Even if the reader of these essays has no special knowledge of English history, and has hitherto paid but little attention to the influence of one school of thought upon its successors, he cannot help discovering one difference between what we have called “the essay” and its more specialized from “the critical essay.” “The essay” moves in a circle. Its orbit tends to return perpetually upon itself. One may even say that the type was already complete in Montaigne, and that since then it has made no real advance; that we have only a succession of essayists, doing, of course with infinite personal varieties of pattern, precisely what Montaigne showed them how to do. But the critical essay advances, albeit by zigzag lines. It is obliged to tack, as the winds of doctrine shift and the tides of opinion ebb and flow, yet it is always steering, and not merely drifting. Take, for example, the most famous critical essay of the Greeks, the “Poetics” of Aristotle. It is an attempt to establish certain fundamental principles of æsthetic criticism, such as the laws of epic poetry and the nature of tragedy. It analyzed the structure of contemporary works of literary art, tested the psychological effect of poem and play upon the mind of the reader and spectator, and laid down some shrewd rules for the guidance of poets. It is an essay rather than an exhaustive treatise, but it is by no means the sort of essay which Montaigne would have written had he been a Greek. It is impersonal, analytical, scientific. And so logical is its matter, so penetrating its insight, that it became a model of sound critical procedure.

The “rules” of Aristotle, based as they were upon the facts of human nature and the character of the literature of his day, deserved the reverence with which they were treated by the men who rediscovered them in the Renaissance. Trouble came only when the attempt was made to apply them rigidly and mechanically to poems and dramas of a type different from anything that Aristotle had known. Yet out of this very confusion and necessity for readjustment came the “critical essay” as we know it. Aristotle had set up Truth as his beacon mark: Truth to the physical and psychological facts, to the laws of beauty which are also laws of the mind. When the critics of the Renaissance and of the age of Neo-Classicism in France and England, confronted as they were by new facts, tried loyally to adjust the Aristotelian formulæ to the writings of Tasso, Shakespeare, and Molière, they made queer work of it. They endeavored to keep in mind both “the polestar of the ancients” and the “rules of the French stage among the moderns,” to say nothing of the cross currents of actual contemporary fact. It was a difficult course to sail, and it is no wonder that the history of the critical essay exhibits every variety of daring or faltering seamanship. But the beacon mark of Truth was there all the while, and though no navigator has ever succeeded in beating quite up to it, it is reward enough for the critical essayist if he seems to be making headway.

All Directories