Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Sir William Temple (1628–1699)
[William Temple was born in London in the year 1628, his father, Sir John Temple, being the Irish Master of the Rolls. He was educated under Cudworth at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, went the grand tour, and had difficulties in his course of true love with Dorothy Osborne, whose delightful letters to him have only in the last few years been made completely public. In this affair the lady’s parents objected to him both as the son of a Parliamentarian (Sir Peter Osborne, the father, being a strong Cavalier) and as an insufficient match. Temple seems to have displayed constancy and affection; but we gather that the trimming and Laodicean character which afterwards distinguished him was already suspected, if not displayed. It is supposed that the marriage took place about 1654; and between that date and the Restoration he resided chiefly in Ireland, where, on a regular Parliament meeting after the King’s return, he was chosen member for Carlow. Migrating to England in 1663, he seems to have attached himself chiefly to Arlington (“Bennet’s grave looks” may have suited him), and received diplomatic employment at Munster, at Brussels, and in the negotiation of the Triple Alliance with De Witt. He was afterwards ambassador at the Hague till he was recalled, owing to the intrigues of the Cabal with France. He then established himself at Sheen, whence he moved later to Moor Park. On the fall of the Cabal, he was once more employed in his old work at the Hague, where he remained till 1679. He then formed part, and indeed was the deviser, of the new Cabinet or Council of Thirty, which was tried after the fall of Danby, and which failed, as it was certain to fail. Only after this, and then only for a session, did he sit in the English House of Commons, and he speedily retired altogether from politics, for which, at that juncture, his cautious and timorous temper entirely unfitted him. Thenceforward, for nearly twenty years, he lived at the two seats above mentioned, frequently consulted, but never taking any active part, even in the reign of William, whose friendship he had early acquired. His wife died in 1694, and he himself in 1699, both having suffered a terrible blow by the suicide of their son John, who destroyed himself in consequence of some official delinquencies, for which he was only indirectly to blame. Temple perhaps secured a greater certainty of immortality by having Swift as a member of his household in his later years than by his not inconsiderable participation in historical affairs. In the same way, though he wrote a good deal, and is, to exact critics of style, as will presently be pointed out, a very memorable person, he made himself more certain ground of remembrance by his rather unlucky participation in the “Ancient and Modern” Dispute, whence arose Bentley’s Dissertation on Phalaris. The standard edition of his works is in 4 vols. London: 1757.]  1
ONE magnificent though brief passage, Macaulay’s essay, and Charles Lamb’s curious and characteristic dissertation on his connection with “the genteel style,” may be said to make up all the hold that Sir William Temple still exercises on the general consciousness of even reading Englishmen. The fuller modern publication of Dorothy Osborne’s charming letters to him threw very little fresh light on his own character, which was already more than sufficiently known, to all who cared to inquire, by his Works, by Courtenay’s life of him, by the references of the essayists above mentioned, and by his connection with the far greater name of Swift. With the small but tolerably constant number of students of literary history, however, Temple is sure of an equally lasting and a more correct and detailed remembrance. For he holds with Tillotson, Halifax, and Dryden the most distinguished place among those authors of the late seventeenth century who definitely expressed the tendencies of the present, and even of the future, among their contemporaries in matter of English prose style. It is, no doubt, possible to discover anticipations of this style in much earlier writers—in Jonson, in Cowley, and in others. But this possibility involves another—the possibility of inquiring too curiously. It is not the occasional flash here and flash there of “modernism” that is the important point, but the general presence of a tendency distinctly different from that of the main body of forerunners. And this general tendency is more discoverable in Temple, with the three above mentioned, than in any others. Nor is it irrelevant to observe that he was the eldest of the quartette, that he had an earlier and wider experience of public affairs both at home and abroad than any of them, and that he anticipated what was in the next generation to be the most prevailing form of the new style—that of the miscellaneous essay.  2
  Of these four, Temple had beyond all doubt the least original genius, though there is not much to choose between him and Tillotson either in intellect or in literary form. To the universal competency of Dryden, or the admirable sense and terseness of Halifax, he could lay no claim. But he had, as has been said, an early practice in affairs. He was thrown by his diplomatic employments much in contact with the French, a nation where at that time every gentleman of capacity a little superior to the average, thought it necessary to dabble in literature of a polished and more or less serious kind; and his education and subsequent studies, if not exactly profound, supplied him with the raw material of literature, as literature then went, to a certain, and even a considerable extent. The cautious timidity, not to say time-servingness, of his temperament, which induced him to quit the ship of State whenever she got out of smooth water, gave him much leisure, and his four volumes of Works are the result. Except that purple patch above referred to, and a few others, the contents are of no very great positive worth for matter. Yet it is agreeable to hear what Sir William has to say on the gout, on gardening, on the affairs of the Low Countries; and it would not be disagreeable to hear what he thinks about poetry and the ancients if only he had had, on these subjects, a knowledge at all comparable in competence to his knowledge of gardening and of gout, of diplomacy and of Dutchmen. Nor will he “spoil any fine gentleman,” whatever he may have done in another famous case, by his manner of dealing with these subjects. That manner is better than genteel, even in the sense which in Lamb’s day that now degraded adjective still possessed. It is indeed not quite or not always the grand style; but except when the writer is discoursing on subjects of which he is totally, or almost totally, ignorant, it is a great deal more than the mere style of a well-bred gentleman who writes with ease after good examples. It must never be forgotten that Sir William was setting, not following, the fashion; that he was at the head of the van, not a mere private in the main body. It may be that that famous sentence which, once heard, never drops out of the memory as a criticism of life, prejudices the critic too favourably towards him; but if it is his best, it is not his only one. It is, on the contrary, but one of the happiest discoveries in a new path, which all the wits were to tread for more than a century, and in which few found things so happy. The fifty volumes of the British essayists are in that little passage—hardly more than a phrase—which begins, “When all is done,” and ends with “over”; and in few passages of any day is the philosophy of the time expressed with such touches of pathos and true “prose poetry,” or its style moulded with a happier pressure of form and finish.  3

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