Topics so far –
Introduction to the Romantic Age: Part II
The Second Generation of Poets
Byron, Shelley and Keats
Thomas Love Peacock
James Fenimore Cooper
Thomas De Quincey
Introduction to the Romantic Age: Part II
The Romantic age in literature is often contrasted with the Classical or Augustan age which preceded it. The comparison is valuable, for it is not simply two different attitudes to literature which are being compared but two different ways of seeing and experiencing life.
The Classical or Augustan age of the early and mid-eighteenth century stressed the importance of reason and order. Strong feelings and flights of the imagination had to be controlled (although they were obviously found widely, especially in poetry). The swift improvements in medicine, economics, science and engineering, together with rapid developments in both agricultural and industrial technology, suggested human progress on a grand scale. At the centre of these advances towards a perfect society was mankind, and it must have seemed that everything was within man’s grasp if his baser, bestial instincts could be controlled. The Classical temperament trusts reason, intellect, and the head. The Romantic temperament prefers feelings, intuition, and the heart.
There are further contrasts in the ways in which children are regarded and represented in Classical and Romantic literature. For the Augustan writer the child is only important because he or she will develop into an adult. The child’s savage instincts must be trained, making it civilised and sophisticated. For the Romantic writer the child is holy and pure and its proximity to God will only be corrupted by civilisation. The child then is a source of natural and spontaneous feeling. When Wordsworth wrote that ‘the Child is father of the Man’ (in My Heart Leaps Up) he stressed that the adult learns from the experience of childhood.
The two ages may be contrasted in other ways: the Classical writer looks outward to society, Romantic writers look inward to their own soul and to the life of the imagination; the Classical writer concentrates on what can be logically measured and rationally understood, Romantic writers are attracted to the irrational, mystical and supernatural world; the Classical writer is attracted to a social order in which everyone knows his place, Romantic writers celebrate the freedom of nature and of individual human experience. In fact, the writings of the Augustan age stress the way societies improve under careful regulation; Romantic literature is generally more critical of society and its injustices, questioning rather than affirming, exploring rather than defining.
The language and form of the literature of the two ages also shows these two different ways of seeing. The Augustans developed a formal and ordered way of writing characterised by the balance and symmetry of the heroic couplet in poetry and by an adherence to the conventions of a special poetic diction. The Romantics developed ways of writing which tried to capture the ebb and flow of individual experience in forms and language which were intended to be closer to everyday speech and more accessible to the general reader.
LORD BYRON: Instant Success Born of Mediterranean Travels: In 1807 Byron’s early works were collected under the title Hours of Idleness; it was harshly criticized by the Edinburgh Review. The irate author counterattacked in his next book, English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers (1809). In this volume, Byron showed the first signs of his satiric wit and aristocratic education. In 1809 a two-year trip to the Mediterranean countries provided material for the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Their publication in 1812 earned Byron instant glory, as they combined the more popular features of the late-eighteenth-century romanticism: colorful descriptions of exotic nature, disillusioned meditations on the vanity of earthly things, a lyrical exaltation of freedom, and above all, the new hero, handsome and lonely, somberly mysterious, yet strongly impassioned despite his weariness with life.
Scandalous Social Life: While his fame was spreading, Byron was busy shocking London high society. After his affairs with Lady Caroline Lamb and Lady Oxford, his incestuous and adulterous love for his half sister Augusta not only made him a scandal, but also reinforced the sense of guilt and doom to which he had always been prone. From then on, the theme of incest was to figure prominently in his writings, starting with the epic tales that he published between 1812 and 1816: The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, Lara, The Siege of Corinth, and Parisina.
Hero in the Greek War of Independence: After serving as an organizer in the Carbornari, and Italian revolutionary group that opposed Austria, Byron became an active participant in the Greek War of Independence (1821–1829) against the Ottoman Empire. He used part of his considerable personal fortune to refit the Greek fleet and helped organize an attack on the Ottomans at Lepanto. In April 1824, before the attack could take place, Byron fell seriously ill. He died on April 19, 1824, during a violent electrical storm.
In memorial services throughout the country, he was proclaimed a national hero of Greece. His death proved effective in uniting Greece against the enemy and in eliciting support for its struggle from all parts of the civilized world. In October 1827 British, French, and Russian forces destroyed the Turkish and Egyptian fleets at Navarino, assuring Greek independence.
Satire: After his first attempts at poetry were criticized by the Edinburgh Review, Byron struck back in his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, a longer satirical poem taking jabs at both some of the better-known English poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge as well as the critics. The volume was well received and displayed Byron’s gifts for comedic satire that would eventually find fuller expression in Beppo and Don Juan.
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: Taken together, the four cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage helped establish Harold as the archetype of the ‘‘Byronic Hero,’’ a world-weary but intelligent and attractive hero traveling the world. Sir Walter Scott declared in 1816 that Byron had created a new and significant Romantic character type, and others praised the poem for its seriousness and passion.
Don Juan: After writing the lighter parody of Beppo, Byron turned toward the mock heroic quest of Don Juan. However, Byron’s treatment of this Romantic hero and libertine legend did not garner the same type of admiration, and both the poem and the poet were vilified in the reviews. Critics called the poem ‘‘filthy and impious,’’ and the poet ‘‘a cool, unconcerned fiend.’’ Fortunately, the criticism has abated and now scholars view the sixteen cantos of Don Juan to be an excellent example of the lengthy narrative poem, some claiming that Byron’s narrative skill in poetry is only matched by Chaucer’s.
Many of Byron’s works were inspired by or describe travels. Here are some other works inspired by journeys:-
The Odyssey (eighth or ninth century BCE), an epic by Homer. This epic poem exerted a marked influence on all of Western literature. It tells the tale of the Greek hero Odysseus as he tries to return home to Ithaca after fighting in the Trojan War.
The Canterbury Tales (late fourteenth century), a work of fiction by Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer has each of the voyagers on a pilgrimage to Canterbury tell a story as they journey along together.
Don Quixote (1605), a novel by Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes’s mentally unbalanced knight sets off on a quest through Spain with his sidekick Sancho Panza.
The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955), a trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. These three novels follow the effort by Frodo Baggins, a mythical humanlike being called a hobbit, to destroy a magical ring and, with it, an evil lord.
On the Road (1957), a novel by Jack Kerouac. Kerouac’s famous novel about his road trips across the country (and to Mexico) helped inspire a generation of travelers, poets, and hipsters.
SHELLEY: Percy Shelley was a poet, literary theorist, translator, political thinker, pamphleteer, and social activist. An extensive reader and bold experimenter, he was a major English Romantic poet. His foremost works, including The Revolt of Islam (1818), Prometheus Unbound (1820), Adonais (1821), and The Triumph of Life (1824), are recognized as leading expressions of radical thought written during the Romantic age, while his odes and shorter
lyrics are often considered among the greatest in the English language. In addition, his essay A Defence of Poetry (1840) is highly valued as a statement of the role of the poet in society.
William Godwin had a great influence on Shelley. Godwin’s concept of ‘Political Justice’ and his philosophy of utilitarianism shaped Shelley’s political outlook and also the radical humanism in him.
Although Shelley began writing poems while at Eton, some of which were published in 1810 in Original Poetry; by Victor and Cazire and some of which were not published until the 1960s as The Esdaile Notebook, his first publication was the gothic novel, Zastrozzi (1810).
Ousted for ‘‘Atheism’’: During his brief stay at Oxford, Shelley wrote a prose pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism (1811), which was to have a disastrous effect on his relationship with his family and a dramatic effect on his life. Indeed, Shelley’s decision to publish The Necessity of Atheism and send copies of it to the conservative Oxford dons, seemed more calculated to antagonize and flaunt authority than to persuade by rational argument. Actually the title of the pamphlet is more inflammatory than the argument, which centers upon ‘‘the nature of belief,’’ a position Shelley derived from the skeptical philosophies of John Locke and David Hume. Nevertheless, the Oxford authorities acted swiftly and decisively, expelling both Shelley and his cohort Hogg in March of 1811.
In 1819 and 1820 Shelley wrote two of his most ambitious works, the verse dramas Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci. Prometheus Unbound, - on its surface a reimagining of a lost, ancient Greek play by Aeschylus, - is also a statement of Shelley’s revolutionary political ideas. In Shelley’s version of the play—which was meant to be read, not performed—the leader of the Greek gods, Zeus, is overthrown and the Titan Prometheus, who had been condemned to eternal punishment for providing humanity with fire, is set free. Shelley based the tragedy of The Cenci on the history of a sixteenth-century Italian noble family. The evil Count Cenci rapes his daughter, Beatrice; she determines to murder him, seeing no other means of escape from continued violation, and is executed for parricide, or the killing of a close relative.
One of Shelley’s best-known works, Adonais, an elegy on the death of fellow poet John Keats, was written in 1821. Drawing on the formal tradition of elegiac verse, Shelley laments Keats’s early death and, while rejecting the Christian view of resurrection, describes his return to the eternal beauty of the universe.
Mary Shelley took on the challenge of editing and annotating Shelley’s unpublished manuscripts after his death. Her 1840 collection included Shelley’s greatest prose work, A Defence of Poetry. Writing in response to The Four Ages of Poetry (1820), an essay by his friend Peacock, Shelley details his belief in the moral importance of poetry, calling poets ‘‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’’ In addition to several other philosophical essays and translations from the Greek, Shelley’s posthumous works include the highly personal odes addressed to Edward Williams’s wife, Jane. ‘‘To Jane: The Invitation,’’ ‘‘To Jane: The Recollection,’’ and ‘‘With a Guitar: To Jane’’ are considered some of his best love poems. At once a celebration of his friends’ happy union and an intimate record of his own attraction to Jane, these lyrics are admired for their delicacy and refined style.
Shelley’s first mature work, Queen Mab, was printed in 1813, but not distributed due to its inflammatory subject matter. It was not until 1816, with the appearance of Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude, and Other Poems, that he earned recognition as a serious poet. In Alastor, a visionary and sometimes autobiographical poem, Shelley describes the experiences of the Poet who, rejecting human sympathy and domestic life, is pursued by the demon Solitude.
Shelley also used a visionary approach in his next lengthy work, Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City (1818), written in friendly competition with Keats. An imaginative account of a bloodless revolution led by a brother and sister, the poem deals with the positive power of love, the complexities of good and evil, and ultimately, spiritual victory through martyrdom. Laon and Cythna was immediately suppressed by the printer because of its controversial content, and Shelley subsequently revised the work as The Revolt of Islam, minimizing its elements of incest and political revolution. Even the author’s attempts at more popular work met with disapproval: Although Shelley hoped for success on the English stage with his play The Cenci, his controversial treatment of the subject of incest outraged critics, preventing the play from being produced.
Lyrical Poetry and the Core of Shelley’s Themes: Throughout his career Shelley wrote numerous short lyrics that have proved to be among his most popular works. Characterized by a simple, personal tone, his minor poems frequently touch on themes central to his more ambitious works: The ‘‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’’ and ‘‘Mont Blanc’’ focus on his belief in an animating spirit, while ‘‘Ode to the West Wind’’ examines opposing forces in nature. In other lyrics, including ‘‘Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills,’’ ‘‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples,’’ and ‘‘Lines Written in the Bay of Lerici,’’ Shelley explores his own experiences and emotions. Political themes also inspired several of his most famous short poems, among them ‘‘Ode to Liberty,’’ ‘‘Sonnet: England in 1819,’’ and The Masque of Anarchy, composed 1819 and published 1832.
JOHN KEATS: John Keats is recognized as a key figure in the English Romantic movement, a period in which writers placed the individual at the core of all experience, valued imagination
and beauty, and looked to nature for revelation of truth. Although his literary career spanned only four years and consisted of a mere fifty-four poems, Keats demonstrated remarkable intellectual and artistic development.
In 1803, Keats enrolled at the Clarke School in nearby Enfield, where he was distinguished only by his small stature (he was barely over five feet tall as an adult) and somewhat confrontational disposition. At the Clarke school, Keats first encountered the works that influenced his early poetry, including Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and John Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary, on which he based his knowledge of Greek mythology.
An Influential Circle of Friends: Keats’s meeting in 1816 with Leigh Hunt influenced his decision to pursue a career as a poet, and Hunt published Keats’s early poems in his liberal journal, the Examiner. Keats was drawn readily into Hunt’s circle, which included the poet John Hamilton Reynolds, the critic William Hazlitt, and the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon. Poems, an early collection, was published in 1817 but received little attention. His next work, Endymion: A Poetic Romance, a full-length allegory based on Greek mythology, was published the following year to mixed reviews. Soon after the appearance of Endymion, Keats began to experience the first symptoms of tuberculosis, the disease that had killed his mother and in 1818 his brother, Tom. Following Tom’s death, Keats lived with his close friend Charles Armitage Brown in Hampstead.
‘‘Half in love with easeful Death . . .’’: It was around this time that he composed his famous ‘‘Ode to a Nightingale,’’ a moody, sumptuous poem in which the speaker lauds the beautiful sound of the nightingale and fantasizes about dying—‘‘to cease upon the midnight with no pain’’—and forgetting all ‘‘the weariness, the fever, and the fret.’’ The poem seems to be a clear reaction to Tom’s death and his own infirmity, as Keats laments that he lives in a world where ‘‘youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.’’ At the same time, the poem calls the bird ‘‘immortal’’ and timeless. The bird represents Keats the poet, capable of producing a beautiful ‘‘song’’ that will live after he is gone.
Keats’s poems, especially the later works published in Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820), are praised not only for their sensuous imagery and passionate tone but also for the insight they provide into aesthetic and human concerns, particularly the transience of beauty and happiness. The artistic philosophy described in the famous quote from Keats’s ‘‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’’—‘‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’’—is clarified in his correspondence with his family and friends. In these letters, which some readers value as much as his poems, it is possible to trace the evolution of Keats’s poetic thought and technique as he matured.
Negative Capability: Two prevalent themes in Keats’s poetry are the power of imaginative perception and the capacity of a truly creative nature to go beyond the self. In a letter written to his brothers, Keats mentions having seen a painting by Benjamin West and finding it lacking:
‘‘It is a wonderful picture . . . ; But there is nothing to be intense upon; no woman one feels mad to kiss. . . . the excellence of every Art is its intensity.’’
Keats then coined a term that is one of his most distinctive contributions to aesthetic discourse: negative capability, which is present, Keats explains,
‘‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’’
Perhaps Keats himself provided the best gloss on this term when he wrote, in a marginal jotting on a passage in John Milton’s masterwork Paradise Lost, of ‘‘the intense pleasure of not knowing[,] a sense of independence, of power, from the fancy’s creating a world of its own by the sense of probabilities.’’
The history of Keats’s early reputation is dominated by two hostile, unsigned reviews of Endymion, one credited to John Gibson Lockhart in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, and the other to John Wilson Croker in the Quarterly Review. Lockhart, a vociferous critic of what he termed ‘‘The Cockney School,’’ named for its members’ ties to London and their alleged lack of refinement, attacked not only Keats’s poem, which he denigrated on artistic and moral grounds, but on what he perceived as the poet’s lack of taste, education, and upbringing. While Croker was neither so vitriolic nor personally degrading as Lockhart—critics acknowledge, in fact, the legitimacy of several of his complaints—his essay was singled out as damaging and unjust by Keats’s supporters, who rushed to the poet’s defense. While Keats was apparently disturbed only temporarily by these attacks, they gave rise to the legend that his death had been caused, or at least hastened, by these two reviews. A chief perpetrator of this notion was Percy Bysshe Shelley, who composed and published his famous Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of the Poet John Keats shortly after Keats’s death. The preface to this work implicated Croker as Keats’s murderer. In conjunction with the writings of Keats’s well-meaning friends, Shelley’s work effectively created an image of Keats as a sickly and unnaturally delicate man, so fragile that a magazine article was capable of killing him. Lord Byron commented wryly on this idea in a famous couplet in his poem Don Juan:
‘‘‘Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle /
Should let itself be snuffed out by an article.’’
The influential Francis Jeffrey wrote an approving, if belated, essay in The Edinburgh Review, and the obituary in The London Magazine (April 1921), noted,
‘‘There is but a small portion of the public acquainted with the writings of this young man, yet they were full of high imagination and delicate fancy.’’
By 1853 Matthew Arnold could speak of Keats as ‘‘in the school of Shakespeare,’’ and, despite his weak sense of dramatic action and his overly lush imagery was ‘‘one whose exquisite genius and pathetic death render him forever interesting.’’
Issues of immortality and human transience have preoccupied thinkers for millennia. Rulers, philosophers, and poets have pondered whether human accomplishments will be remembered or make a lasting impact. Keats was extremely interested in his own literary legacy. Here are some other works that examine the idea of the transience or permanence of man’s efforts:
The Iliad (7th–8th century B.C.E.), by Homer. The famous hero of this epic, Achilles, chooses death in battle over a long, peaceful life because attaining glory in battle means his name will be immortalized.
The Stranger (1942), by Albert Camus. This novel’s protagonist is convinced that the universe is indifferent to the desires and actions of humans.
‘‘Annabel Lee’’ (1849), by Edgar Allan Poe. This long poem commemorates, rather morbidly, the death of a young girl and her influence on the speaker. The Diary of a Young Girl (1942), by Anne Frank. Written while hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, this diary details the trials Frank’s family went through before they were sent to a concentration camp.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1982), by Milan Kundera. Set in springtime in a politically unbalanced Prague, the characters, most of them artists, feel that their lives are fleeting; thus, although they create with purpose, they also hesitate and often choose badly when it comes to their personal lives.
THOMAS MOORE: Moore was a friend of Byron and a prominent literary figure of the time. Most of his life was passed as a successful man of letters. His poems were highly successful during his lifetime, but after his death there was a reaction against them. His Irish Melodies are set to the traditional musical airs of Ireland. They are graceful, and adapt themselves admirably to the tunes. His Lalla Rookh (1817) is an Oriental romance, written in the Scott-Byron manner then so popular. The poem had an immense success, which has now almost totally faded. It contains an abundance of florid description, but as poetry it is hardly second-rate. Moore's political satires, such as The Twopenny Postbag (1813), The Fudge Family in Paris (1818), and Fables for the Holy Alliance (1823), are keen and lively, and show his Irish wit at its very best.
His prose works include his Life of Byron (1830), which has taken its place as the standard biography of that poet. It is an able and scholarly piece of work, and is written with much knowledge and sympathy, though it lacks the clear-cut vigour of the masterpieces of Boswell and Lockhart (see pp. 268 and 358).
Thomas Campbell: After studying at Glasgow University he became tutor to a private family; but his Pleasures of Hope (1799) brought him fame, and he adopted the career of a poet. He visited the Continent, and saw much of the turmoil that there reigned. Returning, he settled in London, where he was editor of The New Monthly Magazine from 1820 to 1830. His longer poems are quite numerous, and begin with the Pleasures of Hope, which consists of a series of descriptions of nature in heroic couplets, written in a style that suggests Goldsmith. Other longer poems include Gertrude of Wyoming (1809), a longish tale of Pennsylvania, written in Spenserian stanzas, and The Pilgrim of Glencoe (1842). Campbell, however, is chiefly remembered for his stirring songs, some of which were written during his early Continental tour and were published in newspapers. His most successful are Ye Mariners of England and The Battle of the Baltic, which are spirited without containing the bluster and boasting that so often disfigure the patriotic song.
Samuel Rogers: He was a generous patron of the man of letters, and was acquainted with most of the literary people of the time. His breakfasts were famous. His The Pleasures of Memory (1792) is a reversion to the typical eighteenth-century manner, and as such is interesting. He could compose polished verses, but he has little of the poet. Other works are Columbus (1812), Jacqueline (1814), a tale in the Byronic manner, and Italy (1822), of which a second part appeared in 1828. Rogers was a careful and fastidious writer, but his excellence does not go much further. His name is a prominent one in the literary annals of the time, but his wealth rather than his merit accounts for this.
Leigh Hunt: He was born in Middlesex, educated at Christ's Hospital, and while still in his teens became a journalist, and remained a journalist all his life. His Radical journal The Examiner (1808) was strongly critical of the Government, and Hunt's aptitude for abuse landed him in prison for two years. His captivity, as he gleefully records, made a hero of him; and most of the literary men who prided themselves upon their Liberalism-- among them being Wordsworth, Byron, Moore, Keats, and Shelley --sought his friendship. Hunt had a powerful influence on Keats, and published some of the latter's shorter poems in The Examiner. He tried various other journalistic ventures, but none of them had the success of The Examiner, though The Indicator (1819) contained some of his finest essays; his attempted collaboration in journalism with Byron was a lamentable failure.
Too often his poems are trivial, and most, if not all, are marred by lapses of taste or slipshod workmanship. His best long poem, The Story of Rimini (1816), is an Italian tale modelled on Dante's lines on Paolo and Francesca, and is quite well told in easy, facile couplets. It is somewhat spoilt by its maudlin sentimentality and the looseness of some of its verse, but it is of peculiar interest because its style was the model for Keats's Endymion. Hunt is seen at his best in his shorter pieces, such as his sonnet on The Nile and Abou Ben Adhem, where he retains all his usual ease and has less opportunity for his too frequent lapses.
His prose includes an enormous amount of journalistic matter, which was occasionally collected and issued in book form. Such was his Men, Women, and Books (1847). His Autobiography (1850) . contains much interesting biographical and literary gossip. He is an agreeable essayist, fluent and easygoing; his critical opinions are solid and sensible, though often half-informed. He wrote x novel, Sir Ralph Esher (1832), and a very readable book on London called The Town (1848). Hunt is not a genius, but he is a useful and amiable second-rate writer.
James Hogg: Hogg became known to the world as "the Ettrick Shepherd," for he was born of a shepherd's family in the valley of the Ettrick, in Selkirkshire. He was a man of much natural ability, and from his infancy was an eager listener to the songs and ballads of his district. He was introduced to Walter Scott (1802) while the latter was collecting the Border minstrelsy, and by Scott he was supported both as a literary man and as a farmer. Sometimes, however, his native talent prevails, and he writes such poems as Bonny Kilmeny and When the Kye comes Hame, The latter is a lyric resembling those of Burns in its humour and simple appeal. The former was one of a series of songs and lays, modelled on the lays of Sir Walter Scott, which made up The Queen's Wake (1813), the work which established Hogg's poetic reputation. In it he achieves what is commonly held to be the true Celtic note: the eerie description of elves and the gloaming, and murmuring and musical echoes , of things half seen and half understood. He has also to his credit a number of vigorous Jacobite war songs, of which the best known is Lock the door, Lariston. Some of his books are The Forest Minstrel (1810), a volume of songs, of which the majority were by him and the rest by his friends, and The Brownie of Bodsbeck (1818), a prose tale.
CHARLES LAMB’S elegant prose made him a major essayist of the Romantic era, and has formed a part of the canon of English literature ever since. His essays have delighted generations of readers, and his literary criticism testifies to his versatility and perceptiveness. He was also well-known to his contemporaries as a novelist, journalist, poet, writer for children, and fine critic, devoted to ‘‘antiquity’’— particularly Latin literature and that of Elizabethan and seventeenth-century writers. His popularity extended through the nineteenth century into the twentieth, but waned after 1934, the centenary of his death. Since the 1960s, however, his reputation has risen again.
In 1782, Lamb was accepted as a student at Christ’s Hospital, a London school for the children of impoverished families. He excelled in his studies, especially in English literature, but the seven years away from home proved lonely. Later, Lamb wrote that his solitude was relieved only by his friendship with a fellow student, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The friendship with Coleridge, who would become one of England’s premier Romantic poets, had a particularly strong influence on Lamb’s development as a thinker and an artist.
Working first as a clerk, he became an accountant at the East India Company, a rapacious jointstock company whose function in the British colonies was at times quasi-governmental and even military. He remained there until his retirement in 1825. In working for the East India Company, Lamb was participating, however distantly, in one of British history’s ugliest chapters. The Honourable East India Company, as it was officially known, acquired a monopoly on trade with India and, until this monopoly was limited in 1813, succeeded in colonizing—often quite brutally, as was standard colonial practice—nearly the entire Indian subcontinent. During his career at the East India Company’s London offices, Lamb read widely and corresponded frequently with such friends as Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Robert Southey. It was at Coleridge’s insistence that Lamb’s first sonnets were included in Coleridge’s collection Poems on Various Subjects, published in 1796.
Lamb’s first published works were his sonnets, which critics praised for their simple diction and delicate poetic manner, but he quickly discovered that his greater talent and inclinations lay elsewhere. His first serious work in prose, A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret, appeared in 1798. Lamb, an avid theatergoer, decided to try his hand at drama next; however, John Woodvil (1802), a tragedy in the Elizabethan style, was neither a popular nor a critical success. His next two projects also testify to his love of Elizabethan literature.
In 1807, he and Mary collaborated on Tales from Shakespeare, a prose version of William Shakespeare’s plays intended for children. The Tales were generally well received, and the Lambs were commended for expanding the scope of children’s literature in England, though a few critics regarded the Tales as distorted renderings of the plays. That same year, Lamb completed his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, Who Lived About the Time of Shakespeare, an anthology that included selections from the plays of such Elizabethan dramatists as Christopher Marlowe, John Webster, George Chapman, and Thomas Middleton. Since many of these works were previously unavailable to readers, Lamb’s anthology was an important reference source.
Unexpected Success as an Essayist: In 1820, the editor of the London Magazine invited Lamb to contribute regularly to the periodical. Lamb, eager to supplement his meager income, wrote some pieces under the pseudonym of ‘‘Elia’’ for the magazine. With the overwhelming success of these essays, Lamb became one of the most admired men in London. He and Mary presided over a weekly open house attended by his many literary friends, including Coleridge, William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, and Henry Crabb Robinson. Besides his diverse friendships, Lamb found his chief pleasure in writing, which consumed his evenings and holidays. After his retirement from the East India Company, he devoted more time to his favorite occupation. Charles ‘‘Elia’’ Lamb was still at the peak of his popularity as an essayist when he died suddenly from an infection in 1834.
Lamb’s virtually ignored dramas were inspired by his affinity for the theater. His short experimental writing, such as the novel Rosamund Gray (1798) displays the influence of Henry Mackenzie and Laurence Sterne. His criticism and ‘‘Elia’’ works are similar in language to the writings of Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton, though Lamb made them his own. He claimed that he read mainly works from the past, though the assertion was not strictly true. He celebrated the ‘‘quiddities’’ of his favorite little-known books, the theater, childhood and youth, the daily round, the daily grind, and most particularly the surprising qualities of some of his friends, for nearly all of his observations are drawn—or transmuted—from life.
Literary Criticism and Whimsically Personal Essays: In his essays of literary criticism, such as in Specimens of English Dramatic Poets (1807), Lamb supplements each author’s entry with explanatory notes that are now considered his most important critical work. Lamb further elaborated on his views in such essays as ‘‘On the Tragedies of Shakespeare Considered with Reference to Their Fitness for Stage Presentation.’’ There, he argues that the best qualities of Shakespeare’s plays can be fully appreciated only through reading; according to Lamb, stage performances often diminish the play’s meaning, and individual performers often misinterpret Shakespeare’s intended characterizations.
A key component of Lamb’s ouevre is his selection of works about the style and content of pieces by other writers. Here are a few works by authors who also wrote important essays of literary criticism:
Anatomy of Criticism (1957), a survey of the field by Northrop Frye. In this book, the critic reviews the principles and techniques of literary criticism.
Biographia Literaria (1817), a collection of essays by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In this set of autobiographical writings, Coleridge includes pieces on literary criticism and explains his now famous theory of the suspension of disbelief.
The Sacred Wood (1920), critical essays by T. S. Eliot. In this work, Eliot critiques drama and poetry, including that of Dante, William Blake, and William Shakespeare.
Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (1981), a collection of essays by Mikhail Bakhtin. In this complex study set, Bakhtin closely examines such genres as parody, romance, and the picaresque.
WILLIAM HAZLITT: The year 1812 saw him in London, where he was in turn lecturer, parliamentary reporter, and theatre critic. From 1814 until his death he contributed to The Edinburgh Review, while others of his articles appeared in The Examiner, The Times, and The London Magazine. All through his life his unusual political views and headstrong temperament involved him in frequent quarrels.
(His reputation rests on the lectures and essays on literary and general subjects all published between 1817 and 1825. Of the former we have his lectures on Characters of Shakespeare' s Plays (1817), The English Poets (1818), The English Comic Writers (1819), and The Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth (1820). His best essays were collected in The Round Table (1817), Table Talk; or, Original Essays on Men and Manners (1821-22), and The Spirit of the Age; or, Contemporary Portraits (1825). Between 1828 and 1830 he published an unsuccessful biography of Napoleon).
Thomas Love Peacock: His fame rests upon his novels rather than upon his verse, though the songs which he scattered through his novels are extremely good. His early verses, such as Palmyra, and Other Poems (1806), The Genius of the Thames (1810), and The Philosophy of Melancholy (1812) lack the finish of his later lyrics, but Rhododaphne; or the Thessalian Spell (1818) shows some felicity and smoothness.
He wrote seven novels, Headlong Hall (1816), Melincourt (1817), Nightmare Abbey (1818), Maid Marian (1822), The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829), Crotchet Castle (1831), and Gryll Grange (1860). None of them has a plot really worthy of the name, though all contain well-recounted incidents. In varying degrees, they are the vehicle for his ironical and satirical attacks on the cranks and fads of his day. His favourite butt was the contemporary cult of romanticism and all who practised it, Wordsworth, as Mr Paperstamp of Mainchance Villa, Coleridge, as Mr Flosky, Shelley, as Mr Scythrop, Byron, as Mr Cypress, and many others were all caricatured with telling skill. No contemporary idea, from paper money to modern science, escaped his pen. Peacock's The Four Ages of Poetry, in which his own age is classed as the age of brass, "the second childhood of poetry," is in the familiar mocking, ironical style of the novels. Its only importance lies in the fact that it drew from Shelley his famous The Defence of Poetry.
Washington Irving: was the first American novelist to establish a European reputation. He was called to the Bar, but his real bent was literary. His life was that of a busy man of letters, varied with much travelling in Europe and America. His works were admired by Scott, who did much to popularize them on this side of the Atlantic.
His History of New York (1809) was the comic history of an imaginary Dutchman called Knickerbocker. The humour now appears strained and overdone, but the book is written with ease and grace. His The Sketch-book (1820) brought his name before the English public. The volume is a collection of short tales and sketches, the two favourites, those of Rip van Winkle and of Sleepy Hollow, being the best of his productions. It was followed by Bracebridge Hall (1822), a series of sketches of the life of the English squirearchy, done in the Addisonian manner. His later travels helped him in the writing of Tales of a Traveller (1824), Legends of the Alhambra (1832), and other works. As a story-teller Irving lacks animation and fire, but his humour in the later books is facile, though thin, and his descriptions are sometimes impressive. His style reminds the reader of that of Goldsmith, whose Life (1849) he wrote. He produced other historical works, such as History of the Life and Voyages of Columbus (1828), The Conquest of Granada (1829), and his Life of Washington (1859), more noteworthy for the ease of their narrative than for their deep learning or insight.
James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) was born in New Jersey, and educated at'Yale College. He passed his boyhood on an ancestral estate near Lake Otsego, and so gained much material for his Indian works. He was in the Navy for six years, and then retired to write books. He travelled and wrote much. He was a man of acrimonious temper, and his extravagant estimation of his abilities drew him into many quarrels. His first novel, Precaution (1820), was a conventional study of society and was of little merit. Then The Spy (1821) began a series of vigorous adventure stories, some of which, like The pilot (1824) and The Red Rover (1828), deal with the sea. Cooper's technical knowledge and appreciation of the beauty of the sea are here used to advantage, though his characters are stiff. The best of his works, however, are the Leatherstocking novels, which deal with frontier life in Indian territory. They include The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841). Their view of the Indian is romanticized, but they opened up a new field for American fiction, and have plenty of incident and suspense. Cooper set himself up as a rival of Scott, but he has little of Scott's ability. He lacks humour, his characters are, with rare exceptions such as Leatherstocking, lifeless and unconvincing, and his style is wordy and heavy. But at times he can make his story move rapidly, and he is skilful in his suggestion of thecharm and dangers of the primeval forest.
THOMAS DE QUINCEY: He wrote no book of any great length, in this respect resembling another opium-eater, Coleridge. The book that made his name was his Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), which appeared in The London Magazine. The work, which is chaotic in its general plan, is a series of visions that melt away in the manner of dreams. Much is tawdry and unreal, but the book contains passages of great power and beauty. The remainder of his work is a mass of miscellaneous production, the best of which is The English Mail-coach (1849), Suspiria de Profundis (1845), and On Murder considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827; second part, 1839).
The Victorian Age
English Literature by Edward Albert [Revised by J. A. Stone]
History of English Literature, by Legouis and Cazamian
The Routledge History of Literature in English: Britain and Ireland, by Ronald Carter and John McRae
Gale’s Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature