AC Grayling surveys the essential literature from Bacon to Orwellby AC Grayling / November 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Two whole territories of English literature have been sunk by the rising tides of uneducation. One is the literature of England in Latin-few now read, say, Milton and Marvell in what was Europe’s common tongue for 1,500 years-and the other is the essay. Of the two, loss of the latter is far the most regrettable, for English is incomparably rich in the art of the essay, to which a significant portion of its greatest literature belongs.
The following paragraphs name 20 of the art’s best exponents, and the cited essays exemplify their best. Good secondhand bookshops abound in collections and anthologies; the pleasures of searching for them heighten those of discovery.
The example of Montaigne, father of the essay, was quickly followed in England by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Abraham Cowley (1618-67). Bacon’s essays are the product of acute observation; his Of Studies contains the much-quoted “reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” Cowley was once more famous than his contemporary Milton. In Of My Self he relates his childhood joy in reading Spenser, and the blighting of his youth by the civil war.
An outstanding triumvir inaugurated the 18th century: Joseph Addison (1672-1719), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) and Richard Steele (1672-1729). For the supple purity of Addison’s prose see Meditations in Westminster Abbey, and for the comic pungency of Swift’s satire see A Meditation upon a Broomstick. Steele’s autobiographical method, exemplified in his graphic A Prize Fight, is far ahead of its time. The century’s achievements also include David Hume’s intellectual acuity (1711-76) and Samuel Johnson’s Latin monumentality (1709-84), as demonstrated by the former’s The Stoic, which proves the superiority of the philosophical to the sybaritic life, and the latter’s elephantinely but bitterly humorous On the Advantages of Living in a Garret.
The supreme English essayist is William Hazlitt (1778-1830). Not only a wondrous writer, but a fiercely independent thinker, he is the star of the great age of periodical reviews. Modern criticism of art, drama and literature have some of their roots in him, as do political polemic and psychological autobiography. My First Acquaintance with Poets, recording his early meetings with Coleridge and Wordsworth, is one of many masterpieces. Honouring his debt long after the two had quarrelled, Hazlitt wrote that before Coleridge he was dumb, but as a result of his inspiration “my ideas float on winged words, and as…