Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
 
Critical Introduction by William S. M’Cormick
John Selden (1584–1654)
 
[John Selden (1584–1654), the only son of a yeoman, was born at Salvington on the Sussex coast, and was educated at Chichester Grammar School and at Hart Hall, Oxford. In 1604 he was admitted to the Inner Temple, where he rapidly gained a name for his antiquarian erudition. In 1621 Selden, though not a member, assisted the Commons in drawing up a protest against the King’s refusal to receive the petition of grievances; for this he suffered a five weeks’ imprisonment. In 1624 he entered Parliament, and for twenty years took a prominent part in the struggle between Commons and Crown. In 1627 he supported Hampden in his resistance to Charles’ forced loan, and the following year helped to frame the Petition of Right. For his share in the proceedings of the Parliament of 1629, when protests against tonnage and poundage were read while the Speaker was forcibly held in the chair, Selden was again imprisoned—this time for nearly two years. In the Long Parliament Selden’s firm moderation opposed the zeal of the more violent reformers as well as the unwarranted pretensions of the royal prerogative. He was one of the committee appointed to draw up a remonstrance on the state of the nation; but he voted against Strafford’s impeachment, and attempted to defeat the Declaration against Episcopacy in 1641. When matters came to a head shortly after with the impeachment of the five members, Selden maintained the illegality alike of the King’s Commission of Array, and of the Commons’ Ordinance for the Militia. He was a member of the Assembly of Divines, in which, according to Whitelock, “Mr. Selden spake admirably, and confuted divers of them in their own learning.” His closing years were spent under the roof of the Dowager-Countess of Kent. His library is preserved in the Bodleian, Oxford. The list of Selden’s legal and Rabbinical treatises in Latin is too long for insertion here. His two principal works in English are Titles of Honour (1614), and History of Tithes (1618), which was suppressed by James I. on the ground that it denied their “divine right.” The Table-Talk—collected and recorded by Selden’s amanuensis, the Rev. Richard Millward—was not printed till 1689. But it seems probable, from Millward’s dedication to Selden’s executors, that he had prepared it for publication soon after Selden’s death.]  1
 
IT is by his conversation rather than by his writings that Selden claims a place in this series. Most of his learned treatises were written in Latin, and the few that are in English can hardly be regarded as specimens of English prose. Documents and records in all languages form the body of his works. Selden does little more than arrange and cement them together. This method of writing history has evident advantages, but they are not of a literary character. In the Titles of Honour there is not one page of consecutive English. The passage quoted below—where for once he tells a legend in his own words instead of quoting the original—is the longest uninterrupted piece of English in The History of Tithes, with the exception of the preface. Selden contents himself with quoting his authorities; for his aim in all his works is an exposition of facts, and he allows them to speak for themselves.  2
  There is no reason to doubt Millward’s statement in his dedication of the Table-Talk to Selden’s friends, that “the sense and notion here is wholly his (Selden’s), and most of the words.” “You will quickly perceive them to be his,” he adds, “by the familiar illustrations wherewith they are set off, and in which way you know he was so happy, that, with a marvellous delight to those that heard him, he would presently convey the highest points of religion, and the most important affairs of state, to an ordinary apprehension.” And this appeal is sustained by the evidence of Clarendon—which might serve for a description of the Table-Talk—that “in his conversation he was the most clear discourser, and had the best faculty of making hard things easy, and of presenting them to the understanding of any man that hath been known.” The ordinary reader, ignorant of the circumstances which from time to time gave occasion to the Table-Talk, must miss the full significance of much that is contained in it. Even an apophthegm or anecdote loses half its flavour apart from context and circumstances; and Millward, though he desires his readers to “carry along with them the When and the Why many of these things were spoken” gives them no help. The detached notes, taken at different times over a period of twenty years, are classified under headings according to subject. It would have been better, since there was no attempt to edit them, had they been left in chronological sequence. “We can no more know,” says Selden, in one of these obiter dicta, “what a minister said in his sermon by two or three words picked out of it, than we can tell what tune a musician played last upon the lute by two or three single notes.” In some degree the same applies to these fragments of conversation. Yet, if put together as a whole the reader may trace in them, as in a broken mirror, some reflection of Selden’s personality. A greater part of them forms a commentary on the exciting events and problems of his time—prerogative, divine right, episcopacy, parliament, etc. His statements are naturally less restrained here than in his more public utterances, and serve as a key to his political position during the years in which he acted as the bulwark of the constitution and arbiter of the rights of king and of commons. His favourite text, “All is as the State pleases,” gives the central principle of his political philosophy. He considers that the rights and authority of King, Church, and Commons alike take their origin from, and are subject to, “the laws of the kingdom,” of which he takes the purely empirical view of a practical lawyer. Selden adds to his marvellous range of learning a wide experience of life and keen analytic powers. His usual method of exposition is to reduce the subject at issue to its simplest form, and to illustrate it by homely analogy. Take, as an example, this on “Consecrated Places.” “All things are God’s already; we can give him no right, by consecrating any, that he had not before, only we set it apart to his service. Just as a gardener brings his lord and master a basket of apricots and presents them, his lord thanks him, perhaps gives him something for his pains, and yet the apricots were as much his lord’s before as now.” For refutation he frequently uses the reductio ad absurdum, as in the following: “If we once come to leave that outloose, as to pretend conscience against law, who knows what inconvenience may follow? For thus, suppose an Anabaptist comes and takes my horse. I sue him; he tells me he did according to his conscience; his conscience tells him all things are common amongst the saints, what is mine is his; therefore you do ill to make such a law, ‘If any man takes another’s horse he shall be hanged.’ What can I say to this man? He does according to his conscience.” Selden’s judgments, though occasionally betraying his dislikes, are given without acerbity or passion. He speaks with the quiet assurance of a man who knows his facts, and discusses the issues which were so deeply moving his contemporaries with the calmness of a retrospective historian. His advice in practical affairs now and then recalls the worldly wisdom of Bacon’s Essays. “In a troubled state,” he says in one passage, “we must do as in foul weather upon the Thames, not think to cut directly through, so the boat may be quickly full of water, but rise and fall as the waves do, give as much as conveniently we can.” And in another place he says: “’Tis not juggling that is to be blamed, but much juggling; for the world cannot be governed without it.” His humour is characteristic. At times it takes the form of epigram, as in the following: “They talk (but blasphemously enough) that the Holy Ghost is president of their general councils, when the truth is, the odd man is still [always] the Holy Ghost.” At others, it suggests a ludicrous parallel. “Doctor Prideaux, in his lectures, several days used arguments to prove predestination; at last he tells his auditory they are damned that do not believe it; doing herein just like schoolboys, when one of them has got an apple, or something the rest have a mind to, they use all the arguments they can to get some of it from him. I gave you some t’other day; you shall have some with me another time. When they cannot prevail, they tell him he’s a jackanapes, a rogue, and a rascal.” Selden has the limitations of one whose feet are always planted firmly on solid earth. He is a guide, a critic; not a leader, an inspirer. As he is untouched by the fanaticisms, he is incapable of the fine enthusiasms of his day. His remarks on poetry show no powers of literary appreciation. Clarendon justly remarked upon his “undervaluing of style.” In his writings his sentences are usually ponderous, and often involved—a striking contrast to the homeliness and lucidity of his conversations, which, however, show also carelessness as to form. Yet in both there is an entire absence of pedantry. Selden estimated knowledge at its true value. “No man,” he says, “is the wiser for his learning; it may administer matter to work in, or objects to work upon; but wit and wisdom are born with a man.” It is matter for regret that one who was pre-eminent in his age for both learning and wisdom should have devoted himself so exclusively to the pursuit of the former as to leave us nothing of the latter except a few fragments collected after his death by his secretary.  3
 
 
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