Reference > Cambridge History > Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton > London and the Development of Popular Literature > Sir William Cornwallis
  Origins of the Essay Robert Johnson  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVI. London and the Development of Popular Literature.

§ 18. Sir William Cornwallis.


But the scope and range of the essay had not yet been discovered. Bacon’s first series must have appealed to men as a manual of diplomacy, a kind of Complete Courtier; and, for this reason, Sir William Cornwallis’s work has an importance which its literary merit would not have justified. He produced in 1600 and 1601 two sets of essays, with some of the diffuseness, but none of the charm, of Montaigne. He, too, discussed problems of high life, especially the means by which men rise to prominence or favour; and, in many places, he gives the same advice as his more illustrious predecessor. But he has introduced a personal touch (also a feature of Montaigne) which was afterwards to become a characteristic of the essay. His reflections are sometimes prefaced by curious confidences and self-revelations which give them the air of a diary. Again, his outlook is wider. The study of Plutarch’s Lives had given him an admiration for manliness, wisdom and heroism, and he examines modern character and enterprise from this point of view; thus showing how to use the past as a commentary on the present. And, above all, he formulates the new ideal 89  of gentlemanly culture; the man of no special science but of liberal interests, 90  who can turn all kinds of books, even nursery rimes and street ballads, to his profit, 91  talk of horses and hawks to those who understand nothing deeper, and use all knowledge “to looke upon man.” 92    45

Note 89. This conception did not originate with Cornwallis, but is found underlying Lyly’s Euphues and Ascham’s definition of <[char]> in the Scholemaster, 1570. Vide Elis. Crit. Essays, vol. I, p. I. Perhaps Cornwallis took the idea straight from Montaigne “Or à cet apprentissage (= à bien juger et à bein parler) tout ce qui se presente à nos yeulx sert de livre suffisant; la malice d’un page, la sottise d’un valet, un propos de table ce sont autant de nouvelles matières.” Institution des Enfants. [ back ]
Note 90. “Of Discourse,” pt. I. [ back ]
Note 91. “Of the Observation and Use of things,” pt. I. [ back ]
Note 92. “Of knowledge,” pt. II. [ back ]

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  Origins of the Essay Robert Johnson  
 
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