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Romantic Essayists

Read this article to know about the salient features of Romantic Prose in English Literature.

  1. Brief Introduction
  2. Characteristics of Romantic Prose
  3. Romantic Prose Writers

Brief Introduction

Essays have variable shapes and therefore, it is understandable that though numerous attempts have been made to give a definition to the essay, yet none has met with complete success. Most of such attempts succeeded in covering only a part of the compositions which commonly go under the label of the essay.

A comprehensive definition which would cover essays as different as those of Bacon, Addison, Lamb etc. is yet to come. Dr. Johnson’s famous definition of the essay is- “The essay is a loose sally (witty) of mind, an irregular, indigested piece, not a regular and orderly composition.” 

This definition touches only one aspect- though a very important aspect of the essay. Many other writers too, tried to define essay, but they too could explain only one or two aspects of the essay. A definition that covers a vast proportion of essay is-

“An essay is a short, incomplete, informal, light, subjective literary composition in prose.”

This definition is not rigid but practical.

Characteristics of Romantic Prose

Though Romantic Age is essentially the age of poetry prose also saw significant development. Though essay and criticism, both were not new, criticism had been practiced before by Dryden, Addison, Johnson and Goldsmith; and the personal essay or essay proper, derived from Montaigne (Father of Essay), had attracted Cowley, Addison, Steele, and Goldsmith.

Romantic Prose is not based love stories though some of the novels do have a romantic element. Romantic Prose refers to the prose written in Romantic Period. Following are the main characteristic features of the essay of Romantic Age.

The Romantic Period came after the Age of Enlightenment, which really had a focus on logic, reason and science and the Romantic Period was a deviation from that. In Romantic literature, we see an emphasis on emotions, imaginations and intuitions-elements of humanity that can defy reason.

In Neo-classical Prose, the main focus was on realism, morality and reason, whereas the essay writers of Romantic Age, like Romantic Poets focussed on connecting with the natural world. Thus they tried to escape from troubles of world and quest for the peace of mind in nature.

  • Elements of Supernaturalism

To further separate itself from the Age of Enlightenment, from logic and reason, there is really no better place to turn than the supernaturalism. A lot of works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre contain elements that require the reader to suspend his disbelief to accept what they are reading and go along with something that will defy logic and reason.

Transcendentalist Movement was a reaction against the 18th-century rationalism. The movement was based on a fundamental belief in the unity of world and God. Soul was thought to be the world. Thus individual soul was identified with God.

A lot of works talked about the rights and freedoms of an individual and their ability to exert their will even against which might necessarily be logical. A lot of these novels have themes of rebellion in the face of oppression. Characters do things that might seem irrational because it is really what they want to do.

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Like Romantic poets, the Essayists of Romantic Age too showed interest in the common man. The essays of Romantic Age, too like poetry, reflect the feelings of Humanitarianism.

  • Interest in Past, Primitive and Medieval

Writers of the Neo-classical Age created their works on the basis of reason and morality. The writers of Romantic Age, on contrary to them, drew inspirations from the past and justified their statements by experiences of primitive and medieval ages.

Essays of Romantic Age exhibit the idea of Revolution and change.

Romantic poets showed interest and included elements of melancholy in their works.


Read about the Romantic Criticism in English Literature.

The Romantic Prose Writers

Charles Lamb gave English Essay, the same kind of turn that Wordsworth gave to English poetry. Unlike Addison and Steele, who largely devoted the essay to instruct on social morals and manners, Lamb concentrated on emotions rather than ideas or morals and manners. His important essays are “Christ’s Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years Ago”. “The Two Races of Man”, New Year’s Eve”, “My Relations”

He was no less popular than Lamb but was more intellectual than emotional. He was both essayist and critic. His longer prose writings were perhaps more famous than his essays. His work “The Spirit of the Age”; or “Contemporary Portraits” is generally considered his best work.

He was also one of the most important prose writers of Romantic Age. His reputation still rests on his autobiographical writings. He translated German ideas and literature for his age. His important works are “The English Mail-Coach”, “Confessions”, “Essays”.

She was a novelist of her age. Her major novels are “Sense of Sensibility”, “Pride and Prejudice”, “Emma”, “Persuasion”

Filed Under: English LiteratureTagged With: English History

Though the Romantic period specialised in poetry, there also appeared a few prose-writers-Lamb, Hazlitt and De Quincey who rank very high. There was no revolt of the prose-writers against the eighteenth century comparable to that of the poets, but a change had taken place in the prose-style also.

Whereas many eighteenth century prose-writers depended on assumptions about the suitability of various prose styles for various purposes which they shared with their relatively small but sophisticated public; writers in the Romantic period were rather more concerned with subject matter and emotional expression than with appropriate style. They wrote for an ever-increasing audience which was less homogeneous in its interest and education than that of their predecessors. There was also an indication of a growing distrust of the sharp distinction between matter and manner which was made in the eighteenth century, and of a Romantic preference for spontaneity rather than formality and contrivance. There was a decline of the ‘grand’ style and of most forms of contrived architectural prose written for what may be called public or didactic purposes. Though some Romantic poets—Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Byron—wrote excellent prose in their critical writings, letters and journals, and some of the novelists like Scott and Jane Austen were masters of prose-style, those who wrote prose for its own sake in the form of the essays and attained excellence in the art of prose-writing were Lamb, Hazlitt and De Quincey.

(i)        Charles Lamb (1775-1834)

Charles Lamb is one of the most lovable personalities in English literature. He lived a very humble, honest, and most self-sacrificing life. He never married, but devoted himself to the care of his sister Mary, ten years his senior, who was subject to mental fits, in one of which she had fatally wounded her mother. In his Essays of Elia (1823) and Last Essays (1833), in which is revealed his own personality, he talks intimately to the readers about himself, his quaint whims and experiences, and the cheerful and heroic struggle which he made against misfortunes. Unlike Wordsworth who was interested in natural surroundings and shunned society, Lamb who was born and lived in the midst of London street, was deeply interested in the city crowd, its pleasures and occupations, its endless comedies and tragedies, and in his essays he interpreted with great insight and human sympathy that crowded human life of joys and sorrows.

Lamb belongs to the category of intimate and self-revealing essayists, of whom Montaigne is the original, and Cowley the first exponent in England. To the informality of Cowley he adds the solemn confessional manner of Sir Thomas Browne. He writes always in a gentle, humorous way about the sentiments and trifles of everyday. The sentimental, smiling figure of ‘Elia’ in his essays is only a cloak with which Lamb hides himself from the world. Though in his essays he plays with trivialities, as Walter Pater has said, “We know that beneath this blithe surface there is something of the domestic horror, of the beautiful heroism, and devotedness too, of the old Greek tragedy.”

The style of Lamb is described as ‘quaint’, because it has the strangeness which we associate with something old-fashioned. One can easily trace in his English the imitations of the 16th and 17th century writers he most loved—Milton, Sir Thomas Browne, Fuller, Burton, Issac Walton. According to the subject he is treating, he makes use of the rhythms and vocabularies of these writers. That is why, in every essay Lamb’s style changes. This is the secret of the charm of his style and it also prevents him from ever becoming monotonous or tiresome. His style is also full of surprises because his mood continually varies, creating or suggesting its own style, and calling into play some recollection of this or that writer of the older world.

Lamb is the most lovable of all English essayists, and in his hand the Essay reached its perfection. His essays are true to Johnson’s definition; ‘a loose sally of the mind.’ Though his essays are all criticisms or appreciations of the life of his age and literature, they are all intensely personal. They, therefore, give us an excellent picture of Lamb and of humanity. Though he often starts with some purely personal mood or experience he gently leads the reader to see life as he saw it, without ever being vain or self-assertive. It is this wonderful combination of personal and universal interest together with his rare old style and quaint humour, which have given his essays his perennial charm, and earned for him the covetable title of “The Prince among English Essayists”.

(ii)       William Hazlitt (1778-1830)

As a personality Hazlitt was just the opposite of Lamb. He was a man of violent temper, with strong likes and dislikes. In his judgment of others he was always downright and frank, and never cared for its effect on them. During the time when England was engaged in a bitter struggle against Napoleon, Hazlitt worshipped him as a hero, and so he came in conflict with the government. His friends left him one by one on account of his aggressive nature, and at the time of his death only Lamb stood by him.

Hazlitt wrote many volumes of essays, of which the most effective is The Spirit of the Age (1825) in which he gives critical portraits of a number of his famous contemporaries. This was a work which only Hazlitt could undertake because he was outspoken and fearless in the expression of his opinion. Though at times he is misled by his prejudices, yet taking his criticism of art and literature as a whole there is not the least doubt that there is great merit in it. He has the capacity to see the whole of his author most clearly, and he can place him most exactly in relation to other authors. In his interpretation of life in the general and proper sense, he shows an acute and accurate power of observation and often goes to the very foundation of things. Underneath his light and easy style there always flows an undercurrent of deep thought and feeling.

The style of Hazlitt has force, brightness and individuality. Here and there we find passages of solemn and stately music. It is the reflection of Hazlitt’s personality—outspoken, straightforward and frank. As he had read widely, and his mind was filled with great store of learning, his writings are interspersed with sentences and phrases from other writers and there are also echoes of their style. Above all, it vibrates with the vitality and force of his personality, and so never lapses into dullness.

(iii)     Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859)

De Quincey is famous as the writer of ‘impassioned prose’. He shared the reaction of his day against the severer classicism of the eighteenth century, preferring rather the ornate manner of Jeremy Taylor, Sir Thomas Browne and their contemporaries. The specialty of his style consists in describing incidents of purely personal interest in language suited to their magnitude as they appear in the eyes of the writer. The reader is irresistibly attracted by the splendour of his style which combines the best elements of prose and poetry. In fact his prose works are more imaginative and melodious than many poetical works. There is revealed in them the beauty of the English language. The defects of his style are that he digresses too much, and often stops in the midst of the fine paragraph to talk about some trivial thing by way of jest. But in spite of these defects his prose is still among the few supreme examples of style in the English language.

De Quincey was a highly intellectual writer and his interests were very wide. Mostly he wrote in the form of articles for journals and he dealt with all sorts of subjects—about himself and his friends, life in general, art, literature, philosophy and religion. Of his autobiographical sketches the best-known is his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, in which he has given us, in a most interesting manner, glimpses of his own life under the influence of opium. He wrote fine biographies of a number of classical, historical and literary personages, of which the most ambitious attempt is The Caerars. His most perfect historical essay is on Joan of Arc. His essays on principle of literature are original and penetrating. The best of this type is the one where he gives the distinction between the literature of knowledge and of power. On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth is the most brilliant. He also wrote very scholarly articles on Goethe, Pope, Schiller and Shakespeare. Besides these he wrote a number of essays on science and theology.

In all his writings De Quincey asserts his personal point of view, and as he is a man of strong prejudices, likes and dislikes, he often gives undue emphasis on certain points. The result is that we cannot rely on his judgment entirely. But there is no doubt that his approach is always original and brilliant which straightway captures the attention of the reader. Moreover, the splendour of his ‘poetic prose’ which is elaborate and sonorous in its effects, casts its own special spell. The result is that De Quincey is still one of the most fascinating prose-writers of England.

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