Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by F. H. Trench
Thomas Wilson (c. 15261581)
[Thomas Wilson was born at Stroby in Lincolnshire, educated at Eton, whence he was elected in 1541 to Kings College, Cambridge, and graduated in 15456; and became a Fellow and Master of Arts 1549. While in residence at Cambridge he was tutor to Henry and Charles Brandon, sons of the Duke of Suffolk, whose early deaths he commemorates in Latin and English. In 1551 he published The Rule of Reason, conteinyng the Arte of Logique, dedicated to King Edward VI. In 1553 appeared his principal work, the Arte of Rhetorique, dedicated to John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, by whom he states its composition was suggested. He spent the years of Marys reign in exile, studying both at Padua and Ferrara, where he took the degree of LL. D. in civil law; was seized and tortured by the Inquisition at Rome, escaping death only through the chance conflagration of his prison. He returned to England under Elizabeth, who made him successively an Ordinary Master of Requests, Master of St. Katherines Hospital nigh the Tower, Secretary of State for four years with Walsingham, and finally, in 1579, although a layman, Dean of Durham. He sat on commissions concerning trade and schismatics; and wrote a Discourse on Usurye in 1572. He served for several years in Parliament; was Ambassador on various occasions to Scotland, Portugal, and the Netherlands, where he witnessed the Sack of Antwerp in November 1576, and wrote an account of it. He also translated the Orations of Demosthenes. He died on the 16th of June 1581. He is accused of trying to plunder the revenues of his Hospital of St. Katharines, in the church of which Hospital he was buried without a monument.]
THOMAS WILSON belongs to that earlier academic school of Tudor prose writers, whose chief characteristic is a direct and nervous simplicity and purity of diction, due partly to a growing native pride in the English tongue, partly to the revived study of Greek. He has not the sweetness and Herodotean ease of More, who, though a forerunner of the group, represents its style as a historian. He has not the homely poignancy of Latimer, its preacher, nor the graceful learning of Ascham, its teacher, with whom indeed Wilson has most in common. Versed in travel, in trade, in the region of practical politics, he may, however, be taken to stand in that group for its man of affairs.
Learned and scholarly enough, but of that order of scholars who are keen to turn every shred of their learning to some worldly advantage, languages to him were merely a school to turn the tongue into a lever, to discipline the mind into a weapon, the memory into an armoury of examples.
With a thinkers wrath at the pompous affectations of the ignorant, he has, above all, the man of actions scorn for verbiage. A loyal and ambitious servant of Elizabeth, who himself was to feel the Roman rack, the newly-fashionable jargon from overseas strikes him as a kind of disloyalty, a currency of malign word-coiners, a papistry of phrases, which he, as High Commissioner to be, does well to stamp out.
In one whose constant reliance was on his wits, whose poverty obliged him to plunder the hospital of which he was master and the Deanery on which as a layman he had intruded; who was selected to carry out his colleague Walsinghams less savoury schemes of statecraft, while Walsingham performed more honourable parts, we must not be surprised to find certain great qualities of style entirely lacking. For nobility of thought, for the rhythmic solemnity of the prose of Cranmer, we shall look in vain. This early writing bears no trace of the music of the passions. It has been well said that the great prose of after writers, like Browne and Overbury, is always either above or below the prose level. Wilson, and his like, are never off it. Bright and abrupt images, vivid proverbs, drop as it were into their discourse from common parlance. But its proper quality is a vigour at once clear and colourless. Even in the Discourse on Usurye travel has enriched neither his fancy nor his vocabulary. Wilson writes of speech like a man of action. It is Puttenham who first treats it from the later developed standpoint of the man of letters.
The sources of the matter and method of the Rhetorique are twofold. Quintilian and the schoolmen with their stiff formularies, and endless divisions and definitions, are closely followed for the first two parts of Wilsons book. These are, however, enlivened by modell oracions, panegyrics, and epistles, out of his own head. Such are the Oracion on the deaths of Henry and Charles Brandon of Suffolk, the Oracion in Praise of David against Goliath, the Essay on Consolation, and some pieces of tough judicial pleading; besides a quaint and lengthy epistle devised by Erasmus to persuade an exceedingly obdurate young man to marry.
In the third book, however, the chief source is the authors own keen observation of men. There appears the future member of Parliament, jurist, and diplomatist. Here the freshness, the conciseness, and the common-sense, orderly and yet overriding rules, are simply admirable. Here the tameness of the imitative portions of the book, the diffuse and formal measure of the Modell Oracions, has vanished, and the proper style of the man appears. Here is the succinct, supple, close-fitted style of the man that will climb by readiness and assiduity from the poor scholars closet to the seat of the Counsellor of State. He piques himself on knowledge of the world, taking as pattern the pith and gravity of the handling of Demosthenes, whom he commends for couching more matter in a little room than Tully, for all his grand manner in a large discourse. Self-confident, and, therefore, when it is convenient, straightforward, he tells you flatly his mind; with a frank egotism is himself the subject of all his own prefaces, and produces, despite his worldliness, the impression of that naïveté which is so charming in the earlier Tudor prose. Though well aware of the value of nipping taunts, he has in him too much of the ambassador not to prefer the armour of an engaging frankness. Moreover, he had perhaps listened to too many Parliamentary speeches to forget the terrors of the bore. He never ceases to insist on the cardinal truth that a style should be dictated by the natures, moods, and weaknesses of those to whom it is addressed. He lays stress on the needfulness of pleasing, the spirit of urbane conversation; and if his pattern anecdotes, to stir a sleepy congregation or mollify a wearied judge, are somewhat mechanically cold, yet not a few have the merit of point.
Wilson wrote rather for speakers than for writers; yet was he held in high esteem as a guide of letters for some generations. It is characteristic of that active age to have followed the literary counsels of a Privy Councillor; of the author of the Discourse on Usurye, whose Rhetorique was written at a courtiers suggestion in a hasty holiday snatched from affairs. He teaches the uses rather than the beauty of style. To speak plainly and nakedly after the common sort of men in few words, this was his principle; aiming less at that excellence to which nothing can be added, than at that from which nothing can be taken away. Simple, subtle, practical, he was the Machiavellian father of English criticism.