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Fair is foul, and foul is fair – Macbeth Act 1 SceneⅠ・・・きれいはきたない、きたないはきれい

A Book of English Essays ― 待てば海路の日和あり

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INTRODUCTION

A Minimum Definition

No elaborate definition of the Essay is necessary for those
who read the following selection. The English Essay has
a multitude of forms and manners, and scarcely any rules
and regulations. A minimum definition would be to say
that the Essay is a piece of prose, usually on the short
, side, which is not devoted to narrative. The ess^.yist may
use anecdotes to make his point; he may even take a leaf
out of the novelist’s book and create characters to illus-
trate his owm opinions. But his chief interest is not that
of the story-teller. The essayist’s usual role is that of the
social philosopher, the critic, the annotator.

But before we are lured any further in this attempt to
identify the special interests of the essa;^dst, let us look
over a few of the many types of Essay included in this
selection. First, Bacon, the father of the English Essay,
who jvould.fail to recognise most of his descendants.
Bacon’s compact, laconic style suggests the kinship be-
tween the word ‘essay’ and the mineralogist’s word
‘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. Bacon
brooded over some topic of social custom or behaviour
until he could reduce his conclusions upon it to an almost
aphoristic brevity. That is why he so often reads like a
string of mottoes and proverbs - except that he has the
Elizabethan power of illuminating a bare truth by a
brilliant image: when, for example, he likens the ill-
natured man ‘to the thorn or briar which prick or scratch
because they can do no other’.

The early English Essay made no bones about its
deliberate moral purpose. Many of Bacon’s are homilies
on conduct; and many of the divines who wrote Essays
in the seventeenth century were preoccupied with a
similar purpose: Jeremy Taylor, for example, one of
whose finest testimonies will be found in this selection.

A form so handy as the Essay - so short, so free from
literary convention - was bound to produce variants of
Bacon’s or Taylor’s manner. Thus during the seventeenth
century there developed a popular litera.ry exercise called
the * Character’ - a kind of still-life composite portrait of
various familiar 'types’ - the Undergraduate, the Poet,
the Yeoman, and so on. Few of those character-studies
would interest the modern reader, but they are worth
referring to here because they brought a new interest
into- Essay-writing, and set the fashion by which such
essayists as Addison, Steele and Goldsmith so often intro-
duced into their Essays fictional characters like Sir Roger
de Goverley or Beau Tibbs. '

The Eighteenlh-ceniury Essay

The eighteenth century produced a galaxy of essayists;
and here we should note a factor which so often deter-
mines the form literature shall take. Thus, the complex
shape of a Shakespearean play, with its alternating
intimate and crowd scenes,. was prescribed by the peculiar
architecture of the Elizabethan style — its balconies,
alcoves and platforms. In a similar way, the length and
tone of that spate of Essays which appeared in the
eighteenth century were determined by the swift con-
temporary development of the Press. It was the eighteenth-
century periodical and newspaper which made the
eighteenth-century Essay. By the end of that century
there were sixty daily or weekly papers published in "
London. Most of them supplemented the news with an
article of comment upon literature, manners or politics;
some of them, like the famous Spectator^ left the news to
others and concentrated upon the job of criticism. In
these periodicals, then, the Essay found a new scope;
and such masters as Addison and Steele gave the Essay
a new charter. Henceforth it was free to air any topic of
public interest; and as the Press developed into the many
forms we know today^ the Essay found many lengths and
many levels for its business of comment and criticism. In
our modern dailies, weeklies, monthlies or quarterlies wx
can find so many moods, themes, styles and sizes of the
Essay that we realise how broad any definition of that
form must be nowadays. ’ '

It is an agreeable exercise to compare the varieties of
the Essay during the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth
centuries. Addison, for instance: meticulous and elaborate*
His paragraphing is a model of precision, the balance
and antithesis of his sentences are as- carefully contrived
as a stonemason’s or a carpenter’s. Elis diction, again, is
as formal as the costume of his day: never relapsing into
a full-blooded colloquialism, never robust in its humour.
Yet his is a style to be analysed and respected - absorbed
and lorgotten - by anyone who wishes to master the
mechanics of good English. Goldsmith, too, can make
sentences as elegant and correct as a peruke, but his
favourite manner is more supple and coloured; and
although he is as willing as Adchson to comment on social
behaviour, he does it less pontifically, more humanely.
Addison does not hxceive’ until he is dressed and pow-
dered ; Goldsmith will talk to you in his dressing-gown,
HazHtt represents a more searching kind of Essay than
Addison or Goldsmith - the critical analysis of an exacting
literary theme - and in our own age he has his counterpart
in such a critic as Aldous Huxley. Lamb, again,, is the
sharpest possible contrast to HazHtt. His themes call for
no precise terms of definitions, not even for 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 tidges of a Japanese temple; it sets him off on an
excursion as liable to land him into the fanciful as any-
where 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.

Take, for example, In Praise of Chimney Sweepers. The
Essay begins with a panegyric to the ‘matin lark’ - the
young sweep. Immediately afterwards, Lamb is recalling
the thrill he felt as a boy when he saw a sweep’s brush
suddenly emerge from a chimney-top. The fifth paragraph
is a parenthetic exhortation to the reader to give a penny
to a sweep when he sees one. In the next paragraph, the
maze takes what seems an incomprehensible turn, for it
does nothing but describe a shop which sells sassafras
tea; but soon we discover that this is the favourite
beverage of sweeps. Then the Essay takes a fresh turn,
to mention those other stalls where the early workman
gets his herbal beer. The following paragraph comes back
to the sweep at the stall, where you are invited to stand
him a drink and a snack. There we come into a new
section of the maze, which begins most disconcertingly:
T am by nature extremely susceptible to street affronts’,
but which lead us on to consider the mischievous nature
of sweeps. No sooner do we feel our way along than we
come, across a fresh and startling line: T am by theory
obdurate to the seductiveness' of what are called a fine
set of teeth’, — but it directs us eventually to a considera-
tion of the possibility that many sweeps are mislaid
lordlings. We are led on to a pleasant story of one such
romance. On the heels of that, we are without warning
introduced to ‘my pleasant friend, Jem White’, who,
however, turns out to be a kind of patron saint of sweeps.
One of his annual feeds for them is next described ; and,
just afterwards, we emerge imexpectedly to find that,
Jem now dead, the sweeps lament his lost bounty.

From first to last the thread is there, and the shocks
we get as we fancy ourselves lost from time to time, serve
to heighten oui* pleasure at the constant return to the
central idea.

Further comparisons between the themes and methods
of ‘the English Essayists can be left for the reader to
explore for himself. When he has done so he may feel
capable of expanding the tentative definition with which
this Introduction began. Yet perhaps he will be disposed
to add no more than this ~ that throughout the manifold
variety of the English Essay there runs, in one form or
another, a sense of moral purpose: a zeal to edify and
clarify our thought upon a thousand different themes;
sometimes that purpose is boldly revealed, sometimes it
is camouflaged vfith humour or irony, sometimes it is so
implicit that it discloses itself to you only after a long
reflection. But it is consistent enough and clear enough
to leave no doubt that the English Essay is a ‘serious’
mode of literature, and that whether he is writing about
behaviour or books or science or politics the essayist is
out to edify rather than to entertain. And even when, in
fulfilling that intention, he manages also to be amusing,
the fact remains that he still conforms to the purpose
which Bacon was the first to practise.

With these few pointers in mind the reader is now
advised, before dipping into this selection, to turn first
to Maurice Hewlett’s The Maypole and the Column (on
page 212), for it is one of the best essays ever written
on the English Essay.

London: 1,9,42

W. E. Williams

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