Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Francis Atterbury (16621732)
[Francis Atterbury was born at Milton, in Bucks (where his father was rector), in 1662, and was educated at Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford. He made his first appearance in controversy as the defender of Luther against Obadiah Walker, the Roman Catholic whom James II. had made Master of the University; and a few years later intervened in the Phalaris controversy, as the supporter of Boyle against Bentley. Although the controversy was fierce, and although the whole weight of scholarship was on Bentleys side, it did not prevent a subsequent friendship between Atterbury and Bentley. After taking orders Atterbury became preacher at Bridewell, and attained to great reputation as a pulpit orator. During the next few years he was a vigorous exponent of High Church doctrine, and fought for the rights of Convocation. He was appointed successively Archdeacon of Totnes, Dean of Carlisle, Dean of Christ Church, and eventually, in 1713, Bishop of Rochester and Dean of Westminster. Becoming involved in a charge of Jacobite conspiracy, he was committed to the Tower, and by a bill of attainder was deprived of all his appointments, and banished from the kingdom in 1723. He died in France in 1732.]
THE CHARACTER of Atterbury is one which presents seeming inconsistencies, but is nevertheless transparent enough. A warm and affectionate nature, keen sensibility, much gentleness and tenderness, were united to a passionate and often turbulent temper, to a readiness for disputation, to ambition, and, it must be added, to some vanity. It was a nature neither very rare nor very complicated; which might make enemies, but which was also eminently fitted to attract friends. Mrs. Pilkington, whose gossippy reminiscences of Swift contain a few passages of real value, tells us of the character I have heard Bishop Berkeley give to Bishop Atterbury, namely, a most learned fine gentleman, who, under the softest and politest appearance, concealed the most turbulent ambition. The picture is in outline the same as that drawn by all his contemporaries, who vary only in the amount of light and shade which they impart to it; even Popes well-known line
How pleasing Atterburys softer hour,
implies that there were hours which were less soft; hours when disappointed ambition, love of intrigue, and the thirst of combat turned the gentle homilist, the loving father, the acute literary critic, into the fiery ecclesiastical controversialist, the bitter combatant, and the political conspirator, who was not a stranger even to prevarication.
Atterburys personality is attractive and interesting far beyond his literary importance: and even in the domain of literature the impression upon contemporaries was greater than that which he has left upon posterity, from the fact that his literary gifts were greatly enhanced by a fine voice, a dignified personal appearance, and consummate oratorical art. As a preacher he was reckoned the most eloquent of his day, and The Tatler has described the effect of his pulpit delivery when his popularity was at its height. But as contributions to theological literature, his sermons cannot be placed on the same level with those of Tillotson, Barrow, South, or others of the day even inferior to these. Their chief attraction for us is in the delicate and graceful simplicity of their diction; not in the strength, but rather in the quaint turn of the argumentso quaint indeed as sometimes to lead their author into positions which he did not himself anticipate: and in the total absence of all the cumbrous apparatus of learned allusion to which his contemporaries were prone. Atterbury was not indeed without copiousness of theological reading, and was supplied with abundant store of weapons for ecclesiastical controversy. But he seems of set purpose to have refrained from resorting to such an armoury in his pulpit oratory.
In many respects, indeed, his tastes and studies led him rather into the field of polite literature than into that of divinity. One of the truest friends I ever had, Pope writes of him, and one of the greatest men in all polite learning, as well as the most agreeable companion, this nation ever had. Nursed in the traditions of Westminster and Christ Church, his earliest training was in the more graceful part of scholarship, and the readiness and ease of his Latin composition, of which many specimens remain, greatly influenced, not only his own phraseology, but the critical maxims which he applied with more care than almost any of his contemporaries to the niceties of style. In an age when Milton was neglected, Atterbury found in Milton the highest type of poetic utterance, ranking him higher even than Homer and Virgil. Almost alone amongst his friends, he adhered to Miltons preference of blank verse to rhyme: and this was all the more remarkable as his love for Pope as a man was not greater than his intense admiration for him as a poet.
Atterburys life was one too much engaged in ecclesiastical controversy, in political intrigue, and in schemes of personal ambition, to allow him much time for literature; and what he has left (beyond his correspondence) is small in bulk. But it may always be read with pleasure as the composition of one who studied minutely, and with an eye careful of effect, all the details of style, and the fundamental sincerity of whose nature, with its vivid contrasts of light and shadow, serves to give a certain picturesqueness and variety to his diction. But above all his letters are models of epistolary style. In the advice which he gives to his son at Oxford we have a picture of his own literary methods. Let nothing, though of a trifling nature, pass through your pen negligently: get but the way of writing correctly and justly, time and use will teach you to write readily. Speaking of the writing of letters, he remarks, The turn of them should always be natural and easy, for they are an image of private and familiar conversation; and the specimen which is given below, serves to show how fully he carried out his own precept.