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In the case of a continuous development, as that of the essay must necessarily be, it is inevitable that one of the boundaries of the field surveyed should be arbitrarily imposed. The latter half of this century has shown little regard for the older style of essays on abstract subjects; the essay has more and more become associated with literary criticism; and it might almost be said that fiction has again entered into combat with it, and in the form of the short story has ousted it from popular regard. Yet, in spite of powerful rivals, the essay is still a vital literary form. What the sonnet is to the poet, the same and more is the essay to the prose artist, requiring similar compression of thought, and affording similar scope for brilliancy of execution. It would be hazardous to suppose that criticism of the future will regard the present age as marking a revival in the history of the development; but it is tolerably certain that no future collection of the best British essayists will ignore the work of Robert Louis Stevenson. For the purpose, however, of the present volume it is scarcely necessary to extend the survey beyond Leigh Hunt and Lamb. By that time the essay had reached its full maturity, and had furnished examples of all its possible forms. The real history of the essay coincides with the period of a century and a half which elapsed between the appearance of the Tatler and the year of Leigh Hunt's death. During that time its progress was more than once arrested, and it is a gain to clearness with small sacrifice of accuracy to regard the three critical periods in the essay's history as being the begin
ning, the middle, and the end of the eighteenth century — periods connected with the names of Steele and Addison, Johnson and Goldsmith, Hazlitt and Lamb. If not the greatest, the essay is certainly the most characteristic literary form of the eighteenth century. It owed its origin to the club-life of Queen Anne society, and true to its original purpose, it faithfully mirrored the manners of the day, when fiction presented nothing but ideals, and artificial comedy only caricature. It may be doubted, too, if any other literary development has been so prolific of results. No doubt the essay's greatest secondary achievement was the fillip it gave to the inauguration of the novel, but it founded, also, a requisite medium for literary criticism and created the miscellaneous magazine. Not, however, that the fame of the essay requires to be propped up by that of its various descendants. It has been the favourite medium of many of the greatest masters of English prose, who have lavished on it the best of their artistic skill and all the resources of their wisdom and humour. There is no end to the variety of subjects which the English essayists have handled; no foible escaped their laughter, no abuse their scorn; for their motto has been, as it must continue to be, that which Steele selected for the first English periodicalQuicquid agunt homines
nostri est farrago libelli”.
FRANCIS BACON, LORD VERULAM.
1. OF SEEMING WISE.
T hath been an opinion, that the French are wiser than
they seem, and the Spaniards seem wiser than they are; but howsoever it be between nations, certainly it is so between man and man. For, as the Apostle saith of godliness, 'having a show of godliness, but denying the power thereof', so certainly there are, in points of wisdom and sufficiency, that do nothing or little very solemnly; Magno conatu nugas.2 It is a ridiculous thing and fit for a satire to persons of judgment, to see what shifts these formalists 3 have, and what prospectives to make superficies to seem body that hath depth and bulk. Some are so close and reserved, as they will not show their wares but by a dark light, and seem always to keep back somewhat: and when they know within themselves they speak of that they do not well know, would nevertheless seem to others to know of that which they may not well speak. Some help themselves with countenance and gesture, and are wise by signs; as Cicero saith of Piso, that when he answered him he fetched one of his brows up to his forehead, and bent the other down to his chin; Respondes, altero ad frontem sublato, altero ad mentum depresso supercilio, crudelitatem tibi non placere.
2 Terence, Heaut. iv, 1. 8.
3 i.e. the seeming wise.
Some think to bear it by speaking a great word, and being peremptory; and go on, and take by admittance that which they cannot make good. Some, whatsoever is beyond their reach, will seem to despise or make light of it, as impertinent or curious?, and so would have their ignorance seem judgment. Some are never without a difference, and commonly by amusing men with a subtilty, blanch 2 the matter; of whom A. Gellius saith; Hominem delirum, qui verborum minutiis rerum frangit pondera. Of which kind also Plato, in his Protagoras, bringeth in Prodicus in scorn and maketh him make a speech that consisteth of distinctions from the beginning to the end. Generally, such men in all deliberations find ease to be of the negative side, and affect a credit to object and foretell difficulties: for when propositions are denied there is an end of them; but if they be allowed, it requireth a new work: which false point of wisdom is the bane of business. To conclude, there is no decaying merchant or inward beggar 4 hath so many tricks to uphold the credit of their wealth as these empty persons have to maintain the credit of their sufficiency. Seeming wise men may make shift to get opinion: but let no man choose them for employment; for certainly you were better take for business a man somewhat absurd 5 than over formal 6.
II. OF STUDIES.
TUDIES serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability.
Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in
1 irrelevant or trifling.
2 evade. 8 The quotation is not from Gellius, but from Quintilian on Seneca, iv. 1. (Whately). 4 one secretly a bankrupt (Whately). 5 defective in judgment. too pretentious.