Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker
Hugh Latimer (c. 1485–1555)
 
[Latimer was born in 1491 at Thurcaston, Leicestershire: his father was a yeoman, represented by Latimer as a type of the old England which was ruined by the growth of sheep-farming and a new class of landlords. At Cambridge, where he was a Fellow of Clare Hall, Latimer became suspected of heresy. In 1530 he was called to preach before the King. He was made Bishop of Worcester in 1535, but resigned his bishopric after the Six Articles, in 1539. In 1546 he was cast into the Tower; he was released in 1547 after the death of Henry VIII. His Lent Sermons before King Edward VI. were preached in the year 1549. At the accession of Queen Mary, in 1553, he was again imprisoned in the Tower; he was brought from there to Oxford in 1554, and on the 16th of October 1555 he was burnt along with Ridley, outside the north wall of Oxford. There are many editions of the sermons, from 1549 onward: the Sermons and Remains of Bishop Latimer were edited, in two volumes, for the Parker Society in 1844–1845. The Sermon on the Ploughers, and the Sermons before King Edward VI., are published in Mr. Arber’s Reprints; the Sermons on the Card, in Cassell’s National Library.]  1
 
LATIMER’S works are Sermons, but that is not a full description of them. What survives in them is akin to the matter of familiar letters, memoirs, or even novels—unromantic novels, with a touch of the picaresque. His prose is generally colloquial and direct. Speaking from his pulpit—“The Shrouds at Paul’s Church,” or elsewhere—he has often the aspect of some primitive dramatist on his cart, acting his own tragedy. The character that Latimer represents is his own; and, as was to be expected in that city and nation and time, along with the tragedy there is a good deal of comedy intermingled. It is his own life and experience that he puts before his audience; not elevated and elaborated with classical rhetoric, but declared frankly in his natural language.  2
  In Latimer’s style there is a good deal of variety. It is always, it is true, a speaking style; “a manner of teaching,” as he himself confessed, “which is very tedious to them that be learned” with its repetitions, and its ignoring of scholarly apparatus and set form. By its fondness for short phrases, Latimer’s style distinguishes itself from the contemporary experiments in periodic and Latinised composition. Its simplicity of construction gives it great freshness. The sentences are such as will always be easily and at once intelligible, as long as the language lasts; they are nearly proof against changes of rhetorical fashion, because there is nothing cumbrous or adventitious in them. They present very few weak places to the critical assaults of time. Prose that is written in short sentences, and that deals with matters of common life, is adapted for every climate.  3
  Latimer’s sermons, however, though the same style may be recognised throughout, are not all, or in all places, equally full of life. A considerable portion of his work, though never any long continuous passage, is of necessity abstract, and expressed in a theological vocabulary. Many pages of his sermons are made up of commonplaces. He is sometimes tempted into the preacher’s fault of keeping up an illustration too long and too exhaustively. These things are like the serious conversations in the Pilgrim’s Progress, which are less interesting than the adventures, and yet an essential part of the book. If there is anything in Latimer which is conventional, it does not last long; it is sure to be quickly burnt up in some outbreak of passion; as in the Sermon of the Plough, where a comparatively tame piece of preaching leads up to the “burden of London.” “But London was never so ill as it is now. In times past men were full of pity and compassion; but now there is no pity.”  4
  Although Latimer is generally simple, he can when he pleases use certain colours and ornaments—a rudimentary euphuism of balanced and alliterative phrases, probably, like the alliteration in Anglo-Saxon homilies, borrowed from the popular poetry. “But now for the fault of unpreaching prelates, methink I could guess what might be said for excusing of them. They are so troubled with lordly living, they be so placed in palaces, couched in courts, ruffling in their rents, dancing in their dominions, burdened with ambassages, pampering of their paunches like a monk that maketh his jubilee, munching in their mangers, and moiling in their gay manors and mansions, and so troubled with loitering in their lordships, that they cannot attend it.” The device is used here for a definite satirical or mock-heroic purpose: Latimer is not fond of it. Where his language is weightiest, the rhetoric is less ostentatious. “But, ye say, it is new learning. Now I tell you it is the old learning. Yea, ye say, it is old heresy new scoured. Nay, I tell you it is old truth, long rusted with your canker, and now new made bright and scoured.” (A Sermon made by M. Hugh Latimer at the time of the Insurrection in the North.)  5
  His sermons are as full of “ensamples” as those of any medieval homilist. Like Socrates he was spoken against for his homely illustrations, although in this he was only following the almost universal practice. “Ye may not be offended with this my similitude; for I have been slandered of some persons for such things.” What distinguishes Latimer’s figures is that they are almost always drawn from something near him; and further that he sets himself absolutely against all overstrained symbolical interpretation. So that his illustrations come to be, very often, practical arguments in the debate between the Humanists and their adversaries, and Latimer takes his place along with Colet and More in demanding sound scholarship and common sense for the exposition of the Bible. In this way his examples and illustrations are something more than decoration; and the homeliness of them is not the medieval “art of sinking,” or inability to detect and keep clear of bathos; but the natural expression of his character and his habitual view, the instrument of his polemic against the allegorical and “tropological” method of interpretation. He has to argue, for instance, against the nonliteral interpretation of Peter’s fishing-boat, and of the commands given to him, duc in altum and laxate retia. Latimer cannot refute the Papal claims without bringing in something from his own life. “I will answer as I find by experience in myself. I came hither to-day from Lambeth in a wherry,” and so on. “I dare say there is never a wherryman at Westminster Bridge but he can answer this, and give a natural reason of it.” It would be a mistake to suppose this an appeal from scholarship to the sense of the vulgar; the wherryman is called in only because of Latimer’s lively interest in everything with which he has to do, and his discontent with all vague or colourless statements.  6
  Latimer’s own life is extremely valuable to him. “A sore bruised man” though he was, 1 it was no exhausted and unrelished life that he surrendered. Nothing is more remarkable in him than his hold upon all the past stages of his course. No vicissitudes of belief or fortune can make him forget anything that has once interested him. There is a want of courtliness in his refusal to suppress, in his sermons, the farm in Leicestershire where he was born; to many his reminiscences must be uncongenial. To call the German Reformation a mingle-mangle is bad enough, without a digression on the way of calling pigs in Leicestershire. It cannot be said that there is any plebeian ostentation of low birth in him; on the contrary these memories justify themselves because they are part of his belief in the strength and virtue of the home where he was brought up. He is not proud of having risen; rather, he thinks of all England as having declined from the days when his yeoman father taught him to lay his body to his bow. His father is an ideal in his eyes, and there is nothing in England like him. Just as Latimer’s advocacy of a reasonable scholarship, in which he resembles Colet, is enlivened with modern instances, so his reminiscences of his father give force and vividness to that complaint of the decay of the yeomanry which serves as a comment on the Utopia. Latimer gets all his strength from this hold that he has on the things nearest him in his own life; his strength as a practical counsellor in his own day; his strength as an author. He is not an artist; but his interest in persons, and in particular things, takes him far above the crowd of all dealers in abstractions. It is easy to accuse him of narrowness, of rudeness, of want of ideas. The charge was brought against him by people who found him inconvenient; the religious sharpers in high places who were distressed by his insistence on certain matters of a worldly and transitory import. “‘Restitution,’ quoth some, ‘what should he preach of restitution? Let him preach of contrition,’ quoth they, ‘and let restitution alone; we can never make restitution.’” This whole passage may be chosen as perhaps the most representative to be found in Latimer’s sermons. There are few things in his life more honourable than his exposure and denunciation of adventurers, his protest against the Protestant tyranny, and it is here that his style is at its best.  7
 
Note 1. Augustine Bernher: Dedication to the Duchess of Suffolk, Latimer’s Sermons, Part ii., 1562. [back]
 
 
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