An essay is something the writer writes himself. According to Benson, since the very birth of the essay as a genre in the hands of Montaigne, the essay has been a comfortable mixture of the personal and the subjective, and in fact has been the most personal of all genres. The personal touch breathes life and charm into the essay through the personality of the essayist. The charm is evident because the essay is something the writer writes himself where he lays bare his heart in a most confidential manner. An essay can be on a variety of subjects but it should above all exhibit an interest in life. It should reflect the pleasing personality of the author and also change the outlook of the reader. Thus Benson writes, Montaigne, the father of the essay in literature, while writing his essays is concerned with the 'man Montaigne'. Thus the essay is a reverie for the essayist - it is a loose sequence of thoughts, irregular in nature which dwells on the moment and allows the writer to dwell within and correspond to himself. Montaigne employed such a technique wonderfully while he wrote his essays, presenting a certain mood of the mind, and infusing charm by being intimate and personal.
An essay is something the essayist does by himself. For the essay we may go back to Cicero or Plato. Cicero dealt with abstract topics with a romantic background. Plato discussed speculative and ethical problems of life and tried to find a philosophical interest. The English temperament lacks the charm of Montaigne. They are too prejudiced, secretive, closely guarded about their privacy. But Lord Brougham proved that one can maintain privacy at the same time display oneself.
Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici or Urn Burial contained essays of elaborate rhetorical style. Addison in The Spectator dealt with delicate humour. Charles Lamb dealt with the romantic and homely. De Quincy wrote impassioned autobiography while Pater used the essay for exquisite artistic sensation. In all these writings the common strain is the personal element, the essay reflects the personality of the author.
An essayist is not a poet. An essayist deals to some extent with humour. But humour is alien to poetry which is more of a sacred and solemn mood. The poet is emotional, reverential, excitable, in search of the sublime and the uplifted. He wants to transcend the mundane petty daily frets, the discordant, undignified elements of life. The similarity of the essayist with the poet is that an essayist can also make an effort to kindle emotion. But an essayist uses the commonest materials of life and transforms simple experiences with a fairy tale delicacy and romantic glow. Behind all forms of art whether, whether poetry or prose lies the principle of wonder, of arrested attention. It need not only be the sense of beauty, but also the sense of fitness, strangeness, completeness, effective effort. The amazement a savage feels on seeing a civilized city is not the sense of beauty but the sense of force, mysterious resources, incredible products, unintelligible things. He also sees the grotesque, absurd, amusing and jocose. The essayist deals with these basic emotions. He filters out the salient matters from these instinctive emotions and records them in impressive language.
So an essayist is a spectator of life. As catalogued in Browning's poem "how It Strikes A Contemporary" the essayist's material is watching the cobbler at trade, the man who slices lemon, the coffee-roaster's brazier, the books on stalls, the bold-print posters on the wall, a man beating his horse or cursing a woman and so on. The essayist selects his setting, maybe a street, countryside or picture gallery. But once he selects he has to get into the heart of it.
The essayist must have largeness of mind. He cannot simply indulge in his activity whether of a politician or a thief with the sole objective of making profit. He cannot be prejudiced in his favours, i.e. he should not hate his opponents and favour his friends. If he condemns, despises, disapproves he loses sympathy. He must have an all encompassing mind to enjoy all he thinks worth recording, and not be narrow minded. Close jacketed persons like a banker, social reformer, forensic pleader, fanatic, crank or puritan cannot be an essayist. The essayist has to be broadminded but not moral. He must be tolerant, he must discern quality, he must be concerned with the general picture of life in connection with setting and people, not aims and objectives.
The charm of the essayist lies in translating a sense of good humour, graciousness, reasonable nature and in the effort to establish a pleasant friendship with the reader. One does not read the essay for information or definition, but to find an acceptable solution to a mass of entangled problems which arise in our daily lives and in our relationships with people. The essayist would take up some problem of daily life and delve into it to find out reasons for our fitful actions, reasons for our attraction or repulsion towards people and try to suggest a theory for it. Reading an essay a reader should be compelled to confess that he had thought in the same vein but had never discerned the connection. The essayist must realize that most people's convictions are not a result of reason but a mass of jumbled up associations, traditions, half understood phrases, loyalties, whims etc.
The essayist must consider human weakness, not human strength. But while accepting human weakness he must try to infuse flashes of idealism in them. He should keep in mind that human mind in spite of weakness is capable of idealism, passionate visions, irresponsible humour which may shoot from dull cloudy minds. The task of the essayist is to make the reader realize his self worth, that every human mind is capable of getting hold of something big and remote which however may not always be clear in our minds. Human nature is indecisive, it vacillates. The confessed aim of the essayist is to make the reader see that every person has a part to play in life, they have an interest to take in life, that life is a game full of outlets and pulsing channels and life is not only meant for millionaires or politicians.
The essayist therefore ultimately teaches that life is not just about success but in fullness. Success may blur our vision of life and make a person full of self importance. What matters is how much a person can give than take.
The similarity between an essayist and a poet is that both perceive the greatness of life. But the essayist works with humbler material. The essayist is not a romancer because he does not deal with fancy but homely material. The essayist has to detect the sublimity of life. Life is not always exciting, not always expectant of something about to happen. There are monotonous gaps in between. An essayist's task is to bring out something rich and strange out of those monotonous gaps.
Thus an Essay as a genre cannot be strictly classified too. It is like an organ prelude that can be moderated, modulated and coloured. It is to some extent criticism of life too. It is a learning process that teaches not to condemn the negative but perceive the fullness of life and encompass all experience. An essayist is an interpreter of life. He is within a short compass a combination of the historian, philosopher, poet, novelist. He observes and analyses life, colours it with his fancy, enjoys the charm and quality of simple things and endeavours to make others lead a better life.
This article should be of help to many students of English Literature as it forms part of the course content in many Universities.