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 Henry Craik
Roger Ascham (1515–1568)
 
[Roger Ascham was born in Yorkshire in 1515, and belonged to a family of some repute. He owed his earlier education, and the means of subsequently pursuing a university career, to the bounty of Sir Anthony Wingfield. In 1530 he was entered at St. John’s College, Cambridge, then the foremost arena of the new studies, with which were generally combined the new religious tenets of the day. He studied Greek under Sir John Cheke, and became one of the most ardent votaries of the literature which was then stirring the mental activity of Europe as it had never been stirred before. In 1531 he became a Fellow of his college, and subsequently held the appointments of Reader in Greek and of Public Orator. In 1545 he secured the favour of Henry VIII. by his Toxophilus, which was intended to signalise at once his patriotism and his learning; and he was granted a pension which was renewed by Edward VI. In 1548 he became tutor to the Princess Elizabeth; and exchanged this post soon after for that of Secretary to an Embassy to the Court of Charles V. After the death of Edward VI. he managed to secure, either by his own adroitness in concealing his Protestant opinions, or by a toleration of them by the dominant faction that is surprising, the post of Secretary to Queen Mary; nor did this prevent his afterwards receiving further preferment from Elizabeth. In his later years he wrote the Schoolmaster, which was published after his death. He died in 1568.]  1
 
THE VERY considerable fame—or at least familiarity in the mouths of men—which Ascham has attained is probably due to several very different causes. His position as tutor and secretary to two successive female sovereigns, and his acquaintance with that ill-fated aspirant to a throne—Lady Jane Grey—has given a certain interest to his life. Besides this he was one of the earliest systematic writers on education—a subject which, if it does not always clothe itself with much literary grace, is at least of perennial importance and concern. Lastly, he illustrates, perhaps more completely than any other in his generation, the peculiar type of mind that was bred of the New Learning. His very numerous letters, in Latin and English, from the university and during his travels, have much interest of detail, although they have never obtained any extended audience. But they show us one side of that eager curiosity and vigorous outlook which he kept upon all the current topics of the day, viewed by him with the critical eye bred of his special studies. He has no genius, not even any marked talent. But he is an enthusiastic student; and he is not a student only, but subordinates all his gifts—his scholarship, his knowledge of courts, his experience of the world—to a purely literary aim. We might almost claim Ascham as our first purely literary man. He is an enthusiast for letters. For them he would claim the best youth of England. He is eager to dissociate the profession from any taint of pedantry, and to drive out of it the weaklings who betake themselves to letters because they are unfit for anything else. He demands for the profession a long and arduous apprenticeship. He is determined to maintain for it a severe code of rules. He is a strict conservative in literature, and will permit no plea of individual taste to defend eccentricities of critical judgment. “He that can neither like Aristotle in logic and philosophy, nor Tully in rhetoric and eloquence, will, from these steps, likely enough presume to mount higher, by like pride, to the misliking of greater matters.” Literary singularity is with Ascham a crime. His literary faith was soundly based on the firm foundation of a scholarship, not perhaps of great grasp or minute accuracy, but broad and intelligent. Ascham’s books sufficiently prove his classical reading to have been wider and more thoroughly digested than the general university standard from his death to the advent of Bentley.  2
  An ardent admirer of Athens, and in a less degree of Rome, Ascham found nothing to attract him in the Romance languages or their literature, and was morbidly jealous of their influence upon the English language. It is to this that we must ascribe the almost pedantic simplicity of style, amounting often to uncouthness, which he affected. But this uncouthness was caused by no neglect, but was rather sought after on principle, and perhaps in order to prevent his most beloved studies from the imputation of fostering an ornate or recondite style. No man is more careful to inculcate “all right congruity; propriety of words; order in sentences; the right imitation; to invent good matter, to dispose it in good order.” His rules did not make Ascham a master of style, but they at least show him to have had a true perception of its qualities.  3
  The Toxophilus is a dialogue, inculcating the necessity of cultivating the art of archery as an exercise at once pleasant and patriotic. But its real object is to show the learning of the author, and his power of managing a dialogue in the Platonic manner. The Schoolmaster, which treats of what have since become well-worn educational problems, has a more distinct and definite aim, as its subject was, indeed, one more adapted to literary treatment. It is interesting not only as embodying a distinct system of educational rules, but also as giving a wide range of view over Ascham’s general opinions on men, manners, and literature. A carefully annotated edition of the two books is still a want in our libraries; and such an edition would be of immense value in forming a judgment as to the character and range of the best classical scholarship of Ascham’s day.  4
  Some peculiarities of his style are worthy of special remark. One of these is his proneness to alliteration, due perhaps to his desire to reproduce the most striking features of the early English. “Much music marreth men’s manners;” “crafty conveyance, brainless brawling, false forswearing,”—alliterative phrases like these occur constantly in his pages. A tendency of an almost directly opposite kind is the balance of sentences in which he imitates classical models. Thus, he writes of “our king’s most royal purpose and will, which in all his statutes generally doth command men, with his own mouth most gently doth exhort men, by his great gifts and rewards greatly doth encourage men, with his most princely example very oft doth provoke all other men to the same.” Or again: “Young children use not (shooting); young men for fear of them whom they be under, dare not; sage men for other great businesses, will not; aged men for lack of strength, can not; rich men for covetousness sake, care not; poor men for cost and charge, may not; masters for their household keeping, heed not; servants kept in by their masters, shall not; craftsmen for getting of their living, very much leisure have not; many there be that oft begins, but for unaptness proves not; most of all which when they be shooters give it over and list not; so that generally men everywhere for one or other consideration much shooting use not.” These two are perhaps the most striking characteristics of Ascham’s prose: and it is interesting to observe how much of the structure of the sentence, in the more elaborated stages of English prose is due to their combination.  5
 
 
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