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The Advantages of Living in a Garret.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
On the Fear of Death.
William Hazlitt (1778–1830)
Deaths of Little Children.
Leigh Hunt (1784-1859)
THE CLASSIC ESSAY
RANCIS BACON, the father of the English classic essay, explains the purpose of his essays when he
writes that they are “certain brief notes set down rather significantly than curiously; not vulgar, but of a kind whereof men shall find much experience and little in books." His aim, therefore, is akin to that of the preacher, only he selects lay topics; many of his own results, and those of the inheritors of his tradition, differ very little from sermons save in this, that they lack scriptural texts. The intention of Bacon's essays is to instruct; to this end they are made solemn with a large display of scholarship, and have for theme some abstract subject. Consequently, their remoteness from matters of general experience safeguards them from being vulgar; but at the same time, because of their pedantic gentility, narrows their scope of achievement. How much more generous was Montaigne's method, who took himself for the groundwork of his book-himself, if need be, in his nakedness! Yet Montaigne was undoubtedly Bacon's instigator: both illustrate their meaning with copious extracts from the classics; both go repeatedly to Machiavelli and Philip de Comines for their lessons in history and knowledge of men; both take high-sounding moral themes for their subjects. But Bacon and his followers miss the unabashed friendliness of their inspirer, being hampered by reserve or carried away by earnestness in delivering their message. Compare, for example, Bacon's essay entitled Of Friendship with that of Montaigne. Bacon cites Lucius Sylla and Pompey, Julius Caesar and Decimus Brutus, Augustus and Agrippa, Septimus Severus and Plantianus as illustrations of great friendships, but he never cites himself. Montaigne does little else; he takes for subject his own love for Steven de la Boitie, who, at the time of writing, has been long dead. "Truly," he says, "if I compare all the rest of my forepassed life unto the foure years, I so happily enjoied the sweet company, and deare-deare society of that worthy man, it is nought but a vapour, nought but a darke and yrksome light. Since the time I lost him, I doe but languish, I doe but sorrow.... All things were with us at halfe; me thinkes I have stolne his part from him.” Bacon is never less than a teacher, to whom the attitude of the reader is that of a school-boy in the presence of a sage. Montaigne is always frankly fallible, and seemingly takes delight in owning to his errors; he approaches his reader on terms of equality as a confiding friend. Not for one hundred and fifty years, until Laurence Sterne commenced to write, did the English essay arrive at this thoroughpaced first-person self-revelation, and Sterne's revelations are for the most part fables. In the meanwhile the classic tradition as established by Bacon, with its semi-sermonic purpose, became the model; and, although no longer a popular form of literature, occasionally finds a casual exponent even to-day.
Robert Burton was one of the first to do something toward breaking down the Baconian tradition-he paganised the essay. Up to his day it had been the medium of piously philosophic or, at least, of moral expression. He enfranchised it by setting down in essay form almost whatever it pleased him to think about. He was interested in ideas, and did not trouble to test their worthiness by discovering their relation to established conventions and orthodoxies. He wrote for his own and not for his public's pleasure. The Anatomy of Melancholy was a life's work, composed "with a view to relieving his own melancholy, but increased it to such a degree that nothing could make him laugh but going to the bridge-foot and hearing the ribaldry of the bargemen, which rarely failed to throw him into a violent fit of laughter.” When he died, he was suspected of having encompassed his own death, “because he departed this life, at or very near the time which he had some years foretold, from the calculation of his own nativity, and which, being exact, several of the students did not forbear to whisper among themselves that, rather than there should be a mistake in calculation, he sent up his soul to heaven through a slip about his neck.” Such was the man. If he did not communicate his thoughts with the unashamed nakedness of Montaigne, he at least surpassed Bacon in this, that he wrote less to instruct others than himself. Though his style is often cumbered and his secrets are sometimes rudely violent in their intimacy, his book may truthfully be said to be one of the kindest and most companionable in the English language. Doctor Johnson said of it that it was the only book that took him out of his bed two hours before he wished to rise. It is all about himself, being written as a cure for his own disease; yet in this it falls short of Montaigne's friendliness, that it tells us only what he thought, not what he did, he being solely interested in ideas. Bacon preaches at the world; Burton diagnoses his own emotions and then advises that he may remedy himself.
The Religio Medici of Sir Thomas Browne was written at Shipdon Hall, Halifax. The date of its creation is approximately determined as 1635 by the internal evidence
* Probably Folly Bridge, which crosses the Thames at Oxford.
contained in the following passage: “As yet,” he says, “I have not seen one revolution of Saturn, nor has my pulse beat thirty years”—“a double mode of reckoning,” says Professor Herford" in his excellent introduction to the Everyman's edition of this book, "in which we seem to catch the far - off murmur of generations of mediæval doctors, prescribing for the unhappy patient with their eyes on the midnight horizon, and cupping him at the bidding of the stars.” In these few words lies the whole importance of Sir Thomas Browne's contribution to the evolution of the essay; he widens its borders when he uses it, by fixing his gaze upon the heavens. He was a man of sidereal modes of thought and helped to enfranchise the medium through which he worked, not by adding anything fresh to its mechanism, but by making it spacious with the largeness of his own imagination. At the same time, this upward gaze prevented him from attaining to any considerable knowledge of the world of men, by virtue of which knowledge Montaigne is so excellent. Though his long life covers the whole of the troublous period of the Puritan Revolution, he has left scarcely a reference to things political. Were his books, by some destructive accident, the only literary survivors of Commonwealth times, we could reconstruct from his pages no contemporary picture of the first half of the seventeenth century, when monarchy was overthrown and England resounded to the “drums and tramplings of conquest.” Though a convinced Royalist, he preferred his quiet to the contentions of parties, and dwelt remote in spirit with his eyes upon the stars. At the opening of the war he published his Religio; when the Royal cause was already approaching its final ruin, he published his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, wherein he makes
1 Prof. C. H. Herford's Introduction is one of the best short essays that has been written on Sir Thomas Browne and his writings.