From Essays of the Year 1930-1931 Argonaut Press
EVERYONE who has hitherto attempted has failed to produce a satisfactory definition of the word “essay.” The reason for this failure is simple enough: it is that an essay may be almost any kind of shortish piece of prose for which no other name can be discovered. Various critics have sought to limit the use of the word to short pieces in which the point of view is extremely personal, and in which even philosophy, if it appears, has the blood of autobiography in its veins. I know one admirable critic who would even exclude Bacon from the ranks of the essayists on the ground that his essays have nothing in common with those of Montaigne and Lamb. I cannot see much good in a definition which would compel us to rename the most memorable books of such writers as Bacon, Macaulay, Emerson, and Matthew Arnold.
It is true that if you heard someone saying that he liked (or loathed) essays, you would have a shrewd notion that he was not thinking of Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding, or Bishop Berkeley’s Essay for Preventing the Ruin of Great Britain. On the other hand, he might conceivably be a man who liked (or loathed) Bacon’s string of epigrams on Truth equally with Lamb’s deep well of memories in Old China. Those who talk about the “true essay,” as though only one kind of essay were “true,” ignore the fact that even the individual essayist as a rule writes essays of more than one type. The essays of Addison, for example, sometimes resemble fiction, sometimes sermons, sometimes critical studies, and are sometimes the expressions of a humorous mind on the follies of the age or the follies of the ages. In The Spectator, Addison claimed perfect freedom to write as he chose on any subject that interested him. If his essays have survived, it is not because they conform to one type of “true essay,” but because he was able to discourse like a man at his ease in good company on a variety of subjects in a variety of moods, grave and gay, anecdotal and philosophical. Hence, it seems to me that there is probably no such thing as a “true essay,” just as there is no such thing as a “true letter.” The only reasonable division of essays is into good, bad, and indifferent. And in this it must be conceded that the majority of essays, like the majority of poems and the majority of novels, are either bad or indifferent.
Considering that the essay is so difficult of definition, it is no wonder that critics differ widely as to the date of its origin. Most of the authorities hold that the first essays were written by Montaigne in the sixteenth century; but Mr. F. H. Pritchard, in his anthology of the great essays of the world, has gone for his material as far back as the author of Ecclesiastes, and reckons even Aristotle among the essayists. It is, perhaps, a little extravagant to call a chapter of a book of philosophy an essay. And yet it may be argued with some show of reason that the earliest essays were themselves chapters of philosophy. In the essay we find philosophy grown familiar; and Bacon held that, though the name was new in his day, the essay itself was as old as Seneca. Didactic essays, such as Seneca’s eulogy of clemency to the youthful Nero, are not in much favour today, but they are none the less essays on that account; and, in Greek, when Plutarch writes On Having Many Friends or On Chance, he is obviously practising the same art that Bacon was afterwards to make famous in England. Montaigne, it is true, protested that in writing his essays he was not aiming at the service of his readers, as the familiar philosophers of earlier ages had done, and that he himself was the real matter of his book. But no one can read his book without seeing that in spirit it is an offshoot of philosophy. Montaigne did not so much invent the essay as give it a new shape with his genius. He wrote the first essays in which philosophy and autobiography joined hands.
Nor, since his time, has the essay entirely lost its philosophic and didactic flavour. Addison was in much of his work a moralist of the coffee-house, and it was his ambition to improve society by entertaining it. Dr. Johnson wrote on such themes as the folly and inconvenience of affectation, and the proper means of regulating sorrow. Hazlitt enjoyed a brief plunge into metaphysics no less than an excursion among things remembered. And so on, until in our own day Mr. G. K. Chesterton has again and again made the essay the vehicle of whatever religious, moral, and political ideas fired him when he sat down to write. The truth is that, contrary to a common notion, the immortality of the soul makes as good a subject for an essayist as does a broomstick. Swift has been much praised for having been able to write on a broomstick; but what is most astonishing in the business is that he did not write better on it. If Mr. Chesterton had written an essay on a broomstick, the broomstick would have burst into blossom like Tannhäuser’s staff.
Since the essay became a branch of literary journalism, there has scarcely been a subject from the immortality of the soul down to broomsticks that it has not made its own. Its range has been as wide as that of conversation, and, at its best, it is often a kind of heightened conversation, whether grave or nonsensical, reminiscent or critical. When Hazlitt called a book of essays Table Talk, he came as near a definition of the popular essay of the last two centuries or so as is possible.
Literary puritans complain that the essay has been injured by the compulsion laid upon the essayist to talk on all manner of subjects at a moment’s notice in the popular journals, and we are told that even the length of the essay has been dictated by the needs of journalism. We must judge by results, however, not by preconceived theories; and, if we do so, we shall find that the essay has been no more injured than the play or the novel by the call of the producer or printer, or the restrictions imposed by the paymaster. If a writer is a good writer, and is left free in his choice of subject and in his choice of treatment, his genius will find a means of expressing itself freely within the limits assigned to him. Pressure from without may even, within limits, be of service to an author’s genius. Had it not been for the demands of journalism, we might never have had the Essays of Elia. Lamb’s essays, like The Pickwick Papers, were commissioned work, and it is doubtful whether, but for the urgency of editors, Lamb would have had the incentive to write them. If there has never been a second Lamb, this is not due to the fact that conditions in journalism have changed; it is for the same reason that there has never been a second Shakespeare.
We are sometimes reminded that, while Lamb was permitted to expand his subject at will in the pages of a magazine, the modern essayist is confined to a narrower space in the columns of daily and weekly newspapers. But the fact is that the main tradition of the English essay has always been in favour of brevity, that Bacon wrote essays which would be dismissed as “snippets” by the advocates of length, that Lamb himself voluntarily made many of his most delightful essays short enough to have appeared in a weekly review today. I was recently looking at Mr. J. B. Priestley’s anthology Essayists Past and Present, and I could find no evidence that the essay has dwindled in size since the days of Steele. Steele’s Recollections of Childhood occupies seven pages of the anthology; Mr. G. K. Chesterton’s A Piece of Chalk also occupies seven. Addison’s Death of Sir Roger de Coverley fills five pages; Mr. Belloc’s The Mowing of a Field fills six. Johnson’s and Goldsmith’s essays run to about the same length. Lamb’s Old China, which is somewhat longer, takes up ten pages, but Mr. Lucas’s My Cousin the Bookbinder takes up eleven. It is clear, then, that no novel vice of brevity has been forced upon the modern essayist. If a modern essayist has the genius to write as good an essay as Old China he has every opportunity to do so.
On the other hand, many of the great essays undoubtedly run far beyond the limit of two thousand words. I do not see how Religio Medici is to be described except as an essay, yet it fills a small book. Montaigne himself expanded the Apology for Raymond Sebond to the length of a booklet, while at other times he made an essay only a page or two pages long. Lamb’s Christ’s Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years Ago is about three times as long as Dream Children. Hazlitt required generous space for The Fight and My First Acquaintance With Poets. But it is an interesting fact that in the Victorian age, when the essayists took advantage of the greater elbow-room allowed to them, they failed to show any conspicuous advance on the briefer writers of the eighteenth century.
Obviously, it is as much an impossibility to lay down rules for the “right length” of an essay, as it would be to lay down rules for the “right length” of a novel. A good novel may be as short as The Vicar of Wakefield or as long as War and Peace. We instinctively feel that a line must be drawn somewhere both in regard to length and in regard to brevity; but when we complain that a novel is too short or too long, what we usually mean is merely that the novelist has not filled his space with the fiery energy of genius. And it is much the same with the essay. By its nature it must be shorter than the novel; and, just as an essay in a single sentence would cease to be an essay and become an epigram, so an essay in a large volume would cease to be an essay and become a treatise or a book of reminiscences. But the rules governing its length are as elastic as the rules governing the length of speeches.
On the whole, perhaps, we might be safe in saying that an essay should be of a length not likely to bore people who enjoy reading reading essays, and that both its matter and its manner should be of a kind not likely to bore people who enjoy reading essays. But that is about as far as a cautious man would care to go if he were asked for a good recipe for an essay. Probably it is more difficult to write a good recipe for an essay than it would be to write a good essay.