that could be enforced at any time—and as the result of any whim—while he was in Changi. He describes this in his typically understated manner as “psychologically very demanding”. He does not believe in the idea of war heroes. To the question of survival, he refers to “sheer good luck”, yet emphasises the abiding necessity of the will to live. He knew several men who simply gave it up. He remembers longing for what might be termed a proper meal and he speaks of often dreaming of a time when he would not be hungry. When prompted by the interviewer, he recalls the joy of seeing his four-and-a-half-year-old daughter for the first time when he returned home at war’s end.
Had he not reason to hate and despise? His answer is an emphatic no.
Barry Gillard has contributed several pieces of fiction and non-fiction to Quadrant recently. He lives in Geelong.