Tentative Beginnings: Montaigne Rewrites His Early Essays

Research paper by Ellen Loughran

Indexed on: 01 Jul '03Published on: 01 Jul '03Published in: Neophilologus


To read Montaigne's Essais is to challenge radically one's notion of literary beginnings. For those of us concerned with Montaigne's modus scribendi, a view such as Compagnon's that allows for both brevitas and copia in the Essais, casts a helpful light on why the essayist would begin the same essay more than once, as he revised his text in 1588 and thereafter. Two of his early essays, "De la tristesse" (1: 2) and "Comme l'ame descharge ses passions sur des objects faux quand les vrais luy defaillent" (I: 4), provide us with the opportunity to study Montaigne's struggle with structure as he commences to write and prove to be, upon examination, far more than mere ébauches of the lengthier discourse he will entertain in Books II and III. Montaigne's particular brand of stoicism in I: 2 gives way to his broader, almost Erasmian appreciation of man's comical stance vis-à-vis the physical world in I: 4. On the level of composition, Montaigne's Stoic or anti-tristesse comments in essay I: 2 represent revisions to the beginning and end of his 1580 text that stand in sharp relief to his original writings. To the contrary, the changes Montaigne makes in the 1580 text of essay I: 4 vie with and complement the original 1580 writing which remains visible alongside them. In both cases, an examination of the ways in which Montaigne begins his essay, and the subsequent revisions he makes, rewards us with a deeper appreciation for the Renaissance writer's struggle to attain an authentic voice in his work.