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Bacon and the Menace of English Lit

Francis Bacon and Renaissance Prose

by Brian Vickers
Cambridge, 315 pp., $7.50

The Eloquent “I”: Style and Self in Seventeenth-Century Prose

by Joan Webber
University of Wisconsin, 198 pp., $8.50

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 the figures of classical mythology which the painters painted and the poets described. Such apparently pedestrian analysis of the great mythological figures did not diminish their power to integrate the vast imaginations of men like Bruno and Bacon. For Bacon, as we know from his Wisdom of the Ancients, his own most deeply held philosophical convictions were hidden in, or integrated with, the myths. And there was a strong infusion of magical power in such figures—intensive cultivation of the imagination always has an element of magic in it, and Renaissance magic was an imaginative art—constantly infiltrating into poetic and artistic creation. Bacon is a man of the Renaissance in whose prose style the Renaissance magic of imagery is still alive, imparting to it the “fascination” which he cultivated and the power of rhetorical persuasion raised to a magical degree. Vickers’s carefully constructed net of stylistic analysis, though it does bring up the right fishes, has killed them in the process.

And this killing process seems to have been deliberate, the result of his deliberately restricting the book to the concept of the “literary.” “The literary student,” says Vickers, “is forced to retreat” when faced with the discovery that analogies, for Bacon, are really correspondencies revealing the unity of nature. Even from the strictly literary point of view, such retreat is unwise, for it obscures the living bond between word and thing which gives density and power to Bacon’s style. And the intensive concentration on images in the literary style is related to that search for “real characters,” for a notation which should make direct contact with reality, which was perhaps Bacon’s most notable contribution to science, leading, as it did, to the search for universal languages, and thence, eventually, to Leibniz.

The Eloquent “I” is also concerned with seventeenth-century prose style. Though purists will be antagonized by the deplorable title and by the author’s bullying manner, this book does attempt to tackle the problem of style at a deep level. Joan Webber selects eight authors whom she takes as characteristically “Anglican” or “Puritan” and tries to define their differing attitudes to themselves as writers, and hence to their prose style. The “Anglicans” are Donne, Burton, Sir Thomas Browne, Traherne; the “Puritans” are Bunyan, Lilburne, Milton; and Richard Baxter is an “Anglican Puritan.” The attempt made to relate differences in style to deep levels of the personality where the “‘I” faces God and the cosmos through different religious traditions results in some valuable observations.

Joan Webber finds that the seventeenth-century “Anglican” is deeply concerned with man as a microcosm of the universe and hence with cultivating a “cosmic personality.” She has no difficulty in finding striking passages in support of this thesis in Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, in Browne’s Religio Medici, and in Traherne’s Centuries. The Anglican “I,” she argues, is wrapped in this contemplative cosmic awareness, which it expresses through elaborate imagery. The Puritan, on the contrary, sees himself not as here and now related to the eternal and the divine, but as journeying through time to eternity. This gives a practical urgency to his awareness of himself and a certain combativeness to his prose style. Milton’s prose controversies are, of course, taken as typical of the Puritan “I” as a writer, while the chapter on Donne and Bunyan attempts, through contrasting the totally different styles of these writers, to elucidate the basic differences which the book aims to bring out.

This book has a certain value as an attempt at tackling a very important problem, the inner, deep-seated changes in the psyche during the early seventeenth century, the vital period for the emergence of modern European and American man. Its best observation is the emphasis on “Puritan” shift, from “Anglican” cosmic consciousness to a “progressive” attitude toward the religious life, and hence to the emergence of a different kind of “I.” The book’s drawbacks are the arbitrary classification of the writers studied and a good deal of ignorance of the backgrounds of thought on which they drew. It seems curious, for example, to write a chapter on Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy without once mentioning the Renaissance revaluation of the melancholy humor (which could well have been worked out according to the “I” theme) and the chapter on Sir Thomas Browne is also very unsatisfactory. The book’s rigid classifications do not work for such a mind as Browne’s whose whole effort was toward the avoidance of rigidity.

The general reflections which arise in my mind after reading these two books are about the enormous influence on contemporary academic thought and writing of the concept of “English Literature.” Theses and books have to be designed to meet the requirements of boards of studies in English or for the consumption of students taking English courses or degrees. Brian Vickers’s book is impeccable from the English Literature point of view; it is designed to draw attention to Bacon as a “great prose writer” through careful examination of the rhetorical devices that he used. But when he draws near to the things that interested Bacon, and that made him want to write persuasive prose, Vickers as a “literary student” must “draw back.” Though Joan Webber is less afraid of being unliterary and tackles larger issues, she too is conditioned by literature, for her book has to be about the emergence of different prose styles, or rather with style as the expression of the “I.” This ever-present preoccupation distorts even her good ideas and observations and frequently leads her into painful insensitivity, particularly noticeable in the chapter on Traherne. This vitally important period, the early seventeenth century, has an abundant literature devoted to its literature, the authors of which are often interested in non-literary topics. But they have to approach these topics mainly through the study of the literary texts, which are then supported by some “background” reading in the history of religion, philosophy, or science.

It seems to me that this results in a perpetual situation of putting the cart before the horse. The actual deep-seated movements of the period, which influenced the psychic and psychological changes underlying the emergence of the seventeenth century from the Renaissance, are little understood. Surely one should begin with these before coming to their expression in literature. Literary students suffer from insufficient knowledge of these movements. Histories of religious affiliations in England, with their sharp differentiations between Protestant and Catholic, or between Puritan and Anglican, will not account for some of the phenomena glimpsed behind the literary texts.

For example, why should seventeenth-century “Anglican” prose writers dwell on “cosmic consciousness,” on man as microcosm? Should we not ask where in the period this philosophy was expressed as philosophy, and not as literature? There is no mention in Joan Webber’s book of the great exponent of macrocosm and microcosm in seventeenth-century England, Robert Fludd; he did not write in English, does not figure as a literary person; therefore English Literature passes him by. The type of cosmic consciousness expressed by the Anglican writers was not a medieval survival but a new Renaissance development of medieval tradition. Francis Bacon knew this when he complained that the ancient opinion that man is a microcosm “hath been fantastically strained by Paracelsus and the alchemists.’ Writers like Donne or Browne were Renaissance writers, aware of Renaissance trends from which the literary student must not draw back.

It is, I think, impossible to understand Traherne’s writing without some knowledge of the Hermetic tradition by which he was obviously influenced, particularly in his religious and mystical aim of reflecting the universe within. He is also probably aware of Renaissance adaptations of the art of memory for this purpose. The “inner iconoclasm,” through which Puritan Ramists attempted to destroy as idolatrous the formation of inner images, should be a basic consideration in any attempt to define the Puritan mentality.

The Puritan-Anglican antithesis itself is in need of new historical evaluation. Too little is known of what Friedrich Heer has called “Die dritte Kraft,” the third, or middle, way of reconciliation or toleration pursued in this period of mystical secret societies, by “politiques,” and by liberal and inquiring individuals, through which some of the most profound and fruitful tendencies of the age seem to pass undisturbed from one confessional camp to another.

Philip Sidney is a key figure here; he wore a Puritan label but probably had other mysterious affiliations, and certainly overlaps in his style with what Miss Webber would call “Anglican.” A concept like Utopia is labeled Puritan by Miss Webber, because of the Utopian planning of the Puritan mind under the Commonwealth. Yet the first Utopia was written by a Catholic, Thomas More; others are by the heretical Catholic, Campanella, and by the “Rosicrucian,” Valentin Andreae, not to mention Francis Bacon (to whom Miss Webber omits to apply her rules of thumb). In plotting the course of the history of Utopia one crosses and recrosses the conventional religious frontiers. And indeed the crossing of such frontiers was actually the aim of Utopians.

Literature is important; the history of literary style is important. My argument is only that seventeenth-century English literature reflects deep-seated movements of the human spirit, and that a renewed, or quite new, study of these movements is needed before we can understand the literature. The critical school, to which Brian Vickers perhaps partially belongs, will of course maintain that literary texts should be studied in a vacuum. But if any kind of historical interpretation is brought in, the history should precede the interpretation, the horse should come before the cart.

I would also like to enter a protest against the use of literary jargon, of which the authors of both books under review are guilty, though their kinds of jargon are different. I will illustrate this by an anecdote from Richard Baxter’s autobiography—one of a list of several stories about his providential escapes from danger—which Miss Webber uses as a basis for stylistic analysis, taking it as an example of Baxter’s insistence on literal detail. She quotes the anecdote as follows:

Another time, as I sat in my Study, the Weight of my greatest Folio Books brake down three or four of the highest Shelves, when I sat Close under them, and they fell down on every side of me, save one upon the Army; whereas the Place, the Weight, and greatness of the Books was such, and my head just under them, that it was a Wonder they had not beaten out my Brains, one of the Shelves right over my head having the six Volumes of Dr. Walton’s Oriental Bible, and all Austin’s Works, and the Bibliotheca Patrum, and Marlorate, &c.

This story impressed me and I looked up at the shelves in my own study rather nervously. It also puzzled me. Why did this scholarly divine possess a book on “the Army” and why did he refer to it in this inaccurate way when he is so much more particular about the other large tomes which featured in this disaster? Also, what did actually happen? My impression was that the book on the army was the only one which did not fall, while the oriental Bible, Augustine, and the Fathers crashed all around him. But Miss Webber’s interpretation is different; she comments facetiously on “the fact that Baxter was struck by a book on the army, but not by the Fathers of the Church. God’s Providence is altogether excessive.” She uses this story as a peg upon which to hang a specimen of English Literature jargon.

One may usefully compare the “metaphysical” effort, in a writer like Donne, to force an abstraction into a confining and very specific figure of speech: the conflict between the two, when the figure is successful, creates that dazzling union of humor, passion, and intensity that is called metaphysical wit. Here the effort is to graft a rigid concept of history upon a very literal, detailed rendering of individual experience in order to prove the working of God’s providence upon Richard Baxter.

This does not help about the book on the army so I looked up the reference in Baxter where I found that what he actually says is that the books fell down “on every side of me, save one upon the Arm.” So that was it. All the books fell and missed him save one which gave him a bang on the arm. Why dilate on Baxter’s attention to literal detail then destroy his story by misquoting its literal detail? And then obliterate the mangled story in clouds of jargon?

Good old Richard Baxter, the Puritan! I went on reading his book and found its dignified lucidity an immense relief. “His Soul,” he says, “everyday open to the Evidence: His eye was first upon the Matter to find that out: he then considered Words as the fit Portraictures of Things and…was ever careful to give Expressions their strict and just interpretations, and to be clear about the fixed sense of doubtful terms.”

If one cannot be a poet who fuses words and things, perhaps one should try for precision, like Baxter. Jargon is neither poetic nor precise. Sometimes one wishes that the old Puritan sense of the ethical importance of accuracy and plain speaking could be revived to protect English prose style.

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