Tuesday, October 5, 2010

William Hazlitt - "On Familiar Style"

Here is a piece by William Hazlitt (1778--1830) on writing style - an essayist about whom  Somerset Maugham had this to say;

If art is nature seen through the medium of a personality, 'Hazlitt is a great artist.'

The Gentleman In The Parlour.

From On Familiar Style.

'It is not easy to write a familiar style. Many people mistake a familiar for a vulgar style, and suppose that to write without affectation is to write at random. On the contrary, there is nothing that requires more precision, and, if I may so say, purity of expression, than the style I am speaking of. It utterly rejects not only all unmeaning pomp, but all low, cant phrases, and loose, unconnected, slipshod allusions. 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 anyone 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 easy to affect a pompous style, to use a word twice as big as the thing you want to express: it is not so easy to pitch upon the very word that exactly fits it. Out of eight or ten words equally common, equally intelligible, with nearly equal pretensions, it is a matter of some nicety and discrimination to pick out the very one the preferableness of which is scarcely perceptible, but decisive... '

Hazlitt was one of the most prolific of English prose writers, his collected works run to 20 volumes and total about 8,000 pages,  the Hazlitt Society was formed to resurrect his memory.

William Hazlitt  was not just a writer, he was blessed with a keen insight which he developed and exploited in multiple ways; he was a poet, painter, essayist, historian and critic. In addition to these accomplishments he was an intensely social man, he counted amongst his friends some of the most important poets and writers of his time; Coleridge, Wordsworth, Stendhal and Shelley. Even everyday diversions, when subjected to his scrutiny, became an opportunity to show-off his acute insight - one of his most famous essays describes a fight in December 1821 between the prizefighters William Neate and Thomas Hickman (The Fight. New Monthly Magazine, February, 1822).

A portrait of the writer Charles Lamb by William Hazlitt.


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