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Most people are able to recognize an essay when they see one; but although the thing itself is not usually difficult to detect, it is by no means easy to define and analyze. We ordinarily take it for granted that the Essay is a form of exposition, or, more specifically, a short discussion in prose on some selected topic. Aiming as it does to treat a subject, not exhaustively, but on a limited scale, its length is largely determined by the average reader's power of attention for a single sitting. It must, moreover, be camplete in itself, not a section or a chapter of a larger work. The word, derived from the Latin exagium, a weighing, was given its modern significance by Montaigne, who used it as meaning an experiment, or rather a tentative consideration of a problem. The object of the Essay, as Mr. Morley interprets it, is “merely to open questions, to indicate points, to suggest cases, to sketch outlines.”
With these broad and general specifications no one is likely to quarrel. Unfortunately, however, the word "essay" as it is too often employed to-day is so exceedingly comprehensive that it is applied indiscriminately to brief expositions or arguments of any kind. Its use ought certainly to be limited with
Our current magazines, for instance, are enlivened with short treatises on such diverse matters as the Panama Canal, the importance of vivisection, and the evils of monopoly. Written mainly to furnish information to the public, these discussions are objective, unimaginative, and impersonal. They are, furthermore, frankly ephemeral in their purpose, and make no pretense of being permanent literature. Such treatises, which are better classified as "articles," plainly do not belong in the same category with the genuine Essay.
The true Essay, on the other hand, has a distinct literary aim. Its object is not primarily to spread knowledge, but to delight and stimulate its readers. Its tone and temper may vary widely, and its subject-matter may cover nearly every field; but behind it is always some individual point of view. Some standard divisions of the Essay will at once occur to everybody: the Didactic or Philosophical Essay, represented by selections from Bacon and Emerson; the Biographical or Historical Essay, like Macaulay's Warren Hastings; the Critical Essay, illustrated by Matthew Arnold's Byron; and finally the Familiar Essay, which is, strictly speaking, the Essay in its ripest, truest sense. All these types, different though they are in manner, style, and material, have one end in common: the expression of a personal theory or attitude towards life.
It is with the Familiar Essay that this collection is chiefly concerned, for it is when bestowed on this branch of literature that the term "essay" is most accurately used. Like the Familiar Letter, to which it is closely related, it is essentially "a direct exposure
of the man behind the book.” In this narrower meaning the Essay is subjective, personal, and discursive, full of casual gossip and intimate self-revelation. The best examples of it, such as Hazlitt's On Going a Journey or Stevenson's Crabbed Age and Youth, have decided individual touches, a direct personal appeal, and an attractive informality as of fireside talk. They resemble passages in a friendly correspondence, except that they are, as a rule, more orderly, more coherent, and more confined to a single theme.
To the Familiar Essayist, however, the assigned title is not always of supreme importance. Montaigne discourses on cannibals, Hazlitt upon sundials, and Stevenson upon gas-lamps; yet each persists in talking mainly of himself, and each deals with his subject egotistically in terms of his own unique individuality. The Essay thus often tends to become a form or phase of autobiography. This assertion will not, of course, apply without modification to works like Macaulay's Addison or Emerson's History, which, as we have seen, stand in a group by themselves; but even these essays will be found upon examination to be developments of the favorite theories of their writers, and therefore to a large extent personal in nature.
The tone of the Essay is obviously capable of wide variations, depending upon the character and mood of the author. It may be profoundly serious, as in Emerson's Compensation; pleasantly witty, as in Miss Repplier's Mission of Humour; or elaborately rhetorical, as in De Quincey's Vision of Sudden Death. Emerson and Bacon discuss love in mystical fashion; Stevenson plays with it in a manner satirical and facetious. In practically every case, however, the Essay has an aristocratic flavor. Essayists, like writers of vers de société, seem to be tranquil, cultivated persons, disinclined to be passionate,
impetuous, or openly enthusiastic. The Essay does not burst spontaneously from the hearts of simple men; it is rather an artificial product, possible only in an educated, perhaps even a sophisticated community.
The Familiar Essayists, usually people of scholarly tastes and seasoned wisdom, have been fond of allusion and illustration. They have loved to point an argument with an anecdote, and to press home a doctrine with a simile. But the knowledge displayed is never obtrusive or pedantic, for the · Essay must always seem “the brief and light result of learning and meditation.” It is beyond the essayist's province to usurp the preacher's office or to play the part of tutor. He is quite content with a hint instead of a sermon, with a jest in place of a solemn maxim. He is well aware also that the slightest trace of conventionality or affectation or even of reticence will destroy the impression he wishes to produce.
This means, of course, that he is to be on intimate and natural terms with his audience. Assuming the confidential tone of unreserved conversation, the skillful essayist behaves to his readers as if he were betraying to them momentous secrets. Montaigne, Lamb, Stevenson seem almost to be chatting at our very elbows, so frankly and innocently do they disclose their partialities and foibles, their little whims and weaknesses.
“An essayist without style is a contradiction in terms, asserts a shrewd critic. The names of the great English essayists as n them Bacon, Addison, Lamb, Hazlitt, Arnold, Pater, Stevenson, Benson are those of men who are masters of excellent and distinctive prose. With