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. e., a trial or experiment. 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 I, 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. Dr. Samuel Johnson, who was himself one of the most famous essayists of his day, defines “essay” in his Dictionary as “A loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.” Possibly it was the Doctor’s happy word “sally” which suggested to a recent writer, Mr. F. N. Zabriskie, the following excellent definition: “The essay is properly a collection of notes, indicating certain aspects of a subject, or suggesting thoughts concerning it; ... not a formal siege, but a series of assaults, essays or attempts upon it.” It is for this reason that Mr. 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.

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