Here is Dr. Johnson’s famous definition: “The essay is a loose sally of the mind, an irregular, indigested piece, not a regular and orderly composition.” This description or definition touches upon only one aspect-though a very important aspectof the essay. J. B. Priestly, himself a noted essayist, defines the essay as “a genuine expression of an original personality-an artful and enduring kind of talk.” In A. C. Benson’s words, the essay is “a reverie, the frame of mind in which a man says in the words of an old song ‘says I to myself says I.J.H. Lobban defines the essay as “a short…. discursive article on any literary, philosophical, or social subject, viewed from a personal or historical standpoint.” Murray’s Dictionary defines the essay as “a composition of moderate length on any particular subject…originally implying want of finish, but now said of a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range.”
What is an Essay?
Essays have Protean shapes and, therefore, it is understandable that though numerous attempts have been made to give a definition of the essay yet none has met with complete success. Most of such attempts succeed in covering only a part of the compositions which commonly go under the label of essays. A comprehensive definition which would over essays as different as those of Bacon, Addison, Lamb, Macaulay and E. V. Lucas is yet to come.
This plethora of definitions does not contain one which may be called omnibus. A working definition of the essay may, however, be given as follows: An essay is a short, incomplete, informal, light, subjective literary composition in prose. This definition is not rigid but pragmatic and has the advantage of being applicable to a vast proportion of essays.
The essay was, in the words of Douglas Bush, “one of the late courses in the banquet of literature.” Bacon was undoubtedly the father of the essay in England. A glance, however, may be cast at the rudiments of the essay which may be found in the works of some prose writers before Bacon. Philip Sidney’s Defence ofPoesie anticipates the regular critical essay. Caxton’s prefaces are also more or less of the nature of essays. Gascoigne’s Making of Verse consists of critical essays. Gosson’s School of Abuse is remarkably likewise.
However, the first real essayist who employed the term “essay” for his compositions and who had more or less a clear conception of what he was about, was Francis Bacon. He published a collection of ten essays in 1597 which he enlarged and revised in the subsequent editions of 1612 and 1625. Bacon borrowed the general conception of the essay from the French writer Montaigne whose Essais had appeared in 1580, seventeen years before the first of his own. Bacon must have perceived that the new genre was a fit vehicle for the expression of many ideas of his own. The word “essay”, etymologically speaking, means a trial or an attempt-something tentative, unorganised, lacking thoroughness. Bacon called his own essays “dispersed meditations,” indicating thereby their lack of method and organisation. They are, according to him, “certain brief notes set down rather significantly than curiously.” With the publication of these “notes” Bacon emerged as the first of English essayists and in the words of Hugh Walker, he remains, “for sheer mass and weight of genius the greatest.” Bacon followed by succeeding essayists is compared by Douglas Bush to “a whale followed by a school of porpoises.” In a word, Bacon’s greatness as an essayist is due not only to his precedence, but also excellence.
Some peculiar features of Bacon’s essays may now be referred to. One of their distinct features is their “impersonalness.” We do not find in them the same warmth of personality and subjectivity as we find in the essays of, say, Lamb-the essayist par excellence. Bacon is always stately and magnificent and disdains to mix with his readers or to talk familiarly to them. He is a teacher rather than a companion. Well did he call his essays “Counsels Civil and Moral.” His constant effort is to train the reader in the ways of the world. He was himself an out-and-out careerist, and his approach to the affairs of the world as well as in the bulk of his “counsels” is that of a careerist. He keeps himself aloof from moral and emotional considerations, and often looks like an English cousin of Machiavelli.
A word about his style. As regards his use of language, Bacon is an anti-Ciceronian. He excels in giving short, pregnant, and pithy aphorisms packed with the worldly wisdom and experience of a lifetime. His English achieves a high degree of compression, thanks to
(1) the use of the weightiest and simplest words and
(2) a persistent avoidance of superfluous words and, very often, ven connectives.
As Will Durant puts it in The Story of Philosophy, “Bacon abhors padding, and disdains to waste a word; he offers us infinite riches in a little phrase.” The laconic quality of Bacon’s style suffers a little in the second and third editions of his essays, when he adds a little colour and mellowness to his English. Even then, he remains a stringent adherent of brevity and a sworn enemy of all woolliness of expression. His importance in the history of English prose lies not only in his naturalisation of the essay in England but also in the evolution of a pliant model of English prose. His immediate predecessors and contemporaries like Ascham, Hooker, Sidney, Lyly, and Raleigh wrote a prolix, involved, highly Latinised, excessively decorated, and unwieldly prose which could never become a model of utilitarian, work a day prose suited to topics both high and low. As Hugh Walker observes, in his Essays Bacon provided such a model-for all his successors to follow, though, of course, with a few changes.
The Characters Writers:
If Bacon was the father of the English essay, he had few real “sons” as none of his followers resembled him. Among his successors may be mentioned Ben Jonson and a comparatively unknown writer Sir William Cornwallis who, in his own way, set the tone of honest self-examination and unassuming communication. Ben Jonson’s forceful personality continually breaks through his Discoveries, a collection of notes on contemporary men of letters and affairs.
In the first half of the seventeenth century the essay took the form of what is called the “character.” The most important character writers were Joseph Hall, Sir Thomas Overbury, and John Earste. All of them modelled their characters on the first character writer-the ancient Greek writer Theophrastus. A character generally speaking is a formalised character-sketch of a typical figure such as a merchant, a fanatic Puritan, a milkmaid, or a drunkard. The characterisation was often touched with satire and a didactic tendency. Some of the characters drawn by seventeenth-century character writers are just wooden types but a few are alive and somewhat individualised. The character by its nature did not lend itself to self-portrayal. Nor did it resemble Baconian essay-on account of its humour and witty and satiric touches making for social criticism. Towards the Restoration the character died, having outlived its utility.
Other Essayists of the Seventeenth Century:
Among the essayists of the seventeenth century other than the character writers may be mentioned Sir Thomas Browne, Abraham Cowley, Halifax, Sir William Temple, and John Dryden.
Browne did not write an essay in a strict sense, but his most famous work Religio Medici can be treated as a personal essay, provided we overlook its length. Browne was a delightful egotist and, as has been said, it is the perfect egotist who is the perfect essayist. Montaigne, the first essayist in world literature, had said about his collection of essays: “I myself am the subject of my book.” That is the approach of a typical essayist; but Bacon in his performance had struck a sharp note of contrast with his model. Browne, however, in words reminiscent of Montaigne, observed: “The world that I regard is myself. It is the microcosm of my own frame that I cast mine eye on.” His rambling, informal, and highly personal approach give him the true temper of a genuine essayist such as Lamb or Hazlitt.
Abraham Cowley wrote a charmingly fresh prose and revealed himself in quite a few intimately: personal essays such as “Of Myself.” “I confess,” writes he, “I love littleness almost in all things. A little convenient estate, a little cheerful house, a little company and very little feast; and if I were ever to fall in love again (which is a great passion, and therefore I hope I have done with it) it would be, I think, with prettiness rather than with majestical beauty.” Though in some of his essays he assumes a markedly didactic tone, yet we can justly treat him as a connecting link between Bacon and the romantic essayists.
Halifax wrote a few essays which are discursive but couched in a pleasant style. Sir William Temple also wrote some good essays but he treated his topics rather academically, so that his essays come close to being “popular lectures.”
Dryden was a versatile man of letters, being essayist, poet, critic and dramatist. In every department of literature he has much to his credit. Modern prose, it is said, begins with Dryden. Many of his prose writings are of the nature of critical essays, but his most ambitious work, the Essay of Dramatic Poesy, is in dialogue form and looks more like a treatise than an essay.
The Essay in the Eighteenth Century:
The eighteenth century is known in the history of English literature for its creation and development of the periodical essay which was “invented” by Steele in the beginning of the century and which expired near its end. Defoe was a busy journalist and some of his prose writings came very near the essay form. However, it is Steele who has the pride of place as the originator of the periodical essay. His periodical paper The Taller first appeared in 1709. It was taken out thrice weekly and every issue contained an essay, mostly on “the various flaws of dress and morals:” Steele was first assisted and then overshadowed by his friend Addison. The Taller ran to 271 numbers most of which came from the pen of Steele himself. After The Taller, The Spectator started its memorable career of 555 numbers, most of which were written by Addison. As Addison put it, the aim of The Spectator was to attack those vices which were “too trivial for the chastisement of the law and too fantastical for the cognizance of the pulpit.” Steele and Addison gave particular attention to women, especially their tendency to indulge in French fopperies, follies, and frivolities. Their head-dresses, “partly patches”, hooped petticoats, and other sartorial extravagances found in Steele and Addison enthusiastic critics, who recommended the virtues of chastity, domesticity, and modesty, and also, what may seem a little prudish, “discretion.” Addison and Steele became also the moral censors of the age, and did some really good work with their satire and sense of comedy wedded to a very serious aim. Their papers reconstruct before us England of the age of Queen Anne with its coffee-houses, theatres, stock-exchange, merchants, and commercial activity, street cries, and the ships and traffic of the Thames. They also did well in giving a pretty vast, if not Muntimate, glimpse of the rural life and manners. The peculiar nature of the periodical essays as practised by Addison and Steele was accepted with very few modifications, by all the subsequent periodical essayists.
Some differentiation between Steele and Addison may here be made. They were quite different in nature and this difference percolated down to their style. Steele was warm-hearted, lazy, careless and rambling. Macaulay calls him “a scholar among rakes and a rake among scholars.” Addison, on the other hand, was very “correct,” well-mannered, very calculating, and exact. Dr. Johnson’s famous tribute to Addison’s prose style is worth quoting: “Whosoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.” However, many modern critics have turned their approval to Steele, at the cost of Addison. Even in the nineteenth century, Leigh Hunt could write: “I prefer Steele with all his faults to Addison with all his essays.”
Pope and Swift also wrote some periodical essays. Pope was the greatest poet and Swift, the greatest prose writer, of the first half of the eighteenth century. But the most important name after Addison, in the list of periodical essayists, is that of Dr. Johnson whose essays appeared twice a week in The Rambler and also every Saturday in a newspaper. The latter group goes under the title of the Idler essays. In both of them Dr. Johnson showed himself in the mantle of a very serious moralist without the humour and sense of comedy which characterised Steele and Addison. His style, too, lacked the sprightliness and lucidity of that of his predecessors.
Oliver Goldsmith contributed to many periodicals. His own periodical The Bee ran to only eight weekly numbers. The Citizen of the World, Goldsmith’s best work, is a collection of essays which originally appeared in The Public Ledger as “Chinese Letters.” Goldsmith’s essays are rich in human details, a quivering sent! mental ism, and candidness of spirit. His prose style is, likewise, quite attractive. He avoids bitterness, coarseness, pedantry, and stiff wit His style, in the words of George Sherburn, “lacks the coldness of the aristocratic manner, and it escapes the tendency of his generation to follow Johnson into excessive heaviness of diction and balanced formality of sentence structure…It is precisely for this lack of formality and for his graceful and sensitive ease, fluency, and vividness that we value his style.”
The Romantic Essayists-Leigh Hunt, Haziitt, De Quincey, and Lamb:
The early nineteenth century saw in England the emergence of the romantic spirit both in verse and prose. The romantic essayists, like Leigh Hunt, Haziitt, De Quincey, and Charles Lamb, had many traits in common; for instance, their tendency of self-revelation, their subjective approach, their button holding familiarity, their congenial and tolerant humour, their occasional pathos, their inspiration as stylists from the writers of the past, and their visionary and somewhat .extravagant nature.Of course, it is wrong to assume that all of them wrote according to a formula. All had their own individual views and predilections though the conception of the essay was the same in each case. Their essays entirely agree with the tentative definition of the essay we have given at the outset. Lamb has well been called “the prince of the English essayists” and “the essayist par excellence.” Haziitt and Lamb, with Coleridge, are the most eminent of all the romantic literary critics. As a critic, Haziitt is sometimes equal to Lamb but as an essayist, he yields the palm to Lamb.