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

§ 15. John Stephens

Besides involved and artificial pleasantry, the Overbury collection is already touched with an air of supercilious mockery which, later, was to become the characteristic of court life. A different line of development is traceable in another miscellany published by a young lawyer, John Stephens, in 1615, together with prose and verse essays entitled Satyrical essayes, characters and others, and followed, in the same year, by a second series. In these two collections, after conventional sets of commendatory portraits, and a number of legal characters adorned with the usual style of conceit, we find a few sketches inspired by a wider and more independent curiosity in life. To begin with, some of the definitions show a less affected interest in men and women. For instance, Overbury had enlarged on “An Apparatour” as “A chicke of the egge abuse, hatcht by the warmth of authority.” Stephens explains an informer as “A protected cheater or a knave in authority”; and there is insight as well as wit in his characterisation of a churl as “the superfluity of solemne behaviour.” But the chief importance of Stephens’s work lies in the fact that, now and then, he discovers the individual beneath the type. His picture of “A Ranke Observer” is not a typical detractor, but a man who mockingly cultivates the faults he notes in his friends till they become second nature in himself. “A Gossip” and “An Old Woman” are not invectives, but sketches, full of personal observation as vivacious as Rowlands’s Tis Merrie when Gossips meete. His character of a page takes us behind the scenes, and shows to what depravity lads were exposed at court. In two sketches, he borders on the short story. One depicts “A Begging Schollar,” who, while at college, was nicknamed the “Sharke,” and, being expelled, wanders about the country consorting with vagrants, preaching if an opportunity occurs. When admitted to a few nights’ hospitality, he steals the silver spoons. The other character is “A Sicke Machiavell Pollititian,” that is to say, the insincere man who, after posing all his life, is now face to face with the reality of death.