Page:The Harvard Classics Vol. 51; Lectures.djvu/252
CRITICISM AND THE ESSAY
—may also serve to illustrate a third aspect from which essays may be regarded. One may study them, in chronological order, as successive indications of a national point of view. Thus the English critical essay, in the Elizabethan period, in the seventeenth century, or in any subsequent epoch, reveals the precise extent to which the English mind accepts, modifies, or rejects the main body of European critical doctrine. As affording material for such a chronological study, it is not essential that any particular English critical essay should be marked by personal distinction of style, or by special critical acumen. The undistinguished mass of book reviews, of gossip about writers, about the stage and other forms of contemporary art, is often the most valuable evidence of the instinctive working of the English mind. What does an average bookish Englishman, in a given decade, understand by the words "tragic," "comic," "heroic," "the unities," "wit," "taste," "humor," "Nature"? The historian finds the answer in a thousand casual expressions, each one of which bears the stamp of the period and the race. The Englishman interprets the general laws and phrases of European criticism in terms of his own neighborhood and time, and a collection of English critical essays thus illustrates the traits of the English national character.
THE HISTORY OF THE WORD "ESSAY"
Let us now turn from the broader relations of the essay with criticism, and endeavor to ascertain precisely what the word "essay" means. The older English form of the word is "assay," i. e., a trial or experiment. It is derived, through the French, from a late Latin word "exagium," which means a standard weight, or more precisely, the act of weighing. The word "examine" comes from the same Latin root. As defined by the "Century Dictionary," "essay" means 1, A trial, attempt or endeavor; 2, An experimental trial or test; 3, An assay or test of metal; 4, In literature, a discursive composition concerned with a particular subject, usually shorter and less methodical and finished than a treatise; a short disquisition. Dr. Samuel Johnson, who was himself one of the most famous essayists of his day, defines "essay" in his Dictionary as "A loose sally of the mind; an