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Essayist Essay


ESSAY, ESSAYIST. As a form of literature, the essay is a composition of moderate length, usually in prose, which deals in an easy, cursory way with a subject, and, in strictness, with that sub ject only as it affects the writer. Dr. Johnson, himself an eminent essayist, defines an essay as "an irregular, undigested piece"; the irregularity may perhaps be admitted, but want of thought, that is to say, lack of proper mental digestion, is clearly not character istic of a fine example. It should, on the contrary, always be the brief and light result of experience and profound meditation, while "undigested" is the last epithet to be applied to the essays of Mon taigne, Addison or Lamb. Bacon said that the Epistles of Seneca were "essays," but this can hardly be allowed. Bacon himself goes on to admit that "the word is late, though the thing is ancient." The word, in fact, was invented for this species of writing by Montaigne, who merely meant that these were experiments in a new kind of literature. This original meaning, namely that these pieces were attempts or endeavours, feeling their way towards the expression of what would need a far wider space to exhaust, was lost in England in the course of the 18th century.

Montaigne, in inventing the essay, had probably little suspicion of the far-reaching importance of what he had created. In his de jected moments, he turned to rail at what he had written, and to call his essays "inepties" and "sottises." But in his own heart he must have been perfectly aware that he had devised a new thing; that he had invented a way of communicating himself to the world as a type of human nature. It is not often that we can date with any approach to accuracy the arrival of a new class of literature into the world, but it was in the month of March 1571 that the essay was invented. Montaigne (q.v.) wrote slowly, not system atically; it took nine years to finish the two first books of the essays. The earliest imprint saw the light in 1580, at Bordeaux, and the Paris edition of 1588, which is the fifth, contains the final text of the great author. These dates are not negligible in the briefest history of the essay, for they are those of its revelation to the world of readers. It was in the delightful chapters of his new, strange book that Montaigne introduced the fashion of writing briefly, irregularly, with constant digressions and interruptions, about the world as it appears to the individual who writes.

It has always been admitted that Montaigne's genius has an affinity with the English. He was early read in England, and cer tainly by Bacon, whose is the second great name connected with this form of literature. It was in 1597, only five years after the death of Montaigne, that Bacon published in a small octavo the first ten of his essays. These he increased to 38 in 1612 and to 58 in 1625. It is possible that when he wrote them he was not yet familiar with the style of his predecessor, which was first made popular in England, in 1603, when Florio published his translation of the Essais. In the later editions Bacon greatly expanded his theme, but he never reached, or but seldom, the freedom and ease, the seeming formlessness held in by an invisible chain, which are the glory of Montaigne, and distinguish the typical essayist. It would seem that at first, in England, as in France, no lesser writer was willing to adopt a title which belonged to so great a presence as that of Bacon or Montaigne. The one exception was Sir William Cornwallis (d. 1631), who published essays in 1600 and 1617, of slight merit, but popular in their day. No other English essayist of any importance appeared until the Restoration, when Abraham Cowley wrote eleven "Several Discourses by way of Essays," which did not see the light until 1668. Cowley's essay "Of Myself" is a model of what these little compositions should be. The name of Bacon inspires awe, but it is really not he, but Cowley, who is the father of the English essay.

When we reach the 18th century, we find the essay suddenly be come a dominant force in English literature. It made its appear ance almost as a new thing, and in combination with the earliest development of journalism. On April 12, 170o, appeared the first number of a penny newspaper, entitled the Tatler, a main feature of which was to amu3e and instruct fashionable readers by a series of short papers dealing with the manifold occurrences of life. But it was not until Steele, the founder of the Tatler, was joined by Addison that the 18th century essay really started upon its course. It displayed at first, and indeed it long retained, a mixture of the manner of Montaigne with that of La Bruyere combining the form of the pure essay with that of the character study, as modelled on Theophrastus. Addison's early Tatler portraits, in particular such as those of "Tom Fclio" and "Ned Softly," are hardly essays. But Steel'e's "Recollections of Childhood" is, and here we may observe the type on which Goldsmith, Lamb and R. L. Stevenson after wards worked. In Jan. 171I, the Tatler came to an end, and was almost immediately followed by the Spectator, and in 1713 by the Guardian. Later in the century, after the publication of other less successful experiments, appeared Fielding's essays in the Covent Garden Journal (I7 5 2) and Johnson's in the Rambler (175o), the Adventurer (17 5 2) and the Idler 0759). There followed a great number of polite journals, in which the essay was treated as "the bow of Ulysses in which it was the fashion for men of rank and genius to try their strength." Goldsmith reached a higher level than the Chesterfields and Bonnell Thorntons had dreamed of, in the delicious sections of his Citizen of the World (176o). After Goldsmith, the 18th century essay declined into tamer hands, and passed into final feebleness with the pedantic Richard Cumberland and the sentimental Henry Mackenzie. The corpus of 18th century essayists is extremely voluminous, and their reprinted works fill some 5o volumes.

A great revival of the essay took place during the first quarter of the 19th century, and foremost in the history of this movement must always be placed the name of Charles Lamb. He perceived that the real business of the essay, as Montaigne had conceived it, was to be largely personal. The Essays of Elia began to appear in the London Magazine for Aug., 182o, and proceeded at fairly regular intervals until Dec., 1822; early in 1823 the first series of them were collected in a volume. The peculiarity of Lamb's style as an essayist was that he threw off the Addisonian and still more the Johnsonian tradition, and boldly went back to the rich verbiage and brilliant imagery of the 17th century for his inspiration. He succeeded, moreover, in reaching a poignant note of personal feel ing, such as none of his predecessors had ever aimed at ; the essays called "Dream Children" and "Blakesmoor" are examples of this. Leigh Hunt, clearing away all the didactic and pompous elements which had overgrown the essay, restored it to its old Spectator grace, and was the most easy nondescript writer of his generation in periodicals such as the Indicator (1819) and the Companion (1828). The sermons, • letters and pamphlets of Sydney Smith were really essays of an extended order. In Hazlitt and Francis Jeffrey we see the form and method of the essay beginning to be applied to literary criticism. The writings of De Quincey are almost exclusively essays. His biographical and critical essays are interesting, but they are far from being trustworthy models in form or substance. In a sketch, however rapid, of the essay in the 19th century, prominence must be given to the name of Macaulay. His earliest essay, that on Milton, appeared in the Edinburgh Re view in 1825, very shortly after the revelation of Lamb's genius in "Elia." No two products cast in the same mould could, however, be more unlike in substance. In the hands of Macaulay the essay ceases to be a confession or an autobiography ; it is strictly imper sonal, it is literary, historical or controversial, vigorous, trench ant and full of party prejudice. The periodical publication of Macaulay's Essays in the Edinburgh Review went on until In later times the essay in England has been cultivated both on the personal and on the impersonal model. The essays of R. L. Stevenson are of the same class as those of Montaigne and Lamb, and he approached far more closely than any of his contemporaries to their high level of excellence. In America in the meanwhile the essay had been written with genius by Thoreau in Walden; and Emerson's Essays, though not in the tradition of Montaigne and Lamb, were rich in lofty thought and utterance. The critical essay belongs, perhaps, to the sphere of criticism rather than of the essay, but a form so delightfully used by.Matthew Arnold, Au gustine Birrell and Edmund Gosse cannot be left unmentioned. Alice Meynell's Essays is perhaps the most beautiful book of essays ever written by a woman. During the loth century the essay has been reborn as a playful kind of literature, and Max Beerbohm, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton and E. V. Lucas are among those who have excelled in the art.

Although invented by a great French writer the essay was very late in making itself at home in France. The so-called Essais of Leibnitz, Nicole, Yves Marie Andre and so many others were really treatises. Voltaire's famous Essay sur les moeurs des nations is an elaborate historical disquisition in nearly 200 chapters. Later, the voluminous essays of Joseph de Maistre and of Lamennais were not essays at all in the literary sense. On the other hand, the admirable Causeries du lundi of Sainte-Beuve (1804-69) are literary essays in the fullness of the term, and have been the fore runners of much brilliant essay-writing in France. Among those who have specially distinguished themselves as French essayists may be mentioned Theophile Gautier, Paul de Saint-Victor, Ana tole France, Jules Lemaitre, Ferdinand Brunetiere and Smile Faguet. All these are literary critics, and it is in the form of the analysis of manifestations of intellectual energy that the essay has been most successfully illustrated in France. All the countries of Europe, since the middle of the 19th century, have adopted this form of writing; such monographs or reviews, however, are not perfectly identical with the essay as it was conceived by Addison and Lamb. This last, it may be supposed, is a definitely English thing, and this view is confirmed by the fact that in several Euro pean languages the word "essayist" has been adopted.


Hugh Walker, The English Essay and Essayists (1915) ; J. B. Priestley, Essayists Past and Present (1925).

essays, century, montaigne, bacon, english, lamb and literature