Reading Essays: An Invitation

By G. Douglas Atkins | Go to book overview

“The Passionate Discourse
of an Amateur”
John Dryden’s Prose and Poetic Essays

The essayist is an amateur, a Virginia Woolf who has merely done a
little reading up…. Meditation is the essence of it; it measures
meanings; makes maps; exfoliates.

—William H. Gass, “Emerson and the Essay,”
in Habitations of the Word

TEACHING OFTEN BRINGS such heightened awareness and perhaps such intensity of consciousness as Zen labels mindfulness. At least I find it so. Most recently, as I struggled to show how Eliot both posits an “Impersonal theory of poetry” and commits himself to the usually reflective form known as the essay, all the while condemning Romantic poetry for precisely its reflectiveness, I read aloud the following passage in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: the poet, wrote Eliot, “will be aware … that he must inevitably be judged by the standards of the past. I say judged, not amputated, by them; not judged to be as good as, or worse or better than, the dead; and certainly not judged by the canons of dead critics. It is a judgment, a comparison, in which two things are measured by each other” (Selected Essays 15).

The point on which I was launched had to do with the relation of tradition and the individual, and I was intent on the sub-point of Eliot’s sense

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