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 W. A. Raleigh
Sir George Mackenzie (1636–1691)
 
[George Mackenzie, nephew to the Earl of Seaforth, and grandson to Dr. Bruce, principal of St. Leonard’s College, St. Andrews, was born at Dundee in 1636. He studied at Scottish and French Universities, and was called to the bar in 1656. He published Aretina, an original “heroic” romance, in 1660, and in the following year was engaged in his first famous pleading, the defence of the Marquis of Argyll. Knighted and made King’s advocate in 1674, he became notorious with the Covenanters as “the bloodthirsty advocate and persecutor of the saints of God,” a reputation which still clings to his name in Scotland although his conduct in his hated office was upright and even humane. He spent the leisure snatched from his legal duties in writing sundry moral essays on religion, solitude, moral gallantry, and the like; wherein, it may be said, the lawyer pleads for his clients the scholar, the gentleman, and the pedant. On the accession of James II. and the abrogation of the penal laws against the Catholics, he resigned his office, and was induced to re-accept it only to resign it for good when the Revolution, which he opposed, became an accomplished fact. He retired to the scholarly solitude that he loved at Oxford, and died on a visit to London in 1691. He was buried in the churchyard of the Greyfriars, Edinburgh, where his tomb is still noted by the populace, although De Quincey’s is forgotten. Almost all his works, except Aretina, are included in the two vol. folio edition, Edinburgh, 1722.]  1
 
AMONG the many contemporary allusions that witness the high esteem enjoyed by Sir George Mackenzie in his own time, is one more notable than the rest. In the preface to his translation of Juvenal and Persius, Dryden describes how he was originally indebted to “that noble wit” Sir George Mackenzie for the suggestion that Denham and Waller were worthy of study as models of poetic writing. It is a kind of paradox that a man who thus indirectly fathered the poetry of the Augustan age should have shown himself so extravagant a reactionary in his own prose writings. For Mackenzie does not merely imitate the various conceits and excesses of Sir Thomas Browne, Cowley, and the French heroic romances; he zealously betters the instruction. His early romance, Aretina, shows this extravagance at its height. The complex plot and tales within tales, the prevalence of gallantry and battles, the inevitable political allegory, the essays which are “laced upon” the romance, and deal with such points of dialectic as whether vanity be the parent of the virtues, or whether gaudiness of dress argue modesty, the fearless gallicism in diction, all serve to show that Parthenissa and her French progenitors had readers and admirers on both sides of the Tweed. Mackenzie was aware of the debt the Scottish dialect owed to France; in Aretina he endeavoured to increase it, by borrowing some hundreds of words more. It were vain to attempt to catalogue this museum of affectations; here are echoes of Lyly and Sidney, reminiscences of Scudery, bold Latinisms in the manner of Sir Thomas Browne; here a fair face is “the hieroglyphick of comeliness,” a foul one is “the rendezvous of all those deformities that a petulant fancy could have excogitated”; ladies find it easy to dress, for “their clothes seemed most willing to hang upon them, as if they knew how much they were honoured;” knights faint with admiration of a lady, and a pond wears her picture in its bosom, “presenting it when ye approach to indicate the high value it sets upon your beauty, and concealing it when ye are gone, fearing lest any should rob it.”  2
  Mackenzie’s manner strengthened and cleared, but it never radically altered. To the end he delighted most in the style which he had stamped with his approval in the preface to Aretina, the style “which is flourished with similes, and where are used long-winded periods.” But the romance affords no fair measure of his success in that style. When he is writing on the moral topics that most engaged him, propounding his personal religion after Sir Thomas Browne, or, in the temper of Cowley, preferring solitude to public employment, when he is dealing in fact with those subjects “wherein,” as himself observes, “no man can write happily, but he who writes his own thoughts,” he is wonderfully felicitous, and his conceits often reach the stature of memorable and imposing figures. In a fine metaphor he advises every private Christian “rather to stay still in the barge of the Church with the other disciples, than by an ill-bridled zeal to hazard drowning alone with Peter, by offering to walk upon the unstable surface of his own fleeting and water-weak fancies, though with a pious resolution to meet our Saviour.” In a witty simile he compares the various confessions of faith to sun-dials, orthodox only in one meridian; or again, he likens the conventicles of the sects to “the removed huts of those who live apart because they are sick of the plague.” In a vivid picture he presents Alexander, “running like a madman up and down the world,” all “to gain as much as might make him a person worthy of being poisoned.” His conceits are the offspring of a powerful poetic fancy; some of them would have pleased Donne, others, no doubt, delighted Dryden. Mackenzie stands between the two ages, belonging to the earlier by sympathy, and yet coming sometimes very close to the later when he indulges his satirical foible. The last of the old wits, belated in the North, he holds out his hand to the first of the new.  3
 
 
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