Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Antiquaries > His “wit” and style
  Thomas Fuller Izaak Walton  

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

X. Antiquaries.

§ 11. His “wit” and style.


His verse is quite negligible and, fortunately, there is little of it; of the very large and never yet collectively edited body of his prose, certain features are pretty generally known. They have been characterised concisely (but with something of that want of accuracy and adequacy combined which conciseness often carries with it) in Coleridge’s famous dictum that “wit was the stuff and substance of Fuller’s intellect.” Hair-splitting criticism may ask whether wit is not rather a form, a habit, a bent of the intellect, than, in any case, its stuff and substance. But, undoubtedly, in the wide and contemporary, as well as in the more modern and narrow sense, “wit” is the most prominent characteristic of Fuller’s writing. Although it was apparently the subject of an acrid rebuke from South as a feature of our author’s sermons, it cannot, since the collected presentation of these by Bailey and Axon, be said to be specially prevalent there. Indeed, he seems to have been conscious of his foible and to have tried to avoid giving way to it in the pulpit. But, in all his other work, from The Holy War (1639) to the posthumous Worthies of England, even in definitely “divine” examples like Good Thoughts in Bad Times and its sequels, he either does not make any attempt at resistance or fails entirely to resist. St. Monica’s maid is “her partner in potting”; in the case of another (crippled) saint “God, who denied her legs, gave her wings.” These things please some of us well enough; but, in times when there is a straightlaced notion of dignity and decency, or when (neither of these being specially attended to) the sense of humour is sterilised and specialised, they have been, and are, looked on with little favour.   27
  It is said, though statements of the kind are very difficult to check or control, that The Holy and Profane State has been Fuller’s most popular work. If it be so, popular taste has not gone far wrong in this instance. The book does not, indeed, give so much room as others for the exhibition of one very creditable quality which was by no means common in Fuller’s time—attention to documents and appreciation of their comparative value. Part of the cause of Heylyn’s attack on The Church History (1655) is supposed to be Fuller’s observation that “no Historian hath avouched” a certain anecdote of Henry VI, though both Brian Twyne and Heylyn himself had given it. Fuller was by no means incapable of mischief; but it is more than probable that, by “historian,” he meant contemporary historian, and, of course, Twyne and Heylyn did not stand in that relation to the times of Henry VI. The fact, of course, is that, to the present day, both in history and literature, it is the most difficult thing in the world to get people to attend to this simple distinction of evidence. Fuller, with slips and errors, no doubt, did try to attend to it, especially in his Church History and the Worthies, but, everywhere, more or less. It is, however, not a popular attempt; and, though he did not fail to make it to some extent in The Holy and Profane State itself, as well as in The Holy War earlier and in the biographies he contributed to Abel Redivivus, these three works gave scope for a far more popular talent, and one in which he was to take and give one of his own “Pisgah Sights” of a yet unexploited and almost unexplored province of English literature. In all,  7  but in The Holy and Profane State especially, the narrative faculty is specially in evidence. This curious book is a sort of blend of the abstract “character” popular at the time, and of examples which are practically short stories with real heroes and heroines, Monica or Joan of Naples, Andronicus Comnenus or Drake. Andronicus was actually published separately; and one can see that Fuller’s fingers unwittingly itched (as Gibbon’s did afterwards) to make the not yet born historical novel out of it. Even in the enormous miscellanies or collectanea of the Church History, of its part conclusion part sequel The History of the University of Cambridge and of The Worthies of England the narrative impetus is no more to be checked than witticisms or antiquarian details. Lists of sheriffs, of heads of colleges, of country gentlemen at the last visitation, alternate with stories about some of them (or about somebody or something else) and with dry observations, as to wax, “being yellow by nature [it] is by art made white, red and green—which I take to be the dearest colours especially when appendant on parchment.   28
  Undoubtedly, however, it is the witticisms themselves which, for the most part, delight or disgust readers of Fuller, and, though they take the benefit of the above quoted dictum as to the purpose of “wit” at this time being not merely comical, they require more “benefit of clergy” in this kind than those of most other writers. He has been called epigrammatic, even “the father of English epigram”; but this does not seem very appropriate either to the Greek or to the modern sense of the term. The famous idea of “images of God cut by him in ebony not ivory” is not an epigram, but it is very much of an emblem; and, perhaps because of the immense abundance of emblem literature in those days, Fuller’s conceits were constantly emblematic. “The soldier at the same time shoot[ing] out his prayer to God and his pistol at his enemy”; the question “Who hath sailed about the world of his own heart, sounded each creek, surveyed each corner, but that there still remains much terra incognita to himself?” both appeal vividly to the mind’s eye. Indeed, the conceit almost necessarily, even in similes of the most solemn cast, leads to witticism intended or unintentional; for each is intimately concerned with the discovery, elaborate or spontaneous, of similarity or dissimilarity. Even the serious Browne, in his most serious work, has become almost Fullerian in his remark on the deluge that “fishes could not wholly have escaped, except the salt ocean were handsomely contempered by a mixture of the fresh element.” But Fuller himself positively aims at these things; or, at least, certainly in his less professional work, and sometimes elsewhere, never spares a jest when it presents itself to him.   29
  It is almost unavoidable that such a style should incline less to the continuous harmonic cadence than to shorter moulds and measures. Fuller is by no means jerky, and he would not have been of his time if he had never used long sentences. But he does not incline to them; and his paragraphs are apt to be even shorter proportionally than their constituents. He has all the love of his day for an aphoristic and apophthegmatic delivery; though an occasional cause of lengthening in his sentences is his habit of shading or tailing off a serious statement of fact or axiom of opinion into a jest.   30
  Fuller invites selection and has had his share of it. Hardly any book of his has so formal a plan or such consecutiveness of argument that piecemeal citation injures it; and it may well seem that the process of “creaming” can be justly and safely applied to a writer who is both desultory and jocular. But it may be doubted whether such selections give the reader a fair idea of his author, even if that reader be well disposed towards both the mid-seventeenth century and its characteristic quaintness. For, we must once more remember that the conceits and the quips were by no means intended merely to amuse; they were meant, partly, to act as sugarplums for the serious passages, and, partly, to drive these passages closer home by humorous application or illustration. To expect all or many readers to read all Fuller’s books would be unreasonable; but nobody should think that he understands Fuller until he has read at least one of them as a book.   31

Note 7. Heylyn makes this (and the introduction of verse) a general objection to the Church History—“rather like a Church romance,” quoth he, disdainfully. [ back ]

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  Thomas Fuller Izaak Walton  
 
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