Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. A. Raleigh
Thomas Sprat (16351713)
[Thomas Sprat was born at Tallaton, Devon, in 1635; he became a commoner of Wadham College, Oxford, under the famous Dr John Wilkins, in 1651, and a Fellow in 1657. On the death of Cromwell he wrote an Ode in the manner of Cowley, and, as he supposed, of Pindar, which was published along with two poems on the same theme by Waller and Dryden. After the Restoration he took orders, and became successively chaplain to the Duke of Buckingham, whom he is said to have assisted in the Rehearsal, and to the king. He published in 1667 the History of the Royal Society, of which he was one of the early Fellows, and in 1668 the Latin Life of Cowley, afterwards translated into English and enlarged, besides the Observations on M. de Sorbières Voyage into England. He became Canon of Windsor in 1680, and Bishop of Rochester in 1684. His later works, besides Sermons, are a History of the Rye House Plot (1685), and a Relation of his own Examination on a charge of treason trumped up against him by two professional impostors. He died in his Bishopric, May 1713.]
AN EARLY biographer of Sprat remarks that his name deserves the first rank in history for his raising the English tongue to that purity and beauty which former writers were wholly strangers to, and those who come after him can but imitate. Dr Johnson, who caught the echoes of Sprats short-lived fame, adds that each of his books has its own distinct and characteristical excellence. Sprat is undoubtedly a versatile writer, his relations of matters of fact are written in a succinct and lucid style, his wit, exercised in defence of his countrymen against the strictures of the French traveller Sorbière, is easy and telling, his Life of Cowley is a model of dignified panegyric. Yet his chief claim to remembrance lies in his efforts both by precept and example to purge English prose of its rhetorical and decorative encumbrances, and to show that there is as much art to have only plain conceptions on some arguments as there is in others to have extraordinary flights. It may well be urged that Sprat deserves a share in the credit, so commonly yielded to Dryden alone, of having inaugurated modern English prose. Not only does he show himself, in the History of the Royal Society (published before Drydens Essay of Dramatic Poesy), in full possession of a close, naked, natural way of speaking, but he clearly indicates the necessity of a reform in prose writing, and his consciousness of his own mission as a reformer. And yet the change which came over the spirit and methods of English prose in the seventeenth century must not be assigned by any easy and fallacious formula to the influence of one or two men, it was due rather to a number of complex causes of the most general nature. And among these, the cause set down by Sprat in the first extract was no doubt quite as powerful as the influence of the French. The rise of positive knowledge made the conceits of the wits, wherein falsehoods are continued by tradition because they supply commodious allusions, distasteful, and the enthusiasm of the little group of scientific inquirers that gathered together at Oxford and London for purposes of experiment and research during the civil troubles, gave to England in the Royal Society, of which Dryden himself was an early Fellow, her only Academy of repute. The preference of the members of the Royal Society for the language of artisans, countrymen, and merchants before that of wits and scholars was not, like Wordsworths later innovation, a preference exercised in the interests of the effective expression of emotion; it was determined rather by the instinct of science, and in the interests of the clear statement of fact. Prose and sense, the ideals of the authors of the Rehearsal, gained the day, but the victory was not without its price. It was a victory of logic over rhetoric, in some sort even of Science and Criticism over Literature and Art, for the cadences of Sir Thomas Browne and the accumulated epithets of Robert Burton were never revived. In his clearness of manner and coolness of judgment, whether he is defending the Royal Society from the hostile armies of the wits and Aristotelians, or criticising the preaching of the Puritan divines, Sprat is an admirable representative alike of the new positive spirit which founded the Royal Society, and of the spirit of moderation, reason, and compromise which has given its chief strength to the Church of which he was a bishop.