Monday, December 27, 2010

The Essay from Lamb to Stevenson

The essay from Lamb to Stevenson had a very prosperous career. The popularity of this genre can be imagined when we points out that in this period there were almost as many essayists as there were writers.  For the sake of convenience we can divide the essayists of the period into four, more or less well-defined, groups as given below:

(1)                 The major romantic essayists—Lamb, Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, and De Quincey.
(2)                 Other essayists who wrote for magazines. (The four major essayists just named also wrote mostly for magazines). The other essayists belonging to this category include Robert Chambers, Thackeray, etc.
(3)                 The historian-essayists; that is, those who wrote essays on historical events and personalities. Those belonging to this group include Carlyle, Macaulay, and Eroude.
(4)                 The essayists who belong to the latter half of the nineteenth century. They include R. L. Stevenson, Alexander Smith, John Skelton, and some others.
Now let us consider these four groups in detail one by one.
The Major Romantic Essayists:
Among this group, Charles Lamb (1775-1834) undoubtedly enjoys the pride of place. Hugh Walker calls him the essayist par excellence, and another critic, "the prince of essayists." With Lamb we find the completion of the change in the English essay from objectivity to subjectivity and from formality to familiarity. Most of his essays were published by him in the London Magazine. Later they were issued in two collections entitled Essays ofElia (1823) and Last Essays ofElia (1833). Since the time of their first appearance, Lamb's essays have been attractive reading for generation after generation of readers. Lamb is so subjective that from his essays (of course, with some modifications) we canrc: onstruct his inner and outer biography. Lamb takes the reader into confidence and exchanges heart beats with him with the most charming and button-holing familiarity which completely disarms even the most cussed reader. Add to his subjective charm, his tenderness, his broad human sympathy, his sense of pathos, and, above all his ubiquitous humour which gives a particular tone to his essays from end to end. He "romanticises" everyday things and experiences by projecting upon them the roseate light of his bizarre imagination. Many of his essays are like lyrics through which his personality-a strange combination of the imp and the sage-peeps constantly. His style is queerly archaic and does not recommend itself as a model.
William Hazlitt (1778-1830) comes close to Lamb as an essayist. He wrote critical essays as well. We cannot rank him high among the English critics on account of his marked and implacable prejudices, his indulgence in a lot of woolly verbiage, and his lack of any well-defined critical locus standi. His criticism is pre-eminently impressionistic, and, as such, may be called romantic. His essays on non-literary topics, however, claim a high placement. Apart from the charm of his personality, his intimacy with the reader and the refreshing vigour of his style (which, unlike Lamb's, is not marred by any leaning on seventeenth-century stylists), there is in his essays a wonderful note of gusto andjoie de vivre. Hazlitt's life was far from happy, and he was prone to fits of melancholia, but he loved life with a tremendous gusto some of which he imparts to the reader of his essays. As R. L. Stevenson (who tried at times to ape him) once remarked, all of us may be fine gentlemen, but none of us can write like Hazlitt. To quote" W. E, Henley, "at his highest movements Hazlitt is hard to beat; and has not these many years been beaten."
Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) cannot be placed very high in the hierarchy of English essayists. He was much influenced by the essayists of the age of Queen Anne-particularly Steele and Addison. However, instead of the didactic fervour and social charm of those essayists he had the charm of self-revelation. Hunt's essays are, to use the words of Moody and Lovett, "kindly spirited" and "mildly humorous." That they are such will be evident from the persual of "Coaches and Their Horses," "The Month of May", "Deaths of Little Children," and "A Visit to the Zoological Gardens." Leigh Hunt's style is easy, voluble, and charming, but it cannot be called a great style because of the absence from it of any overwhelming vigour, strength of conviction, or even any unmistakably individual feature. He wrote some critical essays also which are of mediocre quality. But at least one of his shorter poems, "Abou Ben Adhem" has been enjoying incessant popularity.
Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) was a very peculiar man, and still more peculiar writer. Much of his prose cannot be strictly considered as belonging to the province of the essay. He himself divided his works into three sections to one of which he was pleased to give the name of essays. But his "essays" are, indeed, too voluminous His prose style is near poetry: it is colourful, gorgeous, and musical and has a peculiarly dreamy grace. In the nineteenth century he wrote the prose which was written by seventeenth-century masters. But at his best he makes you spell-bound with the subtle cadences of his language which at times becomes almost incantatory. But during his uninspired moments—and they come pretty often—he is often vulgar and tawdry.
Other Essayists Writing for Magazines:
The magazine enjoyed a singular popularity among readers in the nineteenth century, and many essayists turned to it for the publication of their compositions. Let us consider some of the major contributors apart from the ones just discussed.
Miss Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855) contributed many sketches of village life to the London Magazine in which Lamb's essays were also then being published. Between 1824 and 1832 she wrote quite a number of such essays, which were later published in one volume under the title Our Village. She often suggests Crabbe on account of her love of realistic details. But she is quite different from him on account of her geniality and corresponding lack of censoriousness. Her character-sketches are, doubtlessly, the best of her writings. Her tone is intimately personal and, as such, an asset to her as an essayist.
Robert Chambers (1802-1871) with his brother William started an organ Chamber's Journal in 1832, which was meant for imparting useful knowledge to the middle classes of society. Robert Chambers wrote hundreds of essays over and above his copious journalistic work and his serious treatise Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) which anticipated the work of Darwin. As an essayist Chambers is almost always interesting in spite of the tremendous vastness of his thematic range. "Everywhere," he wrote, "I have sought less to attain elegance or observe refinement, than to avoid that last of literary sins-dulness," He was indeed a very successful journalist and eminently readable. His two most outstanding qualities as an essayist are his numour and his astonishingly accurate and expansive knowledge.
Hugh Miller (1802-1856) was an extremely busy and popular journalist with unmistakable literary ability. His Footprints of the Creator was a very influential book in which he tried to controvert the views of Chambers as expressed in Vestiges of the Natural History of Great;;;::. For sixteen years he was editor of the paper The Witness owned by himself. Much of what he wrote for the paper was of ephemeral interest, though some of it is of interest even today. About a thousand articles written by him for The Witness were later collected and published as Essays Historical and Biographical, Political and Social, Literary and Scientific. "The Essays," maintains Hugh Walker, "are journalistic,but it is the journalism of a man of literary genius, and of one who, like Scott, had as much sense as genius. They show that he possessed a keen and penetrating eye, wide sympathies, and clear intelligence. The biographical ones display a just appreciation of character, the critical ones genuine literary taste, and the social ones sound and balanced judgment.^"
Dr. John Brown (1810-1882) also contributed to The Witness. He was a man of multifarious ability, and the topics of his essays are, accordingly, varied. However, the best of his compositions are about dogs, not men and their affairs. He seems to be an exquisite canine psychologist. His description of the dog named Toby is unbeatable. Toby's tail, we are told, "was a tail per se: it was of immense girth and not short, equal throughout like a policeman's baton; the machinery for working it was of great power and acted in a way, as far as I have been able to discover, quite original." But Brown could be serious as well as humorous. He was an art critic of some merit, too. Hugh Walker observes "An imagination akin to the poetic humour, ready power of illustrating from literature and from art, and a sound psychology, are the qualities which give Brown's papers their value." But, all told, Brown is a conspicuous member of only the second string of English essayists.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) is better known as a novelist; but he wrote quite a few essays, especially in Fraser 's Magazin, Roundabout Papers, The Book of Snobs, Sketched and Travels in London, the Christmas Books, and the Sketch Books are mainly collections of essays. Thackeray is always informal and extremely rambling. To take an example, consider his essays "On a Joke I heard From the late Thomas Hood." In it Thackeray nowhere tells the-joke! His essays are delightful, light reading. He himself wrote: "In these humble essay-kins, I have taken leave to egotise. I cry out about the shoes which pinch me...I prattle about the dish which I love, the wine which I like, the talk I heard yesterday...A brisk and honest small-beer will refresh those who do not care for the frothy out-pourings of heavier taps—Some philosophers get their wisdom with deep thought, and out of ponderous libraries; I pick up my small crumbs of cogitation at a dinner-table..." In his essays Thackeray is serious, humorous, chivalrous,cynical, and sentimental by turns.
The Historian-essayists:
"Of the historian-essayists homas Carlyle (1795-1881) is by far the richest and profoundest," says Hugh Walker. Carlyle was not only a historian but a prophet. He wrote essays on critical, biographical, historical, social, and political subjects, during his writing career from Richter (1827 to Shooting Niagara (1867). His essays cannot be placed beside his major works, but they do have value of their own. As a historiographer Carlyle believed in the view that history was nothing but a collection of the biographies of heroes (whom he worshipped). As a critic he displays a wonderful catholicity and sympathy. He gives not only his favourite Novalis his due but also shows proper appreciationpf such writers as Didoret and Voltaire for whom he had little intellectual or emotional sympathy. His style is always strident and forceful, and is full of prophetic inspiration and a rare strength of conviction.
Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) entered upon his career as a writer with his essay on Milton, which appeared in The Edinburgh Review in 1825 and which was to be the first of the famous series--Critical and tiistorical Essays. His very first essay sky-rocketed him into the firmament of eminence. As an essayist he is represented by his contributions to the journal above named and the various biographical sketches he wrote for Encyclopaedia Britannica. Macaulay can be given credit as a historian for his wonderful gift of forceful and vivid narration which forces itself upon the reader. But as a critic he has-very little merit. His judgments on Bacori, Milton, Addison etc. are readable but utterly indefensible. His lachrymosic praise of Addison with corresponding denigration of Voltaire and Swift, for example is altogether untenable. What matters for the reader of today is his wonderful style. "It" says Hugh Walker, 'is energetic, vivid, picturesque. It has a boundless fertility of illustration. There is no style more rousing. The reader of Macaulay may be stirred to active opposition; the one thing that is hardly possible is that he should be left indifferent."
James Anthony Froude (1818-1894), was a disciple of Carlyle whose Life he wrote. Froude has a place among English essayists on account of his Short Studies of Great Subjects. He has a gift of clear and fluent style, but he lacks the important qualities of humour and self-revelation,, and, as such, much of his merit as an essayist is compromised. The essay in Froude's hand shows clear marks of decline if not decadence.
Lastly, in this group we have to consider Edward Augustus Freeman (1823-1892) who wrote much, but not much excellent. With him the literary historian passes away.
The Essayists of the Latter Half of the Nineteenth Century:
Alexander Smith (1829-1867) was a good deal overrated in his age both as a poet and prose writer. As an essayist we have to consider him as the author of the volume entitled Dreamthrop (1863) which contains a dozen essays. Smith is almost always delightful, and he understands his craft. His style is limpid and flowing. Most of his thoughts are trite, but they are. expressed well. He himself was of the view that "the world is not so mucn in need of new thoughts, as that when a thought grows old and worn with usage it should, like,current coin, be called in, and from the mint of genius, reissued fresh and new:" He_excels in gripping description. Many of his essays give us pictures of village life, and "A Lark's Flight" gives a powerful description of a hanging.
Sir John Skelton (183.1-1897), better known by his pseudonym" "Shirley," "had," according to Hugh Walker, "a very pleasant style and a deft touch." He published quite a number of essays on an extensive range of topics. "He," says Hugh Walker, "was learned enough to be instructive and humorous enough to be amusing. He touched literature, and life and nature, and all with skill. The odour of Russia clings to many of his pages, the air of the heather and of the sea hangs about others; for he had a keen feelings for nature, and a happy knack of imparting his own sentiment. Sometimes...the style isjust a little too chatty, but in an essayist the fault is less than the vice of stiffness would be."
A. K. H. Boyd (1825-1899) as an_essayist is good only in parts. He is simple to the point of being trivial: He announced his abhorrence of loose and rambling style, and considered Bacon and even Tacitus to be his models. But we find no sententiousness in him. Nevertheless, he charms in his own simple way though he can often be bafflingly sly.
Sir Arthur Halps (1819-1875) is quite arid and dull. Charles Kingsley (1818-1875) is much superior to him. Hugh Walker maintains: "As essayist Kingsley's merits are, in the critical essays, vigour, rapidity and decision, in the descriptive essays, the combination of the heart of a poet with the high spirits of a sportsman." Kingsley was at heart a boy, and many of his essays palpitate with Ihejoie de vivre.
John Ruskin (1819-1900) as an essayist, on the other hand, was too old. He was all too serious. His output as a prose writer is very large, and a number of his books-such as Unto This Last, A Joy for Ever, and Sesame and Lilies-can easily be considered as collections of essays. He is seldom personal and still less humorous, even though he sometimes uses his gift of biting sarcasm. At any rate his temperament is fundamentally different from that of a natural essayists like Charles Lamb or R. L. Stevenson.
With Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) we come to the greatest essayist of the Victorian era. He is better known for his stories of adventure, such as Treoswe Island and Kidnapped, but the collection of essays-Virginibus Puerisque (1881)-is also a delightful, intimate, and self-revelatory book. After Lamb and Hazlitt, Stevenson in spite of the fact that he fought all his life a losing battle against a fatal disease, was an optimist to his fingertips. He made much of life. He modelled himself on Hazlitt and captured some of his gusto and the joy of living. As a stylist he is considered with Pater as a "fine" writer. He polished his style to the extreme without making it tawdry or flashy. He had a wonderful sense of detail both as an observer and as a stylist. And this sense pays.

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