Periodical Essay – Definition & Meaning

The periodical essay is called ‘periodical’ because the periodical essays appeared in journals and magazines which appeared periodically in the eighteenth century. It flourished in the 18th century and died in the same century. Its aim was public rather than private. Its object was social reformation.

It conformed to the neo-classical ideal which placed a premium, not so much on the personal revelation and confession of the author himself as on his duty to inform the mind and delight the heart of the reading public. The periodical essay differs from the essays of Montaigne, Bacon, Hazlitt or Lamb because their essays were published collectively at one time in a single volume and presented a personal point of view to the readers.

The periodical essay like its other brothers, the novel and coffee houses tended to refine the taste and tone, the cultural and moral outlook of the educated and the wealthy middle classes. It was the literature of the middle classes, for the middle classes and by the middle classes of the eighteenth century. It has all the features of journalism-a wider appeal, a larger coverage. Brevity and precision, simple and chaste English, delicate tone and elegant style. The periodical essay had a double aim: to amuse and to improve. The subjects discussed by the periodical essayists were connected with the varied aspects of the social life with the city of London in the center. The style was deliberately easy, lucid and refined.

The periodical essay began In the year 1709 with the first periodical essay appearing in the Tattler on April 12. The real makers of the periodical essay were men of contrasted characters and temperaments. The Tattler and The Spectator set the fashion for all periodical papers and were soon followed by other imitations. Steele himself brought out the Guardian in 1713, and soon a host of other imitations like the Female Tattler, Whisper made their appearance and thus testifying to the popularity of this class of writing. The best of the wits of the age contributed to all these papers. Swift, Pope, Berkeley. Congreve, Parnell and others wrote occasionally for these papers and the vogue thus created for literary journalism continued right through the century and the next. Almost all the great figures in the literary field contributed either occasionally or regularly to such periodicals. Apart from the political nature of such periodicals, these papers became the chief organ for literary self-expression. Addison started Whig Examiner and Steele came out with Examiner, representing the Tory point of view. Fielding likewise was connected with the Champion; and the Craftsman and the Common-sense were two other journals of the same political colouring as the Champion. Ambrose Phillips made use of the Free Thinker to air forth his views. There were the Plain Dealer and the Farrot too. The growth of the political parties gave to these periodicals a strong party bias and each paper became the organ of one political party or the other. But while their political nature and learning are unmistakable their use of literary wits as the service ground is encouraging. They afforded to the literary aspirants an outlet for self-expression and by so doing, brought out to the full their talents.

The greatest and the best figures of the periodical essay are Addison and Steele. Addison and Steele was also associated with a darker and more somber personality, the greatest and most biting satirist of the age, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) who transcended the limits of the periodical essay. His important contributions to the periodical essay are :

  1. Predictions for the Year 1708.
  2. Account of the Death of Mr. Partridge,
  3. Letter to a Very Young Lady on Her Marriage,
  4. Meditations upon a Broom-stick, etc.

In the pleasant art of living with one’s fellows, Addison is easily a master, “Swift is the storm, roaring against the ice and frost of the late spring of English life. Addison is the sunshine, which melts the ice and dries the mud and makes the earth thrill with light and hope. Like Swift, he despised shams, but unlike him, he never lost faith in humanity and in all his satires there is a gentle kindliness which makes one think better of his fellow men, even while he laughs to their little vanities” (Long).

To an age of fundamental coarseness and artificiality Addison came with a wholesome message of refinement and simplicity, much as Ruskin and Amold spoke to a later age of materialism; only Addison’s success was greater than theirs because of his greater knowledge of life and his greater faith in men. He attacks all the little vanities and all the big vices of his time, not in Swift’s terrible way, which makes us feel hopeless of humanity, but with a kindly ridicule and gentle humour which takes speedy improvement for granted. To read Swift’s brutal “Letters to a Young Lady”, and then to read Addison’s ‘Dissection of a Beau’s Head” and his “Dissection of a Coquette’s Heart” is to know at once the secret of the latter’s more enduring influence.

Addison’s essays are the best picture of the new social life of England. They advanced the art of literary criticism to a much higher stage than it had ever before reached, and led Englishmen to a better knowledge and appreciation of their own literature. Furthermore, in Ned Softly the literary dabbler, Will Wimble the poor relation, Sir Andrew Freeport the merchant, Will Honeycomb the fop, and Sir Roger the country gentleman, they give us characters that live forever as part of that goodly company which extends from Chaucer’s country parson to Kipling’s Mulvaney.

Addison and Steele not only introduced the modern essay, but in such characters as cited above they herald the dawn of the modern novel. Of all his essays the best known and loved are those which introduce us to Sir Roger de Coverley, the genial dictator of life and manners in the quiet English country.

In style these essays are remarkable as showing the growing perfection of the English language. Johnson says, “Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison”. And again he says, “Give nights and days, sir, to the study of Addison if you mean to be a good writer, or, what is more worth, an honest man”.

So the periodical essays, more particularly the essays of Addison and Steele, are well worth reading once for their own sake, and many times for their influence in shaping a clear and graceful style of writing.

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Steele is the originator of the Tattler, and joins with Addison in creating the Spectator-the two periodicals which, in the short space of less than four years, did more to influence subsequent literature than all other magazines of the century combined. On account of his talent in writing political pamphlets, Steele was awarded the position of official gazetteer. He could combine news, gossip and essays instantaneously.

Johnson’s Rambler is usually ranked as the first of the classical periodicals after The Guardian. Johnson also contributed to The Idler and The Adventurer. His style is mannered and Latinised. His is a learned prose. His vocabulary is heavy and sonorous. He is the classic of pedantic prose. Another luminary of the periodical essay is Oliver Goldsmith. He started his career as a periodical essayist with his contributions to The Bee, a weekly which did not survive its 8th number. Among his best periodical essays mention must be made of “The City Night Piece”, “The Public Ledger”, “The Citizens of the World”, etc. Oliver Goldsmith should be remembered for his sympathetic humour, magic of his personality, simplicity, chastity and carefulness. His style is always light and refreshing. His descriptions are vivid and picturesque. He carried the personal vein of Steele, his compatriot, a step further and heralded the autobiographical manner of Charles Lamb.

Later on the romantic writers like Lamb, Hazlitt and De Quincey also contributed their essays to the periodicals of their time, but their essays are very much different in spirit of manner from those of the real practitioners of the periodical essay.

The rise of the periodical essay can be attributed to various causes such as vast growth of a reading public, rise of the middle classes, growth and development of numerous periodicals, the rise of the two political parties (the Whig and the Tory), the rise of the coffee-houses as centers of social and political life, the need of social reform and the popular reception accorded by the public to the periodical literature. The periodical essay was a very popular form of literature and communication and recreation in the eighteenth century because it was the mirror of the Augustan age in England” (A. R. Humphreys). It was the social chronicler of the time. It was particularly suited to the genius of the new patrons, because it was the literature of the bourgeoisie. It gave them what they wanted. It gave them pleasure as well as instruction. It was a delicate and sensitive synthesis of literature and journalism. It was neither too ‘literary’ to be comprehended and appreciated by the common people nor too journalistic to meet the fate of ephemeral writings. It could be read. Appreciated, and discussed at the tea-table or in the coffee-house. Its lightness and brevity were its two major popularising factors. The periodical essay, normally, covered not more than two sides of a folio half-sheet; quite often it was even shorter. Furthermore, it was suited to the moral temper of the age. It struck a delicate and rational balance between the strait-jacketed morality of the Puritan and the reckless Bohemianism of the Cavalier. In the words of A. R. Humphreys, “conventionally the code of pleasure was that of the rake: Steele and Addison wished to equate it with virtue, and virtue with religion”. Above all, the periodical essay has a wider appeal to various sections of the eighteenth century society. It appealed not only to the lovers of literature and literary criticism, but also to those who were interested in men and manners, fashions and recreation. It appealed very well to women. The authors were writing for men as well as women, said Mrs. Jane H. Jack.

The periodical essay further avoided heated religious and political controversies and maintained a balance, following generally a middle path. Mr. Spectator says in the very first issue of The Spectator: “I never espoused any party with violence, and am resolved to observe an exact neutrality between the Whigs and Tories…” It also showed a healthy interest in trade, and thus appealed to the traders and merchants too. Lastly, the periodical essay became popular due to the chaste style of its contributors. They used simple and everyday language. It covered all accounts of gallantry, pleasure and entertainment, poetry, learning, foreign and domestic news.



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