Page:The Harvard Classics Vol. 51; Lectures.djvu/256

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246
CRITICISM AND THE ESSAY

at once the accepted theories of man's duty and destiny. Montaigne does not dogmatize about these matters: he asks questions, he suggests possible answers. The speculative essay, the philosophical and scientific essay, the social essay which draws its materials from the ever-renewed revelation of the actual life of man, all find their source in an awakened curiosity. The enthusiasm, the gusto, with which sixteenth-century men discussed every topic within their range of vision, has remained an integral element of the effective essay. A man may set himself sadly and grimly to work upon his formal treatise, and write it through to the end with disillusion in his soul. But the born essayist, though knowing well enough that his raids into unconquered territory must be merely a perpetual series of sallies and retreats, nevertheless advances gayly to the assault. Like Lamb and Stevenson, he preaches without being a preacher; like Huxley and Tyndall, he teaches when he means only to inform; so communicable and infectious is this gift of curiosity about life.


THE AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY

There is a third type of essay, originating in the Renaissance emphasis upon individualism, and confidently asserting itself upon the pages of Montaigne,[1] Addison, Hazlitt, De Quincey,[2] Emerson,[3] Thoreau,[4] and a hundred other men. It is the autobiographic, "egotistic" essay—in which there is rarely any insolence of egotism, but only an insatiable curiosity about oneself, and an entire willingness to discuss that question in public. If you like the man who is talking, this kind of essay is the most delightful of all. But it betrays a great deal, and like lyric verse—the most intensely personalized mode of poetry—it sometimes betrays too much. When the right balance is struck between openness and conceit, or when, as with Emerson, the man is sweet and sound to the core, the self-revealing essay justifies itself. Indeed, it is thought by some critics that the subjective or lyrical quality of the essay is a part of its essential character. Thus Professor A. C. Bradley has asserted: "Brevity, simplicity, and singleness of presentation; the strong play

  1. H. C., xxxii, 5ff.
  2. H. C., xxvii, 78ff., 267ff., 319ff.
  3. H. C., v, 5ff.
  4. H. C., xxviii, 395ff.