Essays in The 17th Century English Literature

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      In the early part of the 17th century, the essay took the form of character sketches at the hands of Hall, Sir Thomas Overbury and John Earle — all imitators of the Greek philosopher Theophrastus and the Roman Seneca. These writers are called as the Character Writers in the 17th century. Their writings are sketches of different types of men. The 16th century had established a standard of high order in the essay, which touched almost every field like the field of finance, agriculture, politics, religion or literature. Owen Feltham (1602-1668) was the pioneer essay writer of the 17th century. Felltham published this work when he was barely 18 years old. The essays were short but thought provoking and appreciation winning. The book became very popular after revision in 1628 after 8 years of the first edition; twelve editions had come by 1709. The book is written not without ease, certainly with care. The author’s discipleship to Bacon is clear. William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649) the author of A Cypress Grove comes near the top-most heights of literature, next to Falltham. A Cypress Grove, an eloquent meditation upon death, was published in 1623. It is perhaps the first conscious and sustained effort in English to write poetical prose. In Irene (1638) Drummond becomes rhetoric. Had he been born a century later, he would have captured the fame of Steele and Addison.

      Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) is an honorable successor of Drummond. On the ground of his Tracts and Miscellanies (1716-1729) he is entitled to be placed among the top essayists. But his works are long and closely articulated. Raligio Medici is his greatest work, it is mostly autobiographic. Johnson speaks of Browne’s style as a “tissue of many languages”. Next in line is Edward Hyde (1609-1674) whose Contemplations and. Reflections upon the Psalms of David is a good collection of essays, perhaps nearly all essays are full of reflections of a man rich in experience. Clarendon’s work Divine and Moral is a famous collection of good essays. These authors are more close to Montaigue than Bacon. But Abraham Cowley (1618-1667) is a Baconian.

      James Howell (1594-1666) is the next essayist with his paper on The Spectator which is voluminous, published in four volumes. Dryden (1631-1700) is another notable essayist of 17th Century. During the Restoration period, he has introduced a new variety called the Critical Essay. While its form was professionally Montaigne’s, its theme was literary criticism. All of Dryden’s prefaces and other miscellaneous prose writings are essentially essays in criticism. His famous works are Epistle Dedicatory of the Rival Ladies (1664) and the Preface to the Fables (1700). Among the earliest of his essays was Of Dramatic Poetry (1668) which is still the best known essay and contains the most elaborate exposition of his critical principles.

      In the last of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century some essayists are known as the Queen Anny Essayists, which includes Richard Steele (1672-1729), Daniel Defoe (1661-1731), Joseph Addison (1672-1719), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Alexander Pope (1688-1744), George Berkeley (1685-1753) and John Arbuthnot (1667-1735). Richard Steele (1672-1729) is the initiator of Anne’s period of essay writing, but the true ball ringer was Daniel Defoe (1661-1731). He is often described as an honorable predecessor of Steele. They were both good writers but neither of them can be ranked with the greatest except the area of power of origination. Defoe was an essayist, more the disciple than the master of Steele. Addison (1672-1719) made himself known by his The Tatler (around 1712). Between Steele and Addison, Steele was a more richly cognitive mind of the two. Addison could never rise to the highest rank. He erred while separating form from the substance. Still it was Addison alone who taught the lesson of neatness, lucidity and precision. Alexander Pope contributed 8 papers to the Guardian and Berkeley as many as fourteen. Berkeley ranks next after Addison and Steele in quantity of contribution and his writings are mostly in the defense of Christianity.

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