Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
 
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Thomas Fuller (1608–1661)
 
[Thomas Fuller was born in the rectory of Aldwinkle St. Peter’s, Northamptonshire (the same village but not the same parish, and consequently not in the same house which saw the birth of Dryden some twenty years later), in 1608. His father was a prebendary of Salisbury, as well as rector of Aldwinkle; and, as his mother’s brother, Dr. Davenant, who was president of Queens’ College, Cambridge, afterwards became Bishop of the same diocese, he had more than one connection therewith. He was entered at his uncle’s college, and graduated there, but migrated to Sidney Sussex. He held a curacy in Cambridge, but as soon as he had taken priest’s orders, was presented by his uncle to a prebend in Salisbury, receiving a little later, 1634, the rectory of Broad Windsor, in Dorsetshire. He began to write early, attempting verse without any success; but when he published the first of his well-known books, The Holy War, he was thirty-one. Three years later, in 1642, he produced the still more characteristic Holy and Profane State, a book in which the whole Fuller appears in microcosm. He had before this removed to London, where he was preacher at the Savoy. When the Rebellion broke out he served as army chaplain at Basing, at Oxford, at Exeter, and peripatetically with Hopton’s army. During this time he wrote another of his best books, Good Thoughts in Bad Times (1645), which had sequels later. Considering the active part he had taken on the king’s side (though indeed it is said that extreme royalists thought him lukewarm), he was fortunate during the Commonwealth, for though he lost his country benefices, and could not remain at the Savoy, or in Eastcheap, where he preached for some time, he was appointed to and remained undisturbed in the curacy of Waltham Abbey. A Pisgah Sight of Palestine (1650), and his great Church History of Britain (1655), which brought him into controversy with Heylin, were the chief results of this time. The Restoration, when it came, restored him to his benefices, made him a royal chaplain extraordinary, and put him in a good way for a bishopric; but he died of fever on August 16, 1661, being only fifty-three. He had been married twice—once in quite early life, and again in 1651 to a daughter of Lord Baltinglass. His largest, if not his most important work, the Worthies of England, was published in an unfinished state a year after his death, by his son. His sermons were never collected till 1891, when an edition of them, which had been begun by Mr. J. E. Bailey, a lifelong student of Fuller and collector of books, relating to him, was completed and published by Mr. Axon of Manchester. There is no complete edition of his work; but a selection from the whole of it appeared under the editorship of Dr. Jessopp at the Clarendon Press, 1892.]  1
 
THE locus classicus of English criticism respecting Fuller has long been, and no doubt will long be, Coleridge’s marginal note, beginning “Wit was the stuff and substance of Fuller’s intellect.” It is not easy to speak or think too highly of the genius of Coleridge; but it is much easier to overvalue separate obiter dicta of his, especially dicta of the critical character. For he was as little given to co-ordinate and check his thoughts as to take any other sort of intellectual trouble, and the very genius which made him so often clothe those thoughts in memorable form, makes it necessary to be doubly careful in mistaking the form for the “stuff and substance.” His dictum on Fuller, however, has so far received general acceptance from competent persons that probably few critics would refuse to bracket Fuller with Sydney Smith as the wittiest of Englishmen. Some differences of the pair will be found further noticed in these volumes, on the later of them. Here, and as regards Fuller, it may be sufficient to note others. One of his latest editors, Dr. Jessopp, who has also made the comparison with Sydney Smith, has taken occasion, with all due apologies, to tone down, albeit carefully and without any direct antagonism or depreciation, the lofty eulogies which Coleridge and Lamb had bestowed on the author of the Worthies of England. It must have been an ungrateful, but was to some extent a necessary task. For excessive laudation has this drawback, that it constantly creates revulsion in readers who, not quite adjusted to the point of view, endeavour to take it at the bidding of their betters and fail. Such a result would be specially lamentable in Fuller’s case, because he is, taken rightly and enjoyed rightly, one of the most delectable of English authors. But it is very likely to happen when such a reader as has just been glanced at goes from extracts and specimens, still more from critical laudations, to his complete works. His two great contemporaries and analogues, Burton and Browne, have nothing to fear from any such process; Fuller perhaps has, and it may possibly be due to a sort of feeling of this that, though he has never wanted for fervent admirers, they seem always rather to have shrunk from paying him the greatest and the most necessary, if the most trying, honour that can be paid to an author by issuing a complete edition of his works. There are many curious contradictions in Fuller’s character, both personal and literary, and it is not impossible that the presence of them communicates to his personality and his literature the almost unmatched piquancy which both possess, and which have never failed to attract fit persons. A Puritan Cavalier (Dr. Jessopp calls him a Puritan, and though I should hardly go so far myself, there is no doubt that Fuller leaned far more to the extreme Protestant side than most of his comrades in loyalty), a man of the sincerest and most unaffected piety, who never could resist a joke, an early member of the exact or antiquarian school of historians, who was certainly not a very profound or wide scholar, and who constantly laid himself open to the animadversions of others by his defects in scholarship—Fuller is a most appetising bundle of contradictions. But his contradictions undoubtedly sometimes disgust; and perhaps even some almost insatiable lovers of “the humour of it” may occasionally think that he carries the humour of it too far.  2
  It is however his positive rather than his negative side with which we have chiefly to do. From this side Fuller may be described as having had an extraordinary loyalty to and affection for his native country, which led him to acquire the mass of information laid up in his Church History and Worthies; a sincere, though not a very erudite theology; and the above-mentioned wit, which, being the ruling characteristic of his nature, showed itself at all times and in all places. Its direct and immediate effects, if not always exactly suitable to time and place, are always delightful. The memorable anthology in quintessence of Fullerisms which Charles Lamb has collected might be very largely increased, and indeed the work of Dr. Jessopp, to which reference has been made, does so increase it. But though, as has been hinted, the reading of the great mass of Fuller’s work may induce a certain occasional revulsion, it may be doubted whether the full virtue of the Fullerian wit is perceptible till such reading has been undertaken. Only then can the mild wisdom, which hardly ever fails of mildness unless the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, be fully appreciated, and the vivid wit which accompanies it be fully comprehended. The singular fertility in conjoining strange societies of thought, which has generally been considered the essence of wit, is present everywhere, and always delightful. The imagination—or fancy, rather—which supplies Fuller with these conjunctions is not poetical, as it was in his nearer contemporary, Browne; it is not erudite and all-compelling, as in the case of his somewhat older contemporary, Burton. It is a little desultory, a very little “Philistine,” sometimes a little childish but it is always and everywhere delightful, and sometimes strangely stimulative and informing.  3
  The indirect literary effects of this peculiarity of Fuller’s on his style are noteworthy. For it can hardly be doubted that Fuller’s essential quality of thought, the quaint and perpetual bubbling up within him of odd jests, comparisons, and what not, had a good deal to do with his comparative freedom from the besetting sin of his time—the sin of long, complicated, overweighted sentences. Although a parenthesis or an additional clause will sometimes suffice for such spirts and fireworks of jest as those in which Fuller, be the subject sacred or profane, be the form of his utterance sermon, essay, history, or what not, must needs indulge, it will not always suffice for them; and there are many reasons for putting the jest in a sentence by itself, and so leaving the most serious part of the narrative or argument ostensibly uninterrupted. However this may be, it is certain that Fuller, his quaintness excepted, is one of the least antique or obsolete of mid-seventeenth-century writers. That he is one of the most agreeable and also one of the most instructive is the unanimous verdict of competent critics; and if some of those critics dwell most on their sense of pleasure, and others most on the limitations which they perceive in the giver of it, that is not a very serious difference. But it is impossible not to express regret at the absence of a really complete edition of his works. Comparatively few people may have noticed how great is the effect of diversity in mechanical presentment of books on the mind of the reader, but his must be an unusually critical mind who brings exactly the same faculties of appreciation to a seventeenth-century folio, to one of the stately quartos of the close of the eighteenth and the beginning of this, to a bookseller’s octavo of the early Victorian period, and to batches of reprints of all shapes and sizes since. There ought to be a complete Fuller; and in any country but England there would long since have been one.  4
 
 
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