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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John Selden (1584–1654)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
OF Selden, Milton wrote, “The chief of learned men reputed in this land, John Selden.” So our own Sumner: “John Selden, unsurpassed for learning and ability in the whole splendid history of the English bar.” And Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon: “Mr. Selden was a person whom no character can flatter, or transmit in any expressions equal to his merit and virtue.” Selden was the writer of many learned books: books upon the law, books upon the customs of the Hebrews, books upon all manner of abstruse subjects, books in English and in Latin; that which remains of him is a book which he neither published nor wrote. Like White’s ‘Natural History of Selborne,’ and not a few other books which “were not born to die,” Selden’s ‘Table-Talk’ was a work which came without observation. Much of his deliberate work is dry as dry could be. Aubrey, who is relied upon in some measure for his biography, says that he was a poet, and quotes Sir John Suckling as authority; nothing would seem more improbable from what he has to say upon poetry: “’Tis a fine thing for Children to learn to make Verse; but when they come to be men they must speak like other men, or else they will be laught at. ’Tis ridiculous to speak, or write, or preach in Verse. As ’tis good to learn to dance, a man may learn his Leg, learn to go handsomely; but ’tis ridiculous for him to dance when he should go.”  1
  His father was “a sufficient plebeian,” of the village of Salvington in Sussex, and proficient in music; by which he is said to have won his wife, who was of somewhat higher station in life. John was born in his cottage at Salvington, December 16th, 1584, in the latter part of the reign of Queen Elizabeth; and died, a man of great distinction and wealth, at Whitefriars in London, November 30th, 1654, in the sixth year of the Commonwealth. It was a rich period in English literature; the period of Shakespeare and Bacon and Milton and Jonson and their companions. And it was a stirring period in history, covering as it did the reigns of James I. and Charles I., the trial and beheading of the latter, and the ascendency of Cromwell and the Puritans. The boy John Selden, educated at the Free School in Chichester, and at Hart Hall, Oxford, had hardly more than settled himself at the Inner Temple and reached man’s estate, when he had “not only run through the whole body of the law, but become a prodigy in most parts of learning; especially in those which were not common, or little frequented or regarded by the generality of students of his time. So that in a few years his name was wonderfully advanced, not only at home, but in foreign countries; and was usually styled the great dictator of learning of the English nation.”  2
  In 1618, after issuing several other works, he published a ‘History of Tithes,’ which had been licensed without question by the censor, but nevertheless excited such an outcry that its author was summoned before the King, and subsequently before the High Commission Court, and forced to recant. He acknowledged the error that he had committed in publishing the book, but appears not to have acknowledged any error in the book. The book was suppressed, and afterward “confuted” by Dr. Montagu; and King James told Selden, “If you or your friends write anything against his confutation, I will throw you into prison.” He soon had an opportunity to test the King’s prisons for other reasons. He was incarcerated for five weeks in 1621, for his share in the protest of the House of Commons in respect to the rights and privileges of the members; and again in 1629 he was imprisoned in the Tower for many months on the charge of sedition. He entered Parliament in 1624, and with the exception of Charles’s first Parliament, and the Short Parliament, he appears to have been a member until his death. In the Long Parliament he represented Oxford University, being returned without opposition.  3
  Selden was always a conservative, not so much in the political as in the natural, the literal, sense. During the earlier years of the long contest between the King and the Commons, he leaned toward the latter; but in after years his attitude was less satisfactory to them. He was the arch-supporter of the law,—of human law: for the Higher Law—at all events for the Jus Divinum as interpreted by the clergy—he had slight esteem as against the law of the land. In this he represented to the full one side of the shield: the other, that which exhibits the supreme inner right of the individual, he seemed sometimes wholly to ignore.  4
  His reputation was so great that his support was sought on all sides; but his independence caused him to reject some overtures, while it prevented others. King Charles thought to make him Keeper of the Great Seal; but was dissuaded on the ground that “he would absolutely refuse the place if it were offered to him,” In 1647 he was elected Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, but declined. It is said that he was so bent on preserving his thoughts that he would sometimes write while under the barber’s hands; which seems to show that the barber did not make it a point to be so entertaining in those days as of latter time.  5
  For the last twenty years of his life, the Rev. Richard Milward was his amanuensis; and it was by him that the ‘Table-Talk’ was taken down bit by bit. It was not published until many years after the death of both. Says Milward in his dedication: “I had the opportunity to hear his Discourse twenty years together; and least all those Excellent things that usually fell from him might be lost, some of them from time to time I faithfully committed to writing…. Truly the Sense and Notion here is wholly his, and most of the words.” The book is a rich storehouse. Coleridge says: “There is more weighty bullion sense in this book than I ever found in the same number of pages of any uninspired writer.”  6
  In taking passages from it here and there, it should be premised that other samples might be found of a sense quite different.  7
 
 
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