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A City Night-Piece.
Oliver Goldsmith (1728–1774)
Christ's Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago.
Charles Lamb (1795–1834)
Philanthropy from a Personal Point of View.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
My Copy of Keats.
Richard Dowling (1846-1898)
A Night Among the Pines.
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) THE FAMILIAR ESSAY
THE familiar essay marks the final development of the
essay. In Addison's day the essay was subject to
many trammels, especially that of politics. It was also oppressed by a deadly weight of classicism. Addison and Steele certainly enfranchised and lightened it, but they never made it genuinely sprightly. It was still burdened and in part ruined by quotations from the classics, which to the modern man appear absurdly pedantic and out of place. A notable example of Addison's use of his learning to restrain emotion is found in the essay called A Deathbed Scene. Steele wrote the first half of this essay, in a straightforward and unaffected style, drawing his inspiration from his own experience and observation of life. Addison writes the second half, and immediately falls back upon
what other men have said and done, quoting endlessly, as is the habit of the merely bookish man. First it is Seneca to whom he refers, and what the Roman philosopher had to say upon the virtues and death of the wife of Macrinus. Then it is Milton on the additional satisfaction which men derive from pleasures shared in the company of those they love. Here follow eighteen lines from the soliloquy of Eve, when, thcugh in Paradise, she finds herself no longer pleased with the beautiful objects that surround her, unless she sees them in comradeship with Adam. Out of this quotation arises a little criticism of Dryden, because he “has said, in his preface to Juvenal, that he could meet with no turn of words in Milton.” Lastly, as a conclusion to a death-bed scene, he remarks, “I might here, since I am accidentally led into the subject, show several passages in Milton that have as excellent turns of this nature as any of our English poets whatsoever, but shall only mention that which follows.” He forthwith describes one of the passages, quoting it to the extent of five lines, thus concluding an essay which was begun with an exquisitely human account of the conduct of a good woman and the behaviour of her broken-hearted husband and children in the solemn trial of death, with the different ways in which persons of various ages have expressed their grief under similar circumstances.
It was not for lack of better models that Addison thus misjudged the nature of the essay. Addison, if he had willed, might have learned much from Cowley, of whom Johnson said, “His thoughts are natural, and his style has a smooth and placid equability, which has never yet obtained its due commendation. Nothing is far-sought or hard-laboured, but is easy without feebleness, and familiar without grossness.” The final clause of this verdict is significant of what literary familiarity was wont to mean in Johnson's day. The truth is that Addison has been greatly over-rated. He had singular good fortune as a writer; he achieved immediate fame, and was rewarded with a munificence out of all proportion to his merit; for when we examine his work it is with a sense of strong disappointment we discover how little there is in it of original force. What has often been called stateliness in Addison is really stiffness and pedantry. He was much too cold and self-centred a man to be capable of the familiar essay, and he had not the humility to learn the lesson that Cowley had already taught, and Steele was even then teaching him.
In Johnson's day the essay had become much more
free, but it was still over-weighted by the habit of ponderous phraseology. For this Johnson himself was largely responsible. “Johnsonese” has come to be a synonym for a style based on artificial antithesis, for a laboured and scholastic method of writing, which mistakes turgidity for eloquence and ponderousness for majesty. Yet, in close association with Johnson, there was one man who was destined to simplify the entire literary style of his age, Oliver Goldsmith. Goldsmith began his prose writing by the imitation of Johnson. It was the convention of the day, and one which no hack-writer, as Goldsmith then was, could afford to disregard. It is very likely that Goldsmith knew perfectly well that his contributions to periodic literature would have had a precarious chance of acceptance unless they had obeyed the Johnsonian tradition. Goldsmith's first essays were sent to The Bee, and it is amusing to remember that Boswell, always jealous for the sole rule of his deity, somewhat angrily accused Goldsmith of having patterned himself on Johnson. This imitative phase of Goldsmith's writing did not last long. It was absolutely foreign to the nature of his genius, and was shaken off as a mere disguise, the moment he had attained a sufficient reputation to write as he pleased. The real Goldsmith, wise, simple, foolish, friendly, then appeared; the Goldsmith who wrote of real things, and always with a captivating lucidity of style.
One of the most memorable things to be remarked in Goldsmith is the note of world-wideness which he introduced into literature. There is a total absence in him of local prejudice, which is in strong contrast with the vigorous and almost barbaric insularity of Johnson. He had once thought of emigrating to America, and would have done so but for one of those humorous accidents so common in his haphazard life. He knew France and Italy with a thoroughness never attained by those who made the grand tour under circumstances of pomp and luxury. The most such travellers learned of the countries they traversed was superficial; their attitude was supercilious, and what they observed did little more than strengthen that unamiable patriotism which thrives upon the depreciation of other nations. This habit is so common that it has been accepted as characteristic of the travelling Englishman, who, to quote Ian Maclaren, "sniffs” his way across a continent. But Goldsmith went afoot, mixing with the common people, quick to recognise in them lovable and sterling qualities. “He was perhaps the only writer of his day," it has been said, “who thoroughly understood the social condition of the Continent. Nor was he less observant of English society; the Deserted Village has often been quoted by economists in illustration of the change which has gradually substituted large estates for the small holdings of a numerous yeomanry.” In this quality of world-wideness he stands alone among his contemporaries. And this quality is reflected in his essays. He is large-hearted, because he has had a large acquaintance with mankind. He is among the first of humanitarians, using that word to indicate an interest in mankind as a whole. He is in reality what he described his mythical philosopher to be, a Citizen of the World.
The only point in which Goldsmith fails of the true familiar essay is that he does not explicitly relate his own experiences. He writes under a pseudonym as Lamb did; but the disguise is so transparent that it conceals nothing. No one needs to be informed that it is no Chinese observer who conceived the following passage: “The clock has just struck two; what a gloom hangs all around! No sound is heard but the chiming of the clock, or the distant watchdog. How few appear in these streets, which but some