Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by G. S. Street
Robert Boyle (16271691)
[Robert Boyle was the seventh son of Richard, first Earl of Cork, one of the most active and successful statesmen of his busy day, and of Catherine Fenton his wife, and was born at Lismore Castle in Munster, on the 25th of January 1627. His education at home gave him a mastery of French and Latin, and he was afterwards distinguished for the purity and ease of his conversation in the language of learning. It was at Geneva, where he was resident for a time on leaving Eton, with a greatly valued tutor, that he first experienced, at the age of fourteen, an impulse to religious meditation which never left him. By the death of his father in 1644 he inherited the manor of Stalbridge, in Dorsetshire, and considerable wealth, which was largely increased in after years by the favour of his sovereign, and devoted in abundant measure (witness Bishop Burnet) to the spread of scriptural knowledge, and to the aid of poor students of science. He was elected president of the Royal Society in 1680, but declined the honour. He settled at Oxford in 1654 and removed to London in 1668, where he died on the 30th of December 1691. In these years he was incessantly engaged in chemical and physical investigations and in the writing of his scientific and religious works. They took the form of essays, the complete edition of which was published in five folios by Dr. Birch in 1744. In physics Boyle is of course renowned as the discoverer, or, to speak more accurately, as the adapter to scientific purposes of the air-pump, and in a lesser degree for Boyles Law of the relation between elasticity and pressure; we may notice also his improvement in the thermometer, and his experiments in electricity. In chemistry his service was chiefly that of a clearer of the ground for others, in ridding it of confused and erroneous antiquities, and in indicating the direction of further efforts; he was a strict practitioner of experiment. He refused the provostship of Eton, which Charles II. offered him in 1665, on the grounds that its holder should be in orders, and that he could assist religion more valuably as a layman. He is said to have refused a peerage offered by Charles II., whose friend he was, as of James and William. Evelyn tells a love story of him which may or may not be true; he never married, and is somewhat severe on the feminine character.]
IN estimating the qualities of a writer of prose who was at few pains to be an artist therein, it is a useful preliminary to observe the essential stamp and direction of his intellect. Robert Boyle had the strict temperament of a man of science, as distinguished from that of a general philosopher. He guarded himself carefully from even the knowledge of a priori theory which might lead to prepossessions inimical to the impartial conduct of experiment, save, one must suppose, in so far as hypothesis is absolutely necessary to the first stages. He liked to interrogate nature, following very closely of his own impulse the design of Bacon. But the excellent work in science that resulted was rather due to an untiring persistence than to great gifts of intellect. He had hardly a disinterested love of knowledge; he valued it as it had a tendency to use. And the advance he made on his time in clearness of thought concerning things in general is not that of one whose mental endowment was extraordinary. He was immersed in his pursuit of experiment, only leaving it in obedience to the calls which his birth and reputation as a savant made on his society, calls which he regretted and endeavoured to avoid. It is a reasonable supposition that if he had lived in our time he would have given his results to the world in the roughest of rough notes, for others to make books of. But having had the training of a student of the humanities, and living when to be learned meant a more diverse, a less specialised culture than the wider data of learning make possible now, and when printing was a graver undertaking than it seems with us, he gave of necessity some form and literary completeness to his publications. We find in them still the note of impatience of form: he had not time to be brief. There is scarcely a trace in him of the first quality of an artist in prose, rejection. Now and again a well-turned phrase strikes the reader, but, given a certain condition of language, the phrase is found to be that which would have occurred at once to a certain order of intellect. Happily for Boyle the English of his time was comparatively free from the more vulgar sort of stereotyped phrase; had still a full and sonorous tone. But from the greater masters of sonorous English, Boyle was as far removed as from the clear-cut simplicity and directness of Swift. His style is not involved, and is not affected; it is merely rarified and verbose. In his religious writings the same thing is noticeable as in his scientific. Here again he was deeply interested in his subject, a sincerely pious man applying his best powers, or trying so to do, to the subject he deemed of first importance. And here again he is essentially impatient of form; his sincerity gave him an infrequent warmth of phrase, the general and vague nature of his reflections an occasional rotundity, but again the average is jejune. One may often collect very clearly the points of a writer by a comparison with a parodist. Swift was not likely to be a greatly indulgent parodist. But if a reader turn from an hour or two of Boyles Occasional Reflexions to the immortal Meditation upon a Broomstick, he will see that Swift, neatly burlesquing the nature of his originals thoughts, is unable to compass his lack of directness and pungency. When Boyle turned to a lighter theme, he was still verbose, though there is a certain charm and demureness which recall the accounts we have of the kindly and pleasant nature of the man. It is said that he tried to correct his diffuseness, but we may surmise that he tried to mitigate its inconvenience rather than to correct its deficiency of form. In fine, his attainments as a scholar, while they impelled him to attempt a literary form for his thoughts and discoveries, were not strong enough in the balance of his mind to compel the sacrifices necessary to an artistic result.