AN essay, etymologically speaking, is a try. So, for that matter, might any literary endeavor - a poem, a novel, a short story - be called a try. The term ``essay,'' used to designate an open-ended, informal species of nonfiction prose about any topic under the sun, was the one chosen by the first and greatest of modern essayists, Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), and it testifies to both the ruminative and improvisational qualities of the genre. The essayist makes a try - a stab - at his chosen subject; he is also engaged in testing or weighing (assaying) it.
Although John Gross, editor of ``The Oxford Book of Essays,'' pays tribute to Montaigne in his introduction to this volume, he has not seen fit to include even one essay by the man who originated this form. Insofar as all of the essays that Gross includes are pieces written in English, it is obvious that he has excluded Montaigne because he would need to be represented in translation.
With so much to choose from and only a single volume in which all this material must be made to fit, the policy of sticking to English-speaking essayists is perfectly defensible, but the decision not to make an exception for Montaigne indicates how an editor can become the victim of his own rules.
When it comes to second-guessing the selections made by anthologists, one can quibble endlessly. My quibbles, however, end here. True, I might have chosen essays by different authors or different essays by the same authors than those chosen by Gross. But to dwell on this would obscure the fact that this is a collection that succeeds in demonstrating the marvelous variety of the genre - in tone, subject matter, and style - and in representing the many fascinating turns it took over the 400 years since it s first appearance.
The collection, arranged chronologically by the essayists' birthdates, begins with Sir Francis Bacon discoursing on ``truth,'' ``revenge,'' and ``boldness'' in the early 17th century and ends with ``A Blizzard of Tiny Kisses,'' Clive James's review of the bestselling novel ``Princess Daisy.'' In between, we find everything from Anthony Trollope's reflections on plumbers - as great a cause of anxiety among 19th-century householders as in our own time - to Pauline Kael's perceptive discussion of ``Movies on Television'' and John Dryden's appreciation of Chaucer.
Opening to the table of contents or leafing through at random is like having a giant box of assorted candies to sample: so many different kinds to try, each so delectable in its very different way. James Thurber's ``My Own Ten Rules for a Happy Marriage'' is a charming example - and spoof - of the typical 1950s ``how-to'' article. In a more serious vein, there's George Orwell's tough-minded appraisal of Gandhi, Lord Macaulay's colorful portrait of Lord Clive of India, Dr. Johnson's condemnation of the c ruelty and pointlessness of putting debtors in prison. For sheer beauty, it's hard to match Henry David Thoreau's poetic evocation of ``Night and Moonlight'':
``It does not concern men who are asleep in their beds, but it is very important to the traveler, whether the moon shines brightly or is obscured.... She seems to be waging continual war with the clouds in your behalf. Yet we fancy the clouds to be her foes also. She comes on magnifying her dangers by her light, revealing, displaying them in all their hugeness and blackness, then suddenly casts them behind into the light concealed, and goes her way triumphant through a small space of clear sky.''225
ANYONE who has lamented the current state of American academe will recognize the problems described by William James in ``The PhD Octopus.'' What is amazing is that everything he condemns - over-specialization, blind reliance on official certifications and outward forms at the expense of originality, the resultant plethora of PhDs - was already a problem in 1903! James's critique is as cogent now as then.
It's fascinating to observe how certain themes crop up over the centuries. Thomas Fuller, a 17th-century chaplain, has some wise words about anger:
``He will make a strange combustion in the state of his soul, who at the landing of every cockboat sets the beacons on fire. To be angry for every toy debases the worth of thy anger; for he will be angry for anything, who will be angry for nothing.''21
Three hundred years later, Desmond McCarthy observes how invective - like charm - loses its power when used too often. And, from a different perspective, Katherine Anne Porter offers a thought-provoking portrait of a happily married woman who can't understand why there are moments when she simply hates her beloved husband.
Gross's preference is for the brief, informal essay. Many classic essays have been omitted: Shelley's ``Defence of Poetry,'' Milton's ``Areopagitica,'' Forster's ``Two Cheers for Democracy,'' and others. (So much for the resolution not to quibble!)
But what Gross's selection well demonstrates is the immense freedom that the essay form confers. It allows 18th-century philosopher David Hume to tackle within a few thousand well-chosen words the kind of topic that ordinarily yields book-length disquisitions far less likely to reach the general reader. It allows trenchant satire by the likes of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken and the graver reflections of Santayana. It allows writers to focus on life's little oddities, otherwise overlooked under the pressu re of weightier concerns: vide, Leigh Hunt's ``Getting Up on the Cold Mornings.'' And it also allows them the breathing space to ponder some of life's larger questions without becoming endlessly entangled in the depths of formal metaphysics.