Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

pleasure from the reiterated reading of his essays on Milton, Johnson, and Clive. Even of Johnson himself it is true, in spite of his disclaimer, that of all his voluminous labours, nothing is so likely to survive as his Lives of the Poets, which are critical essays. These “sallies” of a full mind, written with an easy sense of power and complete command of wide resources, bring us nearer to Johnson than anything else which he has written. It is perhaps not surprising that Johnson set the most value on the work that cost him most, for this is a common habit with authors; it is, however, a matter for amazement that he did not perceive that, of all forms of literature common to the eighteenth century, the essay had already proved itself the most popular and characteristic. So far was it from being an irregular and disorderly composition, that it had already established an ideal and created a model. Addison had made it the vehicle of both solemn reflection and delightful humour; Steele and Goldsmith had used it in a great variety of ways, thus illustrating its extreme flexibility; and earlier than these was a man who has never yet received his full meed of recognition, Daniel Defoe, who attempted every form of literature common to his day, and achieved remarkable results in each. Defoe, as a realistic novelist, was the instructor of Fielding, as a satirist the preceptor of Swift, and as an essayist had suggested the methods of the Tatler and the Spectator several years before either had come into existence. It is surely one of the ironies of literature, and one of the worst instances of the injustice of fame, that a man who originated so much has been all but totally ignored, and that even Lamb, while acknowledging that his novels “from their deep interest are worthy to find a shelf in the libraries of the wealthiest and the most learned,” limits his praise by the statement that they are

“capable kitchen reading,” and that Robinson Crusoe in its phraseology is peculiarly adapted to the understanding of “seafaring men, poor boys, and servant maids."

The peculiar value of the essay in the latter half of the eighteenth century was that it afforded the most complete mirror we possess of contemporary life and manners. The same claim may be made for the novel, in so far as it followed the tradition established by Defoe and Richardson, Fielding and Smollett; but this tradition was soon neglected. With the rise of what may be termed the Gothic school of fiction, invented by Horace Walpole and carried out by such writers as Clara Reeve, Mrs. Radcliffe, and Maturin, the novel ceased to be a mirror of anything but a romantic and hysteric imagination. It had no relation whatever to real life. It was then that the essay assumed the function of the novel of life and manners. It painted with fidelity the incidents of real life. The characters and portraits in Goldsmith's essays are as vital as any in his Vicar of Wakefield, and are sketched in the same method. So close is the resemblance that Mr. Gosse has declared of the Vicar of Wakefield that it is more like an extended episode in the Spectator manner than a story." And to Goldsmith must be attributed also that artless art of self-revelation so notable in Montaigne, but much more unaffectedly manifest in the glorified drudge of Brick Court, who consciously or unconsciously coloured every page he wrote with the reflection of his own amiable simplicity, deep tenderness, endearing follies, and pitiable misfortunes.

These observations, however, carry us beyond the immediate purpose of this introduction, which is simply to trace the genesis of the essay. The various forms which the essay has taken can be best studied in their examples, and it is in relation to these that any criticism of the essayists themselves finds its proper place. It is sufficient for the present purpose if we observe that no existing form of literature exhibits so much flexibility or allows so wide a field for the display of idiosyncrasy. The essay may obey its earliest impulse and be sermonic, as is distinctly the case in Carlyle's Hero Worship; it may follow the tradition of the mediæval fabulist and be a short story, as in Addison's Vision of Mirza; it may be a letter, as in Leigh Hunt's World of Books; but, whatever form it takes, its supreme characteristic is that it allows a freer expression of personality than any other mode of literary expression excepting the letter. The true essay may deal with historical matter, but it is not history; it may use the materials of biography, but it is not biography; it may criticise life, but it is more than criticism. If we except the purely critical essay, which constitutes a class by itself, we shall find that the outstanding characteristic of the essay is the room it affords for the play of personality. It is this quality, so entirely inadmissible in graver forms of literature, which constitutes the virtue of the essay. It is the perfect display of this quality which gives the essay its charm, rarity, delicacy, and makes it one of the most difficult forms of art. The essayist is thus among the freest of all literary practitioners. There is imposed upon him no limit of either method or theme. There are no imperious and autocratic unities to trouble him. There are no conventions to curtail the liberty of his spirit. He may select any theme, treat it in any way, intrude his own opinions or reflections, insist upon his own prejudices, intersperse his most serious passages with grotesque humour, pass at will from familiar gossip to impassioned eloquence, act in all things as he pleases, with a complete disregard of any will but his own, and no one will complain so long as his page is interesting. He is the Ariel of literature, and sometimes even the Puck. That very irresponsibility, which in graver writers would be counted a misdemeanour, in him becomes a charm. With the single exception of the letter, the essay is the friendliest form of literary art. The essayist either wins our intimate regard, or he fails altogether. And thus it happens that when the mind wearies of the large discourse of the Olympians, the intimate voice of the essayist secures our attention by its friendliness; it has a fireside familiarity; and should that unhappy day come, as it came to Ruskin and has come to many others, when books themselves no longer charm us, we may be sure that among the books which stay longest and are the last to fail us will be found

the essay.

I

The Classic Essay

« VorigeDoorgaan »