The term ‘essay’ means an effort. It is regarded as a composition, comparatively short to another from of literature. It  is literary composition devoted to the presentation of the writer's own ideas on a topic and generally addressing a particular aspect of the subject. Often brief in scope and informal in style, the essay differs from such formal expository forms as the thesis, dissertation, or treatise. 
It is something incomplete and unsystematic. It is a picture, not narrative or a thesis Johnson clearly defines on essay:
“….. a loose sally of the mind, an irregular piece, not a regular and orderly performance.”
The Oxford English Dictionary gives a definition of essay: “A Composition of moderate length on any particular subject, or branch of a subject ; originally what to finish, ‘an irregular, undigested piece’ , but now said of a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range.” These two definitions are not sufficient enough to cover all essay, specially the essay of Charles lamb. To keep this idea in his mind Alexander Smith describes an essay as:   “A literary from, (that) resembles the lyric, in so fear as it is moulded by some central mood-whimsical, serious or satirical. Given the mood, and the essay, from the first sentence to the last, grows around it ads the cocoon around the silkworm”.

Regarding the definition of essay The Shorter Oxford Dictionary runs thus: “A short composttion on any particular subject.”   Edmund Grosse gives a definition in this context: “A composition of moderate length…which deals in an essay, cursory way with the external conditions of a subject , and, in strictness,with the subject only as is effects the writer.”
Bacon, Cowley, Steele, Addison, Johnson, Lamb, Hazlitt, Macaulay, Belloc, Chesterton, Shaw, Virginia Woolf, Jean paul Satre, T.S.Eliot, Aldous Huxley-these names come into the minds of most English students when they hear the world ‘essay’. They (these essayists) are not of course of equal importance. But in respect of time their contribution  is no less significant.

Bacon is regarded as one of the founders of modern systematic thought. His most important literary work is his ‘Essay’. The prose of ‘Essay’ is plain, meaningful and readable. Bacon’s political essay are probably less interesting than his social essay regarding love, marriage, travel, sickness, anger, death etc.

Abraham Cowley gave the English Essay the friendly conversational tone. Addison and Steele, both are the famous essayists of ‘The Tatler’ and ‘The Spectator' interest of their own writing. The essay of Steele and Addison influenced the from and style of the English essay for the next two centuries

Samuel Johnson is one of the significant figures in the history of English literature. He was a versatile genius. He was a scholar,critic, journalist and essayist. But his classical style regarding essay is not agreeable to modern taste. Naturally his ‘Rambler’ essays are scarcely read now.

As a romantic essayist Charles Lamb is the most famous to the students of English literature. As a Londoner Lamb knew poverty and suffering .His family tragedy guided him to seek another path by which he had received comic relief. His essays are like Chaplin’s films. Rainbow humour is the essence of his essays. Under the name of Elia he wrote nearly all his personal essays.

With Lamb we can mention the name of William Hazlitt. They were friends and they both shared the common interests like love and understanding of Shakespearean. In Hazlitt’s essay the range of subjects is greater than in Lamb’s. His essay are still considered with original freshness. His prose style combines energy and vigour.

Many of T.B. Macaulay’s essay are serious studies of the lives and work of great men like Milton, Clive and William Pitt. We read these essays only for information rather then enjoyment. The essays of Matthew Arnold were also written to educate and improve the readers  rather than to amuse them. H. Belloc and G.K. Chesterton-they both were Catholics and Catholic propagandists. They both enjoyed great popularity in the 1920 as essayists. Virginia Woolf is famous for her novels. But she is also an essayist of great critical importance. The two volumes of ‘The Common Reader’ (1925 and 19320) consist on the great writres of the past.  Jean Paul Satre is a great philosopher as well as a great thinker of the twentieth century. HE is famous for his theory of existentialism. His essays have philosophic dimension.

The essays of T . S. Eliot must be treated with proper respect. He is a post-prophet of this modern century. Simultaneously he is great critic, essayist and playwright. One of the most important essays is ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919). 'The Sacred Wood’ is his first collection of essays. His prose style is remarkable for its compact lucidity and precision.

G .B. Shaw was also a brilliant essayist though he did not waste his valuable time with formal essays. Most of his essays were in the from of prefaces to his play. His voice was a distinctive voice and it carried us from the Victorian period into the present century. But though his gospel was modern, his voice was Victorian.

The essays of Aldous Huxley show the extraordinary range of his interests as well ads his deep concern regarding human values and social Justice.

Our century has produced several essayist like E . V. Lucas (1868-1938), Max Beerbohm (1872-1956), Robert Lynd (1879-1949) etc. Besides, newspapers themselves create a group of essayists and at the same time  employ a wide range of styles. This age is not cordoned by any rigidity. It is governed by free style-a style as you like. Naturally this period has been aptly called “a period which has, simultaneously no style and all styles.” But most of the essayists of all ages wrote of outworked reality in an ordered was but missed the spirit of life, which is complex, changing, subtle, composed of multitudinous, simultaneous impressions. And yes, it ,s a problem to portray the depth of life with the help of essay as because life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged but it is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.Essayists like Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud are significant in this respect as because they have tried their level-best to fathom the depth of human psyche.

Ref: 1. History of English Literature- Albert, 
      2. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature

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