CHAPTER IV. THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY
With the seventeenth century the great school of imaginative writers that made glorious the last years of Elizabeth's reign, had passed away. Spenser was dead before 1600, Sir Philip Sidney a dozen years earlier, and though Shakespeare and Drayton and many other men whom we class roughly as Elizabethan lived on to work under James, their temper and their ideals belong to the earlier day. The seventeenth century, not in England only but in Europe, brought a new way of thinking with it, and gave a new direction to human interest and to human affairs. It is not perhaps easy to define nor is it visible in the greater writers of the time. Milton, for instance, and Sir Thomas Browne are both of them too big, and in their genius too far separated from their fellows to give us much clue to altered conditions. It is commonly in the work of lesser and forgotten writers that the spirit of an age has its fullest expression. Genius is a law to itself; it moves in another dimension; it is out of time. To define this seventeenth century spirit, then, one must look at the literature of the age as a whole. What is there that one finds in it which marks a change in temperament and outlook from the Renaissance, and the time which immediately followed it?
Putting it very broadly one may say that literature in the seventeenth century becomes for the first time essentially modern in spirit. We began our survey of modern English literature at the Renaissance because the discovery of the New World, and the widening of human experience and knowledge, which that and the revival of classical learning implied, mark a definite break from a way of thought which had been continuous since the break up of the Roman Empire. The men of the Renaissance felt themselves to be modern. They started afresh, owing nothing to their immediate forbears, and when they talked, say, of Chaucer, they did so in very much the same accent as we do to-day. He was mediaeval and obsolete; the interest which he possessed was a purely literary interest; his readers did not meet him easily on the same plane of thought, or forget the lapse of time which separated him from them. And in another way too, the Renaissance began modern writing. Inflections had been dropped. The revival of the classics had enriched our vocabulary, and the English language, after a gradual impoverishment which followed the obsolescence one after another of the local dialects, attained a fairly fixed form. There is more difference between the language of the English writings of Sir Thomas More and that of the prose of Chaucer than there is between that of More and of Ruskin. But it is not till the seventeenth century that the modern spirit, in the fullest sense of the word, comes into being. Defined it means a spirit of observation, of preoccupation with detail, of stress laid on matter of fact, of analysis of feelings and mental processes, of free argument upon institutions and government. In relation to knowledge, it is the spirit of science, and the study of science, which is the essential intellectual fact in modern history, dates from just this time, from Bacon and Newton and Descartes. In relation to literature, it is the spirit of criticism, and criticism in England is the creation of the seventeenth century. The positive temper, the attitude of realism, is everywhere in the ascendant. The sixteenth century made voyages of discovery; the seventeenth sat down to take stock of the riches it had gathered. For the first time in English literature writing becomes a vehicle for storing and conveying facts.
It would be easy to give instances: one must suffice here. Biography, which is one of the most characteristic kinds of English writing, was unknown to the moderns as late as the sixteenth century. Partly the awakened interest in the careers of the ancient statesmen and soldiers which the study of Plutarch had excited, and partly the general interest in, and craving for, facts set men writing down the lives of their fellows. The earliest English biographies date from this time. In the beginning they were concerned, like Plutarch, with men of action, and when Sir Fulke Greville wrote a brief account of his friend Sir Philip Sidney it was the courtier and the soldier, and not the author, that he designed to celebrate. But soon men of letters came within their scope, and though the interest in the lives of authors came too late to give us the contemporary life of Shakespeare we so much long for, it was early enough to make possible those masterpieces of condensed biography in which Isaak Walton celebrates Herbert and Donne. Fuller and Aubrey, to name only two authors, spent lives of laborious industry in hunting down and chronicling the smallest facts about the worthies of their day and the time immediately before them. Autobiography followed where biography led. Lord Herbert of Cherbury and Margaret Duchess of Newcastle, as well as less reputable persons, followed the new mode. By the time of the Restoration Pepys and Evelyn were keeping their diaries, and Fox his journal. Just as in poetry the lyric, that is the expression of personal feeling, became more widely practised, more subtle and more sincere, in prose the letter, the journal, and the autobiography formed themselves to meet the new and growing demand for analysis of the feelings and the intimate thoughts and sensations of real men and women. A minor form of literature which had a brief but popular vogue ministered less directly to the same need. The “Character,” a brief descriptive essay on a contemporary type—a tobacco seller, an old college butler or the like—was popular because in its own way it matched the newly awakened taste for realism and fact. The drama which in the hands of Ben Jonson had attacked folly and wickedness proper to no place or time, descended to the drawing-rooms of the day, and Congreve occupied himself with the portrayal of the social frauds and foolishnesses perpetrated by actual living men and women of fashion in contemporary London. Satire ceased to be a mere expression of a vague discontent, and became a weapon against opposing men and policies. The new generation of readers were nothing if not critical. They were for testing directly institutions whether they were literary, social, or political. They wanted facts, and they wanted to take a side.
In the distinct and separate realm of poetry a revolution no less remarkable took place. Spenser had been both a poet and a Puritan: he had designed to show by his great poem the training and fashioning of a Puritan English gentleman. But the alliance between poetry and Puritanism which he typified failed to survive his death. The essentially pagan spirit of the Renaissance which caused him no doubts nor difficulties proved too strong for his readers and his followers, and the emancipated artistic enthusiasm in which it worked alienated from secular poetry men with deep and strong religious convictions. Religion and morality and poetry, which in Sidney and Spenser had gone hand in hand, separated from each other. Poems like Venus and Adonis or like Shakespeare's sonnets could hardly be squared with the sterner temper which persecution began to breed. Even within orthodox Anglicanism poetry and religion began to be deemed no fit company for each other. When George Herbert left off courtier and took orders he burnt his earlier love poetry, and only the persuasion of his friends prevented Donne from following the same course. Pure poetry became more and more an exotic. All Milton's belongs to his earlier youth; his middle age was occupied with controversy and propaganda in prose; when he returned to poetry in blindness and old age it was “to justify the ways of God to man”—to use poetry, that is, for a spiritual and moral rather than an artistic end.
Though the age was curious and inquiring, though poetry and prose tended more and more to be enlisted in the service of non-artistic enthusiasms and to be made the vehicle of deeper emotions and interests than perhaps a northern people could ever find in art, pure and simple, it was not like the time that followed it, a “prosaic” age. Enthusiasm burned fierce and clear, displaying itself in the passionate polemic of Milton, in the fanaticism of Bunyan and Fox, hardly more than in the gentle, steadfast search for knowledge in Burton, and the wide and vigilant curiousness of Bacon. Its eager experimentalism tried the impossible; wrote poems and then gave them a weight of meaning they could not carry, as when Fletcher in The Purple Island designed to allegorize all that the physiology of his day knew of the human body, or Donne sought to convey abstruse scientific fact in a lyric. It gave men a passion for pure learning, set Jonson to turn himself from a bricklayer into the best equipped scholar of his day, and Fuller and Camden grubbing among English records and gathering for the first time materials of scientific value for English history. Enthusiasm gave us poetry that was at once full of learning and of imagination, poetry that was harsh and brutal in its roughness and at the same time impassioned. And it set up a school of prose that combined colloquial readiness and fluency, pregnancy and high sentiment with a cumbrous pedantry of learning which was the fruit of its own excess.
The form in which enthusiasm manifested itself most fiercely was as we have seen not favourable to literature. Puritanism drove itself like a wedge into the art of the time, broadening as it went. Had there been no more in it than the moral earnestness and religiousness of Sidney and Spenser, Cavalier would not have differed from Roundhead, and there might have been no civil war; each party was endowed deeply with the religious sense and Charles I. was a sincerely pious man. But while Spenser and Sidney held that life as a preparation for eternity must be ordered and strenuous and devout but that care for the hereafter was not incompatible with a frank and full enjoyment of life as it is lived, Puritanism as it developed in the middle classes became a sterner and darker creed. The doctrine of original sin, face to face with the fact that art, like other pleasures, was naturally and readily entered into and enjoyed, forced them to the plain conclusion that art was an evil thing. As early as Shakespeare's youth they had been strong enough to keep the theatres outside London walls; at the time of the Civil War they closed them altogether, and the feud which had lasted for over a generation between them and the dramatists ended in the destruction of the literary drama. In the brief years of their ascendancy they produced no literature, for Milton is much too large to be tied down to their negative creed, and, indeed, in many of his qualities, his love of music and his sensuousness for instance, he is antagonistic to the temper of his day. With the Restoration their earnest and strenuous spirit fled to America. It is noteworthy that it had no literary manifestation there till two centuries after the time of its passage. Hawthorne's novels are the fruit—the one ripe fruit in art—of the Puritan imagination.
If the reader adopts the seventeenth century habit himself and takes stock of what the Elizabethans accomplished in poetry, he will recognize speedily that their work reached various stages of completeness. They perfected the poetic drama and its instrument, blank verse; they perfected, though not in the severer Italian form, the sonnet; they wrote with extraordinary delicacy and finish short lyrics in which a simple and freer manner drawn from the classics took the place of the mediaeval intricacies of the ballad and the rondeau. And in the forms which they failed to bring to perfection they did beautiful and noble work. The splendour of The Fairy Queen is in separate passages; as a whole it is over tortuous and slow; its affectations, its sensuousness, the mere difficulty of reading it, makes us feel it a collection of great passages, strung it is true on a large conception, rather than a great work. The Elizabethans, that is, had not discovered the secret of the long poem; the abstract idea of the “heroic” epic which was in all their minds had to wait for embodiment till Paradise Lost. In a way their treatment of the pastoral or eclogue form was imperfect too. They used it well but not so well as their models, Vergil and Theocritus; they had not quite mastered the convention on which it is built.
The seventeenth century, taking stock in some such fashion of its artistic possessions, found some things it were vain to try to do. It could add nothing to the accomplishment of the English sonnet, so it hardly tried; with the exception of a few sonnets in the Italian form of Milton, the century can show us nothing in this mode of verse. The literary drama was brought to perfection in the early years of it by the surviving Elizabethans; later decades could add nothing to it but licence, and as we saw, the licences they added hastened its destruction. But in other forms the poets of the new time experimented eagerly, and in the stress of experiment, poetry which under Elizabeth had been integral and coherent split into different schools. As the period of the Renaissance was also that of the Reformation it was only natural a determined effort should sooner or later be made to use poetry for religious purposes. The earliest English hymn writing, our first devotional verse in the vernacular, belongs to this time, and a Catholic and religious school of lyricism grew and flourished beside the pagan neo-classical writers. From the tumult of experiment three schools disengage themselves, the school of Spenser, the school of Jonson, and the school of Donne.
At the outset of the century Spenser's influence was triumphant and predominant; his was the main stream with which the other poetic influences of the time merely mingled. His popularity is referable to qualities other than those which belonged peculiarly to his talent as a poet. Puritans loved his religious ardour, and in those Puritan households where the stricter conception of the diabolical nature of all poetry had not penetrated, his works were read—standing on a shelf, may be, between the new translation of the Bible and Sylvester's translation of the French poet Du Bartas' work on the creation, that had a large popularity at that time as family reading. Probably the Puritans were as blind to the sensuousness of Spenser's language and imagery as they were (and are) to the same qualities in the Bible itself. The Fairy Queen would easily achieve innocuousness amongst those who can find nothing but an allegory of the Church in the “Song of Songs.” His followers made their allegory a great deal plainer than he had done his. In his poem called The Purple Island, Phineas Fletcher, a Puritan imitator of Spenser in Cambridge, essayed to set forth the struggle of the soul at grip with evil, a battle in which the body—the “Purple Island”—is the field. To a modern reader it is a desolating and at times a mildly amusing book, in which everything from the liver to the seven deadly sins is personified; in which after four books of allegorized contemporary anatomy and physiology, the will (Voletta) engages in a struggle with Satan and conquers by the help of Christ and King James! The allegory is clever—too clever—and the author can paint a pleasant picture, but on the whole he was happier in his pastoral work. His brother Giles made a better attempt at the Spenserian manner. His long poem, Christ's Victory and Death, shows for all its carefully Protestant tone high qualities of mysticism; across it Spenser and Milton join hands.
It was, however, in pastoral poetry that Spenser's influence found its pleasantest outlet. One might hesitate to advise a reader to embark on either of the Fletchers. There is no reason why any modern should not read and enjoy Browne or Wither, in whose softly flowing verse the sweetness and contentment of the countryside, that “merry England" which was the background of all sectarian and intellectual strife and labour, finds as in a placid stream a calm reflection and picture of itself. The seventeenth century gave birth to many things that only came to maturity in the nineteenth; if you care for that kind of literary study which searches out origins and digs for hints and models of accented styles, you will find in Browne that which influenced more than any other single thing the early work of Keats. Browne has another claim to immortality; if it be true as is now thought that he was the author of the epitaph on the Countess of Pembroke:
“Underneath this sable hearse
Lies the subject of all verse,
Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother.
Death, ere thou hast slain another
Fair and learned and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee.”
then he achieved the miracle of a quintessential statement of the spirit of the English Renaissance. For the breath of it stirs in these slow quiet moving lines, and its few and simple words implicate the soul of a period.
By the end of the first quarter of the century the influence of Spenser and the school which worked under it had died out. Its place was taken by the twin schools of Jonson and Donne. Jonson's poetic method is something like his dramatic; he formed himself as exactly as possible on classical models. Horace had written satires and elegies, and epistles and complimentary verses, and Jonson quite consciously and deliberately followed where Horace led. He wrote elegies on the great, letters and courtly compliments and love-lyrics to his friends, satires with an air of general censure. But though he was classical, his style was never latinized. In all of them he strove to pour into an ancient form language that was as intense and vigorous and as purely English as the earliest trumpeters of the Renaissance in England could have wished. The result is not entirely successful. He seldom fails to reproduce classic dignity and good sense; on the other hand he seldom succeeds in achieving classic grace and ease. Occasionally, as in his best known lyric, he is perfect and achieves an air of spontaneity little short of marvellous, when we know that his images and even his words in the song are all plagiarized from other men. His expression is always clear and vigorous and his sense good and noble. The native earnestness and sincerity of the man shines through as it does in his dramas and his prose. In an age of fantastic and meaningless eulogy—eulogy so amazing in its unexpectedness and abstruseness that the wonder is not so much that it should have been written as that it could have been thought of—Jonson maintains his personal dignity and his good sense. You feel his compliments are such as the best should be, not necessarily understood and properly valued by the public, but of a discriminating sort that by their very comprehending sincerity would be most warmly appreciated by the people to whom they were addressed. His verses to Shakespeare and his prose commentaries on him too, are models of what self-respecting admiration should be, generous in its praise of excellence, candid in its statement of defects. They are the kind of compliments that Shakespeare himself, if he had grace enough, must have loved to receive.
Very different from his direct and dignified manner is the closely packed style of Donne, who, Milton apart, is the greatest English writer of the century, though his obscurity has kept him out of general reading. No poetry in English, not even Browning, is more difficult to understand. The obscurity of Donne and Browning proceed from such similar causes that they are worth examining together. In both, as in the obscure passages in Shakespeare's later plays, obscurity arises not because the poet says too little but because he attempts to say too much. He huddles a new thought on the one before it, before the first has had time to express itself; he sees things or analyses emotions so swiftly and subtly himself that he forgets the slower comprehensions of his readers; he is for analysing things far deeper than the ordinary mind commonly can. His wide and curious knowledge finds terms and likenesses to express his meaning unknown to us; he sees things from a dozen points of view at once and tumbles a hint of each separate vision in a heap out on to the page; his restless intellect finds new and subtler shades of emotion and thought invisible to other pairs of eyes, and cannot, because speech is modelled on the average of our intelligences, find words to express them; he is always trembling on the brink of the inarticulate. All this applies to both Donne and Browning, and the comparison could be pushed further still. Both draw the knowledge which is the main cause of their obscurity from the same source, the bypaths of mediaevalism. Browning's Sordello is obscure because he knows too much about mediaeval Italian history; Donne'sAnniversary because he is too deeply read in mediaeval scholasticism and speculation. Both make themselves more difficult to the reader who is familiar with the poetry of their contemporaries by the disconcerting freshness of their point of view. Seventeenth century love poetry was idyllic and idealist; Donne's is passionate and realistic to the point of cynicism. To read him after reading Browne or Jonson is to have the same shock as reading Browning after Tennyson. Both poets are salutary in the strong and biting antidote they bring to sentimentalism in thought and melodious facility in writing. They are the corrective of lazy thinking and lazy composition.
Elizabethan love poetry was written on a convention which though it was used with manliness and entire sincerity by Sidney did not escape the fate of its kind. Dante's love for Beatrice, Petrarch's for Laura, the gallant and passionate adoration of Sidney for his Stella became the models for a dismal succession of imaginary woes. They were all figments of the mind, perhaps hardly that; they all use the same terms and write in fixed strains, epicurean and sensuous like Ronsard, ideal and intellectualized like Dante, sentimental and adoring like Petrarch. Into this enclosed garden of sentiment and illusion Donne burst passionately and rudely, pulling up the gay-coloured tangled weeds that choked thoughts, planting, as one of his followers said, the seeds of fresh invention. Where his forerunners had been idealist, epicurean, or adoring, he was brutal, cynical and immitigably realist. He could begin a poem, “For God's sake hold your tongue and let me live”; he could be as resolutely free from illusion as Shakespeare when he addressed his Dark Lady—
“Hope not for mind in women; at their best,
Sweetness and wit they're but mummy possest.”
And where the sonneteers pretended to a sincerity which was none of theirs, he was, like Browning, unaffectedly a dramatic lyrist. “I did best,” he said, “when I had least truth for my subject.”
His love poetry was written in his turbulent and brilliant youth, and the poetic talent which made it turned in his later years to express itself in hymns and religious poetry. But there is no essential distinction between the two halves of his work. It is all of a piece. The same swift and subtle spirit which analyses experiences of passion, analyses, in his later poetry, those of religion. His devotional poems, though they probe and question, are none the less never sermons, but rather confessions or prayers. His intense individuality, eager always, as his best critic has said, “to find a North-West passage of his own,” pressed its curious and sceptical questioning into every corner of love and life and religion, explored unsuspected depths, exploited new discovered paradoxes, and turned its discoveries always into poetry of the closely-packed artificial style which was all its own. Simplicity indeed would have been for him an affectation; his elaborateness is not like that of his followers, constructed painfully in a vicious desire to compass the unexpected, but the natural overflow of an amazingly fertile and ingenious mind. The curiosity, the desire for truth, the search after minute and detailed knowledge of his age is all in his verse. He bears the spirit of his time not less markedly than Bacon does, or Newton, or Descartes.
[Footnote 2: Prof. Grierson in Cambridge History of English Literature.]
The work of the followers of Donne and Jonson leads straight to the new school, Jonson's by giving that school a model on which to work, Donne's by producing an era of extravagance and absurdity which made a literary revolution imperative. The school of Donne—the “fantastics" as they have been called (Dr. Johnson called them the metaphysical poets), produced in Herbert and Vaughan, our two noblest writers of religious verse, the flower of a mode of writing which ended in the somewhat exotic religiousness of Crashaw. In the hands of Cowley the use of far-sought and intricate imagery became a trick, and the fantastic school, the soul of sincerity gone out of it, died when he died. To the followers of Jonson we owe that delightful and simple lyric poetry which fills our anthologies, their courtly lyricism receiving a new impulse in the intenser loyalty of troubled times. The most finished of them is perhaps Carew; the best, because of the freshness and varity of his subject-matter and his easy grace, Herrick. At the end of them came Waller and gave to the five-accented rhymed verse (the heroic couplet) that trick of regularity and balance which gave us the classical school.
The prose literature of the seventeenth century is extraordinarily rich and varied, and a study of it would cover a wide field of human knowledge. The new and unsuspected harmonies discovered by the Elizabethans were applied indeed to all the tasks of which prose is capable, from telling stories to setting down the results of speculation which was revolutionizing science and philosophy. For the first time the vernacular and not Latin became the language of scientific research, and though Bacon in his Novum Organum adhered to the older mode its disappearance was rapid. English was proving itself too flexible an instrument for conveying ideas to be longer neglected. It was applied too to preaching of a more formal and grandiose kind than the plain and homely Latimer ever dreamed of. The preachers, though their golden-mouthed oratory, which blended in its combination of vigour and cadence the euphuistic and colloquial styles of the Elizabethans, is in itself a glory of English literature, belong by their matter too exclusively to the province of Church history to be dealt with here. The men of science and philosophy, Newton, Hobbes, and Locke, are in a like way outside our province. For the purpose of the literary student the achievement of the seventeenth century can be judged in four separate men or books—in the Bible, in Francis Bacon, and in Burton and Browne.
In a way the Bible, like the preachers, lies outside the domain of literary study in the narrow sense; but its sheer literary magnitude, the abiding significance of it in our subsequent history, social, political, and artistic as well as religious, compel us to turn aside to examine the causes that have produced such great results. The Authorized Version is not, of course, a purely seventeenth century work. Though the scholars who wrote and compiled it had before them all the previous vernacular texts and chose the best readings where they found them or devised new ones in accordance with the original, the basis is undoubtedly the Tudor version of Tindall. It has, none the less, the qualities of the time of its publication. It could hardly have been done earlier; had it been so, it would not have been done half so well. In it English has lost both its roughness and its affectation and retained its strength; the Bible is the supreme example of early English prose style. The reason is not far to seek. Of all recipes for good or noble writing that which enjoins the writer to be careful about the matter and never mind the manner, is the most sure. The translators had the handling of matter of the gravest dignity and momentousness, and their sense of reverence kept them right in their treatment of it. They cared passionately for the truth; they were virtually anonymous and not ambitious of originality or literary fame; they had no desire to stand between the book and its readers. It followed that they cultivated that naked plainness and spareness which makes their work supreme. The Authorized Version is the last and greatest of those English translations which were the fruit of Renaissance scholarship and pioneering. It is the first and greatest piece of English prose.
[Footnote 3: There is a graphic little pen-picture of their method in Selden's “Table Talk.”]
Its influence is one of those things on which it is profitless to comment or enlarge simply because they are an understood part of every man's experience. In its own time it helped to weld England, for where before one Bible was read at home and another in churches, all now read the new version. Its supremacy was instantaneous and unchallenged, and it quickly coloured speech and literature; it could produce a Bunyan in the century of its birth. To it belongs the native dignity and eloquence of peasant speech. It runs like a golden thread through all our writing subsequent to its coming; men so diverse as Huxley and Carlyle have paid their tribute to its power; Ruskin counted it the one essential part of its education. It will be a bad day for the mere quality of our language when it ceases to be read.
At the time the translators were sitting, Francis Bacon was at the height of his fame. By profession a lawyer—time-serving and over-compliant to wealth and influence—he gives singularly little evidence of it in the style of his books. Lawyers, from the necessity they are under of exerting persuasion, of planting an unfamiliar argument in the minds of hearers of whose favour they are doubtful, but whose sympathy they must gain, are usually of purpose diffuse. They cultivate the gift, possessed by Edmund Burke above all other English authors, of putting the same thing freshly and in different forms a great many times in succession. They value copiousness and fertility of illustration. Nothing could be more unlike this normal legal manner than the style of Bacon. “No man,” says Ben Jonson, speaking in one of those vivid little notes of his, of his oratorical method, “no man ever coughed or turned aside from him without loss.” He is a master of the aphoristic style. He compresses his wisdom into the quintessential form of an epigram; so complete and concentrated is his form of statement, so shortly is everything put, that the mere transition from one thought to another gives his prose a curious air of disjointedness as if he flitted arbitrarily from one thing to another, and jotted down anything that came into his head. His writing has clarity and lucidity, it abounds in terseness of expression and in exact and discriminating phraseology, and in the minor arts of composition—in the use of quotations for instance—it can be extraordinarily felicitous. But it lacks spaciousness and ease and rhythm; it makes too inexorable a demand on the attention, and the harassed reader soon finds himself longing for those breathing spaces which consideration or perhaps looseness of thought has implanted in the prose of other writers.
His Essays, the work by which he is best known, were in their origin merely jottings gradually cohered and enlarged into the series we know. In them he had the advantage of a subject which he had studied closely through life. He counted himself a master in the art of managing men, and “Human Nature and how to manage it” would be a good title for his book. Men are studied in the spirit of Machiavelli, whose philosophy of government appealed so powerfully to the Elizabethan mind. Taken together the essays which deal with public matters are in effect a kind of manual for statesmen and princes, instructing them how to acquire power and how to keep it, deliberating how far they may go safely in the direction of self-interest, and to what degree the principle of self-interest must be subordinated to the wider interests of the people who are ruled. Democracy, which in England was to make its splendid beginnings in the seventeenth century, finds little to foretell it in the works of Bacon. Though he never advocates cruelty or oppression and is wise enough to see that no statesman can entirely set aside moral considerations, his ethical tone is hardly elevating; the moral obliquity of his public life is to a certain extent explained, in all but its grosser elements, in his published writings. The essays, of course, contain much more than this; the spirit of curious and restless enquiry which animated Bacon finds expression in those on “Health,” or “Gardens” and “Plantations” and others of the kind; and a deeper vein of earnestness runs through some of them—those for instance on “Friendship,” or “Truth” and on “Death.”
The Essays sum up in a condensed form the intellectual interests which find larger treatment in his other works. His Henry VII., the first piece of scientific history in the English language (indeed in the modern world) is concerned with a king whose practice was the outcome of a political theory identical with Bacon's own. The Advancement of Learning is a brilliant popular exposition of the cause of scientific enquiry and of the inductive or investigatory method of research. The New Atlantis is the picture of an ideal community whose common purpose is scientific investigation. Bacon's name is not upon the roll of those who have enlarged by brilliant conjectures or discoveries the store of human knowledge; his own investigations so far as they are recorded are all of a trivial nature. The truth about him is that he was a brilliantly clever populariser of the cause of science, a kind of seventeenth century Huxley, concerned rather to lay down large general principles for the guidance of the work of others, than to be a serious worker himself. The superstition of later times, acting on and refracting his amazing intellectual gifts, has raised him to a godlike eminence which is by right none of his; it has even credited him with the authorship of Shakespeare, and in its wilder moments with the composition of all that is of supreme worth in Elizabethan literature. It is not necessary to take these delusions seriously. The ignorance of mediaevalism was in the habit of crediting Vergil with the construction of the Roman aqueducts and temples whose ruins are scattered over Europe. The modern Baconians reach much the same intellectual level.
A similar enthusiasm for knowledge and at any rate a pretence to science belong to the author of the Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton. His one book is surely the most amazing in English prose. Its professed object was simple and comprehensive; it was to analyze human melancholy, to describe its effects, and prescribe for its removal. But as his task grew, melancholy came to mean to Burton all the ills that flesh is heir to. He tracked it in obscure and unsuspected forms; drew illustrations from a range of authors so much wider than the compass of the reading of even the most learned since, that he is generally credited with the invention of a large part of his quotations. Ancients and moderns, poets and prose writers, schoolmen and dramatists are all drawn upon for the copious store of his examples; they are always cited with an air of quietly humorous shrewdness in the comments and enclosed in a prose that is straightforward, simple and vigorous, and can on occasion command both rhythm and beauty of phrase. It is a mistake to regard Burton from the point of view (due largely to Charles Lamb) of tolerant or loving delight in quaintness for quaintness' sake. His book is anything but scientific in form, but it is far from being the work of a recluse or a fool. Behind his lack of system, he takes a broad and psychologically an essentially just view of human ills, and modern medicine has gone far in its admiration of what is at bottom a most comprehensive and subtle treatise in diagnosis.
A writer of a very different quality is Sir Thomas Browne. Of all the men of his time, he is the only one of whom one can say for certain that he held the manner of saying a thing more important than the thing said. He is our first deliberate and conscious stylist, the forerunner of Charles Lamb, of Stevenson (whose Virginibus Puerisque is modelled on his method of treatment) and of the stylistic school of our own day. His eloquence is too studied to rise to the greatest heights, and his speculation, though curious and discursive, never really results in deep thinking. He is content to embroider his pattern out of the stray fancies of an imaginative nature. His best known work, the Religio Medici, is a random confession of belief and thoughts, full of the inconsequent speculations of a man with some knowledge of science but not deeply or earnestly interested about it, content rather to follow the wayward imaginations of a mind naturally gifted with a certain poetic quality, than to engage in serious intellectual exercise. Such work could never maintain its hold on taste if it were not carefully finished and constructed with elaborate care. Browne, if he was not a great writer, was a literary artist of a high quality. He exploits a quaint and lovable egoism with extraordinary skill; and though his delicately figured and latinized sentences commonly sound platitudinous and trivial when they are translated into rough Saxon prose, as they stand they are rich and melodious enough.
In a century of surpassing richness in prose and poetry, one author stands by himself. John Milton refuses to be classed with any of the schools. Though Dryden tells us Milton confessed to him that Spenser was his “original,” he has no connection—other than a general similarity of purpose, moral and religious—with Spenser's followers. To the fantastics he paid in his youth the doubtful compliment of one or two half-contemptuous imitations and never touched them again. He had no turn for the love lyrics or the courtliness of the school of Jonson. In everything he did he was himself and his own master; he devised his own subjects and wrote his own style. He stands alone and must be judged alone.
No author, however, can ever escape from the influences of his time, and, just as much as his lesser contemporaries, Milton has his place in literary history and derives from the great original impulse which set in motion all the enterprises of the century. He is the last and greatest figure in the English Renaissance. The new passion for art and letters which in its earnest fumbling beginnings gave us the prose of Cheke and Ascham and the poetry of Surrey and Sackville, comes to a full and splendid and perfect end in his work. In it the Renaissance and the Reformation, imperfectly fused by Sidney and Spenser, blend in their just proportions. The transplantation into English of classical forms which had been the aim of Sidney and the endeavour of Jonson he finally accomplished; in his work the dream of all the poets of the Renaissance—the heroic poem—finds its fulfilment. There was no poet of the time but wanted to do for his country what Vergil had planned to do for Rome, to sing its origins, and to celebrate its morality and its citizenship in the epic form. Spenser had tried it in The Fairy Queen and failed splendidly. Where he failed, Milton succeeded, though his poem is not on the origins of England but on the ultimate subject of the origins of mankind. We know from his notebooks that he turned over in his mind a national subject and that the Arthurian legend for a while appealed to him. But to Milton's earnest temper nothing that was not true was a fit subject for poetry. It was inevitable he should lay it aside. The Arthurian story he knew to be a myth and a myth was a lie; the story of the Fall, on the other hand, he accepted in common with his time for literal fact. It is to be noted as characteristic of his confident and assured egotism that he accepted no less sincerely and literally the imaginative structure which he himself reared on it. However that may be, the solid fact about him is that in this “adventurous song” with its pursuit of
“Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,”
he succeeded in his attempt, that alone among the moderns he contrived to write an epic which stands on the same eminence as the ancient writings of the kind, and that he found time in a life, which hardly extended to old age as we know it, to write, besides noble lyrics and a series of fiercely argumentative prose treatises, two other masterpieces in the grand style, a tragedy modelled on the Greeks and a second epic on the “compact” style of the book of Job. No English poet can compare with him in majesty or completeness.
An adequate study of his achievement is impossible within the limits of the few pages that are all a book like this can spare to a single author. Readers who desire it will find it in the work of his two best critics, Mark Pattison and Sir Walter Raleigh. All that can be done here is to call attention to some of his most striking qualities. Foremost, of course, is the temper of the man. From the beginning he was sure of himself and sure of his mission; he had his purpose plain and clear. There is no mental development, hardly, visible in his work, only training, undertaken anxiously and prayerfully and with a clearly conceived end. He designed to write a masterpiece and he would not start till he was ready. The first twenty years of his life were spent in assiduous reading; for twenty more he was immersed in the dust and toil of political conflict, using his pen and his extraordinary equipment of learning and eloquence to defend the cause of liberty, civil and religious, and to attack its enemies; not till he was past middle age had he reached the leisure and the preparedness necessary to accomplish his self-imposed work. But all the time, as we know, he had it in his mind. In Lycidas, written in his Cambridge days, he apologizes to his readers for plucking the fruit of his poetry before it is ripe. In passage after passage in his prose works he begs for his reader's patience for a little while longer till his preparation be complete. When the time came at last for beginning he was in no doubt; in his very opening lines he intends, he says, to soar no “middle flight.” This self-assured unrelenting certainty of his, carried into his prose essays in argument, produces sometimes strange results. One is peculiarly interesting to us now in view of current controversy. He was unhappily married, and because he was unhappy the law of divorce must be changed. A modern—George Eliot for instance—would have pleaded the artistic temperament and been content to remain outside the law. Milton always argued from himself to mankind at large.
[Footnote 4: “Milton,” E.M.L., and “Milton” (Edward Arnold).]
In everything he did, he put forth all his strength. Each of his poems, long or short, is by itself a perfect whole, wrought complete. The reader always must feel that the planning of each is the work of conscious, deliberate, and selecting art. Milton never digresses; he never violates harmony of sound or sense; his poems have all their regular movement from quiet beginning through a rising and breaking wave of passion and splendour to quiet close. His art is nowhere better seen than in his endings.
Is it Lycidas? After the thunder of approaching vengeance on the hireling shepherds of the Church, comes sunset and quiet:
“And now the sun had stretch'd out all the hills,
And now was dropt into the western bay;
At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue:
To-morrow to fresh woods and pastures new.”
Is it Paradise Lost? After the agonies of expulsion and the flaming sword—
“Some natural tears they drop'd, but wip'd them soon;
The world was all before them where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”
Is it finally Samson Agonistes?
“His servants he with new acquist,
Of true experience from this great event,
With peace and consolation hath dismist,
And calm of mind all passion spent.”
“Calm of mind, all passion spent,” it is the essence of Milton's art.
He worked in large ideas and painted splendid canvases; it was necessary for him to invent a style which should be capable of sustained and lofty dignity, which should be ornate enough to maintain the interest of the reader and charm him and at the same time not so ornate as to give an air of meretricious decoration to what was largely and simply conceived. Particularly it was necessary for him to avoid those incursions of vulgar associations which words carelessly used will bring in their train. He succeeded brilliantly in this difficult task. The unit of the Miltonic style is not the phrase but the word, each word fastidiously chosen, commonly with some air of an original and lost meaning about it, and all set in a verse in which he contrived by an artful variation of pause and stress to give the variety which other writers had from rhyme. In this as in his structure he accomplished what the Renaissance had only dreamed. Though he had imitators (the poetic diction of the age following is modelled on him) he had no followers. No one has been big enough to find his secret since.