The Study of English Essays

The Essay: Nature and Definition
According to its literal derivation, the word “Essay” has the same meaning as the word “Assay” i.e. an attempt or an “effort”. This signifies that the essay is a composition somewhat tentative or experimental, and somewhat incomplete and unsystematic. Various efforts have been made to define the essay from Bacon onwards, and all of them centre round this literal significance of the word.

The Oxford Dictionary defines it 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.” Alexander Smith, in one of the best essays on the subject, says that an essay, as a literary form, “resembles the lyric, in so far as it is moulded by some central mood – whimsical, serious, or satirical. Given the mood, the essay, from the first sentence to the last, grows around it as the cocoon grows around the silkworm.” Thus the essay resembles the lyric. Like the lyric, it is intensely subjective, an expression of the moods, likes and dislikes, of its author. That is why the essay has been called a prose-lyric. Like the lyric the essay proper is an expression of the emotions and moods of the essayist. It has the intensity, the subjectivity and the brevity of the lyric. As in the lyric, the writer talks about himself and lays his heart bare before his readers. He pours out in it his joys and sorrows, his likes and dislikes, his loves and hatreds. Like the lyric it is a charming piece of self-revelation.

Its Chief Characteristics
The chief characteristics of the literary essay which emerge from the above definitions are:
(1)      It is a prose composition, brief or of moderate length. This brevity or shortness of the essay does not arise from the superficiality or lack of knowledge of its author. Rather, it results from the fact that he has full command over his subject, and so can express himself in a pithy and condensed language. The essay thus becomes a “crowded-utterance”. Therefore, it is a difficult form of literary composition. Moreover, since the writer has to be brief and concise, he should properly select or sift his material. If a composition becomes elaborate and lengthy, it ceases to be an essay and becomes a treatise.
(2)      The essay is incomplete. It is not exhaustive. The essayist does not say all that is to be said on the subject. On the other hand, he writes only on those aspects of the subject which he considers most significant, and leaves out the rest.
(3)      It is personal in nature. From the second characteristic of the essay it follows that the literary essay is more or less a personal affair. It is mood dictated. It shares something of the nature of a lyric. When the writer is in a mood to compose, the essay grows round that mood as the cocoon grows around the silk-worm. The essay thus expresses the personal likes and dislikes, prejudices and predilections, of the essayist. In the best essays, as those of Charles Lamb, the personal element is most strongly marked.
(4)      It is informal and unsystematic. It lacks finish. It was this characteristic of the essay which Dr. Johnson emphasised when he called it an undigested piece, and a loose sally of the mind. There is no formal or logical development of thought in an essay. The various points or arguments are not systematically arranged, but follow each other in an haphazard manner. Its author likes to enjoy the freedom of conversation. So he is informal, and often chatty.
(5)      A good essay should be attractive and charming so that it may be easily retained in the mind. It should have a touch of humour.
Its Kinds
On the basis of its chief or dominant characteristics, the Essay may be of the following kinds:
a)         The Aphoristic Essay – Bacon is the chief exponent of this kind of essay.
b)         The Personal Essay – In this type of essay, the personal element predominates. Like the lyric, it is mood-dictated. Charles Lamb is the greatest of the personal essayists in the English language.
c)         The Character-essay or Character-writing – This type of essay was popular during the first half of the 17th century. The essayists sketched some particular human type in each of the essays.
d)        The Critical Essay – As its name signifies, this kind of essay is an attempt at literary criticism. It came into full bloom with Dryden.
e)         The Social or Periodical Essay – This kind of essay aimed at social reform and it was first published in the Periodical Press. The early part of the 18th century was the heyday of this type of essay. Addison and Steele were pioneers in the field.
Bacon and the Aphoristic Essay
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is generally regarded as the father of the English essay, for he was the first to use the word ‘essay’ in England, and his volume of Essays published in 1597 was the first work of prose composition in this genre. Bacon is the first real essayist in England, and one of the greatest. The term ‘essay’ and the general conception of this literary kind, he borrowed from the French essayist, Montaigne, but filled it with material drawn from his own mind. He regarded the essay as, “a receptacle for detached thoughts”, and so he called his essays, “dispersed meditations.” He was an extremely busy man of the world who was in the habit of jotting down his experiences, and his views on man and life. That is why he defined his essays as, “counsels civil and moral”. His purpose was not to preach ideal morality, but to give valuable guidance on a variety of subjects drawn from day to day affairs of practical life. Hence it was that his essays came home to, “man’s businesses and bosom”, and were immensely popular. His essays are of the aphoristic kind.
The Character-Essay
The early half of the 17th century marks another significant advance in the development of the English essay. This period witnessed the rise of another kind of the essay, the Character-essay. There flourished a number of character-writers, who had the ancient Greek essayist Theophrastus as their model. They gave short, minute character-sketches, often very minute and humorous, of various types of people. The best known essayists of this group are Joseph Hall, who claimed to be the first English satirist, John Earle and Sir Thomas Overbury.
The Critical Essay – Dryden
The latter half of the 17th century, i.e. the restoration period, is significant from the point of view of the development of the critical essay. Dryden’s innumerable prefaces, dedications etc., are in the nature of critical essays. His contribution led to the development of the middle style of English prose, a style which is more suited to miscellaneous purpose than the ornate style of his predecessors. He is, “the first master of a prose which is adapted to the everyday needs of expression, and yet has dignity enough to rise to any point, short of the topmost peaks of eloquence.”
The Periodical or Social Essay
With the rise of the periodical press, in the beginning of the 18th century, the essay took a long stride forward. The struggle for political supremacy between the two political parties – the Whigs and the Tories – resulted in the publication of a large number of Journals or Periodicals like The Tatler and The Spectator, founded by Addison and Steele.
The aim of the two collaborators was social reform – to censor the manners and morals of the age, more particularly the frivolities of the female sex. Addison’s essay have the rare charm of humour, delicate, gentlemanly, urbane and tolerant. He perfected the middle-style, and laid the lines along which the essay was to be developed by his successors.
The essayist who maintained the tradition of Addison, and who had the true essay-manner, is Olive Goldsmith. He contributed largely to The Bee and his series of essays is entitled the Chinese Letters. These essays were later collected and published in book form under the title The Citizen of the World. His character-sketches are remarkable for their simplicity, grace and kindly humour. The characters of “Beau Tibbs” and “Man in Black”, are as great classics as “Sir Roger De Coverley”. The comments on English Society which we get in his essays are both simple and shrewd. They have the charm of his personality. His humour is all-pervading, typical and artless. In grace, charm and aimable good humour, he is one of the greatest essayists of England.
The number of periodicals continued to increase, more and more writers wrote essays for the periodical press, but nothing significant was produced till we come to the opening years of the 19th century. With the spread of education and the increasing tempo of life, the popularity of The Essay continued to grow. There was a spurt of periodical and literary Journals. The periodicals encouraged essay-writing, the people demanded the form, and the essay acquired an additional importance and significance.
Charles Lamb and the Personal Essay
The most important essayist of the first decade of the 19th century and the greatest of all essayists of England is without doubt Charles Lamb. He was a charming man, a delightful talker, and one of the least assuming of writers. His essays are unequalled in English. Their subjects range from chimney-sweeps to old China. The humour that runs throughout his essays is genial and charming, airy and selfish, and it is blended with rare skill with a tender pathos that has a charm quite its own. At every step, we find the essayist talking of himself, talking the readers into his confidence and confiding to them his most intimate joys and sorrows, in an easy, chatty style. His essays are truly prose-lyrics. He is ever pleasing and charming, and never, not even once, does he grow tiresome. It is difficult to describe his style; it has a charm all its own. It is always charming and the source of much of his charm is his humour. Lamb had the true essay manner, and so he has rightly been called the prince of English essayists.
The most important essayists of the Victorian era are Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, W.H. Pater and R.L. Stevenson.
Of all these essayists R.L. Stevenson is the only one who has the true essay manner. He is in the direct tradition of Charles Lamb. “He was a born essayist”, says Hugh Walker, “and he co-operated with nature, developing, and strengthening the gifts with which he was endowed at birth.” In his essays, he shows himself to be the master of an easy, graceful style, the result of much care and a close attention to artistic finish. At every step, his essays reveal the charm of his personality. He is often as confidential and intimate as Charles Lamb. The best of his essays are the confidential chat of an intimate and loveable friend. The personal note is his chief characteristic and charm.
The Essay in the 20th Century
The essay continues to flourish with added vigour and charm in the 20th century. The countless periodicals, journals, magazines and dailies of our time afford unlimited scope for the essay. There are those who fear that the Short Story and the One Act Play will gradually oust the essay from its place of prominence, but as yet there are no indications that the essay is likely to lose its place and significance in the foreseeable future. E.V. Lucas, Robert Lynd, G.K. Chesterton, Augustine Birrel, A.G. Gardiner, Max Beerbohm, Hilaire Belloc, and J.B. Priestley are only a few of the leading luminaries. Without going into the details of their works, we may sum up the chief characteristics of the 20th century essay as follows:
Modern Essay and Prose Style: Chief Characteristics
1.         There is a reversion to the manner of Lamb. The best of the essayists are personal and chatty. The personal element comes to the forefront in the modern essay. The essayist lays his heart bare before the readers.
2.         The modern essay provides a criticism of life. A spirit of questioning pervades the essay as other literature of the 20th century. Old conventions and traditions are subjected to a searching scrutiny; nothing is taken for granted.
3.         The Modern essayist uses the essay to propagate his views on various aspects of life which interest him, and of which he has studied.
4.         His themes are as varied as life itself. Every subject between heaven and earth is considered suitable for the essay. Thus A.G. Gardiner writes an essay on the mosquito.
5.         The essayist tries his best to present his views in the simplest manner possible so that even the lay reader may understand him.
6.         The style is also simple, though dignified. His language is the language of everyday speech. There is no attempt at ornamentation.
7.         Epigrams are rarely used, but effort is made to flavour the essay with mild, gentle humour. Thus wit and humour are the leading charms of the modern essay.

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