Metaphor as a Structural Principle and a Vehicle of Social Criticism in Essays by Lamb and Hazlitt

By Heller, Janet Ruth | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Metaphor as a Structural Principle and a Vehicle of Social Criticism in Essays by Lamb and Hazlitt


Heller, Janet Ruth, Nineteenth-Century Prose


The essays of Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt contain many metaphors, similes, and poetic images that emphasize and develop important ideas, serve as a structural principle in paragraphs and entire pieces, and often imply criticism of the writers' society. At the same time, their metaphors involve readers in the active process of creating imaginative literature. Snowballs of images capture the readers' attention and force readers to consider a topic from different angles. Lamb and Hazlitt were influenced by the literary theory of Aristotle, the New Rhetoric Movement of the eighteenth century, and contemporaries like Coleridge and Wordsworth. In works like The Essays of Elia and Table Talk, Lamb and Hazlitt experiment with language and structure to push their audience to re-examine assumptions and to re-evaluate society.

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Charles Lamb insists in "Witches and Other Night-Fears" that he lacks the creativity to be a true poet, so he decides to "subside into my proper element of prose" (Essays of Elia 2.69-70). However, his essays contain many metaphors, similes, and other poetic images that belie Lamb's self-deprecation. Hazlitt, a friend of Lamb, also uses poetic images frequently in essays. These figures of speech emphasize and develop important ideas, serve as a structural principle in paragraphs and whole essays, and often imply criticism of the two writers' society.

Romantic writers derive many of their ideas about style from Aristotle's On the Art of Poetry and On Rhetoric. In chapter 2 of On Rhetoric, Aristotle argues that good prose has "an unfamiliar quality" that intrigues the reader/listener; however, the creative use of language should not call attention to itself." "it escapes notice and will be clear" (221,223). Similarly, in chapter 22 of On the Art of Poetry, Aristotle contends, "...A diction abounding in unfamiliar usages has dignity, and is raised above the everyday level" (63). The most appropriate and important technique for giving writing this unfamiliar quality is metaphor, which Aristotle sees as "the mark of great natural ability" (65). According to Aristotle, "Metaphor ... has clarity and sweetness and strangeness, and its use cannot be learned from someone else" (On Rhetoric, 223). However, metaphors must be appropriate to the context (223-24).

Linguist Geoffrey N. Leech points out that metaphors are more concise than literal paraphrases because metaphors superimpose the tenor and vehicle. He notes, "... The ability of metaphor to allude to an indefinite bundle of things which cannot be adequately summarized gives it its extraordinary power to 'open new paths' of expression" (156). Lamb and Hazlitt exploit the allusive power of figurative language.

Another source for the Romantics' ideas about prose style is the New Rhetoric movement, which originated in Scotland during the second half of the eighteenth century and included writers like Adam Smith, Hugh Blair, Thomas Sheridan, Joseph Priestley, and James Beattie. Carey McIntosh views the central ideas of the New Rhetoric as an "adjustment of classical rhetoric to print culture" (158). Due to the burgeoning of grammar books, new magazines, and dictionaries between 1750 and 1800, both writers and readers increased their "linguistic self-consciousness." Book reviewers often commented on sloppy grammar and word choice (169, 181-82). McIntosh argues, "...The New Rhetoric uniformly honors figurative language. What it censures is inappropriate use of metaphor and other tropes" (153, 156-57). Lord Kames valued refinement and viewed it as morally and socially important. He writes in Elements of Criticism (1762), "A just relish for what is beautiful, proper, elegant, and ornamental, in writing or painting, in architecture or gardening, is a fine preparation for the same just relish of these qualities in character and behavior" (1.11). Metaphor is one way to make prose beautiful, elegant, and ornamental. …

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