Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Sir Thomas Urquhart (16111660)
[Sir Thomas Urquhart (or as he spelt it himself Urchard) is supposed to have been born about the year 1605. His family, the Urquharts of Cromarty, was an exceedingly ancient one, and he himself traced a complete genealogy to Adam; but, as one of his editors observes with admirable moderation, some of the entries are undoubtedly fictitious. His mother was Christiana, daughter of Lord Elphinstone, and she figures last in the list which Eve heads; nor is it improbable that Urquhart had her name partly in mind when he signed as he sometimes did C. P. (Christianus Presbyteromastix). Little is known of his youth except that he had ample means and travelled a good deal. When the troubles approached he, a strong cavalier, took part in the demonstration called the Trot of Turriff (1639), and was knighted by the King in 1641. Thenceforward he had difficulties with creditors and covenanters, was proclaimed a traitor at the Cross of Edinburgh, fought at Worcester and elsewhere, survived till the Restoration, and is said to have died of excessive laughter and joy at hearing thereof. He is best known to the present generation by his partial translation of Rabelais, published in 1653, where the extraordinary style which he had fostered and practised earlier in his own work harmonises so well with the subject as almost to create a second original. His own compositions are of the wildest eccentricity, but possess considerable interest. They begin with a mathematical work called Trissotetras, a title which is but a mild specimen of the singular Greek compounds which Urquhart borrowed or, much more often, invented for the titles, sub-titles, and details of all his books. Others are Pantochronocanon or the Promptuary of Time: Ekscubalauron, a treatise nominally on a jewel picked out of the dirt at Worcester; Logopandecteision, a scheme of an universal language. All are a strange medley of learning, whimsicality, family pride, and egotistical prattle, couched in a style which is something like Euphuism crossed and dashed with the most liberal borrowings from classical and modern tongues alike, especially French. They are unluckily accessible with great difficulty, the only modern and complete edition being the handsome one privately printed for the Maitland Club in 1834.]
SIR THOMAS URQUHART is one of those personagesproportionally rather numerous during the seventeenth century, and certainly more numerous then than at any other timewho seem to be characters of fiction strayed into the world of fact. That Sir Walter Scott, who must have known all about him, did not put him into one of his books is chiefly to be taken as a proof of Scotts shrewd judgment, for Urquhart was complete already as presented by himself. Indeed Sir Walter may be said to have decomposed him: and flashes of Urquhart appear in Dugald Dalgetty, in the Baron of Bradwardine, in King James, and elsewhere. That is to say, Sir Thomas was an exaggeratedly typical example of a certain class of Scottish gentleman of his timelearned to pedantry, original to the verge of madness, proud as a peacock, brave and faithful as steel. The extracts which follow will show him better than any description in short space can do, though not so well, perhaps, as a very large number of scraps sifted and arranged from his extraordinary works. His most famous, and perhaps his best single passage is his long account of the Admirable Crichton, who seems to represent his own idealan account on which most subsequent writers who have depicted that half-mythical personage have drawn. But it is much too long for insertion here as a whole, and would be injured by curtailment. The shorter sketch of Dr. Seaton here given, and the introduction to one of the books of Logopandecteision will probably suffice to exhibit, as well as can be done, the strange jumble of his matter, the lawless freedom of his vocabulary, and the way in which any subject, even the most remote, is brought somehow or other round to the interests and fortunes of the Urquhart family in general, and to those of C. P. in particular. It may be suspected that Urquhart, like some others whose naturally fantastic brains were superheated by those troublous times, was not entirely sane. But his learning, or at least his reading, was thoroughly genuine: the Trissotetras is not unworthy of a countryman and contemporary of Napier, and the Logopandecteision in the midst of its exuberant oddities displays acuteness enough. In language Urquhart is merely an extreme example of the deliberately extravagant quaintness which characterised his time, but it must be admitted that he is one of the most extreme, and that it would be nearly impossible to go beyond him. How far the study of Rabelais, and perhaps of other French writers of the same school encouraged his natural tendencies, and how far these tendencies inclined him to the study of Rabelais, are questions which in the absence of data it is not very profitable to discuss. But he is certainly one of our greatest translators, despite the liberties which he sometimes takes with his text.