Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by William Minto
Francis Bacon (15611626)
[Francis Bacon, son of Queen Elizabeths Lord Keeper, Sir Nicholas Bacon, and nephew of her Treasurer, Lord Burghley, was born on the 22d January 1561. In his twelfth year he was sent to Cambridge, in his sixteenth he was admitted to Grays Inn, and went to complete his education by a three years residence with Sir Amyas Paulet, the English Ambassador in France. He naturally looked to public life, having been saluted in his boyhood by the Queen as her young Lord Keeper; but his advancement, in spite of urgent solicitation on his part, was slow, probably owing to the jealousy or the distrust of his powerful relatives. His first employment of State was as Queens Counsel in the trial of Essex in 1601, his conduct in which has been much discussed. It was an embarrassing position for him in consequence of his previous relations with that nobleman. Under James, at first, there was little improvement in his fortunes, but he became Solicitor-General in 1607, and his foot once on the ladder, he kept it there till he reached the top, being charged with the Great Seal in 1617. He was dismissed from this high office in 1621, upon impeachments which have since been the subject of prolonged and keen controversy, and spent the rest of his life in retirement. His literary and philosophic works were the occupation of his leisure, voluntary and enforced. The first edition of his Essays, numbering ten only, appeared in 1597; these were enlarged, and the number increased in successive editions (1612, 1625) to fifty-eight. The Advancement of Learning was issued in 1605; the Novum Organum in 1620. The History of Henry VII. was his first work after his fall; the New Atlantis was written about the same time; the Sylva Sylvarum was his last occupation. He died on the 9th April 1626.]
ANY attempt at analysing Bacons style convinces us of the futility of trying to separate matter and manner, if by matter we understand more than the mere subject of discourse. The charm of Bacons writings lies in his wit, in the broad old sense of the word, in which it means intellect as well as expression. The sagacity of the underlying thought on which we rest when we apprehend the meaning of his words is as potent an element in our impression of delight as the aptness of the phrase and the ingenuity of the allusion. It is the style, as including both matter and manner, that is the man. To read him, is to put ourselves in invigorating contact with an intellect of the utmost keenness and force, steadily centred but wide in its scope and alive at every point with a buoyant and intense vitality.
Taking style in the narrower sense of expression, but still as including both diction and method, we find that Bacon had more than one style. Essentially a man of calculation and contrivance, he adapted his style to his purposes. His Essays have always been, as he himself says they were in his own time, the most current of his works. In substance the very quintessence of the worldly wisdom of his age, they have been most influential in the history of English prose. They have fixed the form of one of our chief kinds of prose writingthe essay. The Essays are sometimes spoken of as if they were models of good prose for all purposes; but this, as Bacon himself would have been the first to discern, is an indiscriminate praise that is virtually a detraction, inasmuch as it obscures the adaptation of the expression to the design. We miss in them the luminous sequence that we find in his exposition of more definite themes, the close coherence that made Ben Jonson say of his speeches that his hearers could not cough or look aside without loss. The Essays are, as he said himself, dispersed meditations, detached thoughts on such topics as Studies, Friendship, Ambition, Cunning, Praise, written down as they occurred, without any other connection than their general relevance to the topic. In the original edition of ten, this was indicated by prefixing to each separate meditation the now obsolete mark ¶. Mr. Arbers careful Harmony of the various editions printed in parallel columns shows how he added to these reflections and illustrated them here and there by happy anecdotes and quotations at each revision. It was a natural incident of this dispersed way of writing that the expression of each thought should have a felicity of its own, independent of its relation to the others; and the author did not mar this by trying to force them into a sequence such as they might have had if one had risen out of another in a continuous stretch of thought. If we forget this, we are apt to do another injustice to Bacon, and to suspect him of a wilful and artful contravention of one of his own precepts. In a passage which we quote from the Advancement of Learning, he deprecates hunting more after words than matter, and after the choiceness of the phrase and the illustration of the work with tropes and figures, rather than weight of matter, width of subject, and depth of judgment. The words and the matter are certainly well matched in Bacons Essays, but, as we can well suppose that it was the casual occurrence of a happy phrase or an apposite figure that moved him to take out his tablets and set his thoughts down, so it is really the choiceness of phrase and figure that has kept his wisdom from perishing. In weight of matter, and depth of judgment, Burghleys Precepts to his Son are at least equal to Bacons Counsels, Civil and Moral; without the saving grace of wit in expression, Bacons wisdom might have sunk like his kinsmans. And yet he could easily have defended himself from a charge of not recking his own rede against hunting more after words than matter. These Essays are really not so much set compositions as collections of thoughts that have happily shaped themselves in epigrammatic and ornate phrase, that have flowered, as it were, spontaneously. Their diction has much in common with Lylys Euphuism, which was the literary fashion of his youth, only there is more body in Bacons epigrams, and his similitudes, while often equally far-fetched, are not so unscrupulously fantastic and flimsy. Bacon is distinguished on the one hand from Lyly by his incomparably greater weight of matter and depth of judgment, just as he is distinguished on the other from Burghley by his being an artist in choiceness of phrase. How dearly Bacon loved a brilliant phrase or an ingenious conceit, in spite of his protest against hunting after words, is seen by the care with which he gathered and stored in his Essays any flower of speech that incidentally came to him. In reading his State papers and private letters we often encounter felicities which have been thus carefully garnered.
But it would be a mistake to suppose that the style of the Essays is Bacons only style. For the reasons we have indicated, this is much more thickly ornamented, much more alive with epigram and ingenious fancy, and much more inconsecutive than when he wrote with a definite end in view. In his Advancement of Learning, where he maps out and describes the provinces of knowledge, in his State papers, where he has a policy to recommend, and in his pleadings, where he has a complicated case to present for judgment, what principally strikes us is the compact grouping of details and the luminous order of the whole. It is when we read these works of his that we understand the full force of Ben Jonsons famous eulogium. He was full of gravity in his speaking. His language, when he could spare or pass by a jest, was nobly censorious. No man ever spoke more neatly, more prestly, more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness in what he uttered. No member of his speech but consisted of his own graces. His hearers could not cough or look aside from him without loss. He commanded when he spoke, and had his judges angry and pleased at his devotion. No man had their affections more in his power. The fear of every man that heard him was lest he should make an end. A good way of appreciating the different styles that this wonderful wit had at command for different purposes is to compare his essay, Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates, with the paper, Of the True Greatness of the Kingdom of Britain, which he presented to King James at his accession.
If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, Bacon says in the essay Of Studies, let him study the Schoolmen. In his own set expositions he defines, divides, and subdivides with all the formal precision of a Schoolman, but his strong, ever-present sense of the necessity of keeping to a point saves him from becoming tedious. Thus his influence on expository prose told in the direction of what Jonson calls neatness and prestness, and against superfluous finicking and irrelevant disquisition. And always anxious as he was to drive a clear impression home, his prose is much less involved in structure than that of many of his contemporaries. He does not, like Hooker, pile clause on clause; he shows a much sounder judgment of what a reader can take in without confusion. He does not seem to have had Hookers ear for the music of long periods, which often betrayed the great churchman into intricacy of syntax. Thus, on the whole, Bacons prose helped the tendency to avoid cumbrous and involved structure, the tendency that was finally confirmed by Dryden.