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FROM "ROUNDABOUT PAPERS," BY WILLIAM MAKE-
WHEN we speak of an "essay" now, we generally mean some short piece of writing which describes or explains something in a manner less detailed and complete than that of a regular treatise. Thus Macaulay's "Essays" are generally criticisms of distinguished authors or statesmen, carefully written, but not so long as books devoted to the subject would be. And Matthew Arnold's "Essays in Criticism" are either accounts of authors or explanations of certain ideas. But the chief difference between such essays and books is their length. These essays are short treatments of their subjects, but they are generally as carefully thought out, and arranged with as much care, as if they were longer, and they are as complete as is possible within their limits.
This meaning of the word, however, is a somewhat recent one. The word essay originally meant the same thing as assay, and, indeed, is sometimes used in that sense to-day, meaning "trial, attempt." As applied to literature, the word carried usually the idea of some first thoughts set down without the systematic for
mality of a definite treatise. Charles Lamb says (p. 23) that these "little sketches of his were anything but methodical" and laughs at the schoolmaster who would have taught him to make them otherwise. And in this sense the writings of Montaigne are called essays. They were not finished and formal treatises; they were a gathering together of his thoughts on some subject in an experimentary way, as a sort of trial, to see just what it really was that he thought on such and such a subject; and being experimentary in this way, they were very personal also, that is, they represented Montaigne the thinker as he happened to be at any given moment. He did not set down his thoughts and then revise and compare them with a view to the development of his ideas and the clearness of his systematic form. He followed his thought wherever it might happen to go at any given time, letting his mind pass easily from point to point, without being too particular as to whether he were treating his subject completely and sufficiently. For since, after all, nobody can treat a subject with absolute completeness, and certainly not in a few pages, why not gain all the reality and character that would come from following out one's thoughts honestly, going wherever they lead and setting down whatever bright things occur to one, even without the most systematic arrangement and the most definite plan?
Since the time of Montaigne such essays have
become common, perhaps more common in English literature even than in French where they began. A man will take some subject that has been of interest to him, and will go from thought to thought, from one idea to another, in a way that gives us quite as much of an idea of the man that writes as of the thing that he writes about. And surely in its way this is very well. It will not do, of course, if we expect to find in one piece all possible information on some topic, but then such pieces are usually to be found in encyclopedias or books that are avowedly scientific or systematic, and we can always get them when we need them. These pieces tell us more of the man who writes than anything else, and, on the whole, if the man be interesting, that is really the thing we want. Suppose, for instance, we had had the luck to know James Russell Lowell; would it not have been our chief interest to hear him talk about anything he liked, and only a secondary desire to learn something particular from him, some matter which we could probably get just as well elsewhere? At any rate that is what the essay is, in the most specific sense of the word. It is a lighter, easier, more informal dealing with some subject. It does not pretend to be learned or complete. It is easy-going, pleasant, often humorous.
Such papers make up, we may say, one particular kind of essay, the true essay. Other essays
are often short treatises or short biographies. They would not be very different in character if they were longer. But the essays of which we have been speaking could not well be much longer than they are. We cannot easily imagine a person writing on and on in that way through a whole book. To tell the truth, if a person talks on and on all day it gets tiresome, however delightful it may be for a short time. So with these essays; they cannot very well be longer than they are. Their very character depends on their being short. Other essays would be more complete and better for some purposes if they were longer, but these do not need to be complete, and at their best are rarely more than a few pages in length.
Of such essays, those called the "Essays of Elia” are the best examples in our literature. Elia was the name taken by Charles Lamb in a series of papers he wrote for the London Magazine in the years 1820 and following. Lamb was a quiet, retired man who loved a few books and a few friends, and had no especial ambition to do great things or make a great name. He worked during easy business hours at the India House, and then was free to spend the rest of the day in reading or talking, in pleasant places, perhaps, or with pleasant people. When he wrote, he set down what he would otherwise have spoken; his letters sound very much as though he might be talking to some friend. And his essays are not