William Cornwallis

Of essays and books

I hold neither Plutarch’s, nor none of these ancient short manner of writings, nor Montaigne’s, nor such of this latter time to be rightly termed essays, for though they be short, yet they are strong, and able to endure the sharpest trial: but mine are essays, who am but newly bound prentice to the inquisition of knowledge, and use these papers as a painter’s boy a board, who is trying to bring his hand and his fancy acquainted. It is a manner of writing well befitting undigested motions, or a head not knowing his strength like a circumspect runner trying for a start, or providence that tastes before she buys: for it is easier to think well then, to do well; and no trial to have handsome dapper conceits run invisibly in a brain, but to put them out, and then look upon them: if they prove nothing but words, yet they break not promise with the world; for they say but an essay, like a scrivener trying his pen before he engrosses his work; nor to speak plainly, are they more to blame then many other that promise more: for the most that I have yet touched, have millions of words to the bringing forth one reason, and when a reason is gotten, there is such borrowing it one of another, that in a multitude of books, still that conceit, or some issued out of that, appears so belabored, and worn, as in the end it is good for nothing but for a proverb. When I think of the abilities of man, I promise myself much out of my reading, but it proves not so. Time goes, and I turn pages yet still find myself in the state of ignorance; wherefore I have thought better of honesty, then of knowledge: what I may know I will convert to that use, and what I write, I mean so; for I will choose rather to be an honest man then a good logician. There was never art yet that laid so fast hold on me, that she might justly call me her servant. I never knew them but superficially, nor indeed will not, though I might; for they swallow their subject, and make him as Ovid said of himself:

Quinquid conabar dicere, versus erat

[“Everything I tried to say came out as poetry”]

I would earn none of these so dearly, as to tie up the mind to think only of one thing: her best power by this means is taken from her; for so her circuit is limited to a distance, which should walk universally. Moreover there grows pride, and a self opinion out of this, which devours wisdom.

Mark but a grammarian, whose occupation well examined, is but a single-soled trade; for his subject is but words, and yet his construction is of great matters resting in himself. Socrates was the wisest man of his time, and his ground for that, was his turning all his acquired knowledge into morality; of whom one said, he fetched philosophy from heaven, and placed her in cities. Plato laughs at those commonwealth men, who intend only the enlarging, and enriching of their countries, and in the mean time they suffer the enjoyers of their labors to be vicious, and dishonest: even so of these thirsters after knowledge, for has he all that men possibly may have, and then enclose it in the chest of a dishonest breast, it but corrupts him, and makes the poison of his viciousness more forcible.

Non rebus me sed mihi res submittere conor

[“I try to submit the things to myself, not myself to the things”]

I live not to illustrate the excellence of any art, but to use arts as bridles, to rear up the headstrong willfulness of my natural corruption. Thus I see all things, and take example as well by a vicious prodigal fellow, as by one upon the gallows, and desire his part no more that is able, and doth nourish excess, then I do the others, and if I would believe Plato, he holds this state the better: for the one is now surfeiting, the other taking physic . I have heard of the effects of great reading, joined to an understanding able to digest, and carry it: of high acting spirits, whose ambitions have been fed by fortune and power: these make a great noise in the ears of men, and like a swaggerer seem to drown more humble spirits: but equally examined, the gifts of morality are more excellent, and virtuous. When Alexander thirsting threw the water offered him upon the ground, and would not add to the thirst of his companions with his own private affections, he did much more nobly then in winning all his victories: for those rightly determined take away marvel, and admiration; for they were for his own sake: but here, compassion, regard of others, and temperance, plead for an eternal applause; this was morality, and the inward discourse of an honest mind; this was no bloodshed, nor blows, but the preservation of his friends: here blood spotted not his arm, but purity so embellished it, that no eye loving virtue can see this peace without due praising it. Nor of these searchers into the drifts of nature can I think so well, as of a mind observing his affections, moderating or spurring his will, as it flies, or strays from the right way of virtue. Thus do I think of Seneca, and Aristotle, the first’s morality is easy to be understood, and easily digested to the nourishment of virtue; the others more high, and to the readers more questionable, whether it will make him curious, or honest.

Xenophon though his Cyrus be so good, as plainly showed it a life, rather imagined, then acted; yet he so plainly discovered the way of virtue, as the easiest understanding cannot go astray, nor the worst abuse him with interpretation. I hold these much more safe, then those works which stand upon allegories, for every head has not fire enough to distill them, nor every understanding patience enough to find out the good meaning; and many are so ill, as when they have found out an interpretation meet to nourish their sensuality, they stay there, and are the worse for their reading.

Thus offend, most poets, who larding their writings with fictions, feed the ignorant and vicious with as much poison as preservative. This one of them confesses speaking to his muse.

—e tu perdona
s’intesso fregi al ver, s’adorno in parte
d’altri diletti che de’ tuoi, le carte

[“Grant me pardon if with the truth I interweave embroiderings, if partly with pleasures other than yours I ornament my pages” —Tasso, Gerusalemme Liberata]

And he adds this reason.

Sai che là corre il mondo ove pi&ùgrave; versi
di sue dolcezze il lusinghier Parnaso,
e che ‘l vero, condito in molli versi,
i pi&ùgrave; schivi allettando ha persuaso

[“Thither thou know’st the world is best inclined / Where luring Parnass most his sweet imparts, / And truth conveyed in verse of gentle kind / To read perhaps will move the dullest hearts”]

Though rightly he touches the tenderness of human conceits, which willingly admit nothing that represents not pleasure, and flatters not sensuality; yet should it be far from the gravity of a writer, to run with the stream of unbridled affections. He should rank with the constitutors of commonwealths: lawmakers, and wise authors ought to intend both one thing, they no way differ, but that only these last compel not, but entreat their countrymen to be virtuous. But should a lawmaker instead of punishing malefactors widen his laws, and make them soft upon the complaints of men, no state could stand: for the cause of commonwealths mankind would destroy themselves; and this world by laws made beautiful, by being without, would become a spectacle of ruin, and desolation. Though in this kind poetry hath most offended, yet intending well, it is not to be rejected. It is a short and sweet tuned eloquence; it stirs up noble desires, and good intentions, when, according to Plato, it performs it office which is Divinos hymnos canere, et leges patrias, magnorumque gesta virorum graviter recensere. Thus it is not basely employed, nor were it reason, for it is a divine issue of understandings, and dresses the subjects of her pen full of witty delight, and is the wings of the soul with which she seems to fly to the highest part of imagination. Among poets, Seneca’s Tragedies fit well the hands of a statesman, for upon that supposed stage are brought many actions, and fitting the stage of life, as when he says.

Ars prima regni est posse in inuidia pati

[“The first art of the ruler is to be able to endure envy”—Seneca]

History would have carried you through many regions, into many battles and many changes, and you should have little more for your pains, as in the life of Sylla, and many others of all times. A truly disposed mind must meditate of this, even at his entering into this life, so shall it be no stranger to him, nor drown his well performed actions with tears, and exclamations. In another place he draws the excellency of virtue, and that her strength passes all strengths.

Vertutis est domare quae cuncti pavent

[“it is a virtue of—tame each—”]

For so doth virtue prepare her subject, that nothing but herself is seen of them with love, and affection, all other things being by her caught to be transitory, and mortal, even part of himself, knowing which, he neither fears nor longs for, the time of his dissolution. So is Virgil’s Aeneid a book meet for a prince, and his nearest instruments: for it being agreed by the most judicial censures, that in matters of state many things fall out both beyond expectation and natural reason, which we therefore call the acts of fortune: he says,

Superanda omnis fortuna ferendo est

[“Every misfortune is to be subdued by patience”—Virgil]

For patience keeps the reputation unspotted; though outward forces be destroyed, this makes the mind invincible, which not only gives graces and preservation of the best parts of man, but enforces more commiseration from the victor, then baseness, entreaty, and supplications, which Aemilius the utter ruin of the Macedonian glory explained, when Perseus the last of their kings being vanquished, prostrated himself at his feet, from which sight he turned his eyes, and called him the robber of his glory, for his power, and name made his victory glorious, which the vileness of his person brought back to contempt, as if he had overcome a boy, or a woman, the poorness of whose strength makes tears and supplications readier then resistance. At what time England remained unpolished and unmannered by the sweetness of letters, there was found one Caractatus, whose name Tacitus celebrates with as great praises, as if a Roman, and a conqueror; which last I name as the spur of commendations, for more faintly do all men, as well as historians mention the vanquished then conqueror: for many actions are brought forth by the haste of occasion, to whom a long discourse is not midwife, yet done, the world makes someone accessory of many plots, which he never thought of, and another guilty of imputations, because overcome. But Caractatus betrayed, and brought in triumph to Rome, was neither dejected with thinking of his captivity, nor amazed at the Romans’ splendor, but then taught Claudius how it became him to use his fortune, and in spite of fortune with the magnanimity of his own mind made the action of those times confess, that Caesar

dum suum decus extollit, addidit gloriam victo

[“The emperor, while he exalted his own glory, enhanced the renown of the vanquished”—Tacitus].

How slowly and unwillingly praises are bestowed upon the vanquished, Tacitus relates, speaking of a king of Suiones,

Digressus castellis Vannius funditur praelio : quamquam rebus adversis, laudatus quod et pugnam manu capescit, et corpore adverso vulnera excepit

[“So Vannius came down out of his fortresses, and though he was defeated in battle, notwithstanding his reverse, he won some credit by having fought with his own hand, and received wounds on his breast.”].

He fought valiantly, and received wounds, but was not valiant, because fortune gave him not the victory. In another, Virgil teaches that no noble minds are fearful,

degeneres animos timor argui—

[“Fear betrays ignoble souls”]

Who ought better to think of this then a statesman, the height of whose actions brings him to handle things to an unprepared mind dangerous, and fearful, to eschew which he binds him in a strong band, he foretells his honor, which is the most precious jewel of greatness, without which he becomes as unprofitable as a bee without a sting, for whatsoever he is, be he never so great, or good, yet,

magis fama quam vi stare res suas

[“His empire was supported by reputation”—Tacitus on Emperor Tiberius],

the reputation of a statesman, the credit of a merchant, and the modesty of a woman, prevailing more, then their powers, riches, or beauty. In another place,

Mens immota manet, lachrimae volvuntur inanes

[“Though tears flow, the mind remains unmoved”—Virgil]

How feeble the succors of the body are, every understanding observing those creatures that either have no soul, or having, use it not, may easily know: for the grossness of the body’s nature prevailing but by strength, when that is vanquished Lachrimae voluntur Inanes [“though tears flow”]: but a mind made strong by use and exercise Immota manet [“the mind remains unmoved”]; it looks not upon fortune with a dejected spirit, but not puffed up with the vain allurements of the body, is then plotting how to recover, not how to desire pardon: he looks upon his present state, not with tears, but upon it, because upon that groundwork he must build the course of his freedom, as he says afterward.

Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito
Quamtuà te Fortuna sinet

[” Do not yield to misfortunes; on the contrary, go more boldly to meet them, the way your fortunes allow you”—Virigil]

Howsoever that Scythian fellow esteemed music basely by preferring the neighing of horses before it, yet no question both music, and letters, and especially verses, which participate both with music and letters, is a brave raiser of the spirits: and I think arms disable not themselves with taking assistance from Poesie, for doubtless it makes valor beautiful, and well becoming, for taking away part of his fierceness, and adding, instead thereof, reason, makes it true fortitude. Of poets for this purpose, some learned, talk much of Homer, but though they are learned, yet I dare not speak of him, because as near as I can, I will not build upon others. Of those whom I understand, Lucan, and Tasso, the one of which is ancient, and the other as worthy, if seasoned by so much time, but I will not chide the world for that, for the reverencing of age, and times past moderately is a good fault of a good nature. But this life of arms which custom has taught to put on a gallant jolliness in his outward behavior, thereby to show, danger and distress cannot in their course mourn, or be fearful, giving leave to the mind in these outward semblances to play the braggart, and lay open what she thinks of her own resolution, which fashion of a soldier binds him to entertain all fortunes alike. For the high words and big, that use has made tolerable in this life, would add deformity to his yielding tears or complaints, but especially here.

—Crescit on aduersis Virtus—

[“Virtue is born in hardship”]

There is the alteration which the frowns of fortune should breed in him, being rather an alarm for the summoning of his spirits, then a terror draining them away, which power, nature hath given to the elements by instinct, but a more excellent power has she given to man, namely reason, with which if he does not more then those more meanly endowed, it is his fault, not nature’s, for in reason and discourse, the abilities of man, there is more then an Antipaerist aticall virtue.

— sua quisque pericula nescit
attonitus maiore metu—

[“everyone’s danger needs attention death”—Lucan]

So fear ought every way to be remote from the life of a soldier, for neither is it handsome, nor safe, so stupefying his understanding, that neither the danger, his honor, his country, or his life is in, are either defended or regarded. But this banished makes not valor, but fury, for justice must be matched with daring, or else it is not fortitude; the cause must reconcile the effect to upright truth, or else;

hen quantum poena misero, mens conscia donat?

Were guiltiness removed from punishment, yet to wrest the understanding against justice, is full of terror, the conscience being an inseparable companion, which neither corruption nor fear can make silent. In no course is it more behooving then in the life of a soldier, for arms takes upon it to correct the disorder of peace; It is the Physitian of a state, the justicer of a state, the divine of a state, for his enforcement is the Physick, the execution, the counsel administered to those obstinacies intractable, but by computation. Tasso does also yield many plentiful rules leading to the preservation of life, and after that of honor.

e par lieto morir, poscia che ‘l crudo
Totila è vinto e salvo il caro scudo

[“That smiling seemed to cruel death to yield, / When Totila was fled, and safe his shield.”—Tasso]

Cowards feel not death, but the meditation of death, for that concluder of mortality is no more cruel to the coward, then to the valiant, the difference rests only in their opinions, as it is in many other things of this world. What by some imaginations are called jewels, are by others determined trifles: as these outward things, so the choosers of these, the affections, are according to their possessor: for a coward’s fear, is in a wise man providence; lavish joy, solid contentment: appetite made choice, wishes intents, making hope fruition. Thus certain do wisdom’s resolution perform his journey without halting, tiring, or straying. E par lieto morir [“a cruel death”]. No doubt but to a mind that can inwardly relate a well-run course, it cannot but be joy to be taken up, for with glory he ends, and remaining longer he could not end better, therefore longer life could have been but superfluous, perhaps dangerous: for many years well followed have doted before their ends, and so corrupted their work fairly begun. E salvo il caro scudo [“safe his shield”]. In this shield I hold the preservation of honor, care of his country, and honest life, for detraction cannot be kept out without such a triple-leaved shield: but this shield embraced, envy itself cannot wound, but death appears like a grateful master releasing his servant from travel.

E tempo è ben che qualche nobil opra
De la nostra virtute omai si scopra

[“And time requires that by some noble feat / I should make known my strength and power great.”]

So lazy, and sluggish are our natural inclinations, that I wish these verses the perpetual object of my eyes, and if I should wish all men the same medicine being sick of the same disease, I should do them no harm. Who thinks of the infinite capacity of man, of his admirable invention, of his immortalizing the whole volume of abstract, and most forms: of the fertileness of his brain, where things are continually in conceiving, and bringing forth new, and they new, I cannot think of any thing which he hath done that might not be excelled, considering his abilities, his works are mean and slight, and their perfections so imperfect, as they are not worthy to be called the children of his loins.

E tempo ben

[“and time requires”]

It is time, so soon as our breathing hath set a scotch upon time: what can I speak of this time, but as of the light given us to live by, which who spends idly, or (as ill) luxuriously, is worthy to go to bed darkling, which is, to die without being able to produce any matter worthy of his life, which vacuity of virtue at that time will breed more terror to him, then darkness to children. It is time to do that we came for; for those employed to be vigilant, to the flourishing of their country: to those private to be an example to others, and safety to themselves, in taking the direct way of right

che qualche nobil opra.

[“that by some noble feat”]

I am not so precise to call no actions noble, that carry not with them a rumor, or a glittering to my meaning nobility and honesty mean all one, and thus may a painful artisan be noble, if he follow his vocation painfully and constantly, he is honest, and so noble, being a limb of a state, though no main organ, and his being in right temper, so far as his strength goes, a preservative to the whole. To know this he ought to temper the hotness of ambition, for it is not the greatness, but the goodness of an action that makes it worthy, which who so knows, and yet prosecutes the violence of that humor, ought to be cut off, for nothing is more fatal to a state then innovation, neither is there any thing so fast drawing to innovation as ambition, it being innovations minority, like a pimple the child’s age of a sore.

de la nostra virtute omai si scopra

[“I should make known my strength and power great”—Tasso]

Here is the whole power of man taught, the right use, which we have a common speech no less illustrates when we call the quality of things their virtue, by which we enforce the strength of each thing to work by the line of virtue: to this center should all the diametrical parts of man tend, for they are but like the rays of the sun, which borrow their beauty from the sun, for without virtue all the abilities of man are in darkness, performing all things doubtfully, and perniciously:

si scopra.

[“power great”]

I do not think there can be concealed virtues, for though I hate ostentation, yet virtue aiming at nothing but the transforming her self into goodness, and the excellence of goodness resting in her communicating power, virtue is not come to her perfection, until come to the perfection of goodness.

Duce sei tu, non semplice guerriero
Publico fora, e non privato il lutto.

[“No private soldier thou, thou are our guide, / If thou miscarry, all our hope were lost”]

Here doth he show the office of a general, whose judgment, not body, ought to be employed: nature has taught this to every man, for she has made his arms to give blows, and defend, his head to teach his arms; and to be sure we should not use it out of the right kind, she hath given it neither nimbleness, nor strength, but direction to teach the other parts that use. More need not be said of this, for common experience makes it every man’s. I will speak now of no more poets, though there be more of use; only thus much of the ancient satirists, I hold them not meet for every man’s reading, for they chide vice, and show it both together, besides their darkness, and personal meanings, take up more time, then known, they are worth: of other books though I have already commended Plato, yet speaking of books, I must again mention him for his commenter’s sake, who does excellently illustrate him, which he performs with as little delay, and as few idle speeches, as the understanding receives knowledge from the sight of things which deliver themselves truly and simply unto her. I know not whether I should speak of philosophical books more, since if the reader be not a physician, or a Hebraist, they breed in him curiosity rather then use, for I account these words of Plato, Peritia enim efficit ut via nostra per artem incedat, imperitia vero ut per fortunam temere circumvagetur, to tend rather to the knowledges pertinent to an intended life, then to her universal body: for should a judge talk of the observations of an urn, when he is about matters of life and death, who would not determine his skill unnecessary and ridiculous, since his art cures the mind, Physick the body?

nam medici curant corpora, Poene Animam.

[“doctors cure the body, poetry the spirit”]

What books, or art meddles with a doctrine remote from the use of life, is a busy idleness, and a cover of an unprofitable mind, like fiddlers undertaking the use of an instrument to keep them from a more laborious trade. Less astronomy then will make a calendar, will serve my turn: only so much is sufficient in a gentleman, as seeing the revolutions of the heavens, he may see them without dismayedness, and use his knowledge to the comfort of his ignorant charge: as Dion going against Dionysius the tyrant, an eclipse happened, which astonished the multitude, but he converted it to the eclipse of their enemies height which fortified, and persuaded the fear, and blindness of his soldiers: the eclipse (I think) would have fallen out, though Dion had been at home quietly in his chamber, and I doubt not but this friend of Plato thought so to, but yet the minds not able to judge of truths, must be held with the exposition of these celestial appearances, and be persuaded that the heavens work thus, only to encourage, and hearten them on.

For that coupler, and combiner of words, grammar, to be much longer then it is in the arms of our nurse, is naught. I account it a pitiful sight to see a fellow at sixty years old, learning to speak: to know the names of things without the things is unprofitable, as a power to repeat the alphabet by a fellow altogether illiterate. I like well to speak, rather then to make signs, and to be careful of joining the nominative case to the verb, as my servants and friends may understand what I would; but to be prentice of Tonus and Sonus for a life time, is as needless as to make new clothes when one lies dying, for words are but clothes, matters substance. Rhetoric cookery , is the vomit of a pedant, which to make saleable, he imitated the dyer, whose fat working ill, he makes amends by giving those ill colors new names: so this venting his infinity of words with calling it eloquence, and fortifying eloquence with methodical divisions. Rhetorica suadet, non docet [“rhetoric to recommend, not to instruct”]. If she could persuade what were worthy to be taught, and bring that worthy with her, it were better: but the slippery glibness of the tongue gives such a facility to speak, as commonly it runs without reason, and so is as fruitless as a messenger without an errand. I might say of those remaining, that they hold more conclusions than are needful for every man, but I will go no farther then this taste. Again of books, morality hath very ill luck nowadays, for many have meddled with her with ill success: I not will name, for they are unhappy enough to be destined to waste paper. Those of commonwealths, came as much short, but it is no marvel, for commonly they are scholars that never knew more of government, then it pleased Aristotle’s Politics, or some such, rich only in the names of Economics, Despoticus, and Politics, and then to define the three several governments, but they were to blame; for the theory, and practice of no art nor subject differ so much, as that of commonwealths, and state business.

Seneca of morality is the best, Petrarch’s De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae[Remedies of Fortune—a popular “self-help” book], does well; but he was a sharper poet, then a philosopher, there being a more excellent quickness in his sonnets then dialogues. There is now left history, which resembles counselors that advise nothing but what they themselves have done, which study is not without danger, for it is so bound to truth, that it must relate falsehood, and continue rather in relation, then in advice: of these, the truest reflecting glasses, are those that present particular mens’ lives. Among those I have seen none are worthy but Plutarch, and Diogenes Laertius, which two being diligently read, and rightly used, cannot but recompense the reader’s pains, for the temperance of these philosophers mingled with the valor of Plutarch’s captains cannot choose but make an exact man. Tacitus already has received his sentence from me, but I must again say, he is more wise then safe, but that is not his fault: for the painter is not to be blamed, though his picture be ill-favored if his pattern were so, nor Tacitus thought ill, because Tiberius was a tyrant, Claudius a fool, Nero vicious. But never was there so wise an author so ill-handled by commenter, for where, as I am sure he meant still wisely, some of them have so powdered him with morality, that they convert his juice into as little variety of good use, as beware by me good people; or if more gently, like Aesop’s talking creatures, that have morals tied to their tails. The rest have left him as they found him, without making him confess anything; so that all of them have done no more then to try who loves gold so well as to pull it out of the dirt, for he that fetches his sentences out of their pages, adventures a bemiring. Comines is a good historian, he knew much of the practical part of state learning; but I hold Guicciardini a better scholar, and more sententious, as when he says,

in tutte le azioni umane, e nelle guerre massimamente, bisogna spesso accomodare il consiglio alla necessityà.

For the marshaling advice more cannot be said, for it teaches an adviser to take his mark so sure as he cannot miss: for respects appearing weighty in the time of the health of a state, must not be redeemed in her sickness, for preservation is to be preferred before comeliness. There are many books by me omitted, precious enough, if time will give us leave to digest these: for I am of Seneca’s mind concerning this variety of books, who compares an unsettled reader, to a traveler, who has many hosts, and few friends. There are more, but mine is but an essay, not a catalogue, I think well of these books named, and the better, because they teach me how to manage myself: where any of them grow subtle, or intend high matters, I give my memory leave to lose them.

There are none that I scratch with my pen that do not fatherly counsel me to the way of virtue. I like much better to do well, then to talk well, choosing to be beloved rather than admired, aspiring to no more height then the comfort of a good conscience, and doing good to some, harm to none. If my essays speak thus, they speak as I would have them, for I think not of making morality full of embroidery, cutworks, but to clothe her in truth, and plainness: nor if they stray do I seek to amend them, for I profess not method, neither will I chain myself to the head of my chapter. If there be any yet so ignorant as may profit by them, I am content: if understandings of a higher reach despise them, not discontent, for I moderate things pleasing upon that condition, not to be touched with things displeasing; who accounts them dark and obscure, let them not blame me, for perhaps they go about to read them in darkness without a light, and then the fault is not mine, but the dimness of their own understanding: if there be any such, let them snuff their light, and look where the fault of their failing rests.


MLA Citation

Cornwallis, William. “Of essays and books.” 1610. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 21 Feb 2007. 01 Oct 2023 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/cornwallis/essays_and_books/>.

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