A Blupete Biography Page

"Rackets and Tea"
The Life and Writings
of William Hazlitt (1778-1830).
[TOC -- Hazlitt's Page]

Chapter Nine
"An Escapade At Grasmere -- 1803"

In January, 1798, we have seen (Ch. 5) where the twenty year old Hazlitt had walked from his home in Wem, at the invitation of Coleridge, to pay a visit to Coleridge who was then staying nearby to Wordsworth at Nether Stowey. It was then that Hazlitt was to first meet Wordsworth. Not much transpired between the two and Hazlitt returned to his home in Wem within a couple of weeks. As for Coleridge and Wordsworth: Well, they were not, thereafter, to stay very long at Nether Stowey. Before the year was out both of the poets (Coleridge and Wordsworth) were off to Germany for an extended stay. In 1798, the Wordsworths returned to England; they and Coleridge had made separate travel arrangements. For a while the Wordsworths (brother and sister) stayed at the Hutchinson farm at Stockton-on-Tees. In December of that year they took up residence at "Dove Cottage," Grasmere. In July of 1800, the Coleridges, likewise had taken up residence in the Lake District, at Keswick (Greta Hall); though, by 1801, Coleridge, leaving his wife and children behind at Grasmere, was leading the life of a bachelor in London. In 1802, October 4th to be precise, William Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson, at Brompton. By October the 6th the three Wordsworths were settled in at Dove Cottage: William, Mary and Dorothy. On June 18th, 1803, Wordsworth's first child, a son, John was born. It was just after that, that summer, that William Hazlitt traveled to Lake Grasmere to pay a visit to the Wordsworths at "Dove Cottage."

Now, as to what prompted Hazlitt to travel to Grasmere in the summer of 1803, is not something I can say. What we know is that the previous summer, 1802, the Wordsworths had made a short visit to Annette and Caroline in France.1 Further we note, the Lambs had paid a visit to the Wordsworths on August 9th of 1802 and were to stay for a three week period. These connections of France and the Lambs were common, too, to Hazlitt. Somehow things connected up and Hazlitt paid his visit to "The Lakes." Coleridge might very well have bumped into Hazlitt in London, maybe at the Lambs, they all knew one another. By August the 14th, it would appear Hazlitt's visit was over. It was on that date, too, Dorothy and William Wordsworth "set off with Coleridge on their tour into Scotland, while Hazlitt returns to his painting headquarters at Liverpool and Manchester."2

While having left Grasmere in August, his hosts having gone of to Scotland for a walking trip, Hazlitt did pay a return visit that autumn. On October 14th, Hazlitt went up to Greta Hall (Coleridge's place) to put some finishing touches on a portrait that he was doing of Coleridge. Southey, incidently, on September 7th, had moved into residence at Greta Hall, mainly to keep the company and be of help to Coleridge's wife who was his sister-in-law (the Fricker sisters). (Coleridge by now was fully addicted to opium and had effectively deserted his wife and children.) So, that autumn at Keswick, Hazlitt was to spend time with Southey and Coleridge; Wordsworth had gone back to Grasmere for his military exercises.3

On December 27th, 1803, Hazlitt, having apparently spent two and half months there, left Greta Hall. Before Hazlitt left the "Lake District," it seems, he "indulged in an amatory escapade from the consequences of which he had to be extricated."4 It is at the time of this escapade that one might mark the beginning point of the estrangement: Hazlitt and Wordsworth/Southey. Henry Crabb Robinson made a note of this in his diary:

"[Talk between Robinson and Wordsworth about Hazlitt] led to Wordsworth's mentioning the cause of his coolness towards Hazlitt. It appears a discussion that Hazlitt, when at Keswick, narrowly escaped being ducked by the populace, and probably sent to prison for some gross attacks on women. (He even whipped one woman, more puerorum, for not yielding to his wishes.) The populace were incensed against him and pursued him, but he escaped to Wordsworth, who took him into his house at midnight, gave him clothes and money. ... In consequence, Lamb [who maintained a good friendship with Hazlitt throughout his life: Hazlitt's one true friend], who needs very little indulgence for himself, is very indulgent towards others, and rather reproaches Wordsworth for being inveterate against Hazlitt."5
The evidence of what exactly did happen when Hazlitt had this "amatory escapade," upon which the authorities have relied, as Howe points out, is to be found in the writings of others some twelve years after the event; "we find it hard to resist the impression that the enormity of the offence has grown proportionately with political differences." Hazlitt may not have been the lecherous young man that Wordsworth and his circle made him out to be in later years. Some little village pretty, so one story goes6 "made him the laughing stock of the village." This, again as Howe points out, is an earlier version of the Liber Amoris story.7

Coleridge described Hazlitt after just having spent time with him at Keswick, in 1803. On September 16th, Coleridge wrote one of his benefactors, Thomas Wedgwood. It is dated at Greta Hall. In it, Coleridge gave his views of Hazlitt. It is a description that shows very well that Coleridge was not out to do any favours for Hazlitt:

"William Hazlitt is a thinking, observant, original man of great power as a Painter of character-Portraits, and far more in the manner of the old Painters than any living Artist, but the objects must be before him; he has no imaginative memory. So much for his intellectuals. His manners are 99 in 100 singularly repulsive; brow-hanging, shoe-contemplative, strange. ... He is, I verily believe kindly-natured; is very fond of, attentive to, and patient with children; but he is jealous, gloomy, and of an irritable pride. With all this, there is much good in him. ... He is strangely confused and dark in his conversations, and delivers himself of almost all his conceptions with a Forceps ... He sends well headed and well- feathered Thoughts straight forward to the mark with a Twang of the Bowstring. If you could recommend him as a portrait-painter, I should be glad. To be your Companion, he is, in my opinion, utterly unfit."8
From all of this we might determine that Hazlitt was not fond of society; he never could fit into the fashionable life and was always uneasy at social functions. Hazlitt was wholly conscious of being a misfit, of being superfluous.

[Next: Chapter Ten -- "From Painting To Writing -- 1805-6."]

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1 Wordsworth, an event I take up in my biographical sketch of him, in 1792, had an affair in France with Annette Vallon. On December 15th of that year, Annette gave birth to Wordsworth's daughter, Caroline. Wordsworth kept in touch with Annette and Caroline through the years; and, having determined to marry Mary Hutchinson, brought her over to France to meet Annette and Caroline, then ten years of age, before the intended Wordsworth/Hutchinson marriage.

2 Howe, p. 95. (The Life of William Hazlitt (1922) by P. P. Howe (Penguin, 1949). Herein, I often refer to this work simply as Howe.)

3 Howe, pp. 98-9.

4 Howe, p. 99.

5 On Books and Their Writers, Edited by Edith J. Morley (London: Dent, 1938) vol. #1, pp. 169-70. This statement was made in 1815, twelve years after the events referred to; and, in the intervening period Hazlitt took to criticizing Wordsworth's poetry and the man himself for his shifted allegiances between livelihood and principles of equality. Further, it needs to be said that Crabb Robinson was no friend of Hazlitt's much at any point in his life. On hearing of Hazlitt's death, in 1830, Robinson was to sum up (Ibid., p. 386) his feelings towards Hazlitt: "... for many years I have ceased to feel any respect for him and even to speak with him. I resented his ill-treatment of Wordsworth, etc." That Robinson disliked Hazlitt, sticks out in Robinson's personal writings and need not be disputed. Equally true was Robinson's admiration of Hazlitt's genius. We find in 1805 Robinson writing to one of his friends and referring to Hazlitt in the following way: "Talking of mystics has put me in mind of William Hazlitt ... Of all the young men of my acquaintance in England, I consider him as incomparably the first in point of intellect. I am inclined to think that in the whole stock of my friends, he is the only one who promises to be a distinguished and original character; tho' on the other side for various reasons I fear that he will never be able to show himself advantageously in life, but perhaps be another sad instance of Genius sinking in its struggle with fortune and the world." (Edith Morley, The Life and Times of Henry Crabb Robinson, (London: Dent, 1935) footnote at page 9.) Further, Crabb Robinson was to write: "Another interesting acquaintance which commenced at this period [circa 1799] was William Hazlitt - a man who has left a deservedly high reputation as a critic; but who at the time I first knew him was struggling against a great difficulty of expression, which rendered him by no means a general favourite in company. His bashfulness, want of words, slovenliness in dress, etc., made him the object of ridicule... The moment I saw him I saw he was an extraordinary man. He had few friends and was flattered by my attentions. He was about my age.... Late in life, years after I had refused to speak to him...(Ibid)

6 See Howe, in quoting Patmore at the footnote, p. 101.

7 Liber Amoris was the title of a book which Hazlitt brought out in 1823. Hazlitt tells of his infatuation with Miss Walker, a rather one sided involvement. Wordsworth seemly made reference to Hazlitt as one being "crazed in brain By unrequited love." (Wordsworth's Excursion, vi. 109.)

8 In a letter from Coleridge to Thomas Wedgwood. Wedgwood was a rich man, and Coleridge's patron, if Hazlitt had made Wedgwood's acquaintance, then things might have been different for Hazlitt. See Howe, pp. 96-7.


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Peter Landry