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learning, and reach the heart of his book, we see that it is the verdict on human life pronounced by a man who had known life well. Shut out at last from an active share in the world's doings, Raleigh, the courtier, the statesman, the colonist, the freebooter, the explorer, the poet, the philosopher, sits down at last in quiet, and asks what does this world mean, and what is its worth. The book, useless or ridiculous as history, is memorable as the personal revelation of a restless and splendid personality. It has the deep religious feeling and the deep melancholy of the English nation: it begins with a noble apostrophe to God,“ The Almighty Mover,” who “has been pleased to make himself known by the work of the world, and it ends with that passage on the emptiness of earthly ambitions, that tribute to Death the Conqueror, which is one of the glories of English prose: “O eloquent, just, and mighty Death! whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded; what none hath dared, thou hast done; and whom all the world hath flattered, thou only hast cast out of the world and despised. Thou hast drawn together all the far-stretched greatness, all the pride, cruelty, and ambition of man, and covered it all over with these two narrow words, Hic jacet!”
In such passages, and others which fall but little short of this high level, we see how in the seventeenth century the passion and poetry of the Elizabethans shone out through the less transparent medium of prose.
Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667), called by Coleridge the “most eloquent of English divines," was one of the greatest masters of this poetic, or impassioned prose. Read, for instance, this passage on the shortness of man's life, and see how he invests a familiar comparison with freshness and beauty, creating out of old materials
a prose-poem not unworthy to stand beside many a familiar lyric on the same theme. “ But so have I seen a rose newly springing from the clefts of its hood, and, at first, it was fair as the morning, and full with the dew of heaven, as a lamb's fleece; but when a ruder breath had forced open its virgin modesty, and dismantled its too youthful and unripe retirements, it began to put on darkness, and to decline to softness and the symptoms of a sickly age; it bowed the head and broke its stalk; and, at night, having lost some of its leaves and all its beauty, it fell into the portion of weeds and outworn faces. The same is the portion of every man and every woman.”
Sir Thomas Browne. -- There was also a quaint scholastic air in some of the seventeenth-century prosewriters, analogous to the extravagances of Donne or his followers in verse. This musty flavor of old learning permeates the fascinating style of SIR THOMAS BROWNE (1605–1682). It is the style of an old-time scholar, full of recondite allusions and fragments from the classics, but it mounts into the loftier regions of poetry and imagination. Browne was a busy and learned physician, who, after taking his degree abroad, settled down at Norwich in 1637, to the practice of his profession. He loved to investigate the odd and the mysterious, and delighted in curious speculations. He was a scientist, but he was above all a poet and a mystic. In his first book, Religio Medici (1642–1643) or Religion of a Physician, Browne considers the difficulties and doubts that confront one in accepting the teachings of the Bible, and shows that his faith is great enough to overcome them all. He loses himself in the contemplation of God, and in his “solitary and retired imaginations” he remembers that he is not alone. Like Vaughan he finds a divine spark
in his own nature: “ There is surely a piece of divinity in us - something that was before the heavens and owes no homage unto the sun.” This mystical exaltation is united with a quiet, contemplative melancholy. He surveys the world as from a height; he sees the past in a long retrospect, and he speculates upon the endless procession of generations. He meditates on death and on the life after death, and even the burial rites of various nations and the visible signs of mortality have an interest for him. The discovery of some ancient sepulchral urns containing human bones, in a field in Norfolk, stirs his imagination, and furnishes him with a theme for his Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial, one of the most eloquent and characteristic of his works. The thought of "these dead bones" hid a yard underground in their “thin walls of clay,” and quietly resting “under the drums and tramplings of three conquests,” is the inspiration of one of the noblest passages of English prose. The Urn Burial was published in 1658, the year of the death of Oliver Cromwell. But if from one aspect Browne seems remote and withdrawn from the agitations of his time, from another he is as truly the spokesman of its lofty spirituality and melancholy contemplation. He wrote when the vigorous, mundane activity of the Elizabethan era had been succeeded by a more mature and meditative mood. This solemn tone, like the stillness of an autumn twilight after a day of action, pervades some of the noblest spirits of his age. It was in Raleigh when he wrote his History of the World; it was in Donne, when, after his fevered and passionate youth, he preached and meditated on death and the hereafter. Indeed, there are passages in Donne's sermons which might well have been written by Browne.
Isaak Walton (1593–1683), a London linen-draper, found in country scenes and by the borders of a quiet stream, inspiration of a widely different character. Walton's quiet, unworldly mood, his simple pleasure in Nature and in country sports, shine through his books and make him one of the most restful and companionable of writers. His Lives, short, sympathetic sketches of Donne, Hooker, Herbert, and other notable men, are in many respects models of brief biography. His Complete Angler (1653) is the first of a long series of charming books in English literature written in praise of the quiet sport of fishing. It is a wholesome book, full of wise thoughts and innocent enjoyment, and has long held a secure place among the masterpieces of English prose.
Milton as a Prose Writer. Finally, we must not forget that Milton, whose work has been already considered, holds one of the highest places among the prose-writers of this time. Milton's prose works deal mostly with the theological and political controversies of his day. They were addressed primarily to the men of his own generation; written to gain some immediate end. Yet in some of his prose there is permanent interest and power.
He waged battle for freedom of thought in Church and State, and declared that “while he who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, he who destroys a good book kills reason itself.” Milton's greatness, his passion for truth and liberty, his comprehensive scholarship, his sonorous, majestic, and musical style, his instinct for the memorable phrase, triumph over anything that is temporary in his subject and purpose, and make a work addressed to his own age the delight and admiration of later times.
(1628–1688) “Was there ever yet anything written by mere man that was wished longer by its readers, excepting Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe and The Pilgrim's Progress?”. - Dr. SAMTEL JOHNSON.
Raleigh, Browne, Burton, Milton, and many other great prose-writers of the seventeenth century, were children of the Revival of Learning. It is true that they were imbued with the religious, serious, or meditative spirit prevalent in their own time, but they had been trained up and steeped in those classical studies which had come in with the Renaissance, and their works were the outcome of the new culture.
Bunyan's spiritual inheritance was a mighty but a restricted one. He “never went to school to Aristotle and Plato;" he had no share in that world of classical culture, of art and beauty, which had enriched the lives of so many of the greatest Elizabethans. He was not the child of the New Learning, but of the Reformation; the child of that long period of religious struggle and experience, which began when the plain, unliterary people of England--the shop-keepers, artisans, and plowmen could first read the Bible for themselves. Unlike Milton, Bunyan sprang from and belonged to the great mass of the people. His father was of “that rank which is meanest and most despised of all the families of the land.” It is the obscurity of his station, the commonplace character of his surroundings, that make him, more truly than the cultured Milton, the representative of the great body of Puritans, — of the earnest, simpleTuinded men and women who had no library but the
integritish Bible, and to whom religion was a vital and keinending reality.