The question may indeed be raised whether the essay is to be considered as an independent and settled form of literary art at all. The force of this question becomes apparent the moment we compare a number of representative essays by different writers, and observe, as indeed no one can fail to observe, how little they have in common in respect either of theme or of method. An essay by Bacon consists of a few pages of concentrated wisdom, with little elaboration of the ideas expressed ; an essay by Montaigne is a medley of reflections, quotations, and anecdotes ; in an essay by Addison, the thought is thin and diluted, and the tendency is now towards light didacticism and now towards personal gossip ; Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding is a ponderous volume close-packed with philosophic matter ; the essay of Macaulay and Herbert Spencer are really small books. In these cases, cited haphazard and for purposes of illustration only, it is evident that we have to do with totally different conceptions of what the essay is and what it should aim to accomplish. If now we turn to attempted definitions we shall find little in them to clear up the confusion. According to Johnson, for example, an essay is “a loose sally of the mind, an irregular, undigested piece, not a regular and orderly composition”—a view which certainly does not tally with the highly-evolved essay of more recent times ; while Murray’s Dictionary, taking note of modern changes in the meaning of the word, speaks of the essay as “a composition of moderate length on any particular subject or branch of a subject,” adding—”originally implying want of finish, but now said of a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range.”
The essay fills so large a place in modern literature and is so attractive a form of composition, that attention must necessarily be given to it in any course of literary study. At the same time, its outlines are so uncertain, and it varies so much in matter, purpose, and style, that systematic treatment of it is impossible.
Manifestly, then, the word essay is very loosely used, and any attempt to fix rigorously its forms and features must perforce end in failure. Yet if Murray’s definition be scrutinised, it will, I believe (and this notwithstanding the fact that it is so ingeniously qualified that at first it seems almost meaningless), be found to help us at certain points. For the sake of clearness in thinking we may emphasise as characteristics of the true essay the comparative limitation both of length and of range which is brought out in it. When the so-called essay grows in bulk and comprehensiveness to the proportions, let us say, of Spencer’s Essay on Progress, the proper term for it is rather “dissertation” or “treatise.” That the essay is not intended to be exhaustive, then, is one aspect of it that should be kept in mind. Another aspect is suggested by Murray’s further remark that it originally implied “want of finish”— that it was, in Johnson’s delightfully characteristic phraseology, “a loose sally of the mind.” Etymologically, the word essay connotes this, for it is the same as assay, and therefore means a trial of a subject, or an attempt towards it, and not in the least a thorough and final examination of it. It was in that sense that it was employed by our first modern essayists, Montaigne and Bacon; and when Locke used it for his massive treatise it must be assumed that it was extreme modesty and the sense that, after all, he had only broken ground on his subject that prompted him so to do. Vast as has been the transformation of the essay since the time of Montaigne and Bacon, the original signification of the word has not altogether been outgrown.
The essay, then, may be regarded, roughly, as a composition on any topic the chief negative features of which are comparative brevity and comparative want of exhaustiveness. It was to these two features that Crabbe referred the extraordinary vogue of the essay. “The essay,” he declared, “is the most popular mode of writing,” because “it suits the writer who has neither talent nor inclination to pursue his inquiries farther, and…the generality of readers who are amused with variety and superficiality.” This is obviously a very narrow view ; but I quote it in part because it is a view which must be considered, and even more because it serves to introduce a contrasted conception of the essay which is much more important. Crabbe, it will be noted, thought the essay easy because (as he alleged) it is necessarily superficial. Sainte-Beuve, on the other hand, held it to be one of the most difficult, as well as delightful, forms of literary expression, because for him it implied (as his own fine essays show) the power of condensation, or of saving much in little. In other words, he would not admit that brevity entails superficiality. He believed rather that a good essay should be characterised by that combination of conciseness and thoroughness which is possible only when a man is absolutely master of his subject. An important distinction is thus suggested. It will always be well, in the case of any given essay, to consider to which standard it seems to approximate—to that of Crabbe, or that of Sainte-Beuve. Is it brief because the writer knows little of his subject and therefore soon comes to the end of what he has to say ? Or because his wide and intimate knowledge enables him to disengage and present both concisely and adequately those special aspects of it with which for the moment he wishes to deal ? As practical clues, these questions will be found to take us farther than might at first be supposed.
Comparative brevity, then, must in any event be admitted as a formal feature of the essay, and it would therefore seem to be a necessary condition of a good essay that it should not attempt too much. Artistically, it will inevitably suffer from over-loading. Both the amount of material introduced and the method employed in dealing with it must be adjusted to the restrictions imposed. Selection and the proper distribution of emphasis will therefore be found among the elementary principles of essay writing. At the same time, while an essay must generally be confined to aspects only of a subject, it should, despite its fragmentariness, impress us as complete within itself.
Another commonly accepted canon is, that the method of the essay (as distinguished from that of the dissertation and the treatise) is marked by considerable freedom and informality. This brings it well within Johnson’s definition—”a loose sally of the mind, an irregular, undigested piece.” A certain want of organic quality, and the absence of that orderly and logical mode of procedure which we look for in the more ambitious kinds of literature, may be reckoned among the essay’s most pronounced structural peculiarities. In the early stages of its evolution, indeed, such irregularity and (in Murray’s words) “want of finish,” were fundamental; in fact, the essay arose because men had come to feel the need of a vehicle of expression in which they could enjoy something of the freedom of conversation. Thus Bacon’s essays are, as he himself tells us, “brief notes set down rather significantly than anxiously,” while Montaigne’s discursiveness and habit of going about his subject in a series of “hops, and skips, and jumps,” are notorious. Charles Lamb’s amusing reference to the schoolmaster who offered to instruct him in the art of regular composition, will be recalled at this point. In the abstract, therefore, we may consider the essay as relatively unmethodical as well as relatively short. The well-marked tendency among modern essayists towards greater logical consistency and regularity of structure is only one among many signs of the transformation of the essay into something different from the original and genuine type.
Thus far I have dealt only with the formal aspects of the essay. Passing from form to substance, we have specially to note that whatever its theme—and the range of its subject-matter is, of course, practically unlimited—the true essay is essentially personal. Like its verse analogue, the lyric, it belongs therefore to the literature of self-expression. Treatise and dissertation may be objective ; the essay is subjective. Montaigne said of his essays that they were “consubstantial” with their author, and if few essayists have ever been so outspoken and so unabashed in their egotism as this wise old Frenchman, vital relationship between their work and themselves may usually be detected just beneath the surface of what they write. The central fact of the true essay, indeed, is the direct play of the author’s mind and character upon the matter of his discourse.
It is evident, then, that in our study of the essay there are several things which have to be kept in view. In the first place, we have to consider the writer’s personality and standpoint, his attitude immediately towards his subject, and incidentally, towards life at large. While thus disengaging the personal qualities of his work, we have also to follow the evolution of his thought, marking what aspects of his subject he has selected for treatment, how he introduces his ideas, how he handles and enforces them, and how he brings them to a conclusion. Under this head we have, moreover, to examine his whole art of presentation, exposition, and illustration, and, manifestly, to estimate the value of what he says. Finally, we have to pay particular attention to his style which, on account of the strong personal element in the essay, will be found of great importance. On this matter, however, nothing remains to be added to what has been said in the text (pp. 27-30) about style in general as an index of personality.
An historical study of the essay will, of course, include a consideration of its growth and transformation, and of the way in which it has influenced, and been influenced by, other forms of literature. Its connection with the novel, of which it was one of the affluents, and into the composition of which it still often enters, is a point of special interest. Let me add that what I have said about the transformation of the essay must be taken simply as the statement of a fact. No judgment upon the fact is suggested. We may regret the tendency of the modern essay towards greater elaboration and formality, and may feel that this implies loss of freedom and personal charm. Yet literary types must necessarily evolve in response to changing conditions, and their evolution is, at bottom, a sign of continued life.