Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by A. W. Ward
John Earle (1601?1665)
[Born at York about 1601. According to Wood, graduated B.A. and was elected to a fellowship at Merton College, Oxford, in 1619. He was a resident in the University in 1628, the date of the publication, by Edward Blount, of his Microcosmography, or A Piece of the World discovered in Essays and Characters. King Charles II., whose tutor he had been, and whose fortunes he had followed in exile, conferred upon him in 1662 the Bishopric of Worcester, whence in 1663 he was promoted to Salisbury. He died at Oxford in 1665.]
EARLES epitaph in Merton College Chapel, conformably with the fact that he lived in an age of academical studies from which we are but just emerging, based his literary reputation upon his presumably excellent Latin versions of two standard English books. But although no reference was allowed on his tomb to the one work in the vulgar tongue which has secured to him a place among our men of letters, the inscription suggests precisely enough the antithetical mixture which distinguished him as an author, while it commended him as a man. Potuit in aulâ vivere, et mundum spernere: he contrived to live at court, while contemning the world. No sentence could better summarise that which attracts and that which edifies in the character-sketches of this quick-witted observer and high-minded censor of his times.
It would be rather absurd to treat a slender collection of detached leaves like the Microcosmography (to which in later editions new detachments were from time to time added) as a classic of our prose-literature; but there is no difficulty in accounting for its prolonged popularity, and good reason for approving the soundness of the judgment with which it found favour. It fell in, as is the case with all but possibly a very few successful books (and I think I might omit the qualification), with a current of public predilection; yet its author knew how to preserve, or preserved unconsciously, the individual note.
These books of Charactersshort essays delineating in brief and quasi-aphoristic form particular types of men or womenwere an appropriate product of what may (roughly) be called the Jacobean age. On the one hand, the creativeness of dramatic characterisation had exhausted, or was exhausting itself; on the other, the introspection which Puritanism had begun to enforce called for the comparisons without which no examination of self seems to be altogether complete. The literary form suited to this still real, however extenuated, demand was ready to hand. Its inventor Theophrastus had, like Earle, lived in an age marked, to borrow the words of Professor Jebb, by a reaction from creating to analysing; and the century in which the Microcosmography was written gave birth to scores of imitations of so congenial a model. Earle, who unlike some of these had most certainly read Theophrastus, is differentiated from them allincluding the Masterby characteristics of his own. Inasmuch as while the Greek original at once inspired and controlled his method, the Characters which Earle had immediately before him were undoubtedly those of Overbury, it may suffice to compare these two series. The wider variety of observation on the part of the courtier is more than compensated by the greater depth and refinement in the university scholar; but while Overbury displays on occasion a graphic skill of which Earles sketches, as it were, offer hardly more than a promise, he cannot be said to be Earles superior either in pure wit, or I think in the conception of those grave counterfoils so effectively introduced by both authors. What, in the former way, could be better than the turn in Earles very first Character, A Child: The older he grows, he is a stair lower from God; and, like his first father, much worse in his breeches? Or the touches in the Character of A Plain Country Fellow, who never praises God but on good ground; and who thinks Noahs flood the greatest plague that ever was, not because it drowned the world, but spoiled the grass? Or, as a mere matter of quaint novelty of style, the final reference of A Young Raw Preacher to a chambermaid, with whom we will leave him now in the bonds of wedlock. Next Sunday you shall have him again?
The seventy-eight types which in the most enlarged edition of the book make up the World in Small, display less diversity than might perhaps have been expected from so numerous a selection. But the writer, it must be remembered, had, unlike Overbury, not yet begun his travels, and was a resident college fellow in a University whose praiseworthy efforts to be a world in itself were limited by circumstance even more narrowly in his time than in ours. Accordingly, though his ideal is the Contemplative Man, who is a scholar in this great university, the world, he excels in the presentation of academical and clerical types, in which, down to the days of Robert Elsmere, there has remained individuality enough to furnish forth excellent tragicomedy. Such are the Young Raw Preacher and his admirable opposite, the Grave Divine; and that other pair of contrasts, the Down-right Scholar, who cannot speak to a dog in his own dialect, and the Mere Young Gentleman of the University, who of all things, endures not to be mistaken for a scholar. These portraits, together with such pendants as An Old College Butler and A University Dun, are drawn from the life; whereas those taken from town-life, like the Tobacco-seller and Pauls Walk, are comparatively colourless. But the University or scholars point of view is apparent throughout in the illustrations which spring up ready to the authors use; in him it is not far-fetched to define the Self-conceited Man as one who prefers Ramus before Aristotle, and Paracelsus before Galen, and whosoever with most paradox is commended, and Lipsius his hopping style, before either Tully or Quintilian; or to paraphrase a Shopkeeper as the title-page or index of that well-stuffed book, his shop. But Earle is preserved from pedantry by the liveliness of his wit, while his wit itself has in it a salt nobler than the Atticthe savour of pure and unaffected piety. The vicissitudes of his career united with the characteristics of his intellect to make him an opponent of Puritanism, but not a mocking opponent; and it is noticeable how, in his forcible character of A Profane Man, he describes him as one who will take upon him with oaths to pelt some tenderer man out of his company, and makes good sport at his conquest over the Puritan fool. He makes no secret of his aversion from extravagances which even as a mere matter of style he must have naturally been inclined to dislike, above all when he sees them exaggerated, as all such things are exaggerated when taken up by women, in a She Precise Hypocrite, one of his most vigorous likenesses. But his sympathies, as the later Characters make it specially evident, are with earnestness of faith, as well as with the clearness of judgment which he misses in A Sceptic in Religion. Again, it is interesting to note how this type of academic half-heartedness rather than double-facedness should have survived to days when Socinus and Vorstius, as well as the zeal of Amsterdam, have been superseded by other heresiarchs, and by other short roads to salvation. Like most satirists (though no doubt there are notable instances on the other side) Earle was a conservative to the core; but not one of the rank and file who, like his Vulgar-Spirited Man, have no lifting thoughts.