Books Sir William Cornwallis (ca. 1579 – 1614) was an early English essayist, the son of Sir Charles Cornwallis (died 1629) the courtier and diplomat and often confused with his uncle also Sir William Cornwallis Sr who was a sometime cohort of the playwright Ben Jonson. As the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes, Sir William Jr served in the earl of Essex's Irish campaign for which he was knighted on 5 August 1599. "Whether or not he was involved in Essex's rebellion" the dictionary notes, "he lived quietly for the rest of Queen Elizabeth's reign and was for a time in Edinburgh, where he introduced Sir Thomas Overbury to Robert Carr" (who then scandalously went on to become a favourite of James I). My first encounter with Cornwallis was reading James Shapiro's superb biography of a year, 1599, which is when Shakespeare is thought by him to have written Julius Caesar, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Hamlet. In his discussion of this latter play, Shapiro reproduces excerpts of Cornwallis's essays as part of a thesis that Hamlet's soliloquies aren't simply designed as psychological expositions, but as poetic versions of the trend at the time for paradoxical essays, also pioneered by John Donne and Sir Francis Bacon, the praising of misfortunes, that sort of thing. Cornwallis himself was heavily influenced by Montaigne in his methodology and Seneca in his ethics, though I admit that as I tumble towards the middle of this paragraph I'm reaching the end of my ability to sound knowledgable. What I do know is that they're also exceedingly difficult to access so I thought I'd begin making them available in a version with modern spelling at least. We begin with On Resolution, whose opening paragraph is difficult not to consider its words terms of the history of writing and reproduction, especially now and online and how we communicate with each other. Plus there's the As You Like It resonance. Jacques says "All the world's a stage..." No, says Cornwallis, "The world is a book..." The rest is quite difficult to follow but has some wonderful language in relation to how he feels about his fellows in court. In content, I'm reminded of what Jeff Goldblum's character says in The Big Chill.
The world is a book: the words and actions of men, commentaries, up that volume: The former like manuscripts, private: the latter common, like things printed.
None rightly understand this author: most go contrary: Some few according to probability: but the world of all is, the unsettled opinion, whole continual alteration makes him unprofitable to himself, and to others. So much have I, hated this giddy unconstantness, as I have been content to take knowledge of mean resolutions to prefer them before the other; yea to pity and admire them both together, and to end the viewing of that object with allowing the virtue of the level, if it had been well set. Truly I need no other example than mine own life, which endured continual troubles, while youth and folly governed my bark in the sea of changes. I still contradicted my own self, attempted nothing, but a languishing weariness possessed me before the end: but it was no matter, for unworthy were those thoughts, and intents, as they were unworthy of an untimely death, and to be interred in the mire of irresolution. In the end I found myself: I and my soul undertook to guide into a more wholesome air: I dare not say she hath kept promise really, but it was my own fault, yet in part she hath her motion, my own memory and books have done something: these last I am much bound to. Especially to Seneca and Plato, who have gotten this power over me (though they seldom make me do well), they oft time make me think well: they so wholly possess me, as I sometime resolve to mediate on nothing under Socrates Apologie.
Me thinks I am strong and able to encounter my affection, but hardly have my thoughts made an end of this gallant discourse, but in comes a wife, a friend, at whole sight my Armour of defence is broken, and I could weep with them, or be content to laugh at their trivial sports. After which I come again to see my promise broken, that challenge in cold blood makes me desperate, that were it not for the comfort of my youth, which gently gives me time, I should surely punish my inconsistency with great rigour.
Thus it is with me yet, and I am afraid of work, by comparing what there power these gentle disturbances have over me: I am afraid griefs and calamities would overthrow me: nay, I will not be afraid (since it is truth) to confess, that I am more troubled to think disasters should trouble me, then of themselves: yet I am sometimes persuaded not to mistrust myself, since I have already sated some store of crosses; but they are nothing; no not preparatives to that I may feel. Not leaving these thoughts thus, I begin to search into the inventory of my things esteemed and I find not that I have caused to love anything too preciously. I have a wife, and a very good one, I love her according to her deserts; but should she fall into anything except dishonesty (which her virtue and I know will defend her from) I would not weep if I could choose, not do anything more than stand the surer upon my guard to resist fortune: for wealth and her Appendices I know them not, not did I long for them veer, but I keep me from baseness, and to exercise Charity. For my parents, I owe them voluntarily that, which the laws of God and of Nature exact of all men, I do it without hypocrisy, or fear: yet should they loose their wealth, or their lives, I would neither tear me hair, nor melt into womanish exclamations. No, I know the revolutions of the world, they are no strange to be:
Omnia tempus edax depascitur, imnua carpit Nil infinit effe din.
I think nothing would more trouble me, then that they should loose their reputation: love that well, and it would grieve me sure to be prevented of that patrimony. For other friends (thanks be to God) I have but few, I would I could affirm the fame of my acquaintance. The cause, few have corrupted me; and out of my own choice, there are few that I hold worthy of that nearness. Some I have whom I hold so virtuous that they would be sorry to see me lament for any of their trials. Thus I have been content to hold you in mine own example the longer, as taking the opportunity of recording these honest thoughts whole, will I hope I shall better follow, since I have set my hand to their book: and I see no reason but I should be as careful of not breaking them, as common men are of a bond: the penalty is as much: the law to punish, and recover, lies open; the course of conscience with whom it is always term time.
To speak now of the contrary, it hath much moved me to see the strange alterations of men upon slight occasions, at the receipt of a letter, yea, before the reading, at a message, at news: I have been so charitable as to be sorry for them, for these intolerable bendings of theirs. There are others (but it is no matter, for they are commonly hawking, or dogging fellows) that hoping to return of some messenger employed before these worthy occasions have suffered great extremity between hope and feat and that time: at slight of the messenger, behold the height of disquietness and wherefore? Alas for a dog, or a hawke: believe me, a pitiful diseases, which in my opinion ought to be prayed for as earnestly, as one that is upon the point of taking his leave of his body. When Seneca writ the definition of hope, Spes nomen eft boni Incerti, I am sure he meant not that good this way.
Banish these gross perturbations, all noble spirits they are dangerous, and the enemies of resolution. I do not poetically deify resolve, neither do I set up a mark impossible to hit: no, it is in the power a low stature to wade hear without drowning: I speak of no impossibility, perhaps at the first some little difficulty: there belongs to the basket trades, and shall thy estimation be so tender hearted, as to refuse it so mean a price: beware of such covetousness, for it is worse than to love money. For misfortunes in general, methinks, should not be so near a kin to us, they are no part of us, we may stand without them. God hath given us bodies and souls separate from others, and hath tied neither lands nor treasures unto thee, they are no part of their building; we are worse than woman, if we cannot go without these habiliments and tricks: without question, it is a true sign of a maimed soul and a deformed body, to see lustre from these outward things. It is more base then to be out of countenance at a feast, if not graced by the hist. I am myself still, though the world were turned with the wrong side outward.
If I lose found in virtue, I will repent, not wash handkerchiefs in my tears. Man knows not himself until he hath tasted of both fortunes. Every milk-fop can endure to swim in hot baths; any man shows gloriously in pomp, and no marvel, for he feeds Flatterers, and they him: but to endure the most violent rides, and still swim aloft, he is the man. You shall find no man that dares go wet shod, but will protest in his ambition, how much he loves. Honour, what exploits, what famous acts he would do, if he had been born mighty: do you hear my friend? You are out of the way, if you think any other estate but your own capable, of true honour: the poorer, the better, the stronger your enemy, the more worthy your conquest: vanquish your own sick wishes, and desires, and the chariot of triumph belongs more truly to you, then to Caesar. I write thus, I think thus and I hope to do thus: but that blessed time is not yet come. Now to particularities.
In the outward habit, and in some act ions, I am not so precise. I like not to be bound to one, it becomes not secular men, it tastes of affectation and hypocrisy: it is taught, it comes too near singularity and a desire to be noted: for those things I would conform myself: I am not of their minds that tax Alexanders putting on the habit of the Persians. It was a politick intent, he joined them to him, by that yielding. For some actions, if they be not wholly vicious, humanity and good nature shall make me sociable. I will hawk with a falconer, hunt with hunters, talk of husbandry with the servants of thrift: be amorous with the Italian, and drink with Dutch man, Non ad Ebrietatem, fed as voluptatem: The fruit, you shall thereby win their loser, and you may that interest make them honest: A course neglected, but well-becoming a wife honest man. Your determination being not to put on their imperfections, but to make them perfect: So doth the grafter join good fuir to a crab slock: and this humility alters not the good, but makes whthat which is ill, good.
Some may wonder I have not yet touched the death of the chief. I though thinkest so, thou art a coward, for in my opinion all affections are more strong and though to some it is the chief instrument of fear, I think not so, though mistake it; it is past fear, for thou art sure of it. Thou art unreasonable, if thou wilt buy a thing and not pay for it: though boughtest life, and payest for it with death. The lapidary is not sorry when he hath gotten the rind, or bark of the jewel from what is precious. They boy is no otherwise, thou art never not, thou hast no virtue in thee, thou art not found until the cover of they perfection be withdrawn.
In truth at this time, though my face would hinder me from thought of Age, and so by course my lease might be long, yet I am not afraid to be put out of my farm: It is a dirty thing to dwell in, full of misty gross airs, and yet barren; I have been so vainglorious sometimes as to say so, when I have been answered by more year, that I would change that mind, when I grew older. I have searched into that speech, supposing there had bin some concealed mystery in it, but I could find none: then I thought they imagined my boldness, the effect of ignorance: if it be so, I shall love knowledge the worse while I live. To cure this disease in a woman, I would apply no other medicine but example: It is everybody’s case, the fortune of princes, as well as beggars, it is the fashion. To conclude, the first causer said it should be so: and if thou art not a heathen, thou wilt not mistrust his love. His wisdom ordained it, who is the fountain of understanding: Come then, Allons Alegrement. I have loved a creature that hath been the very picture of ignorance, for following the example of Socrates taking his poison. And Cicero whom I could never love, because he was a coward, won me at his death, with thrusting his neck out of the coach, to meet the sword of the executioner.
[With special thanks to James Smith and Matt Symonds for pointing me towards a transcribable copy online.]