The Beginning-The Sixteenth Century: Today the essay is a recognized literary genre. But it took a long time to attain its present glory and status. As Mr. Rhystruly says, “it is unnecessary to go profoundly into the history and origin of the essay—whether it derives from Socrates or Siranney the Persian-since, like all living things, its present is more important than its past”. (Virginia Woolf). Yet it is customary to trace out its origin and beginning. It is generally accepted that the form of essay originated from the dialogues of Socrates. But while discussing the history of the English essay, the origin of the essay is traced to Montaigne, the sixteenth century French writer. The English essay was in existence before Bacon published his Essays in 1597. The writing of character-sketches after the manner of Theophrastus was a part of education in the middle ages. John Awdeley’s Fraternity of Vagabonds has essays on the ‘Company of Cozeners and Shifters’ and Harman’s Caveat, published in 1566, has essays on different kinds or classes of vagabonds. Critical essays too had begun to emerge before Bacon, Caxton’s prefaces, Gascoigne’s Notes, and the writings of Campion, Daniel and Gosson have but slight value. Gosson’s School of Abuse (1579) is memorable, for it provoked the best essay that Sidney ever wrote, Sidney’s Apology was begun in 1580 and published in 1595. There is the fervour of the author behind this essay. The style is uncertain. There are too many parentheses and relative clauses. The proper prose style has not yet been formed.
The next great name is that of Thomas Nash (1567-1601) who, according to Isaac Walton, “put a greater stop to those malicious ‘Mar prelate’ pamphlets than a much wiser man had been able to “The Anatomy of Absurdity (1589) is a parade of his learning. Pierce Penniless (1592) is a vigorous attack on the contemporary follies. Nash did not have a sense of when to stop. But as Dekker remarked: “Ingenious and ingenuous, fluent, factious, T. Nash, from whose abundant pen honey flowed to thy friends, and mortal aconite to the enemies”. Nash had a heavy and coarse wit.
Lord Bacon: However, it was Lord Bacon who transplanted the essay into England. It is with the publication of Bacon’s essays in 1597, and 1625, that the regular essay in English begins. Bacon felt that he was originating a new fashion in writing and thus approached the essay in the modern sense.
Bacon rightly calls his essays ‘dispersed meditations’. Speaking of his early essays Hugh Walker says, “In the early essays, the sentences are nearly all short, crisp and sententious. There are few connectives. Each sentence stands by itself, the concentrated expression of weighty thought”.
However, Bacon’s essays are “loose thoughts, thrown out without much regularity, because “Bacon was thrifty of his thoughts and his literary material”. But they have a continuity, and the author reveals a graceful ease and a confidence in his powers. Bacon does not whisper to the reader in a friendly tone; he is always lordly and stately. He speaks of masque, triumphs and gardens, and he is fond of splendour. The subject of his essays is not very substantial. Most of his essays are concerned with the day-to-day problems of ordinary life. Bacon was a moralist and a politician so his essays deal with these themes also. Bacon remains, however, “the first of English essayists”.
The Seventeenth Century: Bacon was the father of the English essay. But the essay, as we know it today, is different from anything that he ever wrote. His prose style had a great influence, but his essays did not win any disciples or imitators. In the 17th century the essay developed in the hands of Sir William Temple, Cowley and Dryden, who made it more flexible, companionable and pleasant. The authoritative tone of Bacon’s heavy moralising is replaced by an essay of intimate contact with the reader and it is on these lines that the essay was to develop in the future. The writing of Character Sketches’ by Hall. Overbury and Earle during this century also promoted the growth of the essay.
Bacon’s example was followed by William Cornwallis, whose Essays appeared in 1600, and by Robert Johnson, who gave Essays in 1601. Cornwallis used the essay “as a painter’s boy on a board”.
Next to these is Ben Johnson’s Timber or Discoveries, a collection of 171 jottings which are connected with one another. Johnson’s style combines lucidity, terseness and strength in a degree rivalling even Bacon’s. It is capable of rising to eloquence, but a plain subject is treated in a plain and simple way.
With Sir Thomas Browne the English essay acquires a new dimension. Browne writes condensed prose. His artistry is unmatched in English save Lamb’s. There is neither systematic philosophy nor science in his works, but real literature. He is, in reality, the greatest essayist in English. His style is remarkable for scholasticism and Latinism.” Nicholas Breton carries on the tradition of Bacon to whom he dedicated
His Characters upon Essays, Moral and Divine (1615). A better writer was Geoffrey Mynshul, whose Essays and Characters of a Prison and Prisoners is based upon personal experience and, therefore, has a depth of feeling.
The Eighteenth Century: The Revolution of 1688 gave rise to greater freedom of the individual and fostered the growth of the two leading political parties. The religious controversy of the bygone ages came to an end. The time was ripe for the emergence of periodicals, journals and newspapers. Defoe did some significant work for the essay by writing The Instability of Human Greatness. But Steele made history with the publication of the first number of The Tattler on April 12, 1709.
The Tattler appeared thrice a week and it was all written by Steele at the beginning; but it was closed down on January 2, 1711. On March 1, 1711 appeared in The Spectator, a joint venture of Addison and Steele though Addison was a contributor to the earlier paper too. But Steele independently planned The Tattler and also sketched the character of Sir Roger. As such we can presume that he gave the idea of the Spectator Club. The figure of the Spectator was drawn by Addison. The Spectator Club had members representing various classes of society. This was an improvement over the crude machinery of The Tattler and it anticipated the Pickwick Club and also the social or domestic novel of the century. The Club provided a unity to this group of essays.
Addison is “a far more finished writer, more correct, more scholarly, more subtly humorous”. The style of Steele is “full of faults and careless blunders; and redeemed, like that, by his sweet and compassionate nature”. Steele is valuable for his reference for the domestic pieties and for his love of women and children. At his best he is superior to Addison in the tone of his writing, not in his style. Steele is autobiographical and gives us a form of the personal essay. He expresses his heart without any reserve. Addison has a greater charm of conversation and his essays reveal more of his head. This makes him typical of his age.
Another important paper emerged in March, 1713. It was The Guardian. Pope contributed eight essays to The Guardian. These and his prefaces show that he had the true makings of a periodical essayist. One essay pleads for humanity to animals, another is against human flattery in dedications, and two deal with the Short Club where he laughs at himself.
The most significant essayist In the second half of the 18th century is Dr. Johnson. His Rambler (1750-52) is the first of the classical periodicals after The Guardian. Then he also contributed to The Adventure and to his own The Idler. His early essays have a heavy style and a serious subject- matter, and thus have the typical Johnsons’ style with their antitheses and Latinisms.
In Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74), another essayist of the eighteenth century, we again find ease and charm. Goldsmith is indeed one of the greatest essayists in English literature. Many of his essays in The Bee and Citizen of the World are remarkable for their extraordinary power, boldness and originality. They are written in a style whose wonderful charm has never failed to impress the reader. There is in them an inimitable vein of humour which constitutes one of the secrets of their charm. His style is as careful as Addison’s and much simpler than Johnson’s.
The periodical essay declined after Goldsmith, More and more of political writing began to fill the pages of the periodicals even though literary men like Smollett were the contributors. The Mirror (1779-80) introduced Henry Mackenzie, the author of The Man of Feeling and a few other minor essayists. Richard Cumberland’s The Observer also shows a conscious reaction against the style of Dr. Johnson.
The Early Nineteenth Century: The nineteenth century witnessed the real flowering of the essay. The century seemed to have opened the flood- gates for the essay as a recognised form of literature. Both the personal and the impersonal kinds of essays began to flourish in this period. It was in this age that a number of literary and critical magazines and reviews came into being and most of the budding writers launched upon their careers by contributing articles of them. The Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review generally published essays of a critical and weighty character. The Blackwood Magazine, The Fraser’s Magazine and The London Magazine popularised the essay, both critical and personal.
Charles Lamb carries on the tradition of Steele and Goldsmith, the tradition of self-portraiture. Like Montaigne he himself is the subject of his essays. Lamb is constantly autobiographical, his whole life may be constructed from the ‘Essays of Elia’. ‘The Essays of Elia’ are beautiful pieces revealing Lamb’s personality, his sweetness of heart, his tenderness of disposition, his wisdom and sympathy. Lamb takes the reader into his confidence and conceals nothing from him. His essays have the great charm of spontaneity and naturalness and really lyrics in prose.
Further on, Hunt was the first literary critic to do justice to Shelley and Keats. His work is full of self-contradictions-blame and praise of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Possibly he attacked these and Scott because they were Tories. He was a sentimentalist who overdid Whigs. His intellect was capable of making the beautiful appear empty or hateful. He admired in others what he felt he had achieved in his own work. This is something of the classical or neoclassical spirit. His criticism is admirable where it is not coloured by prejudice. As Hugh Walker says, “He was singularly sensitive, and so when he trusted feeling he was almost invariably right. This is the secret of the charm of his critical work”. He succeeds in communicating his own enjoyment. It is this that Lamb and Shelley loved in him.
Hazlitt was a greater essayist than most of his contemporaries. His essays can be divided into two classes-essays on literary criticism and essays on miscellaneous subjects, the latter often being of an intimate and personal nature. In both spheres he stands very high. His critical essays are contained in many volumes-Characters of Shakespeare’s Play, Lectures on English Poets, English Comic Writers, Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth, and The Spirit of the Age. These critical essays, although sometimes marred by his extra-literary prejudices entitle him to be placed in the foremost ranks of English critics.
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De Quincey, the famous opium-eater, wrote his essays in a highly poetic ornate and musical style which reminds us of Thomas Browne. His Confessions of an Opium Eater has something of the intimacy and confidence of Lamb.
The Victorian Age: Throughout this age the essay continued to develop in two directions-the critical and the personal. Among the critical literary essayists of the middle and later nineteenth century, the most illustrious names are those of Macaulay, Carlyle, Ruskin, Pater and Matthew Arnold. Macaulay is a brilliant, thoughtful, unbalanced critic with a pictorial, grandiloquent style.
Thomas Carlyle stands as a contrast to Macaulay. Carlyle (1795-1882) is the prophet and censor of the Victorian era. He is the richest and the profoundest of all historical essayists. But his essays have been overshadowed by his greater works. They touch upon all the great departments of his literary activity. They are critical, biographical, historical, social and political. All his characteristic dogmas and beliefs will be found expressed in one or the other of his essays. Carlyle’s style is remarkable for its strength and tempestuous force. Carlyle can sometimes command a beauty of expression that deeply touches the heart, and can attain a piercing melody, wistful and moving, that is almost lyrical.
Matthew Arnold (1822-88) tended to mould all his prose material into the form of essays. Even his letters in Friendship’s Garland are essays. But the best is Essays in Criticism. His essays make him the most influential of English writers. His Culture and Anarchy is also called an ‘Essay in Social and Political Criticism’. As a critic Arnold advocates a high moral purpose for all forms of art and recommends a very well-balanced and clear-cut expression. His own style lacks precision and is marred occasionally by unseemly repetition. But his vocabulary is selected and the felicity of phrases remarkable.
Among the other essayists of the Victorian age, mention may be made of Henry Newman (1801-90), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and Walter Pater (1839-94). Newman was the master of a supple prose, and at times of a highly wrought style. Ruskin’s style is rich, ornate, and full of gorgeous imagery. Pater wrote in a prose of rare beauty. He used the essay for the expression of exquisite artistic sensation. His appreciation is his best work.
The Twentieth Century: The essay developed more in the 20th century than it has developed in any other era. The innumerable daily papers, weeklies, monthlies and other periodicals and journals provided immense scope for the essayist. The modern essay is so varied and miscellaneous that it is difficult to categorize it. The most important modern essayists are Chesterton, Lucas, Gardiner, Lynd and Belloc.
G.K. Chesterton (1868-1938) started his career as an essayist very early in life. His essays are the best examples, in style and outlook, of the Personal Essay. He has an inexhaustible store of new subjects because he has an observant, sympathetic eye that makes all life its peculiar province. E. B. Lucas was a regular contributor to Punch. His humour is as quiet and graceful as his style. There is nothing obtrusive, hard, or forensic about Lucas’s writing. His essays belong generally to the tender, graceful tradition of Charles Lamb.
A.C. Ward calls him The Modern Lamb’.
Chesterton’s friend Hillarie Belloc also is a born essayist. He occupies a high place among the modern essayists by virtue of the volumes of his essays like On Nothing’. ‘On something’ and ‘On Everything. He has a clear, incisive style in which humour, never really removed from satire, plays an important part.
A. G. Gardiner (1885-1946) is, perhaps, the most delightful of the modern essayists. He wrote under the pen-name of ‘Alpha of the Plough. There at the head of the Plough, flames the great star that points to the pole. I will hitch my little wagon to that sublime image. I will be Alpha of the Plough. He has personality and humour, a background of literature, depth and thoughtfulness, and he has polished his art to perfection. He has a rare understanding of men and affairs and wields a fluent and persuasive style enlivened by touches of quiet humour. His essays are full of amusing anecdotes and homely illustrations drawn for everyday experience.
Robert Lynd (1879-1949) is also a gifted essayist and critic. He follows in style the manner of R.L. Stevenson. His famous work is A Peal of Bells. He can very well display Stevensonian humour, reflectiveness and sympathy.. Like Lucas he builds his essays out of mere trifles and makes them an occasion of a trenchant criticism of life. His style is simple and less elaborate and devoid of the mannerisms of Stevenson. He tries to please as well as instruct.