An essay is something that the writer writes himself. According to Benson, from the very birth of the essay as a genre at Montaigne’s hand, the essay has been a comfortable blend of the personal and the subjective, and indeed has been the most personal of all genres. The personal touch brings life and charm to the essay through the personality of the essayist. The charm is evident because the essay is something that the writer himself writes where he exposes his heart in the most confidential way. An essay can be on a variety of topics, but above all it should show an interest in life. It should reflect the author’s likable personality and also change the perspective of the reader. Thus writes Benson, Montaigne, the father of the essay in literature, while he writes the essays he cares about the ‘Montaigne man’. Therefore, the essay is a dream for the essayist: it is a loose sequence of thoughts, of an irregular nature that stops in the moment and allows the writer to inhabit within and correspond to himself. Montaigne wonderfully employed this technique while writing his essays, presenting a certain frame of mind and infusing charm by being up close and personal.
An essay is something that the essayist does for himself. For the essay we can go back to Cicero or Plato. Cicero dealt with abstract themes with a romantic background. Plato discussed speculative and ethical problems of life and tried to find philosophical interest. The English temperament lacks the charm of Montaigne. They are overly prejudiced, reserved, and jealously guard their privacy. But Lord Brougham proved that one can maintain privacy while being on display.
Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici or Urn Burial contained essays in an elaborate rhetorical style. Addison in The Spectator dealt with delicate humor. Charles Lamb dealt with the romantic and homey. De Quincy wrote a passionate autobiography while Pater used the essay for exquisite artistic feel. In all these writings the common tension 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 humor. But humor is alien to poetry, which is more of a sacred and solemn state of mind. The poet is emotional, reverential, excitable, in search of the sublime and elevated. He wants to transcend the petty mundane daily concerns, the jarring and unworthy elements of life. The similarity of the essayist with the poet is that an essayist can also make an effort to arouse emotion. But an essayist uses life’s most common materials and transforms simple experiences with fairytale finesse and romantic sparkle. Behind all forms of art, be it poetry or prose, lies the principle of wonder, of focused attention. It has to be not only the sense of beauty, but also the sense of appropriateness, strangeness, completeness, effective effort. The astonishment that a savage feels when seeing a civilized city is not the sense of beauty but the sense of strength, of mysterious resources, of incredible products, of unintelligible things. He also sees the grotesque, the absurd, the funny and the humorous. The essayist deals with these basic emotions. He filters the salient issues of these instinctual emotions and records them in impressive language.
That is why an essayist is a spectator of life. As cataloged in Browning’s poem “How It Strikes a Contemporary”, the essayist’s material is to observe the shoemaker in the shop, the man who cuts lemons, the coffee roaster’s brazier, the books on the stalls, the posters on boldface on the wall, a man beating his horse or swearing at a woman, etc. The essayist chooses his setting, perhaps a street, a field, or a gallery of paintings. But once he selects, he has to get into the heart of it.
The essayist must have a broad vision. He can’t just engage in his activity either as a politician or a thief with the sole aim of making a profit. He cannot be prejudiced in his favors, that is, he must not hate his opponents and favor his friends. If he condemns, despises, disapproves, he loses sympathy. He must have an all-encompassing mind to enjoy everything he thinks is worth recording, and not narrow-minded. Persons disguised as a banker, a social reformer, a coroner, a fanatic, a crank, or a puritan cannot be essayists. The essayist has to be broad-minded but not moral. He must be tolerant, he must discern quality, he must be concerned with the big picture of life in relation to the environment and people, not goals and objectives.
The essayist’s charm lies in translating a sense of humor, kindness, good sense and in the effort to establish a pleasant friendship with the reader. One does not read the essay for information or definition, but rather to find an acceptable solution to a mass of tangled problems that arise in our daily lives and in our relationships with people. The essayist would take some problem from everyday life and delve into it to find the reasons for our irregular actions, the reasons for our attraction or repulsion towards people and try to suggest a theory about it. When reading an essay, the reader should be forced to confess that he had thought along the same lines but had never discerned the connection. The essayist must realize that the convictions of most people are not the result of reason, but a mass of associations, traditions, half-understood phrases, loyalties, whims, etc.
The essayist must consider human weakness, not human strength. But while he accepts human weakness he must try to infuse them with glimmers of idealism. He must keep in mind that the human mind, despite its weakness, is capable of idealism, passionate visions, irresponsible humor that can spring from dull and cloudy minds. The essayist’s task is to make the reader realize his own worth, that every human mind is capable of grasping something great and remote which, however, may not always be clear to our minds. Human nature is indecisive, wavers. The confessed objective of the essayist is to make the reader see that each person has a role to play in life, has an interest to take in life, that life is a game full of throbbing outlets and channels, and that life is not just for millionaires or politicians.
The essayist, therefore, ultimately teaches that life is not just about success but about fulfillment. Success can cloud our outlook on life and make a person self-important. What matters is how much a person can give than receive.
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 novelist because he deals not with fanciful material but with simple ones. The essayist has to detect the sublimity of life. Life is not always exciting, it is not always waiting for something to happen. There are drab spaces in between. The task of the essayist is to bring something rich and strange out of those monotonous hollows.
Therefore, an Essay as a genre cannot be strictly classified either. It’s like an organ prelude that can be tempered, modulated, and colored. It is to some extent also a critique of life. It is a learning process that teaches not to condemn the negative but to perceive the fullness of life and embraces all experience. An essayist is an interpreter of life. He is within a brief compass a combination of historian, philosopher, poet, novelist. He observes and analyzes life, colors it with his fantasy, enjoys the charm and quality of simple things, and strives to make life better for others.