Stendhal and William Hazlitt
Stendhal and William Hazlitt

Today, Marie-Henri Beyle, better known by his nom de plume, Stendhal, is best remembered for his novels The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma. Among other works, he also wrote books on music, Shakespeare and love. He is known for his psychologically convincing characters and is one of the earliest Realist writers.

William Hazlitt was an essayist, critic and philosopher, and is now considered one of the finest critics and essayist in the English language, though his work is now seldom read. He was part of a literary circle of famous writers which included Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. He is unfortunately also remembered for a sex scandal which he exacerbated by publishing a book detailing its course.

Together, these two writers exemplify part of the Romantic movement of the early 19th century.

Interviewer’s note: This is a fabricated account, but all the words attributed to Stendhal and William Hazlitt in this account were expressed by them in a wide variety of contexts.

Dr William Frédéric Edwards
Dr William Frédéric Edwards
Dr William Frédéric Edwards was a French physiologist, who has been called "the father of ethnology in France"

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I first met Stendhal in Paris in 1824, at the home of Dr William Edwards. He was a short, plump man, wearing a rather good toupee. This, with his brown hair and whiskers, framed a face in which the dominant features were a pair of incredibly lively eyes and a small but confident mouth. Even when his lips were closed, which was rarely, they looked about to open with some bon mot or slightly baffling declaration.

He told me his non-literary name was Marie-Henri Beyle, and I asked his profession. “I am simply an observer of the human heart,” he replied with dignity. On learning that I had just come to Paris he advised: “When I arrive in a new town, I always ask who are the twelve prettiest women, who are the twelve richest men, and which man can have me hanged?”

Stendhal was a supporter of Napoleon. Since the emperor’s exile in 1815, most of the bright young men who were educated and employed by him have lost their jobs and turned in desperation to literature. Stendhal affects to despise the new regime, referring to it as ‘the party of candle-snuffers’, in reference to its anti-revolutionary principles. Yet free speech flourishes as never before. Stendhal benefits from this state of affairs even as he condemns it — a position taken not infrequently by writers.

Stendhal holds the attention of an audience partly with his wit and partly with the sense of unease he creates. His meaning jumps around so quickly that one must either ignore him or give him one’s full attention, and most people do the latter. There is little consistency: in a short space of time he will come at a subject from several different angles. His recent book on love (more on this soon) is probably the strangest work of genius ever written. In the weeks following our first meeting, I pieced together the story of its author.

Henri Beyle was born in Grenoble in 1783. His mother died when he was seven, and Henri, who was educated at home until he was 13, led a lonely childhood existence enlivened by literature. His attitude to women was shaped on one side by romantic fiction such as Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise, which Henri claims to have memorised, and on the other by what he called “books to be read with one hand only”, which he borrowed clandestinely from his grandfather’s library. In adolescence he enjoyed Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Don Quixote and Shakespeare.

There followed 14 years with the armies of Napoleon. He does not seem to have taken part in any fighting, serving on the supply side of things, but he was involved in the disastrous retreat from Moscow. He had fallen in love with Italy while serving there — it was at Novara, a small town west of Milan, that he had seen his first opera at the age of 17, and become a devotee for life. After 1815 he spent six years there.

Napoleon coronation portrait
Napoleon and the New Regime
Napoleon came to power as a result of the French Revolution, but his regime also undermined some of its principles. His government, the First Empire, is also known as ‘the New Regime.’

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Lives of Haydn, Mozart and Metastasio by Stendhal Rome, Naples and Florence by Stendhal
Two early works by Stendhal
The Lives of Haydn, Mozart and Metastasio – Stendhal's first published work – was written about Stendhal’s passion, music, which he knew very little about. His solution was to plagiarise information from other authors.

For Rome, Naples, and Florence Stendhal was on firmer ground. He knew the country intimately. He was 17 years old when he first rode across the alps in the wake of Napoleon’s armies.
The Red and the Black by Stendhal

Two Great Novels by Stendhal

The Red and the Black
Charts the rise and fall of an ambitious young social climber in a cruel, monarchical society

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You can also read our review of The Red and the Black by clicking here

In 1814 he published his first book, Lives of Haydn, Mozart, and Metastasio, almost all of its material stolen from other writers, and in 1817 published his history of Italian painting. Both books were printed at their author’s expense and sold poorly. Then came a more successful book, Rome, Naples, and Florence, and finally, in 1822, after the manuscript had been lost in the post for a year, De l’Amour. It is basically a long essay on the experience of falling in love.

De l’Amour was inspired by an affair which occurred over almost three years in Milan or, more precisely, occurred in Stendhal’s mind when he was in Milan, for the object of his passion remained impervious. It also drew on his many more successful amorous adventures, which had taken place over many years in a number of countries. In the book he is by turn clown and wise observer.

After witnessing Stendhal in action on that first evening I talked to Dr Edwards about him, and was advised to read the book on love. My French being poor, it occurred to me to ask its author to explain his thoughts to me, and a few days later we had a very interesting conversation in a restaurant near his lodgings.

Stendhal speaks a fluent but individual version of English, and in what follows I have ironed out his more distracting bumps of grammar and vocabulary.

“Paris, thanks to the superiority of its conversation and literature, is and always will be the drawing-room of Europe,” he announced at the start of our conversation.

But is it the best place for love?

“A Frenchman thinks he is the unhappiest man in the world, and verging on the most ridiculous, if he has to spend his time alone. But what is love without solitude?”

“Well, what is love with solitude?” I asked.

Stendhal smiled, leaned back in his chair, and admired his small hands for a moment. I asked him to start from the beginning, and to explain to me his theory of falling in love.

“Here is what happens in the soul,” he said patiently, as though reciting a much-loved verse from memory. “One: admiration. Two: you think how delightful it would be to kiss her, to be kissed by her, and so on . . .”


“Three: hope. You observe her perfections, and it is at this moment that a woman really ought to surrender, for the utmost physical pleasure.”

“And if not?”

“Four: love is born. Five: the crystallization begins.”


Stendhal grew animated. “It is a pleasure to endow her with a thousand perfections and to count your blessings with infinite satisfaction. In the end you overrate wildly, and regard her as something fallen from heaven.”

”I’m not sure I understand.”

De l'amour by Stendhal
De l’Amour
Stendhal published De l'Amour in 1822. It is an examination of love as a psychological and sociological phenomenon.

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The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal

Two Great Novels by Stendhal

The Charterhouse of Parma
Conjures the excitement and romance of youth while never losing sight of life’s harsh reality

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Stendhal made this sketch to help explain what he meant by the process of ‘crystallization’, the process by which someone falls in love by idealising the object of their desire. He expressed this through two metaphors, the crystallization of salt and the metaphor of a journey between Bologna and Rome.

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Stendhal just nodded. “Excessive familiarity can destroy [crystallization]. Leave a lover with his thoughts for 24 hours, and this is what will happen. At the salt mines of Salzburg, they throw a leafless wintry bough into one of the abandoned workings. Two or three months later they haul it out covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The smallest twig, no bigger than a tom-tit’s claw, is studded with a galaxy of scintillating diamonds. The original branch is no longer recognisable. What I call crystallization is a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one.”

“I see why solitude is so necessary.”

Stendhal nodded again. “A man in love sees every perfection in the object of his love, but his attention is still liable to wander after a time because one gets tired of anything uniform, even perfect happiness. This is what happens next to fix the attention: doubt creeps in. He is met with indifference, coldness, or even anger if he appears too confident. A woman may behave like this either because she is recovering from a moment of intoxication and obeying the dictates of modesty, which she may fear she has offended, or simply for the sake of prudence or coquetry. The lover tries to recoup by engaging in other pleasures but finds them inane.”

“You're assuming he is sure he is in love, which is not always the case, surely. How can one tell?”

“When all the pleasures and all the pains attributable to all the other passions and all the other needs of a man cease abruptly to affect him.”

“So. What happens next, when doubt sets in?”

Stendhal looked out the window, seemingly recalling some past experience. “Always a little doubt to set at rest,” he murmured. “That’s what keeps one craving, that’s what keeps happy love alive. Because the misgivings are always there, the pleasures never grow tedious.”

There was a silence, which I broke by asking what effect these doubts had on the lover’s behaviour. Stendhal shook his head and straightened himself, looking at me again.

“He is seized by the dread of a frightful calamity and now concentrates fully. Thus begins the second crystallization, which deposits diamond layers of proof that “she loves me”. When the two crystallization processes have taken place, and particularly the second, which is far the stronger, the original naked branch is no longer recognisable by indifferent eyes, because it now sparkles with perfections, or diamonds.”

I asked if the French were particularly adept at love. He has visited London, and proceeded to express pessimism about the chances of romance in our kingdom.

“The modesty of women in England is the pride of their husbands,” he said disdainfully. “But, however submissive a slave may be, her company soon grows burdensome. Hence the fact that the men find it necessary to get gloomily drunk every evening, instead of passing the time with their mistresses as in Italy. In England the rich, bored with their homes, and on the plea of necessary exercise, walk four or five leagues every day as though man were created and placed on earth for the purpose of trotting. In this way they use up their nervous fluid through the legs instead of through the heart.”

“What about Italy?”

“No one could be idler than the young Italians; movement, which might blunt their sensibility, they find tiresome. Now and again they will walk half a league reluctantly for their health’s sake; and as for the women, a Roman woman does not cover as much ground in a whole year as an English miss will do in a week.”

Sir Walter Scott
Sir Walter Scott
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was a Scottish historian, poet, playwright and novelist.

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I found Stendhal baffling. Like the rest of us these days, he is a Romantic, as much so as the most famous writer in Europe, Sir Walter Scott. But at the same time he is a Rationalist, a paradox that perhaps explains the confusion he so often induces. When one reads Scott one is always aware, however reluctantly, that life is elsewhere. When one reads Stendhal one knows that life is here, between his sentences. What lies elsewhere is happiness: for a self-proclaimed seeker of pleasure, Stendhal seems to have found it rarely.

In France today Stendhal is considered the great defender of Romanticism, the scourge of Classicism. He attained this position following an event in 1822, when a group of French liberals broke up a performance of Macbeth in Paris. Stendhal used this outrage to publish Racine et Shakespeare, an article which became a book. It is a fierce attack on the French passion for neoclassical drama, epitomised by the works of Racine, in which the observance of literary rules is more important than the observance of life. Stendhal uttered what for the French were blasphemies, claiming that there could be many scene changes within one act, that great drama need not be in verse, that great plays could contain characters from all walks of life. The honoured members of the Academie Francaise were satisfyingly outraged, and Stendhal's reputation was made.

And yet, at the same time as he was fighting the Classicists, he was fighting the Romantic tendencies towards diffuseness of thought and verbosity of expression. “Any really useful idea will certainly be despised in France if it can be expressed only in very simple terms,” he told me bitterly.

Racine et Shakespeare
Racine et Shakespeare
Racine et Shakespeare (1823-1825) is a pamphlet by Stendhal published in two parts which acts as a manifesto in support of Romanticism.

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Yet it would be wrong to deduce from this that Stendhal’s writing is a headlong rush to embrace life in all its variety (just as it would be wrong to conclude anything at all from any words of Stendhal). The title page of the second volume of his history of Italian art carries the English dedication: “To the happy few”, which might serve as the motto of this man, whose greatest work to date is a dissertation on a fantastic and fleeting branch of love. (It may also be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the size of his readership at that time.) As the pieces of conversation recorded above suggest, Stendhal believes that art and happiness are the preserves of those living in very specific places and circumstances—ideally, it seems, of those living in Milan and spending their time crystallizing while attending the opera or looking at paintings.

For Stendhal, the observer of the human heart who has no wife, no children and no close relatives at all, happiness lies in art and in nature. Other people, except as prompts for the imagination and objects of study, are relatively unimportant. When I congratulated him on the success of his latest book, a life of Rossini, he shrugged and looked out the window with apparently genuine distaste. No success, he said, could make up for “the mud in which I am buried. I imagine the heights which my soul inhabits, like delightful hills. Far from these hills, on the plain, are fetid marshes in which I am plunged.” Happiness is elsewhere. Then Stendhal jumped up and, examining his appearance in the mirror with evident signs of approval, suggested we go down to see Mme Pasta.


The Life of Rossini by Stendhal
The Life of Rossini
Stendhal was the first of his contemporaries to realise the genius of Rossini, an Italian composer. Rossini had found great success early in his career in Italy, but he had failed to win the approval of the French who considered him an upstart. Stendhal’s book is an account of the composer’s most creative years, and also includes discussions of operas and personalities of the period.
Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley
The ‘mother’ of Frankenstein

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William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth
One of the foremost poets of the Romantic era

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William Wordsworth
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
One of the most explosive imaginations of the Romantic period

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William Hazlitt arrived in Paris in early autumn. As one of the most hated—and most read—journalists in England, he needs no introduction for most readers, who will be familiar with his books and his essays, sketches and reviews published in the Examiner and other magazines. Of those publications that will not have him, the worst insult has come from the Quarterly Review, in which he has been described as a “slang-whanger” whose essays are written in “broken English” and leave behind them a trail of “slime and filth”.

All this because Hazlitt possesses a familiar style and is a radical. The man himself, strange to say, is most offended by the trivial jibe published in Blackwood’s, in which he was called “Pimpled Hazlitt”—a slur completely undeserved. For myself, I believe Keats got it right when he called Hazlitt “your only good damner, and if ever I’m damned—damn me if I shouldn’t like him to damn me.” Hazlitt is a good man. And, like many of his kind, he causes more trouble than most bad ones.

In appearance he is short and slight, with dark hair, pale skin, and pointed features. The journey to Paris occurred almost immediately after his recent marriage, which itself was on the heels of his divorce from his first wife. When he arrived, he looked terrible. “He has become so thin,” Mary Shelley noticed not long ago, “his hair so scattered, his cheekbones projecting. His smile like a sunbeam illuminating the most melancholy of ruins.” As soon as I heard he was in the city I hastened to his hotel, where I met his new wife, Isabella, a pleasant and stolid woman. His first wife, Sarah, had been selected for him by his friends, the Lambs, (a strange way of proceeding for a self-proclaimed revolutionary). She is an obsessive walker, and the marriage was a failure from the very start, when Charles Lamb could not stop himself laughing during the ceremony. Anyway, Isabella told me her husband had gone to the Louvre and I followed, thinking of what I knew about Hazlitt.

He was born in 1778, the son of a Dissenting minister, a fact whose importance cannot be underestimated. “It was my misfortune,” he has said, “to be bred among Dissenters who look with too jaundiced an eye at others, and set too high a value on their own peculiar pretensions. From being proscribed themselves, they learn to proscribe others.”

The French Revolution transformed the young Hazlitt just as it did Wordsworth, who has famously written “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven!” In 1798 a Dissenter and dissenter named Samuel Coleridge came to preach in a town near Hazlitt’s. The poet was intent on becoming a minister there, and the 20-years-old Hazlitt went to hear him, and was treated to an anti-war sermon. He was besotted.

Coleridge spent a night with Hazlitt’s father, and the next morning received a letter from a patron, offering him 150 pounds a year if he would devote his life to poetry and philosophy. Abandoning all thoughts of God’s ministry on the spot, he accepted the offer and went off to Somersetshire, asking Hazlitt to come visit in a few weeks. This the youth did, and met Wordsworth too. It was the year in which the two poets published their joint poetry collection Lyrical Ballads, that thunderclap of English Romanticism.

With subsequent events in France and Europe, Wordsworth and many others fell out of love with Napoleon. Even Coleridge lost his ardour, and coined the epithet ‘the Corsican’ to describe the emperor. Hazlitt never forgave the two poets their change of heart, and his recollections of their early acquaintance are perhaps coloured by this. His own reaction to the final defeat of Napoleon by the English and Prussians at Waterloo, as described by the painter Benjamin Haydon, was extraordinary: “He seemed prostrated in mind and body, he walked about unwashed, unshaved, hardly sober by day and always intoxicated by night, literally, without exaggeration, for weeks.” These days Hazlitt drinks no spirits and little of any other stimulant except green tea, of which he is extremely fond.

I missed him at the Louvre and finally met up with him at Dr Edwards’ salon. Stendhal was also there that evening, and Hazlitt was instantly won over. He was very impressed by meeting someone who had actually served under Napoleon, and soon Stendhal was reminiscing about his days with the emperor in Moscow. “We left the city, which was lit by the loveliest conflagration in the world, forming an immense pyramid that was like the prayers of the faithful, the base on earth and the apex in the heavens,” he enthused. “The moon appeared above the conflagration. It was a grand spectacle, but one would have had to have been alone to see it or surrounded by discerning people.” Stendhal sighed. “That is the sad circumstance which spoiled the Russian campaign for me, having done it with people who would have made the Colosseum or the Sea of Naples seem small.”

Charles Lamb
Charles Lamb (1775 - 1834)
Charles Lamb was an English essayist, poet, and antiquarian, best known for his Essays of Elia and for the children’s book Tales from Shakespeare, co-authored with his sister, Mary Lamb. Lamb was part of a large literary circle that included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth and William Hazlitt.

William Wordsworth
Lyrical Ballads
Lyrical Ballads, is a collection of poems by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, first published in 1798 and generally considered to have marked the beginning of the English Romantic movement.

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The two writers have a great deal in common, once one looks beyond the obvious fact of the fatness of one and the thinness of the other: same short height, same enthusiasms for Napoleon, painting, the theatre and Shakespeare. Stendhal greatly admired Hazlitt’s book, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, and had once written to him in praise of it. Both were great journalists and liberals, and spent some time discussing the virtues of the Edinburgh Review.

Later in the evening, Stendhal was entertaining a small group and I noticed Hazlitt sitting alone and looking tired. He asked me to help him home. It was a ten-minute walk to his hotel, but took us closer to half an hour, as we had to stop often. To take his mind off the pain I asked him about Coleridge, and this seemed to revive him: in hating he became healthy again.

“His mouth was gross,” Hazlitt said eagerly as he recalled their first meeting, more than 20 years ago, “his chin good-humoured and round, but his nose, the rudder of the face, was small, feeble, nothing—like what he has done.” He related how, when walking with Coleridge, “I observed that he continually crossed me on the way by shifting from one side of the footpath to the other. This struck me as an odd movement; but I did not at that time connect it with any instability of purpose or involuntary change of principle, as I have done since.”

I asked if the poets had read to him from the manuscript of Lyrical Ballads that summer, and he told me they had. “There is a [chaunt] in the recitation both of Coleridge and Wordsworth, which acts as a spell upon the hearer and disarms the judgement.” Hazlitt stopped walking in order to take a breath, and laughed harshly. “Perhaps they have deceived themselves by making habitual use of this ambiguous accompaniment.”

We moved on. “The present is an age of talkers, and not of doers,” he said, “and the reason is, we are growing old. We are so far advanced in the Arts and Sciences that we live in retrospect, and dote on past achievements. The accumulation of knowledge has been so great, that we are lost in wonder at the height it has reached, instead of attempting to climb or add to it; while the variety of objects distracts and dazzles the looker-on. We are like those who have been to see some noble monument of art, who are content to admire without thinking.”

I asked if he enjoyed any of Coleridge’s poems.

Characters of Shakespeares Plays by William Hazlitt
Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays by William Hazlitt
This book is an analysis of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as the qualities of many of the characters and how they reflect the complexities of human nature.
The copyright for Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays has expired so the book is available for free from the Gutenberg Project.
Follow this link to download your free copy.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - Gustave Dore Engraving
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Originally published in Lyrical Ballads in 1798, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is a supernatural tale of a voyage into the Arctic Circle and back

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“The Ancient Mariner is the only one that we could with confidence put into any person’s hands, on whom we wished to impress a favourable idea of his extraordinary powers.”

”Why has he produced so little then?”

“He is a general lover of art and science, and wedded to no one in particular. It is hard to concentrate all our attention and efforts on one pursuit, except from ignorance of others.”

We were almost at the Hotel des Etrangers, which was as well, for Hazlitt was flagging badly, clutching his stomach.

“If Mr Coleridge had not been the most impressive talker of his age, he would probably have been the finest writer,” he said.

“He must have meant a lot to you when you first met?”

Hazlitt saw a passing bench and sat down on it abruptly, and said nothing for a moment, just gazing up at the new moon, which could be seen above the even roofs of the buildings around us.

After a while I saw that his face was still tilted at the moon, but his eyes were glazed and he was elsewhere. He began to speak, slowly. The thoughts were private but the feeling behind them was not halting but passionate. “I was at that time dumb, inarticulate, helpless, like a worm by the way-side, crushed, bleeding, lifeless,” he murmured, and paused before continuing, to breathe in the cold night air. He did not seem to be aware of my presence anymore. “My soul has remained in its original bondage; my heart, shut up in the prison house of this rude clay, has never found, nor will it ever find, a heart to speak to; but that my understanding also did not remain dumb and brutish, or at length found a language to express itself, I owe to Coleridge.”

Hazlittt stayed three months in Paris, but for much of that time was ill and remained in his rooms. I met his first wife, Sarah, in the street one day. She too was travelling, and had been to see him. Before striding off she told me he “gets his food cooked in the English way, which is a very great object for him”. I suspect travel was not easy for Hazlitt, and that he was one of those who journey more from dislike of the place they have left than any enthusiasm for where they are going.

Towards the end of his stay he wanted company, and I would go and sit with him in his rooms. He was, I discovered, producing a stupendous amount of journalism from his bed. At times he was depressed, and once greeted me with: “What abortions are these essays! What errors, what ill-pieced transitions, what crooked reasons, what lame conclusions! How little is made out, and that little how ill.”

“Not at all,” I cried, “they –”

“They are the best I can do,” he muttered, and there was a heavy silence. Then I told him that for many people he was the English Montaigne, and he seemed quickly pleased by the idea. “The great merit of Montaigne was, that he may be said to have been the first who had the courage to say as an author what he felt as a man,” Hazlitt said, gathering his strength again. “He was, in the truest sense, a man of original mind, that is, he had the power of looking at things for himself, or as they really were, instead of blindly trusting to, and fondly repeating what others told him they were. He has left little for his successors to achieve in the way of just and original speculation on human life.”

Hazlitt has elevated journalism at times almost to the heights of art, using a method most people would consider the opposite of artistic: simplicity. “I hate to see a load of bandboxes go along the street,” he said, “and I hate to see a parcel of big words without anything in them. It is not easy to write a familiar style. Many people mistake a familiar style for a vulgar style, and suppose that to write without affectation is to write at random. On the contrary, there is nothing that requires more precision.”

I asked about the differences between Wordsworth and Coleridge.

“Coleridge's manner is more full, animated and varied,” he said, “Wordsworth's more equable, sustained and internal. The one might be termed more [dramatic], the other more [lyrical]. Coleridge has told me that he himself liked to compose in walking over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood, whereas Wordsworth always wrote (if he could) walking up and down a straight gravel-walk, or in some spot where the continuity of his verse met with no collateral interruption.”

“Do you enjoy his poems?”

“They either make no impression on the mind at all, seem mere [nonsense-verses], or leave a mark behind them that never wears out. Wordsworth’s mind is obtuse, except as it is the organ and the receptacle of accumulated feelings; it is not analytic, but synthetic; it is reflecting, rather than theoretical.”

“Do you have any of Stendhal’s books?” I asked one day in his lodgings, examining the books on a shelf.

Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) was a French essayist and philosopher. His writing was personal and anecdotal and lacked the formalities of his period, merging autobiography with intellectual insight. Montaigne’s volume of Essays, which reflect his humanist principles, had an enormous influence on numerous Western writers.
The copyright for Montaigne’s Essays has expired so the book is available for free from the Gutenberg Project.
Follow this link to download your free copy.
Willian Hazlitt and Sarah Walker
Hazlitt and Sarah Walker
At the age of 42 William Hazlitt succumbed to his desire for his landlady’s 19 year old daughter, Sarah Walker. It would result in personal diasaster and public humiliation.

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Hazlitt told me he had a copy of De l’Amour, that “charming little work” by “my friend Mr Beyle”. He seemed to stir uneasily, and rose to request some more tea. There was one book I knew of which was missing: his own Liber Amoris, about an unrequited love affair. Hazlitt sat down and began to talk on some subject, but I found myself thinking of the two books on love, and as I did so they began to mingle: I could not remember where the Frenchman’s work of theory ended and the Englishman’s record of experience began. This strange and unexpected confusion disturbed me and I could no longer think clearly. I had to stand up and leave suddenly, to Hazlitt’s surprise.

Liber Amoris is one of the most embarrassing books ever written. It records the course of Hazlitt’s passion for Sarah Walker, his landlady’s daughter, when the writer was 42 and the girl 19. The passion was unrequited and unfulfilled, and the embarrassment lies in the wealth of minor detail into which Hazlitt goes, recording every word and expression which passed between the two of them, and every impression that passed through his mind. His enemies had a field day with this tedious record of an infatuation worthy of an 18 year old boy, from the pen of an adult writer with 16 books to his credit.

First let me provide an example of its flavour.

H: Oh! is it you? I had something to show you—I have got a picture here. Do you know anyone it’s like?

S: No, Sir.

H: Don’t you think it’s like yourself?

S: No: it’s much handsomer than I can pretend to be.

H: That’s because you don’t see yourself with the same eyes that others do. [I] don’t think it handsomer, and the expression is hardly so fine as yours sometimes is.

S: Now you flatter me. Besides, the complexion is fair, and mine is dark.

H: Thine is pale and beautiful my love, not dark.

etc etc. (The conversations took place when Sarah entered the room in her capacity as maid.)

Hazlitt, I suspect, has always been convinced that he could never inspire passionate love in a woman. “I have wanted only one thing to make me happy,” he wrote recently, “but wanting that, have wanted everything.” It seems that what inspired his love for Sarah was the flirtatious look she gave him the first time they met—apparently her habit with new male lodgers.

Liber Amoris
Liber Amoris by William Hazlitt
Liber Amoris is the book Hazlitt published detailing his frustrating relationship with his landlady’s daughter, Sarah Walker. The anonymous publication of the book would lead to public humiliation.
The copyright for Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris has expired so the book is available for free from the Gutenberg Project.
Follow this link to download your free copy.
Bryan Waller Procter
Bryan Waller Procter
Bryan Proctor was a conveyancing solicitor who wrote under the nom de plume ‘Barry Cornwall’. He was largely unknown outside England during his lifetime, but Alexander Pushkin was inspired to make translations of some of his poetry. His friend, Charles Lamb, also praised his work.

Bryan Procter, a friend of Hazlitt who visited him at his lodgings, recalls that Sarah was a human blank slate. “Her eyes were motionless, glassy, and without any speculation (apparently) in them,” he observed. “She was silent or uttered monosyllables only, and was very demure. Her movements in walking were very remarkable, for I never observed her to make a step.” This, surely, is a description of the human equivalent of Stendhal’s “leafless wintry bough”, and Liber Amoris the crystallization that occurred on it. Hazlitt’s insecurity, which would only allow a purely fictitious love, required a subject, but one which would interfere not at all in the fiction, by either advancing or withdrawing with any assertion.

To know Hazlitt and to read Stendhal is almost like seeing the hand inside the glove. “Some people,” the Frenchman says in De l'Amour, “over-fervent, or fervent by starts, will hurl themselves upon the experience instead of waiting for it to happen. Before the nature of an object can produce its proper sensation in them, they have blindly invested it from afar with imaginary charm which they conjure up inexhaustibly within themselves. As they come closer they see the experience not as it is, but as they have made it. They take delight in their own selves in the mistaken belief that they are enjoying the experience. But sooner or later they get tired of making the running and discover that the object of their adoration is [not returning the ball]; then their infatuation is dispelled, and the slight to their self-respect makes them react unfairly against the thing they once overrated.” Thus was it with Hazlitt: at the end of Liber Amoris Sarah is described as vixen, witch and serpent.

I had one last long talk with Hazlitt just before he left Paris, and he was surprisingly open about himself. In the three months he had been in the city, his health had improved but he was still haggard, and I suspected he was reluctant to leave. He was headed in the direction of Italy and a travel book. I raised with him the subject of the curious gap between Stendhal’s idealistic—or, more properly, fantastical—notion of love and the frequency of his affairs of a purely physical nature. We were walking in the Place de la Concorde and Hazlitt slowed down, his eyes on the ground, and said carefully, as if this were a matter he had often considered: “Excessive refinement tends to produce equal grossness.”


“The tenuity of our intellectual desires leaves a void in the mind which requires to be filled up by coarser gratification, and that of the senses is always at hand.”

As I was leaving, Hazlitt looked up and made a speech. “I am not in the ordinary acceptance of the term, [a good-natured man],” he said earnestly. “Many things annoy me besides what interferes with my own ease and interest.”

I suggested this would not come as a surprise to anyone.

”Good-nature, or what is often considered as such, is the most selfish of all the virtues,” he declared. “It is nine times out of ten mere indolence of disposition.” For a man of spirit, he said, “Nature seems made up of antipathies: without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions of men.”

“Most people might think differently.”

Hazlitt shrugged. “I have quarrelled with almost all my own friends,” he said, as if this settled the matter. He passed a hand through his hair and looked round the vast square, as if searching for something, or someone. “As for my old opinions, I am heartily sick of them. I was taught to think, and I was willing to believe, that genius was not a bawd—that virtue was not a mask—that liberty was not a name—that love had a seat in the human heart. Now I would care little if these words were struck out of my dictionary, or if I had never heard of them. I have been in my public and private hopes, calculating others from myself, and calculating wrong; always disappointed where I placed most reliance; the dupe of friendship, and the fool of love; have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do.” He laughed harshly. “And chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough.”

Michael Duffy
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Dr William Frédéric Edwards

Dr William Frédéric Edwards, 1777-1842, wax portrait by Pierre-Jean David D’Angers, 1832

William Edwards was a physiologist who studied the effects of physical environments on animals and also worked as an anthropologist with a particular interest in race. Edwards was one of the first anthropologists to write about race and racial features. He believed that racial features were permanent over many generations. Edwards’ work helped establish a broader understanding of ethnology as well as to support French nationalism. His belief in racial types was also born from a belief in multiple origins of humanity, polygenism, rather than a narrower gene pool or common ancestors which had been changed by environmental factors. Stendhal was influenced by Edwards’ scientific positions.

La Nouvelle Heloise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise, also called Julie or the New Heloise (Julie ou la nouvelle Héloïse) was published in 1761. It is an epistolary novel, meaning that the entire plot is conveyed through a series of letters between the novel’s principal characters. It is a form of narrative still used to this day, but it was particularly popular in the 18th century, after the enormous success of Samuel Richardson’s first novel Pamela (1740), and with his even more successful Clarissa (1748).

The plot of La Nouvelle Heloise centres on a love affair between Julie d’Étanges, an aristocratic Swiss maiden and her tutor, a commoner who is given the name of St. Preux by Julie. The novel explores themes which would still appeal to modern readers about individuality and breaking with convention: a belief that one should remain true to one’s inner feelings in the face of a disapproving society.

The novel was highly successful, like Goethe’s later The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) which also drew upon the Romantic sensibilities of individuality and feeling that were becoming popular during the period. Like Goethe’s novel to follow, Rousseau had a significant emotional impact upon readers, some of whom thought Rousseau could not possibly have made it up: that it must be the real correspondence between the lovers, as well Julie’s cousin and confidante, Claire. As a result of the novel’s success, Rousseau has a claim to being the world’s first celebrity author.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos is an epistolary novel – that is, a novel in which the story is told entirely through letters written between its main characters – that tells of the destructive relationship between the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. Love is a sport and when they turn against each other they draw others into their orbit, thereby destroying lives as part of their amoral game of manipulation and revenge.

The novel was viewed as scandalous, but its reputation – that it is a repudiation of the Ancien Régime, representing the flamboyance, immorality and malice of the court – may well be the result of revisionist readings of the novel after the French Revolution. Despite the characters being aristocratic members of the court, the novel was enjoyed by courtiers and even the queen, herself, it was rumoured.

The novel has had several adaptations in modern popular culture. It has been adapted for the stage and it has inspired retellings as well as many film adaptations. This includes the stage play by Heiner Müller in 1981, entitled Quartet and Les Liaisons dangereuses directed by Roger Vadim in 1959. In 1988 Stephen Frears directed Dangerous Liaisons starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman. There has also been a Hollywood treatment of the story adapted for a teenage audience, Cruel Intentions, directed by Roger Kumble in 1999, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Reese Witherspoon.

The copyright for Les Liaisons Dangereuses has expired so the book is available for free from the Gutenberg Project.

Follow this link to download your free copy in an ENGLISH TRANSLATION.

Follow this link to download your free copy in the original FRENCH.

Don Quixote by Cervantes

Don Quixote was originally published in two parts in 1606 and later in 1615. Cervantes, the author, was compelled to publish his second part after Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda (a pseudonym) published his own sequel in 1614. Don Quixote is an epic novel in the picaresque tradition which recounts the deeds of Alonso Quijano, whose mind is befuddled because he reads too many books about chivalric romances. When he loses his mind he thinks he is a knight, Don Quixote de la Mancha, a nobleman who must wander the countryside in pursuit of his ideals, righting wrongs, and eventually seeking the approval of a woman he idealises and believes he loves. He recruits a servant as his squire, Sancho Panza, and together they ride off on adventures. Alonso does not see the reality of the world, but how he prefers to imagine it, with himself at the centre of his story of high deeds and nobility. A famous example appears early in the book in which ‘Don Quixote’ attacks a windmill, but believes he is attacking a giant.

The novel has had a major cultural influence for centuries. The word ‘quixotic’ derives from Alonso’s adopted identity. It has been adapted into plays and film, including a musical Man of La Mancha by Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, and its film version starring Peter O’Toole, directed by Arthur Hiller in 1972. Orson Wells also worked upon a film version of the story for decades which was eventually released in 1992, seven years after his death.

The copyright for Don Quixote has expired so the book is available for free from the Gutenberg Project.

Follow this link to download your free copy in an ENGLISH TRANSLATION.

Follow this link to download your free copy in the original SPANISH.


‘Napoleon in Coronation Robes’ François Gérard, 1805

Napoleon’s First Empire, so-called to distinguish it from the Second Empire (1852–1870) ruled by his nephew Napoleon III, was also known as the ‘new regime’. Napoleon had come to power as a general in support of the French Revolution which began in 1789. His empire lasted from 1804 until 1815 when he was defeated by Nelson at Waterloo.

An anomaly of Napoleon’s rule is that he was effectively an elected dictator after he crowned himself emperor in 1804. He had been elected into the position of French consul after orchestrating a coup in 1799. Napoleon relied upon elections to legitimise his power, even though the elections were usually rigged. He rewrote the constitution which was ratified by over 99% vote in 1800. In 1804, Napoleon decided to consolidate his power along the lines of a Roman emperor after plots to kill him were uncovered. He was elected to the position of Emperor, again with over 99% of the vote in his favour. He is said to have snatched the crown from Pope Pious VII at the coronation and crowned himself. Napoleon’s reign outwardly conceded the original tenets of the revolution while consolidating power to himself which was much the same as a king’s.

Napoleon had been exiled to the island of Elba under the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1814 after his disastrous attempt to invade Russia. However, Napoleon left Elba in February 1815 with a small force and returned to France, beginning a period now known as The Hundred Days, in which he attempted to wage war on the allied nations opposing him. The Hundred Days ended with Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815 and his final exile to the small island of St Helena, off the south west coast of Africa.

De l’Amou

Stendhal published De l'amour in 1822. It is an examination of love as a psychological and sociological phenomenon. Standhal was inspired to write the book after experiencing a strong desire for Matilde Viscontini Dembowski. Unfortunately, Stendhal’s manuscript was lost for over a year and by the time it was returned to him he knew he had no chance with Matilde.

The book was a failure on publication. It was reissued in 1833 with two chapters added. Stendhal was writing a preface to the third edition of the book only eight days before his death in 1842.

The book is split into two parts. The first part describes the ways that someone falls in love and the concept of ‘crystallisation’, by which Stendhal meant the way someone comes to idealise a lover.

The second part was a more anthropological treatment of love, as Stendhal examines the different mores and practices of love in different nations.

The copyright for De l'amour has expired so the book is available for free from the Gutenberg Project.

Follow this link to download your free copy.

Stendhal first thought of ‘crystallization’ as a metaphor for the process of falling in love when he witnessed a Bavarian officer, who was conducting him and Madame Gherardi on a tour of the Salzburg salt mines. Stendhal noticed that the officer was becoming more and more enamoured of the lady. The idea of crystallization came to him when Madame Gherardi was shown a branch that had been encrusted with salt crystals, thereby entirely transforming its appearance into something sparkling and magical. Stendhal thought of the accretion of salt crystals on the branch as the increasing idealisations of a lover for the object of his desires.

Stendhal also described this process with a second metaphor, shown by the sketch below. On a journey between Balogna and Rome, Balogna represents the point at which the potential lover is indifferent. Once the journey begins, he experiences four main milestones to falling in love:

  1. Admiration;
  2. the acknowledgement of the pleasantness of gaining the interest of the person desired;
  3. the hoped for reciprocation of desire;
  4. finally the loved one’s features are exaggerated and idealised, much like the effect of the crystal salt upon the branch.

The end of the journey, Rome, represents love.

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was a Scottish historian, poet, and playwright, but was and remains most famous for his historical romances, a series of 26 novels known as the Waverley Novels. The series was named after Scott’s first novel, Waverley because he did not reveal his authorship until 1827, when 22 of the novels had already been published. Before then each novel was published as ‘By the author of Waverley’.

Sir Walter Scott was the most popular author of his age, though his popularity has waned in modern times. But the Waverley series includes Rob Roy which is still commonly read and has been the subject of several film adaptations. Also, Ivanhoe, a novel set in the period after the Norman conquest of England, features a scene which inspired Charlotte Brontë’s classic ‘mad woman in the attic’, Bertha Mason Rochester, Mr Rochester’s first wife whom he keeps locked in a room on the third floor of Thornfield Hall. The scene in which she sets fire to the Rochester mansion and throws herself from the roof is taken directly from Ivanhoe.

Rationalism is essentially a philosophical approach to knowledge which has its roots as far back as Greek philosophy and the Socratic method of questioning and reasoning, as demonstrated in works by Plato. It is an approach to understanding that favours reason over other sources of knowledge like faith, tradition or sensory experiences. This last is what distinguishes Rationalism from Empiricism, which is a branch of knowledge favoured in science. Empiricism relies upon physical evidence, experimentation and observation as a source of knowledge, while a Rational approach to knowledge assumes that knowledge is innate and can be understood through deductive reasoning.

The Wanderer Above the Sea and Fog by Casper David Friedrich

The Wanderer Above the Sea and Fog by Casper David Friedrich

Romanticism is an intellectual movement of the 18th and 19th centuries which privileges individual inspiration over the formal rules of Classicism. Romanticism is named for the earlier romances which did not conform to classical tenets, as well as medieval forms. An interest in ruins and encroaching nature helps to define the Romantic aesthetic, either in its later Gothic incarnation, or Romantic poems inspired by ruins such as William Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’.

Romanticism is primarily concerned with individual feeling, intuition and inspiration. To this end Romantic writers often turned to inspiring natural scenes, religion or the grotesque. Wordsworth primarily wrote poems reacting to nature. The early Romantic poet, William Blake, often wrote poems with a religious vision. Gothic writers would turn to the supernatural or bizarre. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an example.

Romanticism is, to a degree, a reaction to the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that promoted equality, freedom, scientific thought, secular government and rationalism. For the Romantics, feeling and individual perception were more important than empiricism or rationalism. The Enlightenment provided the intellectual foundation for the French Revolution. Nevertheless, the French Revolution was an inspiring event for Romantic writers since many of its aims related to the ideals of the individual. The revolutions of the late 18th century stem from changes in thinking encouraged by many Enlightenment thinkers, including Rousseau, Diderot, Paine and Montesquieu. Romanticism is both a reaction to and a continuation of those ideals.

The topic is too complex to explain adequately here. This diagram is an attempt to summarise some of the main tenets of Romanticism (Resize the window to read it more easily):

The main characteristics of Romanticism included:

The Canons of Proportion

Vetruvian Man

Clacissism is based upon the philosophy, literature and art of Ancient Greece and Rome. There is an emphasis on form and simplicity, perfection and restraint. Classicism is Apollonian: an appeal to the intellect. Classicism has a formality that encourages set rules and canons by which artists and authors work.

This is most easily demonstrated with reference to the representational arts. For example, Classical ideals are demonstrated by the sculpture to the right. The image has been marked with lines showing the proportions by which Greek artists worked to create their realistic sculptures. These proportions were considered canonical, and while later Roman artists may have represented their subjects less idealistically, they still maintained the proportions established during the Golden period of Greece.

Renaissance artists, beginning around the 14th century, returned to the classical ideals of Greece and Rome. Renaissance artists maintained a high fidelity to the representation of ‘reality’ (often their subject matter had no connection with everyday reality at all) and understood the canons of proportions first introduced by the Greeks. This is easily demonstrable with reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing of the Vitruvian Man.

Racine et Shakespeare by Stendhal

Racine et Shakespeare (1823-1825) is a pamphlet by Stendhal published in two parts which acts as a manifesto in support of Romanticism. Stendhal favours a Romantic rather than a Classical approach to literature, essentially favouring the modern over traditional forms. Stendhal broadly compared Shakespeare and Racine to make his point. Shakespeare used low status characters, wrote both in verse and prose, included scenes in his plays which appealed to the senses and emotions, like the witches in Macbeth, and deliberately included comic elements in his plays, even in his tragedies. Racine’s writing was more formal and the range of his theatricality more limited. By this comparison Stenhal hoped to make his case against the formalities of Classicism. One aspect of this was his assertion that the Aristotelian rule of three units was not necessary in tragedy. The three unities, or classical unities, were a prescriptive theory of dramatic tragedy that was introduced in Italy in the 16th century and was influential for three centuries after. The three unities are:

Stendhal wrote:

“To be a Romantic is to disdain consecrated filiations, to transgress formal prohibitions, to ignore the poetics that oppress the mind and restrain the genius, it is to shock habits, to dare to innovate in order to offer living works, in direct contact with the emergencies and problems of the day: The Romantic in all the arts is what represents the men of today, and not those of heroic times so far removed from us, and which probably never existed.”

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley is famous in her own right, as well as for her personal associations. First, she had famous parents and a famous husband. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist writer who wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Women, and her father, William Godwin was a well-known philosopher and political journalist. Mary Shelley’s husband was Percy Shelley, the Romantic poet. Hazlitt disliked Percy Shelley. Mary Shelley’s description of Hazlitt is less than complementary.

But Mary Shelley’s own work remains most familiar to our modern world. She wrote Mathilda and the apocalyptic novel The Last Man. But her most famous work, Frankenstein, is a classic of Gothic horror and is credited as one of the first works of science fiction. The novel has been adapted for film countless times. The following is the scene from the novel in which Frankenstein’s creature comes to life in the novel:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

Frankenstein, Chapter 5

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) was one of the foremost poets of the Romantic period. Together with Samuel Taylor Coleridge he published Lyrical Ballads in 1798 which was a watershed moment in English Romanticism. In the preface to the Lyrical Ballads the two poets set down their manifesto for Romantic poetry.

Wordsworth took as his primary subject his own personal feelings and reactions to awe-inspiring nature. His greatest achievement is ‘The Prelude’, a poem of fourteen ‘books’ (more akin to the length of chapters) in its longest version. In it Wordsworth relates his experiences of growing up and the impact the natural world had upon him. He also relates how he travelled to France during the French Revolution, and how that inspired him:

‘The Prelude’, Book 11

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Along with William Wordsworth, Coleridge defined English Romanticism in the late 18th and early 19th century. Together they published Lyrical Ballads in 1798, with a preface that was effectively a manifesto of what they hoped to achieve. The preface stated that “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and claimed an egalitarian basis for their work: “The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to chuse [sic] incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men.”

Coleridge’s imaginative preoccupations were of a different type to Wordsworth’s, and while many of Wordsworth’s contributions to Lyrical Ballads gave voice to the common man, Coleridge’s imaginative talent showcased his individiual Romantic power. His most famous contribution to the book was ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, a long poem that tells of a supernatural voyage into the Arctic Circle. His other most famous poem, ‘Kubla Khan’ was written in 1797 but was not published until 1816. While some of his poetry, like ‘Frost at Midnight’, is inspired by the ordinary moments of life, it is for these more explosive acts of imagination that Coleridge is primarily remembered.

Coleridge was also an essayist and a theorist. In his Biographia Literaria he wrote about his collaboration with Wordsworth, and also extended his thinking about the creative process. He formed a theory about the imaginative process, explaining the difference between ‘imagination’ and ‘fancy’, a kind of primary and secondary imagination, which is illustrated in his own poem ‘The Eolian Harp’, as well as imagery found throughout the first book of Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’. If the human mind can imagine and create from its own resources – fancy – then it is heightened by its reactions to the world of nature playing upon it like a harp, producing a music beyond ordinary creativity, and thereby elevated to imagination. These ideas were associated with Coleridge’s Pantheistic beliefs about divinity in nature. In ‘The Eolian Harp’ the breeze that plays upon the harp engages in the creative process, akin to the imaginative process:

‘The Eolian Harp’ lines 12 – 33

William Hazlitt’s family were Irish Protestants who moved to Tipperary in the early 18th century. Hazlitt's father, William, attended the University of Glasgow. Dissatisfied with Presbyterianism, he became a Unitarian minister in England. In 1764 he became pastor at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, and later took up positions at Marshfield in Gloucestershire, where he had accepted a new pastorate after his marriage. In 1770 he accepted yet another position and moved with his family to Maidstone, Kent.

Storming the Bastille

Storming the Bastille, 1789

The French Revolution, which overthrew the French monarchy and instituted a republic, was a seismic event in world history. Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley took inspiration from the revolution. Wordsworth travelled to France during the revolution and wrote about it in his autobiographical poem, ‘The Prelude’. The French Revolution aimed to reorder society as freer and more egalitarian (despite the many beheadings that ensued during the years of The Terror).

This provided the intellectual bedrock for poets to break with traditions in which poetry was formalised and its subjects were reserved for people of high status, satire or elevated subjects. The revolution inspired Romantic poets and gave them licence to write about ordinary people and ordinary experience, to experiment with the vernacular, to engage in feats of imaginative pyrotechnics, and give primacy to individual thought, feeling and experience. Our modern idea, that poetry is an intensely private expression of inner feelings, comes from the Romantics. But at the beginning of the 19th century it was a revolutionary development that had implications for politics and society.

Lyrical Ballads

Lyrical Ballads is a collection of poems by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, first published in 1798 and generally considered to have marked the beginning of the English Romantic movement.

There were several editions of Lyrical Ballads. In the first edition published in 1798, Coleridge only contributed four poems, but due to the length of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, his overall contribution was to equate to roughly a third of the book.

Despite the supernatural tale told in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, a primary goal of the publication was to publish poetry about ordinary life using language that roughly equated to ordinary speech. This was a conscious break from traditional poetic forms and poetic diction, as well as traditional subject matter, which avoided subjects of ordinary life. Wordsworth and Coleridge’s intention was made clear in the 1800 Preface written for the book. The Preface, itself, is now considered to be a manifesto for English Romanticism, and so is a foundational document of significant importance.

Further editions saw extra poems added by Wordsworth, and in the 1802 edition Wordsworth added an appendix titled ‘Poetic Diction’. Further material was also added to the Preface.

The copyright for Lyrical Ballads has expired so the book is available for free from the Gutenberg Project.

Follow this link to download your free copy

Rime of the Ancient Mariner - Engraving by Gustave Dore

Engraving by Gustave Dore

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was originally published as part of the literary project with William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads. The ancient mariner of the title appears at a wedding, and by the hypnotic power of his eyes, he compels one of the wedding guests to listen to his tale of damnation. The mariner has been cursed to wander the earth, telling people this story.

He explains that while on a voyage he shot an albatross, a bird of good luck. From that moment on, everything started going wrong. The crew hung the albatross around the mariner’s neck as punishment. But the ship was becalmed. Eventually the crew dies and the ship is compelled into the Arctic Circle by supernatural forces. There is a scene in the poem in which the dead crew are reanimated to sail the ship.

The poem was the longest in Lyrical Ballads. A properly presented version of the poem should also have explanatory notes next to the text, since Coleridge, himself, wrote them and intended they should be included as part of the poem.

The image to the right is by Gustave Dore, a 19th century engraving artist. Dore produced dozens of images like this to accompany the poem, and editions with all of Dore’s engravings are worth having and are easy to locate on the internet.

The copyright for ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ has expired so the poem is available for free from the Gutenberg Project. However, this edition does not appear to include Coleridge’s marginalia.

Follow this link to download your free copy

Napoleon Boneparte Musing at St Helena by Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1841

Napoleon Boneparte Musing at St Helena by Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1841

William Hazlitt and Sarah Walker

Kenneth Haigh as William Hazlitt and Lynne Frederick as Sarah Walker, ‘Hazlitt in Love’, 1977

At the age of 42, William Hazlitt succumbed to his desire for his landlady’s 19 year old daughter. Sarah Walker is not to be confused with Hazlitt’s wife, Sarah Stoddart. Sarah Walker was a coquettish girl with a flirtatious nature. Hazlitt fell violently in love with her and spent 18 months attempting to seduce her, but they never went further than heavy petting. Hazlitt’s wife eventually divorced him over the situation. It was after the divorce that Sarah Walker stated she was not interested in forming a relationship with Hazlitt. She demanded Hazlitt leave her alone.

Hazlitt discovered that Sarah Walker had been seeing another young man during the period she had been involved with him, and had finally chosen the young man over Hazlitt. Hazlitt sought revenge by hiring another young man to lodge with the Walkers and attempt to seduce Sarah. He did.

Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris was published anonymously and it detailed Hazlitt’s relationship and frustrations with Sarah Walker. Unfortunately, Hazlitt’s identity was soon made public and the book became an embarrassment.

The Red and the Black by Stendhal

The Red and the Black is a historical novel set during the period of the Bourbon Restoration (1814–1830) prior to the days of the 1830 July Revolution. It tells the story of Julien Sorel who desires to rise above his social class. His family is poor. He believes he can rise through his own talents, intelligence and hard work. However, he is naïve to the ways of the world and is sometimes used by those around him. Julien is sent to a seminary after it is learned he has had an affair with his employer’s wife. When the Abbé, his protector, leaves the seminary, he recommends him as a private secretary to the Marquis de la Mole in order to protect him.

But in the employ of la Mole Julien unwittingly risks himself in service to the Monarchists whom he opposes, and falls in love with Mathilde, la Mole’s daughter. Mathilde is conflicted between her desire and Julien’s social class. Their relationship angers la Mole but it is not disastrous. Mathilde convinces her father of her love and la Mole gives Julien property, a title and a military commission, along with his blessing for the marriage. But la Mole revokes this generosity when he receives a letter from Madame de Rênal, Julien’s former lover, saying that Julien is a social climbing cad. Julien attempts to murder her in revenge. He is sentenced to death.

Stendhal’s novel was ground-breaking in that it described the emotions and thoughts of the characters, rather than merely offering third person omniscient narration, which was the convention of the time. The title is variously interpreted. It may refer to the tension between the clerical (black) and secular (red) forces within the society of that time. The novel satirizes French society during this period. The aristocracy and Catholic clergy are portrayed as hypocritical and materialistic, and the novel foreshadows the historic changes that will soon overturn their leading positions in French society.

The copyright for The Red and the Black has expired so the book is available for free from the Gutenberg Project.

Follow this link to download your free copy in an ENGLISH TRANSLATION.

Follow this link to download your free copy in the original FRENCH.

The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal

The Charterhouse of Parma is the story of a young Italian nobleman, Fabrice del Dongo, who wishes to join Napoleon’s army. He travels into France and is imprisoned as a spy, but escapes with the help of the jailer’s wife. Disguised as a French soldier, he finds himself at the Battle of Waterloo on the French side where he meets his real father, a French soldier. After the battle Fabrice is introduced to Gina, his aunt, who befriends the Prime Minister, Count Mosca. Mosca suggests Gina marry a wealthy old man, the Duke Sanseverina, who will be out of the country for years, so that the marriage can provide cover for Gina to become Mosca’s lover. Mosca and Gina plan to send Fabrice to a seminary school, though he is not interested in being a priest.

Fabrice has several affairs over the next three years, but is almost killed by a jealous lover. Fabrice kills him in a fight and flees to Bologna. He is found guilty of murder. Gina pleads to the prince for clemency. The prince agrees to free Fabrice, but then signs an order for him to be imprisoned. Even so, Fabrice falls in love with the commandant’s daughter, Clélia Conti, whom Fabrice can see from his prison window, and he persuades her to write to him.

The remainder of the book concerns Fabrice’s plan to escape, his love for Clélia and the consequences of that, as well as the results of their attempts to raise a child, their son.

The novel is an early example of realism and influenced other writers like Honoré de Balzac and Tolstoy, and has been praised by other writers like Henry James and André Gide, who described it as the greatest of all French novels. Stendhal wrote the novel in only 52 days.

The copyright for The Charterhouse of Parma has expired so the book is available for free from the Gutenberg Project.

Follow this link to download your free copy in an ENGLISH TRANSLATION.

Follow this link to download your free copy in the original FRENCH.