. . . William Cornwallis

. . .


Joke on it.


William Cornwallis disapproves.

. . .

Of Jests, and Jesters.

by guest blogger William Cornwallis, 1600

I Thinke Jestes and scabbes are much alike both the aboundance of superfluous humours; and this breaking out, more wholesome then pleasant. It defends the wit & the body from sicknesse.

If the most naturall abilities bee thus deformed, what becomes of the affections of this vaine, who inforce it in themselves? Surely, if they determine not to beg with it, and so to moove commiseration put it on and nourish it as Beggers doe broken shins, I knowe not their use. It is onely tollerable in them whose natures must of force have that vent, which use it as some bodies do breaking of winde. But for them that will choose to loose a friend rather then a Jest and desire to be admired in laughter and are out of countenance if their Jestes take not, they be in my opinion strange creatures.

There is another sort worse then these, that never utter any thing of their owne but get Jests by heart and robb bookes and men of prettie tales and yet hope for this to haue a roome above the Salt. I am tyred with these fellowes; my eares suffer at this time more then at Parris Garden.

I would haue a Jest never served above once; when it is cold, the vigour and strength of it is gone. I refuse to weare buffe for the lasting, & shall I be content to apparrell my braine in durance? By no means. Of things of this kinde, I would not desire to be doubly furnished, for by that time one be worne, it is out of fashion.

There is a kinde of harmelesse witty mirth at sometimes not ill becomming but the excesse is abhominable, especially to set the wit on the tenter-hookes for so base a purpose. Hee that happens on this mediocritie hath no evill chaunce; but to take paines, and to earne a Jest with labour, hee is in worse case then a Ballad-singer.

. . .

Introducing guest blogger William Cornwallis

In the history of discursive prose, William Cornwallis won a minuscule place as the first English imitator of Montaigne. Montaigne clearly made an impact on the lad:

I am determined to speake of bookes next, to whome, if you would not say I were too bookish, I should give the first place of all things heere. [Some brisk praise of Plato and Tacitus follows.]

For profitable Recreation that Noble French Knight, the Lord de Montaigne, is most excellent, whom though I have not been so much beholding to the French as to se in his Originall; yet divers of his peeces I have seen translated they that understand both languages say very wel done & I am able to say (if you will take the word of Ignorance) translated into a stile admitting as few Idle words as our language will endure. It is well fitted in this new garment, and Montaigne speaks now good English. It is done by a fellow less beholding to nature for his fortune than witte, yet lesser for his face then fortune. The truth is, he lookes more like a good-fellowe then a wise-man, and yet hee is wise beyond either his fortune or education. But his Authour speakes nobly, honestly, and wisely, with little method but with much judgement. Learned he was and often showes it, but with such a happinesse as his owne following is not disgraced by his owne reading. Hee speaks freely and yet wisely, censures and determines many things Judically, and yet forceth you not to attention with a "hem" and a spitting Exordium. In a word hee hath made Morrall Philosophie speake couragiously, and in steede of her gowne, given her an Armour. He hath put Pedanticall Schollerisme out of countenance, and made manifest that learning mingled with Nobilitie shines most clearly.

I haave done with bookes, and now I will sit in judgement upon all those that my memory can readily produce, and it is no presumption. [...]

- From "Essay. 12. Of Censuring"

Considered as proto-blogger, however, Cornwallis holds a number of advantages over either Montaigne or Francis Bacon: he was twenty years old and not particularly talented, intelligent, or knowledgeable. The distinction wasn't lost on him:

I holde neither Plutarche's nor none of those auncient short manner of writings nor Montaigne's nor such of this latter time to bee rightly tearmed Essayes; for though they be short, yet they are strong and able to endure the sharpest tryall. But mine are Essayes, who am but newly bound Prentise to the inquisition of knowledge and use these papers as a Painter's boy a board, that is trying to bring his hand and his fancie acquainted. It is a maner of writing wel befitting undigested motions, or a head not knowing his strength like a circumspect runner trying for a starte, or providence that tastes before she buyes. For it is easier to thinke well then to do well, and no triall to have handsome dapper conceites runne invisibly in a braine but to put them out and then looke upon them. If they proove nothing but wordes, yet they breake not promise with the world, for they say, "But an Essay," like a Scrivenour trying his Pen before he ingrosseth his worke. Nor, to speake plainely, are they more to blame then many other that promise more; for the most that I have yet touched have millions of wordes to the bringing forth one reason; and when a reason is gotten, there is such borrowing it one of another that in a multitude of Bookes, still that conceit, or some issued out of that, appeares so belaboured and worne, as in the ende it is good for nothing but for a Proverbe. When I thinke of the abilities of man, I promise my selfe much out of my reading, but it prooves not so. Time goeth, and I turne leaves; yet still finde my selfe in the state of ignorance; wherefore, I have thought better of honesty then of knowledge. What I may know, I will conuert to that use; and what I write, I meane so, for I will chuse rather to be an honest man then a good Logitian. There was never Art yet that laid so fast hold on me that she might justly call me her servant. I never knew them but superficially, nor, indeed, wil not though I might, for they swallow their subject and make him as Quid saide of himselfe.

Quicquid conabar dicere versus erat.

I would earne none of these so dearly as to ty up the minde to thinke onely of one thing; her best power by this meanes is taken from her, for so her circuit is limited to a distance, which should walke universally. Moreover, there growes pride and a selfe opinion out of this, which devours wisdome.

- From "Essay. 45. Of Essaies and Bookes."

His contemporaries took note as well. Cornwallis's one twentieth-century editor Don Cameron Allen, understandably sour retrieved two particularly telling reactions. The first, occasioned by a Parliament speech made by Cornwallis in 1604, was written by a mutual acquaintance to John Donne:

Sir William Cornwally hath taken upon him to answer the Objections against the Union, but they are done so lamely; and, although it seem scarce possible, so much worse then his Book, as (if he were not a kind friend of yours) I would expresse that wonder which I have in my heart, how he keeps himself from the Coat with long sleevs. It is incredible to think, if it were not true, that such simplicity of conceit could not be joyned in him, with so impudent utterance.

The second, answering an inquiry from would-be patron Sir Henry Wotton, was written by Cornwallis's father:

My good Lo: I thanke yow much for soe good a testimony of your love to myne unthrifty and unfortunate sonne. Hee hath spent mee in yt Courte above 5000 £i. And now haveinge geven him 200 £i a yeare more wherewith to live, he turnes his backe to his fortunes. Of all sorts of people I most dispaire of those of his sorte, that are Philosophers in their wordes and fooles in their workes. To God Almightie his mercifull and gracious providence I must leave him.

With the aid of providence William Cornwallis died dirt poor in 1614, an inspiration to us all. But let us return to 1600, where we find him launching a familiar scene, albeit without benefit of cafes or wireless access points:

Essay. 22.
Of Alehouses.

I write this in an Alehouse, into which I am driven by night, which would not give me leave to finde out an honester harbour. I am without any company but Inke & Paper, & them I use in stead of talking to my selfe. My Hoste hath already given me his knowledge, but I am little bettered; I am now trying whether my selfe be his better in discretion. The first note here is to see how honestly every place speakes, & how ill euery man lives. Not a Poste nor a painted cloth in the house but cryes out, "Feare God," and yet the Parson of the Town scarce keeps this Instruction. It is a straunge thing how men bely themselves; every one speaks well & means naughtily. They cry out if man with man breake his word, & yet no Body keepes promise with vertue. But why should these Inferiours be blamed, since the noblest professions are become base? Their instructions rest in the Example of higher fortunes, and they are blinde and lead men into sensualitie. Me thinks a drunken Cobler and a meere hawking Gentleman ranke equally; both end their pursuites with pleasing their senses. This, the eye; the other, the Taste. What differs scraping misery from a false Cheatour? The directour of both is Covetousnesse and the end Gaine. Lastly, courting of a Mistresse & buying of a Whore are somewhat like; the end of both is Luxury. Perhaps the one speaks more finely, but they both meane plainly. I haue been thus seeking differences; and to distinguish of places, I am faine to fly to the signe of an Ale-house and to the stately comming in of greater houses. For Men, Titles and Clothes, not their lives and Actions, helpe me. So were they all naked and banished from the Herald's books, they are without any evidence of preheminence, and their soules cannot defend them from Community.


Where is this Cornwallis guy? Will he do a reading at Moe's? He's Boffo!


A S K    M E    H O W !!

"He did not, however, completely adopt the Persian costume, which would have been utterly repugnant to Grecian ideas, and wore neither the trousers, the coat with long sleeves, nor the tiara, but his dress..."


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