An essay has been defined in a variety of ways. One definition is a "prose composition with a focused subject of discussion" or a "long, systematic discourse". Aldous Huxleya leading essayist, gives guidance on the subject. Furthermore, Huxley argues that "essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference".
The essay In modern literatures, the category of nonfictional prose that probably ranks as the most important both in the quantity and in the quality of its practitioners is the essay. Modern origins Before the word itself was coined in the 16th century by Montaigne and Bacon, what came to be called an essay was called a treatiseand its attempt to treat a serious theme with consistency deprived it of the seductive charm relished in the later examples of that form of literature.
Not until the Renaissance, with its increasing assertion of the self, was the flexible and deliberately nonchalant and versatile form of the essay perfected by Montaigne. Montaignewho established the term essay, left his mark on almost every essayist who came after him in continental Europe, and perhaps even more in English-speaking countries.
Emerson made him one of his six Representative Men along with others of the stature of Plato, Shakespeare, and Goethe. Eliot declared him to be the most important writer to study for an insight into the literature of France.
With Montaigne, the essay achieved for the first time what it can achieve better than any other form of writing, except perhaps the epistolary one: It gave the writer a way of reaching the secret springs of his behaviour, of seizing the man and the author at once in his contradictions, in his profound disunity, and in his mobility.
Now he set out to accept himself whole, with his body and his physical and behavioural peculiarities, and thereby repudiate medieval asceticism. He would portray his foibles and unworthiness, hoping to rise above his own mediocrity, or, at the other extreme, he would exalt himself in the hope that he might become the man he depicted.
Montaigne in his essays pursued an ethical purpose, but with no pompousness or rhetoric. He offered an ideal that was adopted by his successors for centuries: But, unlike medieval Christian writers, he would not sacrifice to others the most dearly cherished part of himself.
To others he would lend himself, but his personality and his freedom were his own, and his primary duty was to become a wiser human being. No essayist after Montaigne touched on so many varied aspects of life with such an informal, felicitous, and brilliant style.
The influence of the essay and of genres allied to it, such as maxims, portraits, and sketches, proved second to none in molding the behaviour of the cultured classes, first in Italy, then in France, and, through French influence, in most of Europe in the 17th century.
With the advent of a keener political awareness with the age of Enlightenment, in the 18th century, the essay became all-important as the vehicle for a criticism of society and of religion.
Because of its flexibility, its brevityand its potential both for ambiguity and for allusions to current events and conditions, it was an ideal tool for philosophical reformers.
The Federalist Papers in America and the tracts of the French Revolutionaries, are among the countless examples of attempts during this period to improve the condition of man through the essay. The advantage of this form of writing was that it was not required to conform to any unity of tone or to similar strictures assigned to other genres since it was for a long time not even considered a genre.
After ponderous apologies for traditional faith failed to repulse the onslaught of deism and atheism, traditionalists of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Burke and Coleridge, abandoned unwieldy dogmatic demonstrations in favour of the short, provocative essay.
In the defense of the past, it served as the most potent means of educating the masses. French Catholics, German pietists, and a number of individual English and American authors confided to the essay their dismay at what they saw as modern vulgarity and a breakdown of the coherence of the Western tradition.
Creative writers resorted to it to admonish their compatriots when they seemed too selfishly unconcerned by the tragedies of the world. Lewis MumfordAllen Tateand other literary and social critics became crusaders for moral and spiritual reform; others seized upon the essay for scathingly ironical and destructive criticism of their culture: Mencken —a self-appointed foe of prejudicessubstituted his own for those he trounced in his contemporaries.
In other new countries, or in cultures acquiring an awareness of their own ambitious identity, the essay became semipolitical, earnestly nationalistic, and often polemical, playful, or bitter. Such essays sometimes succeeded in shaking the elite out of its passivity.
In Canada Olivar Asselin — used the essay to advocate the development of a genuine French-Canadian literature. Other European heirs to this tradition of the essay include Stefan Zweig and Hugo von Hofmannsthal in Austria and Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht in Germany; their sprightly and incisive essays on the arts can be traced to the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
Entertainment One of the functions of literature is to please and to entertain; and the essay, as it grew into the biggest literary domain of all, did not lose the art of providing escape.
Ernest Renan —92one of the most accomplished French masters of the essay, found relief from his philosophical and historical studies in his half-ironical considerations on love, and Anatole France —his discipleand hosts of others have alternated playful essays with others of high seriousness.An essay has been defined in a variety of ways.
One definition is a "prose composition with a focused subject of discussion" or a "long, systematic discourse". It . Goldsmiths, University of London is in South East London.
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