1. Learning Objectives
2. Introduction
3. Essay as a literary form
4. A. G. Gardiner- the essayist

1. His Life
2. His Works
5. The Text
6. Glossary of difficult words
7. Further Readings
8. Possible Question


This unit is meant to help you understand certain key concepts without which your learning of the lesson will remain incomplete. Essays, after all, can be of many different sorts, both in style and in content. Besides, it is a relatively loose sort of composition, in that, unlike drama or poetry, it is not bound by very strict rules pertaining to ‘form’. Therefore, it is important to approach the lesson with a clear concept of what an essay is and what function it fulfils. After reading this unit you will understand:
What an essay is,
What the hallmarks of a good essay are,
The life of A. G. Gardiner,
The status of A. G. Gardiner as an essayist.


This unit aims, first of all, to identify the key areas that will help to make you acquainted with A. G. Gardiner, the essayist. Gardiner has always been a very popular choice in many anthologies meant for students. This unit will try to introduce to you the features of A. G. Gardiner’s writing that gain him such popularity.

The unit also establishes the learning objectives so that you can identify the areas you need to focus on when you are studying this particular essay, On Letter Writing by A. G. Gardiner.

Since this unit aims to acquaint you with an essay, it is desirable that you have some idea as to what an essay is. After all, the essay is a widely practiced form of literature. Moreover, since there are almost as many varieties of the essay as there are essayists, you may find the sheer variety a little bewildering. The essay, as a form of literature, has been in existence since ancient times. The introduction gives you a brief history of the essay as a form of literature and introduces you to some great names associated with essay writing. It also tells you what the characteristics of a good essay are.

Most importantly, this unit gives you an introduction to A. G. Gardiner and it also provides you with a detailed study of the man, his life and his work. Finally, it poses some questions to help you find out how much you have really managed to learn from this unit.



The essay, as a form of literature, has been around since ancient times. Just see how Bacon, one of the greatest of English essayists puts it, “the word is late, but the thing is ancient”. Do you know who Bacon was? Well, he was one of the most famous of the English essayists who wrote during the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries. You have been provided with more information about this person, immediately after this unit. It was another writer called Montaigne who coined the name for this particular form of writing when he gave the title Essais to his first publication in 1580. That was in France. In England, in the year 1597, Bacon described his Essays as ‘grains of salt which will rather give an appetite than offend with satiety’. In a manner of speaking, the French essayist, Montaigne, may be considered to be the father of the essay as we know it today.

The essay is a rather loose form of writing that can range from highly learned writings in philosophy or the sciences to very personal ruminations on trivial, everyday issues. They may be only a few pages in length, as are the essays of Bacon, or they may be the length of a book, as is Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In style, too, they may show marked differences. Montaigne, for instance, wrote in a style that was discursive, informal and intimate. Bacon on the other hand chose a style that was terse, didactic and aloof. Montaigne wrote on topics such as Liars, The Custom of Wearing Clothes and The Art of Conversation. Bacon, on the other hand, wrote on such topics as Of Envy, Of Riches, Of Negotiating, among others. If, on the other hand, one were to pick up a volume of essays by someone like Charles Lamb, one would get to read essays that are very different. Lamb’s essays talk mostly about his personal life, feelings, or desires. They are usually written in a rambling style in very informal language.

After Bacon, the next great English essayist was Sir William Cornwallis whose Essays were published in 1600-01. He was followed by Abraham Cowley who followed Montaigne’s tradition of personal and reflective informality. He wrote on such subjects as liberty, solitude, avarice, the brevity of life, and the uncertainty of riches.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century it was clear that the essay was becoming an increasingly popular form of diversion. Although he was better known as a novelist, (you must certainly have heard of Robinson Crusoe) Daniel Defoe’s journalistic essays and pamphlets certainly influenced the growth and development of the English essay. However, it was with Addison and Steele that the essay in England truly came to its own. They wrote a type of essay which has come to be known as the periodical essay. Ranging from such subjects as the Tombs in Westminster Abbey to “Ladies’ Head-dress”, and from the “Cries of London” to “Recollections of Childhood”, these appeared in the Tatler (1709-11) and in the Spectator.

In the nineteenth century numerous great essayists such as Lamb, Hazlitt, Thomas de Quincy, Coleridge, Macaulay, Carlyle, Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Walter Pater and R. L. Stevenson carried forward the tradition of the English essay. In the nineteenth century this medium became indispensable for literary critics, reviewers, journalists and columnists. Of course, the subject matter no longer remained confined to light, informal diversions only.

Later essayists have included such great names as Max Beerbohm, Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, and W. H. Auden.

The essay we shall be reading here is, of course, the informal essay. Such essays are not very easy to write, although they seem to be so very simple and they deal with the most general of subjects. You must remember that the essayist has deliberately made certain choices (the choice of using the simplest of language, for example). He must consciously achieve the result he desires on the basis of these choices. Consequently, it is in the effects of the essay that we are able to determine its worth. A few pertinent questions can help us determine whether any personal essay we happen to be reading is worthwhile or not. These questions could be somewhat like:

1. Has the author been able to grip my attention from the very beginning?
2. Do I find what he is saying interesting?
3. Does he make me feel that I am actually listening to him rather than reading him?
4. Is he saying things in such a manner that I feel my emotions being moved? Do I feel like laughing, grinning, crying or any such emotion?


Francis Bacon was an English philosopher and essayist. He is famous for his Essays, The Advancement of Learning, Novum Organum, The History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh, The New Atlantis and others. His works are written in a concise and succinct style. Michel de Montaigne is the most influential writer of the French Renaissance, and is known for popularizing the essay as a literary genre. Modern literary non- fiction has been inspired by Montaigne.


1. Who may be considered the father of the modern essay?
2. Make a list of the names of some important essayists who have contributed to the development of the essay.
3. Is the essay a form that is regulated by strict guidelines?
4. What basic differences would you find between a formal and a personal essay?State whether the following statements are true or false:
1. Montaigne was an Italian essayist who wrote in English.
2. Abraham Cowley wrote in the style of Montaigne.
3. Daniel Defoe is better known to us as a novelist.
4. Addison and Steel contributed very little to the development of the essay in England.
5. Charles Lamb is a nineteenth century essayist.


1. Read an essay written by any of the writers mentioned above. See for yourself if the essay is written on a subject of personal nature or on something of general interest.
2. Read as many essays as you can from your school text book. Classify the essays according to the topic they discuss. For instance, you may find essays that can be brought under such a heading as ‘nature’, or ‘history’, or ‘education’ etc. Note the length of each essay in terms of the number of pages printed. This will give you a fair idea of the versatility of the essay as a form of literature. You may even come across essays that you will enjoy reading.


In the preceding section we had formulated a few questions that can help us determine the quality of an essay. A.G.Gardiner’s essays have always drawn very positive answers to these questions. This is the reason why he has been rated so highly among the English essayists. In fact, such essays as All About a Dog or On Saying Please have been so popular, that anthologies of English prose for students invariably contain one of these essays. Gardiner always uses an easy conversational style that makes one feel that one is actually ‘chatting’ with him over a cup of tea. The next section will tell you a lot more about the man and his work.

His  Life

A. G. Gardiner was better known in his own days as one of the most powerful of editors in Edwardian England—an England ruled by King Edward VII, after the death of Queen Victoria. His entire name was Alfred George Gardiner, but, because he thought Alfred George too commonplace, as names go, he preferred A. G. Gardiner. In fact, in one of his essays, he actually praises the English habit of calling people by their surnames. He certainly did not like the American habit of calling people by their first names. Gardiner was born in 1865. He left school at the minimum age and decided to become a journalist. He was quite successful and rose to become the editor of The Daily News, a powerful newspaper owned by the Cadbury family. He held this position for the first fifteen years of the twentieth century and then, unfortunately, lost his job owing to a feud with Lloyd George. The Cadbury family, you see, decided to support Lloyd George rather than their own editor.

His differences with the owner of his paper led to Gardiner’s career as an editor being over. Gardiner now started a new, and perhaps a gentler phase, in his life. He started writing essays under the name of ‘Alpha of the Plough’. He had a long and a successful career as an essayist. Gardiner died in the year 1946.

His  Works    

We have already seen that Gardiner had been a very successful newspaper editor. However, once that phase of his life was over, he took to writing essays. He chose the pen-name ‘Alpha of the Plough’ for the purpose. He also wrote the biography of Sir William Harcourt. Of all the books of compiled essays perhaps Mary Furrows and Prophets, Priests and Kings are the best known (although Pebbles on the Shore and Leaves in the Wind have also proved extremely popular over the years). The first contains essays of a more general nature, whereas the second is certainly more political in nature. The essay On Smiles in the latter book is a good example of Gardiner’s political writing and shows a more acerbic side of his tongue than is seen in the more genial essays. The following excerpt is a good example of this:

“In an estimate of the qualities that have contributed to Mr. Lloyd George’s amazing success a high place would have to be given to the twinkling smile, so merry and mischievous, so engagingly frank and yet so essentially secret and calculating, with which, by the help of his photographer, he has irradiated his generation. If Mr. Asquith had learned how to smile for public consumption, the history of English politics, and even of the world, would have been vastly different…”

By and large, his essays are the mellow musings of a man who accepts the fact that he is in the autumn of his life and finds great pleasure in country walks and in watching the moon, in gardening and in the company of his wife, Jane.

Age and ageing occur frequently in his essays. You can see this when he defends November against the months of spring, when he talks of looking at shop windows—an activity he never had indulged in when he was fully occupied– or when he compares the false idea of longevity with the true spirit of the cricketer who knows that the game has no meaning unless, sooner or later, we are ‘out’.

Very often his musings begin with a chance remark overheard on a bus, a seemingly trivial incident involving ordinary people, a headline in a newspaper—small enough to be insignificant, and the like.

A perceptive critic once remarked:
The charm of the genre is the sense of freedom and the unexpected: you don’t have to plough through too much on the same subject. Unlike academic writing it requires no definition of ‘field’ and unlike most journalism it requires neither specialization nor topicality. It is a form of writing which has almost entirely disappeared from our newspapers: if A. G. were to offer his services now… he would end up as a gardening or a countryside correspondent… Gardiner was nothing if not reflective.

Unlike the essays of Hume or Orwell, which are challenging, to say the least, Gardiner’s essays belong to that form that was so wonderfully and pleasurably practised by William Hazlitt or by Gardiner’s friend, Robert Lynd. They offer pleasurable reading that coaxes the reader to gently ponder, gently smile—even when the smile is one of sadness or of pity.

By the time he died in 1946, A. G. Gardiner had created for himself a name, and had left behind a body of work, that has found a place from such commonplace books as school or college level English readers to such scholarly work as Edward Pearce’s contribution in History Today. A. G. Gardiner’s charm, unfading and enduring, continues to lure readers long after his form of the essay has been removed to make way for other forms of the English essay.


David Hume (1711- 76) is an English philosopher and historian, generally considered to be the greatest philosopher writing in English. He is the author of famous works such as A Treatise of Human Nature, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, The History of Great Britain, The Natural History of Religion etc. George Orwell is a novelist, essayist and journalist. His most popular works are Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty- Four which are pessimistic satires about the threat of political tyranny.


1. How did A. G. Gardiner begin his career?
2. Why did Gardiner leave his job as an editor?
3. Of which newspaper was Gardiner the editor for a long period?
4. Gardiner was a 19th century English essayist. True/ False.
5. Gardiner began his literary career by writing poetry. True/ False.
6. Gardiner found pleasure in country walks. True/ False.
7. Name some of the volume of essays written by A. G. Gardiner.



Two soldiers, evidently brothers, stood at the door of the railway carriage- one inside the compartment, the other on the platform.
“Now, you won’t forget to write, Bill,” said the latter.“No,” said Bill, “I shall be back at the camp tonight, and I’ll write to everyone tomorrow. But oh! What a job! There’s mother and my wife and Bob and Sarah and Aunt Jane and Uncle Jim and well, you know the lot. You’ve had to do it, Sam.”

“Yes,” said Sam ruefully, “it’s a real job.”
“And if you write to one and miss another, they’re offended,” continued Bill. But I always mention all of them. I say, “Love to Sarah,” and “hope Aunt Jane’s cold’s better,” and that sort of thing, and that fills out a page. But I’m blowed if I can find anything else to say. I just begin “Hoping this finds you well as it leaves me at present,” and then I’m done. What else is there to say?”

“Nothing”, said Sam mournfully. “I just sit and scratch my head over the blessed paper. But nothing’ll come. Seems as though my head’s empty as a drum.
“Same here. It isn’t like writing love letters. When I was up to that game it was easy enough. When I got stuck I just put in half a page of crosses, and that filled up fine. But writing to mother and the wife and Sarah and Jim and the rest is different. You can’t fill up with crosses. It would look ridiculous.”

“I would”, said Sam.

Then the train began to move, and the soldier inside sank back on his seat, took out a cigarette, and began to smoke. I found he had been twice out at the front, and was now home on sick leave. He had been at the Battle of Mons, through the retreat to the Marne, the advance to the Aisne, the first battle of Ypres, and the fighting at Festubert. In a word, he had seen some of the greatest events in the world’s history, face to face, and yet he confessed that when he came to write a letter, even to his wife, he could find nothing to say. He was in the position of the lady mentioned by Horace Walpole, whose letter to her husband began and ended thus: “I write to you because I have nothing to do. I finish because I have nothing to say.”

I suppose there has never been so much letter writing in the world as is going on today, and much of it is good writing as the papers show. But the case of my companion in the train is the case of thousands of young fellows who for the time in their lives want to write and discover that that they have no gift of self expression. It is not that they are stupid. It is that some how the act of writing paralyses them. They cannot express the atmosphere in which they live in concrete words. You have to draw them out. They need a friendly lead. When they have got that, they can talk well enough, but without it they are dumb.

In the wider sense letter- writing is no doubt a lost—. It was killed by the penny post and modern hurry. When Cowper, Horace, Walpole, Byron, lamb and the Carlyles wrote their immortal letter, the world was a leisurely place where there was time to indulge in the luxury of writing to your friend. And the cost of posting a letter made that letter serious affairs. If you could only send a letter once in a month or six month, and then at heavy express it became a matter of great importance. The poor of course, couldn’t enjoy the luxury of latter- writing at all. De Quincey tell us how the dalesmen of Lakeland a century ago used to dodge the postal charges. The letter that came by stage coach was received at the door by the poor mother, who glanced at the address, saw from a certain agreed sign on it that Tom or Jim was well, and handed it back to the carrier unopened. In those days a latter was an event.

Now when you can send a letter half round the globe for a few pence, and when the postman calls twice a day, few of us take letter writing seriously. Carlyle saw that the advent of the penny post would kill the letter by making it cheap, “ shall send a penny letter next time” , he wrote to his mother when the cheap postage was about to come in, and he foretold that people would not brother to write good letter when they could send them for next to nothing. He was right, and the telegraph, the telephone, and the typewriter have completed the destruction of the art of letter writing. It is the difficulty or the scarcity of a thing that makes it treasured. If diamonds were as plentiful as pebbles, we shouldn’t stoop to pick them up.

But the case of Bill and Sam and thousands of their comrades today is different. They don’t want to write literary letters, but they do want to tell the folks at home something about their life, and the great things are too great for them. They cannot put them into words. And they ought not to try, for the secret of letter- writing is intimate details. Bill could not have described the retreat from Mons; but he could have told, as he told me, about the blister he got on his heel, how he hungered for smoke, how he marched and marched until he fell asleep marching, how he lost his pal at Le Cateau, and how his boot sole dropped off at Meaux. And through such trivialities he would have given a living picture of the great retreat.

In short, to write a good letter, you must approach the job in the lightest and most casual way. You must be personal, not abstract. You must not say, ‘this is too small a thing to put down.” You must say, “This is just the sort of small thing we talk about at home. If I tell them this, they will see me, as it were, they’ll hear my voice, they’ll know what I’ m doing,” That is the purpose of a letter. Carlyle had the trick to perfection. He is writing from Scots brig to his brother. Alec in Canada, and he begins talking about his mother. “Good old Mother”, he says, “she is even now sitting at my back, trying at another table to write you a small word with her own hand; the first time she has, tried such a thing for a year past. It is Saturday night, after dark; we are in the east room on a hard, dry evening with a bright fire to our two selves; Jenny and her children are clearing up things in the other end of the house; and below stairs the winter operations of the farm go on, in a quiet tone: you can imagine the scene!” How simple it is and yet perfect. Can’t you see Alec reading it in his far-off home and eyes moistening at the picture of his old mother sitting and writing her last message to him on earth?

Keats expresses the idea very well in one of those long letters which he wrote to his brother George and his wife in America and in which he poured out the wealth of family affection, which was one of the most pleasant features of his character. He has described how he had been to see his mother, how she had laughed at his bad jokes, how they went out to tea at Mrs. Millar’s and how in going they were stuck with the light and shade trough the gateway at the Horse Guards Parade. and he goes on: “I intend to write you such volumes that it will be impossible for me to keep any order or method in what I write; what is uppermost in my mind will come first, not that which is uppermost in my heart- besides I wish to give you a picture of our lives here whenever I can do it.”

There is the recipe by one of the masters of the craft. A letter written in this way destroys distances; it continues the personal talk, the intimate friendship that has been interrupted by separation; it preserves one’s presence in absence. It cannot be too simple, too commonplace, too colloquial. Its familiarity is not its weakness, but its supreme virtue. If it attempts to be orderly and elaborate, it may be a good essay, but it will certainly be a bad letter.


Evidently: as can be seen/ that which is obvious
I’m blowed…: I simply cannot find
Blessed: here, the paper is not blessed. The expression is used to convey irritation.
When I was up to that game: when I had indulged in it
Front: battlefront. The actual place of battle
Mons: In Belgium. Scene of a battle during World War I
Marne: a river in France
Festubert: the scene of an attack by the British army between May 15 and 25, 1915, during World War I
Aisne: a river in Northern France
Ypres: a town in Belgium that was the scene of three major battles during World War I. The first took place in October-November, 1914, between the British and the Germans.
Paralyses: renders immobile
Concrete: definite, as opposed to ‘abstract’
Draw them out: help them speak by being friendly and by giving helpful hints as to what they could speak about.
Lead: hint (at a topic) to begin the conversation
Dalesmen: people living in the dales (or valleys) of the Lake District in England
Lakeland: the Lake District in Northern England
Dodge: avoid
Advent: beginning
Le Cateau: scene of a battle on August 26, 1914, during World War I
Meaux: a commune in Paris, 41.1 km north-east from the centre of Paris
Trick: technique
Horse Guards Parade: a street square in London where the parade of the Horse Guards is held
Intimate: very close
Orderly: well ordered or structured
Elaborate: detailed


Cowper; William Cowper (1731-1800) Early English Romantic poet
Walpole: Horace Walpole (1717-1797) 4th Earl of Oxford. Author of a famous Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto and as many as 3000 letters.
Byron: Lord George Gordon, (1788-1824) 6th Baron Byronof Rochdale. One of the English Romantic poets
Lamb: Charles Lamb (1775-1834) English essayist. Author of the collection of essays known as the Essays of Elia
Carlyle: Thomas Carlyle. (1795-1881) Scottish writer
De Quincy: Thomas De Quincey, (1785-1859) English essayist. Better known for his Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
Keats: John Keats (1795-1821) Perhaps one of the most well beloved of the English Romantic poets. His letters are considered to be pieces of literature as exquisite as his poems.


After going through this unit, you have learnt not only what an essay is, but also what makes a good essay. You will have understood that the essay is one of the most widely practised forms of literary writing and is also one of the most flexible of forms. You have learnt about A. G. Gardiner and you have been made acquainted with both his life and his works. This unit has also made you familiar with the text of the essay and has introduced you to the meanings of words and expressions in the essay you may not have been familiar with.


1. Attempt a brief note on the career of A. G. Gardiner as an essayist.
2. What are the prominent features of Gardiner’s essays?
3. What, do you think, are the hallmarks of a good essay?
4. In about a hundred words, attempt an essay on the importance of maintaining a diary.
5. In your words, give an account of the conversation between Bill and Sam.
6. Why does the author say that letter writing is a lost art?
7. How should one write a good letter?
8. (a) What is one of the most pleasant features of Keats’ character?
(b) What did Keats write in one of the letters written to his brother George?