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(1) The Character-writers:

During Jacobean and Puritan periods, the most popular exercise of the essayist is the delineation of character. Bacon, no doubt, founded a genre but he had practically no successors. The character writers of the early 17th century drew their inspiration from the Greek writer Theophrastus.

These character-writers also have a close affinity with the satirists in verse, like Joseph Hall, who did in poetry what the character-writers did in prose. John Earle, Thomas Overbuy, George Herbert and, later in the century, Thomas Fuller, are the greatest of the writers in this genre.

(I) John Earle’s Micro cosmography was first published in 1628. As the title indicates, Earle regards each character as microcosm of the macrocosm, i.e., a representation in brief of the humanity at large. The book containing fifty-five characters was immediately popular and ran into several editions.

The characters lack variety, the writer’s experience was limited to the university and so the university type predominates. However, the essayist has shown great skill in the treatment of character in his chosen field.

Earle does not make the display of his wit and skill his chief concern. His wit is not mere play with words; it is real wisdom. Often it is pungent and biting. Like other character-writers of the day, he is not concerned wholly with manner, but is concerned with matter also. His sketches are truthful, life-like.

He never loses touch with truth and reality. His work is marked with perfect sincerity. His characters have universality and so appeal even up to this day. He is greatest of the character writers of the school of Theophrastus.

(II) Sir Thomas Overbuy (1581-1613) is known for the twenty one prose sketches which he added to the first edition of his poem The Wife (1614). Overbuys characters are much inferior to those of Earle. His style is hopelessly artificial; he sacrifices matter to manner. His style abounds in far-fetched and fantastic conceits, and in this way his concern with manner pushes out truth and reality. However, his characters become concrete and solid as each one of them is given some trade and occupation, and has the virtues of that occupation.

(III) While other character-writers followed the tradition of Theophrastus, George Herbert (1593-1633) breaks from this tradition since his work The Country Parson does not deal with a number of different characters, but all the thirty-seven essays in the book have the country parson as the central figure. Each essay deals with a different aspect of his personality. His work has unity of design, which makes it different from Theophrastus’ characters.

His work is entirely free from the prevailing vices of the period: there is no extravagant display of wit, i.e., writer’s skill in the use of words. Even Earle is not entirely free from this artificiality; but Herbert is.

There is real and life-like presentations of the life and character of a parson. The work is stamped with the sincerity of its writer.

(IV) Thomas Fuller (1608-1661) is the greatest man who ever touched the character sketch. His Holy and Profane State (1641) is one of the greatest books in this genre. It is just a character-study of the virtuous and the vicious types with the virtuous pre­dominating.

The style of his essays is discursive and diffuse, even garrulous, instead of being condensed and pithy, as in the case of other character-writers. Thirdly, a whole wealth of amusing anecdotes, used to illustrate some particular trait of character, is scattered all over the essays. There is wit in him; but it is not something artificial, a mere word­play. His wit is also wisdom.

All these qualities make Fuller’s work a thing apart in literature. In the personal, intimate atmosphere of his essays, may be likened with Lamb alone in the whole range of the English Essay.

(2) Melancholy of Robert Burton:

Burton is one of those eccentrics who stand alone, but whose works stile enjoys considerable popularity. Burton suffered from melancholia and gloom, he was a learned writer and for his amusement he collected all the allusions to melancholy which he could find in the Latin and Greek works he had studied.

The result was the enormous volume Anatomy of Melancholy which at once ran into several editions. It is pillage from all known books; but a sort of unity is introduced by the personality of the collector. His melancholy is different from romantic melancholy; it is a kind of sickness, near allied to madness. His style is heavy and cumbersome, heavily overloaded with Latin quotations, expression and allusions. There is too much of word-play resulting from a childish joy in words. Long chains of synonyms are constantly used.

(3) Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82):

Sir Thomas Browne was a man of wideband varied learning and his learning is reflected in his writings. He was a doctor by profession and a mystic by temperament. The mystic vein runs through his works, and everything is colored by his personal experiences. Religion Medici his chief works.

In Religious Medici (1635) the religion of a doctor, his most personal work, he reveals his complex soul. He frequently generalizes on the vanity of glory, and the nearness of death. His greatest work Hydrotaphia or Urn Burial (1658) was inspired by the discovery of some fifty Roman Urns in the neighborhood of his residence. It shows Browne’s vast erudition regarding the various ancient modes of burial.

Browne is one of the greatest stylist in English literature. It is as an artist that he excels. As compared with his contemporaries, his sentences are short, clearly outlined, and modern and restrained in construction.

He had a passion for harmony and naturally chooses the most melodious words which make his sentences musical. The poetry of few poets is so musical as is the prose of Browne. His love of the lofty and sublime leads him to use long, learned terms and quotations. This makes him rather difficult.

There is over-abundant use of such references and allusions as are not likely to be familiar to the average reader. His style is heavily Latinized. There are too many Latin words and Latin constructions. He frequently coins words according to his need.

Browne has an important place in the history of the English essay. He is an artist with words and his style is highly-wrought, ornate and gorgeous.

(4) Pamphleteering of John Milton:

It was an age of political and religious pamphleteering. A pamphleteer aims at presenting his point of view to the people, or to attack that of his opponents. Milton, too, behaved in same manner and wrote a number of pamphlets to support the Republican and Puritan cause. Of these, Aeropagetica is among the immortal classics of English prose.

Of all the prose-writings of Milton, the greatest is the Aeropagetica (1644), the poet’s noble and inspired defense of the liberty of press and free expression. Though Milton frequently rises to the heights of eloquence, his prose is marred by serious faults such as long, shapeless, tortuous and involved sentences which are difficult to follow; both the vocabulary and syntax are heavily Latinized; too many classical and Biblical allusions; quotations from Latin sources; and over-condensation and concentration that is why sometimes he is aphoristic.

But, when all is said, Aeropagetica remains a great work. One frequently comes across inspired passages in which Milton rises to the height of eloquence. Frequently, we get admirable imagery and poetic cadences. Such passages make Milton one of the great masters of English prose.

(5) Biographies of Izaak Walton:

The most delightful and the most endearing literary figure of the period is Izaak Walton. He is a delightful biographer. His biographies of Donne, Hooker, George Herbert, etc., are among the most charming biographies ever written in the English language.

He knew his subjects intimately and narrates their life-histories accurately. He relates only such facts as he has painstakingly verified, and therein lies the value of his book. His biography of John Donne is our most reliable source for knowing the facts of the great poet’s life.

Walton writes with all the intimacy of personal acquaintance. He was cheerful, optimistic, good-natured and shrewd and his writings derive their charm from his personality, and outlook on life.

Even more popular is his The Complete Angler. It is inspired by his optimism and love of nature, and the charm of his personality runs through it like fragrance. It is in the form of the dialogue between the angler and his pupil.

It is a transformed pastoral. “It is perhaps the only book on an art or craft which ranks as literature, and it seems to have won its place without seeking (Legouis)”. The work is a minor classic of the English language.

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