William Hazlitt on grammar

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On a brief trip to London recently, I stayed in a small hotel named Hazlitt's, after William Hazlitt, who in 1830, the last year of his life, rented a small apartment in one of the buildings that the hotel now occupies. A copy of his 1802 self-portrait hangs by the registration desk, and there are various Hazlitt memorabilia scattered around, reminding me that I knew almost nothing about him.

Among the things that I thereupon learned about William Hazlitt is the fact that his family emigrated to Philadelphia in 1783, when he was five years old, on the first ship from Britain to America after the end of the Revolutionary War. They also spent time in Boston, where his father was involved in founding the first Unitarian church in America, before returning to England in 1786.

I also learned that in 1809 Hazlitt published A New and Improved Grammar of the English Tongue : for the use of Schools, In which the Genius of our Speech is especially attended to, And the Discoveries of Mr. Horne Tooke and other Modern Writers on the Formation of Language are for the first time incorporated. I haven't been able to find a copy of this work, but the Preface is available in the 1902 edition of his Collected Works, and contains some striking material.

It is a circumstance which may at first excite some surprise, that, amidst the various improvements in books of modern education, there has hitherto been no such thing as a real English Grammar. Those which we have are little else than translation of the Latin Grammar into English. […]

The following is an attempt to explain the principles of the English language, such as it really is. We have endeavored to admit no distinctions, which, but for our acquaintance with other languages, we should never have suspected to exist. […]

It is common to suppose that the parts of speech, or different sorts of words, relate to different sorts of things of things or ideas; and that it was to express this difference in the subject-matter of discourse, that one class of words was originally appropriated to one class of things, and another to another. We have endeavoured to show on the contrary, that the grammatical distinctions of words do not relate to the nature of the things or ideas spoken of, but to our manner of speaking of them, i.e. to the particular point of view in which we have occasion to consider them, or combine them with others in the same discourse. […]

We shall here just notice by the way the very unsatisfactory account of active and passive verbs given by grammarians. A verb is active, they say, when it denotes the doing to an action, passive when it denote the receiving of one. The words To receive a blow will upon this principle signify the doing of an action, and to say that an action is performed will signify the receiving one. In fact the notion of agency or passiveness has no necessary connection with the active and passive forms of verb. For an attempt to explain this subject, we refer to the grammar itself.

Which I have so far been unable to do; but I look forward to getting hold of a copy.

(For some interesting historical detail about the history of this work, see Stanley Jones, "The 'Suppression' of Hazlitt's New and Improved Grammar of the English Tongue: A Reconstruction of Events", The Library, 1987.)

The Wikipedia article on Hazlitt says that "He is now considered one of the great critics and essayists of the English language, placed in the company of Samuel Johnson and George Orwell. Yet his work is currently little read and mostly out of print." Still, you can find quite a few things on amazon.com or Google Books; and I find that random selections are generally worth the trouble of browsing, e.g. "Why Distant Objects Please", Table Talk Essay XXVI, 1822:

Sounds, smells, and sometimes tastes, are remembered longer than visible objects, and serve, perhaps, better for links in the chain of association. The reason seems to be this: they are in their nature intermittent, and comparatively rare; whereas objects of sight are always before us, and , by their continuous succession, drive one another out. […] The taste of barberries, which have hung out in the snow during the severity of a North American winter, I have in my mouth still, after an interval of thirty years; for I have met with no other taste, in all that time, at all like it. It remains by itself, almost like the impression of a sixth sense. But the colour is mixed up indiscriminately with the colours of many other berries, nor should I be able to distinguish it among them.

His style lends itself to the extraction of aphorisms, as the long list of items on his Wikiquote page attests.

According to John Ezard, "William Hazlitt's near-derelict grave restored", The Guardian 4/11/2003:

The same bell which tolled at William Hazlitt's burial 173 years ago sounded again yesterday at a fervent ceremony to honour and extend the fame of the radical English essayist.

The former Labour leader Michael Foot unveiled a restored, 216-word inscription, one of the longest in church history,on the restored grave in St Anne's churchyard in Soho, central London. It honoured a dissenter who is acknowledged as one the greatest masters of English prose.  

The grave, with its jubilant tribute to "a despiser of the merely rich and great, a lover of the people, poor or oppressed, a hater of the pride and power of the few" had been allowed to fall into near -illegible neglect.  

Hazlitt, whose tomb was destroyed in 1870 out of fears that his reputation would generate social conflict, died in a cheap Soho lodging house in September 1830.  

His funeral – in the nearby Wardour Street churchyard in 1830 – was sparsely attended.  But yesterday more than 300 devotees of his work gathered at St Anne's churchyard on a crisp, chilly afternoon to see the new tombstone unveiled.

The Guardian doesn't offer us the full inscription, but I was able to find it in a 2007 weblog post by Michael Gilleland, "Post Mortem Hazlitti", Laudator Temporis Acti 4/12/2007. You can read it in full there — but here's how it ends:

He was
The first (unanswered) Metaphysician of the age.
A despiser of the merely Rich And Great:
A lover of the People, poor or oppressed:
A hater of the Pride and Power of the Few,
As opposed to the happiness of the Many;
A man of true moral courage,
Who sacrificed Profit and present Fame
To Principle,
And a yearning for the good of Human Nature.
Who was a burning wound to an Aristocracy,
That could not answer him before men,
And who may confront him before their maker.
He lived and died
The unconquered champion
Truth, Liberty, and Humanity,
'Dubitantes opera legite'.
This stone
Is raised by one whose heart is
With him, in his grave.

I showed this inscription to a college freshman, who asked

"Who wrote that?"

"I don't know."

"Because I want them to write the inscription for my gravestone."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a less flattering evaluation, in an 1803 letter to Thomas Wedgwood:

His manners are to 99 in 100 singularly repulsive—; brow-hanging, shoe-contemplative, strange. … he is, I verily believe, kindly-nature; is very fond of, attentive to, and patient with children; but he is jealous, gloomy, and of an irritable pride — and addicted to women, as objects of sexual indulgence.

Still, one of William Hazlitt's quotable phrases is "The art of life is to know how to enjoy a little and to endure much", and his last words are recorded as "I have had a happy life."




  1. Tim Delaney said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

    "The eulogy on the new memorial was taken from records of the original. It was composed by an unknown admirer (some believe it to have been by Hazlitt's divorced wife, Sarah Stoddart)."From the modern. Stonecutters web site

    Whoever wrote it they won't be taking on any more commissions.

  2. Shubert said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 3:03 pm

    HIs self-portrait is quite good.

  3. cM said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 3:44 pm

    Coleridge: "He is very of children." – uhm.

    Is this some – possibly old – usage I'm not aware of?
    If it is, what does it mean? If it isn't – huh?

  4. cM said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 3:48 pm

    Meh – it's a mere transcription error: Searching just for "attentive to, and patient with children" leads to multiple sources with an extra "fond" exactly where I would have expected one to be.

    [(myl) Sorry — fixed now. The error actually comes from the Wikiquote page, which I included at the last minute without reading it carefully enough.]

  5. Ben Zimmer said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 4:01 pm

    Shoe-contemplative is nice, nearly two centuries before shoegazing.

    [(myl) My thoughts exactly.]

  6. David L. Gold said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 5:48 pm

    1. Was Hazlitt the first to publish a grammar of English not based on the categories of Latin?

    2. In our day, it has been reprinted at least three times (see World Cat).

    3. The passage quoted from "Why distant objects please" makes one wonder whether he was the first to write about sensory overload.

    4. Two more of his publications of linguistic interest are "On Familiar Style" (in his Table-Talk; Or, Original Essays) and an essay on Horne Tooke (in his The Spirit of the Age; Or, Contemporary Portraits).

  7. Rubrick said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 5:52 pm

    The portrait is indeed quite impressive. There are some proportion issues in the face, but he handles light quite nicely. I guess this speaks of a time when the ability to paint competently was expected (or at least unsurprising) of a highly educated person.

    [(myl) He apparently studied painting for several years, and made his living as a painter before becoming a writer.

  8. E. Morris said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 11:23 pm

    I inherited, from my father, a copy of Johnson's dictionary owned (and inscribed as such) by Hazlitt. It had been a gift to my father from a friend, a books editor at the Telegraph back in the 1970s (so I assume it's not a forgery). It's in terrible shape, but it gives me goosebumps just to look at it.

  9. Brett Reynolds said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 6:04 am

    The university of Edinburgh has a copy of the complete works of Hazlitt in the main library. I'll try to check it out today.

  10. Shubert said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 8:16 am

    Coincidently, my path shares some points of his, although my writing pen is headed by wax while my brush is sharper. Thanks for this post.

  11. Mark Etherton said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 9:00 am

    There's an In Our Time podcast on Hazlitt available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/iotp

  12. Brett Reynolds said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

    I've uploaded the chapter on "Parts of speech"

    I scanned it using OCR, so it should be quite useable.

    It doesn't really look all that revolutionary, but let me know if you'd like more.

    Some interesting things:
    p. 21: He distinguishes substantives not solely by their meaning, but also by the fact that they generally admit an article before them or "by its uniting as a nominative case with the verb; as a a book, the sun, an apple; temperance preserves health, health is desirable."
    p. 22: He allows that not all prepositions take objective case after them.
    p. 62: Again with prepositions, he allows that they only generally take nouns or pronouns after them.

  13. Shubert said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

    William Hazlitt –> grammar, 2a, no more, no less.
    Without grammar, the writing would be a tangled warfare.

  14. Helma said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

    I think the first time I came across William Hazlitt's name was in David Lodge's Small World.

  15. Chris C. said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 10:33 pm

    It sounds almost as if he might have been an early contributor to, "A Log, Upon the Subject of Language, Wherein Experts of the Subject Contend With Theses Insightful, Amusing, or Abstruse, Offering Correction to Many Erroneous Notions".

  16. RP said,

    December 9, 2014 @ 10:48 am

    Many thanks to Brett Reynolds.

    It doesn't look revolutionary to me from today's perspective, but maybe more so at the time?

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