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In the history of the world, as in the history of individual man, each age will have its own especial type of literature. The favourite may co-exist with several others, but it will none the less be the favourite. At the present time it is clear that the commonest mode of expression is in the novel, and I suppose that the age—in England at all events—is gradually drifting in the direction of lyric poetry, conjoined with the short sketch or story. The epic and the drama may be safely regarded as tranced, or even dead. History has a fair hold on the educated. The essay, in its various forms, still breaks out sporadically now and again, stray flowerets from a seeding long discontinued, or like the rare sparks flying from a burnt-out firebrand.
I confess to a more than sneaking kindness for the Essay, in most of her moods. A book
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of these detached thoughts makes no too pressing demands upon the reader; he may for a spare half-hour or so, and leave it with unconcern to attend to other matters, with no harassing anxiety as to finding the place when he returns. For in a book of this kind there is no continuity of thought, no definite plan. It will go hard with us if we cannot pick out one or two essays out of a round dozen that give some pleasure, or that have some message for
So that it is better, to my mind, for the subjects to be varied as much as possible, and the treatment. I am no great friend to this modern style, introduced by Macaulay, of lengthy book reviews and historical disquisitions. They are good reading, but a trifle too solid for the times when one would fain turn to some delicate, yet not worthless, trifling. As good read a volume of history or a biography as some of these. There are seasons when the reader instinctively lays his hand upon Montaigne, or Lamb, or Hazlitt, or Stevenson's Virginibus Puerisque, and lazily, with pipe in mouth, listens to their quaint conceits and moralisings. Even a Lowell may be too serious for us at times, too full of information. A model essay should contain its fair proportion of useful
knowledge, but this must never be too openly apparent ; like the onion in the salad, it should be unseen, but permeate the whole. Defoe had a good notion of this, who said, “ Thus may we wheedle men into knowledge of the world, who, rather than take more pains, would be content with their ignorance.” The substratum of fact should be there, like the trellis-work on which a creeper grows, but the flowering luxuriance of fancy should clothe it so completely that we hardly guess its presence.
The idea of an essay was, with Bacon, the elaboration of a single thought. But though this is strictly in accordance with the meaning of the word-essay is identical with assay, and should signify merely a careful weighing or examination—yet it is not our conception of the real thing. Montaigne is the true founder of the essay proper, and the early writers in the Tatler, Spectator, Rambler, and so forth, were his disciples. Like a good talker, he roams from subject to subject, led by some chance associa. tion, and by this means we get the delicate play of his fancy on various points; each discourse is a diamond glittering with a thousand facets, and we are not wearied by too sustained an argument upon any one theme. It is this that