To understand, therefore, the history of actual critical opinion, one must study the essay. It is a very variable, highly personalized literary form: resembling now a dinner-table monologue or dialogue, and now a letter to a friend. Here it is a mere sparkling fragment of some solid mass of philosophical theory, and there it is a tiny jewel of paradox, interrogation, or fancy; here an echo of some great historical debate over tragedy or comedy, and there the first faint stirring of some new, living idea, which by and by will be tossed about with all the winds of doctrine. But however changeable this literary type may be, one who reads the various essays in The Harvard Classics can hardly fail to get a general notion of the nature of “the essay.” The type will gradually make itself clear to him, as something different from the formal treatise, the dialogue or the letter or the magazine article. He will learn to watch the type emerge into clear outline with Montaigne〖Harvard Classics, xxxii, 5ff.〗 and Bacon.〖H. C., iii, 7ff.〗 He will see that it modifies itself under the influence of national traits or of the fashions of successive historical periods, that it differentiates itself into species and varieties, precisely as other literary types undergo variation and development under specific conditions. It will flourish in one age and decline in another, as do the drama and the lyric, although, like them, the essay represents a certain permanent mood which never goes wholly out of fashion.

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