Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
John Fisher (c. 14691535)
[John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, was born some years before 1470, and was executed in 1535. He was a native of Yorkshire, and was educated at Cambridge, where he obtained the patronage of Margaret, Countess of Richmond, foundress of Christs College. Fisher was her chief agent in the foundation of this college, and from her bequest he afterwards founded St. Johns College. He stood aloof from the dominant faction attached to Wolsey; but when Henrys breach with the Papacy became pronounced, Fisher stood forward as one of the chief of the anti-reform party, steadfastly opposed Henrys divorce from Catherine, and subsequently refused to take the oath in favour of the Kings supremacy over the Church. For this he was imprisoned, and while under the royal ban was created Cardinal by Pope Paul III. The high estimation in which he was held is proved by the widespread feeling of outraged sentiment which Henry aroused throughout Christendom by the execution of Fisher in 1535.]
A FULL consideration of Fishers life would force us to enter upon all the most controverted questions of the stormy time in which he lived. Our business here is concerned solely with his position as a writer of English prose, and in this connection he is of interest, not only for his personal character and attitude, but also as marking a decided advance upon all writers on religious topics who preceded him. Adhering to the old creed, he yet treats it with an originality and a raciness which are all his own. A scholar and student, he is yet careful to be clear and lucid in his sermons to a mixed audience. A courtier, attracted by the dignity of constituted authority, and keenly alive to the grace of aristocratic refinement, he is yet by his very nature honest, instinctively independent, and unswerving in his love for the purity of a religious life. He has the eloquence and fervour of an enthusiastic supporter of the Church, with a copious and flowing diction; but yet is careful and fastidious in his selection of epithets, and shows the balance, rhythm, and harmony that were to be the most characteristic features of English prose when it reached that highest development, towards which he himself greatly assisted. His constant effort to draw some symbolical meaning from the phrases of the Scriptures leads him into refinements which are often curiously quaint and far-fetched, but which forced him to use, by the very necessity of the subject, an exact and graphic diction, the essential qualities of which are apparent in spite of the primitive deficiencies of ordered or regular composition. When our Lord, he says in a typical passage, of His goodness shall change and turn the soft and slippery dust (signifying wretched sinners) into tough earth by weeping and true penitence for their sins, and after that make them hard as stones by burning charity, apt and able for to suffer great labours; and a similar tendency to pourtray religious thoughts by some graphic imagery from the material world is visible in every page. He has an artistic and poetical faculty for catching the picturesque aspects of the outer world, and employing them as literary instruments, and no faculty was more serviceable in developing forcible and vivid prose. The following is only one of many such descriptions to be found in Fishers writings:What marvellous virtue, what wonderful operation, is in the beams of the sun which, as we see this time of the year spread upon the ground, doth quicken and make lively many creatures, the which appeared before as dead! Who that viewed and beheld in the winter season the trees when they be withered and their leaves shaken from them, and all the moisture shrunk into the root, and no lust of greenness nor of life appeareth outwardlyif he had had none experience of this matter before, he would think it an unlike thing that the same trees should revive again and be so lustily clad with leaves and flowers as we now see them. The art of the orator is seen in the direct reference of his hearers to the aspect of nature then before them; and if we overlook, as it is easy to do, the small tincture of archaicism, the structure of the sentence is so perfect, and the selection of epithets so artistic, that the most finished master of our language, as developed by many generations of practice, need not disdain the turn or rhythm of the sentence. Fisher shared with the composers of the English liturgy a peculiarity which greatly contributed to the richness and variety of their dictionthat coupling of the Saxon word with its classical synonym, which has become familiar to our ears through the Prayer Book. Fishers prose style may, indeed, be considered as a corner-stone in the foundation of the best type of English pulpit eloquencesimple almost to an extreme, but yet instinct with earnestness and feeling, and at the same time with the balance that comes from careful scholarship and fastidious taste.