William Hazlitt Selected Essays
How Hazlitt in “On Gusto” and Steele in The Spectator No. 84 Appeal to the Reader’s Emotions
The scholar Denise Gigante described the great age of the English essay as “a vibrant gallery of personae speaking in a multiplicity of voices”. This can be represented vividly by the two essays “On Gusto” by William Hazlitt and Richard Steele’s essay No. 84 in The Spectator. Both essays are starkly different in style and approach, and more importantly both rely heavily on the emotional response of the reader. They are two excellent examples of how diverse and intense the English essay can be, whilst at the same time employing an abundance of literary techniques to coax the desired response from the reader, whether this is frustration, shock or wonder. They also achieved this through the boundaries that the genre of the English essay allowed them to cross, giving them more freedom to the hearts of readers; “essayists preferred to address readers as confidants, taking them into the private space of the study to consider human nature and events in a more relaxed manner”.
There is the same sort of passion detected in both of the essays, but in Steele’s essay it is a lot more dramatic, heavy and melancholy: Pharamond calls his friends entrance as “The Gate of the Unhappy” and his crying “Tears of the Afflicted”. Of course, the use of capitals is important in creating almost ridiculously dramatic titles and scenes, which in turn create a theatrical image in our imaginations. Although this makes the reader a lot more emotionally responsive, it also acts as a barrier. In creating scenes through unrealistic language Steele pushes the reader away, which is in fact intentional because it allows the reader to see the metaphorical representations in the essay, for example, the reader acknowledges quite consciously that essay No. 84 is highly emotionally charged and dramatic. (However, it is interesting to note that there are only theatrical aspects in language, not in action. The action is actually very normal: Eucrate enters a room to a somewhat tired Pharamond who informs him that his friend was killed in a duel.) Steele can then achieve his aim in revealing to the reader the true intention of the narrative, which is withheld.
The reason Steele withholds the point of the narrative is to create a more emotional and effective response. The skill in doing this is that a reader subconsciously creates a preconceived idea of where the narrative might lead or one might feel they have the style figured out, but in actual fact, when the crux of the essay is revealed later on then not only are our senses surprised but it also transforms what we previously read, remoulding it into the perspective of the main argument. But Steele’s objective was never “designed to give any Man any secret wound by concealment”. Instead, he does the complete opposite and uses his initial evasiveness in the essay to reinforce the main argument and create more of a sympathetic response to Steele’s message. He goes on to make his plight explicit by explaining the cause of why men practice the terrible act of duelling. Men feel they have to protect their “Point of Honour”. Steele give this phrase capitals to heighten its status which is an act of mockery because there is nothing noble in it, there is only a waste of human life when men are willing to die to protect their pride.
It is also a mark of vanity in the sense that it encourages the highest state of pride in a man. In protecting himself a man avoids shame, which is “the greatest of all Evils”. This bold remark is made with justified cause and its confidence makes is a very attractive statement. Steele is deploying the use rhetoric, which is similar to Hazlitt’s essay ‘On Gusto’, in making matter-of-fact statements which, with dramatic high language, convinces the reader that duelling is a calamity and that it is worth collapsing in “a Flood of Tears”. Throughout the essay looming words are built up to give the text a sense of great authority and emotion: “Anguish”, “Sorrow”, “Vengeance”, “Tears of Rage” and “Agony” are some of the words used. We discover a man was “killed in a Duel”, which is the reason for the wallowing of Eucrate and is the focus of the essay. The use of a dramatic and high style language makes the text emotionally charged and we are forced to sympathise with Eucrate’s sense of injustice: “Pharamond has taken him from me! […] The merciful Pharamond does destroy his own Subjects, the Father of his Country does murder his own people.” Here we begin to see clearly that Steele is protesting against the lack of humanity and “Negligence” in allowing duelling.
More interestingly, however, it shifts the blame of the crime onto the highest authority, because Pharamond is the king. This is a controversial statement because Hazlitt is blaming the eighteenth century king George III for the legitimacy of duelling. On the other hand, Hazlitt adopts an argumentative style that address the heart of emotionally provocative and charged issues as seen in ‘On Gusto’ and ‘On Common-Place Critics’. Hazlitt recognizes the difficulty of his concept ‘gusto’ directly in his essay when he says, “this is not easy to explain”. In admitting this, Hazlitt redirects the reader into grappling with his definition and solidifies his own judgment as true, forcing the reader to accept that even if what Hazlitt means isn’t communicated well enough to convince, it is still true. Within Hazlitt’s forceful rhetoric, he also forces the reader in another way, which reflects on Hazlitt’s greatest quality. This is his argumentative and writing style. His arguments in his essays are accumulative. The word ‘accumulative’ is essential here because it highlight how Hazlitt is unique in the English essay in the way he introduces an argument and creates layer after layer of evidence and explanation to prove that opening argument. In this way Hazlitt somewhat overwhelms the reader into submission and one cannot help but agree that Hazlitt is the master of ‘gusto’ and in discriminating between works of art. This technique is greatly emotive because it can cause the reader to either feel awe or frustration and anger.
It is easy to feel one is being force-fed Hazlitt’s views; his statements become like the Greek sculpture he so aptly describes as “immoveable”.Hazlitt goes on to say in the essay, “he saw the atmosphere, but he did not feel it”. Somehow this quote’s implication of feeling as essential acts to symbolise a certain aspect of Hazlitt’s essay that can make the reader infuriated. Here Hazlitt not only demands genius of a painter’s brush but more. In what way can we want more ‘genius’? Doesn’t the word in itself represent something beyond human limitations? Although there should be a negative answer Hazlitt forces us to realise the logic of his truth. There can be no painting with gusto without “imagination” or “feeling”. Not only does the very painting have to have a unique creativity that depicts energy or a painterly quality but there has to be a fluidity too. Here the same obstacle of articulation is being reached as Hazlitt knew too well. However, what is important is that each work of art has to be judged on its individual merits. There can be no neat phrase into which ‘gusto’ can fall, “it is not easy to explain”.
It has been asserted that “The undeclared stylistic objective [of the English essay] was to teach readers how to read critically and to create meaning from the fluid, freewheeling form of the essay.” The reason why the English essay stormed the English language the way it did was because it gained new access to the reader’s emotions and senses in a new way that had never been properly discovered. William Hazlitt and Richard Steele are perfect examples to display this. They both use rhetoric in an innovative way, revealing their own principles and messages almost too effectively as to become burdensome to the reader. So radical was the essayist in piercing the hearts of readers and their imagination that they can boldly be named as “Chaucers of their age”. Those who attack Hazlitt’s essays as being “vulgarisms and broken English” only fail to see the object of his writings.
Greenblatt, Stephen (General Editor), The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol 2, 8th ed, (W. W. Norton & Co: London: 2006) Addison, Joseph and Richard Steele, The Spectator, Volume 1, http://www.fullbooks.com/The-Spectator-Volume-110.html [Accessed 22 April 2010] Gigante, Denise, (editor), The Great Age of the English Essay: An Anthology, (Yale University Press: London: 2008)  Greenblatt, Stephen (General Editor), The Norton Anthology of English Literature, (2006), Introduction, p.xi.  (see note 1 above) Introduction, p.xxi.  Richard Steele, ‘No. 84’ in The Spectator.  (see note 3 above)  (see note 1 above) Introduction, p.xviii.  (see note 3 above)  (see note 3 above)  (see note 3 above)  (see note 3 above)  (see note 3 above)  (see note 3 above)  William Hazlitt, ‘On Gusto’ in The Norton Anthology of English Literature. p.541.  (see note 12 above) p.540.  (see note 12 above) p.540.  (see note 12 above) p.541.  (see note 1 above) Introduction, p.xvii.  (see note 1 above) Introduction, p.xxiv.  (see note 12 above) p.287.