PROVED ON THE PULSES: On the essay and its literary cousins

This blog takes its name from John Keats. Not from the poetry, but from the witty, wide-ranging, and passionately engaged letters that he wrote to family and friends during the years of his poetic apprenticeship. Conventionally, the longer of these are called “journal letters,” and the name is apt considering that many were composed over a period of days or weeks. But in their restless exploration of ideas, their searching meditations, their intimate revelations, and their concentrated attempts to wrest meaning from remembered experience and the observed peculiarities of the world, these letters could just as reasonably be compared to essays.   

Listen to Keats, writing to his friend, John Hamilton Reynolds. The two have been reading Wordsworth, widely regarded as a master by poets of their own generation. Reynolds and Keats share in the general admiration, but Keats holds something of himself in reserve. He agrees with Wordsworth insofar as he understands him, but his understanding is hampered by lack of experience, and he’s not willing to take Wordsworth’s ideas (or his aesthetic) on faith:

“… axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses: We have read fine ______ things but never feel them to the full until we have gone the same steps as the Author.” 


To “prove” can mean “to demonstrate validity.”  But “to prove” can also mean “to test” or “to try,” to measure against one’s own experience. And to try or to attempt is the meaning of the French essai, from which the English word essay is derived.

What is an essay? The sound of an intimate, conversational voice, pursuing some problem. An experiment in thought. An informal and unsystematic experiment that could take the writer anywhere – or nowhere. And as the writer journeys, the reader follows, going “the same steps as the author.” For this is the essay’s special gift. In its ramblings, its shifts, its braided twists and even its slips, it replicates the movement of feeling and thought. 

Traditionally, the essay has been considered a minor genre, a species of “belles-lettres.” Pretty, perhaps – but useless. Lightweight. Like a lavender-scented lace handkerchief discovered in a great-aunt’s attic. Or, as E.B. White put it, “The essayist, unlike the novelist, the poet, and the playwright, must be content in his self-imposed role of second-class citizen. A writer who has his sights trained on the Nobel Prize or other earthly triumphs had best write a novel, a poem, or a play, and leave the essayist to ramble about, content with living a free life and enjoying the satisfactions of a somewhat undisciplined existence.” 

Of course, a “free life” is nothing to sniff at. (Put the handkerchief away, White slyly suggests.) W.G. Sebald: “There is so often about the standard novel something terribly contrived; you can always feel the wheels grinding. My medium is prose, not the novel.” To this, David Shields adds: “What the lyric essay gives you – what fiction doesn’t, usually – is the freedom to emphasize its aboutness, its metaphysical meaningfulness. There’s plenty of drama, but it’s subservient to the larger drama of mind.” 

And as Montaigne discovered long ago, the drama of one mind can offer company and comfort to others. “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” In exposing the workings of her own mind – her prejudices, her contradictions, her faults, her fears and her dreams, the essayist reminds her reader that he is not alone. She suggests; she doesn’t argue. “The essay shies away from the violence of dogma,” claimed Adorno.  Instead, she explores. Here’s how things look to me, she seems to say. Think along with me and ask yourself – do they also look like that, to you? She takes the random, the seemingly meaningless, the minor events of her life and through the prism of her point of view, creates art of them. Dross into gold –  the old alchemical rag. 

I’ll write here about essays – personal, lyric, and literary – and about essayists whose work I love or admire. I’ll write, too, about memoir and autobiography, and occasionally about letters, journals, biographies, poems, films, or plays that for me evoke the essay’s qualities of intimacy, experiment, subversion, flexibility, and play. I hope to introduce good work, make some discoveries, and have fun on the page. More soon.

Comments (2)

  1. theresa January 8, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    This is really interesting, Susan. Someone just gave me your book as a birthday gift and I’m really enjoying it. The essay is such a flexible and generous form, I think. And yours are splendid.

  2. admin January 11, 2009 at 8:38 am

    Thank you, Theresa! I’m so glad you are enjoying the book, and I’m always glad to meet another writer who appreciates the essay form. Very best wishes

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