The English Essay and Essayists

The English Essay and Essayists

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The English Essay and Essayists

The English Essay and Essayists

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Excerpt

What is an essay? Perhaps the notions most widely prevalent with regard to this question are, first, that an essay is a composition comparatively short, and second, that it is something incomplete and unsystematic. The latter, clearly, was Johnson's conception, and he was not only a great lexicographer, but himself a notable essayist. He defines an essay to be "a loose sally of the mind, an irregular, indigested piece, not a regular and orderly performance." The Oxford English Dictionary combines the two conceptions. Its definition runs thus: "A composition of moderate length on any particular subject, or branch of a subject; originally implying want of finish, 'an irregular, indigested piece' (J.), but now said of a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range." Both definitions are somewhat vague, and Johnson's is essentially negative--a sure sign of difficulty. But vague as they are, these definitions are too narrow and precise to embrace all essays so-called. If we conceive the essay to be short and incomplete, on the other hand we certainly conceive the treatise to be lengthy and systematic. But while Hume writes A Treatise of Human Nature, Locke writes An Essay concerning Human Understanding; and the latter work attempts as seriously as the former to be systematic, while it is the longer of the two.

At least, it may be thought, the essay is a species of prose . . .

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