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Twelfth Night; or, what you will
“ONE of the finest and wisest spirits breathing," “one of the keenest and brightest critics that ever lived," are Lamb's and Thackeray's famous tributes to the genius of William Hazlitt, a critic whom every critic delights to honour. With the steadily increasing interest that is now manifested in literary criticism, it is natural to find an ever increasing respect and admiration for the work of Hazlitt. In our own day he has well been called "the critics' critic," and the fitness of the designation has been generally allowed. In one not unimportant particular the eulogies of Hazlitt command special respect.
No deduction has to be made from them, no allowance for the hyperbole of affection. His personality had little attraction for his contemporaries. They admired him in spite of himself. So, too, he appeals to his readers by virtue mainly of one quality_his sincere, enlightened, and passionate enthusiasm for the best in English literature. He is more than the critics' critic just because of this union of enthusiasm and insight. To the critic he is suggestive no less when he is manifestly wrong than when he is most happily inspired, but scarcely less valuable is the other quality of his work which makes it for readers with no critical pretensions the most attractive and eloquent call to the love of books. In books Hazlitt found his firmest friends, and he writes of them with an ardour that is irresistible. To understand the hold he takes on the minds of book-lovers, it is enough to listen to any of the numerous avowals of his love. “They sit with me at breakfast; they walk out with me before dinner. After a long walk through unfrequented tracks, after starting the hare from the fern, or hearing the wing of the raven rustling above my head, or being greeted by the woodman's ‘stern good-night,' as he strikes into his narrow homeward path, I can 'take mine ease at mine inn,' beside the blazing hearth, and shake hands with Signor Orlando Friscobaldo, as the oldest acquaintance I have. Ben Jonson, learned Chapman, Master Webster, and Master Heywood are there, and seated round, discourse the silent hours away. Shakespeare is there himself, not in Cibber's manager's coat. Spenser is hardly yet returned from a ramble through the woods, or is concealed behind a group of nymphs, fawns, and satyrs. Milton lies on the
, table, as on an altar, never taken up or laid down without reverence. Lyly's Endymion sleeps with the moon, that shines in at the window, and a breath of wind stirring at a distance seems a sigh from the tree under which he grew old. Faustus disputes in one corner of the room with fiendish faces, and reasons of divine astrology. Bellafront soothes Matheo, Vittoria triumphs over her judges, and old Chapman repeats one of the hymns of Homer, in his own fine translation! I should have no objection to pass my life in this manner out of the world, not thinking of it, nor it of me: neither abused by my enemies nor defended by my friends; careless of the future, but sometimes dreaming of the past, which might as well be forgotten."