*Cornwallis, Sir William, the Younger
Cornwallis, Sir William, the Younger
English, c. 1579–1614
Sir William Cornwallis the Younger has some claim to the title of England’s first essayist; certainly, he was the first to write a substantial book of “familiar” essays with the critical consciousness of working within a new vernacular prose genre. His Essayes were initially published in two parts: 25 essays in 1600 (reprinted with stylistic changes in 1606) and 24 essays in 1601. In 1610 there appeared a “newly enlarged” volume comprising the 1606 edition and a somewhat revised version of the 1601 edition, along with three new essays, bringing the total to 52. A posthumous edition (1632) testifies to the continuing appeal of the Essayes, reflected in Richard Whitlock’s tribute to them as an authority for his own “manner of writing” (Zootomia, 1654). Although Francis Bacon’s brief aphoristic Essayes were available three years before Cornwallis’ first publication, the mature Baconian essay did not reach the public until his revised editions of 1612 and 1625, and there is no evidence to suggest that the two essayists had any direct influence on each other. (Despite their appearance under the title Essayes…, Cornwallis’ six posthumously issued pieces of 1616 belong to another genre popular in the Renaissance: the paradox.)
The Cornwallian essay, ranging in length from barely a page to ten or more pages, grafts an informal engagement with humanist learning to the moral typologies of “character” writing. It reads somewhat like the exercise of a youthful Montaigne coming of age in the social and political milieu of a late Elizabethan courtier, poor and debtridden but resolved upon taking his own measure through explorations of the world’s virtues and vices. The essay titles—e.g. “Of Resolution,” “Of Suspition,” “Of Love,” “Of Feare,” “Of Vanitie,” “Of Alehouses,” “Of Knowledge,” “Of Discourse”—give some notion of their author’s topical range, the associative movement of his thought testing its vernacular muscle among the neoStoic moral commonplaces that guide him like his own personal courtesy book. Cornwallis read the ancients, including the Greeks, in Latin, and he knew Italian (as well as some Spanish), especially the writings of Guicciardini, Sannazaro, Machiavelli, Petrarch, and Tasso; the ideal of humanist learning is affirmed in his own vision of courts of “gentlemen” enacting the virtues, each according to his capacity and station. In his writing, he appears intent upon preparing himself for a post in such a court by essaying moral commonplaces that have the power to make or break him.
Thus, for instance, the discourses of professional men such as surgeons and attorneys are, in Cornwallis’ eyes, “places to grow fat in, not wise,” and those of scholars “too finicall,” prone to fall apart unless they are made to “goe Methodically to worke”; “a Gentleman,” he insists, “should talke like a Gentleman,” whose knowledge is “generall.” A specialized knowledge is “but one part of the house, a baywindow or a gable-ende,” and he is brought to ask: “Who builds his house so maimed, much lesse himselfe?”
Characteristically, Cornwallis searches out his own moral location in the space of discourse: “It shal be my course…not to loose my self in my tale, to speak words that may be understood, and, to my power, to meane wisely rather than to speake eloquently” (“Of Discourse”).
Viewing his essays as conversations with himself, Cornwallis counterposes a “talking style” (“Of Ambition”) to the Ciceronian model, corrupted, to his way of thinking, by rhetorical verbosity. Avowing allegiance to Seneca and Tacitus, he writes in the “loose” style combined with “curt” elements, but with little of either Ben Jonson’s pointed verve or John Donne’s mannered wit—he counted both among his friends. He leans toward Montaigne’s discursiveness, but with little capacity to sustain the great French essayist’s ruminative and narrative range. “Plainnesse” (“Of Essaies and Bookes”) functions for him as a textual mirror to reflect his mind’s movement; it serves to mediate between thought and action and to bring the particulars of his individuality into accord with the universal “minde.” Thus, says Cornwallis, “I would be as I talke” (“Of Fortune and her Children”). Having read a partial translation of Montaigne’s essays (“divers of his
pieces” [“Of Censuring”]) before their appearance in English, he declares that neither they nor those of the ancients are “rightly tearmed Essayes; for… they are strong and able to endure the sharpest tryall.” “But mine,” he claims, “are Essayes, who am but newly bound Prentise to the inquisition of knowledge and use these papers as a Painter’s boy a board, that is trying to bring his hand and his fancie acquainted” (“Of Essaies and Bookes”). At times immediate and self-referential (“I Write this in an Alehouse, into which I am driven by night” [“Of Alehouses”]), or vaguely confessional (“About nothing doe I suffer greater conflicts in my selfe then about induring wrongs” [“Of Patience”]), or casually conversational (“It is a pretty soft thing this same Love, an excellent company keeper” [“Of Love”]), or gnomically brooding (“We are all in darkenesse” [“Of Ambition”]), the openings of the Essayes not infrequently strike a strong personal and experiential note. A crotchety, even harsh sensibility colors many of these pieces, suggesting a spirited youth whose early disillusionment with the world and himself drives him into reclusion, where he earnestly searches his books for understanding. Unlike Bacon, bringing counsel to others on the path to power, Cornwallis writes as physician to his own soul: “without any company but Inke & Paper, & them I use in stead of talking to my selfe” (“Of Alehouses”). Essay writing furnishes him with the “Marchandise of the mind” (“Of Keeping State”) that will, he writes, “cure my bodie in his innate diseases” (“Of Life, and the Fashions of Life”).
England’s first essayist in the spirit of Montaigne, scarcely past adolescence when he embarked on his opus, contemplates himself as a creature of time (“the stuffe that life is made of” [“Of Vanitie”]): the self of his past destined by birth for an “active course” (“Of Life”) but already lost to folly; the self of his present uncertainly taking shape in writing; the self of his anticipated future resolutely adjusting to a neo-Stoic regimen, an increasingly shared nostalgia of the Jacobean age. Thus the temporality of the self unfolds in the Cornwallian essay as a discourse for moral measurement. “Shall it not bee lawful then for us to build our Tombes in our Papers?” asks Cornwallis in “Of Trappes for Fame.”
Although interest in the Essayes waned after the middle of the 17th century, their colloquial candor infuses a tincture of Montaigne into the English practice of the genre, even as the Baconian alternative is still discovering its own form. For the modern reader, the dogged moralizing of Cornwallis’ book somewhat dulls its often engaging immediacy but leaves, at the same time, the emblematic stamp of a rugged, roughand-ready selfportraiture.
Born probably 1579 in Suffolk. Nephew of Sir William Cornwallis, the Elder. Probably educated privately; knew Spanish and Italian but no French. Married Katherine Parker, 1595:11 children (three died). Member of Parliament for Lostwithiel, 1597, and Orford, Suffolk, 1604, 1614. Accompanied Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex on his Irish campaign, 1599: knighted as a result. Involved in court life, 1601–05: member of King James’ privy chamber, 1603, and carried dispatches between Spain and England for his ambassador father, 1605; renounced court when he failed to win the king’s preferment.
Friend of Ben Jonson, commissioning him to write Penates, or a Private Entertainment for the King and Queen, 1604. Also associated with John Donne and Thomas Overbury.
Apparently lived extravagantly until he lost the inheritance of his uncle’s estate; at his death left his wife and children in poverty. Died 1 July 1614.
Essays and Related Prose
Essayes, 2 vols., 1600–01; enlarged edition, 1610; edited by Don Cameron Allen, 1946
Other writings: Discourses upon Seneca the Tragedian (1601); The Miraculous and Happie Union of England and Scotland (1604); Essayes; or Rather Encomions, Prayses of Sadnesse (1616); and Essayes of Certain Paradoxes (1616).
Bennett, Roger E., The Life and Works of Sir William Cornwallis (dissertation), Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University, 1931
Bennett, Roger E., “Sir William Cornwallis’ Use of Montaigne,” PMLA 48 (December 1933):1080–89
Bush, Douglas, “Essays and Characters,” in his English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600–1660, Oxford: Clarendon Press, revised edition, 1962 (original edition, 1945)
MacDonald, W.L., “The Earliest English Essayists,” Englische Studien 64 (September 1929):20–52
Price, Michael W., “Sir William Cornwallis,” in British Prose Writers of the Early Seventeenth Century, edited by Clayton D. Lein, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 151, Detroit: Gale Research, 1995:82–87
Salmon, J.H.M., “Seneca and Tacitus in Jacobean England,” in The Mental World of the Jacobean Court, edited by Linda Levy Peck, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991:169–88
Sandbank, S., “On the Structure of Some Seventeenth-Century Metaphors,” English Studies 52 (August 1971):323–30
Thompson, Elbert N.S., The Scventeenth-Century English Essay, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1926
Upham, A.H., “Montaigne,” in his The French Influence in English Literature, from the Accession of Elizabeth to the Restoration, New York: Octagon, 1965 (original edition, 1908)
Wedgwood, C.V., “The Later Evolution of Prose,” in her Seventeenth-Century English Literature, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1970 (original edition, 1950)
Whitt, P.B., “New Light on Cornwallis the Essayist,” Review of English Studies 8 (1932):155–69
Williamson, George, “Aculeate Style and the Cult of Form,” in his The Senecan Amble: A Study in Prose Form from Bacon to Collier, London: Faber, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951
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