Owen Felltham Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Owen Felltham c. 1602-1668

(Also Feltham) English essayist and poet.

During his lifetime, Felltham's literary fame rested mostly on his Resolves: Divine, Morall, Politicall (1623), a book of short personal resolutions that offered advice to readers on how to lead a virtuous life. Over the course of four decades, Felltham issued several revised and expanded editions of this work; the final, 1661 edition of the work has attracted scholarly attention for the author's movement from presenting formulaic vows of piety to constructing extended prose arguments, which are held as influential in the development of the essay as a literary genre. Critics have also commented frequently on the group of forty-two poems, entitled Lusoria, that Felltham included in the 1661 Resolves, and many note that their lyric beauty commend Felltham as a fine, if minor, seventeenth-century poet. Also significant is Felltham's A Brief Character of the Low-Countries (published 1652), widely held to be the first “character study” of a nation.

Biographical Information

Felltham was born around 1602 in Suffolk, into a prosperous, landed family. Although there is no evidence that Felltham received university training, the literary allusions in his writings suggest that he had knowledge of classical and modern literature, probably obtained under private tutors and, later, through efforts at self-education. Felltham began a career as a merchant in London around 1621, the same year he married Mary Clopton. A few years later, he took a three-week trip to Holland, believed to be the inspiration for his A Brief Character of the Low-Countries. In 1628 Felltham left London to serve as steward on the estate of Barnabas O'Brien (later the sixth Earl of Thomond) in Northamptonshire. He remained employed with the O'Brien family until his death in London in 1668.

Major Works

The work for which Felltham is best known is his Resolves: Divine, Morall, Politicall. First published in 1623, it contained 100 short prose commentaries pertaining to how Christians should live in a secular world, each concluding with a vow, or “resolve,” on how the writer determined to conduct himself righteously. In 1628 Felltham issued another edition of Resolves, this one adding another “century” of resolutions that are generally longer than the original hundred as well as more complex in their argumentative style. By 1661 the Resolves were in an eighth edition, containing a total of 285 moralistic essays on practical ways to deal with a variety of religious and secular problems. Also included in the 1661 edition was Lusoria: Or Occasional Pieces. With a Taste of Some Letters, which included personal correspondence, biblical commentaries, and 42 poems written by Felltham. Although small in number, Felltham's poetic efforts show remarkable breadth: some are epitaphs, some elegies, others love poems. Together with the Resolves, his poetry reveals Felltham to be an English royalist, a pious yet humanistic thinker, and someone concerned with the moral uplifting of his audience.

The exact date of composition of Felltham's only other major work, A Brief Character of the Low-Countries under the States is unknown; pirated editions existed at least as early as 1648. Felltham himself did not authorize the work's publication until 1652, which coincided with the outbreak of war between England and Holland. Felltham's decision to release the book in 1652 reflects in some degree the book's value as propaganda: though the Dutch are occasionally praised for certain aspects of their daily living, the majority of A Brief Character of the Low-Countries focuses on “vices” in the food, language, government, and general character of the Dutch people. This often-humorous prose writing was collected in the 1661 edition of Resolves as well, bringing together nearly all of Felltham's literary output.

Critical Reception

Outside of a handful of modern scholars who have attempted to resurrect interest in Felltham's writings for their significance in the evolution of the essay and the character study genres, Felltham's literary career has largely been forgotten. A Brief Character of the Low-Countries is cited as an important development in character studies, a form first used in English letters to describe individuals. Felltham's adaptation of the form to include an entire nation is seen as a literary first, one that was influential in the growing popularity of national character studies that began to appear in the last half of the seventeenth century. The plagiarism of Felltham's Resolves (as found in the poetry of Henry Vaughan; the Earl of Manchester's 1631 Al Mondo or Contemplations of Death and Immortality; Richard Young's 1638 Sinne Stigmatized; and in the works of Arthur Warwick, Joseph Henshaw, and Bishop Beveridge) show how influential this work was with contemporary English audiences. Modern criticism of the Resolves has tended to focus on the various revisions of the work, which highlight Felltham's intellectual growth and the expansion of his style from short pieces to longer persuasive essays. Often Felltham's Resolves are criticized as being little more than entertaining clichés and rebuked for their strained use of metaphors. Increasingly Felltham's small body of poetry has become the subject of review, especially his epitaphs to figures such as Charles I and Ben Jonson, and his love poems, the best known of which is “When, Dearest, I but think on thee.” Although many critics ultimately consider Felltham a minor literary figure, some have concluded that his poetry deserves credit for its dramatic tension and lyric imagery, and some have judged his prose works worthy of attention for their contribution to the development of the essay form.