Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Conyers Middleton (16831750)
[Conyers Middleton, who belonged to an affluent and well-connected Yorkshire family, was born at Richmond on 27th December 1683. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, at the age of seventeen, and obtained a Fellowship, which, however, he vacated ten years after his matriculation, on his marriage with a very wealthy widow, a Mrs. Drake. His connection with the College, nevertheless, drew him into the celebrated and desperate quarrel between the Fellows and their Master, Bentleya quarrel, the vicissitudes of which cannot be told here, though they are reflected in many of Middletons works. He was made Librarian to the University in 1722, which post he retained to his death, and Woodwardian Professor of Geology in 1731, but he only held that appointment for three years. He travelled in Italy after the death of his first wife, married a second in 1734, and a third in 1745; but his headquarters were always at Cambridge, or close by at Hildersham, where he had property. He held more than one living at different times of his life, but in no case for long. He died at Hildersham on 28th July 1750. Besides the frequently reprinted Life of Cicero, which originally appeared in 1741, his works were numerous, and are nearly all collected in five volumes, which reached their second edition five years after his death. Besides polemical pamphlets against Bentley, Waterland, and others, they contain miscellanies on subjects rather unusually wide apart, as well as two larger and more famous productionsA Letter from Rome showing an exact Conformity between Popery and Paganism (1729), and A Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers which are supposed to have existed in the Christian Church (1748).]
THE NAME and fame of Conyers Middleton have always lain under a rather curious cloud, which has latterly extended from his personal to his literary reputation. He has been violently attacked, and on the whole very faintly if at all defended, on three different grounds: first as a dishonest man who, while taking the pay of the Church of England and pretending to acquiesce in her doctrines, seized every opportunity of undermining the faith of his co-religionists; secondly as a controversialist, equally virulent and disingenuous, both in religious and non-religious subjects; thirdly as a wholesale and impudent plagiarist from Bellendenus (William Bellenden, 15551633) in his Life of Cicero. During the eighteenth century, as a kind of set-off to these imputations, he enjoyed the credit of a remarkable proficiency in English prose style; but De Quincey, partly out of partisanship for Bentley, partly from his preference for ornate over-severe writing, and partly also out of mere crotchet, laboured to destroy this reputation with a certain success. The controversial part of Middletons writings has lost its savour; his erudition, which was considerable, has been superseded, and his attacks (if attacks they are to be called) on orthodoxy proceed on a method which has long been exchanged for others by his successors. It is therefore very improbable that he finds many readers now, or will ever find them again, except among students of his special subjects and gifts.
He was, however, a man of remarkable and altogether exceptional ability, of wide and curiously diversified literary interests, and in my judgment at least much more deserving of his earlier than of his later reputation as a prose writer. Of his supposed theological dishonesty not much should, but something must be said here. He himself grappled boldly and, as far as dialectics go, not ineffectively with the charge, in a Letter to Venn, who had called him an apostate. A specimen of this letter will be found infra. It is open to any one to say that though it displays extreme skill of fence and much dignity, it neither contains any direct and satisfactory confession or profession of belief, nor displays that genuine indignation which might have been expected from innocence. I do not myself think that Middleton was consciously or intentionally anti-Christian, or that in his professed attacks on Popery and on Superstition he meant more than he said. But he was evidently possessed strongly by the eighteenth-century hatred of enthusiasm, and not less strongly by the mania of that century for inquiring into everything, by its disrelish for mysticism and metaphysics, and by its rather crude contempt for former ages. He is thus the opposite, or rather the complement of Berkeley, who was almost exactly his contemporary (they were born within two and died within three years of each other), and exhibits on the negative and lower side the same restless and vigorous love of research and argument which Berkeley shows on the higher and positive. It is particularly noteworthy in how many odd directions Middletons thoughts exercised themselves. He has for instance a paper on Latin pronunciation which is quite beyond his time, and he took an interest in early printing, which was also not at all of that time, though it may have been prompted in him by a little inter-university jealousy.
For his style, so far as it is matter of controversy, the following extracts will probably speak better than elaborate comment. He is best at argument and narrationbetter perhaps in the former than in the latter, where he is apt to follow the ancients in using English relatives as if they had the Latin distinctions of gender, number, and case to preserve their connection with the antecedent from obscurity. In his pugnacious passages the necessity of driving home his argument saves him from this. Indeed I think it would be hardly possible to find a better example than Middletons of the severely plain style, not quite so homely as Swifts, but not excessively academic. Of ornament, especially in his controversial writings, he has little or nothing; and this of itself accounts for the scant affection with which the nineteenth century has regarded him. He is not merely, as most of his contemporaries were, intolerant of gorgeous or flowery language, but it is the rarest thing for him to attempt a flight, a trope, an epigram in the modern as opposed to the classical sense. His temper was not genial, and he is rather sarcastic than humorous; but his sarcasm was rarely marred by the mere rude horseplay to which his great adversary Bentley too often descended. Thus his series of Remarks on Bentleys Proposals, though their fragmentary nature and their constant quotations make them unsuitable for excerpt here, are really distinguished examples of uncompromising hostile criticism, and it is seldom that nearly as much may not be said for his voluminous and diversified controversies with others. In the Letter from Rome and the Free Enquiry, the semblance at least of an open and candid examination is largely assisted by the perfect perspicuity of the phrase, the apparent abstinence from all flings, shifts, and evasions under cover of declamation on the one side, or of buffoonery on the other. In the Life of Cicero, though the vehicle of communication is somewhat more negligently polished and equipped, there is the same perfect clearness, with very rare exceptions, due to the cause above glanced at and a few others of the same kind. And it is fair or rather necessary to remember that when Middleton began to write, the new balanced English style had had very few applications to historical narrative. It had been used in sermons, in essays, in short critical dissertations and so forth, and already great examples of it had appeared in philosophy. But even Johnson, a much younger man than Middleton, could still speak of Knolles, whose work was more than a century old, as the chief example of historical writing in English, and though Johnsons well-known prejudices might have made him purposely ignore Robertson and Hume, neither of these writers made a name till long after Middleton. It is thus very important to observe dates and correspondences of dates in regard to him. And when they are observed, perhaps the best summing up of his position in the history of English prose will be that he wrote with a remarkable combination of vigour and correctness, that he carried the unadorned style almost to its limit, and that while he sometimes went perilously near to being bald he never actually reached baldness.