Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Caroline Divines > Jeremy Taylor
  Eikon Basilike  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

VI. Caroline Divines.

§ 24. Jeremy Taylor.


If Eikon Basilike is one of the most important books in English history, no one can rank its author among the immortals. But the last of the Caroline divines whom we shall name has a claim to that title. Jeremy Taylor may be regarded as the finished product of the school of Laud. It was Laud who procured him his fellowship at All Souls, and to whom his famous sermon on the Gunpowder plot was dedicated; and Laud’s influence, at once in its attachment to ancient standards, in its antagonism to the theology of Rome and in its breadth of toleration, is evident in all his writings. His was a full life: he went through much affliction, and he had many consolations; he was an ardent scholar, a popular preacher, a bishop, a man of affairs; and all these experiences are reflected in books which are the most famous of all the work of the Caroline divines. No one of all that distinguished body, whose position in that age was summed up in the oft-quoted phrase clerus Anglicanus stupor mundi, was more eminent in his own day, and no one, except George Herbert, has so certainly won permanent place in the literature of England. He wrote voluminously; and few men who have written so much have left more books that still retain their value: the sermons, ingenious, fertile, convincing; Ductor Dubitantium, still the only English treatise of any importance on its subject;  5  the charm of The Marriage Ring; the piety of The Golden Grove; the sagacious, corrective, kindling instruction of Holy Living and Holy Dying and The Worthy Communicant—these are the abiding possession of the English people. Jeremy Taylor’s controversial work has passed out of consideration with the greater part of all writing of the same kind that was contemporary with it: perhaps no English controversialist in theology save Hooker has secured a permanent place in English literature. Taylor’s theology is of his age: his learning would not preserve his books from oblivion. But he remains a vital force in English letters, because of wonderful combination of fine qualities which he possesses. Coleridge placed him among the four masters of early seventeenth century literature, with Shakespeare, Bacon and Milton; and later judment shows no sign of reversing the verdict. But his character, as a writer, is very specially his own. First and obviously, by profession he was an Anglican priest. He had the ecclesiastical temper and the spiritual insight which befit his profession; and, in his firm adherence to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, combined with a wide tolerance in interpretation, a desire to admit and not to exclude, like Hales and Chillingworth and Laud, he was a typical Anglican of Charles I’s day. Tradition, authority, faith, liberality, were harmonious, not contending, in his mind. Secondly, he was not less certainly a man of letters. His style is intensely artificial, not in the sense of insincerity, but in the sense of laborious achievement which has become facility and freedom. It is intensely individual. There are in it points of comparison with Sir Thomas Browne, with Donne, with Traherne, even with Burton; but the curiously mingled simplicity and gorgeousness are all his own. No one can, like Taylor, pile up splendour of description, exotic richness of phraseology, colour, tones instinct with music, and then turn in an instant to a sober, solemn, stately simplicity, direct and appealing like the call of a herald. Again, in his use of the ancient classics, if he is a man of his time, he works with a distinction of his own. Now, he translates literally, incorporating the result in his own text; now, he quotes, now, paraphases; but he always handles his author as though he were familiar with him and loved him. Whether it be the Greek Anthology, or Petronius, or a Christian Father, he regards the book with a delicate appreciation which comes of pure passion for literature in itself. His taste is all-embracing, and he has an extraordinary aptitude for applying it to the matter, however far away, which, for the moment, is occupying his mind. Thus, you may often call his references, or his analogies, far fetched: but, when you look more closely into the texture of his argument, you will see how fitly as well as how adroitly he has woven them in. This breadth of sympathy made Mason call him “the Shakespeare of English prose.” The description is an extremely happy one. He is rhetorical like a dramatist. He abounds in arresting phrases, in haunting verbal felicities. He can be magnificent, and he can be most deeply pathetic. And, perhaps above all, his language is astoundingly popular and modern. To compare his prose with Milton’s is to find one’s self in a world of freedom as contrasted with the four walls of the scholar’s study.   38
  You cannot read Jeremy Taylor without feeling that, in spite of his preciosity, he is, in intention, before all things intensely practical; to this aim even his delight in expression and allusion yields again and again. You come continually on passages, for example, like that in which, after a list of diseases and a mention of Maecenas, he writes thus:
It was a cruel mercy in Tamerlane, who commanded all the leprous persons to be put to death, as we knock some beasts quickly on their head, to put them quickly out of pain, and lest they should live miserably: the poor men would rather have endured another leprosy, and have more willingly taken two diseases than one death. Therefore Caesar wondered that the old crazed soldier begged leave he might kill himself, and asked him, “dost thou think then to be more alive than now thou art?” We do not die suddenly, but we descend to death by steps and slow passages; and therefore men, so long as they are sick, are unwilling to proceed and go forward in the finishing that sad employment. Between a disease and death there are many degrees, and all those are like the reserves of evil things, the declining of every one of which is justly reckoned among those good things, which alleviate the sickness and make it tolerable. Never account that sickness intolerable, in which thou hadst rather remain than die: and yet if thou hadst rather die than suffer it, the worst of it that can be said is this, that this sickness is worse than death; that is, it is worse than that which is the best of all evils, and the end of all troubles; and then you have said no great harm against it. 6 
  39
  Taylor, it is true, had a variety of style. It is possible to trace “periods” in his literary manner, as it is to distinguish the tone in which he dealt with different topics. He was a controversialist and historian in The Sacred order and offices of Episcopacy (1642); an advocate of toleration in The Liberty of Prophesying (1647); purely a spiritual teacher in The Great Exemplar (a life of Christ, 1649), Holy Living (1650), Holy Dying (1651) and The Worthy Communicant (1660); an opponent of Rome in many treatises, a defender of Anglicanism in others; but, in all, he was a man of wide outlook, of temperate mind and of warm heart. Why Taylor has always been popular, has been, indeed, the Bunyan of the English church, is that he obviously felt all he said, and was stirred by the very passion which he sought to infuse into others. His work is not regular, his style is hardly chastened; yet his feeling is restrained within limits which not a few writers of his time transgressed to their peril. He is intense in feeling, up to the very verge of legitimate expression; he hardly ever oversteps it. His style is the servant, not the master, of the conviction or the passion which breathes in every page that he writes.   40
  When we survey the period of English prose of which Jeremy Taylor is the brightest ornament, we are struck by the fact that the divines of Charles I’s day were conspicuously English. Spanish influence had passed by; French had hardly yet come, as it came thirty years later; Latin and Greek were still potent, but chiefly because they had taught men to write English. English they were, and, though some of those of whom we have spoken had died before “the troubles,” and the voices of almost all were temporarily silenced during the years after Charles’s death, their influence was powerful in the next generation—a generation enthusiastic for both church and king.   41

Note 5. See, post, Chap. XII. [ back ]
Note 6Holy Dying, chap. III. [ back ]

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