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the pertinent moral which it conveyed. But each was in its way a spoken essay: the scholar's a learned essay, the enthusiast's an impassioned essay, the priest's a short-story essay, the friar's a satirical essay. This distinct influence of the sermonic mind upon the essay has never been outlived. Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt are as truly preachers as Fuller and Baxter. Of the thirty-eight essayists who contribute to this volume, no less than fifteen were either ordained clergymen or were educated with a view to the clerical profession. When Coleridge, who began his career as a Unitarian preacher, asked Lamb if he had ever heard him preach, Lamb replied that he had never heard him do anything else. Even so late as Carlyle and Thackeray, the finest essays which they wrote were first given to the world as the spoken word, while Emerson's essays were in almost every instance lectures, and he himself, like Coleridge, was a Unitarian minister.
The transition from the spoken medieval essay to the more deliberate written essay obviously dates from the invention of the printing-press. On the day when Caxton set up his wooden printing-press at Westminster (vide Great English Letter-Writers, vol. i, p. 22), the real enfranchisement of literature began. Books now superseded the pulpit and the scholar's rostrum. The ministry of the spoken word declined; to the man armed with a pen there was given an audience as wide as the limits of the language in which he wrote. And the first great essayist to avail himself of this enfranchisement was Montaigne, who not only set the model for all succeeding essayists, but remains after the lapse of three centuries their undisputed master.
Montaigne was no doubt influenced by the tradition of the Hebrew Wisdom-books, and still more by the examples of classical antiquity and the great Italians of the Renaissance; but he contributed an entirely new element
viz., the personal note. In his hands the essay approaches to conversation, conversation that is frankly and genially egoistic. He writes to please himself, he follows with delighted curiosity the vagrancies of his own mind, he is obsessed by no homiletical responsibilities, he is by turns familiar and profound, the scholar and the jester; but in all he is Montaigne, and his essays are the exposition of a temperament capable of a great variety of moods. He himself has expressed admirably his own conception of the essay in his quaint address to the reader. “Reader,” he writes, “loe here a well-meaning Booke. It doth at the first entrance forewarne thee, that in contriving the same, I have proposed unto my selfe no other than a familiar and private end. ... Had my intention beene to forestal and purchase the world's opinion and favour, I would surely have adorned my selfe more quaintly, or kept a more grave and solemne march. I desire therein to be delineated in mine owne genuine, simple and ordinarie fashion, without contention, art or study; for it is my selfe I pourtray. My imperfections shall therein be read to the life, and my naturall forme discerned, so farre-forth as publike reverence hath permitted me. For if my fortune had beene to have lived among those nations, which yet are said to live under the sweet liberty of nature's first and uncorrupted lawes, I assure thee, I would most willingly have pourtrayed my selfe fully and naked. Thus gentle reader my selfe am the groundworke of my booke."
No exposition of Montaigne's method could be so clear as this which is afforded by his own words. He proposes to himself “a familiar and a private end”; his subject is “himselfe,” and his sole regret is that public opinion forbids him to reveal himself as nakedly as he could wish. Lamb might have said the same thing; Stevenson even more emphatically. As a method of self-revelation, not even poetry surpasses the essay. The tradition established by Montaigne has been among the most fruitful of all traditions. He presented to his own contemporaries a novel—thanks to his example, to us a familiar-picture of the true essayist; the genial egoist, the man who sits apart from life, divorced from its mean perturbations, yet shrewdly conscious of their causes; a fugitive without prejudice, a prophet without passion; above all, a very human creature, wise beyond others, and yet full of amiable weaknesses, who with the unabashed candour of the child, totally unacquainted with the prudishness which begets shame, is willing to present us with the substance of his own most private thoughts, his subtlest emotions, his most endearing follies, in the assured faith that we cannot be less interested in himself than he is.
The influence of Montaigne on English literature has been so great that it would involve no very serious straining of exactitude if we numbered him among the English essayists. His essays were read by English people in their original tongue for at least a hundred years, and in their popular translations have endured to our own day. Mr. Saintsbury expresses the opinion that no book has exercised so much influence on the English mind, with the exception of the authorised version of the Bible and certain religious books. It should be added also that the inimitable translation of John Florio, published in 1613, is less a translation than a rendering. Florio, while preserving the spirit of Montaigne, nevertheless has given the book an English dress so admirably quaint and idiomatic that to all intents and purposes it is an English classic. The knowledge of Montaigne among English readers has undoubtedly been obtained for the most part from Florio, whose rendering of the great Frenchman attains this highest merit of translation that it produces “on the
reader the effect which the original produces on the reader of that original."
In spite, however, of the magnificent achievement of Montaigne, and the subsequent success of Bacon, the essay, for an inordinately long period, was considered an inferior form of literature. Doctor Johnson speaks of it in terms which are almost contemptuous, describing it as “a loose sally of the mind; an irregular, undigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.” The reason for this depreciation probably lay in the brief and fugitive nature of the essay. If lyric verse may be described as a swallowflight of song, the essay may equally be described as a swallow-flight of prose. Compared with the ponderous labour of the lexicographer, it appears an indolent pursuit; placed beside grave and solemn works of history and philosophy, it appears insignificant. It is a carving of cherry-stones contrasted with a Phidian statue. But this is to apply to works of art the test of bulk, than which no test can be more absurd. It needed a more delicate taste than Johnson's to perceive that the highest art may be found in an intaglio as well as in a statue; that, in fact, weighed in the scales of a true critical discernment, Goldsmith's exquisite touch and fugitive charm have a much rarer value than Johnson's own laborious magniloquence.
Nevertheless, the Johnsonian tradition held sway over his own generation, and until relatively recent times the essay has been regarded with indifference, as a sort of literary by-product. One reason for this misjudgment undoubtedly lies in the fact that few great writers have been essayists only. Montaigne occupies this sole eminence, but he has few followers. Bacon was the author of the Organum, Cowley was a poet, Swift a statesman and a satirist. Hazlitt wrote biographies, even Lamb produced plays and poems; while the fame of Carlyle and Macaulay
is based upon their histories, and the monument of Thackeray's genius is found not in his essays, but his novels. In the case of Carlyle and Macaulay, the essays clearly owe themselves to the opportunities afforded by periodic publication; in the case of Thackeray, to the platform of the lecturer. Hazlitt and Lamb undoubtedly devoted their best genius to the essay, and regarded it as cardinal in their work; but neither of the great writers named above regarded the essay as other than a by-product of their intellectual activity. If they did not regard it as deserving of Johnson's harsh terms, they certainly did not rank it higher than a fugitive form of literature. To Carlyle and Macaulay, as truly as for Bacon and Swift, the essay was a relaxation from heavier pursuits, "a sally of the mind," as Johnson called it, though certainly neither loose nor undigested: something that served the exigency of the moment, expressed a passing phase of opinion, attained an immediate end; something which might add a value to the final edifice of their endeavour, but not the kind of work which has a high intrinsic value of its own, or is meant to be judged alone.
Gradually, however, the world has come to see that this estimate of the essay is wholly incorrect. The stone rejected by the builders has become the chief stone of the corner. Bacon's essays survive, while his Organum is unread; Cowley's essays are admired when his poetry is forgotten; and even of Carlyle and Macaulay it is true that their deliberate and largely planned histories are less appreciated by the great majority of readers than their essays. For one man who has read Carlyle's Frederick the Great, a thousand are familiar with his Heroes' and Hero Worship; and while no intelligent reader can afford to neglect Macaulay's History, yet there are few readers who would not confess that they had derived far more