Dr. Johnson defined the essay as ‘A loose sally of the mind; an irregular, indigest piece; not a regular and orderly composition. This definition of the learned doctor may fit it admirably the typical essay written in England during the eighteenth century including the philosophical speculations of Lock’s Essay on Human Understanding and the loose sallies of the mind expressed in the Spectator of Steele and Addison. But English essayists of Dr. Johnson’s age showed remarkable power of observation, insight into character and an easy literary style when they took as their special concern the varying phases of contemporary manners and customs.
But today we have progressed further in the development of essay as a form of art. Essay as an artistic creation is the self revelation of the essayist. The essayist works on a particular them but wha the brings out in the essay is his own ideas, fancies, imagination, fantasies and speculations that the contemplation of the subject calls forth. Robert Lynd asserts that in his own way an essayist must be an interpreter of life. “All that we ask of an essay,” says Lynd, “is that it should please us by the manner of its writing and that it should throw some brief and curious light-if it be no more than the light of a safetymatch on the life about us.”
Thus the beauty of the essay lies in the beauty of the mind of the essayist who feels interested in the theme under consideration, thinks over it from differnt angles of vision and comes to certain deductions which, in his opinion, would be interesting to the reader.
Through the essay the essayist must reveal his own personality and through sympathy and understanding create a bond. between him and the reader. But the lyric expression thus revealed in the essay differs from the intense lyricism of poetry. For Poetry is based on a principle of high seriousness of purpose, whereas an essay deals with everyday common experience of man. The tone of the essay may or may not be exalted and serious but a really good essay must contain the true element of all arts-strangeness added to beauty. The strange unfamiliar far-off things draw our attention to ideas which coloured by our emotions and sentiments become avocative. This strangeness and rapt attention creates the romantic appeal in all forms of artistic creation. So romantic essay must also share the characteristics of the true essence of art.
But the essay, a form of art, can escapae from this mere artistic domain of beauty; anything on earth which is in any way related to human life or supposed to be strange because of its unfamiliar aspect, may also become an excellent theme of an essay. That is why Robert Lynd says, “Even an essay on a pin lying on the road may light up some unexpected square inch of human nature.”
Let us take Robert Lynd’s essay on Seaside as an example of artistic excellence. On the seashore Robert Lynd’ watches the panorama of gay life in one of the happy sunny resorts of Southern France. He watches the beautiful butterflies with variegated wings floating in the sunny atmosphere in which bathers and holiday-makers run and play about on the sands of the seashore. The blue Mediterranean is canopied by a blue sky and the sun shines with its warm influence over the whole scene. Everybody seems to be actively busy in pursuite of games.
This scene offers a fine opportunity for a philosopher like Robert Lynd to meditate on this butterfly existence of the holidaymakers. A poor father finds it an extremely trying experience to hold a baby, evidently left by its mother to be looked after by the male parent! It is a strain for the disconsolate father to keep us with the mule-like obstinacy of this little devil-and Lynd observes with his tongue on his cheek. Two is a serious age. Again the ball game makes him meditate on the symbol of perfection underlying the roundness of a ball. When a man plays with a ball, he is satisfying within him his hunger of the soul for perfection and as he kicks it, he is sending his soul to commune with the stars.
But then life is not all gaiety. Life has its seamy side too with its darkness, oppression, misery, suffering with all its trails and tribulations that flesh is heir to. Thus unhappy side of life is introduced in this exquistie essay to give us a little criticism of life which makes the essay complete as an art. The woman dressed in black go into the seawater with all the misery of existence to collect shrimps for a living in the midst of laughter and shrill cries of delight from the holiday makers.
Thus with all the gaiety of butterfly existence in the Riviera, with the games played on the sands the woman with black shawls over their heads catching shrimps, the grave sauveteurs, Lynd makes a little picture symbolical of the whole human life itself. Therein lies the beauty of the essay and that is why Robert Lynd’s Seaside is one of the most perfect essays in the whole range of English literature. In this volume of essays I have added other specimens of literary essays written by Bacon, Shelley, Charles Lamb, Oliver Goldsmith and Josehph Addison which contain true elements of artistic beauty.
Now let us study the growth and development of this form of art. St. Augustine was the first writer of essays and in his autobiography, he confessed the sins of his youth and manhood. Next essayist was Montaigne, the Frenchman, who is recognized as the inventor of the essay form in its most general sense. He was partly autobiographical partly speculative in his essays. He started the vogue of personal revelation by taking his readers to his confidence and confessing to them his own weakness. He could thereby come nearer to his readers in the bond of sympathy and understanding.
In his Spectator, Addison treated of life with delicate humour and his essays were full of personal emotions and sentiments evoked Dy solemn scenes. The names of other essayists that we recall with Addison are Dryden, Cowley, Steele and Dr. Johnson.
In the nineteenth century, Charles Lamb wrote his Essays of Elia with a romantic attitude and he treated of homely affairs of everyday life and showed how they could be colored with intense emotion and rich humor. So did Walter Pater record his artistic sensations and impresions he received from objects of art in his delightful essays.
The essayist can, in his romantic mood, create poetry if he is emotionally so excited, but as he deals mainly with the common experience of man, he need not possess the high seriousness of purpose, which the poet demands at his command always. In fact, the interests of the essayist are very wide. He is not as serious as a poet, or a philosopher; he has the leisure to discuss his opinions, feelings and sentiments on any subject on earth and heaven with his readers.
But he has his own responsibilities also. The essayist must be in his own way an interpreter of life. He must give us joy and encouragement to face the battle of life with courage and fortitude.
In our moments of leisure when things appear gloomy to us or we suffer from ennui, we come to the essayist for encouragement, hope and genial friendship. Thus the main function of the essayist is to show us the sunny side of life, to take away, the depressing mood, which eats into the vitals of our life and to show us that in spite of sorrows and sufferings life has over a thousand opportunities to be gay and joyful.