1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Thomas Overbury

Anonymous, "Walks round my Library: Sir Thomas Overbury's Works" The New Times (30 May 1828).



The writings of Sir Thomas Overbury consist of verse and prose; but chiefly of the latter, which are also the better portion of what he has left us. His fame as a poet seems to have rested, at least in the opinion of his contemporaries, upon a poem entitled A Wife, comprised in about fifty stanzas, wherein, with all the quaintness and metaphysical abstractions of his age, he pourtrays the moral, intellectual, religious, and personal qualities, which should concentrate in that fabulous biped, a perfect wife. Many are the commendatory copies of verses by D. T., R. C., X. Z., and nearly all the other letters of the alphabet, upon this "Wife;" and yet I doubt, exceedingly, whether just such a phoenix, supposing such a one to be manufactured, would suit our notions of a conjugal paragon, any more than we should inordinately admire the rolls and buckram of our author's time. To say the truth, Sir Thomas Overbury's Wife would never do for Almack's or St. James's, or even for the drawing-room of an attorney in good practice. She is much too precise, demure, and artificial a piece of goods, to appear to advantage any where, except where wives never do appear, in a nunnery. In short, she is the common idea of a grandmother dressed up in the poet's idea of a bride — the tints of the morning casting their orient hues upon the sable brow of night — the two ends of life, incongruously joined together. A few stanzas will suffice as a specimen:—

Give me next, good understanding in a wife,
By nature wise — not learned by much art:
Some knowledge on her side, will all my life
Those scope of conversation impart;
Besides her inborn virtue fortify,
They are most firmly good, who best know why.

A passive understanding to conceive,
A judgment to discern, I wish to find;
Beyond that, all as hazardous I leave
Learning and pregnant wit in woman kind:
What it finds malleable maketh frail,
And doth not add more ballast, but more sail.

Domestic charge doth best that sex befit,
Contiguous business, so to fix the mind,
That leisure space for fancies not admit,
Their leisure 'tis corrupteth woman kind,
Else, being plac'd from many vices free,
They had to Heav'n a shorter cut than we.

So far so good, they will say, who hold the insolent doctrine of auto's supremacy, and that woman lies under some primeval sentence of irremediable inferiority. With this dogma I quarrel, and vehemently too. Let me stand forth, for a moment, as the champion of the other sex. Women, be it remembered, are originally educated with a view towards a peculiar sphere of life. If they be not, by fortune, independent, then they are destined to he ultimately dependent, under the name of marriage, upon some man or other. Every girl expects to get a husband; and, consequently, expects to be supported. In this calculation few are necessarily disappointed. If they be, the disappointment arises rather from their own folly, in a majority of cases, than from any other use. This kind of moral certainty leaves the mind at rest, and the mental powers are seldom so successfully exerted as when stimulated by necessity. Women, with such imperfect education as they generally receive, feel that they are amply qualified for attaining the completion of their views, and being without a motive for further exertion they make none. Now let us apply this reasoning to man's imperial pretensions. And, first, of his intellectual endowments. It is to be remembered that almost all our truly great writers have been authors by profession; that is, their minds were their estates; they and theirs, lived by their wits. It were superfluous to cite examples in proof of this; the difficulty would be — to collect any considerable number of exceptions. Necessity, therefore — the grand question of existence — has been the primum mobile. They have been men thrown upon society, and destined to maintain life in the best way they could. Manual labour was neglected, because perhaps they knew no trade — and they had recourse to their minds as to a never-failing source. Hence the number of bad authors. Were females in the same insulated condition — thrown upon their own individual resources — they would feel the same necessity for exerting their powers, and would consequently exert them. I have selected more particularly literature, because it is only in those paths of action which are open to both sexes, that the comparison can be fairly made The custom of society, and perhaps physical structure, forbid that women should be either generals or statesmen; though, under those circumstances of elevation and dignity wherein they have been sometimes placed, they have displayed an astonishing splen. dour of mind. Witness Elizabeth of England — Catherine of Russia — Catherine de Medicis — Christiana of Sweden — Margaret of Denmark and Norway, &c. &c. But enough of women in the abstract: let us have a little further conversation with Overbury's "Wife." Most devoutly do I subscribe to the following opinion of Sir Thomas:—

Women's behaviour is a surer bar
Than is their "no," that fairly doth deny:
Without denying thereby kept they are
Safe e'en from Hope: in part to blame is she
Which hath without consent been only tried;
He comes too near that comes to be denied.

There are some cynical reflections upon the sex, which I forbear to copy, because I hold it not good, as Hamlet says, that truth should always be spoken; moreover, I am not prepared to affirm that Sir Thomas's saucy flings are the truth. He was never married, and therefore how could he know any thing of the matter? Bachelors are always prone to be rebels to the lawful authority of the other sex; it is only your meek, well taught, well disciplined, and experienced husbands, who are the true liege subjects of wives, and well wishers to spinsters. I shall now transcribe the concluding stanzas of Overbury's poem:—

All these good parts a perfect woman make;
Add love to me — they make a perfect wife:
Without her love — her beauty should I take—
As that of pictures, dead, that gives it life.
Till then her beauty, like the sun, doth shine
Alike on all: that makes it only mine.

The remaining poems of Overbury are few in number, and being entirety upon occasional subjects, elegies upon individuals. &c. possess no general interest. His prose works are a richer mine — and I shall explore it in my next walk.

* I know not whether Pope aver read Sir Thomas Overbury; but it is more than probable he had; and, as a further proof of what I have remarked in my first Walk, that he was a universal thief of other men's thoughts, take the following lines from the second Canto of the Rape of the Lock—

Bright as the sun her eyes the gazers strike,
"And, like the sun they shine on all alike."
And of that love, let Reason, father be,
And Passion, mother: let it from the one
His being take — the other his degree;
Self-love, which second loves are built upon
Will make me, if not her, her love respect.
No man but favours his worth's effect.

A good and wise, so she be FIT for me,
That is, to Will, and not to Will the same;
My wife is my adopted self, and she
As me, so what I love to love must frame;
For when by marriage both in one concur
Woman consents to man, not man to her.