What are the key themes and styles in Sir Francis Bacon's Essays?

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Thematically, Francis Bacon’s essays typically deal with universal themes announced in their titles: “Of Adversity,” “Of Beauty,” and “Of Death” are a few. Bacon used an impersonal style when philosophizing on these types of themes and avoided referencing his personal experiences. He often expressed his ideas in short, pithy phrases, and while he sometimes eschewed conventional grammar, Bacon was adept at crafting a carefully balanced sentence structure using semicolons. His essays are full of references to the classics.

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When discussing the style and themes of Sir Francis Bacon’s Essays, it’s important to remember that the Essays were published in three editions in Bacon’s lifetime. Each new edition added more themes to the list of topics treated, and each of the later editions presented essays that tended to be longer, and more elaborate in style, than the editions that preceded them. Nevertheless, critics have cited some common traits of Bacon’s style and themes, and perhaps these can best be illustrated by examining a particular essay – in this case, the essay titled “Of Death.”

Bacon’s essays are often said to contain short, pity, memorable phrases as well as balanced sentence structure, and certainly all of those traits are evident in the opening words of the essay “Of Death”:

Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children, is increased with tales, so is the other.

Here the phrase “men fear death” immediately catches our attention. “Men” is balanced later by “children,” and the phrasing that follows the semicolon is as balanced as the phrasing that precedes it. Meanwhile, the phrases on either side of the semicolon are themselves balanced, and this frequent use of balance in Bacon’s essays suggests the mental balance and sensible reasoning of the author. The fact that Bacon is dealing with such a universally interesting topic as death is also typical of his essays, which very often deal with precisely such topics. Rather than writing about his personal experiences or perceptions, Bacon writes about topics likely to interest most readers, and he does so in a fairly impersonal style.

Bacon is often said to write in a crisp, terse, clipped manner, in a style influenced by Tacitus and Seneca rather than by the long, elaborately developed sentences of Seneca, and this tendency to terseness can be seen in the following sentence:

Revenge triumphs over death; love slights it; honor aspireth to it; grief flieth to it; fear preoccupateth it . . . .

In his essays, especially the later or revised ones, Bacon tends to cite classical examples to make his points and even to quote from classical sources.  In the essay “Of Death,” for instance, he writes as follows:

Augustus Caesar died in a compliment; Livia, conjugii nostri memor, vive et vale. Tiberius in dissimulation; as Tacitus saith of him, Jam Tiberium vires et corpus, non dissimulatio, deserebant. Vespasian in a jest, sitting upon the stool; Ut puto deus fio. Galba with a sentence; Feri, si ex re sit populi Romani; holding forth his neck. Septimius Severus in despatch; Adeste si quid mihi restat agendum. And the like.

Today, many of Bacon’s sentences, as in the passage just quoted, would be considered fragments, but they are typical of the often lightning speed of his style and of his emphasis on matter over manner, substance over conventionally “correct” grammar. Bacon rarely develops the full implications of many of his ideas. Instead, he often mentions an idea quickly and then swiftly moves on to the next, thereby encouraging readers to make connections and to think for themselves. Certainly that is one of the effects of the essay “Of Death.”

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