English Essay : Origin and Development

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      The 'essay' as a form of literature is not of ancient origin. It was in 1571 that the 'essay' was invented by the French philosopher, Montaigne. He called his short, philosophical writings which were the products of moments by the French word assai, which means 'attempt'. Since then the word 'essay' has been applied to compositions of the kind that Montaigne attempted.

The essay has its roots in the prose-writings of the Elizabethan period, particularly in the works of Lodge, Lyly, Greene, Sir Philip Sidney etc.
Origin of Essay

      The essays of Montaigne were short in compass, light in tone and treatment, personal and discursive. They appeared in France about 1580 and in English in 1603. Dr. Samuel Johnson has defined the essay "as a loose sally of the mind, an irregular undigested piece; not a regular or orderly composition." The definition, though not complete, is quite happy for it covers the miscellaneous prose that goes by the name 'essay' "An essay, therefore, must in other words be short, unmethodical, personal and written in a style that is literary, easy and elegant." An essay is moulded by a central mood and resembles as 'lyric'.

      The essay has its roots in the prose-writings of the Elizabethan period, particularly in the works of Lodge, Lyly, Greene, Sir Philip Sidney etc. But the first real essayist in English is Francis Bacon, "the wisest, brightest and meanest of mankind" in the - words of the English poet, Alexander Pope. His essays are modelled on Montaigne's and appeared first in 1597. They have a wide variety of themes; they are brief and lacking in intimacy of personal note. They are rather the grave musings of a philosopher than the whim-whams of the intimate literary essayist, like Charles Lamb. He drafted his first ten essays published in 1597, but increased the number to 58 in 1625. Bacon calls his essays, 'detached meditations'. Bacon's essays are meant for some moral observations. They are short and pithy. His essays are counsels of a shrewd man of the world based on his personal experiences and observations of men and manners. Bacon wanted to write for the young men of ambition who wanted complete self-realisation. His essays include of Truth, of Studies, of Travel, of Adversity, of Envy, of Love etc. His crisp and epigrammatic sentences read like aphorisms. He writes clear and self-conscious prose. Bacon's essays had neither the discursiveness nor the grace of Montaigne's essays. According to him, his essays are "brief notes set down rather significantly than anxiously."

      The defects of Bacon were remedied by Abraham Cowley (1618-1867) who is the first conscious essayist in English literature and has been called, indeed "the father of the English essay". His essays like On Myself, The Garden are the examples of the intimate familiar essay. His style is somewhat heavy but his tone is intimate. He is a link between Bacon and Addison. Other writers of the first half of the seventeenth century, like Burton, Fuller, Joseph Hall, John Earle, Sir Thomas Overbury carried the development of the essay one step farther. The last three wrote short character-sketches, full of humour and showing deep insight into human characters. They are called 'Characters'.

      During the Restoration period Dryden and Temple cast their criticisms of poetry and observations of life in the form of delightful essays. Dryden's Essays on Dramatic Poesie (1668), Temple's Essays on Poetry (1685) are too long to be strictly called 'essays'. They are essays only in name. Locke's famous philosophical treatise is called An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), but it has little of the essay in it. These show how the 'essay' had cast its spell on the writers who chose to call their critical or philosophical writings by the name 'essay'.

      In the Eighteenth century, with the rise of the periodicals, the essay fully established itself as a popular literary form. Defoe, the immediate precursor of the golden age of prose, gave the essay a strain of irony and a simple, clear and realistic style. Addison and Steele, in their periodicals The Tatler and The Spectator wrote essays with a frankly didactic purpose, namely to reform contemporary manners and morals. They brought philosophy to the coffee-table, as they happily said. Addison contributed 274 and Steele 236 essays to The Spectator. The essays were on an infinite variety of subjects. Their manners were also varied. Sometimes they used allegory as a device to make their themes attractive. The Vision of Mirza from the pen of Addison is a beautiful allegorical essay.

      Addison was the greater master of English prose. His inimitable humour, suavity, imagination added considerably to the charm and grace of his essay. His style is a model one-simple direct amd graceful and sometimes even rhythmical. Steele's essays are full o human sympathy; his pathos is soft and attractive. His style in rather slip-shod, lacking the finish of Addison's prose.

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