Alexander Smith on essayists

Alexander Smith was a lace-pattern designer in Scotland who won an early burst of popularity with his poems, was deflated almost as quickly by a parody lumping him with the Spasmodic Poets, and went on to write essays. ``Dreamthorp'' (1863) was the best known, but his quiet observations and reflections, typical of the informal essayist, are also seen in the piece on classic essayists from which the following words are taken.

Style went out with the men who wore knee-breeches and buckles in their shoes. We write more easily now; but in our easy writing there is ever a taint of flippancy: our writing is to theirs, what shooting-coat and wideawake are to doublet and plumed hat.

Montaigne and Bacon are our earliest and greatest essayists, and likeness and unlikeness exist between the men.

Bacon was constitutionally the graver nature. He writes like one on whom presses the weight of affairs, and he approaches a subject always on its serious side. He does not play with it fantastically. He lives amongst great ideas, as with great nobles, with whom he dare not be too familiar. In the tone of his mind there is ever something imperial. When he writes on building, he speaks of a palace with spacious entrances, and courts, and banqueting-halls; when he writes on gardens, he speaks of alleys and mounts, waste places and fountains of a garden ``which is indeed prince-like.'' To read over his table of contents, is like reading over a roll of peers' names. We have, taking them as they stand, essays treating Of Great Place, Of Boldness, Of Goodness, and Goodness of Nature, Of Nobility, Of Seditions and Troubles, Of Atheism, Of Superstition, Of Travel, Of Empire, Of Counsel -- a book plainly to lie in the closets of statesmen and princes, and designed to nurture the noblest natures. Bacon always seems to write with his ermine on.

Montaigne was different from all this. His table of contents reads in comparison like a medley, or a catalogue of an auction. He was quite as wise as Bacon; he could look through men quite as clearly, and search them quite as narrowly; certain of his moods were quite as serious, and in one corner of his heart he kept a yet profounder melancholy; but he was volatile, a humourist, and a gossip. He could be dignified enough on great occasions, but dignity and great occasions bored him. He could stand in the presence with propriety enough, but then he got out of the presence as rapidly as possible. When, in the thirty-eighth year of his age, he -- somewhat world-weary, and with more scars on his heart than he cared to discover -- retired to his ch^ateau, he placed his library ``in the great tower overlooking the entrance to the court,'' and over the central rafter he inscribed in large letters the device -- ``I Do Not Understand; I Pause; I Examine.''

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