Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Bishop John Wilkins (16141672)
[John Wilkins was born at Oxford in 1614, and educated in his early years under the care of a well-known dissenter, Mr. John Dod, who was his grandfather on the mothers side. He afterwards entered at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, and after taking his degree went abroad and became Chaplain to the Count Palatine. Joining the Parliamentary side when the Rebellion broke out, he was made Warden of Wadham in 1648, and Master of Trinity, Cambridge, in 1659, having in 1656 married Robina, sister of Oliver Cromwell, and widow of Peter French, Canon of Christ Church. On the Restoration, he was ejected from Trinity, but became Rector of St. Lawrence Jewry; and subsequently, through the help of a somewhat compromising patron, the Duke of Buckingham, he was promoted first to the Deanery of Ripon, and then to the Bishopric of Chester, in 1668. He died in 1672.
His works were numerous. In 1638, there appeared The Discovery of a New World: a Discourse to prove that there may be another habitable world in the Moon. A second part of this treats of The Possibility of a Passage to the Moon. In 1640, appeared A Discourse Concerning a new Planet: tending to prove that the Earth may be a Planet. Others of his works were Mercury, or the Secret Messenger (1641); Mathematical Magic (1648); The Principles of Natural Religion (printed after his death); and an Essay towards a Real Character and Philosophical Language. This last is a scheme for a universal language, and was written for, and published under the auspices of, the Royal Society, of which Wilkins was a devoted member.]
WILKINSS curious variations of political adherence, and the fact that his patrons were so strangely assorted as to comprise Cromwell, Charles II., and the Duke of Buckingham, do not lead us to infer that his political faith was very ardent, or that he was troubled with any special delicacy of feeling. But it would be absurd to describe him as a political schemer. His interests were chiefly in other pursuits: such creed as he had was summed up chiefly in the determination to adhere very closely to no creed; and he was sufficiently astute to make his religious, as well as his political, latitudinarianism, serve his own interests. His friends admit that he was ambitious: and on the other hand, his enemies do not charge against him any dishonourable act. His books have a certain interest of their own, and deserve a place in any collection which is to represent the literary fashion of the day. Wilkins was without enthusiasm, without reverence, and without humour: on the other hand he has unquestionably a certain quaintness and sprightliness of invention, and a certain boldness in argument, in the course of which he puts forward, quite gravely, propositions which, as stated, are extremely droll. Of literary art he has no conception, and the precision with which his argument advances from step to step, while it gives a certain clearness to his prose style, necessarily imparts to it more than the usual amount of formality, and makes any elasticity or ease impossible. Yet it is curious to see how even in a writer so argumentative, and so redolent of the schools, as Wilkins, a reminiscence of that direct colloquial force and freedom so distinctive of our earlier English prose still lingers; and that even his most scholastic reasoning is enlivened occasionally by a familiar phrase or exclamation.
The characteristic of Wilkinss thought is not profound speculation, and his prose accordingly never becomes intricate or obscure. His chief qualities are, a sort of alert curiosity, a boldness in hazarding conjectures, a determination to be fettered by no authority: and, joined with these, an absence of all hesitation, an air of absolute unconcern as to whether this or that position be true or false, so long as it is conceivably tenable, and a readiness to advance theories which is all the greater because all earnestness of feeling is so entirely wanting. Wilkins was only by accident a theologian. He was for the most part an experimental philosopher, ready and independent, but neither profound nor judicious. He represented one type of the Royal Society. He was not merely the fashionable and dilettante virtuoso: just as little was he one who could materially advance physical science, or extend her sway. He still retains the habit of introducing into his physical speculations, the miscellaneous, ill-digested, uncritical learning which his generation, or a certain section of it, loved, and which seemed an inheritance from the old days of the alchemists. It is easy to see how strong the effect of the Latin construction is upon him. He recurs, sentence after sentence, to what answers to the ablative absolute in Latin. The participle appears in almost every clause: and he seeks to impart a certain logical formality to his argument, by repeatedly following the Latin construction by which the object frequently precedes, and the subject follows, the verb. All this in Wilkins, and in others of his kind, was no doubt helping to form the later fashion of an argumentative style; but it was leading English prose further and further away from the more natural, and perhaps in a literary sense, more healthy, tendency to fix the position of a word rather by the dictates of sound and harmony, than by the exigencies of grammar or logical precision.