In the dozy hours, and other papers/The Passing of the Essay


It is the curious custom of modern men of letters to talk to the world a great deal about their work; to explain its conditions, to uphold its value, to protest against adverse criticism, and to interpret the needs and aspirations of mankind through the narrow medium of their own resources. A good many years have passed since Mr. Arnold noticed the growing tendency to express the very ordinary desires of very ordinary people by such imposing phrases as "laws of human progress" and "edicts of the national mind." To-day, if a new story or a new play meets with unusual approbation, it is at once attributed to some sudden mental development of society, to some distinct change in our methods of regarding existence. We are assured without hesitation that all stories and all plays in the near future will be built up upon these favored models.

To a few of us, perhaps, such prophetic voices have but a dismal ring. We listen to their repeated cry, "The old order passeth away," and we are sorry in our hearts, having loved it well for years, and feeling no absolute confidence in its successor. Then some fine afternoon we look abroad, and are amazed to see so much of the old order still remaining, and apparently disinclined to pass away, even when it is told plainly to go. How many times have we been warned that poetry is shaking off its shackles, and that rhyme and rhythm have had their little day? Yet now, as in the past, poets are dancing cheerfully in fetters, with a harmonious sound which is most agreeable to our ears. How many times have we been told that Sir Walter Scott's novels are dead, stone dead; that their grave has been dug, and their epitaph written? Yet new and beautiful editions are following each other so rapidly from the press, that the most ardent enthusiast wonders wistfully who are the happy men with money enough to buy them. How many times have we been assured that realistic and psychological fiction has supplanted its gay brother of romance? Yet never was there a day when writers of romantic stories sprang so rapidly and so easily into fame. Stevenson leads the line, but Conan Doyle and Stanley Weyman follow close behind; while as for Mr. Rider Haggard, he is a problem which defies any reasonable solution. The fabulous prices paid by syndicates for his tales, the thousands of readers who wait breathlessly from week to week for the carefully doled-out chapters, the humiliating fact that "She" is as well known throughout two continents as "Robert Elsmere,"—these uncontrovertible witnesses of success would seem to indicate that what people really hunger for is not realism, nor sober truthfulness, but the maddest and wildest impossibilities which the human brain is capable of conceiving.

And so when I am told, among other prophetic items, that the "light essay" is passing rapidly away, and that, in view of its approaching death-bed, it cannot be safely recommended as "a good opening for enterprise," I am fain, before acquiescing gloomily in such a decree, to take heart of grace, and look a little around me. It is discouraging, doubtless, for the essayist to be suddenly informed that his work is in articulo mortis. He feels as a carpenter might feel were he told that chairs and doors and tables are going out of fashion, and that he had better turn his attention to mining engineering, or a new food for infants. Perhaps he endeavors to explain that a great many chairs were sold in the past week, that they are not without utility, and that they seem to him as much in favor as ever. Such feeble arguments meet with no response. Furniture, he is assured,—on the authority of the speaker,—is distinctly out of date. The spirit of the time calls for something different, and the "best business talent"—delightful phrase, and equally applicable to a window-frame or an epic—is moving in another direction. This is what Mr. Lowell used to call the conclusive style of judgment, "which consists simply in belonging to the other parish;" but parish boundaries are the same convincing things now that they were forty years ago.

Is the essay, then, in such immediate and distressing danger? Is it unwritten, unpublished, or unread? Just ten years have passed since a well-printed little book was offered carelessly to the great English public. It was anonymous. It was hampered by a Latin title which attracted the few and repelled the many. It contained seven of the very lightest essays that ever glided into print. It grappled with no problems, social or spiritual; it touched but one of the vital issues of the day. It was not serious, and it was not written with any very definite view, save to give entertainment and pleasure to its readers. By all the laws of modern mentors, it should have been consigned to speedy and merited oblivion. Yet what happened? I chanced to see that book within a few months of its publication, and sent at once to London for a copy, thinking to easily secure a first edition. I received a fourth, and, with it, the comforting assurance that the first was already commanding a heavy premium. In another week the American reprints of "Obiter Dicta" lay on all the book counters of our land. The author's name was given to the world. A second volume of essays followed the first; a third, the second; a fourth, the third. The last are so exceedingly light as to be little more than brief notices and reviews. All have sold well, and Mr. Birrell has established—surely with no great effort—his reputation as a man of letters. Editors of magazines are glad to print his work; readers of magazines are glad to see it; newspapers are delighted when they have any personal gossip about the author to tell a curious world. This is what "the best business talent" must call success, for these are the tests by which it is accustomed to judge. The light essay has a great deal of hardihood to flaunt and flourish in this shameless manner, when it has been severely warned that it is not in accord with the spirit of the age, and that its day is on the wane.

It is curious, too, to see how new and charming editions of "Virginibus Puerisque" meet with a ready sale. Mr. Stevenson has done better work than in this volume of scattered papers, which are more suggestive than satisfactory; yet there are always readers ready to exult over the valorous "Admirals," or dream away a glad half-hour to the seductive music of "Pan's Pipes." Mr. Lang's "Essays in Little" and "Letters to Dead Authors" have reached thousands of people who have never read his admirable translations from the Greek. Mr. Pater's essays—which, however, are not light—are far better known than his beautiful "Marius the Epicurean." Lamb's "Elia" is more widely read than are his letters, though it would seem a heart-breaking matter to choose between them. Hazlitt's essays are still rich mines of pleasure, as well as fine correctives for much modern nonsense. The first series of Mr. Arnold's "Essays in Criticism" remains his most popular book, and the one which has done more than all the rest to show the great half-educated public what is meant by distinction of mind. Indeed, there never was a day when by-roads to culture were more diligently sought for than now by people disinclined for long travel or much toil, and the essay is the smoothest little path which runs in that direction. It offers no instruction, save through the medium of enjoyment, and one saunters lazily along with a charming unconsciousness of effort. Great results are not to be gained in this fashion, but it should sometimes be play-hour for us all. Moreover, there are still readers keenly alive to the pleasure which literary art can give; and the essayists, from Addison down to Mr. Arnold and Mr. Pater, have recognized the value of form, the powerful and persuasive eloquence of style. Consequently, an appreciation of the essay is the natural result of reading it. Like virtue, it is its own reward. "Culture," says Mr. Addington Symonds, "makes a man to be something. It does not teach him to create anything." Most of us in this busy world are far more interested in what we can learn to do than in what we can hope to become; but it may be that those who content themselves with strengthening their own faculties, and broadening their own sympathies for all that is finest and best, are of greater service to their tired and downcast neighbors than are the unwearied toilers who urge us so relentlessly to the field.

A few critics of an especially judicial turn are wont to assure us now and then that the essay ended with Emerson, or with Sainte-Beuve, or with Addison, or with Montaigne,—a more remote date than this being inaccessible, unless, like Eve in the old riddle, it died before it was born. Montaigne is commonly selected as the idol of this exclusive worship. "I don't care for any essayist later than Montaigne," It has a classic sound, and the same air of intellectual discrimination as another very popular remark: "I don't read any modern novelist, except George Meredith." Hearing these verdicts, one is tempted to say, with Marianne Dashwood, "This is admiration of a very particular kind." To minds of a more commonplace order, it would seem that a love for Montaigne should lead insensibly to an appreciation of Sainte-Beuve; that an appreciation of Sainte-Beuve awakens in turn a sympathy for Mr. Matthew Arnold; that a sympathy for Mr. Arnold paves the way to a keen enjoyment of Mr. Emerson or Mr. Pater. It is a linked chain, and, though all parts are not of equal strength and beauty, all are of service to the whole. "Let neither the peculiar quality of anything nor its value escape thee," counsels Marcus Aurelius; and if we seek our profit wherever it may be found, we insensibly acquire that which is needful for our growth. Under any circumstances, it is seldom wise to confuse the preferences or prejudices of a portion of mankind with the irresistible progress of the ages. Rhymes may go, but they are with us still. Romantic fiction may be submerged, but at present it is well above water. The essay may die, but just now it possesses a lively and encouraging vitality. Whether we regard it as a means of culture or as a field for the "best business talent," we are fain to remark, in the words of Sancho Panza, "This youth, considering his weak state, hath left in him an amazing power of speech."