An essay has been defined in a variety of ways. One definition is a "prose composition with a focused subject of discussion" or a "long, systematic discourse". It is difficult to define the genre into which essays fall. Aldous Huxley, a leading essayist, gives guidance on the subject. He notes that "ike the novel, the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything, usually on a certain topic. By tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece, and it is therefore impossible to give all things full play within the limits of a single essay". He points out that "a collection of essays can cover almost as much ground, and cover it almost as thoroughly, as can a long novel"--he gives Montaigne's Third Book as an example. Huxley argues on several occasions that "essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference". Huxley's three poles are:
- Personal and the autobiographical essays: these use "fragments of reflective autobiography" to "look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description".
- Objective and factual: in these essays, the authors "do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme".
- Abstract-universal: these essays "make the best ... of all the three worlds in which it is possible for the essay to exist".
The word essay derives from the French infinitive essayer, "to try" or "to attempt". In English essay first meant "a trial" or "an attempt", and this is still an alternative meaning. The Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was the first author to describe his work as essays; he used the term to characterize these as "attempts" to put his thoughts into writing, and his essays grew out of his commonplacing. Inspired in particular by the works of Plutarch, a translation of whose Oeuvres Morales (Moral works) into French had just been published by Jacques Amyot, Montaigne began to compose his essays in 1572; the first edition, entitled Essais, was published in two volumes in 1580. For the rest of his life he continued revising previously published essays and composing new ones. Francis Bacon's essays, published in book form in 1597, 1612, and 1625, were the first works in English that described themselves as essays. Ben Jonson first used the word essayist in English in 1609, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
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