William Hazlitt , Critic and Essayist: Romantic than Analytical; Sketches and Essays, "Nicknames"

A nickname is the heaviest stone that the devil can throw at a man.

Sketches and Essays, "Nicknames"

One of the triumvirate of eminent romantic essayists – Lamb, De Quincy and Hazlitt – Hazlitt is the least mannered or rather eccentric. While in Lamb’s and De Quincy emotion and imagination relegated the fast and the analytical to the insignificant, Hazlitt’s is a futile blend of emotion and thought, passion and logic imagination and analysis, the real and the romantic. However, he is famous for the lucidity and brilliance, in both style and content, of his many essays. Fully endowed with the ability of soaring in an imaginative flight, as in his essays On the Picturesque and Ideal and On a Sundial, his dominating bias was however for a union of romantic temperament and classical vigour. The resulting essays, including Common Sense on Fashion, On the want of Money and On Nicknames have the fine-wrought grace of the golden mean. His prose displays the same discrimination between the vulgar and the otiose, for he had a Wordsworthian faith in the simple and the sincere.

The Round Table, Table Talk and The Plain Speaker cover a variety of subjects ranging from art and philosophy to politics and prizefighting. These works helped to establish Hazlitt's reputation as the most versatile critic of his day. The Spirit of the Age, a work that is regarded as his critical masterpiece, contains valuable biographical sketches of these writers and of other contemporary intellectual leaders. William Hazlitt was not only acquainted with that point of view as it appeared in books, but had the advantage of knowing the authors personally, and hearing their informal discussions of of individual writers.Farther, Hazlitt lectured extensively on English drama: Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, Lectures on the English Poets, Views of the English Stage, Essays on the English Comic Writers, and Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth. With these works Hazlitt established himself as one of the foremost literary critics of the romantic period and as a master of the informal essay.

The romantics are renowned for expatiating at length upon the relatively trivial, and Hazlitt is no exception. Hazlitt has the romanticism to turn the humble topic of nicknames into an elaborate and animated discussion. A Juliet may contend that ‘a rose called by any other name would smell as sweet’, but Hazlitt describes how nicknames alter our perception of a person. To use the analogy of reflection used by Addison, the same person appears distorted when seen through the medium of nicknames.

Whether in his literary essays on in his essays about everyday life, Hazlitt amazes the reader with his logical rigour. He points out that the basis of nicknames is a perception of difference or distinction: ‘The only meaning of those vulgar nicknames… is that others differ from you in some respect or other’ (whether it be opinion, dress, clime or complexion).

Image courtesy: William Hazlitt
Ironically, those who give nicknames often forget that those who have been given such opprobrious names have the same right to confer equally repulsive nicknames on the same principle of difference. Further, nicknames, as he points out with admirable logic, are effective only because they do not require any material proof, any causal evidence. Finally nicknames are much more effective than direct charges simply because while direct charges can be refuted, ‘a nickname baffles reply by the very vagueness of the influences from it’. Hazlitt also answers the question as to whom or what kind of men uses nicknames. He feels that it is the hidden enemies, the cowards and the hypocrites who use nicknames.

Hazlitt is the erudite among the romantic essayists, like Coleridge among the romantic poets. He uses ordinary proverbs – ‘Give a dog an ill name and hang him’ – as well as learned or foreign phrases, such as causa causal causa causatic. But his greatest virtuosity lies in his idolizations of literary quotations from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Cymbeline, Julius Caesar, as well as numerous others from Southey, Foxe, Male, Voltare & so on.

But Hazlitt is no analytical Bacon, for his analysis and erudition are always tempered by a romantic and personal passion.

He reproaches the ‘vulgarity’ and ‘violence’ of those who give nicknames. On the other hand, he evidences his personal pathos and gentleness when he speaks of the endearing use of nicknames by a man like Dr. Johnson who called Goldsmith ‘Goldy’. Hazlitt’s humour is evident in the recounting of an anecdote about how an entire hall reverberated with the name of ‘Dr. Topping’ when he initially failed to respond to his name.

As for his prose, Hazlitt the romantic has a greater affinity with Wordsworth than with Lamb. While Lamb is notorious for his idiosyncratic words and phrases, Hazlitt takes meticulous care to render them comprehensible the deity. In his essay On Familiar Style he objects to Dr. Johnson’s classical use of language for his tale, ‘opaque words’ and ‘words with the greatest number of syllables’. His very beginning suggests the lucidity of his language.

This is a more important subject than it seems at first sight. The variety of his sentence construction is the other hand, evident in occasional complex structures: “What are one half the convulsions of the civilized world-The frequent overthrow of states and kingdoms – the shock and hostile encounters of mighty continents.” Here to quote few more lucid phrases: “The art of pleasing consists in being pleased.” The Round Table, "On Manner"; “He had a fire in his eye, a fever in his blood, a maggot in his brain, a hectic flutter in his speech, which mark out the philosophic fanatic.” Referring to Percy Bysshe Shelley. Table Talk, "On Criticism"; “If you think you can win, you can win. Faith is necessary to victory.” "On Great and Little Things".

  Ardhendu De

 Ref:William Hazlitt: a reference guide, James A Houck  ; Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977