Hazlitt's Eassays

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To acquaint ourselves with the spirit of Romanticism in England in the Nineteenth century we may turn to the prose works of the period along side the famous poetry of the age. The impetus gained by English prose in the Eighteenth century continued in this century, but with a distinct change in subject and tone. Unlike the coffee-table essays of the previous century, the form of essay that became popular in this age was the personal essay. This form was honed by the personal genius of Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Thomas De Quincey, the three most famous and important essayists of the period, who used this form to express their variety of Romanticism. According to P. P. Howe, ‘A "romantic" writer concerned himself with expressing the "inner" or "essential" spirit of his age – a spirit he discovered through his imaginative participation in, or sympathy, with its various activities'.

William Hazlitt (1778-1830) is perhaps the most important Romantic essayist, even though less popular than Charles Lamb, as in his essays we find the radical element, that identified the true romantic spirit and simultaneously a critical disposition, which made him an important commentator of the age. Influenced by the concise social commentary in Joseph Addison's eighteenth-century magazine, the Spectator, and by the personal tone of the essays of Michel de Montaigne, Hazlitt became one of the most celebrated practitioners of the "familiar" essay. Characterized by conversational diction and personal opinion on topics ranging from English poets to washerwomen, the style of Hazlitt's critical and autobiographical writings has greatly influenced methods of modern writing on aesthetics. His literary criticism, particularly on the Lake poets, has also provided readers with a lens through which to view the work of his Romantic contemporaries. Hazlitt described his essays as "experimental" rather than "dogmatical," in that he preferred to use the model of common conversation to discuss ordinary human experiences rather than to write in what he believed was the abstract and artificial style of conventional non-fiction prose. Among other things, Hazlitt, in his essays, reflected discomfort with his reputation as irascible ("On Good Nature"), attacked those who questioned his abilities as a writer ("The Indian Juggler"), extolled the benefits of common sense, which, he felt, comprised "true knowledge" ("On the Ignorance of the Learned"), and otherwise defended his character. Hazlitt's critics had a wide range of reactions to the style and content of his familiar writing. Hazlitt's political opinions caused bitter antagonism with Coleridge and Wordsworth, as well as a great majority of his countrymen. Modern critics Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling, however, consider Hazlitt to be "the pre-eminent master in English" in the genre of the familiar essay. In addition, many modern critics note Hazlitt's unique ability to write on a wide range of literary subjects with a depth of taste John Keats considered one of "three things superior in the modern world."

The two essays that are of immediate concern to us – "On Going a Journey" and "On Familiar Style" were both published in Table Talk, a collection of Hazlitt's essays published in two volumes in 1821 and 1822. In both essays Hazlitt is criticizing the ideas of the eighteenth century and foregrounding his personal views over the existing. Walking, for instance, was a suspicious activity in the eighteenth century, which also explains why the walks of Wordsworth and Coleridge, or that of Elizabeth in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice may be considered radical. Hazlitt in his essay considers the benefits of both travels and the solitary walks through the open country. The opening sentence of the essay –

One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but I like to do it myself. I can enjoy society in a room; but out of doors, nature is company for me. I am then never less alone than...
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