Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
John Evelyn (1620–1706)
[John Evelyn (1620–1706), was born at Wotton, in Surrey, the seat of his family for some generations, to the possession of which he afterwards succeeded on the death of his brother. He was educated at the school of Lewes, and afterwards at Balliol College, Oxford, whence he proceeded to the study of the Law at the Middle Temple. Upon the breaking out of the Civil War, his sympathies were entirely on the Royalist side, but he saw little of the actual progress of the war, having received the Royal license to travel abroad in 1643. It was in making the tour of Europe that he first developed those artistic and scientific tastes, which he ardently cultivated during a long life spent in researches more diffuse than arduous. His knowledge of Italian art was probably beyond that of any other Englishman of his age; and to appreciation of art, he added considerable technical skill. His first works were a translation from La Motte le Vayer, entitled Liberty and Servitude (1649), A Character of England (1651), and The State of France (1652). During the Commonwealth he withdrew altogether from public life, and spent his time chiefly in forestry and gardening, and, in 1659, published a translation of the Golden Book of Chrysostom, on education. On the eve of the Restoration he came forward as the vindicator of the Royalists and of the king, in An Apology for the Royal Party (1659), and A Panegyric at the Coronation (1661). An ardent member of the Royal Society, he published his best known book, Silva, under its auspices, in 1664. He wrote also upon architecture and gardening; and a rather characteristic tract is that on Public Employment preferred to Solitude, which was a reply (1667), to Sir George Mackenzie’s Panegyric on Solitude. In 1675, he published Terra, a Philosophical Discourse of Earth; and until his death in 1706, at the age of 87, he was constantly writing on some of the many subjects which claimed his attention as connoisseur and virtuoso. He filled some public offices after the Restoration; but they interfered but little with his learned and cultured leisure. Evelyn’s Diary was first published from his MSS. at Wotton, in 1819.]  1
EVELYN is one of those for the dignity of whose character it is impossible not to have respect, and whose wide culture, and graceful treatment of a subject it is equally impossible to deny; but he is also one of those whose reputation in his own day was far higher than his fame or influence have since proved to be. His treatises are models of elegant, dignified,—sometimes even eloquent—prose; but none the less they are cumbrous, artificial and vastly more wordy than their matter requires. He never drops the somewhat artificial manner of the cultured, dignified gentleman—with a mind open to appreciate all the best which his age had to give him on the side of science, miscellaneous information, artistic taste; but never harassing his mind with any imaginative or speculative effort of his own. In some respects he offers a curious parallel and yet contrast to Clarendon. Their political standpoint towards the struggles of the time was almost identical. They viewed the earlier part of the reign of Charles I. with the same affection, the Commonwealth with the same detestation, the corroding profligacy of the later Stuarts with the same bitterness of regret. They had the same love of cultured society; the same acquaintance with men, at home and abroad; the same faculty of discerning motives. But Evelyn was essentially the student, calm and equable in temper, carried away by none of the fiery heat of the contest; as much despising as unfitted for the active part of the strife. Such a man may have a high place in the esteem of his contemporaries—especially of his learned contemporaries; but his weight is apt to be small with posterity. He may equip himself, quietly and leisurely, with much varied learning; but it is apt to be learning which is not reckoned very valuable by later ages. He may polish his style, and even set a model of which later writers may feel the influence; but his prose can never reach the pregnant force, or tragic dignity, which we find in Clarendon—speaking, as Clarendon does, from the thick of the struggle, with the burden of the nation’s fate heavy upon him, with the bitterness of disappointment gnawing at his heart. Hence it is that with all his elegance, Evelyn is apt to pall upon us, and the works that his own age—especially its scholars and virtuosos—rated so highly, remain unread. He tells his own scheme in the advertisement to the Silva: “As I have frequently inserted diverse historical and other passages, apposite and agreeable to the subject, abstaining from a number more which I might have added, let it be remembered that I did not altogether compile this work for the sake of our ordinary rustics, mere foresters and woodmen, but for the benefit and diversion of gentlemen and persons of quality, who often refresh themselves in these agreeable toils of planting and gardening.” We all know that literary men, from Virgil downwards, have not written their georgics for “ordinary rustics”; but when they know their business a little better than Evelyn, they refrain from telling us so. They doubtless are prone to introduce illustrations, “apposite and agreeable”; only, unlike Evelyn, they make us believe that the illustrations are absolutely essential to the work. Evelyn hangs his tags of whimsical and far-fetched illustration upon every bough. Their quaintness and oddity at first perhaps charm us; but the weariness inevitably comes. We need not forget to thank Evelyn, however, for his adding some new graces to our prose, and for the service he has done in perpetuating the tradition of ornament and elegance, without which our prose, as it lost the spring of its old lightness and simplicity, would have been poor indeed.  2
  In his early work (of which the first extract here given is a specimen) we see a lightness and sprightliness of touch which certainly do not reach to true humour, but yet preserve him from dullness. The Silva was really a labour of love, and although it is prolix, it is saved from being fantastic by its steadiness of purpose, which is evident even behind its long words, its artificiality, its over-methodical construction. The answer to Sir George Mackenzie on Public Employment (of which also a specimen is given) is purely a piece of word fencing, with no real purpose or meaning at the root of it. It is just such a treatise as a well-trained schoolboy might write upon a given theme.  3
  The Diary has an interest and value of its own. It rarely gives the writer’s own thoughts. It is minute, careful, and methodical in the description of places and buildings and works of art; but it is carefully restrained, for the most part, in regard to all that touches on the burning questions of the day. It might serve as a model for the simple and succinct recounting of facts; and where it does betray some feeling, the effect is all the more striking from the consistency with which the ordinary narrative is toned down to the barest simplicity of narration.  4
  One subject could stir Evelyn, as it stirred Clarendon, to eloquence—an intense and whole-hearted faith in the Church of England. The historian has yet to appear who will draw in its true colours the picture of what was noblest in the Royalist party of that day, which stirred alike Laud and Clarendon, and Evelyn—the intense devotion to the Church of England, with all the beneficent influence which they believed it might exert. It was this that gave force to the easy humour which, in the succeeding age, the writers for the Church and against the Dissenters, found altogether on their own side. We may esteem it narrow and dogmatic. We may talk of possible comprehension, and of the errors that prevented it. But all this only blinds us to the central movement that stirred the heart of the age, and that gives us its true key. He who was not entirely for the Church was against her; there was no halting between two opinions. It is thus that Evelyn, in the same tone as Clarendon, regrets the profligate wrecking of a great cause:—  5
  “What opportunities he (Charles II.) had to have made himself the most renowned king that ever swayed the British sceptre, had he been firm to that Church for which his martyred and blessed father suffered. The emissaries and instruments of the Church of Rome will never rest till they have crushed the Church of England, as knowing that alone to be able to cope with them, and that they can never answer her, but lie abundantly open to the irresistible force of her arguments, antiquity, and purity of her doctrine, so that albeit it may move God for the punishment of a nation so unworthy, to eclipse again the profession of her here, and darkness and superstition may prevail, I am most confident the doctrine of the Church of England will never be extinguished, but will remain visible, if not eminent, to the consummation of the world. In all events, whatever do become of the Church of England, it is certainly, of all the Christian professions on the earth, the most primitive, apostolical, and excellent.”  6

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