Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by Vernon Blackburn
Richard Hooker (1554–1600)
 
[Richard Hooker, as we learn from Izaak Walton in his famous Life, was born near Exeter about the year 1553. About the year 1567 he went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where in 1573 he was admitted as one of the twenty scholars of the foundation, and where, in 1577, he was elected fellow. About 1582 he was ordained and was presently appointed to preach at St. Paul’s Cross. A little later he married a lady who seems to have proved to him a singularly unpleasant wife. In 1585 he was made Master of the Temple. In 1595 he was appointed to the parsonage of Bishopsbourne in Kent. In the year previous his “first four Books and large Epistle” were published; and the fifth Book (On the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity) was published in 1597. He died at the early age of forty-six in the autumn of 1600. His literary works other than the above were published posthumously.]  1
 
IT may at once be said of Hooker’s work that his quality, his accomplishment (though of a high order in rhetoric, in composition governed by certain stately and scholastic laws) cannot rank him among the great creative writers of the world. As a man of thought, and as a man who set serious value by his thought: as a man who perpended every paragraph, and who carefully elaborated every parenthesis: as a man whose conscientious labour must ever be among the influences that drive the frivolous to despair, his superior or even his rival would not be easy to find. His workmanship, too, is very cunningly equipoised. He had an ear for the balance of parts, and for sonorousness of diction. He is never irresponsible, never gay, never passionate, never free from his own personal control. But for the artificial quality of his art he takes an exceptional eminence. There is something peculiarly satisfactory about all his writing; it is thorough. The extreme labour which he devoted to it sometimes indeed gives to it an excessive cast; he thinks his thoughts out to so wire-drawn a completeness that he not infrequently irritates by his persistent digressions and his unashamed length of sentence. “It may be,” he once wrote, in perhaps the most heated document he ever composed—singularly temperate though it be—“I have talked or walked or eaten or interchangeably used the duties of common humanity with some such as he is hardly persuaded of. For I know no law of God or man, by force whereof they should be as heathens and publicans unto me that are not gracious in the eyes of another man.” An ordinary thinker accustomed to pursue his thoughts with average fury would there have ceased; but Hooker is content to mar the whole passage by the clumsy addition of a fresh clause, which is the merest elucidation, unessential to his contention, yet irresistible to his refining mind. After the interval of a comma he continues, “perhaps without cause, or, if with cause, yet with such cause as he is privy unto and not I.” These are the natural faults of excessive laboriousness. One who presses his eyes too closely to a picture loses its perspective unity; the writer who can never leave his thought alone inclines to the same bemusement; he sometimes—as in this instance—surrenders the very achievement upon which his heart is customarily set; he loses his balance, and gains nothing for his pains.  2
  Let this suffice for a brief general review of Hooker’s literary style. To come to detail, the first thing to note is the academical quality of every sentence he ever wrote—a quality so academical, so purely the outcome of studiousness that you begin presently to wonder whether the man had a pair of eyes at all. It would perhaps be rash to say that there is not a single passage in all his works dealing with the commonest matters of natural observation; but such passages are certainly of extreme infrequency. To compare him to Taylor in this respect is to step from the close atmosphere of a sealed library into the flowers of the springtime. Recall, for example, two passages, one from each writer, in which each deals with his subject through the medium of some objective phenomena. “So have I seen a rose,” says Jeremy, “newly springing from the clefts of its hood, and at first it was fair as the morning and full with the dew of heaven as a lamb’s fleece; but when a ruder breath had forced open its virgin modesty, and dismantled its too youthful and unripe retirements, it began to put on darkness and to decline to softness and the symptoms of a sickly age; it bowed the head and broke its stalk, and, at night, having lost some of its leaves and all its beauty, it fell into the portion of weeds and outworn faces.” The passage, full of exquisitely personal observation, may be left to sing its own song. Take in comparison to it this fine passage from a sermon by Hooker. “The judgments of God do not always follow crimes as thunder doth lightning, but sometimes the space of many ages coming between. When the sun hath shined fair the space of six days upon the tabernacle, we know not what clouds the seventh may bring…. If they chance to escape clearly in this world, which they seldom do; in the day when the heavens shall shrivel as a scroll and the mountains move as frighted men out of their places, what cave shall receive them? What mountain or rock shall they get by entreaty to fall upon them? what covert to hide them from that wrath, which they shall be neither able to abide nor to avoid?” Every allusion in this second passage is perfectly academical. The sentences roll majestically, they prove a nice sense of words, a rhythmical command of speech. But when this writer speaks of the shining of the sun upon the tabernacle he has no visual sense, it is clear, of his metaphor; the shrivelling of the heavens and the moving of the mountains in their second-hand application, are the purest figures of rhetoric; there is an intellectual impressiveness in that comparison of the moving mountains to “frighted men”; but the conception has no real analogies to anything in nature: indeed, any attempt to make such an analogy would involve the whole image in grotesqueness. The academic mind is incapable of literal imagery, if such imagery is to be evolved from the sights and sounds and scents of the objective world. Hooker’s fancy is a quality entirely dormant; he has a certain intellectual imagination, but this is mostly derivative. The Old Testament supplied him with what splendour of illustration he chanced to need.  3
  To bring the matter down to narrower issues: it is to be noted how deeply Hooker was affected by Latin writers and Latin construction in his literary style, although it cannot truthfully be said that this was to the disadvantage of his literature. He discovers the strength of such an influence, partly in his deliberate massiveness of construction, partly in the obvious impatience he displays towards the Teutonic prepositional substitutes for inflected speech, and partly in his repetition of an idea in words of slightly different shades of meaning—“without any qualifications, cautions, ifs and ands,” he writes in one place, obviously induced thereto by some Ciceronian reminiscence. Sometimes, too, he will omit an auxiliary verb, will give to his principal words a Latinised importance of position, yet—with some fine insight into the quicker movement of the English tongue—preserve a strong idiomatic flavour of the language through which he is commercing. A pat instance is to hand: “One of the town ministers,” he writes somewhere, “that saw in what manner the people were bent for the revocation of Calvin, gave him notice of their affection in this sort: ‘The Senate of two hundred being assembled, they all crave Calvin. The next day a general convocation. They cry in like sort again all, we will have Calvin, that good and learned man, Christ’s minister.’” The words within quotation marks have the savour of a literal translation from the Latin. “They cry in like sort again all:” Clamant similiter rursus omnes—the words require no transposition, no manipulation; yet the general trend of the passage is certainly towards an English or Teutonic, rather than towards a classical spirit; and, indeed, despite his love of these alien speeches, despite his submission to their dictation, their imperial authority, he none the less clearly for that makes ample show of a complete equipment in a native idiom and a native manner of language.  4
  He is a little austere. That may have been already gathered from preceding words, but let it here be stated explicitly. He lacks all (or nearly all) the endearing qualities of literature. You admire the ample and even splendid furniture of his mind; you appraise at their high and full value his powers of abstract—if not always perfectly logical or coherent—reasoning, but he seldom stirs the elemental emotions that are deepset far beneath the intellectual emotions of knowledge and culture. Of old, men had the comparison between Cicero and Demosthenes which may well stand as between Hooker and Taylor. When Cicero spoke the world wondered over the marvellous artist, the refined rhetorician, the eloquent philosopher, the skilful musician in words, the silver-tongued and persuasive advocate; so has the world wondered, in a somewhat lesser degree, over Hooker. But when Demosthenes spoke, an excited audience of Athenians sprang to foot crying, “Let us go forth to fight Philip.” The parallel is complete. Yet there are infrequent passages in Hooker’s work that move the deeper emotions. “The best things we do,” he says sorrowfully in one of his finest passages, to be quoted later, “have somewhat in them to be pardoned;” and it is a sentiment that has in it some of the piercing quality of essential truth. Again, in a funeral sermon which he preached over the coffin of a religious lady, he struck out occasional passages of pathetic beauty which is elsewhere rarely to be found in his work. Yet even here one finds the emotion unsustained. It quickly leaves him, and, thrown upon the unfelt sentiments derived from more poignant literature, he falls into an absolute bathos. “Concerning this virtuous gentlewoman only this little I speak,” he says at the conclusion of a nobly pathetic passage, “and that of knowledge, ‘She lived a dove and died a lamb.’”  5
  We come finally to consider Hooker as a master—or otherwise—of controversy. “I take no joy,” he once wrote, “in striving; I have not been nuzzled or trained up in it. I would to Christ they which have at this present forced me hereunto had so ruled their hands in any reasonable time that I might never have been constrained to strike so much as in mine own defence.” For this very reason he was so much the better controversialist. Never losing his head, he always retained the full power of his hand; never excited, he always detected a weak joint; always meek, he never lost sight of his advantages in the anger of another. And where the clear justice of his cause supplied to him any personal deficiency of logic, he is not easily to be surpassed in quiet overbearing, in gentle persuasiveness. For this reason his answer to Travers must be reckoned among the strongest pieces of controversial work which his times produced. Travers, it is to be premised, committed the initial blunder of violence and anger—defects which, as has been seen, were absolutely alien to the mild and melancholy Hooker. Hooker accordingly makes a quiet meal of Travers, already simmering in the sauce of his own fury. He does it, too, with that admirable reluctance, that unwilling appetite, that patient depreciation which—if writers of controversy only knew it—have an infinitely more damnatory effect than outrageous home-thrusts or tedious satire. His final apologies, too—doubtless sincere, but none the less mischievously effective—for showing fight, his gentle hint that Travers has proved an indigestible dish, his concluding expressions of amity and goodwill, prove, as it seems—and quite apart from the reasonableness of his case—the justice of his standpoint. It is scarce to be wondered at that Archbishop Whitgift began, from the time of its publication, “to have Hooker in admiration,” as Walton records, “and to rejoice that he had appeared in his cause.” As to his general controversy—with Rome, or with heresy, as he conceived it—his best qualities are those already named, his worst a certain looseness of logical instinct. No work of a lifetime could have been more appropriate to any writer than was The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity to Hooker. The thing was reserved for him to accomplish by some Providence. Its controversy did not clamour for too close an application of absolute reasoning—and so far he is a master in controversy; its scope afforded him a field for all those errant speculations, academic analogies, historic and learned allusions, comparative judgments, and hesitant conclusions for which he was admirably fitted.  6
  Enough, then, has been said to show Hooker as a writer of English; though, by reason of certain defects, he cannot be said to take supreme rank among the literary creators of the world, he has all the qualities, all the greatnesses, that allow him to rank among the most scholarly, conscientious, and learned writers upon whom the English language has conferred its ultimate honours.  7
 
 
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