Reading Essays: An Invitation

By G. Douglas Atkins | Go to book overview

With Wit Enough to Manage Judgment
Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism

Very few people, I suspect, know how to read in the sense
of being able to read for a variety of motives and to read a
variety of books each in the appropriate way…. Philosophy
is difficult, unless we discipline our minds for it; the full
appreciation of poetry is difficult for those who have not trained
their sensibility by years of attentive reading.

—T. S. Eliot, preface, Thoughts for Meditation, selected and
arranged by N. Gangulee

YOU CAN REST CONFIDENT in very few positive statements regarding the essay. One of the safest, it has long seemed, is that, no matter what else the essay is or is not, it is written in prose. This assumption baffles me—even more than the truism that the essay is a piece of writing that you can manage to read in one sitting. Virginia Woolf called A Room of One’s Own an essay, and although it is certainly powerful, gripping reading, I for one cannot read—or re-read—it in one sitting; not only is it around 150 pages, but it is also “language charged with meaning,” thus requiring “attentive reading” and thoughtfulness. John Locke’s An Essay on Human Understanding is even longer, of course, its difficulty stemming from its being philosophy, for which I for one lack the necessary discipline. As to the essay’s being a prose creature, there are the well-known and illustrious instances of Alexander Pope’s poetic essays An Essay on Criticism, An Essay on Man, and the so-called Ethic Epistles or Moral Essays, to say nothing of less obvious although still important predecessors in the seventeenth century. Truth is, neither length nor mode—that is, verse or prose—determines

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