Though an essay must state a proposition, there are other requirements to be fulfilled. The bones of subject and predicate must be clothed in a certain way. The basis of the essay is meditation, and it must in a measure admit the reader to the meditative process. (This procedure is frankly hinted in all those titles that used to begin with “Of” or “On”: “Of Truth,” “Of Riches,” “On the Graces and Anxieties of Pig-Driving,” “On the Knocking at the Gate in ‘Macbeth’,” “On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places”). An essay, to some extent, thinks aloud; though not in the loose and pointless way to which the “stream of consciousness” addicts have accustomed us. The author must have made up his mind otherwise, where is his proposition? But the essay, I think, should show how and why he made up his mind as he did; should engagingly rehearse the steps by which he came to his conclusions. (“Francis of Verulam reasoned thus with himself”.) Meditation; but an oriented and fruitful meditation.
This is the most intimate of forms, because it permits you to see a mind at work. On the quality and temper of that mind depends the goodness of the production. Now, if the essay is essentially meditative, it cannot be polemical. No one, I think, would call Cicero’s first oration against Catiline an essay; or Burke’ s Speech on the Conciliation of America; hardly more could we call Swift’s “Modest Proposal” a true essay. The author must have made up his mind, but when he has made it up with a vengeance, he will not produce an essay. Because the process is meditative, the manner should be courteous; he should always, by implication, admit that there are good people who may not agree with him; his irony should never turn to the sardonic. Reasonableness, urbanity (as Matthew Arnold would have said) are prerequisites for a form whose temper is meditative rather than polemical. We have said that this is the most intimate of forms. Not only for technical reasons, though obviously the essayist is less sharply controlled by his structure than the dramatist or the sonneteer or even the novelist. It is the most intimate because it is the most subjective. When people talk of “creative” and “critical” writing dividing all literature thus they always call the essay critical. In spite of Oscar Wilde, to call it critical is probably correct; for creation implies objectivity. The created thing, though the author have torn its raw substance from his very vitals, ends by being separate from its creator. The essay, however, is incurably subjective; even “Wuthering Heights” or “Manfred” is less subjective strange though it sound than “The Function of Criticism” or “The Poetic Principle.” What Oscar Wilde really meant in “The Critic as Artist” if, that is, you hold him back from his own perversities is not that Pater’s essay on Leonardo da Vinci was more creative than many a novel, but that it was more subjective than any novel; that Pater, by virtue of his style and his mentality, made of his conception of the Mona Lisa something that we could be interested in, regardless of our opinion of the painting. I do not remember that Pater saw himself as doing more than explain to us what he thought Leonardo had done Pater, I think, would never have regarded his purple page as other than criticism. I, myself because I like the fall of Pater’s words, and do not much care for Mona Lisa’s feline face prefer Pater’s page to Leonardo’s portrait; but I am quite aware that I am merely preferring criticism, in this instance, to the thing criticized. I am, if you like, preferring Mr. Pecksniff’s drunken dream “Mrs. Todgers’s idea of a wooden leg” to the wooden leg itself. Anything (I say to myself) rather than a wooden leg!
A lot of nineteenth century “impressionistic” criticism Jules Lemaitre, Anatole France, etc. is more delightful than the prose or verse that is being criticized. It is none the less criticism. The famous definition of “the adventures of a soul among the masterpieces” does not put those adventures into the “creative” category; it merely stresses their subjectivity. Wilde is to some extent right when he says that criticism is the only civilized form of autobiography; but he is not so right when he says that the highest criticism is more creative than creation. No one would deny that the purple page Wilde quotes tells us more about Pater than it does about Leonardo, or even about Mona Lisa as Macaulay’s Essay on Milton conceivably tells us more about Macaulay than about the author of “Paradise Lost.” All Bacon’s essays together but build up a portrait of Bacon Francis of Verulam reasoning with himself; and what is the substance of the Essays of Elia, but Elia? “Subjective” is the word, however, rather than “creative.”
(Katharine Fullerton Gerould, “An Essay on Essays,” The North American Review, Vol. CCXL, 1935, pp. 412–414).