The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVI. London and the Development of Popular Literature

§ 17. Origins of the Essay

The character sketch was mostly an attempt to ventilate the newly roused interest in morals and manners. But, as we have seen, its association with conversational preciousness often lowered it to a mere triumph of paradox. Moreover, it did not fully meet the needs of the age. As men became conscious of the growing complexity of London life, they also grew conscious of a running commentary on similar problems to be found in classical literature. The humanists of court circles discovered lessons of statecraft and diplomacy in Machiavelli and Tacitus, examples of daring and fortitude in Plutarch, and hints for wit and courtesy in Castiglione, Cicero and Suetonius. Such reading started new trains of thought on topics too fleeting and miscellaneous to be classified in a methodical discourse. But, unsystematised reflection was not the creation of the Jacobean age. Caxton’s prefaces have the qualifications of essays in criticism. While the form and style of the medieval Exempla were serving as models for Tudor jest-books, the apologue tended to expand into a discussion. The writings of Andrew Boorde and William Bullein are full of digressions on the occasional interests of daily life, and Nashe’s tracts were practically a patchwork of miscellaneous notes and observations. The character sketch was far too restricted and too polemical to gratify this aptitude for desultory comment; but men of a more contemplative and less satiric frame of mind began to jot down their reflections and thoughts after the manner of religious meditations. This habit of thinking on paper rapidly assumed importance among the intellectual coteries of London; manuscripts were passed from hand to hand, and the more finished and methodical commonplace books even found their way into print, following the example of Montaigne (1580), from whom they took the name of “essay.” The new genre entered timidly on its career, the very title being an apology for its informality and incompleteness. The first essayist who anonymously put forth Remedies against Discontentment drawen into severall discourses from the writinges of auncient philosophers, in 1596, explains, in an introductory address, that they were “onely framed for mine owne private use; and that is the reason I tooke no great paine, to set them foorth anye better”; and then, after speaking of the great moralists of the past, he excuses his own work by adding, “From these faire flowers, which their labours have afforded mee, I have as I passed by, gathered this small heape, and as my time and leasure served me, distilled them and kept them as precious.” In the following year, Bacon produced his slim pamphlet of Essayes. Religious Meditations. Places of perswasion and disswasion, in which, among “Meditationes sacrae” and “The Coulers of good and evill,” we have a number of maxims and directions jotted down under ten headings, possibly suggested by lord Burghley’s Precepts or Directions for the well ordering and carriage of a man’s life. Bacon’s essays have a narrow but practical scope. They virtually recognise the courtier’s career as a profession, and show how health, wealth and even learning, must be directed to the development of the special qualities necessary for success. Nay, more, his reflections shed light on the management of men, and penetrate the cross purposes and conflicting judgments which make up the atmosphere of the court. This side of human nature was already familiar to statesmen, but it had never before been discussed in maxims and rules which, if terse to obscurity, nevertheless reveal the basis of egoism underlying a maze of intrigues and shifting reputations.