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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XIII. Legal Literature.

§ 24. Selden’s Wit and Wisdom.


The real fascination of Selden’s utterances in Table-Talk lies neither in the legal learning of which it furnishes constant evidence, nor in the historical judgments which it pithily supplies or, by means of a pregnant word or phrase, suggests, nor, again, in its incidental illustrations of contemporary currents of opinion or tendencies of feeling. 49  Its charm lies in the play of mind, which, passing from subject to subject, familiar to the speaker in its depths as well as in its more superficial aspects, illuminates them all in turn. Selden’s wit has many varieties, and more than one of these, half imperceptibly, reveals itself as true wisdom. By the side of some instances of a coarse kind of wit, which still found ready acceptance in Selden’s age—especially in the form of anecdotal illustrations, with which he evidently took pleasure in clinching an argument—there are others of a trenchant wit, too rough in flavour to suit the modern palate, and others, but not so many, of a cynicism which tends, hardly less than coarseness, to mar table-talk. But there are others of a pleasant wit betokening a genial apprehension of the humorous side of things, 50  besides yet others where the speaker manifests that kind of insight into the real nature of men and affairs which only the constant application of the mind to prompt treatment of intricate problems is capable of producing. 51  Finally, there are to be found in Table-Talk illustrations of that highest kind of wit which, by a winged word, makes plain an everlasting truth—that gnomic wisdom which is as pellucid as it is profound. Here, humility and perspicacity join hands, as in the plain moral which ends a homely argument on Vows: 52  “He that vows can mean no more in sense than this; to do his utmost endeavour to keep his vow.”   27
  Thus, a simple sheaf of sayings apprises us, were there nothing else to show it, how, for this great lawyer and deeply read scholar, the light of reason shone with the same clearness, calm rather than cold, whether it fell upon the ancient tomes in his library, or lit up the chambers of political or religious debate, or burnt in the lamp hanging in the sanctuary.   28

Note 49. Such as the rather sophistical “CL. Witches.” It is amusing that even Selden should not have escaped the impression common with elderly people that manners are deteriorating, though he can hardly have been an old man when he gave utterance to “LXXI. King of England.” [ back ]
Note 50. A single instance may be cited from “LXXXVI. Measure of things.” We cry down a rotten pear, and approve a rotten medlar; “and yet, I warrant you, the pear thinks as well of itself as the medlar does.” [ back ]
Note 51. By way of example, see the explanation of the custom of painting terrific Saracens’ heads as signs on inns in “CXLVIII. War.” [ back ]
Note 52. CXLIV. [ back ]

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  Chief Political and Religious Topics  
 
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