Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by William S. M’Cormick
Sir Thomas Overbury (1581–1613)
[Sir Thomas Overbury (1581–1613) was the son of Nicholas Overbury, a squire in Gloucestershire. After three years at Queen’s College, Oxford, where he took the degree of B.A., he travelled for some time on the Continent. His introduction to the Court was doubtless due to Carr, who was, till close upon Overbury’s death, his most intimate and constant companion. In 1608 Overbury was knighted; in the following year he visited France and the Low Countries, and wrote his Observations Upon the State of the Seventeen Provinces. On his return he was regarded as the most accomplished of James’s courtiers, and the wits and poets vied with each other in soliciting his patronage. Ben Jonson, with whom he quarrelled afterwards, ascribes in some complimentary verses the saving of wit and manners at Court to Overbury’s presence. In 1613, as “oracle of direction” to Carr, now Lord Rochester, Overbury strongly opposed his friend’s marriage with the Countess of Essex, who had obtained a divorce with this purpose. The countess in revenge secured his imprisonment in the Tower, where, after five months of lingering suffering, he died of poison at the age of thirty-eight. In 1616 Rochester (then Somerset) and his wife were found guilty of the murder. Some contemporary records suggest that James I. was implicated. It is possible that the pride and insolence of bearing with which one contemporary, Weldon, charges Overbury, may have made him enemies at Court. But even this writer admits him to have been “a man of excellent parts.” Overbury’s works, published after his death, gained an immense popularity. His poem of The Wife, written, according to Overbury’s father, “to induce Viscount Rochester to make a better choice than of the divorced Countess,” appeared in 1614. To the second edition in the same year were “added many witty Characters and conceited News, written by himself and other learned gentlemen his friends.” There are only twenty-one characters in this issue. By the ninth impression in 1616 the number had swelled to eighty. An excellent comparison of Theophrastus and his English followers—Hall, Overbury, and Earle—is to be found in Mr. Jebb’s introduction to his edition of Theophrastus (Macm. 1870).]  1
SHORT sketches of character and manners form a feature of our seventeenth-century literature. Over two hundred “characters,” or books of characters, are said to have been published between the years 1605 and 1700. Casaubon had published in 1592 a Latin translation of Theophrastus. But though the Greek author is taken as a model in some of these works, the main causes of their prevalence are to be sought in the age itself. “There was,” says Mr. Jebb, “in one particular, a rough analogy between the literature of that century in England and the Greek literature of the age of Theophrastus; both were marked by the reaction from creating to analysing, and in both ethical analysis was a favourite subject.” Church and stage alike fostered a taste for these character sketches. Of these the earliest of any importance—Hall’s Characterisms of Virtues and Vices (1608), which have an avowedly didactic purpose—shows the tendency to ethical introspection which Puritanism brought with it. Overbury’s Characters, which followed Hall’s, take their cue rather from the comedy of the time; they are framed pretty much after the model of the descriptions of contemporary manners, that are occasionally to be found in such plays as Cynthia’s Revels. Hall’s Characters are illustrations for sermons; Overbury’s, for the most part, echo the wit and gossip of court and tavern. Further, euphuism was a dialect specially adapted to personal criticism of this kind. But while it lent itself to this taste, it at the same time led off the writer from simple description into elaborate comment. Hall, though following in the main the manner of Theophrastus in giving characteristic anecdotes, is affected to some extent by the prevalent taste for conceit and antithesis. In Overbury it reaches its height. As a rule, illustrations are sacrificed to make room for epithets; and even when he does illustrate traits by examples, they are given neither simply nor concretely enough to be effective. A comparison of one of Theophrastus’ characters—say, The Shameless Man—with An Affectate Traveller, one of the best of Overbury’s, will show how Overbury’s wit is apt to spoil his humour. The following is an average specimen of his style, “A Dissembler is an essence needing a double definition, for he is not that he appears. Unto the eye he is pleasing, unto the ear not harsh, but unto the understanding intricate, and full of windings; he is the prima materia, and his intents give him form; he dyeth his means and his meaning into two colours; he baits craft with humility, and his countenance is the picture of the present disposition. He wins not by battery, but undermining, and his rack is smoothing. He allures, is not allured by his affections, for they are the brokers of his observation. He knows passion only by sufferance, and resisteth by obeying. He makes his time an accountant to his memory, and of the humours of men weaves a net for occasion: the inquisitor must look through his judgment, for to the eye only he is visible.” Overbury is constantly on the track of the ingenious. He places subtlety of words before subtlety of invention and characterisation; the originality of the idea rarely justifies the novelty of its expression. Many of the sketches, as A Sailor, A Tailor, and others, are little more than a succession of puns. Yet most are to some extent redeemed by a sentence or two. “A Flatterer is the shadow of a fool.” Of an Ignorant Glory-hunter: “He confesseth vices he is guiltless of, if they be in fashion.” Of a Timist: “He never praiseth any but before themselves or friends; and mislikes no great man’s actions during his life.” Of a Good Woman: “Dishonesty never comes nearer than her ears, and then wonder stops it out, and saves virtue the labour…. She hath a content of her own, and so seeks not a husband, but finds him.” This last portrait, which comes first in the collection, shows, like A Franklin and A Fair and Happy Milkmaid, a sincere appreciation of virtue; but, as a rule, Overbury’s style is more serviceable in satire.  2
  Only a small proportion of Overbury’s sketches are “characters” in the Theophrastian sense. Seven-eighths of them are descriptive of callings or professions rather than of moral qualities; and the majority of these, again, seem portraits rather of individuals than of types. The character given to an Old Man, or a Country Gentleman, is evidently coloured by personal animus. The writer, or writers, of An Apparitor, A Creditor, A Sergeant, and A Jailor had probably suffered at their hands. There can be little doubt that A Tailor was drawn by a customer who could not pay his bill. Overbury is at his best in the portraiture of manners. He has not his successor Earle’s sympathetic insight, nor does he attempt in his characters, as Earle does, a sober estimate of both sides. This can be seen by comparing Earle’s with Overbury’s Flatterer, and Earle’s Downright Scholar with Overbury’s Mere Scholar. But Overbury has a quicker eye for small vagaries of behaviour, and for superficial oddities of character; and he has a wider and more intimate experience to draw from. His Characters are valuable as a reflection of the times. The courtier “in Paul’s, with a pick-tooth in his hat, a capecloak and a long stocking”; the button-maker of Amsterdam whose “zeal consists much in hanging his Bible in a Dutch button”; the sailor whose “language is a new confusion, and all his thoughts new nations”; the braggadocio Welshman who “prefers Owen Glendower before any of the nine worthies:” these and others serve to bring the age before the modern reader, and at times throw an interesting light upon the Elizabethan drama.  3
  It is convenient to speak of the Characters as Overbury’s, but it must not be forgotten that he is mentioned on the title-page of every edition merely as joint-author. The method of their publication justifies the inference that Overbury wrote only a few of them. It is impossible, however, to say which are his, and which belong to the “other learned gentlemen, his friends.” The dialect and accent are much the same in all, though more pronounced in some. Some doublets occur, which seem as if they were rival exercises on the same theme. There are two portraits of A Mere Fellow of an House; and it is hard to distinguish between A Wise Man and A Noble Spirit. Some of the sketches have so little unity of purpose that they might be taken as the result of a game in which each of a company of wits had taken his turn. It may be fairly said of most of them that they served to their writers as butts for “taffeta phrases, silken terms precise.”  4
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