Personal essay: "My Wood"
Although you have probably written lots of essays, you might find it difficult to name the characteristics of the personal essay. Here are some of them. For one thing, the personal essay is short. The style is also very important. The personal essay is one of the most easygoing and conversational literary forms there is. In this sense it resembles closely the Norwegian kåseri. The essayist begins with an idea that interests him or her and expands on that idea. One idea triggers another idea just as in a good conversation. Think of an essay as good, polished talk but raised to a much higher level than is possible in normal speech. And remember, too, that even though a personal essay can appear to have no clear structure, a good essay does make a point, usually a very serious one.
The word “essay” was first used by the French philosopher Montaigne in the 16th century. The word itself means “attempt” or experiment and describes an attempt to take up an idea and examine it from a personal point of view. It was Montaigne who introduced the personal element. He showed an openness and a willingness to examine his personality that was unusual for the period. The personal essay does not attempt to arrive at a definite conclusion or complete analysis of an idea.
Much of E. M. Forster’s writing is characterised by light and witty humour flavoured with a generous touch of irony. Just notice how Forster begins the following essay by gently poking fun at Americans and himself. The book he so modestly refers to is, incidentally, A Passage to India, his own famous novel. In this essay you will certainly encounter references to things that you know nothing about. Do not let this put you off, however, as the essay can be enjoyed without understanding these references. Just imagine that you are in the company of a witty and intelligent person.
By E.M. Forster
A few years ago I wrote a book which dealt in part with the difficulties of the English in India. Feeling that they would have had no difficulties in India themselves, the Americans read the book freely. The more they read it the better it made them feel, and a cheque to the author was the result. I bought a wood with the cheque. It is not a large wood – it contains scarcely any trees, and it is intersected, blast it, by a public footpath. Still, it is the first property that I have owned, so it is right that other people should participate in my shame, and should ask themselves, in accents that will vary in horror, this very important question: What is the effect of property upon the character? Don’t let’s touch economics; the effect of private ownership upon the community as a whole is another question – a more important question, perhaps, but another one. Let’s keep to psychology. If you own things, what’s their effect on you? What’s the effect on me of my wood?
In the first place, it makes me feel heavy. Property does have this effect. Property produces men of weight, and it was a man of weight who failed to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. He was not wicked, that unfortunate millionaire in the parable, he was only stout; he stuck out in front, not to mention behind, and as he wedged himself this way and that in the crystalline entrance and bruised his well-fed flanks, he saw beneath him a comparatively slim camel passing through the eye of a needle and being woven into the robe of God. The Gospels all through couple stoutness and slowness. They point out what is perfectly obvious, yet seldom realized: that if you have a lot of things you cannot move about a lot, that furniture requires dusting, dusters require servants, servants require insurance stamps, and the whole tangle of them makes you think twice before you accept an invitation to dinner or go for a bathe in the Jordan. Sometimes the Gospels proceed further and say with Tolstoy that property is sinful; they approach the difficult ground of asceticism here, where I cannot follow them. But as to the immediate effects of property on people, they just show straightforward logic. It produces men of weight. Men of weight cannot, by definition, move like the lightning from the East unto the West, and the ascent of a fourteen-stone bishop into a pulpit is thus the exact antithesis of the coming of the Son of Man. My wood makes me feel heavy.
In the second place, it makes me feel it ought to be larger.
The other day I heard a twig snap in it. I was annoyed at first, for I thought that someone was blackberrying, and depreciating the value of the undergrowth. On coming nearer, I saw it was not a man who had trodden on the twig and snapped it, but a bird, and I felt pleased. My bird. The bird was not equally pleased. Ignoring the relation between us, it took fright as soon as it saw the shape of my face, and flew straight over the boundary hedge into a field, the property of Mrs. Henessy, where it sat down with a loud squawk. It had become Mrs. Henessy’s bird. Something seemed grossly amiss here, something that would not have occurred had the wood been larger. I could not afford to buy Mrs. Henessy out, I dared not murder her, and limitations of this sort beset me on every side. Ahab did not want that vineyard – he only needed it to round off his property, preparatory to plotting a new curve – and all the land around my wood has become necessary to me in order to round off the wood. A boundary protects. But – poor little thing – the boundary ought in its turn to be protected. Noises on the edge of it. Children throw stones. A little more, and then a little more, until we reach the sea. Happy Canute!Happier Alexander! And after all, why should even the world be the limit of possession? A rocket containing a Union Jack, will, it is hoped, be shortly fired at the moon. Mars. Sirius. Beyond which . . . but these immensities ended by saddening me. I could not suppose that my wood was the destined nucleus of universal dominion – it is so very small and contains no mineral wealth beyond the blackberries. Nor was I comforted when Mrs. Henessy’s bird took alarm for the second time and flew clean away from us all, under the belief that it belonged to itself.
In the third place, property makes its owner feel that he ought to do something to it. Yet he isn’t sure what. A restlessness comes over him, a vague sense that he has a personality to express – the same sense which, without any vagueness, leads the artist to an act of creation. Sometimes I think I will cut down such trees as remain in the wood, at other times I want to fill up the gaps between them with new trees. Both impulses are pretentious and empty. They are not honest movements towards money-making or beauty. They spring from a foolish desire to express myself and from an inability to enjoy what I have got. Creation, property, enjoyment form a sinister trinity in the human mind. Creation and enjoyment are both very, very good, yet they are often unattainable without a material basis, and at such moments property pushes itself in as a substitute, saying, “Accept me instead – I’m good enough for all three.” It is not enough. It is, as Shakespeare said of lust, “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame”; it is “Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.” Yet we don’t know how to shun it. It is forced on us by our economic system as the alternative to starvation. It is also forced on us by an internal defect in the soul, by the feeling that in property may lie the germs of self-development and of exquisite or heroic deeds. Our life on earth is, and ought to be, material and carnal. But we have not yet learned to manage our materialism and carnality properly; they are still entangled with the desire for ownership, where (in the words of Dante) “Possession is one with loss.”
And this brings us to our fourth and final point: the blackberries.
Blackberries are not plentiful in this meagre grove, but they are easily seen from the public footpath which traverses it, and all too easily gathered. Foxgloves, too – people will pull up the foxgloves, and ladies of an educational tendency even grub for toadstools to show them on the Monday in class. Other ladies, less educated, roll down the bracken in the arms of their gentlemen friends. There is paper, there are tins. Pray, does my wood belong to me or doesn’t it? And, if it does, should I not own it best by allowing no one else to walk there? There is a wood near Lyme Regis, also cursed by a public footpath, where the owner has not hesitated on this point. He has built high stone walls each side of the path, and has spanned it by bridges, so that the public circulate like termites while he gorges on the blackberries unseen. He really does own his wood, this able chap. Dives in Hell did pretty well, but the gulf dividing him from Lazarus could be traversed by vision, and nothing traverses it here. And perhaps I shall come to this in time. I shall wall in and fence out until I really taste the sweets of property. Enormously stout, endlessly avaricious, pseudocreative, intensely selfish, I shall weave upon my forehead the quadruple crown of possession until those nasty Bolshies come and take it off again and thrust me aside into the outer darkness.
- An essay is supposed to reveal a lot about the author’s personality – it is a very personal genre. What does Forster’s essay seem to reveal about him? Give examples from the text.
- Do you think that his reactions to ownership are understandable? Why or why not? Are you meant to take this seriously? Find examples of exaggerations in the essay. Why has he included these exaggerations?
- If Forster were to have continued his essay, what other consequences of ownership might he have mentioned? (Feel free to exaggerate in the same way Forster does.)
- Is there a serious deeper message in this essay, a point Forster tries to make? If so, what is it? Does he do this in an effective manner in your opinion? Explain your answers.
- You probably have something you value highly. Do you feel the same about it as Forster about his property? How important is it for you to own things?
Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970) was born in England. He is perhaps best remembered for his novels, but wrote biographies, essays and short stories as well. His most successful novel, A Passage to India, was published in 1924 and takes up, among other things, the paradoxes of British colonialism in India. The novel has been made into a film, as have many of his other novels, for example A Room With a View, Howard’s End and Maurice – a novel which deals with the theme of homosexuality and which was published in 1971, after Forster’s death.