The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVI. London and the Development of Popular Literature

§ 14. Sir Thomas Overbury

Sir Thomas Overbury was a prominent figure in this society, and, after his death, twenty-one characters were added to the second edition of his poem A Wife (1614), some by himself and others by his friends, as the title admits. The collection, in its final form, must have been largely the work of amateurs who had come under Overbury’s influence as a lover of culture. Their publications were a tribute to the name of the man who had practised and, perhaps, introduced the art, and the interest aroused in his death would ensure a good sale. The volume contains three distinct styles of character sketch: the eulogistic, the satirical and the humorous. But, among variations of detail, the whole series presents a unity not inconsistent with cooperation: the review of society from the experienced courtier’s point of view. In the first place, we have a number of commendatory portraits, which, unlike Hall’s, are not spiritual studies, but examples of how “a worthy commander in the warres” would act who knows the hazard of battle, never pardons a mistake in the field and despises calumny. Or, it is a model of “A noble and retired house-keeper” (landed gentleman), still cherishing a spirit of old-fashioned hospitality in a country seat whose Gothic architecture will “outlast much of our new fantasticall building.” Or, best of all, a “franklin,” who withstands the modern scramble for wealth, never goes to law, does not evict tenants to enclose pastures and, despite the puritans, would approve of king James’s permission for dancing in the churchyard after evensong. Or, lastly, “An excellent actor,” one of the earliest and most successful attempts to place that profession among the fine arts, in the teeth of calumny.

But class spirit becomes more evident in the satirical portrait. A series of sketches expose, with the bitterest caricature, the shifts and antics of the upstart courtier: his meanness, servility and sordid materialism. Even “The Dissembler” is no longer a mere transgressor against good faith, but a diplomatist who “baits craft with humility … and of the humours of men weaves a net for occasion.” When character beyond the pale of the court is studied, it is the obstinate narrowness, the hostility to the refinements of a liberal education, among the inns of court, the university or the country gentry, which are emphasised. This bias is best illustrated by the character of “An hypocrite,” which begins with an analysis of the type on broad lines, but soon narrows into a pamphleteering attack on the puritan, who condemns the culture of the age as “vaine ostentation,” revolts against all authority of church or king and yet exacts not only maintenance and obedience but even admiration from the sect over which he tyrannises.

These sketches and descriptions follow the Theophrastian technique, but the style is highly coloured by a conversational element. Wit, as we have seen, consisted largely in extracting imagery or allusion out of the most prosaic or even sordid topics, and definitions of types offered an excellent field for elaborate comparisons and imaginative paraphrases. It is true that, in portraying the middle-class types who opposed their ideals, the display of wit was somewhat hampered by the bitterness of the satire. But courtiers and humanists found free scope for their fanciful cleverness in describing the humbler walks of life. We have a number of lighter pieces, which turn into merriment the most ordinary of occupations. Thus, we learn that a tinker’s “conversation is unreprovable for hee is ever mending”; and that a French cook, with his attractive dishes made out of slender materials, “is the last relic of popery, that makes men fast against their conscience.” A humorous connection is also traced between a man’s occupation and his habit of thought. “An Ingrosser of corn” hates tobacco (a supposed substitute for food), and a sexton cannot endure to be told that “we ought to live by the quick not the dead.” Thus, we see that the humour of earlier and simpler generations still survived in conversational literature. These periphrases, double meanings and obliquities of expression sometimes resemble the scholarly puns of the Italian Latinists; but we must also remember that, in a more ingenuous form, they were the essence of the Tudor books of riddles. Overbury’s chapters on “A very Woman” and “Her next part” read like a continuation of the medieval controversy on women which the author of The Schole-howse of Women had revived. The character of “An ordinary Widdow” is one of the most studied in the book, yet the witticisms are but brilliant variations on a standing joke which appears in A C. Mery Talys, The Boke of Mayd Emlyn, and The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.