The Praise of Sadness

The Praise of Sadness is the first of the two paradoxes included in the collection titled Essayes or rather, Encomions, prayses of sadnesse: and of the emperour Iulian the Apostata. By Sir William Cornewallis, the younger knight published by Richard Hawkins in 1616, and the only one introduced by a short preface, “To the Reader”.

As with other texts, Cornwallis states from the outset the unusual subject of his argument and his awareness of “the danger of cherishing and defending so unwelcomed a guest as Sadness” (ll. 18-9). However, being so condemned by opinion – enemy to wisdom and judgement – might be the first proof of her goodness. To support his assertations, Cornwallis begins by comparing her to her contrary: Mirth. Sadness and Mirth are the two weights that balance men’s life and according to which they record their successes and failures. The former is a synonym for truth, sobriety and a discreet temper, while the latter for falseness, drunkenness and rashness of the tongue; they are the true forms of Virtue and Pleasure, respectively: one allows for a life of peace and certainty, while the other, with her inconstancy and false allurements, promises a calmness that quickly fades into anxieties and griefs.

However, in this comparison Sadness “hath but proved herself better than a worse, not approved her own goodness” (ll. 512-3): Cornwallis stresses then the need to “decipher” her, i.e. to give her a definition. He does so again by contraries, mentioning what he means not by the word “Sadness”. Her greatest merit is preparing men for the adverse seasons of life: she instructs and governs life with tranquillity, certainty and happiness; she fortifies men against the incursions of Pleasure, corruptor of youth, and Grief, enemy of old age; educates to wisdom and goodness, so to keep out vices and temper the mind. The Ancients well known for the excellence of their minds, including Socrates, prepared by Sadness chose a life of poverty to keep away Mirth and Pleasure.

In short, Sadness prepares for eternal life: her most visible form is wisdom, which makes her essential for anyone who wants to be reputed wise; she is feared by vanity and idleness; she obstructs vain desires and passions. Sadness is the “sweetest and best conditioned com­panion of the life of man” (ll. 2023-4), the inward power that makes men virtuous and happy.

Cornwallis’s text was later included in John Dunton’s collection Athenian Sport: Or, Two Thousand Paradoxes Merrily Argued, to Amuse and Divert the Age published in 1707, as “Paradox XCVI: Mourning Joy, or a Paradox in praise of Sadnesse”.


Works Cited

Dunton, John (1707), Athenian Sport: Or, Two Thousand Paradoxes Merrily Argued, to Amuse and Divert the Age, London: P. Bragg.