Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
James Harrington (16111677)
[James Harrington, author of one of the strangest books ever written, even by a man in whom considerable wits were allied to less than doubtful sanity, was the eldest son of Sir Sapcotes Harrington, of Exton, in the county of Rutland. His mothers name was Jane Samuel, and the Harringtons themselves were connected with some of the best English families. James was born in January 1611, and when he was eighteen he entered Trinity College, Oxford, where Chillingworth was his tutor. He succeeded to the family estates while he was still a minor, made the grand tour, served a little, and though he did not marry till very late in life, was a liberal and domestic housekeeper. Although no Royalist he was something of a favourite with Charles I., was gentleman of the chamber to him, accompanied him in the ill-starred Bishops War, and after the Rebellion and the surrender at Newcastle was appointed by Parliament one of the Kings attendants. He was dismissed as too well affected to his master at the time when Charles was sent to Hurst Castle, and was subsequently imprisoned, but was permitted to attend the King to the very scaffold. It was after this that he took to writing Oceana. It was printed during the Protectorate and seized, and though Harrington procured its release it is not improbable that the incident impelled or obliged him to insert the rather fulsome eulogies on Cromwell which may have helped to bring misfortune on him after the Restoration. Until that event, however, he was busy with controversy over his book, which was published in 1656, and with playing at ballot and such like things in the famous Rota Club. In December 1661, he was arrested, partly for his meddling with politics, partly on suspicion real or feigned of participation in an actual plot. He was imprisoned in the Tower and then at Plymouth, where his health, both of body and mind, suffered severely, and he was at one time actually insane. He was at length released: he married, suffered from gout and paralysis as well as from impaired sanity, and finally died at Westminster on 11th September 1677, having, despite his later troubles, not come very far short of the three-score years and ten. The completest edition of his works is that of Birch, 1737. Oceana, which alone of them has much interest, was cheaply reprinted by Mr. Henry Morley a few years ago.]
IT is permissible to a reader of Oceana, after adjusting his mind to the exactest political impartiality, to suspect that Harrington was not perfectly sane a good many years before age or unkindness developed his mental malady. The second and third quarters of the seventeenth century no doubt produced abundance of work by men of undoubted sanity, which is in some respects as quaint as this sketch of a Venetian Constitution (very different from the meaning later attached to that phrase) for Oceana (England), Marpesia (Scotland), and Panopea (Ireland). But the quaintness of Burton and Browne, of Fuller and Digby, of Glanvill and Wilkins, never induces us to doubt the sanity of the writers for a moment. It is their pleasure to be far-fetched, allusive, abrupt, full of conceits and metaphysical oddities, to parade learning in and out of season; but it can hardly be said that their wildest conceits ever run away with them. It is impossible to read even a few pages of Oceana without suspecting that in this case the running away is an accomplished fact. Harrington is full of ability, he has studied theoretical politics with immense care, he has observed certain sides of actual politics not without acuteness: he has just censures of Leviathan to which his own work is in a manner a counterblast: he is extraordinarily ingenious in the arrangement of the Tribes and the Troops, of the ballot machinery and the Provincial Orb. But in all this and in the relish with which he draws up accounts for the ballot boxes and the balls of metal and the pavilions, devises elaborate and rather poetical titles for his tribes and their officers, intersperses comic speeches by the Lord Epimonus (a genial fanatic of reaction), and adjusts rejoinders to them by the Lord Archon (Cromwell), which are in some respects almost startlingly like Cromwells own speeches: in all this I say it is almost impossible not to detect what is familiarly called the bee in the bonnet. The abstract principles of Harringtons polity, which may be said to be a fixed maximum of property to be held by individuals, a strict rotation of office-tenure by ballot, and a complicated regulation of all public and even some private details of life, after the model, now of Venice, now of Lacedaemon, might not in vacuo be absurd. But it is evident that Harrington had neither the least desire to adjust nor the least faculty of adjusting these abstract ideas to the concrete facts of English character, life, and history. He was seriously taken by his own time, and long afterwards references are found to the Oceana in Swifts first serious political work the Dissensions in Athens and Rome. But Oceana is really moonshine,a Midsummer Nights Dream of politics, compared with which Utopia and Atlantis are practical projects.
Such things, however, can in literature be very agreeable: and Harringtons book has many charms. What has been called in other matter the rich marrowy quality of it is especially remarkable. Even such a small thing as the constant omission of law in the long discussion on the Agrarian provisions of his scheme (there is in this Agrarian a homage to pure and spotless love, the Agrarian gives us the sweat of our brows without diminution) gives a singular zest to the treatise. My Lord Epimonuss speeches have throughout an almost Shakespearean, a more than Jonsonian savour of farce, and though the Archon is frequently unintelligible, as indeed was his great original, he is the equal of that original in pregnancy and his superior in brilliance. The boldness of the metaphors (this order was thus fleshed by the Lord Archon: this if they be planted popularly comes to a commonwealth) is unsurpassed even in the seventeenth century, and certainly not equalled elsewhere in English literary history. This novel and sustaining quality of style carries us through what has been and would otherwise have been justly called the prolixity dulness, and pedantry of the book, supports us in its argumentative atmosphere, as of an exhausted receiver, and enables us to do justice, and sometimes perhaps more than justice, to the solid and acute observations which occur from time to time. Harrington was almost certainly mad: and his madness may be a little exasperating when we think of the state of the times and of the necessity which existed for every good citizen to come out of his study and do practical work. But it was a fine madness in its way, and would have been an eminently harmless one in other times.