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

§ 21. Ben Jonson’s Timber

Bacon proved the possibilities of this type of literature as a repository of miscellaneous and desultory meditations. His influence is seen in such men as Owen Felltham, who, endowed with an interest in moral problems, and a certain mastery over reflective prose, published essays from time to time. These, apparently, were intended as exercises for confirming and strengthening the writer in his own opinions, and show only occasional efforts at an imitation of Bacon’s gnomic style. And yet, Felltham’s respectable, though commonplace, moralisations established the essay’s right to embrace even sacred topics; especially are the virtuous deeds of the ancients selected with no little intuition to illustrate Christian ideals. Meanwhile, this art of extemporising modern ideas out of antiquity had reached its highest pitch in the desultory notes and reflections which Ben Jonson was making out of his vast reading. In 1641, these were published posthumously as Timber or Discoveries made upon men and matter. Practically, all the ideas contained in this miscellany, from aphoristic jottings to continuous discourses, have their origin in some other book. The influence of Velleius Paterculus, Euripides, Aulus Gellius, Quintilian and Seneca are particularly noticeable. But Timber is not a mere work of paraphrase and transcription. Sometimes, several borrowed sentences are fused into one; sometimes, thoughts from different treatises are brought together or sentences of the same treatise are arranged in a different order. The passages on Shakespeare and Bacon were taken from what Seneca wrote of Haterius and Cassius Severus; in another place, Jonson condenses several pages of the Advancement of Learning into one short essay. A sense of manly integrity, and a keen eye to practical virtue and intelligence, guided this selection of the world’s wisdom, and the style has an almost colloquial simplicity and directness far in advance of Bacon.