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A book of English essays (original 1942; edition 1912)

by William Emrys Williams (Editor)

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191391,186 (3.83)None
Member:DHCBatyCollection
Title:A book of English essays
Authors:William Emrys Williams
Info:Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Eng., New York, Penguin Books limited [1912]
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Work details

A Book of English Essays by W. E. Williams (Editor) (1942)

  1. 10
    The Vagrant Mood by W. Somerset Maugham (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: Maugham may not have been among the greatest essayists, but anything from this book, especially "Reflections on a Certain Book" or "The Decline and Fall of the Detective Story", would have enriched Sir Williams' selection.
  2. 10
    Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! by Arthur C. Clarke (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: By 1951, Sir William was in position to include some of Arthur Clarke's earliest essays, for example the magnificent "The Challenge of the Spaceship".
  3. 10
    The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell by Bertrand Russell (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: The omission of Bertrand Russell is unforgivable. The Basic Writings remains the most comprehensive one-volume selection of his prose.
  4. 00
    Essays [Penguin Modern Classics] by George Orwell (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: Another of Sir William's inexplicable omissions. Orwell's essays are always worth reading, no matter what he writes about.
  5. 00
    Collected Essays by Aldous Huxley (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: Comprehensive selection from a master essayist. Beautifully written.
  6. 00
    Talking of Music by Neville Cardus (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: Far more compelling than the cricket stuff!
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Showing 3 of 3
Classic collection
  stevholt | Nov 19, 2017 |
A Book of English Essays

Selected by W. E. Williams

Penguin Books, Paperback, 1964.

12mo. 378 pp. Introduction by W. E. Williams, 1951 [pp. 11-16].

First published, 1942.
New and enlarged edition, 1951.
Reprinted, 1952, 1954, 1956, 1957, 1959, 1962, 1963, 1964.

Contents*

Introduction

Francis Bacon (1561–1626)
Of Studies [1597; slightly enlarged, 1612 and 1625]
Of Ambition [1612; enlarged, 1625]
Of Travel [1625]

Jeremy Taylor (1613–67)
On Death [1650, Holy Dying, Sections I, II and IV, heavily abridged!]

Joseph Addison (1672–1719)
The Tombs in Westminster Abbey [1711, March 30, Spectator, No. 26]
A Vision of Justice [????]
Ladies’ Head-dress [1711, June 22, Spectator, No. 98]
The Exercise of the Fan [1711, June 27, Spectator, No. 102]
Sunday in the Country [1711, July 9, Spectator, No. 112]
On the Cries of London [1711, December 18, Spectator, No. 251]
A Citizen’s Diary [1712, March 4, Spectator, No. 317]

Richard Steele (1672–1729)
Recollections of Childhood [????]
A Prize Fight [1712, July 21, Spectator, No. 436]

Oliver Goldsmith (1728–74)
The Man in Black [Citizen of World, No. 26]
Beau Tibbs [Citizen of World, No. 70]
A Party at Vauxhall Gardens
National Prejudices [Citizen of World, No. 4]

Charles Lamb (1775–1834)
Old China [1823, March, London Magazine]
Imperfect Sympathies [1821, August, London Magazine]
Poor Relations [1823, May, London Magazine]
The Convalescent [1825, July, London Magazine]
The Superannuated Man [1825, May, London Magazine]
In Praise of Chimney-sweepers [1822, May, London Magazine]

William Hazlitt (1778–1830)
On Going a Journey [1822, New Monthly Magazine]
On the Ignorance of the Learned [1818, July, Scots’ Magazine]
On Familiar Style [1822, Table Talk]

Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859)
On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth [1823, October, London Magazine]

Leigh Hunt (1784–1859)
Getting Up on Cold Mornings [1820, January 9, Indicator]
A Few Thoughts on Sleep [1820, January 12, Indicator]

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94)
Walking Tours [1876, June, Cornhill Magazine]
An Apology for Idlers [1877, July, Cornhill Magazine]
A Plea for Gas Lamps [1878, April 27, London Magazine]

G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936)
A Defence of Nonsense [1901, The Defendant]
A Piece of Chalk [1909, Tremendous Trifles]
A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls [1901, The Defendant]

Hilaire Belloc (1870–1954[sic: 1953])
The Crooked Streets [1912, This and That and the Other]
A Conversation with a Cat [1931, the eponymous collection]

Maurice Hewlett (1861–1923)
The Maypole and the Column [1922, Extemporary Essays]

E. V. Lucas (1868–1938)
A Funeral [1907, Character and Comedy]
The Town Week [1906, Fireside and Sunshine]
A Door-Plate [1918, Twixt Eagle and Dove]

Arthur Clutton-Brock (1906–50) [sic: 1868–1924]
The Defects of English Prose [1921, More Essays on Books]

Edward Thomas (1878–1917)
Broken Memories [1902, Horae Solitariae]

James Agate (1877–1947)
Likes and Dislikes [1919, Responsibility, introduction, abridged]

Robert Lynd (1879–1949)
The Darkness [1919, If the Germans Conquered England, and Other Essays]
On Not Being a Philosopher [1930, It’s a Fine World]
Why We Hate Insects [1921, The Pleasures of Ignorance]
The Pleasures of Ignorance [1921, The Pleasures of Ignorance]

A. A. Milne (1882–1956)
A Village Celebration [1920, If I May]
Golden Fruit [1920, Not that It Matters]

Harold Nicolson (1886–[1968])
A Defence of Shyness [1937, Small Talk]
Food [1937, Small Talk]
Men’s Clothes [1937, Small Talk]

Neville Cardus (1889–[1975])
‘W.G.’ [1922, A Cricketer’s Book]

Ivor Brown (1891–[1974])
A Sentimental Journey [1926, Masques and Faces]

J. B. Priestley (1894–[1984])
On Doing Nothing [1927, Open House]
My First Article [1949, Delight]
Seeing the Actors [1949, Delight]
Money for Nothing [1949, Delight]
Quietly Malicious Chairmanship [1949, Delight]

Aldous Huxley (1894–1963)
Tragedy and the Whole Truth [1931, Music at Night]
Selected Snobberies [1931, Music at Night]

V. S. Pritchett (1900–[1997])
The Dean [1942, In My Good Books]
The First Detective [1942, In My Good Books]

*In square brackets, years of death after 1964 and publication details for those essays which I could trace.

==================================================

This is a remarkable collection with rich publishing history; the 1951 enlarged edition even made it to the Penguin Classics series in 1981. It contains 62 essays by 25 writers spanning nearly four centuries of English prose from Bacon to Pritchett. The range of subjects and styles is unimaginably vast: from Shakespearean criticism to the glamour of chimney sweeping, from the mile-long sentences of the Elizabethans to the terse directness of the twentieth century. Browsing the volume at leisure is an exhilarating experience.

Please note that these are “English Essays”, not “Essays in English”. In other words, these are essays written by English writers, never mind that some of them had Welsh (Thomas), Irish (Goldsmith, Lynd), Scottish (Stevenson) or even French (Belloc) blood in their veins. You won’t find any essays by Americans, Australians, Canadians, Indians or other folk for whom English might be first language. This chauvinism is perhaps excusable, but I wonder at the omission of Swift, Dr Johnson, Mathew Arnold, W. H. Auden, George Orwell, and Bertrand Russell, to name but a few. I suppose these limitations and omissions were imposed by the reasonable desire to keep the book compact. Therefore, I am not going to quarrel with Mr Williams’ selection anymore. But I do have something to say about his Introduction and his editorial work.

The Introduction consists of two parts, “A Minimum Definition” and “The Eighteenth-century essay”. Mr Williams wisely goes no further definition-wise than a non-narrative form of prose that “has a multitude of forms and manners, and scarcely any rules or regulations.” He has some intriguing things to say about the history of the essay, for instance Bacon’s “almost aphoristic brevity” being closer to an “assay” or the use of fictional characters by the eighteenth-century essayists (Addison, Steele, Goldsmith). I particularly liked his comparison between Addison and Goldsmith: the former “does not ‘receive’ until he is dressed and powdered”, while the latter “will talk to you in his dressing-gown.” Unfortunately, somewhere at this point the Introduction loses its force as a historical overview. Come to think of it, the title of the second part sounds ironic considering how very few among the contributors belong to the eighteenth century. Mr Williams’ treatment of the more recent centuries is exceedingly perfunctory. His “analysis” of Lamb’s “In Praise of Chimney-sweepers” paragraph by paragraph is tedious and pointless.

The editorial work, save for the selection and the Introduction, is actually non-existent. There is no indication when these essays were first published. There are some “Acknowledgements” in the beginning, but they cover no more than half of the contributors and contain no years whatsoever. Years of birth and death give a good idea of the historical period, but since writing, as Somerset Maugham noted, is a healthy occupation and a habit hard to break[1], writers usually live long and write a lot, so it’s also good to know whether a piece comes from their boisterous youth, mature middle age or wise/demented old age. There are no notes to help you out with obsolete words or obscure references: when Bacon switches from English to Latin you’re on your own. Considering Penguin’s desire to reach the widest possible public, Mr Williams could have supplied short biographical notes, too.

Whatever your background or reading preferences may be, it is difficult to imagine how you could fail to profit from this book. The only thing you should be prepared for is the rather dense and dry prose. Sir William is convinced that the proper role for the essayist is that of “the social philosopher, the critic, the annotator” who is “out to edify rather than to entertain.” So humour and flippancy are discouraged if not altogether forbidden. That aside, this collection makes for a rich and rewarding read. Don’t read it on the beach, or in the bus, or just by the way. Read it at home, in a comfortable armchair, with ample time to spare. You will profit, I promise.

So much for the review, such as it is. Now follow a few random reflections on the contents. They might or might not be of use to you – the reflections, I mean, not the contents. The essay is the most personal of all non-fiction, perhaps more personal even than fiction, and nowhere is truer the saying that one man’s meat is another man’s poison than it is here.

Mr Williams recommends that we should start with “The Maypole and the Column” because it is “one of the best essays ever written on the English Essay.” So I did, but I wasn’t exactly spellbound. Mr Hewlett’s case is that the essay in the old days was like a maypole that writers decorated and danced around, but in modern times it has, regrettably, become a column that they must fill. Nice simile, but I’m not sure what it means. Mr Hewlett writes beautifully, but if he says something of great consequence, I’m not aware of it. Besides, a very unpleasant “bonus” of this essay is the most appalling invective against Hazlitt I have ever read. This has to be quoted to be believed:

Hazlitt is the typical journalist-essayist. He could fill a column with any man born, yet not with pure gain to literature. He makes an ungracious figure in history, unsocial and anti-social too, with his blundering, uncouth loves, his undignified quarrels, and insatiable hatreds. His spleen engulfed him, and I have often wondered what our Wiltshire shepherds made of him, lowering like a storm about the coombes of Winterslow. None of the 'pastoral melancholy' of that grassy solitude shows in his writing, whose zest is that of hunger rather than wholesome appetite. Indeed, I don't think he was a tolerable essayist. He was too eager to destroy, and the very moral of his own John Bull who would sooner, any day, give up an estate than a bugbear. How many people he hated, and how much! Whole nations at once such as the French. […] He was a fierce lover, too, but not comfortable in his loves. Sometimes he knew both passions for the same person. […] He had that bad symptom of the violent lover, that he could only honour his love at another's expense. So Racine and Walter Scott must be trampled under foot before Shakespeare can be duly esteemed. There is consequently a sense of strain in reading Hazlitt which his fine raptures (and no writer soared more rapturously) can only overcome on select occasions.

It is to be expected that a style as personal and vigorous as Hazlitt’s would provoke ardent reactions of dislike. But this is a little too much. It is very unpleasant because I am beginning to admire more and more Hazlitt’s essays. What is worse, it is very jejune. Mr Hewlett has a point about “that bad symptom of the violent lover“, but judging by Hazlitt’s Shakespearean criticism this symptom is far less prominent than we are asked to believe. The accusation of hate is hilarious, for Mr Hewlett obviously hates Hazlitt. Now, if you’re going to condemn something, you had better start by showing that you don’t have it. “The Maypole and the Column” was first published as an introduction to Mr Hewlett’s Extemporary Essays (1922) which may or may not be worth reading.

Let me continue with the man on the cover, “the father of the English Essay”. Francis Bacon is a very difficult read. The spelling and the capitalisation are fortunately modernised, but the punctuation is not. Bacon adores commas, colons and semicolons, but detests the full stop and completely abhors the paragraph: the longest essay is a little more than two pages, but even that doesn’t consist of more than one paragraph. (For the record, endless paragraphs persist well into the nineteenth century.) Many words and phrases have changed their meanings since the early seventeenth century. References to Greek and Roman history and literature are not unusual. In short, Bacon “untranslated” is not as hard as Shakespeare, but he does come close. He requires intense concentration.[2]

But he is worth it. Bacon is the epitome of condensed wisdom. How he manages to avoid sounding terribly superficial is a miracle. Somehow, miraculously indeed, he gives the impression of having spent a lot of thought on the subject, presenting here only the essence. The editor’s beautiful description of Bacon’s style can’t be bettered:

Bacon’s compact, laconic style suggests the kinship between the word ‘essay’ and the mineralogist’s ‘assay’; for the handful of carefully-washed words which come out in one of Bacon’s Essays puts one in mind of the prospector sluicing away the grit until a few clear specks of gold are left in the bottom of his pan.

But style is nothing without substance. Well, Bacon is a very substantial fellow. “Of Travel” is full of sound and sensible advice. You should travel with a companion who knows the local language and customs, you should observe everything and keep a diary, you should avoid “choleric and quarrelsome persons” and, when you are back, you should maintain a correspondence with those of your acquaintances “which are of most worth”, and your travel should “appear rather in [your] discourse than in [your] apparel or gesture”. Bacon thinks of everything. “Of Ambition” is an almost Machiavellian discourse when, why and how to use ambitious people to your advantage, especially if you are in power. “Of Studies” is just about the finest ode to reading in one and a half pages. It is irresistibly quotable:

To spend too much time in studies, is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humour of a scholar: they perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need pruning by study; and studies themselves do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments and the meaner sort of books; else distilled books are, like common distilled waters, flashy things.

Not a word in this quote has been dated for nearly 400 years! Bacon well knew that reading, however beneficial, is no substitute for living; on the other hand, there is little use in reading if it doesn’t condition your living. He was aware that the vast majority of published stuff is trash. How much more relevant this is today, with all those newspapers, magazines, self-help books, “genre fiction” and pseudoscience! As for reading “by deputy” and “extracts made by others”, are there better descriptions of adapted and abridged editions, respectively? These have had appallingly long history and, sadly, still flourish. I wonder what Bacon would have thought of Lambs’ Tales of Shakespeare?

I was most curious to read something by Joseph Addison because he has gathered some high praise from favourite authors. Somerset Maugham put him in the company of Dryden and Swift and declared that “no one has written better English than these three distinguished authors”[3]. John Steinbeck confessed a very early love for Addison which he never lost and concluded in this beautiful way: “He plays the instrument of language as Casals plays a cello. I do not know whether he influenced my prose style, but I could hope he did.”[4] This is high praise indeed! As it turned out, the praise is justified.

Addison’s exquisite and supple prose serves him well in these seven essays, all of them written for, and first published in, the Spectator which the author co-founded with Richard Steele. “Ladies’ Head-Dress” and “The Exercise of the Fan” look like dull subjects for essays, and so they are, but Addison’s sense of humour turns them into charming trifles. “On the Cries of London” is a hilarious piece about the musical inclinations of street vendors, adroitly pretending to be a letter to the editor. “Sunday in the Country” is a subtle religious satire that features Sir Roger De Coverley, Addison’s finest exercise in characterization, a comic personage that some have compared to Mr Pickwick. “A Vision of Justice” is a utopian fantasy about the Judgement Day, still written in the same tongue-in-cheek but not entirely flippant tone. “A Citizen’s Diary” and especially “The Tombs in Westminster Abbey” are more sombre pieces, musings on mortality, the transitory nature and the futility of our existence. Every man who can contemplate these matters with such wholesome detachment and entirely without morbidity, not to mention write like this, becomes my friend:

When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow: when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together.

Addison’s “septet“ is among the highlights of the book. I only wish Mr Williams had included the wonderful introductory piece in the Spectator (March 1, 1711, No. 1). It opens with the famous passage that Steinbeck actually quoted in Travels with Charley. Here it is, original spelling and capitalisation preserved:

I have observed, that a Reader seldom peruses a Book with Pleasure 'till he knows whether the Writer of it be a black or a fair Man, of a mild or cholerick Disposition, Married or a Batchelor, with other Particulars of the like nature, that conduce very much to the right Understanding of an Author. To gratify this Curiosity, which is so natural to a Reader, I design this Paper, and my next, as Prefatory Discourses to my following Writings, and shall give some Account in them of the several persons that are engaged in this Work. As the chief trouble of Compiling, Digesting, and Correcting will fall to my Share, I must do myself the Justice to open the Work with my own History.

I like Hazlitt’s passion. I doubt anything ever left him indifferent; if it did, he certainly didn’t write about it. I also like his harsh, direct, no-nonsense style. Stirring images and poetic flights are not absent, but they are certainly less frequent than in his Shakespearean criticism. The only problem with Hazlitt’s style, apart from occasional rambling, is that he expects his readers to be extremely highly educated. Countless quotations (mostly from poets, but not necessarily in quotation marks) and cryptic references to people, works, places and events would make more sense if one is at least vaguely familiar with the context.[5] Failing that, one has to do the best of a bad job. Even so, Hazlitt makes for a very stimulating read.

This was my third reading of “On Going a Journey” and though I still think the essay wears out its welcome, I find Hazlitt’s defence of solitary travel inspiring. “I am then never less alone when alone” he says. He writes with great perspicacity about the profoundly incommunicable nature of travel impressions. He makes a solid case that travelling companion can only make your travel superficial. There are exceptions, of course, but the point is nevertheless worth considering. “On the Ignorance of the Learned” is a powerful essay. Hazlitt doesn’t offer a definition of “the learned”, but from his devastating description it is not hard to imagine modern equivalents. Who has not seen the scholar or the book worm whose reading is as wide as their minds are narrow? “It is better to be able neither to read nor write than to be able to do nothing else”, Hazlitt bluntly summarises the situation. He concludes thus:

Shakespeare's was evidently an uneducated mind, both in the freshness of his imagination and in the variety of his views; as Milton's was scholastic in the texture both of his thoughts and feelings. Shakespeare had not been accustomed to write themes at school in favour of virtue or against vice. To this we owe the unaffected but healthy tone of his dramatic morality. If we wish to know the force of human genius we should read Shakespeare. If we wish to see the insignificance of human learning we may only study his commentators.

Oxfordians didn’t exist back then, so Hazlitt didn’t know what trouble he was asking for when he described the Bard as “uneducated”. It is perfectly clear what he means, though. He doesn’t mean that Shakespeare was illiterate or lacked elementary education. He means that for Shakespeare education, to borrow Maugham’s phrase about tradition, was “a guide and not a jailer.”[6]

“On Familiar Style” is a minor masterpiece. Hazlitt advocates complete simplicity of style, “setting aside all pedantic and oratorical flourishes”, conversational tone and accessible vocabulary, for “words are like money, not the worse for being common, but that it is the stamp of custom alone that gives them circulation or value.” He argues that this style, far from being vulgar or random, is the perfect imitation of cultured speech and can be acquired only by hard labour. Hazlitt’s invective against those who hide their mediocrity behind the veil of florid pomposity is somewhat overdone, but it is undeniably effective. Here is a small sample from it (note the casual reference to Hamlet):

It is as easy to write a gaudy style without ideas as it is to spread a pallet of showy colours or to smear in a flaunting transparency. ‘What do you read?’ – ‘Words, words, words.’ – ‘What is the matter?’ – ‘Nothing’, it might be answered. The florid style is the reverse of the familiar. The last is employed as an unvarnished medium to convey ideas; the first is resorted to as a spangled veil to conceal the want of them. When there is nothing to be set down but words, it costs little to have them fine.

It is not hard to find exceptions. Gibbon’s style is as florid as they come, but he can hardly be accused of lack of ideas, still less of lack of clarity. But, on the whole, Hazlitt’s appeal for “familiar style” is so sensible as to amount to wisdom. It is more relevant to our times than it may seem at first glance. Nobody today writes like Dr Johnson or Charles Lamb, but there still are plenty of writers, critics, journalists and prophets who waste an awful lot of words to say next to nothing. Simplicity of style, together with travel as personal revelation, is as fine a reason as any why Hazlitt was one of Maugham’s favourite writers.[7]

Charles Lamb is a non-fiction analogue to Katherine Mansfield. A giant soap bubble! It’s delicate and colourful and beautiful. But prick it ever so slightly – and it disappears without a trace. Had he lived a century later, Charles Lamb would not have been an essayist at all. He would have been a modernist short story writer. He might even have become a cult figure. Heaven knows, by no means do I always agree with Somerset Maugham’s opinions on writers (in stark contrast with his opinions on writing), but in the case of Lamb and Hazlitt I cannot agree more with him.[8] Oddly enough, Hazlitt himself speaks highly of Lamb. I haven’t the least idea why.

Lamb’s “sextet” – nearly 50 pages long, far longer than any other “composition” in this collection – did not greatly inspire further reading plans. But I have done him an injustice in the previous paragraph. He is much better than Katherine Mansfield! True, sometimes he does sound like a fussy old maid, but his essays, unlike Miss Mansfield’s stories, do have a point and a structure. I must again quote Sir William’s poetic description:

Lamb, again, is the sharpest possible contrast to Hazlitt. His themes call for no precise terms of definitions, not even logic. Lamb is involved always in a mood rather than a topic, and what he writes is a kind of ode in prose. His ‘subject’ is a pretext rather than an assignment. It moves him as a wind flutters the thousand bits of glass which hang from the ridges of a Japanese temple; it sets him off on an excursion as liable to land him into the fanciful as anywhere else. Yet anyone who examines an Essay of Lamb’s will see that he is no mere bubble-blower. His fancy and his responsiveness to moods are disciplined into a pattern of progress and development.

“Old China” is a poignant short story (and probably a better one than Katherine Mansfield ever wrote) about the encroaching middle age and the long lost youth. “Imperfect Sympathies” gives Mr Lamb’s objections to Scots, Jews, Blacks and Quakers with unflinching honesty. He is so well aware that his dislike is the result of mere personal prejudice that it’s difficult to call him a racist and an anti-Semite. “Poor Relations” is a wonderfully humorous look at those embarrassing fellows who come to dinner and make an awful nuisance of themselves, but can’t be sent away for familial or sentimental reasons. “The Convalescent” is a sensitive and perceptive, even profound, study of illness and convalescence, how they affect man’s opinion of himself and his stature with others. “The Superannuated Man” is a paean of praise to aimlessly spent leisure as opposed to the dreadful eight-to-five drudgery at the office. The first-person narrative is so skilfully written that one might be taken in with Lamb’s claim that he really spent more than 30 years working in an office (which in fact he did: the essay is largely autobiographical). “In Praise of Chimney-sweepers” is the most famous but the least interesting piece of the six.

Given the choice between Lamb and Hazlitt, Hazlitt is definitely my man. But Lamb is worth reading, too. If nothing else, his essays certainly reveal a benign, witty, good-humoured and, yes, charming personality. This is no mean achievement. And there is more. At his best, Charles Lamb does capture certain moments of our existence with startling vividness and insight. A certain amount of affectation and pretentiousness is a reasonable price to pay for that.[9]

Maybe because Lamb and Hazlitt, in their wildly different ways, brought the Essay (to use Sir William’s capital “E”) to a state of perfection impossible to surpass, maybe because historical circumstances made the form more self-indulgent than ever before, but I was surprised to find the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century consistently less fascinating essay-wise. On the whole, two, three and four hundred years ago, people felt more strongly, thought more wisely and wrote more beautifully than they have done ever since. I don’t know if this is true, but this is certainly the impression that Sir William’s selection gives me. The process of degeneration seems to have started with some of Lamb’s and Hazlitt’s contemporaries.

De Quincey’s turgid prose makes his Shakespearean criticism of more historical than intrinsic value. It was apparently one of the first examples of “psychological criticism” and hugely influential over later generations of Shakespearean critics. All this is very well, but I can’t say that the essay improved my understanding of the “Scottish play”. The most memorable part of it, for me, was a subtle linguistic point about the wrong use of “sympathy”. It is completely wrong, argues Mr De Quincey, to say “sympathy for”, for this is confusing the word with “pity”. Now “sympathy”, he continues in a footnote, means “the act of reproducing in our minds the feelings of another, whether hatred, indignation, love, pity, or approbation”, and that’s why you should properly say “sympathy with”. This is a fascinating bit of linguistic history. I don’t think anybody today uses “sympathy with” in De Quincey’s sense. It just shows how much the English language changes in less than two centuries.

The ludicrously rhetorical prose of G. K. Chesterton cannot obscure the triviality of his reflections. “A Defence of Nonsense” sounds promising but is in fact worthless, even more so than “A Piece of Chalk” which at least tries, lamely, to offer some amusement. “A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls” argues that young adult literature, trashy as it may be, is not immoral or in any way responsible for teenage crime (which is laudable), but also seems to imply that the “penny dreadfuls” are a better representation of our nature than serious literature for mature adults (which is ludicrous). In spite of occasional epigrammatic insights, all three essays are eminently forgettable. Surely there must be better things among Chesterton’s voluminous works?

Writers like Edward Thomas, James Agate and Ivor Brown turn the essay into a forum where they can flaunt their maudlin affectation about the “broken memories” from childhood, various “likes and dislikes” or “sentimental journeys” into the Scottish countryside. This is not just personal. It is self-indulgent. Unless you have visited the very places and had the very experiences described, it is very difficult to read these essays without being bored. In addition to florid and verbose, they are a little too English for me. I look askance at this type of writing. It is terribly limited. It can never achieve true greatness. National nuances and local colour are very well within reason, but one must be very careful not to exaggerate them: they must be means, never an end in themselves. Great writing transcends national borders. It is one of the very few truly international modes of communication. This is what Messrs Thomas, Agate and Brown failed to achieve in these essays. So, for that matter, did J. B. Priestley whose four pieces (three of them extremely short) are very little more than bits of autobiography.

National prejudice is not the only bias that can scale down your essay from comment on the human condition to comment merely on yourself. Or, rather, national prejudice comes in many and varied disguises. Sport is one, and the essay by Neville Cardus is a case in point. If you’re a die-hard cricket fan, it’s a treat. If you care nothing for cricket, as I don’t, it’s a chore. Of course it’s beautifully written, but that, I’m afraid, is not enough. Neville Cardus was, so they say, one of the greatest writers on cricket. But he also was one of the greatest musical critics of the twentieth century. He wrote for the Manchester Guardian in the course of decades and his columns there must have contained many fascinating pieces on music with far wider appeal. Why Sir William chose to reprint an essay about so unpopular a sport worldwide is beyond me. Perhaps he was a cricket maniac, too.

Some of the contributors are mixed bags, which is a polite way to say that their contributions contain little of interest. The three essays by E. V. Lucas, incidentally one of Lamb’s most famous biographers, are graciously written but quite vacuous – except “A Funeral” which is a deeply moving character sketch of an old Irish scholar who has just been buried but will not be forgotten. I have little patience with Harold Nicolson’s patronizing advice about shyness and snobbish name-dropping, and I have still less with his totally obsolete discussion of food or clothes. Except for an excruciatingly tedious description of London at night (“The Darkness”, another piece of English conceit, much like Mr Lucas’ “A Plate”), Robert Lynd is very readable if not very stimulating. He notes the obvious, that we hate most the most harmless insects and that the greatest pleasure of ignorance is the capacity for discovery, but I do wish he’d gone deeper than that. Insectophobia and ignorance are very fruitful subjects. Mr Lynd did try to probe the depths in “On Not Being a Philosopher” and the result is appealing. He reflects on the strange paradox that philosophers in general are considered wise men, but their rules of conduct are, as a rule, seldom followed. Epictetus and his preaching complete indifference to material possessions proves a fine target. Mr Lynd concludes thus:

When the world is normally cheerful and comfortable, we hold the paradoxical belief that philosophers were wise men, but that we should be fools to imitate them. We are convinced that, while philosophers are worth reading, material things are worth bothering about. It is as though we enjoyed wisdom as a spectacle – a delightful spectacle on a stage which it would be unseemly for the audience to attempt to invade. Were the Greeks and the Romans made differently? Did the admirers of Socrates and Epictetus really attempt to become philosophers, or were they like ourselves, hopeful of achieving wisdom, not by practice but through a magic potion administered by a wiser man than they? To become wise without effort – by listening to a voice, by reading a book – is at once the most exciting and the most soothing of dreams. In such a dream I took down Epictetus. And, behold, it was only a dream.[10]

One of the exceptions among the general dullness of modern essayists is the elusive Arthur Clutton-Brock (1868–1924, not “1906–1950” as stated in the ToC). Now here is a writer who does have something interesting to say, and he says it with distinction and clarity. “The Defects of English Prose” is apparently a review of an anthology edited by Pearsall Smith, almost certainly A Treasury of English Prose (1920). Mr Clutton-Brock argues that this is a one-sided selection, too much centred on prose that approaches poetry, but too destitute of that other form of English prose, a simpler, more civilised and more intimate form, that is interested in the matter rather than the manner. Mr Clutton-Brock dismisses Dryden, Dr Johnson and the rest of the eighteenth century, scorns the Romantics of course, and claims that there are only a “few shy, never enough honoured writers” (Shaftsbury, W. H. Hudson, Mark Rutherford) who have ever managed to achieve this prose, though even they leave something to be desired:

Yet still one dreams of a prose that has never yet been written in English, though the language is made for it and there are minds not incapable of it, a prose dealing with the greatest things quietly and justly as men deal with them in their secret meditations, seeming perhaps to wander, but always advancing in an unbroken sequence of thought, with a controlled ardour of discovery and the natural beauties of a religious mind. Johnson might have written it, if he had had a stronger sense of beauty and more faith in the flights of reason; Newman if he had been a greater master of words and less afraid of his own questioning; Henry James if he had exercised his subtlety on larger things. But the best of our prose writers, living or dead, are not civilized enough, or too much in love with something else, or not enough in love with anything, to write the prose we dream of. The English Plato is still to be.

It is strange that Mr Clutton-Brock should hail the tiresome prolixity of Plato as his dream prose (he also mentions Pascal with admiration which he spares his compatriots). Also, I think Johnson had more than enough “faith in the flights of reason” but not enough faith in the flights of passion. The point about the trivial subjects of James is well taken, but I don’t think it’s enough; surely Henry will have to improve the clarity of his monstrously convoluted sentences if he wants to qualify for the “dream prose”. Some of Mr Clutton-Brock’s opinions are strange indeed. Hazlitt is “more eloquent than scrupulous” (whatever that means) because “he never seems to be alone with you as you read him, but rather speaking to catch votes”. I must disagree completely. My experience with Hazlitt is not extensive, but it is certainly more intimate than Mr Clutton-Brock implies. Incidentally, his dream prose has since been written by at least three writers – Somerset Maugham, Bertrand Russell and Arthur Clarke – in both fiction and non-fiction.

It’s a pleasure to disagree, though. Arthur Clutton-Brock is nevertheless a fine writer and a true critic. By “true critic” I mean a person with genuine passion for literature and vast erudition about its history and development. He may be worth reading further.

There is only one essayist from the twentieth century (among those represented here) that I find utterly compelling. This is Aldous Huxley, an irresistible combination of fine mind and fine pen. He makes his points with impeccable clarity. I am not sure I agree with all of them, but that is beside the point. There is never any doubt precisely what he means. And he means business.

“Tragedy and the Whole Truth” are incompatible. So argues Aldous Huxley. He gives Homer’s Odyssey and Fielding’s Tom Jones as examples of “Wholly-Truthful art”, namely art that doesn’t shun “irrelevancies which, in actual life, always temper the situations and characters that writers of tragedy insist on keeping chemically pure.” The example from Odyssey is particularly revealing about the kind of irrelevancies Mr Huxley is concerned with:

Consider how almost any other of the great poets would have concluded the story of Scylla attack on the passing ship. Six men, remember, have been taken and devoured before the eyes of their friends. In any other poem but the Odyssey, what would the survivors have done? They would, of course, have wept, even as Homer made them weep. But would they previously have cooked their supper, and cooked it, what more, in a masterly fashion? Would they previously have drunken and eaten to satiety? And after weeping, or actually while weeping, would they have dropped quietly off to sleep? No, they most certainly would not have done any of these things. They would simply have wept, lamenting their own misfortune and the horrible fate of their companions, and the canto would have ended tragically on their tears. Homer, however, preferred to tell the whole truth. He knew that even the most cruelly bereaved must eat; that hunger is stronger than sorrow and that its satisfaction takes precedence even of tears. He knew that experts continue to act expertly and to find satisfaction in their accomplishment, even when friends have just been eaten, even when the accomplishment is only cooking the supper. He knew that, when the belly is full (and only when the belly is full), men can afford to grieve, and that sorrow after supper is almost a luxury. And finally he knew that, even as hunger takes precedence of grief, so fatigue, supervening, cuts short its career and drowns it in a sleep all the sweeter for bringing forgetfulness of bereavement. In a word, Homer refused to treat the theme tragically. He preferred to tell the whole truth.

The author takes issue with one I. A. Richards that “good tragedy is proof against irony and irrelevance that it can absorb anything into itself and still remain tragedy.” Mr Huxley argues that even the best of Shakespeare’s tragedies cannot stand to this test. He argues that their cynicism is “always heroic idealism turned neatly inside out” and their irony is “a kind of photographic negative of heroic romance.” This is a little superficial. Iago is a bit more than Othello and Desdemona “reversed”. The Moor’s wife may not fall from a horse in the embarrassing manner of Sophia from Tom Jones, but there is a nagging quality in her character that is, if nor irrelevant, at all events tarnishing her tragic status. Also, it’s a little disappointing that all of Mr Huxley’s “chemically pure” works of “Partial Truth” are plays, an art form that can’t stand irrelevancies by default, while his “chemically impure” works of “Whole Truth” are novels where much greater latitude is allowed. (The Odyssey is not a novel, of course, but it certainly isn’t fit for the stage either.) I wonder if there is such a thing, by the Huxlean standards, as tragedy in non-dramatic form or a “wholly-truthful” play.

Another slightly suspicious claim is that virtually all contemporary writers at the time aimed at representation of the Whole Truth. He gives as examples Proust, D. H. Lawrence, Andre Gide, Kafka and Hemingway, “five authors as remarkably unlike one another as they could well be”, yet none of them ever wrote “a pure tragedy.” All of them tried to state, or at least imply, the Whole Truth. Here I wonder if Mr Huxley’s notions of progress didn’t lead him astray. He even tentatively suggests the hypothesis, only to reject it a few lines later, that tragedy may be “doomed” as an art form.

On the whole, however, leaving aside relatively minor details like genres or tenuous speculations about progress, I think Mr Huxley is correct in making the provocative distinction between Whole Truth (non-tragic art) and Partial Truth (tragic art). Where I disagree with him is his claim that the effect of the wholly-truthful art, though less immediate and less intense, is more lasting and, perhaps, more significant. I don’t see it this way. Resignation is an admirable thing, and yes, it can be heroic too, I will grant these valuable services to the wholly-truthful art. (Are they the only ones?) But for my money, the chemically pure tragedy is every bit as important, every bit as affecting in the long term, as any representation of the whole truth. Mr Huxley graciously concludes that “The human spirit has need of both.” I concur.

This is the best kind of essay. It offers a fresh point of view. It poses more questions than provides answers. It challenges your whole reading experience, past, present and future. What about comedies? The best of them, say Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, Shaw’s Pygmalion or Maugham’s The Circle, are hilarious and dead serious at the same time. Are they wholly or partly truthful art? What about Shakespeare’s “problem plays”? What about novels like Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, Cronin’s The Judas Tree or Steinbeck’s East of Eden? What about Moby-Dick and the complete works of Dickens?

“Selected Snobberies” is lighter stuff – but not much lighter. Mr Huxley wisely observes that everybody is snobbish about something, and he is almost tempted to add that everything can find its snobs but he stops at disfiguring diseases. Not that there is no such a thing as “disease-snobbery”. There is, especially among those who “possess sufficient leisure, sufficient wealth, not to mention sufficient health, to go travelling from spa to spa, from doctor to fashionable doctor, in search of cures from problematical diseases (which, in so far as they exist at all, have their source in overeating)”. If this sounds a little dated, Huxley’s reflections on booze-snobbery, modernity-snobbery and art-snobbery are disturbingly modern. Take booze-snobbery for example. It was born of the American Prohibition, but it’s hardly a rarity among teenagers today to regard getting blind drunk as the dawn of maturity. We even have our modern equivalent of disease-snobbery: it’s just an inverted form and concentrates on prevention of disease. Since the essay is hard to find, here are extensive excerpts from it. Read them and tell me if they are not as uncannily prophetic as anything in Brave New World (note, as in the novel, the author’s decidedly ambiguous attitude):

Booze-snobbery has now made it socially permissible, and in some circles even rather creditable, for well-brought-up men and (this is the novelty) well-brought-up women of all ages, from fifteen to seventy, to be seen drunk, if not in public, at least in the very much tempered privacy of a party.

Modernity-snobbery, though not exclusive to our age, has come to assume an unprecedented importance. The reasons for this are simple and of a strictly economic character. Thanks to modern machinery, production is outrunning consumption. Organized waste among consumers is the first condition of our industrial prosperity. The sooner a consumer throws away the object he has bought and buys another, the better for the producer. At the same time, of course, the producer must do his bit by producing nothing but the most perishable articles. ‘The man who builds a skyscraper to last for more than forty years is a traitor to the building trade.’ The words are those of a great American contractor. Substitute motor car, boot, suit of clothes, etc., for skyscraper, and one year, three months, six months, and so on for forty years, and you have the gospel of any leader of any modern industry. The modernity-snob, it is obvious, is this industrialist’s best friend. For modernity-snobs naturally tend to throw away their old possessions and buy new ones at a greater rate than those who are not modernity-snobs. Therefore it is in the producer’s interest to encourage modernity-snobbery. Which in fact he does do – on an enormous scale and to the tune of millions and millions a year – by advertising.


[…]

Most of us are also art-snobs. There are two varieties of art-snobbery – the platonic and the unplatonic. Platonic art-snobs merely ‘take an interest’ in art. Unplatonic art-snobs go further and actually buy art. Platonic art-snobbery is a branch of culture-snobbery. Unplatonic art-snobbery is a hybrid or mule; for it is simultaneously a sub-species of culture-snobbery and of possession-snobbery. A collection of works of art is a collection of culture-symbols, and culture-symbols still carry social prestige. It is also a collection of wealth-symbols. For an art collection can represent money more effectively than a whole fleet of motor cars.

The value of art-snobbery to living artists is considerable. True, most art-snobs collect only the works of the dead; for an Old Master is both a safer investment and a holier culture-symbol than a living master. But some art-snobs are also modernity-snobs. There are enough of them, with the few eccentrics who like works of art for their own sake, to provide living artists with the means of subsistence.

The value of snobbery in general, its humanistic ‘point’, consists in its power to stimulate activity. A society with plenty of snobberies is like a dog with plenty of fleas: it is not likely to become comatose. Every snobbery demands of its devotees unceasing efforts, a succession of sacrifices.


[…]

If we regard activity as being in itself a good, then we must count all snobberies as good; for all provoke activity. If, with the Buddhists, we regard all activity in this world of illusion as bad, then we shall condemn all snobberies out of hand. Most of us, I suppose, take up our position somewhere between the two extremes. We regard some activities as good, others as indifferent or downright bad. Our approval will be given only to such snobberies as excite what we regard as the better activities; the others we shall either tolerate or detest. For example, most professional intellectuals will approve of culture-snobbery (even while intensely disliking most individual culture-snobs), because it compels the philistines to pay at least some slight tribute to the things of the mind and so helps to make the world less dangerously unsafe for ideas than it otherwise might have been. A manufacturer of motor cars, on the other hand, will rank the snobbery of possessions above culture-snobbery; he will do his best to persuade people that those who have fewer possessions, particularly possessions on four wheels, are inferior to those who have more possessions. And so on. Each hierarchy culminates in its own particular Pope.

I should like to finish with another quote from Aldous Huxley, unfortunately not from this book. In the Preface to his Collected Essays (1959), which Sir William should have reprinted instead of “The Maypole and the Column”, Mr Huxley offers this brilliant analysis of the form:

Essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference. There is the pole of the personal and the autobiographical; there is the pole of the objective, the factual, the concrete particular; and there is the pole of the abstract-universal. Most essayists are at home and at their best in the neighbourhood of only one of the essay’s three poles, or at the most only in the neighbourhood of two of them. There are the predominantly personal essayists, who write fragments of reflective autobiography and who look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description. There are the predominantly objective essayists who do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme. Their art consists in setting forth, passing judgment upon, and drawing general conclusions from the relevant data. In a third group we find those essayists who do their work in the world of high abstractions, who never condescend to be personal and who hardly deign to take notice of the particular facts, from which their generalizations were originally drawn. Each kind of essay has its special merits and defects. The personal essayists may be as good as Charles Lamb at his best, or as bad as Mr. X at his cutest and most self-consciously whimsical. The objective essay may be as lively, as brassily contentious as a piece by Macaulay; but it may also, with fatal ease, degenerate into something merely informative or, if it be critical, into something merely learned and academic. And how splendid, how truly oracular are the utterances of the great generalizers!

[…]

The most richly satisfying essays are those which make the best not of one, not of two, but of all the three worlds in which it is possible for the essay to exist. Freely, effortlessly, thought and feeling move in these consummate works of art, hither and thither between the essay’s three poles – from the personal to the universal, from the abstract back to the concrete, from the objective datum to the inner experience. The perfection of any artistic form is rarely achieved by its first inventor. To this rule Montaigne is the great and marvellous exception

__________________________________________________​

[1] W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up (1938), chapter XLVII.

[2] Fortunately for us we’re living in a fortunate age. Internet Archive offers a number of annotated editions of Bacon’s essays, for example ed. Richard Whately (1857), ed. Rev. John Hunter (1897), ed. Alfred S. West (1908), ed. Clarke Sutherland Northup (1908), ed. Mary Augusta Scott (1908), and ed. Sydney Humphries (1912). So far as I could Look Inside, these editions are not noticeably worse than the Penguin Classics take of the same works. Their only defect, or “defect”, is the closer following of the original in terms of capitalisation and spelling. This is certainly inconvenient, but there is ample compensation among the notes which provide tons of help with Bacon’s allusions and vocabulary. The Rev. John Hunter’s edition contains a very helpful table of contents in which years of first publication and subsequent revisions are given for each and every essay.

[3] W. Somerset Maugham, Points of View (1958), “Prose and Dr Tillotson”.

[4] John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley (1962), Part Two.

[5] To refer again to our fortunate age, richly annotated editions of various selections from the Hazlitt essays are not absent on the Internet Archive. See, for example, Selected Essays, ed. George Sampson, 1917 (contains “On Going a Journey”) and Twenty-Two Essays, ed. Arthur Beatty, 1918 (contains all three essays).

[6] W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up (1938), chapter LX.

[7] Ibid., chapters XII and XIV. Maugham calls Hazlitt “Shelley of the letters” but shrewdly points out that he can be “unduly rhetorical; and sometimes his decoration is as fussy as Victorian Gothic.” This is sound criticism one should bear in mind while reading Hazlitt; his rhetoric does get the better of him now and then. Maugham’s descriptions of Hazlitt at his best and especially of the first time he read him [The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930), chapter II] are some of the most effusive he ever penned – which says a great deal:

Hazlitt is vivid, bracing, and energetic; he has strength and liveliness. You feel the man in his phrases, not the mean, querulous, disagreeable man that he appeared to the world that knew him, but the man within of his own ideal vision. (And the man within us is as true in reality as the man, pitiful and halting, of our outward seeming.)

[...]

I began to read my Hazlitt. I was astonished. I found a solid writer, without pretentiousness, courageous to speak his mind, sensible and plain, with a passion for the arts that was neither gushing nor forced, various, interested in the life about him, ingenious, sufficiently profound for his purposes, but with no affectation of profundity, humorous, sensitive. And I liked his English. It was natural and racy, eloquent where eloquence was needed, easy to read, clear and succinct, neither below the weight of his matter nor with fine phrases trying to give it a specious importance. If art is nature seen through the medium of a personality, Hazlitt is a great artist.

I was enraptured. I could not forgive myself that I had lived so long without reading him and I raged against the idolaters of Elia whose foolishness had deprived me till now of so vivid an experience. Here certainly was no charm, but what a robust mind, sane, clear-cut and vivacious, and what vigour!


[8] See again The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930), chapters I and II. The title comes from Hazlitt’s “On Going a Journey”. See also chapter LIX of The Summing Up where Maugham amusingly compares the plotless modernist fiction to Lamb and Hazlitt:

I have read a good many books on the art of fiction and all ascribe very small value to the plot. […] From these books you would judge that it is only a hindrance to the intelligent author and a concession that he makes to the stupid demands of the public. Indeed, sometimes you might think that the best novelist is the essayist, and that the only perfect short stories have been written by Charles Lamb and Hazlitt.

[9] Several collections of Lamb’s essays look rather promising, for instance ed. Brander Matthews (1891, dramatic essays), ed. George Armstrong Wauchope (1904), and ed. Howard Bement (1910). Some of his essays are even available as facsimiles from the London Magazine, July-December 1820.

[10] Interesting writer, this Robert Lynd. Perhaps some of his collections of essays, if not his social and political works, are worth checking out. Idly browsing through The Book of This and That (1915), Old and New Masters (1919), The Art of Letters (1920) and Books & Authors (1922) is a pleasant experience. Good prose, clear, concise and clever, fascinating opinions on books, writers and just about anything else. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Oct 31, 2014 |
A survey of British prose presents notable essays by Bacon, Addison, Lamb, Stevenson, Priestley, Huxley, Pritchett, and others.
  antimuzak | Oct 22, 2005 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Williams, W. E.Editorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Addison, JosephContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Agate, JamesContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bacon, FrancisContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Belloc, HilaireContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Brown, IvorContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cardus, NevilleContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Chesterton, G.K.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Clutton-Brock, ArthurContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Goldsmith, OliverContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hazlitt, WilliamContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hewlett, MauriceContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hunt, LeighContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Huxley, AldousContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Lamb, CharlesContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Lucas, E.V.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Lynd, RobertContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Milne, A AContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Nicolson, HaroldContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Priestley, J.B.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Pritchett, V.S.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Quincey, Thomas deContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Steele, RichardContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Stevenson, Robert LouisContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Taylor, JeremyContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Thomas, EdwardContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Bacon’s compact, laconic style suggests the kinship between the word ‘essay’ and the mineralogist’s ‘assay’; for the handful of carefully-washed words which come out in one of Bacon’s Essays puts one in mind of the prospector sluicing away the grit until a few clear specks of gold are left in the bottom of his pan.
 (W. E. Williams, Introduction)

Lamb, again, is the sharpest possible contrast to Hazlitt. His themes call for no precise terms of definitions, not even logic. Lamb is involved always in a mood rather than a topic, and what he writes is a kind of ode in prose. His ‘subject’ is a pretext rather than an assignment. It moves him as a wind flutters the thousand bits of glass which hang from the ridges of a Japanese temple; it sets him off on an excursion as liable to land him into the fanciful as anywhere else. Yet anyone who examines an Essay of Lamb’s will see that he is no mere bubble-blower. His fancy and his responsiveness to moods are disciplined into a pattern of progress and development.
(W. E. Williams, Introduction)

To spend too much time in studies, is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humour of a scholar: they perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need pruning by study; and studies themselves do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments and the meaner sort of books; else distilled books are, like common distilled waters, flashy things.
(Francis Bacon, "Of Studies")

When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow: when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together.
(Joseph Addison, "The Tombs in Westminster Abbey")

"Then, do you remember our pleasant walks to Enfield, and Potter's Bar, and Waltham, when we had a holyday -- holydays, and all other fun, are gone, now we are rich -- and the little hand-basket in which I used to deposit our day's fare of savory cold lamb and salad -- and how you would pry about at noon-tide for some decent house, where we might go in, and produce our store -- only paying for the ale that you must call for -- and speculate upon the looks of the landlady, and whether she was likely to allow us a table-cloth -- and wish for such another honest hostess, as Izaak Walton has described many a one on the pleasant banks of the Lea, when he went a fishing -- and sometimes they would prove obliging enough, and sometimes they would look grudgingly upon us -- but we had cheerful looks still for one another, and would eat our plain food savorily, scarcely grudging Piscator his Trout Hall? Now, when we go out a days pleasuring, which is seldom moreover, we ride part of the way -- and go into a fine inn, and order the best of dinners, never debating the expense -- which, after all, never has half the relish of those chance country snaps, when we were at the mercy of uncertain usage, and a precarious welcome. (Charles Lamb, "Old china")

Shakespeare's was evidently an uneducated mind, both in the freshness of his imagination and in the variety of his views; as Milton's was scholastic in the texture both of his thoughts and feelings. Shakespeare had not been accustomed to write themes at school in favour of virtue or against vice. To this we owe the unaffected but healthy tone of his dramatic morality. If we wish to know the force of human genius we should read Shakespeare. If we wish to see the insignificance of human learning we may only study his commentators. (William Hazlitt, "On the Ignorance of the Learned")

It is as easy to write a gaudy style without ideas as it is to spread a pallet of showy colours or to smear in a flaunting transparency. ‘What do you read?’ – ‘Words, words, words.’ – ‘What is the matter?’ – ‘Nothing’, it might be answered. The florid style is the reverse of the familiar. The last is employed as an unvarnished medium to convey ideas; the first is resorted to as a spangled veil to conceal the want of them. When there is nothing to be set down but words, it costs little to have them fine. (William Hazlitt, "On Familiar Style")

Yet still one dreams of a prose that has never yet been written in English, though the language is made for it and there are minds not incapable of it, a prose dealing with the greatest things quietly and justly as men deal with them in their secret meditations, seeming perhaps to wander, but always advancing in an unbroken sequence of thought, with a controlled ardour of discovery and the natural beauties of a religious mind. Johnson might have written it, if he had had a stronger sense of beauty and more faith in the flights of reason; Newman if he had been a greater master of words and less afraid of his own questioning; Henry James if he had exercised his subtlety on larger things. But the best of our prose writers, living or dead, are not civilized enough, or too much in love with something else, or not enough in love with anything, to write the prose we dream of. The English Plato is still to be. (Arthur Clutton-Brock, "The Defects of English Prose")

When the world is normally cheerful and comfortable, we hold the paradoxical belief that philosophers were wise men, but that we should be fools to imitate them. We are convinced that, while philosophers are worth reading, material things are worth bothering about. It is as though we enjoyed wisdom as a spectacle – a delightful spectacle on a stage which it would be unseemly for the audience to attempt to invade. Were the Greeks and the Romans made differently? Did the admirers of Socrates and Epictetus really attempt to become philosophers, or were they like ourselves, hopeful of achieving wisdom, not by practice but through a magic potion administered by a wiser man than they? To become wise without effort – by listening to a voice, by reading a book – is at once the most exciting and the most soothing of dreams. In such a dream I took down Epictetus. And, behold, it was only a dream. (Robert Lynd, "On Not Being a Philosopher")
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