1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Evelyn

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:419-20.



JOHN EVELYN (1620-1706), a gentleman of easy fortune, and the most amiable personal character, distinguished himself by several scientific works written in a popular style. His Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in his Majesty's Dominions, published in 1664, was written in consequence of an application to the Royal Society by the commissioners of the navy, who dreaded a scarcity of timber in the country. This work, aided by the king's example, stimulated the landholders to plant an immense number of oak trees, which, a century after, proved of the greatest service to the nation in the construction of ships of war. Terra, a Discourse of the Earth, relating to the Culture and Improvement of it, for Vegetation and the Propagation of Plants, appeared in 1675; and a treatise on medals is another production of the venerable author. There has been printed, also, a volume of his Miscellanies, including a treatise in praise of "Public Employment and an Active Life," which he wrote in reply to Sir George Mackenzie's "Essay on Solitude." Evelyn was one of the first in this country to treat gardening and planting scientifically; and his grounds at Sayes Court, near Deptford, where he resided during a great part of his life, attracted much admiration, on account of the number of foreign plants which he reared in them, and the fine order in which they were kept. The czar, Peter, was tenant of that mansion after the removal of Evelyn to another estate; and the old man was mortified by the gross manner in which his house and garden were abused by the Russian potentate and his retinue. It was one of Peter's amusements to demolish a "most glorious and impenetrable holly hedge," by riding through it on a wheelbarrow.

Evelyn, throughout the greater part of his life, kept a diary, in which he entered every remarkable event in which he was in any way concerned. This was published in 1818 (two volumes quarto), and proved to be a most valuable addition to our store of historical materials respecting the latter half of the seventeenth century. Evelyn chronicles familiar as well as important circumstances; but he does it without loss of dignity, and everywhere preserves the tone of an educated and reflecting man. It is curious to read, in this work, of great men going after dinner to attend a council of state, or the business of their particular offices, or the bowling-green, or even the church; of an hour's sermon being of moderate length; of ladies painting their faces being a novelty; or of their receiving visits from gentlemen whilst dressing, after having just risen out of bed; of the female attendant of a lady of fashion travelling on a pillion behind one of the footmen, and the footmen riding with swords. The impression conveyed of the reign of Charles II. is, upon the whole, unexpected, leading to the conviction, that the dissoluteness of manners attributed to it affected a narrower circle of society than is usually supposed; and that even in the court there were many bright exceptions from it.