Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Robert South (1634–1716)
 
[Robert South (whom Robert Southey loved to call “my almost namesake”) was born at Hackney in 1634, and was educated at Westminster (where he received and justified special attention from Busby) and Christ Church, of which house he became student in 1651. His enemies were fond of reminding him (as was the custom at that time) that as a young bachelor he had congratulated Cromwell on his victories over the Dutch in a copy of Latin verses. But when he took orders some time before the Restoration it was from a deprived bishop, and being appointed public orator in the year of the Restoration itself, he remained for fifty-six years a pillar of the Tory party in the English Church, though he did not think it necessary to become a non-juror. He was made chaplain to Clarendon, and received successively, though not at very brief intervals, a prebend at Westminster, a canonry of Christ Church, and the rectory of Islip. But he was never made either dean or bishop, though there are stories to the effect that this was merely because he did not choose to be either. There is a sufficient agreement as to his disinterestedness to show that if he took the oaths to William and Mary it was due to no baser reason than dislike of “Popery,” and perhaps indignation at James’s conduct to Christ Church. Once he went on a foreign embassy with Lawrence Hyde. His chief fame was obtained as a preacher; and it was not till after the Revolution that he became prominent as a controversialist. His chief controversy was with Sherlock, who, from having put his hand to the plough and looked back in the matter of non-juring, was extremely obnoxious even to those who had not thought it necessary to refuse the oaths themselves, and who had given a handle by some very incautious, if not intentionally heretical, remarks on the doctrine of the Trinity. In his latest years South espoused the cause of Sacheverell, and, it seems, refused a bishopric even from the Tory ministry of Anne. He did not die till 8th July 1716, having thus seen a third ruin of the Tory cause in England. He had been public orator for many years at Oxford immediately after the Restoration, but had latterly resided for the most part at Westminster, where he lies buried. His sermons, originally printed or reprinted at divers times before and after his death, have been collected in 4 vols. 8vo. London: 1843.]  1
 
There is one epithet which, as it seems to me, occurs to the reader of South more naturally, forcibly, and frequently than any other. He is especially and eminently masculine; and possesses, in very striking measure, the merits and defects of the quality. It may be that he is a little, or more than a little, lacking in the milder virtues and graces both of temper and style. He shows no tenderness, and barely even the requisite decency in handling opponents. I am afraid he went out of his way to attack Fuller, while Fuller was still alive. It is certain that he made a direct onslaught (also going out of his way to do it) on Jeremy Taylor just after Taylor’s death—both, it must be remembered, being members of his own party, though obnoxious to him in special ways. There has been pretty general agreement as to the excessive acrimony, not to say scurrility, with which he attacked Sherlock, and which is not excused even by the double provocation Sherlock had given. What is sometimes selected as South’s distinguishing quality, his wit, is of a savage and sardonic kind for the most part, reminding one, as indeed do many of his characteristics, of a Swift of less royal mould. Manly as he is, he has the gifts, rather than the graces of manliness; and, in so far as a man both good and great can resemble a brute, he throws some light on the selection of the term by his contemporary Wycherley for his degradation of Molière’s Alceste.  2
  This is, I think, an ample allowance for the less amiable features of South’s moral and literary nature. The more admirable parts of it were many, and of rare temper. South is nearly the last great English divine to exhibit the full merits, with hardly any of the defects, of the old training in school divinity, which, even in his time, was growing obsolete. He has little or nothing of its pedantry and cumbrousness, but he has all the athletic and combative proficiency which, at its best, it was calculated to confer. South was a very learned man; but his learning seldom weighs heavily on him. For a fallacy, be it sophistry or merely paralogism, he has the eyes of a lynx to discover it, and the claws thereof to tear it to pieces. He has no superior, and I doubt whether even Barrow be his equal, in the art of urging home theological or ethical doctrine, with the solid, clear-cut argument which was still welcome to generations wherein most educated men had had some training in logic. We may, indeed, observe in South, in his schoolfellow Dryden, and in other contemporaries, a singular and interesting transition or compromise between the mental temper of the times before, and that of the times after them. The gorgeous conceits, and the fervid mysticism of the sixteenth and earlier seventeenth centuries are gone; the shadow of eighteenth-century commonsense is cast before on them. But they have a stricter and a more antique fashion of reasoning than their successors, and a touch of magnificence and of metaphysical profundity which these latter have in their turn lost.  3
  The style proper of South corresponds, as usual, to his substance and temper. It is a little, but not much more antique than that of those among his immediate contemporaries—Tillotson, Temple, Halifax, Dryden, who were the chief heralds of the eighteenth-century manner. Although in the passages above alluded to he probably girds at Fuller for being too witty, and certainly attacks Taylor as being too florid, he himself by no means disdained jocularity of the rather rough and grim kind previously indicated, and is perfectly competent, and sometimes rather prone, to adorn his sermons with the purple patch. He has been accused of being too political; but this is scarcely a fair criticism, for his whole scheme and system of thought was summed up in the phrase “Church and State,”—the unity, if not the identity, of the two was the major premiss of at least one syllogism in almost all his trains of argument. This impressed, no doubt, a certain hardness and sometimes almost a legal character on his style. At the same time it cannot be said that South is in the least degree Erastian or worldly. He is at least as much convinced of the religious aspect of the State as of the political aspect of the Church; and he rises to many of his best flights of eloquence in dealing with the purely individual aspect of religion, and the demands it makes on the personal exertions of each man, whether cleric or lay. If any one would, at little trouble, estimate South as an authority on practical religion, let him read the sermons on Shamelessness and Concealment of Sin; if any his powers as an abstract theologian and logician, those which immediately follow on the Resurrection and the Trinity. This combination in him gives his work a singular attraction for at least some readers, as it provides unusual contrasts of manner and style. South, indeed, has eminently the characteristics of “University wits.” He is a little overbearing, not to say arrogant, and somewhat neglectful of the possible needs of minds less acute, less well read, and less versatile than his own, abrupt in his transitions from rhetoric to sarcasm, almost unduly allusive, erudite, and oracular. But the author of the famous hyperbole which figures in our first extract, “An Aristotle was but the rubbish of an Adam, and Athens but the rudiments of Paradise,” cannot be denied something like the first prize, both for audacity and felicity; nor the author of hundreds of other things scattered about his work the crowns due to masterly erudition, vigorous argument, and biting wit.  4
 
 
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