Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by F. H. Trench
Anthony Wood (16321695)
[Anthony Wood was born in December 1632, in a house opposite Merton College, Oxford. He matriculated in 1647, at Merton, and became B.A. in 1652. In 1648 he refused to submit to the Parliamentary Visitation, and was expelled from the University, but restored. In 1669 he completed his History and Antiquities, and in 1670 translated it, on condition of its publication by the Delegates, into Latin. He next proceeded to expand the lives of writers appended to his Colleges and Halls of Oxford into the great Athenæ Oxonienses which appeared in 1691. He died in 1695, bequeathing his collections and books to the Ashmolean Museum; and was buried in Merton College ante-chapel.]
IT has been observed by a French critic that while the men of the nineteenth century have added to literature much sentiment, and while the writers of the eighteenth century are full of facile intelligence, those of the seventeenth century are chiefly remarkable for will, or, as we say for character. Now Anthony Woods writings are of lasting value to the practical historian, and to the student of character. They possess this enduring value because they are the product of an incredible patience and consistency of character; but they are not monuments of literature, or of literary style.
He had the bodily equipment of the true studentrobust, and hardy in the extreme, a great pedestrian, sparing no pains to verify his observations in person; temperate, able to rise at four, and study fasting till he supped; able to eat, drink, and sleep alone: to buffet down sedentary melancholy, to devour muniment-rooms night and day, and die stubbornly, knee-deep in manuscript. Not that he was inhuman. The antiquarian is but a grim voluptuary: the happiest, and least dreaded of enthusiasts, for his ideals, safe in the past, change not, and threaten no change. Antiquarianism is rare, because it requires the æsthetic temperament, at leisure, united to a tough will; and great learning together with a lack of education. Wide mental grasp, or the insight of a trained mind, would rarely be content with the faculty of hiving the petty incoordinate masses of detail upon which the ultimate value of an antiquarys work depends.
The first influences awakening his mind were the architecture and beauty of the city in which he was both citizen and student, and where his steadfast ambition kept him all his life. Wood was born, lived, and died in the same street, and had thus continuous familiarity with his subject. Heraldic studies gave the next and kindred impulse. He always concludes any memorial sketch in his diary with some such note as: Two barres or, a cross paté fitch and a cressant in chief with a difference or. The direction of his activity was finally decided by alighting on Burtons History of Leicestershire, Dugdales Antiquities of Warwickshire, Lelands Collections, and the friendship of Elias Ashmole, which spurred him to pursue their achievement.
His mind is somewhat slow in movement and apprehension. He is cumbered by the range of his ambition, which was no less than to recreate the past both of that University and city, whence his foot so seldom departed. In the past he found that freedom which is of the imagination. He planned to write a narrative of her history from its cloudy source to his own day; to supply fasti, or lists of her magistrates, minute accounts of her ancient institutions, colleges, and public buildings: to build again the levelled walls, girdle her with the dried moat, retrace the silted trenches of old sieges, set up again her thousand vanished Halls, and fill the streets with snood and cowl,black monks, white Carmelites, and students in their gay coloured gowns. But more also: to write besides Athenæparticular lives of all her famous men; and to do all this not alone for the University, but also in turn for the City, her bodily and grosser part. Less marvel is it that the mind is cumbered with much serving than that this purpose was, as regards the University wholly, as to the City in part, fulfilled. Nor does he stop herehe carries the methods of research into those of observation. The world is for him a note-book matter. He has an esurient genie for antiquities, but is nearly as diligent to set forth the fashion of his contemporaries. He drags their manners into his web, perhaps for the aid of antiquaries to come. It is the age of the great diaristsof Pepys and Evelynand like them Wood satisfies himself, he knows not why, in noting the doings of himself and fellows, down to their dresses and pettiest foibles.
He collects a world of surfaces, impressions that well portray himself. He is a newsletter also. Monstrous births, escapes, blazing stars, scandals among the venerable, hangings, suicides, and all manner of deaths: ballads and all processions royal and funerealall pageantries and dignified masqueradesare meat and drink to him; nor ever fails he narrowly to scrutinise the hatchments on coffins and tombs, and mete sarcasm to false displays of arms. Meanwhile he is daily dredging and ravaging college archives, with fierce tenacity, for fifty years. The mind had therefore no leisure strongly to react on the vast material amassed, and this failure is reflected in his style.
He has been charged with partiality to Romanist writers in the Athenæ; but while his leanings would no doubt be rather to the richer older cult than toward Puritan iconoclasm, he stands, in truth, secluded as far as circumstances will permit from the great religious controversies of his age; and, despite loyalty to Oxford, is plainly determined by the pursuit of historic truth about her. Regardless of envy or fame, he applies a sound burgess commonsense to monkish legend. In examining the tradition which assigned a certain tower to the banished Roger Bacon, he points out the unlikelihood of the retirement of the necromancer to practise secret magic upon the common highway. Wood does not test his problems with brevity. Not till he has confuted at length a statement by some annalist is he content to show that no such annalist ever really existed. Nor does he test authorities with modern severity. Nevertheless, on the whole, he is very trustworthy.
His style has no pretensions to form, and presents few notable features. Throughout it is more or less disjointed by scrappy treatment, and marred by the jerkiness of the habitual note-taker, and lengthy passages of continuous prose seldom occur. He is hampered by a painful accuracy which loads the unpremeditated sentence with parentheses. In the Athenæ it is most continuous, and on the whole the best, becoming less full of cumbrous gravity as he approaches the writers of his own generation. In the History of the University it is disfigured by intricacy of arrangement. There is a passage about Camdens edition of Asser Menevensis which may be taken as a pattern of confusedness. Nevertheless, on subjects where he is, by long thinking, easily master, as for instance in settling the rival claims to antiquity of University College and his own Merton, he is clear and brief and business-like. The History of the City in its early parts is full of youthful grandiloquence; the treatise on Colleges and Halls marred by interjected notes of controversy and the desperate local inconsequence of a guide-book; the Diaries suffer less from weight of matter, and are easy and natural in language, but their extreme interest is rather personal and picturesque than literary. Compared, however, to that of Dryden, Woods style is clownish and uncourtly, the antiquated dress of the meer scholar. It is thick with old legal phrases and Latinisms. The omission of pronouns is such a Latinism:If any dislike might be discovered to their choice [it] should not cross them. Another perhaps is the frequent use of absolute constructions:Some of the stone-work of the Temple Church blown down and the lead blown up and shrivelled they mended it. There are of course many traces of archaicism, for to him an old word had the sacred relish of a relic; and there is also the pleasant old use of verbals, thus:Both of whom struggling for the way, Pelham unhorsed him, so that his horse trampling on his breast, he died. Cudworth somewhere describes a school of divines as those that boggle at the Trinity. Such quaint Jacobean incongruities of diction are plentiful and refreshing in Wood. He rails at the governors of the University as lazy, proud, scarlatical doctors, the scarleteers. He praises a grove as affording much recreation to the defatigated student by continuall chirping of the winged choire. It is prose half a century behind its timebehind that of the delicate and courtly Halifaxbut a robust survival, like that of ancient timbered houses. Dragons and grape-vines ramp along its face of black beams, and armorial carvings nod over its cobbled archway. Folios and parchments stifle its long, uncertain passages, and centuries have bowed the back of its stone-slatted roofs. It leans forward, curious and crabbed, into the street, and its gable is crowned by the little sooty figure of a crumbling knight.