In this volume of the Harvard Classics, 24 essays were presented spanning the Elizabethan to Victorian eras in Britain. The range of topics included fanciful speculation, biographies, criticism and philosophy. As expected, the various essays ranged from ones that piqued my interest and I really enjoyed, and a few I couldn’t get through fast enough.
Here are my favorites:
Sidney’s Defense of Poesy has a self-explanatory title and it was enjoyable, if a bit archaic, that did a good job of laying out the usefulness of fiction and the metaphorical. His defense is masterful because it lays bare the necessity for these types of works and the precedent set in scripture for poetry and stories.
Jonathan Swift’s essays “A Hint Towards An Essay on Conversation” and “A Treatise of Good Manners and Good Breeding” mock the literary and social conventions of the day. As always with Swift, the satire easily applies over centuries of time and is highly relatable to today.
David Hume’s “Of The Standard of Taste” discusses the ways in which develop our preferences and tastes. Its a bit different from other aesthetic philosophy I’ve read which made it interesting.
My two favorites were the final two essays. The first, Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry” echoes Sir Phillip Sidney’s work but amplifies it with Shelley’s characteristic flowery prose and intense imagery.
The final essay, Macaulay’s critique of Machiavelli does a great job of diving into Italian history as well as Mediterranean history as a whole and showing how the society that developed in Italy created the circumstances which Machiavelli articulated in The Prince.
That’s all I’ve got to say on the essays. There’s plenty to each one, but the tough part about reading so many is that the impressions you are getting are haphazard and only a few sink in deeply. Looking ahead, there’s another volume of essays to go before moving on to Darwin.