- Hazlitt and Hyperbole Studies
The "Shakespeare prose writer."1 That is how William Bewick characterized William Hazlitt, perhaps the finest prose writer in English of the Romantic period. Yet Hazlitt remains a marginal figure in teaching about the period and even in scholarship. With regard to teaching, this was particularly the case in the era when The Six Formerly Known as Big dominated college and university syllabi. How many people were going to teach Hazlitt instead of one of those great, mainly lyric poets? One only has so many weeks.2
One might have hoped that the opening up of the canon in the teaching and scholarship devoted to British Romanticism would have benefited the reading and understanding of Hazlitt. But the canon expanded mainly and understandably in the direction of including women writers, and a small number of writers of color, such as Equiano, and more drama of the period. But it is lamentable in aesthetic, intellectual, political, and just plan historical terms that Hazlitt is not more read.
What would people find if they turned or returned to Hazlitt? Gorgeous, energetic prose dedicated to a vast of array of popular and unpopular cultural items; drama criticism of a high order that responds to the immediacy of performances with an immediacy of thought;3 some of the finest, uncompromising writing in the period on the visual arts;4 and principled political essays that question, for starters, "What is the People?" In all these modes Hazlitt thinks about power [End Page 94] powerfully. He pushes his thought—writing to a deadline or not—to extremes. Adorno-like, he's a master of hyperbole. Of Nicolas Poussin's Blind Orion, he can say, after some cascading phrases of ekphrasis: "Nothing was ever more finely conceived or done."5 As a truth claim, it's pretty untenable. Yet it befits a writer who thinks that the subject and the objective of painting are both expressive. He speaks passion and truth to truth and power.
Attentive as we generally are to Romantic excesses, we have perhaps not yet taken the measure of hyperbole in the period's rhetoric. (I recently recognized how it's all over Austen's novels in ways that bear scrutiny.) And while on the subject of the passion that generates so much hyperbole, may I put in a plug for a return to an unduly forgotten scholar? Namely: Josephine Miles, author in the 1940s of Wordsworth and the Vocabulary of Emotion, a great student of the rhetoric of affect long before it would become fashionable and a pioneer of computational analysis.
Ian Balfour is Professor Emeritus of English and of Social and Political Thought at York University.
1. Life and Letters of William Bewick, ed. Thomas Landseer, 2 Vols. (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1871), Vol. I, 42.
2. In Canada, however, there tend, or tended, to be more year-long university courses than in the United States or England, as far as I know. Something like twenty-four or twenty-six weeks devoted to a topic obviously allows for a much expanded, diversified canon. Some instructors elsewhere, I know, address the issue by stringing together consecutive courses on the period.
3. This last strain of Hazlitt's work has been well mobilized in the critical work of Julie Carlson, Daniel O'Quinn, and Jonathan Mulrooney, among others. A lot more exists to be quarried and read critically.
4. On the art criticism, there is already good material to read by Sonia Hofkosh, Elizabeth Fay, and Luisa Calè, among others.
5. "On a Landscape of Nicholas Poussin," in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 Vols. (London and Toronto: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1930-1943), VIII, 168-69