Comment on William Hazlitt prose style

We may all be mighty fine fellows, but none of us can write William Hazlitt' thus spoke Stevenson about Hazlitt's style. The Elizabethan writers, the poets and the dramatists of the Restoration, prose writers of the eighteenth century and his contemporaries Lite Wordsworth and Coleridge, influenced Hazlitt. These influences along with his innate gift of expression and deep understanding of human nature aided him to create a style, which was lively and attractive. It was never his intention to display his knowledge through his essays, neither did he have any aim to reform society, he developed a style which would help him to share his thoughts, feelings, ideas with his readers so that he could carry them along with him.

A very striking observation or an epigram with which Hazlitt generally opens his essays serves to catch the interest of the reader. Such as 'No young man believes he shall ever die,' 'Footmen are no part of Christianity' etc. Hazlitt's biographer Augustine Birrell quotes a critic from 'The Scotman' 1818, 'It is no ordinary matter to peruse a book of Hazlitt's. There is a sudden hurry of spirit which never fails to accompany the fine show of reason and taste under which the mind is hardly at leisure to select beauties or start objections.' Hazlitt has already arrived at his conclusion regarding his idea. However, it is his endeavour to carry his reader with him so that they may share his point of view. This he achieves with his logic, his Philosophy, his enthusiasm and his experience. He carries the reader along and before he realizes what the author intends to write about, Hazlitt moves on to some other allied subject and from there to a logical conclusion, which may or may not have any connection with the title of his essay as seen in the Indian Jugglers.' In 'A Farewell to Essay writing' he writes, 'I have brooded over an idea till it has become a kind of substance in my brain.' Therefore, his idea proceeds from his mind, passes through his heart and finally suffuses his entire being


In such a style, intellect is a dominant factor. Yet, Hazlitt did not believe in rules or study. Nature and genius alone could sympathise with 'soft suffusion of the soul,' 'speechless breathing eloquence,' 'looks commencing with the skies.' Hazlitt's prose therefore illustrates a fine combination of intellect and feeling. He arrives at a style, which reveals the writer's 'the ever-shifting forms of an eternal principle.'

He rejected Samuel Johnson's scholarly approach and tried his best to preserve the familiar tone of speech. He was equally opposed to loose and vague forms of expression; he used both short and long sentences. At times, his sentences seem rough, curt and unpolished as he tries to evoke the essence of the spoken word. As he progresses, the sentences slowly gain warmth and as the author's enthusiasm increases, there is a sudden outburst elevating the expression and making it virile. The author's manner matches his matter; his vigour matches his language.

Hazlitt's essay 'On Familiar Style' gives us an insight into the style, which he adopted. The familiar style is not simple to achieve because while using words, which do not sound ornate or pompous, one had to choose words with utmost care to avoid sounding cheap, common or colloquial. If communication remains incomplete, the author fails to put his ideas across. Hence, the precise choice of words and their proper arrangement assumes great importance, more so since the written word must appear familiar and simultaneously must convey exactly what the writer wants his reader to understand. The familiar style, according to Hazlitt depends on the subject matter, the people addressed to, the writer's attitude towards his topic and his readers. The author's association of sound and sense, accent and intonation, inflection of words and the tone or stance he takes regarding his topic determines the familiar style. Hazlitt compared words to coins; just as coins, words acquire their worth through custom and convention. Used appropriately, words are either vigorous and forceful or they are insipid and weak, ultimately rejected like counterfeit coins.

Hazlitt was capable of using common words and energizing them with fresh and living significance. He knew the precise meaning of words and was successful in employing each word, which could express his ideas, thoughts and feelings adequately and precisely. Aphorisms abound in his essays and Hazlitt used words skillfully to prove his point or to make his meaning explicit. In Hugh Walker's words, Hazlitt has 'terse, strong, nervous sentences expressing the ideas of a trained thinker and sometimes by a single word getting to the heart of the subject.' His aphorisms can be expanded into full-length essays. Words appealed to his emotions giving him the capacity to express himself in a picturesque manner. Hazlitt's appeal his in his ability to analyze intellectually and respond emotionally.

It was his constant endeavour to communicate not only into manner of a conversation but in the manner of conversation of the educated. As he stated in his introduction of his Table-Talk, 'to combine the advantages of these two styles, the literary and the conversational; or after stating and enforcing some leading idea, to follow it up by such observations and reflections as would probably suggest themselves in discussing the same question in company with others. This seemed to me to promise a greater variety and richness, and perhaps a greater sincerity than could be obtained by a more prices and scholastic method.' He believed that no one could relish a good style without reading it aloud and that 'no style is good that is not fit to be spoken or read aloud with effect.' Hence, he felt that the rhythm of language was necessary and he ascribed due importance to it. He used literary devices of antithesis, alliteration, paradox, metaphor and simile whenever he required it.

A unique feature of Hazlitt's style is his use of parallel construction and contrast. He used words in pairs : art and humour past and future, cant and hypocrisy, thought and action, genius and common sense, writing and speaking, authors are paired off as Shakespeare and Jonson, Chaucer and Spenser, Addison and Steel Dryden and Pope, Gray and Collins.

He quoted frequently from authors like Shakespeare, Milton Pope, Rousseau, Sterne, Fielding and Wordsworth. He quoted frequently from the Bible. At times, he seems to forget his source and at times, he is negligent enough to misquote. Sometimes his quotation from a familiar work not only illustrates what he wants to impress his reader with but also at the same time the quotation itself gains significance. This two-fold function is reminiscent of Lamb's essays.

Wit, humour, irony and satire found their place in Hazlitt's essays. He had a great understanding of human-nature and coupled with the bitterness seen in his own nature he could hit hard when necessary. Being a painter, he never lost his painter's view, most of his essays have vivid imagery lending a pictorial quality to his work. In his essay 'On Public Opinion', he confides that his essays are not, 'so properly the work of an author by profession, as the thoughts of a metaphysician expressed by a painter.' Hazlitt's style is therefore unique and individual.

Next Post »