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WHAT Bacon meant by the word 'Essay' he has told us himself. 'The want of leisure,' he says, 'hath made me choose to write certain brief notes, set down rather significantly than curiously, which I have called ESSAYS. The word is late, but the thing is ancient. For Seneca's Epistles to Lucilius, if one mark them well, are but Essays, that is, dispersed meditations, though conveyed in the form of Epistles.'
Montaigne's Essays had appeared in 1580. The first edition of Bacon's Essays was published in 1597. Bacon was acquainted with Montaigne's work, though he refers to Montaigne by name only once. In the Essay on Truth, which was a new contribution to the third edition of 1625, he quotes Montaigne, and quotes him with characteristic inaccuracy. 'Mountaigny saith prettily,' he writes; but the pretty saying is Plutarch's, not Montaigne's, and is mentioned by Montaigne as the remark of 'un ancien.' Between the Essays of Bacon and the Essays of Montaigne there is little in common, 'except their rare power of exciting interest, and the unmistakable mark of genius which is impressed on both 1.'
Short jottings on great subjects,-jottings thrown together without any serious attempt at elaboration, completeness, or methodical arrangement,―jottings 'of a nature whereof a man
1 Prof. T. Fowler.
shall find much in experience but little in books,'-jottings 'which come home to men's business and bosoms,'--such are Bacon's Essays, described pretty much in his own terms.
Compositions of this sort naturally suffer now and then from the lack of method and precision. Bacon sometimes employs a word in ambiguous senses. Thus, when he writes about Truth, the term 'Truth' stands at first for the correspondence of thought with fact, and afterwards for the virtue of truthfulness, which is quite a different matter. 'Envy' is used to denote, not only what we commonly understand by the name, but also malevolence and popular discontent. Within the limits of a short Essay, Beauty is variously analysed with curious inconsistency1.
Bacon's strength appears to the best advantage in his speculations on character and conduct,—in the practical sagacity (not always wisdom of the highest order,) of his maxims for managing one's fellow men. Here we have the teaching of an expert whose career had familiarised him with the wiles and artifices of courtiers and officials, -the teaching of one who had himself been an actor upon the stage,' and who was also a shrewd observer of life.
In the history of English literature, Bacon ranks among the creators of our modern prose2. His position as a classic is secure. With greater versatility than Ascham, or Sidney, or Hooker, he produced masterpieces in more styles than one. Yet it was almost an accident that he wrote in English at all. He felt no confidence in the enduring stability of his native tongue. If a book of his was to 'live and be a citizen of the world, as English books are not,' it must be translated into Latin. These modern languages,' he says, 'will at one time or another play the bank-rowte with books.'
Though his style, varying with the requirements of his
1 For the substance of the remarks contained in this paragraph and the next I am indebted to Mr Reynolds (Introduction to Bacon's Essays, pp. xxii-xxv). The whole of Mr Reynolds's Introduction deserves careful and repeated reading.
2 See Bacon's Essays, edited by Messrs Storr and Gibson, Introduction, pp. lxxii-xxiv.
subject, is sometimes rich and ornate, sometimes solemn and majestic, sometimes penetrating and concise, the quality of superb self-confidence is seldom absent. What he conceives as a poet, he utters as a prophet, and as a prophet who delivers his message and disdains controversy. He speaks as one having authority: 'Franciscus Baconus sic cogitavit. These are thoughts which have occurred to me; weigh them well, and take them or leave them1
His expressions are often obscure. Perhaps the obscurity was sometimes intentional. At any rate the fault was of old standing. His mother forwards to her son Anthony one of his brother's letters. 'Construe the interpretation,' she says: 'I do not understand his enigmatical folded writing? Usually however the want of clearness is due to the terseness of his utterance. Thoughts which a writer of our own day would distil over a page, Bacon condenses into a sentence. What he writes is meant, not 'to be swallowed' in a hurry, but 'to be chewed and digested' with deliberation. No man ever packed so much matter into smaller compass.
Dean Church says of Bacon's Essays that 'they are like chapters in Aristotle's Ethics and Rhetoric on virtues and characters; only Bacon takes Aristotle's broad marking lines as drawn, and proceeds with the subtler and more refined observations of a much longer and wider experience. But these short papers say what they have to say without preface, and in literary undress, without a superfluous word, without the joints and bands of structure: they say it in brief, rapid sentences, which come down, sentence after sentence, like the strokes of a great hammer3'
Bacon's fertility of imagination was immense. 'In wit, if by wit be meant the power of perceiving analogies between things which appear to have nothing in common, he never had an
1 Macaulay, Essays, Vol. 1. p. 409. Cf. Reynolds, Bacon's Essays, Introduction, p. xii.
2 Quoted in Mr Reynolds's Introduction, p. xxii.
3 Bacon, English Men of Letters,' pp. 215-16.
equal1.' Ingenious metaphors abound in his writings. Some of his expressions have obtained currency as quotations among people of education. Even the man in the street can speak of children as 'hostages to fortune,' though he might be puzzled to fix the phrase on its right author. Whatever the subject of discourse, Bacon has an illustration at hand.
Not only does he give us an illustration, but the chances are that he will throw in a quotation as well. He quotes with the copiousness and magnificent inaccuracy of many a modern journalist. His quotations fall into two classes,-Quotations and Misquotations, and one cannot decide off-hand which class is the more numerous. Sometimes he was inaccurate because his memory played him false and he was too indifferent about trifles to verify his quotations. Sometimes he deliberately tampered with an author to bring the quotation into harmony with its new context. In his quotations, as in his philosophy generally, exactness of detail was sacrificed to width of range.
1 Macaulay, Essays, Vol. I. p. 410.