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MILTON AND HIS CONTEMPORARIES
The characteristic prose of Caroline and Commonwealth days is ornate, involved, ponderous, and laden with instance and quotation from the classics.
It is a prose rich and leisurely, full-toned in its phrasing, pleasant to the ear, with a grave and stately music. Essentially, it is Gothic. Much of this prose is metaphysical or theological in character, from the pens of grave and thoughtful men, - Anglicans, Presbyterians, Platonists, or advocates of that natural theology which was to eventuate in deism and Unitarianism on the one hand, and on the other in the romantic nature poetry of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This prose is at its best in such works as Browne's Religio Medici and Urn-Burial.
Less rotund and pretentious is the prose of such intimate personal records as Lady Hutchinson's biography of her husband and Pepys's inimitable diary, and altogether unique is the homely, straightforward prose of Bunyan, a man who had no ambitions as a stylist other than to be understood by all readers. With the Restoration a perceptible change takes place in prose style, and simplicity,
a directness, and terseness begin to supplant the florid and orotund phrases of the declining school. This change was of course due to the French example, and it is worthy of note that the Royal Society, founded in 1662, originally undertook as one of its purposes the reformation of English prose, passes “a resolution to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style," and, according to its formal declaration, “exacted from all their members a close, naked, natural way of speaking, positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness, bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as they can." This new ideal in line with the growing spirit of rationalism, found its full realization in the prose of the writers of Queen Anne.
The Life of Colonel Hutchinson (1664-1671), one of the regicide judges, by his wife, Lucy Apsley Hutchinson, furnishes a unique picture of the home life and of the characteristic modes of thought of an upper-class Puritan family. It introduces the reader to a home which combined domestic tenderness, grave but gracious deportment, learning, godliness, and a high sense of civic obligation. The figure of Colonel Hutchinson himself, in the words of Green, the historian, “stands out from his wife's canvass with the grace and tenderness of a portrait by Van Dyck.”
Mrs. Hutchinson and Margaret Newcastle anticipate the intellectual emancipation of women, and show how readily woman was to achieve distinction in letters when equipped with education.
Margaret Cavendish (?1624-1674), Duchess of Newcastle, was considered impossible by the Court of Charles II, – that is, as nearly impossible as it was possible for a duchess to be considered. In the first place she was irritatingly moral. In the second place she was naïvely enthusiastic over her own husband, the handsome Duke, thirty years her senior. Again, she was so clever that in her presence other women felt mortifyingly conscious of their own stupidity. And finally, she persisted in wearing, with evident satisfaction, strange and uncouth garments of her own devising, preferably theatrical in design. The court nicknamed her “the Mad Duchess," and she ultimately exiled herself from a society that disgusted her.
As a writer she was most prolific, producing innumerable poems and plays, not to mention volumes of philosophical opinions. The poems are frequently graceful and fanciful, but the plays are stilted to a degree, for the characters are mere abstractions who philosophize endlessly. Her works of permanent value are the masterly biography of her husband, an intimate and picturesque sketch, and her clever letters.
Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was one of the few English writers of his day to enjoy an international audience. The appearance of an unauthorized edition of the Religio Medici in 1642 and of an authorized version in 1643, was followed by no less than four Latin editions in 1644, two published at Leyden and two at Paris. In Paris, if a letter of Guy Patin under date of April 7, 1645 is to be trusted, the book was nothing short of a sensation. Moreover, so consistently did it gain in prestige upon the continent that Dutch, French, and German translations appeared respectively in 1665, 1668, and 1680.
How account for the vogue of this book? Its popularity could not reside in that for which we especially prize it to-day, the incomparably rich and sonorous diction, for this was necessarily sacrificed in translation. Rather it is to be explained on the ground that here, as opposed to other theological treatises, was an intimate document of personal religious belief, natural, free from philosophical esotericism, and essentially human, and that the author, while essentially a religious man, yet dared to confess frank distrust of much that was traditional, and recognized his own heart as the final seat of spiritual authority.
John Selden is one of those scholars whose fame, like that of Charles L. Dodgson, the Oxford mathematician and author of Alice in Wonderland, rests upon an incidental by-product of his life. He was a man of vast erudition, the foremost English student of the century in the fields of antiquities, orientology, and law, but he is popularly known to-day through his Table Talk, the chance sparks of his intellect, which a faithful secretary, Richard Milward, who played Boswell to this Johnson, jotted down for preservation. The Table Talk was not published till 1689, thirty-five years after Selden's death, when the revolution had given freedom to the press. While his scholarly writings are overweighted with learning and tough reading at the best, the conversations are characterized by a directness and lucidity which bear out the contemporary impression that he talked better than he wrote. They touch upon a very wide range of subjects. A contemporary relates that Selden attended the Westminster assembly of divines in 1643, with the intent "to humble the jure-divinoship of presbytery,” and that when some divine would cite a passage of scripture to prove an assertion, Selden would scornfully remark, 'Perhaps in your little pocket-bibles with gilt leaves the translation may be thus, but the Greek or the Hebrew signifies thus or so. It is just such a scornful intellect, equipped with a vast knowledge of history and of life, that Selden displays in Table Talk,
Edward Herbert (1583-1648), First Baron Herbert of Cherbury, “The black Lord Herbert' as he was admiringly called because of his dark coloring, was one of the dashing bloods of the courts of Elizabeth and James. Gallants were kept busy gratifying his jealous and exacting sense of honor or dodging his challenges at arms, and even married women secured his miniature to worship in secret. Queen Elizabeth sighed that so fair a youth was wasted on an early marriage, and Queen Anne embarrassed him with her importunities. Herbert, for his part, had an eye for the ladies, so much so, in fact, that when engaged upon an urgent commission which took him from Turin to Lyons, he interrupted his journey to catch sight of a famous beauty, the daughter of an innkeeper, who had aroused the enthusiasm of certain friends. Years after he was able to catalogue her charms and to describe the color and design of her costume with the particularity of the connoisseur.
Although saddled with a wife four years his senior who was imposed upon him at the gentle age of sixteen, at Oxford Lord Herbert gained proficiency in French, Spanish, Italian, music, horsemanship, and fencing, outside of the curriculum. From the age of twenty-five to the age of forty-one he was much abroad, traveling for travel's sake, serving as a soldier of fortune under various banners, and from 1619 to 1624 representing
England as Ambassador at the French court. Vanity and love of adventure kept him constantly at the centre of the stage. At the fall of Juliers he was the first to set foot within the city, and when serving under the Dutch against the Spanish, was quick to accept a challenge - subsequently withdrawn — to decide the war by single combat.
But eager as he was for courts and knightly exploits, Herbert was also the scholar, and at intervals he withdrew from the active life to pursue that study of philosophy which eventuated in his De Veritate Of Truth), the most considerable English philosophical work between Bacon and Hobbes.
The Autobiography is the nearest approach to the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini that the English Renaissance produced.
Edward Hyde (1609-1674), Earl of Clarendon, councilor for Charles II and premier after the Restoration, was conspicuous in a profligate court for his morality and grave adherence to the national church and the theory of a constitutional monarchy. That the ultimate reward for his service was exile and death in a foreign land only enhances his dignity. His literary works, pursued with the same thoroughness that charac
. terized his official conduct, embrace a History of the Rebellion and an autobiography. The style of these books is marked by a simplicity that allows no place to pedantry and ornamentation, and a diction strikingly modern. His name is permanently associated with the great university which he served as Chancelor, for the Clarendon Press was created from the profits on the sale of his history, on which the university has the perpetual copyright.
The bull fight, described in the selections, was witnessed in 1649 when Clarendon was in Spain seeking assistance for Charles II, then an exile.
In 1888 a statue of Izaak Walton (1593–1683), subscribed by “The Fishermen of England,” was placed in the great screen of Winchester Cathedral. It was in part a tribute to the perennial freshness and charm of a rare personality. It was also a vote of confidence by Englishmen in themselves and in their land, for this book is instinct with the spirit of rural England — sun-drenched, flower-pied meadows, quiet streams, cool copses, and kindly country-folk —, and instinct with the English love of sport.
Walton was a country boy, of yeoman parentage, and received but slender schooling. At an early age he went up to London, in a very few years established himself comfortably in business, and devoted the leisure hours of a long life — he died in his ninetyfirst year — to companionship with interesting men, to literature, and to the enjoyments of out-of-doors.
Although he had well-defined royalist sympathies and followed with much anxiety the events of the civil war, and although his domestic life was sown with much bereavement, he did not allow his spirit to be warped or embittered by the political acerbities of his day, or by his own private adversities.
His genial spirit, his enthusiasm for letters, and his sensitive response to all beauty and excellence won him the friendship of learned scholars, literati and divines — such men as Dr. John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Ben Jonson, and the poet Drayton - and it was more as a solicitation of friendship than an act of charity that the Bishop of Winchester offered him, in his declining years, permanent asylum in his palace.
Walton's books were the products of his riper years, and they display the gentle humor, the kindly philosophy, and the spiritual composure of a man who grew old gracefully. The biographies of Donne and Wotton were written in later middle life, The Compleat Angler was not finished until the author had reached the serenity of sixty, in a life that from the first was more than ordinarily serene, and the lives of Hooker and Herbert were products of his seventies.
Of The Compleat Angler, Andrew Lang has remarked: "Our angling literature is copious, practical, full of anecdote; Walton alone gave it style. He is not so much unrivalled as absolutely alone. Heaven meant him for the place he fills, as it meant the
cowslip and the Mayfly.” Of the lives it is no exaggeration to say that they inaugurated the modern style of intimate and friendly biography.
John Milton (1608-1674) is the most complete exponent of cultured and educated as opposed to vulgar and illiterate – Puritanism. The facts of his life are briefly these: reared in an atmosphere of music, art, literature, and godliness; fitted at the best preparatory school in London - St. Paul's; trained at Christ College, Cambridge; after graduation, nearly six years for quiet study and the writing of poetry; abroad for extensive continental travel and contact with distinguished foreigners, Galileo among the rest ; recalled by the revolution; for two decades putting poetry aside to act as Latin Secretary to the Council of State and to write potent, if at times intemperate, pamphlets in behalf of private and civic liberty - on divorce, on the freedom of the press, against Episcopacy, in defense of the execution of Charles I and the establishment of the Commonwealth; twice married in the meantime, first to a frivolous girl of seventeen who ran away for a season but returned to leave him three light-headed and obstreperous daughters, and then to a woman of more congenial qualities who shortly died in childbirth; blind; in hiding for his life when the Restoration upset the Commonwealth; three years of relative obscurity and poverty in which he returned to poetry and wrote Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes, great "spiritual summaries of his life of lost ideals”; incidentally a third marriage to a young woman who may have helped him to hold the balance of power against his stubborn daughters; and then seven final years of inactivity and poor health, though “he would be very cheerful in his gout fits, and sing.” It is not an enviable biography, as we customarily look at life. Yet, despite all adversities, Milton produced the immortal epic of the English race, and established the boundaries of public and private liberty.
Milton's Second Defence (1654) was written in Latin and strictly speaking is not a part of English literature at all, but the translation of a considerable portion is nevertheless included in the selections because it furnishes a more comprehensive understanding of the mind and heart of Milton than any of his English prose writings. In this document he reviews much of his own life and in a high and excellent spirit lays down principles of good citizenship applicable to any society and peculiarly pertinent to present-day American life.
The son of a tinker, and himself a tinker; slenderly schooled; in church Sunday morning, playing ball and swearing on the green Sunday afternoon, tormented with visions of hell Sunday evening; converted by a woman who reproved him for his blasphemy; married to a girl as poor as himself, who brought for a dowry only The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven and The Practice of Piety; a Baptist preacher holding spellbound the crowds who gathered in fields or in chapels and who affectionately dubbed him “ Bishop Bunyan”; a prisoner in Bedford jail for twelve years, groaning aloud at the thought of his destitute family and especially of his little blind daughter, yet making shoe laces for their support, reading the Bible and Foxe's Book of Martyrs and writing The Pilgrim's Progress; a free man again, tinkering and preaching; and overtaken by death as a consequence of a hard ride in a storm to reconcile a stubborn father and a stubborn son ; – such are some of the high points in the life of John Bunyan (1628–
; 1688). Yet it is a life not to be sketched in a few lines; rather it should be read in his own inimitable record, Grace Abounding. Bunyan is, par excellence, the exponent of the Puritan spirit in prose, as Milton in verse. Editions in seventy-five languages testify that here was a man who speaks straight to the hearts of men.
One derives the same furtive pleasure from Samuel Pepys's Diary (1660-1669) as from reading another's private correspondence or peering under the neighbor's shades. Pepys wrote with the utmost frankness, relying upon the cipher which he employed to protect him from curious eyes, whether of his wife or of future generations. This diary came to assume almost the reality of a human companion, and with it he not only
reviewed the events of the day and chuckled over the latest bit of scandal, but to it confided those personal vanities, foibles and small hypocrisies which most men are not honest enough to confess even to themselves.
The Diary covers the years from January 1, 1660 to May 31, 1669, when Pepys was between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty-six. It was a period in his life when he was daily gaining in prestige and influence as the ablest of the naval officials, cultivating friendship in high places, building up a goodly fortune, and indulging his leisure hours in much-relished diversions, ordinarily quite harmless, but at times over-convivial, or sufficiently irregular to be hidden from the inquisitorial eyes of his pretty, though rather tiresome, young wife. There is not a dry passage in the Diary, and it is a richly human document as well as a most precious reflection of contemporary life.
It is to be regretted that Pepys did not continue the Diary through the remaining thirty-four years of his eventful career. Samuel Pepys of sixty, his blood cooled by age, sagely experienced, the august President of the Royal Society, a virtuoso of distinction, the intimate friend of scientists, poets, and artists—Sir Issac Newton, Dryden, Sir Christopher Wren, Godfrey Kneller, the court painter —, we would fain know this Samuel Pepys as intimately as his younger counterpart.
The Diary of John Evelyn gives picturesque chronicles of the events of his life from 1641 — when he was twenty-one years of age, to 1706, the year of his death. Since its publication in 1818, it has been one of the most important source books for the contemporary history. Evelyn did not have so good a nose for scandal as his friend, Pepys, and he does not keep the reader on the qui vive for risque situations, but he was an interesting man, nevertheless, who wrote treatises on a wide variety of subjects - engraving, numismatics, forestation, salads, and the history of religion, made proposals for eliminating the smoke of London and removing cemeteries to the suburbs, cultivated gardens, collected curios, and played enough of a part in public affairs to keep the reader in touch with the drift of events.
MARGARET CAVENDISH, DUCHESS and surely it were better to follow the OF NEWCASTLE
shadow of beauty, than that beauty should
go with the corpse to the grave; and I SOCIABLE LETTERS
believe that Mrs. U. R. would do, as the AGE, WRINKLES, RUIN, AND tale is of a woman, that did wish, and pray DEATH
she might die before her husband, but
when death came, she entreated him to MADAM, — The Lady C. E. ought not spare her, and take her husband; so that to be reproved for grieving for the loss of she would rather live without him, than her beauty, for beauty is the light of our die for him. But leaving this sad dissex, which is eclipsed in middle age, and course of age, wrinkles, ruin and death. benighted in old age, wherein our sex sits
I rest, Madam, in melancholy darkness, and the remem- Your very faithful friend and servant. brance of beauty past, is as a displeasing dream. The truth is, a young beautiful
THE LADY PURITAN AND THE face is a friend, whereas an old withered
PREACHERS face is an enemy; the one causes love, the other aversion : yet I am not of Mrs. MADAM, — The pure lady, or Lady U.R.'s humour, which had rather die before Puritan, is so godly, as to follow all those her beauty, than that her beauty should ministers she thinks are called and chosen die before her: for I had rather live with by the Holy Spirit, to preach the word of wrinkles, than die with youth; and had God, whereas those ministers preach more rather my face clothed with time's sad their own words, than God's, for they mourning, than with death's white hue; interpret the Scripture to their own sense,