The history of the British essay traces a complex, entwined rise and fall of various emphases. At certain moments, as in the early 19th century, essays celebrate the experiences and personalities of their authors, while at others, as during the Victorian period, the exploration of ideas predominates. At times the essayist’s goal is to entertain or render an aesthetic effect, while at others it is to argue a point, and in still others, as in the case of George Orwell, it is to do both. Essayists take their subject matter variously from minor casual events, from literary performances, from political situations, or from the exploration of timeless truths. The genre shifts in relation to neighboring genres – the treatise, the article, the letter , the character sketch , the short story – and even breaks out occasionally in verse. Nonetheless, the steady trajectory of the genre in the 400 years since its British inception is toward short prose pieces that represent ideas as being formed and shaped not through a formal method, but through the consciousness and experience of writers as they interact with the world.
- Origins and the 17th Century
- The 18th Century: The Essay Transformed by Periodicals
- The Romantic Movement
- The Essay of Ideas in the Victorian Age
- Century’s End and Beyond and the Return of the Familiar Essay
- The 20th Century
- Origins and the 17th Century
Perhaps no other genre in British literature appears to have had so clear a beginning. When Francis Bacon (1561-1626) published the first edition of his Essays or Counsels, Civill and Morall in 1597, he introduced the genre to the English-speaking world, some 17 years after Montaigne had done the same for the French. (As early as 1584 James VI of Scotland , later James I of England , had characterized some writings as essays, though these do not match the genre as presently recognized.) Fittingly, the definitional issues that have marked the essay throughout its history were present at its very birth. A few 20th-century critics, including the essayist J. B. Priestley , have gone so far as to argue that Bacon’s works are not essays in the core sense of the genre.
Montaigne’s essays are characterized by an insistent first-person voice. Whether he discusses his reading, his thoughts, or his experiences, the consciousness that shapes his writing is transparently his own. His essays meander and digress, though always more purposefully than might first appear, and their effect is of a man exploring his world and regularly being surprised at what he discovers in the process. In contrast, Bacon’s essays almost entirely lack personal references. Propositional rather than experiential, they strike modern readers as having a sermonic, rhetorical quality that contrasts sharply with Montaigne’s more casual works, a quality reflected even in their titles: “Of Truth,” “Of Studies,” “Of Death,” and so on. Contributing to this aphoristic effect is the brevity of Bacon’s essays, most of them only a page or so long. Bacon published three editions, in 1597, 1612, and 1625, and each was marked by the addition of more essays and the revision, usually by expansion, of works from earlier editions. However, even the pieces in the 1625 edition remain shorter and less obviously personal than those by Montaigne.
Still, Bacon’s essays enact qualities beyond relative brevity that would, over the centuries, define the genre. Most importantly, they present multiple perspectives on a given topic. The successions of aphorisms that constitute the essays generally take one position, then its almost opposite, before eventually landing somewhere in the middle. The effect is to represent thought as it occurs rather than to report its results. Later essayists would join Bacon’s exploratory method of thinking in-progress with more explicit narratives of experience and self.
Two factors promoted the rise of the essay during the early 17th century. As demonstrated by Bacon’s other works, such as The Advancement of Learning (1605), the bases of knowledge were shifting at this time. Previously, knowledge was still founded on the authority of earlier writers and on principles of deduction. Around 1600, however, observation and experiment began to emerge as plausible and desirable. Since observations were a function of observers, the nature, circumstances, and experiences of the writer became an element for consideration, not just disdain.
Second, during the 17th century several new prose forms proliferated. Three types of writings approached the essayistic: aphoristic writings, such as Ben Jonson’s (1572-1637) Timber, or Discoveries (1641), character sketches, such as those by Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613) and Nicholas Breton (c. 1545/55-c. 1626), and meditative prose, such as Robert Burton’s (1577-1640) Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) and Sir Thomas Browne ‘s (1605-82) Religio Medici (1642, revised 1643), many chapters of which are frequently anthologized as essays and were criticized by some on publication for narrating personal concerns. John Donne ‘s (1572-1631) Meditations (wr. 1612-15, pub. 1651), by virtue of their brevity, occasional nature, and reflective quality are directly in the essay tradition.
Though perhaps less grounded in presentations of self than these three, the argumentative philosophical treatises of writers like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) influenced the genre. John Locke’s (1632-1704) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) is the most obvious such work, but it is also problematic because its sheer length distinguishes it from essays as usually understood. Locke’s decision to call his work a custom essay reflects, ultimately, his sense of the method and conditional nature of the work, and it prefigures a later common tendency to speak of “essayistic” qualities of works that themselves are not strictly essays. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the 17th century also witnessed an expansion of various other types of what might be called “utilitarian” prose writing: travels, biographies, diaries and journals, pamphlets, journalism, and letters. The close affinities during this period between the essay and the letter, both characterized by informality, spontaneity, and a measure of egotism on the part of the author, can be noted in the publishing practice of mixing the genres, as in Charles Gildon’s (1665-1724) Miscellaneous Letters and Essays (1694).
Shortly following the publication of Bacon’s essays, Sir William Cornwallis the Younger (1579-1614) published two volumes of Essayes (1600, 1601), in them characterizing the genre in ways that would be repeated through its history: the essay as tentative practice work, “like a Scrivenor trying his pen,” the result being prose that at best is “undigested motions.” Cornwallis’ writings inhabited a territory between Bacon and Montaigne, demonstrating more of the latter’s presentation of self. Even further in this direction were Abraham Cowley’s (1618-67) Several Discourses by Way of Essays, in Verse and Prose (1668), terse pieces each concluding in verse that further challenged the formal definitions of the new genre.