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Victorian Essays

Updated on March 10, 2013

The literature of the high Victorian Age is characterized by its abundance in the field of non-fictional prose, especially the genre of the "Essay". The Victorian essayists understood that there was an unavoidable requirement to explore a fine art of living while simultaneously carrying the message of immediate public concern. Sometimes their aspirations focused on society while also encompassing within its realm, history, theology, philosophical or ethical priorities, literary and art criticism and so on. The various collections of lectures and addresses of the general prose writers also find a fitting place under the genre of the essay.

Talking about Victorian essayists, the first name which comes to mind is that of Matthew Arnold who apart from the being a poet was also a tireless critic. It is in his critical prose writings, marked by a sense of freedom that we discover the shrewd observer of men and movements, sensitive to all "play of the mind" wherever and in whomsoever he found it. Much of Arnold's social, religious and political criticism has lost its point but his literary criticism will live as long as the best of its kind. The main body of his literary criticism is to be found in the slight but attractive lectures, On Translating Homer, The Study of Celtic Literature and his most renowned work published in two volumes namely Essays on Criticism which are marked by wide reading and careful thought and carry Arnold's bold verbal weapons. He advocated a broad, cosmopolitan view of European Literature as a basis for comparative judgments and attacked "provincialism" and lack of real knowledge. His later works - Mixed Essays, Discourses in America, Last Essays on Church and Religion deserve a mention. Culture and Anarchy, Friendship's Garland, Literature and Dogma, God and the Bible and many more are some of his other important prose pieces. Arnold's writing style is typically elegant and for multiple reasons he is acclaimed as a prophetic critic.

After Arnold, the other noted Victorian essayist is Thomas Babington Macaulay. Before he left for India Macaulay wrote twenty-two essays for the Edinburg Review to which he later added fourteen more. He also contributed five biographies to The Encyclopedia Britannica. His essays are of two kinds - those dealing with literary subjects as the ones on Milton, Byron, Bunyan and those dealing with historical studies which include the famous composition on Warren Hastings and Lord Clive. Before writing an essay he reviewed a set of volumes that had already been written on the subject and then gave his own views at great length which sometimes suffered due to his craving for antithesis and epigram but on the whole the essays were clearly and ably written and they disclosed and eye for picturesque effect. His other prose work consists of his History of England.

In context of Victorian essayists mention must also be made of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a travelling lecturer who expounded his views on religion and philosophy which were later developed in his eleven volumes of lectures and essays which cover a wide range of subjects and Walter Horatio Pater, the spokesperson of the school of aesthetic criticism whose essays concerned chiefly with art appeared in Studies in the History of Renaissance,. John Addington Symonds' Studies of the Greek Poets, which is the best collection of his works, is also an important example.

Carlyle's essays on Burns and Scott, his compilation of lectures, On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History and Ruskin's course of lectures - Two Paths and Sesame and Lilies and his articles on political economy in Unto This Last and Munera Pulveris also hold a special place.

Literary criticism and general essays were further cultivated by many writers such as John Anthony Froude, Leslie Stephen, Swinburne and Stevenson with much success.

Thus it can be very justifiably concluded that Victorian essays were varied as well as useful, interesting as well as edifying in what they offered to the diligent readers.


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