A History of English Literature

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1
Donne practised this contraction – as did Jonson, in (reportedly) saying that Donne
‘for not being understood, would perish’ and that ‘Shakespeare wanted art’.
Bacon’s Essays are a little like the Essais ofMontaigne (1533–1592), translated by
John Florio in 1603. Bacon settles a topic in three pages. A professional demolisher,
he knew the value of an initial blow: ‘Reuengeis a kinde of Wilde Justice; which the
more Mans Nature runs to, the more ought Law to weed it out’ or ‘He that hath Wife
and Children, hath giuen Hostages to Fortune; For they are Impediments, to great
Enterprises, either of Vertue, or Mischiefe.’ The essays interweave experience and
authorities; their close sententiousness has the scepticism of Montaigne but without
his engaging explorativeness. Reading them is like playing chess, or squash, with a
superior opponent.

Lancelot Andrewes

The central assumption, even of natural philosophers before the Civil War, is reli-
gious. Deism, acknowledging the Author of Nature rather than the God of Revelation,
is first found in Lord Herbert of Cherbury. On completing his De Veritate, Herbert
tells that he knelt and asked for a sign from heaven as to whether he should publish it:
‘a Loud though yet Gentle noise’ from a clear blue sky assured him that he should.
His younger brother, the poet George Herbert (1593–1633), was a friend of
Donne and ofLancelot Andrewes (1555–1626). Andrewes, the chief Anglican writer
after Donne, followed Richard Hooker (1554–1600) in finding his Church a via
media,a middle way, between Rome and Geneva, holding both the apostolic succes-
sion of the Catholic Church and the doctrines of reform. The doctrine of the
Elizabethan Church was Swiss, not Roman, but Hooker steered the national Church
to the centre of the stream. The acceptance of the via media is clear in George
Herbert’s 1620s poem ‘The British Church’: his ‘dearest mother’, neither Geneva nor
Rome,whose ‘fine aspect in fit array / Neither too mean nor yet too gay / Shows
who is best’. Andrewes’s learning allowed the English Church to dispute with Rome
on better ter ms. He was linguistically the most learned of the Authorized Version’s
tr anslators, and his sermons expound the text with surgical skill.

Robert Burton

Bacon’s curt method and Andrewes’s incisiveness are not found in Burton’s Anatomy
of Melancholy, What it is, With all the kinds, causes, symptomes, prognostickes, & sever-
all cures of it. In three Partitions, with their severall Sections, members & subsections,
Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically opened & cut up. This museum of the milder
fo rms of mania has not since the 18th century been consulted for its science but
dropped into, like an old secondhand bookshop, for the atmosphere.Robert Burton
(1577–1640), an Oxford don in an age of accumulating specialist knowledge,
co nfessed that he had read many books but ‘to little purpose, for want of a good
method’. Burton was a collector, self-deprecating and sceptical; fond of a Latin
authority, opinion or argument; unsure whether it is worth sticking to the point. He
was liked by Sterne and Lamb, connoisseurs of anticlimax, and appeals to lovers of
the strange and the quaint.

Sir Thomas Browne

The style ofSir Thomas Browne (1605–1682) is more metaphysical,or Baroque,
than Burton’s, and his Religio Medici(‘A Doctor’s Faith’) has lasting value for its
peaceable and humane tone:


Free download pdf