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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By John Evelyn (1620–1706)

EVELYN is known to us first as a diarist, and then as the author of ‘Sylva’; but his cultivated tastes, his publications upon art subjects, and his devotion to Tory ideals brought him before his contemporaries mainly as a virtuoso and a royalist. A descendant of George Evelyn, who was the first to introduce the manufacture of gunpowder into England, he was born in 1620 at Wotton in Surrey, a home “large and ancient, suitable to those hospitable times,” he wrote, “and so sweetely environed with those delicious streams and venerable woods as in the judgement of Strangers as well as Englishmen it may be compared to one of the most tempting and pleasant Seates in the Nation.”

“I was not initiated into any rudiments till neere four yeares of age,” he says in the early part of his Diary, “and then one Frier taught us at the church porch of Wotton.” The rudiments were continued at “the Free schole at Southover neere the town, of which one Agnes Morley had been the foundresse, and now Edward Snatt was the master, under whom I remained till I was sent to the University…. 1637, 3 April, I left schole, where, till about the last yeare, I had been extreamly remisse in my studies, so as I went to the Universitie rather out of shame of abiding longer at schole than for any fitnesse; as by sad experience I found, which put me to re-learne all that I had neglected, or but perfunctorily gain’d. 10 May, I was admitted a fellow com’uner of Baliol College, Oxford.”

After three years’ diligent study Evelyn removed to the Middle Temple in London to study law; and in 1641, having repeated his oath of allegiance, he absented himself, he says, from the ill face of things at home. Civil war was beginning. He traveled in Holland and France, and remained long in Italy, studying the fine arts.

The better part of ten years he was absent from England, marrying in the mean time the daughter of Sir Richard Browne, the King’s minister at the French Court. His bride was barely twelve, and Evelyn returned to England in 1647, leaving Mrs. Evelyn in the care of her “excellent and prudent” mother. While waiting for the maturing of his domestic plans he “commenced another,” one of his biographers quaintly says, translating from the French the ‘Liberty and Servitude’ of Le Vayer, and inserting a royalist preface, for which he was “threatened”; and writing ‘A Character of England.’ In 1652 he established himself with his wife at Sayes Court, Deptford, of which she was the heiress. Here he busied himself with beautifying the place, where he entertained men like-minded to himself, and composed a long list of works. Some of these pertained to landscape gardening and to architecture, subjects upon which he was an authority, some to politics or archæology. He was on friendly terms with the virtuosi of his time, and he sought the acquaintance of men who formed and ruled affairs. Much of his claim on our attention comes from his having rubbed up against greatness. He was a follower of men, never a leader, and his life was filled with usefulness. As his Diary shows, he welcomed the Restoration, and took some part in it.

The marks of esteem shown by the new King caused him to leave his retirement, and sharpen his pen for such brochures as ‘Panegyric at his Majesty King Charles the Second’s Coronation,’ 1661, while he was preparing his ‘History and Art of Chalcography and Engraving in Copper.’ He was one of the commission to take care of the sick and wounded in the war with the Dutch in 1664, the year in which ‘Sylva: or a Discourse of Forest Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in his Majesty’s Dominions,’ his magnum opus in the eyes of his contemporaries, was published.

Evelyn undertook the work at the wish of the Royal Society. Among the devastations of the civil war and of the Parliamentary party was the cutting down of the ancient trees. The oaks especially were said to have incurred the wrath of the revolutionists, perhaps because of the service of the Royal Oak at Boscobel; perhaps because the landed gentry took pride in comparing the durance of their order with the great age of the trees. Be that as it may, the oaks were gone, and Charles Stuart lacked timber to build a royal navy. Men of Evelyn’s stamp were set to thinking and planting, and Evelyn himself, with his great knowledge and taste, was set to writing. Thus came about the ‘Sylva,’ to which he annexed ‘Pomona: or an Appendix Concerning Fruit Trees in Relation to Cyder; the Making and Several Ways of Ordering it.’ His ‘Parallel of the Ancient Architecture with the Modern’ appeared also in 1664.

Evelyn’s royalist ardor cooled under the domestic and foreign policy of the Stuarts; and while a commissioner of the Privy Seal he refused, at the risk of offending James II., to sign an illegal license for the sale of certain books treating of the King’s religion. It was about this time that, having helped to collect them, Evelyn persuaded Lord Henry Howard to give to the University of Oxford the famous Arundelian marbles, brought together from Italy, Greece, and Asia Minor. On inheritance of the ancestral Wotton by the death of his brother, he left Sayes Court in 1694. This court was afterwards sub-let to Peter the Great, the Czar desiring to be near the King’s dockyard at Deptford, where he proposed to learn the art of shipbuilding. “There is a house full of people, and right nasty,” wrote a servant to Evelyn, while the imperial Cæsar was dwelling therein. “The Czar lies next your library and dines in the parlor next your study. He dines at 10 o’clock and 6 at night, is very seldom at home a whole day, very often in the King’s Yard, or by water, dressed in several dresses. The King is expected here this day; the best parlor is pretty clean for him to be entertained in. The King pays for all he has.” During Peter’s stay—from some time in January till towards the end of April, 1698—his favorite recreation was to break down the holly hedges which were the pride of Sayes Court, by riding through them in a wheelbarrow. This, with other amiable eccentricities of the “great civilizer,” proved so costly that in the final settlement the owner received £150 in recognition of damages.

Weighted with age and honorable action, Evelyn died in 1706 at his ancestral home, and was buried in Wotton church in a tomb which recorded, at his desire, that—“Living in an age of extraordinary events and revolutions, he had learned from thence this truth, which he desired might be thus communicated to posterity: That all is vanity which is not honest; and that there is no solid wisdom but in real piety.”

Evelyn’s friend Bishop Burnet referred to him as “a most ingenious and virtuous gentleman.” He was devoted to his Church, and when he had an endurable King, to that King. In his Diary the sweetness and purity of his life and his love of home are not less visible than his deep religious feeling.

By nature Evelyn was conservative. He had no sympathy with the reformers who were trying to bring about a new order, or with those uncomfortable disturbers of the peace who wished to correct the abuses that had crept into the Church, or to oppose the assumptions of Charles I. He preferred to sup and dine and compare intaglios with easy-going and well-mannered gentlemen.

A complete list of Evelyn’s works would be long. A quarto volume edited by William Upcott, first published in 1825, contains his ‘Literary Remains.’ ‘Sylva’ has been edited at various times in the interests of tree-planting and forestry commissions, the most commendable edition being that of Dr. Alexander Hunter, first published in 1776. ‘The Memoirs of John Evelyn, Esq., F. R. S.,’ comprising his diary from 1641 to 1705–6, and a selection of his familiar letters, was edited from the original manuscript by William Bray in 1818, and since then has been several times republished.