|Michel de Montaigne|
Essays? What exactly are they and what genre do they fit into and why do we care? I think in the quest for self enlightenment and education, it's imperative we expose ourselves (not literally, but literarily - *grin*) to all forms of literature and ideas. Surprisingly, when I first started thinking about the idea of essays, I went on line and found very little. The search for essay brought up scores of hits on how to write an essay. I grabbed my newish 2003 World book encyclopedia and found nothing in the E book about Essays. Hmm! Delved into our trusty old 1958 edition and found plenty of information. Once I did my research the old fashioned way, I had plenty of information to use to research online. Sometimes you just have to ask the right question.
In an old book I found on the shelves called "Junior Modern Essays" selected and edited by Guy N. Pocock, I found this explanation which I just loved:
"Literally it means "an attempt"--a shot at hitting the mark--a blow on the head of the literary nail that pins an idea into permanence. Your essay may be compressed or diffuse, terse or discursive, grave or gay--but in every instance it is a literary gadget--a cameo-a frog in amber-or whatever small, clear-cut, and finished object you care to compare it to. It belongs to a different plane from that of the great literary forms--the drama, the novel or the epic, and it is in prose rather what the lyric is in poetry."
The essay gained its name as a literary form in the renaissance period with Michel de Montaigne, a french writer who called his written conversations essai which means "an attempt" or "to try". Sir Francis Bacon was responsible for the first works in English to be named Essays. Essayist Sir Richard Steele launched the first periodical dedicated to essays in "The Tatler" in the 1700's and later on "The Spectator" which he co-authored with Joseph Addison.
In the early 1800's, many periodicals began demanding essays to fill their pages. Soon authors began producing essays such a Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, followed by American essayists Matthew Arnold, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Cardinal Newman and Robert Louis Stevenson to name a few. Among the British essayists were G.K. Chesterton, Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf. I found a list of essayists on Wikipedia which seems pretty accurate. Explore at your own risk.
My challenge for you this month. Check out the list, read an essay or two and tell me what you think. The Well Educated Mind challenge suggests you read Michel de Montaigne. His works may be found online and/or in ebook format available at your online resources for free such as Project Gutenberg. May I suggest:
Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on writing
John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
Alexander Pope's An Essay On Man
Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia
John Dryden's Essay of Dramatick Poesie
Andrew Lang's Essays in LIttle
G.K. Chesterton's Utopia of Usurers and other Essays
Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essays
Oliver Wendell Holmes's The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table
Edgar Allan Poe's Philosophy of Furniture
When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind.
- Michel De Montaigne
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