Personal Essays and Essayists of the Romantic Period
Lamb, Hazlitt, and De Quincey were the three major essayists of the Romantic period. Like the poets, these essayists were personal and subjective; their essays are often candidly autobiographical, reminiscent, and self-analytic; and when the writers treated other matters than themselves, they tended to do so impressionistically, so that the material is seen reflected in the temperament of the essayist. These essayists also tackled diverse subjects like the Romantic poets and developed new styles and principles of writing.
The position of Lamb among these romantic essayists is the most eminent. In fact, he has often been called the prince of all the essayists England has so far produced. Hugh Walker calls him the essayist par excellence who should be taken as a model. In 1820, he began publishing essays in London Magazine, later on collected in 1823 as The Essays of Elia and again in 1833 as The Last Essays of Elia .
What strikes one particularly about Lamb as an essayist is his persistent readiness to reveal his everything to the reader. The evolution of the essay from Bacon to Lamb lies primarily in its shift from objectivity to subjectivity, and from formality to familiarity. It is really impossible to think of an essayist who is more personal than Lamb. His essays reveal him fully-in all his whims, prejudices, past associations, and experiences. "Night Fears" shows us Lamb as a timid, superstitious boy. "Christ's Hospital" reveals his unpalatable experiences as a schoolboy. We are introduced to the various members of his family in numerous essays like "My Relations' "The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple," and "Poor Relations." We read of the days of his adolescence in "Mackery End in Hertfordshire." His tenderness towards his sister Mary is revealed by "Mrs. Battle's Opinions on Whist." His professional life is recalled in "The South-Sea House" and "The Superannuated Man." His sentimental memories full of pathos find expression in "Dream Children."
Lamb's contribution to the English essay also lies in his changing the general tone from formality to familiarity. He also shed once and for all the didactic approach which characterises the work of most essayists before him. The rambling nature of his essays and his lightness of touch are some other distinguishing features of Lamb as an essayist. Lamb's humour, humanity, and the sense of pathos are all his own; and it is mainly these qualities which differentiate his essays from those of his contemporaries. His essays are rich alike in wit, humour, and fun.
Hazlitt stands in the very first rank of the English essayists. He has been repeatedly bracketed with Lamb. His essays may broadly be divided into two categories: (1) Critical Essays, and (2) Miscellaneous Essays. The Miscellaneous Essays, including such volumes as (1) Table Talk (2) Sketches and Essays (3) Winterslow: Essays and Characters reveal the wide range and variety of his interests.
In whatever he did or said Hazlitt was an enthusiast. His essays reveal the zest of his enjoyment of life and nature. Hazlitt's Essays are autobiographical in character. He belongs to the group of personal essayists and is in the direct tradition of Montaigne who was his model. Like Sir Thomas Browne, he constantly uses the "I", takes the readers into his confidence, and pours out to them a hundred different aspects of his rich, varied personality. In essays like "My first Acquaintance with Poets,'' "Farewell to Essay-Writing," "On Living to Oneself', "On Going a Journey", etc., we come nearest to the heart to Hazlitt.
Hazlitt has that garrulousness of the personal essayist which imparts to the essay a rare human interest and charm. Hazlitt's prose-style is one of the glories of literature. He had a rare command over words, understood their full significance, and could define them accurately and precisely. His expository style is seen at its best in the opening of his essay "On poetry". His energy and enthusiasm have been infectious, and his influence has been felt all throughout the 19th century.
Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) stands, with William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb, among the best essayists of the romantic era. A versatile essayist and accomplished critic, De Quincey used his own life as the subject of his most acclaimed work, the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822), in which he chronicled his fascinating and horrifying addiction to opium. The Confessions are an insightful depiction of drug-dependency and an evocative portrait of an altered psychological state. De Quincey is recognized as one of the foremost prose writers of his day; his ornate style, while strongly influenced by the Romantic authors he knew and emulated, owes much to his vivid imagination and desire to recreate his own intense personal experiences.
The romantic essay, like the romantic poem, embodies the persona of the writer (use of the first person pronoun in Lamb and de Quincey). It represents a struggle on the part of the writer to make a controlling point (thesis) about a certain subject, develop it, and reach conclusions.