Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by William S. MCormick
James VI. and I. (15661625)
[James VI. of Scotland and I. of England was born in 1566, and died in 1625. From his fourth till at least his twelfth year James was educated at Stirling Castle with several youths of noble family, under the care of George Buchanan and Peter Young. He was naturally clever, and made rapid progress in his studies, which included Latin, Greek, French, history, logic, and rhetoric. We are told by Killigrew that at the age of ten he translated a chapter of the Bible from Latin into French, and from French into English, extempore; and James Melville, speaking of a visit he paid the King, says, that it was the sweetest sight in Europe that day for strange and extraordinary gifts of ingine, judgment, memory, and language. At twelve years of age he had nominally to take the government into his own hands. His tender age was, as his tutor laments, engrossed by the attentions of flatterers, and distracted by the fechting and flyting of those whom Melville terms bot factious, fasschious, ambitious, greedy, vengeable, warldly, wretchit creatours. Jamess juvenile production, Essays of a Prentice in the Divine Art of Poetry (1584), was probably written as themes for his tutors. Two Meditations on the Revelations (158889) are indicative of his theological bent. Demonology (1597), Basilikon Doron (1599), and A Counterblast to Tobacco (1604), are his best known essays. The remainder, and much the larger portion, of his writings deals with political and theological questions, which have for their centre his cherished tenet of the divine right of kings. The most important of these are The True Law of Free Monarchy (1603), An Apology for the Oath of Allegiance (1607), and A Defence of the Right of Kings (1615). The Bishop of Winton published in 1616 an edition of his prose works, which included his speeches and some occasional tracts.]
IT is usual to introduce James I. among the writers of his reign with an apology; and it is commonly, and perhaps justly, held that his works would long ago have been forgotten, had they not been written by a monarch. Yet there is another side to this; for it is none the less true that his name as an author has suffered from his notoriety as a king. In spite of the somewhat more favourable estimate of later historians, such as Gardiner and Ranke, James I. retains an unenviable reputation. His position, moreover, has given an undue prominence to certain weaknesses characteristic of his time. The belief in witchcraft which he shows in his Demonology, and the pedantry of his disquisitions against Bellarmine and Vorstius, in which, according to his first editor, his Majesty fought with beasts at Ephesus, and stopped the roaring of the Bull, were an inheritance shared by most of his contemporaries. To charge him with these faults is merely to say that he was not greater than his age. Yet, though James was a scholar and writer of at least more than average talent and attainments, it has to be admitted that under no circumstances could he have taken high rank in literature. His prosaic and pragmatical nature was too rocky a soil for even Buchanan to cultivate to any purpose. Without genuine spontaneity of emotion, originality of thought, or expanse of outlook, his mind, as has been said, was essentially of that type which knowledge neither broadens nor enriches. The charge of pedantry is in this sense valid against all his writings. But from its more aggressive form of ostentation of learning and irrelevant quotation they are moderately free. The margin of Basilikon Doron teems with references to Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, Cicero, and the Bible; but they do not, as a rule, burden the text. And in such treatises as A Defence of the Right of Kings an exhibition of learning was unavoidable; for he was attacking the parade of learning by his opponents. If tediously scholastic, their scholarship is thorough, and their logic so far sound. His errors, like those of his age, lay latent in his premises.
The Basilikon Doron is Jamess most readable production; containing some good sense, shrewd advice, and worldly wisdom. But unfortunately the reader cannot avoid estimating these in the light of Jamess after conduct. He is reminded of Polonius. When the writer of Demonology warns his son against the evils of superstition, or the patron of Carr and Villiers denounces that filthy vice of flattery, the pest of all princes, and urges upon his son the choice of his counsellors from the wisest among the born-men of each country, if God provide you with more countries than this, the reader is almost justified in taking in his own way the Kings assurance to his Parliament of 1609: In faith, you never had a more painful King.
Jamess compositions have none of the subtler qualities of literary excellence. The construction of his sentences is usually correct and careful, his expressions and metaphors are often pointed and forcible, but he rarely attempts any flight of rhetoric; and when he does, he is rarely successful. The only subject on which he approaches to dignity of style is that in which alone he seems to have had an absolutely sincere convictionthe divinity of kingship. It becometh a King, he was in the habit of reminding his Commons, to use no other eloquence than plainness and sincerity. He held, that which we call wit consists much in quickness and tricks, and is so full of lightness that it seldom goes with judgment and solidity. It was to the latter qualities that James laid claim in his works. Though he seems in conversation to have been addicted to punning, in his Basilikon Doron he but once falls into the fashionable word-play of his age, when he reminds his son that he is born to onus, rather than honos. There is almost no trace of the far-fetched conceits and antitheses of his contemporaries; for these his mind was probably too heavy, his nature too phlegmatic. He jokes after a lumbering fashionwith difficulty. His cast of thought is seen in the artificial division under heads, with which he opens and arranges every essay: a habit so ingrained, that in his speech after the Gunpowder Plot, he has under his first head a subdivision to consider the three ways how mankind may come to death: The first, by other men and reasonable creatures, which is least cruel; the second way more cruel than that, by animal and unreasoning creatures; the third, which is most cruel and unmerciful of all, the destruction by insensible and inanimate things; and amongst them all, the most cruel are the two elements of water and fire; and of those two the fire most raging and merciless. Yet amid the diffuse formalism of his scholastic and theological argumentation, there is frequently a pithy saying or apt allusion, which recalls the best of Overburys Crumbs fallen from King Jamess Table. If these are authentic notes, it is unfortunate that, in his case as in that of many others, he did not write as he spoke.
Pedant as he was, James refused to follow the practice of writing in Latin, which was kept up among scholars of even later times. This is the one point in which he wisely departed from the example of his master. With the exception of his youthful essay on poetry in the Scots dialect, James wrote in English; but he continued, consciously or not, to make frequent use of Scots words. These are especially noticeable in his works before he became king of England: in his later writings they are more occasional. Had James succeeded in originating a movement whereby the English vocabulary could have been enriched by Scots words, he would have done English literature a permanent service. But, though he was not great enough to take any new departure, it must not be forgotten that he was the most learned of our monarchs.