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

§ 19. Robert Johnson

This conception of the honnête homme, formulated thirty years before Faret’s L’Art de plaire à la cour (1630), is the centre of Robert Johnson’s reflections, published as Essaies or Rather Imperfect Offers, in 1601. Education is, for him, merely the training for action; affability, the art of concealing offence; wisdom, the secret of successful statesmanship. His work is more direct and educative than that of Cornwallis. Frequently, he gives rules for self-training in special excellence, notably in the essay on experience, with its examination of the historical lessons to be learnt from Tacitus. But he never loses sight of the humanist’s ideal of culture. He argues that learning is no inconvenience to the soldier, but renders him more virtuous; and, while Ascham, Greene, Nashe and Hall were anathematising foreign travel, Johnson advocates it in an essay from which Bacon was not ashamed to borrow.

The essay was rapidly becoming, instead of an established form of literature, a collection of notes and maxims. David Tuvill used it wherein to display amazing familiarity with anecdotes of Greek and Roman worthies in two garrulously discursive and unpractical volumes. Before long, the practice of detached composition became the object of parody—the surest sign of recognition—in such productions as The Penniless Parliament of Threadbare Poets (1608). It blended with the collections of characters. In the fourth edition of Overbury’s works (1614), a number of witty and humorous essays on countries, manners and customs were added in the form of “Newes.” John Stephens, in 1516, coupled his Characters with some verse essays more or less in the manner of Persius, and some serious prose reflections full of quaint illustrations of thought, in which he discusses the claims and responsibilities of high-birth, the need of paternal kindness, the sin of “disinheritance” and the lessons of sympathy and kindness to be learnt from others’ sorrow. Geffray Mynshul employed both fashionable types, though both inadequately, to expose the rapacity of jailors in Essayes and Characters of a Prison and Prisoners (1618); Nicholas Breton endeavoured to fuse the two types into one in Characters upon Essays (1615). He chose the topics already discussed by the essayists—wisdom, knowledge, resolution, truth, death, fear—and, in each case, wove a few commonplace ideas into an embroidery of antithesis and metaphor. Each essay begins with a conceited definition, which is elaborated by every artifice of paraphrase, and then relinquished with an affectation of courtly indifference. Thus, the essay, which had originated as a record of informal meditation, would probably have degenerated, for several decades at least, into a mere literary toy, unless Bacon had shown its true scope and capacity.