Essays in The 16th Century English Literature

Also Read

      The 16th century is generally considered as the birth time of the genre ‘essay’ in the English literature, Francis Bacon being considered the eldest English essay writer. Although, the earliest anonymous and trivial essay Remedies against Discontentment appeared in 1556, we owe to Bacon and the 1557 both the birth of English Essay. Bacon published ten small pieces of the most concentrated literary polemical ever presented in 1597. It will be of interest to note that the Greeks, Theophratus and Plutarch and the Romans, Cicero and Seneca wrote essays long before the genre was given its standard name by Montaigue’s great French Essayist in 1580. But as Bacon rightly said, there are certain hollow blasts of wind and secret swellings of the sea before a tempest, there must have been anticipations of the essay before the essay was born in 1597. Casaubon’s translation of Theophratus appeared in 1592. Casaubon gave a great stimulus to the school of essay writing. Of course, The Fraternity of Vagabonds is slightly older than Herman’s Coveat or Warning of Cursetors, vaguely called Vagabonds seems to have appeared in 1566.

      In the age of Elizabeth, drama was an obsession, translation was a hobby, the prose was largely lawless, essay was in its infancy, literary rubbish was shot and though in the heap of all those, there were gems to be found here and there, yet they were invariably rough. Criticism had made a feeble beginning and Caxton’s Prefaces may be regarded as early essays in this art. Stephen Gosson’s (1554-1624) School of Abuse (1579) dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586), and Sidney’s Apology For Poetry (1595) are notable examples of exercise in this new art.

      Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) position in the history of English essay is unique and remarkable. He is undoubtedly the pioneer in this domain of English literature. Bacon is in the annals of the English essay what Euclid was in the story of geometry, or what Homer was in the growth and development of the European epic. Bacon regarded the essay as a receptacle for detached thoughts, which is evident from his own words about them. Of Studies (1597) and Of Adversity (1625) are glorious examples commented and commended by Macaulay in the 19th century. Montague and Lamb also belong to Elizabethan age. In their essays subject is often unimportant. For them every road leads to the end of the world, the title promises only some graceful triviality, it may cover deep feelings if not profound thought. Bacon wrote extensively on almost all abstract subjects and real situations such as Poor Relations. Nevertheless, there is not even one essay which does not show that Bacon had mastered the principle which probably no contemporary had grasped.

      The style of Bacon remains for the main part aphoristic, with the result that he is one of the most quotable of writers. There is a terseness of expression, and epigrammatic brevity, in the essays of Bacon. His sentences are brief and rapid, but they are also forceful. “They come down like the strokes of a hammer”, says Dean Church. This terseness is often achieved by leaving out superfluous epithets and conjunctions and connectives. It is seldom carried to the extent of causing obscurity, though one or two instances do exist where this extreme condensation has caused great difficulty in understanding the meaning. This is a remarkable power of compressing into a few words an idea which other writers may express in several sentences. The essays of Bacon in fact have to be read slowly because of the compact and condensed thought. There are a number of sentences which are read like proverbs:

1. A lie faces God and Shrinks from man. (Of Truth)

2. Suspicions among thoughts are like bats among birds. (Of Suspicion)

3. The ways to enrich are many and most of them foul. (Of Riches)

4. A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure. (Of Truth)

5. It is a strange desire to seek power and lose liberty: or to seek power over others and lose power over a man’s self. (Of Great Place)

6. The rising unto place is laborious, and by pains men come to greater pains. (Of Great Place)

      There is not one essay which does not contain such capsules of common wisdom. The sentences are pregnant with meaning. They are often curt, telegraphic or stenographic in nature. This aphoristic style of Bacon lends charm to his essays. We admire the range of knowledge, the brightness of intellect and wit, the keen practical wisdom, all packed into the minimum possible words. Bacon never wastes a word, and, what is more, he seems to compress these weighty thoughts into these brief sentences with the minimum of effort as well. There is a note of spontaneity in the style, even while it is so dignified.

      Richard Hooker (1554-1600) and Sir Walter Raleigh (1552/1554-1618) who preceded Bacon also wrote essays of merit but they were not masters of style. So, till closing years of the 16th century, no one had shown a mastery of principle of prose; only Bacon showed such mastery. Robert Johnson who published his essays in 1601 could not reach Bacon’s profundity. John Seldon (1584-1654) the author of Table. Talk deserves a place beside Johnson and Bacon.

Previous Post Next Post