William Hazlitt, whom I’ve quoted here before on the art of painting, is a writer whose sentences evoke the architecture of English. The one below certainly suggests a skyscraper. He liked to say that he wrote in a “familiar style” – which to him was to write as an educated person would speak but without affectation. He “utterly rejects not only all unmeaning pomp, but all low, cant phrases, and loose, unconnected slipshod allusions.” Hazlitt’s essays are fun to read out loud, just as Mencken’s are. The following may be one of his longest sentences. It is from his “A Reply to Malthus’s Essay on Population,” written at age 29 in 1807, when he was still hoping to make his living as a painter. He eventually became a journalist, at first reporting speeches in Parliament, then adding theater criticism, which attracted notice and brought him into literary criticism and essays on general subjects.
Is it to be wondered at that a young raw ignorant girl, who is sent up from the country as a milliner’s or mantua-maker’s apprentice, and stowed into a room with eight or ten others, who snatch every moment they can spare from caps and bonnets, and sit up half the night to read all the novels they can get, and as soon as they have finished one, send for another, whose heart, in the course of half a year, has been pierced through with twenty beaux on paper, who has been courted, seduced, ran away with, married and put to bed under all the fine names that the imagination can invent to as many fine gentlemen, who has signed and wept with so many heroes and heroines that her tears and sighs have at least caused in her a defluction of the brain, and a palpitation of the heart at the sight of every man, whose fancy is love-sick, and her head quite turned, should be unable to resist the first coxcomb of real flesh and blood, who in shining boots and a velvet collar accosts her in the shape of a lover, but who has no thoughts of marrying her, because if he were to take this imprudent step, he must give up his shining boots and velvet collar, and the respect they procure him in the world?
That’s quite a question. These days, we would reduce the number of commas and hike the flow of words toward easier comprehension. I’m not sure I’m on solid ground in dedicating the above sentence of Hazlitt’s to all of the new followers of this blog, but I’m sure I must be on target with many, and so I thought I would offer them a token of my esteem – this delightful, perhaps even romantic, passage from my favorite.