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By G. Atkins

The essay, as a particularly demanding kind of writing to pin down, has encouraged a few unflattering descriptions: it's a “greased pig,” for instance, or a “pair of dishevelled pants into which almost whatever and every thing can fit.” In Tracing the Essay, G. Douglas Atkins embraces the very features that experience moved others to accord the essay second-class citizenship on the earth of letters.Drawing from the paintings of Montaigne and Bacon and up to date practitioners comparable to E. B. White and Cynthia Ozick, Atkins exhibits what the essay means--and the way it involves suggest. The essay, regarding assaying (attempting), mines event for which means, which it then conscientiously weighs. it's a through media creature, says Atkins, born of and embracing stress. It exists in locations among adventure and which means, literature and philosophy, self and different, procedure and product, shape and formlessness. in addition, as a literary shape the essay is inseparable from a life-style requiring knowledge, modesty, and honesty. “The essay used to be, historically,” notes Atkins, “the first shape to take the event of the person and make it the stuff of literature.”Atkins additionally considers the essay’s foundation in Renaissance (and Reformation) pondering and its participation in voyages of exploration and discovery of that age. Its trouble is “home-cosmography,” to exploit a time period from seventeenth-century author William Habington. Responding to influential reviews of the essay’s meant self-indulgence, loss of irony, and shortage of shape, Atkins argues that the essay shows a undeniable “sneakiness” because it proceeds in, via, and by way of the small and the mundane towards the non secular and the revelatory.

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That is, in fact, “layman” can be read not only as the person to whom Religio Laici is addressed but also as the position of the 38 020 ch2 (27-46) 8/21/05 4:57 PM Page 39 t h e r e n a i s s a n c e b a s i s o f t h e e s s ay poet: he thus distinguishes between the cleric or professional and persons like himself: The few, by Nature form’d, with Learning fraught, Born to instruct, as others to be taught, Must Study well the Sacred Page; and see Which Doctrine, this, or that, does best agree With the whole Tenour of the Work Divine: And plainlyest points to Heaven’s reveal’d Design: Which Exposition flows from genuine Sense; And which is forc’d by Wit and Eloquence.

What the Reformation wrought reveals much about the Renaissance and the epochal shifts that soon followed. I know of no clearer or sharper account of the issues that were at stake in the Reformation as it relates to the essay than John Dryden’s Religio Laici or A Laymans Faith, in which you can feel the lingering effects of the English civil war and of the Puritan experiment, offspring of the Reformation. Dryden paints an unflattering picture of the Catholic absolutism and corruption that led to Luther’s reform efforts.

The reserve of these last words finds its mark, chilling the reader. Belloc then turns positive: “But the good mower who does things just as they should be done and have been for a hundred thousand years, falls into none of these fooleries. ”19 Such thematically resonant and rhetorically magnificent passages sneak up on you in Belloc’s essay; you expect neither such elegance nor such grandeur of thought. And in fact, the manner here—this sneakiness—better describes the essay’s procedure generally than does irony.

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