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
Isaac Barrow (1630–1677)
[Isaac Barrow, a great mathematician in an age of great mathematicians, a great preacher in an age of great preachers, and a great theologian in an age of great theologians, was born in London in 1630. His father, Thomas Barrow (who outlived Isaac and shared with Tillotson the task of editing his works), was “linen draper to Charles I.,” and so steady a royalist that he shared the exile of his master’s son. Barrow, whose uncle and namesake, later Governor and Bishop of Man and Bishop of St. Asaph, was a fellow of Peterhouse at Cambridge, was entered at that college after a youth spent partly at Charterhouse (where he gained the name of a terrible fighter), and partly at Felstead where his great intellectual capacities first appeared. He snared to the full the political principles of his family; and, his uncle having been ejected, he went, not to Peterhouse but to Trinity, where his Cavalier tenets were the only fault found with him. He was, however, elected Fellow in 1649. He was soon famous as a scholar, and would have been made Greek Professor as early as 1654, but for his Cavalier and Arminian principles. Then he went abroad and travelled for four years on the coasts of the Mediterranean, having some adventures. In 1659 the Greek professorship was actually conferred on him, but he was as expert in science as in scholarship, and having been one of the first fellows of the Royal Society, he was in 1662 appointed Gresham Professor of Geometry in London, and next year Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. This post in 1669 he resigned in favour of his pupil Newton. In 1672 Charles the Second, who had a great admiration for his preaching, made him Master of Trinity. He was chiefly instrumental in founding the famous library of that College; was Vice-Chancellor in 1675, and two years later died while on an official visit to London in connection with the Westminster scholarships at Trinity, being then only forty-seven. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. His nonmathematical works, printed and reprinted in folio, came at last into a standard edition by the good offices of the Clarendon Press at Oxford, in 1830. It was some time later before his own University paid him the debt it owed; but the Rev. Alexander Napier (afterwards known as editor of Boswell) thoroughly re-edited the theological works at Cambridge in 1859, and Dr. Whewell, the mathematical, a year later.]  1
BARROW’S work, as it was published chiefly after his death, consists of three parts—the mathematical treatises (which do not concern us at all, but which were thought remarkable even in the century of Descartes, Pascal, and Newton), the Latin works in prose and verse (which, though not directly part of our subject, have a very close connection with it), and the English works proper. The largest single item of these latter is his posthumous Treatise of the Pope’s Supremacy; besides which he left an Exposition of the Creed, which has been somewhat overshadowed by the similar work of his contemporary Pearson, and some minor tractates. But by far the larger part of the English works, as a whole, consists of Sermons. Considerable numbers of these are themselves connected in series, the longest of which connects itself with the above-mentioned Exposition by being devoted to the Creed. Barrow had the reputation of being a most unmercifully long-winded preacher; and the best-known anecdote about him is that on one occasion in Westminster Abbey he preached for three hours and a half, till the desperate congregation managed to get the organist to “play him down.” His published sermons are not on an average very long; but a few of them are, and it does not require very elaborate examination even of the others to discover signs that their author might easily have been prone to “take the other glass,” as the play of words went in his own time. For the characteristics of Barrow are neither the gorgeous rhetoric of Taylor, which almost necessarily involves careful preparation and a sort of intellectual exhaustion after it is evolved, nor the sharp sarcasm and scholastic criticism of South, which almost necessarily imply succinctness and concentration. It is true that Barrow is not in the least exposed to the charge of slip-shod style, or of fluent verbosity. But his sermons are less the workings out of a single argument than the outpouring of an extraordinarily well-stored mind in the discussion and inculcation of moral truth and religious duty. The moral side, indeed—the side of conduct—is very strong in Barrow, so strong as sometimes to give an eighteenth, rather than a seventeenth, century tone and colour to his handling. This had no doubt something to do with his strong anti-Calvinism. He was as uncompromisingly Arminian as he was uncompromisingly orthodox: and one of his finest series of sermons is that which vindicates the Arminian “Doctrine of universal redemption,” not of course to the extent of Origenism, but maintaining the unlimited efficacy and applicability of the sacrifice of Christ. Nothing seems to kindle Barrow’s style, or to attract his energies so much as these two subjects—the inculcation of conduct in life and the Messianic doctrine that Christ died for all.  2
  This combined quality of manly sense with practical and charitable spirit, enforced with logical powers less scholastic than South’s, but at least as persuasive, and with a vigour not inferior to that of the great Oxonian, though far less harsh—was probably what captivated the always acute intellect, and the often not ignoble sympathies of Charles II. Of actual graces of style Barrow, as hinted above, has not very many, though he has some, and those no mean ones, when he chooses. In general character and complexion his style is more modern than South’s, less so than Tillotson’s. His most archaic trick is the arrangement of antithetic similes from natural or other history, somewhat in the manner of Lyly’s famous parallellisms, though of course infinitely less fantastic in substance and form. His vocabulary is not very peculiar, though occasionally we come across obsolete classicisms like “evanid” (for “evanescent,”) or the serious use of words which have now become familiar or even slangy, such as “colloguing,” or the employment of exotic forms like “scribatious” and “discost” (the opposite of “accost,” and meaning “to part company with”). He has a quaint phrase now and then as when he speaks of “a shining earthworm, a well-trapped ass, a gaudy statue, a theatrical grandee,” or describes the Pope’s supposed duty of feeding all Christ’s sheep as “a vast and crabbed province.” But he is on the whole very little noticeable in these easy and trivial respects. His great characteristic is a steady flow of nervous English, rising occasionally to higher things, examples of which will not be found missing in the extracts given here. It is impossible to read Barrow long without coming across some weighty, and so to speak double-shotted sentence, which abides in the memory. Here he will contrast “these shallow plashes of present inconvenience” with the abysses of future weal or woe; there he will describe how in the case of ill-regulated life “every day our mind groweth more blind, our will more resty, our spirit more faint, our appetites more fierce, our passions more headstrong and untameable,” a sentence by the way which shows a strong intuitive appreciation of cadence and proportion. He has a particular inclination to what may be called the sustained interrogatory—a common trick of orators, but not often carried off so well as in the extract given below, and in not a few other passages of Barrow.  3
  His best composition is to be looked for in his Sermons not in his treatises. The Treatise on the Pope’s Supremacy and the Discourse on the Unity of the Church are, with a few cases of connected argument or discourse, one of which I have selected, rather immensely learned stretches and strings of scriptural and patriotic authorities bearing on the points of dispute, than instinctive and inventive compositions. In his Sermons also he is not infrequently what Milton calls a “quotationist,” though assuredly not one of “narrow intellectuals” (as that great but ill-tempered poet describes) such persons; and it may be suspected that it was by the use of quotation that he spread his sermons out to a length so terrible. But as they are printed they do not exhibit this peculiarity to a very faulty extent as a rule; and the serried but not too formal argument in which he delights has fairer play than in the treatises. Nor is it by any means superfluous to compare his Latin style, of which we have abundant examples, with his English. The verse, especially the lyrical verse, is not very good; nor can even the prose be pronounced elegant as a rule. But it strongly resembles, and may be thought to have had no small influence upon, his English manner in its clear and strong simplicity, sometimes almost rugged, and never much adorned, but still furnishing a thorough workman’s style, fit to exhibit premises and drive conclusions home.  4

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