Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Vernon Blackburn
Robert Parsons (15461610)
[Robert Parsons, Jesuit, was born in Somersetshire in 1546, and was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, where in 1572 he took the degree of M.A. For religious reasons resigning his fellowship, he travelled abroad, where, falling under the influence of the Jesuits, he joined that order, then in the pride of its full strength, and set about the designs entrusted to his conscience with a remarkable fervour. He travelled to England with Edmund Campion, and after the execution of that celebrated Jesuit, he fled the country, established a short-lived Catholic School at Rheims, which latter was revived at St. Omer, and after a residence in Rome as rector of the English College he died there in 1610. His works are very numerous, but of a somewhat fragmentary character, and he frequently wrote anonymously both in Latin and in English. His two most notable contributions to the letters of his time may be considered more carefully here, inasmuch as they afford the best test of his possible claim as a master of literary art.]
FOR a certain directness of speech and acuteness of thought, Robert Parsons famous Apology of the Catholic Hierarchyto give it a summary titleachieved the distinction of praise from the pen of Dean Swift. It would be no difficult task to discover the reasons of such praise from such a writer. Parsons, from conscious or unconscious art, was before all things simple, lucid, and without the slightest taint of obscurityqualities pre-eminent in the writer that praised him. Yet there is not very much further to say of this writer. His life seems to have been too full of fervent restlessness to leave him leisure for the long contemplation which usually results in the composition of thoughtful literaturethat literature which claims the highest recognitions of a critical posterity. Parsons wrote for other sakes than the sake of his art. It is doubtful if he even regarded his writing in any artistic light. He wrote for a purpose. He had the affairs of this world (and the other for that matter) very much at heart; his impulsive bent of disposition which overflowed in this channel and in that channel, overflowed also in writing; and because he saw very clearly that which he desired to achieve, whether by word of mouth or by his pen, and because his mind was absolutely untrammelled by afterthoughts and delicate questionings, by uncertainties or hesitant flutterings of spirit, he did, in fact, produce a kind of literature, strong, incisive, and crystal clear.
He was a man that, had he been gifted with a more placid and philosophic temper, might have proved a rare and consummate artist. Hidden somewhere away, and treated very indifferently by himself, he possessed a striking gift of clear vision, which at times surprises and convinces his readers by its astonishing clarity. Take that sentence in a passage to be quoted later, in which he sets himself on high over the earth, watching our planet, moistened, as he says, with rivers, as a body with veins. The quick, and as it seems, unconscious quality of the metaphor, is sweeping in its effect, yet singularly simple in its essence. In such a passage he is seen at his best, since it is here that he realises himself most acutely. Now he himself was a person who, by reason of his strength of purpose, was worthy of realisation.
To set him in a definite place of literature would be to grant him too much honour. He is a free lance, and cannot be ranked among the regular armies of art. Even as a writer of his own time it is difficult to appraise his relative worth. He is full of platitudes; his thought is usually quite obvious; and he is incapable of large sympathies. As a writer of controversyit was in this province that he usually labouredhe is ever at a fever heat; so that he scarce ever takes account of his own words. He pours out all the bitterness he can conceive on the moment, and sets it down for good or evil; being a strong man he often spoke bitterness with wonderful effectiveness. Too often he was merely puerile. But, take him all in all, he must be described as a man who often wrote excellently well, because his vision was excellently clear, and his intentions perfectly plain to his own roughly strong, though somewhat conventional, mind.