THE ESSAY is the only literary form which confesses, in its very name, that the rash act known as writing is really a leap in the dark. When men try to write a tragedy, they do not call the tragedy a try-on. Those who have toiled through the twelve books of an epic, writing it with their own hands, have seldom pretended that they have merely tossed off an epic as an experiment. But an essay, by its very name as well as its very nature, really is a try-on and really is an experiment. A man does not really write an essay. He does really essay to write an essay.
One result is that, while there are many famous essays, there is fortunately no model essay. The perfect essay has never been written, for the simple reason that the essay has never really been written. Men have tried to write something, to find out what it was supposed to be. In this respect the essay is a typically modern product and is full of the future and the praise of experiment and adventure. In other words, like the whole of modern civilization, it does not know what it is trying to find; and therefore does not find it.
It occurs to me here, by the way, that all this applies chiefly to English essayists; and indeed that in this sense the essay is rather an English thing. So far as I remember, English schoolmasters tell a boy to write an essay, but French schoolmasters tell a boy to write a theme. The word theme has a horrid suggestion of relevancy and coherence. The theme is only too near to the thesis. The English schoolmaster proudly understands his pupils when he assumes that they will not produce a theme but an essay at a theme, or a considerably wild cockshy or pot-shot at a theme. Mr. P.G. Wodehouse (the works of whose imagination do not fall strictly within either the tragic or the epic form) has described how the benevolent nobleman, burdened with a son of the name Freddie, appealed to that youth to behave, if possible, like a sane and rational human being to which Freddie replied, with a solemn fervor: “I’ll have a jolly good stab at it. Governor.” The essayist should be the reasonable human being; the philosopher, the sage with a judgement at once delicate and detached; the thinker considering a theme; the logician expounding a thesis. But England, expecting every man to do his duty, does not expect so much as this. England knows that her beloved essayists will not be reasonable human beings; but will only have a jolly good stab at it. It is something of a symbol that, for the English schoolboy, an essay is an effort. The whole atmosphere of the thing is full of doubt, experiment and effort. I know not if it is hell, or heaven, or perhaps merely a piece of earth that for ever England; anyhow all this field is paved with bad essays and good intentions.
Of course there are essays that are really themes and themes that are really theses. They represent what may be called the Extreme Right of rigid right reason and militant purpose, after the Latin model. A model of the militant or controversial essay (and all the more so because there is no mailed fist, but a very iron hand in a very velvet glove) is Alice Meynell’s essay in defence of the despised wife of Dr. Johnson. The words are spoken in the softest accent of irony; the mere style preserves all the stylist’s special pose of gliding over things easily; but the whole thing is constructed controversially; it is as argumentative as any argument in any law court or debating club. It is also very effective argument, for, until it was written, nearly everybody talked exactly that nonsense about poor Mrs. Johnson; and nobody I know of has talked it since. This theme really is a thesis; but when the same writer turns, let us say, to describing in the same elegant English the mere effect of blue twilight glowing in the cracks of the London streets, she is at most concerned with a theme. Even here a certain Latin logic in her made her stick to the theme. We all know, however, that there are English essays that are very English essays and yet very jolly essays; that are none the less beautiful because they twist and ramble like an English road. Of these are some of Thackeray’s Roundabout Papers and some of Mr. Belloc’s best essays; like that highly unscrupulous dissertation which promises to deal with a particular feature of seventeenth century architecture, proceeds to argue with itself about the respective ages of Charles the Second and Louis the Fourteenth, amplifies itself into a glowing panorama of the landscapes of the Pyrenees, and ends with a Rebuke to His Pen, chiding it for having taken him so far away from the mere title and topic of his essay. People are so prone to say that Mr. Belloc is French that it is worth noting that in this and many other matters he is extraordinarily English. By the true test of literary consistency and conscientiousness, there was much more that was French about Mrs. Meynell. Or perhaps it might be maintained that something of Latin lucidity, which leads the former writer to value the strict form of the sonnet, in itself enables him to perceive the essential formlessness of the essay. Anyhow, except when it is tightened by the militant relevancy of debate or propaganda, the essay does tend to be formless, or at the best to present a very bewildering variety of forms. But I cannot help thinking a man must be as English as Mr. Belloc to enjoy it in its most formless form.
This indefinite and indeterminate quality would at once appear if we tried to classify the subordinate type under the general type of the essay. The types are so many and the tests are so few. There is one kind of essay that consists of staring out of the window at the garden and describing what you see there; but from this I am inhibited by a complete ignorance of the names of all the plants that I see. I have sometimes wondered whether it would be possible to disguise my ignorance under an appearance of abstruse or specialized or purely localized knowledge, as by saying, “That torrid and almost terrible blossom which is called in Persia the Blood of Kings,” or: “The shrub which, in spite of its new scientific name, I still love to call Judaeus Esuriens, as did the dear old naturalists of the later seventeenth century,” or: “The little flower that we in Westmoreland have always called Bishop’s Buttonhook, though they have another name for it in the South.” It is obvious that the same bright and rather breathless enterprise might be applied to another sort of essay; the rambling historical and archaeological causerie, in which one name leads to another; and generally to very little else. Would it be safe to begin a paragraph: “I was dipping into Dio Cassius the other day . . .” or to go on: “To find a parallel to this, I imagine we should have to go as far afield as the second period if the Upanishads,” and perhaps conclude: “But after all, is not all this to be found in Scotus Erigena?” Very few people have read Dio Cassius or Erigena; and it may be doubted of even the aged Theosophists, who can still be found stranded in drawing-rooms, could pass an examination in the Eastern documents I have named. If done as a skit, it would be a successful skit; for certainly it would expose many before it was itself exposed. If done as the foundation for a solid career of learning it would be unwise; for though only two people in the world knew it was nonsense, those to would certainly turn up. This covers an excellent sort of essay; the solemn skit, such as Mr. Gilbert Norwood’s immortal fancy called Too Many Books. Then there is another sort of essay that has lately become fairly common and frequently quite picturesque; that may be called the Historical Glimpse. It will be devoted to describing a day with Moses or an afternoon call on Mahomet or Marat, or a chance meeting with Nero or Mr. Gladstone. The special technique developed for this design generally involves the detailed description of the hero before he is introduced by name, and it ends with: “Fear not, you carry Caesar,” or: “You may be interested to know that you have given a glass of milk to Prince Albert.” All these are bold and promising essays at the elusive nature of the essay; but in itself it remains somewhat elusive. And, if I may end this rambling article on the subject of rambling articles, and end it with a personal confession, I will own that I am haunted with a faint suspicion that the essay will probably become rather more cogent and dogmatic, merely because of the deep and deadly divisions which ethical and economic problems may force upon us. But let us hope there will always be a place for the essay that is really an essay. St. Thomas Aquinas, with his usual commonsense, said that neither the active nor the contemplative life could be lived without relaxation, in the form of jokes and games. The drama or the epic might be called the active life of literature; the sonnet or the ode the contemplative life. The essay is the joke.
(First published as the preface to Essays of the Year 1931-32, 1932.)