Dr. Johnson defines English essay writing as “a loose sally of the mind, and irregular, indigested piece, not a regular and orderly performance”. It has also been called, “the after-dinner monologue of an interesting and well-informed man”. It has been called by Saintsbury as, “a work of prose art”. These definitions do not apply to such philosophical essay as Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding or to Pope’s Essay on Criticism and Essay on Man. Hugh Walker has divided essay into two types-Essays per excellence and compositions to which custom has assigned the name. the true essay is essentially personal. English essay writing belongs to the literature of self-expression.
Alexander Smith in his paper on English essay writing has characterized the essay par excellence as a literary form which resembles a lyric in so far as it is molded by some central mood-serious, whimsical or satirical. “Given the mood, and the essay from the first sentence to the last grows around it as the cocoon grows around the silkworm”. Essays are “attempts”, and the guiding principle is determined by the mood of the essay writer. Just as in a lyric, the poet pours out his whole heart delighting in the passing mood of the moment, so the literary English essay writing has a pre-eminently subjective character.
Charles Lamb is the perfector of the Literary type of essay– subjective, literary and personal. Leigh Hunt in his Indicator revived the manner, quiet narrative and the style of Steele. Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review and Hazlitt in his Table Talk took to literary criticism and raised the standard of literary taste. But Hazlitt has to much bitterness to be affable; De Quincey is often too imaginative in his conceptions and florid in his style. But Lamb is critical, imaginative and romantic. The central subject matter of the Essays of Elia is Lamb himself-Lamb’s mind re-acting to his studies and environments-to life itself. This another interesting attribute to English essay writing.
Walter Pater would say, “With him as with Montaigne, the desire of self-portraiture is, below all the more superficial tendencies the real motive in writing at all-a desire connected with that intimacy, the modern subjectivity, which may be called the Montaignesque element in literature”. The egotism of Lamb is blended with a sweetness all its own. There is the unmistakable stamp of his lovable personality in his essays and his essays are enlivened by genial humour and impish wit. The English essay writings of Lamb may be called confidential chatters as they are rich in autobiographical pathos and wide sympathy for humanity.
In the modern century the mantle of Lamb has fallen on many writers. Stevenson in the later Victorian age inherited the tradition of Lamb. He may not have the same humour and whimsicality of Lamb, hut he has the same urbanity in his style, the same informal and fresh approach to commonplace subjects. Chesterton writes on trifles but makes the trifles tremendous by his inimitable style while the writings of Hilaire Belloc are on nothing, on something, on everything. He has a clear incisive style in which humour plays an important part in his English essay writings.