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An essay is a piece of writing whose form has been so varied that it is very difficult to define. Originally a composition on a particular subject, such as Sadness, Friendship, or Solitude, it has been interpreted to mean a great many things which would come within the scope of the modern usage "article": a depiction of character, imaginary or real, a diatribe or a piece of criticism.

Essays had been written in China since ancient times, but the Western form was established independently by Michel de Montaigne, whose Essais first appeared in 1580, the fruits of his temporary withdrawal from the world into study. In his "Avis" (Notice or Warning) to the Reader, he declared that these pieces, although on such subjects as "Liars" and "Prognostications", were really about himself, and so not worth reading. Posterity has not agreed. There were some precedents in the letters of classic authors, clearly written as a form of literature for distribution.

When Francis Bacon took up the title "Essayes" in 1597, what he first produced was in effect a collection of aphorisms, very brief. The sub-title ran "Religious Meditations. Places of perswasion and disswasion. Seene and allowed". His edition of 1625, however, was much more like what Montaigne had produced, and was sub-titled "Or Counsells Civill and Morall".

In Britain the essay was continued into the 17th century by such writers as Abraham Cowley, and was encouraged by the growth of periodical literature in the 18th century.

Some well-known essayists

Michel de Montaigne (1533—1592)

Francis Bacon (1561—1626)

Jonathan Swift (1667—1745)

Joseph Addison (1672—1719)

Richard Steele (1672—1729)

Charles Lamb (1775—1834)

William Hazlitt (1778—1830)

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803—1882)