Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
The Defence of English Eloquence and Letters
By Thomas Sprat (16351713)
From Observations on Monsieur de Sorbières Voyage into England
CONCERNING the English eloquence, he bravely declares, that all their sermons in the pulpit, and pleadings at the bar, consist of nothing but mean pedantry. The censure is bold, especially from a man that was so far from understanding our language, that he scarce knew whether we move our lips when we speak. But to show him, that we can better judge of Monsieur de Sorbières eloquence, I must tell him that the Muses and Parnassus are almost whipped out of our very schools; that there are many hundreds of lawyers and preachers in England, who have long known how to contemn such delicacies of his style. I will give only one instance for all. I believe he could scarce have bribed any scriveners clerk, to describe Hatfield as he has done, and so to conclude that the fishes in the ponds did often leap out of the water into the air, to behold, and to delight themselves with, the beauties of the place.
I will not attempt to defend the ornaments, or the copiousness of our language, against one that is utterly ignorant of it. But to show how plentiful it is, I will only repeat an observation which the Earl of Clarendon has made: that there is scarce any language in the world, which can properly signify one English expression, and that is good nature. Though Monsieur de Sorbière will not allow the noble author of this note to have any skill in grammar learning, yet he must pardon me if I still believe the observation to be true; at least, I assure you, sir, that after all my search, I cannot find any word in his book, which might incline me to think otherwise.
But I will be content to lay the whole authority of his judgment in matters of wit and elegance upon what he says concerning the English books. He affirms that they are only impudent thefts out of others, without citing their authors, and that they contain nothing but ill rhapsodies of matter, worse put together. And here, Sir, I will for once do him a courtesy. I will suppose him not to have taken this one character of us, from the soldier, the Zealander, the Puritans, or the rabble of the streets: I will grant he might have an ill conceit of our writings, before he came over, from the usual judgment, which the southern wits of the world, are wont to pass on the wit of all northern countries. Tis true indeed, I think the French and the Italians would scarce be so unneighbourly as to assert that all our authors are thievish pedants. That is Monsieur de Sorbières own addition, but yet they generally agree, that there is scarce anything of late written, that is worth looking upon, but in their own language. The Italians did at first endeavour to have it thought that all matters of elegance had never yet passed over the Alps; but being soon overwhelmed by number, they were content to admit the French, and the Spaniards, into some share of the honour. But they all three still maintain this united opinion, that all wit is to be sought for nowhere but amongst themselves; it is their established rule that good sense has always kept near the warm sun, and scarce ever yet dared to come farther than the forty-ninth degree northward. This, sir, is a pretty imagination of theirs, to think they have confined all art to a geographical circle, and to fancy that it is there so charmed as not to be able to go out of the bounds which they have set it. It were certainly an easy and a pleasant work to confute this arrogant conception by particular examples; it might quickly be shown that England, Germany, Holland, nay, even Denmark and Scotland, have produced very many men who may justly come into competition with the best of these Southern wits, in the advancement of the true arts of life, in all the works of solid reason, nay, even in the lighter studies of ornament and humanity. And, to speak particularly of England, there might be a whole volume composed in comparing the chastity, the newness, the vigour of many of our English fancies, with the corrupt and the swelling metaphors wherewith some of our neighbours, who most admire themselves, do still adorn their books. But, this, sir, will require a larger discourse than I intend to bestow on Monsieur de Sorbière. I am able to dispatch him in fewer words. For I wonder how, of all men living, it could enter into his thoughts to condemn in gross the English writings, when the best course that he has taken to make himself considered as a writer, was the translation of an English author.