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 Henry Craik
Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678–1751)
 
[Henry St. John was born in 1678, and belonged to a family which had for the most part adhered to the Parliamentary side in the Civil War. After a childhood passed under the stern supervision of a Puritan grandmother, he went to Eton and then to Christ Church: and after some foreign travel, and an experience of scandalous debauchery, he entered Parliament in 1700. He joined the Tories, and was in office as Secretary of War from 1704 to 1708, when he was dismissed with Harley. In 1710 he became Secretary of State, with Harley as Lord Treasurer. He was created Viscount Bolingbroke in 1711, and for four years he and Harley maintained their power. Ultimately they quarrelled, and the death of Queen Anne brought about Bolingbroke’s fall. Under suspicion of Jacobite intrigues he fled to France, and for a short time took office with the Pretender. In 1723 he was enabled to return to England, and in 1725 was restored to his estates, but never recovered his rights as a peer. He became the heart and soul of the opposition to Walpole, whose fall he survived. He died in 1751.  1
  Few of Bolingbroke’s works were published until after his death, when his dependent, David Malet, in accordance with his instructions issued them. In 1716 he wrote the Letter to Sir W. Windham, which is an Apologia for his political conduct. In 1735 he wrote Letters on the Study of History (addressed to Lord Cornbury) which were published in 1753. The letters On the Spirit of Patriotism, The Idea of a Patriot King, and The State of Parties, were printed in 1749. In the later years of his life he contributed largely to the Craftsman, the journal started to oppose Walpole; and these contributions were afterwards brought together and published. His views on religion, which amounted to a very superficial scepticism, which attacked at once metaphysical speculation and revealed religion, were given forth chiefly in certain letters to Pouilly, written in 1720, and in others written to Pope, late in his life.]  2
 
BOLINGBROKE is one of the few men whose literary reputation has probably been enhanced by the fact that he is rarely read. The saying is not so absurd as, at first sight, it looks. Few figures in history have come down to us with more of a halo—detractors might say of a glamour—of romance than his. His pre-eminence in many gifts is familiar to us. He was one of a small and brilliant galaxy, whose combined gifts threw lustre on each member of the group. The tradition of his social fascination, of the charm of his conversation, of his eminently handsome person, of his prowess as a Lothario, of his stately eloquence, of his rare versatility, of the marvellous rapidity of his genius; his attainment of great office while as yet little more than a boy; his masterly conduct of difficult negotiations; his grasp of a commercial policy which later ages brought to full ripeness only after slow stages and tedious struggles; the striking vicissitudes of his fortunes; the great place he occupies at once on the stage of politics and on that of literature—all these have given him an entrancing interest for us even in an age of distinguished personalities. Swift’s description is, by itself, enough to immortalise him, “His mind,… adorned with the choicest gifts that God has yet thought fit to bestow upon the children of men: a strong memory, a clear judgment, a vast range of wit and fancy, a thorough comprehension, an invincible eloquence, with a most agreeable elocution” (Inquiry into the Behaviour of the Queen’s Last Ministry). But Swift was not blind to the weaker points in his character. “He was fond of mixing business and pleasure, and of being esteemed excellent at both…. His detractors charged him with some degree of affectation, and perhaps not altogether without grounds.” The defects are here hinted at rather than clearly stated, as was proper in a treatise written in defence of the ministry of which Bolingbroke was a leading member; and it is rather in scattered expressions that we have to look for Swift’s distrust of Bolingbroke’s moral and intellectual sincerity. To most of his contemporaries St. John’s genius was the subject of even more unqualified adulation; but the exaggeration is often so absurd as to force us to be sceptical. When Orrery—the type of fribbles—writes that “his conversation united the wisdom of Socrates, the dignity and ease of Pliny, and the wit of Horace,” we see the exaggeration to which glamour could prompt flattery. The more degrading traits in St. John’s character were partly the result of his training and experience. Brought up under the chilling influence of a home in which a rigid Puritanism was the prevailing atmosphere, St. John threw himself in early manhood with the abandonment of a thoroughly vain and selfish nature into a profligacy bred of arrogance and affectation as much as of passion. When he first touched politics he found himself in a hotbed of selfish struggle, and possessed of faculties that gave him the opportunity of an easy and ostentatious triumph. He rose with surprising rapidity to posts of great importance. His fall was even more sudden; from being the leader of a powerful party in England he became the titular minister of the exiled claimant of the throne. Thrust even from that employment, his skilful apology made an ignominious dismissal from a fictitious court appear to be the effect of jealousy bred by his own wider and more patriotic aims. After humiliating efforts to procure his own restoration, when his baffled ambition found every gate closed against its intrigues, he gratified his resentment by siding with a faction which assumed to itself the merit of withstanding corruption, and setting up an ideal standard of civil duty. When it became clear that all his skill in the arts of fomenting faction could result in no personal gain, he made a merit of renouncing politics in order to be free for the pursuit of what he called philosophy. His versatility, his memory, his fertility of device, and his perseverance were sufficient to preserve him from conspicuous failure in any of the varied parts he chose to play. But in no sphere does his genius conquer a place in the first rank: and the impression he has left is due rather to the dramatic contrasts and variety of his career, than to its permanent influence; to the specious gaudiness of his talents, rather than to commanding genius.  3
  When from this career we turn to the literary achievement, the glamour is stript off. We cannot deny to him many high literary gifts. His prose style has the easy flow, the rotund and grandiloquent sound, which the habit of the orator gives. His arguments are always specious and often at first presentation persuasive. He sets forth his case with a wonderful harmony of illusion, even when that case is most palpably a perversion of the truth. He maintains without faltering or hesitation an attitude of proud and dignified patriotism, founded upon the fundamental principles of a consistent political creed: and we have only to think of his actual career to estimate the consummate skill of the actor in so doing. His display of reading—much of it necessarily superficial—has all the manner of one careless how he draws upon an inexhaustible store: and yet without a doubt, Bolingbroke relied upon his tact alone in skimming over the thinnest of ice in his copious allusions, and in affecting profound learning. But if his style is easy and flowing it is also tiresome in its tautology. His flowing sentences weary us by their lack of variety, and by the entire absence of the illustration which fancy or imagination might have brought to them. Above all he wants entirely that saving gift of humour which brightens literary controversies and keeps their savour fresh when the subjects have passed into oblivion. Against the approach of such humour Bolingbroke’s egotism and affectation set an impenetrable bar. He has not even that literary instinct which enabled such a man as Temple to refresh his reader by digressing into devious ways, and lingering on his road to give his imagination play.  4
  His literary work is at its best when it comes nearest to the active part of his own life, and reflects most strongly the habit of the orator. The Letter to Sir William Windham was one of his earliest writings, and was composed soon after his breach with the Pretender in 1716, although not published until nearly forty years later. In this Bolingbroke had to face the hard task of defending himself against an overwhelming suspicion of political treachery and tergiversation. He accomplishes his task with consummate skill. He is by turns dignified, jocose, sarcastic, indignant, and yet apologetic. He contrives to convey the impression of a man mistaken perhaps, baffled sometimes by circumstances, but always with high aims, and never acting except at the prompting of high-minded, even if erroneous, principle. In some respects this Letter rises to a higher level than any of his writings; and if he fails to procure his own acquittal, it is because the evidence against him is invincibly strong. The Spirit of Patriotism, and the Idea of a Patriot King rise at times to a very high eloquence. But their style is monotonous and heavy. Undoubtedly the notions which Bolingbroke set forth, and the ideal which he preached—of a strong and effective monarchical force, resting upon popular support, and by this means able to frustrate the factiousness of parliamentary parties—had great influence, and have not ceased to operate in our own day. But the ideal was not created by Bolingbroke, and was not materially extended by his writings. It was the inevitable result of a reaction against Walpole’s rule; it was admirably fitted for eloquent declamation, became the watchword of a vigorous party, was the theme of countless speeches, and Bolingbroke’s dissertations were rather eloquent essays on a current topic than the first manifestoes of a new propaganda. The letters to the Craftsman, which were brought together afterwards, with a dedication to Sir R. Walpole, in the form of A Dissertation upon Parties, were really a variation upon the same scheme; and the same may be said as to the Remarks upon the History of England. Bolingbroke’s political writings, indeed, have something of the effect which might be produced by the republication of scraps of the work of a political journalist of our own day. Each tract was an episode in the party fight. Bolingbroke kept the tools of the controversy sharp enough, and knew how to lead the dispute into specious generalities; but permanent literature cannot be gathered out of the pages of the political journal, however skilfully these may be framed for their immediate aim. The journalist necessarily repeats himself. It would be easy to find many instances of this in Bolingbroke; as one, it may be enough to refer to a long passage in the Letter to Sir W. Windham, comparing the recantation of Henry IV. of France, with the obstinate refusal of the later Stuarts to conform to the Anglican Church, and the conduct of the French and English in each case. The passage is almost verbally repeated, at full length, in the Dissertation upon Parties (Letter IV.)  5
  The Letters on History stand half-way between Bolingbroke’s political and his so-called philosophical writings. The question of the origin and authority of history is made the basis of an attack upon Christianity, and upon the clergy, which in its dishonesty of tactics goes beyond even those bounds which Bolingbroke usually observes. Here is a specimen:—
          The notion of inspirations that come occasionally, that illuminated the minds and guided the hands of the sacred penmen while they were writing one page, and restrained their influence while the same authors were writing another, may be cavilled against; and what is there that may not? But surely it deserves to be treated with respect since it tends to establish a distinction between the legal, doctrinal, and prophetical parts of the Bible, and the historical; without which it is impossible to establish the first, as evidently and as solidly as the interests of religion require.
  6
  It is typical of Bolingbroke to set forth a proposition which he so states as to make it manifestly absurd: with a mock air to defend it; and to give as an excuse for the defence, the interests of revealed religion, for which he cared nothing. It is discreditable argument, and it is very poor wit.  7
  But the literary work which Bolingbroke evidently thought was to be his chief monument to posterity, and which posterity has most neglected, consists of his essays on philosophy. He dealt with this subject partly in letters to Pouilly, written when he was in France in 1720; partly in letters to Pope, left for publication after his death. According to a story circumstantially told, Bolingbroke drew up for Pope the scheme of the Essay on Man. Johnson’s common sense perceived that this was an exaggeration; that all the fancy, the illustration, the poetic form, were necessarily due to Pope alone; and when we subtract these, the frame of philosophy on which the Essay is based is so attenuated, that the honour of its conception is scarcely worth dispute.  8
  The world has indeed condemned and feared the attacks of Bolingbroke, and has occasionally admired his speculative boldness, entirely upon trust. Be truth what it may, no more pretentious and superficial travesty of speculation was ever palmed off upon the world as serious philosophy. At times he reminds us almost of Pangloss, for whom everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds; but he is a very sour and dull Pangloss compared with Voltaire’s. Of the humour and perception to be found in these letters, we may form an estimate when we find that the most suitable epithet he can invent for Swift in a letter to Pope is “the jocose Dean of St. Patrick’s.” He who wrote that word had something of the dullard beneath all his brilliancy. His sense of proportion may be gathered from the fact that he thinks the philosophy of Locke to be the most valuable product of his time, that Leibnitz and Descartes are only named for ridicule, and that, though Berkeley is treated with courtesy, his speculative greatness is ignored. Plato and Aristotle he discusses and condemns with all the arrogance of an acquaintance which is entirely second-hand. Metaphysical philosophy he mentions only with a sneer. Swift abandoned metaphysics in despair; Bolingbroke despises it with the easy conceit of a man of fashion, the cynicism of a roué, and the scepticism of one who mistook the transparence of superficiality for the clearness of reason. He wrote against it with about as much power of expression, range of intellect, and display of erudition, as we might expect in an expert journalist.  9
 
 
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