What is an Essay?
The literary essay is as elusive and charmingly indefinable as a spring day in woods…..“ Perhaps that is not too helpful towards defining an essay, but it gives an idea about the special quality of an essay. The root meaning of the term “essay” is an attempt or trial. It suggests incompleteness, a sketchy quality, a lack of form, system or logical thoroughness, a brevity, a lightness of touch.
Dr. Johnson defined an essay as “a loose sally of the mind, an irregular undigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition”. The emphasis is on an informality of tone and the fact that an essay is not an exhaustive, argumentative disquisition about a theme. The essay could be objective — dealing with a definite subject. This type affords no opportunity for personal whims, egotisms or engaging digressions which the “subjective” essay allows. In subjective essays, the object is not important, any subject will do; it is the writer’s personality that lends charm to these essays. Whether subjective or objective, J.J. Lobban’s definition of an essay is more or less inclusive of all types - it is “a short discursive article on any literary, philosophical or social subject, viewed from a personal or historical standpoint.”
Montaigne and Bacon
The essay as a distinct literary form was born in the sixteenth century with the publication of the Essays by the Frenchman Montaigne. Montaigne frankly confessed that his essays were about himself, in the sense that they portray him in a number of moods present his habits and hobbies gives his wisdom and experience - and all this in an easy, familiar style. Bacon borrowed the form of the essay from Montaigne but adapted it to suit his own purpose. Bacon lived in a time and country where life was both serious and vigorous—and he is occupied with serious matters. One can say that these essays show Bacon’s egotism in the sense that they present ideas and thoughts and views based on his own experience. But in Bacon one can not find the easy informal “chatty” quality that is found in Montaigne and in Charles Lamb.
With Bacon we enter the world of stark realities, rational and grave, having no place for lively humour or conversational ease. But this does not detract from his greatness. To him goes the credit of being the “first of English essayists, as he remains, for sheer mass and weight of genius, the greatest.”‘ (Hugh Walker)
The form suitable for Bacon’s Purpose
Bacon took the outward form of the essay from Montaigne in as much as his own essays are brief and incomplete in the sense that they explore only a few aspects of a subject and do not pretend to be thorough, systematic and exhaustive. He means by the word ‘essay’ (as he says) “certain brief notes set down rather significantly than curiously.” A man of such discursive interests, who took all knowledge for the province, he used the essay form as a receptacle for detached thoughts. He calls them “dispersed meditations.”
The range of his subjects is wide and varied. He writes on a variety of themes and subjects. He writes on subjects relating to social life, domestic life or political life - travel, studies, ambition, revenge, love, friendship, gardens, buildings, empire building, sedition, marriage, parents and children…..and a number of other topics. He deals with man in public life, man in domestic life, with politics, with abstract subjects.
Bacon thus proved the capacity of the essay form to be all-inclusive—that it could be capable of dealing with a wide field of topics and themes.
Later essayists too prove that the essay form is indeed all-inclusive in character. Thus we have historical essays, critical essays, biographical essays, sociological essays and political essays.
Bacon’s intent in writing the essays was a serious one. He intended them to be “Counsels Civil and Moral”. They were not written for amusement or for filling up of leisure time. They do not have the personal element that make Lamb’s essays so charming. In this he differed from Montaigne too. Bacon gives opinions, never speaks of himself. Bacon speaks as a statesman or as a moralist, not like a gossipy” friend confinding in the reader, revealing his personal faults, likings and foibles. There is “no whispering, no personal confidence exchanged with the reader. He wrote, with a didactic aim, and closely related to this serious intent is the aphoristic style he adopted. He adopts an attitude of formal dignity which is far from the chatty familiarity of Montaigne. Bacon never digresses, never goes off at a tangent.
There have been other English writers after Bacon who wrote impersonal essays. Mecaulay, Arnold and Huxley are examples
Subject of Bacon’s Essays
Though Bacon has written on a wide variety of topics, they are never trivial or unimportant subjects. He does not write upon “every thing or even nothing” as Charles Lamb does. Bacon is concerned in most of his essays with ethical qualities of men and with political matters. And, though it is clear that he admires moral and intellectual truth, he is practical and rather opportunistic in the advice he offers. Everything is approached with a view to the advantages it can offer. He does not present or expect his reader to aspire to any high, elevated moral ideal. He gives an easily achievable standard of ethical conduct. His philosophy is pragmatic. He is writing of men as they are not as they ought to be. It is necessary to remember that these essays have a historical significance in that they were written for a particular group of men - to offer them guidance in getting-on in the world and doing good for the public of their country. A new technique and a new morality are presented for men at the helm of public affairs, who must rise in this world and yet work for tin good of the state as well. True, that most of what he says in these essays have a permanent relevance to all men aiming to get on in this world. The advice that he gives to men conducting state affairs is informed by a shrewd wisdom. Bacon thus had a serious purpose in these essays and adopted appropriately serious approach.
Treatment of the Subject
The essays of Bacon do not reveal those flashes of gentle humour or touching pathos that mark the essays of Lamb. In this, Bacon falls short of what is required of an ideal essayist. The essays are brief as any essay should be, but within that size Bacon packs stately and profound thoughts to the maximum. In Montaigne and Lamb the subject is often unimportant, but it is rendered with feeling. Bacon always considers his subjects important (he seems quite impatient with “toys” like masques and triumphs) and he weighs every word scrupulously and utters them gravely. Even when he deals with subjects like Gardens, he is stately, dignified and authoritative in his approach. And he never digresses or files off at a tangent room the topic being considered. A lightness of touch is missing, the charming rambling quality is lacking. The essays are obviously in the nature of precepts and instructions which a man of superior wisdom, well-read and well-experienced, provided by his own sharp sense of observation, has been pleased to impart to his readers.
The style is in keeping with Bacon’s serious intent but his essays are important from the stylistic point of view. To Bacon must go the credit, not only of introducing a new literary form into
, but also that he developed a style which is marked for its “pith and pregnancy in the communication of thought”. It was the first long step taken in the development of an English prose style; it sets that style upon its way to travel to the times of Addison and Steele and Swift. He discovered the value of brief, crisp and firmly-knit sentences of a type hitherto unfamiliar in English. He also rejected the elaborate euphuistic style overcrowded with imagery and conceits, although he himself knew how to add pungency and flashes of imaginative charm to his thoughts by using figurative language. England
Terse and Epigrammatic
The most important characteristic of his style, that which gives the essays the position of a classic in the English language, is the terseness of expression and epigrammatic force. Bacon exhibited an almost unrivalled ability of packing his thoughts into the smallest possible space. The essays may be described, one critic remarks, “as infinite riches in a little room.” Most of the time this brevity does not detract from his lucidity and clearness, though on one or two occasions it does cause obscurity. Brief suggestive and with an economy of language, his essays have many sentences which read like aphorisms. Just to quote a few examples:
1. Men in great places are thrice servants,
2. Lookers on many times see more than the gamesters.
3. A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green. (of Revenge)
4. He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune. (of Marriage)
5. Revenge is a kind of wild justice, (of Revenge)
6. A crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures. (of Friendship)
maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man. (of Studies) Reading
8. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested, (of Studies)
9. For there is no such flatterer as is man’s self,
There are innumerable examples; one can never exhaust this part of the subject.
Bacon was a man of the Renaissance and in his essays we find a characteristic of his age: the use of figurative language. Similes and metaphors, striking and sometimes starting and full of ingenuity are to be found in Bacon’s essays. But in most cases one has to admit the aptness and validity of the analogies, and metaphors.
The scholars’ love of learning is evidenced by the frequent use of quotations and allusions in the essays. But what is most important as regards his contribution to the English prose style is the marvellous terseness and epigrammatic brevity of writing.
Bacon’s essay then are proof of his strength of mind and intellect They are deeper and more discriminating than any earlier work in the English language. Full of profound observations, carefully sorted and selected, and mature, they exhibit a remarkable sagacity and insight. They are loaded with the wisdom gained from books and experience, though the wisdom is admittedly of a worldly kind. True, being as stately and as formally dignified as Bacon is, there is no gaiety, no gentle flash of humour is to relieve the tone of the essays. Balanced arguments on a subject, with no digression, a rational and cold treatment eschewing all feeling and emotion, his essays do indeed fall short of the essays of Lamb or Montaigne which are charming in the personal and confidential relationship they establish with a reader. But there is the dry light of reason that illuminates Bacon’s short crisp and pithy sentences, which is admirable.
But Bacon’s position among the greatest writers of the English essay cannot be minimized. He showed for the first time (along with Hooker) that English was as capable as Greek or Latin of serving the highest purposes of language. He showed that it was possible in English also to express the intricacies of thought in clear, straight-forward, and uninvolved sentences. When necessary, it was possible to condense the greatest amount of thought into the fewest possible words. The style evolved by Bacon was also flexible enough to fit a variety of topics. To Bacon must go the credit for being the first to show “a mastery of the principles of prose.”
Critical Opinions on Bacon’s Essays
Trite as the subjects are familiar as the treatment of those who know the Essays, the reader is seldom unrewarded by a sensation of novelty, so multitudinous are the faces of Bacon’s thoughts.
— Seacombe and Allen: The Age of Shakespeare
The intellectual spendthrift is the true feature of essayist, if only to have enough of himself to spend; but Bacon was a miser of himself, sitting furred and gilded and cold, like some gorgeous Renaissance figure of a dusky painting, counting over his gains with pursed lips and side long eye, his fingers trembling, jewels flashing, and lips shaping a careful phrase for enrichment of hungry time. (John Freeman).