Francis Bacon and Renaissance Prose
The Eloquent “I”: Style and Self in Seventeenth-Century Prose
Francis Bacon’s reputation has suffered strange vicissitudes. From being the admired father of the experimental method, dear to nineteenth-century progressives, he has been assigned a position of very limited importance by some, though not all, modern historians of science. These extreme oscillations are themselves an indication of the intrinsic power of this great figure, and those favoring the extreme of contempt have not succeeded in accounting for the undoubted fact that the early members of the Royal Society looked to Bacon as the inspiration of their efforts. Brian Vickers takes another way in to the solution of this apparent anomaly. From his study of Bacon’s prose style which was geared to the rhetorical purpose of persuasion, he concludes that Bacon’s enormous influence “is not to be explained by the actual detailed content of his scientific programme. .but rather by the terms in which it was formulated and the imaginative eloquence with which these were transmitted.” That is to say, the real significance of Bacon lay in the persuasive power of the language in which he urged the advancement of knowledge.
Though this is not exactly a new discovery, Vickers brings to bear on Bacon’s prose style a detailed examination based on “the most enlightened modern discussions of stylistic analysis.” He believes that the analysis of style is a literary, not a scientific, discipline, and he draws up in his first chapter the principles on which he would base the study of a writer’s style. There is much portentous statement of the obvious in this chapter, but one would not quarrel with the definition of the main features of Bacon’s style as the insistence on a carefully designed structure, the importance attached to aphorisms, the use of symmetrical syntax, and, above all, of imagery. If this chapter encourages specialists in English Literature to concentrate less frantically on “structure” and to turn some, at least, of their attention to imagery, it will have done good work.
Bacon, says Vickers, thought in images, like a man of the Renaissance; every thought is immediately clothed in an illustration or an analogy which seems born with the thought and is inseparable from it; his images even seem to run ahead of his thought, and to determine it. Vickers rightly suggests that this is a mode of apprehension which should be called poetical, based on a fundamentally religious and poetical view of the world. In a valuable survey of the history of attitudes toward Bacon’s style, which oscillate between admiration and contempt like the attitudes toward Bacon as a scientist, Vickers draws up from oblivion Shelley’s illuminating statement that “Lord Bacon was a poet.”
“Philosophers,” said Giordano Bruno, “are in some way painters and poets; poets are painters and philosophers; painters are philosophers and poets.” The intense imaginative vision of Renaissance man, which made fusions like this possible, was fed by the science of imagery. Elaborate text-books expounded the moral and “physical” (or philosophical and scientific) meanings of …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.