English Essay | Origin and Development

English Essay | Origin and Development

Origin and Development of English Essay 


The Essay is one of the most remarkable and attractive forms of English Literature. It is a species of prose composition which resembles a short story in size. Both the essay and the short story are written keeping in mind a definite aim and purpose and when it is fulfilled, they are finished. But both are independent and different in form and manner. One chapter of a long philosophical or literary treatise cannot be called an essay, as a chapter of a novel cannot be called a short story.

Essay Definition

No elaborate and complete definition of the essay has been given so far. It is considered as a composition comparatively short, incomplete and unsystematic. Dr. Johnson defined the essay as

“a loose sally of the mind, an irregular, indigested piece, not a regular and orderly composition.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, giving it a more uniform shape, defined it as

“a composition of moderate length on any particular subject, or branch of a subject; originally implying want of finish – (‘an irregular indigested piece’ – Johnson), but now said of a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range.”

These definitions are too vague and narrow to cover essays like Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. We have essays in verse also such as Essay on Criticism, Essay on Man of Alexander Pope.

Hudson, giving a definition of the essay says:

“The essay, then may be regarded, roughly, as a composition on any topic, the chief negative features of which are comparative brevity and comparative want of exhaustiveness.”

Keeping in mind these two features Crabbe thinks that it is very easy to write essays, because it is essentially superficial in character. But Sainte-Beauve does not agree with this view. He considers it to be the most difficult, as well as delightful form of literary expression because of its brevity and condensation.

The true essay is essentially personal. It is a subjective form of composition like the lyric in poetry. The true essay is a gateway to enter the mind and personality of the writer. The mind of the essayist moves here and there in a rather aimless fashion within the limits of his subject and does not search for depth and profundity.

“A good essay”, says É.V. Lucas, “more than a novel, a poem, a play, or a treatise, is personality translated into print : between the lines must gleam attractive features or we remain cold.”

The essay proper, therefore, is not merely a short analysis of a subject, not a mere epitome, but rather a picture of the writer’s mind as he is affected for the moment by the subject which he is dealing. Montaigne, the first man to write essays so called, was also a personal writer. He said:

“I am the subject of my essays because I myself am the only person whom I know well.”

The essay has a vast scope of subjects. “Apparently there is no subject, from the stars of dust-heap and from the amoeba to man, which may not be dealt within an essay” (Hugh Walker). An essay by Bacon consists of informative knowledge and worldly wisdom; an essay by Addison is thin in thought and diluted, sometimes there is personal gossip and sometimes light didacticism; Lock’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding is formal, ponderous and systematic and full of philosophic principles; the essays of Macaulay are small books. While Bacon deals with philosophical subjects like truth, death and studies, Lamb can write on such small subjects as old and new schoolmasters, chimney sweepers and roast pigs.

It is generally believed that Montaigne (a Frenchman) was the first writer who wrote what may technically be called essays. But the roots of his writing lie far back in literary history. He owed a great part of his inspiration to the Roman writer Cicero, who in his turn was indebted to Plato. Bacon was the first English writer who transplanted the essay into England, although he followed a different line from Montaigne. The aim of Montaigne was self-revelation, and he was the father of the subjective or the personal essay. Bacon gave it an objective or impersonal turn and made his essay the detached musings of a philosopher.

Essay before Francis Bacon

The foundation of the essay can be traced to ancient Greece and Rome, though it did not flourish there. The French writer, Montaigne, has been given the honour of being the first man to write essays. His prose compositions were written under the name of ‘essais.’ Montaigne’s essays are an attempt to weave out his personal thoughts with an artistic thread. In his essays he describes his personal feelings and experiences Addison aptly remarks: “The most eminent egoist that ever appeared in the world was Montaigne”. His essays are highly subjective and charming.

As Bacon said: “There are certain hollow blasts of wind and secret swellings as seas before a tempest”: in the same way there are certain anticipations of the essay before the formation of its proper form. In fact the Elizabethan age sees the foundation of an English prose style. Before that the earlier specimens have been experimental or totally imitative. Though the age of Elizabeth was essentially poetic and drama became almost an obsession, yet experiments in prose were also carried on. The English tongue was ripe for a prose style. The essay in its beginning developed on three different lines the character-writers of the seventeenth century, the critical prose and the controversial writings.

The character-writers were highly influenced by Theophrastus. These writers depicted with sharpness, humour and satiric touches various types of humanity. Joseph Hall’s Characters of virtues and Vices is written with acuteness in a satirical style. Thomas Overbury survives in literature as the author of A Series of characters based on the ancient Greek book of Theophrastus. It consists of various concise character-sketches as, Milkmaid, Pedant and Franklin etc. John Stephens with his Microcosmography followed this example. Sometimes later Samuel Butler drew the characters of a modern statesman, a mathematician and a romantic writer. Dekker’s Bellman of London introduced several kinds of rogues.

In criticism Caxton’s prefaces may be regarded as early essays in the art. Wilson’s Art of Rhetoric does not come within the limits of essays due to its length and elaboration. Gascoigne’s Note of instruction Concerning the Making of Verse consists of essays.

In the field of polemics Gosson’s School of Abuse which provoked Sidney’s famous Apology for Poetry, is the first document. It is violent and one-sided. Thomas Lodge refuted it in a pamphlet which is not valuable as a critical work. Philip Sidney’s Apology for poetry is “the only critical piece of the sixteenth century which may still be read with pleasure by that vague personage, ‘The general reader.’ (Hugh Walker). Sir George Harrington and George Chapman in their prefaces developed the critical essay. Thomas Nash was a noted controversialist of the period.

Development of the English Essay

Francis Bacon

Bacon’s position in the history of English essay is unique. To him belongs the credit of having written essays first of all in the English language. As Hugh Walker says:

“Although a few of Nash’s tracts may fairly be classed as essays, it is obvious that he did not conceive of himself to be imitating a new fashion of writing. Nor did he in fact do so. Neither did the critics. Still less the forerunners of the character-writers be described as the founders of the essay: they are too unformed and non-literary, Dekker, the successor of Nash and his superior, comes chronologically after Bacon. The latter consequently is the first of the English essayists, as he remains, for sheer mass and weight, of genius, the greatest.”

The general conception of the essay in Bacon was taken from Montaigne whose essays appeared seventeen years before the earliest essays of Bacon. Bacon thought that this form of writing was suitable to his genius and disposition. He speaks of his essays as dispersed meditations’. They are really the outcome of a philosopher’s or thinker’s mind and experience. He took all knowledge for his province. To a man of Bacon’s temperament and accomplishments, with his discursive interests and encyclopedic range, of mind and his thriftiness of time, the essay was a god-send. He wrote his essays in an aphoristic style.

Bacon considered these great essays merely recreation in comparison with his more serious studies. But he was conscious of their popularity. He wrote to Andrews, Bishop of Winchester, in 1622: “I am not ignorant that those kinds of writings would, with less pains and embracements (perhaps), yield more lustre and reputation to my name than those others which I have in hand.” Bacon realised that his essays will “come home to men’s business and bosoms.” On account of their popularity they were translated into French, Latin and Italian languages.

Bacon’s essays are not personal in tone; they are not the confidential chat of a great philosopher. These essays are stately and profound. His essays are not an attempt to communicate a soul like Montaigne’s. Those critics, who acknowledge that the true essay is essentially personal, point out his inferiority in that respect. He lacks true personal touch and the intimate confidence of Charles Lamb – the innocent type. Bacon’s maxims are judicious, condensed and weighty. He seems to be looking down with absolute dispassionateness from the pulpit, and determining what course of conduct pays best. John Freeman points out that Bacon is not an intimate but reserved figure, not a talker but a writer, not a babbler but a rhetorician, not a companion but a teacher, not a friend but a great chancellor, not a familiar friend forgetting his dignity but a supple states man asserting it; preferring to suppress, equivocate, and dissemble, and to justify every obliquity- anything rather than candidly pour himself out and leave the justification to the reader.”

Ben Jonson

There were a few writers, however, in the age of Bacon who continued the personal vein in their essays introduced by Montaigne, and the foremost among them was Ben Jonson, whose forceful personality continually breaks through his Discoveries. Like Montaigne, Ben Jonson’s self-dominates in his writings which imparts a peculiar charm to his essays. Jonson’s style combines lucidity, crispness and force in a degree rivalling Bacon’s.

Abraham Cowley

Cowley cultivated a form of the essay more intimate and confidential, though less profound, weighty and philosophical, than the Baconian. The charm of his essays is largely due to their simple and sincere revelation of self. They are the friendly chat of a thoughtful and reflective spectator of life. Nothing that Cowley has written is more delightful than what he has written directly about himself. Edmund Gosse has described Cowley as the pure essayist, as contra-distinguished from the heavy, condensed and incoherent didacticism of Bacon:

“Cowley, who first understood what Montaigne was bent upon introducing, is a pure essayist, and leads on directly to Steele and Addison, and to Charles Lamb. If we read Cowley’s chapter On Myself, we find contained in it, as in a nutshell, the complete model and style of what an essay should be, – elegant, fresh, confidential, constructed with as much care as a sonnet”.

Essay in The Restoration Age (1660-1700)

John Dryden

Dryden introduced a new variety, called the Critical Essay. Among the earliest of Dryden’s essays was the Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), which is still the best known, and contains the most elaborate exposition of his critical principles, though it is surpassed in interest by the admirable Preface to the Fables. These critical essays entitled Dryden to the honour of being not only the father of English criticism” but also “the first master of a prose which is adapted to the everyday needs of expression, and yet has dignity enough to raise to any point of the topmost peaks of eloquence.” Dryden’s style is remarkably free from mannerisms of any kind and its characteristics are lucidity and easy grace. He gave up the long-winded, cumbrous sentences of the earlier prose writers. He used a simple, straightforward, vigorous mode of expressing his meaning,

There were two other writers in the Restoration Age- Sir William Temple and Lord Halifax, who were at once politicians and men of letters and contributed greatly to the development of the English essay. Sir William Temple, a statesman and a diplomat is at his best in the essays Of Gardening and Of Health and Long Life. “In a sense,” says Legouis “Temple is the first classicist; and his clear-cut style, unencumbered, simple, smooth but still compact, symmetrical and yet free from monotony, has almost always the rhythm and finish of the modern prose.” Lamb praises “the plain, natural chit-chat of Temple.” In Macaulay’s opinion “his style is stately and splendid. Temple is confidential and good natured.” Lord Halifax is chiefly known for his famous essay, The Character of a Trimmer. It is written in a masterly style and full of political wisdom.

Essay in the Eighteenth Century

The Periodical Essay

The early years of the eighteenth century saw the rise of journalism and the essay began to appear in the periodicals Daniel Defoe’s paper, the Review, first published in 1704, established the periodical essay. “The journalistic essay,” remarks T. G. Williams, “is loose-knit, easy-paced and discursive. Addressed to citizens of the world, it attempts a synthesis of experience, and allows of digression into whatever bypaths seem to answer the writer’s mood.”

The real vogue of the periodical essay, however, began with the publication of The Tatler (1709) and The Spectator (1711). With these two periodicals are inextricably associated the names of Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, acknowledged masters of the periodical essay. Steele started The Tatler with the declared object of exposing “the false arts of life, of pulling off the disguises of cunning, vanity and affectation, and of recommending a general simplicity in dress, discourse and behaviour.” It stopped publication after two years, and was replaced by The Spectator in March, 1711. Over 550 issues of the Spectator appeared before it ceased publication in December, 1712. In this enterprise Steele was associated with Addison. Addison’s aim was to “enliven morality with wit and to temper wit with morality.” He was the master of pleasant humour, delicate irony and satire. His style is the model of the middle style-never loose, or obscure or unmusical.

Steele and Addison were ideally matched as literary partners; each was the exact complement of the other. Steele was rash, erratic and original; Addison prudent, reflective and painstaking. Steele was more inventive than Addison and Addison was more effective than Steele. In some ways Steele was greater than Addison; he was more modest, more warmhearted and more human. As a literary figure, however, though one of the earliest, wisest, and wittiest of English essayists, Steele ranks quite distinctly below Addison.

Among other contributors to the periodicals in the age of Queen Anne may be mentioned Pope (1688-1774) and Swift (1667-1745). Pope’s prose writings are often excellent and he possessed many of the qualities of a periodical essayist. Swift was, however, by nature and temperament unfitted for the work of an essayist. He was a misanthrope and did not possess that breadth of vision which is the essential characteristic of a good essayist. His humour was too grim and sardonic and his intellect too massive for the essay.

Henry Fielding, Dr. Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith followed Addison and Steele’s way. Fielding contributed his essays to The Champion and The Covent Garden Journal. The introductory chapters to the books of his great novel Tom Jones are fine pieces of prose. The earliest works of Dr. Johnson appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine. He himself launched the Rambler and the Idler. His style is bombastic, antithetical and is marked with Latinism. But now-a-days his essays would be read rather as a duty than for pleasure, because he lectures us, whereas with Steele and Addison we feel that we are on equal terms with two friendly men of the world.

Oliver Goldsmith is one of the greatest essayists of the eighteenth century. Many of his essays in The Bee and The Citizen of the World are remarkable for their extraordinary power, boldness and originality. They are written in a style whose wonderful charm has never failed to impress the reader. There is in them an imitable vein of humour which constitutes one of the secrets of his charm.

Essay in the Nineteenth Century

After Goldsmith the periodical essay of the literary type was in decline. In the beginning of the nineteenth century the periodical newspaper gave place to the critical journal, commonly called the Review, It had little concern with social and personal topics; its main purpose was political. In them ample space was devoted to the literary criticism. The most important of these reviews were The Gentlemen’s Magazine, The Edinburgh Review, The Quarterly Review, Blackwood’s Magazine and The London Magazine. They are of special importance in the history of the essay, because, while they have been used for many other purposes, they have been pre-eminently the medium of the essay.

Charles Lamb

Charles Lamb (1775-1834) endeared himself to generations of Englishmen by his Essays of Elia (1832) and Last Essays of Elia (1833). Lamb belongs to the intimate and self-revealing essayists, of whom Montaigne is the original, and Cowley the first exponent in England. He has been rightly called ‘the Prince of English Essayists’ because there are essayists like Bacon of more massive greatness, and others like Sir Thomas Browne, who have attained the heights of rhythmic eloquence, but there is no other essayist who has in an equal degree the power to charm. Lamb takes the reader into his confidence and conceals nothing from him. His essays are a living testimony to his sweetness of disposition and gentleness of heart. In his essays humour and pathos are inseparable from each other, they are different facts of his predecessors; they are conversational, lack both restraint and formality and are frequently rhetorical. They are yet nonetheless delightful. They are amusing, paradoxical, ingenious, touching, poetic and eloquent. His “whimwhams”, as he called them, found their best expression in quaint words and antique phrases and sometimes far-fetched, yet never forced comparisons in which he abounds.

Few notable essays of Charles Lamb are- Dream Children: A Reverie, The Superannuated Man etc.

William Hazlitt

William Hazlitt (1778-1830) is one of the best essayists of the nineteenth century. His essays are divisible into two classes- essays on literary criticism and essays on miscellaneous subjects. In both spheres he stands very high. His critical essays, although sometimes marred by his extra-literary prejudices, entitle him to be placed in the foremost rank of English critics. His miscellaneous essays are autobiographical, they frankly tell about his temperament, his enthusiasm and his limitations. His style has no blemishes, and is particularly free form mannerisms of all kinds. Like Addison and Dr. Johnson his language is always dignified. Though his place in the history and growth of the English essay is undoubtedly lower than Lamb’s; yet it is certainly higher than of the rest with the possible exception of R. L. Stevenson. His important Essay includes On a Sun-Dial.

Thomas De Quincey

Like Lamb and Hazlitt, Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) was frankly personal and his best essays are autobiographical. He wrote, however, on a great number of subjects and often so discursively that he never far reached the subjects which he proposed. Though his intellect was acute and subtle, he is at his best when he leaves the world of fact and leads us into his dreams and visions. His greatest contribution to the English essay is his sonorous prose. He brought to his task a magical control of long-drawn and musical cadences.

Leigh Hunt

Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) turned to the essayists of the age of Queen Anne for his model; for the qualities he displays are much the same as theirs. But unlike them, he is confidential in tone. It is this intimacy which gives charm to his essays like Coaches and their Horses, Deaths of Little Children, A Visit in the Zoological Garden and Month of May. But Hunt lacked one thing which was requisite to make him a great essayist – mass and weight of thought. Moreover, his style is not a great style, although it is an easy and agreeable one. Like his contemporaries, he has also written critical essays on Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge.

The Essay in the Victorian Age

The Victorian age saw the birth of a new genre, the historical essay. Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59) may be looked upon as the founder of this type. Among his essays the best are those which he wrote on English history. He also wrote some biographical essays for the Encyclopedia Britannica. He brought to the composition of his essays a mind that was richly stored with detail, and perfectly clear in its conviction. This allowed him to set forth his theme with a simplicity that avoided every compromise, and this firm outline, once defined, he decorated with every embellishment of allusion and picturesque detail. He has his faults also. He had strong perusal and political prejudices and this often marred the quality of his work. He is often grandiloquent and rhetorical. We also do not find in him the intimacy of personal confidence which is the distinguishing feature of the essays of Elia. As a critic has pointed out: “In the hands of Macaulay the essay ceases to be a confession or an autobiography: it is strictly impersonal; it is literary, historical, or controversial; vigorous, trenchant, and full of party prejudice.” He is merely the essayist-historian. But he was a competent and distinguished reviewer and raised the standard of reviewing considerably.

Thomas Carlyle  

In marked contrast with Macaulay is Thomas Carlyle, the prophet and the censor of the Victorian era. He was a man of extreme honesty and sincerity, and his essays exposed and denounced many of the vices of his age. He was deeply influenced by German philosophy. His essays are critical, biographical, historical, social and political. His style is remarkable for its strength and tempestuous force. He can sometimes command a beauty of expression that deeply touches the heart, and can attain a piercing melody, wistful and moving that is almost lyrical

Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold tended to mould all his prose material into the form of essays. He is one of the best critics in English literature. He is a critic of literature and a critic of society. As a critic he advocated a high moral purpose for all forms of art, and insisted rather too dogmatically, on very balanced and clear-cut expression. His own style in prose, however, lacks precision, and is marred occasionally by unseemly repetitions. But his vocabulary is always select and often he attains to a felicity of phrase not easily surpassed.

Among other essayists of the Victorian age, mention may be made of Henry Newman (1801-90), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and Walter Pater (1839-94). Newman was the master of a supple prose and at times, of a highly wrought style. Ruskin’s style is rich, ornate and full of gorgeous imagery. Pater wrote in a prose of rare beauty. His Appreciations remains his best work and is the best exponent of his aesthetic theories. But these writers write in a very ponderous and heavy style which is marked by elaboration and finish. They also lack the personal touch and conversational tone of Lamb. Hence their work is nearer to the treatise than to the essay. It is for this reason that critics like Orlo Williams deny them the title of the essayists.

R. L. Stevenson

R. L. Stevenson recaptured the charm of the personal type of essay. He was a born essayist. As Hugh Walker says: “Nature made him an essayist, and he cooperated with nature, developing, and strengthening the gifts with which he was endowed at birth”. He has often been compared with Lamb for his sweetness of temper and his personal charm, constantly exercised by taking the reader into his confidence. He is always moral without being didactic. He could write a beautiful essay on almost any topic. He set out to cultivate a clear and forcible style. He studied English sounds systematically and diligently, and used them with harmony.

The Essay in the Twentieth Century

The twentieth century proved to be a fertile ground for the development of the Essay. It yielded a rich and varied harvest. The innumerable daily papers and weekly and monthly periodicals, provide an unlimited scope for the essayist. In the modern age both personal and objective essays have been written by various authors.

G. K. Chesterton

G K Chesterton deserves a high reputation as an essayist and critic of literature and society. Among his volumes of essays are Tremendous Trifles, A Shilling for My Thoughts, All Things Considered etc. His style is remarkable for its ingenuity, a curious sort of humour and its paradoxes and epigrams.

E. V. Lucas

E.V. Lucas is also a writer of the personal essay. He revived the tradition of Lamb, and is also his editor and biographer “Less wistful and touching than Lamb”, Lucas has something of his master’s gusto and enthusiasm, even though the objects that inspire his feelings are necessarily different”. Lucas has a much wider experience of life than Lamb. He has an inexhaustible store of new subjects because he has an observant, sympathetic eye that makes all life its peculiar province Lucas is a regular contributor to the Punch: his humour is as quick and graceful as his perfect style. Like Lamb, Lucas is also attracted by the picturesqueness and gorgeousness of the city life of London. His major essay includes The Town week.

A. G. Gardiner

A. G. Gardiner is perhaps the most delightful of the modern essayists. He wrote under the pen name of ‘Alpha of the Plough’. His famous essays are collected in the volumes Pebbles on the Shore, Leaves in the Wind and Many Furrows. He has a rare understanding of men and affairs and wields a fluent and persuasive style enlivened by the touches of quiet humour. His essays are full of amusing anecdotes and homely illustrations drawn from everyday experience and they read like short stories.

Robert Lynd

In his style and outlook Robert Lynd cultivates the manner of R. L. Stevenson. His essays display his Stevensonian humour, reflectiveness and sympathy. Like E.V. Lucas, he builds his essays out of mere trifles and makes them the occasion of trenchant criticism of life. He has the confidential manner of the personal essayist. His style is simple and less elaborate, and therefore devoid of the mannerisms of R.L. Stevenson.

Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc occupies a very high place among the modern essayists by virtue of the volumes of his essays like On Nothing, On Something and On Everything. He has a clear incisive style in which humour, never really removed from satire, plays an important part.

Other Essayists

There are many other essayists of the twentieth century who follow the tradition of the personal essay. A few of them are – Max Beerbohm, Alice Meynell, Maurice Baring, Philip Guedella, George Bernard Shaw (Freedom) and Aldous Huxley.


Thus we see that the Essay, unknown by name up to the sixteenth century in England, has been developed brilliantly and on various lines by the writers of the succeeding generations. Let us hope and look for a brighter future for this genre of literary composition.


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