Owen Felltham Essay - Critical Essays

Felltham, Owen


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.

Principal Works

Resolves: Divine, Morall, Politicall (prose commentaries) 1623

*A Brief Character of the Low-Countries under the States. Being three weeks observation of the Vices and Vertues of the Inhabitants (prose) 1652

Batavia: Or The Hollander displayed: In Brief Characters & Observations of the People & Country, The Government Of their State and Private Families, Their Virtues and Vices. Also, A Perfect Description of the People & Country of Scotland (prose) 1672

*A pirated edition of this work, called Three Moneths Observations of the Low-Countries, Especially Holland. Containing a brief Description of the Country, Customes, Religions, Manners, and Dispositions of the People, appeared in 1648.


Anonymous (essay date 1840)

SOURCE: Anonymous. “Advertisement.” In Resolves Divine, Moral, and Political, by Owen Felltham, pp. vii-xii. London: Pickering, 1840.

[In the following unsigned introduction to a nineteenth-century edition of the Resolves, the critic praises Felltham's work, stressing its value for “improving our understanding, and strengthening our virtue.”]

Of the numerous works of sterling merit which, after enjoying a long season of popularity, have sunk into comparative forgetfulness, none is more deserving of revival, or more sure to obtain, eventually, a permanent place in the literature of England, than the Resolves of Owen Felltham.

Though entitled Resolves, because at the conclusion of each article, the author forms some resolution, founded upon his own precepts, the volume consists of two hundred, or a “double century,” of Essays on the most important objects of life, exhibiting a profound knowledge of the human heart, and inculcating, in nervous, and often eloquent language, pure morality, warm benevolence, and natural, fervent, and practical piety.

In the opinion of a competent critic,1 the Resolves bear

a frequent resemblance in manner, and still more in matter, to the Essays of Lord Bacon; like whom, Felltham often brings the imagination of the poet, to aid the wisdom of the philosopher; and contain more solid maxims, as much piety, and far better writing, than in most of the pulpit lectures now current among us.

Of Felltham's personal history very little is known. He was the second son of Thomas Felltham, of Mutford in Suffolk (the descendant of an ancient family in Norfolk, who died at Babram, in Cambridgeshire, in 1631, aged 62), by his wife Mary, daughter of John Ufflete, of Somerleyton, in Suffolk.

According to a pedigree in the Harleian MS. 5861, he married a daughter of the ancient family of Clopton, of Rendlehall, in that county; but it may be inferred, that his wife died before him, and that he did not leave any children, as he bequeathed all his property to his nephews and nieces. On the 4th of May, 1667, he made his Will, which was dated at Great Billing, in Northamptonshire, where his patron, the Earl of Thomond, had a mansion; and probably died shortly before the 22nd of April, 1668, on which day his will was proved. That document is extremely characteristic of the author of the Resolves, and will be found in a subsequent page.

In a letter addressed to “Lord C. J. R.2,” he says, he had been “put upon a trial for vindicating the right of the ancient inheritance of my family, gained from me by a verdict last assizes,” and that fact perhaps affords a clue to some particulars of his life, which his biographers may follow with advantage.

Felltham does not seem to have been a member of either University, which would agree with the observation in his preface, that he did not “profess himself a scholar,” had he not said, in explanation of this expression, on its being quoted to his disparagement, “a scholar's life was not my profession, for I have lived in such a course as my books have been my delight, but not my trade, though perhaps I could wish they had.” It has been surmised that he lived in the family of the Earl of Thomond, as gentleman of the horse, or secretary; and in the dedication of the later editions of the Resolves, to the Countess Dowager of Thomond, he remarks, that “most of them were composed under the coverture of your roof, and so born subjects under your dominion.”

The following epitaph, which he wrote for himself, entitled, “Quod in sepulchrum volui,” seems to have been the one alluded to in his Will, which, with several passages in his writings, prove that he was a Royalist; and it is extraordinary, that a man of such talents, a gentleman by birth, and moving in good society, should not have been more frequently mentioned by his contemporaries:—

Postquam vidisset rotantem mundum,
          Imaque summis supernatantia,
Prosperum Tyrio scelus imbutum,...

(The entire section is 1728 words.)

Hugh Walker (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: Walker, Hugh. “Miscellaneous Essayists of the Seventeenth Century.” In The English Essay and Essayists, pp. 62-6. London: J. M. Dent, 1928.

[In the following excerpt, Walker concedes that although the themes of the Resolves were seldom profound, the literary style of the work occasionally does achieve the mastery of Francis Bacon's essays.]

While, in the early part of the seventeenth century, the delineation of characters was the most popular exercise of the essayists, it was not the only one. The instrument which Bacon had introduced could be put to many uses, and among the writers of miscellaneous prose there were a few, apart from Jonson, who trod...

(The entire section is 1489 words.)

R. Balfour Daniels (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: Daniels, R. Balfour. “Resolves of a Royalist.” In Some Seventeenth-Century Worthies in a Twentieth-Century Mirror, pp. 140-44. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1940.

[In the following essay, Daniels examines several of Felltham's poems, proverbs, and essays, arguing that while his style is not great, it is often engaging.]

Although the death of King Charles I caused many of his adherents to denounce the Roundheads and eulogize the King, no one seems to have gone further than Owen Feltham, who in writing an epitaph on that monarch “Inhumanly murthered by a Perfidious Party of His Prevalent Subjects,” declared, “Here Charles the...

(The entire section is 903 words.)

Jean Robertson (essay date May 1943)

SOURCE: Robertson, Jean. “Felltham's Character of the Low Countries.Modern Language Notes 58, no. 5 (May 1943): 385-88.

[In the following essay, Robertson discusses various editions of, as well as the influence of, Felltham's A Brief Character of the Low-Countries on subsequent travelogues, arguing that Felltham's work was probably the first description of a nation using the character form.]

The Theophrastian Character was expanded in various ways in the second half of the seventeenth century. Fewer collections of short characters appeared, and their place was taken by descriptions or pamphlets such as The Character of a Low Churchman, The...

(The entire section is 1268 words.)

Jean Robertson (essay date May 1943)

SOURCE: Robertson, Jean. “The Poems of Owen Felltham.” Modern Language Notes 58, no. 5 (May 1943): 388-90.

[In the following essay, Robertson discusses several poems by Felltham that did not appear in his Lusoria and reprints “The Elegie on Mris. Coventry,” which previously had been unavailable.]

In Lusoria, first printed with the revised folio edition (the eighth) of the Resolves,1 Felltham collected together forty-one poems most of which had been written at a much earlier date. There are only four poems known to be by Felltham that are not included in Lusoria. In Fasti Oxonienses (II, 454) Anthony à Wood gives an...

(The entire section is 983 words.)

Jean Robertson (essay date April 1944)

SOURCE: Robertson, Jean. “The Use Made of Owen Felltham's Resolves: A Study in Plagiarism” Modern Language Review 39, no. 2 (April 1944): 108-15.

[In the following essay, Robertson cites numerous examples of how selections from Felltham's Resolves were plagiarized by subsequent writers.]

There is no evidence to show that the publication of Owen Felltham's Resolues Diuine, Morall, Politicall in 16231 caused any stir in the literary world; but their reception must have been sufficiently warm to warrant the publication of Resolues A Duple Century one new an other of a second Edition in 1628. The demand for this volume...

(The entire section is 5107 words.)

Douglas Bush (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: Bush, Douglas. “Essays and Characters.” In English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600-1660, pp. 190-92. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1945.

[In the following excerpt, Bush points out the literary and thematic characteristics that made Felltham's Resolves popular.]

The didactic motives of so much secular prose make it hard to distinguish the essay from kindred forms, and it is almost impossible to separate the religious essay from its congeners. Even within fairly strict limits we find such various names as Breton and Brathwait, Joseph Hall and Fuller, and Drummond and Browne, but here we may pass by these men of many books for a less...

(The entire section is 691 words.)

George Williamson (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: Williamson, George. “Pointed Style after Bacon.” In The Senecan Amble: A Study in Prose Form from Bacon to Collier, pp. 201-03. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1951.

[In the following excerpt, Williamson argues that Felltham's Resolves drew upon Senecan style and wit, in both their pithiness and their gravity.]

Owen Feltham, who bears the clear imprint of Baconian imitation, speaks of style in his essay ‘Of Preaching’, which was added to his Resolves in 1628. His preferences in style are plainly Senecan:

A man can never speak too well, where he speaks not too obscure. Long and distended clauses, are...

(The entire section is 784 words.)

McCrea Hazlett (essay date November 1953)

SOURCE: Hazlett, McCrea. “‘New Frame and Various Composition’: Development in the Form of Owen Felltham's Resolves.Modern Philology 51, no. 2 (November 1953): 93-101.

[In the following essay, Hazlett analyzes the changing style and structure of various editions of the Resolves publishing during Felltham's lifetime, noting how the work moves from short, personal resolutions to longer, more persuasive essays.]

Between 1623 (when the book was entered in the Stationer's Register) and 1709 there appeared twelve distinguishable editions or issues of Owen Felltham's Resolves: Divine, Moral, Political.1 Four of these are of...

(The entire section is 5377 words.)

Ted-Larry Pebworth and Claude J. Summers (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Pebworth, Ted-Larry, and Claude J. Summers. Introduction to The Poems of Owen Felltham, 1604?-1668, edited by Ted-Larry Pebworth and Claude J. Summers, pp. iv-x. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1973.

[In the following excerpt, Pebworth and Summers acknowledge that while Felltham's poetry was not the greatest of his age, the author of the Lusoria should be commended for the work's range, subtlety, and lyric beauty.]

Owen Felltham (or Feltham), recognized by Anthony à Wood as one of the poets who were in the 1630's “the chiefest of the nation,”1 is today known almost exclusively as the author of Resolves:...

(The entire section is 2160 words.)

Laurence Stapleton (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Stapleton, Laurence. “The Graces and the Muses: Felltham's Resolves.” In The Elected Circle: Studies in the Art of Prose, pp. 73-92. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.

[In the following essay, Stapleton lavishes praise on the Resolves, disagreeing with scholars who have disparaged Felltham's use of metaphors.]

Little is known of Owen Felltham; but in an age when most writers supported themselves by some other profession, many as clergymen, his lot was to become steward of an estate.1 As a boy of perhaps twenty he had published a small book, Resolves, destined to be reprinted, with additions and changes, eleven...

(The entire section is 6286 words.)

Ted-Larry Pebworth (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Pebworth, Ted-Larry. “Resolves: Divine, Moral, Political,” “A Brief Character of the Low-Countries,” and “The Poetry.” In Owen Felltham, pp. 26-35; 71-85; 86-126. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976.

[In the first excerpt below, Pebworth concentrates on the religious themes in Felltham's Resolves. In the second, he discusses the influence and themes of A Brief Character of the Low-Countries. In the third, he discusses Felltham's poems on religion, politics, and love.]


In its totality, Resolves: Divine, Morall, Politicall is a collection of two hundred...

(The entire section is 16795 words.)

Ted-Larry Pebworth (essay date winter 1986)

SOURCE: Pebworth, Ted-Larry. “An Anglican Family Worship Service of the Interregnum: A Cancelled Early Text and a New Edition of Owen Felltham's ‘A Form of Prayer.’” English Literary Renaissance 16, no. 1 (winter 1986): 206-33.

[In the following excerpt, Pebworth argues that Felltham's “A Form of Prayer” had been printed in at least some copies of the 1661 edition of the Resolves, leading to the conclusion that the author's liturgical challenge to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was a product of the Interregnum and not the Restoration, as previously assumed.]

For two hundred fifty years, scholars and critics of the essayist and poet Owen...

(The entire section is 9843 words.)

Further Reading


Pebworth, Ted-Larry. “An Annotated Bibliography of Owen Felltham.” Bulletin of the New York Public Library 79, no. 2 (winter 1976): 209-24.

Provides a brief biography of Felltham followed by a comprehensive annotated bibliography of books and articles by and about him.


Hallam, Henry. “Felltham's Resolves.” In Introduction to the Literature of Europe in the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries, pp. 150-51. New York: A. C. Armstrong, 1891.

Brief assessment of Felltham's Resolves, viewing the work as shallow and poorly written.


(The entire section is 207 words.)