Take almost any passage from the essays of Bacon or of Lamb and ask even a dull student to identify it and, a hundred to one, he will do so correctly. But modern’ prose writers write almost alike, with few personal whimsies and little individuality.
Introduction: Journalism and the Essay:
The best prose of the twentieth century has gone into the novel and drama. With the close of the nineteenth century the long great tradition of English prose stylists starting with Hooker and Bacon came to an end. Though the twentieth century can boast a very large number of competent prose writers from Lytton Strachey to Bertrand Russell and J.B. Priestley, yet none of them is comparable in stature with the old masters like Browne, Swift, Lamb, Carlyle, or Ruskin. Modern prose writers have hardly any style for they use language only functionally, not like prose-poets or orators.
One important reason for this loss of style is the merger of the essayist with the journalist In this era of mass media a journalist may retain the individuality and independence of his mind but, when it comes to style, he has to accept the common norms of the written language for the sake of effective communication. Many of the notable essayists of the twentieth century have been editors of newspapers or journals and some of them journalists. This is significant. According to A.C. Ward, the enlistment of essayists by newspapers has had the following two effects:
1. First, it has raised the standard of journalistic prose.
2. And, second, it has compelled the essayists to accept a discipline which was quite irksome but useful insofar as it trained them to write regularly to fill a predetermined space in an organ. The periodical essay of Steele and Addison, which was born with the eighteenth century and died with it, had a new avatar, under widely different circumstances, in the twentieth.
The Prominent Essayists of the Century-G.K. Chesterton (1874— 1936):-
Chesterton was foremost among the English essayists of early years of the twentieth century. He was not an essayist but a phenomenon. Chestertonian wit is not less-known than Shavian wit. Chesterton and Barnard Shaw were very different ideologically and even physically. Shaw was an agnostic and a socialist whereas Chesterton was a Roman Catholic and a “Distributist” (i.e. one who was against state control of property and wanted it to be distributed equitably among deserving individuals). Shaw was very lean whereas Chesterton was very corpulent. It is said that once Chesterton taunted Shaw for his hollow looks, saying: “Mr Shaw, if some foreigner looked at you he would think there is a terrible famine in England.” Shaw retorted at once: “And if he looked at you he would also understand the cause of the famine.” For once Chesterton was crestfallen.
Chesterton was always ready to measure swords with whoever came his way. Basically he was a polemicist-vigorous and incisively witty. He started his career as a journalist writing weekly articles for newspapers. He made his mark with his contributions to the Daily News. As an essayist he has a tremendous range, and he has always something original and startling to say about everything. Witticisms, epigrams, satiric sallies and ingenious paradoxes are recurring features of his prose. As an example of paradox consider his remark about the French Revolution: “The greatest event in English history occurred outside England.” How odd, but how true! Chesterton’s predilection for paradox, however, can at time become as fatal a Cleopatra as Shakespeare’s weakness for puns. As Ward puts it, “verbal acrobatics became a pernicious habit” with him with the passage of time. Ward finds fault, for example, with Chesterton’s description of Thomas Hardy a “the village atheist brooding and blaspheming over the village idiot.” This is an example of what Ward calls Chesterton’s “verbal exhibitionism.” However, Chesterton’s writing happily abound in such sparkling examples of verbal wit as the following, which attacks Tolstoy’s pacificism:-
“In the pacifist mythology of Tolstoy and his followers St. George did not conquer the dragon; he tied a pink ribbon round its neck and gave it a saucer of milk.”
Hilaire Belloc (1870—1953):
Belloc was a very close friend and collaborator of Chesterton. Their mutual association was so strong that the two were jokingly named together “the Chesterbelloc”-as if they were a single but double-headed creature. The two subscribed to the same religion (Roman Catholicism) and the same political ideology (“Distributism.”) “The Chesterbelloc” fought a long battle with agnostic socialists like H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw.
Belloc was an extremely versatile writer-essayist, novelist, poet, historian, and biographer. Now he is chiefly read for his books of light verse-A Bad Child’s Book of Beasts and More Beasts for Worse Children. As an essayist he has a clear and lucid style laced with humour and charged with polemic energy. He hated to fake an emotion. This makes his essays sincere and, sometimes, moving. He prided himself for one quality-what he called the “sense of rhythm,” which is apparent especially in his longer sentences which seem to have been crafted like a piece of music without any overt effort. However, he lacks Chestertonian brilliance.
E.V. Lucas (1868—1938):
Lucas may be called the Charles Lamb of the twentieth century. His adoration of “the prince of English essayists” goaded him to write the authoritative Life of Charles Lamb (1905) and edit a definitive edition of the works and letters1 of Charles and Mary Lamb (1903-05). In addition he wrote essays, travel-books, books about paintings and several volumes of, what he called, “entertainments”-curious mixtures of the essay and the novel. He also worked with several newspapers before becoming assistant editor of Punch. Lucas’ essays and “entertainments” are full of common sense and humour of a kind often reminiscent of Lamb. But, as Ward observes, “there are profound dissimilarities between the two writers. The robust urbanity and sophistication of Lucas made him unlike Lamb Lucas’s essays and ‘entertainments’ are marked by fancy, literary artifice, common sense, and humour. Yet his humour, though in general kindly, is sometimes savage.”
A.G. Gardiner (1865-1946):
Gardiner, or “Alpha of the Plough,” was also a journalist as well an essayist of note. He was editor of the Daily News from 1902 to 1919, a paper to which Chesterton made regular contributions in his early career as an essayist. Gardiner has probably a better claim than Lucas to the mantle of Elia as he is closer to the peculiar temper of the great Romantic essayist. Gardiner could write on almost everything that came his way-umbrellas, pigs, pockets, beer, or porcelain. His prose is close to everyday language-clear and informal, genial and energetic. He avoids difficult words. In fact, he has written an essay “On Big Words” to justify his choice of simple and common diction. He distinguishes between what he calls “a fine use of words” and “the use of fine words,” and prefers the former to the latter.
Robert Lynd (1879—1949):
Yet another journalist-essayist, Lynd as “Y.Y.” wrote weekly essays for the New Statesman for a number of years. Like Chesterton he brooded over his articles in a Fleet Street cafe letting the grateful fumes of coffee kindle his imagination. His essays are marked by geniality, infectious humour, subjectivity, and an uncanny penchant for the right, telling phrase. Ward says about him: “He was a skilled phrase-maker and could describe a Cup Final [“The Battle of Footerloo”] with his eye on many things besides the game-or on everything except the game; and few funnier things have been written than ‘Eggs: An Easter Homily.”
Lynd was the last great personal essayist in the line of Lamb and Stevenson, for with the onset of World War II (1939-45) and the concomitant paper famine newspapers could not spare any space for light stuff. Thus the vogue of the personal essay came to an end with Lynd.
Max Beerbohm (1872—1956):
Beerbohm was a cartoonist and caricaturist as well as a prose writer. He became the dramatic critic of the Saturday Review when Shaw retired in 1898. He had a rare gift for parody. A Christmas Garland, his best-known work; consists of seventeen essays on the subject of Christmas, each of them parodying the style of a contemporary author—Conrad, Bennett, Shaw, and others. As an essayist he is relaxed and good-humoured. He is a good satirist as well. Ward describes him as “a philosophic jester bursting bubbles of snobbery and pretence with wit and irony and satire.” He holds a prominent place among essayists to the twentieth century because, to quote Ward, he was “completely original.”
Scientific Essayists—Bertrand Russell (1872—1970), Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), and J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964):—
These writers either wrote essays on scientific subjects or else wrote scientifically (i.e. dispassionately and rationally) on issues concerning practical life. Russell was a notable philosopher and mathematician and a compaigner for rationalism. Huxley, who was a novelist as well, compaigned against mass culture and unreasonable opinions (like the one that the Taj is a very artistic building). Haldane, a geneticist wrote about difficult scientific subjects in a simple, lucid style. Infact the style of all scientific essayists is clear and purely functional— trough Huxley, unlike others, can be very witty and sarcastic.