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Traits, Reflections, and Poems of Sir Henry Cotton.
« The untainted Virtue of fresh innocent youth
Hath not yet div'd into the world's deceit:
LOFFT's SHAKESP. APHOR.
August 13, 1813. THERE are few characters which interest me more than that of Sir Henry Wotton. Something of its attraction has, perhaps, arisen from its having been embalmed in the memoir of that instructive, eloquent, and delightful old man, Isaac Walton; but his pen could do no more than bring into pleasing and conspicuous light, those traits which had a previous existence.
Sir Henry was born at the seat of his ancestors, the Hall of Boughton Malherb, near Maidstone, in Kent, March 30, 1568; and, having been educated at Winchester and Oxford, spent many years in foreign travel, in France, Germany, and Italy. On his return he was admitted to the confidence of the Earl of Essex, on whose fall he fled to France, and thence to Florence, where he insinuated himself into the friendship of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who recommended him to King James, then reigning in Scot
land. Sir Henry returned to his native land on that monarch's accession to the crown of England; was knighted; and appointed ambassador to Venice. He was employed during the remainder of this reign in several other important embassies. In 1623, he was preferred to the provostship of Eton College: and died in that post, in 1639. The celebrated Abraham Cowley wrote his Elegy.
The following passages in Walton's Memoir of him have, above all others, from a very early age, highly delighted and affected me:
“He went usually once a year, if not oftener, to the beloved Bocton Hall, where he would say, 'he found a cure for all cares, by the chearful company,' which he called the living furniture of that place: and 'a restoration of his strength, by the connaturalness of that which he called his genial air.
“He yearly went also to Oxford. But the summer before his death he changed that for a journey to Winchester College; to which school he was first removed from Bocton. And as he returned from Winchester, towards Eton College, said to a friend, his companion in that journey, 'How useful was that advice of a holy monk, who persuaded his friend to perform his customary devotions in a constant place, because in that place we usually meet with those very thoughts which possessed us at our last being there: and I find it thus far experimentally true, that my now being in that school, and seeing that very place where I sat when I was a boy, occasioned me to
remember those very thoughts of my youth which then possessed me; sweet thoughts indeed, that promised my growing years numerous pleasures, without mixture of cares; and those to be enjoyed, when time, (which I therefore thought slow paced) had changed my youth into manhood: but, age and experience have taught me, that those were but empty hopes. For I have always found it true, as my Saviour did foretel, Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof. Nevertheless, I saw there a succession of boys using the same recreations, and, questionless, possessed with the same thoughts that then possessed me. Thus, one generation succeeds another, both in their lives, recreations, hopes, fears, and deaths.'a
“After his return from Winchester to Eton (which was about five months before his death) he became much more retired, and contemplative; in which time he was often visited by Mr. John Hales, (learned Mr. John Hales) then a fellow of that college, to whom upon an occasion he spake to this
* See the whole of Gray's “ Ode on a prospect of Eton College," which is founded on the same train of ideas; particularly in this stanza:
“Ah, happy hills! ah, pleasing shade!
Ah, fields belov'd in vain,
A stranger yet to pain!
As waving fresh their gladsome wing,
To breathe a second spring!"
purpose: ‘I have, in my passage to the grave, met with most of those joys of which a discoursive soul is capable; and, being entertained with more inferior pleasures than the sons of men are usually made partakers of, nevertheless, in this voyage I have not always floated on the calm sea of content; but have often met with cross winds and storms, and with many troubles of mind and temptations to evil. And yet, though I have often been, and am a man compassed about with human frailties, Almighty God hath by his grace prevented me from making shipwreck of faith and a good conscience; the thought of which is now the joy of my heart; and I most humbly praise him for it: and I humbly acknowledge that it was not myself, but he that hath kept me to this great age; and let him take the glory of his great mercy. And, my dear friend, I now see that I draw near my harbour of death; that harbour, that will secure me from all the future storms and waves of this restless world: and I praise God that I am willing to leave it, and expect a better; that world, wherein dwelleth righteousness.”
The following simple poem is another happy illustration of Sir Henry's character:
The Character of a happy Life.
“How happy is he born and taught,
That serveth not another's will?
Whose passions not his masters are,
Who envies none that chance doth raise,
Who hath his life from rumours freed,
Who God doth late and early pray,
This man is freed from servile bands,
The poem which I shall next insert is not of 3 equal merit: yet, as it gives a picture of the calmness of a rural occupation, in lines not altogether inelegant, though somewhat mixed with images of prosaic familiarity, it exhibits a inemorial of Sir Henry's character, which I am willing to preserve, out of the few verses which he has handed down to posterity. A sensibility to the scenery of Nature appears to me seldom or ever to exist in a polluted heart.