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Hazlitt's Eassays

By swaty31 Jan 26, 2008 2658 Words
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 when alone

reflects jealously individualistic mind. There is denigration towards certain established discernible in the tone already. He states that, The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases. We go a journey chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind, much more to get rid of others. He goes on to explain why he prefers to walk by himself in the country. According to him, a companion would distract him from a complete involvement with nature that such walks have to offer. The presence of another person would either compel him to share his emotions, which are often far too diffused to fall into any coherent expressions, or he would be asked to continue with conversations from the coffee-tables that he had left behind. For Hazlitt travelling alone gives one space for ‘contemplation', and in his desire to submit to the experience of the country riches Hazlitt is similar to Keats who soaks up the freedom of the country after being long pent in city life. There are flashes of Wordsworth too, as Hazlitt mentions how the ‘long-forgotten things like "sunken wrack and sunless treasuries," burst upon [his] eager sight, [making him] feel, think, and be [him]self again'. Like Wordsworth he notices how the ‘daisy leap up to [his] heart set in its coat of emerald'. During the walk he is content to ‘lay in a stock of ideas, and to examine and anatomize them afterwards'. We observe a natural dislike for the idle chatter of the coffee- houses and social customs that force man to be sociable at all moments, which makes one seek " a friend in [one's] retreat [to] whom [one] may whisper, solitude is sweet." He points out that when he is in his contemplative mood he made poor company and it is best that he stayed with himself. At this point he refers to Coleridge and Lamb, his friends, and states that while Coleridge could break into a poem during a ramble through the heath and thus made very good company, Lamb who was a conversationalist was not so, he was good only for in-house companionship.

With a touch of humour Hazlitt suggests that the only conversation that may be allowed during a walk is the talk of dinner as "the open air improves this sort of conversation or friendly altercation by setting a keener edge on appetite. Every mile of the road heightens the flavour of the viands we expect at the end of it". From this point he begins a description of the experience of inns. According to Hazlitt the unfamiliarity of the inn and its boarders add a charm of novelty to the moments a traveler spends there:

The incognito of an inn is one of its striking privileges -- "Lord of one's self, uncumber'd with a name." Oh! It is great to shake off the trammels of the world and of public opinion -- to lose our importunate, tormenting, everlasting personal identity in the elements of nature, and become the creature of the moment, clear of all ties -- to hold to the universe only by a dish of sweet-breads, and to owe nothing but the score of the evening -- and no longer seeking for the applause and meeting with contempt, to be known by no other title than the Gentleman in the parlour!

The writer's concern is once again with the freedom that the unknown have to offer. Such attraction for the unknown and the pursuit of a state of unalloyed sensation have been the distinct features of romantic literature. To dissolve oneself in the experience of the moment so that one reaches a state where one asks ‘Fled is the vision? Do I wake or sleep?' make the romantic writer simultaneously a visionary and a participant in the experience envisioned. Hazlitt in his essays comes through as such a writer, one who can delve into the mysteries of the hour. One to whom the familiar can arrive with the charm of the new as does a particular drawing of Westall in a little inn on the borders of Wales, which brought to his mind a lively comparison between the drawing and "the figure of a girl who had ferried [him] over the Severn, standing up in a boat between [him] and the twilight". A wander across the green country by the river of stony bed, often the Dee, gives to Hazlitt the same sense of exhilarated freedom from the constraints of the material world that the songs of the skylark or nightingale gave to Shelley or to Keats:

… besides the prospect which opened beneath my feet, another also opened to my inward sight, a heavenly vision, on which were written, in letters large as Hope could make them, these four words, Liberty, Genius, Love, Virtue; which have since faded in the light of common day or mock my idle gaze.

"The Beautiful is vanished, and returns not."
Still I would return some time or other to this enchanted spot; but I would return to it alone.

However the stance changes when one travels to a foreign land. The unfamiliar people and strange language do not allow solitude to remain a luxury and the writer feels compelled to seek out his know companions. Thus Hazlitt expresses one of the typical paradoxes of the romantic spirit that both sought and feared the unknown; a paradox that was widely explored in the gothic literature of the period. For Hazlitt a travel in foreign lands could become succour to a soul that is suffering and he points out how such travel allows one to completely forget one's own affairs: "Out of my country and myself I go". However, the wandering spirit is also housebound thus he ends the essay through a comment on this paradox: "I should on this account like well enough to spend the whole of my life in travelling abroad, if I could anywhere borrow another life to spend afterwards at home!"

As already mentioned, Hazlitt adopted the ‘familiar style', which he describes in his essay "On Familiar Style" as one that is free from affectation. One that uses maximum precision and care to choose the best word in common use:

…It is not to take the first word that offers, but the best word in common use; it is not to throw words together in any combinations we please, but to follow and avail ourselves of the true idiom of the language. To write a genuine familiar or truly English style, is to write as any one would speak in common conversation who had a thorough command and choice of words, or who could discourse with ease, force, and perspicuity, setting aside all pedantic and oratorical flourishes.

It is also free from the superficialities of Johnson's language and here, Hazlitt does to English prose what Wordsworth did to poetry, speak in favour of the language of the people, and freeing the English language from the constrictions of the artificial language of the eighteenth century. He defends his own use of English by stating that the critics themselves do not know what they mean when they criticise his use of "acknowledged idioms and common elliptical expressions" as vulgarism. In his essay Hazlitt observes that the use of ornate language is pedantry and protests against the use of obsolete words. He says, "a sprinkling of archaisms is not amiss, but a tissue of obsolete expressions is more fit for keep than wear". According to him, it is only Charles Lamb whose use of archaism is acceptable, as he

is so thoroughly imbued with the spirit of his authors that the idea of imitation is almost done away. There is an inward unction, a marrowy vein, both in the thought and feeling, an intuition, deep and lively, of his subject, that carries off any quaintness or awkwardness arising from an antiquated style and dress. The matter is completely his own, though the manner is assumed.

He complains against the "gaudy style" with its flood of images used without any logic of selection. One may be reminded, at this point, of the lines from Coleridge's Kubla Khan that stressed on the process of artistic selection:

Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail :
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.

The final passages of the essay are a tirade against the "gaudy style" and he rejects it vehemently as that which "tantalize the fancy, but never reach the head nor touch the heart". He borrows Cowper's words to denounce it altogether:

It smiled, and it was cold!

Reminding us of Keats's rejection of the Grecian Urn as a "Cold Pastoral".

As he had confessed in "On Familiar Style", Hazlitt's style is marked by a heavy use of "acknowledged idioms and common elliptical expressions". His quoting from different authors at times makes his narrative cumbersome, even while allowing an interesting inter-textual reading. Hazlitt is quoted in turn by Robert Louis Stevenson, who modified – "Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours' march to dinner -- and then to thinking!" into:

Give to me the life I love,
Let the lave go by me,
Give the jolly heaven above
And the byway nigh me.

in The Vagabond.

The other important feature of Hazlitt's prose is his Baconian manner of couching his ideas into antithesis and aphoristic statements; Hazlitt says:

I cannot see the wit of walking and talking at the same time. When I am in the country, I wish to vegetate like the country. I am not for criticizing hedge-rows and black cattle. I go out of town in order to forget the town and all that is in it. There are those who for this purpose go to watering-places and carry the metropolis with them. I like more elbow-room and fewer incumbrances. I like solitude, when I give myself up to it, for the sake of solitude;

So, even though his objective is perhaps to be experimental, there are times his resistance to an idea is so strong that he sounds didactic. There are times when his swift ideas tumble out without order making a passage difficult even though the reader recognises the brilliance. For instance,

These eventful moments in our lives' history are too precious, too full of solid, heart-felt happiness to be frittered and dribbled away in imperfect sympathy. I would have them all to myself, and drain them to the last drop; they will do to talk of or to write about afterwards. What a delicate speculation it is, after drinking whole goblets of tea, "The cups that cheer, but not inebriate,"

And letting the fumes ascend into the brain, to sit considering what we shall have for supper -- eggs and a rasher, a rabbit smothered in onions, or an excellent veal-cutlet! Sancho in such a situation once fixed upon cow-heel; and his choice, though he could not help it, is not to be disparaged.

He shifts from his enjoyment of the inn, to the joy of having a cup of tea, and moves rapidly to an allusion to Sancho, all in a space of a couple of sentences. There are times he contradicts himself. After declaration the necessity of travelling alone he suggests that solitude is golden only in one's own, familiar land. In foreign shores one needs company as one misses the sound of one's language and the feel of one's own kind. He also says that the strangeness of the land is so strong that one cannot give in to contemplation any more. The ‘pyramid' is too large for contemplation for him. Such passages reflect typical English self-directed humour.

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