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ant as having given a great many useful hints to writers who followed these authors, and thereby having formed certain features of English literature. In Overbury's “ Characters,” for instance, we not only meet with the Englishman of the day, the milkmaid, tinker, soldier, yeoman, or franklin, and the clown, or plain countryman, but we see the lines laid down whereon Dickens and Thackeray, who may never have seen the book, build their descriptive characters. Above all, when the student meets with these books he may be certain that he holds in his hands sound honest thought, not very acute, not very high, but thought; not mere words spun into never-ending, bombastic sentences.
Here is one of Sir Thomas Overbury's characters, perhaps his happiest; certainly full of the most beautiful ideas and images :
“A fair and happy milkmaid “ Is a country wench that is so far from making herself beautiful by art, that one look of hers is able to put all face-physic out of countenance. She knows a fair look is but a dumb orator to commend virtue, therefore minds it not. All her excellencies stand in her so silently, as if they had stolen upon her without her knowledge. The lining of her apparel, which is herself, is far better than outsides of tissue; for though she be not arrayed in the spoil of the silk-worm, she is decked in innocence, a far better wearing. She doth not, with lying long in bed, spoil both her complexion and conditions : nature hath taught her, too, immoderate sleep is rust to the soul; she rises therefore with chanticleer, her dame's cock, and at night makes the lamb her curfew. In milking a cow, and straining
the teats through her fingers, it seems that so sweet a milk-press makes the milk whiter or sweeter; for never came almond-glove or aromatic ointment on her palm to taint it. The golden ears of corn fall and kiss her feet, when she reaps them, as if they wished to be bound and led prisoners by the same hand that felled them. Her breath is her own, which scents all the year long of June, like a new-made haycock. She makes her hand hard with labour, and her heart soft with pity; and when winter evenings fall early, sitting at her merry wheel, she sings defiance to the giddy wheel of fortune. She doth all things with so sweet a grace, it seems ignorance will not suffer her to do ill, being her mind is to do well. She bestows her year's wages at next fair, and in choosing her garments, counts no bravery in the world like decency. The garden and beehive are all her physic and surgery, and she lives the longer for it. She dares go alone, and unfold sheep in the night; and fears no manner of ill, because she means none; yet, to say truth, she is never alone, but is still accompanied with old songs, honest thoughts, and prayers, but short ones; yet they have their efficacy in that they are not palled with ensuing idle cogitations. Lastly, her dreams are so chaste that she dare tell them; only a Friday's dream is all her superstition ; that she conceals for fear of anger. Thus lives she, and all her care is, she may die in the spring time, to have store of flowers stuck upon her windingsheet.”
More attention must be paid to another essayist, “the learned" John Selden (1584-1654), whose works, in this way, are none the less essays because they were spoken, and not written. After his death a collection JOHN SELDEN.
105 of "the excellent things that usually fell from him," under the title of “ Table Talk,” was made and published; and the closeness of thought and clearness of expression of those excellent things, make them worthy to be treasured. Thus, of humility, Selden says, Humility is a virtue all preach, none practise, and yet everybody is content to hear. The m
er thinks it good doctrine for his servant, the laity for the clergy, and the clergy for the laity.” Now in that short sentence there is a volume of modern leading articles. Again : “A king is a thing men have made for their own sakes for quietness' sake; just as in a family one is appointed to buy the meat. Here you see at once the bare reason of kings, and that it is lawful, as Selden ever held, to correct kings. Selden, who was one of the best and wisest lawyers we have ever had, and a man of whom the English nation should ever be proud, is almost always called the “learned Selden,” for he was, as Lord Clarendon says, a man of so stupendous a learning in all kinds, and in all languages, that a man would have thought him conversant with nothing but books; yet his humanity and courtesy were such as one would have thought him bred in the best courts, but that his good nature, charity, and delight in doing good exceeded that breeding.” This is a sly hit at the Court, but a well deserved one. Selden, who was a sincere Christian, was yet no friend to clerical presumption and pride, and continually offended the clergy by his outspoken wit. He knew better than any one what the rights of the laity in the Church of England were; and it is a pity that some of his works, especially his " Treatise on Titles of Honour,” and his “ History of Tithes," are not more read.
After Bacon, Cowley, Clarendon, and it may be the “ Characteristics” of Lord Shaftesbury (1671-1713), one may read with much profit the moral essayists whose works followed the licentious dramas of Charles II., and were, as I have supposed, a very natural consequent of the viciousness of dramatic literature. There were no newspapers then to correct the taste of the public; and, led away entirely by the force of stage example, and the doctrines inculcated there, part of the youth of England would have become utterly corrupt, while the other part, led into the opposite extreme, would in its turn have become fanatic in religion and tyrannical in moral assertion, had not the true via media been shown by two gentlemen, Richard (afterwards Sir Richard) Steele (1671-1729) and Joseph Addison (1672-1719), who established first the “ Tatler," and afterwards a little daily paper called the “ Spectator," which was filled not with the news bawled out as contained in the “Flying Post," the “Intelligencer," or the “ Chronicle,” but with essays on men and manners, on virtue, friendship, behaviour at church or at play, with comic and bitter satire on the folly of vice, with letters from beaux and belles upon shoes, stays, hoops, wigs, and head gear, or upon marriage, friendship, giggling, flirtation, quarrels, and gossip. The correspondents' column of some of our little domestic papers, as done now-a-days, exactly reflects the correspondents' letters of Steele and Addison and the Spectator, with this exception—that they are now wholly genuine (a very important point), whereas the writers in the “Spectator” manufactured their correspondence whenever they wanted to attack a folly, to silence a rival, or to support a friend. The end, howTHE SPECTATOR.
ever, of these great and admirable essayists, who have left an indelible mark on our literature, was one which will always do them honour. Without any fear of scoffing and deistical critics before their eyes, they tried to uphold common sense, decency, order, virtue, and religion, and on the other hand to show the folly of vice, and to laugh at the senseless profligacy of the rake, the fop, and the fool. Now, whenever wit and wisdom attempt this task, it is easy to imagine which side must succumb. To the essayists of the time of Queen Anne, England owes a debt of gratitude, which it will be very hard to pay.