(Origin of Essay)
Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Essay’ as: “a composition of moderate length on a particular subject”. It is a short written composition in prose that discusses a subject or proposes an argument without claiming to be a complete or thorough exposition. A minor literary form, the essay is more relaxed than the formal academic dissertation. The term ‘trying out’ or ‘attempt’ was coined by the French writer Michel de Montaigne in the title of his Essais, the modern example of the form. Francis Bacon’s Essays began the tradition of Essays in English.
According to E. V. Lucas, a good novel is, “ A good essay more than a novel, a poem, a play or a treatise, is personality translated into print.”
Dr. Johnson defined essay as “ a loose sally of mind: an irregular, undigested piece, not a regular and orderly composition”. This definition means that the essay is an impetuous outpouring of ideas, without form and arrangement but with all the freshness of an eager mind.
Bacon defined essay as “dispersed meditation”; in other words, a vehicle for the expression of a man’s, thoughts, in a rather disconnected manner. Dr. Johnson’s conception of the essay is obviously contradictory to Bacon’s ideal of the sober meditation.
Types of essay: There are two types of essay:
i. Personal essay: These are the subjective essays based on personal opinions. In personal essay, the writer includes the reader in whatever is being discussed. The writer does that by using the first person pronoun “I”.
Example of the personal essay is “The Praise of Chimney Sweepers” by ‘Charles Lamb’. In his essay, Charles Lamb include the reader by saying; “ I Like to meet a sweep-understand me- not a grown…” and also it is clear from other line of “The Praise of Chimney Sweepers” like: “I have a kindly yearning toward these dim specks- poor blots—innocent” and also “I am by nature extremely susceptible of street affronts”.
ii. Non-personal essay: These are objective essays based on majority opinions. In non-personal essay, the writer assumes superiority and keeps the readers at the distance. Non-personal essay or compositional essay consists of many views and analysis that is why these essays are also called analytical essays. While studying non-personal essay we will have introduction, analysis and conclusion.
Some of the examples of non-personal essay are: Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Simulation and Dissimulation” and Bertrand Russell’s “The Functions of a Teacher”. Bacon’s essay and Russell’s essay both consist of introduction, analysis and conclusion. Bacon in his essay first define dissimulation, then the three degrees of hiding and veiling of a man’s self and and at the last he gives the conclusion. Russell is his essay opposes the state control over education, takes teachers to mountains , also compare emancipation of a teacher in pre-historic times with the role of a teacher in modern teacher.
Montaigne and Bacon:
Montaigne is the first writer who wrote what may technically be called essays. He coined the word essai when in 1580, he gave the title Essais to his first publication. Montaigne was discursive, informal and intimate (writing on such subjects as Liars, The Custom of Wearing Clothes and the Art of Conversation). Bacon’s position in the history of the English essay is unique and remarkable. He is undoubtedly the pioneer in his domain of English literature. To him belongs the very credit of having written essays first of all… Bacon’s essays are objective. He keeps himself at a distance from the readers. In his essays, Bacon assumes the moral superiority and share his wisdom. Bacon never concerns himself about what people should do. Bacon’s essays are prescriptive as in the last sentence of “ Of Simulation and Dissimulation” he says; “The best composition and temperature, is to have openness in fame and opinion; secrecy in habit; dissimulation in seasonable use; and a power to feign, if there be no remedy”. Bacon uses short sentences in his essays as we can notice in “ Of Simulation and Dissimulation” as he says: “As for talkers and futile persons, they are common vain and credulous withal” or “The third is, better to discover the mind of another”. He also suffers from emotional malnutrition. Bacon was terse, didactic and aloof, though choosing not dissimilar topics(Of Envy, Of Simulation and Dissimulation, Of Riches). Montaigne’s essays often run to many thousands of words; Bacon’s seldom exceed a few hundred.
Essay in 17th century:
Cowley deliberately cultivated a form of essay far more intimate and confidential though, less profound and philosophical than the Baconian. In 1660s Abraham Cowley became the second important pioneer of the English essay in the Montaigne tradition of personal and reflective informality. Cowley knew and admired the Frenchman’s essays and, like him, chose to portray himself. He wrote of such subjects as liberty, solitude, avarice, the brevity of life and the uncertainty of riches. His work was published posthumously in 1668.
Essay in 18th century:
Cowley and Saint-Evremond, the French critic, between them stimulated interest in Montaigne’s work; and Sir William Temple and Dryden consolidated the form of the essay. Both were to have a considerable influence on Steele and Addison. Temple’s essays were, for the most part, in the manner of Montaigne. Dryden was more formal as, for instance, in his best known work in this genre, the Essay of Dramatic Poesy which was in fact, in dialogue form. Dryden introduced a new variety, called the Critical Essay. Among the earliest of his essays is the “Essay of Dramatic Poesy” which is still the best known and contains the most elaborate exposition of his critical principles, though it is surpassed in interest by the admirable “preface to the Fable”. Both these essays follow the form of Montaigne, but their theme is literary criticism. These critical essays entitle Dryden to honor of being not only “the father of English Criticism” but also “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”.
Johnson made his contribution to the essay with The Rambler and The Idler. The early years of the eighteenth century saw the rise of journalism and the Essay began to appear in the periodicals. Defoe in his review is first believed to have set the fashion, but the real vogue of the periodical essay began with the publication of “The tatler” and “The Spectator”.
Lamb, Hazlitt, De Quincey, Legh Hunt and Stevenson wrote very much in the tradition of Montaigne; as Lamb’s Essays of Elia demonstrate, or Hazlitt’s On persons One would wish to have seen, and On Life in General; also his essays on John Buncle and Cavanagh, the fives player; Leigh Hunt’s On Getting Up on Cold Mornings; De Quincey’s On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth; and Stevenson’s A Plea for Gas Lamps. The other essayists just mentioned wrote more often of aesthetics, philosophy, literary and historical topics, which have usually been the subjects chosen by European essayists.
Essay in 19th century:
In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the periodical newspaper gave place to the critical journal, commonly called the “Review”. The most important of these reviews were; “The Gentleman’s Magazine”, “The Edinburgh Review”, “The Quarterly Review” and “Black-wood’s Magazine”. The important writers who made contributions to these reviews and magazines were; Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, William Hazlitt, Thomas de Quincey, Macaulay and Matthew Arnold. The informal and familiar type of divertissement retained its popularity until fairly recently, while weightier matters have been covered more and more by the form. Literary critics, reviewers, journalists and columnists have found the essay to be an indispensable medium. The eldest of the chief of the group was Charles Lamb, who has endeared himself to the generations of Englishmen by his “Essays of Elia” and “Last Essay of Elia”. Lambs participate in the action by using the first person pronoun “I”. We(readers) also become participants while reading, like in his essay “The Praise of Chimney sweepers” which is the finest essay of his collection “The Essay of Elia” we can see the use of “I” as: “I fear, to clandestine and almost infantile abductions;”. Lambs’ essays raises the emotional expectations of readers and are full of humor as we can see in the same essay as; “I am by theory obdurate to the seductiveness of what are called a fine set of teeth”. In this sentence we can see that how he raises our emotional expectations and how he uses humor. He allows emotions to swim to and fro to sympathize with those children by using long sentences as it is clear from very first sentence of “The Praise of Chimney Sweepers” as: “I LIKE to meet a sweep- understand me- not a grown sweeper- old chimney-sweepers are by no means attractive- but one of those tender novices, blooming through their first nigritude, the maternal washings not quite effaced from the cheek- such as come forth with the dawn, or somewhat earlier, with their little professional notes sounding like the peep peep of a young sparrow; or liker to the main lark should I pronounce them, in their aerial ascents not seldom anticipating the sunrise?”
Another essayist of 19th century is Bertrand Russell. His essay “The function of a teacher” is objective(analytical) essay. Like the Francis Bacon, Russell also keeps himself away from the readers. He opposes the state control over education, takes the teachers to mountains and favor democracy of education. He also give some theories, opinions and refers to the history but he hardly join his readers in his struggle.
Essay in 20th century:
In the second half of the 20th century, fewer familiar and informal essays have been published because there have been fewer periodicals to take them. At the same time the literary and critical essay and the essay of ideas have become commonplaces, especially; in the numerous academic publications. From time to time distinguished authors produce a volume of them. Among the scores of collections that exist, the following are some of the most notable: Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader and A Room of One’s Own, which has become something of a classic in feminist criticism; T.S. Eliot’s Selected Essays.
The twentieth century has proved to be a fertile ground for the development of the essay. It has yielded a rich and varied harvest. The innumerable daily papers and weekly and monthly periodicals provide an unlimited scope for the essayists. The most of the modern essayists, whose essays reveal the charm of their personalities, are G K. Chesterton, E.V. Lucas, A.G. Gardiner and Robert Lynd. G.K. Chesterton deserves a high reputation as an essayist and critic of literary and social subjects. His style is remarkable for its ingenuity, a curious sort of humor, and, its paradoxes and epigrams. The essay form has flourished no less in Europe, where there have been many distinguished practitioners.
Essays in modern world:
In modern world, the essayists have used the form for the discussion of ideas, for polemic and for political purposes rather than attempting the informal and familiar approach and style characteristic or the English tradition. Among modern essayists, A.G. Gariner is perhaps the most delightful of the modern essayists. His famous essays are collected in the volumes “Leaves in the Wind” and “Many Furrows”. He has personality and humor, a background of literature, depth and thoughtfulness, and he has polished his style to perfection. His essays are full of amusing anecdotes and homely illustrations drawn from everyday experience and they read like short stories.
So, this was all about the essay; its introduction, origin, birth, rise and characteristics of essay of every writer in every age(century) of English literature.