Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1554–1628)
[Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, was the son of Sir Fulke Greville of Beauchamp Hall, Warwickshire, and his immediate ancestry connected him with the houses of Beauchamp, Neville, and Willoughby. He was born in 1554, and educated at Shrewsbury School (with Sir Philip Sidney whose friend he was till death). He then, it would seem, went to Jesus College, Cambridge, not, as was formerly thought, to Trinity. He was afterwards admitted a Master of Arts at Oxford, and may have been in even a fuller sense utriusque academiæ, as so many men were then. He shared Sidney’s court favour, and standing—with the usual vicissitudes—high in Elizabeth’s good graces, was appointed to valuable offices in Wales. He had also lavish grants in Warwickshire, was knighted in 1597, sat pretty constantly in Parliament for his native county, and founded a historical lectureship, the lapse of which is unexplained, at Cambridge. For some time after Elizabeth’s death (though it was at James’s coronation that he received Warwick Castle, the most memorable of royal bounties to him) he lived in retirement. He emerged therefrom and became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1614, and was, in 1620, raised to the peerage as Lord Brooke of Beauchamp, with remainder, as he was not married, to a cousin. In his old age Sir William Davenant was a member of his household. His end was strange and tragic, it being asserted that he was stabbed in the back by an old servant named Heywood, who was enraged at not finding himself named in his master’s will. This happened in Brooke House, Holborn, on the first or thirtieth of September 1628. The story seems to have been somewhat hushed up, and there is evidence (of no very trustworthy character) that Brooke was not personally popular. His extremely remarkable poems do not form part of our subject. They were, with a few insignificant exceptions, not published till after his death, and his prose appeared still later. The first complete edition of his works was that of Dr. Grosart, privately printed, 4 vols, 1870.]  1
AN unseasonable wit, yet one not wholly alien from the Elizabethan spirit, might say that before discussing Fulke Greville as a prose writer, it ought to be settled whether the subject is limited to his writings in prose. Certain it is that much of his singular work in verse—poems of monarchy, treatises on religion, tracts on human learning and what not—is by subject always, and by treatment sometimes, rather prosaic, despite the extraordinary flashes, the black lightning, as it has been fancifully called, of poetry with which Lord Brooke everywhere illuminates his subjects. But his actual work in prose, though not extensive, is interesting enough. Of the four pieces of which it nominally consists, one, the letter to Greville Varney, is brief and (as far as it was possible for Greville ever to be so) common-place: another, the “short speech for Bacon,” is a mere fragment. The remaining two, the so-called “Life of Sir Philip Sidney,” and the “Letter to an Honourable Lady,” are of infinitely more importance. The surprising nature of the contents of the first is sufficiently accounted for when it is remembered that Greville neither called it by its present title, nor regarded it as any such thing. It was avowedly meant as an autobiographic preface to his own works, in which he endeavoured to illustrate what later phrase-mongers would call his soul-history by elaborate panegyric of Sir Philip Sidney and Queen Elizabeth, the two persons who had exercised most influence on his character and career. As for the “Letter to an Honourable Lady,” I am absolutely unable to perceive the slightest ground for identifying the lady with Penelope Devereux, as Dr. Grosart and others have done. Scarcely one single point of the problem which Greville outlines—the falling out of a married pair who had married for love and had become sundered by the preference of the husband for a mistress—agrees with what we know of the relations of Lord and Lady Rich, while the general picture of husband and wife given here is as unlike as possible to what is known both of “Stella” and her husband. But here again the ostensible subject of the “Letter” (which it seems was a mere literary exercise and was never sent) is but distantly related to its actual contents. These consist of divers cogitations on love-marriage, now, as is Greville’s wont, of an astonishing profundity and suggestiveness, now, as is too often the case with him, pervaded by an obscurity which affects equally the drift of particular passages and the connection of those passages one with the other.  2
  Brief as these two books or pieces are (for they do not together fill three hundred pages, each of which has not half the capacity of this present) they are among the most remarkable minor works in Elizabethan prose: and they may perhaps be said to exhibit the chief characteristics of that prose in such a way as to escape altogether the reproach of minority. Here are the special defects of the time—the want of fluency and ease natural to a language which was hardly yet out of leading-strings, but endeavouring at independence, the apparent pedantry, the unusual use of words, the inexpert arrangement of sentences and clauses, the obscurity which comes, not of imperfect but of over elaborate and pregnant thought. Here also are the noble and profound reflections, the views of life which consider its miseries steadily and yet not unhopefully, the high and chivalrous fancy, the conception at once of duty and of romance, the full and sonorous style, the apt presentation of objective fact, the constant flashes of illustration by happy and unexpected use of word and phrase. Let not any one be so rash as to assert that the seventeenth century had nearly to pass before cadence was introduced into English prose, while he is still ignorant of the beautiful close of the last extract given below. Let no one reproach Greville with being too allegorical and figurative, when he finds allegory and figure put to such use as this, “Dotage is an inscrutable depth, it sets seals to blanks, makes contradictories true, and sees all things in the superlative degree. In short it is a prospect into the land of Ignorance which, they say, no man can describe but he that is past it.” Or this, “He is by laws above you: the words of your contract obedience, of his love; the revenue his, Liberty his friend, Honour scarce indifferent, Fame against you, protesting ever on the side of strength not right.” These brief books are full of equally vivid things, from the few strong touches which describe the Prince of Orange to such a single phrase as “casting a grey-headed cloud of fear over them.” Nor perhaps is it easy to find in all that generation of high-thinking and brilliantly-writing men any one who combines vivid expression with weighty thought more notably than Brooke does.  3
  Against this there is, no doubt, to be set a double portion of the great literary vice of the time, the want of clearness and simplicity. I know that some people think Brooke’s obscurity exaggerated; and it is no doubt a rather subtle temptation to assert clearness in what others find obscure. But I do not feel disposed to pay any such compliment to my own acuteness in this case. Indirectness of speech can hardly go further than in the case of Greville’s accounts of Sidney’s quarrel with Lord Oxford, and of his dealings with Sir Francis Drake—indeed, from these accounts by themselves, it is almost impossible to discover what actually happened. Not a few passages in the encomium of Elizabeth are so involved and periphrastic that a hasty reader might set them down as mere galimatias, and it is really surprising that no Shakespearian commentator has detected (perhaps some one has) in Greville the original of Polonius. In him appears the beginning of that strange inability to construct and confine oneself to a simple sentence which, not apparent at all in much earlier work, seems to have come upon Englishmen in the reign of Elizabeth, and from which they hardly got free till the reign of William the Third. Whether these defects of manner prove efficient stumbling-blocks in the way of those who would come at the matter will depend very much, if not entirely, on the mental temper of each reader. But hardly any one who surmounts them will, I think, quarrel with Brooke’s thought as poor, or deny that his style, however stiff and cumbrous, is costly in substance and magnificent in ornament.  4

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