Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Edward Hyde, Lord Clarendon (16091674)
[Edward Hyde was descended from a family of old standing in Cheshire, and was born in Wilts in 1608. He was sent to Oxford to be bred for the Church; but after taking his degree began the study of the law at the Middle Temple, his uncle being a lawyer of great influence in the profession, afterwards Lord Chief Justice. By an early marriage in 1629, he became connected with the Duke of Buckingham. His first wife died in six months; and three years later, he married the daughter of Sir Thomas Aylesbury, and settled himself seriously to the work of his profession, in which he attained much success. At first he joined the popular party, not from a desire of violent change, nor from any wish to encroach upon the prerogative, but from his jealousy of that tampering with the law of which the unconstitutional courts, that had lately sprung up, were guilty. This attitude he maintained until the open attacks upon the Church, of which he was the ardent defender, broke his connection with the popular party; and he soon became the trusted adviser of the king. In 1643 he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, at a time when his duties consisted chiefly in contriving means of raising contributions amongst the kings adherents; and being sent to Jersey, as minister attending upon the Prince of Wales, he accompanied him afterwards to France, remained with him as titular minister, and played a leading part in the negotiations that ended in the Restoration. For seven years he maintained himself, amidst many ignoble factions, as the leading authority in the State, holding the office of Lord Chancellor, and being created Earl of Clarendon. In 1667 the intrigues against him succeeded; he was exiled, and died in France in 1674. His works, beyond those which are rather of the nature of State papers, are the History of the Rebellion, not published till 1702, and the Life and Continuation of the History, not published till 1759.]
IN the case of a man like Clarendon, the chief part of whose life was the making of history, and only a very secondary part the writing of it, we must look much more to his experiences than to any literary principles or model, in order to find out what determined his methods and his style. For his University he always maintained an ungrudging devotion, but his literary tastes were formed in another school; and he tells us himself that he left it, rather with the opinion of a young man of parts and pregnancy of wit, than that he had improved it much by industry. He counted it a piece of good fortune that he left it early; and his first mental training was in the discipline of the law. To that he joined close association with a singularly choice band of friends; and he dedicated himself to the profession of the law, without declining the politer learning to which his humour and his conversation always kept him very indulgent. The study of the law was, indeed, scarcely congenial to him; he had to lay some obligation on himself to continue it; and, although in thought and action he was dominated by its influence, he never became a great lawyer. In youth his health was weak; and when he lost by death his first wife, a young lady very fair and beautiful, nearly allied to many noble families in England, he tells us that nothing but his entire duty and reverence to his father kept him from giving over all thoughts of books, and transporting himself beyond the seas to enjoy his own melancholy. Of a temper keen, ardent, and impulsive, it was only by severe self-discipline that he forced himself again into the routine of his profession; but this was made more easy by his marriage with his second wife, with whom he lived very comfortably in the most uncomfortable times, and very joyfully in those times when matter of joy was administered, for the space of five or six and thirty years. To his father, who was, as he tells us, omnifariam doctus, he owed much; and his training in life was an admirable one. While pursuing actively the career of a practising lawyer, he sweetened his life and enlarged his range by mixing, as one of themselves, amidst a society of choice spiritschief amongst them, Ben Jonson, John Selden, Sir Kenelm Digby, and Thomas Carew. If he had anything good in him, he was wont to say, in his humour, or in his manners, he owed it to the example and the information he had received in and from that company, with most of whom he had an entire friendship. Their characters he has sketched for us with that skill which stood him in such good stead when he came to portray the actors on a wider and a more momentous stage.
His first introduction to public life was through Archbishop Laud; and, while in the early struggles between the Court and the Parliament, his ardent constitutionalism led him to oppose some encroachments of the prerogative, it would be a mistake to conceive him as an active supporter of the popular party. As the designs of that party became more evident, and especially as their opposition to the Church became more marked, Hyde was distinctly estranged from them; and before the war broke out, he was the trusted, but candid, adviser of the king. In spite of bitter vexation, caused by designs which were opposed to his own, and of which he clearly saw the inexpediency, he never swerved from his loyalty to that cause. The Restoration brought to him the outward semblance of reward, but with it a responsibility that weighed heavily upon him, as he saw the fatal danger which the corruption of the time, and the laxity of Charles II., were storing up for the future. For seven years he was able to maintain himself against a strange coalition, which banded against him what was most corrupt in the Court, and most progressive in the nation; and when he fell, it was after he had given his labour, his strength, and his peace to establish in his country his own ideal of orderly and constitutional government, which he saw to be threatened chiefly by the acts of those to whom his loyalty was ungrudgingly pledged. It is an easy criticism to urge against Clarendon that he was incapable of appreciating the new forces that were at work in English history. But the same criticism may always be urged against one who has formed a definite ideal, and will not swerve from it; and it remains none the less true that there is scarcely any prime minister of England who left upon her so firm an impress of his own personalityan impress which remained fresh to a period within living memory, and traces of which are not wanting even now.
To such an experience as Clarendons, the making of history was far more than the writing of it; and the habits bred of action in a great scene and in a great crisis, the varied tasks which had been thrust upon him, the tragic significance of the long struggle that constituted his life, have, in combination with those literary interests that from first to last sweetened his toil, given to his style its special and inimitable characteristics. It is often cumbrous and prolix; its construction is frequently irregular; the arrangement is sometimes confusing, and the sense of proportion seems to be lost. But its chief note is one of almost tragic dignity. His History of the Rebellionbe it noted, the first history which our literature possesses from the hand of a great actor in the struggle it portrayshas something of the burden of an epic. But it is enlivened by those inimitable characters which his careful study of human nature, his intense desire to know those who were worthy to be known, enabled him to draw; portraits in which every feature is given in its due proportion, and in which no trait, however homely, is omitted which can add to their dramatic force. But these frequently recurring sketches, to which all readers of the Life and of the Rebellion will turn with chief pleasure, do not exhaust the great qualities of Clarendon in literature. In every page we see marks of that acquaintance with great administrative affairs that dispels the mists of pedantry which are apt to gather round the mere student of history. Even when he is cumbrous in his sentences, we seem to hear the voice of one accustomed to speak to great assemblies, and who, as Pepys tells us, gave such an impression of easy mastery in his parliamentary orations. The habit of the orator to supply the place of logical sequence and orderly arrangement, by variations of tone, of manner, of action, is evident throughout every page of Clarendon, but is chiefly evident when his feelings are most moved. It is then that he indulges in phrases almost conversational in their familiarity, but none the less forcible. To warm the people into rebellion; the incurable disease of want of money; artillery, commonly a sponge that can never be filled; the gamesters who were to play this game looked into their hands; such phrases as these are constantly recurring where his narrative is most quick and dramatic. He groups together the light and dark shades in his portraits, the favourable and adverse criticisms of special actions, just as the dramatist or the orator might group them, so as to lead his audience gradually into his own mental attitude, and to produce an impression which even those most opposed to him find it hard to throw off. He gives to his narrative the deepest force of reality, because the habits of a lifetime had made him familiar with great affairs. He gives to it the sternness of tragedy, because he had maintained for years a losing struggle, and had exchanged ease and comfort for the burden and hardships of exile. His unique experience, in uniting the literary friendships of his early manhood with the heavy task of his later years, helps him to give to it grace and variety. But above alland it is in this that our chief literary inheritance from Clarendon consistshe wears his habit as a writer easily and lightly, as one who wore it not merely as the student, or the scholar, or the historian, but as the dress in which he is to tell the momentous history where he himself played so large and so dignified a part. Such literary work as that of Clarendon does more than anything else to disencumber literature of pedantry, and to make it instinct with the life and movement of human affairs.