James Howell

from The Familiar Letters of James Howell


To Mr. B. J. F. B.,

The fangs of a bear and the tusks of a wild boar do not bite worse, and make deeper gashes, than a goose quill sometimes; no, not the badger himself, who is said to be so tenacious of his bite that he will not give over his hold till he feels his teeth meet, and the bone crack. Your quill hath proved so to Mr Jones, but the pen wherewith you have so gashed him, it seems, was made rather of a porcupine than a goose quill, it is so keen and firm. You know

Anser, Apis, Vitulus, Populos et Regna gubernant

The goose, the bee and the calf (meaning wax, parchment and the pen), rule the world, but of the three the pen is most predominant. I know you have a commanding one, but you must not let it tyrannise in that manner, as you have done lately. Some give out there was a hair in it, or that your ink was too thick with gall, else it could not have so bespattered and shaken the reputation of a royal architect, for reputation, you know, is like a fair structure, long time a-rearing, but quickly ruined. If your spirit will not let you retract, yet you shall do well to repress any more copies of the satire, for, to deal plainly with you, you have lost some ground at Court by it, and, as I hear from a good hand, the King, who hath so great a judgment in poetry (as in all other things else), is not well pleased therewith. Dispense with this freedom of your respectful S. and servitor,

—J. H.


To D. C., Esquire

In my last I wrote to you that Ch. Mor. was dead (I meant in a moral sense). He is now alive again, for he hath abjured that club which was used to knock him in the head so often, and drown him commonly once a day. I discover divers symptoms of regeneration in him, for he rails bitterly against Bacchus, and swears there’s a devil in every berry of his grape, therefore he resolves hereafter, though he may dabble a little sometimes, he will be never drowned again. You know Kit hath a poetic fancy, and no unhappy one, as you find by his compositions; you know also that poets have large souls, they have sociable, free, generous spirits, and there are few who use to drink of Helicon’s water, but they love to mingle it with some of Lyaeus liquor to heighten their spirits. There’s no creature that J’s kneaded of clay but hath his frailties, extravagances and excesses some way or other, for you must not think that man can be better out of Paradise than he was within it. Nemo sine crimine.

He that censures the good fellow commonly makes no conscience of gluttony and gormandising at home, and I believe more men do dig their graves with their teeth than with the tankard. They who tax others of vanity and pride, have commonly that sordid vice of covetousness attend them, and he who traduceth others of being a servant to ladies, doth baser things. We are no angels upon earth, but we are transported with some infirmity or other; and it will be so while these frail, flexible humours reign within us; while we have sluices of warm blood running through our veins, there must be oft times some irregular motions in us.

This as I conceive is that black bean which the Turks’ Alcoran speaks of when they feign that Mahomet being asleep among the mountains of the moon, two angels descended, and ripping his breast they took his heart and washed it in snow, and after pulled out a black bean, which was the portion of the devil, and so replaced the heart.

In your next you shall do well to congratulate his resurrection or regeneration, or rather emergency from that course he was plunged in formerly, you know it as well as I; and truly I believe he will grow newer and newer every day; we find that a stumble makes one take firmer footing, and the base suds which vice useth to leave behind it, make virtue afterwards far more gustful: no knowledge is like that of contraries. Kit hath now overcome himself, therefore I think he will be too hard for the devil hereafter. I pray hold on your resolution to be here the next term, that we may tattle a little of Tom Thumb, mine host of Andover, or some such matters. So I am your most affectionate servitor,

—J. H. Westminster, 15 August 1636.


To Dr Tho. Prichard at Jesus College in Oxford; from Leyden,

It is the royal prerogative of love not to be confined to that small local compass which circumscribes the body, but to make his sallies and progresses abroad to find out and enjoy his desired object under what region soever. Nor is it the vast gulf of Neptune, or any distance of place, or difference of clime can bar him of this privilege. I never found the experiment hereof so sensibly nor felt the comfort of it so much as since I shook hands with England. For, though you be in Oxford and I at Leyden, albeit you be upon an island and I now upon the continent (though the lowest part of Europe), yet those swift postillions, my thoughts, find you out daily, and bring you unto me. I behold you often in my chamber and in my bed; you eat, you drink, you sit down, and walk with me, and my fantasy enjoys you often in my sleep when all my senses are locked up and my soul wanders up and down the world, sometimes through pleasant fields and gardens, sometimes through odd uncouth places, over mountains and broken confused buildings. As my love to you doth thus exercise his power, so I desire yours to me may not be idle, but roused up sometimes to find me out and summon me to attend you in Jesus College.

I am now here in Leyden, the only academy besides Franiker of all the United Provinces. Here are nations of all sorts, but the Germans swarm more than any. To compare their university to yours were to cast New Inn in counterscale with Christ Church College, or the alms houses on Tower Hill to Button’s Hospital. Here are no colleges at all, God-wot (but one for the Dutch), nor scarce the face of an university, only there are general schools where the sciences are read by several professors, but all the students are oppidanes. A small time and less learning will suffice to make one a graduate; nor are those formalities of habits and other decencies here as with you, much less those exhibitions and support for scholars, with other encouragements; insomuch, that the Oxonians and Cantabrigians bona si sua normt, were they sensible of their own felicity, are the happiest academians on earth; yet Apollo hath a strong influence here; and as Cicero said of them of Athens: Atbenis pingue coelum, tenula ingenia (the Athenians had a thick air and thin wits); so I may say of these Lagdunensians, they have a gross air, but thin subtle wits (some of them). Witness also Heinsius, Grotius, Arminius, and Baudius. Of the two last I was told a tale, that Arminius meeting Baudius one day disguised with drink (wherewith he would be often) he told him Tu Baudi dedecoras nostram Academiam, et tu Armeni nostram Religionem (Thou Baudius disgracest our University; and thou Arminius our religion). The heaven here hath always some cloud in his countenance; and from this grossness and spissitude of air proceeds the slow nature of the inhabitants, yet this slowness is recompensed with another benefit; it makes them patient and constant, as in all other actions, so in their studies and speculations, though they use

Grasses transire Dies, lucemque palustrem.

I pray impart my love liberally amongst my friends in Oxford, and when you can make truce with your more serious meditations bestow a thought, drawn into a few lines, upon your

—J. H. Leyden, May the 30th, 1619.


To Mr P. W.

There are two things which add much to the merit of courtesies, viz., cheerfulness and speed, and the contraries of these lessen the value of them. That which hangs long betwixt the fingers, and is done with difficulty and a sullen supercilious look, makes the obligation of the receivers nothing so strong or the memory of the kindness half so grateful. The best thing the gods themselves liked of in the entertainments they received of those poor wretches Baucis and Philemon was open hearty looks.

Super omnia vultus, Accessere boni.

A clear, unclouded countenance makes a cottage appear like a castle in point of hospitality, but a beetle-browed sullen face makes a palace as smoky as an Irish hut. There is a mode in giving entertainment and doing any courtesy else which trebly binds the receiver to an acknowledgment, and makes the remembrance of it far more acceptable. I have known two Lord High Treasurers of England of quite contrary humours, one successively after the other. The one, though he did the suitor’s business, yet he went murmuring; the other, though he did it not, was used to dismiss the party with some satisfaction. It is true money is welcome, though it be in a dirty clout, but it is far more acceptable if it come in a clean handkerchief.

Sir, you may sit in the chair and read lectures of morality to all mankind in this point, you have such a dexterous, discreet way to handle suitors in that troublesome office of yours, wherein, as you have already purchased much, I wish you all increase of honour and happiness. Your humble and much obliged servitor,



To Sir Edward Sa. Knight

Sir Edward,

I had a shrewd disease hung lately upon me, proceeding, as the physicians told me, from this long reclused life and close restraint, which had much wasted my spirits and brought me low. When the crisis was past I began to grow doubtful that I had but a short time to breathe in this elementary world, my fever still increasing, and finding my soul weary of this muddy mansion, and methought more weary of this prison of flesh than this flesh was of this prison of the Fleet. Therefore, after some gentle slumbers, and unusual dreams about the dawnings of the day, I had a lucid interval, and so I fell a-thinking how to put my little house in order and to make my last will. Hereupon my thoughts ran upon Grunnius Sophista’s last testament, who having nothing else to dispose of but his body, he bequeathed all the parts thereof in legacies, as his skin to the tanners, his bones to the dicemakers, his guts to the musicians, his fingers to the scriveners, his tongue to his fellow-sophisters (which were the lawyers of those times), and so forth. As he thus dissected his body, so I thought to divide my mind into legacies, having, as you know, little of the outward pelf and gifts of fortune to dispose of, for never any was less beholden to that blind baggage. In the highest degree of theoretical contemplation I made an entire sacrifice of my soul to her Maker who by infusing created her, and by creating infused her to actuate this small bulk of flesh with an unshaken confidence of the redemption of both in my Saviour, and consequently of the salvation of the one and the resurrection of the other. My thoughts then reflected upon divers of my noble friends, and I fell to proportion unto them what legacies I held most proper. I thought to bequeath unto my Lord of Cherberry and Sir K. Digby that little philosophy and knowledge I have in the mathematics; my historical observations and critical researches I made into antiquity, I thought to bequeath unto Dr. Usher, Lord Primate of Ireland; “My Observations Abroad,” and a “Inspection into Foreign States” I thought to leave to my Lord G. D.; my poetry, such as it is, to Mistress A. K., who, I know, is a great minion of the Muses. “School Languages” I thought to bequeath unto my dear mother the University of Oxford; my “Spanish” to Sir Lewis Dives and Master Endymion Porter, for though they are great masters of that language, yet it may stead them something when they read “La Picara Justina.” My “Italian” to the worthy company of Turkey and Levantine merchants, from divers of whom I have received many noble favours. My “French” to my most honoured lady, the Lady Cor, and it may help her something to understand Rabelais. The little smattering I have in the Dutch, British, and my English I did not esteem worth the bequeathing. My love I had bequeathed to be diffused among all my dear friends, especially those that have stuck unto me in this my long affliction. My best natural affections betwixt the Lord B. of Br., my brother Howell, and my three dear sisters, to be transferred by them to my cousins their children. This little sackful of bones I thought to bequeath to Westminster Abbey, to be interred in the cloister within the south side of the garden, close to the wall, where I would have desired Sir H. F. (my dear friend) to have inlaid a small piece of black marble and caused this motto to have been insculped upon it, Hucusque peregrinus heic domi, or this, which I would have left to his choice, Hucusque erraticus, beicfixus y and instead of strewing my grave with flowers I would have desired him to have grafted thereon some little tree of what sort he pleased that might have taken root downward to my dust, because I have been always naturally affected to woods and groves and those kind of vegetables, insomuch that if there were any such thing as a Pythagorean metempsychosis I think my soul would transmigrate into some tree when she bids this body farewell.

By these extravagancies and odd chimeras of my brain, you may well perceive that I was not well, but distempered, especially in my intellectuals. According to the Spanish proverb, Siempre desvarios con la calentura, Fevers have always their fits of dotage. Among those to whom I had bequeathed my dearest love, you were one to whom I had intended a large proportion, and that love which I would have left you then in legacy, I send you now in this letter, for it hath pleased God to reprieve me for a longer time to creep upon this earth, and to see better days I hope, when this black dismal cloud is dispelled; but come foul or fair weather, I shall be as formerly your most constant, faithful servitor,

—J. H. Fleet, 26 March 1643.


To Sir L. Dives, in the Tower

Among divers other properties that attend a long captivity, one is, that it purgeth the humours, especially it correcteth choler, and attempers it with phlegm, which you know in Spanish is taken for patience. It hath also a chemical kind of quality to refine the dross and feculency of a corrupt nature, as fire useth to purify metals, and to destroy that terram Adamicam in them, as the chemist calls it; for Demogorgon with his vegetables partook of Adam’s malediction as well as other creatures, which makes some of them so foul and imperfect, nature having designed them all for gold and silver at first, and it is fire can only rectify and reduce them towards such a perfection. This Fleet hath been such a furnace to me, it hath been a kind of Perillus Bull, or rather, to use the Paracelsian phrase, I have been here in venire equino in the limbec and crucible of affliction. And whereas the chemist commonly requires but 150 days, antequam corpus in columbam vertatur, before the crow turns to a dove, I have been here five times so many days and upward. I have been here time enough, in conscience, to pass all the degrees and effects of fire, as distillation, sublimation, mortification, calcination, solution, discension, dealbation, rubification, and fixation; for I have been fastened to the walls of this prison any time these fifty-five months. I have been here long enough, if I were matter capable thereof to be made the philosopher’s stone, to be converted from water to powder, which is the whole magistry. I have been, besides, so long upon the anvil that methinks I am grown malleable and hammer-proof, I am so habituated to hardship. But indeed you, that are made of choicer mould, are fitter to be turned into the elixir than I, who have so much dross and corruption in me that it will require more pains and much more expense to be purged and defecated. God send us both patience to bear the brunt of this fiery trial, and grace to turn these decoctions into aquae vitae, to make sovereign treacle of this viper. The Trojan prince was forced to pass over Phlegethon, and pay Charon his freight, before he could get into the Elysian Fields. You know the moral, that we must pass through hell to heaven, and why not as well through a prison to Paradise? Such may the Tower prove to you, and the Fleet to me, who am your humble and hearty servant,

—J. H. From the Fleet, 23 February 1645.


To Master P. W. at Westminster

The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,


The love of God is the end of the law

The former saying was spoken by no meaner man than Solomon, but the latter hath no meaner author than our Saviour himself. Touching this beginning and this end, there is near relation between them, so near, that the one begets the other. A harsh mother may bring forth sometimes a mild daughter, so fear begets love, but it begets knowledge first; for Ignoti nulla cupido, we cannot love God unless we know Him before. Both fear and love are necessary to bring us to heaven; the one is the fruit of the law, the other of the Gospel. When the clouds of fear have vanished, the beams of love then begin to glance upon the heart, and of all the members of the body, which are in a manner numberless, this is that which God desires, because it is the centre of love, the source of our affections, and the cistern that holds the most illustrious blood; and in a sweet and well-devoted harmonious soul, Cor is no other than Camera Omnipotentis Regis; it is one of God’s closets, and indeed nothing can fill the heart of man, whose desires are infinite, but God, who is infinity itself. Love, therefore, must be a necessary attendant to bring us to Him; but besides love there must be two other guides that are required in this journey, which are faith and hope. Now, that fear which the law enjoins us, turns to faith in the Gospel, and knowledge is the scope and subject of both, yet these last two bring us only towards the haven, but love goes along with us to heaven, and so remains an inseparable sempiternal companion of the soul. Love, therefore, is the most acceptable sacrifice which we can offer our Creator, and he who doth not study the theory of it here, is never like to come to the practice of it hereafter. It was a high hyperphysical expression of St Austin when he fell into this rapture, “That if he were King of Heaven and God Almighty Bishop of Hippo, he would exchange places with Him because he loved Him so well.” This vote did so take me, that I have turned it to a paraphrastical hymn, which I send you for your viol, having observed often that you have a harmonious soul within you.


O God, who can those passions tell
Wherewith my heart to Thee doth swell:
I cannot better them declare,
Than by the wish made by that rare
Aurelian bishop, who of old
Thy oracles in Hippo told.

If I were Thou, and Thou wert I,
I would resign the Deity;
Thou should’ st be God, I would be man;
Is it possible that love more can?
Oh pardon that my soul hath ta’en
So high a flight, and grows profane.

For myself, my dear Phil, because I love you so dearly well, I will display my very intrinsicals to you in this point. When I examine the motions of my heart, I find that I love my Creator a thousand degrees more than I fear Him. Methinks I feel the little needle of my soul touched with a kind of magnetical attractive virtue, that it always moves towards Him as being her summum bonum, the true centre of her happiness. For matter of fear, there is none that I fear more than myself, I mean those frailties which lodge within me, and the extravagances of my affections and thoughts; in this particular I may say that I fear myself more than I fear the Devil, or Death, who is the king of fears. God guard us all, and guide us to our last home through the briars of this Cumbersome life. In this prayer I rest, your most affectionate servitor,

—J. H. Holborn, ai March 1639.


*Original Editor’s note: This Epilogue was attached to the first edition of the Letters. Because of the conservative force of printer’s “style” Howell’s suggestions were not uniformly adopted in his own text.

Amongst other reasons which make the English language of so small extent, and put strangers out of conceit to learn it, one is that we do not pronounce as we write, which proceeds from divers superfluous letters that occur in many of our words, which adds to the difficulty of the language. Therefore the author hath taken pains to retrench such redundant, unnecessary letters in this work (though the printer hath not been so careful as he should have been), as amongst multitudes of other words may appear in these few, “done,” “some,” “come.” Which, though we, to whom the speech is connatural, pronounce as monosyllables, yet when strangers come to read them, they are apt to make them dissyllables, as “do-ne,” “so-me,” “co-me,” therefore such an e is superfluous.

Moreover, those words that have the Latin for their original, the author prefers that orthography, rather than the French, whereby divers letters are spared, as “physic,” “logic,” “Afric,” not “phy-sique,” “logique,” “Afrique;” “favor,” “honor,” “labor,” not “favour,” “honour,” “labour,” and very many more; as also he omits the Dutch k in most words. Here you shall read “peeple” not “pe-ople,” “tresure” not “treasure,” “toung” not “tongue,” etc. “Parlement” not “Parlia-ment,” “busines,” “witnes,” “sicknes,” not “busi-nesse,” “witnesse,” “sicknesse;” “star,” “war,” “far,” not “starre,” “warre,” “farre;” and mul-titudes of such words, wherein the two last letters may well be spared. Here you shall also read “pity,” “piety,” “witty,” not “piti-e,” “pieti-e,” “witti-e,” as strangers at first sight pronounce them, and abundance of suchlike words.

The new academy of wits, called Academie des Beaux Esprits, which the late Cardinal de Richelieu founded in Paris, is now in hand to reform the French language in this particular, and to weed it of all superfluous letters, which makes the tongue differ so much from the pen, that they have exposed themselves to this contumelious proverb: “The Frenchman doth neither pronounce as he writes, nor speak as he thinks, nor sing as he pricks.”

Aristotle hath a topic axiom, that

Frustra fit per plura, quod fieri potest per pauciora

When fewer may serve the turn, more is in vain.

And as this rule holds in all things else, so it may be very well observed in orthography.



MLA Citation

Howell, James. “from The Familiar Letters of James Howell.” 1650. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 1 May 2007. 01 Oct 2023 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/howell/from_the_familiar_letters/>.

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