The Spirit of the Age: biographies of contemporary figures by William Hazlitt


This essay is a critical ‘portrait’ of William Wordsworth, evaluating his career, achievements, and character.

Who was the author?

William Hazlitt began his working life as a painter, but made his name as a brilliant journalist, essayist and critic, covering topics ranging from art, literature and revolutionary politics to boxing and the postal system.

Hazlitt met Wordsworth when Coleridge invited him to stay with them in 1798, and had read aloud to him the poems published later that year as Lyrical Ballads.

What book does the essay come from?

The Spirit of the Age (1825), Hazlitt’s most famous book, is a sequence of 18 essays Hazlitt had begun in 1824: ‘Contemporary Portraits’, as the subtitle explains, of major literary and political figures.

What does Hazlitt say about Wordsworth in this essay?

Here, Hazlitt is more generous than in his previous essay on Wordsworth. We get a sense of how historically important Hazlitt thinks he is from the first line’s repetition of the book’s title: ‘Mr. Wordsworth’s genius is a pure emanation of the Spirit of the Age.’ Though Hazlitt repeats his earlier criticism of The Excursion, which ‘raised expectations which were not fulfilled’, he argues against dismissing Wordsworth because of his commonplace subject matter, as some critics had:

He has described all these objects in a way and with an intensity of feeling that no one else had done before him… He is in this sense the most original poet now living, and the one whose writings could the least be spared: for they have no substitute elsewhere.

Full title:
The Spirit of the Age: or Contemporary Portraits
1825, London
William Hazlitt
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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