Essay writing : Development and definition

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      It was in March, 1571 that the essay was invented by Montaigne, the French philosopher. Montaigne's essays has appeared in France in 1580 and 1588 and were published in John Florio's English translation in 1603. Mantaigne's essays were characterised by a lightness in treatment, limitedness in scope, preponderance of personal element of the writer and some discursiveness round the central theme. The treatment was from open particular point of view and was not meant to be exhaustive or even polemical.

The eighteenth century found in the essay a ready weapon for satire.
Essay writing

      In English literature, the first essayist was Francis Bacon. He drafted his first ten essays published in 1591 but increased the number to fifty-eight in 1625. Bacon's essays had neither the discursiveness nor the grace of Montaigne's essays. Bacon strikes a personal note in such essays as in Of Gardens. But he is too sententious, too deeply engrossed in serious matters of life. His essays are counsels of a shrewd man of the world based on his personal experiences and observations of men and manners. His counsels were written in crisp and epigrammatic sentences which read like aphorisms. The titles of the essays testify to his purpose - On Travel, Friendship, Of Expense, Of Riches, Of Usury, Ambition, Nobility. Bacon wrote for the young men of strenuous ambition who wanted complete self-realisation in public life.

      Cowley (1618-1667) who wrote his Social Discourses by Way of Essays and an essay On Myself may be called the father of the English essay. In the seventeenth century, cumbrous and involved prose style was being gradually discarded for more simple and direct style. Dryden and Temple cast their criticisms and observations of life in the form of delightful essays. Dryden's Essays on Dramatic Poesy and the prose introductions to his dramas and Temple's short essays collected under the title of Miscellanea showed to what various ends the essay form could be used according to the mood of the writer's mind. The Essay as a literary form resembles a lyric in so far as it is moulded by some central mood. Some seventeenth century writers like Burton, Fuller, Overbury were unconscious essayists in this sense. Burton and Fuller cast their fancies and fantastic conceits in the mould of essay and Overbury's character-sketches were moulded by a central mood.

      The eighteenth century found in the essay a ready weapon for satire. Defoe in his political writings used irony and a simple, clear and realistic style. Swift's numerous prose works are at best so many brilliant essays, satirical in aim and glittering by their irony. Steele and Addison in the Tatler and the Spectator turned the essay form to purposes of social criticism and satiric humour. They imported certain classical neatness in style, a gravity and sobriety combined with genuine and humour, a judgement of social values and a keen spirit of intellectual criticism of not only manners and morals but also of arts and letters. Apart from these very interesting qualities of style and outlook on life, Addison and Steele, without professing to be so, were habitually autobiographical. They did not tell about themselves with the boldness of Montaigne and Lamb. The eighteenth century sense of decorum and decency forbade them to be frankly egoistic. Yet they told much about themselves - particularly about their tastes, feelings, intellectual sympathies and social morality. Satiric in style, moral in outlook, their essays brought to the English essay, the virtues of lucidity, order, neatness, formal grace and precision. Steele's essay, The Recollections of Childhood may be taken as a model to Lamb and Stevenson who by their 'personal' and 'confidential' manner gave the best examples of the true type of the literary essay.

      Next, the didactic and moral element was introduced into the essay by Johnson in his Rambler and by Goldsmith in his Chinese Letters. Johnson's essays were defined purely moral abstractions, sententious, sombre and grave. He wrote generally in a highly Latinised diction and involved antithetical style and dealt with grave moral subjects. His tone is always moral and dictatorial. Goldsmith's essays, The Bee and The Citizen of the World are masterpieces of lucid prose. He talked more about himself and his innermost feelings that could be expected from his wisest contemporaries in that unemotional age. His sly humour adds a charm to the style.

      The true essay is essentially personal. It belongs to the literature of self-expression. Dr. Johnson's definition of the essay as 'a loose sally of the mind, an irregular, indigested piece, not a regular and orderly performance lays emphasis the apparent formlessness, incompleteness and flexibility of the literary type of the essay. He leaves out of account such finished, rounded, serious critical essays as Locke's Concerning the Human Understanding and Burke's On the Sublime and the Beautiful. Montaigne's Essays, Bacon's Counsels, even the essays of Addison, Steele, Johnson and Goldsmith were "a series of personal comments rather than finished agruments - so many cultured glances rather than careful examinations." Bacon calls his essays "detached meditations". Johnson's definition points to the salient 'characteristic in the original form of the essay. It is essentially the revelation of personality.

      It has been justly said the "romanticism stands alone among literary movements in having exercised and equal and similar though not identical, transforming power upon verse and prose." The heightened imagination and sharpened sensibility to beauty that led to the poetry of Romantic period, reacted also on the prose of the time. In the hands of Charles Lamb, De Quincey, William Hazlitt and others the essay acquired a new form and an added importance. It went beyond the limits set up by Addison and Steele, whose objects were reformatory - 'to bring philosophy out of the closet to the clubs'. All the machinery of the conventional essay is now quietly aside. In short, the essay becomes a thing of beauty, a work of art like poetry itself.

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