The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 11 (January 1, 1939)
An S.O. Essay Or Sermons In Stones
An Assay of the Essay.
It has been said—or it hasn't been said—it really doesn't matter, that the test of an essayist is his ability to turn out a literary lark in the plumage of a peacock, to strike the spark of profundity from the anvil of inanity, and to make silk persiflage from sow's ears. Perhaps agility is more important than ability.
Lamb did the trick with roast pork, but it is not recorded whether Hogg did it with roast Lamb. That doesn't matter, either. All that matters is that the essay is a form of literary thimble-rigging that has brought out the gypsy in many an otherwise reputable author.
But what is an essay. The verb “to essay” means to try, to attempt, to make experiment. So the essayist is a tryer, at least, which puts him in the same class as punters and absconding cashiers. As a matter of fact, he is a desperate fellow who stops at nothing from soup to nuts, from winkle's eyes to whale's teeth, from rheumatism to Bolshevikism, and from one darned thing to another.
Flitting from Fee to Fee.
If he's a bad essayist he plugs into the time-machine every morning like you and me. If he's a good essayist he's a merry bird who spends his time flitting from fee to fee. He doesn't have to write essays; he only has to essay to write essays. Subjects don't cause him any concern. The world is his oyster. All he supplies is the vinegar and pepper. He grabs the first subject lying round. It might be baby's bald head bobbing about like a channel buoy in a choppy sea, in which case he writes an essay entitled “Perils of the Deep”—or it might be “Are Oysters Class-Conscious,” or even “The Life of Shelley.” All he needs is a starter.
No Writer's Cramp.
The chances are that, unless he has gone completely native, the first thing he grabs in the morning is his trousers which explains why every essayist, early in his career, writes on “The Influence of Trousers on Human Progress,” or “The Influence of Human Progress on Trousers.” This does not mean that he actually writes about trousers. He only writes under cover of trousers. He may start by quoting “How Pants the Hart …,” lead on to deep-breathing, take a fly at “Breathless Moments in History,” and finish with “Famous Last Gasps.” It really doesn't matter.
When an editor orders an essay on the growth of Nazi-ism he is not surprised if he gets a survey of the rubber industry from baby-soothers to rubber truncheons—or even the effect of geese on military footwork.
The Attraction of Distraction.
After all, an essayist is only asked to essay or try. No reasonable editor insists on success. It is no use both of them becoming distracted. Distraction or digression is the chief ingredient of the essay. Opportunity's prodigality prods at the essayist. There is so much to be said, and so few words to say it in. It's like going into a second-hand shop to buy a bird cage. Ten to one you come out with a lame theodolite, an oleograph of Lord Roberts, a chased loving cup which seems to have been chased round a brick yard, and a stuffed pike.
Likewise, here is a world strewn with tattlesome tit-bits. When the essayist prizes himself loose from the kapok in the morning does he have to corrugate the dome and beetle the brow in peripatetic ponderation? Not a chance! His first idea comes while he squeezes his tooth paste out of the tube, and he throws an essay either on the “Romance of Spaghetti” or “The Indian Rope Trick.” He might sit down to breakfast on the chair with the wobbly leg that he has promised to tighten since the armistice and—hey presti-digito!—here is an article on “Thrones that Have Tottered,” or “Famous Falls.”
And now time appears to be ripe to tear off a brace of short samples.
“It has been claimed that insanity is curable either by removing the sufferer from the scene of his suffering or removing the scene of his suffering from the sufferer. But in view of the fact that it has been proved so costly to roll up twenty acres of turf, fitted with bogeys, bunkers and nineteenth holes, and re-lay them on dairy farms, the question arises—is homicide justifiable when there is no hope for the victim? Some maintain that a shot on the first tee would settle, in the mind of many a wife, the vexed question as to whether or not she is a widow at law. There are some who object that Nero was spared and he only played the fiddle which requires no tee, no caddy, and not even a ‘spoon.'
“And so we return to golf—though I don't know why. The only question remaining is ‘are men too old to play golf at sixty?’ The answer must be that if they don't know any better at sixty, they may as well go on playing golf.”
You get the idea? It's as easy as tearing up bills. And now—
You get the idea? Well—perhaps you are right!