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 H. R. Reichel
Sir Thomas More (1478–1535)
 
[Thomas More was the eldest son of Master, afterwards Sir John, More, Judge in the Court of King’s Bench, who died in 1530, and who, as report went and the name seems to indicate, was probably of Irish extraction. Thomas was born in Milk Street, Cheapside, 7th February 1478, and received his early education in St. Anthony’s, Threadneedle Street, one of Henry VI.’s Grammar Schools. At thirteen he was placed as a page in the household of Archbishop Morton, and the following year removed, probably at his patron’s instance, to Oxford, where during the two years of his residence at Canterbury College he threw himself with ardour into the new study of Greek. In 1494, however, he left without a degree, his father being impatient for him to begin his legal studies, and passed first to New Inn and then to Lincoln’s Inn. Shortly after this, while still a mere lad, he was appointed Reader in Law at Lincoln’s Inn for three years. About 1498 he seems to have met Erasmus, and a warm attachment sprung up between the two great scholars which was only terminated by More’s death. The addition of Colet, who in 1504 settled in London, completed the devotion of More to the Humanistic movement. Colet’s influence was thenceforth decisive with him, and had it not been removed in 1519 by death, might have prevented or at least considerably modified his later reactionary attitude. In 1500 he lectured in public on St. Augustine’s De Civitate Dei with the applause of scholars like Grocyn. From 1500 to 1504 he submitted to the austerities of the Carthusian rule, but apparently finding himself unsuited for monastic life, married in 1505 his first wife, Jane Holt, daughter of a country gentleman in Essex. In 1502 he became Undersheriff of London, then a judicial office of some dignity: in 1504 having been elected Burgess, he successfully opposed in the House of Commons an extravagant money grant, at once establishing his reputation as a speaker and drawing down upon his family the royal displeasure. The remainder of the reign (1503–1509) was spent in a prudent retirement and the renewal of his Oxford studies. During this which may be regarded as his first literary period, were written most of his Latin Epigrammata. In 1509 Henry VII.’s death restored More to public life and brought the men of the new learning into court favour. In 1514 he was made Master of Requests and knighted. From 1515 to 1523 he was employed on a succession of diplomatic missions, chiefly to the Low Countries, one of which suggested the introductory machinery of his Utopia, printed in 1516. His History of Richard III. was written about the same time. In 1519, under great pressure, he entered the royal service, giving up his practice at the bar and the Undersheriffship. In 1521 he was made Treasurer of the Exchequer, in 1524 speaker of the House of Commons, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1525, and finally, on the fall of Wolsey in 1529, Lord Chancellor. To avoid entanglements in the Divorce Question, on which he could not take the king’s side, he resigned office in 1532 and withdrew into poverty and, as he hoped, obscurity. The second, however, was impossible for the author of Utopia and bosom-friend of Erasmus. Henry was resolved to have his support or his life. Absurd charges of implication in the Nun of Kent’s treason and of judicial venality were easily refuted; but in 1534 he was imprisoned for refusing the oath to maintain the Act of Succession, and, after a year’s detention which completely shattered his health, condemned under the Act of Supremacy and executed July 6, 1535.  1
  A complete edition of his Latin works was published in 1689 at Frankfort. His collected English writings, consisting mainly of theological pamphlets, were published in black-letter quarto by Tottell in 1557 (pp. 1458); that there has been no re-issue is due partly to the unpopularity of the doctrines they express, but still more to their formidable extent and ephemeral interest. The Utopia was first published in Latin at Louvain in 1516. Three English translations exist, one by R. Robynson, printed 1551, 1556, 1624, 1639, and reprinted by Dibdin, 1808, and by E. Arber, 1859; the second by Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, published in 1681, and in nine subsequent editions; the third by Arthur Cayley (1808) in Memoirs of Sir Thomas More, 2 vols. 4to. It is from the first of these that the extracts are taken. The Life of Richard III. was written about 1513, and first printed in Grafton’s continuation of Hardyng’s Chronicle (1543); the first correct edition, however, is contained in Tottell’s volume (1557) and has been recently re-edited by Lumby (Camb. 1883).]  2
 
AS scholar, writer, lawyer, and perhaps diplomatist, More was the foremost Englishman of his time. Colet, Erasmus, and More were the three leaders who created the Oxford or Humanist Reform movement; but as monkish bigotry made More a Reformer, so Protestant bigotry threw him back into the ranks of reaction. He wrote in English and Latin, in prose and verse.  3
  I. Verse.—(a) His English poems are of value only as proving that his bent lay in a different direction. (b) The Epigrammata show that he was more at home in Latin elegiacs than in English Skeltonics or rhyme royal. They are rather vers d’occasion than epigrams in the modern sense, and often possess the same autobiographical interest which attaches to Swift’s occasional pieces. The Latin elegiac couplet, in fact, was as much the proper vehicle for this kind of writing in the first quarter of the sixteenth century as the English heroic couplet afterwards became under Queen Anne. It is here sufficient to notice that More enjoyed in this respect a European reputation second only to that of Erasmus, and that Doctor Johnson even assigns to him the superiority.  4
  II. Prose.—Of his prose works, by far the most important intrinsically is the Utopia. The English version, however, is not by him; so pungent was the satire that not even the original Latin could be published in England during Henry VIII.’s lifetime. For specimens of More’s English style we must, therefore, turn to other and less famous compositions.  5
  (a) Life of John Picus, Earl of Mirandula, 1510, not an original work, but a translation from a Latin life. Its value lies both in the training it gave for the formation of that easy and nervous style which is perfected in the History of Richard III., and also in the picture it displays of a career which made a profound impression on More. The parallel between them is close. Both began as humanists and ended as theologians; the life of each was largely determined by the influence of a great preacher; in each rich mental endowment was accompanied by a sensuous delicacy that might easily pass into sensuality; and both remained laymen till the end.  6
  (b) Historie of Richard III.—In the Historie we see the happy result of that long and continuous practice which Erasmus tells us his friend devoted to the cultivation of his prose style. It is certainly the first good historical English prose. This must be largely attributed to the union in More of two qualifications which had hitherto not been found together. He was at once a finished Latin scholar and the most racy English conversationalist of his day. Thus he has succeeded in investing his narrative with a certain classical shapeliness and dignity without impairing the freshness and vigour of the native vein; the former never becomes stilted, the latter never passes into the broad mannerisms which disfigure most Elizabethan and much Jacobean prose. In fact, what Chaucer had done for English vocabulary, More did for English style; to the two together we owe the fixing of the true proportion in which the Teutonic and Latin elements of the language are most effectively blended. Chaucer is the father of English verse; More has almost an equal claim to be called the father of English prose. Their genius, indeed, is not dissimilar though exercised in different domains; above all, they resemble each other in that subtle humour and perfect sanity of judgment, springing from a just balance of the faculties, which have stamped their literary innovations with classic permanence. Hallam calls the Historie “the first example of good English language: pure and perspicuous, well chosen, without vulgarisms and pedantry,” and notices it as “the first book I have read through without detecting any remnant of obsolete forms.”  7
  (c) The Polemical Tracts, though far the most voluminous of his writings, are those by which he will be least remembered. They almost fill a formidable quarto black-letter volume of over 1400 pages (equivalent to about 2400 of the present volume), difficult to read because of the print, and disappointing both in matter and treatment; for the rabid abuse in which honest Protestant fanatics habitually indulged provoked an equally violent and still more unworthy tone in the great scholar. Every now and then, however, his native humour breaks out in some irresistible story or allusion, such as “Tenterden Steeple and Goodwin Sands,” “The Ass and the Wolf shriving themselves to the Fox,” “The Lady who by Tight-lacing bought Hell very dear,” which repays the tedium of pages of scurrility. Unattractive as they at first sight appear, these pamphlets yet possess considerable interest, both biographical and literary. From them we see how completely he had shifted his theological position. The Utopia and Epigrammata abound in humorous ridicule of medieval superstitions, the Polemical Tracts defend them root and branch: the first preach religious toleration, the second the duty of persecuting heretics. The style, too, though less dignified than that of the Historie, is quite as vigorous and expressive, and moves perhaps with greater freedom. The principal are: (1) A Dyalogue concerning Heresies and Matters of Religion, 1528 (4 books, 183 pp.), against Luther and Tyndall. (2) The Supplicacion of Soules against the Supplicacion of Beggars, 1529 (vide Extract), an answer to Fish’s petition urging the king to confiscate the Church property for the benefit of the poor. More presents a counter petition from the souls in purgatory expressing their horror at the prospect of losing their masses. (3) Confatacion of Tyndale’s Aunswere, 1532, the largest of all (470 pp.), is an elaborate attack on Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament, and the substitution it was intended to effect of the Gospel for the Church as the ultimate authority. (4) The Apology of Sir Thos. More, Knight, 1533, though much shorter (80 pp.), is of far greater interest, being an answer to personal attacks evoked by his earlier pamphlets. It deals with charges of controversial unfairness, of substituting invective for argument (ch. ix.), and of torturing heretics in his own house (vide Extract), denying the first and third, and naively admitting the second; and abounds in interesting references (e.g., the Prentice Riot in London, ch. xlvii.) (5) The Debellacyon of Salem and Bisance, 1533 (90 pp.); and (6) The Answer to the First Parts of the Poisoned Book which a Nameless Heretyk hath named the Supper of the Lord (100 pp.), call for no special notice. It is different with the two last, which were composed during his final imprisonment, and exhibit a chastened resignation and charity in pleasing contrast with the earlier tone. (7) A Dyalogue of Comforte against Tribulation, 1534 (125 pp.), is supposed to pass between a Hungarian gentleman and his nephew. The object is devotional rather than polemical (vide Extract), and the best argument in the book is its spirit. It is striking how, as bitterness departs, the old mellow humour revives. (8) A Treatise upon the Passion of our Lord Chryste (134 pp.), is an unfinished devotional commentary on the latter part of the Gospel narrative.  8
  To return now to the most permanent product of his genius. The Utopia, 1516, was originally written in Latin, partly to secure a wider audience, partly for safety, and won for its author an immediate European reputation side by side with the author of Moriæ Encomium, whose Novum Instrumentum appeared in the same year. It consists of two books—the former introductory and critical, the latter constructive. The second was composed in 1515 in the course of an embassy to Brussels, the first being only elaborated after the author’s return to England in 1516. The discovery of the new world offered a convenient peg on which to hang his satire. While at Antwerp he meets a certain Portuguese explorer, Raphael Hythlodaye by name, who had made several voyages with Amerigo Vespucci, on the last of which he had been left behind at his own desire in the neighbourhood of Cape Frio, and had thence made his way to the island of Utopia (nowhere), the supposed seat of the ideal constitution sketched in book ii. An air of historic verisimilitude is thus created, which is ingeniously heightened by the publication at the end of the pamphlet of a specimen of Utopian verse, and by the affectation of uncertainty as to a few details, on which More writes to consult the Antwerp merchant at whose house the meeting had taken place.  9
  In book i. Hythlodaye frankly states his opinion with regard to the social and political evils he observed in England, hinting how much better they managed these things in Utopia, and then consents to gratify at a subsequent meeting the curiosity his comparison had excited. More is thus able to attack both the pettifogging financial tyranny of Henry VII., from which he himself had suffered, and also the warlike schemes by which the younger Henry was already dissipating the ecstatic hopes of the Humanists. Of still greater interest is the picture of English society, the absurd severity of the criminal law, the agrarian revolution (vide Extract), the contrast between the growing luxury and self-indulgence of the rich and the wretched condition of the labouring classes. The state, in short, seemed to the writer “nothing but a certain conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name of a commonwealth,” and he is driven to the conclusion that “perfect wealth shall never be among men till this wealth be exiled and banished.” Such an acceptance of socialism was easier for More than for a modern thinker. Plato, the idol of the new learning, had banished property from his Republic, and state regulation was more consonant with medieval ideas than unrestricted competition. Incidentally various institutions are classed and satirised with the quiet fun in which More has no superior.  10
  The modern reader will be chiefly struck by the prophetic prescience with which he anticipates many nineteenth-century reforms, such as the substitution of penal servitude for capital punishment, national education, sanitation, and (more questionable) State limitation of the hours of labour. The passage describing the ethical philosophy of the Utopians (vide Extract) might almost have been written by a disciple of John Stuart Mill, while in their religious organisation is depicted a system of multiplicity in unity which we are still far from having attained, a system of families and sects each in private practising its own special cult, but all uniting in one national worship.  11
  The influence of the Utopia has been immense. It set a literary and a philosophic fashion. To it we owe not merely subsequent Ideal Republics, such as Campanella’s Civitas Solis and Bacon’s New Atlantis, but much of that spirit of political speculation which in the following century gave birth to Hobbe’s Leviathan, Filmer’s Patriarcha, and Locke’s Civil Government.  12
  More’s genius is of that high order in which the intellectual and moral powers seem to interpenetrate and vitalise each other. He had a singular wholeness of nature. His satire does not blast like Swift’s, it does not sting like the spiteful venom of Pope, nor crush with the direct force of Johnson’s ponderous indignation, nor again has it the unconscious naïveté of Caxton; perhaps its quality most nearly approaches the subtle pervasiveness of the Platonic irony. His personality had a certain Celtic charm which at once took men like Erasmus and Colet captive. At his best, perhaps no phrase so aptly sums him up as the hackneyed “sweetness and light.” The closer his life and writings are examined the more irresistible becomes the saying of Colet, quoted by Erasmus, that he was “Britanniæ non nisi unicum ingenium.”  13
 
 
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