Essays in The 19th Century English Literature

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      The spread of education in the 19th century gave an impetus to essay writing. The early part of this century is characterized by great popularity and importance of the essay as a form of literary composition. With the arrival of romanticism, the 19th century prose reached a new stage and became for the first time a literary norm of its own. The essay of this time became highly personal and often whimsical. They also contained the wanderings of the writer’s tastes and likes and dislikes. In this way, we notice the growth of familiar essays which represented another aspect of the romantic exploration of personality. The period of first thirty years of this century is an extension of Romanticism which begins in 1780 and continues up to 1830. These thirty years were largely devoted more to poetry than prose writing. The century, in the field of essay writing begins with the appearance of new magazines such as Edinburgh Review (1802), The Quarterly Review (1808), Lockwood’s Spectator (1828), The Athenaeum (1828), Blackwood's Magazines (1829) and Frazer s Magazine (1830). They began with critical writings on poetry and began publishing great essayists like William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt. They discovered the chief mission of the modern magazine, which is to give every writer of ability the opportunity to make his work known to the world.

      William Hazlitt (1772-1830) wrote several essays treating all reading as a kind of romantic journey. There is force and reason in his writing and he has poetic romance in his prose. He is more vigorous and less mannered essayist than Lamb. He was a plain speaker who brought to the English Essay a new kind of life and commitment. The range of subjects of his essays is greater than Lamb. He develops a fast-moving, hard-hitting prose, which is called literary-colloquial English. His major work was literary criticism. He wrote Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, Lectures on the English Poets, English Comic Writers and so on. Lamb also wrote extensively but all the conventional approaches of the Essay are boldly ignored by him. He is enchantingly easy and with no suspension of vulgarity, simple in his choice of subjects, never trite in his treatment and he can trifle delicately without being trivial. Shakespeare’s Stories and The Tales are regarded as his best in the literature. His style was unique, can be called Lambian.

      Charles Lamb (1775-1834) was an English essayist, best known for his Essays of Elia and for the children’s book Tales from Shakespeare, which he produced with his sister, Mary Lamb (1764-1847). Essays of Elia is a collection of essays first published in book form in 1823, with a second volume, Last Essays of Elia, issued in 1833 by the publisher Edward Moxon. The essays in the collection first began appearing in The London Magazine in 1820 and continued to 1825. Lamb’s essays were very popular and were printed in many subsequent editions throughout the 19th century. The personal and conversational tone of the essays has charmed many readers; the essays “established Lamb in the title he now holds, that of the most delightful of English essayists.” Lamb himself is the Elia of the collection, and his sister Mary is ‘Cousin Bridget’. Charles first used the pseudonym Elia for an essay on the South Sea House, where he had worked decades earlier; Elia was the last name of an Italian man who worked there at the same time as Charles, and after that essay the name stuck.

      Leigh Hunt (1784-1858) is as much unique as Lamb. His prose synchronizes with his verse and he is akin to Lamb with intimate ease and whimsical charm. The second half of the 19th century opens with robust and argumentative, yet explicit essay writers. The famous ones are Thomas Babington Macaulay, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Mathew Arnold and John Henry Newman. The essay writers of this period were a step further in diction and treatment. Macaulay’s (1800-1850) art is that of a public speaker rather than a literary man. He has a wonderful command of language and he makes his measuring clear by striking phrases, vigorous antithesis, anecdotes and illustration. From the beginning to the end, he does not lose the reader’s attention. Gladstone said, “Macaulay is always conversing on or recollecting or reading or composing but reflecting never”. Essay on Milton is his master piece. It will always be a debatable issue.

      Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was a selfish and unenthusiastic personality who hardly listened to others. His style was forceful and violent. His guiding aims in his life were truth, work and courage. One of his famous works is Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Repaired). The first part of it deals with his Clothe Philosophy that all human arrangements are like clothes and do not last long. The second part is an autobiography of Carlyle himself. Carlyle impresses different people differently and his expression varies greatly as do Macaulay’s arguments. At time he is calm, persuasive, grimly humorous, at other times widely exclamatory, as if he were sharing and waving his arms at the readers. He had none of Addison’s delicate satire and in his fury as he was unsympathetic and often harsh. French Revolution (1837) is his great historical work.

      John Ruskin (1819-1900) was a student of art, so his prose work is mainly concerned with art. He argued that morality was very essential quality of a good painter. In Modern Painters he appreciated the paintings of some modern artist like Turner. He supported the gothic style of architecture in The Seven Lamps of Architecture. He felt very angry when the industrial development ruined the natural beauty of the countryside. The beauty that he desired has been described in his works in a rich ornamented, language of the Bible. Some of his later works are related with economics and education. Carlyle is like his friend, but he is broader in his sympathies and in every way more hopeful, helpful and humane. Ethics of the Dust, Crown of Wild Olive and Sesame and Lilies, appeal the most to men and women alike. Among his numerous books, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Stones of Venice (1851-1853), Modern Painters (1843-1846) are famous. He is more known for his ethical lecturing. For a full half a century he was “the apostle of beauty” in England and the beauty for which he pleaded was never sensuous or pagan, but always spiritually appealing to the soul of man rather than to his eyes leading to better work and better living.

      Mathew Arnold (1822-1888) was another bright star of the Victorian age; more like the cultivated Greek his voice is soft, his speech is suave. His chief works include Sohrab and Rustum, Essays in Criticism and Culture and Anarchy. His work is intellectual rather than inspirational. He is one of the great master’s in literacy criticism. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) is known for keeping constantly before man’s mind the religious ideals. His chief works include Apologia Pro Vitasua, Via Media, The Grammar of Assent and Idea of a University.

      Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) was a mannerless and angry person, but he was a good prose writer. His autobiographical essay Confessions of an English Opium Eater made him famous. The essay tells the story and the dream of his early life. He also describes how he began to take opium to reduce his pain and anxiety. He could write essays both in plain and ornamented language according to the subject of the essay. He has written many essays on various subjects. His Reminiscences of the English Lake Poets contain some good chapters on Wordsworth and Coleridge.

      Other essayists include John Addington Symonds (1807-1871), Walter Peter (1839-1894) and Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904). However, all essayists were equally intent on discovering the truth of life. Literature had become the mirror of truth and the first requirement of every serious essay was to be true to the life or the facts which it represented. Every author was not just to create or attempt an artistic work; the work must have a definite lesson for humanity. Milton’s famous sentence sums up the purpose: “A good hook is the precious life-blood of a master spirit”.

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