Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by Edmund Gosse
Thomas Burnet (1635?1715)
[Thomas Burnet, was born at Croft, in Yorkshire, about 1635. He was educated at the free school of Northallerton, and proceeded to Clare Hall, Cambridge, in June 1651. His tutor at College was the famous Tillotson, to whom Burnet owed that free, generous, noble way of thinking for which he was afterwards distinguished. When Dr. Cudworth was elected Master of Christs, in 1654, Burnet accompanied him, and became Fellow of that College in 1657. Burnet became senior Proctor of the University, which he afterwards quitted to become governor to successive youthful noblemen, with whom he travelled much abroad. In 1680 he published his Telluris Theoria Sacra, which attracted great attention, and in 1685 he was elected Master of the Charterhouse. His De Conflagratione Mundi appeared in 1689, with an English version of the same, forming the second part to his Sacred Theory of the Earth, which had been published in English in 1684. Burnet lived on until the 27th of September 1715, and was buried in the chapel of the Charterhouse. His De Statu Mortuorum did not appear until 1720, and other Latin pieces of his were printed in the course of the eighteenth century. Burnets heroic defence of the liberties of his great school against James II. and Judge Jeffreys gave him, for a moment, no small political prominence.]
IT can scarcely be denied that if we look for the quality of magnificence applied to the imagination in prose writing, the only instance of it which can be found in English literature between the Restoration and the beginning of the eighteenth century is discovered in Thomas Burnets Sacred Theory of the Earth. We will not exaggerate the value of that book, which, to a modern taste, must in many respects seem dull and yet wild, a sort of pompous fairy tale. But there is, undeniably, to be detected throughout it, however marred and deadened by the prosaic temper of the age, a great splendour of conception, an uplifted vision. The pages of Burnet introduce to us dream-compositions, which remind us of the once-famous apocalyptic paintings of John Martin. They are over-charged, they are without a credible basis, but every one must acknowledge the sweep of imagination, the grandiose and yet easy grasp of vague and vast superhuman landscape. The young Addison, yet at Magdalen in 1699, was set on fire by the congregated images which the pages of The Sacred Theory led before his inner eye, and he broke into verse of far more than customary Addisonian enthusiasm:
Quæ pompa vocum non imitabilis!
Qualis calescit spiritus ingeni!
Ut tollis undas! ut frementem
Diluvii reprimis tumultum!
Quis tam valenti pectore ferreus
Ut non tremiscens et timido pede
Incedat, orbis dum dolosi
Detegis instabiles ruinas!
This is the key-note of Burnets force. It is that of a magician, raising before us, in panoramic series, sensational pictures of a universe and its catastrophe.
The history of Burnets one book is interesting. When it first appeared in Latinunder the patronage, it appears, of more eminent Cambridge friends, but especially of Tillotsonthe obscure author found himself famous among the learned. The Archbishop recommended the book to the king, who, in 1683, desired Burnet to translate it. Next year, accordingly, appeared in folio The Sacred Theory of the Earth, a paraphrase of the Latin and much enlarged. This greatly widened the authors audience, even in those days, and at first the theory, to which I shall return, seems to have been accepted. Men of science must, from the very first, have been aware that there went more to the making of the world than a finely-turned period, but they held their peace. The charm of style, moreover, at which Flamsteed might sneer, potently recommended the volume, and it was not until the popularity of The Sacred Theory became alarming that theology rather than science attacked it. Erasmus Warren, from the one side, and Dr. Keill, the Savilian professor, from the other, then rushed forward to arraign it, and were followed by a number of pamphleteers. Quite a little literature sprang up around the book, which continued to hold its place, as a popular contribution to scientific letters, for more than half a century. A seventh edition of a work costly to produce was issued so late as 1759.
The secret of this effect upon his readers was that Burnet was enamoured of his own pre-geological dream. He thought himself inspired with superhuman insight. He believed that it was his divine mission to retrieve the scene of the Golden Age and to chronicle its ruin. He introduces his singular book with no mock-modesty; he confesses that what we are about to read has more masculine beauty than any poem or romance. This mystical conviction carried away the learned alike and the unlearned, and even Burnets fiercest opponents admitted, as Keill does, that never was any book of philosophy written in a more lofty and plausible style. When a vision is presented to us with such gestures of rapture, in accents of such melodious solemnity, it seems almost rude to hint that it is mathematically and geologically absurd. Burnet was like the sorcerer in Kubla Khan; the reader had to flee from his enchantment, for he on honey dew had fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise. He was so positive that he fell into an opposite extreme of danger, and was accused of scepticism because he would insist that things must have been as he dreamed they might have been.
The Sacred Theory was written to justify the doctrines of a paradisiacal state, a universal deluge and a final conflagration, but the author began with the Deluge, in which his imagination took a greater interest than in Paradise. This, Burnet says, was the greatest thing which ever befell the world, and we ought not to be satisfied with a vague idea of it, but try to realise what physical conditions preceded and accompanied it. He then attempts to show that there was no new creation of waters, but that the condition of the earth was transient and temporary, designed for change and for destruction, its surface flat and uniform, without mountains and without a sea, and its basis a mere waste of liquid, into which in due time it easily dissolved. The cause of the Deluge, therefore, was the sinking of the old world through a crust to an abyss below. Out of the disruption and chaos, there then arose the terraqueous sphere which we now inhabit.
Having very elaborately and ardently worked out this theory of the Deluge, Burnet goes back a step, and contemplates Paradise and the circumambient primeval earth. He argues that no portion of our existing globe can be thought of as potentially paradisiacal, and that the scene of the Golden Age must of necessity have been established on a primitive earth of which no atom now remains. He holds it to have been a province of the world which sank into the abyss, when the earth, proceeding in what he calls the airy fleet of the planets, scaped so narrowly from being shipwrecked in the great Deluge. So much admitted, he begins to speculate boldly on the topography and hydrography of this provisional earth, which had no hills nor seas, and which stretched like a bubble over infinite subterranean waters. That favourite Rabbinical theme, the position of Paradise, then enthralls him, but, here with unusual timidity, he refuses to express any dogmatic opinion. He now digresses, somewhat tediously, to the existence and motion of matter, and to the economy of nature.
Here the original Sacred Theory closed. But another earth had to be made and to be destroyed. In 1689 Burnet went on to deal with the conflagration of the world, and to explain what will happen when the cup of mans sin is full, and this earth has to be consumed by fire. He states and explains the true notion of a great Platonic year which is to make all things ripe for the burning; he shows how the world, as at present constituted, can be set on fire. Here his imagination gets the bit within its teeth, and we rush through lurid scenes of extraordinary pomp and extravagance. Volcanoes break out along the mountain heights, oily and sulphurous wells jet their liquid flame down the valleys, meteors and exhalations brood over doomed provinces, and discharge their magazines in blazing storms. All this is highly sensational, but full of literary skill and fervour, and it is pursued to surprising lengths of description.
Here Burnet should have ended, with a conclusion which is almost majestic. But he was tempted to continue, and he has a fourth part on the new heavens and the new earth, a kind of prophecy of what will happen after the conflagration is over; this is uncommonly tedious, and seems composed without conviction. What Burnet enjoys contemplating is destruction, not the process of rebuilding. He has a genuine appetite for cataclysm, and to write his best, he must be wielding his pen amid the crash of elements.
The three passages which have been selected to illustrate Thomas Burnet are taken from the three main divisions of his Sacred Theory, and exemplify his dreams of Deluge and of Paradise and of the final Conflagration.