The Essay


I thought this interesting (in terms of style, as much as content):

In its original literary use the word essay was intended to apply to a newly-created form of writing and to emphasize its experimental nature. The essay was supposed to be an attempt or a trial, and Abraham Cowley – sometimes called the father of the English essay – when his little collection of essays was published, gave it the title of Several Discourses by way of Essays, and proceeded to discourse of himself and the world at large in the most charmingly discursive way. ‘The word is late’, said that very great figure in the world of the essay, Francis Bacon, when he dedicated his essays to the Prince of Wales, ‘but the thing is ancient’, though Seneca’s Epistles to Lucilius which Bacon cited as examples of the essay were also described by him as ‘Dispersed Meditations’. And Addison in The Spectator spoke of ‘The wildness of those compositions which go by the name of Essays…’ and added that Seneca and Montaigne are patterns for writings of this kind. But from the time of Bacon the use of the word has been somewhat indiscriminate. It is now to be found applied to the most diverse forms of writing, from the solemn and learned treatise to the slightest and most ephemeral effusion of the moment. It is used, for example, to describe Montaigne and his ‘well-meaning book’, as indeed it should be, for Montaigne not only created the new form of writing, but attached the word essais to his first publication in 1580. But the same word is applied to Malthus and his Essay on Population, to Locke and his Essay concerning Human Understanding, to Pope’s Essay on Criticism and his Essay on Man (although they are both in heroic couplets), to the essays of Bacon, Macaulay, Froude and Carlyle, to John Earle’s Micro-Cosmographie, or a Piece of the World discovered in Essayes and characters, to Sir Philip Sidney’s An Apologie for Poetrie, to G.K. Chesterton’s Tremendous Trifles, to the ‘Prefaces’ of Bernard Shaw, to Hilaire Belloc’s On Something, On Nothing and On Everything, to Jeremy Taylor, to Steele and Addison, Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Lamb, and to a thousand other vividly contrasted styles of writing and subject matter.
Michel de Montaigne started the fashion and English writers have adopted and adapted it to the lasting glory of literature in all the succeeding centuries. In the year 1571 he was 38 years old. He was well-to-do, and had quite deliberately turned away from ‘the eager and tumultuary pursuits of the life political’, as Lord Morley once described them, and had retired to the calm and quietude of his country home. Here it was, in ‘the tower raised above but not removed from men’s follies’, that he began  the composition of the essais that were destined to place him amongst the immortals. Had the hopes based on the peace of Saint Germain been fulfilled, Montaigne might have written no essays at all, but have spent his life in some form of political activity, for which in some respects he was well fitted. In that event, the stream of English literature might well have run in some other course that the course it followed after the publication of the first two books of Montaigne in 1580. In John Florio’s translation of 1603, the Essays were made more accessible to English readers, and in the ‘Address from the Author to the Reader’, Montaigne sets out the purpose of his mind. The memorable opening words are – ‘Reader, lo here a well-meaning book’, and he continues – ‘Had my intention been to forestal and purchase the world’s opinion and favour, I would surely have adorned my selfe more quaintly, or kept a more grave or solemne march. I desire therein to be delineated in mine owne genuine and simple and ordinarie fashion, without contention, art or study; for it is my selfe I pourtray.’
Whether this declaration is strictly true may be doubted; but Montaigne wrote of himself in the most startlingly intimate way and indulged his every thought and fancy to the uttermost. He seems to permit his mind to wander where it pleased and he gives the impression of writing as his mood dictates. He ornamented and embellished his fancies with grace and art, and wrote with solemnity or gaiety on things grave and weighty, or things excessively trivial. He wrote moreover with a seeming discursiveness that somehow never quite forsook the original theme. Perhaps Sir Edmund Gosse put the matter as simply as it can be put when he said – ‘It was in the chapters of his strange new 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.’
As a large host of writers have followed Montaigne’s great example, perhaps it would be well to say that this air of discursiveness, so congenial to the essay, is almost always deceptive. Montaigne knew perfectly well what he was doing, and just as the modern after-dinner speaker is said to lie awake half the night considering how best to give the impression of being completely spontaneous in his speech, so Montaigne, it may be thought, with his elaborate quotations, his historical allusions, his curious speculations, and his quaint and most daring fancies, is not quite the casual and careless commentator he sometimes appears to be; but rather is he a man of some method and of great industry and of much forethought, with a plan and a scheme in all his writing.”

“The other equally great name in the history of the essay is that of Francis Bacon. He is utterly unlike Montaigne, but he is one of the chief glories of English literature. In the early part of the year 1597 he published his first volume of essays under the title of Essays. Religious Meditations, Places of Persuasion and Dissuasion. They were as different from the essays of Montaigne as anything could be. They were simple and direct, and were more akin to a collection of aphorisms, carefully gathered, and published without any ornamentation whatever.”

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine; italics in original) Ed. S.H. Steinberg Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Literature. London: Cassell, 1953 [I forgot to note the pagination! Ooops]


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