Atkins refers to Belloc's "The Mowing of a Field" often, and I enjoy it, but in the collection On Nothing and Kindred Subjects, arrived from amazon recently, I discovered the perfect essay. The problem with essays, of course, is that they are like poems -- in that you can't just summarize them, because the craftsmanship is part and parcel of the meaning -- but they are longer than poems and do not lend themselves to being copied full text. You can, however, find this one in the book I linked to above (just search the contents): "On the Pleasure of Taking up One's Pen."
Belloc notes the controversy over whether there is a "tangible pleasure in the mere act of writing: in choosing and arranging words." But this, he goes on, is not his subject: he is writing on "the pleasure of taking up one's pen, which is quite another matter."
"You are alone," he writes, no matter where you are, the moment you lift your pen, "and that is the beginning." He then writes that you are going to "create" -- which leads to a delightful digression on how we cannot create, followed by "anyhow [. . .] you are going to do something devilish pleasing: there is a prospect before you. You are going to develop a germ: I don't know what it is, and I promise you I won't call it creation -- but possibly a god creating through you, and at least you are making believe at creation. Anyhow, it is a sense of mastery and of origin, and you know that when you have done, something will be added to the world, and little destroyed [only a bit of paper, ink, and quill]."
Then another digression as he imagines his audience exclaiming: "Affectation! Affectation! How do I know that the fellow writes with a quill? A most unlikely habit!" And the admission that he actually writes with a "Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pen," whose gold nib leads to a lovely sally into describing Charlemagne's throne and his journeys with it, ending with wondering if the reader has read these stories: "No? You must read about these things."
Next a blessing on the pen, which he promises that he will write a poem with someday, or at least copy out someone else's with it, because the pen is deserving and will someday "live in a glass case with a crowd of tourists round [it] every day from 10 to 4." He ends, logically, with the lovely thought that you may lay down your pen any time you choose. You cannot stop whenever you please at bridge or public speaking or conversation or life itself -- but to lay down your pen? "At any moment: without remorse, without anxiety, without dishonour, you are free to do this dignified and final thing (I am just going to do it) . . . You lay it down."
Well, go read it, and you will see. Why is it perfect? Because it carries the essay form -- its loose structure, its sense of exploring a topic and inviting us to come along, and yet everything really to the point -- perfectly. Because it has what Phillip Gerard calls the apparent and real subjects intertwined perfectly: in writing about the simple act of picking up a pen, Belloc is really writing about the power of the written word. Because every "digression" is not really digressing, but is integral to both the apparent and real subjects, if we attend carefully. Because he obviously took delight in it, delight in which we share with every word.
Where were you, Mr. Belloc, in my misspent youth?