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

§ 20. Bacon’s Essays

Bacon’s virtue consists in his style and sagacity, which is all the more penetrating because confined to a certain range of ideas. In the edition of 1597, he had refrained from the ornaments of diction to be found in his earlier works, apparently because the essays were intended only as private notes for the perusal of a few friends. But, by 1612, the popularity of the genre and his own reputation as the inventor induced him to revise the first series and add twenty-eight new essays in a smoother, less jejune style. By 1625, his final edition was complete. This collection contains fifty-eight essays, written with a perfect mastery of language in a spirit of superb confidence.

The true importance of his style is to be found in its pregnancy. In an age of complicated and superficial verbiage, he turns the licence of imaginative and allusive expression into an instrument of accurate and chastened thought. Character writers had introduced their portraits with a pointed or fanciful definition. Bacon does the same, but so as to express an abstract idea in the commonest objects of sight and experience. Thus, “Men in great place are thrice servants,” “Fortune is like the market,” “Virtue is like a rich stone, best plain set,” “Praise is the reflection of virtue,” “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune.” These appeals for confirmation to everyday facts run all through his essays. Selfish statesmen are compared to ants in an orchard; men are bettered by believing in a God, as a dog when he owns a master. Again, though he never condescends to convince, his oracular utterances are the fruit of minute calculation; and this scientific process appears in the almost judicial balancing of pros and contras, as in the essay, “Of Usury,” or in the methodical and detailed directions which he gives, as in the essay “Of Travel.” His logical habit of mind has transformed even the materials of pedantry. The numerous quotations and illustrations drawn from the Bible, the classics and Machiavelli, seem necessary to his argument, and his unacknowledged appropriations from Montaigne strike one as mere coincidences of thought. All forms of knowledge are subjected to the elucidation of his views on life. The primum mobile of astronomy illustrates “the motions of the greatest persons in a government,” and the legend of Briareus is interpreted as an emblem of the people’s power.

These excellencies were largely due to the fact that Bacon regarded the popularity of the Essays as ephemeral and was not posing for posterity. He wrote down simply the things which interested himself. This spontaneity carried its own limitations. Many of the essays are made up of extracts, compiled from his other works, and woven together into a new whole. He frequently misquotes or misrepresents his quoted authors; and, sometimes, he does not adhere closely to the title of his essay. Besides, Bacon led two lives, and in his views on worldly matters we have only half the man: the side of him engaged in a struggle for advancement. Hence, he regards life as a stage, and his meditations almost always recur to the rôle which men play in the eyes of the world. Adversity is discussed as a means of evoking the practice of virtue; friendship is viewed as a condition in which a man’s judgment may become clearer and his happiness more complete. Even love and marriage are considered chiefly as an impediment to the serious pursuits of life. But the greater number of his “Dispersed Meditations” deal with the immediate problem of success; how far secrecy in dissembling will substitute an inborn gift of discretion; whether boldness will counteract a reputation for failure; in what way a knowledge of men rather than of books can be turned to account in the intrigues of court life. These speculations lead him into higher circles of government and diplomacy, where, to penetrate the problems of statecraft, he dispels the illusions of greatness. He fathoms the “inscrutable hearts of kings” and pictures their pitiable isolation and toilsome existence. His book is destined for the commons of the realm: so the advice which he professes to give their rulers is really an exposure (perhaps not intentional) of the machinery of government. We have glimpses of the monarch seated at the council-board, preparing his public utterances or choosing his favourites. The same interest leads him to raise questions of public policy. In the essay “On Superstition,” he marshals the chief accusations against the Roman Catholic church; and, in treating of the greatness of kingdoms, he does not ignore the bitter quarrel between the peasantry and the gentry. Through every discussion, whether on death and religion, or on gardens and masques, there runs that subconscious ideal of versatile liberal culture out of which the essay sprang.