Definitions And Origins
SOURCE: "The Essay," in The Enjoyment of Literature, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1935, pp. 38-61.
[In the following excerpt, Drew traces the development of the familiar essay from Montaigne and Bacon through the periodical essayists of the eighteenth century and on to the era of Robert Louis Stevenson.]
The essay is the simplest of all forms of literature, but with it we enter that world where we shall remain throughout the rest of this book, the world of the conscious art of writing. From the lowest to the highest, from the simplest to the most complex kinds of literature, we shall find henceforth that the enjoyment of it is always twofold. There is the pleasure we receive from the conscious stimulus of certain recognizable parts of our being: to our curiosity about the stories and situations of other human beings, to our emotions, to our intellectual faculties, to our moral nature, to our senses. The pleasure of sharing the adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of meeting Elizabeth Bennet, of being stirred by Milton or enraptured by the sheer music of The Eve of St. Agnes. Here we know clearly what it is that pleases us; we recognize both the cause and the effect of the sense of satisfaction. But in the other kind of pleasure which literature creates, we are clearly conscious only of its effect. Form works upon the consciousness as a whole; it stimulates the consciousness as a whole; it satisfies it as a whole. If it is there, the sensitive reader recognizes it at once without analysis: the whole thing is 'right,' and the reason of its rightness is not questioned. But if perfection of form is absent, if the thing is 'wrong,' the reader is conscious that something vital is lacking. Detached faculties may still receive pleasure, human curiosity may be provoked, the mind quickened, the senses stirred, but that fusion of all faculties into one general sense of satisfaction in which the whole man is involved, is not there. Just as in a ballet the individual movements may be supple, the individual poses superb, the individual dexterity amazing, the decor perfect, but if the whole has not been bound together, fused, unified by one general spirit of rhythm, the harmony is not complete. What distinguishes the real artist from the amateur, says Goethe, is that power of execution which creates, forms and constitutes the whole.
What is an essay? It is impossible not to agree with J. B. Priestley that the simplest and safest definition of the essay is that it is the kind of composition produced by an essayist. The term is indeed so wide that it is meaningless. If we try to bring Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding and Lamb on "Old China" within the limits of a single definition it obviously cannot be done. The essay may be a dissertation, a piece of rhetoric, an argument, a discussion. It may deal with a religious, economic, historical, sociological, scientific or philosophical subject, or any other kind of subject. But it is clear that there is something very much narrower in definition which we really mean when we speak of the essay in any general discussion of literature. We mean a form of writing which aims definitely at certain literary values: that is, it aims at using language as a medium to present life in a way of its own.
Of all forms of literature, the essay is the one which least calls for the use of long words. The principle which controls it is simply that it should give pleasure; the desire which impels us when we take it from the shelf is simply to receive pleasure. Everything in an essay must be subdued to that end. It should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake refreshed with its last. In the interval we may pass through the most varied experiences of amusement, surprise, interest, indignation … but we must never be roused. The essay must lap us about and draw its curtain across the world.
'So great a feat is seldom accomplished,' Virginia Woolf continues, 'though the fault may well be as much on the reader's side as on the writer's. Habit and lethargy have dulled his palate.' This may be so, and yet, if the truth must be told, the reader has a good deal of excuse, for as a student he has generally been surfeited with essays, and unless the essay is superlatively good it is the dullest form of all reading. A soliloquy is a most difficult form to sustain, and the essay is all soliloquy. The essayist has so few baits with which to catch and hold the reader's attention. He has no story to arouse his curiosity and no rhyme to charm his ear: his space is so limited that he has but little room for movement, for changes of tone and pace. He cannot afford to make any mistakes. If he write tediously or carelessly or foolishly, the essay at once capsizes and sinks; the pleasure cruise is at an end, the reader is bored.
It is because of this razor edge between charm and boredom which so many essays balance on, that we might quarrel with Virginia Woolf's declaration that the essay should never arouse us, and declare instead that on occasions it does and should. Perhaps this is only true if we admit oratory and rhetoric into essay-writing, but if speeches be written to be read as well as to be heard, it is difficult to see how they can be excluded from this whole class of writings. Burke's speeches are superb essays, and so is Milton's Areopagitica, that great plea for the liberty of speech which, indeed, for the delight of direct intellectual and emotional and moral stimulus, in some of the most supple and sonorous cadences in the English language, remains unsurpassed. If I were to choose one sentence in the English language which is to myself the most kindling in its passion, and its idea and its expression, it would be one from the Areopagitica.
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister'd virtue, unexercis'd and unbreath'd, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.
The quality of that is the quality of the whole, and as a further taste of it, I quote the famous passage on the life of books.
I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how Books demean themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors: For Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragon's teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet on the other hand, unless wariness be us'd, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God's Image; but he who destroys a good Book, kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalm'd and treasur'd up on purpose to a life beyond life.
It is true, however, that the class of writings which we usually mean when we speak of essays, does not have the rousing and animating quality of Burke or Milton. Its aim is much milder, its achievement quite different. The supreme art of the essay proper, that special type of writing which was originated and invented by Montaigne, and dates from the first publication of his Essais in March, 1571, is to communicate personality. The essay (the word was used by Montaigne simply to denote experiments in a new form of writing), is the most direct form of prose communication between author and reader: it is deliberate egotism and self-revelation. Montaigne wrote the epigraph for all essayists, 'these are fancies of my own, by which I do not pretend to discover things, but to lay open myself.' As Lamb said of him, 'his own character pervades the whole, and binds it sweetly together,' and it is significant that Coleridge said of Lamb himself, 'Charles Lamb has more totality and individuality of character than any other man I know.'
That is the character the perfect essayist requires. He says with Sir Thomas Browne: 'the world that I regard is myself; it is the microcosm of my own frame that I cast my eye on. For the other I use it but like my globe, and turn it round sometimes for my recreation.' The novelist or the dramatist requires to be detached from his own personality. He may be David Copperfield or Jane Eyre or Hamlet, but he must also be Dick Swiveller or Paul Emmuanuel or Lady Macbeth. But the essayist must never be more than one character. The personality with which he writes may not be entirely his own, but it must be a complete personality. Elia is not the whole of Charles Lamb, nor the Spectator the whole of Joseph Addison, but they are each a completely recognizable person. We can walk round them and feel we know them in the most actual and tangible way. And we must have this sense of intimacy with the essay-writer, it is the essential of his peculiar and difficult art. He must always be the same person, and we must never be out of his company. Whatever other personality or situation or circumstance he presents, whatever book or picture or actor he is discussing, he is at pains to remind us all the time that it is his vision of them we are sharing. The main interest is always shifted subtly from the subject of the essay, to the kind of mind and being—the personality—which is writing of that subject. Creative egotism is the secret of the essayist, an egotism which appears, in the hands of an artist, as if it were the most simple and natural thing in the world, while in reality it is never successful unless it is presented with supreme skill. Just as his subject matter appears desultory and meandering, and is really the most carefully conceived and constructed of unities.
Alexander Smith, a minor writer of the mid-nineteenth century, who wrote a good essay, "On the writing of essays," in a volume called Dreamthorpe, says that the essay resembles the lyric in that both are molded by some central mood, whimsical, serious or satirical. 'Give the mood, and the essay, from the first sentence to the last, grows round it as a cocoon grows round the silk-worm.' This is a good image of the essayist's art, and is a better starting point for the illustrating of essays than a mere history of the subject. But a few chronological landmarks are perhaps helpful.
Montaigne died in 1592, and the first ten of Bacon's essays appeared in print five years later, and were the first essays to be published in England. He increased the number to thirty-eight in the edition of 1612, and to fifty-eight in the final edition of 1625. But although Bacon must have taken the idea of the essay from Montaigne, nothing could be more different than the 'moods' from which each of the two spins his thread. Montaigne must always remain the perfect example of the essayist temperament—sympathetic, humorous, unexpected, lovable, passionately curious in his search after psychological truth—while Bacon takes this new instrument for writing of the world as it is seen through the eyes of a temperament, and manages to turn it into something completely inhuman. Montaigne is a warm flesh and blood figure, sitting at ease at his study writing-table underneath the beam on which is carved I do not understand, I pause; I examine. Bacon is a chilly statue of Wisdom, commenting on human life in the manner of a great judge in his robes and ermine, with the greatest brilliance and the greatest detachment. The subject is always perfectly planned and presented, but it is all entirely external and general. It has all been thought, never felt.…
It was not until Cowley's essays were published in 1668 that the tone of Montaigne crept into the English essay. Cowley's talent is a small one, his personality is not interesting or varied enough to bear very much exploitation of it: the vein is very soon worked out, but what there is of it is gold. In his essay "Of Myself" there is the true flavor—that intimacy and warmth of spirit, that fresh simplicity and apparent artlessness. It creates its own charm as it flows along: it is nothing, and yet it is delightful.…
Some of the essays of Sir William Temple (Dorothy Osborne's husband) have this same note, but it was the coming of the periodical newspaper which really established the essay in popularity. It created a market for it, which it has never lost, so that it was not only aristocratic dilettantes who could afford to practise it; and it developed that easy, friendly manner which comes from the essayist's sense that he is writing for a familiar circle of readers who are in sympathy with him. It also encouraged the essayist to write on the subjects which make the best essays—incidents of daily life about him, the immediate, the personal, the tangible, not the abstract and indefinite. On April 12th, 1709, the first number of the Tatler, one little folded sheet of paper, appeared at the breakfast tables of the aristocracy and in the coffee-houses of the town, and from then onwards the eighteenth century was deluged with essays. To our modern taste, the majority of these essays are completely unreadable, except in small extracts, and indeed, the capacity of the reading public of the eighteenth century for swallowing pills in jam is one of the most surprising things about it. Why, with the example of that century before us, we continue to regard the Victorian age as the great age of moral lessons in literature, is a mystery. We are apt to think of the eighteenth century as a gay and wicked age, though it is difficult to know why. Perhaps because its greatest writers were satirists and its novelists much concerned about the sexual impulse in young men and the consequent danger of young women losing their virtue. But at no time did the daily and weekly reading of the majority concern itself so much with the moral conduct of life as it did in the eighteenth century.… The essay became the vehicle of platitude rather than of experience: the essayists will not let themselves be themselves because they are all so busy feeling they must be the Censor. And as a result, though it would be easy to make an anthology of first-rate passages from the eighteenth-century essayists, it is not surprising that the heart of the average student sinks when he is told that if he wants to write good prose he must give his days and nights to the study of Addison. Addison is a very dull writer, and the volumes of the Tatler and the Spectator are dull volumes, and there are many equally good writers of prose.
And yet it is not really because the eighteenth century is so concerned about problems of conduct that it is dull: it is because of the way in which the writers treat of them. We are all, as a matter of fact, interested in ethical questions and in reading about them, but we are not interested in having a purely conventional and general code of social and personal morality applied to every subject. It is that which stifles the individuality which is the breath of life to the essayist. Dr. Johnson's opinion of Addison fits many more than Addison: 'he thinks justly, but he thinks faintly.' There is nothing vigorous, energetic or personal in the moral values of these men. If, however, moral feeling be an essential part of the mood in which the essay is conceived—instead of being merely tacked on as an adjunct—it becomes an essential part of its total quality and effect, and we would not wish it otherwise. Ethical feeling can lap us round as securely as any other mood.
It is no longer the fashion now to read Robert Louis Stevenson. His vogue during his life and immediately after his early death was so great and glowing that a reaction was bound to set in. But his popularity will inevitably return. He was a second-rate novelist, for his creative gift was never substantial enough to write great novels, but he is a first-rate essayist. And the mood of all, or almost all, of his essays is an ethical one; he spins its thread around some problem of conduct or some tenet of his own individual faith. Stevenson had to struggle all his life with an incurable disease: he did his work unflinchingly against appalling odds. But the strange thing about his extraordinarily vivid personality was that it produced an attitude to life which, instead of being one of splendid stoical endurance of suffering, managed to be one of positive exhilaration. He justifies life because it is a battle: he loves positive values as much as Milton: 'To avoid an occasion for our virtues is a worse degree of failure than to push forward pluckily and make a fall.' It is only over-prudence and timidity which he finds paralyzing: 'There are some to whom never to forget their umbrella in a long life, is a higher and wiser achievement than to go smiling to the stake.' 'Youthful enthusiasm may be foolish, but it is better to be a fool than to be dead.'
Whether we regard life as a lane leading to a dead wall, or whether we think of it as a vestibule or gymnasium, where we wait our turn and prepare our faculties for some more noble destiny;… whether we look justly for years of health and vigour, or are about to mount into a bath chair as a step towards the hearse; in each and all of these views and situations there is but one conclusion possible: that a man should stop his ears against paralysing terror, and run the race which is set before him with a single mind.. As courage and intelligence are the two qualities best worth a good man's cultivation, so it is the first part of intelligence to recognise our precarious state in life, and the first part of courage to be not at all abashed before the fact. A frank and somewhat headlong carriage, not looking too anxiously before, not dallying in maudlin regret over the past, stamps the man who is well armoured for this world.
Here we are very far removed from the bony conventional morality of the eighteenth century. We are in the company of a clear-cut, witty, courageous, sensitive personality, and we are in the presence of an artist in prose. Stevenson's confession that he learned his craft by playing 'the sedulous ape' to other writers has sometimes been taken to mean that his own use of language always remains imitative. Nothing is more untrue. His early work is inclined to be a little thin and mannered and over-ornamented, but his later essays—such essays as "Pulvis et Umbra," "The Lantern Bearers" or the once famous "A Christmas Sermon"—are the work of a complete and warmly-colored personality, communicating itself in a forthright, strong and warmly-colored prose. They lay us under a spell with the first word, and we wake refreshed with the last.
The moods in which the problems of human conduct are of supreme importance can therefore be the basis of the essayist's art as much as any other moods. But it is true that they very seldom do make thoroughly successful essays. If a personality is passionately concerned with such questions, it is ten to one that his calling will not be that of an essayist; he will be expressing his personality in some more immediately practical way. We may safely say that but for the accident of ill-health Stevenson would not have been content to write essays. The essay which the man of such a temperament writes is seldom as we say 'pure literature.' It has an ulterior aim: it seeks to convert or persuade, to argue, to discuss, to analyze, to explain. It goes over into history or politics or criticism, like Macaulay or Carlyle or Arnold. But the pure essayist, as Virginia Woolf says, seeks only to give pleasure, and we read him with no ulterior aim ourselves. His own occupations and his own acquaintance are his subject matter, and we ask for nothing of more public or general importance.
SOURCE: "The Essay as Mood and Form," in Forces in Fiction, and Other Essays, The Bowen-Merrill Company, 1902, pp. 85-99.
[In the following essay, Burton surveys the history of the essay, tracing elements that contributed to the present form and focussing on the nineteenth-century familiar essayists of Britain and the United States.]
It is odd that while the essay as a distinctive form in modern literature is so well cherished and enjoyable, it has received so little of expert attention. Books upon the drama, upon poetry in its many phases, upon the novel even—a thing comparatively of but yesterday—are as leaves on Vallombrosa for number; but books on the essay—where are they? It is high time the natural history of the essay was written, for here is a fascinating literary development which has had a vigorous, distinguished life of more than three hundred years in English and which counts among its cultivators some of the abiding names in our native literature. Here is a form, too, interesting because of its inter-filiations with such other forms as fiction which is connected with it by the bridge of the character-sketch; drama, whose dialogue the essay not seldom uses; and such later practical offshoots as the newspaper editorial and the book review.
This neglect of the essay is not altogether inexplicable. Scholars have been shy of it, I fancy, in part at least, because on the side of form (the natural and proper side to consider in studying the historical evolution of a literary genre) it has been thus fluent and expansive: a somewhat subtle, elusive thing. We can say, obviously, that an essay is a prose composition, but can we be more explicit than this rather gross mark of identification? The answer is not so easy. Moreover, the question has become further confused by a change in the use and meaning of the word within a century. A cursory glance at the history of the English essay will make this plain.
Lord Bacon was, by his own statement, fond of that passed master of the essay in French, Montaigne. It is small wonder then that, when at the end of the sixteenth century he put a name to his "dispersed meditations," he called them essays, after the Frenchman, using the word for the first time in our tongue. Not the name only but the thing was new. The form was slight, the expression pregnant and epigrammatic; there was no attempt at completeness. The aim of this early prince of essayists was to be suggestive rather than exhaustive—the latter a term too often synonymous with exhausting. Bacon's essays imply expanded note-book jottings; indeed, he so regarded them. In the matter of style, one has but to read contemporaries like Sidney, Lyly and Hooker, to see to what an extent Lord Bacon modernized the cumbersome, though often cloudily splendid, Elizabethan manner. He clarified and simplified the prevailing diction, using shorter words and crisper sentences with the result of closer knit, more sententious effect. In a word, Style became more idiomatic, and the relation of author and reader more intimate in the hands of this Elizabethan essay-maker. The point is full of significance for the history of this alluring form; its development ever since has been from this initiative. Slight, casual, rambling, confidential in tone, the manner much, the theme unimportant in itself, a mood to be vented rather than a thought to add to the sum of human knowledge; the frank revelation of a personality—such have been and are the head marks of the essay down to the present day. This fact is somewhat obscured by our careless use of the word at present to denote the formal paper, the treatise: the current definition of the essay admits this extension, and of course we bandy the word about in such meaning. But it is well to remember that the central idea of this form is what removes it forever from the treatise, from any piece of writing that is formal, impersonal and communicative of information. Little was done for the development of the essay, after Bacon, during the seventeenth century. But with Addison, Steele and the Spectator in the early eighteenth, the idea is reinforced and some of the essential features of this form brought the more clearly out. The social, chatty quality of the true essayist is emphasized; the writer enters into more confidential relations with his reader than ever he did with the stately Verulam; and the style approaches more nearly to the careless, easy elegance of the talk of good, but not stiff society. The Spectator papers unquestionably did more to shape the mold of essay writing in English than any other influence; at the same time, to speak as if Mr. Bickerstaff originated the form (as some critics do), is to overlook its origin with Bacon. The essay idea—this colloquial, dramatic, esoteric, altogether charming sort of screed, was cultivated quite steadily through the eighteenth century. It became, as a rule, more ponderous in the hands of Johnson and was in danger of taking on a didactic, hortatory tone foreign to its nature; yet occasionally in the Rambler papers, Johnson takes on a lightness of touch and tone that is surprising and suggests that we have perhaps regarded the dictator as too exclusively a wielder of sesquipedalian words. That this God of the Coffee House had a clear and correct idea of the essay is shown by his own description of it: "A loose sally of the mind," he says, "an irregular, indigested piece, not a regular and orderly performance."
Goldsmith, a light-horse soldier in contrast with Johnson, full panoplied and armed cap-a-pie, broadened the essay for literary and social discussion, although Grub Street necessity led him at times to become encyclopedic; and he was never happier than when, as in "The Revery at the Boar's Head" he played upon some whimsical theme, pizzicato, surcharging it with his genial personality. Minor writers, too, in the late eighteenth century had a hand in the development; none more so, to my mind, than the letter and fiction makers, Chesterfield and Walpole, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Fanny Burney—these and that inimitable fuss and chronicler, Boswell. If one would know how society talked in the second half of that Tea Cup century, one must read—not the dialogue of the novelists where the art is too new to have caught quite the accent of life, but these off-hand epistles dashed off without a thought of print—to print were half way vulgar then—and hence possessing all the freshness and naturalness of life itself,—the ideal essay note. We may be thankful that as yet the habit of publishing everything, from one's thrills to one's table tastes, had not gained popularity,—those ladies and gentlemen could afford to be charmingly unreserved in their private correspondence. To-day in the very act of penning a note, intrudes the horrid thought that it may be incorporated as an integral part of one's "works."
The Letter, as a literary form, offers an interesting line of side inquiry in connection with the essay; it has influenced that form beyond doubt, is in a sense contributory to it. In the same way dialogue—a modern instance like Landor comes to mind—has had its share in shaping so protean a form.
But it was reserved for the nineteenth century to contribute in the person of Charles Lamb the most brilliant exemplar of the essay, prince of this special literary mood; not primarily a thinker, a knowledge-bringer, a critic, but just a unique personality expressing his ego in his own fascinating way, making the past pay rich toll, yet always himself; and finding the essay accommodative of his whimsical vagaries, his delicious inconsistencies, his deep-toned, lovable nature. And that incomparable manner of his! Tis at once richly complex and tremulously simple; an instrument of wide range from out whose keys a soul vibrant to the full meaning of humanity might call spirits of earth and heaven in exquisite evocations and cadences at times almost too piercing sweet. Turn to the Elia papers and see how perfectly this magic of Lamb's illustrates and supports the qualities of mood and form I am naming as typical of the essay as an historic growth. The themes, how desultory, audacious, trivial, even grotesque. The only possible justification for a dissertation on roast pig is the paper itself. Note, too, how brief some of the choicest essays are; half a dozen small pages, even less; and with what seeming carelessness they vary, stretching themselves at will to four times their normal length. Study the construc-tion of any famous essay to see if it can be called close-knit, organic, and you shall find a lovely disregard of any such intention. The immortal Mrs. Battle on whist gives a capital example. If you turn to the end of that inimitable deliverance, you will find it to contain one of the most charming digressions in all literature. Lamb leaves that delicious old gentlewoman for a moment to speak of Cousin Bridget, Bridget Elia, the tragic sister Mary of his house, and playfully, tenderly, picturing their game at cards, forgets all else and never returns to Mrs. Battle. But who cares? Is not lack of organic connection (to call it by so harsh a name) more than justified by that homely-heartful picture of Charles and Mary Lamb, bent over their "mere shade of play,"—a game not for shillings but for fun—nay, for love. "Bridget and I should be ever playing," says he, and the reader is charmed and stirred clean out of all thought of Mrs. Battle. It is ever so with your essayist to the manner born! to wander and digress is with him a natural right. He is never happier than when he is playing mad pranks with logic, respectability and the mother tongue. Yet should his temperament be sensitive, his nature broad, deep and noble. The querulous-gentle Elia was surely of this race.
To turn from Lamb to any contemporary is an effect of anticlimax. None other was like to him for quality. Yet Hazlitt and Hunt were his helpers, doing good work in extending the gamut of this esoteric mood in literature. De Quincey, too, though losing the essay touch again and again because of didacticism and a sort of formal, stately eloquence, wrote papers in the true tradition of the essayist. Passages in the Opium Eater are of this peculiar tone and that great writer's intense subjectivity is always in his favor—since the genuine essay-maker must be frankly an egoist. Hunt is at times so charming, so light of touch, so atmospheric in quality that he deserves to be set high among essayists of the early century. A man who could produce such delicately graceful vignette work as his sketches of the Old Lady and the Old Gentleman, was a true commensal of Lamb. In such bits of writing the mood and manner are everything, the theme is naught; the man back of the theme is as important in the production of the essay as is the man back of the gun in warfare. Herein lies Hunt's chief claim on our grateful remembrance—here, and in certain of his verses, rather than in the more elaborate papers to be found in such a volume as Fancy and Imagination.
But already we must begin to recognize in writers like Hunt, Hazlitt and DeQuincy, and still more in latter men, a tendency distinctly modern and on the whole antagonistic to the peculiar virtues of the esoteric essay, the causerie of literature. It is moving fast toward the objective, rounded out, formally arranged treatise. It becomes argumentative, critical, acquisitive, logical, expository, laden with thought. Hence when we reach masters like Ruskin, Carlyle, Arnold, we see what is natural to them as essayists in one sense deflected into other (and no doubt quite as welcome) forms; one and all, they have messages, and missions. Now your bona fide essayist has nothing of the kind; he would simply button-hole you for a half hour while he talks garrulously, without a thought of purpose, about the world—and himself—especially the latter. Splendid blooms grow from out the soil which gives us our Ruskins and Carlyles; but when we are considering this sensitive plant of the literary garden, the essay, it were well to agree that it is another thing, and to save for its designation the word essay. Nor is this to deny essay touches, essay moments, essay qualities to Ruskin or Carlyle; it is only to make the point that their strenuous aim and habitual manner, so far as they went, were against the production of a very different kind of literature.
Earlier American literature has at least supplied one real essayist to the general body of English literature,—the genial Irving, who was nurtured on the best eighteenth century models and carried on the tradition of the Spectator and Goldsmith in papers which have just the desired tone of genteel talk, the air of good society. There are hints in Benjamin Franklin that had politics not engulfed him, as they afterward did Lowell, he might have shown himself to the essay born. Irving is sometimes spoken of as a fictionist, but all his stories have the essay mood and manner; and he had the good sense practically never to abandon that gentle genre. His work always possesses the essay touch both in description and in the hitting off of character, thus offering an illustration of the fact that the essay, by way of the character sketch, debouches upon the broad and beaten highway of the novel,—the main road of our modern literature. There are plenty of Irving's papers which it is rather puzzling to name as essay or fiction; "The Fat Gentleman," for example. A later and very true American essayist, Dr. Holmes, furnishes the same puzzle in the Autocrat series: they have dialogue, dramatic characterization, even some slight story interest. Why not fiction then? Because the trail of the genuine essayist is everywhere; the characters, the dramatic setting, are but devices for the freer expression of Dr. Holmes's own delightful personality, which, as Mr. Howells testifies, Holmes liked to objectify. It is our intimate relation with him that we care about in converse with the essayist born; we sit down to enjoy his views. The fictionist's purpose, contrariwise, is to show life in a representative section of it and with dramatic interplay of personalities moving to a certain crescendo of interest called the climax.
And so Dr. Holmes remains one of our most distinctive and acceptable essayists of the social sort—possessing, I mean, that gift, perhaps best seen with the French, of making vivid one's sense of one's relation to other men and women in the social organism. It is the triumph of this kind of essay to be at once individualistic and social; without eccentricity, on the one hand, or vulgarity, on the other. Vulgarity, by the way, is a quality impossible to the heaven-called essayist; it can be better tolerated in poetry even. For the intimacy between the essayist and his reader (I say reader rather than audience with a feeling that the relation is a sort of solitude á deux) is greater than in the case of any other form of literary expression; hence, when one enters, as it were, the inner rooms of a friend's house, any hint of the borné is the more quickly detected, the more surely insufferable.
The voice of a natural essayist like Thoreau is somewhat muffled by being forced now and then into the public pulpit manner. Yet an essay-writer by instinct he certainly is; particularly in his journal, but often in the more formal chroniclings of his unique contact with nature. In Emerson, too, we encounter a writer with a vocation for the essay, but having other fish to fry,—doubtless a loftier aim but a different. No man, English or American, has a literary manner which makes the essay an inspired chat more than the Concord sage-singer; and the inspired chat comes close to being the beau ideal of your true-blue essayist. With less strenuousness of purpose and just a bit more of human frailty—or at least sympathy with the frail,—here were indeed a prince in this kind!
How much of the allurement of the essay style did Lowell keep, however scholarlike his quest, in papers literary, historical, even philological! In a veritable essay-subject like "On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners," he displays himself as of the right line of descent from Montaigne; there is in him then all that unforced, winsome, intimate, yet ever restrained revelation of self which is the essayist's model, and despair. In the love letters of the Brownings may be found some strictures by both Robert and Elizabeth upon an early book of this great American's which must pain the admirer of the Brownings as well as of Lowell. It displays a curious insensitiveness to just this power of the Cambridge man which made him of so much more value to the world than if he had been scholar and nothing more. One can hardly rise from anything like a complete examination of Lowell's prose without the regret that his fate did not lead him to cultivate more assiduously and single-eyed, this rare and precious gift for essay—a gift shared with very few fellow Americans.
A glance among later Victorian prose writers must convince the thoughtful that the essay in our special sense is gradually written less; that as information comes in at the door, the happy giving-forth of personality flies out at the window. It is in shy men like Alexander Smith or Richard Jefferies that we come on what we are looking for, in such as they, rather than the more noisily famed. Plenty of charming prosists in these latter days have been deflected by utility or emolument away from the essay; into criticism, like Lang and Gosse and Dobson and Pater; into preaching and play-making, like Bernard Shaw; into journalism like Barry Pain and Quiller-Couch; into a sort of forced union of poetry and fiction, as with Richard Le Gallienne. All of these, too, and others still have been touched by fiction for better or worse.
The younger Americans with potential essay ability are also for the most part swallowed up in more practical, "useful" ways of composition. Her old-fashioned devotion to the elder idea of the essay makes a writer like Miss Repplier stand out with a good deal of distinction, so few of her generation are willing or able to do likewise. There is no magazine in America to-day, with the honorable exception of The Atlantic, which desires from contributors essays that look back to the finer tradition. Mr. Howells has reached a position of such authority in American letters that what he produces in the essay manner is welcome—not because it is essay, but because it is he. His undeniable gift for the form is therefore all the better; often he strikes a gait happily remindful of what the essay in its traditions really is; the delightfully frank egoism of his manner covering genuine simplicity and modesty of nature. Since Venetian Days he has never ceased to be an essayist.
The twin dangers with the younger essayists of both the United States and England are didacticism and preciosity. The former I believe most prevalent in this country; and it is of course the death blow of the true essay. The danger of being too precious may be overcome with years: Max Beerbohm, for example, began by thinking and talking of himself, not for the reader's sake, but for self-love's sake. But of late he seems better to comprehend the essayist's proper subjectivity. We should not despair of essayists: no type of writer is rarer; the planets must conspire to make him; he must not be overwhelmed by life and drawn into other modes of expression.
Our generation has been lucky to possess one English essayist who has maintained and handed on the great tradition. I mean Stevenson. Although, in view of the extent and vogue of his novels and tales, Stevenson's essay work may seem almost an aside, it really is most significant. He is in the line of Charles Lamb. Where a man like Pater writes with elegance and suggestion after the manner of the suave and thoroughly equipped critic, Stevenson does a vastly higher thing; he talks ruddily, with infinite grace, humor, pathos and happiness, about the largest of all themes,—human nature. From "Ordered South" to "Pulvis et Umbra," through many a gay mood of smile and sunshine to the very deeps of life's weltering sea, Stevenson runs the gamut of fancy and emotion, the fantasticality of his themes being in itself the sign manual of a true essayist. In the Letters no man using English speech has chatted more unreservedly, and with more essential charm; it is the undress of literature that always instinctively stops this side of etiquette, of decency. The Stevenson epistles drive us on a still-hunt outside of the mothertongue for their equal, with little prospect of quarry save within French borders.
The essay is thus a literary creature to the making of which go mood and form—and the former would seem by far the paramount thing. Great and special gifts does it demand. 'Tis an Ariel among literary kinds, shy, airy, tricksy, elusive, vanishing in the garish light that beats down upon the arena where the big prizes of fiction are competed for amidst noise, confusion and eclat. But ever in its own slight, winsome way does it compel attention and gain hearts for its very own. 'Tis an aristocrat of letters; nowhere is it so hard to hide obvious antecedents. Many try, but few triumph in it. Therefore, when a real essayist arrives, let him be received with due acclaim and thanks special, since through him is handed on so ancient and honorable a form.
William Frank Bryan and Ronald S. Crane
SOURCE: An introduction to The English Familiar Essay: Representative Texts, edited by William Frank Bryan and Ronald S. Crane, Ginn and Company, 1916, pp. xi-lx.
[Bryan and Crane were professors of English at Northwestern University. In the following excerpt, they discuss the major nineteenth-century writers of the familiar essay, drawing distinctions between the mature form of the familiar essay and its direct ancestor, the mid-seventeenthcentury imitations of the Tatler and Spectator.]
Within the early years of the nineteenth century the type of familiar essay was developed which has continued to the present. By 1825 it had largely supplanted the imitations of the Tatler and Spectator, and Lamb, Hunt, Hazlitt, De Quincey, and other writers had won for it a popularity that the essay had not enjoyed for a long time. The new type differed from the old in many essential respects.
In the first place, the new essay had a much wider range of subject than the old. It was no longer confined largely to "the Town," to the fashions and foibles of society, to problems of conduct and manners, or to the general principles of morality. There was, indeed, no general uniformity of topic. Each essayist wrote upon whatever presented itself to him as an attractive or congenial theme; his range of subject was determined only by the breadth or narrowness of his individual interests and sympathies. Lamb wrote of his schoolboy life, of his daily occupations, his vacation excursions, his friends and his family, his personal sympathies and antipathies; Leigh Hunt chatted about his reading, his fireside comforts, the interesting individuals or types he had observed or experiences he had encountered, or tried to discover compensation for the deaths of little children; Hazlitt lingered over his books or recalled his first meeting with poets later famous, recounted the delights of a solitary tramp in the open country and the evening comforts of an inn, presented the pleasures of painting or of hating, or considered the basis of his deepest feelings; De Quincey gossiped of his acquaintances or recalled gorgeous or terrible dream fancies. As many writers of the new essay, including Lamb and Hunt and Hazlitt, spent their most active years in London, they frequently, of course, wrote on some aspect of London life, but their subjects included such as had been in large measure beneath the sympathetic regard of the eighteenth-century essayists—chimney sweeps, the postman, clerks, artisans, and sailors.
In manner of presentation and purpose, too, the new essay was markedly different from the old. One of the most characteristic differences is that the essayist no longer hid his individuality behind the elaborately sustained figure of an invented Mr. Bickerstaff, or Mr. Spectator, or Chinese Traveler, but wrote in his own person. Even when through diffidence he employed the editorial plural or adopted a pen-name, he really expressed his own personality, and his thin disguise was easily penetrable. Many other long-used conventions were almost wholly discarded; for example, the machinery of clubs and correspondents, the visions and apologues, and the invented characters with classical or pseudo-classical names. The classics, too, and classical history were less drawn upon for mottoes and quotations and illustrations. In general, there was much less artificiality and much greater directness, and a strong tendency to rely for illustration upon the personal experience of the writer or of his acquaintances, upon contemporary events or those of comparatively recent history, and upon modern or native literature. Nor, as a rule, was the new essay marked by the satiric or didactic tone that generally pervaded the old. The eighteenth-century essay was largely social in character, and professed as its principal aim a reformation of the delinquencies and peccadillos of society. The new essay was just as distinctly individualistic; as a literary form it was not the vehicle of any propaganda. The character of each essayist's work as a whole was determined purely by his peculiar temperament, and any single essay might reflect his rnood of a moment or the deeply grounded philosophy of his lifetime. The one property common to the essayists of the early nineteenth century is their egotism; they were chiefly interested in themselves, and were frank, though by no means offensively so, in the expression of this interest. This frankness of egotism, however, is characteristic of the period rather than of the literary type, although, of course, a strongly personal coloring is never absent from the familiar essay of the nineteenth century.
Of all the differences between the essay of the eighteenth century and that of the nineteenth, the most obvious is the much greater length of the latter. As the content of a piece of writing is largely dependent upon the space it is to occupy, the greater length of the new essay is one of its essential characteristics. The eighteenth-century essay had space for only sketches and outlines or for the treatment of a very limited phase of a subject; the new essay could present full-length portraits or the development of ample themes, and it invited digression. The Tatler and Spectator papers, from their mode of publication and the temper of the particular reading public to whom they were directed, were very brief, ranging from about twelve hundred to fifteen hundred words each, and in this respect, as in others, they were followed by their imitators. Of the founders of the new essay, Leigh Hunt most closely resembled the writers of the preceding century in brevity; probably in part because of his temperament, and in part because, like the earlier essayists, he wrote principally for newspapers or for periodicals modeled upon the Tatler. Lamb was between the old and the new, the Essays of Elia averaging from one and a half to two times the length of the eighteenth-century periodical essay. The greater number of Hazlitt's essays were three or four times as long as those of the Spectator type; in this, as in so many other respects, they were wholly of the new order. Even within such expanded limits De Quincey was unable to confine himself, and some of his papers were inordinately long. Naturally, there cannot be any definitely fixed length for the essay, but so far as there is any standard, that set by Hazlitt became generally observed and is now usually followed. It permits the writer to treat his theme with reasonable fullness, but checks a presentation that would tax the capacity of the reader at a single sitting.
The changed character of the essay was the effect of a number of causes. The first was the progress of Romanticism, which, by 1820, throughout the world of literature had resulted in the expression of new interests or of those long dormant,—particularly the interest the individual felt in himself,—in the abandonment of old standards and conventions, and in experimentation with new or longdisused forms. Individualism had been strongly stimulated. The essayists were moved by the same forces as the poets. Indeed, in practically all essentials there is a manifest similarity between the new poetry and the new essay. The second cause is closely related to the first: the new forces in life and literature affected men of original and responsive genius, capable of developing a new type of essay, and by the success of their own efforts influential in establishing it in popular favor. The services of Lamb and Hunt and Hazlitt are exactly comparable to those of Wordsworth and Byron and Keats. A less general and somewhat more tangible influence was the greatly heightened interest in Montaigne. His Essais, in Cotton's translation, was one of the small stock of books identified as certainly belonging to Lamb; he was quoted or appreciatively referred to several times by Leigh Hunt; and Hazlitt was thoroughly familiar with the Essais and a consistent admirer of both their matter and their manner.
But the single factor of greatest moment in the development of the new type was the establishment of the modern literary magazine. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, publication of essays as independent periodicals after the fashion of the Tatler and the Spectator had largely given way to publication in newspapers and magazines. Obviously, the small news sheets could not provide space for any considerable expansion of the essay, which, moreover, was merely an excrescent growth upon them. Nor did the existing magazines, such as the Gentleman's and the European, offer much greater possibilities. They were literally magazines, overcrowded depositories of miscellaneous matter—meteorological data, tables of the values of stocks, parliamentary reports, records of births and deaths, cursory reviews, notes of the stage and the arts, letters from correspondents and answers to them, and curious information on a variety of topics. Literature was usually represented in a small section devoted to whatever of essays, sketches, verse, etc. the editor needed to fill out his ninety-odd pages, or had not the heart to reject. Rarely did a number of one of the old magazines have a single article of genuine literary merit or interest. And the critical reviews were even more hopelessly dull and wanting in originality. Both classes of periodicals were almost wholly the product of amateurs or of poorly paid drudges.
Vivification of the literary periodical first manifested itself in the critical reviews with the establishment of the Edinburgh Review in 1802 and the Quarterly Review in 1809, the former a Whig, the latter a Tory organ. From the first the rivalry between them was intense; and the liberal payments to contributors soon attracted to each a group of vigorous young writers, whose pronouncements upon the social, political, and literary questions of the day, whatever they lacked in depth and poise, certainly wanted nothing in assurance and energy. Both the Edinburgh and the Quarterly became immediately and dominantly popular.
The first notable effort to establish a distinctly literary magazine was made by Leigh Hunt in the Reflector (1811-1812). Lack of financial support, however, and other causes not now known made the venture abortive. But only a few years later the first modern magazine was actually founded. The success of the new reviews prompted William Blackwood, an active and astute Edinburgh publisher, to set up a magazine which should be equally different from the dull and characterless miscellanies then in existence. He was unfortunate, however, in the first selection of his staff, and the initial number of Blackwood's Magazine, which appeared in April, 1817, gave no real promise of originality or increased attractiveness. But with the October number John Wilson ("Christopher North"), together with Lockhart, joined Blackwood's forces; and the former, particularly, imparted to the magazine a character derived from his own freshness and high spirits. Almost instantly Blackwood's leaped into a more than local popularity.
The success of Blackwood's encouraged the establishment of the first magazine of similar character in London. This was the London Magazine, the initial number of which appeared in January, 1820. Its first editor, John Scott, was apparently given a free hand by the owners; he, in turn, threw open the pages of the London to good writing on almost any subject and paid for it liberally. As a result of this policy the London commanded the pens of original and attractive writers and from the beginning was of interest and high standing. After the death of Scott in a duel, rapid changes in the control of the magazine ensued, the result of which was a swift descent in its fortunes. But it had shown the way to success and had set up a new standard for magazines. The conduct of the New Monthly Magazine illustrates the force of the example set by the London. The New Monthly, which was founded in 1814, during the first seven years of its existence was distinguished in no vital respect from the older miscellanies. In 1820, however, the popularity of the London forced a change of policy: it was placed under the editorship of Campbell, the poet, and inaugurating a new series with the first number for 1821, it became of the new order. Within a few more years many magazines of the older type had disappeared and very much the kind of magazine we know to-day had become definitely established.
Probably the most obvious contribution of the modern magazine to the development of the essay was the encouragement to expansion beyond the former narrow limits, an expansion impossible in the newspapers or in the older magazines, divided as they were into numerous crowded departments. The new magazines, unburdened with the traditions that hampered the old, and thus excluding much of the journalistic matter appearing in their predecessors, were able to provide not merely a page or two for an essay, but six or eight, and on occasion, ten or twelve or twenty pages. They thus made possible the changed content and manner of the essay, which could result only from an enlargement of its physical limits.
But increased length and all that goes with it was not the only indebtedness of the new essay to the new magazine. Blackwood's and the London could make a place for themselves only by being different from the long-established magazines, by surpassing them in literary interest and attractiveness; their editors and owners accordingly vied with one another in offering inducements to writers of original power, paying them with hitherto unexampled liberality and leaving them free to write as their own genius might direct. Finally, the very fact that these magazines were new, that they were unfettered by hampering precedents, was in itself a strong incentive to break away from existing conventions and to test new forms and modes. Lamb, Hunt, Hazlitt, Wilson, and De Quincey are chief among the founders of the new essay; though Hunt, the least modern of the group, owed comparatively little to the new magazines, even he departed from his eighteenth-century models for the first time in the Reflector; and Blackwood's produced Wilson's sketches, and the London stimulated Lamb, Hazlitt, and De Quincey to discover their peculiar genius and to give it expression. Extremely significant is the fact that the great body of familiar essays produced within the last century has been written for the modern magazine, the direct successor of Blackwood's and the London.
During the period within which the new essay was established Lamb, Hunt, and Hazlitt were the most notable writers—notable for their relations to the older type or for their influence upon the development of the new, as well as for the permanent interest and attractiveness of their writings.
Lamb's first essay, "The Londoner," was printed in the Morning Post for February 1, 1802. "The Londoner" promised to be the first of a series, but the promise was not carried out, and Lamb wrote no other essays until the establishment of Leigh Hunt's Reflector. To the four issues of this magazine, which appeared probably in 1811-1812, he contributed a number of short essays as well as two important critical papers. Consequent upon the death of the Reflector was a period of scant productivity, which lasted until the appearance of the London Magazine in 1820. Lamb's first contribution to this magazine, "The South Sea House," appeared in the number for August, 1820; his last, "Stage Illusion," in that for August, 1825. Between these two dates, writing over the pen-name "Elia," which he had appropriated from an Italian fellow clerk of the South Sea House, Lamb published in the London practically all his most characteristic essays. After 1820 he wrote but little except for the London, and after 1826 he practically ceased writing at all, his only considerable papers being three or four for the ephemeral Englishman's Magazine in 1831. Collections of Lamb's essays were made three times before his death in 1834: his Works (1818) contained most of his earlier pieces, and the Essays of Elia (1823) and the Last Essays of Elia (1833) included most of his contributions to the London as well as a few of both his earlier and his later papers.
Lamb's earlier essays were written under the influence of the long-established models. His first venture, "The Londoner," was obviously imitative, owing much in particular to the first number of the Spectator; and most of his brief papers in the Reflector were considerably indebted to the seventeenth-century "character" or to the Tatler and its successors. Moreover, even in the period of Lamb's most thoroughly original work, when Elia was doing much to establish the new type of familiar essay, he at times reverted to the manner of the old: the first part of "Poor Relations" is patterned after the seventeenth-century "character"; the first part of "The Wedding" is wholly in the manner of Steele's sketches of domestic life; and "A Vision of Horns," one of the Essays of Elia not reprinted by Lamb, he himself characterized as "resembling the most laboured papers in the Spectator."
But by far the greater number of the Elia essays were no more imitative than they are imitable; they were wholly original and the expression of Lamb's own personality. They were the very perfection of that kind of intimate writing which wins not merely interest for itself but affection for the writer. The content of these essays was varied. A few were playful fantasies, a few were serious musings; a small number presented Lamb's satirical observation and comment upon incongruities of conduct, a larger number, his humorous observation of incident and character; and seven or eight were critical papers on books and the stage. In almost every one of these papers, even those professedly critical, Lamb's personality was warmly reflected, and by far the greater number of his essays were undisguised autobiography and reminiscence, written in the first person. They recorded ingenuously his sympathies and his prejudices, presented him and his family and his friends, disclosed his habits, and unveiled his memories. They formed almost a complete record of his life, together with an intimate and candid commentary upon it. In them appeared his tenderness and manliness, his tolerance of everything but pretence and priggishness and complacent stupidity, his intensely social nature, his liking for people with some harmless idiosyncrasy, his keen observation of the unexpected hidden amid the commonplace, his devotion to his old folios, and his half-humorous, halfpathetic attitude toward life.
Lamb's most fundamental characteristic was his humor—tender, playful, fantastic, never bitter, usually warming the reader's feeling or flashing a glimpse of a truth hitherto unconsidered. Very frequently the vehicle of this humor was a comparison startlingly unexpected, but perfectly appropriate and owing much of its happiness of effect to a suggestion of incongruity. The illustrative or figurative half of such a comparison was usually drawn from Lamb's familiar acquaintance with English literature of the late sixteenth and the seventeenth century—Shakespeare and the Elizabethan dramatists, Milton and Marvell, Burton and Browne and Fuller, and the Bible. From the same sources came the abundance of allusion that enriched every page, and the choice of word and turn of phrase that gave to his diction its archaic flavor. The result wag not the affectation and artificiality that might have been expected, but what Lamb called a "self-pleasing quaintness," a style and manner peculiarly his own and perfectly expressive of his individuality.
About two years after the appearance of Lamb's "The Londoner," Leigh Hunt began to contribute his juvenile essays to the Traveller newspaper (1804-1805), and during the next fifty years, amid much ephemeral matter, largely critical or journalistic, a very considerable body of familiar essays appeared from his pen. Though in the Reflector (1811-1812) he made a notable attempt to found a literary magazine, yet the new type of magazine, when it was actually established, had much slighter effect upon his development than upon that of any of his contemporaries; by far the larger number of his essays were written for newspapers, family miscellanies, and independent sheets patterned somewhat closely after the Tatler. In fact, his most attractive and most characteristic work appeared in periodicals of the kind last mentioned. The most important of these was the earliest, the Indicator, which was issued weekly from October 13, 1819, to March 21, 1821. Similar in character were the Companion (1828) and Leigh Hunt's London Journal (1834-1835). No approximately full collection of Hunt's essays was made before his death, in 1859, nor, indeed, has any been made since. Selections from the Indicator and the Companion were reprinted in 1834; and the Seer (1840-1841), Men, Women, and Books (1847), and Table Talk (1851) contained a good deal of matter that had previously appeared.
The influence of the earlier types was even more pervasive and persistent in Hunt's work than in Lamb's. Hunt's papers in the Traveller were in avowed imitation of the Connoisseur (1754-1756), itself an imitation of the Tatler and the Spectator. In the Reflector, which he edited, most of his own essays, as well as many from other contributors, were similar in subject and manner to those of Addison and Goldsmith. A third literary venture of his, the Round Table papers in the Examiner (1815-1817), was confessedly designed after the Tatler and the Spectator, and most of Hunt's own writing was strongly suggestive of his reading in the essays of the eighteenth century. The influence of the early models persisted in a large proportion of even his most individual and most nearly original essays, such as those written for the Indicator. His "characters," particularly, a form which he cultivated as long as he wrote, owed much both to the seventeenth-century "characters" and to the more lifelike and dramatic studies of the Tatler and its successors.
Hunt's own everyday experiences and his observation of the everyday life about him formed the staple of his essays: he wrote upon books, the stage, clothes, manners and habits, the weather, animal pets, interesting types of character, the life of the London streets, the pleasures and the discomforts of a dweller in the suburbs, the joys and the sorrows of domestic life. Books were his chie
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