It deals with the emergence, continuance, and disappearance of critical opinions; it records, in an informal but none the less effective manner, the judgment of Europe upon books. Let us take a specific example.
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Charles Lamb's " Essay on the Tragedies of Shakespeare "  is a singularly perfect specimen of "the essay" type. It is personal and casual. It opens with the sentence: "Taking a turn the other day in the Abbey, I was struck with the affected attitude of a figure, which I do not remember to have seen before, and which upon examination proved to be a whole-length of the celebrated Mr. Garrick"; and then Lamb passes, with apparent artlessness, from the affectations and tricks of actors to the profound question of the possibility of an adequate representation of the personalities of Hamlet and Lear upon the stage.
This personal essay, with its odd whims and fancies, deepens page by page into a masterly critical essay, which makes a distinct phase of the attitude of the English mind toward England's greatest poet. In similar fashion, Victor Hugo's preface to his drama "Cromwell"  is a capital example of a personal essay—an essay "rampant" in its defense of the author's own literary creed. But that creed as it happens, becomes also the triumphant creed of the young French Romanticists.
They rallied around the preface to "Cromwell" as soldiers rally around a flag, and the essay became a concrete embodiment of a new reaction against Classicism, a significant document in the literary history of modern Europe. One may study them, in chronological order, as successive indications of a national point of view.
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Thus the English critical essay, in the Elizabethan period, in the seventeenth century, or in any subsequent epoch, reveals the precise extent to which the English mind accepts, modifies, or rejects the main body of European critical doctrine. As affording material for such a chronological study, it is not essential that any particular English critical essay should be marked by personal distinction of style, or by special critical acumen.
The undistinguished mass of book reviews, of gossip about writers, about the stage and other forms of contemporary art, is often the most valuable evidence of the instinctive working of the English mind. What does an average bookish Englishman, in a given decade, understand by the words "tragic," "comic," "heroic," "the unities," "wit," "taste," "humor," "Nature"? The historian finds the answer in a thousand casual expressions, each one of which bears the stamp of the period and the race.
The Englishman interprets the general laws and phrases of European criticism in terms of his own neighborhood and time, and a collection of English critical essays thus illustrates the traits of the English national character. Let us now turn from the broader relations of the essay with criticism, and endeavor to ascertain precisely what the word "essay" means. The older English form of the word is "assay," i. It is derived, through the French, from a late Latin word "exagium," which means a standard weight, or more precisely, the act of weighing. The word "examine" comes from the same Latin root.
As defined by the " Century Dictionary ," "essay" means 1, A trial, attempt or endeavor; 2, An experimental trial or test; 3, An assay or test of metal; 4, In literature, a discursive composition concerned with a particular subject, usually shorter and less methodical and finished than a treatise; a short disquisition. Zabriskie, the following excellent definition: "The essay is properly a collection of notes, indicating certain aspects of a subject, or suggesting thoughts concerning it; Zabriskie calls the essayist the excursionist of literature, the literary angler, the meditator rather than the thinker; and he points out that the German mind is not adapted to the essay, since the Germans are not satisfied to make mere assaults upon a subject, mere excursions into it; they must go through a subject from end to end and leave it a conquered territory.
Montaigne , who was the initiator of the modern essay , laid stress upon its essentially autobiographic nature. He confesses that he writes "not to discover things, but to lay open myself. It should have the characteristics of open, varied, wide-ranging talk: "I speak unto paper as unto the first man I meet.
He masses his material more closely, keeps to his topic, packs his sentences as full as they will hold. He is too austere for the leisurely, personal method of Montaigne; he imparts his concentrated worldly wisdom coolly, almost impassively; he loves the pregnant opening and close. For Seneca's Epistles to Lucilius , if one mark them well, are but essays—that is, dispersed meditations. Analogies to the mood of the modern essay and to its urbane, free, flexible methods of discussion, may be found in the "Dialogues" of Plato ,  in the "Lives"  and "Morals" of Plutarch , in the letters of Cicero ,  Horace , and the younger Pliny ,  in the gossipy "Attic Nights" of Aulus Gellius, in the talks of Epictetus ,  and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
But though they often revealed the spirit of the modern essayist, they were groping uncertainly after the appropriate literary form. Montaigne's great achievement was to hazard his fortunes in an unsurpassed series of "sallies," "assaults," "assays" upon a hundred entrenched topics, and always to come bravely off—so that his tactics became the model for all literary skirmishes.
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- Elizabethan Critical Essays - Vol I!
To think and feel and write like Montaigne was to produce the modern essay. Without his example, it is doubtful if we should have had the essays of Lamb, of Emerson , and of Stevenson. Supporting the whole theory and practice of Montaigne, undoubtedly, stood the Renaissance itself. This "re-birth" of the human mind, this new awakening of vital energies and intellectual powers, involved a new way of looking at the world.
Nothing seemed quite the same as it had been. The actual world was changing before men's eyes, and the inner world changed no less. There was universal curiosity about individual capacities and opinions, experiences and tastes. The whole "undulating and various" scheme of things—to use a favorite expression of Montaigne—was a direct provocative of the essay state of mind; and the essay form, in turn, in its looseness, vagueness, and range, was singularly adapted to the intellectual spirit of the period. Gregory Smith's collection of "Elizabethan Critical Essays" affords a fairly complete view of the critical ideas which sixteenth-century England had inherited from Europe.
The evolution of the English critical essay, during the three hundred years which have elapsed since then, is mainly the story of the preservation of these ideas and their modification or transformation under the successive impacts of new intellectual forces, and of differing social and literary conditions. Another type of essay, originating in the Renaissance, and a favorite with Montaigne, deals not so much with books as with life itself.
Montaigne does not dogmatize about these matters: he asks questions, he suggests possible answers. The speculative essay, the philosophical and scientific essay, the social essay which draws its materials from the ever-renewed revelation of the actual life of man, all find their source in an awakened curiosity. The enthusiasm, the gusto, with which sixteenth-century men discussed every topic within their range of vision, has remained an integral element of the effective essay.
A man may set himself sadly and grimly to work upon his formal treatise, and write it through to the end with disillusion in his soul.
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But the born essayist, though knowing well enough that his raids into unconquered territory must be merely a perpetual series of sallies and retreats, nevertheless advances gayly to the assault. Like Lamb and Stevenson, he preaches without being a preacher; like Huxley and Tyndall , he teaches when he means only to inform; so communicable and infectious is this gift of curiosity about life. There is a third type of essay, originating in the Renaissance emphasis upon individualism, and confidently asserting itself upon the pages of Montaigne,  Addison, Hazlitt , De Quincey ,  Emerson,  Thoreau ,  and a hundred other men.
It is the autobiographic, "egotistic" essay—in which there is rarely any insolence of egotism, but only an insatiable curiosity about oneself, and an entire willingness to discuss that question in public. If you like the man who is talking, this kind of essay is the most delightful of all. But it betrays a great deal, and like lyric verse—the most intensely personalized mode of poetry—it sometimes betrays too much.
When the right balance is struck between openness and conceit, or when, as with Emerson, the man is sweet and sound to the core, the self-revealing essay justifies itself. Indeed, it is thought by some critics that the subjective or lyrical quality of the essay is a part of its essential character. Placing Marlowe in their context, and by assessing a selection of important essayson Marlowe, Logan finds his reputation the most prominent. Scott and M. Stapleton Published: Ashgate Publishing 1 August The volume reflects the flourishing state of Marlowe studies in the 21st century. Stapleton Published: Ashgate Publishing June Reviews: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Summary: A study in the social and political backgrounds of the drama, with particular reference to Christopher Marlowe. ISBN: Summary: Is human nature conducted by individual impulses or subject to a greater force called destiny? Marlowe analyses this question, says Kiss, but does not try to find Faustus guilty or innocent, rather presenting the pros and cons.
The dismembering devils of Dr Faustus , the Mower of Edward II , the suicides in Dido , the gruesome brutalities of The Massacre at Paris — all reflect the popular Elizabethan conviction that death is at the very center of life. Public domain books belong to the public and we are merely their custodians. Nevertheless, this work is expensive, so in order to keep providing this resource, we have taken steps to prevent abuse by commercial parties, including placing technical restrictions on automated querying.
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The Project Gutenberg eBook of English Critical Essays, Nineteenth Century, by Edmund D. Jones
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