Eric Rolls, whose piece My Places is a gentle meditation of how different birds connect him psychically to the different places he’s lived (“Birds define my places,” he says), disagrees that the essay is king in nature writing. He describes himself as “a poet and a writer of imaginative prose about whatever demands to be written”.
But this is the exaggerated praise of an editor. Lamb's 'plain, natural, chit-chat' is nearer the mark. Temple writes like a fine gentleman at his ease, without any affectation, but with considerable negligence. His syntax is sometimes faulty, and his expression does not always fit his thought. Though his sentences are kept, as a rule, within convenient bounds, they straggle occasionally and leave trailing ends. To agree wholly with Johnson that 'Temple was the first writer who gave cadence to English prose,' is to forget Browne and Taylor; but Temple has a true feeling for cadence; in this alone he is Cowley's superior. It is largely through this quality that he rises at times beyond the level of 'natural chit-chat,' as in the fine passage in praise of poetry and music which concludes the essay and ends with the often quoted comparison between human life and a child.
Thus, the essay, with its near allies, the literary preface and the political pamphlet, played a large part in the formation of the new prose. We have seen that it was in the same year (1665) that Cowley and Dryden achieved independently the mastery of their instruments. Cowley only played on his for a brief moment, but Dryden's mastery became more and more perfect, till, in the last year of the century, he produced his masterpiece in 'the other harmony of prose'; the . In its numerous digressions — 'the nature of a Preface,' he says, 'is rambling' — and in the pleasant intrusion of his own personality, it reminds one happily of Montaigne. But the style is all Dryden's own — short and well balanced sentences, restraint, lucidity and precision, a tone of friendly intercourse with the reader, an ease which never becomes familiarity, and a dignity which never stiffens into pomposity. When, nine years later, wrote the first number of , he found an instrument ready to his hand. Steele's style suggests Dryden, just as model in the first paper which he contributed to the same journal is, obviously, Cowley. Steele and Addison addressed themselves to a wider audience than Dryden, not only to scholars and wits and courtiers, but to ordinary middle-class citizens; they made the essay lighter, and introduced into it humour and a spice of malice. But they were not the creators either of the essay or of modern prose. The foundations of most of the literature of the first half of the eighteenth century were already laid down in the seventeenth. Dryden not only dominates his own age, but throws his shadow over the next.
The nature essay is a heterogeneous form that draws on travel narrative, philosophy, landscape description, environmental reporting, outdoor and recreational writing, natural and local history, autobiography and diary, prose fiction, and other genres. Strict boundaries cannot be drawn around the nature essay, which undergoes constant metamorphosis as it migrates through various historical and cultural contexts. The form’s aesthetic and literary dimensions are as variable as the rhetorical and political ends it can serve. Just as the word “nature” ranges in meaning to encompass many different ways of viewing and living in the world, the nature essay is not a monolithic tradition but a body of writings linked by a loose family resemblance.