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The essay came into its own as a literary genre with the publication of Montaigne’s (1580). Equally spontaneous and whimsical are the sermons of John Donne, with their paradoxically solemn tone. N. de Malebranche’s meditations and B. Fontenelle’s popular-science discourses are likewise infused with essayistic elements. The first English essayist was the metaphysical poet A. Cowley (1618–67), author of . The essays of J. Dryden marked the beginning of English literary criticism.
The essay is not a characteristic genre of Russian or Soviet literature; nevertheless, examples of essayistic writing can be found in A. S. Pushkin (“A Journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg”), A. I. Herzen (), and F. M. Dostoevsky (). In the early 20th century the essay form was employed by V. Ivanov, D. Merezhkovskii, A. Belyi, L. Shestov, and V. Rozanov. Soviet writers who have produced work in this genre include I. Ehrenburg, Iu. Olesha, V. Shklovskii, and K. Paustovskii.
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As a rule the essay proposes a novel and subjective view of something—whether it is an essay in philosophy, history, biography, current affairs, literary criticism, or popular science or whether it is of a purely literary nature. Stylistically, the essay’s distinctive features are its descriptive imagery, its aphoristic quality, and its conversational tone and vocabulary. The essay style has long been used in works where the author’s personality is in the foreground; for example, it was used by Plato, by the followers of Isocrates, and by Origen, Tertullian, Meister Eckhart, and Luther. A genre analogous to the European essay was developed in the East by such writers as Han Yü (eighth to ninth centuries, China) and Kamo Chomei (13th century, Japan).