Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by F. H. Trench
Algernon Sidney (1623–1683)
 
[Algernon Sidney was the second son of Robert, Earl of Leicester, by Lady Dorothy Piercy. In 1632 and 1636 he accompanied his father, as a little boy, on embassies to Denmark and France. In 1641 (æt. 19) he took a troop of horse in the regiment of his father, then Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, and in 1644 joined the parliamentary forces: rising to be Lieutenant-General of horse in Ireland, and Governor of Dublin. He was badly wounded, and in 1647 received the thanks of the Commons. In 1649 he was nominated one of the king’s judges, but did not vote. He violently opposed Oliver Cromwell and his son, and in 1659 was sent as commissioner with Whitelocke, to mediate between Sweden and Denmark. He was dissuaded from returning at the Restoration, and till 1677 remained on the Continent, in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, where he visited Edmund Ludlow. In 1678 he stood unsuccessfully for Parliament at Guildford, being opposed by the Court. In 1683 he was accused of being in the Rye House Plot, was tried, and executed for treason, without legal evidence of his guilt. His attainder was subsequently reversed by Parliament.]  1
 
IN the case of Algernon Sidney it would impair criticism to consider the life and writings apart. It would be unfitting because Sidney’s was not an artistic or impressionable nature, but one practical and intellectually self-determined; and as he wrote upon political principles by which his whole life was governed, his character is of a piece with his book, and is its most vivid illustration.  2
  There seem to be writings whose imperfections charm; they are those to which the life of the writer imparts the absolute finish that fate denied to his pen. The abrupt, profuse, and rough-hewn masses of the Discourses on Government are not completed into a citadel of that proud Liberty whom it was Sidney’s long task to defend. The ramparts are heaped in haste, the plain sentences are eloquent of practical activities. But from such shortcomings the axe absolves him. The arguments amassed at the desk are driven home on the scaffold.  3
  In Sidney the natural courage is high and indomitable. In the new-found Essay on Love, the effusion of a boy, and written not ill, but for his private eye alone, we detect the chivalrous note: “For the beauty and loveliness of the person I love … my passion hath made itself master of all the faculties of my mind … I live in and by it, it is all that I am,” is the naive confession of our amorous Roman citizen. Astonished at the mockers of womanhood, he says, “some men seem to have just so much soul as serves them instead of salt only, to keep them from corruption.” And this natural force became independent even to obstinacy. “How unfriendly and unkindly you have rejected those exhortations and admonitions of mine…. How little weight my opinions and counsels have been with you,” are constant complaints in the letters of the Earl his father. As a mere boy he exercised military command, and the free habit of thinking that freshens the air of those times, fostered by the example of the heroic group of great Dutchmen, was nourished in Sidney as in Milton by life-long study of classical, and chiefly Latin writers. As the poet consciously imitates the rhythm of Virgilian passages, the statesman takes Brutus for beacon and exemplar. In letters he chiefly quotes and admires (although he does not imitate) the terse and pithy Tacitus. At the Turk’s Head in Palace Yard, Westminster, used to meet a club of Commonwealth’s men, where Sidney, with Dr. William Petty, Cyriac Skinner, Harrington, and the rest, discussed Rotas and dreamed Oceanas. “By reading of these Greek and Latin authors,” Hobbes avouches with asperity, “men have gotten a habit of favouring tumults and licentious controllers of the habit of their sovereigns. Never was anything so dearly bought as these Western parts have bought their learning.” Deeper yet, we may discern in Sidney a strange and solitary religious spirit, a Christianity which was to be “like a divine philosophy in the mind.” 1 These were the elements that formed our last Roman.  4
  Writing, thinking, living upon the lofty levels of ancient republicanism, Sidney saw his hope of a Republic dashed not only by Cromwell, but by a Restoration that turned the family of the chief magistrate into the scene of adulterous riot. “Where Vane, Lambert, Haselrigge cannot live in safety,” he said, “I cannot live at all;” and from his vagrant exile came these wandering Discourses, unpublished in his lifetime. Whether or no on his return he deigned to conspire, is unproven; but to the soul he was in rebellion.  5
  The High Royalist views of the Restoration times are embodied in the Patriarcha of Sir Robert Filmer. Now Sidney’s Discourses on Government are a magnificent attack on that book, and upon all that it represents. Sidney not only uses the Patriarcha as an anvil on which to beat out thoughts. It is more; it is the boast of victorious Philistia, to be withstood to the end. Sidney’s Discourses on Government are in fact precisely analogous to Milton’s Samson Agonistes.  6
  The Discourses are therefore a book with the virtues and defects of protracted contention. The thews and sinews of style are fully developed; but when he has crushed Filmer’s cobweb monarch with a mace, he proceeds again to slay the slain. Not that though the style be vigorous its reasoning is violent. He defeats not unfairly by boisterous bluster, but by redundance of dignified reasoning. And notwithstanding that the kind of argument is in some cases out of fashion;—that at the head of Filmer Tarquin is too often flung, or the convincing history of Nimrod and Cush, still the doctrine remains sound yet. Its truths, then treasons, are become platitudes,—too familiar to be justly appraised.  7
  As prose, it is not of course to be compared with the exquisite clearness and balance of the prose of Halifax, or the finished strength of Dryden and Temple. Its place in the development of controversial English is between the style of Hobbes (which it excels in rhythm and colour) and that of Locke. In gait and pace it not seldom recalls Landor’s Conversations between Milton and Marvell and to Landor by temperament and education Sidney bears resemblances. Like Milton’s, his style is deficient in lightness and in humour. But it has a rough and splendid earnestness which arrests, abashes, and perturbs. The book reads like a great and unprepared oration, by a master of his theme, in the third and last parliament of the Protectorate.  8
  His sentences, though plain and free from literary graces, are not seldom finely cadenced;—terse and succinct, even while the main passage is ill-knit, loose, and large. Of the degradation of passive obedience, he writes, “they worship what they find in the temple, though it be the vilest of idols,” and of the divine right by patriarchal lineage: “the adoption of fathers is a whimsical piece of nonsense.” Of absolute kingship: “I believe no man is wise enough to govern us all,” and “If it be liberty to live under such a government, I desire to know what is meant by slavery:” yet also, “he who takes upon himself the government of a people can do no greater evil than by doing nothing.” In the deaf wisdom, the equal and inflexible restraint of law, he sternly rejoices, and Grotius evidently inspires many an illumined passage. But he owns no unreasoned submission. “Laws are made to keep things in good order without recourse to force;” and they were “made by our ancestors according to the light they had, and their present occasions.” “We are not so much to enquire after what is most ancient, as to that which is best, and most conducing to the ends for which it was directed.” He foreruns the volonté de tous: “All human constitutions are subject to corruption and must perish unless they are timely renewed and reduced to their first principles. This was chiefly done by means of those tumults which our author ignorantly blames.”  9
  He is in favour then of a kind of aristocratic republicanism based on private virtue; and though well aware that those fittest to exercise power are usually slow to seek it, yet affirms with Plato that heaven-sent rulers carry the true marks of sovereignty upon them, and no country ever lacked great numbers of excellent men where excellence is held in honour. “Rome conquered the best part of the world and never wanted men to defend what was gained.” Sometimes a grim touch occurs. “From which it will appear whose throne he seeks to advance, and whose servant he is, while he pretends to serve the king.” “There is not in the world a piece of wood out of which a Mercury cannot be made,” or: “The peace that the Romans had under Augustus was like that which the devil allowed to the child in the gospel, whom he rent sorely and left as dead.” But his mind is evidently most in such clear sayings as “God is constant to himself; and no consequences can destroy any truth.”  10
  Sidney and Milton may be accounted types, in letters as in politics, of a character not uncommon in that century, but singularly rare in our own. Noble in style because full of sustained purpose and intellectual self-respect; unenfeebled by effeminate sentiment, stoical in private and public fortitude; not seldom exalted, as though granite were burning, by passion and awe.  11
 
Note 1. Burnet. [back]
 
 
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